Melanie Gilligan at InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre Until May 7, 9 Ossington Ave., Toronto; www.interaccess.org
Subtlety is lovely. It's the quality of weightlessness, the wink that gives wing to butterflies, makes pussy willows plush and curls the fine hair of babies.
But sometimes you just need to knock a wall over. Tweezers have their value, but a sledgehammer will never let you down.
Melanie Gilligan's three-part narrative video Self-Capital, on view at InterAccess Electronic Media Arts Centre, is exactly the sort of art I've been looking for since 2008, when an overpaid group of business barons fed the world economy into the shredder (and walked away with bonuses). Self-Capital is unapologetically literal, didactic, shrill, and anything but subtle - it's street theatre on a flat screen.
The premise Gilligan unfolds is simple enough: as the videos play out in a 1,2,3 sequence, we come to know a middle-aged woman named Economy Global, who is presented to us as a hopeless psychiatric case, a woman so wounded she needs experimental and possibly dangerous therapy. The therapist assigned to Economy (all characters are played with demonic glee by U.K. stage and television actress Penelope McGhie - one of the "death eaters" from the last Harry Potter movie) tries to heal her via a series of body-based hypnotherapies, all of which have the end result of making Economy even more unstable than she was before.
During her first session, Economy reverts to a screaming, pre (or post?) verbal monster, a raging, broken and shrieking entity that can only make guttural, vomiting sounds. In her second session, Economy enters into another world - a high-priced bookshop - and, as she shops, begins to cough and choke out words, such as "migrant worker" and "pension", as if she is gagging on a particularly foul wine. In her final session, Economy is asked to dance out her feelings, and her dance routine quickly turns into a series of maniacal, repetitious gestures, a lurid parody of a martial parade.
First off, yes, the metaphors here are all very blatant, and, yes, you are already in on the gag - the economy, like Economy, is profoundly damaged, may have been borne of psychosis in the first place, and no longer makes sense. But what is underscored in these videos is how much the language of economics has failed, both to rebuild the shattered capitalist system and even to fool itself.
Everything spoken in these videos is familiar market-analyses jargon, but, when removed from the falsely reassuring world of suited authority figures and put into the mouth of a madwoman, the language reveals itself for what it really is - at best, an educated guess, at worst, a massive con game.
In Gilligan's tightly scripted videos, Economy's raging incoherence represents the abject failure of language to fix what is essentially an emotional, not economic, problem. Like children who've been lied to, we good little consumers find ourselves torn between anger and hurt, distrust and the desperate desire for things to return to normal, even if "normal" was a lie.
There are certainly quieter, more pensive ways to approach the world's money woes, but for now, I'd rather watch Gilligan swing her hammer. The sound of bricks cracking is sweet music to the wounded heart (and wallet).
Mickey Meads at Drabinsky Gallery Until May 7, 114 Yorkville Ave., Toronto; www.drabinskygallery.com
Mickey Meads's new suite of photographs at Drabinsky Gallery, Assume Nothing, couldn't have less in common with Gilligan's work. Although both artists indulge in an unmistakable melancholy, Gilligan roars while Meads ruminates. Neither, however, trusts what is before their eyes.
Meads photographs seemingly harmless, even pleasant spaces, with a wide-eyed, John Ford-style vista view. He captures desert plains, massive but still traffic intersections, purpled lakes and cattle ranges - often allowing the centre field of the image to hold the focus of the shot as the top and bottom halves melt away, de-compose. This focused/unfocused dynamic, especially as used in his images of traffic, makes the cars and the people guiding them appear toy-like, unreal, too tidily defined to be moving objects in an otherwise busy landscape.
That effect alone is worth the visit, but it's only when you begin to ask about the photographs, to find out where or why they were taken, that the truly spooky stuff slithers into the frame. For instance, that cattle range: The cows are grazing in an abandoned housing project, a kind of prison barracks created specifically to warehouse American aboriginals. Or, the lake: It's eggplant purple because it's full of run-off chemicals from a mine.
In Meads's world, the lovely and the malevolent are intertwined, but Meads presents no determining clues, no visual "talking points" that allow the viewer to gain access to the images' second, third, or 50th readings. Such intent opacity gives the imagery a pulling, nagging weight that you can feel, a low level of anxiety, but that you cannot identify, or, rather, verify, without the back-up information.
This blind-siding is a strategic choice on Meads's part that some viewers may find delightfully tantalizing, and others may simply ignore, content with the knowledge that something weird is going on.
Personally, I'm all for asking questions in galleries. I worry that too many people feel they are not allowed to ask questions in art galleries, and/or are afraid they will appear uninformed.
Meads's work, however, practically begs you to nag away at the gallerist, plays against the informed vs. the uninformed hierarchy by not giving the viewer, any viewer, solid information.
Fight the power, Mickey Meads, fight the power.
AT OTHER VENUES
Laura Cowell at Paul Petro Contemporary Art Until April 30, 980 Queen St. W., Toronto; www.paulpetro.com
Last chance to catch this haunting survey of Cowell's two decades of Super 8 and 16mm films. Disclosure: I worked with Cowell in the distant past. But don't let that stop you.
Sojourner Truth Parsons at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects Until May 1, 1082 Queen St. W. Toronto; www.katharinemulherin.com
Imagine a truck full of brilliant shadow puppets and sparkly amulets crashed into KM Art's front window, and everything stuck to the wall. You're halfway to comprehending this gorgeous, shamanistic wonder.
Ronald Bloore at The Moore Gallery Until April 30, 80 Spadina Ave., Suite 404, Toronto; mooregallery.com
This mini-retrospective of Bloore's signature white-on-white, textured paintings, some dating from the mid-1960s, looks as fresh today as, well, a new coat of paint.