In the Western canon, the art of painting reflective surfaces was highly prized. In the still lifes and portraits of the Dutch masters and their American followers, a rounded mirror, a polished jewel or a half-filled glass would boast of the artist’s skill – and ask the viewer to consider the implications of life’s shiny surfaces. Perhaps the contemporary equivalent would be painting a … disco ball.
Toronto artist Joanne Tod does precisely that in Once Removed, a selection of her new work now showing at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery. She also paints various reflective orbs, including a samovar, some copper brewing tanks and several selections of decorative tin ceiling tiles. Taking these ornate, embossed surfaces off the ceiling and putting them on the wall, she reproduces their effect with virtuosity.
In Lavender Lux, the largest and most impressive of the collection, she reproduces reflected light shining off a bumpy copper surface. That involves using a great deal more pale purple than anything copper-coloured because in bright light, red goes pink: Her title is a reference to the colour of the paint she has used.
And, like the masters before her, she nudges the viewer toward some consideration of what our delight in these surfaces implies. After all, old-style, pressed metal ceiling tiles, themselves a cheap 19th-century substitute for laborious plaster work, are now routinely reproduced in paintable plastic or metallic finishes. Tod’s large and dazzling canvases might be honouring historic craft – or exalting a flimsy faux effect you can pick up any day at the building centre.
The combination of mastery and wit is typical of Tod, a mature painter who has long put her technical skills to provocative uses, asking viewers to consider how they view by confronting them with unsettling juxtapositions and unusual borrowings. The title Once Removed is taken from a quasi-self-portrait in the show; there it refers to ancestry, but it’s also an acknowledgment that Tod mainly paints from photographs, not life, using images she finds on television or the internet.
Take, for example, her multiplied image of Audrey Hepburn from the 1964 movie My Fair Lady, playing Eliza Doolittle in her black-and-white Ascot finery. Tod, always capable of simultaneous delight and critique, spins her like a child spins a kaleidoscope, painting the figure four times so that the four versions of her huge, shell-shaped hat meet in the middle to produce a pair of bivalves. Tod calls the painting Moules en rotation.
There is an interesting tension here between the joyous movement implied by the kaleidoscopic image and the intense stillness required for Tod to paint – and us to observe – the manifold details of Hepburn’s fabulous costume.
Stillness and movement is explored further in an installation Tod had created featuring portraits of the Toronto Raptors basketball team.
A very recent convert to the church of basketball, the artist has become fascinated by the mathematical aspects of the game, the stats and the business, and has painted highly realistic portraits of the team. The recently traded Jonas Valanciunas, for example, is staring out into Richmond Street from the gallery’s front windows.
For the current lineup, Tod has taken a not-entirely-scientific approach to scale, modifying the size of each player’s portrait in relationship to his height. So, the newly arrived Marc Gasol, the tallest player, is painted at larger-than-life size and Fred Vanvleet, the shortest (at 1.8 metres!), is painted slightly smaller than life-size. The mismatched pair hang beside each other in a lineup of unevenly sized portraits as Tod rings the changes on her concept, playing with some notion of hierarchical scale while stilling the athletes with her art so that the viewer might compare this mode of viewing with the sight of them in action on TV.
Tod’s critique of popular culture has always included a certain happy engagement. A recent afternoon found her conducting a television interview with sports journalists in the gallery: How many contemporary visual artists can say they have been featured on NBA TV?
Joanne Tod’s Once Removed runs at the Nicholas Metivier Gallery until April 27.