Dilettante's Diary

Apr 21/12

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they 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.

On this page: Toronto Art Expo 2012 (Art); Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Movie); Freudoscope (Art); No Tears for CBC's Radio Two (Essay); American Boy (Novel); The Babes in the Wood (Mystery)

Toronto Art Expo 2012 Metro Toronto Convention Centre; April 19-22.

There’s some very good art on view at this year’s Toronto Art Expo. However, as noted in previous years, many good artists who used to participate have de-camped to The Artist Project. (This year’s TAP took place last month.) Much of what remains in the work of the 200-plus artists at the TAE has a decidedly amateur look about it. Maybe buyers want these banal depictions of scenery and cutesy animals. If so, good for the artists. But this kind of work doesn’t strike me as interesting enough to comment on.

Among the works that I do find more pleasing there are, of course, some repeats from previous years. Dragan Sekaric’s indistinct human figures emerging from misty backgrounds still have a mysterious allure. www.shexart.com In a similarly inchoate mood, Andrea Maguire’s paintings feature human-like forms that seem to be struggling to emerge from backgrounds of earth tones. www.andreamaguire.com Gordon Harrison’s rugged, colourful Canadian landscapes always make a strong impression and, if I’m not mistaken, his works have taken a more edgy, rough-hewed look lately. www.gordonharrisongallery.com James Lane’s free-spirited, vibrant abstracts continue to amaze: especially one that’s mostly in red tones, as if it evolved from a floral inspiration; and another mostly in blues, like a meditation on the sky. What’s especially attractive about them is the effect of many layers.You could lose yourself for hours gazing into the depths of them. www.jameslaneabstracts.viewbook.com

An artist whose abstracts have a calmer, more contemplative feel is Fusako Ekuni. Consisting mainly of large pools of diffuse colours flowing into each other, the works have a luminosity that’s somewhat mesmerizing. Http://homepage3.nifty.com/fusako/ There’s a sense of fun in the splattered and dribbled abstracts of Yukako, an artist whose work appears in the booth of the Navillus Gallery. www.navillusgallery.com Also in a very cheerful vein, there are abstracts by Riad Jisri: radiant blobs of transparent ink watercolour. www.riadartwork.com A more rigid, structured sensibility is expressed in the abstracts, consisting mostly of rectangles in subdued colours, by Zahide Tuluoglu. (No website available.) It’s hard to know what exactly to make of the abstracts by Myron Swistun: mostly just some dark blotches arranged in odd patterns on backgrounds of subtle hues. Even if you can’t figure out quite what they’re saying, they have an intriguing effect. www.myronswistun.com

A more troubled feeling comes through in the paintings – some totally abstract, some not quite – of the Romanian artist Christian Lucian Hamsea, whose works are brought to the TAE by the Galerie Hors-Champs, from Paris. Using a lot of black, sometimes with a suggestion of human figures and sometimes without, the turbulent paintings express some very conflicted feelings. www.galerie-hors-champs.com  Davyd Whaley’s jumbled, crowded paintings could almost be considered abstracts, although they do include some humans. The works convey a complex, difficult-to-analyze message about their subjects, but they do engage your attention. www.davydwhaley.com  A somewhat more sunny view of the human race comes through in Gloria Vanderbilt’s charming depictions of people in intricately composed settings. www.navillusgallery.com And I guess you could consider Sam Shuter’s flamboyant depictions of people’s wardrobes, in a pop art style, as an optimistic comment on human affairs. www.iamsammo.com

Although not a lot of landscape in this show seemed worthy of special notice, you couldn’t help admiring the broad, open, lonely scenes painted by Steve Alpert, with such a strong feeling of sky and air in them. www.stevealpertart.com Whether or not Richard Foster’s paintings should be considered landscapes or cityscapes, I’m not sure but his boxy little houses in bright colours on vast green expanses are eye-catching. www.rfosterart.com Youssef Rami’s works should probably be classified as abstracts but, to my eye, there’s a very strong suggestion of industrial cityscape in the arrangment of rectangles, bars and lines. www.artbyrami.com A spooky feeling about urban life comes through in Julia Hacker’s painting of a cluster of buildings almost obliterated by snow, with a little black dog in the foreground looking lost. www.juliahackerart.com

For art that’s entirely nature-based in theme, there are the notable pastels by Mike Smalley. Although – arguably – abstract, they strongly suggest long grasses and weeds such as you might find by the sea. www.mikesmalley-art.com Ludmila Ludina does lush close-ups of flowers in oils. (No website available.) Laurin McCracken’s exquisite still life paintings – flowers, fruit and crystal – show the mastery of watercolour at its highest level. www.lauringallery.com Another stunning demonstration of watercolour technique in nature painting comes in the works of Youngeun Lisa Yun: closeups of botanical subjects like a forest floor covered with leaves or a tangle of overlapping plants and flowers. (No website available.) The works of Ryan Rader might -- or might not -- be seen as based in nature, given that they feature strange little imaginary creatures who seem to be denizens of some underground world, but there's no denying the artist’s astonishing skill with charcoal. www.ryanrader.org

One Toronto gallery participating in the show, The East Gallery, features art from Asia. The works of three artists from Burma (also referred to in the notes as Myanmar) struck me as worthy of special attention. S. Moe Z. creates beautiful, carefully arranged compositions – mostly in blacks and reds – of rows of monks in their robes. The wet, nighttime city streets by Kyee Myintt Saw feature lots of dazzling whites on black, with a few touches of other colours. The paintings of Khin Zaw Latt focus on tight clusters of people, mostly with their backs to us, some of them holding things like buckets on their heads to protect them from pelting rain. Because of the subtle, low-key style of these crowds-in-rain paintings, you have to look closely to pick up the odd feeling that permeates them. www.theeastgallery.com

From Quebec, the gallery known as Otentik’ Art brings mostly African works to the TAE. Some of the ones that I liked best came from South Africa. Thu Gefango’s paintings use black-line drawing and judicious colour choices to convey the feeling of light and busy-ness is a crowded village. Shergn Fara’s paintings of workers in fields have a slapped-on look, but they show a very good eye for dramatic composition. Some other fine paintings were attributed to "Inconnu" (Unknown) because, the gallery representative told me, they had been passed on from owner to owner, to the point that nobody knew any longer who the artist was. Obviously someone of considerable skill, particularly as shown in a painting of a group of labourers standing on the roof of a van, watching something in the distance. www.otentikart.com

Normally, photographs don’t make much of an impression on me in these shows, but I was entranced by the works, based on digital photography, by Pieter and Denise Mayer. Through some process that’s too complicated for me to understand, these artists take digital photographs of subject matter in nature – mostly flowers – and turn them into large works on canvas or watercolour paper that look like gorgeous abstract paintings. www.framingdreams.com

 

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (Movie) written and directed by Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass; starring Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Judy Greer, Susan Sarandon, Rae Dawn Chong, Steve Zissis

Jeff’s this big oaf, about thirty, who sits around in his mom’s basement not doing anything much but smoking pot. She has to harrangue him to get him to make some minor home repairs. His brother Pat lives in an apartment with his wife. She’s scrimping and saving so that they can eventually buy their own home, but Pat sneaks out and buys a Porsche without consulting her. Meanwhile, Jeff and Pat’s mom, a widow who works in a cubicle in a big room full of cubicles, keeps getting flirty messages on her computer from some secret admirer.

It seems like the kind of movie I’d like: quiet, low-key, emphasis on character, just six major roles. Then why am I feeling so antsy during the first part of the movie, almost to the point of eyeing the exit? I think it’s partly because the movie is rather diffuse and inchoate. What is it about? Where’s it going? Granted, with the Duplass brothers Mark and Jay at the helm, you know you’re not going to get the typical, formulaic Hollywood product. (You can see my review of their movie Cyrus on DD page dated July 16/10.) But this one wasn’t giving me much to care about. Pat’s marital troubles? Not really. There seemed to be more focus on the relationship between the brothers. But Pat’s a total prick and Jeff’s not one of the more admirable specimens of humanity.

We slowly begin to realize, though, that we’re meant to see that there’s something special about him, slacker though he appears to be. Not quite an idiot-savant, he’s ingenuous and naive. He has a thing about mysterious "signs" and he’s always thinking they’re going to lead him to his destiny. But he's so lacking in street smarts that he can get mugged by a couple of guys he’s sharing a friendly toke with. When Pat complains about how awful marriage is, Jeff says: "I think it would be awesome." And yet, there’s a certain blunt, matter-of-fact-ness in Jeff’s take on things. Pat, freaking out about the prospect of his wife in a motel with another man, wonders if she might be giving him a hand job. "No," Jeff says, "they’re adults. It wouldn’t be a hand job."

And so it becomes more and more apparent that what this movie’s about is Jason Segel’s acting in the role of Jeff. It’s the kind of role coveted by everybody who wants to be seen as a great actor: the guileless soul who may or may not have a screw loose; who marches to a different drummer; who conveys an uncanny wisdom in his pithy sayings. Dustin Hoffman’s done it; so have Tom Hanks, Robin Williams..... You can probably think of lots of others. But it’s kinda hard to believe Mr. Segel as this other-worldly creature in human disguise, given that his screen persona (at least in his movies that I’ve seen) usually has such a large quotient of in-your-face irony. Even when he’s playing a loser, as in Forgetting Sarah Marshall (reviewed on DD page dated May 4/08), you can’t help thinking there’s something hip and cool about him. Not wide-eyed and innocent, as he’s trying to be here.

But he succeeds. And that’s a huge tribute to Mr. Segel’s acting. Maybe he really is a great actor and maybe he should be nominated for some big awards. Once he'd sold me on his character, the movie started working for me. At one point, his brother Pat (Ed Helms) was saying something to the effect that Jeff’s life was so easy compared to his own (I forget the exact context) but Jeff said, "Oh no, I’m not happy at all." There were bottomless pits of angst in that line – which, if delivered with less subtlety, could have sounded just commonplace and banal – or self-pitying. You felt that you were suddenly seeing into the sad and complicated soul of somebody whom most people ignored or took for granted.

No question, then, that we have here a fascinating study of a character. And the relationship of the brothers does develop in interesting ways. So does Pat's marriage to Linda (touchingly performed by Judy Greer). She, in fact, gets one of the most intriguing lines in the piece: are you mad because: a) you caught me with another man; or b) because you're afraid of losing me? The mom’s thing with the secret admirer takes a neat turn but all the computer messaging gets boring, in spite of Susan Sarandon’s best efforts. I mean, how catchy can it be watching somebody at their computer?

Maybe the movie would be better if it didn’t depend on some pretty extraordinary coincidences in terms of certain people happening to be in the same place at the same time. What looks like a melodramatic, sentimental ending makes you wonder: why all the heroics after the genuine stuff that came before? But then, at the last minute, we’re pulled back and reminded that it’s not the big gestures that matter, it’s the household chores.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): Better than it looks at the start

 

Freudoscope (Art) by Oleg Lipchenko; Bezpala Brown Gallery; 17 Church Street, Toronto; until April 20 www.bezpalabrown.com

Readers of the Dilettante’s Diary may well know that my favourite kinds of art don’t include things that are surrealistic or fantasy-based. Nor am I very keen on works that crowd a lot of detail into a busy canvas in a way that makes you hunt for the interesting details.

This show could be said to include all those characteristics. And yet, the advance word on the show made me think that there might be other things to recommend it. There are. A droll sense of humour, for one thing. Also, the formidable technical skill of the artist. Oleg Lipchenko has, in fact, won an award for his illustrations of a new publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Tundra Books, 2009)

In this show, Mr. Lipchenko has concocted several fantasy scenarios based on a character who is coyly given various versions of the name "Freud." Most of the works are accompanied by whimsical (or satirical?) narratives. Some of them seem to be based on documented events from Sigmund Freud’s life – for instance, his arrival in America with Carl Jung. Other paintings appear to be complete fabrications of the artist’s imagination with reference to Freud. In what you might call the show’s signature piece, the revered doctor is seen skulking away with a model dirigible that he has stolen, the idea being that he is collecting objects which remind him of male-ness or female-ness. One large painting features the naked doctor in a landscape peopled with tiny lilliputian-like humans who are cavorting in a way that reminds me a bit of Matisse’s famous painting of dancing nudes. A parody of Michelangelo’s creation of Adam shows the Freud-type passing the spark of life to the Jung-type. Another piece shows a cluster of people who look like Bruegel’s peasants following "Freud" off a cliff: the blind leading the blind. One small work shows the psychiatrist at work with a patient who is on a couch. The patient happens to be an obvious monster but the accompanying text tells us that the patient suspects that the doctor is a monster too.

Most of the large paintings are done in vibrant, dazzling colours on canvas. (As are some abstracts, which apparently are not related to the theme of the main show. With meteorological connotations of things like solar flares and clouds, they’re made of tiny segments of brilliant pigment laid on like mosaics.) The works that appeal more to my cooler, more northerly temperament are the smaller drawings on Freudian themes that are done in pencil on watercolour paper. Without any diminishment of their humorous intent, they show great mastery of drawing and a feel for design that exudes almost a 19th century elegance and formality.

 

No Tears for CBC Radio Two

Amid all the outcry about the Conservative government’s ten-percent cut to the CBC budget, The Globe and Mail published some commentary on the subject a couple of weeks ago by Richard Stursberg. (He was the CBC’s Vice-President in charge of English services from 2004 to 2010.) In his article, Mr. Stursberg cited the various challenges facing the corporation but pointed out that CBC’s ratings have been higher than ever. In that respect, however, he only mentioned CBC TV and Radio One. There was no mention of Radio Two.

Now, as I understand it, this is the man who eviscerated the Radio Two we used to love so much. In the search for a younger, hipper audience, the classical, intelligent focus of Radio Two was much diluted, to the point that there’s hardly anything worth listening to now, except for some of the weekend programming with Bill Richardson, Peter Togni and Katherine Duncan. ("This Is My Music" would be great if it didn't consist mostly of repeats.) Did the tactic work? Not as far as I know. We long-standing lovers of Radio Two have drifted away in disconsolate dismay and, as far as I know, the new fans have not materialized – which could be why Mr. Stursberg made no reference to Radio Two in his Globe article about the CBC’s current high standing.

And now the CBC announces that one way of coping with the budget cuts by Stephen Harper’s government will be to introduce advertising on Radio Two. No advertising on Radio One, of course; it’s sacrosanct because so many Canadians depend on it for their news about Canada, their sense of the unity of the country. Fair enough. Radio One has always been – and lets hope it continues to be – one of the crown jewels of our country’s culture. But since Radio Two has fewer listeners (far fewer, I imagine, largely due to Mr. Stursberg’s ministrations), they’ll have to pay for it in the form of putting up with advertising.

Oh, don’t worry. The advertising will be discreet and tasteful – at first. Ads for concerts and art exhibitions and plays. Before long, though, the ads for lotteries and hemorrhoid ointments will come along.

Will we be wringing our hankies? Not really. Our mourning for Radio Two passed through the acute stage a few years ago. We’ve now entered a state of something like silent and solemn heartache at the thought of the glory that once was.

Footnote: Come to think of it, CBC Radio One is now so cluttered with annoying and unnecessary promos for up-coming programs that there wouldn't be any room for commercials about anything else. 

 

American Boy (Novel) by Larry Watson, 2011

Reading this novel was something of an experiment for me. I’d heard nothing about the book or the author – at least, nothing that I remembered. The book attracted me because it was nicely presented: small enough to fit easily in the hand, not too much print on each page, and, on the cover, an evocative picture of a rusty old car in a field. The book looked like it was a coming-of-age story told by a first-person narrator.

It is. Our narrator, Matthew, is looking back at his years as a senior high school student in a small town in Minnesota in the early 1960s. His story starts with a shooting but the overall tone is subdued. Of course, Matthew's teen years included  the typical stuff – drag races, drinking, smoking, playing poker – but the main focus is more interior, more thoughtful: Matthew’s obsession with a woman a few years older than himself. He first sees her unconscious, the victim of the shooting that opens the book, on a doctor’s examining table.

That sighting came about because Matthew’s best friend is a doctor’s son and the doctor is gradually introducing the two youths to the medical arts. Matthew spends much of his time with the doctor’s family, his own mother being a widow who works long hours at a restaurant. In fact, Matthew’s so involved with the doctor’s family that some people think he and the doctor’s son are twins. The way Matthew comes and goes freely from the doctor’s house feels very real. Matthew and his pal have a jokey saying whenever one of them gets in a spot of trouble: "I hope this is just a phase." It’s something a very kind teacher, one who never like to scold, used to say when any kid misbehaved. One of the few other touches of humour in the book comes in Matthew's sardonic quip in response to the school’s secretary. She threatens to inform his parents about a disciplinary meeting he’s going to have with the principal. It’s "parent" he tells her: "I’m down to one.’"

When you’re reading a first-person narrator who was a teenage male in the mid-twentieth century, you can’t help thinking of Holden Caulfield. That comparison becomes all the more striking when Matthew starts complaining about the hypocrisy of adults. As for the unique virtues of Mr. Watson’s writing, though, what I began to appreciate more and more while reading were his insights. The narrator, looking back at his younger self, has a remarkable grasp of the ways in which he failed to understand his character at the time. At one point he says, "I was too intent on what wasn’t happening to notice what was." About Matthew’s confrontation with a potential "Mrs. Robinson," his adult self makes several observations about why that stock situation in coming-of-age stories seldom corresponds to the exigencies of real life. He sums up these thoughts: "The power of human desire is matched only by our inability to express those desires, thus guaranteeing that neither comedy nor tragedy is ever in short supply."

Then, there’s this striking comment on the situation of a woman who’s sitting at home, waiting for family members to return:

Didn’t she realize that when they did return, none would be the person who left? And for that matter, did she have any sense that though she was comfortable and warm in a place with light and heat, her house had been blown apart as surely as if the afternoon’s winds had flattened every wall that sheltered her?

And he has this to say about this same woman, when she’s pretending that everything’s ok, in spite of the bad news looming: "She was smoothing her skirt and rearranging the collar of her blouse and straightening up the past, bringing it all in line with who she had to be."

At times, the narrator’s voice struck me as a bit plodding and stodgy, not quite as fluent as you’d like a narrator to be. But maybe that’s just Matthew’s character: careful, precise, a bit retentive. Some other characters come across very well – the doctor and his wife, for instance – but there’s a problem with the portrayal of the woman the author’s obsessed with. To me, her character is somewhat fuzzy. Granted, she’s supposed to be enigmatic, but she never sounds like anybody I can imagine. Except for her frequent swearing, her speech doesn’t give much of the flavour of her personality. And that’s a pity, given that she’s so pivotal to the story.

Despite such reservations about the book, I found that it built slowly and steadily to a powerful climax. It gave me about three hours of very enjoyable reading. Afterwards, though, I was left with a vaguely uneasy feeling about it. There was some way in which the book didn’t seem to be fully satisfying. I wondered if it could have anything to do with a certain plot element. That involved Matthew’s finding a list that someone had written. It seemed to me highly questionable that anybody – certainly not this character – would make such a list with the intention indicated. But the list gave Matthew grounds to pass judgement on somebody. And that enabled him to perform the righteous action that brings the novel to a close. I wondered: was the finding of the list, then, a little too contrived?

And then I began to think about the info at the back of the book about the publishing company. Normally, the identity of a publisher doesn’t mean anything in terms of my appreciation of a book. In this case, though, the publishers – Milkweed Editions – make a point of their environmentally-conscious publishing standards. We’re told that because the book has been published on "chlorine free paper made with 100% post-consumer waste," x number of trees have been spared and x number of gallons of water have been saved. All well and good.

But the publishing company, a nonprofit organization, also announces its mission: "...to identify, nurture and publish transformative literature, and build an engaged community around it." Now, far be it for me to knock literature that can do some good in the world. But that word "transformative" could be a clue to my problem with this novel. Maybe I feel cheated if a novelist has to make one character do something that that character would not likely do just so that that character can be shown to be really bad and another character can be shown to be transformed. It leaves me wondering if the novel’s message has anything to do with real life, real transformation, after all.

 

The Babes in the Wood (Mystery) by Ruth Rendell, 2002

Suppose you’ve been a big fan of Ruth Rendell’s mysteries. And suppose you’re combing through a list of her books and you discover that you haven’t read this one.

Don’t. It may damage irreparably your respect for a writer whose work you have admired so much.

Not that the book doesn’t start out with a good enough mystery. It’s been raining for weeks in Kingsmarkham and the flood waters are rising. A mother and father come back from a weekend in Paris to find that their teenage son and daughter are missing, along with the thirty-year-old woman who was staying with them. The hysterical mother assumes the missing kids are drowned. The dad, not one of the most congenial examples of any two-legged species, berates our beloved detective, Rex Wexford, for his inability to find the teens.

The solution to the mystery works out well enough, although it involves – as so many mysteries do nowadays – a lot of delving into back story and weird circumstances. Seems nobody any more writes good, old-fashioned mysteries like Agatha Christie’s, the kind where all the clues were lined up and ready to be discovered by anybody who could see them, if only we weren’t such dunces. But we’re not faulting Ms. Rendell here for falling into step with the current fashion in mysteries.

No, the problem with the book is the writing – specifically, the almost unbearable load of clichs, banalities and fillers. To begin with, why that interminable downpour of rain? It’s hardly necessary to the plot. Admittedly, such things do happen in real life, but the emphasis on the rain fills up a hell of a lot of pages, to not much effect, as far as I can see. Then there are the lists that you find in a certain kind of inferior writing. Here we get lists of: detritus left behind by the flood (p. 84); junk found in an abandoned car (p.154); the clothes on a dead body (p.154); odds-and-ends in a kitchen drawer (p. 252); and street names that we don’t need to know (p. 318). It’s hard to say exactly what’s wrong with these lists, except that they seem to me like the products of a kid in school who’s trying to impress the teacher with all this stuff that he or she has noticed. At any rate, you don’t find these lists in the best writing. Far better, the judicious selection of detail.

As for standard comments that you find in every mystery, take this: "There comes a time in every case if it is a complex one, when the investigating officer reaches an impasse, when there seems no way forward...." Oh really?? And even though the solution of the mystery is satisfactory, the final explication for our benefit takes twenty-two pages of monologue by Wexford, during which Burden, his assistant, is reduced to interjections like: "What happened?....Do you mean?....Are you saying?" Not what I call brilliant writing.

When it comes to characters, we get two examples of the garrulous witness who prattles on and on without coming to the point. Surely we’ve had enough of that shtick since the famous line attributed to Joe Friday’s Dragnet: "Just the facts, ma’am." The characters of the grieving mother and father are exaggerated to the point of absurdity. There’s no excuse for the dad’s egregious rudeness. His voice, of course, is "unpleasantly harsh and scathing." As for the mom’s maniacal ravings – nobody acts that way this side of an insane asylum. It offends my intelligence when an author thinks that I could be made to believe that anybody could act this way. Another character, we’re told, is "a virago of a woman, sharp-featured, her face prematurely furrowed." The author’s creating ludicrous facsimiles, instead of real people, who are much harder to create. Given Ms. Rendell’s sales figures, there’s apparently a market for this kind of thing. That’s depressing. It doesn’t encourage my belief in the human race to learn that there are so many people out there who can accept this phony depiction of humanity as a substitute for the real thing.

You might think the character of the revered Wexford would strike a more authentic note. But we’re told that he grinds his teeth in a moment of exasperation. Have you ever seen (or heard) anybody do that other than while sleeping? Wexford’s worries about his family’s travails, I think, are intended to make us see him as a well-rounded man. Maybe all the palaver about one daughter’s troubles with her men makes for eager reading by people who have followed Wexford devotedly through all his books, but to me it wasn’t very convincing. Sometimes Wexford makes a remark that earns your respect for him as a thoughtful man – as in this observation about why couples often split up after a crisis, as in the case of a missing child:

Isn’t it likely that they depend on the other one in ways they never have had to before? And that other, who has always seemed strong or comforting or optimistic, suddenly shows that they’re none of those things. They’re just as weak and helpless as the other one and that seems to show they’ve been living for years under an illusion.

But then Ms. Rendell hits us with this aperu from the workings of Wexford’s brain regarding nutrition: "Few writers on the subject seemed to point out that delicious food makes you fat and the kind no one wants to eat doesn’t. There must be a reason for this but he didn’t know what it was."

And I was thinking that this was a guy we could admire???

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