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