Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Big Picture 52

Those of you who’ve been counting - there’s me mum in New Brunswick, and … well, that’s about all – will note that this column is my 52nd. My first year anniversary!

And what have I learned in a fun filled, action packed year of writing about art in Toronto? I’ve learned, the hard way, that many, many, dammit most Toronto galleries need some serious instruction in media relations.

It’s not that the gallerists are unfriendly, although I have met a few gate-keepers who’ve successfully kept me out (and, unlike Fred Flintstone’s cat, once I’m put out, I stay out), or intentionally negligent, or entirely stupid – they just don’t have a clue how newspapers work.

Fair enough, newspapers are not their game. But if one has entered into agreements to represent artists, part of that agreement is the handling of publicity, and that means talking to newspapers. If artists knew how badly the majority of galleries in this city handle media, there’d be a booming business in self-representation.

The thing is, publicity is not really all that complicated. Rule number one, for instance, is make sure the gallery is open when it’s supposed to be open. I tried seven times this year to see shows at a young gallery on Queen West, but the place was always closed during its alleged business hours. And now it’s closed for good. Mr. Cause, meet your new friend Mr. Effect.

Rule number two is even simpler: be nice. Attitude is only useful for selling high end clothing, because anyone who will pay $700 for a pair of slacks is a masochist. Look at it this way - you’ve sent out invitations, the front door is unlocked, and there’s a sign in the window, so why are you shocked and bothered when people enter the gallery?

Rule number three is another basic. Answer the phone. Pick it up. It’s ringing. It might be a buyer, or me. C’mon, pick it up.

Rule number four is perhaps the most important, and yet the least understood: newspapers print pictures, pictures of the art that you are trying to sell, and - how Circle of Life can you get? – quality pictures of a product actually help sell said product. Zeller’s knows this, why don’t you?

So, when a critic tells you he/she needs a picture of the art by, say, Tuesday, don’t send it on Saturday and then get all upset when the photo doesn’t find its way into print. Running a newspaper is not like making art – it actually does matter that you get your poop in a group on time. The art world is very forgiving, but newspapers are merciless.

Finally, a personal request. Please don’t follow me around the gallery pitching the art. If I wasn’t already interested in the work, I wouldn’t be there.

Here’s how to tell if I want to listen to 45 minutes of breathless art speak while I’m trying to work: I’ll ask for it. Otherwise, let this poor hack wander around and make up his own mind. That’s what they underpay me for. And offering me free art in exchange for a good review is very bad manners. If I want to feel cheap and corrupt, I’ll go to Church street.


Speaking of odd gallery behaviour, I was practically drop-kicked during my last visit to Sandra Ainsley Gallery. Ms. Ainsley’s diminutive but feisty mother, who is twice as scary as any guard dog and has a far meaner growl, demanded to know who I was, why I was there, and what exactly I thought I was doing in her gallery taking notes. The nerve of me! Apparently, the Ainsley Gallery is besieged by dangerous rogue academics.

I adore fearless elderly women - I hope to be one myself someday - so my appreciation for the Ainsley Gallery’s new exhibition of gorgeous ceramic sculptures by Bennett Bean was not diminished in the least by the mama tiger treatment. Bean’s work is pretty enough to calm Brian Mulroney.

The best works in this multimedia show, which includes delicate carpets designed by Bean, ceramic sculptures shaped like fans, and a series of collage works I found hypnotically awful (some art is so gaudy and overcooked that it becomes entrancing, like the terrible eyes of a cobra), are Bean’s small, cereal bowl-sized vessel sculptures that resemble dissected nautilus shells or fractured tea cups.

Glazed in shimmering gold and silver and painted with abstract patterns in bright primary colours, the sculptures are so obsessively covered in visual information that they reminded me of elaborate, bejewelled chalices, the kind you see hidden behind glass in the better Catholic churches. Under the careful, pin-spot lights of the Ainsley Gallery, the vessels glow like fancy table lamps. I kept wondering where Bean had hidden the electric cord.

Viewers may find Bean’s sculptures too garish, and there is a decidedly 80’s look (in the wrong way) being worked, and worked again, in the choppy, cut and paste graphics and clashing New Wave colours. It is also arguable that Bean’s busy surfaces mask, to their disadvantage, the evocative, strong shapes he has coaxed from the kiln.

But I counter argue that since the vessel pieces are not much bigger than a grapefruit, the layers and layers of glaze and paint force you to look closely at each sculpture, to stare into their inner folds and curves – an experience akin to examining a detailed miniature portrait or ornately carved keepsake box.

Not that I dared get that close with Ma Barker hanging around.


If you are still in autumn denial, Ariel Rubin’s spectral photographs of dead trees, stagnant lakes and winter-burnt meadows will send you to the closet for a fluffy sweater. Or your anti-depressants.

The subjects of Rubin’s gaze are solemn enough, but Rubin ups the Sleepy Hollow factor by attacking her negatives with (I’m guessing here), a straight razor, a muddy garden rake, a meat tenderizer and a lighter. Gouged, crisped, gored and otherwise mangled, Rubin’s images resonate with barely suppressed rage, and no small amount of remorse.

The excremental colour scheme - created by both the natural browns of the wood and the dead grass plus a bit of stagy enhancement - and an overall rotten orange peel hue only serve to infuse the landscapes with a creepy, horror movie glow.

Don’t get me wrong – these are all reasons to enjoy the exhibition. Despite the funereal tone, the works are flamboyantly gothic and operatic. And nobody ever went broke in Canada making art about trees. To the moors, Heathcliff!

Bennett Bean
New Works
Sandra Ainsley Gallery 55 Mill Street, Building 32, Distillery District
Until October 22

Ariel Rubin
Pikto 55 Mill Street, Building 59 Until Halloween (!)