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The familiar transformed into the mysterious

Liz Magor at Susan Hobbs Gallery

Until May 28, 137 Tecumseth St., Toronto;


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An Te Liu at MKG127

Until May 21, 127 Ossington Ave., Toronto;

The re-purposing of familiar, everyday objects into high-concept art commodities is at least a century-old practice. (Many would argue that crafters, who turn scraps of all sorts into decorative art, have been doing it forever - but that's another column.) Two new shows, one at Susan Hobbs Gallery and the other at MKG127, breathe gentle puffs (quite literally at MKG127) of new life into the practice by reworking objects so familiar, so tame and easily overlooked, they are almost abject.

Liz Magor's sculptures at Susan Hobbs Gallery look, at first, like leftovers from the backroom of a dry cleaner - which, in a way, is exactly what they are. Magor has taken a series of found, often much-abused (and perhaps once much-loved) woollen blankets, cleaned them up and hung them along one wall of the gallery, complete with giant dry-cleaner hooks and paper or plastic dry-cleaning covers. So far, so what?, you may well ask. Take a closer look.

Magor, a master at re-contextualizing the banal, has gently intervened, inserting her presence on each blanket and thus marking them as unique objects. Holes have been covered or ringed with gobs of gypsum; stains have been re-stained, coloured over with fabric dyes; loose tags have been put back on, but backwards, or re-applied with diaper pins and tears have been repaired with scribbles of coloured thread.

Blankets that existed only in fragments have been sewn together, made into composite blankets that resemble mid-century abstract paintings. Another has had its once satiny hem removed and replaced by a (very convincing) plaster version cast from the original. In the gallery's upstairs space, an enormous dark-blue blanket (so dark I thought it was black) hangs horizontally across the wall, with all its many holes covered in silver gypsum - looking, nicely, like a twinkling night sky.

Magor sets the blankets' connotations of comfort and reassurance against the actual, distressed surfaces of the blankets, and thus the surfaces subsequently suggest disruption and incompleteness. And she does it all so quietly, it's creepy. As a lifelong insomniac, I read the blankets as a metaphor for troubled sleep - everything necessary to permit a comforting nap is still present in the blankets (softness, density, soothing colours), but the small imperfections nag at the viewer, much the same way small noises or prickly worries pester light sleepers. And don't get me started on my fear of bedbugs.

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Over at MKG127, An Te Liu's Blast, a room-sized sculpture made from dozens of partially gutted, whitewashed small appliances - everything from a Dustbuster, a soap dispenser, a toaster oven, an ice crusher and a clock radio to a collection of still-working fans - chugs, whirls and hypnotizes the over-oxygenated viewer.

Starting with a small tail of tangled appliances near the gallery floor, the sculpture spirals upward, an inverted whirlpool. As it grows wider, the array encircles a long, downward-pointed black pendant spotlight, recreating the effect of dropping a lit flashlight down a tiled well.

When fully activated, with the light bouncing upward off the floor and onto the bellies of Liu's disemboweled machines, and with all fans spinning, Blast is a white-noise dervish that effectively neutralizes the entire gallery; making conversation, even ex- and inhalation, difficult, or at least more than involuntary. You feel that you are being both drawn into a vortex and shoved away, pushed to the wall.

Deliciously disorienting but, counterintuitively, given the scrapyard materials, made with abundant, tidy care, Blast is both meditative and bombastic, blustery and still.

Liu, who recently sold a similar huge sculpture (one that was on view last summer at Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art) to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is the new crown prince of the gleaners.

Tomorrow Is Yesterday

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Until May 31 on 300 screens in 60 Toronto Transit Commission stations

As sure as May brings pollen, tax returns and runny eyes (from either of the first two), it also brings Contact, the massive, month-long Toronto-wide festival of all things photographic. To call Contact a challenge is like saying Mount Everest is hard on the calves.

Curator and multimedia artist Sharon Switzer provides those of us with limited time a faster, more concise option: art shown on the TTC's advertising/news screens. Every 10 minutes, throughout the month of May, a 30-second slide show will appear on the screens, featuring works by one of four artists chosen by Switzer. And what choices she's made.

Entitled Tomorrow Is Yesterday, this fleeting mini-survey has two distinct subsets. The first has works by the futurist/fantasist artists Alex McLeod, who makes composite, Blade Runner-like digital cities that are half overgrown theme parks and half stoner dreamscapes, and David Trautrimas, who cuts and pastes towering, wacky Jetsons houses from images of rusted vehicles and kitchenware.

The second subset is equally playful, and the artists also employ highly artificial presentation strategies (photographed sets featuring dolls and props), but the works carry a distinctly malevolent undertone.

Diana Thorneycroft's diorama-derived series Group of Seven Awkward Moments, wherein archetypal Canadiana scenes are given violent or risqué twists, are funny in a blood-splat, slapstick, Robot Chicken cartoon way, and just as unsettling, even a wee bit offensive. Here's hoping for complaints to the boorish TTC.

Meanwhile, Bill Finger offers the hapless rider a series of photographed maquettes that all appear to be re-creating either violent crime scenes or establishing shots for horror films. As if public transit weren't terrorizing enough.

Then again, a little gore and some spacey surrealism sure beats endless loops of weather updates and rom-com movie trailers.

In other venues

Tori Foster at Women's Art Resource Centre

Opening today and until June 4, #122, 401 Richmond St., Toronto;[-space-]/p>

Playing with time, movement and bodies in motion, Foster's mixed-media installation maps Toronto's ever-busy population via a series of layered, spectral images. Sit very still, and watch.[-space-]/p>

Rochelle Rubinstein at Fran Hill Gallery

Until May 29, 285 Rushton Rd., Toronto[-space-]/p>

Multitalented Rubinstein shows off a series of luscious new hybrid works based on her print, fabric and installation practices. What can't she do?


Chris Harris at White Wall North

Until May 28, 1335 Lawrence Ave. E., Toronto; [-space-]/p>

Harris's panoramic yet crisp photographs of British Columbia's volcanoes (who knew?) and the churning, creamy pink landscapes that surround them will make you think Harris went to Venus, not Vanderhoof.

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