Ornamental impulse in Toronto art

Focusing on the “ornamental impulse in Toronto art” over the last decade, “Rococo Tattoo,” curated by Philip Monk, presents a noncritical take on decoration. Such an approach may surprise, as it counters the ethical puritanism typifying, to many, Toronto curating and critical theory from the early eighties on, with what appears initially to be decadence, that is, the decadence of decoration for decoration’s sake. However, beneath the surface of such glittery indulgence lie a commendable breadth of critical discourses concerning class, culture and the body, discourses cogently and innovatively explored in the strongest works exhibited.

Such undercurrents are not always the case. In Angela Leach’s op-art influenced, chain-linked colour band paintings, AR – Gourd #2 (1996) and Long-Thin Contour (1996), and Judith Schwarz’s sculptural wall pieces resembling sketches in steel, Rope (1996) and Network (1994), decoration is employed only as a formal tool and not as a spring-board for discourse. However, Schwarz’s use of steel rod and Leach’s use of repeated geometric form do favour the exhibition’s cohesiveness, as both approaches relate them, at least formally, to Carlo Cesta’s installation, Romance Language (Version) (1996). Cesta’s bleak, geometric investigations of decorative, vernacular architectural imagery, specifically iron railing designs common to the houses of first generation Italian Canadians, highlight a collage of works referencing the artist’s heritage.

As with Cesta’s installation, the most appropriately contextualized and theoretically sound art exhibited appropriates design, craft or folk art techniques. However, not all attempts to humble high art by injecting the earthy, raucous strains of low art succeed. Doug Walker’s four pseudo art naif photo-prints from the mid-eighties – Untitled (Tattoo Girl) (1984), Untitled (Rocket Girl) (1986), Untitled (Baby Shotgun) (1985) and Untitled (Split Kiss) (1985) – depict lumpen proletariat youth by tough, urban imagery recalling prison drawings and tattoos. These pieces, likely driven by once trendy Neo-X irony, are executed in a deadpan way which cynically mocks, in an expressionist flurry of classism, the heavy metal energy of dirty, white suburban culture. Conversely, Fastwurms, in two site-specific installations, Anacowda, Happy to Feed the World (1987-1997) and 3-Moon (1997) spit – with conviction – in high art’s face by showing a genuine appreciation of prolsuburban culture as a site for mining new possibilities for artistic meaning. They take monumental string art and day-glo painted spare tire covers for vans as material for the simultaneously humorous and shamanistic configurations marking Fastwurm’s oeuvre.

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