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.

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