Saturday, April 23, 2005

The Big Picture 28

At the end of every April, the GTA’s many colleges and universities set dozens, if not hundreds, of visual arts students free to roam the streets. Animators, graphic designers, film and video technicians, printers, set designers, needle traders, and, worse off, full blown artists (i.e. people with no sellable skills) clean out their lockers and wander off campus by the dazed busloads - with nothing to protect them from the cold, soul-eating world but their dreams, their looks, and a cash payout from their aging boomer parents.

What’s to be done with all this youthful talent, energy, and ambition? Some of these bright heralds of the future even have valid degrees. Personally, I think a forced relocation program is long overdue. Toronto has enough artists. But can the same be said for, say, southern New Brunswick (the north is lousy with whimsical Acadian potters – I’ve been there), North Bay, or the mountainous regions of Alberta? Hardly. As unattractive as the sight of a locked plane full of crying post-teens might be, it’s for their own good. And mine.

Of course, there are always do-gooders determined to reach out a helping hand to youth – well meaning people who don’t realize that today’s emerging artist is tomorrow’s competition for wall space. But nobody listens to us prophets anymore, so I’ll let the helpful helpers cut their own throats.

One such patroness is Toronto curator Sophie Hackett who, with co-curator Jennifer Long, has assembled Flash Forward, an enormous exhibition of photographic works by graduating students from Toronto and New York.

To call Flash Forward a revelation might be overselling the show, but it pains me to admit that I walked away from this exhibit with a renewed sense of urgency – namely, that particular panic faced by all senior artists when confronted by their inevitable replacements. I felt like Francis Ford Coppola watching Lost In Translation, or, more accurately, an early Trump wife shopping for an eye lift. Time to gas up that plane!

Hackett is the first to admit that emerging artists are becoming something of a fetish object in the art world, at the expense of mid-career and established artists – but, on the other hand, she’s glad she took the assignment.

“It wasn’t my idea!”, Hackett jokes, “One of the mandates of the Magenta Foundation, who paid for Flash Forward, is to support emerging artists, so I wanted to do the best job I could within that framework.”

“And, kidding aside,” she admits, “I do have a soft spot for emerging artists. It’s gratifying to provide people with their first chance to exhibit. I certainly agree that there have been a lot of initiatives for emerging artists lately, which is part of the generational shift that will continue as the boomer’s kids start taking up the space occupied by their parents … and maybe this interest in the young is pursued to the exclusion of mid-career artists, but a good show is a good show.”

And Flash Forward is a very good show. Like any large group exhibition, FF has its bright and dim moments, but the overall impression it gives is that younger photographers are playing fast and loose with core, indeed sacred notions of what constitutes a proper “high art” photograph. Many of the works here look like little more than digital snapshots, or, conversely, are so flamboyantly stagy and artificial they might as well be 19th century story paintings. Most of this work would be equally at home in a theatrical installation or as a prop in a performance piece. And the level of technical finesse proves the cliché that kids today are the most technologically savvy generation in human history.

The works that struck me as the most accomplished were those that were obviously samples from a larger, cohesive body of work - such as Adam Peters’s “Crop” series, a collection of ruthlessly cropped, colourful party pics that focus on sexily intertwined dancing limbs, Johanna Warwick’s unnerving images of a not-so-happy couple trying to glare each other to death, Nicole Stafford’s drive-by shootings of run down, working class store fronts (the kind her generation’s grandparents founded, to pay for her education), and Jesse Boles’s night shots of fairy-lit industrial wastelands (an obvious nod to Edward Burtynsky, but everybody goes through a shoplifting phase).

Hackett is not surprised by my faves. “One of the yardsticks we used was to see if the artist had a committed vision already in place. We wanted to find artists who were steadily pursuing a visual goal, not experimenting with anything just because they can do it.”

Experimenting? That’s kid’s stuff.


Toronto video artist Leif Harmsen is a hopeless exhibitionist. I, and everybody who travels in art circles, have seen more of Harmsen’s unmentionables than I’ve seen of my own. His motto seems to be: If I’m outdoors, why am I clothed?

It’s only natural (pun intended) that Mr. All Access should create VendaVision, a video nickelodeon and pop machine designed to bring new video art to the masses for a mere dollar a peek.

VendaVision works just like a snack machine: you put in a loonie and pick your can of pop. The pop choice determines what video you will watch – a one minute sample from Harmsen himself or local stars Peggy Anne Burton, Ed Sinclair or John Greyson, among others. What could be easier?

There’s no great message on offer here, no pretence to anything grander than mixing art and fun (and carbonated drinks). My only question is, why set up VendaVision in a building full of art galleries? This quick fix belongs in Niagara Falls, right beside the fortune telling puppets and mystery grab bags.


This space is supposed to be filled with my report on a terribly important piece of art by a terribly senior artist, but said artist washed out on me at the last minute and, lucky day! I discovered instead some unassuming, disposable art by an unassuming young artist.

Frank Maidens is a graphic designer wondering what to do with his off hours. He has decided to make art – clever, colourful and light-as-a-pill art based on the familiar shapes of capsules. Is this an homage to General Idea’s 1991 One Year of AZT? Maidens claims he’s never seen the work. Is he a pill head himself? No.

What Maidens is doing is even simpler than it looks. He’s taking the pill shape and turning it, via endless repetition and a Turkish carpet’s worth of primary colours, into a pattern standard, an ubiquitous form and symbol no more loaded with medical or personal subtexts than an asterisk or a triangle.

As a design exercise, Maidens’s work is a telling example of the nullifying power of visual reiteration. But as art, it’s very, very cute – perfect for the bathroom wall, beside the medicine cabinet.

Flash Forward
Lennox Contemporary 12 Ossington Ave.
Until April 30

401 Richmond Street West, 1st Floor (across from YYZ Gallery)
Indefinite run

Frank Maidens
Things That Are Pretty
Le Gallery 1183 Dundas Street West
Until May 1

Saturday, April 16, 2005

The Big Picture 27

John Abrams is a movie nut. The Toronto painter, whose latest cinema-inspired series of painting, Betty Blue (based on Beineix’s 1986 film of the same title) opens today at Zsa Zsa Gallery, admits to watching “three or five movies a week, sometimes more”, all in the pursuit of his art. I want that job.

Abrams is one of Toronto’s most consistent and consistently fascinating painters. He has painted everything from mug shots of alleged Caribbean-Canadian criminals (all culled from The Sun, a paper addicted to less than flattering representations of black Torontonians) to blotchy, gin blossomed Prime Ministers to glowing Hindu goddesses to intimate scenes from the films of Stanley Kubrick. His interests are nothing if not diverse.

A self-confessed magpie, Abrams is always searching for the next bright, shiny moment to capture on canvas. Subsequently, his paintings are dappled in intoxicating, unnatural colours, in spooky television screen greys and blues, yellows culled from lemon dish soap, and Emerald City greens.

The evident beauty of Abrams’s paintings, however, sometimes causes viewers to look no deeper than the handsome colours, to perceive Abrams as a talented colourist unburdened by subtexts. It’s tough being so pretty.

“I made the Betty Blue paintings after seeing the Beineix film for the first time, about six months ago”, Abrams tells me in his slow, careful way, “I was looking for one really good film, a really good looking film … something with sex and nudity and sexy people and artists behaving like crazy people … all the fun stuff.”

“I’m becoming more and more intrigued by video art, by how artists who work in video are far more progressive and open to new ideas than artists who work in the static arts. Painting needs to have a conversation with film and video, because film is the dominant visual media of our time. ”

“But, I also made this work in reaction to the shows I’ve been seeing lately where the curator’s imprint is more important than the artist’s work. The Betty Blue paintings are meant to be seen in a kind of narrative sequence, loosely following the story in the film – so, whoever hangs them has to more or less hang them the same way every time. It’s my way of making sure there is a limited amount of mediation between my work and the presentation of my work.”

To wit, Abrams has crafted a tantalizing oil on canvas Cole’s notes of the film, comprised of twenty small, film cell-like paintings and two large projection sized paintings. The small paintings are arranged in a rectangle, like a screen, with key scenes (and subtitles) selected to both trigger our memories of the original (remember when French cinema was as hot and vibrant as Asian cinema today?) and to compress the film’s core romantic themes. The larger paintings are overt celebrations of Betty Blue’s still startling gorgeousness – stars Beatrice Dalle and Jean-Hugues Anglade, the cutest poor people ever seen in a movie, have never looked better, and the burning beach house finale remains a haunting sight, a romantic echo of Rebecca’s Mandalay.

But fans of the film will wonder why Abrams has recast Beineix’s signature Pop Art colour scheme in an almost monotone selection of oranges and bruised reds?

“The question in the film, the one Anglade’s novelist character is facing, is how do you make your way in the world as an artist? I have the same questions, because I have to keep a part time job to make ends meet. I think this question is still urgent, so I gave the film a new, more urgent colour scheme.”

“Now”, Abrams chuckles, “the film looks like everything in it is on fire, which might be me being pessimistic.”

Abrams days of pessimism should soon be coming to an end. After spending years painting scenes from films, the film world is starting to come to him.

“Art directors are starting to rent my paintings for films, even if they don’t understand them. It’s fun to see them in the movies a year or two later. In Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, Lindsay Lohan dances around with one of my paintings of pop stars’ lips in front of her face, and in another scene one of my spirals of small paintings is hanging on her boyfriend’s bedroom wall.”

“Do more lips! Do Lindsay Lohan’s lips!”, Abrams’s partner, the exuberant curator Carla Garnett blurts out, “Do you know how many crazed fans she has? More lips!”

Abrams shrugs. “I’m thinking about doing The Aviator next.”

“Oi,” Garnett sighs, “he never learns.”


There’s a rumour flying around town that I am the person behind an anonymous, perfectly evil little ‘zine called, appropriately enough, ArtFag.

As much as I’d like to take credit for the poison penning of the ‘zine, I can’t. I can only wish I’d written that overrated video artist Daniel Borins was guilty of “his usual glib hack job”, or that too many gay artists have “that whole Ab-Ex raging phallus thing to get over”.

However, I did hunt down the elusive ArtFag, via some shady parking lot conversations and hefty bribes, and he agreed to this top secret, email-only interview. I’ll let the Gallery Govani speak for himself.
“We (that’s a royal we – RMV) are doing this because the Canadian art-critical persona, much like the rest of the Canadian cultural persona, is infected with an appalling politesse. It’s present everywhere, from our Great-and-Powerful National Papers to local, alternative presses. There is a crippling lack of real criticism in this country, and without the public dialogue that real criticism engenders, the art scene
suffers. When was the last time any paper, national or other, took a great, big, incontrovertible dump on someone’s undeserved reputation?”

“Lord knows there’s plenty of opportunity.”

Yes, and Lord bless the ArtFag. As the old drag saying goes: It’s not mean if it’s true.


My recent grousing about the snobbish Images Festival notwithstanding, check out the goofy Images-sponsored installations at Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

Montreal’s Stephane Gilot has built a cozy game booth that challenges you to control the wobbly trajectory of a tiny, camera-jacked toy car circling above your head, and Toronto’s Nell Tenhaaf invites you to meet Flo’nGlo, two giant robot blobs who sing to each other like love birds.

I smartly skipped the Images opening gala film, but, based on the reports of victims, I’ll bet that Gilot and Tenhaaf’s sci-fi funhouse beats a two hour American experimental film about vacant shopping malls and greasy exurban bus stops.

John Abrams
Betty Blue
Zsa Zsa Gallery 962 Queen West
Until April 30

ARTFAG: A Cahier of Criticism and Witticism.
Available at many downtown galleries, or c/o leartfag@yahoo.ca

Nell Tenhaaf
Stephane Gilot
Paul Petro Contemporary Art 980 Queen West
Until April 30

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The Big Picture 26

The term Conceptual Art strikes me as redundant. Isn’t all art conceptual? Even the most low brow acts of representation are fuelled by some sort of idea.

When curators today talk about “Conceptual practice”, what they are often doing is alerting you to the fact that you are about to see art about art, or art made within some sort of post-modern framework that privileges pastiche and reference over product and originality.

Fine. Originality is an illusion, and the world is already full of pretty things. However, the problem for the average visitor to a Conceptual show is that there is rarely much to actually look at, because the ideas and processes behind the work are more important than the finished pieces. Inevitably, such shows smack of in-on-itness and exclusion, of art made for other artists. And that’s no fun, even for the artists.

A new survey of recent Conceptual art at the Power Plant goes a long way to curing some of the genre’s worst in-house habits. Although there are definitely moments in this exhibition where one feels one is missing something, and the old brick barn does look a bit spare and grey in spots, Dedicated To You, But You Weren’t Listening (now that’s a passive aggressive title!) is peppered with clever works that seek to break Conceptual art’s audience-maker disconnect and, gasp, entertain the viewer.

Dedicated To You is a very full exhibition, featuring works by fourteen artists from half a dozen countries, so let’s start with the good news.

The first thing most viewers will gravitate to is Scottish artist Dave Allen’s giant birdcage sculpture, the home of two starlings on loan from the Toronto zoo. Based, the brochure tells me, on French composer Olivier Messiaen’s 1959 piano works about birdsongs, the installation seeks to reverse the composer’s creative process by having the birds react to music. Beside the birdcage, a CD of Messiaen’s compositions plays over and over, with the hope that the starlings will eventually begin to mimic it and incorporate the music’s tones into their songs.

Depending on your views on Messiaen, this is either a great vacation for the birds or a form of torture, but there is nothing like art stocked with live animals to turn even the most hardened art watcher into a cooing tender heart. I’m not certain Allen’s menagerie is much more than a sweet one-liner, but I’ll take pleasure whenever I can, and the birds are the most lively things in the gallery.

Equally cute is Zin Taylor’s video projection The Allegorical Function of Dirt, a kind of compost pile tribute to the Eames’s famous marching toy film Parade. Taylor’s camera caresses clumps of brown stalactites and mini earth mounds as if he were filming a tray of jewellery for a commercial, or an especially scrumptious assortment of pastries. The gag, of course, is that the dirt forms resemble dollops of poop.

The chipper, nursery room ambient music that accompanies Taylor’s video only reinforces the sandbox silliness of the project – and yet, Taylor’s excremental landscape grows more and more dreamy, even inviting, the more you watch it unfold. Quirky and fun, the video has the same gentle appeal as Allen’s birds. Everybody, after all, knows from dirt.

The strongest work in Dedicated is, not accidentally, the work with the most to say. Jennifer Allora, an American, and Guillermo Calzadilla, a Cuban, have collaborated on a series of performances and works to protest the US military’s presence, and activities, in Puerto Rico. The resulting works are full of both conceptual cleverness and real-life content (a rarity in the over-academicized ivory tower of conceptual art).

At first glance, Allora and Calzadilla’s photographs of foot prints on sand are not much to look at – until you realize that the footprints are from specially made shoes that contain political slogans and cartoons. Although some of the actual text is hard to read, the general anti-military stance is clear enough. It is hard not to read these quiet acts of resistance as a commentary on the futility of dissent in Dubya’s America, on trying to fight tanks with sand castles.

But just when that gloomy thought slides in, Allora and Calzadilla present “Returning A Sound”, an exuberant video that follows a young man on a pimped-out motorcycle as he zooms across a plot of Puerto Rican jungle abandoned by the US army. The former tank roads and landing strips are littered with washed out warnings to the public not to enter the military grounds – warnings the cyclist cheerfully ignores – and the green jungle is gradually reclaiming the bunkers and shooting galleries. To celebrate the arrival of peace, the cyclist attaches a trumpet to his muffler and blasts the hills and valleys with joyful noise.

The urgency of Allora and Calzadilla’s art both helps and hinders the overall exhibition. Without these works, Dedicated would be too much of a wank off, a collection of largely meaningless, if sometimes fun, artist parlour games. The downside is that as soon as you realize Allora and Calzadilla are the meat in the sandwich, you begin to notice all the pale iceberg lettuce taking up space.

Andrew Dadson’s lacklustre photographs of a neighbour’s ugly hauling trailer are, well, about as attractive and alluring as they sound. Apparently, the photos are meant to record Dadson’s minor acts of suburban resistance (he moved the unwanted trailer slowly down the street over a period of days), but when compared to images of successful anti-war actions, Dadson’s minor vandalism doesn’t amount to much. And, without the information I just provided, you’d be hard pressed to know why you were looking at these boring pictures of a trailer in the first place.

UK artist Jeremy Deller’s wall sized mural delineating the connections between 1980’s British popular music and key political events is equally unimpressive. Deller has done some solid political work before, such as restaging key protests and strikes, but this inflated nerd’s guide to underground music and civil strife trivializes the events Deller seeks to highlight and turns living history into a doodle (which, granted, may be Deller’s point, but we already know we’re living in a dumbed down time). Rarely has so much space been used to say so little.

Similarly, Jonathan Monk uses the loaded terrain of Afghanistan to indulge in a bit of T.E. Lawrence-style romance, complete with postcard images of impoverished locals. Although this work comes with buried references to a dead Italian poet, and thus, indirectly, Eurocentric visions of the Middle East, Monk can’t overcome the flat truth that his project is about as visually interesting as a plate of beige hummus.

The Mexican collective Tercerunquinto contributes a door to the proceedings. Yes, a door. A standard glass door built into a side wall of the gallery. That must have taken, what, a minute and a half of thought?

Another collective, G.L.N., offers a video record of a series of performances wherein the artists sat outside and made cheesy electronic music to accompany their surroundings. I guess they had fun. Too bad the music sucks.

Despite the show’s brighter moments, too much of Dedicated is taken up by works like those above - thin jokes that engage the viewer for about 15 seconds.

While viewers will undoubtedly walk away (sometimes very quickly) from this show with a partial realization that conceptual art doesn’t have to be dour and overly theoretical, they will also realize that, too often, time spent with conceptual art is time wasted waiting for something to happen.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

The Big Picture 25

Every spring something happens in Toronto that no person without limitless patience, plenty of Tylenol and an MA in semiotics (that they do not regret getting) should endure – the annual Images Festival of film, video and that catch-all phrase for any piece of art generated by a keyboard, new media.

Like many local filmmakers, I have my issues with Images – largely because, like too many local filmmakers, Images consistently shows only occasional interest in my videos. The festival’s reputation among Toronto artists for outright snobbery, a slavish devotion to overcooked, pretentious nonsense - Images actually gives out an award every year for the most difficult to endure film, so at least they have a sense of humour about themselves - and an offensive “anybody but a Torontonian” programming is well deserved (but has greatly improved with the recent addition of executive director Petra Chevrier, a Toronto culture lifer and overall good time gal).

Having crabbed that much, I have to cave and admit that there are still many gems to be found amongst the head-scratchers – including a retrospective of the always amusing videos of Robert Lee, a new installation piece by video mesmerists Leslie Peters and Dara Gellman, and short films by those old reliables Wrik Mead and Steve Reinke.

And for those of you who want the Images experience but also, wisely, want to be able to walk away from the Images experience, there’s Off Screen, a huge collection of installation works scattered amongst twenty city galleries. To my mind, this is the best way to get a taste of the festival without investing cash or irretrievable time: if you like what you see in the galleries, go to a screening. Otherwise, you pays yer money and you takes yer chances.

Although all of Off Screen’s thirty plus works were not available for screening at press time (thank God), I did manage to sit through samples from a dozen projects and can handily recommend David Warne and Kevin Krivel’s goofy “New Creatures”, a dance/slapstick piece that looks like a Gap ad gone horribly right, and local legend bh Yael’s beautiful and chilling “The Fear Series (2-3-4)”, a peephole view of the violent landscapes of the Middle East that focuses lovingly on the gorgeous but gun wielding young men who perpetrate the crimes.

Avoid, however, the tiresome sea bound video “Contained Mobility” by Switzerland’s Ursula Biemann – unless you find voiceovers that contain phrases such as “he signifies the itinerant body” and “suspended in the post-humanist lapse” entertaining. This sort of bloated crap makes a critic’s job easy. It makes fun of itself.


Even more baffling than an Images screening is the controversy surrounding Iranian artist Mehdi Forouzandi’s multimedia project The Key To Heaven. As far as I can tell from reading various media accounts and visiting the show (where half the art was rather alarmingly covered over by the artist), Forouzandi’s display of Islamic liturgical camp caused so much dismay amongst the conservative elements of the city’s Muslim community that he decided not to show the bulk of the exhibition. The Key To Heaven was banned in Iran, and, according to sources, Forouzandi fears that any further uproar here will make his return to Iran even more difficult.

But many questions remain unanswered. For instance, the press release for the show states that the controversial articles not on display were found “in an unusual bazaar in Tehran”. Said articles include party hats with Arabic inscriptions, a Monopoly-style prayer game that leads the winner to everlasting glory, and snow globes containing miniatures of Islamic holy places. But if this kitsch was actually purchased in Iran and manufactured in Iran, how can it be offensive? Surely if the junk was sacrilegious, the mullahs would have gotten to it long before Forouzandi.

That leads me to wonder if Forouzandi made the stuff himself, and if the “unusual bazaar” is a conceptual hoax? If so, it’s a great idea. I love sacrilege (if I had a car, the first thing I’d do is put a bobble doll Jesus on the dashboard), and love even more artists who perpetrate it under dire circumstances. Of course, it’s easy for me to be brave.

Adding to the mystery is the question of what actual text is inscribed on the offending articles. Forouzandi’s statement claims that the party favours are decorated with verses from the holy Koran. Yet, when I asked his representative Fay Athari if the problem lied in Forouzandi’s use of the Koran, she repeatedly told me that the party hats et al did not contain Koranic texts. Huh? Again, if the Koran is not being quoted in the art, what’s the big blasphemous deal?

I have nothing but sympathy for Forouzandi’s plight. Apart from being a questioning artist, he’s also gay – a double whammy in theocratic Iran. But if one is going to make politically and liturgically charged art, and then make hay out of the fact that one has been censored for doing so, and then go to the extreme of censoring oneself … well, a bit of clarity over the content would help, not hinder, the artist’s cause.

I can’t champion Forouzandi’s efforts with anything more than a meek reminder that censorship of any sort is bad, because I don’t have enough information – one can’t even see the works. But I also don’t have a tribunal of religious zealots hanging over my head, nor can I imagine ever working under such conditions. The best I can do is wish Forouzandi the best, and remind fundamentalists of all stripes that Canada is a free country, so frig off.


Andy Fabo’s moving tribute to his deceased lover Michael Balser reminds us that part of remembrance is forgetting, that part of what we keep when we lose someone is the certain knowledge that we will not be able to keep all of our memories intact. Faces fade, the sound of a voice dilutes, dates and places blur.

Fabo conveys this bitter truth with a stark yet reflective collection of portraits of Balser, each rendered in intentionally watery watercolours and brutally faint pastels. Assembled in a loose progression (or regression, depending on the direction) from indistinct blob to recognizable head and shoulder, Fabo’s paintings of his lover’s face vibrate with the expected blacks and dirt browns that connote loss, but also with angry blood reds and hot pinks, with raging, rough pencil scratches and sudden flares of fire orange.

Memory may be fragile, Fabo demonstrates, but the truths you construct defy decay.

Images Festival: Off Screen
April 7 to 16
Multiple venues

Mehdi Forouzandi
The Key To Heaven
Arta Gallery 55 Mill Street, Building 9, Suite 102 (Distillery District)
Until April 7 (mullahs permitting)

Andy Fabo
Phantom Limb
SPIN Gallery 1100 Queen Street West
Until April 16th