Left: Gooderham and Worts by Brenda Lie. Right: Gardiner Expressway by Stewart Churchill, part of Reconstructing Space at the Ryerson Gallery

Artists find beauty in urban eyesores

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By Gabe Kastner

Mayor Mel Lastman recently had this to say about the Gardiner Expressway: “It looks like a piece of crap and it costs a fortune to maintain,” he told the Toronto Star. “It’s ugly as hell.”

It may be the quickest way across town, but it’s certainly not the prettiest. Nevertheless, the Gardiner has become an artistic subject in a new exhibit by two Ryerson graduates.

For their final projects last year, Stewart Churchill and Brenda Liu — students in the image arts photography program — discovered beauty in the dirty concrete slabs that make up the endangered urban sites known as the Gardiner Expressway and the Gooderham and Worts Distillery.

The photographs of these industrial landscapes have been compiled for Reconstructing Space, an exhibit at the Ryerson Gallery that uncovers their aesthetic and historic virtues.

In whimsical black and white, Churchill’s photographs of the Gardiner attempt to show the irony of its enormity. It seemed like a good idea 30 years ago to build a massive, elevated road spanning the city. Yet, just one generation later, it’s slated for deconstruction, condemned for blocking our view of the lakeshore.

“The bigger issue is with the path that consumerism is taking,” says Churchill. “We don’t want things to be static anymore. We want things to change.”

Brenda Liu’s contribution portrays a more gradual change. Her series of subtly coloured photographs documents the decaying Gooderham and Worts Distilery, which sits at the bottom of Parliament Street. Liu says it’s probably the best example of Victorian-era industrial architecture in North America. Though it certainly shows signs of age, the late 19th century construction is still mostly intact and is used frequently as a backdrop for Hollywood films.

Liu believes that the distillery deserves to be the subject of its own story. So, she wrangled permission to wander through its 20-plus buildings, documenting over 100 years of transformation. Her images depict peeling paint, cracked columns and stale air floating through vast, empty spaces.

This is a timely exhibition; the city has started to demolish the Gardiner, and the Distillery is on the verge of being turned into a shopping plaza. These photos present a brief and visually pleasing education on a moment in the history of these industrial relics before they are gone forever.

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