Exploring the meaning of “Life”

A fascinating exploration of life through femininity is on display at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum.

Kathy Venter’s life-sized ceramic sculptures meet your gaze curve after curve, imbued with intensity, emotion and authenticity.

Stories surround in this exhibition, whispered just beneath the surface until they almost echo in the room, and inspiring thoughts of ancient fertility goddesses and everyday goddesses alike. From birth to girl to mother, the cycles intertwine.

Sitting, standing, reclining and drifting, there are philosophers, teachers, athletes, partners, mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. A few male figures are also part of the “Immersion” series, captivating through their own angles, curves and complementary beauty.

I kept expecting them to somehow move – or to say something – as I meandered through the crowd, and ultimately, they did. They spoke the art of the human form and the language of human experience, gathered from our collective community in past, present and future.

Toward the end, I found her – the one most like me, or at least my perception of myself.

Astonishing.

For more information:  http://www.gardinermuseum.on.ca/exhibition/kathy-venter-life

Dazzled at DX

A lustrous retrospective of Christian Louboutin’s remarkable designs is on display at Toronto’s Design Exchange. It is a feast for the eyes and it tickles the fancy, but it also inspires a kind of poetic contemplation of how art, architecture, form, fantasy and function all intertwine in his work.

It begins with a whimsical merry-go-round, this fête of sequins, leather, plumage, silk, wood, metal, ribbons and more. The boots are made for walking as well as for gazing, starstruck, at their soaring heights and fringed delights.

From colour-blocking to spikes to showgirl beading, glamour is everywhere. There is softness and delicacy in pinks and powder blues and the classic appeal of shiny black patent. The many sides of femininity are explored: pretty, strong, dainty, resilient and defiant, all at once, and sometimes in the same shoe.

It seems fitting that this bold exhibition is housed so close to where ideas turn to money-makers and where legends are born. In this case, however, the exchange is about craftsmanship for appreciation and appreciation over time. It is retrospective rather than speculative; the reputation solidly behind the investment.

There is a collaboration of curves, from toe to heel to leg, the shoe as extension of the human artistry it complements. Ballet to cabaret, there is a blurring of lines in the reach for beauty.

Stories abound at every turn, both real and imagined:  dreams of wearing that pair dancing and those to the opera; these with a suit and those with a great pair of jeans. It is where couture translates to real life, and where runway leads to closet.

In the midst of all the colour, shimmer, drama and flair, Cinderella is alive and well, jubilant in her pretty slippers, enveloped in magic and waiting for her moment on the red carpet. And speaking of red carpet moments, one awaits at the end.

It is impossible not to feel at least a little effervescent upon seeing this exhibition.

For more information: www.designexchange.org

A visit to Mesopotamia at the ROM

I visited the Mesopotamia exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum today and right off the top, I will laud it as simply one of the best I’ve seen.

I went mid-day, wandering over at lunch through the muggy heat of Toronto’s recent plume of summer. The cool comfort and the interior darkness enveloped me with calm as the individual artifact exhibits guided my way.

The engagement was immediate, from the first descriptions of trading to the cuneiform tablets to the cylinder seals. Everywhere I looked were crisp and compelling chapters of the narrative, storytelling time and place, and the inherent poetry of the people whose artistry and innovation shaped not only the written word but civilization as we know it.

Around each new corner – and there are many corners, angles, mini-theatres and alcoves to discover – another detail was explained in complement to the last.

What I’d learned 20 years ago in my own undergraduate courses in Ancient Law suddenly came flooding back and my imagination lit up with animated scenes of kingdoms, codes, cities, war, justice and art.

The striding Babylonian lion stopped me dead in my tracks. Though I’d seen it before, it is simply different in this context – so dramatically new and poignant as the mesmerizing centre of one vista.

Many artifacts beckoned heart and mind as well as fingertips; even more so, of course, for being necessarily out of reach. Several tactile opportunities are on offer, however, and I took them all.

I found the final moments of the journey more solemn, but overall I felt divinely wistful.

To me, the mark of a great exhibition is one that evokes a feeling of change in the visitor – a new or enhanced perspective and a sense of being different somehow. I lingered in the philosophical buzz of quiet contemplation; the unmistakable grace of a truly affective museum experience.

If you’re in Toronto, do go.

For more information:  http://www.rom.on.ca/en/mesopotamia/home

On things that go buzz in the night (and day)

As ninth grade drew to a close, the tenth-grade biology teacher paid my science class a visit to deliver news of a special assignment for our summer vacation. We had to collect 20 specimens – insect specimens, that is – and pin them to a board. What’s more, they had to be a variety; you couldn’t just hang up a fly strip.

I cringed upon hearing the instructions, but as an aspiring straight-A student, I was determined not to fail in this mission. To say I was just a little grossed out by the prospect would be a gross understatement!

After I designed a fashionable exhibition board with 20 multi-coloured squares of construction paper, I began my woeful hunt. Among my prey were a June bug, several other types of beetles, a few butterflies and moths, a bumble bee and a cicada.

The prescribed method of kill – and forgive me entomologists – involved putting them in a glass jar with cotton pads soaked in nail polish remover and closing the lid. Nail polish remover smells bad; add the stress of dying insects, and, well, ick. The cicada freaked me out. I’d never heard such an ungodly ruckus as when that poor thing buzzed itself into oblivion.

Then the affixing stage. This caused me no end of anxiety. I positioned the little corpses carefully into place with tweezers, but the pinning! Oh, how terrified I was that my finger or thumb would slip and I’d end up squishing the guts out of them. I didn’t want to touch the little beasties, alive or dead! (Sorry Indiana Jones, but if it had been me reaching through the mass of writhing insects to pull that lever in the Temple of Doom movie, you’d not have survived.)

The sweat ran down the sides of my face as I held my breath and hoped I was skewering the right spots and wouldn’t dismember them accidentally. The cicada was the worst and the pin slid a bit sideways. As soon as my thumb touched its scaly exterior, I leapt up and danced around the room emoting like the teenage girl I was.

Eventually this ghoulish project that was meant to teach us about sorting by phylum, etc. was done. It was almost pretty, in a way, in terms of aesthetics. The remaining great hazards included keeping the family cat from snacking on the collection and transporting it to school. Yes, I got an ‘A’.

But the bugs got their karmic revenge.

First with an invasion of cockroaches in the compartment (too small for apartment) where I lived when attending grad school, though I developed superhero-level peripheral vision that year and learned how to effectively use a caulking gun.

And then when an exotic and very large bee crawled out of the broccoli I was washing one late November night. I caught it rather deftly, thinking it might actually be a ‘killer bee’ and then I gave it a new home in a jar with holes, fed it well, and engaged the museum community in helping to identify its origin. The little stowaway even stumped the Toronto experts for a time and had to be sent to Ottawa for verification.

As it turned out, my innocuous honey bee travelled all the way from southern California to teach me a new science lesson.