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Michael Caines at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary
Until June 24, 1086 Queen St. W., Toronto;

It's easy to "fall in love" with a painting. I'm currently supporting a large polygamous family of, shall we say, sister oils. But can a painting love you back?

Michael Caines's new suite of large oils on canvas and ink on paper works answer that question with a resounding yes. These works are so full of unconditional adoration, directed straight at the viewer, that they could be walked through hospitals and seniors' homes as therapy paintings.

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Half of this generous, unblinking love is generated directly by the subject matter of the works: dogs. Sweet-faced, clear-eyed, treat-happy, leg-sniffing, relentlessly-attentive-to-your-every-move dogs. And not just any dogs, but breeds well known for their devotion to humans: Labs, Chihuahuas and mutts, of the houndish and terrier variety.

In the black-and-white, ink-on-paper works, Caines draws his four-legged charmers as saint-like entities whose portraits rest, appropriately, inside drawings of elaborate, Florentine frames. Here Caines's kissed-by-the-angels, abundant drawing skills sing out – the dog portraits are meticulously, achingly precise, down to the whiskers and stray tufts of fur, and his drawing of the curling, arabesque encircled frames is photo-realist perfect. And yet, the ink works never appear overly laboured; just careful, responsive. Romance is a lot of work, as advice columnists frequently inform.

Alongside these delicate wonders, another kind of besotted exchange is played out in the oversized oils on canvas. One pair of works, entitled Ebony & Ivory, depicts a black Lab, surrounded by a midnight black backdrop, staring up, up above the viewer's gaze, staring in that keenly present way dogs have of looking, with its forehead, eyebrows and snout shimmering as if under a powerful light (or a halo). I am in love with this painting/dog, because he (I have given the dog a gender, because I can) looks exactly like my neighbour's dog Batty, with whom I have been having a shameless affair.

Next to Batty (yes, now I am naming the painting/dog, I have succumbed), hangs a portrait of a creamy golden Lab, who carries a stick-like chew toy in his/her ample, wet mouth. Again, the dog's expression is distinct: it is looking at you, and you better make with the toy throwing a.s.a.p. This moment, a preamble to a simple dog-human activity that happens millions of times every day all over the world, is given the epic treatment. The golden Lab is surrounded by warm, white light. Its fur tingles with fresh brushed, hairs-on-end excitement. You'd swear the canvas is breathing.

The diptych is complemented by a portrait of a comely, tattooed hipster dude who sports an image of a stag on his bare, hairy chest and a full-on, post-Robert Bateman devotional painting of a stag, one well set up with a mighty rack of antlers. There is also a charming, but baffling, image of a long-legged, brindled hound sitting on the White House lawn wearing an aboriginal feather headdress – a kind of American Thanksgiving image, but with a dog instead of a small child. Finally, sitting on the gallery floor, where it is protected by a miniature VIP velvet rope, is the strangest work in the show – a painting of a brown mutt with a round head that is too small for its body. This disproportioned head carries a face that is, at least partially, human.

And therein lies the whole other narrative dynamic in this exhibition. According to Caines, these luminous creatures are all meant to address the sloppy excesses of American culture (Caines has been living in the United States for the past several years). Furthermore, the works are related to an earlier series by Caines of highly political paintings that placed key American policy makers and leaders in unflattering, monstrous situations. As for that weird dog on the floor – that's George W. Bush's face morphed onto the muzzle.

Of course, Caines can say his work is about whatever he wants to say it is about. But for me, the critique of American culture is so secondary to the much larger enterprise of recreating the unbridled (because it is uncomplicated) joy that only dogs are capable of, and capable of sharing, that the sociopolitical connotations (pet consumerist excess, as witnessed in the plethora of dog specialty shops and even dog spas), and thus Caines's critique of American-style overindulgence, the habit of treating pets better than people, is mostly an afterthought (one that will never occur to most viewers).

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Besides, pets are better than people.

Tawny MacLachlan at David Kaye Gallery
Until June 24, 1092 Queen St. W., Toronto;

Tawny MacLachlan's multimedia show Opus 745, on, and crawling up, the walls at David Kaye Gallery, explores the magical combination of mathematics and lyricism that is musical composition.

In a series of kinetic, jittery works on paper, MacLachlan recreates the same/not same interplay associated with musical improvisation. A shape is drawn or applied to the paper, and then another very similar, but inexact replica is applied/drawn next to it … and then the system starts over again, until the paper is covered in obviously related but distinct notations and marks.

My favourite works, however, are MacLachlan's soft sculptures, which look like amoebas made from felt. Again, all the core elements in each sculpture are repeated – rings of coloured material, appliqués of netting, stitched over printed material, and black fabric dots. But, again, no two sculptures are the same, with the variations sometimes being so minute they do not register at first.

The best thing about MacLachlan's fugues is that they are not subtle. Once you make the "graphic notes = musical notes" connection, you revel in the artist's obvious pleasure in and willingness to extend a metaphor without apology.

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Go symphonic or stay home.


Balint Zsako at Katharine Mulherin Art Projects
Until June 30, 1082 Queen St. W., Toronto;

Zsako's paintings on paper are carnivals; orgies of morphing bodies, yapping skeletons, and big-bottomed, near-human deviants cavorting. It's like the Pride Parade, but actually fun to watch.

Andrew Schoultz & Richard Colman at Cooper Cole Gallery
Until June 23, 1161 Dundas St. W., Toronto;

I defy anyone to find a nuttier exhibition currently on view. Schoultz & Colman blend everything from comix inspired, manic drawings to a huge, coral reef bright mural to create a weird cosmology all their own.

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Barbara Klunder at Rodman Hall Art Centre
Until Sept. 9, 109 St. Paul Cres., St. Catharines, Ont.;

If you missed the Toronto instalment of Klunder's stunning tribute to sturdy Laura Secord (done, counter-intuitively, in the most dainty medium – thin plates of cut and shaped paper), now's your second chance. Rodman Hall is rumoured to be haunted, so if you hear the rustling of petticoats through the forest….

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