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NXNE questionnaire: Gary Taxali gives street art the highbrow treatment

by Mark Teo

June 13, 2013

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For me, there are few artists as synonymous with Toronto as Gary Taxali: His vintage comic-book inspired work, much like so many parts of the city, always seemed to teeter between the vintage and the modern. It’s a distinctly Queen West vibe—like Sadie’s Diner or the Bovine Sex Club or even the Horseshoe Tavern, Taxali’s art seems to anchor itself in the past while never getting lost in the march of time. That might sound flowery, sure, but his work—whether it’s his street fare, fine art, or editorial illustration—is built around binaries: It’s classic but modern, profound but funny, serious-minded yet occasionally lowbrow. Those bona fides are why he’s minted Canadian coins, visualized Aimee Mann’s music, lectured at art schools worldwide, and contributed to the New York Times, GQ and Rolling Stone. In NXNE Art’s inaugural year, however, he’ll be showcasing his street art—and we caught up with him to talk about how art can transform the urban landscape, his collaboration with Harry Rosen, and where to grab a drink in the Junction.

Hi Gary! What’s new with you?

I’m working on my next solo show, which will take place in April, 2014 at the Jonathan LeVine Gallery in NYC. I have a public art project happening this summer with the City of Toronto, working with the wonderful public and street art supporters Lilie Zendel and Elyse Parker. I am also launching a men’s fashion accessory line with Harry Rosen—they wanted to do a collaboration with a Canadian artist, so I have created some really unique Canadiana-type pieces. Aside from that, I’m participating in many group shows and working on a fun video art animation project.

Excellent. Tell us more about the street art you’ll be showing at NXNE. How does it comply with—or differ from—the art you’re accustomed to creating? 
The scale and size is the big difference. I am going to be doing a site-specific installations at John Steinberg and Associates, which is at the corner of King and Portland. The piece I’m showing, “Let’s Never Face It,” was originally created as a mixed-media piece on wood panels for my solo show last year, “My Feelings Like You,” at the Outsiders (Lazarides) Gallery in London, U.K. The street art I will be showcasing is essentially a vinyl applique of that art. I’m working with 3M, Unique Media Solutions and OCAD University to do a unique art installation. It’s really great because they have material that will actually make it look like my art has been painted on the wall. I’m super excited about seeing it larger-than-life and integrated into the environment. I am also having my art in TTC transit video shows.

There’s going to be a lot of visitors to NXNE this year. If you could show one of them around town, what restaurants / bars / galleries / neighbourhoods would you show them?
Besides the obvious great exhibits going on at the AGO, Design Exchange, and the ROM, the Ossington strip around Queen West is a must for any visitor to our city, especially a first-timer, with all its wonderful numerous galleries and eclectic shops, restaurants and bars. I live in the Junction and there are many great bars and restaurants in this neighborhood. My favourite is
Indie Ale House—they make their own ales that are absolutely delicious.

Steven Heller’s description of you talks about how you’re inspired by vintage comics and advertising art. Are there other (perhaps subtler) influences in your work—the type of stuff that most people don’t notice at first glance?
I don’t necessarily know if people may not see it right away, as that’s not my intention, but I hope they pick up on the human stories, dynamics and dialogue that is specifically derived from the vernacular of today. I don’t live in the past, I live in the now. Just because I employ media and techniques that lend my work to an aged or retro feel, I think that it’s more contemporary than anything else. Some critics have called it “timeless,” which I’m happy with it. Some things are timeless, such as the struggle to understand who we are and the world we live in. I hope people see those questions in my work.

NXNE added an art segment this year. What are your initial thoughts on how they’ve organized it?
Excitement! Music and art go hand in hand. When I create the artwork for Aimee Mann’s album, Smilers (below), she said the exact same thing to me. It’s high time it happened, and judging from what I’m seen so far from the organizers, there’s a lot to be excited about. Great music, great art—who could ask for anything more? It’s great to bring a little bit of “Basel” to Toronto.

Whether it’s art, music, film, or comedy, what are you most excited to check out at this year’s festival?

Musically, I would say Calexico. I love their sound and am looking forward to checking them out. As well, Social Distortion is a must. Once I stayed in the same hotel as them when I giving a lecture somewhere in middle America—really, a great bunch of guys. Artwise, I’m excited to see Ulu Braun’s video collage. Ear candy and eye candy, kudos to NXNE!

Festival aside, who are your favourite local artists—and why?
There are so many talented artists doing really beautiful work. Musically, a local band that have a huge international following, especially in Europe, is
Danko Jones. To me, they are the toast of rock ‘n’ roll to this city. As for visual artists, I’m enthralled with the ingenious brilliant work of a local installation artist named Bruno Billio. His work is just amazing. Emerging artists whom create phenomenal fine art and illustration crossover have to be Jennifer Ilett, Adrian Forrow and Melinda Josie. I think our city is brimming with awesome artists.

Tell us why, in particular, you think people should come check out your street art.
I want people to see how more public art in the city can add character and charm—I want them to see my pieces but I also want them to check out the other great international artists in the city as well that are part of the NXNE art festival. I love how our city is embracing more art through such amazing festivals.

Definitely. Do you have anything else to add?

We live in a great city that has so many arts events that seem to be becoming more frequent. I am especially honoured to be part of the first art festival that NXNE has put on this year. This is the stuff that defines us uniquely as “Toronto” and I really hope that people come out to see the amazing musicians and artists.

See Gary Taxali’s “Let’s Never Face It” at John Steinberg and Associates, at the corner of King and Portland (one block east of Bathurst). Full schedule details can be found at NXNE.com.

Tags: Music, News, Aimee Mann, Gary Taxali, NXNE

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