I am of a naturally skeptical bent – but I’m insatiably curious too – so I was intrigued by the idea of the Frank Gehry redesign of our lovely Art Gallery of Ontario, without, at first, being entirely convinced.

I was lucky enough to watch it all coming together from an interesting point of view – modelling for OCADU art students in room 617 in ‘the tabletop’ building which straddles the old OCA, I could see the whole building being reworked and especially re-skinned (blue printing-plate fish-scales) in stages, isometrically.

There is a persistent story in some circles that Gehry planned that largely windowless giant blue south wall to avoid giving any views back to the (still very controversial) tabletop building. Funny if true (pique on such an Ozymandian scale just has to bring a chuckle), but probably not.

I do have an acquaintance, far more skeptical-still than I, who has spent his career as a master wood-worker for major projects, and was among the squad of top-end craftsmen, hired-on to render these stairs.

He told me that not only was it a genuine pleasure to create something lovely and lasting, of public usefulness (beats hanging oak doors for boardrooms, any day), but also that the working drawings were unusually clear and useful – something which he assured me is deplorably rare – especially from innovative architects.

“Usually they just specify what they want it to look like, and force you to work out how to do it yourself, with whatever techniques you happen to know.”

Then again – staircases don’t usually come out looking like this – do they?

And yes – after a nice big head-full of art (or just before), we really do need our eyes pulled around like taffy, while our tactile senses are soothed by good warm smooth wood! Certainly works for me, anyhow.

Light and rest and then back for more

Having now seen quite a few shows since the redo, I have to say the most important change inside is to the flow. There is a feeling of easy movement that invites further exploration, without any sense of being rushed or forced into eyeball overload. Almost feels like he’s inserted commas between the display spaces, without compromising their area or utility.

Both Lawren Harris (my favourite Canadian painter) and Henry Moore, who established his grand collection at AGO, have splendid rooms in central gallery space. There’s also much more Emily Carr (my second-favourite, and also one of my favourite Canadian writers) on display. The old busily-hung salons (Catherine’s delight, as an art student) have been retained intact – and still inspire with their rich sampling of historical periods techniques and masters.

The main exhibition space itself is now very very cool. I especially like the side-room off the second big hall – many checklist types skip-it in their rush, but the curators have put it to very clever use, many times – as an almost parenthetical display, to add context to the main show.

And then there is this giant open frame ship-hull running along the second floor, facing Dundas – which naturally invites you out of the secondary (free) touring exhibit gallery upstairs, to let your eyeballs relax, your mind soak up what you’ve seen, and your metabolism enjoy a decent Americano, before getting stuck-in for another round.

Caro musicality

I must mention – some of these free-with-admission, secondary shows are utterly fantastic – don’t go rushing out after the main feature! Robert Caro the sculptor made me very happy – (playful in wrought-iron – a really nifty trick) and the Art Spiegelman show was nothing less than a visual revelation.

They displayed the full layouts for MAUS – pencil-roughs, inks and alternates – all laid-out in a row – for every single page – and not only that, he also offered a great crash-course in ‘New Yorker’ covers (he holds the title for most by one person, ever) for those going after the brass-ring in the illustration game – and they left you with an entire room full of wacky packages! – (every single one of which was his own personal invention, design and rendering). Mindblowing output – in quantity, quality and cultural impact! And like I say – this was just one of the free side-shows (on during the Colville retrospective).

Tea Fortuitous

And if you end up finding yourself a bit overwhelmed by modernity, art, crowds – or simply want to retire to what feels like a hundred years ago or so, ask an AGO member to bring you back to the see what they’ve done with the Grange. I really adored this place as a kid – back then it was a historical house, with re-enactors (and a busy open-hearth kitchen that would always feed the kids at the end – way to leave ’em with a glow for history) but while this genteel lounge is not my usual cup of tea, I am very pleased the old place is being superbly maintained and appreciated by many.

And all-new downstairs – a giant collection of superb large-scale historically-accurate ship models – all the drawing reference you could possibly want, from any angle you need, for almost any nautical period you might want to depict. (Ken Thompson’s idea of a toy-box is pretty wild).

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