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The chief difficulty in writing about an artist who paints as well as Joanne Tod lies in curbing the superlatives. Tod possesses a certain kind of virtuosity, a casually authoritative, old-masterish bravado, that allows her to pretty much paint whatever she wants to in a way that is, for the most part, solid, believable and compelling. During the past few years, however, the Toronto-based artist's paintings have become rather eccentric (as opposed to the grand, operatic oddness she generates when she works at full throttle). There have been highly mannered paintings of tufted mattresses and glass vessels, studies of Indian women in dazzling saffron saris -- beautiful things, admittedly, but narrow in their over-specialization. For her new show, The Republic of Private, the season opener at the Sable-Castelli Gallery,Tod is back in top form. Her mysterious Into the Realm is a masterfully vivacious yet emotionally destabilizing amalgam of jangled, opposed energies. Painted -- as all of her pictures are -- from one of her own documentary photographs, Into the Realm depicts a hallway in a small apartment building where Tod has stayed in New York. There is a massive table against the corridor wall, a dignified but mismatched chair, a copy of a Rembrandt on the wall (its colour leached out by Tod's flash, leaving the heaving wrinkles of its battered surface), a few other rapidly brushed-in prints hanging here and there (a Paul Klee and a Picasso) and, in the far wall, a dark apartment door with a jack-o'-lantern pasted on it. The flare of Tod's flash has rendered all of this banalized interior strange and unearthly. But not as strange and unearthly as her brilliant capturing in pigment of the look of the flash-photo moment itself, where the laboriousness of painting is made to harbour the immediacy of the photographic instant. The final strangeness is the floor -- painted a deep, glistening, phosphorescent black, like an oily canal running through the institutional hallway. The same oily, canal-like floor turns up in the The Kiss and -- having turned brackish green this time -- runs through the turquoise and pinkish corridors of her queasily familiar Pharmaceutical Grade, a painting which says everything that can be said about institutional atmospheres. These hallway canals turn into real canals (and shorelines) in Tod's new map-paintings. In An Even Year, an unfolded map of Venice, its knife-edge sections rendered with an almost trompe-l'oeil believability, settles down into a gentle abstraction, the map's precision transformed into an all-over organization of strokes of soft beiges and blues. Tod's virtuosity allows her to effect a full-throated verisimilitude. But then, having nothing to prove, she can pull back again from that dizzying realism into the kind of high sensuous, meditative brushwork that abstracts its subject at the very same time as it nails it down. Prices on request. Until Sept. 30. 33 Hazelton Ave., Toronto. 416-961-0011.

Vanitas at the Angell Gallery

This is the championship season for Toronto sculptor-painter Catherine Heard. With new sculptures currently at the S.P.I.N. Gallery on Queen Street West, the artist has just launched a generous selection of her new spooky, mordant, highly informed little paintings next door at the Angell Gallery. Here, in theatrically ornate, darkly funereal frames, are Heard's delicately painted and highly resourceful takes on a historically timeless subject -- our fearful mortality, as incarnated (if that is the right word for a cavorting of skeletons) in the dance-of-death titillation that is the Death-and-the-Maiden-theme. "Sometimes," writes Philippe Ariès in his 1981 book The Hour of Our Death, "we find the stirrings of a desire sufficiently powerful to attract a living person to a corpse." In Heard's paintings, we find such stirrings in spades. Her chalky, slightly phosphorescent skeletons -- most of them male -- boldly and lasciviously embrace and caress Heard's nubile maidens (all of whom, disturbingly, have shorn heads, like prisoners of a concentration camp), eventually effecting a bony, clanky congress with them, in a series of sexual positions imaginative enough to constitute, in aggregate, a dark, clammy Kamasutra. $300-$4,000. Until Sept. 30. 890 Queen St. W. 416-530-0444.

Ed Zelenak at the Christopher Cutts Gallery

Sculptor Ed Zelenak has titled his new exhibition On the Face of It, and I would say, on the face of it, that here is an artist obsessed -- no doubt happily obsessed -- by a single image: a solitary, upright, three-branched graphic form that suggests everything from a bird's track in the snow to the cross of the crucifixion. Zelenak, who lives and works in West Lorne near London, Ont., sees it, apparently, as a kind of divining rod. He employs the image as a configuration, often in metal, which he isolates in the middle of a vast empty field (usually white paper). The crucifix-divining rod is usually given a sort of vibrant internal vitality by the presence of tiny metal arrow-like forms, direction indicators, which are affixed to the larger form like barnacles on a ship. And there is an undeniable poignancy inherent in the way this animated, teeming metal form is launched onto the paper void -- the skuffles and smears and mussings on the paper around it working like a sea boiling up in the wake of a churning vessel plying the waves. Also included in the exhibition is a very impressive sculptural installation (which has been in progress for a decade) called Petrarch's Climb. The work, which consists of a massive, 3½-tonne shallow steel cone, four metres high and five metres in diameter, is attended closely by a diaphanous drawing (in ink on mulberry bark paper) of a tiny but graphically decisive ladder. Climb ev'ry mountain. The divining-rod reliefs are $2,500-$8,000. Price of Petrarch's Climb on request. Until Oct. 4. 21 Morrow Ave. 416-532-5566.

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Gary Blundell at V. MacDonnell Gallery

Like his predecessor Paul Walde at V. MacDonnell, Gary Blundell -- who is trained as a geologist -- takes a router to plywood and gouges his way into his paintings. But where Walde also employed porcupines and beavers as assistants in the wood-rending process, Blundell, who lives in the Haliburton region of Ontario, depends on his camera for assistance. He is attracted, he says, to the rich and subtle coloration of the rock outcroppings of his neck of the woods (the show is called Metamorphic Goss, goss being short for gossen, "the rusting of an ore-carrying rock body at the surface"). The artist turns his colour photos into highly textured paintings, their raw and robust colour rubbed into the distressed wood in a manner that lands them somewhere between abstraction and the way things really are out there on the Canadian Shield. $900-$1,600. Until Oct. 7. 1340 Queen St. W. 416-534-3259.

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