Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Big Picture 46

By the time you read this, Zsa Zsa will be on her last legs. But don’t call Ben Mulroney yet – I’m not talking about the much-married, police-slapping B-movie actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, but about Zsa Zsa Gallery, a landmark on the West Queen West art strip.

Started eight years ago by Toronto multimedia artist Andrew Harwood, Zsa Zsa was the first gallery to break the Yorkville stranglehold of the mid-90’s and bring art to the strip surrounding the Centre For Addiction and Mental Health - an area once considered a no-go space for us delicate artistic types. By providing cheap rental space to emerging artists, Zsa Zsa also took up the slack created by the decline of artist-run centres, which were becoming stale, governmental and elitist.

With Zsa Zsa gone, curators and gallery owners looking for the next hot young things will have to find new poaching grounds.

Given its namesake, it’s not surprising that Harwood’s gallery gave its artists about as much attention and care as Gabor gives her chambermaids. But that was the genius of Harwood’s management style – don’t interfere, don’t bother, and let the artists make their own mistakes. As Harwood once put it, “I do nothing for my artists and they love me all the more.”

Subsequently, Zsa Zsa became something of a playground for local talent, hosting everything from stuffy figurative painting exhibitions to riotous Groundhog Day parties. Other memorable events include a zany “witch hairdressing salon”, a tortuous performance featuring buckets of glitter and molasses, sauna parties, fake snow falls, a 24 hour meditation enacted in the window, found clothing dress up parties, and a putrid installation featuring a desiccated, flattened cat corpse and a smouldering cauldron.

A natural ring leader, Harwood staged madcap seasonal group shows with contributions from dozens and dozens of artists, cramming all the mismatched art onto Zsa Zsa’s three small walls. His curatorial practice was anti-academic, to say the least – if he bumped into you, he’d ask you to be in the show. Nobody (well, nobody smart) ever said no.

Of course, I’m implicated in much of this foolishness. I had the privilege of participating in a handful of Zsa Zsa shows, and never felt as simultaneously appreciated and under-loved as I did during the many times I tried in vain to install my work while Harwood sat in a corner smoking and laughing at my inability to hammer a nail or plug in a monitor. Harwood was not a typically passive-aggressive gallerist, he was passive-passive.

Harwood’s reasons for closing Zsa Zsa are entirely personal – his own art is too much in demand for him to continue to run a gallery and make new work. He is also the co-founder and co-curator of the Toronto Alternative Art Fair International, which begins its second season in November.

“People keep asking me if I’m sad,” Harwood tells me, “with that overly concerned, fake simpering tone - ‘Are you sad? You must be so sad?’ - which actually makes me laugh. I couldn’t be happier. And it’s mostly people who completely ignored the gallery when it was running who are suddenly so concerned about my well being. Now they all want in for the last hurrah.”

Harwood takes a long, stately haul off a cigarette and zeroes in on my inquisitive journalist face.

“The next person who asks me if I’m sad is gonna get kicked right in the crotch.”


Unless you follow the Harwood group show method described above (ask everyone, put art on wall), making art fit together is a difficult task. Somebody always ends up looking like the odd man out, the monkey in the middle.

A new group show at Xpace proves, however, that one way to solve this dilemma is to make everyone the monkey, so to speak. FOUR, a self-explanatory exhibition featuring new work by four young artists, appears to have no curatorial impulse whatsoever, except to highlight the various (and varied) contributions. Oddly enough, FOUR works, because once you give up on the idea that the art is in any way inter-related, you’re left with some fascinating examples of young creativity in all its charming excess.

Dave Buschemeyer wins the prize for silliest contribution with his series of doll head liturgical sculptures. Doll heads are the art world equivalent of overplayed hip hop phrases like “holla” or “bling”. At some point in every artist’s career, there’s a doll head phase – and who can blame the young artist? Doll heads are creepy and instantly signify thwarted innocence.

Thus, it would be too easy to dismiss Buschemeyer’s overstated sculptures. I’d rather recount how, despite the omnipresence of doll skulls, the sculptures are beautifully crafted and do carry the same fetishistic menace as the Voodoo and animist talismans they are meant to mimic. I wouldn’t want one in my house, but if you’re going to use doll heads, you might as well, ahem, bling them up.

In its denunciation/glamourisation of gun violence, David Yu’s photo-based installation is as earnest as Buschemeyer’s spooky religious sculptures, but, thankfully, contains no plastic heads. Comprised of a suspended line up of photos depicting a young man aiming a rifle, Yu’s pictures are displayed like target sheets. Each photo is also poked with holes that look like bullet wounds. Get it?

Sometimes, beating a metaphor to death is actually a good idea. We are in the middle of a gang war in this city and a little overtly preachy artwork is more than welcome. And the guy in the photo is heartbreakingly cute.

I thought I saw a connection between Tessa Angus’s low-to-the-ground sculpture and Yu’s installation, if only because Angus’s sculpture features large dark blobs that look like pools of blood – but that just betrays my need to connect all the dots.

Mounted on sheets of transparent plastic and set under bright lamps, Angus’s black holes are the most minimal and unobtrusive works in FOUR – perhaps to their detriment in such a loud show. But the blobs are rather soothing to look at, and will make you think of Rorschach tests, which will make you think of sex, and then you’ll be afraid to look at the doll heads again.

The best works in this show are the two photo series by Davida Nemerof – works so different I couldn’t believe they were by the same artist.

The first series is a haunting, bronze-tinted collection of images of museum taxidermy. Taxidermy is, of course, right up there with doll heads in the obvious metaphor department, but Nemerof’s photos are deliciously cramped and chaotic, looking more like accidental side swipes than overly studied meditations. By keeping her images busy, Nemerof avoids the cliché. The second series is a happy suite of portraits of friends dressed up as glaring pirates. The combination of goofy and sincere reminded me of David Rasmus’s seminal portraits of men in wigs, from back before Nemerof was born.

Flawed and freaky, FOUR is easily the most lively show in town. The only thing missing from this carnival are the butter sculptures and the two headed chickens.


Don’t tell that bumbling Bill Graham, but Toronto painter Matt Crookshank is busy negotiating a Hans Island settlement with Greenland – and it won’t cost us taxpayers a cent, or a submarine.

Deciding to treat the whole squabble-over-a-pebble with the same idiocy as the respective governments, Crookshank mailed a plan for the island’s development to Greenland’s foreign minister Josef Motzfeldt. Mr. Motzfeldt was not amused.

To Crookshank’s proposal to install an ice rink on the island for friendly Canada-Greenland hockey games, Motzfeldt responded, with typical Nordic ill humour, by calling Crookshank “Mr. Matt Coward”, and then asked him “Who are you? What is your background?”

As Crookshank kept the farce up, Motzfeldt became increasingly insulting, calling Crookshank “Mr. No One”, and signing off with a curt “Good night for hundreds of years.”

Touchy, touchy. Crookshank’s last letter, in which he graciously shares the lyrics to a cheesy Iron Maiden song about Vikings, has yet to receive a response.

Zsa Zsa Gallery
962 Queen West Final show: Bed knobs and Broomsticks Until August 30

Xpace 303 Augusta Avenue Until August 28

Matt Crookshank’s complete Greenland correspondence can be found on his website, www.mattcrookshank.com