Review: Tony Scherman at Georgia Scherman Art Projects.

November 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

"Trudeau" (Scherman)

Encaustic painter Tony Scherman has made a career out of ruminating on grand historical subjects. This usually means events like the French Revolution or this rise of Napoleon, but his current show at his daughter Georgia Scherman‘s gallery throws his glance at something closer to home: the October Crisis of 1970.

Taking hold of the monumental size of History painting, Scherman subverts its generic sense of the grandiose by reducing the spectacle and replacing it with psychology. Rather than getting Napoleon crossing the Alps, you get a close-up of his face in drag and his horse upside-down. More prosaic than poetic, his paintings are heaps of accumulated details shining through layer upon layer of wax. Where he gets most interesting, however, is when he walks the border of bad taste, skulking about in Hitler’s sex life or with kitschy paintings of historical dogs. It’s in the uncomfortable juxtaposition of this cartoonish element of his work with the overtly grave portraits that his greatest strength usually lies.

His take on the October Crisis isn’t completely successful. This could be because of a lack of distance from the subject matter, and a lack of art historical references to anchor it, but it could also be due to a failure of imagination. His usual sardonic sense of metaphor is largely absent. There’s something too sentimental and unfocused about the paintings which makes them clunky. The FLQ and the conditions of life in Quebec are completely absent. Instead, it all becomes personalized with the blown up avatars of media icons. There are three massive Trudeaus presented. There is nothing in Trudeau’s eyes – they’re all just black pits. One is set beside Napoleon and staring across to his lover Barbra Streisand. Two are set against Marx, Machiavelli and René Lévesque. The latter is depicted as a child in the most inspired move of the show, but, unless he’s making a very bitter joke, the painter’s memento mori for the martyrs of Canadian Federalism (“The Death of Pierre Laporte”), rendered as some overly sombre bunches of flowers, fall flat.

“Black October” runs from October 20 – November 26.

– Matthew Purvis

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