Joanne Tod is a leading Canadian artist based in Toronto. Her paintings have been exhibited nationally and internationally for over four decades and are included in the collections of such major art institutions as the Art Gallery of Ontario, National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, and Vancouver Art Gallery.
Tod studied in Toronto at the Ontario College of Art during the mid-1970s, at the height of conceptualism – a period in art when painting was being questioned for its indebtedness to the traditions of representation. Tod embraced the theories of the time by examining the role of painting through painting itself. While her realism carries on conventions of the medium, her subject matter is firmly tied to contemporary discourse and ideas, with themes that critique such topical issues as social and ethnic identity, cultural appropriation, feminism, and corporate and political power.
Her earliest paintings were ambitious renderings of interiors mixed with images gleaned from subculture magazines and current news. In 1978, for her first solo show, held at YYZ Artists’ Outlet in Toronto, Tod exhibited Mao: Six Uncommissioned Portraits, based on newswire photographs of the Communist Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung shaking hands with visiting dignitaries, including U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1972. The series rendered Mao and his political counterparts with the kind of clarity associated with propaganda posters, though they appear on backgrounds of flat abstract colour. The visual contrast between foreground and background reads as a critique of the theoretical shifts happening in the art world at that time, between representation and abstraction. Many of the ideas explored in the Mao series are still at the core of Tod’s practice, especially her fascination with the visual and intellectual friction between popular imagery and the fine art world in which she inhabits, as an artist, a professor, and board member of various art institutions.
Another element that characterizes her work is scale. Her paintings are oftentimes massive and communicate authority, while also referencing a similar spatial presence like a movie screen or billboard. Interiors, which are a recurring subject, especially institutional hallways, have been referred to as “walk in” spaces, due to the sensation of being able to step right into the frame. Technically, they are rendered to near photographic likeness, yet her measured brushstrokes remain visible, allowing realism and the artist’s hand to cohabitate. A similar kind of frisson appears in her titles, which are lyrical and poetic rather than descriptive, as if to remind us that interpretation isn’t restricted to the artist’s intention.
Portraiture has been a constant in her work, and she is among Canada’s leading artists of portrait commissions for high-ranking politicians and leading intellectuals. In 2001, she painted the Honourable Sir Mackenzie Bowell, Prime Minister of Canada (1894-1896), which now hangs in the House of Commons in Ottawa; and in 2003, she painted Honourable Henry Jackman, Chancellor of the University of Toronto. In each, visual metaphors can be found that hint at a particular time and place, or reveal cryptic details about some personal aspect of the subject that future custodians of the work might puzzle over. For the official portrait of Margaret MacMillan (2007), former Provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto – and the first female to hold that position – MacMillan is shown wearing a bold purple dress that’s visible from underneath her academic gown, as if she is breaking free of the ivory tower constraints. There is also an illuminated public exit sign behind her right shoulder.
Simultaneously, Tod continues to paint those who are part of the zeitgeist. They cover a range of popular figures, from domestic diva Martha Stewart and wrongly convicted Guy Paul Morin to young socialites of the Toronto art scene. In her most recent exhibition, Once Removed, she painted the entire lineup of the Toronto Raptors. One of her best-known projects is Oh, Canada – A Lament. Between 2007 and 2011, Tod documented Canada’s involvement in the Afghanistan mission by painting every soldier who fell during that period, using their obituary photo as a visual source. The final installation consists of 156 portraits interspersed with other painted panels arranged to resemble a fragmented Canadian flag. The project was featured in The Walrus magazine, and has been exhibited across Canada.
Until 2019, Joanne Tod taught in the Department of Visual Studies, DFALD, University of Toronto. She is a member of the Advisory Board for Sotheby’s Canada and a board member of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto. She is represented in Toronto by Nicholas Metivier Gallery.