Saturday, September 24, 2005

The Big Picture 50

The “hemline theory”, which posits that stock market prices rise when short skirts are in fashion and fall when women are sporting ankle dusters (economists are all pervy thigh fetishists), has a corollary in the art market called the “messy index”. It goes like this: when people are getting rich off of art, artists have time to make very particular, very formal and controlled art. But when the art market sags, everyone panics and artists make art as quickly and haphazardly as they can, hoping something in the overstock will resonate with the public and kick-start sales.

To prove this theory, and, more important, to prove that I didn’t just make it all up, I point to several signs of a dip in the local art market – galleries closing on Queen West as often as they were opening only two years ago, an increasing focus, even in the major commercial galleries, on smaller, more affordable works and artist multiples, and three new painting shows that, while gorgeous and vibrant, could hardly be called exact, and certainly not stiff nor stuffy.

John Borg’s new collection of gouache on paper works at the O’Connor Gallery is a lovely reminder of why art that relies on and celebrates the impulsive gesture will always prompt an immediate emotional response. Few of us, let’s admit it, are careful planners or emotionally cautious, and art that reflects our own impulsiveness (and the subsequent vulnerabilities that that impulsiveness prompts) speaks to us with a febrile directness. If Borg were a singer, he’s be wobbly but real Morrisey, not note perfect but plastic Mariah.

This is not to say that Borg is a sloppy painter – far from it. Rather, that Borg’s work conveys a joyful free-handedness, an allowance for accident and play that gives the work a personality, and, indeed, some guts (in all senses of the word) – two strengths that more than overpay the viewer for Borg’s occasional lapses into too easy, flowery prettiness.

The bulk of the exhibition is comprised of Borg’s luscious studies of male nudes, or, to be more precise, studies of the more delectable parts of a male nude. Borg likes a rosy penis the way Monet liked a water lily – in full, misty bloom. The rest of the male body gets a good once over too, as Borg paints man flesh as if men were long and generous party trays filled with tempting, perfectly marbled cold cuts. The gouache is applied and re-applied until it is as thick as melted crayons, creating a kind of fatty opulence. The aren’t really paintings, they’re menus.

Visitors to the O’Connor Gallery expect a heaping helping of nekkid menfolk – situated in the heart of the gay village, the gallery knows its cliental – but after they ogle Borg’s supine and slippery slabs of flesh, they might be surprised to find themselves just as drawn to the painter’s luminous and ghostly paintings of Maltese interiors.

Compared to his model studies, the Malta paintings are much more cloudy, as if seen through a snow globe, and are washed with a muddied, indirect light. The dusty, sunburnt church corridors and narrow, haunted streets reveal themselves only in faint bursts of light, in patches of clarity surrounded (sometimes smothered) by a murky indistinctness so thick and watery it made me wonder if the paint had dried. These are dreamscapes, not travelogues.

My favourite work from the exhibition is a graceful yet very busy painting depicting the generous lap of a bronze Buddha. Criss-crossed with thin switches of bright paint and randomly smeared with metallic and flesh tone pigment, this is a twitchy, anxious painting seemingly at odds with its serene subject matter.

But it’s exactly this balance between the quiet and the frantic, the restful and the noisy, that makes the liturgical aspect of the painting come alive, as the viewer is confronted simultaneously with what Buddhism promises – contentment, restfulness, good posture – and all the earthly delights that work against Buddhist ideals, such as the distracting gaiety of pretty colours and desirable, shiny objects.

I doubt it wise to clutter one’s path to enlightenment with sparkly pictures of the Buddha. I won’t even ask about the nudies.


For a bigger blast of crazed, damn-the-impasto painting, you can’t get any more bombastic than Michael Smith’s modestly titled exhibition Light & Matter (giving this loud, storm-tossed exhibition such an innocuous title is like calling Hamlet a polite drawing room comedy) – a show that should come with a health warning for epileptics, pace-maker users, and people prone to speaking in tongues. Looking at these chaotic masses of clashing colours, I now understand how bugs with several hundred eyes see the world, or women who wear too much mascara.

I know it’s a cliché, but you really do need to stand back, as far back as you can get, to fully experience Smith’s blasted landscapes. It’s almost as if he created the paintings in a naturalistic style and then, while they were still wet, tied the canvases to the back of a speeding train. The paint doesn’t move on the canvas, it flies, jumps, tries to escape, as if it’s being continually slapped and punched. Violent concussions of colour fight for space on each surface, creating a mad contrapuntal dialogue, a mob of shouting voices. Of course, the paintings sometimes spiral completely out of control and become great blazing disasters, but even those are fun to watch.

In each painting, Smith spins his tattered webs from a central light source, a great ball of fire that anchors the disparate elements and brings the far flung (and I mean that literally, as in chucked, tossed, pitched, and heaved) scrapes of paint into a remote but recognizable focus.

This is old school, muscular painting, painting wholly untouched by the sniggering ironies of post-modernism. The goal here is straightforward and uncomplicated by representational politics - to inspire awe, wonder and, yes, rapture. Remember rapture?


Luke Painter’s wacky concoctions are likely to inspire rapture’s opposite, delighted giggles, but that’s the point. Painter scrapes metal sheets with toxic colours, like a street kid wielding a dirty squeegee, and then nails bizarre, printed metal appliqués to the mashed colour fields. Adding to the conflagration, Painter’s appliqués are printed with designs that look like the remains of a disembowelled robot.

The whole enterprise leaves you shaking your head at the screwy, utter originality of Painter’s vision – one clearly unencumbered by notions of good taste or restraint – and pining for your own set of finger paints.

John Borg
O’Connor Gallery 97 Maitland Street Until October 1

Michael Smith
Light & Matter
Nicholas Metivier Gallery 451 King Street West Until Sept. 29

Luke Painter
Pipe Dreams
Angell Gallery 890 Queen Street West Until October 8

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Big Picture 49

Evergon has his dewy, shot-through-gauze boys, Greg Curnoe had his bikes, Aganetha Dyck can’t stop smothering appliances in beeswax, and Allyson Mitchell is addicted to the velvety, inviting caress of fun fur. Maybe Mitchell, Dyck and Evergon could smother a nubile underwear model in sticky plush?

Mitchell’s new exhibition, Lady Sasquatch, solidifies her reputation as the pre-eminent fake follicle artist of our time – not merely because she has tamed the tufted medium into a material as pliable and evocative as any high-grade oil paint, but also because she never forgets that anything made out of the same stuff as a Sponge Bob doll (or, for that matter, a plastic shopping bag) is inherently fun, and funny.

Lady Sasquatch continues Mitchell’s ongoing project of recasting mainstream erotic images of women in her own idiosyncratic, smart ass style of feminism - an enterprise that last year resulted in a delicious series of updated, fat-positive vintage Playboy cartoons re-worked in candy coloured fun fur. For her new exhibition, Mitchell takes on the Big Foot/Sasquatch mythology and uncovers its hidden female history – a story populated by large-and-in-charge, fanged beast women and their happy human love slaves. If you go out in the woods today …

The move from extra voluptuous Playboy bunnies to full-on monster women was only a step away, Mitchell tells me, because the only thing more threatening to patriarchal concepts of femininity than a fat chick is a fat chick with a mighty pelt.

“Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about hairy, large women, and how they are perceived as scary, which, by association, led me to start thinking about Sasquatches.”

“I grew up watching Unsolved Mysteries with Leonard Nimoy and all those 1970’s fake occult “documentaries” – the ones where the Sasquatch always turned out to be musk ox or whatever - and I still remember with love the Sasquatch character on The Bionic Woman. But I started to wonder why, after all the years of hearing about Sasquatches in pop culture, I never heard anything about female Sasquatches? How can there be tribes of Sasquatches running around the woods without females – where do baby Sasquatches come from?”

Well then, Ms. Mitchell, why aren’t there any lady Sasquatches in popular culture?

“Because men are terrified of big hairy women. So I decided to give them something to really be afraid of!”

That’s an understatement. At 11 feet tall, with hairy teats the size of tennis balls, engorged, fire-coloured vulvas that look like mutant Bird of Paradise flowers, long black claws, vampire incisors and white trash mullet hairdos that brush the ceiling, Mitchell’s lady Sasquatches are the furry equivalent of the monster mothers from the Alien movies – and yet, they are far from repulsive.

The baby’s bottom smooth fun fur mitigates the initial fright, of course, but it’s the beasts’ round and confident bodies, exuberant celebrations of plenty and confidence, that finally draw you in, make you question your initial apprehension. Mitchell’s she-hulks appear just as likely to protect you from marauding bears (and the cold nights) as they do ready to eat you for lunch.

“They’re totally sexy, but they’re scary monsters at the same time. It’s possible to be both.”


On the other end of the art making spectrum sits Dimensionality, a spare, at times severe group show of new works that re-imagine the sterile, clinical world of Op Art - a (thankfully) dead mid-20th century practice fuelled by modernist notions of exactitude, un-ornamented surfaces, and art as mechanization. Dimensionality is about as wild and woolly as a architectural blue print.

I am normally not drawn to art that over-emphasizes precision. I like my art a bit rough around the edges, because I am far from precise myself. But, given my inherent distaste for art that resembles a mathematical problem, I still found myself engaged by Dimensionality – perhaps because most of the works are art about art, or art history, and that extra layer of consideration imbues the work with a human presence, makes the show an examination of why the artists involved wished to revisit a largely forgotten practice than about their actual art (which is intentionally as stimulating as a TV test pattern).

My favourite contributions are Angela Leach’s beautiful wave painting, a long undulating parade of hot colours that vibrate off the wall, causing a pleasing sense of dislocation (and nausea), and David Reed’s manipulations of stills from Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo, wherein Reed has cheekily replaced the art on the film set’s walls with his own swirling abstract paintings.

The rest of the exhibition, while at times quirky or at least handsomely crafted, left me cold. Nestor Kruger contributes another of his lifeless wall paintings, meant to depict a dissected filing cabinet, shoe tree, broom closet or some other such banal subject, and Robert Fones offers two straight up Op Art replicas that would not be out of place on Rhoda Morgenstern’s living room wall. Why revive a played out genre if you have nothing new to say about it?

Dimensionality will appeal to people who like their art unburdened by content, and who believe in colouring not just within the lines, but with a ruler (i.e. Torontonians in general). The rest of us - messy, needy, infantile pleasure seekers that we are - can at least admire the pretty colours.


In between Allyson Mitchell’s roughhousing and Dimensionality’s austere minimalism rests Lanny Shereck’s new series of multimedia works – art that combines a modernist interest in the power of pure, primary colour with scratchy, neo-folk collage samples.

Shereck’s panels are coated in cheery, almost childish colours – tomato reds, crayon sunshine yellows – and then plastered with rough, hacked up snapshots of hurrying crowds, people carrying shopping bags and talking on cell phones, or folks who simply look very distracted by the everyday chores of life. Occasionally, Shereck highlights an individual with a bright ring of paint, or buries his unwitting subject in a swath of black paint – emphasizing that when we are in an urban crowd, we are both objects of surveillance and completely anonymous. By placing his casually gathered subjects on fields of babyish colours, Shereck further conveys their helplessness (or at least their obliviousness).

My only critique of these curious collages is that the work might be more successful if the panels were smaller, if the floating bodies were less adrift and were instead trapped in a congested field. More tension, more of a sense of panic, is needed to truly bring the collages’ innate nervous energies into full twitch.

Lady Sasquatch
Allyson Mitchell
Paul Petro Contemporary Art 980 Queen Street West Until October 8

YYZ Artists’ Outlet Suite 140, 401 Richmond Street West Until October 22

Fair Game
Lanny Shereck
Fran Hill Gallery 230 Queen Street East Until September 24

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Big Picture 48

Do you hear that slump, drag, slump sound? Does the occasional wet, squealing sigh caress your ears? Is your sidewalk stained with vinegary tears?

Pardon my cackling, but it’s back to school time and, like every other harried, child-free adult in town, I couldn’t be more full of schaudenfreud if I was Fassbinder himself. Let the little wretches squirm and twitch through another numbing year of rote learning and creativity-stunting - at least they won’t be outside my office window throwing rocks at my cat, or me.

For those children who’ve been good all summer, or considerate enough to spend the last two months at a camp far, far away from my home, I offer an olive branch in the form of a bizarre new colouring book by Toronto painter David McClyment. Filled with sea beasts, two headed rats and lurid rhymes, Why Are Some Monsters So Sad? is as gorgeous and menacing as a handsome but mean junior-high gym teacher.

McClyment’s paintings are known for their rabid layering, for their conflation of complex stencilled images, bright enamels, and frantic acts of gouging and sanding. But what to do with all those stencils once the paintings are complete? Since many of McClyment’s hand-made stencils depict imaginary monsters – carp with cow heads, kangaroos with rattle snake tails – he decided to recycle the leftovers into a warped version of a Sendak pictorial, a grotesque lullaby to be shared with children who appreciate the macabre, or with brats whom one does not wish a good night.

“The book is kind of an anthology of images I’ve dealt with over ten years, dealing with fictional monster forms,” McClyment tells me.

“These monsters creep into my work frequently, coming from pop imagery and from things that were important to me as a child. I guess I like the fun that’s in them. For example, one of the images is of a pike eating a swallow, borrowed from a Victorian natural science guide - a completely unlikely scenario that was made possible to me as a child by it being in a book.”

“Generally, I’m the guy who always cheers for Godzilla. So when I made this book I was conscious of the fact that we often ignore how children don’t just like cuddly bunnies.”

If the moose-lizard creature doesn’t freak out your saplings, the butcher’s rag colours will certainly tint their imaginations. Covered in bloody reds, vein blues and splotches of dung brown - the result of having multiple (and clashing) paints sprayed through the stencils – McClyment’s murky palettes are the antithesis of the bright, clean and undiluted colour schemes that enliven most children’s books.

“It’s almost like the colours bleed, literally, from the incisions of the stencils. My colours tend to be very aggressive in my paintings, so the stencils carry the ghosts of that aggression. If you see the colour as being a residue of violence, it works well against the cuteness of a colouring book.”

Would McClyment let his own children take Some Monsters to bed?

“Absolutely. I don’t think it’s an overtly violent book, but the edginess is the kind of thing kids like to play with – the monsters are scary and goofy at the same time. I hope that kids get a whole range of emotions from the book.”

“At the launch, I got kids to colour copies of the pages, and some kids went crazy, let the colours explode, and made the images even more violent!”


Whenever I leave town, I carry a St. Jude medal inside my shaving kit. I’m not particularly Catholic, or even Christian, but I am easily lost, prone to missing airplanes, and can’t count money. I need all the help I can get. Therefore, for my own good, I ought to buy all of the work in Barbara Rehus’s new exhibition at Loop Gallery, and probably hang the art around my neck.

In please thank you, Rehus continues to explore her fascination with milagros, those tiny tin medals used in Mexico to solicit miracles from the saints. But this time, instead of using her home made milagros as decoration in her work, Rehus lets the milagros take centre stage in a prismatic hanging garden – and the results are magical.

Made from opalescent, kiln-cast glass, Rehus’s miracle medals shine with oily under-hues of blue and green, like dragon fly wings. The 80 palm-sized works appear to be begging for intervention in everything from stomach ailments to art projects, and half the fun of the show is trying to guess what requests are signified by what medals. For instance, one wonders what would be the outcome of pinning ones hopes on a medal depicting a video camera, or luggage, the Energizer Bunny or Elizabeth II (my guesses are, respectively, a great acting career, crossing the US border without incident, vigorous sexual performance, and a bushel of cold hard cash).

Hung from the gallery ceiling with clean white ribbon, the mass of fragile milagros creates an anxious quiet that strongly resembles the humming tension found in a church filled with whispering worshipers. But don’t let that scare you off – with this much refracted light and all the shark skin colours, please thank you could easily serve double duty as a festive chandelier, or giant disco ball.

If Rehus’s shimmering art is meant to be liturgical, or at least devotional (she notes in her artist statement that her works “make it seem possible that simple prayers can help lead the way to understanding and healing”), Rehus apparently forgot, thank Heaven, to put in all the usual fire and brimstone palaver. I guess miracles don’t just happen on cold, barren mountaintops or in the dark, smelly guts of whales.


Seconds after stepping out of Idiomatica, a new show of works by Latin American-Canadian artists at Lennox Gallery, I was assaulted by a sky-cracking clap from one of the military muscle planes at the CNE air show. Given that Idiomatica is part of the Salvadore Allende Arts Festival for Peace, the irony was almost too thick.

Unfortunately, Idiomatica is less than military in its precision. The Big Themes at play – Latin American diasporic discontent, the evil toll of poverty and militarisation, ongoing US imperialism – are simply too large and cumbersome to make for a focused exhibition. But the show certainly gets a A for effort, as there is no shortage of provocative work on display.

Highlights include the Z’otz Collective’s dreamy, wall-length charcoal mural and paintings on paper, a parti-coloured crazy quilt of floating bodies, neck-less heads, mythical creatures and wild animals, Ximena Moreno’s bed spread made of used long distance calling cards, a succinct rendering of the mundanity (and literal cost) of homesickness, and Oscar Camilo De Las Flores’s wigged out, unapologetically didactic painting of a slumbering white plantation boss surrounded by docile natives, slaves, cavorting pigs, and a murderous alligator wielding a knife.

Why be subtle when so much is at stake?

Why Are Some Monsters So Sad?
David McClyment
Available at Babel Books and Music, 123 Ossington Avenue.
Limited Edition of 100

please thank you
Barbara Rehus
Loop Gallery 1174 Queen Street West Until September 18

Lennox Contemporary Gallery 12 Ossington Avenue Until September 15

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Big Picture 47

Wandering around the CNE, bloated and giddy from repeated doses of deep fried Mars Bars and horrible perogies that tasted like charcoal briquets (and were about as easy to chew), I learned, yet again, the bitterest truth about art – it’s everywhere. I came for candied apples and tattooed carnies and ended up looking at Renaissance reconstructions and dairy-based sculpture. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m anhedonic.

My failure to have good, tacky fun was not helped much by the CNE’s main artsy attraction, Travelling With Leonardo Da Vinci - a lacklustre show of machine models built from diagrams found in the master’s notebooks. To call this show a buzz kill would be an understatement. After twenty long and dreary minutes spent with these cheaply replicated brainchildren of LDV, I had to drink two milkshakes and make friends with a massage chair just to get my blood running again

Not that old Leo’s proposals for helicopters, projectors and catapults are less than fascinating: if even a handful of his technologically advanced contraptions had been successfully implemented in his day, we’d be living in a very different world, one where the Wright Brothers’ little pedal plane would be as out of date as a wool carder. The problem with this exhibition is hardly the subject matter, it’s the presentation – ugly, poorly arranged and frustratingly un-interactive, Travelling With takes all the fun out of learning (and almost all the learning too).

First off, the exhibition is way too cramped. While you’re admiring one gizmo, there’s a good chance you’re about to knock over another. People with children not covered in bubble wrap are advised to avoid this display. Even more aggravating is the exhibition’s “no touch” policy, which makes no sense at all given that all the twirling and whirling gadgets were designed to be powered by hand cranking, are fully functional, and the handles are right there in front of your tempted eyes. Of course, my friend and I touched everything that moved, for the fun of watching the machines work and the double fun of being scolded by security.

If the exhibitors had spent more than a hundred bucks on any of the replications I might feel guilty about pawing them, but the widgets look like they were made out of wood scraps by bored Home Depot clerks. At least there’s some drama in watching kids pitch fits because they can’t play with the giant Tinker Toys.

As if the models are not under-whelming enough, the exhibition is encased in a wall of bleak, light-sucking black curtains, which only serve to make the objects appear even duller. Didn’t the organizers realize they’d be competing with every garish knick knack hawker in the province, not to mention live pigs and goats and cows? A little colour goes a long way, but at the Ex you need to be a peacock to draw a crowd.

I suspect the entire point of Travelling With is product placement. As you leave this darkened and painfully still séance, you are given the chance to purchase a new board game based on “real legends about Da Vinci’s life” (real legends? as opposed to those unreliable fake legends?). Pity they’re not selling hammers.

On the bright side, there’s butter sculpting. Go ahead and laugh, but let’s see you make a totem pole, a cowboy, or a Gaudi-esque landscape out of milk fat. The fun here is two-fold: you can peer into a giant, glass-walled refrigerator and watch shivering OCAD kids in toques and sweaters hack away at glistening bricks of yellow gunk (I hope they get extra credit for rheumatism), and … it’s art made out of butter! This is exactly the sort of ridiculous and adorable spectacle one expects from the CNE, with the added bonus that most of the sculptures hold up as art on their own, silly dairy industry stunt or not.

If, as the philosopher Bakhtin claimed, carnivals like the CNE are ritualized acts of capitalist self-congratulation, affirming celebrations of plenty and prosperity linked to pagan harvest sacrifices, I state without shame that I am very grateful to live in a country where people pay to watch other people play with precious food, and where nobody finds sculptures of animals made from animal fat the least bit disturbing.


After the sensory overload of the CNE, I needed a bit of calm, a quiet brush stroke, a muted palette. And an Aspirin. Luckily, a new exhibition of large acrylic on canvas abstracts at Engine Galley worked better than a handful of Tylenol 3’s, and didn’t make me fall off my bike.

Toronto painter Glenn Romasanta is a minimalist in denial. Try as he might to reduce his paintings to singular meetings of black and white pigment , to spare pick-up-sticks games played with bold, calligraphic lines and sleepy brush strokes, there are busy filaments twitching under the top layers of his canvases, manic cross hatchings and choppy swathes of angry under-painting. The paintings may appear cold and barren and nearly smothered in spongy gesso, but a crackling fire roars underneath the wintry whiteout.

All the bars and blips dancing across Romasanta’s canvases reminded me of the time I dislodged some retinal fibres and saw thin, shiny rectangles behind my eyes for a week – which, apart from the fact that I thought I was going insane, was actually quite pretty. Take your time with these paintings, or bring infrared goggles.


Khang Pham-New’s beautiful new sculptures are as austere, smooth and soothing as the top layers of Romasanta’s paintings, but I wouldn’t try lifting one. Bigger than king size beds, these curly monoliths look weirdly (and deliciously) out of place tucked inside XEXE Gallery’s small front hall, and are as imposing and endearing as baby whales.

Khang is a modernist at heart, and his work echoes Jean Arp and Pamela Soldwedel, to name only a couple. The difference between Khang’s work and any garden (or office tower) variety monument is that Khang’s silky granite arabesques are sexy, not grandiose.

Khang builds his stony confections from the bottom up, resting impossibly heavy crowns on the slimmest of necks. My favourite works are a lithe, pink curlicue that resembles a seedling in sprout (granted, a twelve foot seedling)and a really big, dark granite work that incongruously looks like a drag queen’s gravity-defying, upswept hairdo.

Khang counters the raw aggressiveness of his materials and the stately, at times alarming scale of his work with a coy and kittenish daintiness that’s both unexpected and wondrous. I wonder how much he charges for a tombstone?
Travelling With Leonardo Da Vinci
Hall A, National Trade Centre
Butter Sculptures
Farming Pavilion
Canadian National Exhibition Until September 5

Glenn Romasanta
Engine Gallery 1112 Queen Street West Until September 14

Recent Sculpture
Khang Pham-New
XEXE Gallery 624 Richmond Street West Until September 17