John Massey, visual artist (born 6 July 1950 in Toronto, ON). Since the 1980s, John Massey’s installations, sculptures, and films have established him as one of Canada’s most prominent contemporary artists. In 2001, he won the Gershon Iskowitz Prize for lifetime achievement.
Early Life and Education
The son of the prominent architect, Hart Massey, and grandson of the first Canadian-born Governor General, Vincent Massey, John Massey spent his early life in Toronto before moving to Ottawa at the age of eight. The house, designed by his father in the manner of the renowned modernist architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was Massey’s first introduction to modernism, a stark, minimalist aesthetic that would become a hallmark of his work. Massey later re-inhabited the house for a short time in order to photograph it for his 2004 series Phantoms of the Modern exhibited at Bailey Fine Arts, Toronto.
In 1971, he attended Trent University in Peterborough where he studied English and History, later transferring to what is now the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University where he received a diploma in 1974. From 1981–83, he was hired by OCAD to teach Experimental Arts.
While at OCAD Massey began to experiment with photography, sculpture and installation art, much of which focused on architectural interiors. Occupying the space between dream and reality, these early works explored the nature of perception through surreal, uncanny narratives. By the early 1980s, Massey had gained a national and international reputation for this work, winning the first of three prestigious grants from the Canada Council for the Arts in 1987.
Of his early work, Massey’s 1979 installation A Directed View, the First Two Rooms is his best known. First exhibited at Toronto’s Mercer Union, in many ways A Directed View is a prelude to his aesthetic and conceptual oeuvre. Here, idiosyncratic objects are set in a stark, vacant interior; a direct light source casts sharp opposing shadows; an ambiguous image is projected on an adjacent wall. Though the space is anonymous, its affect is emotionally charged. A sense of nostalgia is evoked without reference to a particular memory.
Like many of his later installations and photographic series, the rooms in A Directed View act as a kind of stand-in for the physical body of the artist and the viewer. In it, a hybrid Surrealist, Modernist, and Postmodernist aesthetic begins to emerge. These conflicting strains remained in tension throughout his early to mid-career in pieces such as The Jack Photographs (1992), Phantoms of the Modern (2004), and After Le Mépris (2010).
John Massey had a spate of solo exhibitions between 1979 and 2000 at prominent galleries such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France, the Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto, and P.S.1 (now MoMA PS1) in New York. He also received two additional Canada Council grants in 1992 and 1995. In 2001, Massey was awarded the $25,000 Gershon Iskowitz Prize, which is now administered by the Art Gallery of Ontario.
During this period, Massey became increasingly concerned with the nature of photography and its relationship to real-world referents. In works such as Phantoms of the Modern, 2004 (a series of digital photographic manipulations featuring Massey’s childhood home) and This Land, 2005 (a suite of high-definition digital manipulations depicting an idealized landscape from the vantage of a luxury-car interior), Massey explores thethe photographic medium and its capacity to confront and overturn deeply entrenched notions of place and social organization through the juxtaposition of disparate imagery.
Since 2003, Massey has taught in the Visual Studies department at the University of Toronto.