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Gimme shelter - or at least a great fish tank

Ineffable Plasticity: The Experience of Being Human Human/Nature at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art Until Dec. 31 (both exhibitions), 952 Queen St. W., Toronto; mocca.ca

The Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art is arguably Toronto's most contested, questioned and scrutinized visual-arts venue. The Power Plant runs a close second, but its waterfront, beyond-the-Gardiner location creates a psychological barrier between the venue and the citizenry, a barrier from which the space both benefits and suffers.

MOCCA, on the other hand, is smack dab in the middle of the West Queen West gallery zone. It's just asking for trouble. (Full disclosure: I have participated in a MOCCA group show in the past, and wrote a catalogue essay for an exhibition a few years back, so I know from MOCCA-style trouble.)

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The MOCCA has other problems – an unlovely, cold, concrete floor; some awkward, too-tight viewing corners; deep pockets of shadow. But these concerns seem nitpicky when compared to the venue's overall output, which is, small or large flaws aside, never boring. It's time to cut MOCCA some slack.

Cases in point: two excellent new exhibitions, Ineffable Plasticity: The Experience of Being Human, curated by Camilla Singh; and Human/Nature, co-organized by MOCCA and the National Gallery of Canada. Neither show is perfect, but both give enough bang for the buck (or lack of bucks; admission to the MOCCA is always pay-what-you-can) to satisfy the persnicketiest visitor.

As Ineffable Plasticity's subtitle alerts, the exhibition is reaching for some very high fruit: nothing less than what it means, feels like, looks like (and smells like) to be human.

Can any one exhibition convey that much information? Of course not. But the buoyant foolhardiness of the attempt is great fun to watch, join in on, and occasionally disagree with – especially for anyone, like me, who is fairly certain there is no such thing as a base universal, or even inter/intrapersonal, understanding of humanness.

Nevertheless, hats off to Singh for sheer brattyness. The whole faux-pompous enterprise set up by Ineffable Plasticity reminds me of the Mel Brooks movie History of the World: Part I – a film which, by default and by sensible self-limitation, hardly performs the impossible task outlined in the title. There's a bit of Borsch Belt comedian in any good curator.

So, what encapsulates humanity, according to Singh's chosen artists? The reductive answer: the ability and desire (or compulsion?) to manipulate materials into representations of the other, the not-self. Animals make shelters out of sticks and rocks; humans make sculptures. It's a blessing, it's a curse.

Among the examples provided – individual expressions of a collective core drive – my favourites include Sherri Hay's shamanistic black-and-white paper wicker man. It's a sculpture/dress design covered in acres of precisely cut paper strips, and surrounded by a giant, curving paper wall decorated with a reverse (white-on-black) Rorschach blot.

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Also good is Faith La Rocque's weirdly (given it's small-truck-size) light and ethereal assemblage, a work consisting of a wall of pink salt blocks encased in wood, twinkling underlights, and three fish tanks, one of which houses four "celestial" orange goldfish (the kind with the bubbles dangling off their upturned eyes).

And there's Jordan MacLachlan's long, full table packed with terracotta miniatures, a mad hellscape of frightening, sometimes hilarious, always just plain weird creatures – subway-riding octopi, human-animal hybrids, lustful couples, a toddler with a gun, plus pigeons, ever-present pigeons.

I also quite liked Susy Oliveira's chunky 3-D pop-up depictions of leaves and crystals, photo works printed on foam core that jump off the wall with jaunty dynamism; and La Rocque's easy-to-miss (most things are, compared to her goldfish palace) collection of rectangular body pillows stuffed with heavenly, fragrant bergamot. All galleries should smell so good.

On the other hand, Anders Oinonen's abstract oil-on-canvas paintings – cascading and fluid – while pleasant enough on their own, seemed out of place, too pensive in this otherwise active exhibition.

Conversely (and I know this is a contradiction of the sentence above), Mat Brown's epic ink-on-paper alternative history of life on Earth – a series full of Heavy Metal-magazine-style illustrations of violence and sexuality – is as skillfully, wondrously executed as it is utterly out of whack with the much less literal tone of the exhibition. Granted, MacLachlan's monster parade mines parallel territory. But MacLachlan's miniatures invite curious investigation; Brown's drawings, maddeningly action-packed, shout for attention.

In a show as generous and lively as Ineffable Plasticity, there are bound to be works that border on the gluttonous, the excessive. But, better a groaning sideboard than a barren cupboard.

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Over in the MOCCA's smaller space, Human/Nature offers a tidy, more studied experience. It matches contemporary works by Ed Pien and Ah Xian with older ones by Marion Tuu'luq and Arnaqurk Ashevak.

Tuu'luq's textile works beautifully solidify a very unstable, animistic worldview. It's one in which animals, people and the elements tumble and churn, constantly intermingling in clumsy harmony. Pien's wall-sized paper-cut mural, made with a flaring, reflective material, plunges the viewer into a dense, overgrown forest, a Sleepy Hollow dotted with spectral figures and clawing vines. And Ah Xian's trio of porcelain busts, covered in Chinese-dinnerware landscape patterns, are unabashedly cheerful – showstoppers slathered in sparkling glaze.

But, again, I found one pea under the mattress. Ashevak's soapstone-and-antler sculpture, depicting an open palm sprouting pointy tendrils, appears too rough and ready for this finesse-fixated collection. I like it, but it doesn't fit.

Maybe I'm spoiled. The MOCCA does that to you.

AT OTHER VENUES

Amanda Clyne at P/M Gallery Until Jan. 28, 1518 Dundas St. W., Toronto; pmgallery.ca

Clyne's hybridizing of portrait painting and portrait photography creates a kind of recognition dissonance, which is much more delightful than it sounds.

Laurie Walker at Susan Hobbs Gallery Until Jan. 21, 137 Tecumseth St., Toronto; susanhobbs.com

The Prometheus myth gets a reboot in Walker's eerie, cross-pollinating works on paper. Poor old Prometheus, will the gods ever forgive him? He was only trying to be helpful.

Cathy Daley at Birch Libralato Until Jan. 21, 129 Tecumseth St., Toronto; birchlibralato.com

Colour me embarrassed! In my overexcited anticipation of new works by Cathy Daley (see last week's column), I hardly anticipated that she would depart from her beloved skirts-and-legs paintings and go all twitchy grey swirls and busty loops, falling into coils and curls of milky abstraction, dreamy architectural forms. Ms. Daley, please continue to surprise.

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