Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Big Picture 54

When I turned 40 a few months back, a pal of mine (a questionable distinction, given what follows) offered the following observation – or curse – regarding gay men of a certain age: After 40, fags either go leather or blousy.

Dirty minded as I am, I can’t quite make the leather daddy look work. There’s too much gear, too many rules, and my vegetarian heart won’t allow me to wear an entire calf’s worth of hide. Blousy, however, is easy – you just accent every outfit with a scarf.

And scarves I’ve got, aplenty. I’ve been collecting neck knots since I was in my teens, and have dozens of hideous wraps to prove it, in all the toxic colours unknown to nature. Imagine, then, my joy at discovering Dance of Pattern, a luxurious new exhibition of ornamental fabric works at the Textile Museum of Canada. I had to walk through the show with my hands shoved into my pockets, to keep me from trying on the shawls.

Curator Patricia Bentley has cleverly organized Dance of Pattern around four universal motifs that appear in costume and decoration around the world: the stripe, the diamond, checkerboards, and centres. From this simple format, Bentley builds a multi-layered, informative (and very pretty to look at) exhibition that showcases universal patterning practices and tracks each motif’s metaphorical, cultural, and even spiritual role.

Exhaustive but never tiring, the exhibition successfully mashes together some very diverse but obviously interrelated materials – from checkerboard quilts made in rural Atlantic Canada in the 1840s to contemporary Malaysian skirts. If the resounding “It’s a small world after all” message of the show is a bit of a cliché, that does not detract from the abundant proof Bentley offers that all humans share an innate need to create patterns, and the patterns we create are therefore similar from continent to continent. My blousy fate, I’m relieved to know, is shared by men from Borneo to Bathurst.

Highlights include a collection of gorgeous, blood red Peruvian ponchos, lively green and yellow dress wraps made by the Asante people of Ghana, Congolese raffia pile clothes decorated with dense, tufted embroidery, fantastically intricate batik prints from Java, quilts from India that are indistinguishable (at least to this untrained eye) from quilts made by Canadian grannies, and sexy kemben (Javanese “breast wraps”) decorated with sword patterns that symbolize strength and ward off evil.

In between covetous dreams of accessorizing your sweater with a jaunty foulard from Sumatra, you can also learn how to weave reeds into material as tough as cord, the correct way to wear a Mexican coat blanket, the painstaking knotting process that creates startlingly elaborate Persian carpets, and, my favourite bit of textile trivia, where to look for the tiny imperfections in Indian quilts - “mistakes” intentionally inserted by quilters who believe that creating a perfect pattern is asking for bad luck to strike.

Smart and visually arresting, Dance of Pattern is a sensual delight, a parade of eye-popping colours and hypnotic patterns. My only complaint, and it’s one that I frequently have with museums, is that the show appears under-lit. Some corners of the exhibition are almost dark enough to develop film. I understand that many of the artefacts on display are light sensitive, and that bright light only hastens their decay, but the dimness is frustrating and makes you feel like you’re walking through a summer garden in full bloom wearing welder’s goggles.

Nevertheless, Dance of Pattern is worth the cost of a bottle of Visine.


One exhibition that doesn’t have to worry about decaying materials is Michael Davey’s Re:Forestation , a tiny arbour made entirely of indestructible, and grossly inorganic, plastic crap.

Like many artists who live on the hippy-infested Toronto Island, Davey is very concerned about the future of our natural world. But that doesn’t mean he’s lost his sense of humour. Re:Forestation, a parti-coloured grove of trees made of discarded coat stands, footballs, pool noodles, all manner of cheap Asian-slave-labour-produced toys and plant pots, is a scruffy jungle gym for the eco-sensitive. Despite the grim message that fuels the installation – namely, that we are filling in all our open spaces with irreducible garbage – the work, maniacally crammed into a tiny back room at York Quay Gallery, is actually rather pleasant to look at, a surrealist forest as bright and cheerful as Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Arguably, the grungy found materials Davey employs are meant to convey an unmistakably menacing tone, as most of the props are as dirty as the bottom of a dumpster. But I couldn’t help finding Davey’s clever assemblies oddly cheerful. Call me simple minded, but art made out of Playdough-coloured toys is happy art. Perhaps the didactics of Davey’s forest are meant to self-deconstruct, to be as playfully seductive as they are foreboding? After all, most of us are drawn to cheap, brightly hued dollar store junk for a reason – because it’s pretty, affordable, and instantly gratifying. And therein lies the problem.

Whatever larger message you take away from Davey’s Tinkertoy timberland, the many ways he finds to build a tree from a toddler’s pink baseball bat or a bent hoola hoop are, at the very least, entertaining. All this exhibition needs is a family of live squirrels, or a rubber dingy tree house.


Curator and critic Philip Monk is not known for his openness. A shy, quiet sort, Monk approaches his projects with all the emotional attachment of a lab technician prodding a rat. But his latest book, Spirit Hunter, may soon change his reputation for being, as the writer Gerald Hannon once put it, the Robespierre of Toronto art.

Spirit Hunter is ostensibly a collection of meditations on American artist Jeremy Blake’s “Winchester Trilogy”, a series of video installations based on the fabled Winchester House (a mad, spooky nineteenth century experiment in “architectural spiritualism” paid for by Sarah Winchester, the guilt ridden heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune) – but the book is really about Philip Monk and his attempts to find larger meaning for a life spent looking at, thinking over, and writing copiously about art.

While Spirit Hunter certainly does its day job by giving Blake’s project a thorough once, twice, and thrice-over, the book really comes alive when Monk allows himself to wander off the prospectus and speculate on the things that worry him most – increasing American aggression, the way past violence haunts the present, and the unavoidable conclusion that, art be damned, the world really is coming to a speedy end.

It is in these passages, these moments of panic and poetry, that Monk’s latent humanism shines through. Aiding this strange diary of dilemmas is Lisa Kiss’s luminous, picture-packed design, which will help you get through Monk’s occasional egg-heady outbursts.

All these years of being intimidated by Monk the Inquisitor, and it turns out he’s just a humble country parson fretting over the chickadees in their nests.

Dance of Pattern
Textile Museum of Canada 55 Centre Avenue Until March 27, 2006

Michael Davey
Re: Forestation
York Quay Gallery, York Quay Centre, Harbourfront 235 Queen’s Quay West
Until November 6

Philip Monk
Spirit Hunter
Art Gallery of York University press. Distributed by D.A.P.