Fiery missiles on a restful day
Peter Goddard

Toronto Star
Thursday, August 17, 2006

Whenever the urgency from the latest terror alerts subsides, a strange, not entirely unpleasant sense of anxious-less-ness can be felt at airports these past number of days, at least when I've been flying. There's an awareness unburdened by excess worry, you might describe it.

It's more or less the same sense you get with Kelly Richardson's exhibition, "Exiles of the Shattered Star" at Birch Libralato gallery. It's the look of something frightful seen through benign eyes.

One could think of it as living beyond the fright zone, this feeling of transcendent calm and a sense of terror suspended even if hope may not be on the horizon.

To boil Richardson's "Exiles" down to its basics, there's a DVD loop showing an unidentified luxuriant wilderness — in fact in the north of England where the 30-something, Burlington, Ont.-born artist now lives — from the point of view offered by a fixed camera, as time passes through the day.

A softly rounded hill rising slightly to the left of centre of the picture is bathed in a patch of sun at a certain time of day. This creates a rather over-lit, somewhat unnatural effect. It's as if the light came from high-powered search lights hidden just over the horizon but focused directly on the hill. Mostly though, there's little change in the scenery. Clouds pass. Breezes blow. Birds chirp. Time flies, slowly.

Oh, did I mention the constant shower of deadly, flaming chunks of asteroids drifting leisurely down right before your eyes into the lake beneath?

No? Well, Richardson's loop — one of an edition of five — shows just such a shower of deadly, blazing-hot, skin-searing, pain-bringing, flaming asteroids wafting down to earth in slow motion. They’re quite pretty actually, not at all like the chunks of flaming peat bog hurled at viewers to start the film Gladiator, as one colleague reminds me. There's a good deal of Monty Python's Flying Circus in Richardson's fizzling projectiles. Her heavens-falling shower of heavy metal feels as unthreatening as a cartoon.

So what we have here is not exactly Apocalypse Now. It's more along the lines of Apocalypse New Age, a cozy, somewhat viewer friendly vision of the end of the world — or at least the English Lake District area that Richardson filmed for "Exiles of the Shattered Star."

Cascading bits of flaming outer-space debris have appeared throughout movie and on occasion art history, even before George Lucas showed us what really fake space looked like in Star Wars. Most often the flaming things were meant to signify that mankind was in deep doo-doo. Almost always, they were the product of particularly awful special effects, as if the budgets had run out before anyone had got around to fashioning them out of Styrofoam.

Richardson references this Hollywood film tradition. There's something distinctly fake about her flaming asteroids, as was her intention, I'm sure. And her title has a kind of over-the top romanticism that practically demands its words be written in pink neon.

But she is partaking of another tradition as well: art's history of landscape painting.

Of course this is a very Canadian thing to do. These days landscape mostly likely means the new intrusive photography of Edward Burtynsky, where the landscape shown is ravaged, entirely scarred, plundered and spoiled by man.

Like Burtynsky — or Tom Thomson for that matter — Richardson understands the landscape as entirely an imagery place. However her imaginary sources start with comics, `zines and Saturday morning cartoons where wicked little kids were always cutting up those pretty postcard images their parents had laying around.