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.