Time to touch the art

Detail from Tim desClouds' Patriots at the Crossing — I’ve Got to Get Out of This Situation, But She Doesn’t Want to Take Me, 47x61 mm. Courtesy the artist.

You usually hear “please don’t touch the art,” but, in this case, please do. Press that button. Open that hatch. Spin that goat’s arse.

Your interaction is essential to Tim desClouds’ new works. As with the political situations and circumstances that desClouds is commenting upon, the art’s potential can’t be achieved without your hands-on effort. Political systems are not passive.

DesClouds’ exhibition, at St-Laurent + Hill Gallery, is titled Fires That Burn In My Neck in the Woods. The title, with its homespun phrasing, speaks to the whimsy that prevails in desClouds’ work. Here the whimsy is tempered by a dark feeling, as if the global pressure on our democratic systems and the social order they allow has been felt in desClouds’ fantastical world. Les clouds have moved in.

DesClouds’s work is seen daily by many in Ottawa; he made those adorned chairs that sit atop red metal poles along Bank Street in the Glebe, and the elaborate metal tree and fence that surrounds McNabb Park at Bronson and Gladstone.

Tim desClouds. The House — A Story of Politics. Courtesy the artist.

His gallery work is also defined by its engaging nature and its almost frenetic mixed-media construction. His studio must look like that of an incorrigible hoarder, yet from myriad materials he builds an ordered universe.

His new piece The House — A Story of Politics at first glance looks like a wall clock having a party, a bacchanal of found or fabricated parts. It’s a metal box pierced by a metal horse, which is pierced by a ram that’s cut into halves. The butt end of the ram spins. Open the box door and there’s a sort of Mad Hatter’s tea party, with the March Hare holding a Canadian flag. Above it all, a small ferris wheel spins — everything spins, beeps, illuminates or plays music, in this case the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, tinkled hesitantly on a music box that desClouds probably built from a rubber band and a found metal comb.

The titular house could be Canada’s House of Commons or the United States’ House of Representatives. These reflect the “new iconography” in desClouds’ work, these references to “political, cultural and social events” in this time of encroaching darkness.

That’s not all that’s new. DesCloud has previously done painting and the mixed-media work he calls “sculptural paintings,” but here they become one.

In the piece Patriots at the Crossing — I’ve Got to Get Out of This Situation, But She Doesn’t Want to Take Me, a frame holds a painting of a landscape rendered in highly charged colours, with two stilted clowns (Canada and the U.S., one assumes) at opposite sides of a small river. Various creatures cut from metal dash or fly about, and a military bomber with its tail in flames crashes into the frame from above. Open the door on the metal box that’s affixed to the painting and hear the tinkling notes of Talk To The Animals, from Dr. Dolittle. It’s quintessential desClouds, filtered through the dark forces circling our world.    

Fires That Burn In My Neck in the Woods continues to March 24 at St-Laurent + Hill, 293 Dalhousie St. 

This Daniel Wakeman painting of a pangolin, an Asian anteater cited as a possible source of the coronavirus, serves as a grim reminder that if we mess with nature, nature can mess with us, Peter Simpson writes.

Another exhibition speaks to our reckless mismanagement of the world around us, though in a different way.

The centrepiece of Postcard — A procession of difficult beasts, by Ottawa artist Daniel Wakeman, spans almost the entire length of Citizen, the sister restaurant to Town on Elgin Street. It’s a 36-inch by 36-foot scroll of animals painted in gouache on butcher paper, with tigers, bears, bugs, bees, birds, primates and many more, all apparently harmonious.

The scroll hints of Edward Hicks’ 1839 painting Peaceable Kingdom, which presented its own contented gathering of predator and prey, yet not all is peaceable in Wakeman’s kingdom.

All his animals are endangered, thanks to human folly.

“This work stands as a memento mori, love letter, and record of that which will soon be lost forever,” he writes. Making art is “an open, unfolding, and unanswerable question,” he adds. The viewer must search themselves for answers to the ecological mess we’ve created.

Detail from Daniel Wakeman’s memento mori to endangered species.

The animals are drawn well and realistically, though not to scale, which creates a freedom of motion. With so many creatures running or flying or crawling or swimming about (there’s a blue whale), all effectively sized and arranged by Wakeman, it feels like a rambunctious parade of nature passing us by. Sit before it long enough, with a dish or a drink and be awed afresh by the sheer variety of it all, by evolution’s infinite imagination.

These creatures don’t need us to survive, they just need us to stop driving them to extinction. Stand-alone pieces show more creatures — a California condor, a snarling hyena and a placid pangolin.

The pangolin is an anteater from Asia and tens of thousands are killed every year for use in traditional Chinese medicine or as an expensive delicacy. Recently, after Wakeman completed his project, the pangolin was cited as a possible source of the coronavirus, so the painting serves as a grim reminder that if we mess with nature, nature can mess with us.

Ideally we wouldn’t need selfish reasons to care about wild animals. Wakeman, clearly, loves them for what they are, and his drawings savour the details of their shapes, their colours, their remarkable vibrancy. He’s drawn them on simple brown paper and hung them unframed on small clips, as if to underscore the fragility of that natural world, and the fate of it in our hands. Do we admire and preserve it all, or crumple it up and throw it away?

Postcard — A procession of difficult beasts continues to the end of March at Citizen, 207 Gilmour.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.