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r.m. vaughan: the exhibitionist

Group show at Bezpala Brown Gallery Until Dec. 30, 17 Church St., Toronto;

Now that the sun starts setting after lunch, you can either buy one of those seasonal affective disorder lamps, or head over to Bezpala Brown Gallery and let its latest group show, a bouquet (sometimes literally) of warm, polychromatic works, caress your clouded eyes.

Featuring gentle works by painter Gordon Leverton, who makes ordinary, drab housing units look like Lego towers, piles of crisply coloured blocks, and Irene Mottadelli, a watercolorist with a penchant for petal-soft flower and tree paintings (and for the cute, big-eyed birds who inhabit such flora), this diverse, cheerful exhibition is aptly leavened, and enlivened, by the sparkling ink-on-paper works of Russian-Canadian artist Tatiana Cheremisinova.

A dissident artist under the former Soviet government, Cheremisinova now creates elaborately illustrated, gold and silver flecked allegorical paintings that, not surprisingly given her history, explore the rituals, symbols, and vanities of power. Packed with kings, knights, peasants, maidens and heroes, monsters and anthropomorphized animals, Cheremisinova's works are puppet shows in ink, frozen (but not stiff) parades of characters who enact tales of lust, predation, selflessness and decadence.

The paintings are so dense with action, with swirling kinetic lines dappled with gemstone glints, you'd need a magnifying glass (and a medieval monk's education) to get all the references. Furthermore, Cheremisinova is clearly employing several types of painting/inking processes (her artist statement reveals that she has discovered a way of blending India ink with "special polymer materials"- a canny alchemist, Cheremisinova keeps her grimoire closed). Jagged edges, tiny crusts and chalky surfaces abound.

At first, I was certain the works were printed from blocks, because of the depth of textures; but no, they are painted and re-painted by hand. But fans of batik or mud printing will nevertheless admire Cheremisinova's ability to highlight specific areas, her skillful pulling out (and letting fall back) of pictorial elements, while novelists will covet the way she obscures or clarifies her characters in order to draw out the key points of each narrative.

Who needs vitamin D when you can bask in Cheremisinova's twinkling worlds?

Conference Call at Telephone Booth Gallery Until Jan. 8, 3148 Dundas St. W., Toronto;

Way over on the other side of town, another group show offers a quieter take on the coming long nights.

The new Telephone Booth Gallery, located on the edge of Little Malta, is a classic storefront DIY set-up, the next no-budget gallery poised to kick-start a neighbourhood renewal (one is reminded of modest but trend-setting spaces such as the former Zsa Zsa and Spin galleries, venues that begat the West Queen West district). Better yet, Telephone Booth's Conference Call is a quirky, winter-themed exhibition of works by four young artists whose smart, gorgeously crafted creations would renovate any area, dilapidated or new.

My favourites from Conference Call were Noelle Hamlyn's two eerie textile sculptures - a dress made out of tannin-stained, pressed teabag gauze, and an infant's christening gown made from shredded, wasp-nest-thin Japanese paper - and Kim Harcourt's solemn, almost liturgical multimedia glass and stoneware pods. Small but weighty, Harcourt's sculptures mimic (and torque) organic shapes such as acorns, milkweed pods, and sea urchins, and would not be out of place in a smudging ceremony or a Wiccan wedding.

Sometimes, you just have to give in to winter's barrenness, and these works, both fraught with quiet patience (and snowflake delicacy), are spare but not bland, minimal but never cold. If only my skull wasn't so thick, I'd wear one of Harcourt's upturned husks as a toque.

Richard Johnson at Toronto Image Works Gallery Until Jan. 22, 80 Spadina Ave, No. 207, Toronto;

If wintry totems are not enough to remind you of the joys of frostbite, Richard Johnson's large-format digital photographs of ice-hut communities will make you reach for your electric blanket.

Every winter, wherever rivers or lakes freeze to a depth that will support human traffic, people set up shacks, drill holes in the ice, and gorge themselves on autumn-fattened fish. Visiting these temporary communities, Johnson discovered something unexpected: No matter how isolated or desolate a landscape, the human impulse to decorate prevails.

Splayed across the ice and in front of snow-covered forests, backgrounds of unrelenting grey, the huts plink and pulse on the ice, video-game characters on a blank screen. Painted in baby pink, buttery yellow, and plenty of Christmassy reds and greens, these kitted-out shacks, many of which function as more than mere shelter (one suspects plush carpets and high-definition televisions lurk behind the claddings), are, in a word, adorable - toy towns on ice. Further investigation reveals that the decorators often paint comical or animal symbols on their huts, and one ironically minded fisher has given his/her shack a camouflage coat (as if one can hide on a frozen lake).

Johnson's images serve another, more important purpose, one apart from their easy likeability - they speak to the fact that as much as humans love decoration, they really love order. The ice-hut villages are tiny barracks, precisely arranged on the ice in neat civic grids, as if plunked into place by a particularly OCD-prone higher power.

Even when we seek out fun and relaxation, Johnson's images argue, we still prefer a measure of symmetry, not to mention the social math of territory-marking. Ice fishing seems relaxing enough (you sit, the fish bite), but the fishers can't help turning recreation into a minor industry.

Canadians: We're only happy when we're busy. Ask our national rodent.


Yvonne Singer Convenience Gallery Until Jan. 3, 58 Lansdowne Ave., Toronto

Singer's twitchy, blazing mirror-and-neon incantation of the greedy holiday howl "I Want" is a timely reminder to keep the mass out of Christmas.

Art in the Workplace at The Atrium Until March 14, McMaster Innovation Park, Hamilton

52 Hamilton artists - from photographers to ceramicists - strut their stuff in this annual one-stop guide to Ontario's second-biggest and most-ignored art hub.

Gifts by Artists at Art Metropole Until Dec. 23, 788 King St. W., Toronto

Like the title says, you'll find affordable artists' multiples by the pound. Look for Anitra Hamilton's clever conflation of an Xmas ornament and a cartoon bomb.

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