Maarit Suomi-Vaananen at WARC Gallery
Until Dec. 3, No. 122, 401 Richmond St. W., Toronto; warc.net
What ever happened to Herbie the Love Bug?
If my take on Finnish artist Maarit Suomi-Vaananen's film Up and About Again, currently showing at Women's Art Resource Centre Gallery, is accurate, Herbie, like many child actors (I know Herbie was a car, but he was a baby-fat chubby little VW Beetle) has gone to seed.
Herbie is now a boxy busted relic, a craggy shadow of his former self, and living in rural Finland. Beats the scrap heap, I guess.
But Maarit Suomi-Vaananen gives the once loveable little car (or, okay, a close facsimile) a final kick at the fame can, via her strange half adventure, half meditation road movie – a movie starring a small white bubble of a car with a rounded hood, a car we quickly learn to read as a human stand-in.
The award-winning artist's act of anthropomorphism starts off with a long pan of a grubby, ill-tended quarry circled by hearty green trees and spots of moss. Enter the white car, seemingly covered in snow – though the climate seems summery. Clearly, the car is a fish out of water, to mix metaphors. Indeed, even the car windows are blanketed, making all interior action opaque (and, simultaneously, making the car appear self-activated).
Eventually, after crashing into some rocks, the car stops in the middle of the quarry, where it instantly triggers a series of land-mine like explosions. Then it makes its way to an abandoned gas station, where it does a few goofy doughnut circles, and then heads for the deep, mossy forest, wherein a back wheel snaps off. But on the little car goes, now a wounded hero, into the evergreens, oblivious to its inevitable collapse.
All along its brief journey from the pits to the pastoral, we are shown that the car has seen better days. The front bumper is hanging off, a light is broken, the windshield wipers are twisted like broken legs (but still make agonized attempts to work), and whole hunks of the car's body are close to unhinging.
So, what's going on in this mini-epic? Rather a lot.
First, the obvious: As the title of the film suggests, Suomi-Vaananen's road movie is a metaphor for life's struggles, and the ability humans have to constantly pick themselves up and move forward. We all know that bomb-infested quarry pit, psychologically speaking (and the dreamy forest too).
Secondly, the film finds a unique way to talk about self-inflicted blinders, willing acts of not-knowing. The car is so thickly covered in white (paint? frost? candy floss?) that whoever is inside cannot see or be seen, and yet on they drive, oblivious to both hazards and consequences. We've all been there psychologically too.
Finally, the car itself is an embodiment of a failed dream.
Just as Herbie the Love Bug arrived at a time when North America's economy was built on manufacturing and energy appeared cheap and plentiful, along came a semi-human car, a metal baby with wheels. Now, that baby is a fractured adult, falling apart at both ends and spewing blue fumes – just like neoliberal capitalism.
Furthermore, we can't control the cursed thing (or our downward economic spiral), because our earlier oblivion to the larger implications of making emotional investments in objects – in creating, for instance, a "car culture" (men still call their cars by women's names, weird as that is) – has made the objects of our affection opaque to us and ourselves unable to discern a way forward. We are trapped within and by our seductive objects.
For the most part, however, you can leave the semiotic unpacking for after the screening, because Up And About Again is primarily a long sight gag, a slapstick riffing on optimistic, keep on truckin' recipes for living; maudlin self-help culture parodied via a clumsy, junkyard prop.
Be prepared to laugh out loud, even if you're laughing in resigned recognition. As tiresome as just-do-it pop culture pronouncements are, it's also true that forward is the only (albeit with only three wheels) option. The paradox is abjectly funny.
For such a tiny and downtrodden object, Suomi-Vaananen's protagonist sure can carry a lot of viewers' projections. Maybe that's why it's covered in movie-screen white.
Troy Brooks at Pentimento Gallery
Until Nov. 27, 1164 Queen St. E., Toronto; pentimento.ca
For a very different kind of character identification, try emerging painter Troy Brooks's new suite of paintings, Colossus, on display at Pentimento Gallery. Your latent femme fatale will thank you.
While Brooks has explored dangerous ladies as subjects before – a typical Brooks she-devil subject has an elongated face and body, is dead white, dressed elaborately, surrounded by weird animal familiars and/or horrific accidents, and is perhaps transgendered – his painting style has changed subtly but markedly.
Whereas the Toronto-based artist's earlier works were created in a hard, lined style that highlighted the hardboiled-ness of his characters, his new ones look like they were painted with cotton swabs and dandelion seed heads. This material softening only makes his satanic females all the more alluring, and alarming. They're a double whammy: gorgeously textured, soft-as-velvet arsonists, murderers, and reptile fetishists.
The golden age of film noir is long gone, but we can still pretend. Brooks's cast of shimmering, arch characters would make Lizabeth Scott, Claire Trevor or Barbara Stanwyck (in huge, veiled hats, naturally) into the Warner Brothers office and bellow for better scripts.
IN OTHER VENUES
Commitment Issues at Oasis Aqualounge
Performance (one night only), Nov. 16, 7-10 p.m., 231 Mutual St., Toronto
Curated by local multimedia artist Jess Dobkin, Commitment Issues takes over Toronto's newest swingers club to stage a series of provocative performances by Canadian and international artists. Body-image issues, intimacy troubles, and the research processes of pole dancers are all fair game in a space built for games.
Savage at the White House Studio Project
Nov. 12-15, 277 Augusta Ave., 2nd floor, Toronto
While the whole town busies itself with Marshall McLuhan tributes, writer-curator Nathaniel G. Moore assembles a tribute to the late pro wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage. Surely, McLuhan would approve of this hybrid literary, music, video and illustrative multi-platform event. Somebody break a chair!
En Obscurité at Les Territoires
Until Dec. 17, No. 527, 372 St. Catherine St. West, Montreal
A meticulous, carefully plotted group show that examines the very opposite – obscurity, opacity and the power of the half-known. Featuring new works by video artist Mathieu Beauséjour, cultural theorist Aseman Sabet, and a twinkling, fur-lined sculpture by Karen Trask.