‘Despair is the damp of hell’ (Donne) / Käthe Kollwitz: Art and Life

“It is said that scattered through Despair’s domain are a multitude of tiny windows, hanging in the void. Each window looks out onto a different scene, being, in our world, a mirror. Sometimes you will look into a mirror and feel the eyes of Despair upon you, feel her hook catch and snag on your heart. Despair says little, and is patient.” (Gaiman)

“It seems exploitative to look at harrowing photographs of other people’s pain in an art gallery.” (Sontag)

Several years ago – was it that long? That in itself is an indictment of the situation to which it alludes – Ai Weiwei (whom may bear the burden of being the most significant contemporary artist of our time) shared / created / ‘authored’ an image described as a ‘posthumous appropriation’ of Alan Kurdi, the migrant boy who drowned seeking asylum with his family. Prone, still and alone on the sand, the image has been elevated into that sphere of photographs that don’t simply record history, but define it. There was, however, an intense debate at the time, as to whether this bordered on exploitation. The display of the body of a child whose death was fully preventable, a testament to the ongoing cruelty and depravity of the world we not only live in but aid and abet is vile, to many. Perhaps it’s vile for the impolite reminder. Perhaps it’s vile for casting a light on something sooner – easier – forgotten.  After all, “[t]he human eye is a wonderful device. With a little effort, it can fail to see even the most glaring injustice.” (Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon)

But that this image played a role in the last Canadian federal election is undeniable: and that it resonates now, years later, is a testimony to its power.

There is, in many ways, a crisis of authenticity in the wider – but definitely manifest in the Canadian – art world. One of my critical brethren observed recently that she’d not seen more than she could count on one hand (with fingers to spare) good artwork ‘about’ Donald Trump. This is, frankly, unsurprising: the art world – in its variant forms and cabals – already has an ‘echo chamber’ problem to those of us who straddle those diverse spaces, and it’s especially cast in relief for those of us whom occupy contested spaces of culture and community.

On a recent trip to the AGO, I was focused upon the sample of works by Joseph Beuys there, for an article I was writing: unsurprisingly, I found that the true gem of that visit wasn’t Beuys but Käthe Kollwitz. The gallery was in the midst of a sampling, presented through several past exhibitions, of a bequest of her work. From the writing around it, at the gallery site, I expected a small room and a few iconic pieces. Instead, several rooms highlighted this amazing artist’s works in print and sculpture, and this made the visit worthwhile.

Many of the walls are painted darker colours, and Kollwitz’ palette is the restrained monochromatic of her intaglio and lithographic prints: many images entrance by the quality – the formal brilliance – of her execution of this medium, and this only further entrances the viewer when you step back and are ‘gut punched’ by the scenes of misery, suffering and the manner in which Kollwitz has capture the faces of her people. I use that term instead of subjects, as the works overflow with empathy and emotion.

A small sculptural work is where we’ll begin: the glut of figures in this Soldiers’ Wives Waving Goodbye (conceived 1937 / 38, cast in 1938) are like a piece of emotional detritus that Kollwitz has cast in bronze. These women know their men are going to their deaths: this is not so much sending off their husbands (and fathers, as two small children huddle, almost burrowing into the dresses of a woman in the front of the assembly) as a funeral gathering.

Soldiers’ Wives Waving Goodbye, 1938

The way in which the many become one, the individual becomes universal evokes the admonition that ‘the poor will be with us always.’ Pensive Woman (1893), where the pale, bloodless woman’s face is again obscured by a raised hand, is clearly a wailing wife, daughter – or mother, if we return to Allan Kurdi.

In the midst of Kollwitz, I hear this not as a dismissal, as a boon to apathy, but as a condemnation of us, of our failure as a species, as our inability to be human or humane. But ‘at the end of the day you’re another day older / and that’s all you can say for the life of the poor / it’s a struggle, it’s a war / and there’s nothing that anyone’s giving / one more day standing about, what is it for? one day less to be living…’

Municipal Shelter, 1926

Kollwitz’s aesthetic was a refreshing panacea, a reminder, of what art can and should be: both executed with a technical acumen and with an emotional quality that will find you examining one small print from over a century ago, enthralled by her delicate cross hatching and engulfing voids, and then lost in the faces of her figures. Titles are almost irrelevant: her works take on an historical, documentary demeanour, and whether you’re looking at her recording or interpretation of suffering in her time and place or whether these could as easily be people suffering right now, here or around the world is what makes her work matter. She resonates across history: dwell on the past, lose an eye, but forget the past and lose both (Solzhenitsen).

The Downtrodden: Poor Family, 1900

The Downtrodden: Poor Family (1900), with the husband hiding his face with shame behind his lax hand, the mother attending the child, all waxen and waning. Their poverty and want lifts off the ink, just as with Municipal Shelter (1926): this work is more minimal, less dark and dense, and though the children cradled by their mother’s body may be sleeping, her closed eyes and mussed hair suggest a failed attempt to momentarily forget their sparse and starving reality. Death (1893 – 1897) returns us to a dank, dark – almost suffocating in its cramped shabbiness – room, with a skull lurking behind a distraught child, and a man who seems to have abandoned life, having long since lost hope. Need (1893 – 1897) again shows a woman with hands cast up to her head, imploring, perhaps, to the voids of inky black that dominate so many of Kollwitz’s works, and receiving no answer, no mercy (‘at the end of the day you’re another day colder / and the shirt on your back doesn’t keep out the chill / and the righteous hurry past / they don’t hear the little ones crying / and the plague is coming on fast, ready to kill / one day nearer to dying’)…..

Need, 1893 – 1897

The works Death and Need also remind me of that classic line – only remembered, and only as saccharine holiday nostalgia, not as a spur to social action – that these children are named Want and Ignorance, and beware them greatly, the Ghost of Christmas Present warned. But shush, never mind, how many shopping days until X Mas, hmmm?

Death, 1893 – 1897

Simultaneous to Käthe Kollwitz: Art and Life (this is the last of three parts of what the AGO was presenting) is a selection of images and diaries from Betty Goodwin. Both were very popular, when I visited. Goodwin turned internal and personal pain and suffering into artworks that the viewer can see themselves within, that inspire an empathy with their audience. Kollwitz, on the other hand, seemed to look at the suffering around her and was able to ensconce that in her prints and sculptures, so that a visitor with her people feels their pain, and is moved by their distress and despair.

The header image is Woman with Dead Child, 1903, by Kollwitz. This last installment of Käthe Kollwitz: Art and Life was on view at the AGO until the end of July, 2019.

Meet me at the Curtain Call

A fellow arts writer has a bit of an obsession with a statement made by a curator several years ago, that she ‘doesn’t know what Art is’: the curator in question is unimpressive, while often praised, within the Canadian overtly academic trench, so depending where you stand, this frankness has several ramifications. There’s definitely an element of incompetence and politicization in Kitty Scott’s comment about ‘not knowing’: alternately, I like to interpret it in a manner reminiscent of how even a blind pig finds an acorn now and again. After all, anyone familiar with the history of art knows that – like history, like society – change is constant, and in an excellent anthology of art writing stretching back centuries, Jeremy Tanner points out that many art historians deny the relevance of works that have severe sociological implications, just as many sociologists are bereft of any knowledge of history, especially art history, which can be both subversive and direct. Tanner posits they are more alike in their blinkering than either would like to admit.

All of that is in response to art in gallery spaces. What happens when we’re engaging with public art, or art in the public sphere, as I like to term it? After all, when someone enters a gallery space, there’s a convention at play, regarding looking and engaging, that puts the onus, in many ways, on the ‘visitor.’ But when works emerge from that (too often) ‘white cube’, and occupy sites that intersect with many different communities, they (must) become something else. Several years ago, there was a kerfuffle regarding Keeley Haftner‘s Found Compressions. It was installed in a neighbourhood that had, on its own, engaged in an intense clean up and revitalization: placing a work made of ‘garbage’ without consulting residents or stakeholders within said area led to vitriol and vandalism.

However, other works have employed irony and challenge effectively: look at the number of installations that happened, that intelligently explored the historical narrative around the War of 1812 when Harper tried to direct public money to create monuments that favoured his simplistic and ideologically shuttered propaganda? Several across Canada looked at stories not already told, or ignored, or that Harpo neither intended nor wanted…

This brings us to the here and now, and downtown St. Catharines, where Lilly Otašević’s Curtain Call has just been raised on the side of the Performing Arts Centre (facing Carlisle Street, but easily seen as you walk up St. Paul, with NAC behind you to your left). Some background information, before we approach the multi-hued, massive work that ‘hangs’ a storey above the sidewalk: Curtain Call ‘was funded, in part, by a grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Canada 150 program, through the Celebration of Nations/Célébration de nation project being led by the PAC…a portion of the PAC’s initial construction budget had been designated for a public art project, and this process has been ongoing for several years.” I’d inject that several cities across Canada often earmark financial (and construction) support for artworks to compliment their spaces. A notable one was in Saskatoon a few years ago, where the new police station, as part of its design and mandate, commissioned an installation out front as a reminder / warning regarding MMIWG (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls – do I have to explain that acronym, still? Oh, right, Andrew Scheer is making a run for PM, Kenney is back like a zombie parasite, so yes, yes, I do…). Connecting to this, Otašević’s “metal sculpture was created to look like a wampum belt, with colourful beads that follow a wavy shape along the wall” (an accompanying panel, and the full and final ‘setting’ of the piece should be completed, by the time you’re reading this). The shortlist from which Otašević was selected included five other finalists, by “a jury made up of local arts professionals and St. Catharines staff.”

You can see more of Otašević’s aesthetic and public works here at her site. Her practice is multi-faceted, and having been born and educated in Belgrade, she brings an interesting sensibility to public artworks (I may be extrapolating too much, but my interaction with the public artworks created by immigrants to Canada often display an awareness of history and its contested narratives that many here either deny or choose to ignore. Several artists I’ve worked with, or whose practice has helped shape my attitudes and expectations about art in the public space have been from Eastern Europe, and that’s a space that encapsulates ‘contested narratives’ like few others). Other public works: Crescendo can be seen in Burlington, Mobius in Toronto, and Unity is in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.

Perhaps you remember Elizabeth Chitty’s OAAG Award Winning community art project at Rodman Hall that ‘grew’ a wampum belt on the fertile and lovely grounds there, working with both Indigenous groups here but also recent newcomers. Slightly before that, an exhibition – Reading the Talk, also at RHAC – featured a sardonic, and definitely caustic in its satire, ‘take’ on the wampum belt treaty by Vanessa Dion Fletcher. Too much ‘art in the public sphere’ is simply ‘plop art’ still: pieces ‘dropped’ into a public space that say nothing to, nor respect, nor help define or refine the history of those communities, whether local or national (we’ve all endured those horrid karaoke modernist blocks and shapes that seem to occupy a great deal of space, yet we can pass by daily and not remember ‘seeing’…).

Curtain Call is vibrant in colour, and I’ve already enjoyed it as the sun sets, and may make a point of viewing it as the sun rises and shimmers and reflects on the blues, oranges, yellows and indigo of the flowing, bending work: too often, public art is a horrid failure, where it’s not only lacking in aesthetic, but to steal a joke, actually is an anaesthetic to good taste. Otašević’s Curtain Call is both engaging visually and relevant in an historical, as well as contemporary, sense of place and space.

All images are courtesy City of St. Catharines, and copyright of the artist.

The Past Powers Niagara

While doing a writing residency in Welland this past Winter, one of the highlights of my interactions with that community was a midnight walk around King and Canal with artist and activist (and I like to call him a ‘cultural arsonist’, as it amuses him) James Takeo. We talked – or more exactly, I listened – as he pointed out the abandoned docking spaces and some of the former factory sites. Amidst the disarmingly casual, but very insightful, comments he made about that city (such as calling it the #rustbeltwonderland, which I have appropriated repeatedly) was that Welland is a city that was always about working, and now that much of that work is gone, doesn’t know what it is, yet, or might be, in the future.

I took that gem away to consider, especially when I returned to St. Catharines, which shares many historical tropes with the Rose City. I was also reading Cataract City (Craig Davidson’s novel takes places in the gritty reality of Niagara Falls, not the shimmering colourful falling water), and this reflection by the main character stood out: ‘If you grew up in Cataract City and managed to finish high school, chances are you took a job at the dry docks, Redpath Sugar, the General Motors plant in St. Catharines or the Bisk. Plenty of the jobs were simple enough that any half-competent person could master them by the end of their first shift. One of my schoolmates’ dads filled sacks of iced tea mix. Another drilled holes in ignition-collar locks. The only question was whether you could do that same task eight hours a day for the next forty years.’

This latest tangent from your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is spurred by two exhibitions on display right now in wider Niagara. One is in Welland: Atlas: Memories Forged In Steel which ‘focuses on the 1940s through to the 1960s as that was the peak of Atlas production and staff. The exhibit highlights the significant impact the company had on the community and the families connected to Atlas.’

The other is The Power of Niagara: ‘This exhibition includes archival photographs, by both amateur and professional photographers, on loan from OPG Niagara, alongside the contemporary video work Ice Forms, American Falls, Niagara, by filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. The exhibition explores artistic responses to the iconic site and the massive hydroelectric facility at Niagara Falls.’

Though intersecting in ideas and concepts, these are very different exhibitions, formally. That may also be informed by how one is more nostalgia than celebration, or that one survives (Niagara) while the other (Atlas) seems to exist more vibrantly in memory and the artifacts shared. Amusingly, since my coming to Niagara, I’ve visited the Atlas ruins several times, but haven’t been to see the Falls yet…..

Atlas Steels, Yousuf Karsh

Atlas is more community focused, and isn’t what I would call ‘art’ so much as history. Attending the reception, it seemed more a space to invoke and recall memories about the plant and the many familial connections that people in this region share, based around Atlas. However, a highlight of the exhibition are the many images shot by Yousuf Karsh (a friend who’s both a labour historian and photographer lent me the book of these) that are portraits of the workers at the plant. Karsh was renowned for his portraiture, oftentimes of the powerful and affluent, but the manner in which he captures Steel Worker George Guglielmo, Atlas Steel (1950) expands that oeuvre. From the late Karsh’s site: [Karsh] had never photographed in an industrial plant before. The images would become Atlas Steel’s 1951 Annual Report, and would join Karsh’s work with Ford of Canada and Sharon Steel in the book Industrial Images. The official caption for this image read:“When Karsh first saw George Guglielmo standing watching him with face protector uplifted he was reminded of an ancient Roman gladiator. George’s parents came, in fact, from a village near the Eternal City.” That personal touch is prevalent throughout the entire space: there are objects and ephemera that connect to the plant, but also news clippings and information about how Atlas was present in the community, through events and other sponsorship that shaped the city as much as any product forged in the plant. At the opening reception, the words of the current president of Atlas were manifest in the conversations between familiar and new faces: “There’s a lot of industry from this area that may not be quite what it used to be many years ago, but there’s always that lineage of family.”

Steel Worker George Guglielmo, Atlas Steel, Yousuf Karsh, 1950

Niagara is an impressive installation, both in the size and arrangement of the nearly two dozen images, showcasing the hydro-generation efforts at Sir Adam Beck II: many of the shots are by workers themselves, offering a similar intimate, ‘inside’ view as was offered with Atlas. The stark ‘power’ of these photographs surround you in one of the two rooms that make up the exhibition. The monochromatic images fill the room, and though ‘instructional’ and strongly historical, have an aesthetic sensibility. I’m a fan of Brutalist architecture, and its associations with modernism and industry, and there’s a quality here of the momentous nature of industry (in a more positive sense, rather than the ‘madness’ so to speak, of Stalinist five year plans or the ‘Great Leap Forward’). Massive feats of engineering have a power, an awe inspiring nature. When in conjunction with something ‘naturally’ capable of silencing us, as a species, such as the Falls, the alternating – or contested, ahem – ideas of our seeming ants before these things, but having also built these things, as industrious ants, must be in the mind of the visitor. Curator Deb Antoncic has pointed out that the images stretch across several generations – like Atlas, again – as the images are on loan from Ontario Power Generation. Scenes are not just from the aforementioned building of Sir Adam Beck II (1950s) but reach back to the 1920s and earlier efforts in hydro-generation efforts with the ‘power’ of the Falls.

Artist Unknown, SIR ADAM BECK GENERATING STATION #1, 1939.
Ontario Power Generation

The display is didactic, but not excessively so, and the video component in the room further on (all the images line what may have been a dining room, and this allows for pausing and paying attention to the details of the story being told) is calming, and almost trance inducing. This slow loop is sublime, in a manner Frederick Edwin Church would appreciate. A past exhibition at the Riverbrink, The Falls, also displayed many artists’ renditions and responses to the power of that site, stretching back decades).

The ‘nature’ (sorry, no pun intended) of the Riverbrink (having been Samuel Weir’s house, and the collection there is more historical than contemporary – his interest in Quebec sculpture of the late 19th century is an aspect of Canadian art history that isn’t explored much, anymore) is conducive to The Power of Niagara. You can visit it and then go upstairs and see Asta McCann’s Centre and Periphery which examines the Group of Seven through a lens of rural and urban spaces, and consider how Niagara (the entire region) wouldn’t exist without the Falls and other waterways, whether the Welland Canal or Twelve Mile Creek, in terms of commerce, or the potential to ‘tap’ the falls to facilitate progress through ‘power.’

The Power of Niagara (curated by Deb Antoncic) runs until the end of August at the Riverbrink Art Museum and Atlas: Memories Forged In Steel is at the Welland Museum will be on display until the end of January, 2020. Images are courtesy the Riverbrink Art Museum and the estate of Yousuf Karsh.

Intent and Accidents: Arnie McBay

Like many of the artists whom I highlight in the ongoing artist features here in The Sound, I first encountered Arnold McBay’s work in a group exhibition when I was traipsing around Niagara. The Grimsby Biannual is a juried show that often is diverse and shifted greatly in the last two incarnations I’ve experienced. McBay has had works in both of these, and there’s conceptual and formal aspects that appeared in the thick, painterly, very symbolic but somewhat ‘pop’ work I saw nearly four years ago, and the more subtle, less excessive but still very minimalist in mark and motif in the most recent show. The GPAG Biannual of 2016 featured his work Glyph, with a clean black symbol on a chunky, almost plaster-like, white surface: the more recent juried exhibition included his For Kazimir, a more ‘rough’ work that was similar to many I saw when I visited his studio earlier in 2019.

Recently, McBay shared some of his work at the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Visual Conversations at Mahtay Cafe and Lounge in downtown St. Catharines, and we continued our ongoing dialogue about his practice and the ideas that shape it. A phrase that I threw out that evening, that applies equally to the older works I’ve mentioned here, and to the newer, digital animations and ink and water works, is that often McBay ‘surrenders to the materials’ or ‘surrenders to the process.’

McBay’s website offers a number of works from past and ongoing series: what I’ll be focusing on here is newer work, both because that was what he was presenting at the 5 x 2, but also because, as with most artists, the work he’s making right now is most prescient in his mind.

His words: “(O) is part of a continued examination of the border between writing and drawing focusing on the active or generative potential of writing…as the richly black ink flows and sprawls through the water in each of these works it maps out its own path, separate from my hand. Each (O) is a portrait of the natural processes of its own making.”

The names echo this approach: Wholeness, Lines, Scrawl, Zero in Multiple or Zero in Partial. These suggest an almost mathematical basis of their creation, with the wet-in-wet bamboo brush, pen and ink on Yupo paper (a non porous substrate, like mylar, but aesthetically appearing as clean white paper) being as much about recording or transcribing as mark making. The delicate washes, the gentle or sometimes abrupt ‘bleeds’ – like coral, organic and unpredictable, perhaps uncontrollable – all have a zen like quality, and seeing these details and finer intricacies is what made me initially describe McBay’s aesthetic as ‘surrendering’ – or perhaps submitting to the innate and unique qualities of – the material.

Several works in this series are titled Poem in three lines. There’s a strong literary sense to what he’s doing (here, or in the aforementioned Glyph): McBay has collaborated with people like Greg Betts, and both are influenced by the concrete poetry works of bpNichol (or one of his successors in the Canadian contemporary poetry / art / performance / slam it all together and defy classification scene, bill bissett). When I was still a teenager, I ‘read’ – or experienced is a better word, both for Nichol and for McBay’s flowing cuneiforms or contemporary hieroglyphs – Nichol’s Selected Organs (still one of my favourite ‘books’) and, more relevant to McBay’s artistic explorations, ABC: the Aleph Beth Book.

McBay also spoke of the meditative quality at play: ‘giving up control of the process, the pleasure of spontaneity’ and being ‘enthralled by the inherent surprises – both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – in the process. In some ways these works are more akin to writing than drawing, with beauty and aesthetics as a secondary matter, or perhaps a proposed widening of the idea of beauty.’ Interestingly, one of the best drawing instructors I’ve ever had spoke of how one must loosen, and that one of the dangers of learning how to draw well and responsively is that your handwriting might become unintelligible, as you would ‘complete the motion’ or ‘complete the shape’ instead of forcing yourself to submit to the (perhaps) restrictive and boring ‘rules’ of cursive writing. ‘I only set something in motion here. Other than the base forms (circular and linear) all marks, shapes, forms and textures are a result of the natural flow of the ink into the water.’ (McBay)

He’s also created animations of these (O)s (you can see one here), and it wasn’t until after he and I spoke last, and I let my head clear, that I realized what they truly reminded me of, and how that only expands his practice. In the movie Arrival (based on Ted Chiang‘s wonderful ‘The Story of Your Life’), humanity experiences first contact with aliens that are so physiologically different that communication seems nigh impossible (they have eyes all around their cylindrical ‘torsos’, so ‘front’ and ‘back’ are – ahem – alien concepts to them, and consider how much those ideas, as metaphor or ideological positions, define our language and interactions…). But when the visitors begin ‘writing’, their ‘marks’ ebb and shift, are often circular in framework, and flow and bleed and change, suggesting a variable multiplicity of meaning. The aliens write their language in the moment, but also sometimes ‘backwards to forwards’, not describing what is, or what was, but – as is revealed in the story and film – what also will be.

After all, to bastardize Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, who claimed a word meant exactly what she wanted it to mean, why should we use words and symbols that are static, unchanging and stagnant, when the world is not? McBay’s (O)s are already uncontrollable and responsive to stimuli unpredictable and subtle, and in their repetition by the artist there is an acknowledgement of how each is important and essential to that moment. Then that moment is gone, and you make another, or set the stage for another to make itself. Meaning is fluid, and (forgive me, I must quote a post structuralist) is NOT a clear medium through which meaning travels unmolested or unchanged.

Arnie McBay is a mixed-media artist working in drawing, sculpture and installation and he teaches studio courses at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. You can experience more of his work at his website.