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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?

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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.

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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