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At the last In The Soil (2018), Silver Spire United Church was the main site for Rhizomes, a variety of installations / performances / interventions by a diversity of artists. This not only was a very mindful and effective adaptation of the spaces within the church / centre by respective artists, but even while being guided to one installation or another, the lovely interior of the church was, in itself, an enchanting environment. One of the artists whose work was installed in the Silver Spire was Tammy Jane Lepp: her piece fe·cund was arguably the most seductive work in Rhizomes. This was something that insinuated you on several sensual levels (while talking to Tammy, in front of the work, I often “unzipped” the “casing” it was in, to put my face forward and breathe it in, for example).
This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered Lepps‘ work: at the previous In The Soil (2017), she, Joanne Ring, Kelsey Cheslock and Lisa Renee McKenzie had collaborated on an immersive installation in the side event space at Mahtay. Alternately seductive and playful while also somewhat corporeal and unsettling, Sojourn of Spectaculous Wunderkle Things had fluorescent components, found and hand made elements, and yet allowed for performers during ITS to take the stage and respond and modify the space with their own music / audio contributions. Personally, despite your intrepid #artcriticfromhell’s being “full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; at times, indeed, almost ridiculous— almost, at times, the Fool” (whoops, sorry, a bit of Prufrock there), I must also confess to being a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos (more so what others have done with it than Lovecraft himself). Thus, this installation appealed to me both in a positive recreation / reinterpretation of an immersive ecological space (I may or may not have been napping in one of the “alcoves” as ITS 2017 was intense) but also had an edge. This manifested at night, where the unearthly glow of the works fully “came to life” (reanimated, ahem, you might say).
Now, this was four artists (McKenzie’s work in ITS 2018 was something I hope you had the chance to encounter, as well), and collaboration is a compromise and a conversation (I have been known to say I only collaborate well when I’m in charge, ahem). However, when sitting cross legged inside the “greenhouse” of clear plastic and vinyl, filled with a variety of earthy elements that seemed to more so fill the confined space with scent than a physical occupation, this sense of evocation of emotion and concept returned to me.
Lepp’s sculpture, installations and wearable artworks have an organic quality that’s an essential aspect of her creative process. She employs an intuitive approach to her imaginative and eerie works, preferring to allow pieces to evolve, collaboratively with the materials themselves, rather than having a defined plan as to the final outcome. Her works are emotionally evocative, and this originates in her process, which is often raw and unchallenged by any “finished” agenda. This experiential, responsive methodology manifests in pieces (like fe·cund), that are more sensual than didactic, more about the physicality of the piece, and the corporeal nature of its creation. A poet as well as an artist, Lepp’s own words encapsulate the experience of her visual work: transformation, birth and rebirth, growth, metamorphosis and an abundance – perhaps an excess – of sensual cues.
A multidisciplinary artist and teacher based in St. Catharines, ON, Tammy Jane Lepp has exhibited extensively in the Niagara region since her graduation from the Art Centre of Central Technical School (Toronto).
One of the reasons I enjoy very much doing these ongoing artist features is that it facilitates my interest in what many artists are doing (this echoes in my hosting the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversation. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is nosy, always wanting to know what artists are making / creating). I’ve spoken with Lepp on numerous occasions (in fact, at ITS 2018, we may, ahem, have held up the line at Rhizome and I was so excited and enamoured of fe·cund that we had an animated conversation about it, with (the aforementioned) many delays of me unzipping the “greenhouse” and breathing deeply and with great satisfaction.
Ready Player Two, at NAC, is not one exhibition (in four chapters, you might say) but (at least) two. They’re not separate entities, but blend together, offering a progression from the Plate Glass Gallery (The Kitchen) to the Dennis Tourbin Space (The Rec Room) and finally the end point – the maturity, and I’ll revisit that term later – of the Showroom Gallery (The Comic Book Shop and The Arcade). This is appropriate, that the components sift one into the other. Brendan Lee Salish Tang and Sonny Assu’s works in Ready are often collaborative (literally and conceptually) but have aspects and characteristics unique to each (Tang’s Manga Ormolu 5.0-q or Assu’s Quantum Warp Theory are both lovely “signature” works). Many pieces (such as Broken Treaties) have facets showing both artist’s personal aesthetic, but also details displaying a shared creation.
The installation of the work, the nature of the NAC space, however, may engender an interaction with Ready Player Two different than intended. I doubt that’d bother Tang and Assu, as in their talk at the opening reception, a sense of playfulness and interactivity with viewers was clear. Before we step inside the gallery, you and I, and rest a moment on the Rec Room green couch amidst wood panelling and patterned carpet, with Memento Mori: VCR, Late-night Programming looping infinitely, comics (Alpha Flight!) and magazines that immerse you in a nostalgic bubble of youth, memory and sentiment, I proffer the curatorial statement: An art exhibit about the joys of gaming, sci-fi, and comics; About cultural identity, pop culture, and growing up a ‘geek’; Partly nostalgic for an adolescence spent living in the rec-rooms of the 1980s and 90s; Also humourous, imaginative, and executed with a great level of craft.
The previous incarnation of Ready Player Two was at The Reach Gallery, curated by Laura Schneider. More curatorial words: [the artists] combine elements from science fiction, comic book, and gaming cultures to consider how these forms alternately reinforce and transcend racial boundaries in youth culture. In their individual practices, Tang and Assu frequently negotiate the material and conceptual dynamics of culture and ethnicity. Informed by their mixed-race backgrounds and experiences of Canadian life in the 1980s and 1990s, for this exhibition the artists bring together found objects, selections from previous bodies of work, and new collaborative pieces to create immersive spaces that evoke the adolescent sanctuaries of their time: the basement, the arcade, and the comic book store.
This is a dense show, as multi faceted as its multidisciplinary and meticulous. I reserve the right to revisit Ready and talk about it in different ways, with different artworks, in the future. This multiplicity of potential interpretations is a mark of the excellence of Assu and Tang’s art. My initial response was to interpret the multiple spaces through a lens of experiences that impress themselves upon you and thus form you into the person – the man – you are. Assu, in his talk, spoke of a formative aspect of his being / practice that encapsulates this. To quote his bio: Sonny Assu (Liǥwildaʼx̱w of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations) was raised in North Delta, BC, over 250 km away from his home ancestral home on Vancouver Island. Having been raised as your everyday average suburbanite, it wasn’t until he was eight years old that he discovered his Liǥwildax̱w/Kwakwaka’wakw heritage. Later in life, this discovery would be the conceptual focal point that helped launch his unique art practice.
Hence the Kitchen painting by Assu (Doesn’t Look Like Anyone Lives Here. Let’s Live Here!) illustrated aspects of how terra nullius, this denial of what was here “before” 1867, the #Canada150 national imaginary, manifests in people, not just in pictures or places…
Nostalgia is most pervasive in The Rec Room. This can lead visitors to simply be swayed by the evocation of communal experiences, and happy, with rose coloured glasses looking backwards sentimentality. After all, I remember reading the Alpha Flight comics there, and the characters now seem so stilted and stereotyped, so token and flat…..but its an uncomfortable fact that Shaman and Talisman were the first Indigenous super heroes I read, and enjoyed. History is difficult, and complex, and it is not something we stand outside of, as its participatory as well as problematic.
The Showroom Gallery – ideally the end of your traverse from outside to the Tourbin space – is the “art” of the exhibition, but this doesn’t mean its any less “playful”, simply that its “mature”, to revisit that loaded term. Standing in Shop or Arcade, you see the adults that were formed by the experiences in the other spaces, and you experience an aspect of how there is no point when “now” begins and “then” ends, in our personal – and public – (his)stories.
I could talk about each of the many pieces back here, as a locus of interpretation of Ready Player Two, but the pieces that pulled me in aesthetically, and then in their details and considered execution held me, are by Assu. These works face each other across the gallery space. Giant Sized Spectacular #1, #3, #6, #7, #9, #10, #11 and #12 (all 2017, all acrylic, ink and comic book pages) and a series along the back wall (including We All Must Deal With the Monster Within, You have betrayed the dream and SNIKT, also all 2017, also painted “samples” of comic book pages on panel).
Pop culture has undergone a radical repositioning in the “proper” art world in recent decades (I can remember being challenged for citing Gaiman’s Sandman series, in post grad writing, yet two years later academics were falling all over themselves to “discourse” about Buffy the Vampire Slayer – the best TV series, ever, perhaps, but its besmirching to see the weather vane acolytes of academia try to “own” something they previously dismissed…).
In light of this, with Spectacular, I was reminded of one of the most powerful stories I ever read – in any media: the original (1981) X Men two-issue Days of Future Past, which was nowhere near as “sanitized” as cinematic versions. It’s a time travel story (taking place in 1980 / 2014, and plays upon that standard trope of time travel in sci fi – do you prevent the future, or do you contribute to the inevitable?) but what makes it relevant here is that it took the idea of genocide – that mutants like the X Men are hated simply for existing, and that many want to see them eradicated in a “final solution” – further than ever. A classic scene is the adult Kate Pryde walking through the concentration camp, passing graves of “classic” Marvel superheroes (i.e. Fantastic Four and Spider Man). Several years later, the X Men graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, an even more powerful and controversial take on Mutant Genocide appeared: featuring religious fanatic convinced he does the “Lord’s” work by wiping out all mutants, and he eagerly embraces a bloody means to “justify” his ends. (That story begins with the murder of two Mutant children, bodies hung in swing sets as warnings: shades of Emmett Till, perhaps…)
I’ll add a dangerous side note. In God Loves, Man Kills, one of the X Men gets into a fistfight with a human (both teenagers, just out for an evening, no superhero drama here) as the human calls her a “Mutie Lover.” Kitty Pryde is the angry Mutant teen. When her friend, Stevie, a human friend / teacher, tells her “they’re only words, child”, Kitty screams at her African American friend: “What if he’d called me a n**ger Lover, Stevie, would they be “just words” then?”
It’s unflinchingly raw and cuts to truth brooking no facade of gentility. Back to “reality”: a meme in social media has been asking, in light of the John A. MacDonald statue removal, where would you like the statue of the man who tried to massacre your grandmother installed? In light of the ongoing institutional (intentional?) failures of the TRC, of MMIW, of the Canadian Catholic Church getting a pass on their part in “Rez Schools”, one can understand why an Indigenous artist and activist like Assu would find the X Men so relevant. Oh, did I offend you? Good, it means you’re paying attention. Its easier to see the truth of our reality through a story than what is in front of us…
There’s also an undercurrent of masculine identity here: formative and playful, but also that idea that, instead of no longer being a child and “putting away childish things”, to examine them for the lessons learned, or ideas proliferated that may have been exposed as propaganda. Two male artists of colour examining the tools and toys of masculinity is one way to approach Ready Player Two, and is what I mean when I say I plan to revisit and consider other works not discussed here, at a later date. Thankfully, Ready is open until December.
Assu’s painted collages are formal contrasts between the strength and solidity of his “referencing” the stories that are smaller, delicate, yet vivid in a different way from his painted layering. Palimpsest – where the “original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain” – isn’t new, but here Assu employs this, enhancing and enriching through combination the “surface” and the “ground.” The delicate blues, the gentle pinks, seem almost too “soft” for what’s being shown. In this instance, the punctilious nature of both artists is a means to an idea. (I offer an apology to Brendan Tang, one of my favourite artists, for not focusing as much on the exquisite works like Manga Ormolu Prototype 1 & 2. A work recently on display at Rodman Hall even reminded a Brock official that RHAC is more than they assume, ahem – but Ready Player Two has so much, too much, and I’m not disingenuous when I say I may revisit it, like I’ve done with Up Close and In Motion at RHAC).
Ready Player Two is almost too much, to be honest. Perhaps that’s why the couch of Rec Room is attractive, as you can pause and return to examine the determining, shaping stories alluded to in Kitchen (In Lieu of Expansion and Fear I choose to Take my Chances and Roll the Dice by Tang) or explore the implications of toys and what they teach us (G.I. PoC, in the Shop, also by Tang). Both artists have extensive web sites (Tang’s is here, Assu’s here), and these can only assist in making sure that the numerous works are considered as fully as they deserve.
This exhibition is at NAC until December 7th, 2018.
I am a fan of the uncanny, the “odd” artwork, in collections and in exhibitions. Perhaps this is a side effect of my work in various art gallery vaults and archives. When you’re intimately familiar with mandates and directives, bloodlessly glued together by committee and veering inevitably into the inoffensively banal, to come across an art work either freaky or phantasmagorical can be endearingly pleasing.
For example: for several years I toiled in the University Collection of (what passes for) the University of Saskatchewan. Part of a mad crack team engaged in the first ever full inventory of that often gluttonous, often clotted (conceptually) morass, you could become inured to the historical speed bumps of karaoke modernism™. Or how many faculty gleefully steal works off walls to take home (‘but I thought that Rauschenberg was mine, after all these years’…or buy me a drink and I’ll tell you how we had to almost call security to get into the University President’s residence, and that was ONLY to appraise and confirm the art that was supposed to be there. I might build upon Atwood’s assertion in Cat’s Eye about how too often ownership is equated to creation, and here it was really just “borrowing” being equated to “ownership.” Apparently, academics don’t just thieve ideas…your intrepid #artcriticfromhell entertains, but digresses, ahem).
Yet sometimes you encounter a work as obtuse physically as it is disturbing visually: a two by four foot piece, covered in tiny ceramic baby faces, white porcelain row after row, with one three times larger and brightly yellow in the middle left side, like a three dimensional flag of #babyfaces (don’t ask me the artist’ name, as I uncharacteristically dis remember). How it got in the #usask collection no one could say, and if it ever saw the lights of a gallery space or installation spot on campus before I documented and made a file for it, I’m pretty sure it never did after (I did suggest to the long suffering if somewhat inept Director that I’d love to curate it into a show, perhaps with Alice Cooper’s Dead Babies wafting down. It was hollow, so we could disguise the audio components within it. This received less than enthusiastic support…a prophet is without honour, whatever, pearls before swine).
What is that I hear? “What is the point of this latest amusing, if self indulgent, tangent?” Well, let me explain.
The latest iteration of Up Close and In Motion is one that has more works than previous, and has works that span a few different eras and ideas: my tangent about unusual and unexpected works in collections connects to this version of Up Close because of one work specifically, but also how this art work interacts and influences others in the Hansen space.
But first, let me recount the works in the space, beginning with the one that set me down the path of considering eerily engaging art works: this is Douglas Boutilier‘s Tennis Twins, in the front of the two rooms that comprise Hansen, looking across the space towards Jimmy Limit’s work above / on / intervening with the fireplace mantle.
I’m pleased Tennis Twins is in a separate room, to allow for the examination and space (a Slow Art Day approach, one I must repeatedly credit curator / writer Emma German, who was the force behind previous Up Close installations, for introducing to me) it requires. Alternately, Limit’s untitled (stoneware, ceramics) in the “second” room has a conversation with Herbert Bayer‘s Two Sinking Spheres (a serigraph – silkscreen print – that employs the flatness and richness of colour of that medium well, and is a year younger than I, ahem) and Jeanne Rhéaume‘s more “traditional” Nature Morte aux Tomatoes, sitting above the fireplace, facing untitled. The scabby textured abstracted tomatoes (I have spent much of this summer gardening, and have lost many a battle to the ants and the weather with my tomatoes, but also won a few, so I see rotted and soft and succulence all in the same still life here. A personal preference is also for the naming of works with “nature morte” instead of still life, as it offers a playful take on the immortalisation of something meant to be fleeting, a memento mori that makes the art historian in me also consider the works of Joel – Peter Witkin, who photographed luscious and evocative “still life / nature mortes sometimes with cadaver parts among the fruit….)
The orbs of Bayer’s work (I mentioned that it dates from the early 1970s, which is clear in its formal elements, whether minimalist or still pushing [M]modernism) echo the tomatoes of Rhéaume which – in a triangle of aesthetic resonance – are present in the blue and white orbs of Limit’s untitled. The slab of green painted wall behind Limit’s sculptures, the twinned shelves upon which the objects sit, and the play of shadows on the walls below the artwork all repeat formal geometric elements found in the works, or the idea of “twinning”, of repeated imagery, whether the circles of Bayer or the women of Boutilier.
Many of the works here are vivid in colour (Tennis Twins is the exception, but the gaze of the women as their eyes follow you critically – disapprovingly – around the rooms have a power, too) but what is fascinating to me here is how I found myself referring to this show as the “Twinned” Up Close, for the objects of Limit (2018), the globes of Beyer (1973), the gunky red ovals of Rhéaume (1950) and the sisters / clones / dopplegängers (a woman and her fetch, perhaps, but I’m also reminded of the trickster, chameleon Manitou that wore many faces, even your own) of Boutilier. Sometimes a simple approach, an almost “banal” to return to that word I used as an insult earlier, allows for subtle and yet significant “strings” to be drawn between very different works, from very different periods, and very different hands.
Up Close and In Motion has been installed in various forms and formats for nearly a year: channelling the official gallery voice, the upcoming “phases” of 8 through 11 “will feature St. Catharines-based artist Jimmy Limit selecting works from the permanent collection and creating new works in response. Limit’s photographic work illustrates his interest in objects for their formal characteristics, rather than function.” Limit had one of the more engaging exhibitions at Rodman of the last decade, curated by Marcie Bronson, in 2014, titled Recent Advancements. Formal aspects have defined his choices here, in Phase 8, where “he has selected three works that depict doubles….[the] green paint used for the plinths and walls behind his works is taken from a green in the Jeanne Rhéaume still life…and a similar hue is also found in Herbert Bayer’s Sinking Spheres.”
Limit‘s own practice highlights “varied subjects for their aesthetic interest rather than function,…[engaging] them from a strictly formal standpoint by stacking, balancing, and arranging them to establish interesting visual relationships that emphasize similarities or contrasts in colour, shape and texture. By taking common objects out of context, or altering their appearances through industrial techniques like powder coating and ceramic casting, Limit makes them seem strange and forces us to look at them in new ways.”
This manifestation of UCIM runs until early October: as a side note, Heather Hart’s Northern Oracle will have an opening reception on November 1st, and you can follow RHAC on social media for details about adjunct programming (talks, workshops, etc.) around Oracle.
“..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.