Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Big Picture 59

Years ago I curated an exhibition of new queer video work for a gallery in New Brunswick, and from that humble non-event I learned a valuable lesson – when assembling a collection of short films for the public’s delectation, don’t imagine that you’ll please everyone.

Watching films is an intensely subjective experience that we nevertheless engage in as a group. Most of watch films daily, via the cheap medium of television, and are therefore far more comfortable acting as critics of film-based art than we are of painting, sculpture, or dance. We are familiar with film, steeped in its strategies, practices and language. If everyone who looks at art is a critic, everyone who looks at film is Pauline Kael.

Pity Paul Wong, the curator behind Vtape’s intriguing but uneven new exhibition Split Decisions. After a months-long curatorial residency at Vtape, Wong has assembled a collection of works that come from, he states, a “place of two minds – tapes that examine conflict both exterior and from within the deep recesses of the human psyche”. I’ve done some vault-diving at Vtape myself, and the above description could easily be applied to every single video in the joint. Why didn’t he just try to push a streetcar up Bathurst street instead? It would be less demanding.

For the most part, Wong pulls it off. Split Decisions is a lively collection of recent short films that amply explores Wong’s curatorial agenda but also offers some unique variations. No two works feel the same in this exhibition, despite their thematic similarities, and Wong has not made the perennial curator’s mistake of selecting works from within a single, narrow tonal range. There’s everything in this show from pop music video takeoffs to serious short narratives to non-linear experimental oddities. Some of Wong’s choices would not be my choices - but as I noted earlier, that’s par for the course. If I liked everything I saw, I’d take it as a sign of my own personal End Times.

Of the dozen works on display, my favourites begin with Nelson Henricks’s Satellite, a campy reworking of vintage education films into a nihilistic music video. The film doesn’t really amount to much - the cranky text plastered over the stock footage is comprised mainly of empty aphorisms and, overall, the work is more a triumph of clever sampling than a true re-contextualization of the borrowed materials - but Satellite is still enormously fun to watch and the punchy score is dementedly cheerful. Fun is always appreciated, especially in the context of short film anthologies, which tend to be rather dour when they aim to illuminate serious topics.

Equally fun, and beautiful to look at, is Deirdre Logue’s succinct, aptly titled short That Beauty. The film opens with a screen full of brilliant sparkles and fades into a heavily shadowed shot of an unidentified person (Logue, I suspect) dancing in his/her kitchen. As the figure rocks out to a looped beat and repeated, upbeat refrain, her/his body grows increasingly covered in the bright speckles of light, until the dancer looks like Tinkerbell on an ecstasy high. This film is so joyous, and so neatly self-contained, that it deserves to be viewed twice, if for nothing more than the giddy high it induces. Logue’s films have always had a playful bent, despite her reputation for making meditative, introspective work, but That Beauty is her Flashdance.

For pure silliness, turn to John Beagles and Graham Ramsay’s Trilogy – the funniest films I’ve seen all year. The concept at work here is simple enough: find two shabby looking British geeks (perhaps Beagles and Ramsay themselves?), place them in an even shabbier looking British hovel, and then ask them to give deadpan recitations of upbeat pop song lyrics, without music.

In the first film, the two men sit on a ratty chesterfield while one of them recites the lyrics to Prince and Sheena Easton’s dirty hit “U Got the Look”. The performer might as well be reading a vacuum cleaner instruction manual for all the sex he puts into his delivery. The next two works feature archetypal Madonna songs, first the power ballad “Borderline” followed by the especially strident “Express Yourself”. “Borderline” is recited from a bathtub, with one sad sack sitting pants-around-ankles on the toilet while the other talk-sings. In “Express Yourself”, the songbirds share a damp looking bed, covers pulled up to their chins like frightened children, while one man incongruously recites Madonna’s anthem to courageous self-determination.

The conflation of the men’s pathetic, run down lives and the glamorous pop lyrics is hilarious, but also acts as a sharp critique of the gulf between the fantasies pop music sells and the realities lived, or endured, by its millions of buyers.

Who are Beagles and Ramsay, and where can I get their album?

Split Decisions
Curated by Paul Wong
Vtape 401 Richmond Street, Suite 452 Until January 13

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Big Picture 58

The paintings of Mexican abstractionist Francisco Castro are new to me, but that’s hardly surprising given that Serie Hiedra, a collection of recent work on display at Diaz Contemporary, is his first solo exhibition in Canada. Besides, I can barely keep up with the local crowd.

Forgive me for thinking then, at first glance, that Castro’s squares-on-squares paintings were created sometime closer to the second World War than to the Iraq War, as there is a decidedly retro look to his modernist geometrical abstracts. Mondrian’s colour blocks are an obvious influence (or, to be more postmodern about it, reference), as are Sol LeWitt’s slide rule concoctions – but it’s a mistake to read these lovely works as mere exercises in nostalgia.

Castro’s Rubik’s cubes do not convey the same triumphant severity as the works of his predecessors, and appear at times to question the entire formalist enterprise - especially in the spaces between the squares, which are delineated with soft, indistinct lines and whispers of muffled paint. The squares themselves are fraught with imperfections, washed out patches and smears, and Castro frequently disrupts the surfaces of each with faint swipes of excremental brown and sapphire blue, giving them a sluggish movement that nicely counterpoints the rigid mathematics of his compositions.

However, going all academic on these works or turning them into a commentary on the fallacies of modernism is a waste of precious time – time you should be spending wallowing in the lushness of Castro’s colours. And lush is the operative word here, as Castro has filled the gallery with a tropical rainforest’s worth of febrile, breathing greens: pine green, green tea green, frog egg green, absinthe green, fern, bluegrass, slime, mint, Palmolive, khaki, barrel cactus, jade and emerald green. It’s a Christmas tree farm for minimalists!

Save this exhibit for the first days of December, when the sun goes down right after lunch. Get the friendly gallery attendants to turn all the lights on, take off your scarf, and soak up as much chlorophyll as you can, because you won’t see this much foliage again till April.


Derek Sullivan’s Kiosk, a poster stand plunked in the middle of the Toronto Sculpture Garden, aims low and succeeds brilliantly. The goal of the sculpture, to create a temporary platform for posters (works specifically commissioned from other artists by Sullivan, plus whatever gets stuck on the boards by enterprising locals) is hardly a lofty one. As any construction worker or Reg Hart will tell you, when you create a blank public space, the public will fill it.

What intrigues me about this work, however, is not the artist’s inflated claim that the work will “activate street level activity” – like I said, how hard is that? – but rather how much the kiosk, modelled on the poster stands one sees in Paris or Munich (or Fredericton for that matter) looks like it came from a Canadian Tire kit.

The wood surfaces are stained a familiar, suburban deck dark green (more green!), and are ornamented with rough fretwork that looks like the decorations my grandfather used to carve out of lumber scraps to fancy up his shovel shed. The roof of the kiosk is covered in black tar paper, another of Puppa’s favourite ornamental materials, and the base is constructed of common cement tiles, the kind sold in hardware stores to gussy up front porches. In other words, Sullivan’s tribute to grand, oh-so-European notions of public space and street level democracy might as well have been manufactured by Red Green – all that’s missing are the wooden butterflies, which I am greatly tempted to apply myself.

Kiosk’s unsubtle nods to the great Canadian garage make the sculpture far more fun, and more resonant of our particular cultural quirks, than its otherwise tame, anarchist-lite agenda. I bet it would make a great ice fishing shack.


The Artists Network of Riverdale are getting the jump tonight on the Xmas art sale rush with their annual Little Art Show - a fundraiser for, naturally enough, the Riverdale Art Walk. These folks stick close to home.

The format of the sale is a reliable one: pack the sales floor with hundreds of attractive works of art, all very small and in all imaginable genres, then rake in the dough. Works are sold via a silent auction, which allows the buyer to be anonymously cheap.

At last year’s sale, about 1000 people crammed in to see the wares, which means the real treat is watching the crowd to see who’s buying what for how little (opera glasses come in handy for catching under-bidders).

March Gregoroff, ANR Executive Director, reminds me that “The most important thing about the Little Art Show is that - just like everything else we try to do around here - we don’t anyone to ever feel excluded from the traditionally snobbish art scene.”

Not even the snobs? They’re the ones with all the money.

Francisco Castro
Serie Hiedra
Diaz Contemporary 100 Niagara Street Until December 23

Derek Sullivan
Toronto Sculpture Garden 115 King Street East Until April 15

Little Art Show
November 19, 7 – 11pm BMW Toronto, Broadview and Eastern (11 Sunlight Park Blvd)

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Big Picture 57

Although best known, and widely loved, for her kooky paintings of a fairy-dusted, cotton candy world populated by kitten-girl hybrids and dancing pink behemoths, Fiona Smyth has never shied from visiting the darker, danker side of the forest. Her plush cuties, delicate as unicorns, eat with razor teeth.

But even hard core Smythites will be shocked by the gory goings-on in her fantastic and freakish new suite of ink-on-paper works, inspired by her recent artist residency in Japan. I hope Canada Customs didn’t check Smyth’s luggage on the way back, because there must have been some very scary manga tucked under her dainties.

A list of the horrors skulking across Smyth’s canvases reads like a CSI evidence kit crossed with The Corpse Bride, plus a bit of Clive Barker added for ghoulish flavour: monsters erupt like nests of snakes from semi-human female wombs; fanged ghosts cavort with nubile, multi-breasted teen killers; feline Kali goddesses dance surrounded by flames and innards while laser blasting robots chase dolls under skies dappled with flesh-piercing diamonds; mutants and jellyfish swim beside sainted badger girls; and everywhere you look, there are pale, whispering washes of inky flame.

To take in all the details, you need a good hour, and a sound mind. Smyth’s endlessly fecund imagination runs riot over two long walls, creating an intricate, elaborate and defiantly original phantasmagoria that’s as deftly and densely woven as any medieval tapestry (and there’s robots!). If only some smart patron would buy the whole collection and preserve it as a single work. Some smart, mildly psychotic patron.

Speculation on the larger meaning of Smyth’s visual necromancy runs from the simple supposition that her bald mixing of cute and creepy is a distillation of the dualities rampant in Japanese culture (a culture with a particular fondness for sword swinging schoolgirls), to speculation that Smyth is expanding her already full madhouse of recurring characters by kick-starting a new line, so to speak, of iconic figures. Neither of these theories satisfies me. Smyth’s work was cuddly and clawed long before she ever went to Japan, and, like any good comics artist (which, at heart, Smyth truly is), she is always introducing thrilling new heroes.

What’s going on here is no less than a grand attempt to sum up our distracted times, to match on paper our culture’s dual addiction to the sentimental and the dysfunctional, to syrupy love songs and blood-spattered video games. The mawkish and the violent, Smyth posits, are co-dependent, and the extreme representations of both that bi-polarize our culture need to be acknowledged, categorized and given names (and sweet little faces) before we can make sense of either or really think about the desires that propel both. An ambitious undertaking for sure - but what good is art if it doesn’t aim for the stars and the murky pools below?


After wandering Death Valley with Smyth, head for a more naturalistic, but no less confrontational, exhibition of portraits of young women at neighbouring Edward Day Gallery.

Angela Grossman’s Alpha Girls is a collection of manipulated found photographs that explores the turbulent years of adolescence with an unnerving eye. Looking at her subjects less as people and more as walking thunderstorms, Grossman externalizes their inner tumult with angry slashes of runny paint, tar black charcoal, tangles of string, needling pencil gouges and ripped paper.

Easy visual metaphors? Perhaps, but Grossman has chosen her found materials carefully. The girls in these pictures stare straight at the camera with the typical teen mixture of defiance and the need to please. And while it would be easy to categorize these portraits as raw and febrile - and thus read the girls as put-upon victims – Grossman surrounds her young subjects with a hazy, indirect light that speaks of the young women’s as yet untapped power.


After all that bluster, you’ll need to retreat to calmer shores. Stephen Bulger Gallery is showing a sleepy set of prints derived from the photo-diaries of Robert Frank, who has spent much of his adult life in tiny Mabou, Cape Breton.

Looking at Frank’s collage landscapes (simple, Instamatic-grade snapshots taken sequentially across the stony shores) and reading the artist’s casual, intimate scribbles about daily life in the remote village is like stumbling on a stranger’s scrapbook and peeking at the contents, minus the guilt.

The collages themselves are tiny marvels of cool blues and cream tea browns, or black and whites as delicate and pocked with shade as lacy doilies. You can almost hear the ocean, but I don’t advise putting your ear against the frame.

Fiona Smyth
The Chimera’s Daughter
SPIN Gallery, 1100 Queen Street West Until November 20

Angela Grossman
Alpha Girls
Edward Day Gallery 952 Queen Street West Until November 16

Robert Frank
In Canada
Stephen Bulger Gallery 1026 Queen Street West Until December 22

Saturday, November 05, 2005

The Big Picture 56

Forgive yourself if by the end of this weekend you’ve become confused over the difference between TIAF and TAAFI – neither of which is a new strain of avian flu (but may cause as much fatigue). TIAF is the Toronto International Art Fair, and TAAFI is the Toronto Alternative Art Fair International, and both are running until November 7. There, doesn’t that make it all clear?

The duelling art fairs – or, as their diplomatic publicists like to call them, “complementary art fairs” – are both massive exhibitions of contemporary Canadian and international art staged in smart downtown venues, and both are packed with contributions by top names in the field. So, why two fairs at the same time?

No-one at either fair will give you a straight answer (and they sure as hell won’t give me the on-record dope) but my own experience of both events tells me that TIAF, the senior fair and the one with the big bucks, prides itself on being the Cadillac of the two (figuratively and literally, as the car company is a major sponsor), and TAAFI, the baby of the family at a mere two years old, positions itself as the hip, sometimes bratty, shoe-string upstart. For short hand, think of TIAF as Holt Renfrew and TAAFI as the Kensington Market.

Inevitably, there has been some sniping and counter-sniping since TAAFI started last year (except among the smarter artists who participated in both shows). Big wigs at TIAF were overheard describing TAAFI as “the children’s table” and “the B-list fair”, and smart asses at TAAFI were caught referring to their elder, larger cousin as “the Death Star” and “the senior’s lounge”. TAAFI supporters are quick to note that TIAF is actually produced by a BC-based corporation and run from a head office in Vancouver. How, they ask, can it accurately reflect Toronto’s diverse art community? TIAF teamsters counter that since art-making is an international concern, any worries from Torontonians about constituency issues are misguided and feudalistic. But I don’t want to start any trouble.

Why not make like Koffi Anan and attend both exhibitions? The Hatfields and McCoys can fight their own battles. The admission fees are certainly enticing. For the cost of a CD – TIAF costs $16 to enter, TAAFI is $6 – you can go to one fair today and the other tomorrow. I wouldn’t dream of telling you which one to visit first.

TIAF, now in its sixth year, comes by its big momma status honestly. With 81 galleries from 13 countries spread out over 10,000 feet of exhibition space, TIAF is nothing if not generous. Apart from the wall to wall art, there are also a number of promising special projects, including Art Rising, a showcase of painting, photography, video and installation from China, Taiwan and various Chinese diasporic communities, the Video Lounge, a preview of the forthcoming Video Art in Canada website, curated by legendary Toronto artist Peggy Gale, and the third instalment of the wildly popular News At Five, a continuously updated contemporary art gallery that changes every day at 5pm.

Linel Rebenchuck, Managing Director of TIAF, encourages viewers to revisit TIAF while stressing the fair’s local connections.

“Every year we get better and better, and also we get more and more community support. We have not reached our peak yet! TIAF’s mandate is to put together the art community, to bring together commercial and non-commercial galleries and artist groups from all over the world – and we’ve had a big impact by doing that. If you look at the difference from the early 2000’s, when only a couple of Toronto art galleries went to art fairs in other countries, you see that now Toronto galleries attend lots and lots of fairs around the world - because they came to TIAF and saw how it works.”

When I ask Rebenchuck to tell me what he likes most about TAAFI, he answers without pause.

“I’m hoping that I am not again misinterpreted like I was last year by the media … because I think that the TAAFI is a great addition to the scene. What TAAFI does happens everywhere - one major fair and one smaller one running alongside. I am glad that they are starting to find their own identity this year too. It appears that they want to do something different, and now it is actually happening. It’s a win-win for everyone, and I hope that everyone sees it that way.”

What patrons of TAAFI will see, first off, is a very different environment from the one that houses TIAF. While TIAF is ensconced in a breezy auditorium in the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, TAAFI plunks itself into the cozy quarters at the Gladstone and Drake hotels. The difference is more than one of scale. TIAF feels like the trade show that it is, with all the excitement of a bustling souk. The TAAFI experience is more akin to dropping in to a friend’s house, with the added sex appeal of a hotel tryst.

TAAFI’s collection of participating galleries ranges from large institutions such as the Goethe-Institut and the Art Gallery of York University to hole in the wall galleries like Solo Exhibition, Jessica Bradley Art, and Le Gallery. TAAFI really shines, however, in its extensive series of Invitational exhibitions and performances – works specifically curated by TAAFI for the fair.

Invitationals at the Drake include a mock seal hunt, complete with baby seal piñatas, by multimedia artist Patrick Decoste, a Super 8 film-based installation by the Splice This! film festival, and a “retrospective” of cheeky video art by Lisa Pereira, who is all of 24 years old and, she says, “still attempting to graduate from OCAD”. Over at the Gladstone, the Invitational treats feature a hilarious installation by Camille Turner - aka Miss Canadiana, the self-proclaimed winner of a fictional, very patriotic beauty pageant - plus a performance work by local art doyenne Andrew J. Patterson, stunning new photographs by transgendered mystic Taboran Waxman, and a suite of outrageous neo-psychedelic paintings of professional wrestlers by Toronto painter Scott McEwan.

TAAFI co-organizer Pamila Matharu describes her fair as “a community event”.

“TAAFI is about bringing people together and having local pride. It’s not a cash cow. We’re three artists (Matharu runs TAAFI with Andrew Harwood and Barr Gilmore) who make this fair happen because we feel that there is something missing in the arts scene, that we need a place where artists can come together from different disciplines and in different stages of their careers. After being in the visual arts in Toronto for 12 years, the most thrilling comments I’ve ever received were the thanks I got last year at TAAFI. One guest came up to me and told me that nothing like TAAFI had happened in Toronto in years.”

Turnabout being fair play (sorry), I have to ask what Matharu loves about TIAF.

“I worked that convention floor for three years – I was employed by Wynick-Tuck Gallery at the time – and I met a lot of people who just decided to drop in and see the art. They were not the same people and same faces I see over and over, they were folks who generally avoided galleries. It was a reminder to me that not everybody goes to the AGO at grade 8, and not everybody is comfortable in an art gallery. I met an audience at TIAF who I never saw anywhere but TIAF.”

“My feeling about fairs and how they should work is this: If the Toronto Film Festival can bring out thousands of people who love movies but aren’t in the movie business, can’t art fairs do the same thing for art?”

Toronto International Art Fair
Metro Toronto Convention Centre South Building, Exhibit Hall E
November 3 – 7

Toronto Alternative Art Fair International
Gladstone Hotel - 1214 Queen Street West
& Drake Hotel - 1150 Queen Street West
November 3 - 7