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Howard Podeswa at Peak Gallery

Globe and Mail | Saturday, February 25, 2006
by Gary Michael Dault

Within the affable, rumpled, homey, aw-shucks kind of guy Toronto artist Howard Podeswa appears to be lurks an incandescently brilliant and strangely visionary mind -- and heart.

He has spent a lot of selfless time in South Africa, for example, "just helping out" in one of the urgently needful villages he found there a few years ago. Last year he published a book of computer systems analysis called UML for the ITBA (Unified Modelling Language for the Information Technology Business Analyst). Some of the computer diagrams, he simply dreamed, Podeswa tells me with a certain childlike wonder in his voice, adding that they proved to work.

He is also an artist of prodigious gifts, much given, earlier in his career, to painting the fruits and vegetables piled near what used to be his Kensington Market studio. You want an unforgettable painting of a red pepper or a bundle of asparagus? Podeswa is your man. There is a Podeswa painting of a stalk of Brussels sprouts in a Kensington Market coffee shop that is the very apotheosis of that baroque vegetable.

Speaking of the baroque brings us to this new exhibition of Podeswa's at Peak Gallery, titled After Las Meninas. Las Meninas, usually translated, misleadingly, as The Ladies-in-Waiting, or, better, as The Royal Family, is the undisputed masterpiece of the great Spanish painter Diego Velazquez (1599-1660).

This mysterious and endlessly interpreted painting, which is in the Prado in Madrid, shows Velazquez working on a gigantic canvas, presumably a double portrait of King Philip IV of Spain and his wife, Queen Mariana, accompanied by their daughter, the Infanta Margarita, and various ladies in waiting, some of whom are dwarfs, such as Mari Barbola, known as the "dwarf of dreadful appearance."

The virtuoso painting is enigmatic in the extreme, beginning with questions about who is where. Where, exactly, are the royal couple? Velazquez seems to be looking intently out at us. So do they, his ostensible subjects, occupy the same space we do as viewers (i.e. outside the canvas)? Or is that them reflected in what appears to be a mirror on the far wall of the room where Velazquez is painting?

Anyhow, the questions, which may be finally unanswerable, pile up.

The questions pile up in Podeswa's show too: He saw the Velazquez at the Prado and was never able to forget it. And the current show, which opens today, is made up of the artist's obsessive and often puzzling anatomy of the painting, and of other paintings he has related to it -- Rembrandt's The Night Watch, for example, and works by John Singer Sargent and Thomas Eakins.

Much of the show is sketchy, unsettlingly sketchy. The paintings are Podeswa feeling his way into the masters he so passionately admires and their tentativeness is both understandable and, frankly, a bit off-putting. The best paintings here are the ones agglomerated with pigment, like the face of Mari Barbola conflated with the face of his own son.

$1,000-$8,000. Until March 18, 23 Morrow Ave., Toronto; 416-537-8108