Propeller Art Gallery Celebrates 25 Years

There are very many works by talented artists but few venues in which to show them in Toronto. One solution is for these artists to get together and create their own opportunities for showing. But of course this is easier said than done. The organisational skills and collective effort required to do this is rare to find. Occcasionally, however, it has happened. Indeed, in the mid-1990s quite a few collectives were formed with this aim in mind.

In 1996 one particular group of recent graduates from the then OCA staged a show of their works at 96 Spadina Ave – then a haven for emerging artists. The show was so successful that they decided to make the arrangement permanent. They recruited enough artists who were willing to put up some capital and take on the task of running a gallery full time. They called themselves the Propeller Art Gallery (though originally their name was ‘the Propeller Centre for the Visual Arts’), as a nod to their ambition to propel emerging artists into art careers.

Installation view of Collective Experience at Propeller Art Gallery, August, 2021

Many of the collectives from this time, e.g., Painting Disorders, Nether Mind, MUD, Posse and Impure, to name a few, shied away from the commitment of running a gallery full-time. They chose instead to stage shows periodically at different locations, in guerilla-like fashion. Almost inevitably all these collectives have since disappeared. So Propeller is a rare bird indeed to have survived this long.

To celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary the gallery has staged a group show at its latest location on Abell Street. As well there is an online exhibition of these works and more by 59 past and present members, with some showing several works. As one might expect from such a large group show the viewer is a little overwhelmed. As a result it is difficult to focus on particular works – something that is exacerbated by the high quality of the works over all. There are many delightful pieces on display in a slew of genres including traditional abstract painting, conceptual art, photography, landscapes and so on.  

Installation view of Collective Experience at Propeller Art Gallery, August, 2021

In no particular order the works include The Red-Clover Walking by César Forero. In this whimsical fairytale-like painting the figure doesn’t so much walk as float across a colourful landscape. In her October, Blueberry Field, Lisa Johnson displays her masterful handling of oil paint. It is a landscape brimming with atmosphere.

Cesar Forero, The Red-Clover Walking, oil on panel, 16 x 12 in.

Lisa Johnson, October, Blueberry Field, oil on canvas, 30 x 30 in.

By contrast, Both Peter Friedrichsen and Susan Ruptash display beautifully quiet abstractions. Friedrichsen’s Interference 24 is a cyanotype made using what seems like a fine metallic mesh. Ruptash’s Interstices is a delicate and delectable weave of fabric paper. 

Peter Friedrichsen, Interference 24, Cyanotype photogram on Hahnemühle platinum rag, 16 x 16 in.

Susan Ruptash, Interstices, Kurotani #16 small with kakishibu, 28 x 21.5 in.

Abstraction of a different kind is found in Tracy Thomson’s painting In Every Dreamhome A Heartache. It is a delicious balance of colour and composition. In Burn with Reflection Frances Patella crafts an evocative landscape using acrylic paint and photographs. A man seemingly on a stroll through High Park walks towards flames and ash.

Tracy Thomson, In Every Dreamhome A Heartache, oil on canvas, 48 x 36 in.

Frances Patella, Burn with Reflection, mixed, photography and acrylic paint on canvas, 18 x 24 in.

As mentioned, over all the quality of the work is high. There is plenty of talent on display here. It is not truly reflective of the art the gallery has shown over its twenty five years in its three locations – that would be impossible to do. There are also two new members in the exhibition, freshly graduated from OCADU, Leah Probst and Par Nair.

Par Nair, Hair Etiquette, oil paint on canvas, 40 x 30 in.

During these years Propeller has had close to 540 exhibitions, so the number of artists who have shown there and the variety of their work is staggering. The current show is reflective of the economic pressures faced by artist-run galleries in general. The Abell Street location is a gem of a place but costly to run in this hypercapitalist world of ours. Consequently they usually have group shows or shows featuring at least two or three artists. So there is little room for risky or theatrical art – nothing in the least throw-away and brazen. One of the reasons why these other collectives I mentioned have died out is that they, at their best, sought out this type of work – unpolished versions of which are easily found among recent art graduates. In other words, by sticking around and founding a permanent gallery Propeller chose a path distinct from these collectives.

Installation view of Collective Experience at Propeller Art Gallery, August, 2021

Nonetheless, we have much to be grateful for their success. They are a wonderful resource. May they prosper for the next twenty five years! 

Hugh Alcock

Images are courtesy of Propeller Art Gallery

*Exhibition information: Collective Experience, August 5 – August 29, 2021, The Propeller Art Gallery, 30 Abell St., Toronto. Gallery hours: Wed – Sun 1 – 5:30 pm, and online until November 5, 2021.

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