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Edna Mae Robinson, from Stylo Starr's exhibition 89DAMES, on display at the Art Gallery of Burlington through the end of the year.

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When visiting art galleries, we are used to being told “Do Not Touch,” but only ever in regards to works of art, not each other. Now, as art institutions across the country reopen with a compelling spate of fall exhibitions, we must maintain our distance and treat our fellow visitors with the same reverence for safety we are accustomed to giving paintings and sculptures. Here, we select six standout shows that remind us of art’s potential to move us without the means of physical contact.

If there is an argument for getting closer than you should to an artwork, it can be found in A Study in Human Error, an exhibition by Afghan-Canadian artist Shaheer Zazai that can be viewed by appointment until Sept. 26 at Toronto’s Patel Brown East. Zazai pairs his trippy acrylic paintings with painstakingly produced digital carpets that, upon inspection, have been “woven” using Microsoft Word – a most quotidian medium for such intricate designs. Squint your eyes, and you’ll notice keystrokes in the place of stitches. “It’s the first time I’ve shown my paintings and carpets together,” says Zazai, “and process-wise, they’re actually quite similar: Both are improvised, and the outcomes are the result of troubleshooting in the moment.”

Photographer Ed Burtynsky, whose new series, Natural Order, is on view at Nicholas Metivier Gallery in Toronto until Sept. 26, can probably relate. Best known for his large-format industrial landscapes, the artist has set his new work in the decidedly wild surrounds of Grey County, Ont., because that’s where he happened to be when the government issued lockdown orders in the early days of the pandemic. The painterly, abstract scenes capture tangled trees in glorious detail and remind us that while COVID-19 continues to grind much of human life to a halt, Mother Nature remains resilient and enduring, pushing new growth through frozen soil as seasons change.

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Also inspired by rural life and Canada’s great natural beauty was the late acclaimed Prairie sculptor Joe Fafard, whose work is on view at Oeno Gallery in Prince Edward County until Oct. 4, alongside work by four other Canadian landscape artists. Unlike their famous forebears the Group of Seven, who pictured the wilderness as untamed and unpopulated, these artists show a relationship with the land that is intimate and approachable. Fafard treated his subjects with tenderness and dignity, whether a seated male nude named Denis or a sweet-faced dairy cow named Marge.

Over at MOCA in Toronto, Ramallah-based artist Yazan Khalili turns to a more impersonal means of registering identities with Medusa, an exhibition about facial-recognition technology on view until Nov. 15. With much of our communication conducted over video and our faces obscured by protective coverings, the prescient work, produced before the pandemic, feels particularly relevant. Medusa, a snake-haired Gorgon who turned anyone who looked at her into stone, was defeated with aid of a mirror, and the artist argues that the ill effects of technology can also be overcome if we examine our own role in rectifying harmful biases and insufficient data.

As the demonized Medusa was reclaimed as a feminist icon in the 20th century, Stylo Starr’s many-headed collages shine a spotlight on overlooked Black women from the glamorous 1950s and 60s in 89DAMES at the Art Gallery of Burlington, on view to Dec. 31. “Where history stops short at Monroe, Hepburn or Taylor, Starr focuses her scope on the Kitts, Fitzgeralds and Hornes of the same era,” writes the gallery about the show, which prompts us to acknowledge society’s persistent problem of writing Black women and femmes into the margins.

Colouring outside the lines of her exuberant canvases and intervening directly onto gallery walls, Vancouver painter Elizabeth McIntosh fills both locations of Oakville Galleries with her solo survey, on view to Nov. 29. Her bright, bold and colourful abstract compositions burst forth with serrated shapes reminiscent of Matisse’s cut-outs and include recent forays into figuration. The exhibition’s title – Show Up – simply states a call to action for art appreciators everywhere. If you’ve missed the solace that viewing great art brings and want to safely support your local institutions, you need to make an effort to stay in touch, so to speak. Just do it while remaining at least six feet apart.

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