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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: Open Water 2012 (Art); Die Fledermaus (Opera); Seven Psychopaths (Movie)

Open Water 2012 (Art) John B. Aird Gallery, 900 Bay Street, Toronto. Oct 23 - Nov 16.

Some people might wonder why the annual show of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour would be open to entries from around the world. My guess is that, apart from the fact that other national shows do this, it boosts the prestige of a show. But, is there a chance that, given the far greater numbers of artists in other countries (some of them quite close to our own!), the Canadian work might be crowded out by foreign submissions?

Apparently, not judging by this show. Of the forty paintings selected, only seven are from outside Canada. In any case, there probably isn’t much chance that the jurors would be swamped by submissions from distant lands, because of the hassle of shipping the paintings to the gallery (the submissions are by digital files).

Still in recent years, some of the most striking works in the show have come from Asia. This year, again, I find a couple of the most interesting works are from that part of the world. One of my favourites is "Celebration" by Suz Chiang Tan, from Malaysia. It’s hard to say what you’re looking at in this mysterious, evocative work: apartment buildings reflected in water? riverside shacks? pillared office buildings? There are suggestions of balconies, porticoes, rooftops, windows. All you can be sure of is that the subject has something to do with construction by humans. Almost monochrome in brown-ish black with large spaces left virtually empty, it has just a few touches of colour, as in a paper lantern dangling in mid air. What I like so much about this painting is that its vague, elusive quality says so much about the expressivity of the watercolour medium.

There’s a similarly inchoate feeling to the painting "Retired Boats" by Choon Seng Yeoh, also from Malaysia. At first, you can barely make out anything other than a dark mass in the midst of cloudy, greyish swirls. Gradually, you realize you’re looking at a lopsided fishing boat that appears to be washed up beside a dilapidated shed. About the only dash of colour in the piece is a slash of earthy red on the beam of wood that forms the prow of the boat. Again, it’s the understated, incomplete quality of the work that’s so inviting to the imagination.

Of all the rest of the fine work in the show, it was paintings from Canada, with one exception, that appealed to me most. As a result of my interest in the national watercolour scene, you can take it for granted that several of these artists have become, if not my friends, at least friendly acquaintances. And many of them have been mentioned often on this website. Where possible, I’ve provided links to the artists’ websites.

This show includes far more portraits and studies of the human figure than any CSPWC show that I can remember. Daniel Barkley’s excellent male nudes are always worth attention. It’s fitting, then, that his "Study for Michael Archangel" won the top prize in this year’s show, the A.J. Casson Medal. The drawing and the knowledge of anatomy in Mr. Barkley’s work is always exquisite to perfection, but this painting has a special quality of foreboding and drama. That’s partly because of the strategic lighting on the subject’s forehead against a dark background. What’s even more impressive about the work, in an eerie way, is that the young man’s body is covered, in places, with what looks like gold foil, which makes for a strange, almost a chilling contrast with his sculpted flesh. www.danielbarkley.com

Of the other paintings in the portrait/figure category, the most notable, to my eye, is Jean Pederson’s painting of a young woman, folds of cloth draped over head, staring at the viewer in a searching way. There’s a forceful quality to the work even though it’s done almost entirely in a soft-edged way. www.jeanpederson.com

There’s nothing like Ray Cattell’s paintings when it comes to exploiting the watercolour medium in intriguing abstracts. His "Tide Marks" looks like it might be a wave cresting, or a snowbank seen on edge, but mainly it’s about the amazing ways that flowing pigment and water can create fascinating moods and shapes on paper. Bianka Guna’s abstract, "Drama Queen 106" has somewhat the same effect of pigment spreading freely across the paper, but with a bolder mixture of colours and some odd little lines that give a special kick to the edge of the painting. www.biankaguna.com

Jeanette Labelle’s abstracts might be considered to be landscape-based. Her work in this show "Blanc et Noir" – mostly a composition of murky, low-key colours in vertical washes seeping into each other, with one whitish horizontal band – could be taken as barren trees in a snowbank on a river that reflects them darkly. But I say that only to give some idea of what the painting looks like; to give it such a literal, representational reading would rob it of its enchanting quality. A work that’s done in a similar way, but with a slightly more representational intent, is Angela K. Lynch’s "Taos State of Mind." Almost no detail is discernible in the washes of light and dark but you do see the silhouette of a tree in the foreground, with a suggestion of a stucco hut behind. It’s a great example of what I call the "This-Is-All-You-Need" school of painting. Very little is required to say everything about the artist’s feeling for the subject.

Peter Marsh’s landscapes and seascapes seem to fall somewhere between the categories of representational and abstract. The main thing about them, as exemplified here by his "Sky High," is their distinctive style. He has developed a way of shaping scenes with small patches of colour that look – for lack of a better way to put it – like lozenges of bright candy and curls of dark licorice. The effect is playful and yet there’s a dignity about the work reminiscent of some pattern-based aboriginal art.

The work of Virginia May always makes me think "fine art" in the best sense of the term. In her painting in this show, pink peony petals, executed with meticulous precision, glory in their transparency and delicacy against the shiny hardness of a silver container. www.virginiamay.com A work that also shows loving attention to detail is Liane Bedard’s small, charming study of an apple and a sugar cube on a clear glass plate, backed by two fabrics with quite different designs. One could use the word "love" with regard to Micheal Zarowsky’s painting too. You might not have thought this could happen, but his depiction of lush white snowdrifts with their blue-ish shadows, overlooking some dark water can make you long for winter. www.zarowsky.net

Among the paintings having to do with cities and architecture, one that stands out for me is by Frank Eber, from California. In his view of a Vienna street, with horse-drawn carriages in the foreground and palatial buildings in the background, it’s the phenomenally skillfull use of light and shadow (not to mention the flawless drawing) that pulls you in and gives you the feeling that you’re standing right there on that street. www.frankeber.com  Don Baxter’s take on an old wooden doorway in Venice caught my attention from across the room because of the dramatic contrasts inherent in the composition: you’re looking through a dark, shadowy archway towards the door that’s in full light. On one level, Ralph Blefgen’s painting of Havana cathedral could be taken simply as a glorious celebration of a revered building. In another way, it could be seen as a study in the way that a riot of atmospheric colour can play off against the pure white spaces left on the paper. A more mellow feeling about a city and its structures comes through in Yaohua Yan’s painting of Toronto’s King Street at sunset. www.yaohuayan.com

Lest anyone think that the CSPWC leans too heavily towards the traditional, predictable watercolour product, in this show there’s Mark Rosser’s work. Three square sheets of watercolour paper, covered with freely flowing tones, mostly of greens and golds, have been crumpled, then opened again and mounted in a row, under glass in a black box. It’s good to know that the CSPWC, now more than eighty years old, is open to whatever new worlds artists are willing to let the medium take them to.

 

Die Fledermaus (Opera) by Johann Strauss II; starring Michael Schade, Tamara Wilson, David Pomeroy, Mireille Asselin, David Cangelosi, Peter Barrett, James Westman, Claire de Svign, Laura Tucker, Jan Pohl; conducted by Johannes Debus; Canadian Opera orchestra and chorus; November 3rd.

Before this, I’d never seen Die Fledermaus. It always struck me as one of those frothy things that was notable mainly for the party scene where guest performers were brought in like trick ponies. I’m thinking of Dame Joan Sutherland inviting her pal Luciano Pavarotti to do his thing at her gala farewell performance in the piece. Seems Dame Joan and Luciano weren’t available this time round – busy elsewhere, I guess – but the Canadian Opera still managed to have some fine singers on hand.

Which is a good thing, because the music is really all that matters.

Certainly not the story. We’re in 19th century Vienna (although some of the outfits of the chorus seem to look ahead to the flapper era of the 1920's). A certain toff, Gabriel von Eisenstein, is due to serve a few days in jail for some sort of fraud. His wife’s keen to see him go because she’s looking forward to a dalliance with a romantic tenor. But Herr von Eisenstein gets an invitation to a swell party that night, so he decides to go there instead of to jail. Meanwhile, his wife’s maid, having got an invitation to the same party, asks for the night off on the pretext of tending to a sick aunt. She’s planning to borrow one of her employer’s best dresses for the occasion.

There’s some fuss about von Eisenstein’s once having played a trick on a friend who was dressed as a bat and that friend is now hoping to get his revenge. Hence the title of the piece. The climax of the big party is that everybody gets arrested and thrown in jail. Why, I don’t know. It must be a Teutonic thing. Those people can always find some rule that you’re breaking.

All this carry-on makes the operettas by W.S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan look like the edgiest offering from Second City. It’s all so cutesy, so twee, so nicely "naughty." Maybe I have a problem with some aspects of Austrian culture. Certainly not the music, and definitely not the pastries. It’s the humour that brings on my allergic reaction. It appears, however, that most of the other members of the Toronto opera audiences don’t suffer from any such affliction. At every bit of cornball shtick, ripples of appreciative chuckling washed through the Four Seasons hall, as the audience members hastened to assure each other that they were "getting it." I mean, how could you not be amused? This is high culture, after all, so any little attempt at levity must necessarily be delicious.

But there was plenty for even a curmudgeon like me to enjoy about the production. Toronto’s own Michael Schade, unquestionably the biggest star of the event, was in very fine voice. He even managed to make some of the bumbling comedy enjoyable with his light-footed finesse. Not that I could understand all the sly interpolations assigned to him. When he was pretending to be french, it was appropriate that he’d slip in a mention of Justin Trudeau. But it was a bit harder to see the point of references to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, still less Gary Bettman.

Tamara Wilson, as Herr von Eisenstein’s wife, sang with a rich, glorious voice, and so did her maid, played by Mireille Asselin in the performance I saw. Ms. Asselin even had a real trill (at times). However, her coloratura wasn’t always precise and clear and, as an actress, she needs to learn to stand still occasionally, to stop sashaying and wiggling. David Pomeroy, as the amorous tenor, doesn’t have as beautiful a voice as Mr. Schade’s, but that hardly matters, given that the lovesick tenor’s role is a goofy one. Mr. Pomeroy won me over with his infectious bonhomie, particularly when it was revealed that, under his silvery threads, a pink corset was encasing his slightly tubby body. You got the impression that Mr. Pomery was being a very good sport about all the tomfoolery. Laura Tucker, in the role of the prince who was hosting the big party, sang very well but there were times when her voice didn’t seem big enough to rise over the orchestra. Baritones David Cangelosi (von Eisenstein’s attorney), Peter Barrett (von Eisenstein’s friend who appears in the bat costume) and James Westman (the jail warden) all sang impressively, particularly, to my ears, Mr. Westman.

One had be grateful that the production’s budget had been lavished mostly on singers. It certainly didn’t go to painters and carpenters. This production takes minimalism to extreme – and not very effective – lengths. The set for the first act, which took place in Frau von Eisensteins’ bedroom, consisted of nothing but a fancy bed at one side of the stage and an enormous wall covering the rest of the proscenium opening. At one point, admittedly, the wall did crack a bit to let in various characters and props. For the big party scene, the set was nothing but a  winding staircase, backed by glittering curtains. For the final act, those curtains dropped, revealing something that was supposed to look like the stone wall of a jail. Frau von Eisensteinen’s ornate bed still stood in a corner, supposedly representing a jail cell. Maybe the production's designers are to be congratulated for doing the best they could with very little but I’m wondering if the patrons in the high-priced seats might have thought they should be getting a bit more for their $300-plus.

The staging didn’t provide much more of interest. For the ten-minutes of the overture, we watched Frau von Eisenstein sleeping in her fancy bed. A toss and a twist each third time a page of the score turned did not make for very gripping theatre. In the party scene, there was such a lack of anything happening that a crew of servants in evening dress came out and slowly turned the grand stairway while Ms. Wilson was standing on it, singing. It looked like this was supposed to be some great coup de theatre. I was expecting that, when the revolution was completed, there would turn out to be some amazing revelation on the other side of the stairway. But no, it was the same boring white wall we’d seen before. During the jail scene of the third act, there was nothing for the chorus to do but sit on chairs in a curving line at the base of the big stone wall.

There were a couple of moments, though, when the staging actually engaged my attention. One was in the scene where the ardent tenor was trying to get Frau von Eisenstein into bed. Somehow, the high-spirited silliness of it all broke down my resistance briefly, but I think that was mainly because of the way the music caught you up and carried you along. The other point at which I actually became involved in what was happening was when Frau von Eisenstein arrived at the party in a coach and her husband took a perch on the roof of it, trying to seduce her without knowing who she was. The coach was drawn by actors with glistening black ravens' heads and lethal-looking beaks. The effect was dramatic and striking.

And I did enjoy the costumes for the chorus – a motley mixture of tights, feathers, beads and bangles that suggested Hallowe’en, Mardi Gras and Cirque de Soleil with, if I’m not mistaken, a touch of Third Reich decadence. I loved that the warden of the jail got so carried away with the party spirit that he came out at one point in drag, singing falsetto.

 

Seven Psychopaths (Movie) written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, Tom Waits, Linda Bright Clay, Abbie Cornish, Olga Kurylenko, Gabourey Sidibe, Long Nguyen, Christine Marazon

If you can keep a couple of story lines in mind, it may help you to process the craziness this movie throws at you.

First, there’s the Colin Farrell character who’s trying to write a script called Seven Psychopaths. His friend, played by Sam Rockwell, is helping (or hindering) him by putting an ad in the paper, inviting psychos to phone in with their stories. Then there’s Christopher Walken’s character who heads a gang that steals people’s dogs for the purpose of collecting big cash rewards on returning them. Unfortunately, they happen to steal the ShihTzu of a thug, played by Woody Harrelson, who isn’t giving up his little canine friend easily.

The Sam Rockwell character appears to be the link between the scriptwriter and the dog kidnappers but don’t ask me how. Things are far too convoluted to follow in much detail. Terms like "madcap" and "caper" come to mind. What we have here is something like a cross between Pulp Fiction and The Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight. There’s more violence and gore than I’ve seen in any comedy; it may be all in fun, but I had to turn away from the screen several times.

Not that there aren’t a lot of things to like. Some of the droll lines and situations include [not exact quotes here]:

  • Character ‘A’ says "I feel like I’m gonna die" and character ‘B’ says, "Don’t keep goin’ on about it."
  • Two opponents are arguing about whose killings count more and one of them says, "You killed my girlfriend – who I didn’t like – but still!"
  • ‘C’ is counting down from five to zero before shooting ‘D’, but ‘D’ pleads with ‘C’ to go back to five, and ‘C’ begrudgingly does.
  • Somebody refutes Gandhi’s claim that an Eye-For-An-Eye would leave everybody blind: "There’d have to be one guy who still had one eye. Because if everybody was blind, who could shoot out the last eye of the last guy?"
  • ‘D’: "What did you say, specifically?" ‘E’: "You mean ‘specifically’?"
  • An assassin dickers on the phone with his intended victim about a suitable day for the assassination.
  • The final credits are rudely interrupted for another malevolent spin on the plot.

Given the sardonic wit flying around, there’s no question that we’re in the hands of writer Martin McDonagh. But the movie doesn’t have the angry, cutting tone of his plays; I think the movie's supposed to be more amusing. And it would be, if we could keep track of what’s going on and where people are coming from. There’s too much imaginative creativity on display. At times we seem to be watching enactments of what the psychos are telling the Farrell character; at other times we seem to be getting excerpts from the script he’s writing. There’s some recurring thing about a Viet Cong veteran (Long Nguyen), in a Catholic priest’s outfit, in a room with a hooker (Christine Marazon). Another theme that keeps coming up is about a Quaker who stalked the psycho who killed his daughter. And that Quaker may turn out to be somebody we already know. A masked gunman’s going around killing people at random. It’s like one of those kids’ puzzles where you have to spot the monkeys hiding in a picture; only this time it’s psychos.

If most of it’s rather incomprehensible, an extended scene near the end could almost stand alone as a parody/satire on violence in movies. The Farrell, Rockwell and Walken characters are camped out in the desert (don’t ask) where they roast marshmallows over a campfire. There’s a lot of talk about how the scriptwriter’s work should end in a final shoot-out. The Rockwell character describes an outrageous scenario in a cemetery, with people rising from graves to fire away. We see this fantasy enacted by eerie moonlight to the accompaniment of gorgeous choral background.

And, speaking of music, one of the best uses of it comes during a major blood-letting spree in what looks like a hospital or prison with a beautiful operatic aria ringing in our ears. It was hard to catch the credits because the print wasn’t very clear, but I think it was Canada’s own Catherine Robbin singing in Berlioz’ Romo et Juliette.

As for the actors, I don’t know whether it’s fair to criticize an Irishman for a fake brogue, but Mr. Farrell has never sounded so Irish to me. At one point, the Rockwell character imitates the brogue in a jokey way, so maybe we’re supposed to see it as a bit exaggerated. Mr. Rockwell is the most interesting of the actors, managing to keep our attention with a manner that’s flakey, charming and threatening. Mr. Walken gives us another of his wry, complicated characters and Tom Waits serves up the requisite creepiness of a psycho. Woody Harrelson never seems as vicious as he’s supposed to be; he always looks like a nice guy pretending he isn’t. Maybe it’s a casting problem. On the other hand, maybe they needed somebody like Mr. Harrelson, given that he has to go all slobbery about his missing ShihTzu.

The two women featured in the ads for the movie, Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko, have relatively small and insignificant roles. (Ms. Kurylenko's performance could be taken as a textbook case of over-acting.) But maybe writer/director McDonagh is covering his ass on that score, in that there’s a scene where the Walken character criticizes the Farrell character’s script for its lack of good roles for women. I suppose it’s understandable that the two women are featured on the posters, given that they play bimbos and that they’re name actresses. The far bigger and better female role is played by the subtle and talented Linda Bright Clay, as the Walken character’s wife. As we all know, though, grey-haired ladies don’t make sexy poster girls.

Capsule comment (instead of a "rating"): Fun if you can follow it.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com