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Demonic meets dainty in Amanda Nedham's animal art

Amanda Nedham at LE Gallery Until Dec. 19, 1183 Dundas St. W., Toronto;

I've seen so much animal art lately (art made by humans about animals, not art made by animals, pity that), I'm starting to feel like an Animal Planet host, minus the ugly cargo shorts.

One could dredge up the usual reasons for this howling, chittering outburst - ecological anxiety, our swapping of the natural for the virtual, art-world monkey see-monkey do - and, of course, artists have always made art about animals. Art history is littered with fauna acting as stand-ins for the cultural preoccupations of the times. There is nothing new about animal art.

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However, the animal art I'm seeing around town is marked by a parallel interest in mortality. The animals are positioned as harbingers of death (the many monsters in the recent group show The Dazzle), are in peril of losing and/or past their lives (the last Duke & Battersby exhibition), or are worked decoratively into mortality symbols (Jennifer Murphy's bird-and-skull assemblages come to mind). As a friend said to me over the past summer, a summer marked by too many deaths in Toronto's cultural community: Everything feels very fragile.

This overwhelming sense of fragility (economic, ecological, sociological), and the rage such feelings of powerlessness breed, are at the core of Amanda Nedham's Like Milk & Blood - a brilliant and alarming new suite of graphite-on-paper works at LE Gallery.

This is not work for the faint or those who like their animals big-eyed and fluffy. The visuals are horrific, violent, bloodlust-driven and chaotic - and yet, in keeping with the fragility/rage temperament of the times, Nedham draws as if she were Snow White wandering the calm, cool forest, her pretty little hands lifted to the paper by teams of wee bluebirds, her pencils held up by the tiny claws of chipmunks. The demonic and the dainty have rarely been so expertly, unnervingly combined. You will gasp at Nedham's imagery, and then take another hiccupping inhale over her masterful drafting skills.

Informed by Nedham's research into the use of animals in military campaigns and as heraldic symbols of military might, Like Milk & Blood offers rampaging, mutated German shepherds, mechanized horses, a panda with iguana heads for eyes (that'll stay with you for a few nights), and all manner of menacing or slain birds, puppies, frogs, rabbits and even a freakish giraffe/dragonfly hybrid. Broken bits of jaw and pelts adorn a macabre cuckoo clock, piles of blanched bones are lovingly wrapped in textiles like a swaddled baby, a puppy's mouth erupts with a cluster of sharp barnacles that resemble both teeth and rabies foam - like I said, Nedham's work is not for So Cute It Hurts or LOLCats bloggers.

Innocence (or, at least, a lower level of sentience) and malevolence play tug of war (bad pun, agreed) across Nedham's relentless surfaces, aided by a matching drawing technique that pits (or pairs?) smudges against hard lines; painterly, liquid pools of coal-black graphite against ferocious, knife-edged detailing; the powdery against the etched.

Nedham's bestiary reminds the viewer of the dual nature of survival, of the fight and the flight in all of us. Like Milk & Blood is a brittle, roaring mirror for difficult times.

Melanie Authier at Georgia Scherman Projects Until Dec. 22, 133 Tecumseth St., Toronto;

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After Nedham's carnival of gore (and bunnies), you'll need a soothing blanket. Melanie Authier's large acrylics on canvas - cascades of thin washes of nursery-room colour blended into and across large, intricate whirls of succulent overpainting - are just the fuzzy comforter for you. That is, if you like your comforts to be both mental and sensual.

Authier's work arrives at a time when many young painters are becoming fascinated by the materiality (i.e. the look and feel, the very substance) of paint. These trends run in cycles, and a "new materiality" has been long overdue. Raised on decades of obscuring art theory and dry conceptualism, the new materialists just want to make their mark. This is not to say that Authier or her generation's work lacks rigour - rather, that the works place visual pleasure and conceptuality on the same level.

To wit, Authier's new paintings reference (and contort) 1970s geometric minimalism, while simultaneously exploring classic Expressionist gestures, such as lurid colouring, distorted figuration and watery effects. I'm sure there are about 19 other academic exercises going on in each painting as well, but Authier is not an overtly academic painter. Her work is simply too much fun.

Where else can you see transparent curls of paint sliding over polygonal portals, clouds in PEI-mud red and chocolate black interrupted by tilting diagonal lines of cobalt and ribbons of canary yellow, feathering and flurries vs. slappy squiggles and goo, jewel tones ensnarled with earthy, opaque neutrals?

Angularity and fluidity appear to be in constant battle in Authier's works - in battle, or in love. Subsequently, her paintings tend to climax in the centre, where all the various threads, weighted shapes, and currents of colour meld and are charged upward like un-tethered fabrics caught in a twister.

The title of Authier's show is The Ribbon and the Lightning Rod. I suggest a subtitle: And the Wet Hair and the Storm.

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Adrian Forrow Ongoing; the magazine is available at galleries and shops around town

Bumbling along the West Queen West district, I stumbled on a free magazine of illustrations by emerging artist Adrian Forrow. Lucky me.

Printed in black and white on cheap and cheerful newsprint, Forrow's portfolio includes a digitally generated monster's castle, fat pen-and-ink mushrooms, a whole sheet of wholesome Canadiana (pencilled squirrels, lumberjack shirts, acorns and tree trunks), and a full-page drawing of a neatly dressed tiger riding a two-tiered bicycle.

What more do you want for free?


Shaheer Zazai, New Paintings, at 2 of 2 Gallery Until Dec. 22, 254 Niagara St., Toronto

A study of the violent history of Afghanistan via tumultuous clashes of ink and acrylic paint, Zazai's abstracts are strangely serene.

Robin Peck, Distance, at Diaz Contemporary Until Dec. 22, 100 Niagara St., Toronto

Peck's plaster-coated step pyramids are as graceful and meditative as their base materials (cardboard and cloth) are common. Transformative moments abound.

Tammy Hoy, Portals, at Akasha Art Projects Until Dec. 29, 511 Church St., Toronto

Hoy photographs abandoned spaces the way most of us photograph our kids or pets - or wish we could. Hoy finds something to love in them all.

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