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
Supermarket 268 Augusta Avenue Until July 31

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