Dennis Tourbin : October Fragments

“..these fragments I have shored against my ruins” (Eliot)

Its been suggested by Winnipeg artist / writer Cliff Eyland when we met in the gulag archipelago of Saskatoon, that I’m more like an American – specifically a New Yorker, Cliff said – than a Canadian. When I didn’t express offense at this, but amusement, he elaborated to say that he had this impression (one that’s only deepened since, he said recently) due to my almost combative nature of speaking about art, that I not only seemed interested in “contested narratives”, but that I thrive on them. This isn’t untrue, and perhaps that’s why I disdain so much “arts writing” that ignores – or actively denies – how some of the best Art encompasses contradictory ideas.

Recently, while enjoying the lovely book co-produced by Rodman Hall for Sarindar Dhaliwal’s Radcliffe Line and Other Geographies, a conversation I had with RHAC Curator Marcie Bronson about that exhibition came back to me. Specifically, how I saw it from one place when I wrote on it for Magenta (embracing my history nerd aesthetic). Talking to Marcie, and then Sarindar’s talk, offered two differing / intersecting, narratives. Bronson was interested in a piece that had a more feminist positioning, whereas Dhaliwal reminisced with memories and experiences that defined the creation of each work. Even more, for example, Dhaliwal had a piece referencing Enoch Powell, and a quick google search will explain why if I returned to Radcliffe now, many current media tropes about “immigrants” and “nation” would “colour” my response

My, what a tangent: but as I faced Dennis Tourbin’s painting October Fragments at Rodman Hall, the newest addition to Emma German’s curatorial challenge Up Close and In Motion, contested narratives surfaced. This massive painting whose name references The October Crisis, Quebec Separatism (or perhaps you prefer “Nationalism”?) and the terrorist FLQ (ah, wait, perhaps you prefer “freedom fighters”?) offers a reminder of what was one of the most dividing moments of Canadian history. Back then another Trudeau was in Rideau Hall (“How far will you go”, they asked Pierre when he employed the War Measures Act, and his response was typically caustic and clear (or maybe you prefer “arrogant”?): “Just watch me.”)

A large, colourful, yet flat, piece, Tourbin gives us scraps painted from newspapers, both privileging / problematizing the torn bits of “headline” by isolating them in heavy black, acidic yellows, a slash of red and loud purple. There’s a forced iconicism to the “fragments.” (we don’t consider Canadian history iconic, do we? I mean, there’s Oka, with the nose-to-nose-eye-to-eye-stare-down but I’m at a loss for another…). FLQ terrorist (or you prefer “activist”?) Paul Rose “raises his fist in defiance” (I’m quoting the painting quoting a newspaper article) leaving the courtroom. Then Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, in another “fragment” of the picture, peering down at LaPorte’s corpse. LaPorte was murdered by the FLQ, after being abducted, just as British Trade Commissioner James Cross was, but instead released.

Or, let’s “channel” the unofficial FLQ manifesto (written by Pierre Vallières, while imprisoned in America, following the tradition of “prison” manifestos, from Gramsci to Trotsky), with the unforgettable title of White N***ers of  America. The FLQ considered Cross an instrument of the colonial British Empire and LaPorte a quisling, a traitor. The FLQ and many of the “thinkers” of this movement were – as the October Crisis occurred in 1970 – avowedly Marxist, just like (arguably one of the greatest Canadian – or should I say Quebecois, revising again – painters ever) Paul – Emile Borduas’ La Refus Globale was years earlier, just as the SDS, or Weathermen in America, or sundry other revolutionary groups of that era. Yes, it’s surely more nuanced than that brief synopsis suggests, but I’ve already talked “too much about politics and not art” as I so often do. Visit your library, and read multiple historians, of both the right and left, with skepticism of any who asserts only one “version.”

Much has changed in the nearly five decades since the October Crisis: but I still know people that disagreeing with their opinion on it will brook an argument, and it may be a scar, but it still itches, for sure.

Here’s some of Tourbin’s own words on his work in this political arena: “…I had been developing individual visual poems, large colourful canvases of painted words, painted poems. A recurring theme in these works was the subject of The October Crisis…[something] that fascinated me right from the beginning. The idea that language could become so much part of our destiny intrigued me. I began to write about my impressions of the October Crisis, My impressions of how the details of the events were presented to the public through the News media….was dealing with a specific event in history and I was able to draw on the resources of the media.
I could use pictures of the actual events, sounds of the people involved, the News broadcasts, the newspaper headlines. These fragmented pieces of information became the narrative elements for the entire work.”

An interesting side note: many of the works that German has selected for Up Close have been personally evocative for me (Philia brought me back to the 1990s and HIV / AIDS, for example). When first seeing October Fragments, I was reminded of studying this in high school and how that project was one of many from that time (researching Robespierre’s Terror in the French Revolution, in my French Class, or Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute or Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. The latter two novels both inhabit the Duplessis era Quebec that birthed the FLQ…). These all set me on my path of obsession with “sites of contested narratives” in history, and in visual arts – and that is something I share, I think, with Tourbin, in many of his works, but especially here in October Fragments.

 This version of Up Close and In Motion is on display at RHAC. It will shift soon, and again, until the historical exploration of the collection at RHAC continues into 2019. Image credit: Danny Custodio, Rodman Hall Art Centre.

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The Painted Drawings of Tony Calzetta

Tony Calzetta’s art exists between symbolism and story, straddling narrative and figure. His pieces are often large in scale, confronting the viewer and are a contemporary interpretation of how a “painting will react to you if you react to it. You get from it what you bring to it. It will meet you half way but no further. It is alive if you are. It represents something and so do you.” (Ad Reinhardt).

Often his works on canvas and paper have an iconic quality, suggesting either a glimpse into an ongoing “scene” (like a frame from a multi panel graphic or cartoon), or imply a rendering, in paint or charcoal (a very direct tool in the hand of the artist) of a cinematic still.

The large-scale nature of Calzetta’s “painted drawings” is frequently challenged by humourously irreverent titles. Again, there’s an allusion to a larger story, but we’re only given a hint.

Two significant recent exhibitions of his work have been Fabulous Fictions and Peculiar Practices (2017, at the GPAG, in Grimsby, ON, CA) and Imago mundi (also 2017, at the Palazzo Loredan, Venice, Italy, curated by Francesca Valente). Calzetta has only produced several artists books / livres d’artiste, sometimes in collaboration (How God Talks in His Sleep and Other Fabulous Fictions, 2009), sometimes as solo projects (War Stories for Children and Art Stories for Adults, 1999).

Calzetta graduated with an MFA from York University in 1977. He’s been exhibiting for nearly four decades, primarily out of Toronto (Pollock Gallery, Mira Godard, Fran Hill Fine Art Gallery and more recently De Luca Fine Art) but also national and international spaces. His art resides in numerous private compendiums, as well as notable public galleries and corporate collections in Canada and abroad. These include Canadian External affairs (Ottawa), Canada Council Art bank, National Library (Ottawa), Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto) and Reinsurance Group of America (London, UK).

Having recently relocated to Niagara, Calzetta, along with his partner (multi disciplinary artist Gabrielle de Montmollin) have collaborated in establishing AIH STUDIOS, a multipurpose site combining an exhibition, production and living space.

Selected works in a variety of media, and more information on Calzetta’s art, can be seen at the extensive online portfolio here.

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What About Rodman Hall? A Recap: So Far, So What?

As we approach the Fall of 2018, and some decisions have apparently been made, some of which have been made public, many of which have not, I decided it was time to consider re visiting the ongoing relationship, it its deterioration or denouement, edit as you will, between Brock University and Rodman Hall Art Centre.

To facilitate that, I’ve made all of the articles (my lord, I didn’t realize there were so many) available here, on my own site, and created this post as a gateway to everything you need to know (that I’m able to share at this time, as many of you know there’s more, and know more, than I’ve been able to share, but may yet do so, in the Fall…specifically how some staff have been treated, and the pharisees at Brock, who say one thing and do another, in that sphere).

These can also be found at The Sound, but more light on this situation, more availability and information, is always good, especially to counter some of the past actions and attitudes from Brock University on this issue.

Some links are still external, and if these don’t work, just message me, and I’ll correct them.

It all started with an exhibition at NAC which I speak about here.

Not long after that show opened, I spoke with the consultant in question, Martin Van Zon, from Interkom Smart Marketing, on the air on CFBU, as part of the ongoing show I produced there, Niagara Voices and Views. That conversation can be heard here.

The first article was a teaser to direct people to The Sound’s website for the longer series, and was the only one from the initial series to appear in printed form. As the four evenings of consultations happened over two weeks, at the beginning of a month, it made more sense to post the series online, as they could be more relevant, in terms of immediacy of the events, and also for ease of sharing. At this time, too, the Facebook group that would eventually lead to the Rodman Hall Alliance was forming, so online seemed expedient for that, as well.

The second, third, fourth and fifth chapters, all dealing with the Interkom consultations, are at the previous links. There’s two more chapters, that focus on the Barlow Report and the presentation that Janis Barlow gave, at The Masonic Temple about the report and proces, that can be found here and here.

There was an update that came much later, which was more like a chart, with an image provided by Brittany Brooks. This was in response to the Rodman Hall Coaltion consultations in late 2017.

I’ll be resharing these links on my various social media spaces. As always, any who feel that they have information they want to share with myself or The Sound, regarding this issue, please contact us as you feel most comfortable. If necessary, confidentiality will be respected, as I’ve been happy to do all along this series.

As I have promised / threatened, a further update, perhaps where I offer some things I’ve known and have been reluctant to share but am feeling must be put out for public consideration, will be coming in the Fall of 2018.

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Dennis Tourbin: layering time, place and space

Years ago, in a conversation with someone whom also has that rare affliction of being both an arts writer / critic and having obtained a degree (and published in the field) of art history, we decided to enumerate the differences between art critics and art historians. Our (perhaps inebriated) comments were incisive, if caustic (offensive doesn’t preclude veracity).

Despite that jocular irreverence, several ideas proved enduring. For example: art historians are more “official” and reluctant to change positions. In fact, one of the best teachers I ever had, who turned me onto the living and dangerous nature of art history, insisted “your opinion is irrelevant, as you’re nobody”. Look to the canon and genuflect footnote cite endnote and quote, forever and ever, amen.

Yet, when I was taking Early Italian Renaissance Art from him and cited Paglia’s Sexual Personae and Rosenberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Early Renaissance and Modern Oblivion, or a scintilla of Foucault, he verified my sources and then embarrassed me in class, using me as a response to students’ complaints re: his pedantism.

Oh, sometimes I miss the university. Then I remember being mocked for daring to cite, in a paper about the art of the French Revolution – with sardonic contempt, for sure – Mao’s assertion that it hasn’t been long enough to decide if it was a good or a bad thing.

But what’s this tangent have to do with Dennis Tourbin’s La ville dort (translated as The city sleeps)? La ville dort is currently dominating one wall in the Hansen Gallery at Rodman Hall facing John Moffat’s massive psychedelia of Rechatin Miscalculated? (Regrettably, I shan’t be discussing Moffat here, but he has works in the MIWSFPS. Go. See them. #artcriticfromhell insists.)

The point: Tourbin does many things in La ville that I usually disdain (i.e. excessive text and iridescent, almost violent hues). Yet Tourbin presents an enamouring work I’ve visited repeatedly when I should’ve been reviewing (as promised) other pieces. But I had to go take one more look, basking in its burnished glow and evocative words.

The vertical work, to the right of the fireplace, has flat green “water” and golden land with text fragments “written on the earth.” Many of Tourbin’s contemporaries from this era (early 1970s – John Boyle or Greg Curnoe, both in the last instalment of curator Emma German’s Up Close and In Motion) employed similar fonts with cleanliness and ease. Some of the text is “cut off” by the topography, the map shape, and the words alternate in hue from reds to blues to yellows to blacks and more. Although the gold and greens visually seized my eyes and pulled my body over, the poetic words are what held me. This, especially: When I leave St. Catharines now, I only take enough memories to do me for the year. That’s what St. Catharines means to me.

This evokes my previous thoughts on Up Close, of “I’m not from here, I just live here” or how there is no point where “then” stops and “now” begins, in exploring STC’s history and being.

Dennis Tourbin La ville dort

Tourbin died in 1998. The front gallery space at NAC bears his name (it’s a space often focused on emerging / local artists, continuing his legacy). The didactic panel cites his major role and influence here in St. Catharines, along with Boyle, Moffat, Tobey C. Anderson. Ernest Harris, Jr.’s painting is still on display in the adjunct space in Hansen, and in conversation with German the idea of the interconnectivity, the suffusing environment that many artists live within, like fish in water, was mentioned. These recent manifestations of Up Close are regionally aware: it’s worth noting the role that St. Catharines based artists and activists have played in the history of Canadian Art, as German is showing us in most recent iterations of  her examination of RHAC’s collection. This echoes history cited in The History of Painting in Canada: Toward a People’s Art (published several years after Tourbin’s piece was made) or by Robert McKaskell in his Making it New! (the big sixties show).

In 2012, Rodman presented, in collaboration with CRAM International and NAC (curated by the inestimable Marcie Bronson) Dennis Tourbin: The Language of Visual Poetry, described as a “city-wide celebration of the St. Catharines-born artist’s life and work.” Observing how Up Close is / has been structured, German seems with the last few iterations to be using Ernest Harris, Jr.’s painting (which still rests above the mantle in Hansen) as a base: a contemporary artist in STC whose work is not only about another contemporary STC artist (in being titled Mel’s Brushes, as in painter Melanie MacDonald, who had a work in a past Up Close) but that acts as an endpoint for an historical line from “then” (Tourbin, or previously Anderson, or Boyle) to “now” with Ernest’s painting (a portrait in painting tools – brushes – rendered in a painterly manner. The lines intersect in multiple ways).

To bring it to contemporary times, I also can’t look at this piece with its title La ville dort / The city sleeps and not think of the large number of individuals who are part of A Better Niagara and that have put their hats into the ring for positions on regional council and to (paraphrase Laura Ip) “reset the region”, perhaps to wake it up.

This version of Up Close will shift soon: I could tease you with who’ll be showing next, but instead I’ll just remind you to go see it, go often, and spend time in this considered selection from RH’s collection. Frankly, looking at how Brock University is underfunding, understaffing and generally neglecting Rodman Hall (and how many tenured faculty at the MIWSFPS are complicity silent on the issue), your time may be limited.

Up Close And In Motion will be on display, in different ways and forms, until January 2019.

Image credit: Danny Custodio, of Dennis Tourbin, “La ville dort”, 1973, acrylic on canvas, Gift of Nadia Laham, 2012, collection of Rodman Hall Art Centre/Brock University. . 

 

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MUSE: Nature in the Urban Core at City Hall

The third floor of City Hall in downtown St. Catharines has hosted a number of exhibitions in the hallway (sometimes even in Council Chambers) to the left, and then right, of the Mayor’s office. There’s alternately two to four exhibits annually in City Hall. When visiting (I believe I was last here for a large juried show about #Canada150, but there’s been past curated excerpts from the City of St. Catharines collection) its good to apply some of the same rules as when engaging with art in the public sphere / public art. Unlike the usual, somewhat uniform visitors to a gallery space or an artist’s studio, very diverse communities will encounter this work (there’s a litany from City Hall about it being “our” building, which is something more than just a marketing campaign. After all, during the farcical Van Zon / Interkom “consultations” around Rodman Hall, many people expressed appreciation for the grounds of that beautiful site as their own, as they should).

MUSE is a small exhibition of two dimensional works on display for the rest of the Summer. I’ll sample the following from the didactic panel: “Muse focuses on…artists and their muses. A muse is defined as a source of inspiration…The works on display demonstrate how our shared artists continue to find muses in their everyday lives and continue to express the worlds around them. An exhibit brought to you by the City of St. Catharines Cultural Services Office.”

The works have a certain nostalgic quality to them, with a prevalence of landscapes. Sandy Middleton’s Ghost Trees (2009) is an example of her photographic works that are printed on a variety of non traditional surfaces (several years ago, at an open studio she hosted during In The Soil, her many images of Cuba were printed on wood and the inherent texture and colour seemed to give the scenes a humid, tropical light). This work is printed on metal  and the sheen and shimmer makes the scene haunting and ethereal.

Pete Malaguti’s Port Weller at Dawn also has an atmospheric quality to rival Middleton’s photograph (both Middleton and Malaguti’s pieces are part of the City of St. Catharines Collection. I’d like to see more from this collection, as displaying works that have historical and regional relevance has been wonderful to see in Emma German’s Up Close and In Motion, at Rodman Hall). Malaguti’s scene seems to bleed and ripple, like sunlight on water, and the mirroring that happens in the painted image has a quality of memory over realism, a moment suspended and captured in time – and paint (faint to vibrant yellows, mauves giving way to deeper indigos).

Pete Malaguti Port WellerMiddleton’s Ghost Trees offers gradations of greys, steel to ash to charcoal, and has a quiet quality that suggests C.S. Lewis’ “wood between the worlds” from The Magician’s Nephew in his Narnia series. The forest is a place of wonder and danger, perhaps with a funerary quality (all the fairy tales warn you about it, remember). If you know Caspar David Friedrich’s Monastery Ruins in the Snow, this emotional quality is familiar.

Sandy Middleton Ghost Trees

Other works here are vibrant and expressive: Joseph Hallam’s St. Catharines, Upper Canada, Ed Hausmann’s St. Paul St. on a Friday Night, Sybil Atteck’s Bélè Dancers, Angus Bascombe’s Shipping Post, Leo Glasgow’s Boats and George Enns’ Resting Shells. But MUSE is an uneven show. Several of the works will reward your attention with an evocative quality that communicates not just the artist’s vision but their inspiration, but many are too easily passed by (whether this is the danger of installing in non traditional spaces, or that not all works are of the same quality, I leave to the visitor to decide).

MUSE will be on display on the third floor of City Hall at 50 Church Street in downtown St. Catharines until September 14, 2018, during regular City Hall hours.

Sandy Middleton will be having a reception and sale of works at her studio (36 James Street, Studio 202, in downtown STC) on Friday, August 3rd (5:30 – 8:30 PM) and Saturday, August 4th (11 AM – 2 PM).

 

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