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