at Justina M. Barnicke Gallery
Until Nov. 3, 7 Hart House Circle,
University of Toronto; 416-978-8398
One of the most deeply enjoyable aspects of the paintings of Sam Borenstein (1908-1969) is the way they continually proclaim -- indeed bravely and noisily shout -- their stubborn, stalwart individuality. In an age of cautious, cookie-cutter artists like ours, it is really a pleasure to look at them.
It is bracing, and sort of funny too, to read about the strength of his immovable sense of self: According to the essay by Concordia University's Loren Lerner in the catalogue accompanying this busy retrospective of Borenstein's work now at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, Hart House, at the University of Toronto, Borenstein met A.Y. Jackson in 1958 and they sketched together in the Laurentians near Montreal every summer for a decade.
"Jackson had no discernible influence on Borenstein's art," writes Lerner, "other than to renew his interest in making small oil sketches." Good for Sam Borenstein.
Borenstein, who was of Lithuanian origin, emigrated to Montreal with members of his family in 1921 when he was 13. Entirely, and, one is tempted to add, vigorously self-taught, the young artist soon set about juggling work and frequent spates of unemployment with painting the streets of his adopted city, principally the Saint-Urbain area and the neighbourhoods of the Plateau Mont-Royal. By 1935, the now 27-year-old artist was garnering respectful reviews, a typical one (in The Canadian Forum) noting that his paintings were bright and raw and, admitting with a certain amount of understatement, that "Borenstein has painted very few uninteresting pictures."
That seems true in spades, looking at the paintings now assembled at the Barnicke. Although, as critic Robert Ayre would write in the Montreal Star in 1954, "there are times when his feelings carry him away and a scene is painted with more violence than it warrants; it just blows up," Ayre was also to note, however, that "his sincerity, his human warmth, his almost furious energy are fused into a picture that is all the more powerful for being controlled."
But just barely controlled. Uninfluenced by Jackson or the other Group of Seven painters holding sway at the time he was working, Borenstein brought with him from Europe a wider, more hotly expressionistic approach to painting -- an approach galvanized by the work of painters such as van Gogh, Soutine, Vlaminck and Kokoschka. As a result, the best of his paintings seem remarkably immediate in effect, Borenstein having used unmixed oils squeezed directly from the tube and slathered onto his canvases in what appears to have been a joyous frenzy of free creation.
Ayre was right; they do explode. But that now seems like exuberance rather than licentiousness. Clearly, Borenstein's drawing was frequently awkward (but then so was Kokoschka's and Chagall's). You can see that, for example, in the stiffness of his Self-portrait Composition from 1946. The awkwardness is more than made up for, however, by the painting's glorious brick-reds and molten yellows, and by the burning urgency of the artist's approach to the picture. And in the streetscapes, cityscapes and landscapes where he seemed most at home -- in paintings like Laurentian Autumn (1960) and View of Montreal (1963) -- the paint handling is so vigorous that it is only vigour itself that you see.
The Barnicke Gallery is also screening the film that the artist's daughter, Joyce Borenstein, made about her father in 1992, a film that won a Genie and was nominated for an Oscar.
Aba Bayefsky at the Market Gallery
Until Feb. 5, 95 Front St. (second floor), Toronto; 416-392-7604
Aba Bayefsky: Paintings, Drawings and Graphics is the second retrospective in the city honouring a historically important Canadian artist. This one, now at the Market Gallery in the South St. Lawrence Market, celebrates the life and career of the world-hopping, Toronto-based artist Aba Bayefsky (1923-2001). It traces an artistic trajectory that began in the Royal Canadian Air Force when Bayefsky was made an official War Artist during the Second World War (he enlisted at 19), and continued with his years as a teacher at the Ontario College of Art (1957-1988) and his almost lifelong love affair with Toronto's Kensington Market -- which he began painting when he was 16 and continued to paint until the end of his life (the market, he wrote, acted "like a magnet, an irresistible attraction for the past 50 years").
As fully trained as Sam Borenstein was not -- he was given early encouragement by both A.Y. Jackson and Arthur Lismer -- Bayefsky launched himself upon an art-making career bewildering in its many phases, approaches, enthusiasms, and eccentricities. It was an ornate complexity made clearer, in the end, by a useful retrospective such as this one.
There were lots of influences: Bayefsky was forever altered by his being with the Allied forces when the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated in May of 1945 (his agonized Shoah paintings and drawings would reappear all through his career).
A figure bound about by paradox, Bayefsky travelled the world in pursuit of his passions (one of which involved a long Japanese sojourn in the art of the tattoo), and yet seemed deeply content to paint his own neighbourhood (the Kensington Market works). He obsessively collected spectacles, and produced a stunning book of woodblock prints of them, published in 1980 (a copy of which is in the current show).
He sketched everywhere -- in Italy, Israel, India, Korea, Japan -- but somehow remained a regional artist. A lot of his work is either grotesque -- such as his various Legends paintings ( The Golem of Prague, 1990, for example) -- or it is academic (all those official-looking portraits)? But there is also a great deal of energy and intelligence in his work, often best displayed in the less formal things, such as the prints and watercolours. All in all, the retrospective is a fascinating panorama, engaging and troubling in equal measure.
at Lennox Contemporary
$1,250-$5,600. Until Oct. 30,
12 Ossington Ave., Toronto;
This is an attractive debut exhibition for this artist who, until recently, had devoted most of his attention to the study of karate. The paintings -- the show is called Urban Garden -- are nevertheless quite sophisticated, possibly because of the artist's being the son of gallerists Ben and Yael Dunkelman, whose gallery was a central presence in the Toronto art scene in the 1960s and 70s. You can't grow up in an art gallery and not learn something valuable.
What Dunkelman fils seems to have learned is a confident way with open, innocent, saturated fields of colour, and, as well, a certain restraint in its disposition. Most of the paintings -- and there are probably too many of them here -- are bright grounds upon which the artist has positioned tree-like thrusts of white paint.
In the least successful of the paintings, these thrusts read too simply as thickets or copses. In the best of them -- the ones with fewer of these limbs, such as the fine Red and White or Down the Blue Hill -- the tree-like members merely carry graphic energy and subdivide the plane.