Nostalgia is an interesting space these days. There’s nostalgia for a long ago past and nostalgia for what we knew mere months ago. In a city where change is a constant, we celebrate the places we’ve gone to eat for decades. They bring us comfort, grounding us in the familiar, even as the familiar continues to shift around us.
“Skyline Diner” is part of a series of paintings — “Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner” — by Toronto artist Brandon Steen, showing at the Elaine Fleck Gallery.
“Diners have always been an institution of honest refuge,” says Steen. “While in art college I was a frequenter of diners.” He was reintroduced to them by his late father-in-law, he says, for whom the red cardinal in the painting is a symbol. “Those memories are imprinted warmly on me.”
His style is contemporary realism; it has a retro feel even as we notice signs of the times: band names, a red hand that “denotes our need to wash our hands as COVID-19 is transmittable through lax hygiene” or, on the sidewalk, the red X that marks the spot where the next customer will need to stand to allow for social distancing.
“Admittedly, the number of diners has diminished greatly in Toronto over the years,” says Steen. “Thankfully some have been saved and preserved with new ownership. In Toronto, the diner is still as honest as a place can be to get a hot plate of food.”
Their disappearance lends an urgency to preserving the places that are left, in paintings and in memories.
Todd Lawson, exhibiting at the gallery at the same time as Breen, also created new work during the pandemic. His whimsical paintings feature aliens in the familiar setting of an abandoned and overgrown lighthouse at Peggy’s Cove, “returning life to the world after people have vanished.”
Even as the world continues to change around us, we — like Steen and Lawson — imprint our own mark on the world, creating new layers of memory and experience, adding new life to familiar spaces.