Things I'm glad to have not missed, part 1
Anyway, on to happier things. One of the irritations of May/June on my schedule is the densely-packed schedule of festivals and institutional openings; between Contact, Luminato, multiple openings at the AGO, the Power Plant, MOCCA and now the ROM, for heaven's sake, it's a struggle to keep up with the commercial gallery scene.
This is a long way of saying I finally worked my way down Tecumseth street today to have a look at the galleries strung along it, from Queen all the way down to Niagara. The first I feel compelled to mention is Mitch Robertson's completely engaging show at Birch Libralato, A Bit of Luck. I do my best not to be too predictable, but there's no accounting for taste, and I've made no secret of my love for work that couples gestures, systems and prosaic materials with a healthy dose of good humour, and Robertson hits all these points with a uniquely subtle, contrarian grace.
I'm a sucker for mildly obsessive gestures, self-consciously executed, so Robertson's delightful "A set of coins tossed each day until all tails prevail" gave me my first little moment of giddiness. (The piece is exactly as it sounds, the coins collected in a box in a vitrine, a charcoal rubbing of them where they lay on the wall). Another piece, "A ball of tape made to the width of my doorframe" has a similar, because-it's-there quality (a sort of domestically introverted Everest, cobbled with available materials; to each his own pinnacles, I suppose).
There are several other pieces here I loved, but I can't wrap up without the best, which I've saved for last. One wall of the gallery holds a grid of 24 black frames, which contain what appear to be sketches of the number 666 -- the beast, for those non-Judas Priest fans among us -- in various fonts and proportions (that's it, at the top). Which would be enough of a giggle, I suppose, if not for the accompanying text, which tells us that Robertson trekked around Ontario finding houses with the address 666 and took charcoal rubbings of each. The thought of 24 houses or businesses labelled with the number of eternal damnation makes plain the absurdity of the conceit itself: Resigned, oblivious, or whatever, Robertson's gesture neuters the power of myth with playful hilarity.
At the same time, the gallery is showing new paintings by Ben Walmsley, which I remember about a decade ago involving a colour field-esque abstraction serving as a background for immaculately-rendered, photorealistic paintings of liquor bottles. This time, the backdrops remain, but the booze is replaced by small children. Walmsley does a lot of paintings of children, mostly as commissions for clients; these are his personal work, and his exceptional ability to extract subtleties of expression and emotion from his young subjects aside, Walmsley plays an engaging formalist game, pitting chilly abstraction against perhaps the gloopiest sentimentality possible in figure painting, the children's commission.
Walmsley fiddles happily with expectations, particularly with a suite of works in which the children are seen from the back, as though gazing confusedly at those flat colour bars behind them; it's a clever comment on painting's widest rift, played with the gentle curiousity of a child. Who could blame them?