Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Big Picture 24

Toronto photographer Michael Chambers has never shied away from controversy.

An exhibit at Harbourfront in February, entitled The Sandbox, contained a space for children to make photographs and describe how they were viewed by their friends and teachers. It brought many parents to tears, especially parents who had no idea that their seemingly happy kids had already been exposed to the nastiness of being treated as an other.

Chambers’s newest works, on display at the O’Connor Gallery, mine similar terrain by asking the viewer to look at a wide variety of human forms encased in a constricting yet oddly welcoming box. Chambers describes these intentionally contradictory images as “ways to see the human body within a frame, a space that allows both limited and limitless readings”.

And sexy ones too. Few photographers love the human body as much as Chambers, who apparently has never met a model/subject he didn’t adore. Chambers’s gorgeous visions of real people and real bodies - bodies treated with the same attention and regard given to supermodels - are a welcome sight after a long winter spent packing on fat, wearing three jackets and fighting off Seasonal Affective Disorder.

“The box series,” Chambers tells me, “really started about 10 years ago, with me placing a model in the box and realizing that the box came already heaped with metaphors - in both directions, because we impose metaphors on ourselves and too often leave our actual selves out of the mix.”

“The thing to remember is that we have control of how we present ourselves on all levels, which I’ve been saying with my works for years. And yet, we live inside and outside these perceptive boxes. Being “boxed in” is something we react to and also can’t entirely function without. That’s why so many of my subjects look very comfortable in what is a very uncomfortable situation.”
How Chambers started photographing subjects in boxes is one of those happy accident stories that make the art world go ‘round.

“I had a show in Montreal, and came back with this huge box I couldn’t get into my studio. Showing in Montreal was the first time I was felt appreciated in this country, the first time I didn’t think about throwing away my camera . .. so, I became obsessed with this box and what it signified, which was not giving up.”

“Naturally, I started asking friends to hop in too - but because I couldn’t get the damned thing in my studio, I had to take photos in the hallway, had to sneak nude models around my building. I think in some ways this gave the works a real sense of fragility, because I literally had models running around my hallway in towels.”

“The surprising thing was that many of the subjects found it comforting to enter the box - about 80 percent. And not just because they were nude and looking for a place to hide. They found it very safe because when you are in the box you have no peripheral vision.”
Even the claustrophobics?

“Well, some people felt entrapped. That’s why I included people from as many cultures as possible, to mix up the diversity of the responses. Eventually, even people who were at first uncomfortable started tumbling around like kids. People became very candid once they were in the box, very trusting.”

I admit to Chambers that my first impressions upon viewing a person confined in a box are not entirely positive. Boxes, after all, are where you put dead people, and, to be topical, the Americans have reportedly taken to tucking Iraqi captives into small crates. Add in the fact that many of Chambers’s models are men of colour, and a slew of oppression metaphors pops into my head. Is the political subtext intentional?

Chambers pauses. He’s heard this question before.

“When I was studying at York, I had issues with how I saw blacks portrayed in photography. Some of the images were degrading or stereotypical, but also blacks were not photographed with attention to how black skin appears on film. I wanted black models to reflect light as well, to work against all the metaphors for darkness.”

“Secondly, I wanted to see images of someone like myself treated with the same normality that white models are treated with, as representations of the human race. But I admit that interpretation is all about context. You can see a black man in a box and think about the history of blacks in North America … but when those images were shown in Japan, people thought of Hiroshima!”

“I’ve always said that people will interpret based on their own history, so people should let their interpretations take them on a journey. It’s ok to ask questions.”


On the other side of the photographic spectrum are Mark Ruwedel’s stark and haunting images of western Canadian landscapes – mountains and valleys pillaged by the building of the transcontinental railroad. If Michael Chambers is a humanist searching for the sweet inner lives of his subjects, Ruwedel is an archaeologist searching for nasty messes left behind by our ambitions.

This is definitely bleak work, but in a fascinating way. Ruwedel photographs the split hills and ravaged (but slowly healing) forests as if he were a photojournalist covering a war (or an apocalypse). The dark, knife-sharp rocks that line the crevasses are straight out of Tolkien’s Mordor, and the long stretches of wind blasted, broken track could easily be the fabled canals of Mars.

I’m not sure I’d want to own one of these photos (I am keenly aware of the folly of human endeavour - a.k.a. my career), but I have to hand it to any photographer who so unflinchingly captures our national romance’s scarred underbelly.


I am not a psychiatrist, but I’ve been to many – so I feel qualified to opine that painter Andrew Rucklidge has suffered a nervous breakdown (or, as one shrink taught me to say, “nervous breakthrough”).

Rucklidge used to be such a gentlemanly painter. His early landscapes and storm-tossed skies were painted with a 19th century fastidiousness and a loving fidelity to nature. One imagined Rucklidge at his studio, pipe in mouth, fussing over the exact shade of blue for a 4pm sky, the right brown for an April mud.

Well, that’s all gone to hell. Rucklidge’s fantastic new exhibition of mixed media panels is a riotous barrage of wide trowel swipes, aggressive ink smears, pretty rainbows (yikes!), scratched-on stars and space ships, and enough fibrous texture to fill a breakfast bowl.

I love surprises.

Michael Chambers
The Box
O’Connor Gallery 97 Maitland Street Until April 2

Mark Ruwedel
Stephen Bulger Gallery 1026 Queen Street West Until April 2

Andrew Rucklidge
New Works
Angell Gallery 890 Queen Street West Until April 2

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Big Picture 23

There are painters who attack their canvases, painters who fence with their canvases, painters who roll around on their canvases, and painters who caress their canvases. Then there’s Elaine Despins, who appears to paint with a makeup brush and a foundation sponge. Lucky us.

Despins’s new series of large figurative works in repose, entitled Presence/Emergence (forgive the 80’s art theory title, she’s French Canadian), is a stunning collection of oil on canvas works that glow like fireflies in mid-summer.

The last time I saw work this softly crafted, it was an exhibition of felt toys. Despins layers her oils with an unnerving delicacy, as if she’s afraid of waking her sleeping subjects. The result of all this baby’s ass smoothness are paintings that fluctuate between photograph-like hyper-realist and watercolour translucent, often on the same canvas. One painting, of a reclining man sporting dreadlocks, looks so real in places, especially around the dreads, and so dreamily unreal in others, that I wondered, at first glance, if Despins was not a painter but a master collagist, one who seamlessly melded paint and photo-prints. Alas, no – she’s just an enormously skilled painter.

Technique aside, Despins paintings are grand meditations on the split consciousness of sleep. Drowsy figures splay across the tops of each canvas, big and fleshy as walruses, while far below them, separated by an impenetrable wash of obsidian, ghostly dream heads shake.

Are these heads the faces of the sleepers, or perhaps faces in their dreams? Guardian angels? Whatever the heads may literally be, the dialogue Despins establishes between the bodies and the faces is both meditative and unnerving, genial and threatening. While the luminous bodies hover over the viewer like living, breathing people suspended in air, the fist-sized indistinct heads, painted in sickly calendula yellows and crematoria ash, vibrate and twist as if they fear being seen too clearly.

The separation between the corporeal and the subconscious has not been this clearly (nor eerily) delineated since mean old Alex Colville pinprick-painted his way through his own psycho-sexual alienation in a series of nocturnal kitchen sink portraits. But I bet Despins has a better relationship with her models.


If there’s one thing I don’t like about this job, it’s having to say not nice things about too-nice art. I feel bad, guilty, karmicly imperilled, like a low-rent Isabelle Basset beating her servants with a fire poker. But sometimes you have to be cruel to make copy.

Jake Boone’s big but not very grand (in any sense) figurative paintings bring out the worst in me, because I hate to see expensive wall space wasted on dull art. That Boone is a competent illustrator is not in question – the people on the canvases look like people, so mission accomplished. And, if his paintings were not so relentlessly monochromatic, I might be able to tell you whether or not he knows how to mix paints. But to what end is all this evident ability being served? For a more lifeless selection of portraits you’d have to visit Madame Tussaud’s.

The key problem with Boone’s work is size. Boone has chosen to capture his subjects in sparse outline, to carve them onto canvas in delicate cuts – which is actually the best part of each work. Boone’s lines are deceptively simple, capturing mood and facial expressions with brilliant economy. However, this economy is wholly undermined by the enormity of the canvases. The skilful draughtsmanship that would have appeared charming and concise on, say, small squares of paper (the portraits are really exaggerated doodles), or at least much smaller canvases, is completely lost in Boone’s six foot high snowstorms of bland, underwhelming oil and encaustic mush.

Instead of being drawn to Boone’s careful penciling, the viewer instead must negotiate acres of dull, pasty surface. His subjects manage to appear both big as life and completely diminished at the same time – a sort of perverse accomplishment, granted, but there’s no point in applauding bad editing.

I left this exhibit thinking two things: Boone’s big ass paintings ask us to grant his subjects the same importance he clearly bestows on them, but, like a too-proud parent, he oversells the material and thus deconstructs his own monumentalism; and, I’d love to have a look at Boone’s sketchbook, where I’m sure the original magic waits.

As it stands, all we have here is lots of paint and lots of wax applied lots of times to mean not a whole heck of a lot.


There’s nothing spare or underdone about Robyn Cumming’s photo portraits – if anything, she errs on the side of incaution. But the results are so entertaining, you’ll forgive Cumming’s occasional lapses into empty music video cool and Baz Luhrmann-like pastiche.

A series of tableaux framed by red velvet stage curtains (the first clue that we’re in for some high diving acts), Cumming’s photographs attempt to capture the interior world of her subjects via some very externalized theatrics. Naturally, prop comedy abounds in these works, where every subject is either surrounded by, wrapped in, or somehow impeded by a carefully composed stage set’s worth of junk, costumes, furnishings, and general mayhem.

Many of Cumming’s doll house games work brilliantly – such as the image of a woman turning herself into a mermaid with tensor bandages and floppy leather gloves, or, my favourite, a blunt-faced woman engulfed by birthday party flotsam and a flattened, bleeding cake (having just turned 40, I second the emotion).

When Cumming aims for the obvious, however, her work appears a bit predictable. We are meant to read narratives into these photographs, but that doesn’t mean we need Cumming to sound out the words. A little mystery goes a long way, and would have saved some of Cumming’s more clichéd images - the young writer swamped by empty coffee cups (oh, those writers, staying up all night haunted by the mot juste), the creepy family smiling behind a picture frame that obscures their broken and amputated limbs (oh, those destructive nuclear families).

Theatre folk call this sort of metaphoric literalness “spoon feeding the audience”, and dismiss it as laziness. But I wonder if the structure Cumming created for this series, the overarching life-is-a-stage idea, was simply too grandiose a theme for a young, enthusiastic artist to not fill up with everything but the kitchen cleaver? Think about the overcooked things you made in your formative years.

At some point, this talented photographer will learn to pare down her furnishings and stop brow beating the viewer with Big Ideas, or she’ll go the other way and succumb to truly baroque excess. I just wish she’d stop buying up all the good stuff at the Value Village.

Elaine Despins
Edward Day Gallery 952 Queen Street West Until March 24

Jake Boone
back to my darling
Redhead Gallery 401 Richmond Street West Until March 26

Robyn Cumming
In Place
XEXE Gallery 624 Richmond Street West Until March 26

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Big Picture 22

Twenty years after Orwell’s distopian novel 1984 collided with the chronological reality of the year 1984, we have become used to (some would argue occupied by) a level of surveillance and privacy invasion that would make poor old Orwell very satisfied indeed with his prophetic abilities.

It is an urban reality that on any given day each of us is photographed or videotaped dozens and dozens of times. For people living in more prosperous (or just more violence prone) cities, the number of non-consensual starring roles citizens disagree to is in the thousands - any visitor to London or Paris will tell you that there is not a corner, elevator, or back alley available for midnight kisses or quick pees. And forget trying to pinch a souvenir ashtray from a pub.

Artists, ever keen to exploit the latest sources of visual information, have begun to not only question the civil liberties violated by the ever-present cameras, but have also started asking deeper questions about the actual materials collected. Are these countless hours of videotape a narrative, an accidental story? Can individual frames be regarded as, or transformed into art? Where does all this visual information go, and who decides what is valuable and what gets erased?

Toronto photographer Cheryl Sourkes’s new exhibition, Public Camera, takes one of the more recent surveillance practices – the 24 hour web-cam, trained on an unsuspecting, or at least accustomed, public – and filters the enormous amount of information gathered by these tiny spies down to a handful of provocative images.

Sourkes finds gold in the vault, and thus makes us question if in fact surveillance culture’s raison d’etre – to provide, by constant monitoring, a sense of safety and security – has been undermined by its own methodology, by the simple truth that once you start making pictures, no matter how lowbrow the method or how seemingly innocuous the intent or imagery may be, you’ve actually started to make art (like it or not), and art couldn’t rescue a kitten from a tree. Art, by its very impracticality and bad habit of asking uncomfortable questions, is the antithesis of a security device.

Apart from the enormous philosophical questions Public Camera raises (and they are legion), on a purely visual level Sourkes has created a suite of gorgeous photo-works. For instance, her large images of university students studying on shared tables, heads bent to their books (taken from web-cams monitoring student common rooms) are particularly evocative, as the watery Lightjet prints dissolve and soften the hard digital source material, changing sharp pixels to semi-indistinct clumps. There’s a metaphor here about fleeting youth, but you’re already ahead of me on that one.

Sourkes’s smaller photos, most of them taken from web-cams fixed on outdoor spaces such as parking lots or lonely ski hills, are dappled with splotches and weird, Blob-like colours (the results of rain, cold air and snow on the lenses, I’m guessing) - obscuring marks that, of course, defeat the entire point of the surveillance, but make for very pretty pictures.

Sourkes is not the first artist to explore this new archive of found material and its menacing, paranoia-inducing subtexts. Toronto artist P. Elaine Sharpe recently investigated imagery culled from crime scene surveillance, and even had herself clandestinely followed by a gang of paparazzi-like photographers. Multimedia artist Lorna Mills has created a large body of smart ass video and photo-based works culled from reality television. But Sourkes is perhaps the first to find the beauty buried in our collective unease.


What to do about Istvan Kantor? Over the years, I’ve watched Kantor do everything he can to provoke, irritate, enrage and generally piss off the Canadian art world, but the most reaction I’ve personally ever been able to stir up in myself has been a mild bemusement.

Kantor’s work, bombastic and fond of overstatement as it is, has never struck me as being as radical as it’s supposed to be. Like the allegedly scandalous films of Bruce La Bruce, which are really no more than porn films with comedy breaks, Kantor’s work is more dangerous the less you know about art, or care.

A new exhibition of Kantor’s works on paper, however, has made me reconsider my blasé attitude. By their nature calmer than Kantor’s famous stunt/performances, these carefully crafted collages and drawings reveal another, more pensive side of Kantor’s practice. Hold your headlines – Istvan Kantor, blood splattering Neoist noise and sex monger, likes to make dainty pictures. Yes, pictures. Now I really am shocked.

Among the hundred or so works on display, my favourites are Kantor’s manipulated fashion spreads (pages ripped from fashion magazines and sexed up with pastels, and I do mean sexed up), and a charming collection of rude drawings on faded blue file folders.

The fashion works are based on the not-too-original but still vital idea that supermodels are actually inhuman creatures. To prove this, Kantor draws over the models’ pasty faces and emaciated bodies, making them look like robotic skeletons. He also gives all the lady robot-models healthy and engorged penises. I challenge the unsubtle assertion here that the transgendered are less than human, but I’ll let the trans community fight it’s own battles.
The drawings on file folders are simpler affairs, happy to be little more than pleasing bits of naughty graffiti. Kantor is an excellent draughtsman (who knew?), his fluid lines delineating nude bodies with a grace and playfulness worthy of Cocteau.

This small show of personal works will hardly alter the public’s perception of Kantor as the clown prince of Canadian art, but he’d hate for that to happen.


Charismatic Power Plant director Wayne Baerwaldt just announced that he is leaving his position after 3 years as head honcho. Here, then, is WB’s chance to dispel the three hottest rumours about his departure.

Rumour 1: Baerwaldt’s best friend and former Alliance-Atlantis big wig Laura Michalchyshyn, who recently fled to NYC, found Baerwaldt a better job.

“I love that rumour! But, so far, not yet. She could try a little harder, except that I’d have to move in with her to afford it.”

Rumour 2: Relentless criticism in the media over the Power Plant’s programming, spearheaded by the Globe and Mail, has driven Baerwaldt to seek other employment.

“Definitely not true. We certainly need more open and informed critical writing about art– which isn’t happening – but I would have been much more hurt if the level of criticism had been more informed. I did find it revealing that the Catholic Salt and Light TV channel did a bloody remarkable show on Janet Cardiff and we had a flood of visitors who’ve never been here before.”

Rumour 3: Baerwaldt was not getting along with his trust fund-fuelled board.

“Oh no, not true at all. These are the best board members an art centre in Canada could ever enjoy the support of. They make projects that require a leap of faith happen.”
So, why is he leaving?

“We made a lot of headway here – for instance, we didn’t have touring exhibitions before I came. But I want to get back to spending more time with curatorial initiatives and more academic investigations into the programming side of the art world.
I had fun …. but I could always have more fun.”

Cheryl Sourkes
Public Camera
Peak Gallery 23 Morrow Ave. Until March 19

Istvan Kantor
Love is the Robotic Expression of the Machines
Zsa Zsa 962 Queen West Until March 15

Saturday, March 05, 2005

The Big Picture 21

If I had a therapist, I’d have to ask her why I’m drawn to art borne of obsession. Latent OCD? A desire to impose order on an otherwise disordered world (or, to be more precise, have someone else do it for me)? Fear of randomness?

Whatever the cause, I will always be seduced by art that relies on repetition and its underlying anxieties, art that makes tactile all my worst habits, pattern behaviours and fears. It is all about me, after all.

Imagine my joy when I stumbled on a new display of works by the young artist Braden Labonte, a painter who clearly knows a thing or two about obsession. His first post-OCAD exhibition, entitled The Living Room Project, is a massive collection of over 250 small black and white portraits. Labonte’s curator tells me Labonte painted the entire show in less than five months, and my bad math tells me that that translates into at least one and a half paintings per day. My kind of guy.

The next question is, of course, are the paintings any good? Or is the stunt the whole point? Both.

While not every portrait is as good as the next, Labonte is a strong painter, one who is able to capture facial features in sharp brush strokes and single daubs. Granted, his fondness for undiluted, midnight black gesso on shiny, epoxy-covered white canvas makes the portraits a bit stark – imagine an entire room full of Ralph Stedman’s inky monsters – but something in the gleam of the epoxy softens and warms what otherwise might have looked more like a ghoulish rogue’s gallery than a friendly living room party.

If Labonte is prone to overuse of drip effects and slash-and-smear brushwork, remember that he is young and has a lot of energy to burn. And audacity.


Keeping with the young and gooey theme, pour and plop painter Matt Crookshank is showing up his elders in a new four artist group show at AWOL Gallery. Crookshank’s gang of parti-coloured canvases, each dappled with an unhealthy amount of inch-high, straight-from-the-tube paint, are, well, completely out of control.

Nothing in Crookshank’s previous works prepared me for these latest forays into reckless self-indulgence. While always fond of bold, manic and explosively splattered canvases, Crookshank used to paint as if he was restraining himself - limiting his colour schemes and smothering the louder bits on each canvas with a deafening amount of yellowed lacquer. The new works, however, appear to have been painted on a dare. Forget all the rules about harmonious use of colour or balanced composition, these paintings look like birthday cakes attacked by jackhammers.

Crookshank’s flamboyant, happy disasters demonstrate by contrast how bland and predictable most contemporary abstraction has become - the other three artists in this show, tamed by the kind of good taste used to decorate banks, simply can’t compete.

While John Kennedy slathers and scrapes with some of the same energy as Crookshank, his too-quiet paintings ultimately look as if they’ve been flattened with an iron and left to soak in bleach. The gloomy works of Melissa O’Reilly, meanwhile, subject us to a klatch of stormy weather clichés. O’Reilly’s terribly serious brown on brown splats are about as captivating as mud pies. Crookshank makes chaos look like good dirty fun, but O’Reilly offers tired ideas fraught with an easy menace. And the less said about David Brown’s automatiste-inspired (and thus very dated looking) collages, junked up as they are with Matrix-ish sequences of buried numbers and text, the less likely you are to give these over-determined uglies more than a passing glance.

Sometimes, being the loudest kid in class gets you the highest marks.

Although I was instructed not to refer to the collection of diverse works on display at Katherine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects as “the leftovers show”, I can’t help it. I like leftovers. Hell, I live on leftovers. If only my fridge were this well stocked.

After returning from successful ventures to the Madrid and Los Angeles art fairs, KM Art has decided to show off what they couldn’t sell – which means bargains and finds for those of us not rich enough to live in Madrid or LA.

Among the treasures I uncovered is a trio of small paintings by Ottawa-based wunderkind Eliza Griffiths. In the last few years, thanks in part to the ceaseless harping of hacks like me, Ms. Griffiths’s paintings have skyrocketed in price – and deservedly so, as she is possibly the most talented figurative painter of her generation.

If, however, you don’t have ten plus grand to part with for the full scale Griffiths experience – she tends to paint large - you can pick up one of these smaller works for under three thousand dollars. (I write that with such ease, as if I have three thousand dollars to spend on art …)

My favourite of the three deals is a painting of a green clown face, which manages to look sexy, frightening, and child-like all at once. The green is slightly bilious, the colour of wretched up salad (a goblin hue only Griffiths could tame with milky pinks and wisps of calming white), and the face is indistinct, genderless and ageless. Is it a clown or a child wearing face paint? Or is it an adult with a clown/face paint fetish? The lips do look poised for a kiss.

The other two paintings are more typical of Griffiths’s trademark blend of sexy kids and nursery room pigments. A half-dressed debutant sits with her hair perfectly coiffed, waiting for the scruffy bad boy in the foreground to turn and notice her shapely legs. A nude young man with a beguiling “treasure trail” (the line of hair from the belly button to the pubis) stares out from under a dishevelled blonde wig, trying to decide whether to pet the nearby poodle or take a swig from the XXX marked bottle of hooch. Ah, youth.

Griffiths is a smut peddler with a hand of gold, rendering her horny little vixens and tomcats in the softest pastels and kindest light. Imagine the Cottenelle puppies filmed by Larry Clark, all for less than the price of an overnight with a pretty young thing.

Braden Labonte
The Living Room Project
LE 1183 Dundas Street West
Until March 30

Matt Crookshank et al
AWOL Gallery 76 Ossington Ave.
Until March 9

Eliza Griffiths
Katherine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects
1080 and 1086 Queen Street West
Until March 31