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in his day, we’d be living in a very different world, one where the Wright Brothers’ little pedal plane would be as out of date as a wool carder.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