Skip to main content

Toronto wunderkind painter Michael Adamson calls his new exhibition Thunder. It's an apt title, given the way his paintings, exuberant and aching from pigment-joy, billow and rumble through some chromatic equivalent to heavy weather.

Thunder, opening today at Toronto's Moore Gallery,offers the most assured paintings of Adamson's brief but meteoric career (he graduated from Vancouver's Emily Carr College of Art and Design, after a year off to study in Germany, in 1997). They range from the epic-scaled The Last Easter Egg Hunt, a four-panel painting 16 feet long, to exquisite little works a few feet square (the little ones being no less absorbing and, if anything, more deliciously inspectable than the big ones; some of the best Adamsons I know are the size of playing cards).

In between is a suite of mid-size paintings embodying what is, for Adamson, a new format: thin lattices of pigmented rectangles linked loosely but determinedly across vast seas of painted ground -- a deep medieval gold ground, in the case of the splendid Looking for Yellow Hat, and grounds of creamy bone-whites and yellows in pictures like Ivory Network and White Bare Woods.

At a time when painters are turning themselves inside-out to reinvigorate an aging genre with an often merely strident newness, Adamson, by contrast, works nonchalantly toward originality by means of his big bearish embrace of the painterly past. Part of the appeal of Adamson's paintings, for me, lies in their open, grateful acknowledgment of the achievements of European modernism -- and of the European painters who emigrated to New York in the 1930s and 40s: painters like Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko and especially Hans Hofmann (see, for example Adamson's Boat of Gold). There are also, folded into the mix, dashes of largely forgotten Europeans like Nicolas de Stael. Even Oskar Kokoschka has a voice here. Adamson's radiant paintings live in an eternal present, art-historically speaking.

As freely as he allows what critic Harold Bloom once called "the anxiety of influence" to quicken his paintings, Adamson also opens himself profitably to the vivid cross-fertilizations that result from his mixing -- or art least allowing the mixing -- of figuration and abstraction. There are, for example, discernable horizon lines everywhere. And, if you look for them, configurations that can be construed, if you wish, as skies and seas, plains and boulders, maps, buildings. One of the undeniable masterworks of the exhibition is a painting called Picnic at Victoria Falls. Here, in this lush, remarkably complex work, the colour is piled, smeared, swiped and scraped into a conflagration of painterly eventfulness that even provides, if you enjoy finding them there, a passage of whirling green rapids and a persuasive waterfall. One musn't, I think, go deliberately looking for incidents like these in order to cling to them as a realist crutch. But to draw upon them as freely, as inventively, and fearlessly as Adamson does greatly deepens and enriches the experience of his art. $600-$10,000. Until Dec. 22, 80 Spadina Ave., Suite 404, Toronto; 416-504-3914. Fernando Botero at Mira Godard It was with some discomfort that I realized that it's been years now that I've been condescending to the work of the Colombian painter Fernando Botero. Some artists just get too famous, and you forget how to look at them. The plushy, baby-fat overplumpness of Botero's subjects starts to look formulaic after a while, and you think you know what he's about.

But a passing Botero in an art magazine advertisement has little in common with any encounter with the genuine article. This lovely exhibition was precisely the corrective I needed.

In the first place, I'd forgotten to what degree Botero is a technical virtuoso. His paint slides onto his canvases as if it's a glaze on porcelain, each of his charming big fatties becoming lambent volumes filling up with soft, oleaginous colour. If you look hard at a painting like Lying Nude (1978), you cannot but marvel at how peachy the skin tones are, how columnar and solidly deliberate are the tree trunks that rise nearby (given their airlessness, they could be tree trunks swiped from, say, Balthus or Paul Delvaux). And what an expanse of 18th-century meadow it is that bears the succulent burden of the Botero nude!

And yes, Botero's winsome and more or less antic Self Portrait at the Age of One (1996), is funny: there sits the infant painter, big as a hillside, wearing an absurd, lacy baby-dress and clutching a palette in one chubby hand and a loaded brush in the other. I don't know why the kid is so fat (Botero himself is handsome and lean). Maybe fatness is Botero's way of answering the tensions and diminishings of life; maybe for him fat is life-enhancing in an age of widespread generalized cultural skinniness. Whatever the answer to the fat question, Botero's wide expanses of fleshiness seem opulent and, in the end, generous.

The great revelation of this show, for me, were Botero's sculptures -- of which I had hitherto seen very few. Expanded from the bodily largesse of sculptors like Aristide Maillol, Botero's polished bronze heavyweight ballerinas and majestic mother-and-child groupings seem utterly satisfying in their immense solidity, their ability to become heavy (but never graceless) still-points in a madly turning world.

His reclining bronze Lovers (1991) have the sort of legs that, between them, might really engender life. Until Dec. 18, 22 Hazelton Ave., Toronto; 416-964-8197. Mark Gaskin at Gallery One Vancouver painter Mark Gaskin's exhibition, Limitations/Sublimations is, like its title, an up-and-down, hit-and-miss sort of experience. Clearly, Gaskin can paint -- sometimes with brilliance and panache. He wields his heavy encaustic with bravado and sometimes -- and this is rare enough with painters, using encaustic-some restraint and subtlety.

Because you can pile up encaustic like Silly Putty, it's easy to let it have its head. Sometimes, as with his two "Ephemora of Paris" paintings -- shop windows piled with painterly detritus -- everything gets congested and dies. On the other hand, in a painting like A Child of Spain, what looks like a huge, looming, primitive Venus of Willendorf statuette attains a fierce, almost three-dimensional authority.

I think Gaskin is at his best when he takes on single, detachable, even traditional subjects. He's awfully good at still life, for example. In one painting of a couple of pears, the pendulous fruits, rich with a weird sort of inner light, hang in blackness -- like electric light bulbs underwater. And in Japan Tea, flowers in a vase disintegrate in light -- as if a floral Manet were dissolving before your very eyes. $5,500-$9,000. Until Dec. 13, 121 Scollard St., Toronto; 416-929-3103.