Chroma Lives Observations by Andrew James Paterson



“Chroma Lives is a performance exploration of Toronto’s 1983 exhibition Chromaliving: New Designs for Living” (1) (press statement by Chroma Lives curators Erin Alexa Freedman and Lili Huston-Herterich) Chroma Lives is not a re-enactment of the original exhibition.


Chroma Lives is hosted or “remobilized” in a staged workplace in the sales centre of the new Yorkville Plaza, just around the corner from the Colonnade in which Chromaliving was mounted (or flaunted.). Chromaliving was held in an abandoned and suddenly available large space in a retail complex. There were one hundred and fifty participating artists, although co-curators Tim Jocelyn and Andy Fabo had originally intended closer to twenty... in a much smaller space.(2) Chroma Lives has been mounted in a sales centre for some (or more) brand new shiny condos. There are twenty-eight artists who are not at all cramped into the office-sized sales centre. Both exhibitions theatricalize domestic space…. decorative impulses usurp objects that are supposed to be functional and fashion gains the upper hand in a not quite seamless collaboration with the fine arts.


It is important to note that the Chromazone collective were all easel painters and that Chroma Living was in many ways an anomaly for the group, although the group’s paintings tended to be much more social in subject matter than the parallel works by modernist painters and sculptors exhibiting concurrently in Toronto and indeed the international art world. Chromaliving was all about artists of many stripes engaging design and furniture and home living. There were both functional and dysfunctional objects in the show. There were chairs not intended for seating, and so forth. Chromaliving became this large space… requiring at least one visit to absorb once visitors decided to engage with the space and its contents. The conveniently deserted retail space became social….the artists would usually be on the premises; and people would meet and look at works together as they do in museums but perhaps not as formally. Chromaliving was performative and not static.


Chroma Lives was mounted in a showroom close to the size of the original Chromazone gallery, which was in the living room of painter/collective-member Oliver Girling’s apartment. There are chairs which are very comfortable to relax in and there are tables on which one is discouraged from parking food or beverages. The two curators, Erin Alexa Freedman and Lili Huston-Herterich, are omnipresent, holding court and relating to the visitors. In the exhibition showroom, Tim Jocelyn’s screens from his Ooga Booga Suite are centre-stage and a variety of utensils, paintings, and furnishings occupy the small space. It is not at all cluttered… most of the art objects are small and some are even borderline visible. The exhibition is not unlike a set for a stage play… a performance has taken place and props are left for the players to possibly return or else they are evidence of a performance taken place. Visitors can see mostly small objects which blur differences between decorative and everyday. My favourite art object in Chroma Lives is Roula Partheniou’s Cigarette With Ashtray, which is exactly that (albeit not a real cigarette). In the Chromaliving space, the environment was social so smoking was very much part of the mix. Now of course smoking is highly regulated and I no longer smoke. Still, I fought a desire to light the damn thing.


Chromaliving was mounted in fall of 1983, in the midst of three raring eighties characterized by hysterical art markets and the reigns of Thatcher and Reagan. Brian Mulroney was waiting in the wings for the opportunity of becoming the Canadian go-between. AIDS was already a subject of grave concern in the gay communities but not yet as far as the mainstream entertainment and cultural sectors of Toronto were concerned. The early eighties was a period of painterly resurgence… one in which photo-conceptualism began receding, video artists were encouraged to switch to film or make music videos, and performance artists were expected to grow up and do theatre. Yet Chromaliving both celebrated and parodied the markets of its day.


Chroma Lives was mounted in an age in which what else could possibly be built upon available urban (and suburban) property than more condos. The recent exhibition is low-key… it is not flamboyant like the original. Is it critical of habitual high-rises; is it an oasis of artistic ingenuity in a neighbourhood which was once the centre for Toronto’s commercial galleries? (3) These questions are not easily answerable.


Chroma Lives is not nostalgic, although it easily induces nostalgic among those old enough to have experienced not only Chromaliving but who also remember so many artists and players whose lives were cut short by AIDS as well as by cancers or other illnesses. Chroma Lives participants such as Oliver Husain and Jeremy Laing, whose practices combining fine and textual or fabric arts recall Tim Jocelyn’s, had never previously heard of Jocelyn or Chromaliving. But Chroma Lives is not a re-enactment, although at one point it was intended to be such a thing. Chroma Lives is an echo of echoes… it plays differently to many people who have heard of the source exhibition with its reputation for daring excess, to many people who were there in 1983 but whose memories vary sharply, and to many different people with differing expectations for an exhibition which announces itself as a performative exploration of an “original”.


The two curators of Chroma Lives have done much more with their project than mount an exhibition referring to or referencing the Chromaliving source exhibition. They have also instituted an archive in reference to both the “original” and the “remake”. Freedman and Huston-Herterich interviewed many artists who contributed to the enactment of Chromaliving; so here is a space encouraging different recollections and possibly conflicting memories. In Toronto, there has recently been much interest among younger artists and curators about formative exhibitions and collectives from the nineteen seventies and eighties… exhibitions presented before the curiously resourceful younger artists and curators were even born. This is creative and constructive….important works are thus remembered and entered into replay.





(1) (press statement by Chroma Lives curators Erin Alexa Freedman and Lili Huston-Herterich)

(2) Chromaliving was very much an extension of Fabo and Jocelyn’s relationship. Fabo, a member of the Chromazone collective, was/is a painter while Jocelyn {1952-1986} was a fabric and textile artist working in both the art scene and the fashion industry.

(3) the Yorkville district had previously been the centre for the hippie counterculture of the late nineteen-sixties… art and artists as agents of gentrification are hardly a recent development.