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r.m. vaughan: the exhibitionist

Dreamland: Textiles in the Canadian Landscape at the Textile Museum of Canada
Until Sept. 30, 55 Centre Ave., Toronto;

If you can't make it to North Adams, Mass., to see the enormous Oh, Canada show at the MASS MoCA (it's okay, I don't know where North Adams is either), you can pop over to the Textile Museum in Toronto to see Dreamland – a mix-and-match survey of Canadian historical and contemporary works focusing on our collective fabric history.

Yes, fabric history. You'll be surprised.

The structure supporting Dreamland couldn't be simpler – but I mean that in a good way. It's refreshing to look at shows that are not overburdened by fogging layers of curatorial skull clutching, but that rather find a straightforward way to present related works and then, well, present the works. Nice and tidy.

In this case, visual pairings based on colour schemes and/or figurative elements are the foundation of the show: pairings that employ historical works from the Textile Museum's enormous collection with contemporary pieces by Canadian artists who work in textiles or somehow employ them.

Of course, this call-and-response system makes the connections between the archival and the new appear, at times, to be bluntly literal, perhaps even pandering (at least to the more experienced art viewer). But I would argue that since this is a summer show, and all museums rely on tourist visits during the summer months to boost revenues, whatever appears too obvious or cute to regular, art-schooled locals (viewers who may already be familiar with the contemporary works) will appear fresh and even exciting to overnighters.

Besides, many of the pairings are outright inspired. For instance, a collection of doll clothes, made in the 1940s, done in cardinal red and mossy black wool and a black-and-red quilt from the 19th century are juxtaposed with a sentimental but strange video by Amalie Atkins. In the looped video, two elderly women, dressed in red skirts and black boots, walk toward each other across a prairie. They meet and place their foreheads together while embracing. Then they do it again. And again.

The women, we learn from the didactics provided, are twin sisters of Austrian-Canadian heritage. There are enough buried narratives in this ensemble, narratives of rural life, migration, "women's work", child-raising, domesticity, and the always strange dual realities of twins (not to mention the obvious but impolite questions about The Second World War) to fill any three Ami McKay novels.

Yet, this combo is more sharp than sugary. The pristine doll clothes appear to have never been used by an actual child. They may have been made for a fall fair contest, or perhaps the child died (black doll clothes are inherently Gothic, don't blame me). The quilt, conversely, seems to have seen some rough nights. As for Frau in tall black boots, no further explication is needed.

In another corner, a beautifully preserved Haida floor mat, made of woven strips of cedar and decorated with an image of a killer whale surrounded by two wolf heads, rests in a cozy vitrine. It is matched with two plush toy-like sculptures – one a dog, the other a rabbit – by contemporary artist John Henry Fine Day.

Ah, you'll say, animals and more animals. But take a closer look. The killer whale is more monster than large mammal, and the wolves are stylized to resemble demons. Fine Day's sculptures are made of cured, fatty yellow hide, and stitched together with thin strips/threads of sinew. Blood-red sinew.

If Peter Rabbit walked into this seemingly picture-book cheery, cross-generational narrative of man versus animal, he'd be stew bait. Somehow, despite all the colonizing culture's best efforts, over generations, or perhaps because of these misguided (to say the very least) efforts, aboriginal art challenges Romantic sentimentality. Animals, this collision of old and new art reminds us, eat and get eaten, live lives we can never fully understand (which is why we create spectral myths to explain them), and their remains get turned into something useful, like art.

At both the figurative and literal heart of the exhibition sits a combination of one tiny, delicate and fading doily (dating from about 1900) and two vivid, nuttily enthusiastic masterworks fuelled by digital technology.

The doily, as pale as a thigh in springtime, depicts a man standing beside a well-antlered stag. Made with precision, the doily has a somewhat standardized, mechanical feel, as if it was part of a series or one piece from a mass production. Echoing this machine-age feel are Graeme Patterson's 12-minute stop-motion animation, entitled Monkey and Deer, playing continuously on a slick flat screen, and Grant Heaps's tapestry Stag, comprised of hundreds of tiny, pixel-like cotton squares, arranged to create a classic, father's den image of a mighty game animal.

Again, however, all is not what it seems. Despite the clean, digital look of Patterson's video, the didactics tell us that the artist handmade every single item on the screen, employing such low-tech materials as felt, sticks, wire, and found objects. Similarly, Heaps's achingly precise cloth mosaic is decidedly ragged up-close – the squares are uniform, but obviously cut by hand, as no two appear to be exactly the same size and shape. Threads are left to hang off the edges, and the underwiring is visible.

In the century between the doily and the two contemporary works, we come full circle in our ideas of crafted perfection: from attempts to appear perfectly finished, inhuman, to efforts to make the human touch abundantly evident.

The last thing I expected at a Textile Museum show was post-industrial anxiety.


Agata Ostrowska at Angell Gallery
Until July 7, 12 Ossington Ave., Toronto;

Ostrowska's word-game prints, crossword puzzles gone made, will either trigger headachy fits or speaking in tongues. Bring your reading glasses.

Anselm Kiefer at the Art Gallery of Hamilton
Until Sept. 9, 123 King St. W., Hamilton;

Kiefer's sanity-challenging collisions of paint and found organic matter, and his equally strange symbol pile-ups, make looking at his paintings like reading a Dan Brown novel in the dark woods.

Julie Oakes at Lonsdale Gallery
Until July 15, 410 Spadina Rd., Toronto;

No barnyard menagerie ever looked as ecstatic, as Holy Ghost-visited, as the one Oakes presents. Her paintings of animals ought to have votive candles underneath them.