Friday, February 27, 2004

Stephen James Kerr / National Post Feb. 21/04

Stephen James Kerr's abstract paintings carry a daunting sense of purpose, though you’d never know it just by looking at them. On the surface, they are slick, brushstroke-free canvases filled with geometric fun. The colour range is so Sugar Mountain sweet in most of the eight paintings that fill the front room of XEXE Gallery that I swear I detected a slight glow radiating off them and onto my skin and clothes.

But like the covers of books, glamour paintings like these can be deceivingly deeper than their shallow surfaces might suggest. In Kerr's case, colours and shapes throw the unsuspecting viewer into in a lowgrade trance of visual stimulation before it becomes clear that these surfaces aren't just one-dimensional abstracts, but rather small schematic mappings of entire worlds.

Kerr describes them as landscapes that he has radically simplified into a working lexicon of basic shapes and grids. Parking Lot Weston Road and Steeles, for instance, is a pink square outlined in red and with five orange circles lined up near the bottom corner. The painting's inspiration, according to Kerr, is a parking lot he recalls walking through during an intense heatwave. Being one of Toronto's bleakest, most oppressive suburban corners, he used red and pink, a combo that is particularly jarring on the eyeballs, as well as being colours that best reflect the sensation of sun-scorched pavement.

Using sociologist's probing eye, Kerr's painting deal with our seemingly uncontrollable need to reorder nature, and how man-made environments ultimately have an alienating effects on us. His interest in the topic goes back in the early 90s when he was still an art student at York. He went into exhibition hiatus shortly after graduating, but he continued painting while also learning Russian in St. Petersburg. Back in Toronto, he started writing investigative articles on chemical weapons and global arms for lefty publications like Now, This, and Zmag.org.

All that globetrotting and searching for workable ways for staying socially engaged with the big questions in life, while also painting, lead Kerr toward an interest in using the mathematical structures of maps as the basis for his abstract compositions. It has proven to be a perfect marriage between aesthetics and logic.

Take his painting K Street Mandala, one of the more complicated and largest in the exhibition. It is based on a rationalized breakdown of the natural world and the global economy. The total canvas surface, Kerr has determined, is representative of the earth's surface. From there he's painted proportionate shapes -- the blue square being the earth's water mass, the green square land, and the brown square is land overtaken by cities, suburbs, farms and roads. At the centre is a circle representing America's 22 percent share of the global economy, and the white pyramid, if extended to the bottom corners, would define the basic road map of Washington D.C., which follows the shape of Solomon's seal (a.k.a. the star of David).

It's very cool to look at, like looking at the whole world inside the ear of a mouse. But does it mean anything? That's open to debate, of course. But Kerr says it is the romantic notion of there being hidden realities just below the surface of our daily lives, and that we are usually oblivious to, that intrigues him. Washington D.C. is a perfect example, being a city designed so that the main throughfares follow a perfect pentagram (with the White House at the centre of it all). Pentagrams are also known as the sacred geometry, an abstraction of the ultimate nature of physical and spiritual realities, and its structure is visible in almost every element of human civilization to DNA strands. Yet very few people walking the streets of Washington are even aware that this mythical and occultic geometry is guiding them through the streets.

Art within a mathematical and geometric framework is as old as Leonardo da Vinci and the Freemasons, but as anyone whose read Dan Graham's bestselling thriller The daVinci Code will tell you, the idea of exposing some divine order on the universe through art and cracking codes is endlessly intriguing. - Catherine Osborne

Stephen James Kerr, Shape of the World, March 2004. XEXE Gallery, 624 Richmond St W, Toronto

Monday, February 23, 2004

Ikea Deconstructed / National Post Feb 14/04

It's becoming the thing to do in the art world. A big art or furniture design fair sets up at a sprawling and airless convention space, like this weekend's Interior Design Show (IDS) has done at the National Trade Centre, and in no time local upstarts spawn an alternative sideshow of emerging talents set up at a nearby hotel.

In recent years there's been the low-budget, ultra-hip Scope art fair that has filled the rooms of the Townhouse Hotel during the run of Art Basel Miami. Last May, the newly minted Downtown at the Chelsea Hotel rocked the designer scene in New York as a successful satellite design exhibition to the much bigger International Contemporary Furniture Fair.

Offshoots like these are an affordable way for younger artists and designers to show their stuff while buyers are in town and on the prowl. But they're also an interesting measure of just how mediocre, more than mind-expanding, the big-scale events actually are. You think you're going to see the latest and brightest talents in the field, maybe even get a little glimpse at the future of design. But really what you get are a lot of lesser known designers selling variations on Pottery Barn loveseats.

Come Up To My Room at the Gladstone Hotel is the kind of under-the-radar alternative design event that is bound to lure at least some of traffic off the convention floor. More than a dozen hotel rooms have been rented out to 27 designers and artists who are keen on showing some of the more philosophical pursuits of design.

These are one-offs, studio prototypes and site-specific creations. They might be good or they might be crappy, but they definitely aren't more of the same knockoffs seen at the official design show.

In Room 63 architects Philip Evans and Micheal McClelland have set up a highly unsellable L-shaped wall that serves no real function other than to make part of the room--the washroom--completely inaccessible. You soon figure out that the installation is a political comment on the shortcomings of heritage building bylaws which don't protect our city's modern-era architecture.

In Room 66, Stunt Double, a newly formed group of anonymous designers, have pasted outlines of modern furniture on to the walls using antiquity-era flocking and twill. There's no actual furniture that you could, you know, sit on, or buy even.

Two main themes hover over many of the exhibition installations -- designs that have used the century-old Gladstone as part their concepts, and designs that have been made with no real function or purpose other than to look really really cool.

Take the iconoclastic object, Decoy, in Room 57 and made by Derek Sullivan. Decoy is a faux product. It is a true-to-size reconstruction of Verner Panton's single-mould cantilever chair of the 1960s, but it has been flimsily constructed out of polyurethane foam and house paint, making it visually identical to the famous chair but unusable as an actual chair. "We're fully committed to the idea that our things occupy space and don't really work," reads the blurb for the art-slash-design group Sullivan is exhibiting with.

Artist Christy Thompson, who is showing with Sullivan and cardboard-construction artist James Carl, shares a similar interest in excessive fakeness and design before function (she calls it "deconstructing IKEA"). Among her lamp-like designs is a construction-site lamp cage covered with decoratively cute but useless clusters of Ping-pong balls.

Bruno Billio, in Room 68, has an exceptional eye for re-energizing space by setting up interesting arrangements of home furnishings and making modest alterations to found objects. In a tribute to the late American string artist Fred Sandback, Billio has strung miles of florescent yellow and hot pink string into hundreds of vertical rows around the room's walls and down the circular Victorian staircase. It's taunt enough to vibrate if you strum it like a guitar.

There are lots more rooms to poke your head in. You'll find sculptural works by Scott Eunson, a giant C-shaped coat-rack designed by Petra de Mooy and Heidi Earnshaw, and veneer sculptures by Dennis Lin whose designs have turned up in hotel lobbies around the globe, including the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas.

Fun, like the alcohol, will be flowing freely at the Gladstone's LoveDesign Party tonight, which (as all art creatures of this city already know) is also opening night for the nearby Drake Hotel -- amounting to an art and party feeding frenzy, the likes of which Parkdale has never before seen. Happy Valentine's. - Catherine Osborne

Come Up To My Room: Gladstone Hotel's Alternative Design Event runs until Sunday 12-8pm at 1214 Queen Street West. Tonight: LoveDesign Party, until 2am. $5 admission.