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r.m. vaughan: the exhibitionist

Norouz 2011 at Queen Gallery

Until March 30, 382 Queen St. E. Toronto;

The spring celebration Nowruz, a.k.a. Persian New Year is, to my mind, the most fun of the varied new-year celebrations available to Torontonians. Jan. 1 is overkill. And the Chinese Lunar New Year, with its multiple meals, just makes me fatter. But during Nowruz, believed to have been invented by no less than the philosopher/prophet Zoroaster himself, you get to light bonfires. Big bonfires. It's like spring cleaning with lighter fluid.

A snappy new group show at Queen Gallery, entitled Norouz (one of many English spellings of the word), celebrates the holiday with a varied assortment of works by seven Iranian-Canadian artists, all of whom approach the forward-looking theme - the transliteration of the Persian word nowruz is literally "new day" - with a winning combination of clear-eyed bluntness (particularly around the ongoing oppression and political turmoil in Iran) and informed hopefulness.

It's hardly surprising that many of the works employ vibrant, celebratory colours and depict domestic scenes. Hope, like charity, begins at home.

Sayeh Irankhah's acrylics on canvas are heavily textured, almost 3-D, and unapologetically decorative. Her still lifes of bowls, serving vessels and food are augmented with swirling Arabic text, paisleys and floral patterns, each highlighted with specks of gold trim and gorgeous dollops of turquoise. My favourite is a painting dominated by a wide, leafy green strip covered in stylized, bronze-and-gold flecked Arabic.

Under the text, which covers 80 per cent of the surface, sits a thick layer of terracotta red paint that supports a parade of five dopey, fat birds: two peacocks, a stork or heron and two ducks. This painting is pure joy. I could have asked for a translation of the Arabic, but I'd rather make up my own poem.

Equally joyful are Firoozeh Tangestanian's portraits of families of tall, elongated women sporting Marge Simpson-style towers of hair; sleepy-eyed, aquiline men dressed in swaddling clothes; and smirking, round-headed children. Each family appears to live in a symbol-laden dream world, one where giant fish, turtles, orchids and birds wander freely into homes decorated in overlapping layers of dazzling textiles.

Like Irankhah, Tangestanian deftly pricks her paintings with pinpoints of gold, thus giving the otherwise formal (despite their strange trappings) familial compositions a subtle internal dialogue. The gold tracings act like thought bubbles, illuminating the private but still evident tensions, dreams and larger emotional issues, all the things unsaid in "happy family" pictures.

In stark contrast to both artists' works, Touka Neyestani offers horrific political cartoons that speak unvarnished truth to ugly power. The characters in them are either hulking, combat-ready cops in full riot gear; men who mindlessly pummel everything, from small birds to babies; or prisoners in jumpsuits who struggle to achieve simple tasks while their hands are tied behind their backs. Even the dumbest mullah would get these messages.

Neyestani comes by his politics directly - his brother is Mana Neyestani, a controversial cartoonist in Iran who has suffered arrest for his work, and both men are the sons of Manouchehr Neyestani, a famous Iranian poet and scribe of working-class life. One can only imagine what this family has endured in service to their creativity and communities.

A quieter but no less valiant struggle is displayed in Mohsen Khalili's exquisite suite of small black-and-white prints. Based on time spent by the artist in the hospital, for a recurring illness, Khalili's bent, warped amoebas appear to be a cross between vegetable root systems, guts, nerve ganglions and psychedelic ink blots. Fragile and yet full of possible future shapes, the prints neatly sum up the mixed feelings a new year always brings.

Winter Thaw at Galerie Lausberg

Until April 24, 326 Dundas St. W., Toronto;

To mark their move from Queen to Dundas, Galerie Lausberg is presenting Winter Thaw, a massive survey of works from their stable of neoabstractionists. With 30 artists contributing, and with a space about double the size of their previous digs, this show is nothing if not generous.

Lenticular light boxes pulsing with hot neons hang beside thickly lacquered, chewed-gum curls of mixed colour. Melted Plexiglas sculptures mingle with giant wrought-iron baskets. Plastic towers made from multicoloured blocks rest next to car-hood-sized enamel shields. From every wall and cranny, works gleaming with a fetishy pride in finish and polish flirt with the viewer. If you can't find something to covet in this exhibition, you just don't like art.

My only critique of the collection is that very few of the more than two dozen artists on hand are women. I counted three. Call me politically correct (I prefer the term "politically informed"), but how does this still happen, in 2011?

Perhaps the kind of work Galerie Lausberg specializes in, a very European style of industrial postpop, playfully severe minimalism, does not have many female adherents, but I rather doubt it. And I do not believe in gender essentialism - that there is such a reliably identifiable thing as female or male art. Art is never that easy.

However, an exhibition consisting almost entirely of work by male artists undeniably carries a certain tone, a sameness, as would a show concocted entirely of female artists, and I feel Lausberg, a gallery that goes to great lengths to offer smart, informed and internationally alert shows, could do better - not out of altruism nor to fulfill some non-existent quota, but because the shows would benefit from the inevitable contrasts.

Here's hoping the spacious new venue engenders (forgive the pun) a parallel expansion of the gallery's vision.

Dianne Bos at Edward Day Gallery

Until April 10, 952 Queen St. W., Suite 200, Toronto;

Diane Bos is a photographer's photographer. Her new works at Edward Day, half of which were taken with rough pinhole cameras made out of old travel books, are luminous, light-drenched vistas that seductively embrace the unstable materiality of photography's chemical (and alchemical) processes.

Bos captures faded domestic interiors as if she were watching the dust settle through a waxed goldfish bowl or a tissue-thin, wet nylon stocking - everything is ever so slightly faded, remote, on the verge of collapse.

Sleepy and tense at the same time, Bos's works replicate those first moments of waking, when tenuous reality comes into semi-focus.

In other venues

Travis Shilling at the Gladstone Hotel

Until March 26, 1214 Queen St. W., Toronto

Shilling's animal-versus-human dramas are bittersweet meditations on our confused relationship with other sentient critters, neighbours we sometimes pet and sometimes eat.

Dan Bazuin at Propeller Centre

Until March 27, 984 Queen St. W., Toronto

Using found metallic objects crushed by trains, Bazuin creates a menagerie of postapocalyptic creatures that resemble deep-sea fish, Duchampian ready-mades and tin-can puppets.

Xiaojing Yan at Artspace

Until April 9, 378 Aylmer St. N., Peterborough, Ont.

Suspending 1,364 white ceramic soup spoons from the gallery ceiling, the artist replicates the familiar three-arch outline of a Song Dynasty bridge. Humble and humbling, Yan's sculpture is a frozen wind chime.