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Toronto
Terence Dick
Janice Kerbel at Justina M. Barnicke Gallery | Melissa Levin at Convenience
December 04, 2012

Insofar as I have any clue as to what the general public thinks, I get the impression that a good portion of them still consider most advances in visual art from the last seventy-five years to be, on a good day, a joke, and, on a bad day, a systematic "fuck you" perpetrated by a cabal of artists, art historians, curators, and the like over decades and across the globe. I'd like to think that this says more about the dismal state of art education than it does about the value of the artworks or the aesthetic capabilities of the masses, but even someone as open-minded as me can still be stumped by work that begs to be reproduced on the cover of the Toronto Sun as evidence of the most recent madness that a contemporary artist has foisted on the taxpaying public. Cue: apoplexy.



Janice Kerbel, Cue (Act 3 #30), 2011, Silkscreen on paper (photo: Marcus Leith; courtesy: greengrassi)

I call this type of work "art that is hard to love." (Which is not to say it's unlikable; it just takes some extra effort.) Janice Kerbel, a Toronto-born artist who has been based in the UK since the mid-nineties, has fallen into this pigeonhole for me with PRE, her current exhibition at the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery. It wasn't always this way. With her playful and imaginative exercises in the oblique representation of narratives, Kerbel struck a note with me as a writer, and I'd put her 1999 piece Bank Job in my Top Ten artworks of that decade. However, it seems she's shifted from literary forms to more theatrical modes with this recent work, and it doesn't grab me in the same way. Of the two works on display, one is a recording of a baseball commentator making his pre-game announcement. It's part of a larger project that draws on the past hundred years of baseball statistics to create an average game. The relevant epistemological riffs are loud and clear, but in the age of portability, it feels like a test of one's affability to dedicate one room to the single speaker. If only the curator had thought to include some bleachers.

A similar response of "if only..." came about in viewing the second work: thirty-six monochrome prints that map out a sequence of lighting cues. The taciturn attitude of these muted graphics grated on me as I moved from one to the next, and it was only once I stood back and scanned across the mass of them that I could appreciate the shifting patterns. If only they had been animated and projected on a larger scale, their collective narrative might have changed my tune. However, I imagine "if only..." is the last thing an artist wants to hear, and so I resign myself to accepting them as is. I just don't love them.



Melissa Levin, Now and When, 2012

I do love Melissa Levin's recently opened installation in the Convenience window gallery, even if it reveals my immature sensibilities and love of novelty. Then again, I confess that my formative non-television, visual art experiences might just have been the yearly trip downtown to see the Christmas windows at the Simpsons department store at Yonge and Queen back in the seventies, so Levin's non-denominational dioramas are probably triggering my primal aesthetic receptors - which makes it doubly apropos to have the clockwork actors in her diptych be monkeys (and a couple bears). Allusions to the primate discovery of fire in 2001: A Space Odyssey and primitive, peephole-era cinema are examples of the adult baggage I could bring to the fore, if you're interested, but I suggest you make the trek down Parkdale-way yourself – preferably on a snowy night (if that ever happens) – to find yourself reflected in the window with the monkeys all aglow.


Justina M. Barnicke Gallery: http://www.jmbgallery.ca/exhibitions.html
Janice Kerbel: PRE continues until December 21.

Convenience Gallery: http://conveniencegallery.com/#about
Melissa Levin: Now and When continues until January 10.


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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