This Art Is Occupied
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This Art Is Occupied

Some neighbours in Toronto didn't appreciate street artist Joel Richardson's work with images of finance and capitalism. But an art exhibit for Occupy Wall Street sure did.

Joel Richardson's work in No Comment in New York City. Photo by Shameel Arafin.

The impromptu protests of Occupy Wall Street have reverberated around the world, the net, and our cultural zeitgeist. The “rogue” Globe and Mail caption funnies went viral, and not even Sesame Street is safe from its influence. Toronto is one of approximately 868 cities planning an “Occupy (blank)” offshoot for tomorrow, October 15.

But while we react to the aftershocks of the New York protests across the border, Toronto artist Joel Richardson was invited to go directly to the epicentre.

Richardson is a painter, filmmaker, and multimedia artist known for his stencils of various businessmen and mathematical equations, commenting on capitalism and the economical, cultural, and ideological power of the suit. Particularly “of the moment,” his messages sometimes take on a more political connotation than he intended. In fact, he’s currently painting a brand new mural in the former location of one of his previous city-commissioned works at Dupont and Lansdowne, accidentally lost in Rob Ford’s siege against graffiti when a neighbour complained the man looked like Stephen Harper. It’s not. But fortunately, while Richardson is replacing it with a much louder, more intricate and intense 400-foot-long design than its predecessor here in Toronto (see images on his Flickr page), curators in New York thought his work would fit perfectly in an art exhibit associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, called No Comment.

Richardson was already planning to take his son to the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City, and the day before he left he got the call.

Richardson's work on display in the JP Morgan building in No Comment. Photo courtesy of Joel Richardson.

“Oh my gosh, it was crazy,” he gushes. “[Film producer Kelli Kieley] contacted them, and then told me ‘Oh, you’re in.’ I brought down some of my art pieces and some of my stencils, a three-foot-high stencil and some other equation components, and we went straight to the location, right across the street from the New York Stock Exchange in the JP Morgan building. I immediately just started stenciling on the walls, on the floors, the New York Times took pictures that were online … It was amazing.”

No Comment was only intended to last 24 hours on October 8, but response to the exhibit was so strong that Richardson was asked to leave his art in New York when he returned to Toronto for a remount at JP Morgan last night. Now, word has come down that Richardson’s pieces will survive along with a few others from the show in the Chelsea Museum. And now that protestors have an extended stay, the show’s resonance looks to last even longer.

Reports coming in to Canada as to the effectiveness or direction of the Occupy Wall Street protests, or lack thereof, are mixed. But the only impression Richardson was left with was a happy one.

“It was great, it was very friendly, really positive,” he says. “People were singing, playing drums, others were just walking by checking it out. The whole of Wall Street is locked down though, barricades everywhere, police everywhere, but it all seemed pretty good, pretty positive. There was a real creative undercurrent to it—people making signs, pictures, stickers, dressing up. Performance aspects seemed a strong part of what was happening.”

Richardson (left) with Mr. Kill Money at Occupy Wall Street. Photo by Lydia Rui Huang.

Tomorrow, thousands of Torontonians are expected to take part in Occupy Toronto on Bay Street, and Richardson plans on continuing this performance trend with a piece called The Changing of the Guard. Details are still hazy, but we do know that it will consist of his signature men in business suits, and ballet dancing. As for Richardson himself, he’s not sure what to expect in terms of attendance or attitude when Saturday comes around.

“I think Canada and the States are obviously different countries. Canada had a much more regulated banking industry than the States—they’re all about freewheeling, to the point it’s almost unrivalled. And Canadians are not always that vocal. But I’m going to go out for sure. I’ll be wearing my three-piece suit.”

With the No Comment show finding its feet in the Big Apple, Richardson is focusing on his work in the Big Smoke now, planning a launch event for his new mural at Dupont and Lansdowne from 5–6 p.m. on October 23—for which he’s inviting Torontonians to arrive in power suits for a group photo in front of the painting. But his mind doesn’t seem to be far from the events still unfolding on the streets of Manhattan, as long as he keeps working with “The Man in the Business Suit.”

“I think strong images can speak in ways that words can’t sometimes. They can capture the spirit of things in a way that words can’t.”