Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Big Picture 03

Painter Patrick DeCoste is the wild child of Toronto art – famed for both his … how to put this … boisterous behaviour at gallery openings as well as his equally fierce dedication to reviving ancient painting methods and classical themes - many of them a celebration, surprise, surprise, of the orgiastic and atavistic roots of Western culture.

DeCoste is the kind of guy who wears Lycra cycle shorts all year round, drinks to yammering distraction, and will engage you (if you can’t get away from him) in rambling discussions about pagan lovemaking rituals, the salty pleasures of gay “water sports” sex, and federal politics, usually in the same sentence. He’s the kind of guy who, when asked to contribute an artwork to a feel-good charity auction, glazed and gilded one of his stools. He’s the kind of guy who gets kicked out of raucous drag bars for being too loud (!). He’s also Toronto’s most under-appreciated master painter.

As his partner Emmerich once told me, with a leer, “Patrick drives you crazy, and he drives you crazy”.

DeCoste’s new exhibition, Silenus in Furs, might get people to stop talking about Patrick the Party Monster and finally take a good, long look at Patrick the Painter – not that they’ll have much choice once they see the beautiful new works, easily DeCoste’s most mature and delicious concoctions to date. I think I’m falling in love with a bad boy.

Silenus in Furs is, at first glance, a tribute to one of Greek mythology’s unlikely heroes. The best pal of Dionysus, Silenus was a rotund and merry lush who accompanied pretty boy Dionysus to all the better bacchanals and taught him how to get down. A prototype of the handsome hero’s goofy best buddy – Batman’s Robin, Mel Gibson’s Joe Pesci – Silenus faded into obscurity over the centuries, no match for Dionysus’s washboard abs.

But there’s more going on here than mere Greco-Roman revisionism. DeCoste is determined to recreate the B-list god, and the rampant, plus-size sexuality he represents, by casting Silenus as a modern day “bear” (gay slang for large, sexy men) – one who just happens to look exactly like DeCoste’s own burly partner. DeCoste succeeds admirably with a suite of dreamy paintings that bring the love back into love handles.

Lush and radiant in burnt gold and cloudy pink sepias, the Silenus paintings depict a unapologetically fat and happy man-god, a creature ripe with a febrile, inviting sensuality, with a life force that puts the lie to pop culture’s limited notion of sexy body types.
Silenus, in full recline on a fur rug, sleepy from a night of love and wine, could teach Britney and Christina a few things about smouldering sexuality.


When I think of pearls, I think of two things: my mother, who has a lovely pair of cultured pearl earrings she never wears anymore (and yet won’t give to me) and, no relation, Barbara Bush, who is the punch line in a lurid sex joke I will not repeat here (but will everywhere else). Pearls, after all, are the stuff of mothers, maternal power, and middle class chic.

No wonder I was the only male in the room at the ROM’s Pearls: A Natural History – a flawed but fascinating exhibit that chronicles not only the long, indeed ancient, pearl industry but also the clammy gem’s ability to stir up emotions not often associated with jewellery. Diamonds, costly and mysterious as they are, are hardly likely to make anyone think of home baked cookies, church on Sundays or playing dress up – the rocks are simply too cold, too austere. Pearls, however, glow like a warm oven.

Too bad Pearls: A Natural History is not a more embracing and emotional exhibition. The interlocking rooms of vitrines and panels follow the standard good-for-you museum format of one third education (expect a lot of text and a few videos teaching you how pearls are formed, plus bushels of oysters on the half shell), one third history (the exhibit is loaded with paintings of royalty wearing pearls, pearl encrusted official gowns and hats, and baseball-sized brooches big enough to poke out the hardiest dowager’s eyeballs), and a dash of glamour (Marilyn Monroe’s pearl necklace is here, as is a portrait of Queen Mary I wearing a pear-shaped pearl that now belongs to Elizabeth Taylor).

By employing such a well-worn strategy, the old “get them inside the door with the sparkly stuff, then teach them about bivalves” bait and switch, Pearls almost manages to take the shine off it’s subject - one I knew little about before this exhibition and certainly one that deserves a less rigid and more dazzling presentation, in keeping with the objects on hand.

Not that anybody around me noticed – the women cooing and swooning over the lustrous drops couldn’t have cared less about the show’s methodology. They came to be entranced, and they were not disappointed. How could they be, with trays of pink pearls, gold pearls, black pearls, pearl encrusted gold spiders, pearl chrysanthemum pins and pearl dappled wedding gowns only inches from their covetous eyes? Even a somewhat tired presentation strategy (and oddly dim lighting) can’t defeat the allure of these familiar yet magical ornaments.
If my mother sees this show, she’ll never hand over the goods.


Hallowe’en is Sunday night and I need to vent. I love Hallowe’en, and am a traditionalist when it comes to decorations: cats, witches, jack-o-lanterns cut from real pumpkins, Bela Lugosi movies and a strict orange and black colour code.

That’s it, that’s Hallowe’en. I’m talking to you, manufacturers of ornaments and gewgaws - because this year’s crop of skulls and bones is slathered in inappropriate hues, the most offensive being the introduction of purples and pinks. Purple and pink are wonderful colours. For Easter.

What next, red and green Hallowe’en trees? The Hallowe’en Bunny?

If I were a paranoiac, I’d wonder if this cross-colouring of Samhain is an attempt to subliminally induce a psychological state wherein one is always in the midst of (and thus buying décor for) a holiday; to create a kind of continuous, single celebratory season that starts in September and runs, uninterrupted, until June.

I’m onto you, knick knack peddlers. Expect a good egging tomorrow night.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

The Big Picture 02

I have long believed that people attend performance art spectacles because they don’t have the patience for traditional theatre.
Theatre, after all, involves sitting down quietly in the hushed and reverent dark, waiting for Important Things to happen or to be said, making chitchat at intermission, then watching for Revelatory Things to be said, and finally pretending you enjoyed yourself when it’s over – all for about 50 dollars.

Performance art, however, usually happens in a well lit art gallery, comes with a cheap drink, costs little or nothing to watch, and allows you to walk away when you’re bored without social embarrassment.

So, why is this more humane art form often dismissed as theatre’s poor mongrel cousin?
Shannon Cochrane, co-founder of the 7a*11d (no, I’m not making a speech balloon euphemism for cussing, that’s the way it’s spelled) International Festival of Performance Art, describes the annual roundup of shameless self indulgence, delirious ranting and, according to the press kit, butter dancing as “not, thanks, just a collection of performance art clichés – it’s more like participatory theatre, without the bad dinner.”

“But that’s a standard urban joke – come to my performance art show and I’ll take a pooh on the stage and scream for five hours. However, at this year’s festival we have everything from performative academic lectures to activist agit-prop interventions to DIY video making and, yes, hard core performance art.”

Such as? I ask, ever the sensationalist.

“Ok, ok, Mr. Ambulance Chaser” Cochrane chides, “such as a 7 hour endurance performance that is a take on the home improvement industry – involving the creation and destruction of an entire home, with burning piles of porn and the eventual burning of the whole house (we don’t know exactly how that will work yet …). Well, that one’s for the old school purists.”

Cochrane admits that all-day displays of pyrotechnics are about as close to the mainstream perception of performance art - people behaving badly - as you can get, but still bristles at how even the sophisticated art world reduces the wide world of performance art to silly stunts.
“The problem with the label Performance Art is that it’s a leaky umbrella, trying to cover too much, too diverse a practice. Same as the word Theatre. You say Thee-att-urr and people think, Oh God, five hours of modernized Chekhov with an improv jazz score.
Maybe the two genres should switch audiences for a year or so?”

Now in its eight year, 7a*11d has grown from its humble beginnings as a weekend of underfunded public nuisances to a publicly financed, relatively polished fortnight that also includes music, dance, experimental theatre, lectures, independent film, abundant genial hilarity, and sexy parties.

Cochrane herself recommends The Reverend Billy, a US-based performer/ anti-consumerist activist who, she confesses, “we were worried we wouldn’t get into the country because there’s a Starbucks in LA taking him to court for doing one of his “cash register exorcisms”, which involves the laying on of hands on a cash register. But he’s coming, and since the festival is based in Kensington Market, I expect some performances might happen around the new Loblaws outlet opening in the market. We need the Reverend Billy right now.”

“We also have a show called Unrehearsed Beauty, by PME, a Toronto troupe who tour the world but haven’t played in Toronto in years. They’re a rock band who can’t really play their instruments, so they turn the show into a public forum, the subject of which is determined by the open mike in the audience”

So, has performance art grown up?

“Why would anyone want to do that?”


Czech-Canadian photographer Jakub Dolejs, famed for creating a series of large, carefully staged photos that looked like a cross between historical images and film stills, has decided to turn his lens on himself.

Coming of age in several cultures, Dolejs has, to say the least, an ambivalent relationship with language and how words shape entire cultures and individual personalities. If the late Derrida is to be believed (and I’m a believer), all experience is rooted in language – even the very intimate experience of looking in a mirror.

For his second solo exhibition, AutumnFall, at Angell Gallery, Dolejs takes this unspoken (pun intended) self/words relationship and makes some big noise - offering the viewer a collection of large photographs depicting himself and his partner literally cornered by language.
Reminiscent of The Lady from Shanghai’s hall of mirrors ending, minus the gunplay, Dolejs new photographs employ mirror games and the austere body language of fashion photography to show us people who are living in multiple worlds: an act that requires a level of self consciousness, and continuous alertness, that those of us raised in one familiar culture cannot image.

Loaded with tension and a curious kind of anxious glamour, Dolejs photographs are deceptively simple acts of self-examination (and no small amount of playful self deprecation – cute as they are, Dolejs and his partner are too apple-cheeked wholesome to be dour fashion models) that resonate with the outsider’s naturalized paranoia.


Sonja Ahlers’s first graphic novel, Temper, Temper (1998), caused a sensation in the small press world – part diary, part comic book, part cut-and-paste manifesto, it earned Ahlers a reputation as a novelist who doesn’t so much write novels as she constructs them, scrap book page by scrap book page.

Her second non-novel novel, Fatal Distraction, solidifies her reputation as the Kathy Acker of the ‘zine aesthetic - as a woman-child bent on telling horrifying tales of sexual and psychological dysfunction using a baby doll box of crayons. Think Beatrix Potter on Paxil, armed with a very sharp pair of scissors and an even sharper eye.


7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art
October 20-31, XPACE 303 Augusta Avenue and across Toronto
www.7a-11d.ca for details

Jakub Dolejs AutumnFall
October 14-November 20 Angell Gallery 890 Queen Street West

Fatal Distraction by Sonja Ahlers
Available from Insomniac Press

Saturday, October 16, 2004

The Big Picture – 01

As if the Middle East isn’t complicated enough, along comes an extensive new two-part exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University and Prefix Institute by Lebanese artist Walid Raad and his fictional collective The Atlas Group – an exhibition that intentionally blurs the already watery boundaries between history and fiction, propaganda and fact, by mixing archival photographs and other “real” materials from the Lebanese civil war with convincingly sincere (and often poetic) artist-made notebooks, films, and documents. Historians beware.
The point of all this is-it-true? game playing, curator Philip Monk writes, is to expose “the false binary of fiction and non-fiction”.

Even if all of the work comes out of Raad’s Beirut studio, the show is worth seeing as a display of an imagination run riot.

Raad offers not only beautiful drawings of seemingly not beautiful things, such as a crater left by a car bomb, and horrific photos of street carnage left by the1975-1991 war (or are they all staged?), but also the thoughts of the supposed witnesses - such as the imaginary Lebanese historian Dr. Fakhouri, whose documentation of the war years through films and diaries (or, to be more precise, Raad’s documentation – still with me?) are rife with a kind of delirious anxiety; or the perhaps fake texts and images collected by one Yussef Nassar, “the Lebanese army’s most senior explosives and ammunitions expert”, who offers such ghoulishly funny observations on the vagaries of car bombing as “the only part that remains intact after a car bomb explodes is the engine … During the Lebanese war, photographers competed to be the first to find and photograph the engines”.

Sorting through the layers of unreality in these exhibits at times distracts the viewer from the horrifying nature of the material, which is exactly the point. As media outlets on all sides reduce violence in the Middle East to a series of interchangeable, possibly real, possibly doctored images (is it really Bin Laden’s voice on the tape? are the prison abuse photos digitalized?), we are literally losing sight of the very real death count.

By manufacturing an entire body of questionable documentation, Walid Raad’s project may be more prophetic than playful, showing us the future of journalism.


On a cheerier note – and after the Raad shows, a documentary on PCBs seems cheery – a small gem from the city-wide SuperDanish project is on view at Parkdale’s humble Gallery 1313. While the Power Plant is offering Bruce Mau’s noisy, text heavy take on Danish culture (funny how everything Bruce Mau touches turns out looking like a show by, well, Bruce Mau), Gallery 1313, with about 1% of the Power Plant’s resources, gave me far more insight into what life is like in Denmark today.

The centre piece of 1313’s contribution is a lovely installation of blooming water lilies sprouting from plain white cooking oil tubs, by the young Copenhagen artist Nikolaj Recke.
Young Danes, I’m told, have a hankering for an unbridled, unkempt natural world that is the opposite of Denmark’s post-industrial, foetus-to-ashes welfare state. Recke, a bit of a romantic, has been known to engage in Fight Club-like activities, such as smashing himself against walls, in order to break out of the safe bubble his society provides.

His water lily project is, thankfully, a much quieter experience. The lilies sit in their tubs, reaching gracefully for the warm grow light that hovers above them. Sitting with the trapped lilies is a bit like visiting a Japanese garden, where artifice and nature combine to create a kind of harmonious tension. Part of me couldn’t help but wonder if Canada’s reputation as a marijuana growers’ paradise is a subtext here – who else uses grow lights and planter tubs?

Accompanying Recke’s flower garden are two videos by the Filipino-Danish artist Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen – another young artist trying to find Denmark’s wild heart.
Her hilarious and unabashedly loving video “O Bother Mike” follows her family through a series of workout routines choreographed by her bossy brother Mike, a fitness trainer. While Rasmussen’s befuddled mother huffs and puffs on the Stairmaster, serious gym regulars grunt and grimace through their daily routines like solemn monks at prayer – all to the delightful sounds of Rasmussen singing a self-composed pop song that warns that a fit body is useless “without love in your heart”.

Rasmussen’s longer video, “Get Your Motor Running”, follows two Danish biker clubs (who knew the polite Danes had raunchy biker clubs?) – one male-run and the other all female - as they indulge in bike-nerd chat, tearing up lawns, “dancing” to heavy metal, smacking each other around and getting hopelessly drunk.

The ladies are clearly having more fun, waiting for the men to pass out so they can get kinky, and Rasmussen documents all of their worst behaviour – obviously taking great pleasure in showing us a foolish, immature side of Denmark we never see in austere chair designs and rigorous social policy. This is the Denmark I want to visit.

And don’t forget to pop into Gallery 1313’s members’ gallery, where Toronto artist Rupen, who is not Danish but is still very clever, is showing a series of wall-mounted sculptures based on 45 RPM record spindles (those plastic bits used to hold the record on the turntable … oh, ask your parents). As pristine and carefully crafted as any Danish vase or candle holder, these beautiful, party-coloured works will fulfill any expectations you might have had that the actual Danish works on display would be cool and sleek.


Being a drag queen in my spare time, I’ve learned a lot about the power of costume – and plan to learn more at “The Stage Represented”, a three day conference on theatre visuals at the University of Toronto wherein, according to co-organizer Clarissa Hurley, “everything from theatre images on Greek vases to costumes in silent films” will be scrutinized.

I’m personally looking forward to Hurley’s talk on the early zanni (prankster) representations and the uomo selvaggio (wild man) tradition in classical Italian theatre, but I’m a sucker for Italian guys.

The Atlas Group and Walid Raad @ Art Gallery of York University until November 14 and Prefix Institute until November 27.

SuperDanish @ Gallery 1313 until October 31.

The Stage Represented @University of Toronto, October 21-23.