Saturday, December 25, 2004

The Big Picture 11

Tomorrow is Christmas Day - or, as I like to call it, The Day of the Long Knives. If you have the time to read this newspaper, you are either highly organized and have been ready for Santa since August (and will be punished, if not in this life), or are a total slob who, sometime late tomorrow afternoon, will toss a set of knotted, CSA-challenged mini-lights over the rubber tree and go back to bed (how I envy you), or are not a Christian (ditto).

Whatever you do, as soon as it’s dark you’ll notice that no matter what amount of effort you’ve put into the holiday, somebody in your neighbourhood has gone Christmas crazy and made your cheery, tasteful assembly of twinklies, tree and candles look as barren as the bottom of a discount bin at 5pm on December 27th.

You know who I’m talking about: the guy three doors down with the animatronic, fairy-lit deer on his lawn, the kind that play, and dance to, 32 different non-stop carols; the woman down the hall who strings real (and highly poisonous) holly over the elevator door; the elderly couple with the life size Nativity scene on the roof. These people don’t decorate, they annex - the front of their homes look like the keel of the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
How I admire their nerve. I was raised in a typical United Church Canadian family, among people who believed that Christmas was not a time to show off – it was a time to put two dollars in an envelope for the poor children of Bangladesh and be grateful for your canned cranberries. Besides, in rural New Brunswick, slathering your shingles in electricity-hungry lights was not only considered pushy, it was actually unsafe. Only people with homes really worth robbing put Rudolph on the roof.

But today, thanks to Chinese prison labour, anybody can deck the halls for a couple of bucks. I’ve found strings of lights going for 60 cents. And a plastic Santa as fat as a Corgi is cheaper than a Toberlone bar. Excess has been democratized by cheap imports, and this has lead to a home decorating phenomenon I like to call Rococo Noel.

The key element of Rococo Noel is, of course, lighting. Lots of lighting, in lots of colours. Outdoor lighting you can read by. Not to be confused with the Yule Formalist style – wherein every light is hung straight across a plinth, gable or banister, in perfect symmetry and all in one colour (hateful, truly hateful) – Rococo Noel lighting emphasizes maximum impact at the expense of normative notions of order, composition, or WASPish good taste.

Many Rococo Noel lighting treatments can’t properly be said to be hung at all – they are merely wrapped, or, better yet, taped with silver duct tape, around the nearest branch or window frame. The point is to get as many lights up as quickly as possible – if the gnarled web of cords looks messy, who cares? Nobody looks at Christmas lights in the daytime.

The second sure sign of an RN enthusiast is an abundance of lawn sculpture, which can be roughly broken down into two types: liturgical and magical (although die hard RN-ists mix both freely).

Liturgical lawn sculpture typically commemorates the birth of Jesus, with Mary, Joseph and the rest of the bedazzled gang swarming around the glowing cradle. Not very original, granted - but fear not, Rococo Noel subscribers rarely play by the rules. Store bought Nativities come with, what, 6 pieces max? The Holy Family and a three bystanders? Sounds like a challenge to me.
RN houses add value to the traditional measly manger set up by tossing in plastic farm animals, always way off scale (the toy cows and sheep as big as baby JC’s fist always fill me with glee, as there is an implied sacrilege in the faulty perspective, in Jesus’s inhuman gigantism), lawn sculptures poached from other seasons – the doubled over, ass-out gardening granny comes in handy, as will an axe-wielding garden gnome or African American fishing boy, but I swear I’ve seen Halloween ghosts and unshaven drunks holding up lampposts hovering over Our Lord – and, if all else fails, plastic flowers.

When an RN family goes all out, they mix the Nativity with the North Pole and create magical landscapes, psychedelic dream worlds where Santa’s elves bring toys to Saint Joseph, the Wise Men arrive on Rudolph’s back, and the Herald Angels cavort with Frosty in the back of the fat man’s sleigh like drunk ho’s in a pimp ride. Why not, it’s the season of miracles isn’t it?
My friends who collect sightings of Rococo Noel houses have noted that equatorial themes have entered the mix in the last decade, undoubtedly another benefit of multiculturalism. Dollar store lizards, butterflies and neon coloured snakes have been spotted on Santa’s lap, and one keen observer even found a crèche populated by Rastafarians. Last year I saw a life size plastic Asian Santa for sale on Spadina, complete with dragons and phoenixes in his bag of goodies.

Imagine the envy Saigon Santa would prompt in my Portuguese neighbourhood, the ground zero of Rococo Noel in Toronto, where it’s not uncommon for people to glue gun their kids’ beat up dolls and chewed dinosaurs onto plastic trees, or stick a crucifix behind poor Mary’s head (a perhaps insensitive but theologically sound gesture).

Whatever the ingredients, Rococo Noel always conveys a hint of aggression, a defiant notice to one’s neighbours that the inhabitants behind the spectacle are living the holidays on their own terms, with their own creativity as the guiding force - damn the washed out flicker of eco-friendly LED lights and the tasteful understatement of window treatments purchased whole from the flower shop.

You’ve got the rest of the year to be boring, these houses shout. Your house deserves a little drink or five too.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

The Big Picture 10

A funny thing happened on my way through Drue Langlois’s new exhibition. While I stood there scribbling incoherent thoughts, trying to process Langlois’s madcap assembly of pop culture references, in walked a Prominent Art Critic.

We both instantly realized that although there was lots to talk about on the walls, the last thing we’d do is actually talk about what was on the walls – who, to use a sports analogy (God help me), would tee off first? And, as Langlois’s work poses so many questions, once the game of slice and tease began would we ever get off the course?

The one thing we did agree on, by accident, was that we both remembered the Queen album cover (the one featuring a giant, menacing grey robot) that Langlois references in a particularly jarring painting. But the sharing and caring stopped there - my friend’s Queen memories were markedly different than my nostalgia for the secret gay messages found in Freddy Mercury’s monkey-forearm mustache.

This sort of twofold response is not surprising, given that Langlois’s works juxtapose a universalized teen culture against intimate narratives of dreams and nightmares. But unlike many of his contemporaries, artists whose concept of integrating pop culture into their personal narratives is limited to the act of inserting themselves, with a knowing smirk, into the visual language of the familiar source material – Mike Holboom’s Hollywood cut and paste diaries, clever but shallow moments of literal projection onto mainstream cinema, come to mind – Langlois re-invents his source material, giving even the most played out, overly familiar junk art (album covers, comic book and pulp illustration, sci-fi/superhero lore) a new and lurid sheen.
Of the works in the current show, I found the watercolours more effective than the oils. There is something light and non-committal about the watercolours, something of the sketch, the happy accident of a dashed off doodle, that perfectly matches Langlois’s druggy free associating.

The oils, on the other hand, are too loaded with consideration, too important and heavy, to let Langlois’s fancy take flight. The sense of menace that pervades many of the works in either medium – a bum sits on a park bench feeding bread to a flock of alien bird children, an egg carton is filled with shattered cat heads – is made even more malevolent by the watercolours’ childish crayon box colours and light, nursery room glow. Imagine Winnie The Pooh cartoons done by Tim Burton.

Unfortunately, the same conflation of Grimm and giddy in Langlois’s laboriously painted oils just overstates the case. While the watercolours look like a suburban basement version of William Blake’s shaggy ink and wash visions, the oils are at times as rigid as a fill-in-the-blanks Doodle Art poster.

If you’re going to rattle chains down dark halls, sneak up with a light step.


Everybody loves John Scott, including me. He is the Allen Ginsberg of Canadian art, howling back at injustice and malevolence with a righteous fury, brush sword in flaming hand. And, like many a prophet before him, every single scrap of his work, every thread from his robe and lock of his hair, is yours for the money.

I don’t blame any artist for getting whatever he or she can get for whatever he or she can unload, but sometimes when an artist is as beloved as John Scott, a kind of collecting mania sets in and all issues of curatorial restraint become non-issues.

A few years ago I was asked to baby sit a gallery for an afternoon and, naturally, I snooped. The proprietors had thousands of John Scott’s drawings in stock, including half finished works done on scrap paper and napkins. “It’s all gold”, I was told. The funny thing about gold is, the more you wear the cheaper it looks.

A well-intentioned exhibition of new works by John Scott at Nicholas Metivier Gallery proves the point. While there are some stunning pieces on display, works that rank among Scott’s best in years, there are also a lot of also-rans, works that appear to be toss offs or studies from the more finished pieces. Arm chair curating is an indulgent sport – for all I know, Scott himself chose to over-exhibit – but this show could have been half as big and twice as good. But, it is the season of excess.

On the bright side, the great stuff resting in between the merely very good stuff is worth the sorting. Scott’s large multimedia works – disturbing, apocalyptic views of winged monsters roaring across desolate landscapes, an especially beautiful (and very topical, given the Missile Defence debate) painting of a coal black Stealth bomber ripping through the clouds like a shark smelling blood, and a rather loving portrait of physicist Stephen Hawking popping wheelies in his chair – are treasures, complex and layered worlds made of plain black paint and crumpled paper.

My favourite piece is the editorial cartoon style portrait of the ever-controversial Lord Black. Black’s face is spherical, a South Park balloon head, and his eyes are mysteriously shut, causing us to wonder if he is oblivious to the response his portly visage prompts, or obliterating that response? Is Black arrogant and unseeing, or serene and Buddha like? You decide.


When it landed at my door with a thud, Caught in the Act: an Anthology of Performance Art by Canadian Women struck me as an odd venture. A phone book sized collection of essays about performance art makes about as much sense as a musical about algebra.
However, editors Tanya Mars and Johanna Householder, two ground breaking grande dames of performance art who oughtta, and do, know all about it, have selected lively, jargon-free essays that complement the playful and populist works discussed - works created during performance art’s more theatrical, less academic first wave (roughly, the late 60’s to the mid 80’s).

Who knew, for instance, that Toronto artist Paulette Phillips, best known today for her pensive, quiet, very mature video works, spent the early 80’s dressed in various disguises, bothering people on street corners? Or that another venerable duchess of Toronto art, Vera Frenkel, became famous in the 70’s for staging elaborate, and decidedly silly, costume pantomimes, complete with experimental poetry and hockey gear?

Caught in the Act makes me feel better about some of the work I made in my twenties, especially that all-lesbian version of The Little Rascals, starring Sky Gilbert as the ghost of Fassbinder and …. never mind.

Caught in the Act
YYZ Books $39.95

John Scott
Nicholas Metivier Gallery 451 King Street West
Until December 31
$18,000 to $850

Drue Langlois
True Flatness
Katherine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects
1080 Queen Street West Until January 2, 2005
$2,200 to $95

Saturday, December 11, 2004

The Big Picture 09

While the rest of the world was getting over the anticlimax of Y2K (I had a long list of items I intended to acquire during the riots I was promised), the Japanese were flocking to a bizarre teen slasher movie entitled Battle Royale. The premise of the film is simple enough, a cross between Survivor and Lord of the Flies – take a bunch of hormonal teens, put them on an abandoned island, and let the gouging begin!

What struck me most about this otherwise unremarkable film was the Japanese concept of dangerous youthful rebellion. Set in a not too remote future, Battle Royale shows us a Japan where teens have “run amok”, forcing the government to inflict harsh punishments (such as banishment to an abandoned island full of psychopaths) – the funny part is, “amok” is defined as “not doing homework” and “not listening to parents”. My parents would have increased my allowance if that was the extent of my teen rampaging. It doesn’t take much to be a bad-ass at Tokyo High.

What, one wonders, would the fascistic minders from Battle Royale make of the kids pictured in Shoichi Aoki’s Fruits, an exhibition of photographs of wacky Tokyo street fashions? Time to gear up that desolate island.

Taken over a period of ten years, the images in Fruits offer a glimpse into the anxious underbelly of urban Japanese life that even smarter North American travelogues like Lost In Translation fail to notice: a peek into a culture so pressured by notions of obedience and propriety that it forces young people to adopt outlandish, indeed clownish fashions in order to assert their individuality.

But to compare Aoki’s subjects to 1970’s punks, the teen faction they most resemble, at least superficially, is to miss the point. These kids are not dressing for discontent – in fact, it’s the opposite. They look like happy toddlers who’ve been permitted to clothe themselves, not nihilists.

The style itself is certainly original, a cross between Tickle Trunk and bag lady. The brightly coloured baby doll dresses and snowsuits are awash in pinks, powder blues and electric greens. Ensembles are over-accessorized with toys and kindergarten labels - the ubiquitous pink terror Hello Kitty, a sure sign of the coming of the Antichrist, grimaces like a demon, as does the ever-creepy Barbie - and the kids pile layer upon layer until you wonder how they can move (a sign, I was once told by a social worker, that a young person is attempting to negate his/her sexuality, to literally smother their budding pubescence).

This everything-in-the-bombed-closet look is the polar opposite of your older brother’s carefully feathered long hair with Led Zeppelin tee-shirt statement, or your own androgynous Flock of Seagulls coif and black nail polish drag. There is no undercurrent of self destruction in the Tokyo style, nor any hint of radical gender transgression. And the whole presentation looks too considered, too aware of its own ridiculousness, to compare to the laid back, Vancouver hemp activist shtick, which is (allegedly) all about not caring how you look.

Rather, what these kids are telling their parents is that if they are not going to be permitted to make their own decisions, to become adults, then they will rebel by simply never growing up. And what could be more terrifying to a middle class parent than a child who stays five years old for life, who won’t ever move out and get a job? Leave it to the Japanese to invent a better youth quake.


Feeling Christmassy but not, you know, Santa and Silent Night and Tim Allen movie Christmassy?

Love the pretty colours, the parties, and the smell of eggnog, but hate and loathe to the point that you wish you were Hassidic the cheesy family claptrap of Christmas? Do you cherish the look of old Peanuts cartoons, the moody gloom of A Christmas Carol (Alastair Sym version) and the tinny shine of vintage ornaments, but despise icicle lights, those grotesque inflatable snowmen and anything combining the words “holiday special” and “Jessica Simpson”?

Do you crave a bit of elegance and thought with your Yuletide tide? Then be sure to stop a moment on your Queen West shopping crawl and bathe in the amber, haunted warmth of Christy Thompson’s understated holiday installation Lodge.

Set in a narrow window between Dufflet’s Pastries and a clothing store, Lodge combines deer antlers, electric candles and pearly beads in a delicate candelabra that references all things Dec 25th – reindeer, sparkling dinner tables, strings of garland – without beating the already abused viewer over the head. A tumble of hushed ivories and dying ember yellows, Thompson’s spooky ornament (the antlers are from dead deer, after all) is as quiet and mysterious as Christmas Eve after midnight, when all the pulsing green and red mini-lites are turned off.


With every gallery in town hocking budget-priced art to tease the gift giver, why not break away from the usual prints ‘n pastels selection and buy your art presents at a toy store?

Magic Pony, a new store that specializes in screwball (but high end) toys and figurines from Japan, is hosting the Toronto stop of the touring show Plustastrophe! – a collection of plush toys made by local and international artists, many of them influenced by Japanese manga and anime.
Some of these fuzzy creatures are downright ghoulish. Cyclops monsters made of soft felt, creatures with multiple fun fur heads, freakishly proportioned animals caste in cloth, specimens from the petri dish rendered in fabric – in other words, the perfect gifts for that niece you’re trying to wean off Bratz, or that youngest son, the bookish one who likes show tunes.

Among the local plush delights are Seth Scriver’s popular, amoeba-like wool sock monsters and a selection of sinister, rail thin animals by Tara Azzopardi, who apparently thinks that if animals can drive cars and go to school, like Rupert the Bear, then they can smoke and drink coffee too.
Hand sewn with a babushka’s loving attention to detail, Azzopardi’s delightfully grim beasties will keep the cat out of the Christmas tree.

Magic Pony Gallery
785 Queen Street West Until Jan 2
$25 - $300

Shoichi Aoki
Edward Day Gallery
952 Queen Street West
Until January 5

Christy Thompson
Solo Exhibition 787 Queen Street West
Until December 25

Saturday, December 04, 2004

The Big Picture 08

Whenever you read the words “Canada Council for the Arts” and “outrage” in the same sentence, it’s usually because some backbencher in Ottawa has decided to make political hay over the Council’s decision to fund a work of art too offensive to be replicated on a book tote or souvenir coaster - which is exactly why the Council is so vital to our national culture.

Lately, however, the outrage is coming from the artists themselves, even the inoffensive ones.
To go into detail over the contretemps between the Council and artists (i.e. the folks without whom the Council would not exist in the first place) would take more ink than I care to spill. My life is simply too precious to waste parsing the Kremlin-like doublespeak of Council bureaucrats, and you’d all stop reading by about the second sentence.

So, the crux of the controversy is this: the Council is proposing to radically alter how it funds artists by changing the core purpose of funding from sponsoring creativity to sponsoring the making of sellable products. Under this proposal, grants to artists will be tied to the artist’s ability to prove that he or she already has an agreement with an established commercial or publicly-funded gallery to show the work in question.

This bizarre idea - akin to asking novelists to produce contracts with publishers before they write chapter one, or telling athletes that they must already be part of the Olympic team before they can begin pole vaulting - goes against everything even a kindergarten finger painter knows about the vagaries of the creative process. Binding the artistic impulse to a cash nexus will create a nation of hacks, not innovators. As one open letter puts it, the proposed change “marks a fundamental and disturbing shift towards supporting product over practice.”

Why the Council is entertaining this pay-to-play scheme is the source of much speculation in the community. I polled several artists from across the country (all of whom only agreed to speak undercover, fearing a black mark in the Council’s legendary doomsday book), and the theories offered ranged from the probable to the conspiratorial.

On the likely side is the theory that the Council wants to get out of the business of peer assessment (juries of artists deciding which artists get funding), and that this pre-screening process, which allows gallery directors to act as ad hoc jury members, is just the first step. Bureaucrats, after all, protect their power, and juries of artists are notoriously difficult to control.

The wildest theory is that the Council is trying to make itself politically fireproof in an increasingly conservative Ottawa. If the Council funds a project that is later deemed offensive, the theory goes, they can always cover their Obusforme-propped backsides with the assertion that the offending work was pre-commissioned by a commercial gallery. What conservative politician would argue against the mighty free market?

In its defence, the Council has said that no final decisions will be made until the consultation process is complete (and yet, so far, they’ve ignored all the valid concerns brought up during recent public sessions in the west). The Council also claims that the changes are in response to funding shortages - but how altering the raison d’etre of funding will save any money has not been made clear. Funny how whenever the Council pleads poverty, they never get around to capping their own salaries or administration costs. Even the lowest clerk at the council lives like royalty compared to the artists I write about.

Full disclosure: I recently applied for Council funding to complete a book. If my paranoid friends are right, come Monday morning my humble application will be crammed behind a photocopier (again).

Multimedia artist Nina Levitt’s wonderful new exhibition, Little Breeze, is a potent reminder of how much women sacrificed in WWII and how much of that sacrifice still remains unheralded.
Taking as her cue the stories of Allied female spies, the majority of whom faced torture and execution at the hands of the Nazis, Levitt has created a quiet but unnerving film and sound spectacle that evokes both the shrouded world of the “lady spy” and the subsequent, unjust enshrouding of their brave deeds.

As you enter the darkened gallery, you’re confronted by a large screen projecting a haunting series of obscured snapshots from the 1940’s. The young female faces on the screen continually disappear and reform inside streams of confounding code, behind seemingly random chains of words and numbers. Who are these women?

Once inside the gallery, you are instructed to pick up a battered suitcase, which triggers a sound clip from a Hollywood spy film, and, when opened, causes the screen to play a clip from the film. As you move from suitcase to suitcase, you gradually learn the history of Violette Szabo, a British spy who began working against the Nazis at the age of 23 and was later the subject of a popular 1958 film.

In a second room, facts about Szabo and her colleagues (all but one of whom was executed), are assembled in chillingly blunt strips of plain type.

By mixing archival materials with glamorous Hollywood treatments (let’s face it, most of us get our history lessons from Hollywood), and then burying all the assembled materials in layers of opaque code, Levitt invites us to play historian with (spy on?) Violette’s underplayed story. On a deeper level, Levitt also demonstrates how the daring works of women during wartime only grab mass attention when romanticized under Klieg lights.

A thoughtful and provocative work, Little Breeze deserves a larger audience. National War Museum, are you listening?


Luft Gallery, the hole in the wall that started the Ossington Avenue revival, is closing shop. I would be sad if I wasn’t so distracted by the fantastic last show, a collection of strange drawings and installations by the young artist Adele Chong.

Looking like a cross between a toddler’s crayon attack and a sci-fi graphic novel, Chong’s pencil, ink, masking tape and collage monstrosities (and I mean that in a good way) are the painterly equivalent of a creeping, prickly fungus – you feel like touching the fuzzy tendrils, but wonder if it’s safe.

If a gallery has to close, it’s best to go out with a Blob.

Nina Levitt
Little Breeze
Doris McCarthy Gallery, University of Toronto at Scarborough
1265 Military Trail Until December 19

Adele Chong
The Scenic Route
Luft Gallery 63 Ossington Ave Until December 18
$225 - $800