Joanne Tod at Nicholas
$3,000-$28,000. Until Dec. 22, 451 King St. W., Toronto; 416-205-9000, http://www.metiviergallery.com
Joanne Tod's astonishingly detailed, meticulously-wrought paintings appear, at first, to offer themselves guilelessly, totally, to your gaze. What you see in them is, you fancy, all there is to see there.
But if you look more closely the pictures deepen beneath your inspection. Stay with them for a few minutes, and they will begin to reveal their secrets - in the form of enigmas, puzzles, delicate jokes, and certain moments of unexpected wryness. As a self-proclaimed realist painter - and a virtuoso one at that - Tod actually seems to behave more like a surrealist than anything else.
Her exhibition, at Toronto's Nicholas Metivier Gallery, is called Kingdom Come. The phrase is presumably taken from The Lord's Prayer - where "Thy Kingdom Come" refers to the coming apocalypse. Kingdom Come is also the title of one of the paintings in the exhibition, a lushly crafted depiction of a blue velvet-lined wooden box holding an elaborately worked Colt 45 revolver (as in "blown to kingdom come"). No doubt it's a dizzying, stomach-dropping ride from prayer to frontier passion, but the wildly careering journey is pure Tod.
What is the boxed revolver doing here? It is something she saw in a museum. Most of the paintings here are paintings of things Tod saw in a museum. As she writes in a preface to the handsome catalogue accompanying the exhibition, "I am interested in examining what the museum represents: proprietary and intellectual rights, history, war loot, scholarship, social events and philanthropy ..."
"Joanne's paintings," observes historian Margaret MacMillan (whose portrait Tod painted when she was Provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto) in her breezy catalogue essay, "are deceptively simple but the more your eyes linger on them the more you find questions bubbling up in your mind."
In a painting like Déjeuner sur verre (shown here), the bubbling questions begin with the title. Luncheon on Glass? This may well evoke Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863), a painting - considered highly improper in its time - showing two couples having a picnic, the men fully dressed, one of the women nude.
I ask Tod about her eloquently mute "luncheon" painting, which apparently depicts ancient Greek artifacts in a vitrine. "Well," she says, "there are three prominent objects in the painting - a large wine cooler at the left, a food container at the right and, in the foreground, a cup. This triad," she continues, "seems similar to the three people in the Manet" (where the fourth figure, a woman, is shown in the background). The ancient Greek "picnic" vessels are " sur verre" because, for one thing, they are standing on a thick sheet of glass (Tod's "grass") - a sheet of glass (with its smooth, sea-green edge) painted with a verisimilitude nobody but Tod can manage as well.
The exhibition is full of wonders, all tethered, sometimes tentatively, to the idea of the museum. Notice her exquisite River Styx, for example - a painting of a model sailing ship, held aloft on two barely discernible spikes so that it appears to be plying the air rather than the seas, and possibly (as MacMillan suggests) "bearing a corpse to the netherworld "
And there are two quite astonishing paintings in the exhibition that bear special mention: Hawking's Anomaly and The Principle of Oxford. These are close-up studies of carpet runners (one red, one blue), each fixed to a flight of stairs so that, according to Tod, she could "make ziggurats out of them." She thinks of the runners, she says, as "way-finding devices to navigate the exhibition." The red one, Hawking's Anomaly, shows a red carpet subtly woven in a cosmic star-pattern. Wherein lies the "anomaly"? "The allusion is, of course, to Stephen Hawking," Tod says. "He lives in his head, but finds the stairs insurmountable." Odd? Yes, but it's prime Tod - maddeningly, bracingly inexplicable.
Tristram Lansdowne at Le Gallery
$1,500-$3,000. Until Dec. 20, 1183 Dundas St. W., Toronto; 416-532-8467, http://www.le-gallery.ca
Tristram Lansdowne's exhibition, Entropical Paradise, a suite of wondrously and indeed almost exhaustingly precise watercolours on paper, consists of depictions of fragments of the rundown, emptied-out, post-industrial landscape. These fragments (fences, pylons, hedges, sign posts, shards of abandoned buildings), presumably serve, as the gallery's exhibition statement so eloquently puts it, "to distance us from them yet we are drawn to the indexical hum they exude, the marks of previous occupants suggesting numerous narratives we yearn to order, in search of a distinct history."
I never actually found myself yearning to order whatever narratives inform Lansdowne's paintings, though I was considerably intrigued by his careful inclusion in some of his paintings - in the best ones, I think - of bits of graffiti. Lansdowne, who may well have inherited his exactitude from his father, the famous naturalist painter, Frederick Lansdowne, was apparently, at one point, a graffiti artist.
It is almost poignant, therefore, that he should now work as hard as he does to re-represent moments of hit-and-run graffiti in his paintings. With ceaseless labour he transfigures culture's most spontaneous, transient art to the iconic stillness that is the hallmark of his work!
Fred Franzen at the Rebecca Gallery
$450-$3,200. Until Dec. 19, 317 Grace St., Toronto; 416-537-8213, http://www.rebeccagallery.com
Fred Franzen makes paintings - landscapes, mostly - of enormous delicacy and gentleness. His palette is warm, his colours soft, powdery and unfailingly radiant (except when he paints city streets in the rain).
This latest exhibition is culled mostly from a sojourn in Nova Scotia last summer, and it shows Franzen at his lyrical, pastoral best. Some of the works, most of which are painted in oils on wood panels, are panoramic sweeps of landscape ( Coast Road Meteghan, for example), rather cool and detached, and epically distanced from the painter's presence. These are satisfying enough, but, in the end, are really more about depiction than inhabiting.
Where Franzen really comes into his own, by contrast, are his more intimate paintings -works such as Cross Road - View from my Brother's House and, in particular, the beautiful little Into the Woods - where he succeeds in evoking not only the nature of the landscape, but also (his dusty rose and pale lilac hues having trapped the sunlight and the warmth of the day when they were painted) its inner life - what the Victorian Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would have called its "inscape."