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r.m. vaughan: the exhibitionist

Harold Town at Christopher Cutts Gallery Until Jan. 29, 21 Morrow Ave., Toronto;

The first half of January is typically a gallery dead zone – many close up for an extended break, and most do not open their first shows of the new year until a couple of weeks in. Blame the sensory overload of Christmas.

Luckily, a handful of exhibitions remain on view, all of them leftovers (and I don't mean that in the negative way) from the Yule rush. Just because everyone else is in recovery, eating dust and sticks and watching The Nature of Things, it doesn't mean you have to be monkish too – the best cure for sensory overload is intellectual stimulation.

Start your re-entry with the small but kicky survey of Harold Town's legendary Snap paintings at Christopher Cutts Gallery. If you're prone to vertigo, bring a sturdy friend.

Town, who died in 1990, was a founding member of Painters Eleven, a celebrated Canadian mid-century abstract painting collective, and an equally famous workaholic. He painted like Madonna commissions remixes – often and well.

The Snap paintings were made via an elaborate process wherein Town stretched paint-coated strings across broad stretches of canvas, then snapped the strings, one thin line after the next, against the surface, gradually covering and recovering the whole (many works on display at Christopher Cutts measure six feet square). As if that were not mind-boggling enough, Town inserted cloud and polygonal shapes into the striations, and then snapped paint into the interiors of the shapes, usually in wildly clashing colours. Small, irruptive hard forms (luridly coloured rectangles, arrow, wedge and coral shapes) float across the pulsing, wavy vistas as well, like alien ships landing on windswept dunes.

Looking at these works today, 40 plus years after their debut, I was struck by how Town's uneasy, grinding visual noise predated (predicted?) early video art and computer animation, the pixelation of imagery we now take for granted, the garish fashions of the late 70s and early 80s, and the now-academicized concept of the artist, even an artist working in a static medium, as performer.

Town's aggressive personality (well documented, but not something I am old enough to have experienced up close), his maniacal work ethic, and his need to make the presence of the painter evident are all here, embedded in the bumpy, relentlessly repetitive and crackling textures he created – to the point that one could argue that the Snap paintings function as both commodities (paintings for sale on a wall) and as documents of a performance, that they are inherently performative (violently so) and are thus possible to read as activities taking place in a specific time.

One thing the Snap paintings are decidedly not, however, is winter white, January dull. Chromophobes beware – lime green and flame red slam dance with tangerine orange and Barbie pink, aquamarine darkens to cobalt to black, then shimmies along to daisy yellow and creamy taupe. It's a howling, vibrating jungle in here; Avatar without the boring plot.

On a recent trip to Montreal, a video artist friend told me that, out of the blue, young Quebecois artists were suddenly beginning to paint again. "They're bored with conceptualism and installations, they just want to make marks," he concluded. Perhaps a field trip is in order – les étudiants might learn how to really tattoo their names on canvas, and history.

Hard Twist 5: Chroma at the Gladstone Hotel Until Jan. 30, 1214 Queen St. W., Toronto;

After the roaring Town exhibition, you'll need a stern cup of coffee and a visual soother, both of which are available at the Gladstone Hotel. Hard Twist, an annual curated show of textile-based art, is now in its fifth wooly, needle-pricked incarnation, and this could well be the best of the series. Not to say that this collection, assembled by Helena Frei and Chris Mitchell, is any less thought-provoking than the Town exhibition, nor less colourful (in fact, the show's subtitle is Chroma), but textile works trigger a more confident, secure response from viewers, because we all have daily knowledge of textiles (naturists excluded).

Taking up the hotel's third and fourth floors, the exhibition is, however, simply too big and too diverse (practices range from crochet to fabric sculpture to embroidery and string art) to cover completely here – viewers, on the other hand, should set aside a good hour and let the show embrace them like a fuzzy blanket.

Highlights include Joyce Melander-Dayton's wool and cotton pebbles, decorated with tiny, glistening beads; Marcy Sperry's elaborately embroidered, thick-as-hide assemblages, works that resemble germs on a microscope slab or fantastical maps of atolls; Sarah Waldman-Engel's giant yarn jellyfish, a combination sea monster and royal wedding-worthy hat; and Alanna Lynch's multimedia, double-knitted, kitted-out … thingy, a pinkish red, flesh-hued sculpture that looks like a bison's stomach turned inside out. Wonders never cease.

Working with textiles takes an enormous amount of patience, but that rarely translates into a corresponding ponderousness in the finished product. The works in Hard Twist 5 are so lively and, well, weird, they jump (and slither and ricochet) off the walls. There's not a tea cozy to be had.

Shirley Yanover at Mon Ton Window Gallery Until Jan. 8, 402 College St., Toronto

Shirley Yanover's clever installation Spin Cycle – viewable 24/7 in the front window of 402 College St. – layers anime-eyed toy bears and tree bark over a large, swirled photograph of a forest, then anchors the set up with a cute garden ornament dog plunked on top of a laminated, fake wood floor.

What's it all about? Artificiality, as found in reproductions of nature. Only the bark is real (and I can't swear to that because I couldn't touch it).

Add in the bark/dog bark visual pun, plus the bears-in-the-woods/toilet-bowl whirl of the photograph, and you have a compact, smart visual playpen. Why can't department-store windows be this much semiotic fun?


Kai Chan: A Spider's Logic Until Jan. 30, The Varley Art Gallery, Unionville, Ont.

The massive Kai Chan retrospective (split between the Varley and Toronto's Textile Museum) continues with a closer look at Chan's early, more monumental works.

Jean-Philippe Finkelstein & Adrienne Fonda: No More Words Until Jan. 16, Gallery 1313, 1313 Queen St., W., Toronto

This is painting with enthusiasm! Finkelstein and Fonda use up all the brightest crayons in the box.

Lynn Christine Kelly: Astronomical Affects Until Jan. 29, Redhead Gallery, Suite 115, 401 Richmond St. W., Toronto

If you miss the Planetarium, Kelly's spacey collection of planet mobiles, starscapes and light sculptures will remind you of your place in the universe.