O'Born Contemporary has all the poise and polish of a regular commercial art gallery, yet it's clear they're determined to do things a little differently. Exhibiting only contemporary works by living artists, and started up by a former printing house honcho/self-taught gallerist, I'd expect nothing less than originality.
Having been quietly on the scene on Yonge near Wellesley since 2008, the gallery finally made the move to the more art-rich strip at Dundas and Ossington. The old space, a second-floor room above a fast-food joint, was a good place to start, even though it was quiet. Says gallery director Natalie MacNamara of the former O'Born, "The hours were by-appointment-only for the first several months, so it suited us." But when the gallery maintained regular opening hours, she laughs, "The only foot traffic we got was people looking for the porn shop that used to be there."
I visited the sparkling new space on Ossington on a Thursday afternoon, and the improvement was immediately obvious. Sandwiched between a café and another art gallery, O'Born now has a thriving gallery-friendly neighbourhood to call home, three times more space to work with, and main-floor prestige and foot traffic. Natalie, and co-director Lili Huston-Herterich, were in the midst of giving a guided visit to a collector when I arrived, and despite the grey day and early hour, people dropped in as I took in the exhibition.
Upon moving to the new space, O'Born expanded their mandate, from strictly photographic work, to what the gallery calls "photo-linked" work. I wasn't too surprised at first-- several other photo galleries, notably O'Born's neighbour Gallery TPW, have in recent years broadened their scope to include hybrid photo-based works. I've seen the term "lens-based" or "photo-based" tossed around, and used (logically, obviously) to refer to any piece in which a lens was used to create it, from collage to video. But O'Born's "photo-linked" is different, and I'm a little puzzled by it.
According to their website, the gallery "exhibits all mediums that contribute to the ongoing dialogue of photography's place in contemporary art practices." Sure, but what does this actually mean for the works? Natalie gives me her take, as she and Lili are both quite friendly, knowledgeable, and eager to talk to me about the work. The work of Alex Fischer, she explains, is a good example: he makes layered paintings, including found photography, and has created an assemblage-like sculpture of one of the painting's central characters. This, she tells me, is photo-linked because the works exist together, and photography is used in the paintings. This is one of the more tenuous links, then -- the other work on the walls is primarily photographic prints.
The current exhibition, named "131" after the gallery's new address, offers a broad selection of work by the O'Born's artists. From majestic, formal black and white prints by Rafael Goldchain, to elegant "book portraits" by John Monteith, to near-Biblical portraits from Kenya-based photojournalist Dominic Nahr (of Magnum Photos), the works do seem to celebrate what photography does best: examine ways of looking.
The gallery represents several of the artists featured in the exhibition. However, artist representation is another thing O'Born does a little differently in its new incarnation. "The traditional model of exclusive representation had limits for us, and didn't suit our artists," explains Natalie. So the artists, though under contract, are in some cases not fully tied to the gallery. For example, the aforementioned Nahr and fellow photojournalist Ed Ou (Getty Images) also belong to their respective agencies, but O'Born sells their fine-art prints. The goal is to tailor each contract to the artist depending on his or her needs; something not all commercial galleries do. There are nine artists working with O'Born in this way, and more than 15 others who have work available for sale through the gallery.
Though it's a tad confusing, and certainly has potential for sticky situations, it's an interesting move. It takes guts to challenge the dominant business model, and O'Born's changes seem to reflect shifts in contemporary art practice: reportage as art, mixed-media in photography, artists maintaining several avenues to support themselves. Will their system work and become common practice, or will it fizzle? Check back in a few years.
And in the meantime, check back for the upcoming exhibitions. O'Born is a space worth visiting, and thanks to their new location it's much easier to do so.
Writing and photography by Elena Potter.