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