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r.m. vaughan: the exhibitionist

Instant Coffee at MKG127 Until Feb. 5, 127 Ossington Ave., Toronto;

As dependable as their namesake product (though far, far tastier), the Vancouver/Toronto collective Instant Coffee (IC) launches the 2011 art season with a madcap assortment of found object towers, gel screens, stoner-shrug messaging and enough hot, neon pink to make Katy Perry drool.

Founded over a decade ago (full disclosure: I have participated in a few IC events in the past, but was never a member of the collective), IC is dedicated to finding the joyful in the disposable and, in keeping with the "instant" half of their name, creating art of a determinedly ephemeral nature (such as printed Styrofoam takeout trays and plastic bags).

At one point in the collective's career, IC was better known for its parties (granted, highly artful parties) than its objects – but that was a misreading, on the public's part and my own. Whatever the conveyance, whatever the "art-delivery system" (a party, an exhibition, a performance), Instant Coffee has always made art as art is traditionally understood – that is to say, art you can carry home.

For their latest exhibition, IC crams the small MKG127 storefront gallery space with absurdist floor-to-ceiling sculptures. Knitted blankets shrink-wrapped into needle shapes stand beside bent loops of tubing slathered in bubblegum-hued electrical tape. A tall, pointed cone, made from thin strips of fuchsia-coloured scrap wood and dappled with bubbling, probably toxic insulation foam – a gaudy vine trellis – counterpoints a massive, intentionally bland and unvarnished pergola sporting a crayon-toned collection of vintage, beat-up thermoses.

As if that's not enough, the walls (assuming you can get around the sculptures to see them) carry a selection of exquisitely made prints. One set depicts, aptly, the shadow of an ornate spire. And no IC show is complete without a selection of their signature fluorescent text works (silkscreen prints covered with glowworm-bright gel sheets); each bearing classic IC defeatist slogans such as "Blame Us" or, my favourite, "Feeling So Much and Doing So Little."

Given the abundant references to garden architecture, the flowers-on-steroids colours and the sleepy texts ("Doing So Little"), the only thing missing here is the same thing that's missing outside – a plush, dewy green lawn.

Tension, Distance, Presence at Xpace Cultural Centre Until Jan. 29, 58 Ossington Ave., Toronto;

For a more sobering experience, walk a block south to Tension, Distance, Presence, a group show at Xpace Cultural Centre that examines the aftershocks, and commemorates the losses, of the Yugoslavian civil war.

Curated by Bojana Videkanic, the exhibition asks three young, emerging Yugoslav-Canadian artists to reflect on events that, in all likelihood, they experienced as children. The results are both playful and haunting, melancholy and yet peppered with incompletely processed acknowledgments – realizations that I hesitate to label "innocent" because the word is too loaded with connotations of pleasure.

To wit, Vladimir Milosevic's beautiful installation places two compact television sets "face to face," in conversation. One set is looped with a video recording of the head and shoulders of a middle-aged woman, the other with a similarly framed recording of a young man. Both performers are filmed in front of plain white, innocuous backdrops.

First, the woman sings a lullaby-like song (in a language I do not understand). She sings in a soft, maternal voice, almost as if incanting the melody and lyrics. As she finishes singing, the young man (the son, if you will) begins to sing, also in a gentle but weirdly affect-free voice.

Apart from the mother/son scenario it evokes, powerful in itself, the installation is also an enactment of the collision (and/or harmonization) of two voices – and can thus, in this context, be read as either the beginning of, the conclusion of, or the consolation after, a conflict. The televisions are placed so close together and so close to the floor that the viewer must stoop and pivot to see both faces (and the sound is also set at a low level), thus creating both intimacy and discomfort. This is a simple but profoundly effective work.

Tamara Platisa's large acrylics on paper cover similar terrain, but with more blunt force (and resultant trauma). Based on the colouring books the artist recalls from her end-of-Soviet-era childhood, the paintings look, at first, ordinary and even cute. Mop-topped toddlers run, jump and frolic with pets. But on second glance, one notices the children are playing with toy tanks, a land mine floats over the clouds (as does Jesus), target crosshairs dot the landscape and one boy wears a T-shirt decorated with dynamite sticks.

Sneaky and then literal, these paintings do not apologize for being overtly political. There is rage underneath these cartoonish images, and, as any therapist will tell you, people cannot begin to recover from life-altering disasters until they first recognize, and then communicate, their fury.

Nava Lubelski at P/M Gallery Until Jan. 29, 1518 Dundas St. W., Toronto;

Everywhere I go, textile works tempt me to touch them. Nava Lubelski's multimedia painting-embroidery hybrids at P/M Gallery are especially difficult to resist. Lubelski stains and rips open her canvases with abandon, then winds elaborate webs inside and around the peepholes. Pluck me, the works beg.

She further augments her vibrating concoctions with minute patches of intense needlework, in brilliant tones. The resulting tapestries remind me of tidal pools, of cool, grey-green seaweed gardens where spindly urchins and jellyfish lurk, of murky pits twitching with primordial intelligence.

Yes, I considered running my fat fingers along the taut threads, and yes, I wondered if I could get away with covertly adding a toy fish or three to Lubelski's watery seascapes – but, you break it, you buy it.


Elliott Wilcox: Courts Until Jan. 29, at Bau-Xi Photo, 324 Dundas St. W., Toronto

A variant on the old "if a tree falls and nobody hears it" puzzle, Wilcox photographs empty sports facilities to see what happens to active spaces when they are vacant.

Salon 5 Until Jan. 30, at Propeller Centre, 984 Queen St. W., Toronto

An annual mash-up of Propeller's diverse crowd of in-house artists, this show is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Jacqueline Treloar: An Interpretation of the Westminster Abbey Great Pavement From Jan. 19 until Feb. 9, at Church of the Holy Trinity, 10 Trinity Square, Toronto

Like the title says, Treloar recreates the medieval mosaics with two massive, 24-foot-square blocks of stencilled, shiny nylon – then hangs them from the church rafters. Holy disco lights!