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Portable Mosques: The Sacred Space of the Prayer Rug at the Textile Museum of Canada

Until Sept. 3, 55 Centre Ave., Toronto; textilemuseum.ca

A young curator asked me recently if I could name any artists making "straight-up liturgical art" – i.e. art that celebrated a religious parable, devotional ideal, or specific deity.

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I came up with two on first pounce: sculptor Farhad Nargol-O'Neill, who makes abstract bronzes based on Christian biblical scripture, and photographer Anthony Easton, who is amassing a collection of images of spare, mid-century modernist churches. Pressed, I also suggested the many Iranian-Canadian artists connected to Queen Gallery, in Toronto's east end, who frequently employ tropes culled from Persian/Sufi and Zoroastrian mysticism.

And that was it. While many exhibitions in the past decade have openly explored magic, myth and occult practices, formal religious art meant to inspire or give solace to a particular religious community, appears to have been relegated to the mass-produced iconography industry – the Virgin Mary plaque, the tabletop Ganesh, the Buddha for the dashboard.

But, as always happens, the minute I say something is rare, along comes a truckload of said rarity.

Portable Mosques: The Sacred Space of the Prayer Rug, on display at the Textile Museum of Canada, is as liturgical as it gets. One practically expects the gallery to be hung with speakers broadcasting the call to prayer.

Comprised of more than two dozen stunning examples of prayer rugs, from Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan and India, among others, Portable Mosques is a classic Textile Museum show – in that it re-positions objects made for largely utilitarian purposes as art (a strategy I adore, because it upturns so many overloaded art/not art apple carts). It also very much not a typical Textile Museum show, in that, despite all the well-intentioned ethnography surrounding the rugs, you cannot help but feel a palpable reverence when in the presence of these knotty, plush masterpieces. And I don't even believe in astrology, let alone an almighty creator.

Perhaps this spark of the divine is partly caused by the elaborate, hypnotic patterning evident in the rugs – patterns that reverberate off a central, two-tiered rectangle, whose top niche is meant to be oriented toward Mecca. Entrancingly dense, these pattern layers make the common central shape appear to pulse and float above the surface of the rugs.

Inside each layer, bars and chevrons teem alongside geometrically arranged polygons, diamond shapes, stars, miniature mandalas and paisleys. The colours, despite their age (many of the rugs date from the 19th century), are still deep and robust – denim blues, blood and wine reds, burnt gold, chocolate browns, buttercup yellows.

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You look at these gorgeous (and obviously costly) constructions and wonder how anyone could ever place their knees on them. But that's the key – even the most beautifully fabricated pieces, works as abundant in decorative fancy as any Fabergé egg, were always meant to have a dual purpose, to be both admired and used, daily.

And that's where the reverence rests, in the idea that an artist would create a tapestry of startling beauty exactly because he or she wanted to infuse the mundane act of five-times-a-day ritual prayer with a vibrant visual response, a prayer enacted via silk and wool (and a visual shorthand for the idyllic, pleasure-garden afterlife promised the faithful).

Furthermore, the rugs celebrate the mosque as a place of inspiration in and of itself. Many of the patterns create a kind of projected replica, a small screen if you will, showing the view from the interior of a mosque. The sacred space of the prayer hall becomes a state of mind, easily triggered (and carried about) by the mosque stand-in visible on the rug; an image that would grow larger, of course, and cut off all peripheral views, as the supplicant kneels and then places their face down, down, to the soft pile.

Unfortunately, the experience of actually kneeling on a rug is not available to visitors. Surely a rug that is not an artifact could be set up on the gallery floor, in a manner respectful of the religious traditions attached to it, to better demonstrate how prayer rug design works in tandem with the act of praying.

Liturgical art, even the most precious and decorative, always has a practical function that complements the intangibles it represents. In order to fully understand the metaphysical conceits, you need the physical half of the equation.

IN OTHER VENUES

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Y.M. Whelan at Fran Hill Gallery

Until April 15, 285 Rushton Rd., Toronto; franhill.ca

Whelan's rough-lined, chock-a-block abstracts are sharp enough to cut skin. Why, then, do they seem to be made out of cotton and fog? This is how mathematicians dream.

Stephen Andrews at Paul Petro Contemporary Art

Until March 31, 980 Queen St. W., Toronto; paulpetro.com Grand master Andrews offers a new selection of maddeningly, precisely imprecise paintings and drawings on translucent Mylar. Andrews appears to making art on a molecular level. Or angelic.

Eliane Excoffier at Stephen Bulger Gallery

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Until March 24, 1026 Queen St. W., Toronto; bulgergallery.com

Last chance to see Excoffier's dark, dangerous, sexy (and critical of sexualization) photographs – inky, kinky images that resemble a cross between erotic movie stills and Weegee crime scene pics.

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