SILVIA ARGIOLAS/FIONA SMYTH at Robert Kananaj Gallery (1267 Bloor West), to March 9. 416-289-8855. See listings. Rating: NNNN
Gallerist Robert Kananaj has intuited an occult connection between Fiona Smyth, everyone's favourite fountainhead of polymorphous urban graphics, and Silvia Argiolas, painter of primitive psychodramas. Each is powerful on her own, but taken together their mutual synergy fairly crackles.
Smyth's paintings flesh out the totemic energy of her black-and-white line drawings, best known through her ongoing series Cheez. In this show, she continues to send her visual taproot deep into some ecstatic and horrifying cartoon cavern of endlessly mutating forms. Arterial branches sprout leaves and faces, ghost limbs burst into cancerous flower, jewel-like eyes stud hands and faces, while mouths bare their fangs or vomit wondrous blobs.
In The Somnambulist Rising, a two-panel work devouring the room from its spot on the back wall, the dark figure of a woman is outlined against a lush vermilion sky. Her body is colonized by spindly science fiction buildings that sprout from its surface, while a severed monster claw, a recurring motif in many other paintings, floats ominously above her.
Italian painter Argiolas could be Smyth's rawer, idiot savant twin. In a muted palette of pale wash greys and muddy browns, recurring figures of a melancholy girl or groups of children are rendered in a hand that's deliberately wonky and crude. A wolf, grinning and hungry, appears often. Like Smyth's, her figures plunge the viewer into weird, chthonic terrain, but her approach is decidedly more theatrical. Her figures seem to be acting out incidents from some haunting, half-mythic memory of collective childhood trauma.
Both artists seem most comfortable dredging up an intensely private and forbidding symbolism that nevertheless pulls the viewer in. Why do these pictures work? Both painters inhabit a dense and often disturbing visual world where the abject is never far from the sublime.