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Head To Head -- Two Art Shows: "Toronto Art Expo" Metro Convention Centre; "The Artist Project" Liberty Grand, Exhibition Place, Toronto; March 6-9

 

The Toronto Art Expo has been up and running for several years now (see Dilettante’s Diary reviews, March 17/06 and "Toronto Art Expo" on a page of its own, March ‘07). So why would anybody plan another major art show for the same weekend? Is the hope that the two shows will augment each other’s audiences? Or are the upstarts hoping to steal the other show’s thunder? Read on.

One could say that the overall quality of the Toronto Art Expo is higher than it used to be. Apparently some attempt has been made to weed out kitsch but there’s still some art that doesn’t rise much above the "Art-in-the-Park" level. And there’s still too much painting that says nothing except: Whee, look how I can throw paint around, look how expressive I can be! Which is fine for people who enjoy doing that sort of thing but it’s a bit depressing to find them dropping the multi bucks necessary to rent a booth to flaunt their self-indulgence at a show like this.

Not that there’s much time to waste shaking your head over those works. With more than 300 artists showing at the Toronto Art Expo, all a person can do is walk through and pick a few things that really speak to you. So it was a great pleasure, early in my visit, to spot the work of Timothy Daniels, an artist whose work I have admired in the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibtions in previous years. (See Dilettante’s Diary reviews, July 21/05 and June 27/06). He used to show mostly pastels but now his works are mainly oils. What I like so much about his still lives, cityscapes and landscapes is that they’re classic – not too far out – but invested with a certain modern sensibility in terms of an awareness of geometry and design. For instance, one painting shows recognizable green leaves and red flowers in a pot outside a building, but not with photographic realism; it’s almost as if the painting is slightly out of focus so that it becomes a study of the shapes of things one finds on a street, the play of light and shadow and the flatness of patches of colour. Another painting of a pot of flowers may look relatively realistic as far as the blooms themselves are concerned but the background has an edgy design to it.

Mr. Daniels [timothydaniels.com]* also shows a landscape of a flat field – somewhere in the midwest US, I think – that’s very minimalist in its appeal: no showy painting, no elaborate detail, just enough to give you the essence of sky, ground, bales of wheat, warmth, light. In a show like this, the landscapes can be overwhelming. So many artists seem to feel – probably quite rightly – that what Canadians want to buy are Group-of-Seven-ish scenes of lakes and forests and rocks and streams. Of which there are tons in this show but my eyes tend to glaze over pretty quickly in that department. That’s why it’s such a treat to find landscapes like those of Mr. Daniels and of Dan Ryan [danryanfineart.com]. Mr. Ryan’s large, moody works are breath-taking in their simplicity and freshness. In one large painting, you get a turblent, glowering sky covering about three quarters of the canvas, with paint dripping and smeared all over the place, then a patch of earthy colours representing the ground. In another painting, you’re looking at a barren woods with some blurry whiteness smeared among the tree branches. Snow or flowers? Maybe both. It could be just wishful thinking on the part of this viewer but to me, the picture expresses, in a suggestive, non-literal way, the most evocative longing for spring.

If you want to go for the somewhat more conventional Canadian landscapes, you couldn’t get them bolder and brighter than Gordon Harrison’s [gordonharrisongallery.com]. Tim Packer's landscapes also have an appealing freshness and clarity [timpacker.com]. And you might enjoy the charmingly colourful work of Marlene D. Bulas who does still lives and clusters of houses from around the area of Orillia, Ontario [sunninghillart.com].

Among favourite artists from other shows, there’s David Brown with his wonderfully abstracted landscapes in encaustic, using big blobs of orange, red, gold, black, white, turquoise, etc [encausticcollage.com]. Some of his new works, in much less intense colours, express nothing more than the effect of hazy light on Lake Huron on a summer day. While I love the look of these works, I still can’t quite get my mind around hanging a wax work on my wall (the dusting!) but several of the works are available in photographic prints of such high quality that they look like watercolours on yuppo paper. Laurie Sponagle’s very fine charcoal drawings continue to enthrall me [lauriesponagle.ca]. The human figures are excellent but it’s the interiors – a wooden chair in front of a window, for example – that haunt me. And I was happy to see again the work of Paul Aiello whose frenetic cityscapes caught my attention a few years ago at the graduate show of the Ontario College of Art and Design [paul-aiello.com].

Cityscapes can always get my attention. Cities are what most of us look at all day long, so why not try to bring out the beauty in them? Lately, I’ve been admiring a strange, new approach to the cityscape in paintings that have appeared in the window of a gallery around the corner from my home. So it was a delightful surprise, on seeing more of them at this show, to find out that they’re created by a fellow member of the Toronto Watercolour Society, Carmela Casuccio [carmelacasuccio.com]. In these acrylics, Ms. Casuccio gives us the soaring outlines of buildings, stretching them across the canvas in a slightly fantastical way, as if they were made of gum, often with reflections in water below, the result being a palpable sense of the excitement of the metropolis.

In three different versions of one cityscape, Marjolijin Thie demonstrates the path to abstraction [artisit.ca]. The first painting of a scene from a Toronto hotel window is typically representational. In the second version, the buildings begin to dissolve in mist on the edges and in the third, they have been abstracted to pure rectangular shapes in solid colours, with slight accents of complementary colours here and there.

There are more abstract paintings that appeal to me in this show than any other kind. One could perhaps divide them into the abstracts that are flamboyant on the one hand, and those that are, on the other hand, restrained.

At the top of the wild and crazy list, there’s James Lane, who has the advantage of having a spot where his paintings hit you smack in the face as you come off the escalator and turn towards the booths. His huge, vibrant works express great energy [portfolios.com/jameslane]. To my eye, there appears to be an element of Asian calligraphy to them. In an adjoining spot at the end of the row of booths is the work of Andrea Maguire [andreamaguire.com] whose free-wheeling paintings seem to be based on human anatomy but they swirl in ecstasies of colour that make them barely recognizable as figures. At first, I walked past the booth of Paul Ygartua whose enormous, chaotic abstracts seemed too overpowering to take in. From across the room, though, they became more and more appealing. I particularly liked a semi-representational composition of a bunch of flowers against a jagged cruciform background [ygartua.com]. A young artist, Nicole Katsuras has a very joyful way with bright colour in her abstracts, some of them busily suggesting landscapes or city scenes, others tending towards the more geometrical [nicolekatsuras.com]. In a somewhat less hectic way, colour also dominates the abstracts of Arnand Channar, an artist based in Dubai [artanand.com]. His works invite you to jump in and soak yourself in the richly saturated hues.

Among the less frenzied abstracts, Burigude Zhang’s minimalist works stand out for their sparse compositions, consisting mostly of swatches of grey, black and white, with tiny accents of other colours [burigudestudio.com]. Sabine Liva Berzina’s silvery, greyish abstracts evoke chilly, winter moods with great elegance [sabstudios.com] but Andrew Stelmack warms things up considerably with his calm compositions of simple rectangular patches of colour on vivid backgrounds [astelmack.com]. Much more muted in terms of colour, Kathleen Weich’s abstracts also have a calm, contemplative neatness about them, while Wendell Chen’s abstracts have a dark, brooding quality.

An exciting artist from South Africa, Natasha Barnes combines, for me, the best aspects of both the frenzied and the studied abstracts. Her works, with their dynamism and solid construction, fascinate me [natashabarnes.com].

Alas, this show doesn’t include many watercolours of notable quality. But the small works of Carol Westcott display some of the best aspects of the medium. A miniature of a white hydrangea seems to me absolutely perfect and her studies of bamboo shoots combine serenity with striking composition [carolwestcott.ca]. Given that Brenda Bornstein is a fellow member of the Toronto Watercolour Society [torontowatercoloursociety.com], I’m very familiar with her intricately composed watercolours on roughly textured paper – market scenes, for instance, but completely new to me are her charming little abstracts in pastel colours. I was glad to meet the artist who is sharing a booth with Ms. Bornstein, Ann Katz, whose large, bold abstracts in earthy colours have a strong visceral appeal [annkatz.com].

As I walked by, artist Moris Molino was accompanied in his booth by a young woman and a baby in a stroller. The charming domestic scene seemed somewhat at odds with Mr. Molino’s work on display: elongated, skinny, geeky-looking people in states of semi-undress, often with a scrawny dog in attendance [morismolino.com]. I asked Mr. Molino, who is as presentable as could be, where the vision of these weird people comes from. His attempt to answer the question left me with the conviction that there are some mysteries about art that you just can’t explain.

*******

A mile or so to the west, along the lakeshore, you thread your way through the bleak and barren Exhibition Grounds, until you come to the stately old Liberty Grand building, site of this year’s inaugural version of The Artist Project. One gathers that the organizers intend this to be a more lite, more sophisticated event that the Toronto Art Exhibition. Accordingly, the Liberty Grand offers an old-style hotel ballroom ambiance, as compared to the airy, stainless steel and glass atmosphere of the Metro Convention Centre.

But it seems to me that the organizers of The Artist Project have a long way to go if they want to make this show a knock-out. Inspite of the crystal chandeliers overhead, the lighting is spotty and, in some booths, downright inadequate. The aisles feel crowded and cluttered, even without mobs of viewers on hand. While the Convention Centre may be crass and plebian, it’s at least bright and there’s lots of room to breathe while strolling among the booths. Presumably to add a touch of class, The Artist Project has wait staff scurrying around in white shirts, black vests and pants but I was not impressed, on ordering tea, to have it made with hot water poured from a thermos. A plate of sweets was good, though.

In keeping with the attempt at a more posh setting, it would seem that The Artist Project is meant to attract a higher quality of art. It could be that there’s a smaller proportion of the cheesy stuff here, that most things on view are genuinely interesting. But that impression could just be a factor of the much smaller number of artists showing – less than a third of those at the TAE.

Some artists whom I know from previous TAE shows have de-camped to the new show. Micheal Zarowsky’s dazzling watercolours keep pushing the envelope by way of taking the medium in new directions [zarowsky.net]. His pain-stakingly meticulous nature studies capture the beauty of the outdoors with a unique vibrancy. I always enjoy Julia Gilmore’s exuberant, in-your-face still lives that manage to convey a love of life and a sense of humour [juliagilmore.ca]. I also love the way Stewart Jones pictures aspects of cities [stewartjones.ca]. His paintings often show the upper storeys of old brick buildings, their roofs forming interesting patterns against the sky. One painting in this show that particularly appeals to me looks up at the soaring skeletal structure of a building under construction, the only significant colour being a couple of traffic lights in the lower right corner.

Among other interesting cityscapes, there are the incredibly detailed paintings by David Holden showing such banal scenes as the view over the roof of a suburban mall towards a highway and houses [davidholden.com]. The precision of the painting gives these common scenes the eerie look of empty movie sets, devoid of people. A completely different take on city life is the work of Heather Braun-dahl. Her minimalist, delicate paintings convey a feeling of lightness and grace, inspite of the solidity of the human-made structures [dahlhausart.com]. Ellen Cowie, in a large painting, captures the movement, the bustle and the sweep of urban living in her depiction of traffic on the Gardiner Expressway on a rainy day [ellencowie.ca]. You could include among the cityscapes, I suppose, John Ovcacik’s stark compositions of buildings with minimal detail but dramatic lighting effects [ovcacik.com].

Notable abstracts in this show include Fiona Ackerman’s, which seem to be based on human figures but they expand and diverge into all sorts of fascinating shapes and colours [fionaackerman.com]. In one series of abstracts, Jennifer Wigmore creates, with very low-key, subtle colour combinations, pictures that somehow manage to be peaceful and stimulating at the same time; others of her abstracts team with riotous colour [jenniferwigmore.com].

As for landscape, two artists show the semi-abstract, expressionist scenes that I’m coming to like very much. Both Stephen Gillberry’s paintings [gillberry.com] and Stanley Feldman’s [stanleyfeldman.com] accomplish, with lots of messy paint, much more resonant images than those that slavishly replicate what any nature-lover can see with the naked eye.

The only watercolours that jumped out at me in this show were by Anna Marie House, an artist from Edmonton [annasart.ca]. Her still lives – including lots of fiendishly difficult stuff like crystal – are stunning. I didn’t, however, find the same level of mastery in her oils.

The art of Wenyun Hua caught my attention, possibly because of its understated, modest quality [huawenyun.com] These works, mostly on rice paper, seemed like balm to the soul, thanks to their classic serenity.

In an utterly different mode, a large portrait by Paul Robert Turner makes an unforgettable impression: a tough-looking man’s face, larger than life, tilted upwards [awolgallery.com]. An attendant explained to me that the spooky effect of the blank eyes, with lines through them, had something to do with the traditional representation of death in certain kinds of illustration. That may have been more information than I needed; the formidable impact of the face, painted with astonishing skill, was quite enough to creep me out.

* Website addresses are given for all artists who provided them.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com