JOHN BROWN AND BALINT SZAKO at MOCCA (Museums of Contemporary Canadian Art, 952 Queen West) to April 20. 416-395-0067. Rating: NNNN
John Brown, one of Canada’s most respected and avidly collected contemporary artists, is the subject of a retrospective at MOCCA. Curator David Liss has eschewed chronology in favour of grouping works from the last 25 years that seem to have a basic affinity for one another.
That strategy works because these canvases are not so much paintings as they are fields in which subtle and cataclysmic events have accrued organically over a period of months, or sometimes years. It’s as if an entire span of time has been compressed onto each surface, with its multiple applications and removals, scorings, scarring and repaintings.
The results can be breathtaking and monumental, as is the case with two enormous canvases that approach the weightiness of Anselm Kiefer, while others are calmly meditative and expansive.
This famously lengthy process is what’s made Brown’s work so prized: it has rendered his painting a concrete, almost purely physical process. Brown approaches the canvas as a threshing floor where brute matter wrestles with the sublime.
And while the works aren’t entirely figurative, the human figure, the “visceral thing” of the show’s title, breathes from each surface.
Balint Szako’s elegant, witty and very obscene watercolors occupy the back room.
They’re populated by male and female figures experiencing various sorts of transfiguration and longing: an arm sprouts into three inquisitive faces, breasts and genitals are magnified and distended, and his bodies proliferate much the same way as do plants.
Occasionally, a figure will find its joints augmented by elegant filigrees of complex machinery. More than the black humour and the perennial themes, it’s the dreamlike plausibility of each image that makes this collection memorable.