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