Nowheresville at General Hardware Contemporary
Until Nov. 12, 1520 Queen St. W, Toronto; generalhardware.ca
Diversity is a word that Toronto loves to throw around. We self-congratulate with the noun at every opportunity, from outdoor food festivals to parades and "heritage months." And, of course, it's true that Toronto is home to a wide range of people(s).
But you'd hardly know it by looking at our art scene. Despite the vast array of events that highlight the artistic practices of particular groups, the bulk of art shows in this city still promote and/or sell, almost to exclusion, works by white, heterosexual men.
Oh, cue the howling rightists! Go ahead, I've heard it all before: I'm being politically correct. (Pardon the digression, but every political stance believes itself to be correct, because that's how politics functions, free of doubt. Get a new chew toy.)
It's difficult, many a month, to find more than one or two exhibitions not made by pale dudes who like ladies. Toronto's art world needs to stop back-patting itself for half-truths. The art scene as a whole in no way reflects the racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual mishmash of our city. My apologies to those invested in the status quo; apologies, and congrats on your long, long run.
How pleasing, then, to find not one but two recent, well-considered exhibitions – in mainstream, commercial galleries – not entirely focused on the tinkerings of said lucky fellahs. You could knock me down with a feather, and given the (mono)tone of the times, it would undoubtedly be a common, creamy gull feather, not a hot-pink sparkly boa one.
At General Hardware Contemporary, Nowheresville, a group show curated by former expatriate artist Matthew Carver (in co-operation with the gallery's owner, Niki Dracos), explores our personal relationships to place, origin and nationality – as seen through the eyes of artists experiencing displacement (internal or geographic) from their homelands.
Among the highlights of this invigorating, at times dark, at times giddily silly exhibition are Anahita Rezvani-Rad's suite of small oil-on-board paintings depicting protests (and violent counteractions) staged during the Iranian "green revolution" – paintings that luxuriate, almost perversely, in lurid colour contrasts and excessive materiality.
Rezvani-Rad's collision of social disruption and sensual engorging forces the viewer to examine the paintings as (at least) two types of action: as works deeply invested in the painterly, in the arrangement of semi-fluids on flat surfaces; and as arch documents of a time of triumph and deadly danger. Perhaps that is the only way to artistically approach violent social revolutions: by mixing all the emotions – the reactive spectrum that ranges from jubilation to horror – into the stew. These works will leave no alert viewer unmoved.
Similarly, Josephine Turalba's sculptures first seduce, then alarm. The smaller of her two sculptures looks like a deep-blue sea sponge, a large cluster of tubular organic forms poached from a coral reef. The larger sculpture is a vibrant, Carnival-style dress, complete with tails and a headdress. I was told that Turalba sometimes wears the work during performances.
How lovely, how pretty … until you realize both works are made from flattened bullet casings. Turalba's personal history (none of my business, but told to me anyway by her gallerist) includes the violent death, by gunshot, of a parent. Fear and remorse turned into whimsical creatures and weird haute couture? Trauma is a strange animal, prone to pouncing.
In the basement gallery at General Hardware, Guocheng Chan's small, mixed-media concoction vibrates off the wall like a gangrenous lung hurled onto a cold slab. Green as grass, as lime soda, as Palmolive dish soap (and as the disguising veils worn by the protesters in Rezvani-Rad's paintings), Chan's pileup of dendrites, veins, bubbles and tissue folds are the rank, chartreuse heart of Nowheresville – a densely layered metonym for the abundant displays of dissociation that the exhibition offers. Save it for last.
Crossing Natures at Paul Petro Contemporary Art
Until Nov. 12, 980 Queen St. W., Toronto; paulpetro.com
A few blocks east of General Hardware, Paul Petro Contemporary offers Crossing Natures, a tidy call-and-response exhibition centred on a pivotal mid-career work by legendary Canadian multidisciplinary artist Joyce Wieland.
Wieland's Entrance to Nature (1988) is an enormous riot of shredded canvas, hacked-up cardboard, pins, wires and staples, all dappled with generous splats of golden glitter – a work that doesn't hang off the wall, but reaches out, with tendrils, like a sparkly but vaguely menacing clump of vines.
Imagine how this defiantly chaotic work was received in the cold, finesse-obsessed 1980s. It's a jungle gym, a B12 shot, a throbbing heart burst from the inside.
The response works by contemporary artists can, to be fair, only attempt to recapture this unfettered energy. But they do so with gusto – especially Mélanie Rocan's large but intricate paintings of forestscapes, paintings embedded with miniature cities, sprites and spectral animals.
Janet Morton, an obvious heir to Wieland's wide (and wise)-eyed practice, makes the interior dialogues of the collage three-dimensional with her inverted, knitting-covered tree, which resembles a chandelier made of wool that's been gutted and strung up, its entrails left in a particoloured pile on the floor. I suspect Wieland would be proud.
The fact that Crossing Natures and Nowheresville are on display at the same time is a happy art-world accident (or maybe something's in the wind?). Without acknowledging the real diversity, the not-boys'-club history of Toronto art, we can't begin to appreciate our current reality.
In other venues
Leanne Eisen at Pikto
Until Nov. 16, 55 Mill St., Building 59-103, Toronto; pikto.com
Eisen follows the radiation trail (metaphorically speaking) left behind by digital imaging, creating photo-based works that resemble the Northern Lights, brainwaves, and the glassy interiors of icebergs.
Janet Bellotto at Deluca Fine Art
Until Nov. 27, 217 Avenue Rd., Toronto; delucafineart.com
Belloto's multimedia exploration of the scent industry and the emotions it plays with, and upon, is a tingling treat – a perfume stand in a department store run by conceptual artists. And, yes, it smells delicious.
Rocky & Junction Joe at The Mascot
Until Nov. 30, 1267 Queen St. W., Toronto; themascot.ca.
Two of Toronto's most prolific "street artists" (an unfortunate term, one that diminishes the impact of unofficial public art) step inside to share their aggressive, down-with-the-system, raw, rough and perfectly gorgeous creations. How timely can you get?
– R.M. Vaughan