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