Jeremy Hof & Sasha Pierce at Jessica Bradley Art + Projects
Until Feb. 11, 1450 Dundas St. W., Toronto; jessicabradleyartprojects.com Walking into Jessica Bradley Art + Projects, you will see two sets of very attractive paintings.
One set, by Jeremy Hof, contains bright, cheerful variations on mandalas, concentric circles and vertiginous spirals. The other set, by Sasha Pierce, contains finely detailed cross hatchings of paint, lines of quiet colour applied in fan shapes and enfolded pie slices. Both please the eye enormously, and make a good pair – Hof's Pop hot tones enliven Pierce's wooly hues, and Pierce's geometry-derived patterns anchor Hof's dreamy swirls.
What you will not see, but will enjoy looking deeper into once you get the inside dope (always ask gallerists for more information, they don't bite), are the completely crazed (in the fun way) working practices employed by both artists.
Taking a simple square of panel, Hof applies hundreds of layers acrylic paint, with each new layer completely smothering the last. This takes months. The layers of paint are applied in a system, one carefully chosen colour after another; a system that will later be revealed by Hof's subsequent interventions onto/into the surface. When all the layers are built up, Hof then picks up a sheet of sandpaper, of a fine grade, and gently, slowly, patiently rubs down into the layers, rubs until the various layers are all exposed, creating a concave pit ringed by colour.
Imagine a slice of tree, with the growth rings exposed, mounted upright on a wall, and you have a sense of the paintings' progress being revealed. Also, look at the paintings from the side and you will notice a gentle concavity in the spaces where Hof has burrowed into his own layer cakes.
Pierce's technique is similarly maddening to contemplate, especially if you are prone to carpal tunnel syndrome.
By packing oil paints (one or more colours) into a tube with a nozzle at the end (imagine the icing tubes used to decorate cakes), Pierce gently winds the different strands of paint into tiny, thread-thin streams of crisscrossed, braided colour. Then she does it again, and again, and again, until her linen base is covered in a kind of tapestry of paint. Each strand is as hard as a cat's whisker but twinkles, as if sub-stitched with matte metallic seams. Bright wiggles of pinging colour form irruptive, near-microscopic liquid sequins.
As each cluster of Pierce's paint cords grows outward from a narrow, singular point, a vertex birthing two angles – and any given work can contain dozens of such vertices – it is impossible while watching a Pierce work unfold not to think of both the long history of Op Art, with it's eye-popping, mathematically driven illusions or, counterintuitively, homespun textiles such as quilts.
Some viewers may find Hof's burnished devolutions, his active de-painting, too precious, too much work for too little reward (as if hard work is meant only for spectacles and/or colossal works). Likewise, some viewers may find Pierce's fussiness wearying, even stifling.
But there are always many ways to read paintings, and, as much space as I've given both artist's techniques aside, one can easily revel in these transcendent and transporting works without oversubscribing to the work-ethic connotations both carry (but, to be fair, do not overplay).
See these works as they present themselves first, as covetable objects that celebrate the materiality of paint. Then, if you are so inclined, investigate the processes that fuel the works. But remember that if the paintings were not so deliciously inviting in the first place, not so happy to see you, you would hardly (nor, certainly, would I) bother to discover their studio secrets.
Christine Negus at Gallery TPW
Until Feb. 18, 56 Ossington Ave., Toronto; gallerytpw.ca
I am of two minds (insert your own joke here) about the multimedia work of Christine Negus, currently on display at Gallery TPW.
Negus's sculptures – a neon sign spelling the word "slaughter," but with the "s" blinking on and off, turning the word into a thematic opposite, "laughter"; a set of memorial wreaths made from icky wig hair and fake flowers; and an unprintable slogan made from large hanging letters (the kind used to make Happy Birthday chain banners) – are clever, deadpan witty and well crafted.
Negus's videos, projected onto a back wall at TPW and on a set of flatscreens, are another matter. They too are ghoulish and knee-jerk provocative, and mostly feature rough animations of children talking about gruesome deaths, the death of art and speak-singing a sad Motown classic.
While these works will provoke chuckles, they are not nearly as disturbing or morbid chic as they think they are: This collision of faux childish innocence with violent and vulgar revelations is everywhere now, from mainstream films (the cussing kids in Talladega Nights come to mind) to MTV's Wonder Showzen to the recent mini-scandal over the swearing toddler on the sitcom Modern Family.
Of course, Negus is playing with multiple tropes at once, the most significant and recurring being the idea that the universe is at best benignly indifferent to our fates, as the children make so explicit, the worst that the universe actively seeks to undermine our happiness. But, again, you've seen this all before – in the far more considered (and thus more charged) work of Duke & Battersby, and in about every fourth film at the Images Festival.
I know every practice now quickly gets reduced to a meme, and it's tough to stay fresh, but the hipster creepy-cute motif is spent.
At other venues
Haydn Llewellyn Davies and Eva Koller Davies at Pentimento Gallery
Until Feb. 26, 1164 Queen St. E., Toronto; pentimento.ca
Two pioneers of Canadian abstraction brought together in one space. Pioneers, but not fossils. This work is as lively today as it will be in 10 years. Teachers, set up your student tours.
Leslie Watts at Gallery Stratford
Until April 15, 54 Romeo St. S., Stratford, Ont.; gallerystratford.on.ca
Watts's egg tempuras glow with alchemical mist, and mystery. Her paintings of emptied prisons radiate, appropriately, with smiling, but secretive, information, calm but calculated power. And her felt-soft greys appear poached from the fraught heavens.
Susanna Heller at Olga Korper Gallery
Until Feb. 28, 17 Morrow Ave., Toronto; olgakorpergallery.com
Jump, don't walk, to see Heller's new work. I mean that literally, because Heller's work is perpetually in flux, leaping and bolting ahead of the viewer. Heller paints like her studio is on fire; all flicked dashes and fight-or-flight, anxious swabs.