Saturday, January 01, 2005

The Big Picture 12

According to a senior editor I know - one of those whisky-soaked, barking J. Jonah Jameson types straight out of central casting - nothing is a more certain sign of lazy journalism than a year-end Best Of list.

Fine, so now I’m lazy. Thanks a lot.

All I do is give, give, give to you people and I’m not allowed to have one week off, one week to myself, one week when I don’t have to think about you and your art and your career and ….

Sound like post-Xmas dialogue around your wilting family tree? I’d hate to break any holiday traditions.

2004 was, like any year in art, a mixed bag. I saw some truly wonderful exhibitions, and some exhibitions that were less visually interesting than a kittens-and –monster-trucks calendars kiosk at the Dufferin Mall.

The worst sort of shows, however, were the ones I’d place somewhere in the middle – exhibitions that lazily bumbled their way onto the walls, coasting on either the artist’s already established fame or on an easy but ultimately defeating style of curation I call the flea market effect (i.e. clutter the gallery with enough stuff and some of it has to be good).

There is room (ample room) in this city’s scene for greatness, and a gracious amount of space for spectacular failure, but with Toronto facing a gallery glut, there’s no time or money left for half-hearted attempts. Shine or stink, but please don’t slouch.

But let’s celebrate the wondrous. I’ll leave the Worst Of lists to journalists who don’t have to go out in public and face their targets. And why start the year off with bad news, images of carnage and smashed hopes? That’s what television is for.

Here, then, are my favourite art moments from 2004. Like Oprah, I’m spending New Year’s Day pouring over my Gratitude Journal. Can I have my own magazine now?


Lex Vaughn’s wacky installation Peanut Brittle, a tribute to all things codgerish, pensioned-off and reeking of Old Spice, was the most fully realized work of art of 2004. Vaughn not only crafted a series of aptly sketchy portraits of elderly dandies, she re-created an impoverished old man’s apartment in the gallery - complete with toothbrush, dog-eared titty mags, and a bent back cot.

To top it off, Vaughn spent the entire run of her show inhabiting the space in character as “Uncle Peanut Brittle”, a prattling retiree who liked to corner visitors and suck them into long, incoherent conversations. I hope she videotaped their reactions.

Vaughn’s love of her subject matter, her conviction that lost old men actually carry a kind of innate dignity and even style, made Peanut Brittle, both character and exhibition, much more than a mean spirited stunt or easy bit of Second City style caricature. And artists who immerse themselves in the worlds they explore to the point where you can’t tell the difference between artist and subject will always fascinate me – perhaps because I’m a bit of a drag queen myself.
I would like to see this exhibition remounted, in a larger space with funding that would enable Vaughn to fully realize her character’s run down but still kicking world; to build a Peanut Brittle World, with rides in ancient Cadillacs and home haircuts.
And, no, Vaughn and I are not related. Lucky her.


For pure bizarre fun, nothing came close to Mykola Syadristy’s Micro-Art: Ten Microminiature Sculptures, an exhibition of sculptures made from such Whoville materials as a single human hair, a lotus seed, and, literally, the head of a pin.

On display at the CNE, complementing the giant dahlias and prize winning super hogs, these freakish wonders revived my faith in art to make people oow and aww. Of course the sculptures were tacky – atom sized heads of the Pope, Lilliputan chess sets moulded in gold and silver, an ivory rose inserted into a hair follicle – but, this was on display at the CNE, not the National Gallery.

What surprised me most about this show was the response I got after I first wrote about it. “It’s not art”, I was scolded. Or, “It’s pointless”.

Tell that to the uniformed hordes lined up to gaze at the unimaginable.


Fargo Deborah Whitman is not a household name, yet, but the American artist better known for her brave “coming out” as a person with Multiple Personality Disorder deserves more attention – especially for her actual art.

I was asked to interview Whitman on stage during her appearance in Toronto and I think I’ve developed a crush. As forthright as a farmer, Whitman talks about not only the challenges of making her way around the world with MPD, but, and more to the point, the joys of making art with all of her various personalities as collaborators.

Much has been theorized in the last decade about the inherently dissociative state that fuels the creative process, and Whitman is said state incarnate. As she put it, “all artists have multiple personalities – some of us are just lucky enough to learn their names.”


Finally, a moment of regret (what’s New Year’s without a bit of self abuse?). Sometime in August I was peddling down Queen Street West and spied an elderly lady selling her art on the sidewalk.

One of her paintings depicted two owls sitting on a branch in the moonlight, and was, well, poorly executed by any standard. Yet, there was something about the painting, something in the way the artist had obviously painted and repainted the owl’s feathers, trying to get them just right, that I found inspiring – and not because the artist was a cute old lady or because I am prone to romanticizing so-called “outsider artists”.

The layers of underpainting made the feathers appear to move, like a lenticular photograph. Why didn’t I buy the painting? The artist wanted what I thought was too much money (and was really not much more than the cost of a CD). I let my stupid, gallery-bred notions of price – that false math of venue times name value of the artist – decide for me, and I haven’t seen the lady since.

That will not happen in 2005.