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Detail from R. Kelley Clipperton's exhibit at Pentimento Gallery, Toronto mad bad and danger.
Detail from R. Kelley Clipperton's exhibit at Pentimento Gallery, Toronto mad bad and danger.

R.M. Vaughan: The Exhibitionist

Truly gorgeous photographs of libertines and naked vampires Add to ...

R. Kelly Clipperton at Pentimento Gallery

Until May 22, 1164 Queen St. E., Toronto; pentimento.ca

Musician, playwright, performance artist, and photographer R. Kelly Clipperton is a classic example of the Toronto multithreat - a species unique to Canada's most expensive city, where, to survive, you either have a trust fund or a very generous skill set. Since I've never seen Clipperton's tax forms, I assume he is of the latter breed.

Clipperton's latest exhibition of photographs, his largest to date, is a rollicking, deliciously naughty assortment of high-gloss, higher-glam portraits of local luminaries, most of them pulled from the queer art and burlesque set; the bold print celeb-utante crowd who provide quality fodder for the weeklies (in other words, his kind of people). If nothing else, the show is a great archive of Toronto's nightclub and alternative-space fuelled culture, circa 2011 - a recreation, of sorts, of the late Will Munro's legendary dress-up parties, a night out frozen in film.

But to only read Clipperton's photographs as social documents (and very nicely staged ones at that) would be an injustice. You can appreciate these works without having a clue who the models are, nor a care. Clipperton's images are exciting, occasionally of questionable taste (the only kind of taste I respect) and adorably pervy. Expect naked vampires, women in business suits and drag artists playing U.K. royalty, voodoo queens and angelic trannies, rough trade and sleek goddesses, mermaids and busty aliens. And colour - expect buckets of bright, flamethrower-hot colour.

Clipperton is a master set decorator, one who knows the difference between the judicious use of props and makeup and said cautiousness's opposite, clutter and over determination - a boundary he apparently loves to skid across like a kid attacking a park bench with a skateboard. Why circle a head in blood red roses unless you have a key light at the ready, to make every petal pop? Anybody can dial down a zombie's pallid face (flour and talcum powder work nicely), but to get that true, icy white takes study, and elbow grease. Most important, Clipperton understands skin - how best to oil or blanch, bejewel or make matte, (the endless possibilities of flesh), and then light individual skin tones until each cheekbone and breast glimmers, or glares, according to need.

I have hesitated to use the word camp in describing Clipperton's work, although many viewers may misperceive the photographs as campy. First off, too much queer art is positioned as camp, and thus dismissed as a mere entertainment, shoved into the cage of follies.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Clipperton, for all his love of B-movie tropes, is ultimately too infatuated with his subjects to be a camp artist. Camp art is driven by a low level of contempt for the subject, a positioning by the artist of him or herself as remote, above, and wary. In contrast, Clipperton treats his gorgeous monsters as members of an extended family.

Camp, Clipperton's work argues, with its distancing strategies, is worn to threads in the age of manipulation, when even young children understand the limitless possibilities of repositioning imagery. Sincerity, no matter how bizarre the immediate image, is thus the last refuge of libertines and scoundrels (the fun kind) alike. Camp is for amateurs.

Russell Leng and Judith Geher at Parts Gallery

Until May 22, 1150 Queen St. E., Toronto; www.partsgallery.ca

When you first walk into Parts Gallery, you may wonder why the gallerist has placed painters Russell Leng and Judith Geher side by side. Two more apparently different painters would be hard to imagine.

Leng, an emerging artist from Vancouver, paints images of sharp, pointy crystals on solid or two-toned backdrops. His many faceted subjects block and absorb light in equal measure, and can be both cold, rendered in fractal variations of grey, and mysterious, filled with the ephemeral, untouchable inner light. Geher, conversely, is almost too expressive. Her portraits of young women are rendered in gooey daubs, liquid strokes, and occasional splats of honey sweet pigment. Geher has more flesh tones on her palette than any three makeup counters, and is happy to let them slide together like butter takes to cream, milk to sugar.

Underneath this seeming dichotomy, however, lurks a fascination, evident in both sets of paintings, with the act of mark making. Leng's twinkling crystals, diamond hard as they are, are created via the faintest of brushstrokes, a whispering, feather light application of paint to panel. Geher's fresh-face, blossoming young women are brought to life with unapologetically aggressive brushwork, with a shatter, stab, and cut abandon. It's as if the two artists met, agreed on their topics, then swapped painting styles - for fun, and to disrupt our expectations of how their culturally loaded subjects ought to be conveyed.

Hats off to Parts Gallery for introducing Leng's Ginger Rogers to Geher's Fred Astaire.

Olena Sullivan at Bezpala Brown Gallery

Until May 31, 17 Church St., Toronto; www.bezpalabrown.com

Photographer Olena Sullivan's exploration of the Exclusion Zone that surrounds Chernobyl is exactly as horrific as you'd expect. Ruins and ruination abound. What you won't be prepared for are the mutated colours she discovers, the bilious greens, bleached azures, rotted-tomato reds and urine yellows - the colours of sickness, decay, bloating and abuse.

Sullivan photographs the no-go area as if she were photographing a beautiful new life form. The works are not melancholy, they're tantalizingly strange, seductive as a shipwreck. By making us want to visit the Exclusion Zone's awful rubble, Sullivan turns the voyeuristic tropes of disaster photography upside down; exchanging pity for wonder and easy agreement for discomfiting allure.

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