This may cause severe eye strain for art lovers, but there’s some intriguing art on the Toronto gallery scene this fall that makes an oversized impact with painstaking miniaturism.
Let’s start with a clear-cut example: the art of Ken Nicol. Although he’s not entirely comfortable being called a conceptualist, the Toronto artist is certainly a big-ideas guy, and apparently one of those ideas is that art-making should involve a lot of mind-numbing, back-breaking, eyesight-destroying work.
His current show at the Olga Korper Gallery includes two drawings that are a mile long – or, that is, they would be a mile long if you laid every tiny pen stroke end-to-end. Working on a grid of guidelines set an inch apart, Nichol drew a black stroke to connect two lines, paused, then drew the next inch-long stroke beneath it and so on, moving down the grid to finish one long vertical line before he went back up to the top and started another right beside it. (For the other drawing, he used the same process but moved horizontally rather than vertically across the paper.) It takes 63,360 one-inch lines to complete a mile, and that is what he did; he estimates each drawing took about 100 hours of work.
The labour and the technical precision are part of the point, but so, too, is the inevitable imprecision that enters into the job – and the stark beauty of the results. There are white gaps where the artist has spaced his inches too widely and blacker bunches where he has had to make a course correction, so changing shades of grey, like waves on the water or patterns on a graph, ripple across the surface of these drawings as evidence of the human hand.
If you think this sounds dour, think again. As Nicol sets himself these Herculean tasks, his work is filled with humour. He includes a couple of framed sheets where the mark is not his but rather the paw prints of a squirrel who ventured into his studio, proving his point about randomness. Calligraphic works include quotes from artists Francis Bacon and Sol Lewitt carefully copied out by hand from typed versions, and drawings where Nicol inscribes common English swear words in grid patterns hundreds of times. His italics are so infinitesimally small you can only just begin to make out the dirty words if you press your nose up to the glass – which you need to do anyway to admire their dense grey patterns. In an art of the infinite and the everyday, the beautiful and the profane walk hand in hand.
Visually, there are similarities between Nicol’s work and that of Montreal artist Hajra Waheed, who also creates great scale from many miniatures, but where Nicol’s art is mainly about its own systems, hers is potentially about political ones, evoking a displaced humanity in the midst of a vast universe.
Hold Everything Dear, her current exhibition at the Power Plant gallery, includes a large array of work, installation, sculpture, photography, even video, but much of it is very small. There is a series of little white ceramic ladders, and another of monochromatic postcard-sized landscapes painted on tidy pieces of tin. A whole wall is taken up by a display of unevenly shaped stoneware tiles glazed in various dazzling shades of deep blues.
If these evoke the cosmos – as does a charming pair of ceramic moons with dark, pockmarked surfaces – the photographic work adds humanity to the mix, but only from a great distance. Waheed uses images from surveillance video showing both architecture and people seen from high above, playing on the gap between the individual and the infinite by printing each photo as a small, round disc, as though these figures were glimpsed through the lens of a telescope or perhaps inhabited their own small planet.
What does it feel like to be that person? The exhibition begins with a darkened room that visitors enter at their peril because the wooden floor is so uneven you can only shuffle forward step by step, arms outstretched for protection against the unseen walls. It’s an experience that mainly makes you wonder who put you here. In a world of invisible forces, Waheed’s sense of displacement is palpable.
Much of this art depends on remarkable technical skill and that’s also a starting point for considering the work of Zachari Logan, the Saskatchewan artist now showing at Paul Petro Contemporary Art. His historically flavoured drawings of figures, and floral and architectural motifs, in blue – or red – pencil on semi-transparent mylar are so finely wrought, it’s difficult for the eye to even perceive how the effect is achieved as it admires almost mystical images floating on the cloudy white paper. As if to emphasize Logan’s precision, Petro has paired his work with the much looser paintings of nature by Manitoba artist Mélanie Rocan, and some eye-catching connections ensue.
On the gallery’s ground floor, Logan’s weird flower paintings of spindly but exotic blooms set on black grounds contrast with Rocan’s equally eerie but impressionistic painting Narrow Path, a view of a forest bower where an arch of foliage gives way to a dark entranceway. Upstairs, Rocan offers a big dramatic canvas featuring a sweeping gold curtain; it faces off provocatively with Logan’s Window, Wave Hill (Summer), an image of trees seen through the black grid of a window frame. That one is so precisely executed it might be mistaken for a photograph, but it was actually drawn in pastel.
Bring your glasses.
Ken Nicol shows until Nov. 16 at the Olga Korper Gallery; Hajra Waheed’s Hold Everything Dear continues to Jan. 5 at the Power Plant gallery at Harbourfront Centre; Zachari Logan and Mélanie Rocan are showing at Paul Petro Contemporary Art to Nov. 9.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.