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r.m. vaughan: the exhibitionist

Jade Lee Portelli at Pikto Gallery Until Nov. 29, 55 Mill St., Building 59, Toronto;

That weird but beautiful, velvety fog that enveloped Toronto last week inspired photographers across town: Photo-blogs were crammed with images of a dissolved city, a landscape submerged ( has a particularly good selection).

I don't know if emerging photographer Jade Lee Portelli captured a few snaps, too, but the sudden shift from hard materiality to blurred insubstantiality - from definable boundaries to murky uncertainty - is right up her dark, shadowy alley.

Portelli's new collection of black-and-white images at Pikto, Night Works, is a startling display of contrasts, between hot white and matte black, between sharply defined lit spaces (and lines of light), and powdery, floating clouds of light, between the recognizable and the shrouded.

Fans of film noir will instantly recognize the subject-vs.-environment games that Portelli plays, how she positions her running figures and lonely apartment towers as interruptions in the otherwise complete blackness of night, as jagged tears in night's heavy curtain. This is very dramatic, even melodramatic work that's lusciously printed on thick, creamy sheets of oversized paper.

Portelli constructs a loose narrative in Night Works, one that would not be out of place in a classic noir. A male-female couple run, lit from behind as if being chased. In another image, the man stands by himself in front of a tall spotlight, his body and the patch of ground he stands on the only visible objects. He looks like a suspect being interrogated under a police lamp (or an alien eye, to invoke another genre). Signs and mid-century strip malls baldly stick out in the sea of darkness, escaping convicts caught by searchlights, and a dead, flattened bird rots in coal coloured mud - a not very hopeful sign that morning, and daylight, must return.

In Portelli's photographs, night is both an antagonistic force, a colourless tide that swamps everything around it, and also, perversely, as comforting as a blanket. Her nighttime is not shiny or glossy. The blackness does not sparkle; rather, it is flat and woolly, a soporific texture that pulls the viewer into its seductive, sleep-promising (perhaps narcotic?) folds.

If there's a publisher out there planning a re-issue of Cornell Woolrich's classic Black Series crime novels, I've just found your cover art.

Pamela Dodds at O'Connor Gallery Until Nov. 21, 145 Berkeley St., Toronto

Printmaker Pamela Dodds employs a similarly stark, black-grey-white palette, but her final products couldn't be more different, in tone or intention, than Portelli's. While Portelli broods, black-on-black, and portrays acts of erasure and disappearance, Dodds uses the bold linearity, the presence/absence of black ink, to create a world of deeply human and healing interaction.

If we follow Portelli's couple-on-the-lam narrative to a possible conclusion, her traumatized runners might seek solace in Dodds's harmonious gardens.

Dodds works in both linocut and woodcut, and makes much of the different textures these relief printing conveyances create. Her woodcut series - portraying bodies lovingly entwined with trees and earth while surrounded by the materials of war - is expertly under-patterned by the grain of the wood. The relative softness and absorbency of the wood block allows Dodds to make the tiniest of etches, the finest lines, and for muted tones in the ink to unfold.

Dodds has chosen a suitably pale, crepe-like paper for her woodcuts - a fibrous, Japanese mulberry-tree paper noted for its translucence. As a result, the works in this series glow from the inside, as if the ink is still in the very slow process of sinking into the paper, gradually becoming less opaque.

In her linocut series, Dodds depicts two bodies dancing, wrestling and straining, their lumpy muscles perfectly captured by the thick, amorphous lines gouged out of the tough linoleum. Love, Dodds appears to argue, is a struggle to own and inhabit space (shared and solitary).

Erotic and rough, Dodds's grappling, swooning figures perform their mating rituals in an appropriately inexact white void - an undefined landscape the lovers carve out metaphorically and that Dodds has carved out literally, neither with ease (linocutting, I can attest, is a wrist-breaking activity).

And they say couples therapy is work.

Jean-Pierre Lafrance at Thompson Landry Gallery Until Dec. 5, 55 Mill St., Building 5; Toronto;

Meanwhile, on the other side of the visual forest, veteran Quebec painter Jean-Pierre Lafrance makes with the paint brush and a seemingly limitless array of pigments, like a Jack Russell terrier with a chew toy - that is, if terriers had sufficient brains to hold, and riff off, the history of Quebec abstraction.

Lafrance is often compared to Jean-Paul Riopelle or Paul-Emile Borduas, and the three painters definitely share an art-generational overlap (Lafrance was born in 1943). But while I find such comparisons flattering to Lafrance, as they would be to anyone, they are ultimately unhelpful. Lafrance's paintings have their own language, and an emotional tone that is distinct from the scholarly stuffiness at times evident in both Riopelle and Borduas.

In a word, Lafrance is a playful painter. A planner of accidents, Lafrance makes paintings that live in moments of collision. Colours intentionally clash, daring to defy colour theory (and reason). Trowel and brush (and, I suspect, roller) fence and joust, enacting battles that pit figuration against whirling, smashing abstraction.

There is nothing monkish or overstudied about Lafrance's work. The carousels he paints - in carnival colours such as fruit-tray citruses and hot metallics - are put in motion by an interior violence, a push-pull dynamic that employs halting splinters of paint alongside full-bellied curls of fat brushwork.

Lafrance's paintings are for people who adore the physicality of paint on canvas, who love to watch semi-solid liquids pushed, scraped, thrown, mixed and re-mixed across welcoming surfaces.


Jim Gronau & Martin Helmut Reis at 401 Richmond St. W. Until Nov. 30, lobby, 401 Richmond St. W., Toronto

Man With Yellow Typewriter, Gronau's photographic record of Reis's year-long series of performances playing a befuddled writer, is a cross between an Absurdist drama and a Harry Rosen fashion spread.

Margaret Glew at Engine Gallery Until Dec. 12, 37 Mill St., Building 37, Toronto

Bright and teeming with sharply accented fields of heated colour, Glew's new paintings are big red engines that can.

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