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Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Big Picture 44

Oscar Wilde once claimed that nothing succeeds like excess, but then he didn’t live to see AWOL Gallery’s Square Foot – an exhibition so packed it would send the poor old libertine screaming for a bare room and a lukewarm cup of milky tea.

Featuring over 500 artists from eight countries and more than 800 pieces of art (who knew there were more than 500 artists showing in Toronto? Where are they hiding?), Square Foot is nothing if not good value for your viewing time - and a critic’s completion-anxiety nightmare. With each 12 inch by 12 inch work priced at a mere $200, Square Foot is also the bargain of the month. Think of it as a giant end-of-summer overstock sale, minus the lime green flip flops.

Obviously, there is too much work here for me to attempt to describe in any comprehensive fashion, and it goes without saying that not all the works were created equally. There are duds, there are near misses, and there are some wonderful scores. I will accentuate the positive, with the shameless admission that the pieces listed below are those that caught my eye first. Call me lazy, but AWOL ain’t exactly the Louvre.

Where to begin? Why not with Cathie Pak’s creepy-cute amoeboid dolls? Looking like the love children of a Teletubbie and a squid, Pak’s goofy creatures jump out of their frame, all pink tentacles and knowing smiles, begging to be purchased for the nursery, or to accompany your Barbapapa figurine collection. On the other side of the creepy-cute spectrum sits Andrew Pommier’s sinister drawing of a slouchy young man scowling underneath a heavy hoody. As disaffected and pissed as a run-off-the-parking-lot skateboarder, the boy would be the poster child of cranky, maladjusted youth if his hoody wasn’t topped off with a babyish pair of rabbit ears. Kids today – all they need is love, understanding, and a bit of downtime yoked up in the Revlon factory.

For fans of pretty colours and indeterminate shapes, there’s Lola Landekic’s delicious collage and paint flourish, a quiet work that resembles a smoke curl frozen in ice, or Dorian Fitzgerald’s poop brown dollop paintings, a joyous calamity of broken chains of dung heap colours linked by gooey ridges of flat black paint. Remember those swag lamps from the 70’s, the brightly coloured hornet’s nests made from spun plastic? Fitzgerald must have had one hanging over his crib. For more neo-psychedelia, hunt down Erin Finley’s ink-on-mirror image of a sexy boy dreaming face down in bed and admire her acid-head renderings of the boy’s dream world – a naughty subconscious landscape dappled with floating cheerleaders, semen white clouds, and, ahem, a squadron of plump and bulbous lizards carrying balloons. I remember those dreams, except I was the cheerleader.

Shoppers searching for something more pensive will be drawn to Patrick Staheli’s lush and brooding portrait of two aging, dark suited businessmen enjoying a drink, slumped in their seats as if crushed by decades of deals and haggling, or his lime-tinted, eerie painting of a Soviet cosmonaut, a man surrounded by the colour of his own fear and anxious excitement. Cameron Stott’s menacing, under-focused painting of a rocket launch would make a perfect companion piece to Staheli’s cosmonaut, and Amy Spalding’s blinking, night image of a double-decker bus rounding a corner surrounded by bruised purple lights carries a more timely message of fragility and transience than I suspect was originally intended.

Finally, there’s the odd little works that defy easy categorization – works that are well made but silly, handsomely crafted yet gleefully dumb. These charming runts of the litter include James Gardner’s daffy painting of a big-eyed tweety bird trying to lift a dumbbell, Magda Trzaski’s delightful, grinning black wire goblin dolls, or Dale Ronson’s stoner-art mirror painting of a glowing, hot pink skull (sure to be a hit with fans of black light posters).

I could go on - and on, and then some - with more of my picks, but that would be unfair to other shows in town (actually, with this much work, it would be unfair to all the other shows in town). If you’ve spent the summer avoiding the gallery circuit, Square Foot is a great way to relieve your guilt and stay satiated until at least early October. Galleries within a square mile of AWOL might as well paper over their windows.

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Photographer Andre Kertesz (1894-1985) is not a household name, probably because his quiet works are not as showy or easily appreciated as those of his contemporaries, such as Man Ray, Brassai, or Cartier-Bresson - and nobody’s turning them into napkins and placemats, yet. But a new mini-retrospective at Stephen Bulger Gallery is a great introduction to Kertesz’s work, and also indirectly explains why the artist never enjoyed brand-name status.

Kertesz was, above all, a master of the intimate moment. While the majority of photographers of his generation busied themselves investigating movement, cinematic techniques and the relentless bustle of the modern age, Kertesz turned inward, aiming his camera at table tops, smoke trails, parks submerged in new snow, unremarkable clusters of buildings, and portraits of humble people. He dipped into the bubbling well of surrealism now and then - best evidenced in his wavy photos of female nudes - but seemed uncomfortable with subjects not rooted in the everyday, the real.

This is not to say that Kertesz’s work is dull or lifeless, but rather that it acts as a meditative counterpoint to the Klieg-lit flashiness and glorification of the new that is the hallmark of popular modernism. Take your time with these gentle works, as they reward the patient and attentive watcher, people drawn to the skittering clouds above the neon.

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Those darling brats at Year Zero One, a loose collective of Toronto and international new media artists, are at it again – this time at the corner of Yonge and Dundas, an unfriendly, urban planning misstep desperately in need of some artistic intervention.

Deciding that if you can’t beat ‘em, you join ‘em (and who, besides Godzilla, could overwhelm the vulgar commercialism of Times Square Junior?), Year Zero One has commissioned a collection of short art films about film culture, and will run them continuously for the next year on one of the square’s pedestrian level video billboards. Screening every half hour on the 29th and 59th minute, the films play clever games with the self-aggrandizement of the entertainment industry.

In the first round, Jillian MacDonald and Manu Luksch poke gentle fun at Hollywood’s romantic and technical bombast.

McDonald digitally inserts her pale face into kissing scenes with top stars, such as Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, and she is often more convincing than the paid talent. As a no-tech response to Hollywood’s digital obsession, Luksch arranged a school of starfish to spell out “The End” and then filmed the creatures slowly making their way back to the brine. Played backwards, the starfish appear to be coming together, like chorus girls, to signal the end of a movie.

Running alongside legitimate Hollywood ads for upcoming spectacles, these films look only a little less plausible than the movies being sold - and won’t cost you a cent to watch. If the notoriously fun-hating Dundas Square security doesn’t catch you, you might even indulge in a verboten smile.

Square Foot
AWOL Gallery 76-78 Ossington Avenue Until August 28

Andre Kertesz
1920s – 1980s
Stephen Bulger Gallery 1026 Queen St. West Until August 27