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ChromaZone / Chromatique: A Brief History 1981-1986

In 1981, ChromaZone burst onto a Toronto cultural world that desperately needed reinvention. The old structures, aesthetics, and representational strategies had stagnated and were exclusionary of an increasingly diverse and burgeoning art scene. During its meteoric five years of existence, ChromaZone championed inclusiveness, deliberately asking the question, "Whose work is being left out of the galleries even though it is more than worthy of being seen or heard?"

ChromaZone presented the work of over 400 painters, sculptors, architects, writers, poets, illustrators, jewelers, filmmakers, fashion and furniture designers, as well as ceramic, glass, video, installation, audio and performance artists. Interested in reflecting the increasing multicultural aspects of Toronto we had Chinese translations on our first poster and cards and sought a true diversity in our exhibitions.

Inadvertently we exhibited many artists who were First Nations, Asian, from South America, of various Middle Eastern backgrounds, from the Caribbean, lesbian, gay, and transsexual communities out of pure enthusiasm and interest rather than any cynical adherence to a politically-correct agenda.

In 1978 Rae Johnson, Oliver Girling and Andy Fabo first met when they were grouped into the exhibition, Flesh in the Fat at A Space, on St. Nicholas St. curated by Tom Dean. The show never took place, derailed when the furnace in the creaky building blew up and the new gallery on Queen Street was inadequate to properly represent all the work in the show.

Two years later, while living in New York City, Oliver Girling and Rae Johnson conceived of a gallery. Returning to Toronto, they were joined by painters Brian Burnett, Andy Fabo, Sybil Goldstein and Tony Wilson as well as filmmaker Stephen Niblock and photographer/sculptor Hans Peter Marti. Due to conflicting interests, Niblock and Burnett dropped out in 1981, leaving the remaining six to form the core of the ChromaZone collective.

The two-room gallery was located at 320 Spadina Ave, in the second floor walkup apartment of Oliver Girling. The members and exhibitors shared the rent and opening expenses. Self-funding meant aesthetic and organizational autonomy, not having to answer to funding councils. By programming only a few months at a time, ChromaZone was able to remain flexible to various opportunities and stay on the pulse of changing events.(1) Members of the collective and guests designed original silk-screens, advertising the monthly programming. These hand design in those pre-computer days, with hand lettering or crazy quilt Letra-set accompanying visceral drawn images, making these posters vibrant and unique.

While more formalist critics disparaged ChromaZone as a gallery that hailed a return to the retrograde practice of figure painting, an overview of ChromaZone's programming indicates that right from the start a spectrum of media and representational strategies were always integral to the spirit of ChromaZone.

Inspired by the examples of Germany and Italy and disillusioned with the abstract dictates of their elders and teachers, this loose association of emerging artists created a legitimate alternative to the art establishment.(2)

A far more important connecting feature was the celebration of the emergence of a generation that eschewed the increasingly remote and esoteric strains of formalist painting, process-oriented performance, and hermetic video for art in any medium that more actively engaged the struggles, issues desires and pleasures of the real world.

The buzz that accompanied the inaugural exhibition Mondo Chroma, was audible in the larger art community and the crush of crowds at openings and stream of viewers for the exhibitions surpassed anything that we expected. So much creative energy had been suppressed for so long that the art media were quick to write about this artistic eruption that filled a gaping vacuum and they variously opined that the show was an exhibit of contentious, intelligent and occasionally unnerving works of art (3) and an affront to everything Toronto has held fashionable.(4)

In the final two months of 1981 were busy and ChromaZone presented a heady array of programming; from the Picasso Dinner Part to Lost in the ChromaZone a 500-guest Benefit Dance at the original Drake Hotel, to poetry readings, and group exhibitions, culminating with The Fashion Show at the Theatre Centre.

Subtitled Jaywalking the Intersection between Fashion and Art, this memorable runway exhibition and gallery installation, featured the work of six artists making Leisure Wear for the NetherZone. An eager audience of 400 was variously assaulted with serious art ideas, novel fashion notions and outrageous parody.(5)

1982 was landmark year for ChromaZone. There were eleven group exhibitions, five readings, two fundraisers, performances, a book launch and three international exhibitions. In January artist/curator Charles Clough brought increasingly high-profile New York artists to Toronto for the first time, Analaga featured Jonathan Borofsky, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, Julian Schnabel and Cindy Sherman among others.

In April, Site Specific, drew artists and architects together in a futile attempt to find creative solutions for the crumbling historic Victorian Clocktower Building at King & Bathurst, now sadly a deracinated building with mall-like architecture and a Second Cup and McDonalds as the ground-floor tenants.

The collective's first publication ChromaZone/Chromatique was launched by Prototype, in June. In October, ChromaZone participated in the blockbuster Monumenta exhibition that featured the work of 75 artists in four galleries. Later that fall, German curator Detlef Carl presented 22 artists from East and West Berlin, much of the work smuggled through the then border and passed between subway trains.

Most of 1982 however, was spent organizing OKROMAZONE - die Anderen von Kanada in Berlin. (Dec.1982). As a reaction to the Canadian Government's O Canada exhibition that excluded contemporary painters, ChromaZone curated an eclectic exhibition. Working through Swiss-born collective member Hans Peter Marti, we secured gallery space with theInstitut Unzeit collective in Kreuzburg, Berlin.

With minimal catalogue funding and individual travel grants, we brought over 14 visual artists, a series of Funnel Films, videos, performances and five Canadian art periodicals. The reviews were good, and several members stayed on as guests of DDR, and made a film directed by Adrian Mitchell and Oliver Girling.

In the spring of 1983 the collective decided to give up the gallery space on Spadina and move their office to Room #16 in the Cameron Public House, on Queen St. West to do more site-oriented projects. With less rental responsibility they were free to produce satellite exhibitions in larger venues. We showed for the first time as a group of six, in a public gallery outside of Toronto at the Norman MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina.

The Chromaliving exhibition in the late autumn of 1983 remains a landmark event in Toronto history. Possibly the only time so many like-minded artists were given free rein to design living environments. (6) In the once-trendy Bloor St. Colonnade, emptied of tenants by the deep recession of the era, artists Tim Jocelyn and Andy Fabo and architects Marty Cohen and Chris Radigan transformed the 10,000 square foot Harridges department store into a veritable labyrinth of many and varied delights.(7)

Never before, had so many diverse talents co-operated on a venture of this magnitude: 150 artists joined forces to create this unique showcase of art and lifestyle. (7). Envisioned as a gentle parody of the Home Show, it was an existential fiction about the times, prospects and recent pasts of Toronto artists - a display of props for the masque of life...(8) The show was an instant success and became the inspiration for future design extravaganzas.

The following year, 1984, members, Fabo, Girling, Goldstein Johnson, Marti & Wilson exhibited their work throughout Quebec. Michael Merrill curated Kromalaffin a show about comic book art held at the Grunwald Gallery in Toronto with an incredibly prescient and now historical comic publication, featuring Chester Brown & Art Speigelman, and others. In the spring ChromaZone hosted CROSS OT Seven From Berlin in four galleries across Toronto. Rae Johnson curated the Painting Beyond the Zone a group show of 30 emerging artists, at the Artists Resource Centre.

By 1985 the collective was exhausted. For four years, we had been intensely curating, organizing and installing for countless artists, supporting ourselves in a variety of other menial jobs, while maintaining a prodigious output from our studios. Our group exhibition continued to travel in Quebec, and our lives began to diverge. Andy Fabo and Tim Jocelyn moved to New York City, swiftly followed by Sybil Goldstein.

The final exhibition Fire + Ice, was another large international group show. At the instigation and coordination of artist Hans Peter Marti, then living in Zurich Switzerland, an exchange between Toronto and Zurich was organized. Renée Van Halm and Sybil Goldstein curated the Toronto artists, Swiss art patron Henri Levy from Binz39, and gallery director Martin Pauli from Galerie Walcheturm, provided space for Fire + Ice. This exhibition blended together the fiery urgency of figurative painters with the cooler installation and mixed media works of several Mercer Union artists.

In the fall of 1985, Fabo & Jocelyn returned to Toronto so Tim could complete work on his Astrolabe commission for the Canadian Pavilion at Expo '86. When Tim Jocelyn died of A.I.D.S in December 1986, a light went out and the party ended. Although ChromaZone decided to officially disband in the mid-eighties, they have remained close friends and working associates for the past twenty years.

ChromaZone produced international exhibitions, countless events, published five catalogues and gave many young artists their first exhibition opportunities. Their legacy was felt in the emergence of various maverick artist collectives especially the ones that were not tied to physical spaces, as was the case with ChromaZone for the latter half of it's existence. There have been and will be many artist collectives, but there was something about the rough-and tumble audacity of ChromaZone and its inclusive spirit that has earned it a uniquely quixotic position in Canadian art.

Sybil Goldstein
Andy Fabo
November 2009


1. Oliver Girling, ChromaZone Inaugural Press release, September 15, 1981.

2. Chris Hume, Chromaliving Show shoes art as lifestyle , Toronto Star, Oct. 22, 1983

3. John Bentley Mays, Provocative Show at ChromaZone, The Globe & Mail Saturday October 3, 1981

4. Jennifer Oille, Mondo Chroma, Vanguard, December 1981

5. Norman Hay Wearable Art Show a ChromaZone, artmagazine

6. Linda Corbett, quoting Tim Jocelyn, From Blah House to Our House, Flare magazine, Feb 1983.

7. Andy Fabo, Chromaliving Press Release, October, 1983.

8. Chromaliving," The Harridges women's -wear store, ARTFORUM, Feb 1984

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