Lisa Neighbour at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary
Until Nov. 27, 1086 Queen St. W., Toronto; katharinemulherin.com
Toronto-based multimedia artist Lisa Neighbour (best known for her magical large-scale sculptures made from repurposed lamps, on display in venues across town) is not an artist one immediately associates with the word "shock." If anything, the bulk of her work to date has arguably been dedicated to creating a soothing, slow-pulse atmosphere.
Well, hold onto your hat (indeed, your head). Her new show at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary, Bite the Dust, is a suite of fogged-over drawings on creamy white mitsumata paper. Most are images of spectral, floating heads; heads encircling faces that appear to be either unconscious, meditating, or about to fall asleep.
So far, so restfully … until you realize that the heads you are looking at, and are perhaps inspiring you to indulge in a calming nap yourself, are the heads of victims of decapitation. Sweet dreams are definitely not made of this.
Sourced, I was informed by the gallery attendant, from various news and citizen-journalism outlets, Neighbour's recreations of the aftershock of decapitation are simultaneously grisly and gorgeous. The people look neither obviously frightened nor in pain. But, of course, they must have suffered both.
Furthermore, Neighbour's drawing style, which moves in and out of focus from high-realist to smudgy, blurred photo-like near-abstraction, refuses to take any didactic or moral stand. Death by decapitation may be either an agonizing demise or an ecstatic release. I'll never know from these drawings, and I don't want to find out the obvious way.
Some viewers may perceive Neighbour's deliberate inconclusiveness as offensive: a mere artist's game being played with some very real, very cruel injustices. But I concluded that Neighbour's visual ambiguity is a result not of a lack of concern for her subjects, but the opposite – the desire to give dignity, via the turning of horror into loveliness, to the dead.
Furthermore, the ambiguous dialogue that Neighbour establishes with her viewers plays an enormous role in how the works are viewed. If you saw these works and did not read the information sheet provided, you would be unlikely to fully recognize what you were seeing. Neighbour's partial negation of her own presence as a witness – a negation arrived at by both her non-determining presentation strategy and her sometimes hard/sometimes feathery pencil work – returns the power of the gaze to her subjects and thus, by extension, to us, their viewers.
In other words, if you want solid answers from these works, you have to get them from the depicted, not the depicter.
Aanikoobijigani Gikinoohamaagewinan: Noonkom ishinamowinan at the Gladstone Hotel
Curated by Vanessa Dion Fletcher
Until Nov. 30, 1214 Queen St. W., Toronto; gladstonehotel.com
Aanikoobijigani Gikinoohamaagewinan: Noonkom ishinamowinan (Ancestral Teachings: Contemporary Perspectives) is a lively, compact group show of new works by aboriginal artists whose individual practices revisit/reimagine the shared traditions of oral culture(s). Including everything from performance video to pop culture appropriation to free zine distribution, Ancestral Teachings takes the root transaction that fuels oral culture – the open sharing of information and narratives – and juices this ancient social contract with some respectful sass.
Highlights include Christian Chapman's hilarious Seven Fire Prophets – mixed media on paper works that recast Disney's moronic seven dwarfs as flame orange, eyeless spirit beings, entities representing the virtues, for instance, of Bravery, Honesty, Love, etc. Nothing is more charming, nor more aptly bratty, than this sort of bold stroke détournement; an action that causes you to perceive an iconic figure (or figures) as suddenly available for multiple and self-deconstructing readings. Plus, anything that sticks it to Disney, which has a lot to answer for in its depictions of aboriginal peoples, works for me.
Similarly, Erika Iserhoff augments a long, roughly stitched and bitten (to make patterns) strip of birch bark with a pristine photo transfer of a tree-lined lake. Old and new collide, yet neither seems out of place. The photo transfer is so skillfully integrated with the bark that, at first, it is almost invisible. The double lines created by the trees and their reflections parallel the natural striations in the bark. Iserhoff thus creates a kind of pause between traditional image making and contemporary, valourizing neither at the other's expense.
Amy Malbeuf's video loop, Rebirth, begins with a creature emerging from a snow-covered forest, its body covered head to toe in a pearly white, form-fitting shiny material (similar to a speed skater's uniform). The creature makes a snow angel, prances about, then removes the white covering, revealing a gleaming gold suit, followed by suits of cobalt and hot pink. Finally, the figure collapses, nude, and curls up on the powdery turf.
Conflating expensive sports gear with the cocoon-to-butterfly narrative, a birth analogy as old as human observation, seems like a bit of a cheap shot at first, a nature vs. the commercialization of nature (via outdoor sports) jab.
But Malbeuf frames the video as a joyous occasion, a forest debutant debut in ski bunny colours. This video is simply too playful to be read as a cranky diatribe. And nudity in the snow is always funny – it may even be a Canadian art sub-genre.
As with all the works in Ancestral Teachings, it's the fusion of traditional (but no less complex) identity narratives with new, open and polymorphous self-renderings – bark and snow with pixels and digitalization, so to speak – that matters in Malbeuf's video.
Self-actualization (personal and communal) comes in hot pink too.
IN OTHER VENUES
Katy Horan, Adrienne Kammerer, Jamiyla Lowe at Narwhal Art Projects
Until Dec. 5, 680 Queen St. W., Toronto
Creepy and cute (is there a German word for that?), Three Knocks showcases Horan's slithery ink and tissue paper silhouettes, Kammerer's misty drawings of occult-crazed children, and Lowe's razor sharp images of satanic circuses. Get your Goth on.
AIDS Action Now Poster/Virus; posters displayed across Toronto
Launching on the eve of International Day Without Art, AAN's public art campaign responds to the ongoing AIDS crisis with uncompromising, offended citizen-goading messages and visuals. When people stop dying, you can start complaining.
Tien Chang at Fran Hill Gallery
Until Dec. 18, 285 Rushton Rd., Toronto
You don't really look at a Tien Chang, you run with it. Chang unleashes more kinetic energy in a single painting than any three barns on fire. His horses are rampaging knots of muscle, sinew and breath – mane-to-tail tornadoes.