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r.m. vaughan: the exhibitionist

Jeffrey Wang at Engine Gallery

Until Aug. 7, 37 Mill St., Toronto;

Jeffrey Wang paints as if he's looking at the world through a funhouse mirror - one that vertically stretches his subjects and turns them into eerily lanky, bubbled lengths of taffy. Heads are ovate, legs taper and bulge, hands become lobster claws, and faces appear to be pulled down by weighted chins. It's a drunken world, alternating between lurid and goofy, never at ease with gravity (or reality).

For all that, Wang is still very much a portrait painter, but one less interested in capturing the particulars of individuals (many of his subjects are family members and friends) than reconfiguring said individuals to match his seen-through-a-glass-bottle-bottom world view. Portraiture, Wang appears to be arguing, is always filtered through some sort of lens, is a subjective response, so why fight it? The results, ensembles of models who resemble distressed noodles, complete with boiled egg pallor, are both hilarious and weirdly fragile - watch out, they're sliding off the canvas!

For ballast, Wang surrounds his characters with props, objects culled from art and pop culture history - a menagerie of animals, luxurious drapery and rugs, stolid furniture, unremarkable trees and pristine, rolling landscapes, lots of fruit. In many ways, Wang is also a classic "story painter," in that he invests each scene with allegorical elements - fruit equals fecundity and plenty, birds equal the human soul, dogs equal the baser desires, and on and on. If that sounds terribly precious, don't worry - Wang's playfulness makes up for his occasional tendency to overdress his sets.

For me, the most intriguing thing about Wang's work is his exploration of Asian-ness, especially as projected onto the Western portrait tradition. To wit, his Asian subject's epicanthic eye folds are exaggerated to double, even triple size, while mouths are small but house gaping overbites. The skin tone of his Asian subjects is at times more jaundiced than olive, and their postures and gestures - bent, stooped and shuffling - could be lifted directly from an old Charlie Chan movie.

Wang is tiptoeing on thorny ground here, and the day I saw his work an Asian couple walked into the gallery and immediately walked out in a huff (not that such reactions are inherently troublesome - art is not comfort food).

What viewers need to observe is that everyone in Wang's paintings is presented in an off-kilter manner. The Caucasians are lumpy and sickly, made of overcooked oats and stale milk. A woman in a hijab somehow supports her huge head with baby-sized shoulders. One man wears a blue demon monkey mask, for no apparent reason, and the slobbering canines in the paintings are lusty, feet-sniffing little perverts. Wang's world view is hardly loving (although it is loveable), so his boundary-pushing representation of Asian subjects is part and parcel of an apparent unease with, and mockery of, the human body.

Deliciously unwholesome and decadently languorous, Wang's paintings are sweaty fever dreams, visions revivified in oily bile and burnt sugar.

Greg Girard at Monte Clark Gallery

Until Aug. 21, 55 Mill St., Toronto;

While Wang populates his paintings with melting near-humans, Greg Girard's photographs of Hanoi present a cityscape almost devoid of people - a bustling zombie town.

Girard's Hanoi is obviously occupied, as the evidence of human habitation is plentiful - from empty chairs to blinking neon signs to motorcycles. But Girard captures the city in midnight moments, when nothing moves too fast, and the city, as all cities do, becomes a warren of closed doors and blackened windows.

Girard's imagery is unabashedly romantic (he has a fondness for long, twinkling alleyways and light-dappled balustrades), but does not romanticize. His Hanoi is one dirty, scrappy city - a city whose inhabitants build ramshackle homes on top of former colonial buildings, employing whatever scraps they can find, and where housing and businesses sit inches away from train tracks. Everywhere you look, ingenuity makes up for lack of material goods. This is DIY, dumpster-dive culture at its most energetic, and least decorative.

Girard's detailed attention to the traces of human occupation, as opposed to actual humans, conversely gives his imagery an unexpected emotional rawness and immediacy. One feels that one is observing spaces clandestinely, in peeks and glances, while the occupant's heads are turned.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Girard's photograph of an empty bedroom. A thin mattress is propped up against a stained, robin's egg blue wall. The bed is tidily made up, sporting a beaded covering. Old and new photographs of family members hang over the bed, framing the mattress and figuratively framing, one supposes, the life stories of the mattress's owners. There are enough narratives lingering in this single image to supply a trilogy of intergenerational novels.

As Vietnam continues to shift to a market-driven economy, the haphazard, slapped-together look of Hanoi will inevitably disappear. You can't blame the residents for wanting new, shiny homes. Capitalism being the speedy devil it is, Girard's photographs, taken just last year, are thus already memento mori - which explains their dreamy, moonlit quality, the hint of melancholy.

I doubt, however, that many of Hanoi's actual residents will miss the transitional, chipboard-and-chicken-wire era Girard captures. Roughing it is only charming when you've got a return ticket in your backpack.

Ilya Gefter at Julie M. Gallery

Until Sept. 4, 15 Mill St., Toronto;

After these two very didactic shows, Ilya Gefter's suite of misty, achingly delicate paintings are a quiet respite.

Gefter's crafty focus pulling/focus releasing causes the viewer to first seek out the solid, fully materialized objects being studied, and then to drift toward the liminal spaces, the backgrounds and sunsets, all underpainted veils of muted colour. Absence and presence, negative and positive space, are neatly, even obsessively, balanced, but Gefter's works are not overly painterly or forced.

Sleight of hand rarely feels so honest.

Other venues:

Amy Swartz at Angell Gallery

Until Aug. 20, 12 Ossington Ave., Toronto

Dead bugs with little hats! Dead bugs with doll heads! Dead bugs marching in formation! Part gonzo taxidermist, part Dracula's fly-loving henchman Renfield, Swartz makes even the tiniest deaths meaningful (and, yes, morbidly funny).

Mitsuo Kimura at LE Gallery

Until Aug. 4, 1183 Dundas St. W., Toronto

If the heat isn't enough to induce mild hallucinations, Kimura's insanely detailed paintings, collisions of Japanese landscape art with anime-driven monsterism, will send you over the (Sailor) moon.

This Is Paradise at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art

Until Aug. 21, 952 Queen St. W., Toronto

A survey of Toronto's 1980s Queen West scene, This Is Paradise is triggering all the usual grumbling - who and what is included/who and what isn't included - but we rarely celebrate our own art history around here, so just go already.