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One of Will Munro's textile works on display at the AGO.
One of Will Munro's textile works on display at the AGO.

R.M. Vaughan: The Exhibitionist

A glittering wake for a much-missed artist Add to ...

Will Munro: Total Eclipse Until Sept. 26, Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas Street W., www.ago.net/toronto-now

Will Munro was my friend.

For the sake of transparency, I'll state right off the top that I hosted his famous monthly Vazaleen party a couple of times, wrote about his art for various publications and shared space with him in a handful of group shows. More important, for me and everybody who knew him, Munro was a unique presence in the often bitter, fractious and insincere Toronto art world: He was a genuinely sweet, life-affirming person and a damned good artist.

I consider objectivity a myth, and this article would be the last place I would even pretend to see such unicorns. Munro's death this summer - at 35, after a long battle with brain cancer - still hurts, and shall for a long time. Toronto misses him terribly.

Thus, I approached the Art Gallery of Ontario's tribute show, Will Munro: Total Eclipse, with more than a little trepidation. The show faces an almost insurmountable number of tasks: to acknowledge the life of an important artist; to be an effective commemoration; and to give informed and uninformed viewers alike a reasonable understanding of the artist's practice. That's a lot of baggage to store in the AGO's tiny Young Gallery, the cube perched atop Frank restaurant, and perhaps too much to ask of the AGO's Toronto Now initiative. Kudos for bravery, if nothing else.

Happily, Total Eclipse works as both a brief survey of Munro's vast output and as a respectful nod to his passing. And, just as he would have wanted it, there is plenty of punk-rock-infused furious creativity, a rough DIY exuberance and a few gleeful, anti-establishment single-finger salutes (made doubly powerful by being placed in the good old AGO). Given the fact that Total Eclipse was assembled in relative haste (Munro died on May 21), it is a far better exhibition than could reasonably be expected. Kudos again for this glittering wake.

Total Eclipse focuses primarily on Munro's excellent, but not often shown, large wall pieces, including several of his deliciously bratty textile works celebrating queer music aesthetics. At the centre of these is an eerie masked figure made out of cleverly reconfigured men's briefs and bright green sequins. There is also a huge printed mirror casting a lovely, spectral reflection on the gallery floor. Munro's last formal exhibition comprised, among other things, printed mirrors arranged to reflect back on each other and create visual echo chambers, magical vortexes. It's telling how mere months before his death, Munro was busy exploring yet another element in his already varied practice.

But my favourites are Munro's felt turntable platters, because they combine so many of his obsessions - DJ culture and gay dance-club design, fabric art, hand stitching, wearable and/or practical art, and self-empowerment through tabletop creativity. Meant to sit atop spinning record players, the platters are decorated with bold, simple shapes and 1980s New Wave colours. One platter carries, in fabric cursive, the message "music is my boyfriend" - possibly the most succinct artist statement ever written.

Is it churlish of me to wonder why this beautiful, idea-packed exhibition didn't take place while Munro was alive? Perhaps, but objectivity is for people who have no friends.

Multiple Coincidences Until Sept. 19, York Quay Centre, 245 Queens Quay W.

Collaborations between artists are mysterious things. Most of the time, one artist's sensibilities appear to dominate the other's, or the final product boils down to little more than people agreeing to share wall space.

Lizz Aston and Johanna Schmidt's Multiple Coincidences, however, is a near-perfect collaboration, a synthesis of two distinct practices, a frisky hybrid animal. Without the didactic panels, you'd be hard-pressed to figure out where Aston starts and Schmidt ends, or vice versa.



Johanna Schmidt's Eggshells to cracked earth grouping, 2010



Working with their familiar materials - paper for Aston, porcelain for Schmidt - and then swapping benches, the two artists craft a series of delicate, jewellery-like sculptures that mimic organic forms with a wondrous, angel-on-a-pin-head intimacy (and tension). Referencing the repetitive patterns found in coral reefs, honeycombs, sea urchins and insect nests, Aston and Schmidt make weirdly hyper-natural, or extra-natural, art - art of and from nature and yet apart, more informed.

For instance, Aston offers a set of tiny paper cupcake cups painstakingly burnt until they are covered in blackened dots and tan, scorched microbe shapes. The cups remind the viewer of sea anemones or puffball mushrooms, of spotted jellyfish. Similarly, Schmidt takes the familiar texture of bubble wrap, cuts out the bubbles, and then recasts the honeycomb-shaped lattice in cardstock-thin porcelain. These women must be blessed with very small, very long-fingered hands - or they're more patient than the Dalai Lama.

The fun starts when the artists trade places. Schmidt recreates Aston's paper-cup plankton in nervous-making, spindly beige porcelain. Aston recreates Schmidt's bubble-wrap net with a curtain of patiently crocheted ivory paper, a tapestry apparently spun by fussy silkworms.

In perfect sync, Aston and Schmidt prove collaboration can be about something besides ego. These fine sculptures provoke appreciative gasps - no mean feat for an exhibition collectively weighing about half a pound.

Janet Stanley: Pure Potential Until Sunday, *New* Gallery, 906 Queen St. W.

Janet Stanley paints like a dancer (and maybe dances like a painter, but I've never seen her dance). Her spiralling, jumping, thick-as-cake oils resemble a happy meeting between melted candy, sea-foam-coloured taffeta, and a three-legged blender.

Energized by tidal upswings of curling, cresting pigment, her new series, Pure Potential, revels in crashing loopy peaks of boreal, vegetable greens against restful patches of papaya-flesh oranges and carnation pinks. Concavities and small bowl shapes sometimes halt the commotion, side pools in a rapids, but then the whole mad dash of colour and gravity-defying brushwork starts up again, threatening to hurtle off the canvas.

In a related series, Stanley pairs calming expanses of thinned paint with vigorous calligraphic turns, sudden skids that clot and crust at the turning points. The overall effect is one of relaxed aggression, a Zen garden attacked by wolverines.

I suspect Stanley wears out brushes faster than a car wash.

 

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