Quite a bit has changed since Ravi Shukla's last exhibition at 211 Pacific Ave. just a year ago.
The venue itself is under new management, for one. Operating as Golden City Fine Art until late last year, the space has been rebranded as Zsa Zsa West by local artist Andrew Harwood (alias "Madame Zsa Zsa," prominent fortune-telling drag queen). The commercial venture is the second incarnation of a gallery he operated in Toronto from 1998 to 2005.
Shukla's artistic approach has also changed. Last year's Clearly Not a Mirror was a deluge of drawings comprising hundreds of works -- culled from thousands -- all executed in Shukla's microscopically precise hand and distinctive street-art- and psychedelia-inflected style. This year's showing, What's Ripe Rots, is by comparison both more wide-ranging and more restrained.
The drawings are still there, and they're still teeming with tiny, grotesque little ooglie-booglies, some of them humanoid and others more grub-like, that still wriggle around on mostly empty pages. The intricate, hallucinatory illustrations still remind me equally of underground comics and Mesoamerican illuminated manuscripts.
Countless before, there are only 14 drawings this time, but the small group demonstrates both a growing interest in structure and a more adventurous use of colour. While Shukla's unpremeditated, "doodling" approach still produces listless, meandering compositions, some of his characters have started falling into regular grid formations. Colour is no longer entirely confined within Shukla's meticulous outlines: here and there "washes" of magic marker, applied from both sides of the paper, pool and overlap with a distinctive and lovely painterly effect.
The most noteworthy development, however, albeit the most uncertain one, is the newfound prominence of Shukla's sculptural works, with the exhibition featuring a number of slapdash, comparatively large-scale assemblages of found materials. Some of these expand upon the freewheeling, associative method at evidence in the drawings, but others highlight its limitations.
Still others, while satisfying in their own way, just seem out of place. (Rock N' Roll, an orange electric guitar mounted onto a pair of salvaged wooden pieces that recall butterfly wings, is especially perplexing, looking like a regrettable lower-back tattoo brought terrifyingly to life.)
Many of Shukla's drawings have the specificity and strangeness of dream imagery, and they might be too confounding or opaque if his tremendous skill as a draftsman, honed by making tens of thousands of drawings and drawing daily, didn't reward our attention. Sculptures like the melancholic Here Where Tear Drops Fall and Don't Dissolve, a battered spice rack containing three cufflinks and an assortment of modified plastic containers, or the promising-but-unresolved title piece, What's Ripe Rots, which attempts to incorporate incidental drawings and scribbled notes as sculptural materials, have something of the drawings' elliptical weirdness, but they lack the same self-evident expertise and care to draw us in. Taken as a group, they add nearly as much unevenness to the exhibition as they do interest.
It's worth noting that Shukla's work often draws on personal history, so additional background information might well smooth some of the apparent gaps in the possibly still-"unripe" newer work.
What's Ripe Rots continues until May 4, but given Zsa Zsa's limited hours (Fridays and Saturdays, 1 p.m.-6 p.m. or by appointment), your best chance to see the show might be Shukla's artist talk, which is scheduled for Sunday, April 28, at 3 p.m.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer and educator.