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