David Liss, director of the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, has a special place in the Toronto art scene. Beloved for his irrepressible enthusiasm for art, which he makes funky and accessible, he is running one of the liveliest joints in town. Not hard, you say, given the Art Gallery of Ontario's chronic edifice complex and The Power Plant's entropic, slow-motion slide into irrelevance? No, let's give credit where credit is due; MoCCA has been a bracing blast of fresh air since it moved downtown from North York last year.
But what it makes up in pluck it sometimes loses in polish. MoCCA's shows can feel thrown together, and the thinking behind them seems shallow. Darkness Ascends is such a show.
As is customary with Liss (and to his credit), the exhibition attempts to situate contemporary art within popular culture. The show, which Liss has curated, attempts to "consider the dark aspects of the human psyche that seem to be embedded in our consciousness: troubling, disturbing and evil, perhaps, yet integral to the identity of our species, of who we are." In other words, get out your flippers, Doris. We're going deep.
Or not. Strangely, the show careens between serious darkness and darkness lite in ways that make you wonder whether those differences were considered, or even noticed. It's disconcerting.
The exhibition opens with a giant wall drawing by Toronto's very own grand wizard of the apocalypse, John Scott, whose powerful work has long evoked the menace and violence of Western technological society. Here, Scott gives us the Dark Commander, a harrowing Napoleonic Darth Vader dressed in a long black frock coat and tricorne hat. With his skeletal, lantern jaw and smouldering eye sockets, Scott's apparition radiates a genuine and haunting malevolence.
Scott, it seems to me, has always had a legitimate claim to grittiness. A child of the rust belt, he always seems to be teetering on the brink of self-annihilation, and his art expresses all the reckless force of a life lived on the edge. This is the real deal.
But turn the corner and you are into a different kettle of fish altogether. Photo works by Carlos and Jason Sanchez seem to borrow from Cindy Sherman, Gregory Crewdson and other postmodern masters of the macabre, making stylish quotation. A woman is propped up on the open door of her gas oven, her eyes open and glazed, apparently dead.
A body slips to the floor from a bed saturated in fresh blood.
We see just the sheets, the pool of blood and the upturned feet (cue the Psycho screeching noises). While these works are faultlessly art directed, their flavour is oddly adolescent -- prize-winners at the gross-out contest.
Get your head around these grisly confections, and it's time for another major tone shift, with the cutely horrific works of Seth Scriver (adorable cartoon blob people, sketched on the wall in fluorescent colours), Fiona Smyth (coils of poopy intestines and menstrual effluvia) and André Ethier (ghouls, goblins and monsters, hummocks of melting flesh and fantasy landscapes in candy-coloured paint) -- charming fairy tales of enchantment, tinged with dread.
But right beside Ethier's paintings are Peter Beste's photographs documenting the Norwegian Black Metal cult, a group that engages in acts of violence and arson in pursuit of their mission: to rid Norway of Christianity and reinstate ancient pagan worship. They also play wicked electric guitar, and have a demonstrated fondness for animal and human sacrifice. Nice. One look at these guys and any sane person would be begging for Sunday school.
(Particularly unforgettable is the print titled Nattefrost of Carpathian Forest Covered in His Own Shit. I'll leave you to imagine the details, but think Orcs in The Lord of the Rings, only creepier.)
Then there are Robert Boyd's videos, like Patriot Act (2004), which blithely equates Hitler and Stalin with George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Now I detest Republican policy as much as the next left-leaning liberal, but Boyd's nifty equivalences would seem to elide several key distinctions such as, say, mass genocide on an apocalyptic scale. When Boyd serves up documentary footage of a Vietnamese prisoner of war being shot in the head and rolling sideways on the ground, blood spurting from his temple like water from a garden hose, and then follows it with a vintage cartoon of Tinkerbell spritzing Disneyworld with splashes of colour from her magic wand, I come to an immediate and firm conclusion. Since the lawyers will be looking at this, lets just say that, for no particular reason, the words "brain dead" came to mind. He's making a joke about this? When did politics get so easy?
Perhaps the most disturbing thing here, though, is Richard Stipl's sculpture Black Sabbath (2000), a dramatic mise en scène featuring a wheelbarrow full of severed limbs and decapitated heads. Tee hee. I bet they'd get a big kick out of this over in Mumbai.
I won't even comment on the naked woman with pig snout. I think I've done my work here.
The show had a few redeeming moments. Janieta Eyre shines with her digitally altered photographs of uncanny domestic scenes, impeccably crafted and art directed. (Nobody gets at the horrific underbelly of maternity like this one. No mere art-world clone, Eyre has a sensibility that is utterly distinct.) Brad Phillips is showing some paintings which are refreshingly understated and intelligent, given the company. My favourites are his witty, Gothic reprises of French 19th-century portraiture; Manet with fangs.
But these are rare voices of intelligence struggling for air space amid the pseudo-apocalyptic melee. It struck me that Darkness Ascends is a very Canadian show, and a very young show, the product of a culture in which such human atrocities have scarcely been seen. (Let's face it: We had a few bombs in mailboxes 40 years ago and that, blessedly, is pretty much it.)
Notwithstanding all the ugliness and brutality on view in this exhibition, there's an innocence to it, borne of our country's luxurious sense of security and humanitarian privilege. Here, we can afford to flirt with the dark side. Somehow, this kind of evil could only be make-believe.
Darkness Ascends continues at Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art until Aug. 13 (416-395-0067).