How you view animals says a lot about how you view the world. If, like artist Michael Caines, you see our misguided experimentation with animals ultimately leading us down a dark path to our own demise, then things look a bit bleak. If, like Yana Movchan, you see animals with eyes full of wonder, then you might see things more optimistically.
Caines's new paintings, called History Is No Joke, are a true series in the sense that they seem to reveal a narrative. That story taints childhood imagery with sinister overtones.
He applies muted blue or yellow paint to each canvas, creating a background against which those freaky white bunnies with pink eyes that you usually see in laboratories roam free. Having had enough of testing new beauty products for safety, the rabbits rampage against their torturers, burying piles of bones in graves.
Other times they don't wait until the humans are dead, and bury them alive. (After all, we don't wait until they're dead before rubbing chemicals all over them, so it's only fair.) As the bunnies hop amid the gravestones, human arms reach though the dirt in a desperate attempt to haul air back below surface. A particularly weird red-eyed rabbit with big human bosoms nourishes the other bunnies, and an ape retains the ability to find the whole situation rather sad.
Caines's work stands out, but not to the extent that Movchan's does. Her still life paintings are, in a word, shocking.
Seeing Movchan's exquisite, sentimental canvases in a contemporary gallery made my jaw drop. The work is on the very edge of the treacherous downward slope toward Dogs Playing Poker. An artist has to be really, really brave to stand at that precipice.
Framed in old wood still rich with handcrafted textures and grouped in clusters on the walls at YYZ, these paintings contain not one cynical note. Movchan's works are in the tradition of the Dutch still life painters, yet hers typically feature animals reminiscent of those in children's storybooks. A hamster surveys the world from amid a pile of leaves. A bird cocks its head in search of a sound, seemingly unaware that it has settled within a bunch of shiny grapes. A small frog rests near seemingly giant nuts.
The paintings are technically very strong and their subject matter sweet and innocent and, in the kindest way possible, a reminder that we should stop being so jaded.
Let your eyes and heart feast.
Yana Movchan at YYZ (401 Richmond West) to May 24. 416-598-4546. Rating: NNNNN
Michael Caines at Katharine Mulherin (1086 Queen West) to May 11. 416-537-8827. Rating: NNN