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r.m. vaughan: the exhibitionist

BGL at Diaz Contemporary
Until Aug. 18, 100 Niagara St., Toronto;

Better Mistakes, the new exhibition by Quebec City-based post-pop collective BGL, is the summer show I've been waiting for – fun, smart, lighthearted and bursting with imagination and colour.

Filling the Diaz Contemporary main space with everything from hanging chairs to bead curtains to intentionally dreadful, peeling paintings, BGL invites viewers to engage with art on a visceral, even child-like level, to set aside hidebound expectations of high culture vs. low culture (a distinction nobody except book reviewers really believes in any more).

BGL's use (and gleeful abuse) of common objects, such as the above-mentioned chairs, tells the visitor that, first and foremost, they are on friendly ground, and that a contract exists between artists and viewer that, while cerebral in its own fashion (more on that later), is not designed to tax, threaten or baffle. This art is so viewer-friendly, it practically gives you a hug.

Take, for instance, the large mobile made of metal that has been cut, painted and shaped to resemble a pennant banner (the parti-coloured ones used in car lots and fairs), a banner caught in a twisting whirlwind. As the sculpture spins, one gradually notices that the individual pennants do not flutter, and that the movement is anything but billowy or easy. Indeed, the sculpture almost creaks. Beneath it stands a massive black speaker, the kind rock stars fall off of, but where the woofer and tweeter should be, two fans spin, thus causing the mobile to turn endlessly.

Apart from being simply a joy to watch, the false banner carries a not-subtle message about the artificiality of spectacle, and of the ways in which spectacle can be used to stifle (or, as literally true in this case, weld into immobility) discourse – the banner mobile, for all its cheeriness, only moves in one direction, over and over. An abject pair of tied-together sneakers hangs off one end, a nod to the futile gesture of rebellion one sees on street wires everywhere.

Given that BGL's home province of Quebec has just undergone a long series of spectacles, protests and political posturings around the proposed rise in university tuition fees – spectacles that have led to absolutely nothing in terms of real change – this endlessly but pointlessly rotating signifier of fun times and pretty distractions bears a particularly acidic undertone.

Equally gut-and thought-provoking are BGL's series of road signs that have been decorated with dead insects. According to a Diaz gallerist, the bug gloss was applied via a tried-and-true method – the signs were attached to the roof of a car and driven around. To keep the wee victims attached, a layer of varnish was applied to each sign.

At first, one sees only a dirty sign, something that needs washing or, perhaps, has been splattered with a brown glaze. But as you approach, the hundreds of small snuffed-out lives become apparent, which, since the signs are safety signs, prompts one to ask why some animal lives are valued while others are not.

What a different set of works these would be if the artists had intentionally sought out mammals to run over, and then left the guts to dry on the signs. Outrage would be the normal reaction. So why is the destruction of insects, arguably more important to the eco-chain than most domesticated mammals, less horrific?

Vegan politics aside, I also saw in these works a sly wink at Damien Hirst's overblown, and wildly expensive, butterfly collages, made from real butterflies. Call these works Hillbilly Hirsts.

My favourite high/low collision comes about in an easy-to-miss sculpture that appears, at first, to be little more than a large white paint spill with a bump at one end. Titled Born Again, the long, shiny pool on the floor is embedded with a painted-over, almost obscured Darth Vader helmet, a glaring death mask that is half submerged, perhaps drowning, in the otherwise flat and unruffled slick.

Darth Vader is about as "high art" (again, whatever that means any more) as Mickey Mouse, and ought not to have any place in a work of art that costs over $10,000. Art traded at that level fears such bluntly presented, unironically embraced pop-culture signifiers the way high-end chefs fear ketchup.

But that's part of BGL's culture-jamming game: populism with a price tag. In this, they join artists such as Brian Jungen, Allyson Mitchell, the duo Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins, and the collective FASTWURMS in an evolving new art reality that reads all visual ephemera, especially found objects, as potential shape shifters.

Poor Darth Vader. He's the new Campbell's tomato soup can.

Clara Bacou at Robert Kananaj Gallery
Until Sept. 1, 1267 Bloor St. W., Toronto;

Clara Bacou's multimedia animals – half monster, half National Geographic subjects – skulk through the Robert Kananaj Gallery in a blaze of neon hues and crazy-quilt stitching.

Bacou's renderings of cats, dogs and hybrids of both (plus about nine other species) are most successful when they layer the real and the fantastical. I find her works on paper, wild flights of zoological fancy dappled in psychedelic colours, amusing but occasionally strained. Her textile works, which blend a loving observational realism with mad florals and paisley-like embroidery, are fresh and alive.

The above is a mere quibble. Bacou's box of animal crackers is full of weird, melted candy delight. This is an artist to watch.


Larry Eisenstein at Whitby Station Gallery
Until Sept. 2, 1450 Henry St., Whitby, Ont.

Part of a four-artist group show, Eisenstein's signature microbial worlds, made with instruments the size of bee's knees, jump to a jazzy rhythm. The Coltrane of the crayon.

Peripheries at Edward Day
Until Sept. 1, 952 Queen St. W., Toronto

Obsessed with marking terrains and territories, physical and psychological, the artists in this group show wander the landscape(s) looking for signs. Look for Sandra Rechico's twitchy maps-about-maps and Howard Podeswa's rushing pixel stream scrapbooks.

Blue Republic at Terminal 1
Until Aug. 31, Pearson International Airport, Toronto

Once you get scanned and frisked, head for the airport galleries to see Blue Republic's "water drawings" series – made with water applied to warm rocks. Long evaporated, the drawings now exist only in photography's temporary-yet-forever timescape.