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GERALD FERGUSON

AT WYNICK/TUCK GALLERY

$4,100-$10,800. Until Feb. 14,

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401 Richmond St. W., Suite 128, Toronto; 416-504-8716

I wrote in this column last January that veteran, Halifax-based conceptual artist Gerald Ferguson was "a born painter, right down to his fingertips." But for 15 years, I noted, "his fingertips have scarcely touched any of his canvases."

Why not? Because for the past 15 years, Ferguson has been almost phobic about the narcissistic aspects of painterly taste and about what he sees as the deplorable emotional excessiveness of consigning handmade marks to canvas.

So how, then, did he succeed in making paintings? By carefully distancing himself from the painting act. Which is to say, he has, in the past, stencilled objects onto his canvases, and, more recently, has frottaged his imagery into place. "For the past 15 years," he explains in the artist's statement accompanying this latest exhibition, "I have been doing frottage paintings passing a roller with black paint over a canvas with all manner of common materials, such as garden hose, clothes lines and drain covers under the canvas and recording their image on the surface."

This may sound a tad mechanical, but the resulting paintings were never that. Reduced in means (black enamel on creamy, unprimed canvas) and method (rubbing), the paintings were severe but never arid, authoritative but never aggressive or brutal.

Now, however, the unthinkable - or at least, for Ferguson-watchers, the unpredictable - has come to pass: The new exhibition is made up entirely of landscapes. Landscapes which, moreover, come perilously close to being painted by hand.

How could this have happened? By a series of setbacks which the artist managed to turn to his advantage. The new landscape paintings were born of necessity. In the fall of 2007, the artist broke his left arm and had to find a way to work with one hand. He says he suddenly found himself remembering how much fun it was doing landscape demonstrations when he was teaching Introductory Painting at NSCAD (from which he recently retired as a professor emeritus). Still, to make direct landscape paintings seemed out of the question - a betrayal of his 40-year avoidance of direct painting with a brush (the last time Ferguson showed landscape paintings was 1984, when he exhibited his Nova Scotia Landscapes, all of which were in fact rendered - lushly and seductively - by New Brunswick painter Gerald Collins from oversweet picture postcards Ferguson had collected for the purpose).

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Using the roller method that had served him so well throughout his frottage years, Ferguson then set about making a whole array of small rollers of various widths, and then boldly set forth - if not to paint with a brush, then to paint with these assorted rollers (his equivalent to a brush). "No nonsense landscapes are what I was looking for," he writes.

And even at that, he didn't work en plein air, outside in the landscape itself. Rather, he chose reproductions of already existing paintings and drawings of Nova Scotia, making felt-pen drawings of them, and then scaling them up in the studio (in black enamel on canvas). The act took him, he says, "dangerously close to real painting."

So close, in fact, that real paintings are what he made.

The new landscapes, the 14 big ones and the 12 small ones he made for the present exhibition really are (he will hate the word) exquisite: lean, spare, forceful, brawny, solid as the rocks and trees they transform. Take a look at Rocks and Small Trees (reproduced here). What recent Canadian landscape - however synthetically arrived at - can match the way it thrusts and heaves and torques its way into an utterly convincing evocation of nature writ wild and eternal and untrammelled? I say you can take a painter out of the landscape, but you can't take the landscape out of the painter.

ALLYSON CLAY

AT THE LEO KAMEN GALLERY

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Mall/Flip sells for $14,500. Until Feb. 14, 80 Spadina Ave., Suite 406, Toronto; 416-504-9515

Allyson Clay's work has often referenced the problematic, contradictory nature of contemporary urbanism, and this new installation, Mall/Flip, extends these concerns - albeit in a charming and surprisingly cavalier way.

Mall/Flip consists of a wall-mounted array of 18 painted metal ellipses of different sizes. Four are mounted with appropriately elliptical aerial photos of stretches of the gigantic South Coast Plaza near Los Angeles, while the other 14, image-free, are hand-painted with car paint (the hard yet handsome colours beginning to awaken in the viewer a feeling for the car culture that feeds these gigantic shopping malls).

The sizing of the ellipses is important because, mounted together, the smaller ones seem to be farther away than the larger ones, so that, though actually flat, the whole arrangement of the ellipses seems to be volumetric, spatial. And given that the ellipses are positioned so that their smaller ends are all heading out of the array, the entire composition seems to be a sort of burst, an explosion of centrifugal ellipses all heading out into the space beyond the work.

It's a rather mute work, in the end - rather unforthcoming about the questions it inevitably seems to raise but refuses to lay to rest -questions such as: will the proliferation of mall-world eventually spread to infect and subsume the other imageless ellipses? In other words is mall-ness a sort of toxin, endlessly seeking hosts? Is the array an enigmatic diagram for later-capitalism's wheezy tendency to fly apart under the stresses of its own monstrous acquisitiveness? Allyson Clay is clearly staying out of this kind of inevitably earthbound discourse. But she's the one painting the perilous pictures.

SKY GLABUSH AT MKG127

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$7,400-$12,500. Until Feb. 7,

127 Ossington Ave., Toronto; 647-435-7682

Like Allyson Clay, London, Ont., painter Sky Glabush has questions to pose about the character and effects of the urban experience. But whereas Clay is up in a helicopter snapping mall photos, Glabush is quietly (and I would add lethally, devastatingly), painting the urban matrix house by house.

This new exhibition, Renting, consists of only four paintings of what, in many painters' hands, might be a cripplingly banal subject: small, unprepossessing city houses. But Glabush's painting of them is cunningly indirect, even distanced.

In White Out, the house is almost obliterated by a canvas full of absurdly artificial splatterings of white oil-pigment snow. Blue House is blue - more an exercise in colour manipulation than in architectural depiction. Only in Scaffold Jump (a house painted from the back, with dreary renovations in progress) does the painting

seem to edge itself toward a sort of realism. The other houses are just paint - superbly disposed.

mail@garymichaeldault.com

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