RMVaughanink

Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Big Picture 42

Toronto multimedia artist and well known curmudgeon Sally McKay is not, by nature, the type to engage in high-spirited treasure hunts and party games - but when Case Studies Gallery asked her to participate in their new geocaching challenge/art exhibit Waypoint, she couldn’t resist the chance to examine the dark underside of the world’s newest techno-craze.

“Geocaching is this nerdy thing people do with Global Positioning Systems, and there are websites from all over the world dedicated to it. Basically, people put treasures in canisters or hiding places and then post the GPS co-ordinates on the web. The seekers use GPS gadgets to find the canisters and collect the goodies. It’s a whole subculture, which I admit I’m not part of, because I hate running around looking for things.”

“What fascinated me, however, is the distopic scenario that makes GPS work - the fact that circling around us all the time are satellites owned by the US military capable of tracking our every move. I love that people have turned this sinister reality into a goofy hide and seek game.”

McKay’s complex installation has three parts (as far as I could figure out): first, a charmingly rough diorama depicting the earth as seen from outer space, with rocks posing as planets and dollar store widgets playing the role of satellites; second, an offsite geocache – the GPS co-ordinates are available at Case Studies – that contains special codes to McKay’s website; and, third, a series of hilarious animated stories, viewable from McKay’s website, providing you find the geocache, discover the codes … well, you get the idea.

Warning to geocachers: I’m about to spoil the fun.

“The animated stories are about rocks and geology, about our relationship to geological time, which is vast and much longer than human time,” McKay blabs, “so, I hid the codes on the undersides of a circle of rocks beneath the Gardiner, rocks that were put there by the city to discourage homeless people from taking up residence – which tells you a lot about how authority doesn’t like to think in the long term.”

~

All art critics have their critical peculiarities – a warm fondness for cold minimalism, the unhealthy need to see every show in town, a slavish devotion to the deadly works of Eli Langer – and I am no exception. My problem is monkeys.

Any work of art with a monkey in it will always get my attention. I have never met, owned, or otherwise communed with a primate (certain dates excepted), and yet as soon as I caught a glimpse of local painter John Nobrega’s luscious portraits of apes dressed as 19th century French fops, I knew I was hooked by my ringed tail.

Granted, this work is not a hard sell. Nobrega paints with a confidence and control atypical of young artists, and what’s not to love about chimps in velvet? If only they smoked cheroots! But Nobrega’s dandified simians carry a sadness and vulnerability that is not immediate upon first giggling glance. Many of the creatures are posed in mid sentence (or howl), as if about to articulate a serious point. Others are grey haired and stout, like the Fathers of Confederation, and are dressed like sombre judges.

As you wander from face to face, you realize that Nobrega has created a cast of characters, not caricatures, and imbued each of his solemn and magnetic portraits with a poignant, often melancholic dignity that is as chastening (to us non-monkeys) as it is unexpectedly moving.

I wonder what Nobrega could do with a room full of poker playing dogs?

~

Who declared it Wacky Art Week and didn’t tell me? As if sputnik-powered treasure hunts and suited baboons aren’t enough, along comes a very full exhibition of the comprehensively demented work of Nicholas Di Genova.

Think of Di Genova’s art as illustrations for children’s books that will hopefully never be written – an apocalyptic world where genetic mutants and their machine friends struggle to survive constant invasion by cross-bred animals, cyborgs, warring factions of both, and terrifyingly freakish hulks.

Like characters in a macabre role-playing game, each creature in Di Genova’s unique universe has its own biography, a set of abilities and disabilities (as well as neuroses), plus super powers and fatal weaknesses. Trying to absorb all of this narrative information in one viewing is akin to trying to reduce Herbert’s Dune novels to a single short story – so just forget about learning all the Di Genova code and let the gorgeous art wash over you, metallic bit by oozing glob.

It helps that Di Genova is a maniacal illustrator. He’d need to be. His busy surfaces are covered with deep scratches, furious bloody blots, and diabolical, hypnotic patterns that mimic the tortured psyches of his mechanically augmented animals. But the work never looks messy or even occasionally experimental - just very, very frantic.

A casual tracing of Di Genova’s vast set of references would fill this entire newspaper, but the big three appear to be the so-called “Silver Age” of Marvel Comics, when Jack Kirby drew each figure with a broad mascara outline and edges sharp enough to cut skin, those cute but creepy Japanese Tomigachi toys, and, honestly, Gustav Klimt’s watery, ornate and languorously sexual draperies. As if that’s not enough, Di Genova clearly has a thing for the cheesy 80’s robot cartoon Transformers, as his army of steel plated, bionic monsters looks more than capable of kicking the rusty butts of the show’s transforming dump trucks.

Clearly, Di Genova’s work is not for viewers prone to dismiss art energized by popular culture. Many will find the art dense and noisy - hard not to with works titled “Monstrous Albino-Hunch with Pygmied Elehound” or “Creeping Jackatee Stalking Eelsects”. Furthermore, it’s arguable that Di Genova’s private alien world is of most interest to Di Genova alone, and that his substantial narrative superstructures are actually crutches that allow him to avoid artistic choices and self-editing. I propos, however, that Di Genova’s fanciful excesses and the relentless, harried look of his works actually make the work more accessible, as there is literally something for everyone in any given piece.

If Di Genova is guilty of self indulgence, he’s also guilty of generousity. This mad, mad art is a giant parti-coloured chef’s salad. Pick what you want to much on and be grateful that your bowl is full.

Waypoint
Case Studies Vitrines
York Quay Centre 235 Queen’s Quay West Until September 11

John Nobrega
Salon De Paris
Edward Day Gallery 952 Queen Street West Until August 7

Nicholas Di Genova
Due West of the Happy-Lake Hills
Le Gallery 1183 Dundas Street West Until August 17

Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Big Picture 41

Of the many delightful quirks that set us humans apart from the animals, besides quality footwear, Fritz Lang films, and anonymous sex, is our compulsion to collect. Everyone you know, even those bizarre and unnatural people who claim, with a self-righteous sniff, to despise clutter and flotsam, is a collector – usually of ostensibly “useful” things such as clothes and wine, but it’s the same impulse.

In my own charming circles, I know people who collect classic country and western vinyl records, unusual cacti, macramé owls (granted, that’s a special taste), and Hammer Horror movies, as well as less tangible, or at least less showy items such as countries visited and beer tastings. If you’re human, you hoard.

A new show at Xpace gallery examines the collecting urge and finds in it an unexpected revelation – that people amass objects not just to fulfil an atavistic desire to nest, but to remake the world they inhabit. Collecting, the exhibition demonstrates, is as much a creative act as it is an acquisitive practice, because when you remove an object from one surrounding and reposition it in your own little world, you have, of course, changed that object by changing its context.

To collect is to re-assemble, argue Julie Jenkinson and Michael Baumgart, the artists behind The Bureau of Productive Arts, and therefore, they ask, why not take the piles of things you’ve assembled and rework them into art? It’s the next logical step, after all.

Julie Jenkinson explains the duo’s magpie approach as one borne out of both curiosity and a desire to recreate a childlike state of play.

“Michael and I started working toward this show about six years ago, when we started collecting found pieces, magical little surprises from the street. For instance, one piece of sculpture is made from found wood, discarded string and metal, and stuff I found in the garbage. We spend quite a bit of time going to flee markets and junk yards, and then we turn the stuff we’ve found into something it is not, or was not, and give it a new life.”

“There’s a really beautiful tension created when you transform a found object, a tension between what it was and what it has become. Familiarity and strangeness inhabit the same object.”

Plus, adds Baumgart, it’s great fun.

“Part of what we’re doing is redirecting people’s attention to how things look when you stop for a moment and look at them as if you’ve never seen them before, like when you flip an object over and look at the underside, which maybe you never paid attention to before.”

“We want people to come in and be delighted and surprised and inspired, and hopefully as excited about the work as we are. After having all this stuff around for six years, it’s thrilling, and sort of terrifying, to be finally showing it all, getting it out to the public.”

Not to mention getting it all out of their studio, which, if the massive amount of work in Productive Arts is an indication, must be about the size of Heather Reisman’s solarium.

There’s everything in Productive Arts from bracelets made of pansy-shaped kennel tags from Baltimore, to spooky, manipulated early 20th century family portraits, to a giant bench made from a junked 300 year old hemlock beam, to Jenkinson’s wonderfully feral, itchy charcoal drawings of wild animals.

“We were worried at first that we put too much stuff in,” Baumgart says, “but then we figured there was no such thing as too much, at least in this case.”

“And,” Jenkinson admits, “it’s not even half of what we have at home.”

~

I’m the kind of guy who finds changing a battery about as easy as learning Sanskrit, so imagine my surprise when I not only liked, but actually understood (well, kind of) the technology-driven work on display at Interaccess Gallery.

Pulse is a survey of new work by recent art school grads with a yen for new technologies - which sounds more frightening than it is, because these students have not only learned how to make things chirp and blink using memory cards, fire wires and other gizmos I don’t pretend to comprehend, but also, and more important, they’ve learned how to entertain viewers who don’t happen to have Wired subscriptions.

Ryan Pierce creates a green and throbbing virtual garden with a low steel frame and a moving video projector that casts images of plants and grass directly onto the gallery floor. Rob King turns his personal electronic correspondence into an ever-shifting, black lined diagram that looks like a Paul-Émile Borduas painting come to life. Pearl Chen programs nets of little chartreuse lights to flash in pretty, alluring waves, and has written a tiny pocket book showing you how to do the same (not that I got past the first page, but I’m immune to pedagogy). And if you still need more science fair fun, wander over to Adam Brandejs’s creepy “Gen Pets” sculpture, a mock commercial display selling freakish monkey/cat hybrid pets from the future. But be careful, the horrid (and heartbreaking) creatures are prone to disturbing fits and shrieks.

Accessible but still loaded with enough techno gimcracks to satisfy even the nerdiest customer, Pulse is more fun, and much less preachy, than previous exhibitions concerned with technology’s impact on human and natural environments. It might even get your kids to put down that g-d Gameboy.

~

I wanted to like Geoffrey Pugen’s slick multimedia exhibition Aerobia! , but something kept me from being fully engaged - a nagging sensation that I was looking at some very old ideas dressed up in smart new designer threads.

Aerobia! is a series of mock documents portraying a cult-like organization that promises its adherents well being by teaching them to find their “inner animal”. To sell the concept, Pugen has created a series of handsome advertisements depicting half human/half animal cultists and an attractive infomercial narrated by a pretty male host. All very interesting, at least on its shiny surface.

The problem with this work is that while the show purports to explore the rough and wild animal-human dynamic, it looks as clean, cool and urban as an expensive billboard selling overpriced sneakers. The graphics are clearly more important than the subject, and whatever Darwinian exploration Pugen is engaged in is lost in the sterile production values. Shouldn’t an exhibition about finding one’s inner beast be a bit scruffy, carry a whiff of the barnyard?

Furthermore, the icy, hyper-current fashion rag look of the show can’t overcome the fact that Pugen is Photoshopping dated and well-worn themes – namely, H.G. Wells’s classic The Island of Dr. Moreau, written almost a hundred and ten years ago.

Oh well, at least the models are sexy (but that’s just my inner bonobo monkey talking).


Julie Jenkinson and Michael Baumgart
The Bureau of Productive Arts
Xpace 303 Augusta Avenue Until July 31

Pulse
Interaccess 9 Ossington Avenue Until August 6

Geoffrey Pugen
Aerobia!
Angell Gallery 809 Queen Street West Until August 6

Saturday, July 16, 2005

The Big Picture 40

Mid-summer is a tough time of year for art writers, the hack’s equivalent of the poky January retail season. The reason for this annual slump is simple – it’s summer and gallery owners are just as lazy and distracted as the rest of us.

Cottage-bound gallerists mount summer shows stocked with leftovers from the last season, with the occasional new small work for seasoning, and then leave the hodge-podge up till the end of August. Besides, no artist wants to debut new work when everybody is out of town and the media is preoccupied with summer festivals.

I could, of course, diligently attend all the above noted remainder sales, and then diligently report on them in my usual wheezy, wandering way, compiling one long list after the next of guests of honour and also-shows, like some demented parent checking off relatives at a wedding reception - but I’ve already seen most of the work, wished I hadn’t seen some of it, and already written about the work worth noting. And I am not pretty when I’m grumpy.

Instead, I’m spending the rest of the summer seeking out galleries that don’t get enough attention, and younger, untested artists whose dealers, unwilling to risk prime day book space, have decided to toss the younglings to the season’s warm, apathetic winds. The patchwork of uneven group shows about town (with the exception of the one described a couple of hundred words from now) can stew in their own indolent juices.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to look very far in my counterintuitive quest for the shiny and the new. Material Matters, a gallery devoted to glass-based art, is bucking the potluck trend by staging one of its best and most ambitious exhibitions to date – the first solo exhibition by noted Canadian glass artist Charles Hargraves.

Hargraves makes glass sculptures that are as about as airy and fragile as a monster truck. His watermelon-sized works sit squarely on their plinths with all the confidence and bluster of a marble bust, but with more sparkles. Using optical grade crystal, Hargraves seamlessly impregnates broad (and very heavy) rectangular chunks of light-bending prismatic glass with precious metals and peacock feather-coloured dyes, creating sculptures that are both entrancing and menacing.

Hargraves’s big hunks of prettiness give the glass medium a much needed, well, manliness - a muscularity and weight atypical of the glass art world, which too often over-privileges spindly, whisper thin concoctions. Not that Hargraves’s work is any less seductive. The hulking crystal monoliths are painstakingly stained with magical, charged particles of colour and delicate opalescent bubbles – most effectively in a series of egg shaped works that glow like the refulgent hatching pods from Alien (minus the slime) and in a stoner-friendly series of flat works depicting purple cosmic nebulas.

If only I had a desk big and strong enough for one of Hargraves’s mesmerizing, Brobdingnagian paperweights.

~

Although the new group show the horse they rode in on at Wynick/Tuck Gallery is not, technically, a mere summer toss off – it originated as the Kelly Mark-curated touring exhibition Free Sample– this collection of low wattage comedy art still seems accidental and haphazard.

The core problem lies not with any particular work (although I have my favourites and far less than favourites), but with how the works sit together. Viewed individually, most of this art would strike the viewer as curious, playful, and even silly (in a good way), but when viewed collectively, these dumb joke works become as tiresome and unfunny as a long open mic night at Yuk Yuks. There is no balance in this show – every piece reeks of the same smart ass tone, the same perverse desire to explore banality as a source of either comedy or pathos. Subsequently, this is less an exhibition than a string of one-liners.

Among the worst offenders are David Armstrong-Six and Peter Gazendam. Armstrong-Six contributes a series of intentionally underdone, Royal Art Lodge/Marcel Dzama-style “faux folk” watercolours that look like a bored whiz kid’s notebook scribbles (or, to be precise, an adult artist’s mannered mimicry of a bored whiz kid’s art), as well as an aggressively ugly maze sculpture made of dry wall (I know, I know, it’s supposed to be ugly – but that excuse is as old as ugly itself).

Peter Gazendam offers us a smoked-to-the-filter cigarette mounted perpendicularly on the wall. Yes, that’s all. Granted, the long ash on the ciggy does create an interesting tension – will somebody brush against it and wreck it, is it real in the first place? – but that lasts for about five seconds and then you are faced with the shallow fact that all you are looking at is a spent cigarette tacked to a wall. This is laconic, no effort art taken to a ridiculous, self-defeating extreme. Is it too much to ask for a bit of content?

Adding further yawns are Kristan Horton’s photographs of a shirtless man chewing some food (at least the model is kind of cute, if not over-burdened with purpose) and James Prior’s smirking photograph of a man dressed up in a garish circus costume – a work that asks us to laugh at someone else’s bad taste. Whether or not this circus performer actually exists or is Prior’s creation, the nasty ideology that fuels the image remains the same – namely, that the poor and undereducated are fun targets. Indeed, the so-called “pathetic art” school that this work is derived from is riddled with unacknowledged class biases and a souring cruelty that would be best left in the schoolyard. I wonder how well Prior’s life would hold up under the jaded microscope?

Just when I was about to leave dispirited, I took a second look at Adad Hannah’s carefully choreographed photographs of couples in hotel rooms and decided that not all was lost. Hannah’s couples appear to be engaged in some sort of celebrity/journalist relationship, a relationship that both clearly resent and yet can’t escape. Loaded with chewy buried narratives and sublimated sexual tensions, Hannah’s rich photographs save the horse they rode in on from being a completely pointless exercise in empty cleverness.

~

At long last, the works of beloved Canadian video pioneer and art world grand duchess Vera Frenkel are available for easy home viewing – just in time to save you from the idiocies of the blockbuster season.

Entitled Of Memory And Displacement, this collection of Frenkel’s wonderfully literary (and engagingly chatty) video works from the late 1970s on proves, as if anyone needed convincing, that Frenkel is the Margaret Atwood of the visual arts – a consummate experimenter and our most reliable chronicler of the vagaries of history, remembrance, our flawed hearts and even more troublesome minds.

Punctuated with interviews with La Frenkel herself, who introduces each video, this exhaustive three DVD compilation also comes with a CD-ROM packed with decades worth of Frenkelania.

Sit back, relax (while you can) and let aunty Vera tell you a dark, mysterious story …

Charles Hargraves
Carving Glass From The Inside Out
Material Matters 215 Spadina Ave. Until July 31.

the horse they rode in on
Wynick/Tuck Gallery 401 Richmond Street West, Suite 128
Until July 23

Of Memory And Displacement
Vera Frenkel
Available from V-Tape 401 Richmond Street, Suite 452

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The Big Picture 39

The 44th edition of the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition takes over Nathan Phillips Square this weekend and I ask, once again, why would anyone want to look at art outdoors? The outdoors is one of the few blessed places I’m more or less guaranteed I won’t have to look at art.

But I’m a crank. The TOAE has grown over the years from a more rough and ready version of the Ladies Auxiliary watercolour display at the CNE to a mature, carefully curated and rigorously judged exhibition. Gone are the days of wandering past painting after painting of spunky geraniums in wheelbarrows. The diversity of work – from Dionne Simpson’s ghostly de-threaded canvases to Ying-Yueh Chuang’s sci-fi ceramic floral sculptures – means your eyes will be far too busy to glaze over. And the prices are geared for cash and carry impulse purchasing.

Toronto painter Kirsten Johnson, a four time veteran of the TOAE, looks forward to the artsy tent city with mixed feelings. Some years, she walks away with a bag of cash and a lot less art to haul back to the studio. Other years, especially when it rains, “are a waterfall of tears, and damp art.”

“My first year at the show,” Johnson sighs, “I was sitting under my little lean-to and suddenly it got very, very windy. All my art started to blow away, like little petals. People were chasing paintings across the grass, pulling them out of the pond. I was a complete wreck, a charity case - people came running up to me with ropes and tent poles and blankets and tea and kindly advice.”

“I was the orphan girl of the show, the little innocent who forgot that sometimes when you’re outside the weather is not your friend. And, of course, nobody wanted to buy art from the sad orphan girl, not even out of pity. Oh, but they gawked!”

This year, Johnson is prepared. Her lush, trauma triggering paintings of “fighting sisters and disagreeable toddlers” will be firmly bolted, hatched, and counter weighted.

“I defy the elements to move me from my spot!”, Johnson declares, half meaning it.

“Oh, I probably shouldn’t have said that.”

~

Any new exhibition by legendary Toronto artist Fiona Smyth is cause for celebration, even an exhibition held in the Kensington Market’s latest cooler-than-thou restaurant. But buck up, brave the icy stares and insincerely helpful staff, and head straight for Smyth’s series of large, magical paintings based on the Seven Deadly Sins – paintings that ask why, if the Sins are so Deadly, are they so much fun?

Smyth is the undisputed master of the comix dreamscape, a pigtailed Bosch cruising her very vivid subconscious on a spray painted skateboard - and in these deliciously lurid, post-Pop paintings Smyth’s daydreams are lavishly ornamented with cobra arabesques, flying diamonds, ghost trees, slithering scrolls and sinning (but so loveable) bad girls with eyes that glow like polished jasper.

Never one for modernist understatement (let the boy painters worry about erecting solemn, austere edifices), Smyth steals her colours from the penny candy jar, staining her fingers, and canvases, with blueberry blues, Lime Ricky emeralds and hunting vest oranges. There is never a dull moment or under-adorned inch of surface in a Smyth painting. Is the work excessive? Yes, but in the same way a Fellini film is excessive, by nature and from necessity. Exaggeration and flamboyance are the vernacular of Smyth’s fevered worlds. You can’t illustrate a vision (or nightmare) with stick figures.

No wonder the Japanese, the same people who gave the world flying baby-eyed schoolgirl superheroes and plucky pink cats, covet Smyth’s work with the fanaticism they usually reserve for whale meat and American jazz. And here in Toronto, well, you can see her work hanging over somebody’s overpriced brunch. Shame, shame on us.

It’s long past time for one of our big institutions to host a Smyth retrospective.

~

Just as there are models who want to be actors and rock stars who want to be novelists and model/actor/rock stars who want to politicians, there are poets who want to be visual artists. Go figure. You’d think poets would aim a little higher. But remember that as little money, glory, and babe-scoring as there is in the visual arts, there’s even less (actually, way, way less) in the poetry game. Give a poet a complementary can of pop and five people in the audience and he’ll wonder if he’s become a sell out.

Metalogos, a new exhibition of visual art by poets, shows what strange, pleasingly goofy and sometimes even beautiful art happens when creative types cross genres. Can performance clay throwing be far off?

Most of the artist-poets in Metalogos are members of a hive of local babblers I lovingly refer to as the gibberish poets (they call themselves “language scientists”, but they’re just trying to sound butch) - poets more concerned with the sound of words than the actual sense any given arrangement of text might make.

Subsequently, much of the art on display is intentionally chaotic, academy-fuelled, nerdily elitist and abstract for abstraction’s sake. This show will either thrill your inner Scrabble geek or make you wish you’d never learned to read, as it’s filled with broken passages of text under glass, fragments of type rudely splayed and smeared across helpless paper, baffling linguistic grids, word games turned into sculptures, and a video/cd compilation of poetry that sounds like a particularly fervent bout of religious ecstasy. Accessible and ingratiating Metalogos ain’t - but art without a bit of irritation is like soup without salt, and I’d rather be pestered than bored.

Darren Wershler-Henry’s tribute to the late American experimental novelist Kathy Acker is suitably grisly. Acker wrote violent, gore-smeared fantasies, so Wershler-Henry naturally pays homage to Acker’s epidermal assaults with a broken text fragment printed on a peel of scrunched up vellum. The vellum, of course, looks like the cured skin of a leper, and reminded me of the demonic flesh bible from the Evil Dead movies. Paul Dutton’s famous Plastic Typewriter, a work first presented in the late 1970s, is an anti-writing writing machine. The busted typewriter, clearly the loser in an ugly fight with a hammer, creates (with Dutton’s help) wonky, disrupted, ink stained poems that are as pretty as they are illegible. Steve McCaffery, another veteran of the acid-dipped 70s, mines similar catatonic terrain with a series of decorated concrete poems that look like they were accidentally left in a pants pocket and washed with the colour load.

But save your patience for Nobuo Kubota’s joyous Scat Chant video - a long, vertiginous performance by Kubota of one of his beloved noise poems.

Sounding like a war between a pack of rabid monkeys and a dozen hungry seagulls, Kubota relentlessly chatters along, hypnotizing the hapless viewer. Even with the sound off, Kubota’s video would be worth the headache. The man’s rubber ball face mugs and twitches more, and with more wacky conviction, than Jim Carey at the Oscars.

If the poetry gig ever collapses, Kubota could take up babysitting kids with ADD.

Fiona Smyth
pickupsbreakupsfuckups
Supermarket 268 Augusta Avenue Until July 31

Metalogos
Lonsdale Gallery 410 Spadina Road Until July 16

Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition
Nathan Phillips Square 100 Queen Street West
July 8, 9, 10 10 am to 6pm

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Big Picture 38

When the Gladstone Hotel announced plans to commission a series of “artist designed rooms”, I admit I harboured uncharitable thoughts. I’ve seen artist-ruined rooms in other hotels, and wondered if future Gladstone guests would find themselves bunked in similarly tacky and obtrusive lodgings.

The great thing about hotel rooms is their complete lack of originality, style or idiosyncrasy. A hotel room is a blank canvas for the guest to fill, not a theme park ride to squeeze into - and who can sleep in a room that’s been covered in sea shells and petrified lobsters, or painted to resemble the tomb of Hatchepsut?

The smart folks at the Gladstone, however, have enabled a cluster of artists and designers to create spaces that are part art installation and part standardized hotel room, without compromising either the artists’ visions or guest comfort. The trick to achieving this balance is the recognition, and implementation, of one of the great trade secrets of the art world – artists, like children and other obsessive-compulsives, love rules. Rules create a set space for the artist to fill in (and perhaps attempt to stretch), and help to narrow the multitude of options bubbling up in their roiling heads. There’s a reason canvases are square.

Artists who took up the Gladstone challenge were given a fixed set of musts – bed size, required pieces of furniture, preservation of core historic features, and a strict budget – and then were left alone to create functional rooms that are more akin to designer showcases than to the gaudy, ridiculous “theme rooms” one finds in Las Vegas (or in any of Ontario’s many Victoriana-clotted B&B’s).

While you might be asked to spend the night with an act of architectural deconstruction, a girly butterfly collection made of wool, or hundreds of paper maple leaves, you won’t find yourself cringing under the covers beside a replica of Captain Kirk’s high chair.

Travellers with a fondness for saucy, pop culture-infused art will be pleased to unpack in Allyson Mitchell’s faux wood panelling and fun fur “deep lez” den, a tribute to crafty Sapphic ladies and their 70’s rec-room stylings, Andrew Harwood’s playful Easy Rider room, a biker gang fantasy cheekily covered in glitter (the room features the same candy blue and red colour scheme as my grade five Sears catalogue bedroom – maybe you had the same sheets-and-drapes set, the one with the race cars?), or Cecilia Berkovic’s brilliant teen queen bedroom, a suburban princess’s playpen decked out with vintage Tiger Beat posters (Kristy McNicol! Matt Dillon!), a peacock bedspread and a lavender bathroom.

Guests looking for a more minimalist art experience can camp out with Andrew Jones and Joy Walker’s meticulously crafted, Gladstone-exclusive furniture and sumptuous hand printed, pastel-on-white fabrics, or Melissa Levin’s signature Puzzle Room, a narrow space decorated with expansive puzzle piece vistas of Paris, New York, and the Canadian wilderness.

If only artists could keep their homes, and their lives, so tidy and well planned.

~

Halifax expatriate Doug Guildford’s life-long attraction to all things microbial and wet has paid off handsomely in recent years, and never more so than in his newest collection of sea creature etchings.

In the past, I’ve found Guildford’s unnatural nature art to be almost too baroque, too tied up in its own curlicues and antennae to absorb in fewer than three or four sittings. Delicious as Guildford’s prints were, I couldn’t imagine living with such works because there’s only enough room for one complex entity in my house.

However, Guildford’s new series Salt Water is much more relaxed than previous efforts. Guildford is loosening his fidgety grip on his trademark subjects and the resulting cascade of amoeboid shapes and invertebrate beasties is beguiling to watch. Imagine swimming in a plankton-packed shallow tidal pool with a magnifying glass tied to your goggles and you’re halfway to visualizing the dancing, twitching feeding frenzy Guildford unveils.

What saves these kinetic works from becoming too busy is Guildford’s masterly etching techniques, which result in graphic textures as delicate and sturdy as fine lace. At times, Guildford’s minutely detailed floating world appears to be rendered with the business end of a pin, or perhaps a laser. And each print is soaked in a translucent, seductive sea foam green - a colour somewhere between the faded pine hue of day old lawn clippings and the chartreuse of newly laid frogs’ eggs, or the dreamy green of jasmine tea in a white cup.

While Guildford’s salty tales don’t quite have the power to make me pine for the seaweed shores of my own Bay of Fundy childhood (that would take an act of God), they might make you look twice at your tap water.

~

When it comes to enthusiasm and an A For Effort attitude, you can’t beat the Fran Hill Gallery. I don’t always love the work the gallery shows (the gallery with that power waits for me in my heavenly reward), but I admire the gallery’s determination to bring energetic and considered shows to underfed east end audiences.

The summer group show Woof is a perfect example of the busy Fran Hill ethos – sixty artists, one hundred plus smallish works in many media, everything from paint-and-run abstracts to high realism, very reasonable prices. It’s like an art garage sale, but with more zeros on the price tags and no ragged copies of Maeve Binchy novels.

Obviously, sixty artists means lots of hits and lots of misses, but why be negative when flowers are in bloom and men are topless?

Trudie Cheng’s child-like mini tapestries take the viewer into the savage, undercover world of urban wildlife, where skunks and foxes skulk back alleys looking for food and love. Kevin McBride’s aggressive ink and watercolour combos offer murky haunted houses and a drunk Satan (perfect post-Pride art). Martha Eleen paints spent industrial landscapes as if they were cheery fairgrounds, while Daniel Solomon taps into his inner mushroom eater with a series of gorgeous, black-light phosphorescent abstracts. Robert Durocher’s textile and encaustic works are populated by tender but creepy, itch-inducing spider forms, and print maker Jennifer Linton provides a quiet moment in the show with a sweet, perfectly executed image of a small girl in a Creamsicle orange dress.

That’s just ten percent of the show, the tip of the iceberg. If the rest of the summer shows prove this easy to love, I’m in for a lot more quality hammock time.

Gladstone Hotel
15 Artist Designed Rooms
1214 Queen Street West Permanent installation

Doug Guildford
Salt Water: recent etchings
Edward Day Gallery 952 Queen St. West Until July 10

Woof
Fran Hill Gallery 230 Queen St. East. Until July 30