Four artists in one family agree and disagree in a complex, compelling dance of visual communication in two Montreal art galleries this spring.
Textile artist Anna Torma, the 2020 winner of the Saidye Bronfman Award, and her husband, bronze sculptor Istvan Zsako, of Baie Verte, N.B., exhibit with their sons David, of Halifax, and Balint, of Los Angeles, for their first time as a quartet. “I couldn’t imagine it happening this way but right now I am so very happy,” says Anna, sitting with her family in Projet Casa, a four-room, first-floor gallery in a beautifully refinished 1912 house in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood.
Divergences et réciprocité: Flowers, Warriors, Beasts, Hands, on view to June 11, grew out of connections. André Laroche, co-owner and co-director with Louis Joncas, of Galerie Laroche/Joncas, fell in love with Anna’s art when he saw her solo show, Book of Abandoned Details, in 2018 in Calgary.
When Projet Casa’s owners Paul Hamelin and contemporary artist Danielle Lysaught took a Maritimes vacation in the summer of 2021, they saw André and Louis at their summer home and gallery, La Shed, in Gabarus, Cape Breton. André suggested the couple visit Anna and Istvan’s studio on their way home and there the idea was born.
“I was very positive,” says Anna, who went with the family to see the gallery to conceive of some site-specific pieces. David, a NSCAD graduate, developed a new line of sculpture. Anna and Istvan set one of their collaborative Covid series of Wraps – root-like, figurative tubes of cloth bound in coils of colourful thread – in the gallery’s ornate, white fountain.
Anna has had a 40-year career taking the domestic needlework skills she learned from her Hungarian mother and grandmother into the realm of fine art in complex textiles highly populated in a personal, pictorial lexicon rooted in nature, the figure, sexuality (connected to her husband’s fertility figures) and the fantastic. At Projet Casa she was drawn to the large, light-filled stairwell to create the dramatic, 3 ½ metre banner, Fabulous Beasts. “I knew this space needed a two-sided work and it needed to be perfect and light and say something about our expression as a family.” This enchanted storybook totem of animal, figurative and monster imagery, with a beautiful flip side of blue drawn shapes, is based on drawings her children gave her as gifts. She has kept them all.
“She built her career on our drawings,” jokes David.
It was inevitable that David and Balint would become artists. “They couldn’t speak, they couldn’t walk but they could handle a pencil,” says Istvan.
The creative vision of the Torma/Zsako family is rich, intense and detailed. The artists share an interest in storytelling and history with references to ancient times, myth, art and nature. Connections are felt more than clearly spelt out. It’s as if the works are whispering to each other, sometimes quietly and obliquely, other times in a seething, declarative way. It’s a wonderful poetry about being human, about nature and about life and death.
Anna and David share dense, detailed patterns and layering, Anna in her feverish and fecund silk and linen wall works of fabric, embroidery, appliqué, photo-transfer and visible hand-stitching, David in photographic collages of dizzying layers of vegetative and animal material. He likes symmetry; she defies symmetry.
To make his mandala-like patterns, as loud and intense as heavy metal, David draws on a personal archive of scanned images of flower petals, red and yellow peppers, bones, birds’ wings, pigs’ feet, green plants, snakes, dead insects, even half-cut purple cabbages. The colours and light created by the flat-bed scanner are crisp and dazzling. “I have thousands of specimens and a library of source material. I individually import them onto the page in Photo shop and work in layers.”
It’s magical to stare at the perfectly ordered, grotesque and beautiful images of monster heads, skulls and seemingly infinitely replicating, fractal-like patterns to discover the source materials. It’s mind-blowing to try to take in the whole. One thinks of Hieronymus Bosch and Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s heads of vegetables. Four months ago David’s work jumped from two to three dimensions in sculptures built with his specimens, preserving them in epoxy so that they are frozen in time. These bold, baroque masses of dead flowers, bones and seaweed, sometimes painted, squeal of mortality but in a romantic way. They belong to a different century – in Lord Byron’s dressing room – yet they belong to today as nature teeters on the brink of extinction.
In comparison, his father’s simplified sculptural forms are austere. Istvan has spent a lifetime making small, primitive and ancient-looking soldiers. After graduating from the University of Fine Arts in Budapest in 1984, he received a scholarship to study in Italy “and I saw the gladiators in Italian museums – the amazing little gladiators – Middle Ages helmets and armour when the people were fighting next to each other, very close.” There is an army of them in bronze on the floor at Galerie Laroche/Joncas, which held a companion show; at Projet Casa, they are closer to eye level and made out of beeswax, lard and black pigment, as if they were as benign as Grandma’s cookies. Istvan’s mercenaries nurse complex questions within their simplified forms. Are they toys or talismans? Are they harmless or a threat? Do they belong to the past or the present?
New for this exhibit is a parade of playful wax “toys” of animals, tanks and boats with the flags of statehood and the guns of battle. However adorable, a tank always carries the concept of war and Istvan is very disturbed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He talks about “infantile presidents” making decisions to wage war.
Each artist presents two streams of work and in Balint’s case three, with Galerie Laroche exhibiting his unusual, narrative series of precise watercolours of a brown male and green female in psycho-sexual dramas. A professional artist since graduating with a BFA from Toronto Metropolitan University, he speaks to his mother in lace drawings of exquisite though disrupted lace patterns in oblique narratives with figures and objects.
He explores the idea of “1/8th of a line being a thread” and varies the thickness of his line using a quill dip pen. “It’s similar to how you make stitching,” says Anna. “If you have a hand-stitched line it always has some fine irregularities.”
Balint talks about human hands – something all four artists use to make their work or embrace one another – in a 2022 series of gouache and watercolour paintings of an enlarged hand that can be green with fingers twisting upwards like a plant, or a blue fist of protest, or a bronze sculpture like a Henry Moore with curled fingers. These hands connect to a series of heads he did 20 years ago, “limiting materials and shapes and focussing on variations within a set of ideas. The size is the same and the material is the same. How can you distort, abstract and manipulate a hand to say different things?”
The artists enjoyed working within the parameters of the gallery and communicating with each other about art – something this family has always done. “I see art as really their foundation,” says Sackville, N.B., curator Kirsty Bell. “It’s not just what they do; it is a value to them. Communicating through making is at the core of their identity and their beings.”
They are not always patting each other on the back. Istvan will say to David, “too much road kill.”
“That’s when I know I’m on the right track,” David laughs.