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