“Rococo Tattoo”

Subtitled “The Ornamental Impulse in Toronto Art,” “Rococo Tattoo” presents sixteen artists and collectives spanning the last decade of artmaking in Toronto. Some works, such as John Massey’s lithograph Compound Eye, 1988–89 (in which a horrific montage of faces spreads over a human eye), have already enjoyed a healthy exhibition history, while others, like the collective Fastwürms’ spectacular installation, were created especially for the show. The decorative is a new point of entry for many of the works—and this show succeeds precisely thanks to curator Philip Monk’s almost laissez-faire approach to his subject. He wisely chose to let the work stand on its own merits without having to serve a more staid set of curatorial issues.

Though references to the body coursed through the exhibition, human flesh was seldom encountered as a direct site of adornment. Only Douglas Walker’s photoprints and Jeannie Thib’s rice-paper prints depicted a tattooed or embellished physique. More often, body decoration was referenced obliquely, as in Evan Penny’s 1997 etched beeswax and pigment drawings of magnified skin, which hint at the lines and pores of the body’s surface as naturally occurring ornamentation. The eye, however, was directly referred to in many pieces, nowhere more so than in Barr Gilmore’s closer eXamination, 1996. In this clever near-textile, varying shades of blue buttons are woven into a grid of nylon twine stretched diagonally from one wall to the next, forming the image of a giant pixelated eye where the threads intersect (suggesting lines of perspective). The inclusion of the piece served as a reminder that ornament is an exclusively optical domain.

One of the most striking inclusions was Carlo Cesta’s wall installation Romance Language (Home Version), 1991–97, which mimics the facade of a house. Using chain-store auto parts and home hardware, Cesta’s decidedly ornamental work alluded to the plight of Italian immigrants entering the construction industry. Phonetic approximations of terms such as “certified” and “gearbox” were embroidered into arm-patches and fashioned out of steel as “ssertifaid” and “ghiarbocs,” and gaskets became elegant silhouettes that belie their utilitarian source. Another highlight of the exhibition was an installation by General Idea based on a prototype from 1991 and executed in 1997 by the group’s surviving member, AA Bronson. Fruits de Mer (Leap into the Void), featured Yves Klein colors in a nautical mise-en-scène: blue starfish, phallic pink loofahs, and ring-shaped incandescent bulbs set into a gold fishing net. The effect of this piece and its companion work, Fruits de Mer (Broodthaers), a vitrine containing gold encrusted seashells, is an evocation of both lamentation and celebration.

The show closed on the second floor with two pieces. Lisa Neighbour’s Super Power, 1996, an installation of seventy-eight lamp bases with flashing multicolored bulbs, was a trance-inducing piece of eye candy placed just beyond the late Robert Flack’s jewellike color prints representing the seven chakras of the yoga wheel of the body. In these two pieces the show reached an appropriate, closing pitch, one of genuine contemplation rather than forced conclusions.

Lisa Gabrielle Mark