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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