Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Big Picture 07

Speaking from personal experience, there is nothing easy about being both an art critic (although I prefer the more cowardly term “cultural commentator”) and an artist. Although novelists often review the work of their peers, and film magazines are full of essays by directors about other directors, the art world is particularly venomous toward people who “work for both sides” (funny, I thought it was a dialogue) – perhaps because the bones artists are thrown are already so few and so bereft of marrow.

Critics who make art are considered morally compromised, mostly by artists who never question the value of their own day jobs (or who have enough coin in their trust funds not to need one).

Imagine, then, the plight of Gary Michael Dault, an art critic who has also been publishing books of poetry and exhibiting his paintings for decades. When I told other artists I was planning to see (and, Heavens Forefend! write about) Dault’s new exhibition of “poem paintings”, Salt Poems, I was met with unprintable reactions.

“Do you know what he wrote about so-and-so in 1992?” I was asked, as if that might give me insight into the quality of his brush strokes. “Do you know what he said about X, Y, and Q on TVO?”, somebody barked, hoping to stop my busy fingers.

No, I don’t, I’m happy to report on both counts. Nor do I care.

My take on this supposed conflict of interest is simple - if anyone is willing to offer up their work to the public in an open and accessible fashion, to put themselves before an audience for judgement (no easy thing, no matter who you are), I’m prepared to give it a chance. I once went to an exhibit of Sylvester Stallone’s paintings, after paying good money for that musical he made with Dolly Parton, so I figure I’ve been inoculated.

And what was the outcome of my visit to the dark side? A pleasant 30 minutes with a pleasing array of collages and paintings based on, and incorporating, Dault’s sequence of thoughtful lyric poems about salt. So far, the skies have not rained frogs and locusts.

I especially liked Dault’s triptych of large black and white paintings, which reminded me of the work of Frank O’Hara, and his heavily layered yet still fragile collages. Dault is particularly good at playing with the texture of paint on paper, and with giving the smallest scratch a twitchy vitality.

Is Dault the next hot thing? Will Salt Poems prompt me to rethink all I think I know about art and art making? Well, no … but neither has anything else I’ve seen since I started this column, so relax.

And if that’s the sort of impossible hurdle an artist/art critic has to leap over to get some respect from his community, what aerodynamic feats are you, dear allegedly unsullied artist, expected to perform? Purism is such a bore.


Melissa Levin is the most patient artist in town. Her inviting new exhibition, You Only Live Twice, is a riot of re-arranged pictorial signals, an intentional crazy quilt of disrupted pictures, all painstakingly created via the careful piece-by-piece manipulation of vintage puzzles - a feat which boggles the mind of anyone, like me, who finds making the bed inordinately time consuming.

Puzzles, the therapeutic pastime of the elderly, the infirm, and the cottage-trapped, resonate with hospital blanket softness. Puzzles offer the puzzler the comforting notion that, if you only take your time and look carefully, the world is ultimately an orderly place. Puzzles are seductively affirming, a game without losers, and exactly what Levin needed recently when she found herself spending way too much time in hospital.

“I’d done puzzles before, and mixed the pieces from different puzzles up before,” Levin tells me from the gallery, where she has set up a puzzle table, “but when I was sick last year and visiting the hospital a lot, I found myself playing with them again because I saw them everywhere – especially in the rooms where women undergoing chemo go to relax. So, I started puzzling again as part of my recuperation.”

Levin’s puzzle making, however, is more about challenging accepted norms than about reassembling or validating the obvious. Taking puzzles cut from the same patterns (so that they fit together), Levin began mixing and matching, turning thousands of disjointed pieces from dozens of different picture plates into thematically, if not pictorially, cohesive new images – exchanging chaos for a smarter chaos.

“The show is called You Only Live Twice because I feel that both I and the puzzles had been reborn. I like reclaiming discarded objects and giving them a new life, finding the narratives that are in the puzzles and then mixing them with similar narratives. For instance, one of the puzzles was of kittens in a basket, and another depicts white baby seals on an ice flow - both really vulnerable creatures presented in a cute and pretty manner - so I mixed the puzzles up and now they belong together as a narrative.”

Once Levin began to remake the puzzles, she discovered that her recuperation was not the only story unfolding.

“I quickly realized that the puzzles also reflect my queer identity. A lot of queer lives are thrown away - by families, by religion - are simply dismissed and overlooked, and you have to take a closer look to see the value of our lives. It’s the same with these puzzles, all of which I found tossed away in thrift stores.

So, I’m taking the puzzles back and giving them a new value and a new place: a place of prominence. It’s wonderful to see something gain a new life.”


Toronto legends FASTWÜRMS (aka the artist-witch combo of Kim Kozzi and Dai Skuse) are at it again. After taking on pirate lore in their last show, the WÜRMS; have turned to more domestic (if art infused with necromantic subtexts can be called domestic) subject matter – cats and cat love.

Their new exhibition, Gusset Nation (gusset is a fancy word for a panty crotch), is an elaborate playhouse for cats, a claw-tempting jungle gym of yarns, soft fabrics, and, most delightful, panties strung together into pentagram shaped climbing webs.

Avowed cat worshippers (their house is full of the beasts), FASTWÜRMS have turned their adoration into a wondrous spectacle, complete with a video that splices together home movies of their cats and hilarious footage of Las Vegas tiger queens Siegfried and Roy.

When I die, I want to come back as one of Skuse’s fattened tabbies.

Gary Michael Dault
Salt Poems
Pteros Gallery 2255 Dundas St. West Until Dec. 11

Melissa Levin
You Only Live Twice
Zsa Zsa Gallery 962 Queen St. West Until November 29
$300 - $900

Gusset Nation
Paul Petro Contemporary Art 980 Queen St. West Until December 23

Saturday, November 20, 2004

The Big Picture 06

I like to think of myself as a generous person, at least in print, and to prove my liberality, I forced myself to peddle down to the Distillery District – a place I normally avoid with a fervour I have heretofore reserved for the Disney Store, anything starring Megan Follows, or CBC Radio One. I am simply too much a curmudgeon for any place as cute, tidy and relentlessly Caucasian as the Distillery District.

Since it opened in the spring of 2003, the Distillery District has made an admirable effort to portray itself, via everything from jazz concerts to balloon animal twist offs, as Toronto’s shiniest “family friendly” arts and culture destination. But those of us who like our arts scenes cut with something more potent than Christmas decorating lectures and brewery tours have yet to be convinced of the venue’s genuine cultural merits.

Of course, the renovated brewing houses are charming. Of course, the cobblestones are picturesque. But without a solid base of galleries showing challenging contemporary works, the district could quickly become little more than an upscale crafts and knick knacks depot. And now that Soulpepper Theatre has moved in, there’s the added danger of bumping into Albert Schwartz as he wanders the back alleys, skull-clutching his way through a Hamlet line run.

You’ve been warned.

Part of the problem is that, unlike other cultural districts in Toronto – Yorkville, West Queen West, the St. Lawrence Market zone, or the burgeoning Dundas/Ossington area – the Distillery District did not develop organically, was not grown in stages by artists, gallerists, and shopkeepers determined to remake a neighbourhood. Because, instead, the District was developed by big money (in co-operation with a few non-profit organizations) and simply declared a hot new destination, it feels more like a mall than a community.

What the District’s planners have failed to account for is, ironically, failure itself. A vital arts community grows via trial and error, in organic increments that are as full of busts as booms – none of which is in evidence in the District, where, rather oddly considering the location’s evident origins, everything seems as pristine and ahistorical as the condo towers that encircle the Victorian gates (a development dynamic that prompts a whole other discussion about class and culture, namely how the District appears to function as an arty playground for the rich … but don’t get me started).

Having groused this much, I’ll admit that I did find three visit-worthy exhibitions among the scented candles and dog parkas. All is not lost. Please visit these shows before some smart entrepreneur turns the galleries into Gap Kids outlets.


The Robert Birch Gallery, one of the first established galleries to take up residence in the District, is showing a pleasingly goofball set of sculptures by Quebecois artist Ginette Legare’ – an artist who has never seen a spoon or a hammer she couldn’t make sing.

Combining what the press release calls “experienced objects” - i.e. the stuff you keep in your kitchen junk drawer - with exquisitely formed metal and wood shapes, Legare’ has crafted works that sit contently on the fence between folk art, with its emphasis on resourcefulness, on seeing the resemblance between mundane objects and the natural world, and more conceptual, mid-century Modernist sculptural practices, which emphasize the innate mutability in all objects. Thus, a garden spade and a tape measure become a snake, and pencil tops are fitted with magnets to become thorns in a barbed wire crown or text in a letter.

If all this sounds a bit cloying, a bit too much like the giant hamburger at the AGO, remember that Quebec artists never really got over surrealism, so Legare’ comes by her mid-20th century leanings honestly. And the kids will love it! (as they say down at the DD).


Artcore, a new addition to the District, is a vast space that seems determined to mount big, noisy shows. More power to them. When I visited their latest group show, Moving Pictures, I found myself trailing behind a befuddled foursome of middle-aged suburbanites, complete with matching his-and-hers jackets, who couldn’t stop laughing, half in shock, at the art. Now, if Artcore can only make them cry.

Moving Pictures features a half dozen video works by a broad spectrum of international artists, among them our own Jubal Brown and that old reprobate Istvan Kantor.

Brown’s video, In Bloom, is easily the most compelling of the lot, as it is also the most overtly pleasurable. Filmed in a graveyard, the video plays focus games with the colourful floral tributes left behind by mourners, bringing the viewer deeper and deeper into the flowers until they disappear in washes of indistinct purples and whites.

If this sounds disrespectful of the grieving process, like a bit of Addams Family fun with other people’s heartache, let me assure you it is decidedly not – what Brown does is visually recreate the horrible feeling of disintegration experienced by mourners, not mock loss. Having experienced a family death in the last year, I understood Brown’s video as a kind of kinetic elegy, and was thankful I saw it.

Kantor’s video, Ideal Gift, is a rough cut document of his infamous National Gallery blood performance (the one he did without permission, and nearly did time for enacting). What is most interesting about this video now, ten plus years after the event, is how hysterical and violent everyone at the National Gallery, from security guards to visitors, became over Kantor’s little bio hazard. He should have taken the show on the road, with stops on Jerry Springer and Ricky Lake.

Say what you like about Kantor – and he has as many detractors, serious art critics and Conservative MPs alike – he knows how to push the public’s buttons. No mean feat in a country perpetually asleep at the cultural wheel.


A small show of photographs at the gallery/photolab/café/bookstore Pikto typifies the problems faced by the District. As interesting as Danish photographers’ Abbas and Henrik Saxgren’s photographs of Voodoo baptisms are (all anthropological sensitivity issues aside - way, way aside), it is difficult to actually assess, let alone enjoy the works while trying to ignore Pikto’s busy photo trade transactions, the customers browsing the magazine racks, or its burbling coffee machines. Pikto shows good work, but its indecisiveness over what sort of space it want to be is a microcosm of the District’s own mixed, and messy, message.
Somebody shut off the latte machine, please.

Ginette Legare’
Instrumentalities Robert Birch Gallery 55 Mill Street, Building 3
Until December 6

Moving Pictures
Artcore 55 Mill Street, Pure Spirits Building
Until December 22

Abbas & Henrik Saxgren
Voodoo (Water Rituals)
Pikto 55 Mill Street (corner of Trinity)
Until November 22

Saturday, November 13, 2004

The Big Picture 05

Why Toronto painter James Huctwith is not an art household name continues to baffle me. He is easily as technically accomplished as the Canadian art star Attila Richard Lukacs, a painter he is frequently, and to some extent fairly, compared to (both employ classical figurative painting techniques to contemporary queer erotic subject matter, and neither of them, judging by the elaborate pre-dawn sex club panoramas they paint, has seen daylight in years), and Huctwith is much nicer to look at, which counts with television producers.
So, what gives? Is Huctwith’s low profile the result of media homophobia? Are we only allowed one gay art star?

Perhaps, but I doubt that’s the whole story. If anything, Huctwith’s overtly gay, decidedly raunchy gaze would be a selling point today, as queers are the new exotics in mass media. He could be a regular on Kink.

I suspect instead that Huctwith’s long time in the big-on-Church-street wilderness stems from the fact that, although his work is certainly sexual, and very, very sexy, he is still primarily a portraitist, still first and foremost a painter determined to reveal the complicated people underneath the hunky sex objects. Unlike Lukacs, who made his name (and fortune) with shock art paintings of sexualized neo-Nazi skinheads, and who recently whored himself in a tell-all documentary about his glamorous crystal meth addiction, Huctwith is on a quieter, gimmick-free path to fame, one paved with stellar paintings that shock only with their loveliness.

All that is about to change. Huctwith’s latest exhibition, a suite of luscious, shadowy figurative works that combine raw masculine bodies with equally raw, indeed rotting, images of abandoned banquets, is simply too good to be overlooked.

To call these works decadent (and I mean that as a compliment) is an understatement. Ripe with muddied testosterone and decomposing crudités, the paintings should come with a bottle of Febreeze. And a flashlight – Huctwith doesn’t so much play with illumination in his paintings as eliminate it, paring down the light in each composition to pin spot precision until it glints off the muscles, chaps, smeared plates, and browning cantaloupes like a wandering laser.

The best works in the show, however, are the single figure portraits. Free of all their sexy leather accoutrements, the men in these intimate paintings glow with a softness and uneasy vulnerability, their skin as velvety and fresh as any Gerber baby’s bottom. How Huctwith manages to make these doe-eyed biker lovers appear both humpy and helpless, tender and tough, is a mystery I’m not sure I want fully explained (one needs some magic in life) – but I’m guessing that his keen attention to texture, to the play between painted and rough, unpainted surfaces, and the vibrant back and forth he creates between murky backdrops and angelic flesh, between tar blacks and brilliant gold, causes a tension in the works that is akin to the push/pull of first attraction, to the indecisiveness and doubts that trail the blush of desire.

However he does it, I’ll take Huctwith’s layered psychological studies over Lukacs’s stunts any midnight.

Fredericton-based painter William Forrestall is another quiet marvel. Like Huctwith, he has been carefully crafting paintings in his own way for years, apparently oblivious to the power of hype and publicity. But, opposite to Huctwith, Forrestall is famous everywhere but Toronto.
The oldest son in the fabled Forrestall clan of artists (led by Order of Canada honouree father Tom, they’re the Kennedys of Atlantic Canadian art, minus the boozing and secretary drowning) Forrestall has, by his own admission, both benefited from and struggled with being part of a famous family - none of which is anybody’s business except that, in practical terms, it means Torontonians have not seen enough of William Forrestall’s spectacular paintings. Well, now’s your chance.

Forrestall’s newest works will strike a familiar cord with his followers, who covet his intricate still life assemblages the way some people adore geodes and crystals – because they sparkle and hum. Painstakingly painted in dancing flicks and bright dapples of egg tempera, Forrestall’s deceptively simple pairings of flowers and shards are constructed with a surgical precision that makes even the most anal viewer twitch with admiration. Watching a Forrestall painting unfold is like watching the insides of a Swiss watch blow up, in slow motion.

But if a maniacal technique was all Forrestall had to offer, he’d be at best a curiosity. What entrances the viewer is the anxious movement in the paintings, the resistance to simple realism and replication. At times, Forrestall appears determined to break his lilies and pottery fragments down to the molecular level, to show the viewer the ceaseless but invisible movement that lurks under the stillest still life. The results are a unique collection of still life paintings that smash all sorts of expectations, capturing not one perfect instant but thousands and thousands of silent but feral moments.


I recently took part in a panel discussion with a distinguished and much smarter art critic who argued, among other things, that post-modernism’s emphasis on endless relativism has its limits – that, in fact, you can’t turn anything into art.

I still beg to differ, and here’s some proof: Andrew Harwood’s latest foray into pop culture reclamation, Trucks, finds art in the decidedly lowbrow world of 18-wheeled transportation by turning the greasy, sweat-stained iconography of truckers and their steeds into an opalescent dress up party, complete with sequins.

The focal point of this cultural highway pile up is Harwood’s collection of truck silhouettes, each playfully glazed in a heavenly patina of crushed glitter and varnish. The parti-coloured trucks catch sunlight faster than a Florida retiree (and look as gay as Key West), and when Harwood strings them together into glinting mobiles, well, even the meanest road warrior is charmed by the artist’s nutty audacity.

Of course, watching earthy trucker symbolism get turned into smart conceptual art automatically generates a thesis-worth of post-structuralist thoughts - but suppress your inner academic, please. Look up, marvel at the sparkly jewel tones, and smile.

James Huctwith
New Paintings
O’Connor Gallery 97 Maitland Street Until December 3
$1400 - $7500

William Forrestall
New Works
Kinsman Robinson Gallery 108 Cumberland Street Until November 30
$1,200 - $4000

Andrew Harwood
Melody Bar, Gladstone Hotel 1214 Queen Street West Until January 17
$150 to $2000

Saturday, November 06, 2004

The Big Picture 04

When Toronto playwright/director/actor Moynan King co-founded Hysteria: A Festival of Women last year, she figured the fortnight of films, music, performances and visual art would, like all new ventures, break even at best.

Instead, Hysteria turned out to be one of the biggest successes of King’s long career – playing to packed houses filled with women (and lots of men) hungry for art by and about women living the gamut of the female experience.

As no good deed goes unpunished, King was promptly asked to do the show again. The second volume of Hysteria is even larger than last year’s, making it the single largest festival of multi-disciplinary art by women in Canada. And this year, King has added more space for stationary visual art, partly in response to audience demand, and partly because she realized the first time around that women artists are still under-represented in mainstream galleries. Well, certain types of women artists.

“We do look for feminist and women-centred art,” King tells me in a rare moment of pre-festival calm, “which has become unfashionable lately. But, remember that we are a submission driven festival and something called “Hysteria: A Festival of Women” obviously draws women artists who are exploring women-centred subjects. Not that these artists are only doing that sort of work, but that this is a venue for them to present such work.”
So, what exactly is women-centred art?

“Hmm .. there’s no clear definition, but by “women-centred” I mean art that carries issues and ideas that are of interest to women – which are, of course, of interest to all humanity. ”

As galleries and artist-run centres increasingly turn away from so-called Identity Art - a style of art popularized in the last half of the last century that focused, often in a highly politicized fashion, on the personal experiences of minorities and the disenfranchised – in favour of banal minimalisms and detached conceptual art (much of which is largely content free, and thus critic proof), spaces for women artists who know that the feminist revolution is not over have shrunk to a handful of specialty venues, such as the Women’s Art Resource Centre or the leftist gallery A Space.

King sees Hysteria as a chance to bring some balance back to the gallery scene.
“Identity art is unfashionable because we supposedly live in a post feminist age, an age that is all about power through purchasing. As soon as you say “feminist”, it’s not a marketable concept, so the work gets set aside”

“But all anyone has to do is look around and she or he will know that we’re not living in an age when feminist issues are irrelevant – just look at the US election, where abortion and homosexual rights are major issues. But the marketing doctrine teaches that if you are really good, you’ll find a market, and therefore you don’t need a community. Artists, however, know that you need a community and, more important, your own power to make and present art work, to find an audience. “

Highlights from this year’s exhibition include Ingrid Jurik and Susan McElwain’s etchings of manhole covers from around the world, Juana Awad’s photo-constructions that look like a cross between fashion magazine layouts and personal scrapbooks, Pearl Van Geest’s lovely and luxurious “kiss paintings”, and the Edward Gorey-esque oddities of painter Stef Lenk.
The bumper crop, King explains, comes from the fact that Hysteria succeeds via networking between women artists and women-run companies. As she details how each artist arrived at Hysteria, a kind of cross-continental feminist geography unfolds.

“We got over 300 submissions this year, from every place imaginable, which is remarkable – and, to be blunt, we chose work we liked and that was the best of its kind. We also wanted art that strongly stated to the viewer that what they are seeing is art by women, women who are intelligent and inspiring.”

Inspiring to what end?

“There are no victims in Hysteria, only celebrants Anyone could argue that we don’t need a women’s festival. But what we do need is an active exchange of ideas in art to go on all the time – and in this case the primary exchange is between women.”

As the festival grows, King expects growing pains. The huge amount of work programmed for this year is stretching budgets and resources to paper thinness.

“Right now, we’re looking for new partners – especially visual arts organizations.”
But is there a danger of diluting the show’s core themes by expanding into the traditional gallery circuit?

“No,” King cheers, “there’s room for us to shift and change every year. All we want is to take over the city.”


Tien Chang’s paintings, like Chang himself, live in two worlds. Half traditional Chinese ink wash paintings and half Western abstraction, his works are remarkably fluid and succinct, given their cluttered bi-cultural inspirations.

Born in Taipei, Chang has lived exactly half his life in Toronto and half his life in Taiwan, but, apparently, all of his life perfecting his art. His latest exhibition, Essence of the Horse, is a gorgeous collection of ink and acrylic horse paintings that attempt to portray this metaphor-laden animal (a key creature in the Chinese Zodiac and the foremost beast in all of North America’s pioneer myths) from a double, two worlds perspective.

At times in these kinetic works - and one must speak of time in this context, as the paintings are full of movement and energy - the horses reference formalized liturgical practices in Chinese calligraphy painting, a practice defined by tradition and adherence to a complex code of brush strokes and blots, and yet in the same painting one finds hints of a more estranged and uncertain school of looking, of something borne from the West’s increasing distrust of representation.
Small wonder many of the works remind one of paintings by Francis Bacon, the master of alienation. That is, if Bacon had grown up with an ink stick in his hand (and a happier world view).

Although not part of the official Hysteria program, Andrea Ruth Gader’s textile discs resonate with feminine energy. Comprised of thousands of layers of burnt, folded, threaded and otherwise caressed fabric, each disc is embedded with the artist’s personal history (and sometimes body parts) - a history recorded, in classical feminist fashion, not in linear A to B lines but in interlocking, interdependent circles.

As mysterious as a mummy’s wrappings, Gader’s sculptures beg to be touched, to be read like growth rings on tree stumps or the bottoms of still ponds.

Hysteria: A Festival of Women
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre 12 Alexander Street
November 4-13

Tien Chang
Essence of the Horse
Fran Hill Gallery 230 Queen Street East
November 6 - 27

Andrea Ruth Gader
The Burston Gallery 1092 Queen Street West
November 4 - 28