Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Big Picture 20

Enough already about Christo’s New York drapery stunt. We have one of the smartest textile artists around right here in Toronto - and nobody ever tripped and broke a leg over one of Janet Morton’s friendly installations.

You may remember Morton’s now-famous “tea cozy house”, a home invasion on Toronto Island that involved hundreds of knit together white sweaters, a cute little cottage, and limitless patience. Or perhaps you saw her giant black yarn tree, or her collection of kitchen implements covered in tweed? A Magritte in granny afghans, Morton takes every alleged rule about the division between craft and art and tosses them into her merry sewing kit.

Morton’s latest works, a series of large wall hangings made of stitched-together paper UPS codes, makes me wonder if there is any material, any scrap of consumerist flotsam, that Morton can’t turn into art?

The showpiece of this collection is Morton’s wall-sized map of the United States, a cartography of shopping pleasure. The US didn’t invent conspicuous consumption, but, as Americans like to say about war, even if they don’t start one, they’ll finish it. Morton’s reconfiguration of the US as a crazy-quilt of products is not the first such vision of the nation, but she adds a hint of ambiguity to her ostensible critique of American excess - embroidered within the map’s heartland is the word “trust”, stitched in almost invisible black thread.

Hmmm. Trust. As in “In God We Trust”, and thus the cynical reply “In Shopping We Trust”? Or, is Morton implying that North American prosperity is comforting, a safe buffer from hardship (a good nine tenths of the world would agree with that)? Perhaps, the act of buying, of exchanging hard earned money for desired goods, is an inherently trusting activity – we suppose, after all, that when we buy a chocolate bar that it is made of chocolate.

That Morton intentionally clouds the message of her US map, obstructs an easy, knee jerk greed-is-bad/America-is-greedy reading, shows that underneath all the wacky antics with dumpster finds lurks art that is as intellectually challenging as it is physically impressive, as thoughtful as it is tactile.

May we have a map of Canada now? With beer labels and bilingual milk carton tops that say “spout-bec”?


A while back, I wrote about local artists’ web sites. Naturally, I’ve been deluged since then with suggestions about other art sites – some of them wonderful, many of them little more than the equivalent of family snap shot homepages.

Of the bunch I’ve explored, Tank TV is the most impressive. A collection of very short videos from around the world, Tank TV is a forum for artists who make digital films that are meant to be viewed as installation works (i.e. they are not necessarily narrative).

The works on Tank TV rotate monthly, so hurry to the computer or you may miss Boris Du Boullay’s deadpan cake-in-the-face clip, Guido Braun’s loving tribute to a posse of adorably rude, pooping, snorting and butt-sniffing pug dogs, Myriam Thyes’s vertigo-inducing glass elevator ride, or Sissu Tarka’s screwball split screen tribute to the great Harpo Marx. And these are only a handful of the two dozen mini films available for free.

Although Tank TV is an off shoot of London’s Tank Magazine, a fashion and culture rag that has always struck me as somewhat flimsy, the website is not plagued by overly slick fashion projects or theory-addled designers jerking off with digital cameras – the videos are playful, sometimes cerebral, and, at worst, interesting failures. Besides, you can always click off the Quicktime panel if a particular film is annoying.

To gain access to Tank TV, you will need a high speed connection, and if you have a pop-up blocker, shut it off or the small screen that shows the videos won’t, well, pop up. All art should be this fast and easy.


Like Janet Morton, fibre artist Libby Hague spins base materials into gold. Her paper hangings on display at Loop Gallery are a true marvel, a suite of elaborate tapestries as delicate and sumptuous as wedding dresses.

How exactly Hague does what she does I can’t guess. The hangings appear to be made in layers – first the paper is adorned with intricate wood block prints, then the dyed strips are cut into thin, precisely cut strings (I’m guessing with a laser, because the only human hands that steady are attached to dead people), then these strands are woven together, like macramé without the knots.

The result is a wall-length, three-dimensional curtain that shimmers with life and energy. The central image of the tapestry, a cityscape dotted with flying gymnasts, black cats, and buzz saw medallions, is equally magical – if Hague had done only half the work and displayed plain woodcuts, I’d be applauding the lively, sometimes folksy lines of her prints and the soft jewel tones she coaxes from the inks and creamy papers.

Across the floor from Hague’s fluttering wonders is a series of complementary paintings by Yael Brotman, who also knows how to make paper dance. Brotman’s exhibition is comprised of a handful of India ink and acrylic paintings of chandeliers and light fixtures, appropriately infused with a warm chalky glow, and a long chain of tiny, quirky paintings on square wood blocks.

At first glance, I thought the chandeliers and blocks must be by different artists, but Brotman’s base technique – melding competing materials such as opaque inks and translucent latex – gradually connects the otherwise disparate works, harmonizing what might have been an awkwardly curated combo. You just have to pay attention to the details.

And what details, especially in the wood block paintings, which border on the cartoonish (in a good way). Animals, gods and monsters skip across these dainty canvases with glee, each one painted as if it were a large canvas boiled down to fit in the palm. The effect of this long line of tiny worlds is somewhat like looking through a Viewmaster, where one perfectly composed diorama follows the next.

An anal-retentive’s dream show, the Hague-Brotman experience may cause you to leave Loop Gallery with a slight eye twitch and the sudden desire to re-arrange your sock drawer.

Janet Morton
“Trust” and “Weather Warning”
Paul Petro Contemporary Art 980 Queen Street West
Until March 5

Tank TV
videos change monthly

Libby Hague
Everything needs everything
Yael Brotman
Off in the distance
Loop Gallery 1174 Queen Street West
Until February 27

Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Big Picture 19

Several years ago, when I was a columnist with a humble Toronto weekly, I predicted a Queen East art revival (granted, it was predicated on only one gallery, Fran Hill, but you gotta start somewhere). Seven years later, of course, all the big money newspapers are talking about Queen East’s new restaurants, new galleries, new shopping, and new, ahem, “vibe”.

Back off, I was there first! I feel just like Nikola Tesla, or Madonna in the 80’s – ahead of my time and prone to frizzy hair.

Case in Queen East point – a bountiful new charity exhibition at the scrappy Eastern Front Gallery, a space that prides itself on a micro-local stable and clientele. The exhibition, Fragile Boundaries, features over fifty artists, the majority of them fellow east enders, selling small works (under $500), with half the sales money going to Save The Children Canada’s tsunami relief .

That Eastern Front can bring so many artists together when the gallery itself is barely in its first year, and then convince said artists to hand over valuable stock, is proof that the Queen East revival is walking the walk.

Director and curator Gillian Willans describes Fragile Boundaries as not only a worthy charity show, but a kind of primer on the new eastern scene.

“Many of the artists showing here are emerging or show outside of the established gallery scene, and because they live in the same neighbourhood, there are some commonalities between the works. It’s subtle, but you can see a kind of East End style emerging. Not to say that everyone here is a new, untried artist – we have some very experienced people in the show as well – but this is maybe the first time that even the more senior artists have shown in an exhibition that is so focused on and in our community.”

Adds Carolyn Megill, a contributing artist whose slinky, iridescent painting of an orange cocktail dress was a highlight of the previous show, “This neighbourhood transformation will happen very quickly. First the galleries and cafes come in, then the clothing stores, and then the high-end restaurants.”

“But,” she reminds me, “artists have always lived in this neighbourhood. It’s a working class community, and the rents are cheaper. I think we’ll be able to grow here without ruining the area with excessive gentrification. The working class heritage is too strong to turn us into Yorkville or Bloor West Village.”

Before anyone starts quoting Jane Jacobs, let’s focus on the actual work for sale in Fragile Boundaries. To use a retail and sexual cliché, there is something here for everyone: from straight-on portraits and wintry landscapes to block-and-grid abstracts that look like Ikea bed spreads.

Highlights include Bill Wrigley’s sad-sweet paintings of abandoned and bent tricycles, an eerie, chartreuse and kiwi green-saturated print of a baby’s dress by Susan Fothergill, and a coven of ghoulish, chalk-faced babushka/voodoo dolls hand made by Irina Schestakowich. I may be overstating the grim subtexts of these works, but I couldn’t help but be reminded that the exhibition is a benefit for children who’ve been made suddenly and very keenly aware of the fragility of their existence. You can’t sugar coat a tidal wave.

“The only criteria for donations,” Willans says, “was an affordable price. It’s not really a “tsunami theme” show. The point is to sell good work and raise money.”

By the looks of things, that will be no problem.


One of the few pleasures of middle-aged homosexuality is the acidic delight one takes in utterly destroying up and coming, younger and prettier fellow travellers. Therefore, I hereby issue a fatwah on angel faced Will Munro - artist, party promoter, DJ, and now, most unforgivable, poet (again, back off my turf!).

Munro’s new window installation, No Tears for the Creatures of the Night, is a mysterious semi-haiku carved in eye-popping, lipstick pink neon – a simple but visually disruptive moment of punkish glam plunked in the middle of a downtown shopping strip overpopulated with beige home décor stores.

Munro describes the sculpture as an homage to the queer sexual revolution of the late 70’s (what we might call the Rocky Horror-Carol Pope nexus): a revolution that, ironically, was fought locally on the very same strip now dominated by the aforementioned vase-and-ottoman stores. So, not only is Munro branching out into language-based art, he’s cleverly co-opting my queer history (he was a mere toddler when I first glued my hair into a Mohawk with KY gel and Ivory soap).

This means war.


I can’t verify that photographer Elise Rasmussen has seen David Lynch’s masterpiece Mulholland Drive, but her filme noire-ish new works The Night Series reminded me so much of the headlight-lit opening scene in Lynch’s film that I re-experienced the movie’s archly cultivated sense of languid menace, of being in a world where the beautiful and the dangerous are identical.

Not that The Night Series is derivative. There is something especially rural Ontario looking about Rasmussen’s flashlight visions of Queen Anne’s lace seed pods and cedar lined country roads. Her careful articulation of night-engulfed grassy fields and overgrown lanes, landscapes turned at once familiar and alien by the neutralizing lack of light, is a masterful balancing act. The shrouded and the spotlighted plant life in these photos move like schools of fish darting before a diver’s lamp, and the obliterating swathes of midnight black that surround the vegetation are as shiny as new patent leather.

I don’t know where these pictures were taken, but I’ve been down that road.


If you like films about artists (and who doesn’t? Pollock was the best comedy of 2001), Canadian Art magazine is sponsoring a mini film-fest of documentaries about artists’ lives, artists’ neuroses, artists’ sex kicks, and, one supposes, their actual art. Gerhard Richter, Robert Fones, Louise Bourgeois, Francis Bacon - now there’s a couples flick, if they’re into S/M - and a half dozen others all get the up-close, warts and watercolours treatment. Arm rests will be provided for you brooding skull-clutchers and your sleepy dates.

Fragile Boundaries
Eastern Front Gallery 750A Queen Street East
Until February 27

Will Munro
No Tears for the Creatures of the Night
Solo Exhibition 787 Queen Street West
Until February 23

Elise Rasmussen
The Night Series
Ryerson Gallery 80 Spadina Avenue, suite 305
Until February 26

Canadian Art Film Series
Royal Cinema 608 College Street various times
February 25-27

Saturday, February 12, 2005

The Big Picture 18

Multimedia artist Luis Jacob is Toronto’s answer to Rip Taylor.

Perpetually adorned in sparkles and sequins, even in mid afternoon (Jacob calls this “day drag”), the relentlessly bubbly Jacob arrives with a jig and a wail and exits in a blaze of brocade and perfumed feathers. The curious thing is, underneath all the confetti he’s a very serious artist.

Jacob’s latest project, a limited edition silk screen print entitled “Flashlight”, perfectly encapsulates the artist’s two sides.

At first glance, “Flashlight” is a pleasingly colourful, but not especially provocative homage to playgrounds and childish monkeyshines. The core image is of a group of children playing on a geodesic dome jungle gym. What could be more innocent? The background colour is a rich, Easter egg purple, the slogan “Everybody’s got a little light under the sun” is rendered in silvery disco pixels, and the entire print is covered in a limey turquoise bubble pattern. “Flashlight” looks like the kind of inspirational poster grade three teachers place over their desks, beside the Hang In There kitty.

“Yes, it’s very child-centred,” Jacob tells me, “which is how I wanted it to look. But there are other things going on.”

Hmmmm. Now, I know that the print is being sold by Art Metropole as a fundraiser for Jacob’s upcoming project with the Toronto Sculpture Garden, so does that mean we can expect Jacob to erect a set of glittery monkey bars to play on this spring?

“Well, I don’t want to give away too much about the Sculpture Garden project … but, the print relates visually and thematically to the sculpture, and we are planning to have a dome …”
I press Jacob for more details, hoping to hear tales of giant swing sets and adult-size slides (I got stuck in a kid size slide this summer and am still nursing my shame), but suddenly Serious Luis interrupts the fun.

“The theme of the print is play, but not entirely or exclusively play for children. I’m interested in what motivates people to come together and share things, things or spaces that allow for public participation. And one of the most pleasurable things is play, playing together – adults, children, whoever.”

“The print is a kind of reminder to people to use play as a form of social power.”
Damn artists. They all turn into Foucault eventually, even the ones wearing big red noses and floppy shoes.

Whether or not “Flashlight” will inspire uptight Torontonians to random cartwheels and ice cream fights, it’s still a lovely, upbeat piece of art, made with Jacob’s trademark attention to craft.

Plus, when you stop by Art Metropole to buy one, you’ll also be treated to a mini-retrospective of a decade’s worth of Jacob’s artist multiple projects – everything from hand made books to sound sculptures on tape.

“When we were hanging the prints and decided to put all my other stuff underneath, I was kind of shocked”, Jacob giggles.

“So many things… I’ve been busy!”

All work and all play makes Jacob a happy boy.


Painter Sarah Hall could use some of Luis Jacob’s Willy Wonka magic. Her new exhibition, Invisible Order, is not exactly high on life, nor is it overburdened by cheerful (or any other) colours. But if you’re the kind of person who buys advance tickets for Bergman retrospectives and stock piles calming beta-blockers, have I got a show for you.

Invisible Order is a suite of large acrylic and oil paintings depicting floating bodies lost and drifting in bottomless fields of inky blue-black – perfect cover art for the complete works of Sartre.

The bodies are often bent and slightly twisted, perhaps in pain, and exist more as flickers of light than corporeal realities. Are these ghosts? Drowning victims disintegrating at the bottom of the sea? Depressed drop outs from the Danny Grossman school of rag doll dancing?

That Hall is an accomplished painter is not in doubt. The mysterious backgrounds in the paintings do give off a spooky and seductive black glow, and the twinkling bodies are rendered with a lacy delicacy that manages to be both solid and insubstantial, kinetic and glazed.
Yet, one of these works goes a long way. An entire gallery of them will send you running for something sweet and life-affirming. Some variation between the works would have made the exhibition less oppressive (and repetitive) – as would one less layer of soul-eating black, one less foreshadowing of the great and horrible darkness that haunts our numbered days.

But, like I said, some folks are drawn to gloomy art (Hall had already sold a number of works by the time I got there – do Goths buy art?), and the glowing bodies, death rattled as they may be, are nevertheless painted in a soothing, last-swig-of-Pernod cloudy blue.

If spectral reliquaries are your poison, more penumbra to you!


Group shows are like life, or the Super Bowl – somebody has to lose. Pity the referee, especially this one, who looks so fat in stripes.

Three New Artists, a self-explanatory exhibition at Mira Godard Gallery, would have been better served by one less artist, namely the painter Peter Harris, who, through no fault of his own, just doesn’t belong with in a trio whose other members are Lisa Hemeon and Stu Oxley.
Harris is not a bad painter. His vacant highway landscapes are expertly crafted and painted with rigour. That the nightscapes look a little too much like Mara Korkola’s more evocative roadside visions is not his fault either, as Korkola hardly invented the genre.

The problem is, Harris is a realist at heart, and his paintings evoke feelings of recognition and familiarity (again, not bad things in themselves), while Hemeon and Oxley are abstractionists, and their works depend on the viewer’s interpretive powers, on a large dose of mystery and wonder. Harris is thus stuck in this show looking like an explanatory device to Hemeon’s and Oxley’s muted landscapes, and the position undermines his own powers as a painter.
Of the three, Hemeon’s work is the strongest. Her large canvases are threaded with bright, moving strings of light and washes of jade greens and citrine yellows. The paintings glow from the inside, like alabaster.

If I owned one of these luscious paintings, I’d hang it on the ceiling so I could lay underneath it and pretend I was underwater, at noon, in a warm, clear lake strewn with wispy summer grasses. Sigh.

Grey and barren expressways just can’t compete.

Luis Jacob
“Flashlight” Four colour silk screen print, signed and numbered edition of 35
Art Metropole 788 King Street West

Sarah Hall
Invisible Order
Drabinsky Gallery 122 Scollard Street
Until February 26

Three New Artists
Mira Godard Gallery 22 Hazelton Avenue
Until February 19

Saturday, February 05, 2005

The Big Picture 17

Glass art is always a hard sell. Art critics tend to relegate glassworks to “craft” (that crafts and art are mutually exclusive is silly to begin with, but that’s another essay), as something akin to knick-knacks or hand made teapots. The fact that glass artists rely on a material that is commonly used for functional, even pedestrian purposes has sometimes kept the actual work from being appreciated on its own terms.

And yet, any gallery that deals with glass works will tell you that sales have never been better. Glass art collectors from across North America flock to new exhibits and keep in touch via the internet on who is showing and selling what – a level of attention and commercial commitment hard to imagine for, say, video or performance art.

A new exhibit of glass works by Francis Muscat at Material Matters, a Toronto gallery that specializes in glass-based art, is garnering a typical response. When I saw the show on the day of its opening, the director informed me that a handful of the works were already sold, or had solid interest from international collectors. But, I was the only person from the local media to express interest in the exhibit.

Are critics missing something? Can thousands of enthusiasts and collectors be wrong?

Granted, Muscat’s work is not for everyone. Aggressively flamboyant and very much in debt to mid-20th century modernist sculptural traditions – Giacometti comes to mind right away – the works in his latest show Sea Songs are freakish and unsubtle. Which is exactly why I liked them. It seems that if one is going to work in a derided medium, one has little choice but to make art that gives the finger to critical notions of restraint and understatement, to indulge in a healthy amount of critic baiting. Before video art gained universal acceptance, all anyone playing with video wanted to do was create carnivalesque spectacles of questionable taste and merit. Now, it’s glass art’s turn.

The creatures in Sea Songs, inspired by myths and legends of the oceans, look like maquettes from an underwater monster film, or like the amorphous aliens from The Abyss. Tiny heads rest on elongated, flippered bodies. Trunks are made of layers upon layers of crayon-bright silk wire. Mermaid fins are shaped from melded limestone and glass. And don’t ask me how these top heavy, tapered-at-the-bottom sculptures defy gravity by remaining upright – I was afraid to touch them.

Muscat’s mermen remind me of the nautical folk art I grew up with, of fantastical ship mastheads and the sea beast whirligigs that everyone kept on their lawns before museums snatched up all the most outrageous concoctions. Who knew we were so respectable?


When the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art announced it would open its new space on Queen West with Bill Burns’ ongoing Safety Gear for Small Animals project, some arty tongues set to wagging over what was regarded as a “safe choice” for inaugurating a new space – the work, the argument went, has been widely exhibited in Toronto, and across Canada, for over a decade. Where’s the adventure in that?

I, for one, am glad that MOCCA chose a proven hit to launch it’s new space, as the immediate goal for the relocated venue is to get people to actually visit the gallery – something MOCCA tried in vain to do when it was located in the wilds of North Toronto. And, familiar or not, Burns’ wacky art packs even more of a punch when assembled en masse in a large space. Now, if only the MOCCA could do something to warm up it’s rather garage-like look. Asking people to visit a bleached out white-on-white space in the middle of a deadly winter is sadistic.
Safety Gear for Small Animals is part stunt, part meditation on our conflicted relationship to the furred and feathered, with a heavy emphasis on the titular gag: protecting endangered wildlife with industrial safety outfits.

At times, the animal jokes wear a bit thin and appear to aim for children’s picture book whimsical instead of provocative – the penguins re-housed in refrigerators (get it, ‘cause it’s cold) or the itsy-bitsy leather work gloves for racoons come to mind – but the overall effect is charming. And maybe that’s part of the point: we only pay attention to animals when they’re cute.

Young painters tend to fall into two categories – those who emerge from art school with a fully formed style, and those who spend their first exhibiting years finding their voice. The twenty-something Christopher Arnoldin is decidedly in the second camp. His new exhibition, Sleeping Sushi Chefs, jumps off the walls with abandon, occasionally landing on its feet, sometimes on its ass, but always with a kind of puppyish grace.

Arnoldin’s swirling masses of paint, inspired by the madcap chop, dice and roll of a busy sushi bar, periodically stop to form concrete images before breaking up again into curls and slashes of brilliant, undiluted colour – mimicking, I suspect, the hurried vision of a frantic chef.

The larger works, painted with elasticity and confidence, are more successful than the small paintings, which tend to be muddied and overworked. Arnoldin’s jumpy brush needs room to breathe, and the most vibrant works are the ones that leave plenty of unfinished space between the daubs and waves.

Gary Evans is an obvious influence, as are the works of Gerald Ferguson, and one can even see unripe bits of Joanne Todd in the more pictorial works. But Arnoldin is clearly on his own path and needs only to decide whether or not he wants to let the paintings open up or become more cluttered (take the former option, please).

How funny that a suite of paintings about sushi - a manicured, fussy and exactly prepared food - generates so much energy, so many daring clashes of fleshy pink and soggy green, of line and blob and splatter. Arnoldin is one to watch, but perhaps not to trust in the kitchen.

Francis Muscat
Sea Songs
Material Matters 215 Spadina Avenue
Until February 16.

Bill Burns
Safety Gear for Small Animals
MOCCA 952 Queen Street West
Until February 20

Christopher Arnoldin
Sleeping Sushi Chefs
Fran Hill Gallery 230 Queen Street East
Until February 26