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A rabbit with a chemical scent and a whiff of myth

Mary Catherine Newcomb’s oily, hand-sculpted rabbit looks like a treat, or a talisman, or perhaps a victim.

Mary Catherine Newcomb at Loop Gallery

  • Mary Catherine Newcomb's works range in price from $3,200-$5,600. Mark Adair's range from $450-$750. Until April 18, 1273 Dundas St. W., Toronto; 416-516-2581, www.loopgallery.ca

For the centrepiece of her exhibition, Chocolate, now at Toronto's Loop Gallery, sculptor Mary Catherine Newcomb has fashioned a chocolate-brown, four-foot rabbit, stretched out on a bed of shining white stones like a huge, rabbit-shaped truffle in a candy-store window.

Like a chocolate truffle, Newcomb's rabbit appears to be dusted all over with a film of chocolate powder. If you stand close to it, however, you will be quickly disemburdened of any such idea: The thing smells bad. It has the sour, acrid smell of an auto repair shop.

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"That's because the rabbit is modelled from homemade plasticine," Newcomb tells me on the phone from her home in Kitchener, Ont. "How do you make your own plasticine?" I ask her. "By mixing together wax, motor oil and clay," she tells me. "I made it in an animal feed bin. It's a horrific job, actually. The stuff is sticky and it gets all over. But," she says gleefully, "making it is just so pleasurable!" Newcomb is an artist who clearly doesn't mind getting her hands dirty.

What I thought was the rabbit's delicate dusting all over of chocolate powder isn't. The creature's velvety brown colour is simply the colour of the plasticine itself - which Newcomb has textured with (in a nice touch of authenticity) "rabbit-grooming tools."

I ask her: Why plasticine? "It's very earthy," Newcomb says, "and rabbits are earthy. They burrow in the ground." They burrow in the ground and they also re-emerge from it - which no doubt adds to the creature's talismanic value as a symbol, at Easter, for both the fecundity of the spring (rabbits breed like … well, rabbits) and the idea of resurrection, rebirth, new growth.

Stretched out on its bed of crushed stone, Newcomb's chocolaty rabbit looks like a victim - like a creature sacrificed, as both primitive rituals and the story of Jesus's death, rebirth and ascension would have it, in order to bring about the re-emergence of new life. In Newcomb's skillful hands, it's no distance at all from the low comedy of her mucking about, up to her elbows in an animal feed bin, to the generation of myth. Her bunny may be made of ignoble stuff, but it has about it an aura of sanctity.

Equally coloured with the mythological is Loop's second exhibition, Toronto artist Mark Adair's brilliantly spooky Death's Children. Adair makes tiny, astonishingly detailed charcoal drawings. Those gathered together for this exhibition complete a series the artist has been working on for a decade, a long, unspooling graphic tale called Death Drinks, which Adair describes as "a narrative about the adventures of death in the modern world." There is really nothing like Adair's work anywhere. Its closest predecessor is probably Hans Holbein's Dance of Death woodcuts from 1538.

Jason McLean at Jessica Bradley Art + Projects

Toronto artist Jason McLean is a hot ticket right now - but not for me. People seem to love his work (especially curators and collectors, which is always a bad sign). When I was in the gallery, it was full of lawyers with dollar signs in their eyes.

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His exhibition is titled "in the corner there is light," and I suppose if I wanted to be mean-spirited, I could make some remark about how the work could use a little more light in the middle, and let the corners take care of themselves.

McLean's work is fundamentally graffiti-driven. It's big and sprawling, like gigantic, doodle-covered pages torn from the notebook of a bored and inattentive schoolboy. He seriously compares it to the work of the late Jean-Michel Basquiat - which makes no sense at all, since Basquiat's free-floating graffiti-esque words and phrases hovered in and around beautifully massed areas of clear, hot colour, and his drawings were always forceful and starkly highlighted, detachable.

McLean's drawing is crowded, crabbed and without nuance. His colour sense is alarmingly weak, tending to acidic greens that are pale and dishwatery ( End of the Roll) or as turgid as algae ( The Morning After). The pieces with electric lights affixed to them ( Blue in 95, The Morning After) work best because the lights (devised by Vancouver designer Omer Arbel) give shape and drive to McLean's otherwise dispiriting waywardness. Some of the scrawled writing in the pictures is funny and witty. It may well be that McLean is actually a more gifted writer than he is a visual artist.

Goran Lucic at the Alison Smith Gallery

Goran Lucic's exhibition of encaustic paintings bears the hopelessly ungainly title Agedness Wears Patina (why "agedness" and not just "age"?), but this is happily not sufficiently off-putting in itself to detract much from the splendour of Lucic at his best.

His best happens when he works big. The small paintings, while charming enough, are mostly decorative, but with a large (five- by-four-foot) picture like Burned at the Bottom, Lucic's pictorial inventiveness gets free rein and he starts to get rough and urgent - and makes something that is both visually exuberant and profoundly un-slick (no small achievement with encaustic).

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