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