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.

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