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Art Toronto 2011

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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Sex for Saints
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Zen Wrapped In Karma Dipped In Chocolate
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The Jesus Sayings
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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Me and the Jays
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

This year, we figure Art Toronto is worth a page of its own!

Art Toronto 2011 Metro Toronto Convention Centre, October 28 - 31 www.arttoronto.ca

We don’t get large art shows much better than this in Toronto, given that galleries from around the world showcase the work of their stars. About 130 galleries are exhibiting, so what you’re going to get here isn’t a comprehensive overview. Rather, it’s a summary of some of the highlights that struck me during a two-hour walk through the aisles. Let’s take it for granted that lots of very fine work was on display, but we’ll concentrate here on the things that really leapt out at me.

Nothing does that like abstracts. For example Petra McCarthy’s painting in the Rebecca Hossack (London) booth – swirls and blobs of shocking pinks, oranges and reds on a perspex panel suspended a few inches above a canvas covered with similar markings. It’s the kind of thing a kid might create if you asked him or her for a pictorial expression of ultimate joy. A slightly less exuberant but still very happy feeling comes across in the painting by Paul Fournier (Miriam Shiell Fine Art, Toronto): at the top of the painting, brightly-coloured blobs dripping down into a background of various blues. There's also a child-like feeling in the charming ink abstracts on paper by Guido Molinari. (Paul Kuhn Gallery, Calgary)

For more gutsy statements, the 418 Gallery from Bucharest is showing bold, expressive abstracts by Romul Nutiu. One of them, in reds, blacks and whites fairly explodes with energy. In the Roberts Gallery (Toronto) booth, much of the work is rather conventional but an abstract by Rene duRocher stunned me. The third of the canvas on the right side is dark, while the right side is bursting with vivid yellows and touches of green that bleed just a little into the darker side. In the booth of the Carrie Secrist Gallery (Chicago), Andrew Holmquist’s abstract has a somewhat lighter and more airy appeal with its slashes of orange and cerulean on sandy-coloured background.

Among abstracts that have a somewhat more the feel of constructions, Harold Town’s whimsical contraption, featuring mostly whites and bright greens on a dark bacground, makes me think of something you might have put together with a Meccano set in days of yore. (Waddington Gorce Inc, Toronto) It’s hard to say whether Medrie MacPhee’s "Mash Up" is abstract or representational. The objects are recognizable for the most part – a table top, a chair, some planks, but they’re all thrown together in a chaotic jumble that amounts to a very well constructed abstract, in my opinion. (Art 45, Montreal) And who would have thought you could create an abstract, as Gwenal Blanger does, in an ink jet print of shards of bluish glass lying on a white surface, looking like ice breaking up on a lake? (Galerie Graff, Montreal)

A painting that could be considered an abstract but that leans towards nature painting is Rebecca Saylor Sack’s tumultuous composition in greens and blues. (J. Cacciola Gallery, New York) One of my favourite paintings in the show, it vaguely suggests a riot of vegetation hanging over – and sprouting from – the water of a pond, but what you get is not botanical detail so much as the artist’s celebration of the eco-system. Moving on to motifs that combine nature with human-made elements, in the Messums of London booth, David Andrew’s painting looks out a window at a bay surrounded by hills, a vase of flowers in the foreground,. That sounds commonplace except that the style of the paintings is fuzzy, misty and hasty in a way that suggests that the artist is a bit impatient with touristy views.

While I was admiring Mr. Andrew’s work, my eye was caught by some small watercolours on another wall of the Messums’ gallery booth. What a great pleasure it was to discover that they were by Simon Carter, one of my favourite artists from last year’s Art Toronto (See review on Dilettante’s Diary page dated Nov 11/10.) In that show, Mr. Carter’s daringly primitive landscapes and seascapes had really given me pause. This year, some of his very impressive large canvases are on display again but the little watercolours took me completely unawares. Whether on a small or a large scale, Mr. Carter has an astounding gift for getting to the heart of a scene with just a few slashes and squiggles.

In the booth of Laroche/Joncas (Montreal), the landscapes by Patrick Dunford have a quirky, slightly skewed individuality that makes them stand out. And a painting in the same gallery's booth, a large, flamboyant landscape in whitish acrylics, with sand, by Benjamin King, makes a strong impression. In a different mode entirely, I very much like Tom Climent’s landscapes in blurry, soft colours, with just a hazy suggestion of buildings like sheds, barns and farm houses. (BlueLeaf Gallery, Dublin) It’s going to sound here like the landscapes that appeal to me most are out-of-focus ones, but it must be admitted that Hans Bruyneel’s painting of a long, low building like a lodge or a boathouse, surrounded by towering greenery, wins me over because it looks like the paint was smeared a bit just before it dried. (Galerie Van Der Planken, Antwerp) David Cass creates a magical effect of the river Arno at night: mostly various shades of browns, with just some yellows and creams peeking out here and there to suggest lighted windows and reflections on the water. The attendant at the booth of The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, explained that Mr. Cass likes to paint on found objects, like the bottoms of shallow, wooden compositor’s cases. If you look closely at the painting of the Arno, you can see the imbedded nails holding the compartments on the other side of the box to its bottom. Such nails are more obvious, along with the grain of the wood, in another of Mr. Cass’s paintings on the bottom of a compositor’s case: a seascape evoked in a design of white swirls beneath a horizon.

Certainly one of the most in-your-face nature paintings in the show must be Kim Dorland’s in the booth of Galerie Division, from Montreal. The painting is comprised of thick wads of paint applied in broad strokes, none of them less than two inches wide. Up close, it looks like nothing so much as a conglomeration of sticks of yellow, green, black and white. Stand back a bit, though, and you get the riotous impression of a waterfall thundering down through jungle foliage. Other landscapes by Mr. Dorland, these in the booth of Angell Gallery, Toronto, portray sunsets with such gaudy, thick paint that they come darn close to ugly. I think the intended effect must be ironic. It’s as if the artist is saying: you want over-the-top sunsets? Ok, here you are! However, I actually like one that shows an orange sun dripping into a silver lake surrounded by blackish trees.

Some paintings might be viewed as landscapes but also include aspects of cityscapes. A notable example would be Susanna Heller’s painting in the booth of Olga Korper Gallery (Toronto). It shows a city, painted relatively realistically, as seen from across a body of water, but the threatening sky overhead could only be called pestilential. I love the way Linda Martinello has captured something like a small settlement with mountains looming over head. The work, in oil and graphite on mylar, doesn’t include much colour, but it makes a striking statement in the way that everything seems to be both stretching and collapsing at the same time. (Rumi Gallery, Mississauga) It’s hard to say exactly what John Ancheta’s painting depicts, in spite of the title "Spillway." (BlueLeaf Gallery, Dublin) Clearly, it involves some combination of human-made and natural elements. There seems to be some construction, such as a dam, in one part of the painting but other parts seem to suggest natural elements. In any case, the overall effect of the semi-abstract work is ominous and foreboding.

So let’s move indoors where things are calmer and more comforting. I’ve raved before about Philip Craig’s interiors and he does it to me again, this time with a lush painting of a big white couch, a colourfully striped cushion, a lamp that’s yellow against a background that’s dark on one side and glowing on the other. (Loch Gallery, Toronto) By way of an interesting comparison, there’s Simon Andrew’s summery sitting room that has a brighter, happier aspect with its vase of calla lilies centred on a table piled with books. (Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto) I’ve also admired previously Alison Pullen’s stately rooms that are, I gather, put together with drawings and magazine photos. (Quantum Contemporary Art, London) And I couldn’t leave the subject of interiors without a grateful mention of Archie Forrest whose still lives – tables of fruit and flowers – bring the spirit of Paul Czanne to Art Toronto, thanks to their solidity and their tangible quality. (The Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh)

No show would be complete, of course, without some works featuring us humans as subject matter. In this vein, one of the most striking pieces is "Didius" by Alison Lambert. A work in charcoal and pastel on paper, it offers a very compassionate, sombre look at an older, heavy-set man, his head bowed in an attitude of nearly complete defeat. (Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto) A less downcast but somewhat bleak feeling comes through in a painting by Shaun Downey (Galerie de Bellefeuille, Westmount) A young woman stands in front of a closed door, facing us, a suitcase in her hand. Her feet are bare but she’s wearing a gauzy, frilly dress in a somewhat antiquated style. She’s gazing at us in a reserved, non-committal way. You can’t help wonder what is happening to her. It feels like an illustration from one of those Canadian gothic stories about sad things that have happened to young women across the country from time to time. Another painter represented by the Galerie de Bellefeuille, Gordon Young has a droll take on contemporary life in his painting that shows the torsos of a group of businessmen crowded together. All you see are blue suits, shoulders, shoulder bags, white shirts, ties. It’s all so anonymously corporate and high-powered. New work by Thrush Holmes celebrates the female form in a surrealistic way. (Angell Gallery, Toronto) In a setting that looks like a velvet-curtained bordello, you get a feminine outline, filled with photographed images of a woman’s body, but the proportions are all wrong and things don’t quite fit together. It’s as though somebody let Salvador Dali loose with a camera.

Normally, I don’t like cartoon-ish paintings of people but it’s uncanny how Wanda Coop can create such a creepy effect with her simplified drawings of people wearing sports helmets and face guards. (Michael Gibson Gallery, London, Ont.) In the Caviar 20 (Toronto) booth, Charles Pachter’s huge portrait of a soldier breaks your heart because the sadness in the man’s eyes undermines the resolute expression he’s trying for. Douglas Bloom’s paintings of people in rooms, in odd positions, often with their backs to us, seldom with their faces showing, have a hauntingly inchoate feel to them. (Carrie Secrist Gallery, Chicago) I’ve often admired Alex Kanevsky’s paintings of people. (J. Cacciola Gallery, New York). The faces of his subjects are often indistinct. It’s as if someone took a Vermeer painting and rubbed it, so that the marvellous repose of the subjects was altered by the alienation and anxiety of our times. The one that I particularly admired in this show features a naked woman standing in the bath tub. So it was fun, while sitting on the floor by the exit, eating my lunch along with all the teenage students, to see the triumphant buyer of this painting heading home with her treasure. Another painting could be considered an abstract but, to me, Andrew Lui’s loose, extravagant swatches of colours very skillfully suggest a group of three or four people standing and chatting. I find it thrilling that an artist can hint at so much so freely and simply. (Han Art, Westmount)

Quite another take on human beings comes in the film installations of Alana Riley in the booth of the Joyce Yahouda Gallery (Montreal). In one curtained enclosure, you get various clips of crowds applauding, rising and cheering, yelling and celebrating at sports events and such. You come out thinking: Gee, we human beings really are happy creatures! Then you enter another curtained enclosure and there you see a small, seated audience watching something on stage. As they twitch and fidget, they seem bemused, enchanted, intrigued (at least that’s the way they looked during my brief encounter with them). You come away from that one thinking: well, groups of human beings do have a more reflective, contemplative side to them, after all!

And then there are the photographs making up the exhibit called "Evergon and Margaret". (Galerie Trois Points, Montreal) Evergon, a gay man, has made a series of black and white photos of his elderly, naked and very fat mother. This is not what you could call Rubinesque nudity. The flesh is wrinkled as well as bloated, although the expression on the woman’s face is one of acceptance and serenity. She seems to be saying: you want to do this, sonny? Ok, go ahead! I don’t know what the effect of the photos is, except that, if you ever wanted to see how an elderly, obese, naked woman looks to her gay son, here you have it. I suppose there’s some kind of Zen-like reality about the exercise.

For somebody whose first love in art is watercolours, there wasn’t much in this show to drool over. A small still life in the Michael Gibson Gallery (London, Ont) by Greg Curnoe – a pitcher, a plate, a drinking glass – reminded me, with its careful technique and its luminous transparency, of the work of Mary Anne Ludlam, a distinguished watercolourist often mentioned in Dilettante’s Diary. But it was the discovery of a work by Sam Francis that made my day. (Galerie Simon Blais, Montreal) It turns out that Mr. Francis was an American who spent time in Paris in the heydey of abstract expressionism. His work in this show consists of a large sheet of white watercolour paper, about three feet by two feet, with just some dribbles and splashes of colour along the top and down the right side: purples, blacks, yellows and oranges. You might not say that that constitutes a valid painting (especially not one worth the $250,00 price tag) but I would say it’s a supreme example of the artist getting out of the way and simply letting the pigment and the water, in combination with the white paper, create beauty in the way that only watercolours can, if you let them.

To encompass all the outstanding work in this show, we need to come up with a new category. And that would be for work that focuses on various kinds of human activities. For instance, there’s Darlene Cole’s unbearably delicate painting showing two girls in a field under a pink-flowered tree. (Bau-Xi Gallery, Toronto and Vancouver) One girl is standing with her back to us; the other girl is sitting at a grand piano, playing. (I may have mentioned this painting, or one like it, in previous reviews.) Whatever this painting could mean, it’s impossible to say but it evokes something very poignant about young girlhood. A far different feeling comes through in a work by John Montieth (O’Born Contemporary, Toronto). It doesn’t depict any human beings but it does show the results of their actions. Created with oil on drafting film in pale shades of greys and blacks, the work has the look of something like a double-exposed negative and can therefore be difficult to read at first, but you eventually realize that you’re looking at an overturned automobile at the foot of a tree. Even more sinister vibes come from the works of Michael Smith (Art 45, Montreal) A series of semi-abstract paintings in blacks, whites and greys depict what look like fires blazing in the night, some in open landscapes and some among buildings. The fact that it’s not quite clear what’s happening in any of them makes them all the more unnerving. As for the work by Sonja Hidas, it’s hard to say whether the intent is scary or hopeful. (Rumi Gallery, Mississauga) A large work in blacks and greys, painted in oil on a linen bed sheet, it shows what could be some sort of industrial calamity, possibly a fire, with collapsing buildings. A hydro tower looms centrally and some gesticulating figures to one side look like they could be firefighters struggling – either helplessly or not.

And we could certainly include among the works about human involvement a couple of inter-active installations. First, there’s the "Collage Party Pavillion", a work supported by the Toronto Arts Council and created by the Winnipeg artist Paul Butler, with Craig Alun Smith, and built by Ken Roy Johnson. It consists of beautiful wooden benches around a wooden table on which are scattered all sorts of magazines and materials for making collages. Poking out of the centre of the table are large poles, in what might be called an inverted teepee formation. People are invited to sit at the table and to create pictures that are then pasted onto the poles. Whether or not it amounts to art, I couldn’t say, but the teen students at the show seemed to enjoy getting involved.

The other very involving installation is called "The Art Game" by Kent Monkman. (Curated by Steve Lott and presented by Art Toronto) Passing through a corridor that keeps twisting and turning, like a fun house at a carnival, you come to windows where you look into rooms and see demonstrations of what are supposed to be the trials and ordeals of the contemporary artist. Only two of the rooms were functioning, as far as I could tell, on my passage through. In one of them, an actor representing a dishonest agent (I think) was sitting at a table dealing cards in a suspicious way. What made it fascinating was that he had his back to us but there was a face mask on the back of his head, so we tended to think he was facing us. However, in a mirror at the back of the booth, we could see his actual face looking the other way. Very disconcerting.

In another room in the same installation, we found a curator who was "all brains." A man’s head was resting on a cushion on a table, looking at a computer screen. It seemed to be a real live head, the man was licking his lips, nodding, blinking and such. But the space under the table was empty and the head didn’t seem to be attached to any body. If that bothers you, let me try to set your mind at ease. I strongly suspect some kind of magic was involved. It probably wasn’t really a severed head.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com