In his first year in business on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue, Robert Birch overheard one pundit standing outside his storefront predicting this new gallery wouldn’t last six months.
Thirty years and multiple locations later, Birch Contemporary is showing the doubters the finger. Not literally, of course, but the gallery’s 30th anniversary show in its long-time Tecumseth Street premises starts with a cheeky gesture: Omar Badrin’s Backhanded, a stuffed, knitted glove with one elongated middle finger poking out well beyond the rest.
Actually, Badrin’s defiance has nothing to do with Birch’s. A native of Malaysia, he was adopted by Canadians and grew up as the only Asian kid in his Newfoundland community. The glove also includes a colourful rendition of the proverbial sore thumb.
Badrin’s recent soft sculpture is something of an outlier in a collection of work by gallery artists dating from 1990 to the present, one that is broad and eclectic but tends to favour powerfully stated painting by senior talents. And, whether two- or three-dimensional, many of the works hover interestingly between media or genres.
The visitor is welcomed not only by Badrin’s glove, but also by Micah Lexier’s A Minute of My Time (2000), an oversized scribble reproduced in LaserJet-cut steel and mounted on the wall. It is calling across the room to Louise Noguchi’s Broncos and Bucking Bulls in a provocative dialogue about text becoming sculpture. Noguchi’s 2002 work features a series of bronco names – Wild Thang; Lights Out – rendered in the shiny chrome and commercial typography of automotive badges from the vehicles the artist found in a rodeo parking lot.
And then there are many pieces that dance delicately between abstraction and representation. Most directly, in Gusano Rojo, Ben Walmsley paints a detailed reproduction of a bottle of mezcal as the centrepiece of a hard-edge abstract cross. Nearby, Renée Van Halm’s 2009 view of an institutional lobby, L.A. Lobby/Dahlem, takes quiet delight in the geometric play of architectural levels and lines. It echoes Martin Golland’s demanding Screen, perhaps a picture of shed, lattice and back alley, or perhaps a push-pull of abstract planes. And beside that, there is Martin Bennett’s mesmerizing Grey Volume Painting, in which black paint has been scraped away to create a mottled field where the eye can read any number of shapes and images.
The veteran Richard Storms completes the conversation with a recent work: NYT RP is an impressionistic acrylic painting of The New York Times sign on the newspaper’s Manhattan headquarters. Try looking at its painterly surface through your phone, and digitization forces it into more concrete shape, as the artist toys brilliantly with the death and rebirth of media.
A few doors north on Tecumseh, the Susan Hobbs Gallery is starting the season on quite a different note: Curated by Pamela Meredith and drawing on the mainly recent work of both Canadian and international artists, Motion & Motive is simultaneously whimsical and narrowly focused.
As you enter the main space, with its high ceiling, it’s hard to be anything but easily delighted by the twisting chandeliers hanging from the rafters, plant-like creations of brass lamp arms and flower-shaped glass bulbs. Charlotta Westergren’s Gardening series is the scene stealer in a show intriguingly curated around the notion of things that dangle: mobiles, lights and lanterns. Lucien Durey contributes a pair of large circles filled with a mosaic of lavender-coloured glass that hangs at the entrance to the gallery like an oversized pair of spectacles; Robin Cameron is represented by a classic mobile of coloured ceramic shapes hung on copper wire, a small thing yet ready to challenge Alexander Calder’s looming legacy as the master of the mobile.
But into this realm of seemingly simple pleasures, Meredith shows how darker themes can emerge.
Karen Tam’s painstaking mulberry paper cut-outs mounted on Chinese lanterns rely on a complex iconography of both classical and modern imagery. In a unsettling combination of references to both nature and craft, Kathleen Ryan’s Miranda features a giant clutch of jade orbs, pieced together like a bunch of faux grapes and held inside an almost menacing cast-iron pod.
And, in one corner, New Zealand artist Kate Newby creates a moment of quiet tension with Smaller than some bigger than most, a wool washing line strung across the gallery but only half full of bundles of wooden twigs, finely crafted from brass. That half curtain somehow demands that the viewer sidle up to it and trespass into the sculpture’s mystical space as Meredith’s metaphor of delicate balances takes hold.
Birch Contemporary’s 30th anniversary show continues to Sept. 28; Motion & Motive continues to Oct. 12 at the Susan Hobbs Gallery.
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