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Ted Bieler at the Toronto Sculpture Garden

Two myths about Torontonians that drive me crazy are, first, that Torontonians are unfriendly and, second, that they avoid public, random engagements. Yet, nothing in this town causes spontaneous chatting faster than a public art installation.

Witness the effect of Ted Bieler's work, Beside Myself, at the Toronto Sculpture Garden. Simple enough at first glance - the installation is comprised of five rough wooden benches, each bearing a barrel-sized, cast aluminum sculpture of a human head - Beside Myself acts as a conversation-starter on multiple levels. The day I saw the show, office workers and shy teens wandered around the Sculpture Garden's tiny park, remarking on their favourite heads.

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Nobody hurried by, and people stopped, for one blessed moment, playing with their damned communications devices. Another Toronto the Too Busy stereotype smashed - and all it took was some pointy metal heads.

Do Bieler's crowd-pleasers work as art? First off, the question itself is flawed. Public art performs a different function than institution-based art. It is meant to have mass appeal (a quality the formal art world tends to distrust). Furthermore, the standards for public art are not lower, but rather, higher - artists who make public art have far larger audiences to please. The purpose of public art is to generate dialogue.

All that aside, Bieler's sculptures would be likable in any situation. The cast aluminum has a rough, pocked texture that is pleasing to the touch. The bluish silver patina glows when struck by the midday sun. The head forms, which vary from relatively realistic to cubist abstract, are fashionably retro-modernist. With their multiple cavities and Op Art fragmentation, the sculptures could easily double as sundials.

And lest you think all is jolly in Bieler's forest of decapitated giants, note the rectangular pegs that pimple some of the heads (reminiscent of the business bits of rock grinders), or the many cheese-grater-sharp edges left by the casting moulds. Bieler's heads may be friendly conversation pieces, just don't fall onto one.

Bring a snack to share, and Band-Aids.

Al Gilbert at the Market Gallery

Every city needs an Al Gilbert.

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The legendary photographer (still active at 88) has been photographing the weddings, graduations and bar/bat mitzvahs of Toronto Jewish families since the 1940s, and, in the process, has become a favourite portrait photographer of Toronto's famed and fortuned.

A retrospective of Gilbert's work, Facets of Fame, shows that while Gilbert became celebrated for traditional, formal portraiture, he always allowed some quirkiness, the peculiarities of his subjects, to shine through. Compositionally, these portraits may seem as conservative as your own family's photo sessions - Gilbert's subjects are posed centre frame, neatly groomed and flatteringly lit - but a sly sense of humour is evident.

Former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir is photographed with a smoke on the go, looking like René Lévesque in drag. Actor Eugene Levy has a weirdly coy, pin-up girl expression on his face, one undermined by the foregrounding of his werewolf-hairy hands. Al and Sara Waxman pose as a nice suburban couple, in matching tie and blouse, the stress of fame evident behind their slightly too earnest smiles. And Gilbert must be the only photographer on Earth to capture U.S. Vice-President (then senator) Joe Biden with his mouth closed.

My favourite portrait, however, is of Canadian journalist-turned-senator Betty Kennedy. When I was a child, Betty Kennedy was my mother's ideal, the personification of the accomplished, modern woman. Gilbert's portrait shows Kennedy seated in front of a tidy desk, her hair and makeup flawless, with her blouse casually open just above her breasts. A crisp scarf is rakishly tied around her neck. She is all business and all fun at the same time - ready to write a column or mix a cocktail. Gilbert catches Kennedy's particularly Canadian brand of sensible glamour perfectly, and with apparent ease.

Indeed, ease is the dominant mood in all of these portraits. The celebs photographed, while obviously prepped and primped, nevertheless appear charmed by their portraitist. After decades of photographing nervous, overexcited families, how hard to handle are a few politicos and popes?

Costa Dvorezky at Engine Gallery

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I stumbled on Costa Dvorezky's luscious paintings entirely by accident, but you still have a couple of days to wallow in his fleshy, radiant works.

Dvorezky paints the human body, in all its lumpy glory, as if he were painting wobbly pillars of marble; forms made of muscle and fat and gloriously imperfect, blood-rich skin. While the models are non-traditional (yes, I mean fat - deal with it), there is no hint of the grotesque, no sense that Dvorezky is mocking his subjects.

If anything, it's the opposite - Dvorezky applies paint with loving vigour. His surfaces alternate between a matte, foundation-powder softness and a wet, fresh-from-the-bath shimmer.

This constant dialogue between milky and oily gives the works a decidedly sexy decadence - the visual equivalent of resting on a satin pillow that's been moistened with rich, sticky perfumes.

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