Tom Ngo at Open Studio
401 Richmond St. West, Suite 104, until July 28
The magical, impossible homes devised in Tom Ngo’s small but very busy suite of screen prints at Open Studio are part blueprint, part Lego fantasy pavilion, and part post-modernist architecture theory fever dream.
Made with aching precision (especially for screen prints, which tend to be fuzzy, not crisp), Ngo’s follies tumble across the paper like stacks of blocks and boards spilled by a drunk. Ngo pairs pillared temples to gabled solariums, polygonal granny cottages to fussy, boxy Georgian mansions, brick to cladding, marble to concrete. His fantastical homes could only be lived in, or built, in a Second Life or Sim City world – alternative realities, expense and sense liberated, from which they clearly draw inspiration.
Some viewers may find Ngo’s renderings cold or sterile; his hair thin lines and black-white-gray colour scheme certainly give off a brisk, clinical vibe. But the key to discovering the warmth in Ngo’s work is to look past the sternly crafted architectural graphics, and on to how abundantly weird his dream homes are. No matter their presentation style, Ngo’s prints are bizarre collages made from free-form sampling of varied and dissonant architectural tropes, not workable plans. Or anything remotely like a workable plan. No one will ever build one of these mad homes.
Furthermore, while Ngo’s colours are about as fanciful as a Hugo Boss suit, one still finds depth and resonance in his stormy-sea blacks, fog grays, gun-metal charcoals, and, by contrast, the freshly cleaned tile white of his chosen paper.
Ngo’s topsy-turvy mash-ups are nice places to visit. And you would want to live there.
Ron Benner Hart House Garden
University of Toronto, until harvest
Until I bumped into artist Ron Benner puttering away at his new garden/installation at U of T’s Hart House, I, like most amateur gardeners, thought that marigolds came from India, petunias from northern Africa, and nasturtiums from the Mediterranean. And that fungus on corn was, at best, a nuisance.
But in Benner’s garden tells a more complex story. The installation’s title, Cuitlacoche, is derived from indigenous and Mexican-Spanish terms for a common fungus farmers in North America call corn smut. And the garden-sculpture, which also includes a photo mural and a vitrine containing a point-counterpoint poem by Benner, first tells us that the common garden annuals listed above are actually native to the Western Hemisphere. Marigolds, petunias and nasturtiums only became “exotic” when they made their way to North American gardens via the labyrinthine, re-naming and displacing wonders of colonialism. That journey itself is worthy of a book or two.
Meanwhile, Benner’s main activity, growing a stand of Peruvian purple corn he hopes will produce a bumper crop of corn smut (and he might just infect the corn himself), is devised to point out another classic post-colonial dilemma: the eradication by dominant cultures of things (in this case food) that are treasured and celebrated by indigenous cultures. Corn mushrooms are considered a delicacy in Latin America. You can even buy them canned, ready to serve. In North America, we use fungicides to blast the smut away – and that practice has lead, with the rise of industrial super farms, to the gradual disappearance across our hemisphere of a beloved treat with long-standing cultural value.
As food production becomes an increasingly politicized and shrilly debated activity, installations like Benner’s – works that actually engage the politics of production from seedling to compost – add necessary layers of introspection and historical wonder.
Katie Bethune-Leamen at Young Gallery, AGO
317 Dundas St. West, until Aug. 5
Katie Bethune-Leamen’s latest findings in her ongoing exploration of the visual dynamics of the High Arctic – explorations which have taken her to Greenland, Iceland, remote corners of Newfoundland, and anyplace else with a glacier or a pod of icebergs – have landed nicely at the AGO’s pokey Young Gallery.
In this particular iteration, entitled Shiny, Object, Person, Bethune-Leamen focuses on the multitude of reflective, prismatic and hauntingly spectral geological (and icy) surfaces available in frozen landscapes.
For instance, in a video tribute to 19th-century Arctic explorers, we see a body floating across a sea dappled with blinking ice mountains, followed by a closeup of a man’s face staring into what appears to be a rock dipped in twinkling gems. Next, a series of photo prints offer images of blocks that appear to be made of brightly coloured glass, or frozen coloured liquid, but turn out instead to be simple packages wrapped in a highly reflective, light-catching wrapping paper. Completing the exhibition is a silvery copy of a breadbox sized asteroid, a throbbing hunk of metal that might have been poached from a smelting accident at a chrome factory.
Lovely and lovingly crafted, this trio of meditations deserves and rewards patient, long viewing – but you’d never know that from the way the AGO treats the space itself. The day I saw the show, some hospitality worker had left a cluster of ugly serving tables inside the gallery, right in front of the art.
I realize the Young Gallery is essentially beholden to the neighbouring Frank restaurant, a major cash cow for the museum, but the AGO needs to decide what the Young Gallery space is: tarted up broom closet, or art gallery? It can’t be both.