MATT JAMES at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects Sideshow (1080-1086 Queen West), to June 4. 416-537-8827. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
The first thing people think of when they see a painting by Matt James is something like, "Oh, he should illustrate a kids' book," but that observation doesn't explain the im-mediate fascination his work fires up in adults, or the fact that nearly half the show sold on opening night.
James's show comprises 22 new acrylic works on masonite, with drawn lines and bright colours under a glossy finish. Childlike caricatures of patient Indians, parachuting hockey players and gun-toting butterfly hunters hint at unfolding stories, yet composition often trumps clear, explanatory narrative.
In Hmmm, from a safe distance, two braves calmly observe a hockey stick they've discovered leaning against a tree in a forest, a telltale sign of mysterious visitors. Another, Luncheon In The Woods, features two hockey players reclining in the forest, drinking beer, a sly wink to Manet's Déjeuner Sur L'herbe.
There's an intoxicating delight in the work, as though the magic of abstract shapes becoming people and things served as inspiration. Simplicity rules. Unfortunately, the work loses some of its magic when James zooms in on his characters. A hockey player's face becomes too cartoonish, and you almost wish the sabre-toothed rodent weren't quite so well drawn.
Escape From Toronto, the show's scratchy brown title work, drops the details and all but abandons colour to great effect. A crude Toronto skyline tops the curved earth, while below, dozens of natives board red canoes and a hockey player in a white helmet makes a silent but anxious announcement in the form of an empty speech bubble. Time to leave.
James captures both the fun of Richard Scarry and the profundity of ancient cave painting in this intriguing, superb show.