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George S. Zimbel's free-range children from another time

George S. Zimbel: Photographs of Children Stephen Bulger Gallery, 1026 Queen Street West; until Sept. 17

Never work with children or animals – photograph them instead.

Like animals (yes, I am making that equivalency), small children are not over burdened by how they "present," as the psychological texts describe it – i.e. how they act, appear or react, and are therefore in turn perceived by the larger world. A child's mirror is naturally limited, fogged up, and thus children are less inhibited, less self-conscious and far less controlling of their self-presentation and/or representation. And the whole self/other dilemma, the core of identity, still sits uneasily in their minds (and, for some of us, stays that way until we drop).

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It's hardly surprising, then, that children are a perennial topic for photographers – chimps with clothes. Their very unformed-ness makes them natural models, performers and total hams. But photographers often misstep when they conflate childish openness with innocence – a morality-driven, 19th century conceit that sets children up as helpless, rather than merely uninformed, and arguably makes them easier to exploit (a la the recent Vogue Paris controversy over the use of 10-year-old model Thylane Loubry Blondeau).

A collection of acclaimed photographer George S. Zimbel's images of children, currently on display at Stephen Bulger Gallery, perfectly illustrates the difference between recognizing a child model's limited self-awareness (and employing it to great effect), and imposing an adult reading of a child as "innocent" onto an image of a child (which, at best, is cute, at worst, maudlin). Zimbel's subjects, even at their most posed and camera-ready, are never mindless innocents – they are creatures at play, in the process of discovery, a process which includes discovering their own capacity for self-deprecation, performativity, and even malevolence. If Zimbel wrote kids' books, he'd be Roald Dahl, not L. Frank Baum.

In my favourite photograph, a child attempts to stand on the arm rests of opposite train seats, blocking the aisle. Although we cannot see the child's face, he is watched from a short distance by a serious looking man sporting thick glasses. Clearly, the child knows he is being observed, and either doesn't care and gives the stunt a go anyway, consequences be damned, or thinks he'll get away with his misbehaviour.

Thus, play, experiment, boundary testing and a conscious decision to not fully process one's actions (or the reactions of those in control) are all factors at work in this marvellous, split-second shot. An entire text on the value of disregarding rules and disregarding fears of failure (the kid is clearly going to fall) – two profoundly influential choices in early intellectual development that are under constant attack by today's too controlling, "bubble wrapped" parenting – could be written based on this single, arresting image.

Many of the photographs in the exhibition were taken in the middle of the last century and if you look away from the children, especially in images that capture crowds or busy streets, you notice something practically unthinkable today: nobody is watching the kids.

Apparently, in some golden era, children were invisible, or at least not incessantly monitored. No wonder they grew up, those boomer babies, to take over the world (and then wreck it) – they were treated as little more than visual noise. Reflex narcissism was embedded in them at an early age.

Not surprisingly, then, many of Zimbel's photographs not only feel like wildlife shots, but carry the same composition strategies. In a neat parallel with anthropomorphism, children are photographed centred in their natural habitats, or, for comic effect, removed from same, but are observed as if they are non-humans doing something wondrously human-like – chimps playing cards! The child is read as an imperfect, amusing copy of an adult.

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Teeming with detail and a rough bluntness, Zimbel's informed and informing photos of tykes and moppets are perhaps more fresh and vital now than they were when first taken, because the freewheeling children depicted are an endangered species.

James Marshall and Greg Lamarche: Geometric Balance Show & Tell Gallery, 1161 Dundas Street W.; until Aug. 31

Between them, collagist Greg Lamarche and painter James Marshall (a.k.a. Dalek) create enough kinetic energy to power their host gallery, Show & Tell, and any portable devices you might bring along. Entitled Geometric Balance, their semi-collaboration (it's collaborative in that the works are decidedly related and meant to be read as cross pollinations), is both true to its name and yet not so accurate – their works are definitely investigations of geometry, the history of mid-century geo-abstraction and the always seductive charm of symmetry, but both artists actively undermine any sense of certainty the genre may induce.

Lamarche's exacting, achingly precise collages slam (if such a verb can be used to describe works made of delicate slices of paper) arrow shapes against hard rectangles, diamonds against knifing black lines, smiley face yellow against legal pad white, lime green against deep burgundy. Collisions pile up, layer by layer, creating vibrating, tense, all-directions-at-once vistas. The contradiction, however, rests in Lamarche's lace doily-precise technique. He handles his cut outs like a father cradling a newborn. Subsequently, his collages are simultaneously manic and restful. Are these depictions of crashing entities or puzzle pieces nestling cozily into place?

Marshall's paintings play a tighter game – they are spookily, robotically exact, as if made by a gem cutter. But Marshall's colour choices are deeply soothing – princess pinks and mouse paw greys, garnet reds, faded china blues and chocolate milk browns. Again, the harsh, rigorous geometrical principles – the rules, so to speak – that are the skeletons of the paintings are muted, made gentle and friendly, by Marshall's nursery palette.

Math, it seems, does sometimes lie.

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Gaston Soucy Stantec Window Gallery, 401 Wellington Street W.; until Sept. 23

Soucy's tribute to the sock factory that once thrived at 401 Wellington West could use a lot less wooly literalism – the yarn rainbow is lovely, but the light box carrying the word "remember" is a bit heavy footed.

15th Anniversary Propeller, 984 Queen Street W.; until Aug. 28

Last chance to catch this massive survey of Propeller's long, fertile history. As the only artist-run centre left on the Queen West strip, Propeller holds its own with style – besides, what would they do with all that art if they had to move? Many happy returns!

Sunmi Jung Burlington Art Centre, 1333 Lakeshore Road, Burlington; until Sept. 18

Master ceramicist Jung takes over the BAC's newly renovated garden with a horrifyingly beautiful collection of sculptures of tortured (or ecstatic?) spirits who erupt from the ground like evil (or frisky?) gophers. This is the new face of garden gnomery.

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