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Dive into local artist's 'Dumpster Pop' works

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Winnipeg-based artist Cyrus Smith doesn't just do mixed media. He does crazy mixed-up media, which makes his work hard to pin down. A gifted painter, he also favours collages and assemblages that rely on the pack-rat accumulation of urban junk. Smith's show Write Handed, now on view at Golden City Fine Art, is both raggedy and gorgeous, offering a sneaky-smart take on high-low esthetics.

Smith graduated from the University of Manitoba's School of Art in 2004 and has worked as a street-level graffiti artist and collaborated with the artists' collective 26 (or Two Sicks or Too Six or Twenty Six, depending on who's talking). Like many young Winnipeg artists, Smith works that Value Village vibe, finding strange beauty in the overlooked, the discarded and the forlorn. In his first solo exhibit, big-impact paintings rub along with pieces created out of carpet samples, pigeon feathers, rusted scrap metal, plastic farmyard animals and a fishbowl filled with shredded money.

Smith's so-called "Wall of Shame" is an odd, slightly obsessive-compulsive little collection hung carefully in a salon-style grouping, with many of the objects and sketches centred in ornate vintage frames. It includes a baggie filled with pink pistachio shells and an old cocktail napkin stamped with the Winnipeg Jets logo. Smith constructs an intricate collage out of "Wacky Package" stickers, those 1970s spoofs of consumer products. (You remember: Belch's Grape Juice and Underworld Bedeviled Ham.)

Smith likes to play with juxtapositions, in particular the tension between large-scale formalist painting and what he calls Dumpster Pop. A piece that could pass as a pristine op art abstraction, its tiny red-and-blue all-over pattern vibrating with energy, turns out to be constructed from kitschy, stretchy '70s polyester.

Several works -- like a stencil-style depiction of a hooded graffiti artist inserted into a fancy oval frame -- explore the paradoxes of bringing graffiti art into the gallery system. Pillow (2009) starts with a flocked-velvet cushion trimmed with fringe. Against this baroque background, Smith sets a punchy orange silhouette of a graffiti artist, his spray can held high and a piece of white string standing in for the line of paint.

Smith also likes to challenge the viewer's "level of visual comfort," frequently walking the line between seductive painterly effects -- including a real feel for colour and beautifully concise drawing -- and provocative ugliness. One assemblage clusters around the most unsettling child mannequin ever manufactured. Smith has barely altered the dummy -- a creepy cross between Hellenistic sculpture and kiddie porn -- but by slightly shifting its context he makes us uncomfortably aware of its come-hither pose, with dropped shoulder and jutting hip. It's hard to believe this mannequin ever had a commercial purpose.

Write Handed is a good fit for Golden City Fine Art, a small Chinatown venue that's surrounded by dusty second-hand shops, empty lots and brick walls marked by graffiti. These works might hang on a gallery wall, but their layered, salvaged feel evokes long hours of wandering and scavenging on Winnipeg's core-area streets.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2009 D3

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