In works such as Refugees, Carol Wainio probes the iconography of helper animals.
CAROL WAINIO at Paul Petro Contemporary Art (980 Queen West), to March 23. 416-979-7874. See listings. Rating: NNNN
Carol Wainio takes a more scholarly approach to appropriated imagery than painters like Kent Monkman and Kehinde Wiley, who use historical styles to critique a European cultural narrative that has excluded or misrepresented them.
Drawing on 19th-century photographs and children's book illustrations and the work of French caricaturist J.J. Grandville, Wainio explores the iconography of fairy tale helper animals and their evolving meaning under changing social conditions.
Her previous paintings placed Aesopian human-animal hybrids in garbage-strewn wastelands, but in the recent canvases in the show Imagining The Past, Remembering The Future (Again), they inhabit theatrical tableaux surrounded by borders whose swirling brush strokes evoke lace curtains and the marbled endpapers of old books.
A range of social classes and situations are represented, from strutting capitalists to hobos, and many of the large paintings include spewing oil derricks. A muted sepia palette of thin washes and shimmery highlights suggests underground caverns flooded with water or oil, as well as degraded old photographs.
A canvas entitled Painters features - in addition to a man painting a childish version of a bird as he contemplates a disembodied wing - a prominent set of quotation marks that might refer to the act of image-borrowing. (Interestingly, Wainio's concern with where ideas come from also spills over into her alter ego as the media watchdog who exposed Margaret Wente's plagiarism on her blog, mediaculpa.)
In a series of small, paler sketch-like canvases, iterations of Puss in Boots - a magical animal that transformed its impoverished master into a prince - cavort before South Asians intent on agricultural fieldwork who ignore the out-of-place cat's impossible offer of upward mobility.
Depicting these archaic images with a variety of skilled painting techniques, Wainio subtly conveys complex messages about industrialization, the environment, the survival of folklore and its visual interpretations, adding a dark subtext and a wealth of meaning to what could be seen as illustrations for charming fables.