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Beyond the Santa suit: How to see red at Canadian galleries

Robert Fones’s casein on wood Kayak (1997), from the private collection of Parkin, Canada’s doyenne of art consultants.

Toni Hafkenscheid/Handout

These days, Birch Libralato Gallery in Toronto is presenting something special: an exhibition of artworks drawn from the private collection of Canada's doyenne of art consulting, the pint-sized yet puissant Jeanne Parkin, who turned 90 this month. The show is not without surprises. The main gallery display is a soothing and elegant ensemble of works, emanating minimalist serenity. A pale violet Greg Curnoe cycle wheel, hovering like a mandala behind the desk, keeps company with a handsome black-and-cream abstraction by Montrealer Jean McEwen, a Paterson Ewen landscape and a moody black-and-white photograph of a hotel room by Angela Grauerholz, among other notables. But mount the stairs at the back and, as Parkin might say, Whammo! – it's a blaze of colour, and more specifically red – that colour we were all starting to think we could do without just about now. Well, humbug. We're not talking about Shoppers Drug Mart Red, or cheap acrylic Santa-suit red here. We're talking about the good stuff.

It's clear that Parkin has a wicked eye for art. How many people in this country were buying Gilbert & George in the early eighties? Or knew Frank Stella was groovy back when that expression was still in active use? But Parkin, it seems, also has a particular nose for the claret. You see red in her formal sculptural grouping of matte volumes painted a fiery poinsettia by Toronto's Robert Fones, and the shiny ruby electric guitar tickled by white ostrich feathers in Rodney Graham's video A Little Thought. There's the tacky tinsel red of her shiny balloon-dog sculpture by Jeff Koons, and the rust red on the goalie mask overpainted by Brian Jungen, its surface adorned with a pattern of stylized type in red and pink spelling out the words Human Nature. As Parkin's arrangement makes clear, red is a colour that can be sexy, STOP-signalling, or racially charged.

But the most red-for-red's-sake object on display is doubtless a framed photograph by the much revered, recently deceased Toronto photographer Arnaud Maggs, a true connoisseur of tint and hue. Titled Werner's Nomenclature of Colours and dating from 2005, Maggs's photograph documents a chart he espied in the famed British 17th-century tome on colour, an original volume of which was carried by Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle. Parkin – no surprise – picked Maggs's red chart for her collection, and here the variety truly astounds. Beside each delicious little swatch of colour we read their names, inscribed in quill penmanship worthy of Scrooge himself: Tile Red, Hyacinth Red, Scarlet Red, Vermillion Red, Aurora Red, Arterial Blood Red, Flesh Red, Rose Red and Peach Blossom Red, which is hardly a red at all. The chart further differentiates these tonal distinctions through the use of descriptive language. Vermillion Red, for example, is mysteriously described as the colour of red coral, love apples and cinnabar. Arterial Blood Red, on the other hand, is the colour of the head of a cock goldfinch, of corn poppies and cherries. (We thought the title was clear enough.) In Maggs's work, colour and language come together in a blaze of meaning that ignites in the mind. We are left to marvel, and to revel in the russet while we can. If red is here, can grey be far behind?

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Essential Works: A Personal Vision, Jeanne Parkin at 90 runs until Jan. 19. Birch Librilato Gallery is open today but will be closed Dec. 23 to Jan. 8.

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