It could be construed as odd, maybe even a little off-putting, to feature at the height of this season of forced gaiety a work that depicts the imminent destruction of an entire city by a gigantic, apocalyptic avalanche.
The city is just painted cardboard and the avalanche is only made of paper. It's just a story, as parents often tell their anxious offspring.
It's a pretty good story, though, if an old one. Invited by Antonia Lancaster, owner of the small but perky OFFTHEMAPGALLERY, to fill this tiny, unheated, concrete-block gallery space out behind her house on Lansdowne Avenue in Toronto, artist Libby Hague decided to get into the spirit of the season and fill it with an extraordinarily lyrical paper cataclysm.
It sprang, she tells me, from the art-gallery owner's surmising that the outdoor gallery building may have once been the site of a mini-disaster, perhaps a fire, "the charred evidence of which," Lancaster writes in a statement, "still runs along the roofline of the gallery."
Hague's paper avalanche is merely a second helping of disaster for the place.
But here comes the Christmasy part: Lancaster also thinks the building may once have been a stable. And so Hague has constructed an installation that is part toy disaster movie, part nativity scene.
The potential disaster lies in the fact that Hague's cardboard city -- in which buildings teeter at odd, unstable angles and are tied loosely together with pink ribbon -- is about to be overwhelmed by a 4.5-metre-high pileup of paper. ("It's the domino effect," Hague says. "If one falls over they all fall over.")
The nativity part lies in the fact that while the city (which Hague calls an "urban crèche") sits on a couple of hay bales, so, too, does a tiny, vulnerable paper baby.
So what's so Christmasy about this? Won't the baby be obliterated along with the rest of this paper civilization? Not necessarily. For if you lift your eyes heavenward, way up above the tumbling volumes of paper snow, and into the garage's "sky," you will see a tiny angel, swan-diving through space and the snowfall, making her way to the threatened baby and city far below.
Can the angel save the baby? Or will the avalanche end up smothering everything?
So far it's all stasis: angel and avalanche in perpetual standoff. But there's a lot to think about here, in the piece's arrested movement and charged silence. For me, the piece is the most moving work of religious art I've seen in a very long time.
WHERE SHE'S AT
at York Quay Centre
Until Dec. 31, 235 Queens Quay W., Toronto; 416-973-5379
The aforementioned Libby Hague is one of six artists who have provided the striking and often truly memorable pieces making up Where she's at, now at Toronto's York Quay Centre at Harbourfront Centre.
The other participants are Barbara McGill Balfour, Yael Brotman, Wanda Koop, Tanya Mars and Leesa Streifler.
Group shows can be difficult to write about: You end up either concentrating on a few choice works, or itemizing them, like reminders on a shopping list. I'll opt for the former approach.
One of the show's finest things is Hague's Rehearsal for Disaster, a 12-metre section of a prodigious, ongoing epic in woodcuts on Okawara paper called Everything Needs Everything. This graphically arresting passion play takes place, as Hague puts it in the exhibition's brochure, "under the Gardiner Expressway at an apocalyptic future moment that feels closer all the time" -- the Gardiner Expressway setting standing in for any inexplicable urban landscape in any threatened contemporary city. At the core of this urban unrest, as with her Avalanche piece, is a threatened baby and, its potential rescuer, in the form of another beatific Hague angel -- this time donning the benign guise of an acrobat.