To classy up our apartment kitsch, we borrowed fine art from the AGO.
I picked up the elk two summers ago when they were left leaning against a trash bin on Dundas and Dovercourt. Rendered in shades of teal in paint-by-numbers acrylic, they were pure Canadiana kitsch constrained only by a garish, gold-dusted frame. I was feeling particularly homesick that day, and these dumb little elk haphazardly placed in front of a deflated mountain range somehow transported me back to BC—despite the fact I’d barely left the Lower Mainland. $12.99 was etched on the back in pencil, but, to me, this piece was priceless.
I hopped off my bike and walked this ridiculous painting—almost half my size—over the Sorauren bridge and into my apartment. There, it found its home between a melodramatic matador scene, passed down to one of my roommates from her grandfather, and two French liquor advertisements, mounted on scuffed plastic, that I nabbed from a Halifax Salvation Army during undergrad—more terrible art elevated solely through its significance in our respective personal narratives.
This is how we tend to decorate when we’re younger. Rooms are cobbled together with discoveries from garage sales and thrift shops, pieces we receive from friends and partners and maybe a couple of POÄNG chairs stolen from the family rec room. Later, when we get some sense of stability and disposable income, we’re able to start thinking about how to intentionally incorporate art into our slowly solidifying sense of aesthetics. But it can be a bizarre leap to take, moving from experiencing art in a gallery to entertaining the idea of actually taking it home.
Luckily for the intimidated, the indecisive, the time-strapped, or, like me, the perpetual adolescent, there’s the Art Gallery of Ontario’s art sales and rentals department.
Claire Kyle, the department’s coordinator, kicks things off over email with a one-page questionnaire. I’m asked a few basic questions about my apartment and general preferences—straightforward queries that my brain quickly transforms into terrifying indictments of my life choices. Instead of “what three sentimental weirdos found on Annex sidewalks in their early 20s and just never let go of,” I opt to describe my apartment as “warm, romantic, and eclectic.” When confronted with a paragraph to explain what art I enjoy, I spiral for a few minutes before sputtering out a couple of reference points and frantically hitting send.
A few days after receiving my completed questionnaire, Claire sends me an elegant digital portfolio of suggested works. Somehow, she’s managed to decipher my responses and find pieces that fit my tastes exactly. Each work is accompanied with a short description of how she discovered it, what she loves about it, and how it might suit my sensibilities. Paintings by Janna Watson and Nicole Katsuras make the deepest impression. I’ve always been drawn to bold, textural, and gestural paintings—works where you can see the hand of the artist and feel like a witness to both their vision and their process.
Rentals start with a three-month commitment, although shorter terms can be negotiated, which gives clients the time to determine if a beloved piece is worth the eventual investment. Alternatively, renters can perpetually cycle through pieces to experience the breadth of the department’s collection. And for those who need a little extra guidance in their selection, consultation services are also offered free of charge. It felt like the perfect method to finally nudge me out of my enduring attachment to household kitsch. I book a viewing.
In person, Claire is bubbly when unveiling a work, eloquent and insightful when explaining its fine details or its broader context, and endlessly patient as I babble a string of self-deprecating comments about my apartment. She aims to create to culture that supports local art and that helps people feel comfortable talking about what they enjoy and seek out new ways of engaging with art. “People don’t feel welcome in many galleries,” Claire explains. “They don’t feel as if they can ask about prices, and often prices aren’t even listed. My goal of this program is to make art much more approachable.”
As far as art goes, prices at the AGO are accessible. A $1,000 painting by a local artist, for example, will set you back just $40 per month to rent. “Even an IKEA piece of a similar size is going to be at least $200,” notes Claire. And if you choose to purchase the work at the end of its three-month rental period, the rental charge is credited to the balance of your invoice.
When I started this process, my image of the average client was a high-level office administrator outfitting a bank lobby, or the new owners of a house in Rosedale who need to add some colour to their walls until they can get an appointment with their decorator. According to Claire, the clientele is far more varied. People have called her up for a conversation piece for their dinner party, sure, but the majority of her clients are middle-class art appreciators who are looking to test run a prospective purchase.
Claire leads me into the thermo-regulated room, which holds many of the department’s offerings. In addition to the dozens of works on hand, she has access to nearly 50 galleries across the city as well as relationships with independent artists. When someone comes in with a highly specific or obscure request, she’s able to quickly call upon this network and locate a match. One client recently caught the AGO’s J.M.W. Turner exhibition and charmingly asked to have a Turner piece adorn his living room for a few months. “Obviously I can’t obtain that,” says Claire. “But I can call up my contacts and create a portfolio with oil-on-linen landscapes that look the part.”
Claire lets me know that if I’m not satisfied with what the AGO has on hand, she’s happy to make a few calls. The offer is unnecessary: in person, Nicole Katsuras’s paintings are even more mesmerizing. They’re dynamic, intricate, and playful, done in a vibrant colour palette that, like the elk, transports me back to a childlike state of mind. I start getting emotional. “If you’re up for it,” says Claire with a sympathetic smile, “I’d really like to take you to Nicole’s studio.”
The subsequent visit to Nicole’s Summerhill studio is similarly affecting. Her pieces are created by squeezing paint directly out of the tube and onto the canvas, and she then uses knives and brushes to sculpt the works into imagined, abstracted landscapes. Pieces can take months to dry fully, so every square foot of her small studio is filled with colourful works in progress—I get distracted throughout our conversation. At the end of our visit, Claire asks if anything else has caught my eye. Dozens have, but I opt to stick with Queen’s Coast: a 36 by 36-inch piece that I first viewed with Claire at the AGO. I sign the rental agreement and await delivery.
I was genuinely surprised how quickly my feelings toward the painting deflated. Lined up alongside the rest of our ad-hoc art collection, Queen’s Coast‘s weight felt minimized. I couldn’t immerse myself in it anymore—in its new context, it was just another colourful object with a kooky story behind it. The response from others was similarly underwhelming. Greg, my roommate, is measured as ever in his assessment. “It isn’t what I would have chosen,” he says, before carrying on to the kitchen. “Like a poodle with a balloon,” says my boyfriend. After that, I stop asking people for their opinion.
By the end of the first week, I’d stopped looking at Queen’s Coast entirely. Somehow, it felt almost embarrassing—I’d managed to make such a beautiful piece of art so banal. Cultural critic Walter Benjamin defined kitsch as something that provides us with “instantaneous emotional gratification without intellectual effort, without the requirement of distance.” Without that distance, even unique and challenging work can be transformed into kitsch through osmosis. When my three-week trial period ended, and the installers came back to reclaim Queen’s Coast and return the elk to their spot above our wilted IKEA couch, I felt relieved.
This is a terrible position to hold onto, I realize. If you love something, you should support it. But until I shake my attachment to kitsch, and redecorate my apartment, I really need art to stay in its safe gallery box. Sometimes, things are more accessible the further away you get.
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