Monday, October 29, 2012

McMichael Art Gallery - Fashionality Exhibit

Earlier this year, the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg held an exhibition called "Fashionality - Dress and Identity in Contemporary Canadian Art". It was so much fun to see the creative ways that artists used clothing and fashion to produce beautiful and sometimes thought-provoking works.

Barbara Hunt's vintage aprons evoke images of Betty Draper from Mad Men getting ready for a dinner party.  Some of the aprons were really from that era, while others were created by Hunt to emulate and comment on the times.  Jane Eccles borrowed actual dresses from noted Canadian names such as Margaret Atwood and Adrienne Clarkson, hung them in front of her studio window during various seasons, and painted the results.  She represents the effects of sunlight streaming through the dresses as well as the scenery in the background.  Nicole Dexras created wild and elaborate costumes out of various flowers and plants.

Several works were created by native Indian artists.  Dana Claxton's striking "Onto The Red Road" shows the transformation from traditional Aboriginal clothing to Westernized modern dress, by shortening the same skirt at each stage, and changing the footwear from bare feet to open-toed sandals, eventually to shiny thigh-hugging spiked-heeled leather boots.  Ken Monkman mixed Western concepts with native designs to produce the raccoon jockstrap, a bra made of dream-catchers and a "Louis Vuitton" bag shaped like a quiver containing arrows.  Monkman also produced a homage to a 19th Century painting called Duel After The Masquerade, replacing the European dressed figures from a costume ball with ones wearing Indian medicine masks and moccasins.  The swords from the duel are replaced by a paint brush and easel.  It is interesting that the victor of the duel is represented as a woman wearing only a fur hat, fur coat and heels.

Janet Morton's floor to ceiling gigantic lumberman's jacket felt very iconic and Canadian and was aptly named "Canadian Monument".  Another beautiful series by Nicole Dextras encased flowing silky, flowery dresses in blocks of ice.  Barbara Pratt's paintings of dresses look like stylized fashion photographs including one called "Man and His Car" where the dress looks like a sleek shiny automobile. A very touching display by Michele Karch-Ackerman is called "The Sweaters from The Lost Boys".  It consists of an entire wall of miniature knitted sweaters.  Each sweater is meant to represent a soldier from the Newfoundland regiment who fought in the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel in WWI where 733 of the 801 men died.  She asks for volunteers to help knit the sweaters and currently has over 400.

There were too many other works to describe, but what a fabulous exhibition this was!

Being at the McMichael also gave us the opportunity to look at their outdoor sculptures including a new sculpture garden that opened recently.  We took a guided walking tour of the grounds, getting insights on sculptures we had seen before, and viewing new sculptures for the first time. 

We took a closer look at the Inuit carvings in the large rock on the path between the parking lot and the gallery. We spotted images that looked like a mythical squid, a tortoise, and men rowing a long boat.  For the first time, we noticed that the grizzly sculpture right in front of a building is actually mauling a seal.  A new exhibit showing a pack of wolves reclining around a bus shelter comments on the impact of urbanization on nature.

We were taken to the burial grounds where the founder Robert McMichael, his wife Signe, and many members of the Group of Seven (including A.J.Casson, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer and Fred Varley) are buried.


Finally we strolled through the brand new sculpture garden, built to house a donation of nine large bronze sculptures from artist Ivan Eyre.  The sculptures seemed to mix Asian and Science Fiction influences with female sun-worshiping figures and male warriors clad in heavy work boots that reminded me of what the Terracotta warriors might have looked like if transported to the distant future.  The nestling of these sculptures deep in the wooded lands is stunning, yet tranquil.

Theatre: Michael Healey's Play Proud

We went to see Michael Healey's new play Proud mostly to see what all the buzz and controversy was about surrounding its rejection by the Tarragon Theatre, resulting in Healey's resignation from his decade-long role as resident playwright.  Tarragon had produced the previous two plays in a trilogy, but passed on this final chapter (a spoof caricaturing Prime Minister Stephen Harper) fearing it was a bit too contentious and possibly even construed as libelous.  Healey decided to raise the money for the show himself and held a successful multi-week run at the Berkeley Street Theatre.

The play hypothesizes what could have happened in the 2011 election if all those NDP seats won by young, inexperienced candidates were actually Conservative seats, leading to a massive Conservative majority.  Michael Healey played the Prime Minister role himself and portrays a stiff, stuffy leader who is used to getting his own way - no cause for libel so far.  There is a funny scene between the PM and his chief adviser where they are trying to shuffle the house seating chart.  The PM does not want to sit facing any member who has disagreed with him. As the conversation goes on, member after member is removed from his sight lines.

The PM informs his new caucus that he means to control the message to the people and that there should be no impromptu interviews with the press.  Any issues should be brought directly to him. Newly elected single mother Jisabella Lyth takes him at his word and bursts into his office in search of a condom so she can have sex with a reporter on her desk to celebrate her victory.  The shocked PM tries to have her ousted, but is soon manipulated into teaching her the ropes and trying to use her for his own advantage.  She can be his secret diversionary tactic, causing uproars about policies that he doesn't care about, to draw attention away from important legislature that he actually wants to push through.

The witty interaction and fight for control between these two is both engrossing and hilarious to watch.  Jisabeth is brash, sensual, intelligent and not the pushover or puppet that the PM was hoping for.  While Healey plays the PM for laughs, he also imbues upon him a sensitive side.  This is especially displayed when the PM talks to Jisabeth's young son on the phone and in his own uptight manner, actually comforts the boy.

The only questionable part of the play was the ending which felt tacked on and unnecessary.  It featured Jisabeth's grown up son some years in the future.  He may have been trying to convey some final insight about the PM and his governing style, but it just left us confused.

This play was topical, had great dialogue and was fun to watch.  While its satirical nature did mock our PM and our government, there did not seem to be anything particularly litigious about it.  More likely, the Tarragon feared subtler retribution, in the form of reduced government grants and funding.  The whole experience probably benefited Healey's play more than it hurt it.  In addition to his regular audience, the extra publicity he received drove up attendance figures from those like us, who were merely curious about the affair.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Gardiner Ceramics Museum - Go East, The Vase Project, Invited Invasion

There were several extremely interesting sounding exhibits at the Gardiner Ceramics Museum, so it was time to get another free Museum pass from the Toronto Public Libraries. We got to the Gardiner just in time for the free daily tour which concentrated on the current featured attraction.  These were two shows set side by side on the third floor, both related to Chinese pottery.

The first exhibit was called "Go East" and highlighted Canadian ceramicists who visited China and illustrated how their work was influenced by the art they saw there.  Paul Mathieu bought white porcelain vases in China and commissioned typical Chinese images of flowers, birds and landscape to be painted on them, using the traditional cobalt blue pigments.  He then had subversive and controversial photographs of the Tiananmen Square massacre superimposed on top, resulting in extremely striking conversation pieces.  Mathieu was surprised that the Chinese artists did not react to his request.  It is possible that through the control of information in China, they did not recognize the significance of these photos.

Originally from China but living part time in Canada, Jiansheng Li took a drawing of a crane and abstracted it by separating the head and neck from the body and the legs.  My favourite artist was Sin-Ying Ho who mixes East and West, old and new in her art.  One vase has an ancient Chinese dragon interlaced with pop culture images of Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao and the Mona Lisa.  Another of her work uses a Roman decorated earth technique to subtly inject modern North American corporate symbols such as McDonalds and CocaCola over a traditionally decorated blue and white vase.


The second exhibit was titled "The Vase Project" and was described as a pottery "chain letter".  The curator bought 101 similarly shaped white vases in the city of Jingdezhen. She took the first one to a Chinese artist and asked that it be painted with some landscape scene that should include a smoke stack, representing the factories and industry of that city.  She then took the first painted vase to the next artist and asked for a new painting using the first one as inspiration.  Then a third artist was presented with the second vase and so forth until all 101 vases were painted.

 The participants were purposely selected to range in age, gender, painting style, and even occupation.  While some were full time artists, other were factory workers who painted.  The results were diverse and stunning when they were all displayed together in one room.  On the wall, photos were posted of the artists holding their vase.  Not all the artists could be located to have their pictures taken, as some were seasonal workers and had moved on.  This highlighted the role of the "anonymous artist" in the Jingdezhen ceramics trade.  We were really taken with vase #90 which almost looked like a Manhattan skyline, and vase #85 which had smoke coming out of a train instead of a factory and then the train morphed into the Great Wall of China.

One final exhibit that we really enjoyed was called "Invited Invasion".  Artist Joanne Tod made modern interpretations of ceramics styles found throughout the first and second floor of the Gardiner Museum.  A plate with a painting of Brangelina, re-imaged as Adam and Eve figures, mimicked more traditional historic images.  A black and white drawing on a plate and teapot showing a modern day social interaction contrasted to a similar scene from centuries ago.  Dramatically painted tiles depict current day murders such as the Shafia family drownings in comparison to historic crime scenes.  It became a bit of a treasure hunt to find Tod's art nestled in between the regular collection.  In many cases, her work was so similar to the style she was emulating that you had to look twice to spot it.

After a fun day at the museum, we wanted a quick snack and decided to try out the new Museum Tavern across from the ROM.  What a great spot this turned out to be! The indoor decor features a cool antique cash register, but the real treat is sitting on the second floor outdoor patio on a nice autumn day.  The view of the ROM crystal, Philosopher's Walk and Korner Hall is just stunning.

There was a wide selection of snack foods including lobster rolls, tuna cones with avocado, cucumber, and spicy mayo, elk sliders, white fish tostadas, stuffed chicken wings and more.  We went for the lobster rolls and an order of french fries with homemade mayo.  Rich also ordered an "afternoon delight mimosa" that contained orange juice, pernod and anise.  The food was very good but not exactly cheap.  Most of the snacks were in the $12-18 range and the drinks were all $12.  We basically spent all the money we saved from the free museum admission.  But it was a lovely experience anyways.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

AGO - Ian Baxter&, Bernice Abbott, Humour in Art, Minature Carvings, Michael Snow

While the AGO's big blockbuster shows are impressive and exciting, I sometimes find them overwhelming.  In some ways I enjoy the smaller exhibits better.  Over the past few months, we've seen some interesting ones.

The unique quirkiness of contemporary artist Ian Baxter& (pronounced as Baxter-"and") begins with the ampersand that he had legally appended to the end of his last name and had tattooed on his hand.  It is meant to describe his art as inclusive and to be shared with his audience.

Much of his art is a commentary on environmental concerns. He uses commercial vacuum-sealed bags and fills them with sands or liquids in order to create "bagged landscapes" as an indictment on over-packaging.  He shows a photo of lush tropical fruit sitting in a frozen wasteland to make a statement about the emissions created from the import of produce from abroad.  His sculpture of a series of stuffed animals clamped to the end of exhaust pipes warn that wildlife could become extinct due to pollution and global warming.

Baxter& paints scenery on discarded TV sets which he plugs in and allows static or "snow" to play in the background.  This seems to be a send-up of the General Idea TV Test Patterns.  On Baxter&'s TV sets, the static makes the landscape shimmer and seem to come to life.  His sailboat painting covered with 1's and 0's comments on our digital world.  An interesting exhibit shows the car that Baxter& and his wife took on a cross Canada road trip, with a video camera mounted over his shoulder to capture their adventures.  The One Canada video lasts 101 hours and follows them from Cape Spear, Newfoundland to Vancouver Island.

Bernice Abbott was one of the first female photographers to be taken seriously in her trade.  She  learned photography by studying under Man Ray when she worked as his assistant.  The exhibit is a retrospective of her career.  In the early days when she worked in Paris, she took portrait photos.  A six-year documentary project of New York City  showed the life in Manhattan in the late 1930s.  Her use of film that produced 8x10 inch negatives resulted in stunning photos that were amazing in their detail and clarity.  Later on, she started taking scientific photos reflecting movement, shape and gravity.  Of her portfolio, the most interesting to me were the photos of New York City.

I really enjoyed the exhibit called Humour in Art that showed how cartoons, caricature and humour have changed over time and across cultures, but all shared their their glee at mocking politics and class structure.  British artist James Gillray's 1795 "The Death of the Great Wolfe" spoofs on the famous Benjamin West 1770 painting of the death of General Wolfe.  Gillray substitutes Wolfe and his supporters with British Prime Minister William Pitt and his Tory ministers.  Another British cartoon of the same era called "The Connoisseur" shows a snooty aristocrat admiring a painting that is hung upside down.

Illustrator Walter Trier was born in Prague but fled London at the start of WWII and eventually moved to Canada.  His 1945 cartoon of "The Meeting of the Big Three" documents the historic meeting between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin.  It is drawn in a style mimicking Picasso.  A more recent caricature comments on Premier Bob Rae's cost cutting measures in the early 1990s and its effects on arts and culture in general and to the AGO specifically. 

Michael Snow is an extremely prolific and eclectic artist whose work includes sculptures, films, music, painting, photography, holography, videos and books.  Among other works in Toronto, he created the magnificent geese sculpture hanging from the ceiling of the Eaton Centre.  His current exhibit is called Objects of Vision and features sculptures which all direct your vision and force you into a way of viewing them.

The highlight of the works is his "seated sculpture" which he invites you to not only touch but actually sit on.  I was not tall enough to view his piece from above, so it was not clear to me that I had to duck underneath to get to the seat - I had to ask the security guard.  Once seated, your vision is directed straight ahead as you are surrounded by the long metal beams on either side.

Other works cause you to peer down a hole, peer through an opening, or walk around its circumference.  One piece called Blind allows you to walk through several mesh screens, each of a different pattern.  Depending on where you walk through and who else is walking through, you get a different visual experience.


Finally, we were blown away by the exhibit of miniature carvings made of boxwood or ivory.  One decorative piece, that is the size of a chestnut, unlatches to reveal teeny tiny intricate scenes.  They show an example of a boxwood tree trunk and a piece of ivory that these works might have been carved from.  Videos provide a magnified view and describe some of the potential processes.

Friday, October 19, 2012

X-Men Costume Exhibit at Bell Lightbox

The current exhibit in the Canadian Film Gallery/Film Reference Library on the 4th floor of the Bell Lightbox is called X-Men Master Gordon Smith - Makeup Artist Extraordinaire and Special Effects Wizard.  It features costumes, makeup and special effects used in the X-Men movies, designed by Ontario native Gordon Smith.  The characters Mystique, Wolverine, Toad, Sabertooth, Nightcrawler, Lady Deathstrike and Senator Kelly are represented.  Artifacts of costume and makeup are presented and an accompanying video illustrates how each actor is transformed into his/her mutant character, along with a short scene from the X-Men movies to show the final results.

Smith revolutionized the special effects industry by developing the use of silicone in prosthetic design instead of the previously used latex.  Silicone is a safe, reusable substance that can look and feel like skin, and can be coloured to match any skin tone (human or mutant).

Mystique's look was created by covering the naturally shapely actress Rebecca Romijn with individually painted blue scales that were glued onto her nude body.  Any uncovered part was then painted a matching blue. She wore a prosthetic headpiece which had the fiery red hair attached to it and placed yellow contacts in her eyes. Samples of the scales and the headpiece were on display, as well as a life-sized model of Mystique.  The process of applying all this material onto Romijn originally took 12 hours to complete but eventually the makeup artists got it down to 4 hours.

Wolverine's aluminum claws and a silicone mould of his head and shoulders were showcased.  Our tour guide explained how the claws were so sharp that Hugh Jackman accidentally scratched himself even through a body suit.  For safety, Smith created a plastic set of claws for fight scenes.  Director Bryan Singer didn't want to use the plastic ones for fear they would seem fake, but when asked to pick out the aluminum from the plastic, he could not tell the difference.

Toad's 6 foot long prosthetic tongue as well as his goggles were featured.  The tongue is attached to a mouthpiece that was made from a mould of the actor's teeth.  CGI is used to extend the length of the tongue to 12 feet.  Food colouring was used to achieve the "toad-like" tone of his skin. 

Sabretooth is played by a 6 foot 10 Canadian former professional wrestler who wore 4 foot lifts in order to tower over his opponents.  His lion-like mane, eyebrows and facial hair are all applied to silicone prosthetic pieces for easy application.  Before this technology, individual hairs would have to be attached one by one to an actor's face.  A video of this painstaking process was shown.

Nightcrawler has blue 2-digit feet, 3-digit hands and religiously symbolic tattoos all over his face and body. The tattoos, which are meant to represent his past sins, are traced on and then built up with paint.  The actor wears a harness with a long pointy tail attached to it.  All these items were on display in the exhibition.

Lady Deathstrike is played by actress Kelly Hui who was once Miss Hawaii.  She has long claws like Wolverine, but hers are attached to her fingernails and are thinner and more delicate but apparently no less deadly.

Senator Kelly was kidnapped by Mystique and turned into a mutant who can contract and expand.  With his new powers, he escapes his jail cell by squeezing his head through the bars.  To simulate how this would look like, Gordon Smith used a prosthetic head that he happened to have on hand.  It was one of Nicolas Cage probably from the movie Faceoff.  He squeezes this mask through some bars to get an idea of what a squished up face would look like.  A prosthetic head was then made for Senator Kelly and is on display.  It looks exactly like the actor who plays him.

At the start of the exhibit, there are some beautiful charcoal drawings of each of the characters, as well as a history of the X-Men comics and of Gordon Smith's career.  The exhibit runs until March 2013, is free and guided tours are given on Thursdays at 5 and 6pm.

The Clock Exhibition @ The Power Plant

Christian Marclay's exhibition called The Clock is a masterful display of film archival research and film editing that boggles the mind.  It took him over 3 years to compile thousands of film clips that review the time, whether it is a shot of a clock or a wristwatch or someone indicating the time through dialogue.  Played in real time so that the time on the screen matches the actual time of the viewing audience, this amazing film runs for 24 hours and represents every minute of an entire day.

It is currently showing for free at The Power Plant at 231 Queen's Quay.  The normal hours are Tuesday-Sunday 10-5 with extended hours on Thursday of 10-8.  But for designated days, it will be playing non-stop for 24 hour viewing periods.  The remaining days for this extended time period are until Oct 21, 5pm, Oct 27 10am-Oct 28 5pm and Nov 23 10am-Nov 25 5pm.  There are plush arm chair seats for about 50 people, and then standing room or floor space all around the small theatre, which was packed when we went for our first viewing.  You have to be quick to dive in when someone leaves if you want to snag a seat.

We watched this exhibition from around 3:10pm-4:05pm and was amazed by the wide range of movies that were covered in this short time period alone.  It is absolutely mesmerizing to watch and you get caught up with trying to identify the brief clips before they fade away into the next one. 

In that brief window, we recognized scenes from Mary Poppins, Gone With The Wind, Wait Before Dark, Wall Street, BeetleJuice, Before Sunset, The Thomas Crown Affair, Sixth Sense, Great Expectations, Manhattan Murder Mystery and many more that we couldn't identify.  At around 3:26, Jack Nicolson was singing to Ann Margaret in the musical Tommy when he pulled out his pocket watch.  In One Hour Photo, At 3:42, Robin Williams was ripping apart the film from a camera with a shot of a clock behind him.  Henry Fonda and other jurors were discussing a theory about the case in 12 Angry Men and synchronized their watches to 4pm.

It is incredible to imagine how difficult it would be to find all this footage of time and then to edit it together to play for exactly the right duration.  The movies ranged from recent releases to very old black and white movies.  There were foreign films including one in Cantonese that might have been the movie Infernal Affair.  I think I remember the scene and dialogue about a wristwatch.

The editing is inspired as the film moves from clip to clip.  The phone rings and is answered in one movie but the response could come from another one.  A man is carrying a woman down a hall in one movie, which cuts away to a different man carry a different woman in a totally different scene.  The sound from one film sometimes trails into the next one. 

This was such a great experience that we will go back again to watch for a longer period of time, if we can get in.  There are longer lineups for this at nights and on the weekends and the wait time could be long since people could stay up to 24 hours to watch the whole thing!  I guess food or bio-breaks would force them out sooner or later.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Royal Fanfare Exhibit at Toronto Reference Library

The Toronto Reference Library at 789 Yonge St. has been under-going a multi-year renovation and revitalization project.  At least part of this seems to be finished now and has resulted in the opening of a Balzac's Coffee attached to and accessible from inside the library, as well as an expanded TD Gallery exhibition space.

This Balzac's Coffee location is a welcome edition to our neighbourhood since previously the closest one was in the Distillery District and it is always packed.  I particularly like their cold, frothy Cafe Frappe drink that comes with 2 shots of espresso.  I didn't exactly complain about the apple caramel muffin either!  I've always admired the signs that they make up for each of the Balzac locations.  In particular, I'm amused by the ultra corny one for Stratford Ontario that reads "Alas poor Yorick, we brew him well."  The new one for the Reference Library shows a man leaning against a huge coffee mug while sitting on a stack of books including one by HonorĂ© de Balzac.

The exhibit currently showing in the TD Gallery is called "Royal Fanfare".  It features photographs, engravings, books and souvenirs from past Kings and Queens of Europe.  The memorabilia depict important ceremonies including birthdays, funerals, coronations and royal visits associated with monarchies through history and across different European countries.  Comparing the pomp and pageantry from the various eras, its interesting to see that although there are minor differences in style of dress, decorations and modes of transportation, overall not that much has changed throughout the centuries.

Some of the images are extremely old including one of ceremonial decorations created for Francois, Duc d'Anjou's arrival in Antwarp, Belgium in 1582, King James II of England's marriage to Queen Mary of Modena in 1685, elaborate lighting displays celebrating the inauguration of King Charles VI of France  in1717 in Ghent Flanders, and fireworks in honour of the1739 marriage between Philip of Spain and Louise, daughter of King Louis XV.

While the historic photos and etchings were impressive, much more personal and interesting were the souvenirs and memorabilia of the various monarchs.  A board game called The Royal Genealogy Pastimes of the Sovereigns of England dates back to the 1700s and features English kings and queens ranging from Saxon times through to George III.  Acknowledging his brutality towards his wives, landing on the square for Henry VIII triggers the largest penalty and causes you to go back to the beginning of the game. 

There was a jigsaw puzzle where each piece represents a different royal family.  A rose covered place card signed by Queen Victoria as a young girl was a birthday present for her mother.  One interesting item was called a "Jacob's Ladder".  It consists of a series of panels strung together with ribbon with a handle at the top.  The handle is used to flip the panels to expose the drawings on the other side.  This particular ladder had a painting of Queen Victoria on one side and Prince Albert on the other.

 More recent souvenirs included a King George VI chocolate bar, commemorative stamps of Queen Elizabeth II as a child, and a paper doll kit in her image with clothing such as a sailor's suit, pajamas, cape and crown.

There was a very informative video that gave more information about all the items in the exhibit.  It was too long to watch on our first visit, but we'll have to return for a more thorough viewing.