Saturday, June 25, 2005

The Big Picture 37

Queen and Ossington is the new Queen and Bathurst.

Scoff while you can, because seven years ago, in a much humbler newspaper, I predicted the West Queen West gallery boom. And they all laughed.

Pedalling up Ossington last weekend, I counted six art galleries, five glammy clothing and house wares boutiques, two design firms, an organic coffee shop, and three trop frais micro-bars – on a street once dominated by run down hardware stores, an ugly garage/gas station combo, and unfriendly karaoke bars with blacked out windows.

Not everyone loves the overnight transformation. At an opening in May, I watched two working class guys drunkenly tumble out of a shoddy Brazilian sports bar and collide with a murder of fancy gallery types smoking on the sidewalk. The results were predictable.

“You’re taking over our neighbourhood!”, the local lads shouted. “We won’t be able to afford to live here anymore!”

Right they are, too. The typical gentrification pattern works this way: artists move in and fix up the neighbourhood, then big corporations take over. A pal of mine with a retail spot for rent in the heart of indie-spirited Queen West was contacted by a dozen US-based chain stores, all looking to hire his cool. I give South Ossington (I’m coining this moniker, and I want the residuals) two years of Starbucks-free living.

Ross Bonfanti and Sandra Tarantino, co-owners of the new C1 Art Space, have a good chance of staying afloat during the next gentrification tidal wave – they own the building. But more important, C1 is a unique combination of gallery, learning facility, and one-of-a-kind shop.

“The gallery in the front of the store is for both our stable and showcased artists. Unlike a lot of starter galleries on Ossington or Queen West, we don’t rent the wall space. But we do take commission”, Tarantino explains.

Behind the gallery is a comfortable teaching room and a showcase packed with a treasure trove of artists’ multiples. Tarantino teaches classes in painting, and C1 hires local and visiting artists to teach other disciplines. Each course runs for a month, with classes once a week. Bonfanti, a multimedia artist, claims he is “too afraid to teach”.

“We get a lot of artists who want to learn another skill for their repertoire,” Bonfanti says, “but our clients are not exclusively artists – a non-artist will feel completely at home here, because even the professional artists are beginners in the new medium.”

Bonfanti and Tarantino both have extensive connections to neighbouring AWOL Gallery, one of the first brave adventurers to land on Ossington, and the two spaces often share artists. However, Bonfanti notes that C1 is “more like a gallery shop, which makes sense, because both of us are from retail families, even though both of us swore we’d never follow in our parents’ footsteps.”

Their parents must be proud, because C1 has a great collection of inexpensive art. Among the steals are the deliciously macabre “Soft Uglies” dolls by Nova Scotia artist Mary Kim, Dale Thompson’s inventive scotch tape collages - Thompson cleverly lifts faces and text from newspapers by peeling the ink off with clear tape - and Kasia Piech’s whimsical portrait bowls glazed with liquorice, chocolate and other mysterious ingredients.

The only drawback to creating a mini service and retail empire is that neither artist has enough time to make art. Maybe they should have listened to their parents?

“We want to keep our own art careers going”, Bonfanti sighs, “and it’s hard sometimes to manage both. But since our own studios are right in the gallery, and we’re sitting here all day, sometimes we’ve got nothing else to do but make art.”

“And we live in the building”, Tarantino adds. “There’s no escaping.”


Richard Gorman’s luminous and loud new paintings remind me of retreating mudflats, (acid) rain-swept windshields, and that nasty, gorgeous smear an inkjet printer makes when its wheely thing gets jammed – that is, if any of these visions took place on another planet, one with two suns and no ozone layer.

Gorman’s toxic two-colour swipes are as stark a study in contrast as standing Pamela Anderson next to Andrea Martin. Turquois interrupts geranium red, jack-o-lantern orange break dances with Aegean blue, and Easter egg purple storms over baby corn yellow. These paintings are not studies in harmony and composition, they are carefully plotted car crashes, experiments in discordant colour dissociation. The fact that many of them share the same anti-taste as my old New Wave outfits from the 80’s only makes me love them more.

Literalists will search these aggressively unnatural works for real world antecedents – photo negatives, perhaps, or lightning-fused storm clouds. Well, more power to the pedantic seeker. I just want to wear one.


The ever-dependable Fly Gallery – a broom closet-sized window box sandwiched between the Gladstone Hotel and it’s evil twin the Drake Hotel – is clearly building its programming around the summer movie schedule.

A week before Nicole Kidman makes another 50 million playing the facially flexible Samantha in the remake of Bewitched, video artist Mark Laliberte offers a much lower budget version of the same nose shaking shtick – one that will take a lot less time (and, I suspect, patience) to view.

Twitch is a simple and simply animated video depicting a non-descript woman whose face is spasmodically contorted by a series of pouts, eye pops, grimaces, and blinks (which more or less sums up the art of acting). As the face re-arranges itself, an Atari-era soundtrack of computerized beeps and burps sings along to the show.

Simultaneously cute and disturbing, Twitch manages to reference the vile demands of the modeling industry, 70’s NFB animation, cheesy synth pop, fashion illustration, second wave feminism and the ravages of Tourette’s syndrome in just two succinct minutes. Kind of like Parkdale itself.

C1 Art Space
44 Ossington Avenue
Check www.c1artspace.com for class offerings and schedules.

Richard Gorman
New Paintings
Christopher Cutts Gallery 21 Morrow Avenue Until July 9

Mark Laliberte
Fly Gallery 1172 Queen West Until July 5

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Big Picture 36

When the press kit for the MOCCA’s Demons Stole My Soul: Rock and Roll Drums in Contemporary Art landed with a timpani smack on my doorstep, my first thought was that it must truly be summer, the silly season.

Big institutions tend to fill their summer schedules with easy to digest shows, often built around literal-to-the-point-of-dumb themes. Anyone remember the disastrously dim-witted Power Plant show The Hand from a few summers back? It featured a summer camp bus’s worth of art depicting, um, hands. Such shows, kid friendly (or tourist, same thing) and about as challenging to one’s interpretive skills as a novelty bbq apron, are the big gallery equivalent of summer blockbuster movies – easy on the eyes, even easier on the brain.

How refreshing, then, to find that Demons Stole My Soul, a show about drum kits and the artists who use them (who thinks these things up?), is actually far more meaty than it has any right to be - while still packing enough ADD-fuelled bangs and whoops to keep the toddlers from reaching for their PSPs.

The curatorial premise at work here ain’t exactly museum science: certain types of artists - the same ones, I suspect, who like to work with robots, jackhammers, and go-go dancers - are drawn to the rock and roll drum kit as both an icon of popular culture and as a really easy way to fill a gallery with an artillery’s worth of noisy fun. It’s hard to argue with that kind of pure, and puerile, enthusiasm. And if, like me, you spend way too many hours in hushed galleries trying to look overawed and suitably reverent, you’ll be grateful for the chance to rock out.

Having said that, Demons Stole My Soul is a real “boys and their toys” show. Call me essentialist, but banging on things for the sheer pleasure of making noise, or constructing elaborate gizmos that exist solely to make even more noise, is a boy culture practice as old as playing war or blowing up frogs. I’m not judging here, just observing. Take your visiting sister-in-law, the one who thinks Sarah McLachlan is the new Janis Joplin, straight to the Bata Shoe Museum.

Mothers with boyish children fond of science projects (such as “what happens when you fill a Barbie camper full of firecrackers?”), police whistles, and Monster Garage will instantly recognize the automated drum kits built by Jean-Pierre Gauthier and Mirko Sabatini. Motion sensor activated, the drums let out a cacophony of annoying beats, clangs, and thumps, aided by a hornet’s nest of wires, circuit panels, and other gadgetry I have no desire to learn anything about (I am sissy, hear me mewl).

Gauthier and Sabatini’s art is meant to try your patience, like a stationary version of an Istvan Kantor performance, but I question whether or not it needs to be so aggressively unattractive. Clotted with gear, the sculptures look like giant disembowelled laptops. The actual drums almost disappear underneath all the tacky Mad Max styling - which is too bad, since half the fun of an automaton is trying to figure out how it works.

Clearly, what Gauthier and Sabatini’s sculptures do is more important than how they look, but this aesthete’s heart can’t help pining for a few veils, a bit of mystery. Only Red Green thinks fuse boxes are beautiful.

Keeping with the theme of “irritainment”, Flo Mounier offers a 7 minute (but oh, how much longer it feels) video of a maniacal drum solo. As noisy as the endless reconstruction of College Street, this video is, like the automated drums, meant to trigger your inner pot banger, or harried school marm.

If you can get past the patter, however, you’ll notice that the video is saturated, indeed slathered in a gorgeous, pink-orange hue that’s as pleasing as a Georgian Bay sunset in August. The distorted look is an interesting choice, as it not only references psychedelic-era concert films, but also has the contradictory effect of obscuring the drummer’s movements.

Boorish percussion enthusiasts never shut up about the “tightness” of a drummer’s wrist movements or their favourite drummer’s pounding muscularity, as if discussing Olympic athletes. Mounier’s video plays with and against the cult of the macho drummer by documenting a stellar performance and then submerging the performance in a soupy bath of colour. If only Mounier provided earplugs.

My favourite work in Demons, however, is not really a drum kit at all. Prankster Walter Willems has built a standard drum kit, but replaced the drums with wheels of cheese (some real, some plastic). The fit is perfect, a classic surrealist juxtaposition of disparate materials that is both funny and dream-logical. What, after all, could be cheesier than a drum solo?


Note to Mayor Miller: it’s hot outside, really hot. Not all of us work in air conditioned offices. Open the damned pools!

Until that work order is filled, take a (gasping, panting) stroll down to YYZ Artists’ Outlet and submerge yourself in Andrew King and Angela Silver’s cooling video installation.

Back-projected onto a hanging garden of room-sized silvery screens, the video takes the viewer on a long, gentle car ride across a softly lit city nightscape. Being inside King and Silver’s video tunnel is like sitting on the passenger side of your best friend’s car, hanging your head out the window to catch the breeze.

A simple, sensual delight, the installation should be enjoyed slowly, like a chilled drink. Bring a sexy friend, a transistor radio, and pull over for a bit of necking.


Multimedia artist Natalie Wood poses an intriguing question in her latest project – is Mickey Mouse African American?

Think about it. His skin is black. He started his career in the South, on a river boat no less. He wears the same white gloves favoured by Jim Crow and minstrel singers. What more do you need, a DNA test? Well, here it is.

Wood’s project is part of an ongoing internet-based work called Kinlinks, which she describes as “a faux corporation that does genetic testing on popular western icons to find out whether they have black/African genes or ancestry.”

Inside the site, Wood conflates images of Mickey with images of Al Jolson in black face, vintage pictures of African-American kids (including a priceless picture of a small African-American girl whose hair has been teased into two pom-pom balls, resembling Mickey’s round ears), and vaudeville minstrel performers.

Wood’s fake “genetic scan” concludes that Mickey is “25% African” (and, I’d add, 100% gay – he’s the black Richard Simmons). The website also contains a hilarious gene test on the Medusa, matching images of the legendary snake-haired lady with pictures of white kids wearing the Vancouver passport (i.e. blond dreads).

I can’t wait to see what Kinlinks does with Stephen Harper’s Sammy Davis hairdo.

Demons Stole My Soul: Rock and Roll Drums in Contemporary Art
Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art
952 Queen Street West Until July 3

Andrew King & Angela Silver
YYZ Artists’ Outlet 401 Richmond St. West, Suite 140
Until July 9

Natalie Wood
Kink The Links
Indefinite run.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Big Picture 35

Why do dinosaurs excite our imaginations? Are they, as many ethnologists claim, a reminder of our sublimated pagan past, of a time when humans readily believed in monsters? Or do they have a more current function, as potent symbols of our own fear of extinction? Is it a coincidence that dinosaur science, and the philosophizing that trails behind it, began in earnest in the mid 19th century, just when more thoughtful folks were beginning to question the ravages of the Industrial Revolution?

The racial memory and projection theories are both perfectly sound explanations of our ongoing fascination with the long dead creatures, but I have my own theory, infantile as it may be – we want to see one, pet one, maybe even keep one as a pet.

Proof? As soon as dinosaurs stomped their way into the popular imagination, popular fiction began grinding out stories of dinosaur/human interaction. Reports of dinosaur sightings regularly turned up in the excitable penny press (and still do in the more amusing tabloids). And while Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle both wrote best selling adventure novels featuring encounters between explorers and giant lizards, the Loch Ness Monster myth (and subsequent cottage industry) sprouted up like a horned weed, energized by the startling creatures found in fossil beds. Jurassic Park is just the latest in a long line of dinosaur entertainments.

Is it surprising, then, that the hottest field of dinosaur study today is the study of the so-called feathered dinosaurs? The idea that a humble robin pecking at a garbage bag is actually a descendent of an enormous, freakish lizard offers those of us inclined to the mystical a live connection to the planet’s distant and awe-inspiring past. And it’s this potential for romantic daydreaming that the Royal Ontario Museum’s exhibition Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origin of Flight successfully exploits.

Packed with information and a truck load of beautiful fossils, Feathered Dinosaurs explores the key question in the bird-dinosaur controversy: are the feathered fossils uncovered by palaeontologists early versions of flightless birds, such as the emu, or are they dinosaurs covered in feathers? Furthermore, if the fossils are feathered dinosaurs, are they the fore-parents of birds?

Scientists have been debating these puzzles since the 1860’s, so don’t expect me to give you a final answer (although I did once watch a flock of finches attack a seed ball with a ferocity that was distinctly reptilian) – what I can conclude is that Feathered Dinosaurs, the exhibition, is delicious viewing.

The fossils, lifted from the apparently very busy quarries of Liaoning, China, are jewel perfect. Displayed individually in small vitrines, the fossils have a delicacy and clarity that will surprise museum goers who’ve gotten used to looking at half-visible and muddied shapes buried in dark rock.

Entire little creatures jump out from the stone, many of them frozen in mid slither. A school (school? What’s the word for a group of extinct aquatic creatures?) of tiny, long-necked dinosaurs swims by, tails bent like rudders. A small, football sized dinosaur fossil rests with its head curled on its front paws (paws? feet? talons?), looking more like a sleeping cat than an SUV crushing monster. A tiny, perfectly articulated turtle, about the size of three loonies, could be mistaken for a brooch.

The speculative models of the feathery dragons are no less impressive. If the scientists are right, these beasts strutted around carrying more colour than a Carnival float. Garish orange feathers crest over flanks of chartreuse feathers, with blue and scarlet feathers for trim. Chanel was right – bad taste is eternal.

My one complaint about Feathered Dinosaurs is dramaturgical. The exhibition opens with a spectacular bang - as you enter, a gaggle of giant, rampaging feather dusters lurch out at you, scary and magical. After that show stopper, however, it’s all fossils, text, video and much smaller, less dramatic models.

I loved the fossils and even read half of the text, but as I watched people bring their children through the exhibition, I realized (and heard, over and over) that the small kids were bored by the intricate fossils and informative narration. You can hardly blame the poor hatchlings.

The lesson here is one every huckster knows. Save your best material for last.


Emerging painter Scott Pattinson originally trained to become an architect, but don’t hold that against his paintings. Pattinson’s newest series of abstracts, Rafter, are as exuberantly messy as a dropped palette (and twice as colourful).

It’s tempting to describe Pattinson as an action painter, a splatter, swipe and run artist - but his works are more considered than accidental, and betray hints of underlying (perhaps architectural?) structures. Imagine a stained glass window fed through a blender: you can sense that the pieces and bright bursts of colour once conveyed a form, but now that the original has been smashed, you’re left to marvel at the riotous pile.

And Pattinson really piles it on. Scarred, cross hatched surfaces are clotted with smudged pastels, inky black geometries are interrupted by curls of hot colour or nullifying white, and everywhere a battle rages between calming, flat stretches of neutral colour and indiscreet washes of unmixed, raw paint.

Modesty is not one of Pattinson’s painterly virtues. At times, the paintings look like they were painted with thumbs, fingernails, and toes. But modest abstracts are for hotel lobbies.


Trying to add up the many pieces in Emmanuelle Leonard’s unfocused multimedia work I Call On The Inquisition (Self Portrait) is a fool’s game (so, here I go).

That faux-literary title is a hint that Leonard is milking some sacred art-of-obfustication cows, and that the viewer is in for some pretentious twaddle. Leonard does not disappoint – her collection of pictures of herself in various media, handsome as many of them are, add up to a lot of poses with no real position.

My core problem with this work is its familiarity. Leonard depicts herself as a videogame character, and reminds me of Karma Clarke-Davis’s super heroine videos. Leonard displays a series of film stills showing herself in the midst of a violent confrontation, and makes me think of Paulette Phillips’s film installations.

I’m sure all of Leonard’s bits add up to something frightfully important, something to do with self representation, the ambiguous gaze, and unstable narratives, but if you’ve been anywhere near an art gallery in the past 15 years, you’ve already been down this yawning academic path, ad nauseum.

Where’s a giant, carnivorous down pillow when you need it?

Feathered Dinosaurs and the Origin of Flight
Royal Ontario Museum
100 Queen’s Park Until September 5

Scott Pattinson
Gallery Hittite 107 Scollard Street Until June 18

Emmanuelle Leonard
I Call On The Inquisition (Self Portrait)
Pari Nadimi Gallery 254 Niagara Street Until July 2

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Artist Biographies

Charles Nicholl
Leonardo Da Vinci: Flights of the Mind
Viking 623 pages $48.00

Meryle Secrest
Duveen: A Life in Art
Knopf 517 pages $50.00

Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe
Norton 629 pages $51.00

Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan
De Kooning: An American Master
Knopf 732 pages $50.00

There is a misconception in the publishing world that biographies of famous people are educational tools. Nothing could be further from the truth. The only reason to take time out of your own life to read about the life of someone you’ve never met – artist, queen, politician, pastry chef – is high quality gossip.

For instance, I can learn all I want about Aleister Crowley’s mystical musings by actually reading Aleister Crowley’s mystical musings. But it wasn’t until I read a tasty biography of Crowley that I learned he was into birching, inter-generational sex and rough sodomy, or that he had a pretty but stunned daughter named Zsa Zsa - information I consider priceless. Stuff the monographs and start shovelling.

With this entertain-me-or-be-tossed attitude, I ploughed my way through three new, very hefty biographies of famous artists (plus one collector), hoping to turn up some gold with the sod. The results were decidedly mucky, just the way I like it.


Charles Nicholl’s lively life of Leonardo Da Vinci (not that the world needed another book about Leonardo Da Vinci, but there is that novel about his code that seems to be selling …) is full of choice tidbits. Da Vinci was an enthusiastic dissector of corpses, sometimes taking chunks of fresh cadaver home with him (perhaps the lighting was better). Da Vinci’s many male apprentices – lovers? - bitched and clawed for the Master’s affections like an Italian nobility version of Elimidate. Everyone knows that Da Vinci was gay, but did you know he was once arrested by the Officers of the Night for sodomy? Or that he liked to draw cartoons of penises dancing a jig? What a fun guy!

Entertaining and informative, Nicholl’s book strikes the right balance between scholarly detail and salacious whisperings. But don’t bother hunting down Nicholl’s hundreds of references to lesser Italian artists and minor political leaders, or you’ll still be reading this book by next Christmas.


Joseph Duveen, a British art dealer who generated considerable tittering during his life, gets the full warts and Windsors treatment in Meryle Secrest’s absorbing biography – much of which is gleaned from heretofore unavailable documents.

Duveen built his career selling Old Masters poached from crumbling British manors to Gilded Age American robber barons, and thus instigated the shift in art world power from Europe to the United States. If only we’d had a Duveen in this country.

A flamboyant public figure who spent half his adulthood embroiled in one arcane lawsuit after the next – each nicely chronicled by Secrest – and who climbed to remarkable social heights for a Jew living amongst uptight British nobility, Duveen was nevertheless extremely private about his domestic life. So don’t expect any truly revelatory dirt.

What Secrest does find, however, is a Duveen few people knew, a sentimental and emotive man living (and thriving) in a cut throat world. If that’s not enough for you, the side bars about bad behaviour by London’s art mad aristocrats will scald the corners of your black heart. It’s a wonder the Mafia hasn’t dropped porn and drugs for art.


Before I read Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s breezy biography of Georgia O’Keeffe, I figured I’d heard enough about the grand old gynocologist of the desert. I keenly remember the second wave of O’Keeffe mania in the 80’s, when you couldn’t buy a paper plate that didn’t invite you to experience O’Keeffe’s gauzy meditations on the flowery petals of womanhood.

But now that I know about the O’Keeffe who enjoyed fooling around with all sorts of partners, who frequently lied to the media (for fun), who was chronically neurotic about food preparation (she once wrote “There is a bit of bitch in every good cook”), and who, generally, was a fiercely competitive and often nasty ass kicker, I am less inclined to see her as a wholesome, idealized earth mother caricature, a table top feminism one liner.

Drohojowska-Philp has rescued O’Keeffe’s reputation from the Mother Theresa treatment under which it has suffered for decades, giving us back the flawed human being underneath the icon. Can a bio-pic be far off? I’d cast Glenn Close as O’Keeffe, or Christopher Walken.


If you really want to hunt for the Kurtz in American art’s heart of darkness, you don’t need to look much further than Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan’s biography of Willem de Kooning. Celebrated today for his startling abstract paintings, de Kooning had everything against him – poverty, a childhood in an abusive home, immigration to New York during the Depression, a fondness for large amounts of alcohol, and an almost insatiable appetite for ladies.

Any one of these hurdles would have felled a lesser artist, but as Stevens and Swan amply demonstrate, de Kooning was possessed of both luck and charm, and he became, at his height, the art world equivalent of a pop star (with all the attendant bad habits).

Recent scholarship on de Kooning has over-emphasized his allegedly misogynistic attitude toward women, as evidenced (again, allegedly) in his supposedly violent portraits of female subjects. Swan and Stevens, however, show us a more complicated artist, a lover of women who also suffered from a blinding fear of permanence and commitment. This revelation leads the reader to wonder if the pulled-apart women in his paintings are meant to be viewed as people in mid-transition, in flux - as mirrors to de Kooning’s own instability.

My only critique of this book is that I wanted to learn more about the social world de Kooning inhabited, the New York of the last century. The reader is told that de Kooning was a man about town, but where did he hang out? What did his haunts look like? Who else was there? Just how sleazy were the man’s tastes?

Call me shallow, but I like my psychologizing peppered with salty tales.

Book Review:Anthony Goicolea

Anthony Goicolea
Twin Palms Publishers
160 pages $60 US

At the risk of being the uncoolest critic in town … I hate this book. There, I said it. I feel better now.

Here’s why I’m supposed to like Anthony Goicolea’s silly, overstated boys-on-boys erotica: it’s naughty, it’s art school dangerous, there’s a hint of chic performativity theory in his use of layers of digitalization of himself (all the “boys” in the book are the boyish, but adult, Goicolea), it is meant to shock with its play violence and play pubescent sexuality, and New York loves him, baby! And, arguably, Goicolea is exploring some taboo terrain, with his exploration of teen erotica (even if the teens are fake teens) – it’s small wonder that American critics have taken to his work, given the conservative, sex-panic atmosphere that clouds any discussion of teen sexuality in the United States. So, kudos to Goicolea for at least trying to stir the pot.

However, here’s why I actually dislike Goicolea’s laboured photoconstructions: I read Lord of the Flies in grade nine and even at that tender age figured out the society-as-wolf-pack metaphor – and, sadly, that’s as deep as the going gets in Goicolea’s cliché ridden spectacles.

To put it bluntly, there is about as much newness, revelation, or simple cleverness in Goicolea’s images of boyish aggression and sex as you might find in any mid-20th-century, post-Freudian pop culture analysis of the latent homoeroticism in male/male society. From Golding’s novel to Calvin Klein’s underwear ads, the territory has been thoroughly, and often more imaginatively, covered.

You’ve seen these images before, and, if memory serves me, even hack metal bands like AC/DC did the whole sexualized British schoolboy routine with far more gusto. Tarting up worn editorializing and spurious shock jockeying with expensive digital effects, as Goicolea does to the point of being trick-tired, does not make the content any more current or important. What next, a series of photos of Coicolea in black face? The work her is about that relevant and timely.

Perhaps part of the problem is that his work doesn’t shock or provoke viewers who live in less sex phobic cultures – but, then again, I wouldn’t want to hand this tome to my local constabulary (though even they would appreciate it’s gorgeous binding, expensive papers and the overall “keepsake” quality of its top notch production)

Call me old and jaded, but at least when Larry Clark made similar work twenty plus years ago, he didn’t pretend he was doing anything other than jerking off to his own juvenile, stunted sexual fantasies. Goicolea needs a new schtick.

Book Reviews: Bullshit

Here’s a Zen koan to ponder: how do you write about the prevalence of falsehood, misrepresentation, and obfustication in contemporary culture without running the risk of adding more manure to the pile?

When people talk about the limitless amount of bullshit flying around today, what they are talking about, besides outright lies and larceny, is the actual amount of information, the tons and tons of words, words, words that plague us from every box and broadsheet. The meaning of the phrase “spreading bullshit” has changed radically in the information age, with the angry emphasis shifting from the noun, with all its connotations of dishonesty, to the verb, which speaks of how overwhelmed, even buried many of us feel by the truckloads of unreliable information we confront every day.

In other words, it’s not the lies we’re fed up with (if anything, we’ve grown used to them), it’s the crushing weight of their numbers.

So, isn’t writing a book about the problem just another way of making the dung heap a little taller? Why bother? The best thing anyone concerned with the rise of bullshit noise pollution can do is shut the heck up, close the laptop and take a nap. But publishers are notoriously immune to deconstructive arguments, and altruism.

Two new books on the rise of good old b-s do little to siphon the wheat from the, ahem, waste, and do even less to make our world a quieter, less invasive place. Laura Penny’s Your Call Is Important To Us: The Truth About Bullshit is a long-winded blast that, at nearly 300 pages, has almost nothing new to say, while Harry G. Frankfurt’s On Bullshit is an academic wank-off that attempts to parse out, to pointless, angels-on-pin-heads precision, the many and varied distinctions between his philosophical definition of “true bullshit” and its alleged cousins, such as lies, fabrications, boasting, etc. Apparently, neither of these authors realized they were running to the floodtide with buckets of water.

Of the two, Penny’s is the most readable. Her attacks on everything from big box shopping outlets to the insurance industry are full of interesting factoids, clever one-liners, a fetchingly pure hatred of the powerful and rich, and a charming crabbiness that drives the book from one raging rant to the next.

Penny is a master organizer of useful political and social information. Her dissections of the pharmaceutical industry and governmental over-regulation, to pick two examples from her vast array of targets, are backed up with solid, footnoted journalism. Penny can make a case better than most Supreme Court Lawyers, but her nagging habit of undermining her own authoritative voice with homespun, Minnie Pearl like “just plain folks” observations and dated, Friends-era sarcasms makes her writing seem more tossed off than considered.

Despite all her valuable fact wrangling, Penny’s essays read like extended humour columns from small town newspapers - hardly a threat to the powers that be. And as much as she wants to be a crusading humourist like Michael Moore, Penny sounds like the Sun papers’ low-brow kitchen witch Christina Blizzard (in style, not ideology).

The other big problem with Your Call Is Important To Us is that, despite being written by a Halifax-based author and published by McClelland & Stewart - whose slogan is “The Canadian Publishers” - the book’s references are almost entirely American. A handful of Canadian political notes pepper the prose, but Penny’s best shots are saved for the Republican party, the US end of the Wal-Mart empire, Enron and other cheating American corporate elites, and George W. Bush. Another word for bullshit is irrelevance.

Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, however, will be highly relevant to people who worry about the splintered reasoning buried within Fania Pascal’s essay on Wittgenstein, or the use of the word bullshit as a verb in Pound’s Canto LXXIV. Cocktail parties all over the academic world must be fairly bursting with barbs and re-barbs!

The rest of us will just have to content ourselves with Frankfurt’s core argument, which only took me three hours of reference dusting to uncover – bullshitters lie because it’s fun.

For this they make you Professor Emeritus at Princeton? Has Frankfurt never seen The Music Man (same message, far fewer headaches)?

On Bullshit is a bathroom book for philosophy undergrads, and will end up the smartest little book in the landfill, right beside all those Herman cartoon collections and People magazines. I intend to put my copy in a composter, allegory be damned.

Book Review: Cheap Laffs

Cheap Laffs: The Art of the Novelty Item
Mark Newgarden and Picturebox, Inc.
Harry N. Abrams 126 pages $30.00

There is absolutely no good reason for Cheap Laffs: The Art of the Novelty Item to exist. It serves no pedagogical purpose, tells no vital story, and has nothing to say about the state of the world today. I read it from cover to cover.

Like the completely worthless junk it celebrates, Cheap Laffs is one of those books you buy for yourself when you feel that you already own everything you could ever need – although, at 30 bucks a copy, it’s a bit steep for a trashy impulse purchase.

The creators of this loving homage to fake vomit, sneezing powder and X-Ray Specs might argue that the plastic tricks and rubber gizmos are a form of Pop Art, or, as the introduction puts it, are “product(s) of questionable quality, taste, originality, and necessity …doomed to remorseless disposal … shar(ing) direct kinship with all the truly significant art forms of the twentieth century.”

Not the nicest way to sum up, say, the films of Alfred Hitchcock or David Adams Richards’s novels (and I suspect the above statement is made with a full dribble glass’s worth of play bravado). Apply the claim to the silly stunt art of Jeff Koons or the oeuvre of Anna Nichole Smith, however, and you might have an argument. Contemporary culture has been periodically plagued by one-liners and slapstick creations meant to shock, like a joy buzzer, and then wear off – but that’s been true of culture since at least the Middle Ages. Have you ever actually read a medieval liturgical pageant play? They’re not exactly big on theological finery, but the monsters and floods and fiery wheels in the sky are pretty cool.

Of course, the great thing about gag items and novelties is that they are not Art. You can enjoy them without feeling guilty that you are not giving them enough time, because the jokes they carry are meant to take mere seconds to recognize – and you never have to confess that you don’t get what the creator is trying to say. Nobody expects you to be smart at parties about fake dog poop.

So, I advise skipping most of the introduction to Cheap Laffs, unless you are truly interested in the history of the mass production of toys, mid-20th century North American capitalism and the after-effects of WWII on humour, or the vaudevillian-like lifestyle of the gag makers. Big whoop.

You can come back to all that art history jazz later, after you’ve read up on such choice items as the Beatnik Beard, a self-adhering strip of greasy fun fur designed to make the wearer look “Crazy, Man!”, or the Trick Smoking Monkey - a nicotine-addicted plastic simian, complete with his own miniature cigarettes (made of harmless rolled paper, sadly), that was such a rage in the 1960’s that it spawned a rash of copy-cat smoking pets. I wonder if anyone has attempted to sue the manufacturer for inciting cigarette addiction?

Many of the novelties lovingly chronicled in Cheap Laffs will be familiar to anyone over 30. I will never forget my first Squirt Ring (nor will my brother – he still can’t abide a recipe calling for lemon juice) or the Yakity-Yak Talking Teeth that disappeared mysteriously in the glove compartment of my mother’s car, or my failed attempt in grade three to shoplift a Whoopee Cushion.

However, even the veteran junkaholic is unlikely to be familiar with the 1950’s Worry Bird - a dour, very phallic statuette meant to be, ahem, stroked when one was overwrought by life’s woes. The Bird’s bulbous head was draped in a curly rabbit fur shawl, just to clarify the situation.

Not direct enough, need to go even farther below the belt?

Apparently, no washroom was complete without the Royal Flush, a cloth toilet seat cover showing a hillbilly (a popular subject with the insensitive gag industry, as were fellow targets “belchers”, “rubes”, and “coons”) attempting to end his yokelish life by flushing himself down the toilet. Silly hillbilly – his will to live would easily have been restored by the hilarity of Laff Tissue, a roll of toilet paper generously endowed, panel after panel, with ribald jokes, the kind involving liquor, a fat wife, and a Jayne Mansfield lookalike.

And you thought the fifties were all about repression and starched twin sets. Douglas Sirk lied.

Book Review: Terry

Douglas Coupland
Douglas & McIntyre 176 pages $28.95

I was fifteen when Terry Fox began his Marathon of Hope, and, it shames me to admit, I didn’t pay much attention to his monumental efforts. Cancer was something that only old people got, guys with prosthetic limbs were to be pitied, not lionized, and everybody knew that marijuana didn’t give you lung cancer, so what did I care? These are the myths I, and most people my age at the time, lived under. My world is very different now, as is yours.

At age forty, cancer is something I think about more and more often. I have lived through the first wave of the AIDS epidemic, but lost an early lover to the damned disease, recently buried my father, taken by heart failure, won my own battles with addictions, and, generally, grown up. Like other new 40somethings, I check for lumps, try not to live on potato chips and Diet Coke, exercise when there’s nothing else to do, and avoid hydro towers – and yet, three of my friends have had cancer scares in the last five years. Terry Fox’s life is suddenly very real.

How fitting, then, that Douglas Coupland, the popularizer (and scourge) of all things related to my generation, has crafted Terry, a beautiful and heart breaking scrapbook chronicling Fox’s life and, perhaps more important, the massive, nation-wide obsession Fox’s run spawned – a media and public event that forever changed how we talk about cancer.

Just think back to 1980. Everybody smoked, in elevators, movie theatres, and offices. I remember ashtrays in my G.P.’s waiting room. Everybody lived on fried food, drove drunk, and worked in factories without protective gear. In my home, you didn’t say “cancer” out loud. It was shameful, like mental illness. When one of my mother’s friends got “the cancer”, my father called it “c”, afraid to say the whole word. And forget about prostate exams or asking your doctor to check your breasts for lumps. What’s a prostate?

Terry Fox changed all that, overnight. As Coupland’s book illustrates, nobody could shush or shame away a handsome young man with one leg. Fox’s openness, charming combination of vulnerability and athletic prowess, and, let’s face it, TV star good looks, made our reluctance and misplaced discretion over cancer seem not only silly, but offensive. Here was this adorable guy, running across the country on one leg, sweating like an Olympian, to fight a sickness many Canadians considered bad taste to discuss. Even if Terry Fox had raised only ten dollars, his contribution to cancer research would still be lasting, because he made it OK for ordinary people, especially men, to talk openly about their frailties, their bodies and even their fears – and for that we owe him the kind of tribute Coupland has assembled.

Although it is as thorough and reverent as any celebratory coffee table biography, I hesitate to call Terry a hagiography, because the price and value of saints has cheapened lately - and because Coupland wisely avoids any holy schmaltz.

Instead, Coupland pairs heroic, tear-inducing mass media photos of Fox’s struggle with more clinical, even cold images of Fox’s personal belongings (sweat pants, torn socks, a diary), thus negating any sense that he is assembling a morbid reliquary. Coupland packs his honest homage with images of Fox as “just an ordinary Canadian guy”, as a typical, tee-shirt wearing university jock goofing off in family snapshots, his mop of hair unfettered by combs. Many of these private pictures have never been seen publicly, and will do a great deal to stamp out the growing image of Fox as a superhuman, and thus remote, hero - an image that only separates him from the rest of us and therefore makes his courage unavailable to lesser mortals. Throughout his marathon, Fox repeated one message: I am not special, I’m just doing a special thing. And you can do it too.

Early in Terry, Coupland uncovers a blurry snapshot of Fox visiting a family in Come By Chance, Newfoundland. The family gave Fox and his friend Doug a place to sleep and a meal, way before the national media had picked up on Fox’s journey (which, typically, it didn’t notice until he hit central Canada).

In the photo, Fox stands behind a large cake with white icing, surrounded by big-haired local girls invited from the high school to entertain the boys. Fox looks like the cat that ate the pet shop. Cake and cute chicks!

I love this picture, because it shows me the Terry Fox behind the bronze statues and commemorative loonies – a real, live guy with a naughty smile (and hormones). Douglas Coupland isn’t varnishing Fox’s memory, he’s giving us back its flesh and blood.

Book Review: Massive Change

Massive Change
Bruce Mau and the Institute Without Boundaries
Phaidon $39.95 239

A journalist of my acquaintance recently visited designer Bruce Mau’s studio to discuss Mau’s latest book, the unrepentantly bombastic Massive Change. On Mau’s desk, the journalist noted, was a letter from the president of an impoverished South American country. The letter was in plain view, and, the journalist suspected, meant for his eyes. According to Mau, the president of the long suffering nation had invited Mau to visit for a week and, gulp, redesign the country.

My first thought after hearing this story was, Haven’t those people suffered enough?

In its inherent hubris, the story of Mau and El Presidente is typical of, and exactly what is wrong with, the kind of bold, sassy but ultimately empty promises found in Massive Change – a book more concerned with pronouncements than problem solving, the sales pitch than the product.

And what a pitch. Mau’s book promises that all the world’s nastiest problems – hunger, poverty, violence, ugly shoes – are simply design tasks waiting to be solved. Politics? It’s a design problem. Unleashed genetic sciences? A design opportunity! Trade inequities? They’re the new avant-garde of the economy! I wish I was making this up.

Massive Change isn’t really a book, it’s a two hundred page exclamation mark, packed with giddy prophecies about how super great everything will be once we let the Segway designers and Wal-Mart take over (oh, never mind about underpaid, benefit-deprived Wal-Mart staff or the fact that those goofy looking Segway scooter/shopping karts have become a standard comic prop on sitcoms … what’s the matter with you, don’t you believe in tomorrow?). The only thing holding us back from a new Golden Age, wherein, among other things, the internet and its related technologies will cause peace to break out and “Design and its capacities promise to make this century a new era of wealth worldwide”, is our inability to listen to our prophets – people such as, say, Bruce Mau.

There are two huge problems here that, for all its hurrahing and yahooing, Massive Change can’t overcome. The first is the notion that interconnectedness will automatically make people better citizens. The second is the book’s complete lack of counterpoint or argument.

Every chapter in Massive Change offers a variation on the idea that because we can now communicate over huge distances and share heretofore unimaginable amounts of information, every problem can be solved. If only it were so. This capacity to spread information is now over a decade old. Does the world look better to you? Just because we can communicate with each other doesn’t mean we will, or that we’ll want to bother. Nothing in Massive Change accounts for all the bad things that also make us human – selfishness and lack of empathy being the top two.

Take this quote for instance: “information now travels along vast interconnected networks, and so all problems in all realms are shared.” What exactly does that mean? “Shared” is intentionally vague, with the potential to mean anything from having knowledge of a problem to actual shared suffering. You and I know rather a lot about the situation in Sudan, thanks to travelling information, but do we share the problems of starving refugees? Hardly, and neither does anybody connected to this book, or reading this newspaper (online or not). Why, I kept asking myself as I read Massive Change, if all that the book claims is true, is nothing ever done? Perhaps Mau is waiting for a letter from the president of Sudan.

For a book that trumpets information exchange on every page, Massive Change is wholly devoid of dialogue. Wondrous things are promised without question, overarching statements proffered without challenge, and pesky obstacles to progress like greed or laziness are never discussed. Here’s a typical bald statement: “The Home Depots and Nikes of the world have greater capacity to achieve more for greater good because of their scale”. Hard to argue with that, if you fail to take into account that “greater good” means less profit, and Nike et al exist solely to make a profit.

But there’s no time for moody contemplation, because two pages later we learn that Dee Hock, the inventor of the Visa credit system - that magic little card most of us are too flawed and too human to use judiciously - actually created a “Jeffersonian democracy” that “guarantees monetary information in the form of arranged electronic particles”. Sure, that and 20% interest rates, an entire generation of people hooked on overspending, and countless families forced into bankruptcy.

Apparently, however, the future doesn’t include sober second thought, since by the time you’ve digested the democratic miracle of the Visa card, you’re already on to the next Barnum-worthy page, wherein you’ll learn that “the electronic marketplace has gone from empowering the consumer to supporting a global civic society”. Tell that to the Chinese Christmas decoration makers.

As one fantastic page cascades over the next, you realize that when Mau uses words like “consumer” or “citizen”, he’s really talking about the rich people who live in his rarefied world. Mau’s predictions are riddled with a class blindness particular to over-priviledged soothsayers, from Madame Blavatsky to Arianna Huffington - people who see only the glittering wonders their money and power place before their eyes. Manor-born Aldous Huxley had the same problem, and he promised us flying cars (plus a eugenics-driven super race, who sound rather a lot like Mau’s urban super consumers).

Grouse as much as I like, I know that books like Massive Change are critic proof, like bibles or Dr. Phil guides, because if you don’t agree with the book’s perky futurism, you’re just outdated, retrograde, a tired old crab too cranky to sunbathe before the “shining city on the hill” (as that other great salesman, Ronald Reagan, put it). Maybe Mau is right, maybe you can’t fight the future - but you can stop yourself from buying the tee-shirt.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Big Picture 34

Whenever I’m invited to attend an "art walk", I remind the inviter that walking around looking at art is what I do for a living. Where are the invitations to spa walks, chocolate truffle tours and male stripper strolls? Me and my dreams wait by the phone.

Until I get invited to eat caramels in a towel with a football player, I’ll take the annual Riverdale Art Walk – the friendliest and cosiest art tour in the city. Stretching from Davies Avenue to Leslie Street, and running along both Gerrard and Queen East, the walk includes stops in eight galleries, with works by over forty artists, plus an outdoor art show. If nothing else, RAW is an ambitious undertaking for this small but vibrant corner of the city – one whose cultural contribution is too often overlooked.

Co-ordinator Carolyn Megill is blunt about RAW’s humble position in Toronto’s crowded art festival market, because she sees RAW’s low-key approach as its best asset.

“We’re definitely in the middle of a building process. But each year we grow, and now we’re becoming a truly valuable venue for east end artists to show their work – not just to other east enders, but to the whole city. I can see RAW expanding in the future to include other disciplines, like music or theatre, but right now we’re really focusing on art – especially since the loft boom is turfing out a lot of area artists. We’ve responded to that by creating an artist’s park. We figure that if the artists are going to be driven out, we’ll just move the show outdoors!”

Megill admits that the walk used to be “sort of tangled – people would wander off not realizing that there were more stops in other directions”. To fix that, the RAW committee has consolidated the walk into a simple rectangle that focuses on the galleries. “We’re not asking people to wander down alleys anymore,” Megill half jokes.

For those of us who live in fear of the whining brigades of stroller pushing suburban half wits who inevitably descend on the city for such events, Megill offers a calming thought.

“Yes, this is a family event, but the art is serious. People can look at great art and buy great art during RAW in a way that is unlike the normal gallery experience, in a casual and not intimidating way that is more open for everyone.”

“But,” she warns me, “there might be balloons.”


Making art about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can’t be an easy task. The landscape, psychological and physical, is so fraught with charge and counter-charge, so layered with decades of mistrust, that any attempt to capture even a small part of the essence of this disputed terrain will automatically be met with reservation, indeed hostility, from all camps.

Photo-journalist Larry Towell has taken the only route possible for an artist in this situation – he’s chosen a side. Towell’s photographs of displaced Palestinians and their shattered homes are horrifying illustrations of the animalistic level to which this conflict has sunk. The streets in Towell’s photographs are not so much devastated as they are nearly atomized, reduced to rocks and sticks, and the people living in the wasteland look as if they are at once terrified and numbly distracted.

The fractured Palestinian towns, often nothing but stacks of bent and blasted stone, are photographed as if they were abstract paintings. Towell’s camera seeks out the eerie blocks of pure white light and smoky shadow cast by the shattered walls, and finds faces that carry this same stark blend of clarity and horror.

Much of this work is extremely difficult to digest, especially the images of children who seem to have only two life choices - fighter or corpse. However, while I’m not qualified to question the version of reality Towell is offering, I am prompted to ask: Where are the pictures of Tel Aviv cafes blown to bits, or of Israeli homes ripped apart by rockets?

Arguably, Towell-the-artist is under no obligation to do anything but take the pictures he wants to take. But the work is presented as both art and journalism, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hardly a morally neutral art event happening in a vacuum. If you use loaded political material, you have to expect people to take issue with your choices, especially when a conflict is ongoing.

Towell’s depiction of the Palestinian experience of the war is provocative, gut wrenching and, at times, brilliant - but I don’t see how it can be judged as a complete work when Towell does not present the Israeli side of the story, because the two nightmares are interdependent. As an artist, Towell has made his point brilliantly. As a journalist, he is telling only half the tale.


Describing a J.J. Lee painting is like trying to put into words all the flavours, scents, textures and delights of a fourteen course meal, plus dessert. An unapologetic sensualist, Lee makes works that are as rich and detailed as tapestries or elaborate haute couture dresses – paintings that one falls into, willingly and with abandon.

Lee’s newest works, Still Life With Tangents, continue her exploration of Asian-North American cultural collisions, with an especial focus on Chinese medicines.

“These new works are kind of weird,” Lee says, “but I like them. I’ve been obsessed lately with the packaging on Chinese medicines, and the images of health and strength they carry. And, because so many Westerners are getting into Chinese medicine, I’ve painted the images on Chinoiserie fabric – fabric with patterns taken from 19th century ideas about China.”

Lee’s pan-cultural sampling, zany as it sounds, is never messy or haphazard. Lee bathes her imagery in carefully managed washes of colour - radiant fuchsia, absinthe green, calendula yellow – that serve to unite and illuminate her disparate source materials.

More severe viewers, people overfed on the staple Toronto diet of minimalism and understatement, may find Lee’s work too pretty, too overtly febrile. Let them eat dry toast.

Riverdale Art Walk
Various Locations June 4 and 5

Larry Towell
No Man’s Land
Stephen Bulger Gallery 1026 Queen Street West Until June 25

J.J. Lee
Still Life With Tangents
Lennox Contemporary 12 Ossington Ave. Until June 26