SCOTT MACFARLAND AT DIVISON GALLERY | MARK JENKINS & DAVID SPRIGGS AT ARSENAL CONTEMPORARY

Akimbo

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Camille Paglia was on the radio and, amidst a flurry of other things, said that people were searching for a new religion. An hour later I was looking up at illuminated clouds hung high on the walls of Division GalleryScott McFarland's light boxes glow like stained glass windows (though they also could be advertisements – yet another opiate of the people). They hint at the kind of art you see in a church or cathedral rather than the earthbound installations more commonly witnessed in a secular white cube. The ineffable meteorological formations they depict, those fluffy white masses that entrance young and old alike, are just one phase of a miraculous transubstantiation (the holy trinity: evaporation, condensation, precipitation) that sustains all life on the planet. Beams of sunlight radiating from behind them add the requisite deistic touch to remind the viewer of the age-old perception that some random star that happens to heat our planet is also a transcendental signifier for an all-mighty God, perfection, or the highest truth. 

But there's something wrong with these photographs. The edges bleed on a couple and there is some printer grot on another. The sun causes lens flaring that renders these pictures less than perfect, while other have been misprinted with unnatural colours. They aren’t great photos, but they have great purpose. Or rather, they are purposeful failures to record the distance between what is idealized, aspired to, or desired and what you actually get. They are a celebration of how human we are and how are errors are what makes us human. They are icons for a belief system that celebrates the "good enough" metaphysics of atheists hungry for meaning but sceptical of belief. They ask you to look up and outward, but don’t promise anything in return except a glimpse of the sublime and some disappointment. For many of us, this is the most we can expect of the world: cloud cover, indirect light, and the best of the failures. After a lifetime of empty promises and false prophets, I accept this version of meaningful expression. This is my kind of church. 

If McFarland gives us a glimpse of heaven, then Mark Jenkins, over at the Arsenal half of the building, gives us a taste of hell with his collection of creepy mannequins posed to reference art history and horror movies. As with all scary things, the more lifelike they are, the more they disturb. And the more time you spend with them, the less scary they become. The best way to experience this show is to not know what you’re in for, so bring friends and see how they react. The work doesn’t go much farther than that, but is worth it because fear is an emotion that isn’t often elicited in art galleries.  Also at Arsenal, David Spriggs' animated video of a transport truck seen through an x-ray is not scary so much as disturbing. The ever-evolving hues move like a lava lamp to reveal the human forms hidden behind the truck’s cargo. Just last week, eight people died in a similar truck in Texas. That is what makes this work horrible: those skeletons are living, breathing beings. If there’s anything that should be held sacred, it’s all those lives.  

Division Gallery: http://www.galeriedivision.com/toronto/exhibitions Scott McFarland: Sky Leaks continues until September 9.  

Arsenal Contemporary: http://www.arsenalmontreal.com/en/exhibitions/?t=now&w=toronto Mark Jenkins & David Spriggs continue until September 9.