Monthly Archives: August 2010

Stewart Jones, Looking Up

One of my first impressions of Stewart Jones is a lasting vision of his black eyes darting up at me with a mixture of fear and horror, his face twisting in shock after a simple question. As it turns out, the milk at the Drake was particularly salty that morning and I soon came to realize throughout our conversation that Jones epitomizes the laid back Canadian cottager our country is famous for.

Born in Kingston, Ontario, Jones has called Toronto home for nearly 20 years. In his paintings, he pays homage to his adopted hometown in a way that only someone imported here from elsewhere could- he looks up. I’ve heard it said before that you can spot a tourist in Toronto because they are the only ones looking up. Predictably, Jones’ fellow Torontonians often  fall in love with his work as it gives them a new way to experience our sometimes drab metropolitan surroundings.

His approach to painting is heavily influenced by his work as a graphic artist and animator. His focus rests on the primary artistic concepts of composition and proportion and relies on these rules in his gradual shift towards the boundaries of abstraction. His ever-flattening skies, divided into simple shapes by Toronto’s ubiquitous streetcar cables are used as a vehicle to play with light and colour. Using unashamed brush strokes and vivid complementary colours, Jones follows in the tradition of landscape painting Canadian art is so painfully famous for. Vivid oranges, reminiscent of Tom Thomson, show up as flashes in skies, streets, buildings, crossing cable lines. Unlike the Group of Seven, who escaped Toronto to paint the wilds of the north, Jones paints the beauty he absorbs from his downtown neighbourhood.

While he is insistent that he is painting the urban environment, it seems as though his preoccupation with light and shadows and the resulting play of richly spontaneous colours layered throughout his work are simply innuendoes to the lost natural history beneath our paved cityscape. These vibrant accusations easily set a stage for conversations about our limited relationships with the natural world. In some pieces, Jones starts these conversation by changing the names on street signs or storefronts.

What’s surprising about this, after talking to Jones, is that these allusions to the natural world and its pressing issues of sufferance are not even more prominent in his work. We didn’t talk politics, but I think I can guess to whom Jones casts his vote. The artist is a passionate supporter of worker’s rights and environmental causes. Jones’ professional partnerships attest to his strong interest in these types of issues. He takes pride in being Canadian songtress Sarah Harmer’s commercial artist, herself a fervent protector of the Niagara Escarpment. He is also a member of the artist collective City Field North Shore (CFNS), a group touted as the Broken Social Scene of the art world. Now in its fourth year, each of the four artists involved in the collective paint a series focusing on one aspect of the Canadian landscape. The exhibition runs yearly in Toronto to raise awareness for Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, an organization that conducts research and advocacy initiatives to protect the quality of the water in Lake Ontario. Watch for more detailed coverage of this exhibition in December.

Stewart Jones’ is exhibiting at Gallery 129 Ossington until September 25, 2010. Visit the opening next Thursday, September 9, 2010. Also, if you missed the chance to buy some of his work off-price at AWOL’s annual Square Foot show, try visiting Jones at the Artist Project at the CNE this March.

The Uncomplicated Beauty of Erin Munro

The first photo you see upon entering Erin Munro’s website may make you feel as though have accidentally navigated into a game of hide and seek. The artist is seen skipping out of frame, a long mane of brown hair trailing behind her. For this reason, I wasn’t quite sure who to look for when going to meet with her. During the interview while staring into her bright, serious blue eyes, it occurred to me that it is possible that she chooses to remain hidden so that she will be judged for her art alone.

I happened upon Munro’s film installation, Kaleidoscope Mandala, at Angell Gallery’s Summer Group Show, currently on display. In the installation, what started as a single video-image of an antique merry-go-round has been transformed into a pair of mirror images folding into each other and disappearing into matching oblivions.  This reflecting single-cell then divides repetitively until the screen is an array of colourful abstracted undulations. The beauty of the piece, Munro admits, is in its simplicity. The immediate associations to childhood and nostaligia from the ever-orbiting subject matter evoke deep symbolism from her uncomplicated editing.

It seems that much of the beauty of Munro’s art arises from its simplicity. Munro’s paintings also bask in their uncomplicated beauty. Streaks of still-wet paint slide across her nocturnes as if Gerhard Richter had decided spruce up an old Whistler. Within another series, her ambient representations are so muted as to only resemble colour. Luckily for Munro, white paint often comes in the larger five-ounce tubes.

I asked the artist, obviously versed in the painting tradition, how she came to work in film. For her, the progression was much more natural than I would have expected. To Munro, the faint blurs of melted subject matter that fall across the windows of her canvases represent the ephemeral nature of life. Rather than trying to portray the photo-still juncture in time praised by the realists, Munro is capturing moments using a much slower shutter-speed. While not endeavoring to show active movement, her goal seems to be in the passing, rather than the inert.

With the idea of painting each instant bookended by it’s own past and future, transitioning to video was merely following intuition. She began experimenting with creating vaguely moving video-loops to project onto blank canvas. The original intention was to momentarily trick the art-gazer with this nearly motionless canvas.  Her ease with working in video led her to delve deeper into the medium, exploring subtle suggestions of narrative and using personally created atmospheric soundtracks as accompaniment. It could be said that the mood of the work has the aura of spontaneity that one would expect from a girl trying to escape the front page of her own website.

Erin Munro’s installation, Kaleidoscope Mandala, is currently on display at Angell Gallery until August 21, 2010.

The Defunct Idealisms of Tristram Lansdowne

The first thing that stands out in Tristram Lansdowne’s paintings is the artist’s rare degree of technical ability. The young Lansdowne began painting seaside pulchritude in his hometown of Victoria, BC, before moving to Toronto to attend OCAD, from which he graduated in 2007 . Shortly afterwards, Landsdowne set up in a studio in Toronto with four friends from art school.

The elements of fantasy within Landsdowne’s rigidly representational watercolours started with a vision of the Toronto skyline pulled out of the earth to reveal botanical roots. The majority of his work exhibited to date is created in this conceptual vein, rendering diverse organic realities beneath realistic vignettes of urban fringe. He shows us stark samples of the urban backdrop: abandoned boarded-up houses and broken down buildings spotted with graffiti.

Lansdowne insists that these pieces are not meant to be preachy one liners about urban decay or environmental devastation. Instead, the multiple histories evident from the visible layers of use and misuse are what lead him to focus on these more derelict parts of town. He endeavors to “have some sort of conversation with the buildings [I see] via this fictional element.” He aptly compares his work to the somewhat surreal yet vividly realistic work of the New Leipzig painters, whose art has brought Germany back into the forefront of the world of contemporary art criticism and collecting in recent years.

These examinations of downtown deterioration caused Landsdowne to begin musing on the greater theories of urban planning that precipitated their existence. Working from a book garnered from a garage sale, Programs and Manifestos of 20th Century Architecture, he has begun creating full panoramas based on overly optimistic obsolete plans for actualizing utopias. While trying to show a beauty he describes as “so poetic it becomes crushed under the weight of it’s own absurdity,” Lansdowne struggles not to seem flippant or ironic.

The graffiti style moniker on his web-site is misleading, as this artist has little interest in being perceived as “cool.” At first glance, his work may appear simply to be savvy contemporary landscapes composed by a traditionally trained painter. Lansdowne’s tragic gaze into the past stares beyond tradition  or some nostalgic interest in aesthetic or architectural theory. Embedded in his work is an unforeseen pathos, which he conveys with a unique brand of poetic articulation and smooth urgency.

Quite possibly, this focus on the past is a sample of a burgeoning conceptual theme in an upcoming generation of artists. For Lansdowne, he sees looking to the past as his only option. To him, the idea of a linear path to a bright future seems comically implausible. He is not looking to romanticize previous ideas of brighter futures, but is trying to steer away from presenting nightmarish futures devised in the mind of a child raised in the cold war era. The cognizance that maybe a brighter future was never available- even to the optimists of the past- is Lansdowne’s dispiriting  message of consolation.

Tristram Lansdowne is represented by LE Gallery. His work is currently on display for the rest of the week at the MOCCA: Empire of Dreams show, until Sunday, August 15.

Take a look at other my other articles profiling artists from Empire of Dreams: David Han,  Samina MansuriDavid TrautrimasAlex McLeod and Dorian FitzGerald.

David Han

Inspired to challenge viewers to rethink their relationship to the screen after attending the Venice Biennale the summer prior to his studies, David Han began creating experimental videos during his MFA at York University. If I have convinced you to attend the MOCCA: Empire of Dreams show, you’ll definitely remember his work- you know, the car. Han is the first person to admit that the unforgettable, yet arguably gimmicky presence of a 70’s model station wagon within a gallery setting is both a blessing and a curse. Inside the faux wood doors the fully functioning car has been “retrofitted” into a sort of private movie pod. The piece, entitled Margaret learns to Drive from There to Here, was first exhibited at the Leona Drive Project in 2009, for which it was originally commissioned.

The radiantly youthful Han sheepishly admitted that after the Leona Drive exhibition several parents approached him to express how much their children had enjoyed the piece. I can’t blame them really. The excitement of riding in a normal station wagon was enough for me as a child, so I can’t imagine how much more truly fantastic this experience could have been through younger eyes. Novelty aside however, the choice of the once ubiquitous family vehicle for this project couldn’t have been more conceptually fitting.

Inside the car, three separate video loops, each lasting 23 minutes, project suburban views from every window. Han shot the video loops in Willowdale, just north of Toronto, while driving the same one-block route at different times of day. So while at first the scenes might not seem to match, after time the viewer may notice that they are watching the same drive from different angles. The voices dubbed overtop of this suburban reverie reflect the changing demographics and new populations of our city’s outlying areas.  Sit in the wagon at any one time and you can listen to the same patch of dialogue culled from the classic 50’s portrayal of the American dream, Father Knows Best, translated into Mandarin, Cantonese, Farsi, Russian or Korean.

The disquieting knowledge that what you are experiencing is a projection completely separate from the world existing outside of the car creates an eerie uneasiness that helps one to understand Han’s layered insights. Within the obligatory privacy of Han’s car-cinema, the art-gazer is left to ponder the deeper significance of the their own act of watching. The re-purposing of the windows as screens draws solid parallels to the psychological disconnect of the commuter to their surroundings. This unnatural emphasis on this often unperceived barrier provokes the viewer to think about the experience of being detached from the external world, unmoving, yet being moved through the public space.

Similarly, just as the projections within Han’s car show us visions of redevelopment, they also implicitly demonstrate the changes in our own relationship to film and video. From the still interiors of modern transport, a scarce finger movement across a minute screen can send our minds deep into the complex international world of information while our bodies simultaneously hurtle through the physical world. It seems that maybe Han is asking us to consider a very simple question through this static automobile- Are we there yet?

Han’s installation, Margaret learns to Drive from There to Here is currently on display at the MOCCA: Empire of Dreams exhibition, on until August 15, 2010.

Take a look at other my other articles profiling artists from this show: Samina MansuriDavid TrautrimasAlex McLeod and Dorian FitzGerald.