Thursday, May 20, 2004


Hi, Repeat visitors can see, I'm overhauling this blog and it's taking waaaaay longer than I thought. I should have everything running smoothly by the weekend. catherine

Monday, May 17, 2004

Mercer Union's Better Living - N. Post May 15, 2004

Ever wonder why Canadian contemporary art never turns up at auction? No one has given me a very good reason why not, other than to say there are not enough collectors, and dealers think if the art they sell hammers down at a lower price, the delicate, barely-there art bubble we now live in will suddenly burst and die. Sounds paranoid to me, but still It's amazing how often I hear there isn't enough money in our very wealthy city to make the arts really happen.

Maybe there are just too many little art sales at non-profit art galleries raising money by selling lots of little things at sad little prices. Maybe what's needed is a seriously big gala auction with good and expensive art on the block to bring in the collectors.

Mercer Union's "optimistic" exhibition and paddlefest called Better Living is gambling that's true. Build the auction and they will come. Auction previews have already started with 52 lots by selected artists, designers and architects. The range is $120 to $12,000.

There are a few of the expected "dumb art" offerings that may (but likely won't) be worth a fortune one day -- like Michael Buckland's Los Olvidados del Destino, which has a bloody cleaver sculpted into a boombox (lot 9, $500); or Ron Terada's tiny silver origami unicorn (lot 21, $400). But other objet look mighty fine.

There's a watercolour sketch by Dutch artist Atelier Van Lieshout who's known around the world for his fabulously bizarre living units (lot 52, $2400). Also, New York's Diane Yunque's excellent Little Buddy Chat Chairs, a tete-a-tete for little tykes that encourages talk and discourages groping. "An essential tool in the delay of preschool intimacy," reads the product label (lot 27, $600).

If these sort of original items work for you, you'll probably adore this gold-card auction, the only Canadian contemporary art auction like it. --CO

Mercer Union: Better Living preview runs until May 20, 12-7pm at 129 Spadina Ave, 2F. Gala auction May 20. Doors open 6pm, auction starts at 8pm. $25 admission, catalogues $5.

Jack Burman at Clint Roenisch Gallery - N. Post May 15, 2004

For the past two decades Jack Burman has been photographing human anatomical specimens found in medical schools from various parts of the world. He prefers to photograph severed heads, where the skin has been stripped away to reveal gristly strands of muscle and tissue. Or heads where the brain and cranium have been dislodged entirely, sliced from above the ears like pie wedges.

It all sounds very sensational, but these turn-of-the-century laboratory curiosities are not all gore. They are medically sanitized close-up shots of what we so rarely see of our own flesh and blood. Burman has photographed each body part like a Chardin still-life silhouetted against a black backdrop and soaked in a velvety atmospheric light. They are like Renaissance paintings, and oh so complicated in terms of how to relate to their mixture of lushness and unsentimental subject matter.

Translated as a character Burman would be Rico, the Latino embalmer in Six Feet Under who goes home each night to his loving wife and kids after a day of working his magic on the dead. Both dads share an all-consuming respect and diligence for post-life science and an almost chummy relationship with the sacred and profane.

But Burman's route to life-in-death revelation has been long and winding. He did his doctoral work on Melville's Moby Dick and then tried writing for a living. "A catastrophe," he says. He also spent 10 years making films. But nothing felt right. "I was lost. Outright lost." In the mid-80s, he started photographing catacombs in Sicily and eventually found his way into medical school laboratories through various connections. Once he discovered them Burman had found his calling.

"I am who I am," he says, sounding a bit like Popeye and wary also that too much talk about the work might destroy its mystery. "We keep our dead out of sight here, deeply and profoundly," he offers, "and I'm not entirely sure why but I suspect there is something deeply wrong with that."

His dentist in Toronto, who went to school in Buenos Aires, pulled strings to get him into the Institute of Anatomy in Cordoba, Argentina, where specimens by one of the most famous anatomists of the 1930s, Dr. Pedro Ara, are kept.

Ara is best known in his home country for his posthumous preservation of Evita Peron. But in the elite world of anatomy science he is renowned for being able to stop the decomposition process of flesh by using an undisclosed method that involves injecting molten wax beneath the skin. The delicate surgery allows the human face to remain intact and with life-like traces of expression. Mouths are half open like they are still exhaling air, and eyes look more dreamy than zombified.

It's pretty clear Burman found his match with Ara in terms of a shared interest in exploring life through the rigidness of science. Half of the photographs in Burman's current exhibition at the Clint Roenisch Gallery are of Ara preservations, and, outside of Michael Jackson, they are by far the most alive dead faces you'll ever see. The Argentinian doctor's technique did not require formaldehyde, so heads and hands are out in the open and propped up on platforms like they've been taxidermied.

They also look like they would be soft to the touch, though Burman says he has never touched one. "You can read what you want into that," he says, indicating we all have our boundaries when it comes to the dead.

The most unforgettable image in the show, and one of the best photographs in town right now during the Contact Photography Festival, is Argentina #11, an Ara preservation of an elderly bearded man cut at the upper chest like a Roman bust. His head is tilted to one side and his eyes are cast downward in an incredibly human-felt pose of dignity. He was, apparently Ara's signature work. The old man is definitely the most life-like head in the exhibition, and at the same time the best example of how alien death really is to most of us. --CO

Jack Burman: Recent Photographs runs until June 20, 2004 at Clint Roenisch Gallery 944 Queen St W. $2300-$5000