'Can I put a red dot on that for you? That's my new line." It was opening night at the Toronto International Art Fair on Thursday night, and fledgling Toronto art dealer Kineko Ivic of Greener Pastures was having a few laughs trying out his new commercial come-ons (I declined, but it was a good try), while others were practising their schmoozing skills honed, in some cases, by decades in the world's second-oldest profession.
The consensus at the gala was that this was the strongest of the three Toronto fairs to date, with better representation from the best Canadian dealers, better international participants, and a jazzed-up series of lectures, as well as daily rotating exhibitions of contemporary art (Richard Rhodes's News at Five shows). A posse of collectors from across the country and abroad had been shipped in for the occasion -- the requisite yeast to leaven any major art fair -- and the crantinis were flowing. What's not to like?
The question on everybody's lips, though, was the same: What have you seen that you like? It seems to me this is the ultimate question for a critic to respond to under the circumstances. What would I actually pay good money to own if, as they say, money was no object? The results of my investigations are quirky and incoherent, trapezing blithely from the sublime to the ridiculous, like all affairs of the heart. But here they are.
My first picks reveal a taste for the grotesque. There's Erwin Wurm's hilarious photographs from his 2003 series titled Instructions on How to Be Politically Incorrect, on show at Galerie Krinzinger, from Vienna. Inspection features a man plunging his head physically inside the neckline of a woman's sweater -- presumably to get a better look at her endowments -- while she maintains the thread of her lunchtime conversation with her female companion, apparently undistracted. (You know women and their multitasking.) At $20,035 (Canadian), it seemed a small price to pay for a lifetime of amusement. The image is completely ridiculous.
While this work has an air of the uncanny, it's nothing compared to the spectacularly weird Tony Oursler installation over at the Lisson Gallery booth. The London gallery is showing Oursler's teardrop-shaped object onto which the artist has projected the cinematic image of a moving, speaking human face. But the distortion of the projected image by the shape of the object disfigures the face, which we can only barely identify as human, with huge sagging eyes and a nasty little clutch of teeth and lips at the bottom. Repulsive, yet fiendishly alluring at $45,000 (U.S.), the work is titled Drip.
There is a lot of good photography at the fair this year, such as Stephen Waddell's new Manet-inspired photographs of Berlin chimney sweeps ($4,000 [Canadian]at Monte Clark Gallery), Ed Burtynsky's photos of the now-flooded Three Gorges on the Yangtze River in China (the one I like best, showing a bulldozed farmhouse and the still-tranquil valley below, costs $12,000), the landscapes and urbanscapes of Geoffrey James (at Galerie René Blouin, Equinox, and Trepanier Baer) and the digital wizardry of talented Montrealer Nicolas Baier, who is the subject of a one-man show currently at the Musée d'art contemporain in Montreal. His work, at René Blouin, is titled Automne hiver ($3,000), and shows a patio garden morphing magically between seasons -- a wonderfully fitting work for Toronto in these first days of flying snowflakes.
Pierre-François Ouellette Art Contemporain, from Montreal, is showing some nice photographic work too -- like the Honeymoon series by Michel de Broin and Eve Tremblay depicting a hilarious postnuptial meltdown in five parts (one can buy the set for $4,000), and the digital wide-angle panoramas of Alexandre Castonguay. The large-format images of German artist Frank Thiel for $19,970 at Galerie Krinzinger (grids of rebar and fading modernist high schools from postwar East Berlin) and Candida Hofer (at Galerie Grita Insam) are new international photography at full tilt, as are the two works by Vancouver's Ian Wallace showing the Gehry-designed Disney concert hall in Los Angeles under construction, at Catriona Jeffries Gallery.
The cream of the photography crop for me, though, is a tiny and perfect Paul Strand photograph from 1936, at Stephen Bulger Gallery. Titled On the Shore in Gaspé, it is offered at $75,000, a study of a dilapidated shack on the beach. Bulger has tucked it away in a low corner, making the moment of discovery all the more seductive.
If classic Canadian art is your thing, there are some real moments here, such as a strong grouping of Betty Goodwin paintings and works on paper at Galerie René Blouin, a quintessential Michael Snow Walking Woman painting on aluminum from 1961 at Equinox Gallery ($78,000), and a classic Jean Paul Lemieux titled Portrait (1961), at Galerie Claude Lafitte. (No really tremendous Riopelles at the fair, alas.) The Lemieux, a profile of a woman in a gold robe and turban-like hat, is a much-reproduced portrait by the late artist (it has been in the collection of his family until now), and is from his best period. Not surprisingly, Lafitte is not giving it away; $250,000 is the sticker price.
The late Montreal painter and photographer Charles Gagnon is also with us in spirit. Galerie Roger Bellemare has a gorgeous smaller abstract work from 1959 offered at $25,000, while Trepanier Baer Gallery's Gagnon, Le Femme de A. T. Décède, from 1960, is even more substantial at $64,000, a soft and creamy coming together of a variety of painterly touches with the loamy colours of moleskin, khaki and brown. The prices are ambitious, but the more one looks at Gagnon, the more sense they make. He was one of our best.
There's some nice drawing to be found here too, such as Diana Thorneycroft's bizarre but beautifully drawn representations of rope-bound children's toys (at Douglas Udell Gallery), Derek Root's painstaking drawings looking like mutant textbook illustrations (at Monte Clark Gallery), and Jason McLean's wacky cartoon-style drawings at Tracey Lawrence ($2,300). More than anyone, though, Victoria artist Luanne Martineau, at Trepanier-Baer, seems to take us somewhere new with the medium, in cramped and congested drawings of landscapes with little rustic gracenotes, sometimes torn and superimposed. These were cheap -- if I may be forgiven for bluntness -- just $800 to $1,600, and she looks like a comer.
There are some classic oldies here too, like the serene Ben Nicholson drawing titled Lurkion II, from 1963 at Miriam Shiell Fine Art, which seems to generate a hush amid the cacophony. Or maybe it's the price. The British modernist master's subtle description of open vessel forms in space is offered at $95,000. One hopes the Nicholson finds a worthy home among the throngs of visitors this weekend, all of them searching for that perfect something.
It can happen in the blink of an eye. I turned my back on my husband for one minute to find that he had acquired a glorious little Ed Ruscha lithograph from Equinox. "What was it that Dr. Stern used to say?" asked the Vancouver dealer Andy Sylvester, bowing to us deeply and smiling in his allusion to the late Montreal gallerist extraordinaire. "Allow me to be the first to congratulate you."
Toronto International Art Fair continues at Metro Toronto Convention Centre today, from noon to 8 p.m.; tomorrow, noon to 7 p.m.; and Monday, noon to 7 p.m. Tickets available from TicketKing (416-872-1212, 800-461-3333 or http://www.ticketking.com ).