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Toronto Art Expo 2011

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As usual with shows like this, we're giving it a page of its own.

Toronto Art Expo 2011 (Art) Metro Toronto Convention Centre; April 14-17

It appears that the battle is over.

For a few years, a competition has been raging between Toronto Art Expo and The Artist Project. First, it had been just Toronto Art Expo  – a huge, lively, sprawling affair, teeming with talent. But some people felt the standards weren’t high enough, hence the inception of The Artist Project. (This is mostly surmise on my part. Nobody has offered an official explanation.) One year, the two shows went head-to-head on the same weekend. Gradually, though many of the best artists moved over to TAP. This year, TAE is left with a mere 136 artists, about half the number the show boasted in its heyday. One reason the TAE’s decline saddens me is that it has, in my opinion, the far more attractive site. The Metro Toronto Convention Centre, with its lofty windows, offers a bright, pleasant, airy ambiance compared to the TAP’s enclosed, concrete bunker on the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds. Also, the Convention Centre is much more accessible for city-dwellers than the CNE grounds (although car drivers might not agree).

None of which is to say that the TAE is a total loss this year. There’s some very good work for viewing. (Disclosure: I know a few of the artists, but not many.) It would even appear that a few international "ringers" have been brought in to add some class. But there’s also a lot of product by hobby artists who seem to hope that if they pay their entry fee and put up their work, sales will happen, just like showers occur in April. Some of this work is commonplace landscape, portraiture, still life and abstract art that, while not especially bad, doesn’t stand out by virtue of any distinction. An alarming amount of the work, though, is so amateurish that it would barely rate inclusion in a high school art show.

To skip to the highlights of TAE, we won’t dwell long here on the work of artists we’ve admired in previous shows and who are presenting much the same sort of thing this year. James Lane, one of our favourite abstract artists, is taking a slightly different direction with his abstracts. They’re still very loose and free but not as expansive, more intense and focussed. Without being florals, exactly, they make me feel that the artist peered closely into flowers, then came away and expressed how they made him feel. www.myartspace.com/jameslane  Peter Colbert’s abstracts still have remarkable appeal with their serene expression though broad swatches of colour. www.petercolbert.com You can never mistake the abstracts of Sabine Liva, thanks to her characteristic style with cool greys and silvers. www.sabstudios.com I was also struck by some of the explosions of colour (again, seeming to be inspired by flowers) in some of the abstracts of Louise LeBlanc.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, some of the best work has been brought to the show by galleries. Trias Gallery shows very exciting arctic views in almost a surrealistic style by Pat Fairhead. www.patfairhead.ca  Abstracts by Hanna Ruminski combine pale and strong colours, in rectilinear compositions, to make very striking statements. In almost the opposite vein, Ruth Dwyer’s blurry, evocative paintings create moods that are hard to pin down. www.ruthdwyer.com Anne-Marie Kornachuk’s superb paintings of a semi-nude woman draped in voluminous fabric give a thoughtful take on being female. www.annemariekornachuk.com  In the past, I’ve admired the much-scraped and scribbled-over scenes from Ernestine Tahedl, many of them reminiscient of Claude Monet’s ponds. In this show, I was especially impressed by her painting of a more structured landscape – trees and water – that gives a feeling of depth and distance, somewhat in the inchoate spirit of William Turner. www.interlog.com/̃etahedl   www.triasgallery.com

Two artists’ works in the Crescent Hill Gallery’s booth struck me as especially noteworthy. Carole Arnston’s florals look as though the blossoms themselves got into the paint and started to mix things up, with a result that says much about an exuberant response to the beauty of nature rather than the specificity of botanical detail. www.carolearnston.com  Harold Braul’s odd, wobbly, somewhat cartoon-ish takes on birds and people, the latter often in weird situations, have a lot to say, in a humorous way, about our lives in this world. www.crescenthill.com

From the Deljou Art Group’s booth, I was especially impressed by the work of Craig Alan. His pieces include tiny black shapes of people, as seen from above, each one throwing a shadow, on a white ground. The overall effect is to see us humans as something like a flock of starlings and yet something more. The abstracts by Martin Quen, another artist represented by this group, also have a strong appeal. www.deljouartgroup.com

Several of the works by the artists in the Koyman Galleries’ booth pleased me a lot. Donna Andreychuck’s florals acquire special interest by virtue of dripping paint that makes it look as if you’re seeing them through a rainy window. www.donnaandreychuk.com  In a somewhat more representational vein, but still with great panache and personality, are Valerie Butters’ florals. www.valeriebutters.com  Virginie Bocaert’s very well-drawn female nudes seem to be emerging from, or fending off, blotches and smears of pigment. Chantal Lavoie’s human figures roil with a rough energy, as though they were sketches for Rodin-like sculptures. By means of subtle use of colour – spring greens, say, with blue-ish greys and just a touch of red – Chris Hill’s abstracts draw you into a delicate, dream-like world. www.chrishillstudio.com  At first, I loved the large, bold abstracts by Nicole Mathieu, who is also known as Niko, but it put me off a bit to realize that they were based on human faces, with hints of eyes and noses and, most prominently, thick lips in all of them. Still, they’re arresting paintings. www.koymangalleries.com

If you were looking for a break from all the challenging contemporary art on display, then you could head to Gallery 260's booth, where you’d find some rest for your eyes in the works of some of our most beloved Canadian artists. A painting by David Milne was a special treat for me. Ditto for Serge Brunoni’s "La Rue St. Louis Quebec", a work that, if memory serves, I’ve admired in other shows. www.gallery260.com

Of course, there’s a lot of quite acceptable Canadian landscape by less famous artists in the Group-of-Seven tradition. One of the best of the artists producing this kind of work, as noted in previous shows, is Gordon Harrison. While all of his paintings surge with colour and life, some nearly-abstract landscapes strike me as his most interesting ones. www.gordonharrisongallery.com  If, however, you want idiosyncratic evocations of landscapes, cityscapes and seascapes from around the world, you could do no better than the breath-takingly daring works of the artist known as Farruggello. www.farruggello.com

Other cityscapes that made a favourable impression on me include those of: Elena Lobanova (compositions that emphasize the drama of tall, soaring buildings); www.nanmillergallery.com  Katerina Podolak (something of an op art effect in jagged, geometric jumbles of buildings); www.katerinapodolak.com  Guo Yue Dou (astonishingly well-drawn paintings of people captured candidly in urban situations); www.doufineart.com  Gisle Boulianne (the city’s speed, light and colour). www.giseleboulianne.com  While Youssef Rami’s abstracts aren’t strictly cityscapes, it strikes me that their methodical, grid-like composition is probably inspired by the city. www.artbyrami.com

In previous shows, I’ve admired the paintings by Achille Kouam. Once again, his groups of people, often in African settings, are well worth noting, both for their technical skill and their compassionate feel for humanity. www.achilleskwagn.com  In a more free-flowing way, the figures by Colio Markov, mostly in earth tones, capture a fluid beauty of the human form. www.coliofineart.com  Jeffrey Chong Wang’s paintings of people have a sort of classical tone to them – almost as if you were looking at Vermeer’s work – except that these subjects appear in bizarre, almost nightmarish situations. www.jeffreychongwang.com  In a more vague, hazy way, the paintings by Dragan Sekaric Shex also show human figures in spooky modes. www.shexart.com  A similarly haunting, yet indefinite, feel about human figures comes through in the work of Dara Aram. www.rukajgallery.com

A photographer whose work intrigued me in this show is Ian Busher. His gicle works (i.e. digital ink-jet prints) are covered with thick coats of gleaming resin. One piece that could be a rough approximation of a landscape – dark sky with shapes of small buildings below – turns out to be a close-up photo of two weathered fence boards! A craggy crack in a plaster wall, lovingly photographed, becomes a work that many an abstract painter would be proud of. www.ianbusher.com

When making the rounds of shows like this, the diversity of visual stimulation can be overwhelming. So it comes as a welcome break to arrive at the work of an artist like Erika Bmpfer. Her simple compositions, with striking use of a few slashes of pigment, offer tremendous pleasure, in a minimalist way. www.erikavisualartist.com  On a much vaster scale, the work of Takesada Matsutani has a somewhat similar effect: mostly blobs of black on white backgrounds, that seem like pleas for attention from some speechless realm.

A large work by this artist could be said to be the featured piece of the whole show. Positioned roughly in the centre of the hall, it consists of: a bag of cloth (about the size of a volleyball) suspended about three feet over an expanse of white fabric stretched horizontally on a large frame; a black liquid drips slowly, drop by drop, from the bag onto the white fabric below; when the liquid has seeped through the fabric, it drops into a large metal tray on the floor, creating a pool of shining black; from one edge of the tray, a broad sheet of paper, mostly black but whitish near the tray, sweeps up to the very ceiling of the hall. I wanted to call the work "Black Drop" but its official title turns out to be "Relations". What matters about a piece like this can be addressed with two questions: is there some visual appeal to it and is it interesting? Yes, on both counts. www.londonartsgroup.com

While many of the works in the show score considerably lower, both in terms of visual appeal and interest, one artist’s work proved a delightful discovery for me. Indeed, the paintings of Norman Choo could almost be said to have made the show worthwhile for someone who is as keen on watercolours as I am. Mr. Choo’s works, possibly more than those of any other watercolourist, glory in the thrilling ways that pigments can interact with water on paper. Using a wet-in-wet technique, he lays down some runny blobs that, to startling effect, nail the exact feel of moonlight, cloudy sky and brooding landscape. Another work, with just some quick washes, conveys the full brilliance of a day on the beach. With the same simplicity and economy, another piece captures the glow of sunset behind a woods. If you’re not nuts about watercolours, though, Mr. Choo has excellent abstracts in oils that should please you. But don’t expect me to describe them. I couldn’t drag my eyes away from the watercolours. www.normanchoo.com

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