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Toronto
Terence Dick
Sojourner Truth Parsons & Cosima von Bonin at Oakville Galleries
April 26, 2017

Your gut reaction isn't necessarily the best indication of the worth of an artwork. Some people have well-calibrated guts that are almost always on the mark. Others, not so much and they learn to do the opposite of what everyone tells them: don't trust your gut. When you consult your gut about a person, you're usually concerned with ethics, that is, whether that person can be trusted. When your gut pipes up in response to a painting, you’re dealing with a matter of taste – your taste – and while you might, as the cliché goes, “know what you like,” there also comes a time when you have to explain why you like what you hate or hate what you like. Some artists invite that queasy negotiation and others stumble into it. One of the two artists currently enjoying solo exhibitions at Oakville Galleries applies the former strategy, while the other succumbs to the latter judgement.



Sojourner Truth Parsons, Papa and the fruit (no dad), 2016, canvas, acrylic, glue, glitter, Flashe, sand on canvas (photo: Toni Hafkenscheid)

Sojourner Truth Parsons’ paintings are hard to love and this is because there is so much blatantly lovable in them. There are poodles and bright colours, hair bows and glitter, nail polish and lavender essence. But none of that is stuff you’re supposed to like like. It’s not serious. At the same time, there’s a desultory aspect to their collective impact. Some are Pop Art, others abstract. There’s a monochrome black painting and one decorated with found objects encrusted with acrylic. Just as the content dares the viewer to experience pleasure, the formal elements resist any attempt to stake an interest. A major part of the challenge presented by these massive canvases is that they’re purposefully superficial paintings that leave you wondering how deeply you should consider them. It’s a gambit that contrarians like Jay Isaac and Elizabeth Peyton have used and it goes all the way back to Andy Warhol and Notes on Camp. You miss the point if you dismiss them as lightweight and don’t get it if you look for more than surface.

When I’ve seen them individually in the past (at the last Toronto Art Fair, for example), their appeal has always befuddled me. Gathering them en mass just steps away from this affluent lakeside suburb’s high end shopping strip might just have been a curatorial coup given that they were created, from what I hear, predominantly in Los Angeles, where water, wealth, and West Coast cool collide. It also gives you the opportunity to deal with the likes of I hate sex, Every shit you take, and Crying in California all in the same room. I wouldn’t call the experience compelling because that would imply some clear sense of purpose, and these paintings are far too coy to take up that posture. Let’s just call them intriguing and continue to maintain the sort of distance they work so craftily to elicit.



Cosima von Bonin, left: THE BONIN/OSWALD EMPIRE’S NOTHING #05 (CVB’S SANS CLOTHING. MOST RISQUÉ. I’D BE DELIGHTED & MVO’S ORANGE HERMIT CRAB ON OFF-WHITE TABLE), 2010, Mohair velour, polyfill, styroplast, brass; right: BIKINI II (GHOST VERSION), 2011, cotton (photo: Toni Hafkenscheid)

Whereas Parsons’ paintings left me unexpectedly and, I would argue, intentionally in a pleasantly displeasing critical lurch, the installations by Cosima von Bonin (the artist exhibiting at the other Oakville space) promised inspired intellection on the nature-culture divide but disappointed due to an underinflated conceptualism that failed to bring her soft sculptures and knick-knack clusters to the surface. There is an easy appeal in using giant stuffed sea creatures to draw out our human-centric projections on the animal kingdom, but the German artist lacks the kind of discursive friction that someone like Mike Kelley added to turn cute and cuddly into caustic and cutting. That might not be her thing, but after an afternoon spent amongst her creations, I’m not sure she even has a thing. If she does, it’s most evident in her billowing giant bikini that evokes a landscape, a face, a sailboat, a laundry line, an immense bathing suit (and the immense bather who wears it), and the list goes on. This work I like. And I like that I like it. I feel it in my gut.


Oakville Galleries: http://www.oakvillegalleries.com/
Sojourner Truth Parsons: Holding Your Dog at Night continues until May 28.
Cosima von Bonin: Who’s Exploiting Who in the Deep Sea? Continues until May 28.


Terence Dick is a freelance writer living in Toronto. His art criticism has appeared in Canadian Art, BorderCrossings, Prefix Photo, Camera Austria, Fuse, Mix, C Magazine, Azure, and The Globe and Mail. He is the editor of Akimblog. You can follow his quickie reviews and art news announcements on Twitter @TerenceDick.

 

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