Article by Esther E. Shipman

F
EW THINGS INTRIGUE, DELIGHT, AND MYSTIFY like a treasure box that requires some effort and ingenuity to unlock its secrets. Imagine ninety-six compartments in one larger-thanlife treasure box—one that was commissioned as a public art piece, made an auspicious splash, becoming an instant Canadian art icon immediately after it was unveiled, and a madly popular audience draw. Then, in a few short years disappeared into a storage vault for nearly two decades. The mere mention of the artist, Gord Peteran, together with the words The Door, provokes instantaneous reactions even amongst the most jaded arts aficionados. If you have ever seen it, you will never forget it.

Double-sided, richly stained, quarter-cut, solid white oak. Carvings, inlay, castings in metal and porcelain. Paintings, stencils, a music box, a camera, a clock, an odometer, and nearly a dozen panels that open to reveal more wonders. The door itself discreetly hinged, almost hidden within the larger framework of the oversized casing.

The wooden structure is bursting with iconography from multiple arts disciplines and social issues. It juxtaposes antiquities with the modern. It poses hurdles and challenges in such a way as to draw in the viewer, who in turn is moved to instigate debate, or conversely to feel possessive towards specific elements, elevating them to personal touchstones.

One example reveals a petite porcelain doll’s head mounted on a stone column, behind a door. Taken at face value it represents the historic field of ceramics as an art, and a craft, but then the artist entreats us to look again, and it becomes a symbol of classicism and privilege in contrast to modernity and equality. Look again and it is a statement about the idealized image of a woman, shut in a box.

Some of the embedded objects are repurposed found objects such as the mathematical compass that represents the guild of carpenters and woodworkers. The vast majority of these objects have been custom-designed and built by Peteran, but their idiosyncrasy, and apparent random placement, is enough for us to question their origins.

The artist’s paintbox filled with partially used paint tubes, and brushes, and turps. The perfectly symmetrical pair of hand guns. The camera and lens that penetrate and expose both sides of the door. The orb handle that turns the music box gears. The locked jail cell door. The Queen of Spades placed over the hand-painted Jacobean Rose pattern. The empty chamber. The list of compelling objects, ideas, and space appears to go on and on.

• • •

The fate of The Door, outstanding amongst a group of other notable works commissioned for the Ontario Crafts Council’s then headquarters, on McCaul Street in Toronto, is inextricably linked to an unfortunate, dark chapter in Canadian art history. As it happens, the timing of this article is all the more prescient, as the organization caught in the maelstrom looks to regain some of its former status and prestige through the launch of a big, bright new space, and a series of events to mark its 40th anniversary.

In its heyday, the Ontario Crafts Council was a formidable and influential organization. It owned real estate, and operated a highly visible, culturally significant gallery and retail shop in Toronto’s trendy Yorkville neighbourhood; it boasted an impressive membership, and an enviable list of high-profile patrons and Board of Directors.

In an optimistic moment, during the real-estate boom of the 1980s, the decision was taken to sell the Yorkville property and to build a dramatically expanded new headquarters for the organization on McCaul Street, adjacent to the burgeoning Queen Street West art scene.

The new building would be a jewel-encrusted crown. Not only would it be a model of modern interior architecture, but by creatively interpreting the Percent for Public Art Program,* the Ontario Crafts Council embarked on an ambitious program of commissioning multiple functional artworks to be directly incorporated into the public spaces of the new headquarters.

When it officially opened in 1990, the new Ontario Crafts Council was a hive of activity. However, it all began to unravel, and ultimately came crashing down, under a cloud of administrative fiscal mismanagement.

Fast-forward to 2016, to the phoenix-like return of Craft Ontario—renamed, and arduously, incrementally rebuilt as an organization by a core group of dedicated believers. The Door has reappeared at the new Queen Street digs, between two glass-fronted offices on the mezzanine above the open-plan gallery and shop.

• • •

Looking back nearly thirty years since he designed and built The Door, artist Gord Peteran discussed how in his view certain familiar objects such as “the chair, the demi-lune table, the clock, and the door, have over the centuries entered the realm of cultural objects. They are imbued with symbolism, inferences, iconography, and memory triggers. So much so, that they are transformed into art without our realizing it.”

Peteran adds, “When we cross the threshold of a door, we move from one space to another. It is a transition, a transformation, usually made from public to private space. The door frame is thick. I tried to stretch it out, to densify that millisecond transitional state.” This door is a metaphor for all the discussions taking place behind closed doors, in all the boardrooms, private clubs, academic institutions, and bedrooms of the world. If doors/walls could speak…

As you grip the custom handle, open, and then step through to the other side, you are literally holding the key.

There are few artworks anywhere that hold so many curiosities, and have endured such a journey to see the light of day.

Esther E. Shipman is the Curator, Architecture & Design at Idea Exchange (formerly Cambridge Galleries) in Cambridge, Ontario. It is the only municipal gallery dedicated to architecture and design in Canada.


Gord Peteran door, commissioned
by the Ontario Crafts
Council
wood and mixed media
1990
108” x 72”; 274.5cm x 183cm
Photograph: Jeremy Jones