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