RMVaughanink

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Big Picture 33

Over 40 years ago, French artist Yves Klein created a series of blobby abstract paintings using the human body as his paint brush. Klein’s Anthropometries were relatively simple affairs – a nude body (usually female) was slathered in cobalt blue paint and pressed against a white canvas.

At the time, the works were considered provocative, adventurous, and even slightly indecent. Today, they seem more cute than sexy (but then, I’ve been around).

For his latest exhibition, Toronto multi-media artist Johannes Zits - a devotee of Klein’s pre- sexual revolution antics - updates and re-invents the legendarily naughty Anthropometries by giving them a queer, po-mo twist.

“The first step in the process”, Zits patiently explains, “is to get the men to strip to their underwear.”

Zits makes it sound so easy. Some of us spend entire weekends on just such futile projects.

“Well, they’re all volunteers,” Zits snorts. “I’m not kidnapping them off the streetcar!”

“For the next step, I ask the men to sort through a pile of magazines, picking images that they feel represent them. The magazine collection has everything in it from interior design journals to fashion mags to gay porn. Then, they get naked and I paint their bodies from knees to shoulders with glue. They press their bodies up against prepared canvas and, once I’ve got the body print, the models head to the shower while I stick their chosen collage materials onto their glue print.”

So far, so kinky. But it gets better.

“When the models are showering, they’ll be filmed and the shower films will be broadcast on the wall of the gallery. This video is then edited and put on a monitor.”

Apart from being a load of goofy (and kinda hot) frat stunt fun, Zits’s restaging of Klein’s experiments resonates with a media-saturated awareness of the male body as both an object and the focus of objectification. The collages are gorgeous representations of conflicted appetites and conflicted self-image. The contrast between the silhouettes left behind by Zits’s models (round and lumpy, like real people) and the pictures of hyper-fit, over groomed men culled from magazines - images of masculinity chosen by men who look nothing like this exaggerated ideal - is both revealing and appalling. There is no small amount of self-hatred, or at least dismorphia, evident in this division between the actual and the desired.

“In some ways, the project is a look back and a look forward,” Zits explains.

“Is the male nude still an anomaly in public? Is showing the penis still verboten? Since Klein, our culture has drastically altered. Think about it - if I were a straight man doing Klein’s experiments today, after the feminist revolution, the work would be perceived very differently and would be questioned, rightly, with far more rigour.”

“But since I’m working with men, I want to address the fact that men today are more conscious of, and anxious about, their body image - and with that also comes a gay awareness and awareness of the gay gaze that was not available in Klein’s time. I’m part of that new awareness, so I’ve put myself into the art – my body will be glued up too. Klein never participated in his own experiments – he never even touched his models.”

Can you blame me for asking my next question?

“I, of course,” Zits guffaws, “will be very happy to touch my models.”

~

Call me simple minded, but I’ve never understood the point of photo-realist painting. Why not just take a picture?

Photo-realism has always struck me as the triumph of technique over imagination. Do people admire photo-realist works for the images they contain, or for the fact that some artist spent hours and hours perfectly capturing the glint of sunlight off the ketchup bottle?

Photo-realism feeds the worst sort of Protestant work ethic evaluations of art: If it takes 50 hours to paint a picture of a sink full of dishes that looks exactly like a photograph of a sink full of dishes, it must be valuable art! Never mind that looking at a painting of a sink full of dishes, no matter how Kodachrome accurate (and accurate is an adjective as slippery as “tasteful”), is not very exciting.

I am prepared, however, to have my mind changed. And painter Mike Bayne just might be the guy to do it.

Bayne’s latest works, as convincingly photo-ish as they are – and I’m not ashamed to admit I was convinced they were photographs, or at least photographs that had been augmented with paint – are actually subtle deconstructions of photo-realist practice. If you look carefully at each painting, you’ll see little interruptions in the photographic veneer, areas wherein brush strokes suddenly become glaringly evident and the painterly aspect of the work is boldly announced.

Bayne’s paintings thrive within the photo-realist tradition while treating that tradition, and the questionable value system that supports it, with suspicion. As such, they are the first photo-realist works I’ve ever spent more than ten seconds admiring.

My only critique is that Bayne, like too many artists of his generation, finds empty parking lots, strips of commercial highway and suburban front lawns to be fascinating subjects for art making (but that whole suburban Romantic/banality cult, or, as I like to call it, the Vancouver Dullard School, is another column’s worth of trouble).

Perhaps the burden of simultaneously exploring and exploding a treasured tradition leaves Bayne with little time to seek out more vital subjects? Or, perhaps his choice of dull settings is a further comment on the mundane nature of photo-realism?

Whatever the reason, Bayne’s brainy, questioning life studies could do with an injection of, well, life.

~

Like most of you, I heard about David Byrne’s bus shelter installations before I actually saw them - because when an American celebrity, even a semi-forgotten one, comes to town to hawk his wares he can be guaranteed wall to wall to bus stop attention from the local media. Resisting the hype, I intentionally avoided Byrne’s work, but one day it was raining and the street car was late ….

Byrne’s photo and text works are humourous, light weight musings on the notion of sin, or to be more specific, Byrne’s proposal that western culture is breeding a new set of sins. Byrne pokes fun at such commonplace bad habits as consumerism, ambition, and contentment – all easy targets – and couples his writing with complementary (but otherwise unremarkable) photographs to illustrate his points.

None of these posters are worth denouncing as bad art, but neither are they deserving of the enormous amount of coverage they’ve gotten. The works are occasionally clever and help kill time between TTC rides, but are, like most billboards, instantly forgettable.

Too bad the Toronto media doesn’t get as excited about local artists. If ours is a city, as Toronto-haters claim, that sex forgot, we sure know how to bend over for a star.
Johannes Zits
The Skin You’re In
SPIN Gallery 1100 Queen Street West Until June 12

Mike Bayne
New Works
Katherine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects 1086 Queen St. West
Until June 4

David Byrne
The New Sins
Bus shelters on Queen West

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Big Picture 32

A few months back I encouraged you to run out and buy a limited edition poster by multimedia artist and full time super-freak Luis Jacob. Obviously, enough of you did just that, because the poster was sold to raise funds for Jacob’s installation at the Toronto Sculpture Garden and, voila!, the installation is now up and running – or should I say pedalling?

Entitled Flashlight, Jacob’s installation is a mini gay theme park, a tribute to the sparkly, festive world of homo disco, complete with a glitter ball, sun-catching cobalt streamers, a collage of party pics, Fire Island patio lounges, and, for those inclined to infantilism (which, if you check out the Osh Kosh-inspired summer outfits on Church Street, is apparently most gay men) a geodesic monkey bars/go-go platform.

Jacob tops off his Vitamin D enriched spectacle with a banner made from knit Xmas tree lights. The banner reads “Everybody’s Got A Little Light Under The Sun”(it’s one of those “I Will Survive” or “We Are Family” type disco slogans), but you’ll have to work like a gym clone to see it – the banner is powered by two bike wheels that viewers must peddle, and peddle hard, to generate the electricity that sparks up the show. I am a large-legged, hearty sort and even I could only get the thing up to full brilliance for about 15 seconds. Damn muscle queens!

If there’s a subtext beneath Jacob’s club-kidding, it’s nestled in those wheels and all the other hidden gears and widgets that make the lights so bright. The endless gay party, Jacob tells us in his quiet way, is supported by a lot of hard, mostly unacknowledged work – the challenge of maintaining our civil freedoms, the day to day work of fighting homophobia, and the personal struggle to stay positive in a culture that continually negates your very being. That’s the uphill peddling that gets you to the palace. Tough, but worth it.

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a gay pal who is being driven to depression by the nasty, daily anti-gay messages put forth by opponents to the equal marriage bill. I’m going to drag him down to Jacob’s sculpture and we’re going to peddle until we’re giddy.

~

At “nearly 70”, US-based painter Delmas Howe is the undisputed granddaddy of erotic art – an artistic descendent of Tom Of Finland and an influence on younger erotic artists such as Rob Clarke, Uli of Berlin, and even fading enfant terrible Attila Richard Lukacs. Howe’s new show of cowboy sex fantasies at O’Connor Gallery is a luscious collection of drawings and paintings that revel in a flawed but still virile masculinity – an idealized maleness that is half classical pretty boy, half gone-to-seed trucker.

This odd conflation, Howe informs me, is not accidental.

“I grew up in a town – Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, where I live today – surrounded by cowboys, and even as a child I had a keen interest in the male form. But the only source for images of the male form, images I could study at length, were encyclopaedias. And the encyclopaedias only depicted the male form in the context of classical statuary. So, in my childhood I made this connection between the Greco-Roman art world and the local cowboys. Later, that became a core part of my sexuality.”

Erotic art, like its po’ cousin pornography, is not meant to be complicated. While the response time between the arousal an erotic artwork inspires and the excitement pornography creates may be different – we are trained by frequent exposure to mass media’s use of film to respond more quickly to time-based, and thus more realistic seeming, video imagery than to hand made pictures – the goals of each are essentially the same. You’re meant to get off on the art too, but in a more, ahem, gentle and considered fashion.

Howe’s art, however, plays sneaky tricks with such expectations. His hunky cowpokes are certainly gorgeous slabs of man flesh, but they are also men with slight pot bellies, moustaches in need of a trim, eyes a little too close together, and no sense of smart urban fashion. In other words, they’re a refreshing break from the soulless, shaved-chest robots common to mainstream porn.

“Some of my models are real cowboys, men I see at rodeos or around town. Some of them are friends”, Howe says, “but I always work from a real source, either photos of men or from models. But I don’t mean “model” models. For a painting I did last year, I met some Mexican guys on a camping trip - all nice, sexy young men - and we had a blast with the posing and dancing around. They were just fun loving guys trying something new. I want that energy in my work.”

Being of low mind, I had to ask Howe if any of these hunks become more than friends. He cracks a wicked, unreadable smile.

“Well, I’ve been asked to judge a Sexy Cowboy contest while I’m here … but I plan to win it myself!”

~

By the time I started bumbling my way through the Toronto art community, in the mid-90s, art stars David Buchan and Robert Flack were already dead from AIDS-related illnesses. I feel cheated.

A new retrospective of Buchan’s and Flack’s works at Art Metropole (the concluding show to Art Met’s year-long 30th anniversary programme), is both a tribute to the enormous output of these two seminal artists and a sombre reminder that, not so long ago, a generation of artists disappeared well before their time.

Buchan and Flack, working independently and in various collectives, were nothing if not productive; making everything from prints to photography, video, sound sculpture, performance and fashion. You name it, they tried it, and imbued each project with a wise-ass, sassy sense of humour that was at times misread - as was (is?) much queer cultural production - as low brow camp.

This exhibition does a great service to the legacies of both artists by pairing their early, jocular works (which I would argue have more to say than most of the serious political art of the time) with the darker works produced by each artist as he confronted his own mortality. Much of this deeply personal work, especially the archival material collected from each artist’s personal scrapbooks, is difficult to look at without feeling that you are invading someone’s privacy – but that’s the point, as Buchan and Flack never feared to make the personal public.

Archivist Andrew Zealley, a friend of both artists, deserves congratulations for assembling such a cohesive show from what must have been a mountain of materials – and for bringing Buchan and Flack back into the public eye.

A note to art teachers: this show has way more to say about our wounded and fractious cultural landscape than Bruce Mau’s fatuous Massive Change. Turn the bus south to King Street and give the kids something real (and beautiful) to ponder.



Luis Jacob
Flashlight
Toronto Sculpture Garden 115 King Street East Until September 15

Delmas Howe
Mixed Media
O’Connor Gallery 97 Maitland Street Until June 11

David Buchan and Robert Flack
Halos
Art Metropole 788 King Street West Until July 30

Monday, May 16, 2005

The Big Picture 31

It’s a cliché, but it’s true – Toronto is a cold, tough town for artists. We make our creative types pole vault over high walls that would kill Montreal or Winnipeg artists, spoiled as they are by supportive, arts-positive populations (and, in the case of Quebec, entire wings of the federal government).

Take, for instance, the case of Toronto-based painter Raffael Iglesias. His work is regularly exhibited in Latin America and Europe, where it sells faster than fresh cut flowers, but he can’t seem to move much product in Toronto – which is puzzling, since his paintings are gorgeous parades of colour and masterful feats of culture jamming.

“I don’t know why, but the Europeans like me more,” Iglesias tells me when I visit his latest show at Peak Gallery. “Toronto seems to be a bit afraid of my work, because it’s so bright and colourful. I think my paintings are very serious, but they don’t look severe or dark – and Toronto likes dark work. I think Toronto buyers associate “serious art” with very minimal pieces that have a limited colour scheme.”

Or, to be less polite, the town’s art establishment is clenched tighter than the Pope’s fist. A pity, because buyers are missing out on a limited-time-offer to buy Iglesias’s work before it inevitably skyrockets in price – an event that will undoubtedly, and, I’m sad to say, typically happen once local curators and buyers get the thumbs up from almighty New York or Berlin. If, as the old Stranglers song goes, everybody loves you when you’re dead, Toronto loves you when you’re deified in the Village Voice (but not a minute before).

Well, screw ‘em. Iglesias’s new work is his best to date – a bold leap forward from his previous works, which tended to be attractive but often too small to contain all his manic image hoarding. These days, Iglesias is working big, and the payoff is a series of huge paintings that are as busy as a Vegas floorshow, and just as sexy.

Iglesias layers spray painted stencils over blocks of hot, even toxic, metallic car-paint colours, adds more stencils, then attacks the canvases again with scratched on drawings, another layer of shimmering metallic paints, splashes of varnish (and nail polish?), and even solarized kid’s stickers. To call these works busy would be like calling Proust’s novels long-winded – busy ain’t the half of it. You can stand in front of an Iglesias painting and find a dozen things to look at, all of them pretty as fireworks. Look again, and you’ll see a dozen more.

Although Iglesias sources everything from Latin American movie posters to graffiti tags, Anti-Bush propaganda to biker tattoos (he runs a side business as a tattoo artist), his work never looks accidental. The paintings are not messy – rather, they are as carefully organized as a beloved curio cabinet. It takes a lot of quiet planning to make such beautiful noise. Listen up, Toronto.

~

After indulging your senses in Iglesias’s flamboyant turntablism, cross the parking lot for Belgian artist Wim Delvoye’s more cerebral, but no less playful chamber pieces. Delvoye’s works appear to be no more substantial than whimsical advertising images, but betray, if you give them time, an interrogatory impulse that can’t be too readily dismissed.

J.D. Salinger once wrote that there was a thin line between clever and stupid. I’ve never really understood that line, being neither, but if any work embodies this split, it’s Wim Delvoye’s nutty constructions. Delvoye creates elaborate gags that purport to be about Big Ideas – his poop machine, recently exhibited at the Power Plant, is a good example – and this new exhibition has its share of squirting flowers and whoopee cushions.

For example, Delvoye’s digitally manipulated photos of high cliffs carved with banal email messages, are, at best, cute. Yes, yes – the photos re-contextualize the ephemera of our daily lives and make us think about the messages we send by re-positioning, to Mount Rushmore absurdity, the throw-away information we take for granted or abuse. I get the theory, and so do you – it’s hardly news. But why so much work, so much careful digi-crafting, to make what is essentially a very banal observation? These pieces need more time in the lab.

On the other side of the clever/stupid divide are Delvoye’s spectacular "Marble Floor" photographs, which I readily admit fooled me until the optical illusion was pointed out by Madame Korper. I don’t want to spoil the fun, so I’ll just say that Delvoye’s luscious images of complex Middle Eastern tile work are more than a celebration of ancient decorative flooring.

Until you catch on, you’ll be struck by the fleshy, chipper pinks and glistening, fatty whites Delvoye captures in the veined marble. Once you do catch on, you might have larger questions about why Delvoye chose to pay homage to classical Islamic art with materials considered verboten, even insulting, to Muslims.

Attention-hungry prankster or master ironist?

~

Painter/poet Joe Rosenblatt and I read together years ago, when I was a young and fresh poet and he was already a living legend. I don’t remember much about the reading, (mine, I mean), but I’ll never forget Rosenblatt’s series of off-the-wall observation poems about cats - because, unlike so many poets who write about animals, Rosenblatt was not having any of that Peter Rabbit nonsense. Rosenblatt’s cats were merciless predators, amoral night creatures always looking for something to kill.

It’s hardly surprising that Rosenblatt’s latest collection of animal paintings conveys the same ferocity and unapologetic sneakiness.

First off, it’s hard enough just to find the grasping little monsters inside Rosenblatt’s heaping mounds of paint. Fist-sized cow patties of unmixed paint are smashed onto the canvas in rough clusters, turning each painting into a kind of blurry, dangerous trek through the underbrush (or coral reef, or leafy tree top). The nominal subjects of the works – birds, cats, fish – are indistinct from their mucky surroundings, which is the whole point. Animals, Rosenblatt posits, are not of our world, but of a more febrile one, a world where sense and action and identity are indistinct.

Rosenblatt’s paintings are not for everyone. There is something decidedly retro-1970’s looking about these works, with their emphasis on clashing citrus colours and aggressive treatment of paint as a sculptural material. Some viewers will find the work too messy, too unrestrained, too … not Toronto.

Raffael Iglesias
New Work
Peak Gallery 23 Morrow Avenue Until May 21

Wim Delvoye
Recent Works
Olga Korper Gallery 17 Morrow Avenue Until June 4

Joe Rosenblatt
New Paintings
Pteros Gallery 2255 Dundas West Until May 28

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Big Picture 30

In any other context, sculptor Gareth Lichty would be (rightly) diagnosed as an obsessive-compulsive. But the art world is a forgiving world, by habit and from necessity (there’s an understatement).

Lichty’s elaborate, wildly impractical creative processes would make even the most fanatical, detail-crunching artist flinch. Lichty doesn’t just build things, he builds entire manufacturing systems - starting a project not from scratch but from itch, and putting himself through workloads that, by their exaggerated difficulties and foolish meticulousness, cause the process to be as much a part of the work as the final product. It’s a good thing he doesn’t work in film, because he’d probably try to grind his own lenses from geodes and make 35mm stock out of birch bark.

Lichty’s latest project is a perfect demonstration of his inability to cut corners. Ostensibly three large paper sculptures, the works are actually the final result of months spent making everything from the paper itself to the miniature bricks that give the paper it’s distinctive pattern. Here’s what Lichty did, as far as I can figure. First, he hand moulded and fired 250, 000 (as in, a quarter of a million) tiny bricks, each about the size of a thumb. The bricks were then made into a huge sculpture. After the sculpture’s run finished in 2004, he disassembled the work and re-laid the bricks in flat panels. Then, he made his own paper out of pulp, slathered the wet paper over the brick flats, and peeled it off once it dried. There goes another month or so.

Finally, the brick pattern paper was cut into squares and formed into wall mounted sculptures, using only paper clips and thumb tacks. I’m exhausted just writing all that down.

The big question here, of course, is whether or not the ends justify the means? What does all this manic productivity lead to? The answer is, three quite lovely sculptures. The patterned, pressed paper catches the light unevenly, causing tiny pockets of dark to form across the otherwise pristine and glowing surfaces. The texture also gives off a kind of domestic familiarity, reminding the viewer of embossed paper towel.

Of the three sculptures, the large bent log form is the most accomplished, as it looks like a benign growth emanating from the wall, a bit of infrastructure cellulite. The two kidney shaped pieces are pleasingly curvy, but appear to be more the beginnings of sculptures than finished works.

I usually find art about art-making tiresome, too full of the pride of its maker. But the process half of Lichty’s work is so over the top, so spectacularly pointless, that I can’t help but read it as an absurd exaggeration, even mockery, of the work ethic and its wholesome posturing. And nothing makes this Atlantic Canadian’s heart sing more than a hearty jab at the pomposities of the work ethic.

~

When I was a pot smoking teen, my favourite way to come down from a quarter ounce was to steal the percolator from the kitchen and poke the coffee grounds out of the filter. It took hours to finish, and patterns emerged in the filter. Clouds, trees, the face of Saint Jude ….

Um, anyway, the trigger for this cozy childhood memory is a series of new photographs by Toronto darling Chris Curreri - a young photo-constructionist who became hot news last year when he exhibited a series of archival photographs decorated with delicate embroidery. For his latest series, Curreri reverses his earlier motif and shows us the needle holes, not the threads.

Starting with a collection of vintage photographs of couples, Curreri traces the shape of the figures with pin-sized holes, thus reducing each person to a connect-the-dots outline. He then photographs the back of the original photo, further negating the image’s specificity. What is left is a kind of anti-photograph, a counter to the mimetic exactness of the source image. Curreri’s couples could be anyone. The hole tracings reduce the individuals to cartoons - rounded, amorphous blobs devoid of identifying content or context.

Underneath this intriguing experiment lies an aggression that is not immediately apparent. The backs of the original photographs are a dull paper white, and Curreri’s holes are gentle pricks, not gouges. It all looks so pensive and cerebral, until you consider that what you are staring at is an act of vandalism.

Curreri’s puncture/erasure effectively wipes out whatever history was contained in the original photos. Depending on your mood, these works can be read as a subtle commentary on the frailty of all commemorative devices, or as a violent attack on photography’s questionable claim to capturing history. Or both.

~

If you hear low moaning and tortured shrieks coming from your neighbour this week, he or she might be an artist going through cable TV withdrawal (among other types).

This time last year, multimedia artist Timothy Comeau received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council to purchase cable services for eight artists for one year. The goal, Comeau says, was to see what the artists would make if they were suddenly given access to dozens of channels.

“I feel that we're entitled to as much media/information as possible,” Comeau tells me.

“Cable TV is a library and gallery that media artists, due to their relative poverty, don't have access to. Painters and sculptors can go to museums on free nights, but is there free access to music videos, commercials, or news programs? All are worth knowing about if your medium is video. But most artists simply can't afford a cable TV subscription – so this project became an experiment with one person socialism.”

Performance artist and filmmaker Keith Cole used his time in front of the box to discover that he spends way too much time in front of the box.

“I will not miss having cable! I have wasted so much time – I’m happy to see it go. Although I loved it, I will not mourn it - kind of like this guy I stalked last year.”

Cole plans to make a dance piece and “a truly horrible painting” based on what he learned from reality television about successful stalking. He’s also come up with a starring vehicle for his acting career.

“What about a show with a drag queen /actress who is slightly washed up and overweight but whose career is suddenly revived … with the adorable Paul Gross as my on again/off again boyfriend who is from the wrong side of the tracks?”

Stay tuned.


Gareth Lichty
Paperworks
Redhead Gallery 401 Richmond St. West, Suite 115
Until May 21

Chris Curreri
Circa 1960
Edward Day Gallery 952 Queen Street West
Until May 15

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Big Picture 29

Loyal readers will already know that I am not overly fond of the Distillery District, that insta-community at the swampy bottom of the east end better known for its cocktail jazz concerts and doggy dress up parades than its cultural vigour. Although practically every third space in this cobbled quaint-o-sphere is called a “gallery”, few of these alleged art venues are more than hobby painter consignment shops – the kind that sell competent paintings of dewy tulips, worried Asiatic damsels in gauzy veils, and placid seascapes painted with loofa sponges.

I sometimes feel sorry for the real galleries that have to compete with these tourist lures, but then I remind myself that nobody forced the galleries to move down there, and that capitalism is inherently merciless. So, I wander the bumpy laneways looking for something exciting to write about, something that will make all that stroller-dodging and knick knack-evading seem like a minor annoyance, not a penance.

This time, I got lucky. Three new shows at three credible galleries, while varied in their merits, have made me promise myself that, at least while summer winds (and my cycling legs) hold, I will pay more attention to the Distillery District. But I draw the line at in-line skating demonstrations, “PartiGras” (I’m not making that up), or anything involving theatre students in Edwardian costume.

Let’s go from the cheesy to the considered, the well-intentioned to the wondrous, and start at the low end with Sandra Ainsley Gallery’s exhibition of multimedia sculptures by the American glass artist Steve Linn.

That Linn is an accomplished craftsperson is not up for question. His life size sculptures and busts of famous artists, rendered in deftly carved and sandblasted glass, are stunning achievements in technique. Linn treats glass not as a fragile semi-liquid to be coaxed and cuddled, but as a precious stone to be cut, shaved and scratched into submission. His results are admirable. Linn pushes the boundaries of glass sculpture to bizarre limits, making sculptures that do not, like most glass works, celebrate or fetishize the material’s fragility, but, rather, ask us to look at glass in the same way we do wood or steel – as a durable material capable of impressing us with its strength and presence. And he’s pretty good at carving faces too, in case you care about verisimilitude in portraiture.

I’m fond of glass art, and, unlike many of my colleagues, do not consider it inherently tacky. But Linn’s sculptures will not help make my case. While his technical skills are undeniable, Linn’s overall compositional tendencies lean – oh, why be polite? – trip and fall toward the didactic, the overwrought, the obvious … and, yes, the tacky.

Jackson Pollock is recreated here, and of course he’s surrounded by his signature drips. Michelangelo’s bust is encased in a picture frame, and, just in case you missed the message, backed by a pair of angel wings. Joseph Cornell’s head can be found inside, you guessed it, a Cornell box. I could go on, but it’s too sad-making – these are not portraits, they’re editorial cartoons (minus the humour).

I can’t remember the last time I saw such evident talent so sorely hampered by pedantic literalism. These sculptures are too obvious for a children’s book. I wanted to take a hammer to all the gewgaws cluttering Linn’s masterful glass treatments, to set the action free from the props. But that would be illegal, and costly.

~

Things picked up over at Artcore, where Montreal’s Kamila Wozniakowska’s series of neo-Surrealist figurative paintings flit across the walls like an art history slide show gone amok – which is no coincidence, since her sources appear to be taken from ancient Greek vases, Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, and contemporary dance.

Wozniakowska paints simple, unadorned panels depicting various forms of (mostly bad) human behaviour. Relationships between the sexes are treated with a kind of zoological clinicality - women rough up men, men are caught fondling ladies, and groups of men and women are busy doing everything from holding hands to playing S/M games. It’s a merry parade of sexual and interpersonal foibles, a Gashlycrumb Tinies for advanced neurotics.

However, the reason I use the word clinical to describe Wozniakowska’s seemingly freakish side show is because Wozniakowska does not imbue her misbehavin’ figures with any tangible vitality – they are nondescript players, rendered with no more depth than stock characters from a paper theatre. Wozniakowska’s types lack any real power to communicate particular emotions or desires, despite all the posed heavy breathing and knuckle sandwiches, because they are about as lively or metonymic as SimCity characters.

Wozniakowska’s dispassionate panoramas are only further hindered by her decidedly flat, sterile painting style. These paintings want to be allegories for everyday (and deliciously kinky, not-so-everyday) power exchanges, but instead their dullness causes them to feel more like academic exercises, like an exploration of the history of socio-sexual power dynamics in art, not the dynamics themselves.

Oddly bloodless, given the bloodthirsty subject, Wozniakowska’s works are an amusing but ultimately trite curiosity that would be better served by judicious inclusion in a related group show than by the full gallery treatment. Pick one or two works randomly, give them a good look, then walk out.

~

After two flawed exhibitions in a row, it was a relief to walk into the Corkin Shopland Gallery and swoon over Barbara Astman’s evocative, chilling Clementine Suite installations.

Inspired by images of Jewish orphans fleeing the Nazis, Astman has created a three part work that pays tribute to the survivors while subtly acknowledging the sad truth that the memory of their struggle is fading.

In one part of the project, Astman prints faces of the children on small cloth bags, the kind used to store spare parts, handfuls of nails or any forgettable thing worthy of only the humblest vessel. The combination of loaded photographic symbol and disposable ready-mades is achingly blunt, as it reminds us that these children were once considered flotsam by most of the world.

The other two pieces play games with projected images, turning the children’s faces into faint spectres. First, Astman decorates a string of ordinary Christmas lights with dozens of small, printed transparent discs; each one containing the face of a single child. The faces, suffused with twinkling light, reappear in reflection on the nearby wall, looking like shadow puppet heads. Or ghosts.

Meanwhile, in a small alcove down the stairs, the same discs are fixed on the business ends of flashlights that have been hung upside down from the ceiling. The children’s faces are cast onto the floor in bright circles, but because the flashlights twist and jostle, they appear blurry and indistinct. Their history literally hangs from a thread.

Admittedly, Astman is being as literal in her representation of the vulnerability of Holocaust memory as Linn is being in his crib note reductions of his heroes (or as I’m being in my interpretations). But Astman’s prosaic approach is easier to take, because her humble tribute does not attempt to encapsulate her subjects’ entire experience, nor to act as a grand commemorative gesture or monument. I wonder if she ever works in glass?



Steve Linn
Recent Works
Sandra Ainsley Gallery 55 Mill Street, Building 32
Until May 14


Kamila Wozniakowska
Exercices de Style
Artcore 55 Mill Street, Building 62
Until May 10

Barbara Astman
Clementine Suite
Corkin Shopland Gallery 55 Mill Street, Building 61
Until June 2