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The Circus Comes to Town at the Toronto Reference Library's TD Gallery

Until Oct. 5, 789 Yonge St., Toronto; 416-393-7158


The American poet e.e. cummings wrote 'when god decided to invent / everything/he took one / breath bigger than a circustent / and everything began." The poem, written for a collection from 1944 called One Times One, deftly and wittily folded the circus into the original act of creation - a linkage that seems entirely appropriate to anyone who ever loved the big top and all the magical beings who spun and toiled beneath it.

Actually, there isn't much circus left anywhere now. Many of the legendary circuses disappeared during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Some of the big shows, such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, staggered on into a frayed and anti-climactic present - but without the big top and without the magic. The last circus performance I attended was picketed by animal-rights activists.

So the circus is mostly memory. Which is why The Circus Comes to Town, opening today at the Toronto Reference Library's TD Gallery, feels so welcome.

Don't expect snarling lions and tigers, or shimmering, evanescent trapeze artists sweeping over your heads - this is a library after all. But what you will find is an exciting collection of circus posters, rare circus photographs and novels (among which are first editions of two of my all-time favourites: Hugh Lofting's Dr. Doolittle's Circus from 1924, and The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles G. Finney from 1935), circus playbills and programs, pop-up books, etchings and lithographs and a smattering of models of sideshow tents and circus wagons.

The exhibition, organized by the TD Gallery's curator, Carol Barbour, offers some terrific things. It's especially strong in vintage circus posters, which range from an advertisement for Cooke's Circus in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1840 to a really exquisite lithograph from 1900 by Louis Galice, of Paris's famous Cirque d'hiver (a reminder of how central the circus was to the work of artists like Seurat, Picasso, Derain, Cocteau, Rouault, Dufy and the French avant-garde during the first half of the 20th century). The poster parade continues with the fearsomely exciting posters Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey made from 1900 to the 1950s (white-faced clowns with rictus grins that probably still haunt the dreams of people who were kids back then), to the slick, stylized Cyrk posters made in the 1970s by Maciej Urbaniec to promote the National Circus of Poland. And there's no avoiding the madly yawning (or is it roaring?) hippopotamus whose vast open jaws seem to hurl out the words Royal Bros. Wild Animal Circus, Canada's Only Tent Circus from 1975 (a latecomer in a dying game).

The Circus Comes to Town is an intimately scaled exhibition - it proceeds vitrine by vitrine - and it offers great rewards to any viewer who inspects it slowly and carefully. Look closely, for example, and you'll find a modest-looking volume with delicate illustrations by Raoul Dufy, L'âme du cirque, published in Paris in 1924, and another volume from 1931 - Les Spectacles à travers les âges by French cubist Jean Metzinger. Each of these alone is worth the visit.

As is a small black-and-white photograph by Toronto photographer Charles Williams (1897-1962) of Elephants on Way to Dufferin Park Race Track from 1920. Boy, those were the days! That's what the circus was: a world of momentary enchantment where anything could happen, where you could peer from the living-room window of your predictable row house on Dufferin Street and see 50 pulchritudinous pachyderms lumbering by.

Veronika Szkudlarek

at Gallery 1313

$900-$3,000. Closes tomorrow,

1313 Queen St. W., Toronto; 416-536-6778

At 23 years of age, the Montreal-based, Polish-Canadian artist Veronika Szkudlarek has already chalked up enough experience to fuel a dozen careers in painting. The works making up her impressive exhibition at Gallery 1313, A Goat for Charlotte, have all been generated by Szkudlarek's recent sojourn in Kigali, Rwanda, where, in the course of getting to know the residents (the "Charlotte" of the exhibition's title is one of them) and their culture and their struggles for survival, she painted a mural for the Mother Teresa Missionaries of Charity Orphanage, a place of refuge which, as Szkudlarek points out in her artist's statement, "houses over a hundred children, widows and victims of the Rwandan genocide."

The paintings at Gallery 1313 - the proceeds of which will be used to aid the Rwandans generally (and, more specifically, to buy Charlotte a goat) - are remarkably mature works for a painter so young. The paintings are all landscapes, and are often very large (like the fine Order and Chaos). All of them are bathed in a strange, doggedly effulgent, greenish-grey paint (overarched by heavy creamy-gold skies) - which may well be the embodiment of a certain kind of crepuscular African light. In characteristic works, like Order and Chaos or Kigali or Zura Karuhimbi, the vista within the painting - often a distant village or sun-baked settlement - is seen from a low vantage point in which the viewer seems to be (with the painter) crouched on the rounding of a hill, gazing into the picture's deep space through an interference of tall dry grasses and plants (often dead and drooping sunflowers). There is a clandestine feeling to Szkudlarek's paintings, as if - despite their size - they were painted surreptitiously, on the sly, at the cusp of some sense of intrusion.

Ulysses Castellanos

at Peak Gallery

$250-$3,600. Until Aug. 2,

23 Morrow Ave., Toronto; 416-537-8108

Castellanos's title is as involving, as exuberant and as exhausting as his exhibition: To Drive The Nail of Terror Into The Hearts of The Backsliding Sinners. The show is divided, Castellanos points out, into "cantos." The first one, the fire-and-brimstone works of the title, which draw their inspiration from the blood-and-thunder harangues of great 18th-century American clerics such as Jonathan Edwards, is Castellanos's harvesting of stills from some 8mm porno films he found and subsequently wrestled into gloriously intense photo images, six feet by four feet - which also appear, at this new monumental scale, to have something to do with Michelangelo's Last Judgment murals in the Sistine Chapel.

Canto 2, Demon Seed, is a wall of corroded and mildewed lithographs from the venerable Dick and Jane public-school primers of the 1930s that taught so many kids to read (Look Jane! See Spot run!!). Castellanos found the pages on the street and now, recontextualized by the gallery's walls, they seem archaic, ineffectual and - worse - hypocritical and unrealistic.

Canto 3 is The Sybil Pictures - compellingly raucous ink drawings on wallpaper, the images (scissors, broken unspinnable tops, staring disembodied eyes), all of it derived from "the many personalities of Sybil Dorsett, the world's most famous psychiatric patient." The pictures, as Castellanos so dramatically puts it, "are a window into our culture's psyche." I don't know if I'd go that far - but they are grabby and hard to shake off.