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r.m. vaughan: the exhibitionist

Paul Dignan, Svava Thordis Juliusson and Lauren Nurse at KWT Contemporary Until Feb. 26, 624 Richmond St. W., Toronto; www.kwtcontemporary.com

The history of Toronto civic politics is not my field, but I strongly suspect that newly elected councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Toronto Centre-Rosedale) is the first city representative to also own an art gallery.

While many artists have run for public office in Toronto over the years, Wong-Tam is a business person who happens to specialize in the selling of art - perhaps an ideal combination for the Ford era, which will undoubtedly promote further partnerships between corporations and the arts. The jury remains out on that premise.

Coinciding with her new life, Wong-Tam has just re-branded her gallery. The former XEXE Gallery is now KWT Contemporary - same space, but different mandate.

"We have a new director, Aurelie K. Collings, and she is taking the gallery in a more focused, edgier and sharper direction - and she advised me that we either rename the gallery after me," Wong-Tam tells me, "or after her! Ha!"





Politics and art are, of course, joined at the hip, and Wong-Tam assures me that the day-to-day running and curating of the gallery will not be done by her. "I have a say in the artistic direction, but not very much in the running of the gallery, and that's the way I want it."

But what about potential conflicts of interest? Many artists in Toronto receive public funding to make their art, and Wong-Tam may end up selling that work. The question is one Wong-Tam has thought through carefully.

"I don't sit on the Toronto Arts Council budget committee," she says, "and the city has almost nil in terms of an art-acquisition fund. So I don't see a conflict coming up directly. Furthermore, the gallery receives no public funding, and most of our artists are mid-to-senior in their careers, and rely less on grants. But if something came up that even smelled like a conflict, I would remove myself from the discussion immediately."

Meanwhile, for KWT Contemporary's inaugural exhibition, Collings has assembled three excellent mini-shows: a suite of crisp neo-Op Art works by Paul Dignan, paintings wherein interconnecting, bent geometric shapes overlap in soothing, hazy colours, with the brighter tones jumping off the canvas like hurled blades in a 3-D movie; Svava Thordis Juliusson's wacky, twitchy collection of sculptures made from Play-Doh-bright twist ties and packaging materials; and Lauren Nurse's surreal set of photographs, including a face covered in white globules (pearls? fish eggs?) and a face with glued-on sticks for eyelashes.

So far, KWT Contemporary, so good.

Louise Noguchi at Birch Libralato Until March 12, 129 Tecumseth St., Toronto; birchlibralato.com

Louise Noguchi's haunting new video Marker, on view at Birch Libralato, is part documentary, part travelogue and all thought-provoking fearlessness.

Setting out to film sacred commemorative spaces, Noguchi first wanders around a church in Midland, Ont., the spot where a conversion-minded settler priest came to a bad end, then moves on to an even more contested site in Japan, one dedicated to Japanese veterans and war dead.

In both spaces, Noguchi finds conflict, uncertainty, distrust over the legacy of the acts being commemorated and, most important, the strange, contradictory need humans have to mark spaces of tragedy while arguing over the merit or demerit of such landmarks. Can you think of a single recent commemorative project that has not generated controversy?

What makes Noguchi's video so strong is her keen sense of the visual presence of her chosen spaces, the actual look of the landmarks. For instance, the forest surrounding Midland is revealed to be a lush pastoral paradise dappled in green, leafy light. An empty home that now acts as a shrine to a patriotic Japanese couple who committed suicide is filmed with tenderness and exacting detail - but through a clouded, shroud-like window, because entry is forbidden.

Noguchi's eye for the accidentally beautiful is sharp, a vibrant counterpoint to her near-invisible self-presentation in the video. Acting as narrator and protagonist, Noguchi, who is a soft-spoken person and not one to draw attention to herself in any space, let alone a sacred or controversial one, inserts her body and voice into these feuded-over spaces with gentle courage. It's a bit like watching a rabbit cross a highway.

Marker is a high-concept work that could nevertheless easily garner a mass audience and could do so without sacrificing either its meditative depth and video-art-informed editing strategies or its non-linear approach.

See Marker on a quiet day. You'll want to catch every whisper and shout.

Janet Morton at Queen Specific Window Gallery Until Feb. 22, 787 Queen St. W., Toronto; www.queenspecific.com

Celebrated madwoman Janet Morton (I mean that in the good way - this is an artist who once covered an entire cottage in a handmade tea cozy) has taken over a shadow box on Queen West to present her latest wonder: a knitted replica of the CN Tower.

Made with thick, purple-grey wool, the sleek sculpture captures the tower's sexy upward slope, an attribute most Torontonians ignore in their regard of the building, and yet, via the sock-monkey-soft wool, also makes the tower seem huggable and goofy.

If that's not enough civic pride for you, Morton has plunked a handful of Toronto's signature grey squirrels around the tower (ceramic squirrels, not the real kind). Like good little Torontonians, the rodents are hard at work - knitting, winding wool into balls, repairing the top of the tower and generally bossing each other about. I swear one of them was carrying a briefcase, but I'm the imaginative sort.

Given Morton's penchant for large fabric interventions, one can't help wonder if this sculpture is a maquette for something bigger - CN Tower tuque bigger?

IN OTHER VENUES

LE Sept At LE Gallery until Feb. 27, 1183 Dundas St. W.

A seven-year anniversary group show featuring a choice selection of gallery artists. My favourite is Scott Waters's unnervingly sweet oil and graphite depiction of a deadly machine gun.

The Museum of Found Objects (Maharaja and --) At the Art Gallery of Ontario until April 6, 317 Dundas St. W.

Sameer Farooq and Mirjam Linschooten craft clever assemblages from items found in South Asian-specific shops. Look for the collection of men's grooming potions and business cards, a hoard that includes a creepy "skin lightener."

Judy Singer: Ephemera At Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre until Feb. 28, 750 Spadina Ave.

Singer's paintings invite you into a floating world where unstable forms collide with mysterious vapours and the cloaks of wraiths. If Rothko and Riopelle had a love child.…