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Toronto Art Expo 2007

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Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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Head to Head
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Toronto Art Expo 2007
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

This review has a page to itself. For other "New Stuff" click on the March 8/07 page.

Toronto Art Expo 2007 (Metro Toronto Convention Centre, March 15-18)

This year, the organizers of this extravaganza have dropped the claim that the show is "juried". That could be because of the complaints from this department about the inaccuracy of the term as applied to last year’s show. There’s still lots of kitsch on display but not quite as much, it seems to me, as formerly. And it’s overshadowed by the better work. In fact, near the end of my visit, I unexpectedly found some quite exciting things that made me stay longer than intended.

But first, it was good to see several fave’s from past shows: Laurie Sponagle’s very fine, contemplative charcoal works; Micheal Zarowsky’s super watercolours; Julia Gilmore’s vibrant still lives that leap off the wall; Jan Kiewiet’s strong abstracts that seem to hover on the suggestion of landscape. I noted that Tim Packer’s landscapes this year mostly feature patterns of tree branches against the sky. And David J. Aubertin is back with his irreverent scribbles of angels and saints and sheep and Jesus figures.

It must be the impish quality of those drawings that attracts me. For the most part, I'm not interested in anything that: is done in a cartoony-style; has an allegorical theme; seems to have to do with a dream; tells a story; affects a "primitive" or "faux naive" effect; looks like an illustration from a kids’ book. I especially shun paintings in which the thick layering of the paint becomes the main point of the picture. Such an cloying attempt to create an individual style repels me. And most of all, I recoil from pictures in which the paint is thrown on in riotous colour that says nothing but "Whee, see me paint! I am an artist! See how creative I am!"

Nor do I spend much time on the many competent paintings that don’t strike me as special in some way. In this show, there are tons of perfectly unobjectionable scenes of rocks and lakes and rivers and autumn woods in all their glory. I know that we good Canadians are supposed to have some of these representations of our home and native land hanging on our walls. If that’s the kind of thing you want, then buy and enjoy. Me, I’m looking for something different.

Among the landscapes, then, I was struck the blocky, angular oils of Peter Adams. His clouds have a crunchy look, which you’d think is the opposite to the way clouds should be painted but his are very attractive. I also love a dilapidated shed of his and a very strong self portrait. John Adams, on the other hand, paints very large, stark landscapes with simple compositions. Priscilla Lakatos does landscapes approaching a somewhat more realistic look, but with lots of expression and mood. Expression is the whole point of Jeanette Obbink’s free and loose encounters with nature. Peter Colbert’s landscapes approach abstraction with their strong design and lack of detail. I was intrigued by the work of Kyle Stewart. Many of his abstracts look botanical and, in some cases, the intricate inter-twining of tiny patches of colour creates an impression of a field or of light filtering through a woods.

If less is more, as they sometimes say, then you certainly couldn’t get more of less than R. Hryhorczuk’s paintings: just a few dark smudges and streaks suggesting land and water. You might think you were being conned except that they’re very evocative and serene. A visitor to his booth was going into orbit on spotting a copy of the recent edition of Canadian Home and Garden that happened to be lying around and that included a painting by Hryhorczuk in a featured decor.

I love to see how artists convey the somewhat rougher urban beauty. Some of the standouts in this show are: Gisle Boulianne’s wild, chaotic scenes with a frenzy that makes you think of the visions of William Blake; Marjolyn van der Hart’s strong, bold groupings of people on streets; Marzena Kotapska’s large, dynamic scenes of subways and crowds; and Ron Eady’s industrial-looking structures that seem to be under construction. In a very different vein, Debra Tate-Sears does realistic scenes of lanes and buildings in a traditional way except that the muted tones of her palette give her watercolours a brooding look. Brandi Deziel takes realism even further with her "photo realistic" style for cluttered street scenes, views from car windows and interiors. And I think you’d have to include as urban painting Paul Gilroy’s pictures of things like motel signs, complete with hours and rates. The note of humour is welcome.

When it comes to flower painting, Danielle O’Connor Akiyama crowds about as much essence of flower onto a painting as possible. You get an abundance of colour, shape and even, you might imagine, perfume. One would almost say she goes too far in these extravaganzas, but she just manages to hold each one together on the canvas. Florin Brojba peers into the insides of flowers and drowns in their beauty, without making them garish in the process the way some people do. Another artist who does similar, meticulous work on flowers is Bert Liverance. Ian McAndrew explained to me that he uses a watercolour technique on his oil paintings of flowers: he tilts the canvas at a 60 degree angle and uses very thin paint, letting it drip down the canvas. I particularly liked the effect this produced for a bunch of peonies. (He knows what he’s talking about when it comes to watercolours because he has several very competent small ones for sale.)

There weren’t a lot of still lives that caught my eye but I did like March Gregoroff’s pictures of fruit against very drippy backgrounds. In my favourites of her works, the fruit itself seemed about to melt off the canvas. I don’t know whether Erika Bmpfer Deery’s work should be classified as still life but, for me, it has much that effect – and very strikingly. Each picture suggests something like single a piece of fruit against a white background merely by means of blobs of gouache and acrylic, sometimes just black and sometimes with an overlay of bright colour.

When it comes to realism in still life, the prize would have to go to Alex Xinjian Du for "Memory": a larger-than-life picture of a battered brown satchel leaning against a wall. The realism was such that I kept wondering why somebody had stuck a tattered newspaper photo to the top of the canvas. Fortunately, before I could reach out to remove the offending scrap, I realized it was part of the painted composition: a clipping tacked into the wall against which the satchel was leaning.

Lots of abstracts pleased me, among them the splashy, exciting works of Kisook Maria Kim and of Dan Mackie. In a more controlled, geometric mode, David Brown’s smeary compositions in black, white and red evoke both landscapes and cityscapes. Also in a somewhat rectangular way, Anne Barkley’s abstracts can suggest either an airy architectural motif or a tighter interior. One that fascinated me seemed to be based on a kitchen. You could almost make out a counter, a microwave, a fridge in the background and so on. But Ms. Barkley seemed to think I was going too far when I thought I identified a coffee pot in the foreground. Then there are Andrea Maguire’s indistinct but fascinating shapes, some of them seeming to suggest human forms, others towering cliffs. Sabine Liva Berzina’s abstracts, with an emphasis on cool, silvery light, seem to suggest wintry scenes. In this case, the artist’s promotional material happens, in my opinion, to have hit on just the right word to describe the works: "laconic".

Just as my tour of the booths was winding up, three artists in particular made a very strong impression on me.

A young man named Stewart Jones has produced perhaps the most exciting cityscapes that I’ve seen in a long time. In his oils, he captures the vibrancy, the colour, the teeming life of the city without losing architectural integrity or accuracy of detail. His paintings feature looming brick walls, long alleys, dangling fire escapes, stop lights – the whole jumble of the world we see every day but the beauty of which usually escapes our notice. One particularly striking painting, perhaps a view from an alley, shows the backs of houses above the roofs of lower buildings. A white frame wall of one of the houses stands out with a rare magnificence. This is Mr. Jones’ first appearance at this show and he told me he found it great fun to be among a crowd of people who were "buying art" instead of on Queen Street West – where I guess you mostly run into other artists.

At first, the work of Peter Fowler didn’t impress me – sketchy portraits of women, the canvas swimming with tons of gaudy pinks and yellows. But then I noticed some landscapes in a similarly uninhibited style but with more realistic colours. You might take them for a child’s messing around, except that under the mess you can discern an understanding of drawing, composition and perspective. After we chatted for a bit, Mr. Fowler showed me an oil sketch of some figures in a room, possibly an artist’s studio. Again, it was all very scruffy but you clearly had the sense of the perspective of the room, the light from the window and the figures looming in the foreground. One of his largest paintings could almost have been a parody of one of those classical paintings of a court scene crowded with people in powdered wigs, dwarves in the foreground, that sort of thing. This painting was bursting off the canvas with people and colour, everything looking cock-eyed and skewed. I never did get far enough back from the painting to give it a good long look and to decide whether or not I liked it. But I certainly did admire the guts of an artist who could show such impulsive work with so little regard for whether or not the public thought he was "accomplished".

I had to congratulate Kelly Grace, not just because her acrylics are very well done, but for the singular distinction of having the one painting in the show that was on a unique theme. "This is the only picture that I haven’t seen a hundred times already," I told her. The picture in question showed people dancing at a wedding. The tables were pushed back, the surroundings weren’t particularly glamorous. Without too much attention to detail, you got the sense of some white dresses and dark suits. The lighting was too harsh, everybody was tired, it was clearly "that time of the night". We’ve all been there but who would ever have thought that such a moment could make a good painting? Another marvellous painting by Ms. Grace shows skaters at a city rink. Mostly you get an impression of a jumble of legs and arms in motion. Ms. Grace tells me that she creates the blurry effects in her paintings, based on photographs, by over-washes of water. I had the impression that Ms. Grace was slightly non-plussed by my enthusiasm. A very young woman, she seemed a bit shy and self-effacing. But she is one formidable artist.

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