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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.

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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?

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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