Visual Narrative, 1978-1979

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Barbara Astman, Visual Narrative, 1978-1979


Barbara Astman started using the Polaroid camera in 1977. She was lead to the Polaroid for art making via her experimentation with the colour Xerox. Within a portable apparatus, the Polaroid camera offered instantaneous photos which inspired a collection of responses from Astman. The series Visual Narrative, from 1978-1979 investigates properties of narrative by using text and repetition.


The medium of the Polaroid, specifically, the structure of the photos in sets of six and arrangement in a grid leads the viewer into a scene which is additionally aided by text typed directly onto the Polaroid’s frame. Astman's investigation in narrative through photography reflects concepts being investigated within the context of emerging video art, a newly accessible medium at the time. Polaroid's, like video’s ability to offer instant playback, could provide instant output of images (in contrast to film which had to be developed). This mirror-like property promoted a new vein of performances for the camera and, hand-in-hand with feminist centered examinations of the self, images addressing gender issue surfaced.


Exposing a complex relationship between the artist and the subject, Astman’s authoritative stance in both her self-portrait from this series as well as her use of women and men as subjects brings forth gender issues that reflect the social, cultural, and political climate of the 1970s.


Pre-digital, but on the cusp of the instant and excessive narcissistic culture that digital imaging has allowed, Visual Narrative provides an early and daringly personal investigation of a technical and cultural phenomenon. 

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