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