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Tom Dean: Desire

By Gil McElroy January 6, 2003

} Tom Dean: Desire May 30-September 15, 2001 Toronto Sculpture Garden, Toronto, Ontario, Canada Toronto-based artist TOM DEAN’s recent site-specific exhibition at the Toronto Sculpture Garden (May 30-September 15, 2001) was part of the 20th anniversary celebrations of this pocket-sized art park in the heart of downtown Toronto. For “Desire,” Dean brought together five figurative bronze castings of cherubs and five bronze swans, all approximately life-size, pairing them in miniature scenarios spread out across the tiny expanse of lawn, all the better to mess about with a couple of the classic symbols of love and lust. Each cherub and swan was a unique original -no pose was a duplicate-and so each pairing of beast and babe made for an interactive drama of singular and unique proportions. Over near a low brick wall, a cherub and swan eye each other warily, both half-turned away, the swan with its wings spread wide, the cherub pressing one of its arms against itself and clutching the rock upon which it sits with the other. Near a brick walkway, a cherub nestles in the grass on its back. Close by, a swan preens its back feathers, head buried beneath a wing. They seem oblivious to the presence of each other. In front of a wall before which cascades an artificial waterfall, a swan stretches its neck upward, perhaps trumpeting. The cherub nearby protectively holds an arm against its head, covering one ear. Nearby, another cherub crawls along the grass, bare bum in the air, its companion swan presumably fast asleep, head and neck relaxed along its back. And in the middle of it all, a cherub sitting in the grass seems to have just thrown something-one arm frozen in the follow-through of its volley-toward the nearby swan it glares at. Neck arched, head near the ground, one wing raised protectively, this swan appears the outraged victim to the cherub’s inexplicable attack. It’s all body language, of course, subjective and wide open to as many varied readings and interpretations as there are those who came to walk amidst these small bronzes. In the torpor of the summer’s heat wave, anything seemed possible. Even the Garden of Eden. The setting of the cherubs within the confines of the grass, trees, bushes and plants of the Toronto Sculpture Garden unavoidably conjured up allusions and connotations of biblical proportions. Eden, that garden against which all others are inevitably measured, was guarded (the story goes) by warrior cherubim, there to keep interlopers -like the evicted Adam and Eve-out, and while those cherubs bear little physical relation these soft, overstuffed infants of Baroque imagination and contemporary greeting card fancy, the association, however wobbly and creaky, manages to stand. Barely. But it succeeds in rendering only half the equation, for these babies- all male, incidentally-are situated in relationships with their companion swans that Dean has intended to be meaningful (ergo the many and varied possible readings of body language). The symbolic baggage both bird and babe bring to the proverbial table must also come into play. The pudgy cherubs of the Baroque, the putti of the Italian Renaissance-images of which have been commercially trafficked by New Age merchandisers and become an integral part of contemporary pop culture- are the mythological descendants of Cupid (the Latin word for “desire,” incidentally). The swan itself is an emblem of Aphrodite. So Eros it is, then, love and lust cavorting on the lawn of the Toronto Sculpture Garden in the guise of a handful of bronze babies and birds. But it is no dance of dialectics that these creatures enact within the dramatic little cocoons of their pairings, for they are birds of the same metaphorical feather, flip sides of the same coin. Walking amidst the sculptures of “Desire” was not to experience some aesthetic amalgam, some conceptual synthesis, of visual ideas Dean had set in knee-high binary opposition to one another out on a small patch of Toronto lawn. Rather, it was to bump heads with a few pieces of some ancient amatory puzzle, and to risk the hubristic temptation of trying to fill in the empty spaces. As Dean well knew, our vanity would bequeath to “Desire” what it needed to be complete. Good thing, then, that we were there to help out. This review originally appeared in Art Papers Magazine, January/February 2002. ___________________________________________ Gil McElroy is a critic, independent curator, artist, and poet currently living in Colborne, Ontario. His latest books are Gravity & Grace: Selected Writing on Contemporary Canadian Art (Gaspereau Press), and a book of poetry, Dream Pool Essays (Talonbooks). View Gil's curriculum vitae.