Currently on view at Cooper Cole Gallery in Toronto is an exhibition that juxtaposes bodies of work by two Canadian artists of distinctly different practices—one more emotional and illustrative, the other more conceptual and abstract. Interestingly, both artists’ visual gestures still fit with gallery owner Simon Cole’s long-time interest in street-based art practices such as graffiti, stencil and paste-up.
The larger portion of Cooper Cole’s floor space (which is fairly large for a Dundas West location) is dedicated to “Past, Present, Past-Present,” an exhibition of new paintings by Toronto-based artist Tessar Sebastian Lo, while the smaller rear gallery hosts “No Cover,” a small collection of works by Vancouver-based artist Mark DeLong.
DeLong’s work is described on the gallery website as a blending of the abstract and the representational, though its representational qualities perhaps owe more to the quirky titles of the paintings than to what can be deciphered from the canvases themselves.
Bagels for Lunch, for example, is a recent work by the self-taught DeLong that forces me to look for these aforementioned bagels; though I do eventually allow myself to settle on a shape that could be a man eating a bagel, I wonder if DeLong is manipulating me, using the dichotomy of image and language as a tool of suggestion, the way a psychiatrist would ask someone what they see in an inkblot.
DeLong’s 2012 work Grapes boasts an equally absurd relationship with its title. While I feel certain that there are no grapes to be found in this image, I’m amused by the dry humour and confidently lazy brushstrokes that distinguish DeLong’s work; while most likely unintentional, I can’t help recalling the accusatory painting in Ad Reinhardt’s famous “What do you represent?” comic. The rich colours and suggested narratives induce a perplexing interrogation of the work, a mode that is certainly more in line with contemporary practices than the effects found in the adjoining exhibition.
I found Cole’s inclusion of Lo’s more expressive work to be somewhat cheeky given DeLong’s drier approach. Though Lo’s and DeLong’s works both speak to a mix of abstraction and representation, the similarities end there. There is no time for self-referentiality or apathy in Lo’s paintings; instead, they are urgent with understated angst.
Lo’s work, for me, cannot escape the distinct feel of outsider art—although the artist is an graduate of the illustration program at Sheridan College and has been exhibited nationally and internationally—and similarly, its ties to symbolist archetypes.
Still Life, Before, (no suggestive titles here) is a large painting that feels cumulative of all of Lo’s preferred symbols (or, as he refers to them, totems). The surface is an unusual blend of pastels and surly darknesses, depicting a bird’s-eye view of a tabletop with Cézanne-esque fruits, clocks, compasses, a knife, eggs, and what seems to be a disembodied pair of hands and a face.
This work by Lo—and all his others here, in fact—provide surreal documentation of the fleeting moments in time in which we make decisions that lead us down one path or another, whether we choose to dwell in the past, letting our relative melancholies consume us, or to become resilient en route to the present.
While my studies in art history presuppose that I should be more stimulated by the conceptual nature of DeLong’s work, I can’t help but feel drawn to Lo’s paintings, and to the emotional honesty which informs them.