May 14, 2016

I was wandering by the Piri Piri Churrasqueira Grillhouse at the corner of Dupont and Campbell and took some time to check out the neighbourhood.  Just a few steps north there is a cluster of no-nonsense, newish buildings.  They look like the kind of place you might go to pick up parts for, say, a malfunctioning Moccamaster or maybe confer with an insurance broker.  But no, in fact, here is a chance to look at art in Toronto.

Richard Rhodes Dupont Projects – David Clarkson

Speleogenesis, I have just learned, means the origin and development of caves.  In the exhibition of paintings by David Clarkson, called Remotes, caves function as formal device, content and metaphor.

Here’s another word you don’t hear often: trippy.

On entering David Clarkson’s show there is a painting by the door.  It depicts a rabbit hole, yes, the pathway that Alice took into the discombobulating environment that made no sense.  In this painting bunnies, giant gems and a perfect oval looking-glass are bathed in a dreamy blue light.  For me this painting set up the whole show with a feeling of philosophical nonchalance.   The viewer is free to descend into a labyrinth of ethereal vistas and subconscious triggers without any kind of didactic price to pay.

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Detail of Rabbits and Mirrors by David Clarkson

The cave imagery is a constant in the show.  Such a potent symbol could be heavy handed but David Clarkson creates unpredictable, droll and imaginative art work that never stumbles into cliche.

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Cascade and Curtain by David Clarkson

Looking at Cascade and Curtain the viewer is in utterly unknown territory, gazing outward through the pictorial plane to glimpse what lies beyond the shimmering veil of liquid.  Which way is the sinuous sluice spilling?  Into the frame or out of it?

The inclusion 0f photographic elements, pop art fragments and tiny renderings of hallucinatory creatures combine to form an otherworldly tableau.  But it is the striking formal aspect – the yawning mouth of the cave – that creates such a powerful image.

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Moth and Frog by David Clarkson

A sense of claustrophobia dominates the painting above as ice and mist frame a route to open air but no, it is another cave that confronts the viewer, like a maddening hall of mirrors.  Life is delicate but relentless in this harsh environment.  And consciousness is brutally linked to physical realities.

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Statues and Fog by David Clarkson

In Statues and Fog surrealist tropes litter a grim trail to the void.  Here the cave is the tough slog of life itself.

Ahem…there is only one way out.

 

Erin Stump Projects (ESP) – Elise Rasmussen

Around the corner on Dupont there is an exhibition by Elise Rasmussen called Fragments of an Imagined Place.  (…am I detecting a theme…?)

As part of the artwork Elise Rasmussen declares that the myth of Atlantis “serves as a metaphor for the artistic practice.”  Within this context she presents some fascinating fragments of a Robert Smithson piece that was never created.

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People had a very different appearance in 1970 than they do today.  Within the selection of xeroxed newspaper clippings, cartoons, letters, pamphlets and snapshots is a picture of Robert Smithson posed as a rugged outlaw.  Truly, this artist was onto something new, big and bold and he looks the part.

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Robert Smithson circa 1970

The planned Earthwork was called “Glass Island” and it was to be constructed off the British Columbia coast near Nanaimo.  One hundred tons of broken glass were held at the border and finally sent back to Los Angeles.  Environmentalists opposed the project.

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Installation view of Robert Smithson’s “Map of Broken Glass (Atlantis),” 1969

Included in this sort of scrapbook-like array are copies of the Robert Smithson drawings for other Earthworks.  It was so startling and refreshing to see these humble drawings on graph paper, efficiently packed with ideas and potential.

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Detail of Fragments of an Imagined Place by Elise Rasmussen

I really liked observing the connection Elise Rasmussen created with Robert Smithson and his beautiful idea of a glass island.   She also produced a video in connection to the unmade piece.  Dancers in white stretchy pants and pastel t-shirts gingerly hold shards of coloured glass move and about in a serious though desultory way.

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Still from Video Fragments of an Imagined Place by Elise Rasmussen

https://player.vimeo.com/video/163575629“>Click here to see a section of the video

I wonder what Robert Smithson would make of the art world today?

 

February 14, 2016

Song Dong – Lori Nix

Art Gallery of Ontario – Song Dong

Wisdom of the Poor: Communal Courtyard is the name of the installation by Song Dong at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  The piece has the strange effect of slowing down time and creating a consuming sense of melancholy.  The viewer steps out of the moment and into a maze, composed of antique wardrobes, and, concurrently, into a bygone era.

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Detail of installation by Song Dong

The wardrobes have been dismantled and roughly knocked together to create twisting, labyrinthine passageways.  Bits of fabric, modest curtains, broken locks, faded posters and other sentimental items cling to the gutted furniture and add to the sense of forlorn domestic ruin.

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Detail of installation by Song Dong

The art piece feels funereal, and there is the lingering presence of ghosts.  Glimpses through openings may reveal another viewer wandering hesitantly, an abandoned bicycle or perhaps a rising tower (wait, its the AGO’s  Sol Lewitt sculpture and elsewhere is the AGO’s Warhol portrait of Karen Kain.)

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Detail of installation by Song Dong

China is famously changing at a breakneck pace despite an increasing public outcry against the demolition of historic neighbourhoods and a gathering preservationist movement.  Song Dong taps into a powerful emotional yearning for an idyllic past that is felt apparently all over the world. The object of the loving backward gaze could be the narrow, crowded streets of bygone China or …… Mayberry.   In North America this imagery can be baldly manipulative romanticism, covering for a suspect agenda, but what it is in China I do not know.

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Mayberry set

Admittedly there are some very appealing aspects to the decades past.  For example, long before the rise of Twitter and ISIS (forever linked in my mind) anyone could smoke and drink with abandon, even on airplanes.  But is it my actual memories that view these activities fondly or is it the “Mad Men” portrayal of them that I like?

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Smoking on airplanes through the eyes of the creator’s of “Mad Men”

Meanwhile the unrestrained development in China has not only resulted in the spectacular buildings we see in the media but some weirdly manufactured nostalgia, for example Thames Town, built to look like a charming Tudor town in the English countryside.

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Thames Town, 19 miles from Shanghai

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Bau-Xi Photo  – Lori Nix

All over North America laundromat seating is the same.  I may have known this as a fact before I saw the show of photographs by Lori Nix at Bau-Xi Photo, but to be honest I never really thought about it much. In Lori Nix’s photo of a post-apocalyptic laundromat (shown below) under dreadful fluorescent light, the seats are identical to those at the “Coin Wash” in the vicinity of Dundas and Keele.  In fact everything is exactly right, except of course the obvious…

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Laundromat at Night by Lori Nix

What I liked about looking at these photographs was noticing the detail and how exacting and precise it is.  Lori Nix builds miniatures of scenes she comes across in her daily life and then she photographs them. (To learn how she does this click on the link.)

Lori Nix does not replicate reality.  In all her photographs something is off, really off.  Something has occurred.  Things will never be the same.

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Fountain by Lori Nix

What’s going on in Fountain, the art work shown above?  A spectacular public space has been vandalized and then abandoned entirely.  The bronze sculptures have deteriorated, maybe because of chemicals in the atmosphere, such as chlorine, sulfur, nitrogen oxides or maybe just rain. Vines have overtake graffiti and then all (hubris) is silenced by cold and ice.

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Bar by Lori Nix

Could this be a bar in rural Ontario on any Sunday morning?  It does look very familiar … except there is no hockey memorabilia.

Despite visions of catastrophe Lori Nix’s art work transmits a sense of enthusiasm for the places she creates.  With meticulous patience she commits these mundane arenas of everyday life to a suspended state of timelessness.

 

January 7, 2016

These days looking at art means traversing the city and facing down the sea of red tail lights in every west bound artery.  Is all this frantic activity due to the mild winter and El Nino?  No!  It was explained to me that the reason it is so hard to get around by car in Toronto these days is because the streets are clogged with swarms of UberX drivers.  Endlessly cruising up and down Queen Street, they will not go home.  They need the money.

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The subject of ‘sex and women’ is fraught with a legion of competing agendas, all the time and everywhere.  It’s kind of comforting to know that in a world where women can be stoned to death for sexual transgression, in this country artists (men and women) are free to explore pretty much any sexual subject matter they can come up with.  One option is the light touch and the glance of the coquette.  Sexish, the title of the (all female) group show at Birch Contemporary largely takes this approach, and like many of the artworks in the exhibition, the title is a bit, well, coy.

Images of tightly crossed knees by Maryanne Casasanta  or flouncy skirts by Cathy Daley read as girlish, coltish, kittenish.  Sex seems a long way off…although there are hints.

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Artwork by Maryanne Casasanta

Two artworks by Cathy Daley

Using hand stitched embroidery on lovely found fabrics Orly Cogan depicts the eroticized domestic realm where home is a place to relax and get high.

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“Saturday” by Orly Cogan

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“Mirror Mirror” by Orly Cogan

Other artists in the show take on S&M imagery.   Fresh, original paintings by Ilona Szalay have a very contemporary feel, although they reference what seems to be a reenactment of Victorian prurience.

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“Girl and Graffiti” by Ilona Szalay

Janet Werner‘s painting of the back of woman’s head transmits a subtle shock.  First we examine the voluptuous coiffure and then the freakishly attenuated neck and damaged ear.  What happened here?

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“Jo” by Janet Werner

Ceramic pieces by Julie Moon have a way of getting to the core of female attributes in a primal way.  I liked the sense of ambiguity in this artist’s work.  Hovering between nightmare and goddess the piece shown below holds a potent sexual charge.

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“Flesh Pile (Side Pony)” by Julie Moon

In another ceramic piece with Surrealist antecedents, Julie Moon creates fascinating tension as delicate limbs emerge from a glutinous heap.  Ruffles and a tender blue colour add to the horrifying sense of femininity caught in a grotesque trap.

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 “Bloomers” by Julie Moon

As the Sexish exhibition notes attest ideas about women and sexuality are “continuously evolving and unresolved.”  Here the clamorous sex/women issues dominating the headlines are sidestepped or ignored and it makes for a refreshing change.

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Taylor Swift’s Girl Squad

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University of Oregon protest

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Caitlyn Jenner in LA

 

 

 

 

November 30, 2015

Koffler Gallery – Isabel Rocamora

 

Yesterday was the last chance to see the Isabel Rocamora show – titled Troubled Histories, Ecstatic Solitudes – at the Koffler Gallery.  The exhibit, dominated by three large-scale video projections, opened way back on September 17, and it is utterly prescient in terms of its grave, unflinching tone and the subject matter it contains.

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Still from Body of War by Isabel Rocamora

In Body of War Isabel Rocamora probes the phenomenon of close-up brutality.  In an extended sequence the camera warily circles a fight to the death between two anonymous soldiers.  Staged on a barren runway beneath grey skies, this grim, slow battle confusingly becomes a kind of homoerotic dance from which there is no escape.  A soundtrack of medieval-like, choral chanting heightens the sense of ritual and archetype in this piece. Eventually a victor is left standing, panting and jubilant, and the camera turns away to slowly penetrate the opening of a nearby bunker.  The desultory movement toward darkness creates a truly horrifying moment.

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Stills from Horizon of Exile by Isabel Rocamora

In Horizon of Exile, a two channel video piece, snippets of monologue hint at the reasons a women must leave her home and set off into a barren, windswept desert.  Against an elegiac score and relentless wind, two women then perform a mesmerizing rolling dance, where they are carried like flotsam across a glittering salt flat in a God forsaken plain somewhere.

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Stills from Faith by Isabel Rocamora

An Orthodox Jew, a Greek Orthodox Christian and a Sunni Muslim are all engaged in prayer in Isabella Rocamora’s three channel loop called Faith.  Filmed in a craggy desert that reads “holy land” they are united in ancient transcendent practices.  The religious trappings – the robes, the gestures, the pious heavenward gazes, the fervent ritualized murmuring – are remarkably alike.  In fact not much is separating these men of God from one another, and yet, Isabel Rocamora seems to be saying, the superficial similarities are meaningless.  Tradition is terminally unique.

I really liked seeing this show: The stark graphic power, the rich soundscapes, the choreography of the camera and the subjects, and the potent imagery.  Ultimately the work struck me as very dark: The subjects are all unable to break out of age old oppression, each is condemned to endlessly repeat the rituals of the past and passively accept their fate.

 

Typology – Nicolas Fleming

 

Fortunately, it is possible to go shopping for handmade items on the third floor of Artspace Youngplace otherwise I would not have trekked upstairs and come across the tiny gallery called Typology.

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Installation shot of Moving Right Along by Nicolas Fleming

An installation by Nicholas Fleming called Moving Right Along is about to close.  I’m glad I caught this show.

Nicholas Fleming must be a very energetic guy.  He has built an entire room within the gallery, except that it is all delightfully backwards so that drywall, spackling paste, chipboard and insulation foam are on display and the smooth, white gallery walls with crisp corners and subtle lighting are hidden.  It’s kind of like putting a dress on inside out.

An unmistakable Home Depot fragrance wafts into the hallway from Typology.

I really liked looking at the “fountain” in the center of the space.  It has ghastly, poisonous look to it.  Something toxic appears to be weeping from the hardened foam to create a pool, coated in noxious sheen, at its base.

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Installation shots of Moving Right Along by Nicolas Fleming

No doubt Nicholas Fleming allies himself with Minimalism, Arte Povera and various Conceptual Art branches emerging in the 1970s but what is so interesting about this show to me is the exotic beauty created by these humble materials which leads to the whole idea of the infrastructure of our society and how it is hidden and denied and avoided, with perilous consequences.

October 8, 2014

Hart House

Nestled in the U of T campus, just off University Circle, is Hart House, a student activity center which contains a gym and the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, among other facilities.

John G. Hampton, the curator of the current exhibition at Hart House, titled “Why Can’t Minimal,” for some reason decided to illuminate the lighter side of the Sixties art movement known as Minimalism. (Incidently, when searching for a good Minimalism site I stumbled upon a whole new meaning of the term. Yes, there is, in fact, a second type of Minimalism: it’s an entirely contemporary social movement which advises people on how to get rid of the excess stuff in their lives in order to make room for the essentials.)

Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, Dan Flavin, Frank Stella (for his minimalist Black Paintings) are a few of the artists associated with Minimalism. Carl Andre, the ultimate American Minimalist sculptor, likes to say “It’s all the materials… there are no ideas hidden under those plates. You can lift them up but there is nothing there.” No hidden ideas and therefore nothing funny… about zinc plates or a pile of bricks or massive oak cubes.

Rather than actually finding the humour in Minimalism what the curator did was round up some Conceptual artists who commented on utterly humourless Minimalist standards. The result has a particular off-key, dry wit (verging on absurdity) so close to the heart of the Conceptual artist.

Some of the works in this show are delightful: John Boyle-Singfield’s Untitled (Coke Zero) references the Hans Haacke Condensation Cube of 1962, replacing water with Coke Zero. The Coke Zero does create condensation but it has also undergone a gross transformation, breaking down into its elemental components: On top, an evil looking red liquid and below, a suspicious powdery substance.

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Ken Nicol created Carl Andre Drawer Piece and got into the spirit of “truth to materials” by typing the Carl Andre quote “If a thing is worth doing once, it’s worth doing again” on 1611 index cards.

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I always associate John Baldessari with Cal Arts and a particular brand of flat humour that came out of that school. In his video Baldessari “sings” each of Sol LeWitt’s 35 “Sentences on Conceptual Art” to the tune of popular songs. It must have been Christmas when he made this video because the tune sounds distinctly like a holiday carol.

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There is a certain slyness to John Marriott’s various sized cubes surfaced with pigeon-proofing strips. They also achieve a cool elegance in an incidental, i.e. Minimalist, manner.

See below for an installation view and a close up of the pigeon-proofing strips.

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University of Toronto Art Center (UTAC)

A few steps from Hart House is UTAC and an exhibition of the photographs of Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) called “We are Continually Exposed to the Flashbulb of Death.” This is a fascinating show for anyone with an interest in the Beat Generation.

A recording of Allen Ginsberg reading his 1955 poem “Howl” can be heard throughout the gallery’s rooms.

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It is, of course, primarily as a poet that Allen Ginsberg is known. These photographs however attest to his skill as a photographer (he was mentored in this ability by Robert Frank) and moreover they document a life profoundly rich in relationships, friendships and experiences.

Below, William Burroughs in 1953:

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Gregory Corso, Paul Bowles and Burroughs in 1961.

From Gary Snyder, Peter Orlovsky, Jack Kerouac and Paul Bowles to Kathy Acker, Rene Ricard, and Michael McLure the pictures in this show depict so many of the literary and intellectual luminaries of the past four of five decades. Each picture includes a description, hand-written by Allen Ginsberg, identifying the subject, the date, the place and the circumstances.

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An essay by Louis Kaplan in the exhibition catalogue quotes Ginsberg as follows: “The poignancy of the photograph comes from looking back to a fleeting moment in a floating world.” Captured here in black and white, the humble New York diners and living rooms of the fifties have disappeared forever. This show provides a glimpse of this vanished world and its inhabitants.

September 13, 2014

On this cold, overcast afternoon I walked south on Dundas toward Roncesvalles, skipped the Polish Festival, and headed for the clutch of galleries on Morrow Street.

Gerald Ferguson paintings are on exhibit at the Olga Korper Gallery.

This artist taught at the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design (NSCAD) from 1968 to 2004 and his work embodies the cool, dispassionate aesthetic that defined the school as the nexus of Conceptual Art.  These are paintings in which the idea is paramount and the actual framed objects are merely resulting detritus.  Composition, allusion, color, form, symbol were all rigorously ignored, and yet, the paintings are entirely contemporary, powerful and complex.

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I particularly liked seeing the “Dropcloth” paintings.  Gerry picked up dropcloths strewn around the worksite of commercial painters.  He then had them framed and stretched.  They are subtle and suggestive, like a Cy Twombly or maybe even a Jackson Pollack…but wait a minute, they are dropcloths!  The idea lingers, inhabiting a sensuous formality, but it remains pure.

This show is particularly successful in its display of the range of work as it skips through various decades and series to give a sense of the breadth he achieved.  Using frottage, rollers, stencils, found objects, spray paint and various mundane, utilitarian objects he never flinched in exploring and manifesting the concepts that appealed to him.

Below is a snapshot of Gerry Ferguson’s take on still life: a stenciled urn and rubbing of cast iron fruit.

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Gerald Ferguson died in 2008.  This was a great loss for the Halifax art community and his friends, colleagues and former students everywhere.  Gerry was a true artist and a catalyst for so many.

Across the courtyard is the Christopher Cutts Gallery

The multi-media artist Simone Jones was standing outside the Gallery.  It was her work that was on display and she looked a little uneasy.  She warned me as I was about to enter that it was very dark and could be disorienting.  She was right.

The large gallery was divided in half and each half was displaying a large screen format video.  On one side, in the center of the space, there was a low-to-the-ground robotic ramp on which the video projector slowly travelled backwards and forwards in relation to the projected image.  Definitely a tripping hazard.

I positioned myself in the center of the divided space and watched the two synchronized videos.  A guy in period costume, trailed by a wolf, tramped through a snowy landscape.  On the other screen a woman in period costume clacked out a message on an ancient manual typewriter.  A shot rang out and the guy collapsed and lay in the snow.  The woman cried. The wolf looked menacing.  I felt like I was at a tennis match.  There was some elegiac music but no dialogue.  The woman at the front desk, who had to sit in the dark all day, mentioned Tom Thompson and his mysterious death.  (I decided not to tell her that he was not shot in the snow.  He died in Canoe Lake.)

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This piece, for all the imposition for the audience and difficulty in presentation, was strangely lacking in ambition.  I assume this artist will go on to develop more deeply the ideas she has hinted at here.  On the other hand, bravo to Christopher Cutts Gallery for supporting her and showing the piece.  A Gallery is a business just like any other.  How a media installation will generate revenue for this gallery is as mysterious to me as the death of Tom Thompson.