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