R.M. Vaughan: The Exhibitionist

Ghosts and glass birds

R.M. VAUGHAN | Columnist profile | E-mail

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Feb. 04, 2011 4:30PM EST
Last updated Friday, Feb. 04, 2011 4:38PM EST

Avian at Lonsdale Gallery
Until Feb. 20, 410 Spadina Rd, Toronto; www.lonsdalegallery.com

When I mentioned to a friend that I had seen Avian, a new group show about birds at the Lonsdale Gallery, he let loose with several dozen reasons why he dislikes birds. I was baffled. Unlike, say, horses, with their colossal, bone-crushing builds and sharp hooves, most birds are small, timid, and often come in comforting colours. Some people have weird reactions to animals.

Avian is a deceptively simple show, one devoid of peacock hues or flashy displays of pillowy plumage. Thus it requires concentration to fully appreciate, because, let’s face it, everybody knows what a bird looks like. It’s the conveyance, the ways in which the bird sculptures and images are fabricated, that soars here, not the actual depictions, which tend to favour common birds over exotic Tweetys.

To wit, Julie Oakes’s dazzling flock of Murano glass sparrows, hand-blown in Italy to her specifications, hover over the gallery like a vast pearly chandelier. Captured in various moments of flight, from full wingspan swoops to wings-to-the-side dives, the sparrows are simultaneously weightless and pendulous, fragile and crystalline hard.

Avian’s curator, Stanzie Tooth, told me that Oakes is currently having many more birds fabricated, and plans to show them at the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, in Waterloo, Ont. During that exhibition, one bird a day will be allowed to drop and smash on the gallery floor. So see Oakes’s sun catchers now, before it’s too late.

Amanda McCavour’s thread drawings (her term) of birds combine the compact toughness of thick upholstery embroidery with a lace-like transparency and ballpoint-doodle freshness.

McCavour constructs her sculptures by sewing an image onto a water-soluble material, layering her threads heavily in some spots, to create strong outlines, and letting other parts remain almost vacant, connected via a single thread. When she is done, she simply immerses the thread and secret material in water until the supporting concoction dissolves, leaving only the drawing behind.

Like Oakes, McCavour is exploring the dual reality of birds, animals that are designed to defy gravity, and yet are tough as nails (or talons) animals we put in dainty cages to better admire their chipper songs and pretty colours, genetic traits left over from when they were ravenous dinosaurs. What better materials to capture this marvellous conflation than brittle but heavy glass and airy but binding thread?

An added bonus: Along with her show-stopping glass works, Oakes offers a series of beautiful and creepy, bone-white ceramic sculptures of birds. Many of the birds face the viewer full-frontal with their bellies and legs contorted and arched; poses that can be read, depending on how you interpret the birds’ facial expressions, as depicting the animals in mid flight, in rigor mortis, or, pardon my anthropomorphizing, in a state of sexual arousal.

Like I said, some people have weird reactions to animals.

Alexandre David at YYZ Artists Outlet
Until April 2, Suite 140, 401 Richmond St. W., Toronto; www.yyzartistsoutlet.org

As I type this, Montreal-based artist Alexandre David is beavering away at YYZ Artists Outlet, surrounded by huge sheets of plywood, a mound of nails, and Mike Holmes-worthy sawing gear. But why?

Walking into YYZ, you might think you’ve accidentally stepped into a room not ready to be viewed. But David wants the public to watch him create his installation, and loves to talk to strangers. When completed, some time around mid-February, David’s project will be a room within the gallery, an elevated, unornamented (even unpainted) box that viewers can, and are encouraged, to walk into. Think of it as a gallery version of a tree house.

Once inside this life size maquette, as David dubs it, the visitor will notice a gradual incline in the floor, one that peaks near the middle of the space and brings the visitor’s head close to the box’s ceiling. The bump then subsides and turns into a kind of trough at the back end, a meeting space for visitors to gather and, as David told me, do whatever they like. The artist hopes his irregular square will be used for performances, meetings, or just coffee klatches. My work has no meaning unless it is used, David says.

Skateboarders, oil your wheels.

Ron Giii at Paul Petro Contemporary
Until Feb. 19, 980 Queen St. W., Toronto; www.paulpetro.com

Ron Giii sees ghosts, and then he draws them. That’s my theory.

Giii’s legendary graphic touch, soft as felt and pin-point fine, creates a dusted, spectral texture that reminds me of mist, cigarette smoke, wool fluff and cat whiskers. But it would be a great mistake to read his work as light. Light-hearted perhaps, but his drawings always carry far more presence than anything made from pencil ought to thus their spookiness.

Giii’s latest collection at Paul Petro Contemporary, Thought Court, features a series of dancing, mincing (and sometimes menacing), genderless figures, with tiny, blocky bodies, balloon-shaped heads, and inscrutable facial features.

At times, the figures resemble men in authority, suited bosses, while at other times they resemble happy/sad Pierrot harlequins without a stage. One set of creatures have round pointy faces that could be caricatures of Vladimir Putin, if Vlad ever took up interpretive dance.

Giii’s genius lies in his ability to make every mark on the page count, and to limit those marks to the bare minimum. There is nothing accidental here, and yet the works never strike one as overly calculated or sterile. Add to Giii’s natural, fluid precision his penchant for faint hues, the foggiest and grayest of leads, and you have works that tease with hyper-considered, definitive mark-making while appearing to evaporate.

If ghosts do walk among us, they have an official portraitist.


Capitalism and Culture in the Junction
Until Feb. 13, 3109 Dundas St. W., Toronto

A community-based exhibition that blends works by Junction inhabitants and workers, some of whom identify as artists and some who do not but all of whom have blunt questions about the state of the economy.

Antoine Duhamel at Whippersnapper Gallery
Until Feb. 15, 594B Dundas St. W., Toronto

Say what you will about Duhamel’s aggressively lurid, pervy portraits, but the man is not afraid of ugliness, or the blood and guts colours under the skin.

Red Envelope Show at Hang Man Gallery
Until Feb. 13, 756 Queen St. W., Toronto

The subtitle of this show is What’s Your Rabbit? in homage to 2011’s Lunar New Year animal. Expect big ears, faux fur and nods to Watership Down.