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