Shirley Wiitasalo at Susan Hobbs Gallery
- Until June 26, 137 Tecumseth St., Toronto ( www.susanhobbs.com)
If Shirley Wiitasalo ever decides to give up the painting racket, she could make a killing in burlesque. Wiitasalo is a sultry mistress of the art of peek-a-boo.
Her latest suite of acrylics on canvas at Susan Hobbs Gallery alternate between lush washes of colour and pattern and ethereal swipes of obscuring neutrals, creating a sensual, almost decadent tension.
This dance of absence and presence, bold and shy, is created, I was informed, by a "transfer process." Appropriately enough, that was all the information the artist, via her gallerist, was willing to divulge. My guess is that Wiitasalo applies screens, fabrics and stencils to her canvases, makes marks with a roller or perhaps aerosols, and then goes at the patterns like a home renovator stripping old wallpaper, wiping off all but the faintest traces, the best bits.
The effect is entrancing. You very quickly begin to look for more, to scan the paintings for secreted information, whispers of pigment and line.
Of course, Wiitasalo could be working in the opposite direction - faintly applying her patternmakers to plain, uniform surfaces. But that's half the fun, trying to figure out which layer came first - the Popsicle-orange ribbons or the bleached cream? The delicate lace or the bullheaded roller? The satiny folds or the denim dye?
Even with all the obvious calculation going on here, these works are far from clinical. While one could make much academic noise about painterly archaeologies, the artist as erased subject, or the psychological consequences of the paintings' evident mistrust of the definitive, what really strikes (and stays with) the viewer is the muted riot beneath and between all the lovely veils.
Astrid Ho at Open Studio
- Until June 19, 401 Richmond St. W., Suite 104, Toronto ( www.openstudio.on.ca)
The complexities of memory and cultural identity have preoccupied Canadian artists for decades. Ten years ago, the phrase "memory, identity and loss" appeared in so many artist's statements, one wag famously claimed she was interested only in "forgetting, anonymity and profit".
The wag was not printmaker Astrid Ho, but after looking at her new exhibition, Versions, a markedly genial exploration of socio-cultural-identity themes, I strongly suspect Ho appreciates the gag.
The first in an ongoing series of lithographs that juxtapose traditional Chinese mystical/religious artifacts (god and goddess statues, good-fortune-bringing ingots, animal-head candy dishes) with illustrations taken from Ho's family snaps of her Hong Kong childhood, Versions is, thankfully, free of diasporic melancholy tropes - the kind beloved by the CBC and the white book-tote ladies who make up our ruling literary class.
"I'm first-generation," Ho reminds me, "and we tend to forget everything, because we want to assimilate. But when I started making these prints, and I told my mother that I was using the trinkets she had given me over the years, because I thought they were loaded with cultural significance, she looked at me like I was maybe a bit crazy and said, 'I just bought them because I thought they were pretty!' Ha! I had read all this cultural longing into the statues and charms, and my mom just really liked that they were shiny and cute!"
While I would be reluctant to describe Ho's subsequent prints as cute, only because the word tends to have negative connotations in serious art circles (personally, I'm all for cute - the world is unfriendly enough), there is no lack of adorability in Ho's work. Her prints are bright and sharply crafted, and the kids depicted in her snapshot recreations, with their big heads and boxy clothes, remind me of Peanuts characters.
Ho balances this sweetness with a considered, and considerably less amiable, palette. While the ornaments Ho used as models, especially those given at the lunar New Year, are in real life brilliantly coloured, even gaudy, Ho has chosen a softer and at times muddier range of hues, and given each print a faint sepia tinge.
Memory, Ho's prints argue, is always clouded. The gold in the ingot tarnishes, fades to daffodil yellow, and the scarlet calligraphy rusts.
David Urban at Corkin Gallery
- Until June 20, 55 Mill St., Bldg. 61, Toronto ( www.corkingallery.com)
David Urban's colossal new painting at Corkin Gallery, entitled The Konokol, is causing much discussion, because it is very, very large, in name and deed. Look upon it and despair, for The Konokol is composed of muscular brushstrokes, gobs of undiluted paint, and heavy ideas. And yet … I'm undecided.
Urban has always been a painter whose work I admire more than love, and this new painting reminds me why I cannot fully commit. On the positive side, there are some exciting, dissonant chunks, places where Urban's signature rectangular chains of colour criss-cross and crash together with aggressive dynamism. And at the centre of the work, a gorgeous, cobalt-hued vortex collides pleasingly with splashes of turmeric and cardinal red. Urban never bores.
What I found problematic are the figures in the work, cherubic nudes surrounded by toys and musical instruments. There is just the slightest whiff of Second Cup mural coming off these creatures, and they overdetermine what is otherwise a fine and brave collision of shapes, clashing tones and deliciously active, energetic painting.
If The Konokol were a play, the director would cut the unnecessary characters.