Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Big Picture 63

It’s Christmas Eve. The children are in bed, full as tics with grandma’s lemon squares and warm milk. The tree glistens with decorations. The house is clean and smells of fresh pine boughs. The dog is snoring, the neighbours have turned off their outdoor lights, you’ve watched A Christmas Carol and It’s A Wonderful Life, there’s nothing left to wrap and the phone will not ring for hours …. Now what the hell do you do with yourself?

If all this wholesomeness is making you feel like you’ve been living on Walton’s mountain, there’s a ready cure just waiting at the nearest modem – Christmas porn!

Yes, Christmas porn. You didn’t know about holiday themed blue movies, did you? You thought Christmas was all Bing Crosby and the Chipmunks. But why would the world’s most exploitative entertainment industry miss out on the year’s most easily exploited season?

Christmas erotica has been around as long as Christmas itself, and Christmas’s pagan predecessor, Yule, was hardly a time for pious self denial. Medieval Christmas pageants were full of dirty jokes and ribald antics, and Victorian gentlemen spread good cheer in the cigar room by passing around “French novelty” postcards decorated with nubile elves. All I’m advocating here is a return to solid, traditional Christmas values.

Those of you new to bedroom mistletoe mummeries will want to start with the basics: busty ladies in Santa outfits. Nothing says Happy Holidays! like a well set up young woman in red felt and white marabou. A good starter film is Pleasure Productions’ delightful Gina’s Very Merry Christmas Orgy, which follows the antics of title star Gina Lynn and her gal pals Trinity Maxx and Xandria as they make like minks at a large Christmas office party miraculously unlike any office party you’ve ever attended.

Gina is the kind of girl my Fundy-bred mother would call “a hard lookin’ ticket”, meaning that when life hands Gina a torn fishing net, Gina makes herself a pair of stockings. In this especially athletic episode, Gina finds herself wandering from room to room in a large, holly-bedecked mansion. In each room, one of her fellow relaxation therapists is spreading seasonal cheer, and baby oil, with a client, or three. Gina, a helpful sort, lends a hand. And a leg, and a thigh, and a torso. When Gina catches up with Trinity, the sharing and caring reaches new heights, as both ladies are blessed with a tender, giving nature that would bring Scrooge himself to his knees.

At Gina’s Christmas party, the office letch is a tall, blonde god with arms like stove pipes and a mind wholly unburdened by the concept of sexual harassment. In the true festive spirit, blondy has brought along his somewhat shy dark-haired pal, who is also blessed with a furnace-sized appendage. After a little coaxing, the brunette wallflower quickly blooms.

Throughout this holiday hayride, Gina and friends display an admirable devotion to Christmas tradition by sporting Mrs. Claus costumes trimmed in the fluffiest white fur and the cheeriest crimson plush. With the Yule log blazing hotly in the hearth, Gina sensibly opts for the beach wear version of Santa’s classic tunic and cap ensemble. Traditionalists may balk at this sartorial choice, but traditions should never be too constricting, or chafing, or, as Gina puts it, “all itchy and stuff.”


Christmas is a magical time, and Sheer Finesse’s Christmas Hose wonderfully recreates the awe and wonder of Christmas morning with the delightful tale of Natalie and Vikki, two lucky young ladies who wake up on December 25th to find that Santa has left them a life sized, fully operational doll.

Being sentimentalists, the girls quickly change into their best Christmas get ups - which include not only sequined miniskirt versions of St. Nick’s famous cloak, but also a wide selection of highly coveted holiday hosiery. Inspired by the luxury of fine silk, Natalie, Vikki, and their new toy Chloe spend Xmas morn admiring each other’s shapely legs and exquisite taste in lingerie. Party hats and noisemakers are employed in various frolics, and a new and novel use is found for the Christmas cracker.


In many European countries, Pere Noel performs a dual function – he rewards good children with candy and toys and gives beatings to bad children. This charming old world custom is brought to vivid life in two of the many, many adult movies that deal with Christmas parenting strategies: Star Maker Enterprise’s Spanked by Santa and the gay themed Santa’s Excellent Adventure, by Man’s Hand Films.

Spanked by Santa is set in the jolly old elf’s very own office, where Holly and Bill, two frisky elves, have been instructed to decorate the North Pole headquarters. Just like overexcited children, Bill and Holly are easily distracted and soon forget their Yuletide chores. Santa returns, and the forgetful elves are briskly reminded of the consequences of inattention.

Holly is particularly adept at looking both kittenish and sorrowful in her red Lycra tube top and snow white spiked boots, and Bill is suitably contrite when Santa dispenses his slappy Christmas benedictions. Like the best Hallmark Hall of Fame Christmas movies, everyone in Spanked by Santa undergoes a learning journey and feels markedly - emphasis on the marks - better after their trials and tribulations. Santa just can’t stay angry for long.

Similarly, Santa’s Excellent Adventure teaches the viewer that the best Christmas presents are the ones you don’t expect. In four vignettes, Santa visits a Naughty Little Brother, a stubborn Cowboy, a Spoiled Boy and two very bad Hunky Burglars. All five men are avowed non-believers who think Santa is just for kids. But Santa, each learns, is very real and very ready to prove it, and keeps on proving until it hurts. Santa’s Excellent Adventure offers up hard lessons (and harder bottoms), but Christmas can be a cruel time for young men who lack father figures.

These two films reinforce a belief I have held for years - Christmas is for masochists.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Big Picture 62

The city of Toronto’s new arts awareness campaign, TO Live With Culture (TO – Toronto – get it?) proves that when civil servants promote the arts, the arts resemble the civil service. I know that sounds ungrateful, but there are some things even a Toronto artist can’t take. Is a little glamour and style too much to ask?

The thinking behind the campaign is solid enough. When the federal government declared Toronto a Cultural Capital for 2005-2006 - you’d think our cultural pre-eminence would be self evident, but there are people in Ottawa paid to state the obvious - the City of Toronto slouched into action, creating a Culture Plan for the Creative City via its Culture Division (the first dictate being that henceforth all mention of said important initiatives be crafted in capital letters). A key part of the Culture Plan is the implementation of a web portal called www.livewithculture.ca, which in turn is part of the Cultural Renaissance Capital Projects initiative, and is co-produced with the Toronto Arts Council Foundation …. Well, you get the point.

Apart from sending a handful of civil servants’ children to UCC, all these interrelated programs share the laudable goal of promoting Toronto-based arts. Arguing with that core goal seems peevish, like criticizing a toy drive at your local fire hall. The web portal itself performs its function well, except when it strives too hard to be all-inclusive and puts displays of Christmas lights and CN Tower tours on an equal cultural footing with plays and art exhibitions.

But good intentions are not enough when it comes to publicity and promotion. Good design is in many ways more important, because if the public is not drawn to the “sell” image at first glance, they will never make it to the web portal. Sadly, the promotional banners and posters for TLWC are, in a word, horrendous.

Various disciplines are represented by clichéd props, such as a brush and palette for art, a stack of books for literature, etc., and the activity associated with the prop is performed, or rather assaulted by, a bouncing underwear model dressed in a costume left over from A Chorus Line. If the goal of this campaign is to trivialize the local arts with infantile imagery, then somebody at city hall is due for a big promotion.

The posters are an insult to the diversity of artists working in this city. Apparently, fat people don’t make art. Nor do people over the age of 30. And why should they? Making art is only a fun hobby, the posters tell us, like taking yoga classes, and is mostly enjoyed by thin white folks. The complaint here is not that the posters lack representative scope (although they do, painfully so), but that their bland, commercial look actually makes them invisible. The TLWC visuals could just as easily be selling yoghurt or back pain medication.

No, I take that back. The problem is one of representation. As a large-and-in-charge artist myself, one who has given rather a lot of time and talent over the years to rather a lot of art events in this town, I damn well want to see a fat person on the poster!

Once you get past the unimaginative model casting, you are left with some equally tired messages about art and art making. The jumping twits on the posters reinforce age-old, anti-art stereotypes: Namely, that we’re all flighty, fey airheads skipping along and smiling like idiots while the real world passes us by. All that’s missing from these posters are the gossamer wings.

Art-making is a profession, and a difficult one. Can you imagine using stupid toys and anorexics in Danskins to promote dentistry or engineering? Of course not, because fixing teeth and building bridges is serious work. So is creating a city’s cultural life.

After getting all riled up, I wondered if I was over-reacting. I polled a handful of artists and non-artists and found I was not the only one wanting to climb the nearest lamppost with a pair of scissors and a lighter.

Novelist Andrew Pyper (whose latest, the gripping The Wildfire Season, is just out in paperback) calls the TLWC campaign “a missed opportunity”.

“What's disappointing about the campaign isn't its ugliness, but its generic anywhere-ness. Working artists could have been commissioned to create distinctive words and images, something that didn't just say "Toronto has Art", but "Here is Toronto's Art."

Fellow novelist Jared Mitchell concurs.

“The posters stink of leftover money in the budget. They look like they were composed by a committee that couldn’t agree on anything other than the posters had to have a human in them. If conservatives want to complain about taxpayers money being misused in the arts, this is where they should look, not at art or artists.”

Restaurant manager Paul Forsyth calls the banners “as bad as the moose fiasco. The first time I saw one, I thought it was an ad for a Parachute Club comeback CD.”

I tried - really I did - to find one artist who liked or was at least forgiving of the TLWC visuals. Just one. I failed.

Multimedia artist Chandra Bulucon put it best: The campaign must have been designed by people who’ve never made a work of art in their lives, or met an artist.

“To think these images represent arts and culture in Toronto. Not my arts and culture.”

Saturday, December 10, 2005

The Big Picture 61

Everybody wants my holiday gelt. So far this month, I’ve been invited to torch my fiscal Yule log at three craft sales, half a dozen book launches, one high end gym, no end of charity auctions, and, honestly, a sex club selling “a good time on Santa’s knee.” Yikes! I wish the Post would stop selling my email address to its shareholders.

The most chronic merchants in the manger, however, are art galleries. Most of the year, galleries pretend that making money is not their primary concern. Theirs is a higher calling, pure as the artistic impulse itself. Until mid-November. As soon as the frost hits, galleries become about as interested in culture as 50 Cent at a gun shop.

I don’t begrudge gallerists their mercenary urges – not even art dealers can live on human blood alone. But the sheer number of holiday art sales can trigger mild panic in the shopper, and a mild stroke in me. So, here’s a quick guide to the best of the downtown gallery bazaars. This is by no means a complete listing of all the Toronto art houses looking to poach your January mortgage payment, but the next gallery that overloads my inbox with tinselled promises gets their co-ordinates forwarded to the hooker Santa.

Gallery TPW’s annual Photorama is one of the most consistent and anticipated year end sales in town - primarily because photography fans know they can snap up a Burtynsky, an Ingelevics, or a Lake for about one third of the going price. It’s also a great way to do some boast-worthy early buying of works by newer artists, who have a habit of using TPW as an art star launching pad.

This best buys this year are digital prints by Cecilia Berkovic that replicate, in miniature, her wonderful 1980’s Tiger Beat tribute installation currently on permanent display in the Gladstone Hotel, and a set of five small, bittersweet photographs by Lukas Blakk that depict tiny toy and ceramic animals hiding underneath mushrooms and grazing on lawns. Look also for a “surprise piece” by Dean Baldwin (likely one of his hilarious and disturbing photos of himself hanging off the ledge of a prominent building) plus a vintage photo of a man standing in a Hollywood prop room holding up a fake John the Baptist severed head – part of the growing collection of oddities, outsider images and collectibles assembled by the Toronto-based archival photo dealers Camera Lucida.

Most of the works on sale at TPW are priced well below $500, and Executive Director Gary Hall reminds me that “the big names go very, very fast –sometimes within hours.” So, by the time you read this, the Ingelevics works will be long gone. Be adventurous – everyone has a Burtynsky, but how many people have a Berkovic?


The Shelf Project at C1 Art Space is the Winners of gallery sales, because it’s a new store every day. Packed with ceramics, jewellery, fine art and curious crafts by nearly 50 artists, this rotating sale will change stock every week until New Year’s Eve, and promises to tempt the spendthrift with everything from silk screened tee-shirts to one-of-a-kind art dolls.

Already in full swing, The Shelf Project’s next batch of goodies includes a collection of creepy gothic dolls by Rodney Frost, Nadia Moss’s papier mache owl figures, whose see-through stomachs are full of tiny demon animals, animator Laura Vegys quirky series of watercolours exploring the Golem legend, and Ross Bonfanti’s concrete dolls, which he makes by hollowing out stuffed plush toys and filling them with concrete (for the person who truly has everything, except a weapon).

The best deals at C1 are the wool pastel baby slippers by Irina Badescu, Lesley Ashton’s charming squirrel cards, and Julie Moon’s bright red, glazed ceramic poppy pins – all under ten bucks.

Want to make your own gifts? C1 is offering pre-Xmas classes by professional crafters. You can make a collage, an ornament, or, if all else fails, a macaroni keepsake box. Your mother will love it, at least to your face.


Good old A Space Gallery once again resurrects its Gifts That Fit sale. If only they’d been around all those childhood Xmas mornings when I was forced to squeeze into sweaters from the Sears “husky” department.

The art up for grabs is priced between $20 and $150, and comes directly from A Space members. Name droppers will be pleased to see new works by painters Sadko Hadzihasanovic, Scott Waters and Raffael Iglesias, fresh offerings from multimedia artists Peter Kingstone, Natalie Wood, Deanna Bowen and Shelly Bahl, and a specially commissioned photo-based work by the legendary artist/activist team Carole Conde & Karl Beveridge.

Those of you who know A Space’s old-school leftist programming might wonder if the gifts in Gifts that Fit will be un-ironic Che Guevara posters, home compost kits, and earnest tracts on the future of the NDP?

Fear not, says A Space Program Coordinator Pam Edmonds.

“A lot of the artists are creating new work for this show, and there’s a broad range of work. But of course, this is still A Space … it’s interesting to see these artists who do make activist work re-interpreting their own practices for the specifics of this show. Something can be beautiful and have a message too.”

So, the frivolous and shallow are welcome?

“Always! Come with a smile, that’s all that we ask. And money.”

Gallery TPW 80 Spadina Ave, Suite 310 Last day today!

The Shelf Project
C1 Art Space 44 Ossington Avenue Until December 31

Gifts that Fit
A Space Gallery
401 Richmond Street West, Suite 110 Until December 11

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Big Picture 60

Her dealer swears it’s unintentional, but Y.M. Whelan’s new suite of abstracts at Fran Hill Gallery couldn’t be more Christmassy. There’s enough holly green and cranberry red on the walls to choke a whole team of reindeer.

Smart seasonal timing aside, Whelan’s paintings are intriguing groove-and-slot compositions that deftly interweave multi-coloured rectangular slabs of paint until the shapes appear to dance and come alive, like an old Atari building blocks game. The jittery twitching is further enhanced by layers and layers of noisy under-painting – usually a distraction for me, but Whelan makes it work by saturating her top, final layers with deep, at times even violent, colour.

Let go of the Xmas connotations, and Whelan’s shimmering red and green collisions quickly trigger other sets of associations: a series of traffic lights viewed through a rainy window, blooming flower beds and wet lawns, flapping flags, Lego castles, a gangrenous limb being amputated (OK, that’s just me), a digital image at the invisible instant of formation, or coming apart, a Christmas tree on fire (again, me). The allegorical and associative possibilities are endless, but that’s what an artist gets for working with such primordial, Jungian colours. Whelan herself has assigned several of the works with mythological titles, referencing Celtic gods and other pagan deities. But all that arcana went flying over my United Church-damaged head.

What surprised me most about Whelan’s paintings was the discovery that her medium is acrylic, not oil. I can usually spot an acrylic painting from 20 paces, with their flat, Formica-counter-top sheen and blunt, too clean sparkle. But Whelan has mixed her paints like an alchemist and created much warmer textures from the plastics, surfaces that convey both the heavy, candle wax pallor of oils and the bright, blushing shine of watercolours.

A note to potential buyers: wait until February to hang your new Whelan, lest it get misread as some sort of funky Xmas decoration. These paintings are meant for more reflective times.


Fans of multimedia artist Daniel Olson will be lining up at YYZ Artists’ Outlet to catch the most extensive survey of Olson’s video work ever shown in Toronto. With 24 short videos playing in a continuous loop (for a total of about 90 minutes worth of weird fun), Diamond In The Rough is a great way to acquaint or re-acquaint yourself with Olson’s oddball canon.

Olson’s videos are uniformly spare and minimal, usually focusing on a single image or repeated, simple gesture. Olson is the anti-Matthew Barney. There are few if any props, no attention paid to creating a set (unless you consider bare warehouse space a set), and Olson himself, who is always the star of his own show, typically wears an unassuming costume of jacket, dark pants, and shaved head. What, you might ask, is there to look at?

After viewing one or two videos, you realize that Olson doesn’t want you to look, he wants you to watch. Watch for small, almost invisible changes in his expression, watch for the moments when he appears or disappears, watch for his body to interrupt the scene, watch for subtle changes in lighting. Olson does not seek to distract us or illustrate a specific point, he seeks to hypnotize. The more you stare at Olson’s seemingly undercooked dramas, the more you become invested in anticipating the shifts in tone, movement and shadow.

And if the visuals don’t get you, the audio will. An accomplished sound artist known for his work with toy instruments, Olson composes melancholic soundscapes to accompany his videos – soundtracks that rely heavily on scratch-and-grind industrial noises and muffled musical notes to create a dreamy, underwater feel.

As the star and director of his own films, Olson naturally faces charges of narcissism. But Olson is no Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay, the Canadian video artist famous for attempting to remake himself into the next Britney or Kylie. Olson’s works are not attempts at self-glorification, they’re extended, at times merciless, acts of self-inspection and slow, murmured confessions. Besides, Olson’s onscreen presence is about as glamorous as a bed bug. He’s all giant jug ears and basketball skull, but in a cute way.

The mythical Narcissus drowned in a reflecting pool, seduced by his own reflection. Olson approaches the same pool, sees himself mirrored on the surface, and gently picks at his scabs.


Take a break from the slushy misery of December and jump into Penelope Umbrico’s sun-soaked Honeymoon Suite, a clever cut-and-paste game that steals idealized images from romantic travel brochures.

Digging into her vast collection of cheesy resort brochures, Umbrico culls images of unbelievably perfect, cotton candy sunsets and then remounts the pixelated horizons onto canvas and paper. The effect is somewhat alarming, as the sunsets look more like atomic bomb blasts than happy closings to flawless days of beach blanket Bingo.

Umbrico’s snarky, cynical take on the “romantic getaway” industry’s mango-and- mammary schtick (and, by extension, the concept of romance itself) reminds us that as we look to the horizon with love in our eyes we ought to look out for the airbrush, the Vaseline on the lens. Don’t trust your eyes, as ever mother tells her daughter.

Y.M. Whelan
Fran Hill Gallery 230 Queen Street East Until December 24

Daniel Olson
Diamond In The Rough
YYZ Artists’ Outlet 401 Richmond Street West, Suite 140 Until December 17

Penelope Umbrico
Honeymoon Suite
P/M Gallery 149-1159 Dundas Street East Until January 14