4 min

Vulnerable bodies of autumn

Adolescence, chests & damage

As I’m writing this, we are languishing in the final dog days of summer.

It’s 29 degrees. There’s one final weekend of barbecues and air shows before September’s starter pistol opens the gates to a fresh flurry of art activity. There’s lots of great art shows – including the three reviewed here – you must not miss this fall

Catherine Heard’s new work catches us in a standoff between seduction and repulsion. As with much of her recent work, it entices us with its surface beauties of intricate pattern, fine materials and craftsmanship. Then, like a tornado ripping through a contemplative lull, the work’s darker side rears its head.

While I’m in her studio looking at the drawings and small human-like sculptures destined for her show at Spin Gallery, she invites me to pick them up. I’m not sure if I want to. Bodies grow twin heads, mouths spew entrails. They turn out to be soft, like babies, covered in antique materials. But they’re also animistic and mutant.

This duality is heightened by Heard’s integration of language into each piece. Texts from various sources are silk-screened onto grey fabric that is then shaped into forms like brain matter, roots and forked tongues. Is the figure choking or suckling on its word-infested tail? Is that a look of bliss or terror?

The play with simultaneous ingestion and elimination of words comes from “a feeling of exhaustion I have right now with language,” says Heard, “and its ability to alter and manipulate meaning.” Hence the series title, Ennui.

Just a few doors down at Angell Gallery, Heard continues her macabre dance with the taboo in a show titled Vanitas. Taking her title from a genre of 17th century Dutch still life painting that combined symbols of life (overripe fruit) and death (skulls and timepieces), the show consists of 25 new oil paintings.

Drawing on historical representations of both sex and death, Rubenesque female bodies cavort and copulate with wily skeletal lovers. Beautifully painted, bathed in a cool lunar glow, the images are at once humorous and impossibly dangerous to look at. Heard is at her iconoclastic best here, inducing a confusion of fear, longing and the promise of apocalyptic consequences, like tell-tale hair growth on our palms if we indulge ourselves too much.

Catherine Heard’s Ennui runs until Tue, Sep 19; the opening reception is from 6pm to10pm on Thu, Sep 7 at Spin Gallery (878 Queen St W). Ryan Barrett is also showing; call (416) 530-7656. Heard’s Vanitas runs from Thu, Sep 7 to 30; the opening reception is Sep 7 from 6pm to 9:30pm at Angell Gallery (890 Queen St W). Call (416) 530-0444.

“I’m afraid of getting older,” says Shaan Syed. Stunning as that comment is coming from a 25-year-old, it seems to be true. Adolescence and its bumpy transmutation into adulthood is the underlying theme of his upcoming show at Propeller Gallery.

Portraits of adults are painted onto pieces of broken skateboards found by Syed in the street. Each portrait is the same size and style – scratched as a line drawing into a small rectangle of white paint – and accompanied by narratives like: “Deanne got married then broke up” and “Mark is an executive.”

Each skateboard bears a variety of graphics, scratches and damage. They’re colourful. They’re full of youthful exuberance and we know they’ve been ridden hard. A tug-of-war between the generations is set up, one full of hesitancies about the future and nostalgia for the past. As hard as the portraits strive for an individuality, they remain ciphers. Adolescence appears to be winning.

The show also includes small blocks of wood silk-screened with a single black ink portrait. Again the drawings are of named friends. By enumerating those around him, Syed’s images become concerned with how experience and knowledge are accumulated over time, and through relationships between individuals.

While you’re at it, check out his larger paintings at Simcoe Gallery. Again, they’re portraits, but because he’s allowed himself to unfurl his brow and enjoy what he’s doing, they’re much more spontaneous and fresh.

Shaan Syed’s The Broken Skateboard Series And Other Portrait Works runs from Wed, Sep 20 to 30; the opening reception is on Thu, Sep 21, from 7pm to 10pm at Propeller Centre Of The Visual Arts (96 Spadina Ave, 3rd floor). Call (416) 504-7142. The Portrait Show (with Syed, Fabrizio Perozzi, Anna Sharrat, Susan Stewart and Sarah Palmer) runs from Fri, Sep 8 to Oct 28; the opening reception is on Sep 8 from 6pm to 9pm at Simcoe Gallery (136 Simcoe St, 2nd floor). Call (416) 408-1616.

Looking at Sue Lloyd’s 12 large new photographs is like leafing through a really gorgeous book, one with striking end papers and precious tissue-paper inserts you want to touch. Each image is related to the next and a narrative of layered languages – medical, technological, botanical, biological – reveals itself.

Throughout, the chest forms the ground on which the complexities of the body are investigated through a multiple exposure (via photoshop) of images such as fuse boxes, leaves, circuit boards and hoare frost. Emulsion discolorations and streaks, polarization and fading add texture, colour and, in some cases, a look of the archival.

Overlaid by a grid of lines, the layers unite to scan the body for things we don’t ordinarily see, like X-rays do. Wires and plugs become the body’s circuitry, a cacophony of arms become wings, jars of pebbles become lungs.

This is Lloyd’s first exhibition of digital photographs. Rather than manipulate technology’s powers to create cyborgs and transhuman bodies, she’s made pictures of vulnerable bodies concerned with the physical and metaphysical aspects of human life.

Sue Lloyd’s Chest Cavity runs till Sat, Sep 30; the opening reception in on Thu, Sep 7 from 7pm to 10pm at The Red Head Gallery (96 Spadina Ave, 8th floor). Call (416) 504-5654.