Speakeasy Contemporary
at AWOL Gallery

There is a deep well of hidden talent that lies submerged in Toronto, trickling forth from dwindling numbers of studios as inevitable gentrification takes place. Artists are faced with ever bourgeoning costs and lessening opportunities. In recognition of this, David Brown founded the Speakeasy Contemporary, a forum devoted to networking and showcasing associated artists. Their aim is to facilitate participation in international art fairs and local exhibitions.

Five-Star is the most recent Speakeasy event, curated admirably by David Brown who also displays his own art, coalesced with the voices of Chris Knights, Raw’n Wild, Margaret Glew and Susan Szenes.  AWOL gallery is a small space yet this show impresses with judicious spacing and artist selection, combining works that explore similar territory but in markedly different ways. There is also a high level of professionalism as artists have honed their art over many years. Some come from design or information technology backgrounds, which adds its own distinct flavor.

David Brown, Lemon Zinger, encaustic on panel, 48″ x 36″, 2013

Brown’s encaustic wax paintings are lyrical abstractions that play with pictorial elements like shape, space and line. His background in industrial design seems evident in these clean designs and perfectly balanced compositions. The wax is surprisingly fluid and controlled in his hands, yielding very textured, layered paintings that sometimes make use of text. ‘Lemon Zinger’ is my favorite for physicality and abstract suggestion. A knotted line traverses areas where space and shape are in dramatic tension. Delicate lines contrast with large, floating shapes almost reminiscent of leaves, yet avoiding precise identity.

Raw’n Wild, All Your Base, chromogenic original on panel 18″ x 18″, 2012

Linear strategies in his work seem to relate to Raw’n Wild’s intense digital expressions. Wild has been collaborating with mathematicians and doctors trying to present aspects of their experience in a visual manner. This has evolved into a visual language essentially diagrammatical yet also humorous as in ‘All Your Base’. Wild draws material from our common digital environment and manipulates his images through Photoshop into layered units that can be co-opted into various ‘maps’. There is a reductionist mentality to these works as Wild ‘concocts’ a floating universe of symbols, diagrams, proliferating images of the brain and neural passages, cultural clichés and fractal designs. By carefully monitoring the degree of opacity of individual image layers, he is able to unify and finally present exceedingly poised vistas that seem machine-generated.

Susan Szenes, Metalhead, collage with enamel on metal, 48″ x 41″, 2013

The Pop Art sensibility evident in Wild’s digital collages is echoed in a more underground, tattooed sense by the collages of Susan Szenes. She rescues obsolete items and transforms them into gritty works that express street culture. Punk bands like the Sex Pistols are referenced in typography along with other bands. Comic texts are used as visual elements alongside pictures of Batman and other heroes charged with rescuing our culture from oblivion. ‘Metalhead’ uses an old sign as a base for an image of R2D2, the Star Wars walking computer with a funny voice so symbolic of our age; at once exploring new frontiers and destroying the environment.

Chris Knights, Eyes of Blue, oil on board, 60″ x 48″, 2013

Chris Knights paintings lead in a more introspective direction. Deeply personal, he imprints his emotions metaphorically in forms that suggest metamorphosis. His fractious ‘vision landscapes’ are populated by existentially bare forms, like soft, internal organs, that seem to have sprung from the loins of chaos. The monochromatic amorphous forms suggest humanoid, animal or tree fragments in a process of disintegrating or forming anew, enduring an environmental hailstorm of paint and scratches. ‘Eyes of Blue’ reminded me of Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ and shares that sense of apocryphal loneliness.

Margaret Glew, Shoreline,  oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″, 2013

Margaret Glew’s abstract works are a response to life and an energizing of the work itself. Her painted marks have their own ‘life’ and ‘grow’ into their aesthetic composition aided by the artist. Like Knights’ vision, Glew has an intrinsic link to the natural world. Titles like ‘Shoreline’ reference landscape but the image is of an inner landscape. The qualities of life we experience become lodged in the abstract passages of paint, just as the slow turn of a brush carries with it a host of associations. Glew makes tough, uncompromising paintings with severe colour relationships. At some level these paintings articulate the natural energy that flows through all things.

This exhibition provides an excellent opportunity to appreciate the works of these five artists and bodes well as an inaugural show for the Speakeasy Contemporary, which will hopefully grow in strength. It is a much-needed initiative that will blaze a trail for future emerging artists. The duration is very short but it is still open for ‘Nuit Blanche’ and well worth a visit.

Ashley Johnson

*Exhibition dates: September 26 – October 6, 2013, AWOL Gallery at 76 Ossington Avenue, Toronto. Gallery hours: Thu – Sat 12 – 6, Sun 1 – 5 p.m. Open for Nuit Blanche, Saturday, October 5, 2013, 7 p.m. to late.

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