To Feb. 24. TIFF Bell Lightbox.
That Toronto boasts North America’s only festival of films exclusively by and about contemporary artists is one more reason for local viewers to be grateful they live in one of the world’s cinematic epicentres. Better yet is the fact that Reel Artists boasts a program that’s as diverse—and sometimes as provocative—as the works and lives it presents onscreen.
The fest’s 10th edition gussies up the Lightbox with an abundance of intriguing docs this weekend, including new profiles of two of Canada’s most acclaimed young sculptors, Valérie Blass and David Altmejd. It also hosts guests such as Mickalene Thomas, the New York painter renowned for her bold, brash take on African-American femininity. Thomas is represented at Reel Artists both as the subject of Chiara Clemente’s short film Beginnings and the maker of Happy Birthday to a Beautiful Woman, a moving and revealing homage to the artist’s mother (both screen Feb. 24 at 3 p.m.).
Other highlights include a program dedicated to The Gallery of Lost Art, an interactive project by the Tate Gallery that memorializes works that no longer exist due to a variety of circumstances, not all of them by the artists’ design. (It plays Feb. 24 at 1 p.m., with a post-screening discussion with the project’s producer, Susan Doyon.)
The two most enthralling new docs are portraits of artists who couldn’t be more different, seeing as one died before his significance and prescience were widely recognized while the other has been rewarded with almost unimaginable wealth. The guy who drew the short straw in the fame stakes was Mark Lombardi, a New York artist who created astoundingly elaborate and painstakingly researched flow charts on the often shadowy networks of influence and affluence that dictate our political and social reality. A German doc that makes its Canadian premiere on Feb. 23 at 9:15 p.m., Mark Lombardi: Death-Defying Acts of Art and Conspiracy portrays him as a kind of Cassandra for the age of terror. Indeed, having died by his own hand in 2000, Lombardi didn’t live to see the full significance of many of his works, including one that charted the connections between the Bush and Bin Laden families.
Fate was far kinder to the subject of another film at Reel Artists, Damien Hirst: Thoughts, Work, Life. Since Hirst does most of the talking in this 38-minute profile by Chris King (which screens Feb. 22 at 9 p.m.), it’s an inevitably flattering and uncritical look at one of our era’s most divisive art-world heavyweights. Even so, it provides an admirably succinct summation of the Young British Artists phenomenon that Hirst fostered in the ’90s, when he was living large with pop-star pals like Damon Albarn and Jarvis Cocker. And as loutish as Hirst can seem (many images of him lolling around his Mexican villa don’t help), his younger self evinces an appealing joie de vivre in the archival footage of the artist’s team preparing the dead animals that would figure in his notorious Natural History series. He may have mellowed with age, but he remains the kind of inveterate huckster who’s always enjoyed vaunted status in the art world whether you like it or not.