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