A fiesta for Canadian art: How three homegrown galleries made their mark in Mexico City

Three international art fairs converged in Mexico City earlier this month — and amidst an array of global exhibiters, Canadians stood out in the crowd.

Amidst an array of international exhibitors, Canadians stood out in the crowd

The scene at the Material Art Fair in Mexico City. (Josh Chong)

Earlier this month, the international contemporary art scene converged in Mexico City. The already lively city played host to three homegrown art fairs, dozens of local gallery openings and smaller artist run satellite openings across the city.

Now in its 13th year, Zona Maco is the city's longest-running contemporary art fair showcasing predominantly blue chip galleries. Mexican-focused Salon Acme No. 5 is an art fair that shows new and emerging artists from all over Mexico. And Material Art Fair is almost a combination of both — a fair dedicated to new and emerging galleries along with collectives and artists from around the world. At this fair, participating galleries showing relatively new artists in an intimate format was a stark contrast to the immense layout of Zona Maco. Two floors were mapped out with smaller booths circled around central gathering sites which offered a restaurant, bar and seating, creating an invitation for social gathering, networking and collaboration.

The Projet Pangeé booth. (Josh Chong)

Amongst the array of international exhibitors, the three participating Canadian galleries stood out in the crowd.

"There is definitely a visible Canadian presence at the fair," says Brett Schultz, co-founder of Material Art Fair and Yautepec Gallery. He's referencing the Cooper Cole and Roberta Pelan galleries from Toronto, who both showcased solo exhibits from two Toronto-based artists, and Projet Pangée, who used their booth to create a showroom which featured a painted wall and works from five different Canadian artists from Montreal and Toronto.

Cooper Cole, which has participated in the Material Art Fair since its inception, exhibited works by Toronto-based conceptual artist Jesse Harris. On display were large size buttons with colourful images and slogans which winked at advertising campaigns of the past, seamlessly combining humour and art.

"There's a vibrant scene here — it's younger and it's growing," says Simon Cole, director of Cooper Cole.

Cole emphasized the importance of exhibiting internationally and promote Canadian artists abroad, simultaneously facilitating international exhibitions here in Canada. Asked about participating in Material Art Fair, he spoke to the unique dichotomy of Mexico City's art scene. "There's a real mix of blue chip galleries and well-funded collectors, alongside a lower cost of living, great studio spaces and a collective base of people who want to support young emerging artists," he says.

Roberta Pelan's booth: This physical materiality of the installation was displayed through the utilization of half full paint buckets included as sculptural pieces within the exhibit itself. The paint buckets then doubled as functional benches for and to show rest for the labourer within the piece. (Josh Chong)

While Material Art Fair is the only Latin American fair the gallery participates in, they have previously exhibited at fairs in New York, Miami and L.A., allowing him to build relationships and bridges with artists and galleries to showcase Canadian artists and bring home international works.

Also exhibiting at Material, Roberta Pelan is a young emerging gallery based out of Toronto. At only a year old, they view the fair as an opportunity to gain exposure with an international audience. Gallery director Manden Murphy chose to showcase the gallery using a contemporary narrative installation by Liam Crockard, a piece which speaks not only to the physical materiality of the fair but also to the concept of art as labour — or labour in art. The conceptual installation showcases three different bodies of work, each representing a different mechanism or question one might have as an artist or independent gallerist with an overarching theme of social movements in labour. Each segment offers a unique comment on the temporality and precarity of social movements, with Crockard commenting that it perhaps acts as "a mirror to the mechanism of an art fair itself."

Trevor Baird's work on display in Mexico City. (Josh Chong)

On the opposite side of Roberta Pelan, the Projet Pangeé booth was an exciting splash of vibrancy and colour playing with the theme of "luxurian landscapes." The new Montreal gallery showcased five Canadian artists: Trevor Baird, Patrick Cruz, Darby Milbrath, Claire Milbrath and Joani Trembly.

Montreal's Trevor Baird specializes in pottery made with clay that had been painted prior to the sculpting process, while fellow Montrealer Joani Tremblay stood out with bright coloured conceptual landscapes. Vancouver-based Patrick Cruz, winner of the 2015 RBC painting award, plays with abstract ideas of landscapes. One of his standout pieces was done with acrylic on uniquely cut thin piece of wood.

Claire Milbrath's work on display in Mexico City. (Josh Chong)

Sisters Claire Milbrath and Darby Milbrath from Toronto were both on display with two very different styles. Darby uses dry brushstrokes on canvas and includes darker figures with a style reminiscent of Matisse or Gauguin, while Claire's work features bright figures with often-pornographic subject matter.  Claire, who co-founded Editorial Magazine with an all-female Canadian lineup that includes Darby, often uses her art to tell stories through the lens of a gay male character named Poor Gray. Her work is fun and light in colour, but shows depth in the themes it explores.

Collectively, the fair was yet another display of Canadian excellence on the international stage. And its overarching message was clear: independent contemporary art in Canada is thriving, and its impact will only continue to grow around the world.

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