The Old College Try: Sasaki + Jessica Valentin at Red Bull 381
It's a sports metaphor, the "old college try" is, an anachronism rooted, I would imagine, in the still-innocent, romantic era when schoolboy knickers and all-male literary societies were seen as more fraternal than fey. Which suits Jon Sasaki well enough, to be sure, as his practice of "romantic conceptualism," as he's called it, often has a charming sheen of the elegiac.
For Jessica Valentin, the title is a bit more literal, in that, until very recently, she was actually in college; a very recent graduate of the University of Toronto's Art History program (as well as Sheridan College's Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning), Valentin is this year's winner of the William Huffman Award for Excellence in Studio Practice, named for the Toronto Arts Council's Associate Director. Part of the award is a collaborative exhibition with an established artist, which yields us the Sasaki/Valentin team.
Phew. Now that we've got the logistics covered, let's have a look at the work. Valentin -- exiled, as she has been, to U of T's suburban Mississauga campus -- engages the well-worn theme of suburban disaffection; her photographs from her "Smithissauga" series (above), of such scenes as cookie-cutter houses dwarfed by much-too-close condo towers behind them speak a familiar visual language for anyone aware of photoconceptualism as long ago as the late 1970s. Her social excursions are more interesting, using the UTM campus as a tableaux in which to test -- or highlight -- the dislocation inherent in these sorts of far-flung, commuter-populated places. Valentin would anonymously over-occupy cafeteria tables -- with bags andjackets, left as disembodied placeholders -- and then record the results. The result, it appeared, was a predictable as it was depressing; seat hunters would wander, glance around, shrug and move on, preferring quiet annoyance to actual engagement.
Sasaki's work in the show, in line with much of his practice, offers this cool estrangement a counterpoint; in much of his work, Sasaki's absurdist sense of kindness (and a seemingly-unrelated preoccupation with wayfinding) contrasts with the cool detachment of our urban lives. I'm thinking of another current show he's in, at the Blackwood Gallery, in which he meanders around Port Credit, easel and canvas in hand, painting landscapes -- a throwback practice, for one, and a decidedly anachronistic romanticism applied to the markedly un-romantic suburban landscape, as in Valentin's work.
At Red Bull, Sasaki's work is similarly playful, but melancholic in its context. A roughly-made swing sits in the gallery, suggesting a childlike desire for play; while a film of a determined cyclist who nonetheless makes little headway speaks of a sad futility familiar to us all -- for all the earnest, old college trying, going nowhere.
Until Aug. 8.