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Arthur Desmarteaux and Allison Moore at Open Studio

Until Feb. 18, 401 Richmond St. W., Suite 104, Toronto; openstudio.on.ca

Every once in a (too long) while, one stumbles upon an exhibition that is so relentlessly cheerful, so buoyant and full of bonhomie, that one has to ask oneself why the bulk of contemporary art on view is so decidedly otherwise. Bloated profundities sell, I guess (see end paragraphs).

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Micropolis 2.0, a paper sculpture/installation by the Montreal-based printmaking/multimedia duo Arthur Desmarteaux and Allison Moore, crams the tiny exhibition space at Open Studio with enough life, colour, clever sight gags and goofily deadpan urbanity to make one forget that the world outside is in a meteorological deep freeze.

The set up for Micropolis 2.0 is simple enough. A narrow shelf runs along three sides of the gallery cube, trimmed with digitally and/or screen printed cardboard backdrops of well-known Canadian streetscapes (Boulevard Saint Laurent in Montreal, Toronto's Kensington Market). The "sidewalk" space is populated with everything from nervous cartoon raccoons to smiling trees to photo-realist cops on bikes to alien hipsters to streetwalkers. And that's not the half of it.

The detail in Micropolis 2.0 is stunning. Any one of the dozens of strolling figures could stand alone, so to speak, as a work in itself, and all are animated, figuratively and literally, by an R. Crumb-esque sense of naughty (but never depraved or despairing) humour. Noses are elephantine, teeth shark sharp, legs insectile and flesh tones parakeet flashy. Each character – human, animal, alien or plant – is delineated in sharp, but never cutting, never cruel, twitchy black outline, betraying a doodler's freehand sensitivity to the immediate as well as an editorial cartoonist's eye for a subject's frailties as well as flair.

Meanwhile, the urban topography, the familiar buildings and shops culled from civic centres, is also teeming with life – figures pop out of windows, fly over the rooftops, and perform erotic dances (care of a tiny video screen) in store fronts. I defy any viewer to find a lifeless centimetre in this installation, a moment's pause in the surreal parade. Busy is just too small a word for Desmarteaux & Moore's aesthetic. Effervescent works. So does genius, madcap genius.

Jean Bridge at Red Head Gallery

Until Jan. 28, 401 Richmond St. W., Suite 115; redheadgallery.org

Around the corner at Red Head Gallery, Jean Bridge provides an (unintended) counterpoint to Micropolis 2.0's bouncy flâneurism.

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Bridge's video installation, Around the Block, projected in three parts, explores, close up and in slow motion, the areas between urban hot spots – the commonplace wire fences, concrete barriers, hedgerows and wrought iron, the brick backs of buildings and the untended, weedy patches of green.

These lovingly filmed sub-spaces – invisible-by-design, connective links that allow the urban wanderer to rest his/her senses and then more easily move between destinations – are indistinct and primarily functional, meant to go unrecognized.

So, for Bridge to film such spaces as if she was making a National Geographic documentary about a rain forest or the Himalayas is not only gently subversive (who decides, after all, what spaces are valued and what spaces remain unnamed, uncharted?), but also just plain weird. Good weird.

Contrary to all the urban-planning-speak above, Bridge is not attempting to romanticize the mundane, not falling into the trap (one that catches too many Canadian artists) of overseeing an abject, dull subject. Rather, Bridge's projections instill a kind of summery calm, a leisureliness that will be familiar to anyone who likes to stroll without a goal.

However, Bridge's occasional injections of people into her scanned spaces, via low-res green screen, function as a reminder that even in the most abandoned urban locales, one is never truly alone. As pointed out, in neat parallel, in Micropolis 2.0, even the trees are whispering.

While Desmarteaux and Moore celebrate the hallucinatory appeal of a city's pedestrian traffic, Bridge meditates on the dreamy, happily undemanding alleys, passages, and microclimates. Same coin, two sides.

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Here's hoping a smart curator will put these artists together in a shared space.

Marc Audette at Gallery 44

Until Feb. 11, 401 Richmond St. W., Suite 120; gallery44.org

I wanted to like Marc Audette's Art Class 010, a series of photo-based works and an installation at Gallery 44 – and, as pure eye candy, his imagery is unquestionably appealing. Everything I like is present in Audette's exhibition: vivid colour, performance-derived images, an inherent theatricality.

But there's an unwanted, too familiar (to me, at least) tone to the show, one of self-importance. The work presents itself as far more profound than it actually is, and that kills the buzz generated by Audette's otherwise impressive staging.

Audette poses sexy models on top of, around, or coming out of a banged-up table with a hole cut into it, then lights the models in lurid purple, lime and cobalt. Sometimes the models are also draped, or entangled, in a white fabric, or have lengths of police tape attached to their limbs. It's all very circusy, very Québécois. La danse et la vie … etc.

Why, then, do the models look like they're about to be executed by a firing squad? Why is the lighting so menacing, so arch? Why is the table photographed as if it's a butcher's block?

These images, derived from play and experiment, present the opposite – melodrama and academic frigidity. Lighten up, already.

IN OTHER VENUES

Murmurs at Gallery Arcturus

Until Jan. 30, 80 Gerrard St. E., Toronto; arcturus.ca

Chock full of spectral figures and haloed after-images, this sensual group show looks exactly the way late afternoons in January feel – haunted and striving to hold the light.

Khalid Thamer at the Burlington Art Centre

Until Feb. 19, 1333 Lakeshore Rd., Burlington, Ont.; thebac.ca

Thamer's paintings play hide-and-seek with the viewer, burying personal and primal symbols underneath slow-burning embers of flame-coloured paint.

Joscelyn Gardner at Station Gallery

Until Feb. 12, 1450 Henry St., Whitby, Ont.; whitbystationgallery.com Gardner's luscious, deftly crafted prints, depicting flowers, roots, and elaborate body ornaments, fool you at first – what she is presenting is a history in symbols of the healing practices used, and cruel tortures endured, by enslaved Creole women.

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