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We Have No Bananas Today (your #artcriticfromhell offers a caustic if candid eulogy for visual arts in 2019)
“But the American art world, despite its recent fixations on the idea of irony, does not have much sense of humour: too much is at stake to entertain the thought that the hero might be a buffoon.” (Robert Hughes, writing on Julian Schabel, 1987)
I’m writing this as 2019 comes to a close, sitting in Welland (perhaps with a hangover, ahem) and considering what exactly to offer regarding notable events of the past year, in the morass that is visual arts. There are several things on a national or international scale that are worth noting, or that I could offer some (either enlightening, or acerbic) commentary upon. Niagara itself has had a number of exhibitions in 2019 that offered responses and furthered dialogue about specific and wider issues (Jon Shaw at NAC, Carolyn Wren at RHAC, Charmaine Lurch at Riverbrink, to name just a few).
But to be honest, I know I’m not the only person who disdains those ‘top ten _______ of the year’, and I say this having written a few too many of them. It’s even worse in the Canadian art world, where in the past five years you saw ‘publications’ let people list what their boyfriends / girlfriends / sexy love things have done as ‘the most important event’ and then wonder why people replace their skepticism with disgust (no danger of that kind of nepotism here. #artcriticfromhell is channelling Liz Phair and feels in his bones he’ll be spending another year alone, ahem).
But a bit of reflection is worthwhile. In conversation with a few artists, the controversy – contrived or collaborative – of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s piece Comedian arose, which I’m sure you’ve all heard about by now. The infamous banana duct taped to a wall, then eaten later and which was ‘made when it sold’, to paraphrase the gallerist, has enraged and amused many. Having recently written a long piece on Joseph Beuys for NAE in London, my sense of the absurd is high right now: but I look at this piece and I see the growing – ever growing, in that infinite expansion that capitalists claim is what markets ‘do’, despite evidence to the contrary – gap between rich and poor, and how many go hungry. Let them eat bananas, I suppose, can be the mantra of the 2020s…..
As I was thinking about what to say about 2019 I was also reminded of Velvet Buzzsaw. If you haven’t seen this film (which came out on Netflix this past year), it’s a horror story that centres upon, or is based within, the discreet madness of the international and very moneyed art world. Although perhaps art ‘market’ is a better term. Any fan of the horror genre will recognize the framework, where poor choices and ‘sinful’ actions result in gruesome – but, ahem, ‘expected’ – rewards. The blurb is as follows: ‘A feared critic, an icy gallery owner and an ambitious assistant snap up a recently deceased artist’s stash of paintings — with dire consequences.’ To flesh – hah, talking about a horror movie, see what I did there? – the plot out a bit more, the ‘assistant’, who is treated like a serf by the gallery owner and feels, truly, that her career is about to be snuffed, finds these paintings which are raw and evocative, sometimes literally suggesting a darkness and trepidation, sometimes only alluding to them. Ignoring the wishes of the artist – who wanted these things destroyed – they become commodities, enticing others into the dark circle of their power. But – as this is a horror film – people start dying (a personal favourite scene is at the gas station, with the monkeys – which, in art history, have often been employed as symbols of greed, or sin).
Now, I recently watched Friday the 13th at the Film House, and I hadn’t seen it for decades: the trope of the camp ‘counsellors’ who are being ‘sinful’ and ‘must be sacrificed’ is an idea that Cabin In The Woods explores very well: and the characters all listed in Velvet‘s synopsis are just a slice of the ones who come to often very ‘creative’ bad ends, for their greed and misdeeds.
But I’m sure you’re wondering ‘I thought this was supposed to be some kind of summation of 2019? This tangent makes even less sense than his usual digressions!’
When I think of the artist’s work in Velvet Buzzsaw, I’m reminded of the aforementioned Beuy’s exhibition I saw at the AGO in 2019, where the remnants of his practice were meaningless but have become ‘priceless’. This debate around Comedian is like that: an echo chamber of irrelevance and entitlement. This is frustrating as the only real story to talk about for 2019 in Niagara, from a visual arts aspect, is the inevitable closure of Rodman Hall Art Centre. Rodman Hall is not a priority has been re iterated by several of the Brock Administrative Cabal, and their actions – the ongoing ‘demolition through neglect’ – match this ignorance and incompetence. But don’t worry, there will be bananas on the wall. You just might not be able to afford them.
Now, that’s not entirely fair to Cattelan, who has made some interesting works: but I’ve often observed that an era, an age, gets the art it deserves. For example, Duchamp gave us his urinal nearly a century ago, and anyone who dismisses it is historically ignorant, as it is a perfect commentary, or response, to the carnage of WWI, the rise of Fascism in Europe, the Russian Civil War and other blood letting that seemed to begin in 1914 and would go on, in various forms and with various faces, until now. After all, we all ‘know’ that story of soldiers on differing sides singing hymns between gassing each other, but a urinal makes more sense – if anything does – than a ‘god’ both sides ‘pray to’, before slaughtering or being slaughtered……
The divide between rich and poor is extreme, and will only widen: tenuous employment is the norm, and in reading about labour movements in Niagara of the past fifty years, it is clear to me what we have lost, and may never regain.
In this respect, to quote a meme I’ve been seeing on social media: ‘we’re almost in the ’20s and dadaism is thriving, Europe is in a shambles, everyone is broke and the right wing is on the rise so I guess we really don’t learn a goddamn thing.’
A banana duct taped to a wall is the perfect symbol of this era, to me: something banal that is construed to be out of the reach of those who might use it for what it was truly intended. Scurvy might be inevitable.
That’s your missive from Welland as 2019 draws to a close, and you read this in soon to be tainted days of a new decade (while the dumpster is just smoking, not yet burning), from your hopeful if hungover #artcriticfromhell. My next letter to y’all will be either upon an engaging exhibition upcoming at 13th Street Winery, titled Modern Masters, where we can talk about the failure of the Modernist dream (though it will be a lovely, and perhaps inspiring, exhibition), or more light than heat at Rodman Hall. The latter, for the most part, lacks even the ability to inspire outrage that Comedian does, as it’s so self referential and derivative as to be irrelevant to any but the artists or guest curator.
Happy New Year.
Hopefully you had the opportunity to see Vincenzo Pietropaolo’s exhibition in the VISA gallery, The Italian Immigrant Experience: this is the latest in a series of lens based exhibitions (organized by Amy Friend) that explore the power and problematics of image making. Alinka Echeverria and Alejandro Cartagena also offered variant bodies of photographic work, over the past year in this gallery, that explored how we see ourselves, or are seen by others. But under no circumstances should these fine shows at the VISA be taken as proof of the lies proffered by Brock University that the VISA could ever replace Rodman Hall Art Centre. A new solo show at RHAC brought to mind Pietropaolo’s work, and I was unsurprised, when I brought him up in conversation with Danny Custodio, that he and Pietropaolo are familiar with each other, and their respective aesthetics.
Danny Custodio’s images, in the Hansen Gallery at Rodman Hall, are vibrantly beautiful, their rich and almost shocking colours almost overwhelming you as you walk among the works. The Hansen Gallery is often the space that is occupied by Rodman’s curatorial initiatives focused upon local artists (often the excellent ‘soft’ curating of Marcie Bronson – a term I steal from a fellow artist, indicating a more collaborative approach, respectful of the artist’s intentions and siting in this unique space). Though smaller – in number of works, and in allotted space – than the other exhibition that just opened, More Light Than Heat, you have to pass by Floral Carpets / Tapetes Floridos to get to the other, and this doesn’t serve Light well, to be honest, as you may find yourself unwilling to leave Custodio’s ‘space’ (but I’ll offer a more critical and considered response to MLTH in a future issue of The Sound).
The accompanying statement is as follows: Danny Custodio uses photography to explore his familial histories and cultural traditions, reinterpreting them from his position as a second-generation Portuguese-Canadian. For this new body of work, Custodio made and photographed flower carpets like those found on the cobblestone streets of his parents’ birthplace. During annual religious festivals on São Miguel Island, Azores, each family adorns the section of street in front of their house, arranging regional plants and coloured wood chips in designs that are passed down through generations. Using flowers and foliage gathered across the Niagara region, including his suburban St. Catharines neighbourhood and the Walker Botanical Garden at Rodman Hall Art Centre, Custodio continues this custom in his studio, developing his own designs that incorporate his own family’s motifs and traditional Portuguese tile patterns.
Custodio’s lens affords an intimate view of these transient installations, drawing attention to the many individual elements of each flower carpet, and the careful and intensive labour their creation entails. The species in Custodio’s flower carpets are both native to Niagara and introduced, like the hydrangea, a flower emblematic of the Azores. For Custodio, at a remove from his parents’ homeland and Toronto’s Little Portugal, where he was raised, the process is a means of maintaining connection to his community while forging his own place within it.
There are many contradictions at play, in Custodio’s conceptual and formal framework: the most obvious being that the inspiration for this work (the floral carpets constructed by communities in the Azores) is what might be classified as a ‘work of art.’ In an art historical sense, this means these are less about being ‘precious’ or an ‘artwork’ set aside to be visited, then community oriented and like an altarpiece, are a locus point for people, and a repository for their beliefs, or a visual definition of ‘community.’ Custodio’s images are undoubtedly Art (note the capital) however: beautiful, well executed and both well made and meaningful objects, that in their (hoped) permanence far outlast the ‘carpets’, which will be destroyed and degraded when trod upon. However, Custodio spoke of how in some ways, this interaction, this trampling of the flowers, releases their aromas and this fills the space in a way even more pervasive (smell evokes memory in a manner far stronger than almost any other sense).
Further, these are images that reflect another intersection of contested narratives that is likely familiar to any of us Canadians who are either recent immigrants, or the children of the same. Custodio remakes – or re configures – the idea of Tapetes Floridos with regional ingredients, in a way that pays homage to the ‘original’ incarnations, but also makes it as much about Canada – or ‘here’ – as opposed to ‘there.’ In Salman Rushdie’s excellent book of essays, Imaginary Homelands, he talks about how when an immigrant comes to a new place, they carry with them an idea of ‘home’ that may never have existed, in a gilded manner, and that becomes less and less based on reality, but the glossing over of memory and nostalgia, than anything else. Amusingly, when Custodio and I spoke, we swamped some stories of his Portuguese and my Italian families, including how in coming to Canada, they literally – physically – make over their homes to resemble the places and houses they’ve ‘left behind.’ This inversion is seen in Custodio’s images in the Hansen Gallery, and one can see that in this sense, the ‘cultural mosaic’ that is often used to describe Canada is manifest in Custodio’s family, and thus in his work.
The titles are descriptive, listing the fauna Custodio employed: Yellow Maple, Euonymus Alatus, Oak, or Purple Maple, Blue Spruce, Rocket Cedar have names as evocative as the colours and textures, the fine and fascinating detail of petal and leaf, in the archival pigment prints (all works are 2019). Chrysanthemums is the longest work, and may be my favourite, for a number of reasons. The rich, almost bloody reds with the subtle, soft pinks flow along in a zig zag that stretches along one long gallery wall, the rich velvety ‘ground’ that the fauna lay upon making them stand out even more, with tones almost painterly, and a resolution that makes them look hyper real. Purple Maple, Blue Spruce, Rocket Cedar – like many works – is almost Modernist in the geometry, and here the rich brittle blacks and the thin, piney off white don’t so much fight as balance, offering order instead of opposition. Yellow Maple, Euonymous Alatus, Oak is like a flag, with its intense yellows that are almost flat (fracturing the ‘solidity’ of so many of the objects that Custodio has arranged and documented) in their brilliance. The reds (and lighter browns, like the background ‘canvas’) alternate from the yellow, in a rectangular pattern.
Perhaps the names can be so direct as the images themselves offer so much, whether the arresting ability of the colours to reel you in, or the impressive, almost overtly elaborate fauna that is rendered in a manner that makes any of the pieces worth contemplating and getting visually ‘lost’ within.
There has been a great deal of debate regarding immigration, even as we begin to bury the cadaver that was the 2019 Federal election. When speaking with Custodio, he talked about his parents visiting the show, and even commented in social media about his parents leaving their ‘home’ to give him a better life, and we found ourselves talking of our own experiences as the descendants of immigrants. An idea I return to, often, is that Art can be the most direct, and yet simultaneously, the most subtle, form of history. When it becomes autobiographical, as Custodio does here in Floral Carpets / Tapetes Floridos, or representative of a larger community, it can be both direct (as in its vibrant remaking of their inspirations, from another time and place) and delayed (as you think of how communities bring a piece of themselves here, with them, and reshape it here, and add it to the larger contested narrative that is Canada). Floral Carpets / Tapetes Floridos both seduces and gives you something to take away, to think about, before you visit it again.
Floral Carpets / Tapetes Floridos, a solo exhibition by Danny Custodio, curated by Marcie Bronson, is on display until March 22nd, 2020, at Rodman Hall Art Centre. All images (save the installation shot) are courtesy and copyright the artist.
I cut my teeth (sometimes literally, on people) as an arts writer on the Prairies, where the #karaokemodernists will ‘argue’ that painting reached its apex in terms of post painterly, or hard edged, abstraction, invoking the name of Greenberg (whom they’ve never actually read) with reverence.
This is as foolish – and dangerously ignorant – as trying to say that ideas like surrealism have a ‘best before’ date. This is a moronic idea I stepped in, recently, like dog feces, from someone (a dishonest, self aggrandizing dullard who claims to be a ‘scholar’ that polluted the reception for Emily Andrews’ fine work, like a dog messing on the floor – no offense to dogs). This blowhard makes the mistake of reading ‘manifestos’ and thinking he knows everything about how ‘art’ should be: but this is to be expected from someone who jabbers about ‘the moderns’ and had never heard of Greenberg. But who in their right mind reads André Derain’s ‘manifesto’ when Frida Kahlo so aptly described him as the worst of the ‘art bitches of Paris’ that nearly drove her to give up and sell vegetables in the market, instead of painting? I could send you to his site, but that might increase the visitors to three, and overload it.
To try to limit creation – and painting – is inherently the act of a closed mind (regrettably, not closed enough, as such pedants feel the need to ‘share’, like the effluvia from an overflowing toilet…). Portraiture is not a closed structure: it’s an idea, if you will, just as realism has been described as an attitude more than an act, in art making. It’s been pronounced ‘dead’ so many times that it’s either a Lazarus, or – more likely – it’s something that can be reinvigorated and remade by artists, in ways acknowledging what has gone before, building upon it, or sometimes doing something you may never have considered. Like Styrofoam: that white, stiff – can you hear the squeaky, vile, teeth gritting noise it makes when you snap it? Surely evocative, and in the works of Kim Odine Van Stygeren, it’s one aspect of her unique – sometimes quite funny, sometimes quite disturbing – portraits in her solo exhibition at Queenston Mile Vineyard.
Yes, I did have some wine while visiting the exhibition. This has no, ahem, bearing on my review of these uncanny pieces. Trust me: if I’d said I’d abstained, then you’d know not to trust your intrepid #artcriticfromhell. Let us proceed.
First, a bit of background. Kim Odine Van Stygeren is a ‘mixed media artist, contemporary fine painter, craftswoman, and designer, working in oil, acrylic, metals, and 3d structures. For more than thirty years Kim has been a professional artist in a variety of media, focusing for decades on contemporary portraiture….Dedicated to giving back to the community she has called home for 25 years, Kim has focused on arts and culture in Niagara since 2010 [through] granting bodies, adjudicating and most recently as Cultural Program Assistant for the City of Niagara Falls. This is her first solo show in over a decade.’
Her works are both large and small, in the winery space, and one ‘greets’ you as you enter: just as the rough ‘found’ components are a defining aspect of her work, there are other ‘found’ and ‘artistic’ motifs. Eyes, as in the horizontal that is immediately to your right as you enter, recur here. The first piece, just inside, is like many of the works on display, an exercise in contrasts: an exquisitely rendered eye, so realistic that you’ll be unsettled and perhaps periodically look over to see ‘it’ following you around the room, emerges from a rough cardboard surface, still bearing a black logo from its former ‘life.’ Flat rectangles break across the surface, and a painterly smudge of green sits ‘behind’ the solitary, searching eye.
A piece nearby – also with solely a ‘left’ (our left, the painting’s ‘right’) eye – is more abstracted, or perhaps the abstracted, appropriated elements are taking over the composition. A white rectangle (also ribbed cardboard, with a green logo from its ‘former’ usage) has a circular gap, with a black bar ‘behind’; it’s like a bargain bin Malevich, a Suprematist composition done with trash, and that in its construction transcends its humble origins. Less esoterically, it also reads as a bandage, as though Van Stygeren’s portrait is looking at us, wounded, half blinded, but unflinchingly. Wide, long splotches of green and blue frame the composition.
Another – a bright blue eye, again rendered with a delicacy and detail that belies the cardboard box logo that breaks its edge, like a sty in an eye, making you a bit nervous as anything ‘entering’ an eye might – also combines formal geometric elements (intentional, with the ‘sty’, or a blue – as bright as the eye – ‘block’ on the right, or just already ‘there’, in the clear packing tape along, and creeping inwards from, the edges of the picture). The eye is on a rectangular block, more tall than wide, that pushes out from the surface. This isn’t the only piece here that straddles sculpture and painting, as several works employ the natural shape and forms of the boxes that Van Stygeren uses.
What may be my favourite piece here, this architectural – reaching out, not upwards – nature seems to want to reach out and kiss you, as the ‘box’ – or perhaps ‘mouthbox’ or ‘boxmouth’, edit as you will – is painted – open and wide, with fleshy red lips and tongue, a smudge of black around and above it – on a box loosely positioned on a longer box, in an abstraction, or a minimal allusion in form and ‘fleshed out’ in colour and paint, of a face. Again, a singular eye is here, and natural browns and blacks and wear and dilapidation of the cardboard are left alone, so as not to take away from the heavily ‘shadowed’ (as though made up in a style worthy of glam-rock) eye. The painted greens are echoed in the green packing tape. As you walk along the wall, you might turn and find this piece directly behind you, as though it was sneaking up behind you to kiss, but the mouth also suggests those voluptuous lips and probing tongue so often associated with The Rolling Stones, and the caricatures of Mick Jagger. Again, a bit playful, a bit unsettling, and again the sum is more than the discarded – or perhaps better described as recycled – parts.
In a similar manner, the focus upon eyes evokes a number of Francis Bacon paintings I’ve seen, where a bruised face, or a fleshy glut of skin is ‘broken’ by a single eye, like a piece of humanity staring out from a brutalized landscape. As portraiture is something that can engage the viewer – allowing them to find a visual or conceptual foothold for their own experience – so, too, is the eye.
Eyes, recycled components, tape both clear and opaque and now lips can be seen as repeating offerings. A smaller work, installed a bit separately, are of soft, almost inviting lips, painted so as to fill the surface of the box that projects out from the wall. The pre existing words on the box are backwards, and, depending where you stand, are not fully legible through the mouth: the lips are closed, more restrained than the ‘sexy’ ones I previously mentioned, and they seem more silent, more restrained. Other works are more ‘traditional’ portraits, offering more marks and colour to portray a figure, less fragmented and more animated, perhaps. A man, with his hands on his head, sketched in with a simplicity and colour that makes it a bit different from other works, is ‘framed’ on both sides of his cardboard ‘window’ by vertical slats of Styrofoam, like bars. His expression and raised arms suggest a bit of frustration, as though the white packing holds him in ‘place.’
He appears in another work, too: this composition is more vertical, and though his eyes are soulful and very detailed – though looking over and away from us – Van Stygeren has simply a slab of green packing tape for his ‘mouth’, though his hair is rendered in a wavy and gestural style that perfectly conveys what it would look like, in ‘reality.’ The pre existing markings on the cardboard are put to use to allude to cheekbones and his face, contrasting well with the rest of the loose, gestural marks that shape his ear, or shoulders, or the highlights of his face as he poses for her, and now us. The box logos read alternately ‘do not drop’ (up, to ‘his’ right) and ‘great ideas start here’ (emblazoned on his cheek, down to his chin), and only enhance the seemingly arbitrary, but truly not, portrait.
If you’re familiar with Geoff Farnsworth’s portraits, where his foreground and background seem not so much to fight as meld, perhaps coagulate, then separate again, or other artists who blend a textured surface with foregrounds / backgrounds that seem to oscillate back and forth, Van Stygeren’s childlike (not childish) use of shape, mark making (by her hand, or working with pre existing conditions) and colour is well served by how she unites it under the umbrella of portraiture, or the human form. This is something we’re so familiar with that she can push and break edges and expectations, and count on us to still see the person, or people, in her ‘portraits’, even when fragmented, or dissected, into parts. Or even – and this made me laugh out loud, in an appreciative way – with shiny silver duct tape. After all, it isn’t what you use, but how well you use it, in creating an image that challenges and entices.
Kim Odine Van Stygeren’s works in the theme of portraiture – sometimes deconstructed, you might say – is on display at the Queenston Mile Vineyard (963 Queenston Road, Niagara-On-The-Lake) until January 3rd. I visited during the week, and the retail hours of the winery are 10 AM to 6 PM. I must also add that this is the latest example of how many ‘non traditional’ spaces are some of the best for seeing regional artists; the last few months have seen Bruce Thompson’s work at Rise Above, or Sarah Schultz’s art at Studio 4 Tattoo Parlour, or Rob Royal’s constructions at Mahtay Cafe. All images are courtesy and copyright of the artist.