At Home with Guillermo del Toro’s Monsters at the AGO

December 29, 2017 | By

Behold the three-sided door into Guillermo del Toro’s Home of Monsters.

 

I took some time away from writing to catch the soon-to-end Guillermo del Toro exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario this past Wednesday. Branded At Home with Monsters, the extensive collection is a curated cornucopia of objects, props, posters, paintings, photos, etchings, objects d’art, and much, much more which runs until January 7, 2018, and for horror & art fans, really shouldn’t be missed.

A collector, pack rat, connoisseur of Dickensian peculiars, and his own creative visions, del Toro’s homes are reportedly part personal archives of creations which embrace the beauty of the strange, surreal, extreme, and gracefully horrific, but most of the horror is camouflaged in the shadows of exhibit lighting, artist oil paints, charcoal, or eerily rendered expressions – the suggestive shockery that makes del Toro’s own work so engrossing.

For several years the renowned director’s lived partly in Toronto – his talks at the TIFF Bell Light box are legendary 3 hour lectures that draw from his experience as a filmmaker, his position as film historian (He’s one. Accept it.) and uber-nerd, and connoisseur of art and literature – so it’s a treat the exhibit makes its debut in our home town, after which it’ll presumably make its way to other international cities where it’ll wow young and old.

Billed as a timed exhibit, you could do the whole thing in an hour or two, but really three would do it justice because there’s just so much. There is a downloadable audio narrative to help guide visitors, but it is possible to self-navigate and absorb the collection purely on a visual basis, allowing the two and three-dimensional creations to elicit personal emotions.

Horrified isn’t one of them – two kids were eventually shooed away by their parents because of their tender temperaments – but even at the age of 10, I’d have had no problem gazing at the images, statures, maquettes, and objects.

I was in North York’s pilot French Immersion program during the 1970s (I’m that old), and between the two halves of a school day we were marched to the local library for lunch, and after consuming (and sometimes tossing) my mother’s mediocre soup (stock should be made from scratch, not Bovril), I’d venture into the library proper and go through biographies, books on ancient civilizations, space, modern inventions, and horror – specifically the gory coffee table books which sat on the lower shelves.

I’d get nightmares, but even after I repeatedly promised my mother I’d stop looking at those pictures of wolves, vampires, and people in states of decay, I’d do a turnabout the next day. Having a wild imagination can be fun and unsettling. I’ve probably told the anecdote of the 70s red lampshade that hung over my bed, and how in the dark of the night it would not only look like a severed head, but have red eyes that glowed. Only the Magical Ring of Stuffed Animals offered protection, and I’m alive thanks to their defense tactics (whatever they were).

There are many beautiful etchings, sketches, and paintings by artists I’ve love to explore in the exhibit (plus a striking book with prose by Margaret Atwood, and pulp fonts and drawings by one of many artists whose name I naturally neglected to jot down during my visit.). Spanning the U.S., Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, it’s a cornucopia of magic, and here are some quick highlights.

 

 

Yes, the Boris Karloff head is read, it is huge, and you’re compelled to walk up to the noggin’ and look up at it like a child – perhaps the artist’s intention to make you feel like the little girl curious of the Frankenstein monster before she’s tossed like a flower petal into the lake (or in Young Frankenstein, sent back in bed after a swooping journey through the air).

I kind of hoped someone snapped a picture of me looking up at Karloff like a child – the head is the size of a Honda Civic – but it’s highly unlikely I was that lucky. If you go, make sure you set up such a shot for posterity.

The uber-bust was part of the Frankenstein exhibit, and was the end piece after a more unique noggin’ that was suspended just a few metres away called “Stretch.”

 

 

Crafted like an optical illusion, you’ll notice the detail extends to the side and the rear of what’s a bust that’s been elongated like a still in Adobe Photoshop.

 

 

It’s amazing because on its own, with nothing to provide context, you feel puzzled, and are similarly compelled to approach and asses the bust from various angles, and with no object or fellow human nearby, your initial instinct is to suspect your eyes are faulty, and your world has become ‘stretched.’

The exhibits are thematically arranged in large rooms with one exception – the Rain Room. That’s where there are two windows with pelting rainfall and creepy shadows that move from ‘outside’. It’s the familiar ‘home alone’ nightmare scenario in colour and surround sound, but as a friend pointed out, the windows were heavily hyped, and more intriguing was the life-size Edgar Allan Poe sculpture, and the related etchings, drawings, paintings, and objects suspended on the walls or displayed in antique cases.

 

 

The most touching moment in the room wasn’t derived from any specific work but this: a lady seated on one of several benches offering visitors time to observe or pause, sketching in charcoal in exact detail a stone demon in the case. I felt a little rude standing there watching, but had there not been so many people, I’d have held my ground and enjoyed watching the intimate relationship between art and an artist crafting art with humble precision.

 

 

Many rooms have full ceilings that allow lighting to spotlight areas and convey the dim atmosphere of a Victorian grue museum, and one expected frumpish staffers to emerge from dark pockets tasked with hushing and shushing specific mumblers and chatterboxes to maintain the room’s aura of eeriness.

Less foreboding was a room on graphic comic book art, with two walls packed with comics donated by The Beguiling, the local graphic art shop reportedly visited by del Toro when a craving for new or very classic old needed sating.

 

 

An interactive table featured comic books, sketchpads and colouring utensils – another example where visitors were encouraged to sit and have some youthful creative play. Some framed or glass-boxed art had iPads that allowed one to flip pages and examine contents in detail, including one of del Toro’s own ideas and visual musings for a production. Classic art was displayed at a respectful distance, but the easy-to-use technology allowed one to experience selected art digitally and safely.

I grew up reading not DC or Marvel comics but Gold Key comics, that offered science-fiction (Star Trek, Lost in Space), mystery and horror (Grimm’s Ghost Stories, The Twilight Zone, Dark Shadows) and occult / fucking weird, of which my favourite was The Occult Files of Dr. Spektor. (One issue’s Xenomorphs stepping out from a pit bubbling lava pit will always stay in my mind.)

I’ve a box of totally dog-eared comics, and they traveled with me from Canada to Germany and back a few times. Re-reading was the norm, and if I had the luxury I’d track down entire series and become 10 years old again. The comics were a whopping 25 cents, and I could buy two when my allowance was a tight 50 cents a week. Or was it a month?

In any event, the Gold Key stream of genre comics had great covers – I’d love to have posters of several because they featured vulnerable figures in torment because of guilt, greed, and / or stupidity, and the leering, grinning, prideful tormentor usually hovering overhead, several times bigger than the doomed fool.

Weirdly, I’d completely forgotten about this other series, of which I maybe had one or two issues: Magnus, Robot Fighter.

 

 

I love that art – sweeping, futuristic, and stark contrasts between greys and blues with reds and orange. I really want to read them now.

One area seemed more like a bridge between the intro and primary rooms and the later, greater ones described above, and it’s where a pianist performed short, sweet, chamber styled themes that echoed and reverberated outward rather than resonated from one spot. It was charming, a little gothic, and offered an appreciative pause between viewings; a cultural lunch break permitting short nourishing sips from aspects of del Toro’s fascination with Victorian horror, Dickensian literature, art that spawned pop culture icons which spawned further art.

 

 

Along with the aforementioned Margaret Atwood piece, the curated exhibit also contained two works by Windsor artist John Scott, which one could buy as framable reproductions at the gift shop. I loved “Untitled (Skull)” (1996) because it has that loose, abstract 1950s / 1960s look I enjoy.

The exhibit features a lot of skulls, and I liked the coarseness of this rendering, with the teeth being clean and distinct as the rest of the skull is in transition from sanguine-drenched to desiccated.

 

 

Coming next: details on a printed tome tied to the 30th anniversary of home video label & distributor Cult Epics. The book formerly debuts in February, 2018, and quite a few of my reviews are archived within, spanning horror, cult, Tinto Brass, and lots of smut.

Plus reviews of Andre De Toth’s cruelly funny but nihilistic Play Dirty (1968) from Twilight Time on Blu + plus El Condor (1969) on DVD from Warner Archives, the weird buddy western produced by De Toth as he stepped away from film directing.

Thanks for reading,

 

 

Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com

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