Number 506, March 18, 2004

Threatened innocence

‘Beatrix Potter meets Dawn Of The Dead’

Toronto artist Michael Caines could officially be considered an animal painter, but don’t get the wrong impression — his work is anything but sentimental. Caines’ new body of work, Afterlife, is much closer in tone to Hitchcock’s ominous world of The Birds than the cutesy banality of Robert Bateman’s wildlife paintings. He comments on the discordant nature of humanity by creating scenarios of a world populated, and often controlled by, its animal inhabitants.

Growing up, Caines knew he wanted to be an artist but was apprehensive about attending art school. Instead, he studied philosophy, a practice that allowed him to live inside his head. He went back to school 10 years later to study expressive arts therapy at ISIS-Canada in Toronto. His work as an art therapist has greatly influenced his own art, giving rise to themes such as sexual uncertainty, depression and healing. His paintings and drawings are not laden with heady intellectual discourse, but rather depict scenes of childhood fantasy gone awry. These fragile and highly detailed drawings chronicle the history of Caines’ imagined worlds.

Caines describes the recurring inspiration in his work as, “How to actually play in the dark places.”
There is a continual sense of evolution in his drawings. It is easy enough to believe the images have a life of their own. Afterlife implies narrative, but does not give quite enough detail to be linear. As viewers, we stumble into the middle of a story and are left to speculate. This quality makes seriality an important element of the work — each piece feeds and elaborates on the content of the whole exhibition.
Throughout Caines’ artistic career, he has created a dynamic and idiosyncratic environment. New characters enter while others depart or evolve. For example, in Afterlife, Caines’ customary gorillas have turned into playfully creepy balloons. Each new set of paintings deepens our understanding of Caines’ language and codes of conduct within his imagined nether worlds.

Most of the images in Afterlife are drawn on a flecked brown paper that has a sense of space and depth. Caines does not have to rely on horizon lines and environmental incidentals to anchor his characters. They are not floating, but not quite grounded either. Land and sky blur together in a space of limbo. Skeletons wearing fake moustaches clumsily walk into holes, and small dogs sit in quiet contemplation.

Caines’ characters have a sense of independence because they are observant. Whether it is a dog watching over a wounded deer, or a human peeking out from hole at a mountain of pills, these characters are not performing for viewers, they are simply living their lives. Such images contemplate the nature of observation. The viewer needs to look at the characters to understand the work, but the characters do not need the viewer at all.

Despite the melancholic atmosphere, the characters populating Caines’ world are full of child-like wonder and absurdity. He describes this as “Beatrix Potter meets Dawn Of The Dead.” His paintings could easily appear in a children’s book, albeit a sinister one. I get the impression this untainted sensibility relates to Caines’ work with youth. He is currently doing youth support for the Inside Out Queer Youth Digital Video Project, and co-ordinates a queer youth group at North York’s Griffin Centre. Caines suggests he enjoys working with younger artists because, “The motivation is really purely about creativity, it’s free of all the art world ego, status and competition.”
Caines also has an interest in disruption, rooted in his experience with youth. The uncertainty of growing up queer, and not having a way to express those feelings, creates a general sense of friction. In his past work, Caines dealt with sexuality head on, painting boys coddled by apes. In Afterlife, the work is not specifically about sexuality, but there is still a sense of threatened innocence, of incongruity. Unexpectedly, this gives the work a rather inviting humour. We wind up in existential dialogue before we realize it.

Remarking on his black humour, Caines says that some of things he thinks are funny, “creep other people out.”

Caines attempts to turn despair into something beneficial. And he succeeds. He presents an imaginary world with its own language, one that both reflects and questions our understanding of humanity.

Michael Caines.
Fri, Mar 19-31.
Zsa Zsa Gallery.
962 Queen St W.
(416) 538-4482.