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