The inaugural exhibition of the new Ryerson Artspace, now a part of the bustling creative hub of 401 Richmond, brings together work by the five Ryerson graduates who were long listed for and won the prestigious 2019 New Generation Photography Award: Sam Cotter, Ethan Murphy, Zinnia Naqvi, Wynne Neilly and Curtiss Randolph. Each present projects that convey the depth of their commitment to leading creative, considered lives, and to the expansive, unknowable significance of image-making in the twenty-first century.

If there are common themes to be found amidst these works, they are not always obvious, and may be felt rather than seen: the search for new modes of expressing identity, the strength of vision in diversity, and, perhaps most of all, the central gravity of history around which each project orbits.

Walter Benjamin wrote of the need to harness shards of the past in order to build the future, however blindly we may back into it, and it’s worth considering his analogy of ‘the angel of history’ in relation to these works:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

In our present, crucial, moment, each of these artists struggles with the past, with its fragments and emotional weight, its biases and omissions, to make sense of the present, and ultimately to shape, however tentatively, the future.

In My Father’s Son, Curtiss Randolph fuses elements of his father’s life as a dancer and performer with the space of the Bathurst Street Theatre, the backdrop of his childhood. Set in 1955, Randolph creates and stands in for GG Jangles, a fictional figure both born of and confined to the imagined time and terrain he inhabits. In a series of black and white photographs, we see him hidden among backstage rigging, and jumping, with cinematic magic, from the auditorium’s mezzanine. In others, we see only his trace: fragments strewn across the top of a vintage television set, betraying GG’s habits (canned ham and cigarettes) and achievements (photographs and other ephemera); adverts for his planned performance pasted along a wall, one in the act of being torn down by a mysterious woman.

Randolph was initially inspired by Stan Douglas’s Midcentury Studio, for which Douglas constructed and impersonated a post-war jobbing photojournalist. Both projects suggest the duplicitous, or at least enterprising, nature of the photographer-artist, and the ease with which the captured subject can, with a slight of hand, become the constructed object. The surreality of the scenes Randolph constructs speak of a concrete past and of a world we know isn’t quite real, a nod to our readiness to suspend disbelief, to reinvent the past as a way of looking forward.

Ethan Murphy’s What’s Left & What’s Gathered is similarly rooted in connection to place and parentage. Begun 10 years after his father’s death, Murphy sought to reconnect with his father on new terms, as an adult and fellow artist. He travelled to Bell Island, Newfoundland, to a small cabin his father had left to him and his sister, seeking not only to find some trace of his father, but to actively collaborate with him (the surreal titles We Hung Around in Circles, I Lost My Head Instead, come from his father’s poetry). Murphy’s fragile images convey the ephemerality of these found moments: his own body appearing and disappearing among the clutter of an abandoned room, an empty jacket hanging above a fire pit, photographs peeking up from a disintegrating wallet, a man lurching toward a grave, in the midst of its own erosion to time and nature.

Grounded in the present, Murphy’s work considers the problem of how to tend to and forge a vital, living relationship with a person now missing. With the faded colours and blurriness of snapshots, they suggest the continuation of familial interaction, imbued with a haunting sense of strangeness and mystery. His attempts are neither nostalgic nor sentimental, but instead bear out the sincerity and willfulness of this gesture.

The body is emphatically present in Wynne Neilly’s photographs, which explore modes of portraiture as an expression of gender and identity. Borrowing aesthetically from the worlds of fashion and documentary, they take on a range of styles and approaches, in black and white and colour, formally posed and more candid encounters, even abstracted and collaged. Printed at varying scales and hung in a constellation, they create a network of gazes and bodies, both iconic and intimate, defiant and tender. A crispness of focus and composition is heightened by abundant natural light and jewel tones—a cascade of orange hair followed by a shock of pink; a lavender studio backdrop in one image, deep purple satin underwear accented by a perfect pink embroidered rose in another.

Collectively, Neilly’s images project a sublime spectrum of sexuality and individuality. Some figures gaze unflinchingly, while some look away; they all compel the viewer to look closely and intensively. We might linger over the intricacy of surface detail first—textures and tattoos—before peering deeper into our own expectations and desires. Neilly achieves a rare empathy and emotional connection with each subject, a tenderness of perspective that makes each one a vulnerable and beautiful reflection.

Zinnia Naqvi’s experimental film work Seaview also confronts gender roles and expectations, here through the lens of the artist’s complex relation to her Pakistani heritage. The film opens with an idyllic scene of families enjoying an evening at the seaside in Clifton, a beach community near Karachi. As the waves hit the beach rhythmically and children scream joyously, we hear of the difficulty the artist encountered in organizing the trip, a visit she was unable to make without enlisting the help and company of three men. In a series of vignettes that follow, Naqvi navigates colourful, congested streets, and watches a rousing musical performance (its purpose and context left a mystery to those of us without a frame of reference). These immersive experiences are accompanied by a layered narration that sets up a stark contrast between the palpable beauty and passion she finds here, and the staid roles and expectations of women that persist.

In the final part of the film, Naqvi relates the first images she encountered of Clifton, leafing through a magazine at her dentist’s office many years ago. They struck her immediately as breathtakingly beautiful and nothing at all like her own memories. “For the first time,” she narrates, “I was convinced of the persuasive power of photography.” Could she too use her artistic license to create a vision of a Pakistan as idyllic as these? Full of conflict and doubt, yet also tender and loving, Seaview is Naqvi’s complex response to a place, to her family history, and her responsibilities as an artist and storyteller.

Sam Cotter’s Carousel, finally, considers the many lives of images as they shift among contexts and across time. Coming into a store of deaccessioned slides once used to illustrate lectures on the history and theory of photography, Cotter re-mixes the images to think through the form of the slide lecture as pedagogical tool, and to explore the promiscuity of meaning for images circulated to suit varying agendas. Cotter retains the traditional “two-up” format of the slide lecture, pitching images against one another to illustrate a comparison, a progression, a distinction between them. In one sequence, we see the same image twice, though, like “twins separated at birth,” as Cotter calls them, each shaped and understood in relation to distinct, even contradictory sets of circumstances. In another sequence, Cotter pairs different images, led by instinct aesthetics rather than chronology or biography, generating unlikely and provocative connections.

Cotter’s exercises remind us of the wide interpretative potential of images, but also of the weight and responsibility of tradition and the passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next. How can we break free of past understandings of images? How can we move toward the creation of new ideas that respond to new issues in a fast-changing world? What is the role of images in all of this?

Each of the projects in this exhibition posits a response to these questions. Armed with the feats and failures of history, the fragmented incompleteness of memory, Cotter, Murphy, Naqvi, Neilly and Randolph find from the past new ways of seeing and understanding for the future.

Sara Knelman is an educator, curator and writer, and Director of Corkin Gallery.

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,”Illusinations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 257-58.