Barbara Astman, I as artifact, 2008-2014


I as artifact is a collection of arresting, face-like constructions isolated by a dense void of deep black. Bearing no specific markers revealing gender, race, or age, the features are intimated by the negative space encased by patterned skin textures.

The eye sockets, whose angular holes don’t suggest a lack of sight, but rather protective veils against complete self-disclosure, dominate the image. The compression of the face onto a flattened surface is relieved by the nose, which provides dimension to the image.  However, it is the mouths that complete the animation of these images. As if paused momentarily while speaking, or singing, or exclaiming, there is an almost overwhelming cacophony of resounding silence.  It is in this moment that their individuality appears.


These masks look out of the dark and take command of the entire picture space to create a universal micro- world. This dynamic tension is made especially palpable by the indeterminate vantage point. Are we witnesses to these translucent forms, or are we inhabiting them? When encountering other beings, we would normally use learned, socially acceptable inquiry to detect the underlying nature of their character. If the mask is ours, then like all masks, it becomes an extension of the face, a protective barrier against others reading the multitude of innate consistencies and contradictions. Implicit in this anonymity is the potential catalyst into a secret cosmos of psychological fantasy.

BARBARA ASTMAN belongs to a visionary group of artists who have continued to radicalize visual culture since the early 1970s by defining new ways of seeing. Over four decades, she has explored a wide range of photo-based media and produced work that has received national and international recognition. She is represented in important public, corporate and private collections including the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Deutche Bank, New York; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Her artist’s archives are held in the E.P. Taylor Research Library & Archives, AGO.


Astman has an extensive and prestigious solo exhibition history, most recently the two-part Looking: Then and Now (Corkin Gallery, 2016) and BarbaraAstman: I as artifact. The latter featured a new series accompanied by a comprehensive publication (McIntosh Gallery, 2014). In May 2011, her installation, Dancing with Che: Enter through the Gift Shop (Kelowna Art Gallery, 2013) toured across Canada. And her touring retrospective, Barbara Astman: Personal/Persona – A 20 Year Survey, was curated by Liz Wylie (Art Gallery of Hamilton, 1995). Astman has been included in major group exhibitions, such as: Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-1989 (AGO, 2016), Living Building Thinking: Art and Expressionism (McMaster Museum of Art, 2016), Look Again: Colour Xerography Art Meets Technology (AGO, 2015), Herland (60 Wall Gallery, New York, 2014), Light My Fire Part I: Some Propositions about Portraits and Photography (AGO, 2013), and Beautiful Fictions (AGO, 2009). Canadian Art featured a profile of her career in its Spring 2014 issue. 

Astman was commissioned to create an installation for the inaugural exhibition at the Koffler Gallery (Toronto, 2013). She has completed several public art commissions, including the Murano on Bay in Toronto, comprised of 217 windows with photo-based imagery (2010); a public art installation for the Canadian Embassy in Berlin, Germany (2005); and a floor installation for the Calgary Winter Olympics (1987).


Active in the Toronto arts community, Astman has served on numerous boards and advisory committees, including the AGO Board of Trustees (2009-2013). Currently, she is the Chair of the Art Advisory Committee, Koffler Gallery, Toronto and President, Board of Directors, Prefix (ICA) Institute of Contemporary Art, Toronto. In addition, she has co-curated an installation titled The Emergence of Feminism: Changing the Course of Art, featuring work by Joyce Wieland, Suzy Lake and Lisa Steele (AGO, 2008).


Astman holds degrees from the Rochester Institute of Technology, School for American Craftsmen, and Ontario College of Art. She has been a professor at OCAD University, Toronto since 2001.


Text by Georgiana Uhlyarik, Fredrik S. Eaton Curator of Canadian Art, AGO. For more information, please visit