Case Closed at the NAC

Case Closed, the latest exhibition in the Dennis Tourbin Members’ Space at NAC (Niagara Artist Centre), is a four person endeavour: Katie Mazi, Matt Caldwell, Jenn Judson and Alexandra Muresan. There is no real conceptual or literal stream that unites them: that all are students from Brock’s School of Visual Arts – or have been – is the loose thread that binds them together, but its unnecessary knowledge to any interaction or enjoyment of the very different works.

As is so often the case, in a group show, some artists recede and others pronounce: as always, this is as much about the works presented as it is about how they interact (or don’t), and the subjective nature of any interaction – whether ‘criticism’ or otherwise.

The debate about the subjective in criticism has been explored well (in The Walrus, with two disagreeing articles) and poorly (Canadian Art, unsurprisingly). I’d add a more interesting – if controversial – voice to the debate, and cite Ezra Pound’s assertion that an opinion is like a cheque drawn on a bank account. If there’s anything there, it has value: if the epistemological reservoir is empty, it should be considered a fraud and treated as such. Only informed opinions are valid. I’ll keep saying it until a few voices fall silent or become more considered….

Jenn Judson’s works, that I very much enjoyed in #trynottocryinpublic (the second instalment, at Rodman Hall) are not displayed to their best advantage here; or more exactly, they exist as static objects without the photographs of the amusing interventions / performances that they were / are part of, in Judson’s performative practice.

This is one of those times when I suspect that some artists are stronger when they have a space to themselves, and need not converse with other art / artists. If these were meant to invite gallery goers to put them on, then the familiar difficulty of fostering genuine interaction with people who enter a gallery may have been too much to break. But the masks are lovely objects, odd and fun, as much craft as fine art.

Alexandra Muresan’s works are also “quiet”, but in a different manner: both of the wall works she presents here are titled Ornate Fiction. The delicate “drawings” on the fabric works (they’re described as “ink and sheer”, which could also work as an evocative title) float on the walls, moving as you move past them, stirred by the air you move through, around you and them. On the one hand, the delicacy of the drawings, monochromatic and linear – with the rare larger “void” of dark – are secondary to the texture, the white and sheer. The lines are minimal: sometimes very illustrative, sometimes hinting at figures, sometimes alluding form.

I’d say the same here, as I did with Judson: I want to see a gallery space with nothing but these works, as they could become an environment, a quiet space that would invite and demand repeated visits to enjoy the more immediate textural aspects of Ornate Fiction and then to return to explore the images on the material, the figures and tableaux Muresan “sketches.”

That silence, that subtlety, is also present in Caldwell’s large paintings: whereas Mazi’s works almost assault our eyes with colours as luscious as they seem “fake.” But I’ll come to digital works like Play Food, by Mazi, in a moment.

Blue Stake and Seal are both by Caldwell: you may be familiar with his work from a few past student initiatives that have also been in the NAC space. Stake is massive, larger than a person, and hangs on a back wall. Seal is off to the side, more isolated. The initial impression of Caldwell’s work is flatness, a muted presence that offers small differences in tonalities that are as understated, as reserved, as the ridges and textures that you may miss on first appraisal. His palette seems almost banal: then you suddenly see a few random pin pricks of bright yellow, or as in other works of his I’ve seen, a thin rough strip of hot orange. Both Seal and Stake have a similar “ridge” that runs diagonally across the surface, like a bulge we’d see in a bed sheet or material. The scrappy geometric “patterning” is scraped and some colour seems almost scratched or rusted off, exposing other colour beneath. None are bright or forceful: pale fleshy tones, muted olives, an almost muddy orangey red – nothing dominates. All the better for when your eye suddenly catches on one of the small splashes of brightness and contrast, or when you see the roughly sketched hand in the upper corner of Seal.

Different paints have different characteristics, different advantages and personalities: Caldwell works in acrylic, and charcoal, and the flatness of acrylic, the way it dries quickly and allows for layers that don’t mix (like oil) or that are opaque (unlike watercolour), is well employed here.

These works are interesting in the larger debate about painting, and the ongoing argument about abstraction’s relevance or lack thereof. These “histories”, change from place to place, and to return to the aforementioned notion of “subjectivity” in art criticism, the same exists in art production. There are painters who eschew “realism” or “narrative” as pandering to what painting is not, an external definition that denies the essential physicality of paint, of the act of painting. I’m neutral on that argument, right now: I can see not just both sides, but the multiplicity of “sides” that are as infinite as the number of painters, art critics and art historians…..

That historical positioning is also something I considered in the works of Mazi: her bright blues, her rich reds, her fake “eggs” and “bacon” fairly leap off the wall, and the flat backgrounds of pure colour, pinks and oranges and greens, or the seemingly gingham or geometric patterns of the “table cloths” on which her “food sits can’t help but evoke Pop Art (Paglia, in her Glittering Images, cites it as the last true art movement in America, a sentiment that  the late capitalist modernist / late modernist capitalist in me enjoys…).

Play Food comprises six images, all the same size, on a wall between Muresan and Caldwell: described as digital photographs, there is an unreality to the sextet. An ice cream cone floats in space, and below it the “egg” looks as much like an eye as a facsimile of food, the red and blue and yellow all fighting for our attention in a manner that echoes Newman’s “Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?” in a way he never intended, nor would condone. The bacon strips next to the egg are cleanly plastic: but the hamburger above the faux bacon is mouth watering, the meat hitting you right in the stomach. Another notion of desire, I suppose, but it also makes me think of the Atwood character, a vegetarian who said a “hamburger is an emotion”, and that’s fine Lacanian desire, for sure.

There’s also a “domesticity” to these images, as any image of food suggests social interaction, and asks who has “prepared” it, and whom is expected to eat: Mazi has smaller prints of these images for sale, sitting atop a red ironing board.

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Mazi’s works are almost discordant: whereas Caldwell’s are muted, his colours almost bland. These are the stronger two, of the four artists in this show, but that might also be exacerbated by the differences in their practices (Case Closed was advertised as four artists in four different media, and that difference does perhaps make them not play together, very well, to the detriment of some artists over others). But that’s my initial impression: I’ve been back to see the show about three times, and may yet change my mind, and that may speak to how its best to engage with each artist – each work – separately, to allow for its own character: the gauziness of Museran’s fabric works, the playfulness of Judson, the fervour of Mazi and the hush of Caldwell……

 

A Painted History at Rodman Hall

One of the ways in which art galleries, especially public ones like Rodman Hall, matter is that they are repositories of history. Many people don’t equate galleries, or visual art, with the same local and larger relevance that we attribute to museums, or libraries, but perhaps that’s just because its rarely given the respect it merits in “educational” or “public” spaces.

This applies to other cultural media: music and theatre, for example, are spaces that have been repeatedly cut and dismissed in our educational spaces, and this concordantly has led to a lack of appreciation – and lack of ability to engage with – these spheres. To dismiss The Voice of Fire is to dismiss John Cage – or Rebecca Belmore or Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptin, if we want to speak of challenging historical artworks that break our preconceptions- and then I must dismiss you: ignorant opinions are solely that, and I don’t suffer them anymore, gladly or otherwise.

When I first encountered a gallery collection intimately, like I did at the Art Gallery of Windsor, and later on curating several shows of photographic work from The Photographers Gallery on the prairies, and seeing the richness of both historical “records”, I was seduced by its diversity, and how they functioned as fully as an archive of a site as any text or manuscript. (This isn’t a new thing: Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus or Goya’s Portrait of the Royal Family would have gotten both of them executed if their overlords had understood the symbols / signifiers both included, for the like minded, in their paintings….)

We’re also seeing more attention paid to historical Canadian painting: there’s been renewed interest (besides the Group of Seven), whether the more traditional genre painters of post WW II (Paraskeva Clark’s Church at Perkins Mills, Quebec or Doris McCarthy’s Mal Bay with Fish Racks – both in Rodman’s collection) or the focus on Canadian abstraction from the 60s (Jack Bush just got a great deal of love in a massive show at the AGO). There’s a wonderful exhibition on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton right now, of Montreal painters of the mid twentieth century, well worth checking out. But like all nationalist privileging, not all is good: I’ll be glad when we stop canonizing Agnes Martin.

This brings us to A Painter’s Country: Canadian Landscape Paintings selected from the Permanent Collection, curated by outgoing Director Stuart Reid. The statement: “This exhibition traces an almost 100-year history of Canadian artists painting the landscape as their primary subject matter. The luminaries of Canadian art history including members of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries are represented…The title of the show is borrowed from A. Y. Jackson’s autobiography of the same name, in which he describes the early years being a member of the Group of Seven during an awakening of nationalism. Those painters were determined to forge a distinctive style of painting particular to Canada, its rugged terrain, and wilderness. The exhibition looks at the predominant mode of depicting the land from an omniscient vantage point, of asserting governance over the vast domain, unifying a national perspective, and vision.”

McCarthy Mal Bay Fish Sheds, 1954, watercolour, 24 x 27in_HRlt

The artists on display are something of a “greatest hits” from the collection, with names you’ll recognize: the aforementioned Clark and McCarthy are alongside A.Y. Jackson’s Laurentian Landscape, Rawdon, Quebec, September 1953, Lawren Harris’ Sand Lake, Algoma and Varley’s Arctic Seascape. All three are Group of Seven: their contemporary Emily Carr is also here, with Forest Vistas. McCarthy’s work, mentioned earlier, is a delicate watercolour where the forms of the boats and the buildings become geometrics leading towards an abstracted flow of form and angles. Its a  bit askew in its viewpoint, of the Gaspé. Harris’ works are more organic, almost soft in the rendering of shapes, and Jackson has a fluidity to his forms that is similar: both seem to paint the landscape as a living, breathing entity.

McCarthy’s Haliburton VIllage is all snowy quiet and smoking chimneys, and the almost mechanically ordered marks of McCarthy’s brush define the white blue slaloms in the foreground. Clark’s Perkin Mills is a bit askew in its format, almost like its tipped towards us, but it works as the gravestones tilt and the sky is overpresent, back to fore. Charles Comfort’s Georgian Bay is almost the stereotype of the iconic Canadian landscape: lonely, isolated trees in the harsh yet beautiful scene, empty of any peoples, there for the “taking.” David Milne’s works, minimal and stark, are always jolting when presented with the rich and heavy colours of Carr or Casson or Jackson. Arbuckle’s Trinity Newfoundland No. 2 has the charm of a postcard: the sky over the Atlantic is as lovely as the ocean behind the tiny structure, evoking memory and mythology of place.

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These smaller works are mounted in the side gallery, the “parlour” space. But Country also acts in conjunction with the other two shows on display this summer at Rodman. Its always enjoyable, and adds layers of potential interaction and understanding, when galleries present multiple shows as “statements” or “questions” on the same subject, like a conversation. Reading the Talk (which “brings together work by contemporary First Nations artists who critically examine relationships to land, region and territory”) will open at Rodman on May 21. Elizabeth Chitty’s The Grass is still Green (which opens July 4, focuses on the “Two Row Wampum, the 1613 agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Europeans that outlines a commitment to friendship, peace between peoples, and living in parallel forever—as long as the grass is green, as long as the rivers flow downhill and as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west”). Chitty’s works about this site have enriched our historical conversations about it (when not outright shifting the ground they stand on, if I may offer such an egregious pun), and Reading will place this same question of terra nuillus (“nobody’s land”, or the idea that it was land for the “taking”) in a more provincial, national and international frame.

Part of the genesis Country was in Reid seeing Picturing the Americas at the AGO recently, and a comment from participating writer / theorist Dot Tuer stating that landscape painting was  a manner of “asserting governance over the land.” Reid also expanded, in conversation, about her comments to how painting a landscape is an extension of cartography, and thus in naming, owning, a space or site (Consider how many of the venerated landscapes of Canadian Art history – like Varley, or Harris –  are emptied of people, or are rich areas just waiting to be exploited: terra nuilus is an idea that the land here was “uninhabited”, just “waiting” to be “claimed” by settlers. You may be unfamiliar with the term, but we’re still living the assumption…)

There is also an element of philanthropy to Country: this show is very “reverent”, presenting “gems of landscapes”, and since Rodman Hall’s role in the community is still a topic of debate, many of these works are gifts, or were purchased with funds bequeathed from a person’s estate to the gallery. Many see spaces like Rodman as sites for where their works will come to rest: most public galleries across this country – and others – can mark the germ of their beginning in a generous gift of artworks, or the means to acquire and care for artworks.

This brings me to a point I must raise, in light of the “re evaluation” that Brock is moving forward with, regarding Rodman Hall and their responsibilities (what they perceive as such, and what the larger community and stakeholders believes was agreed to, back in 2003). There are many works in this show that are worth significant amounts of money, not solely in the Canadian art market, but also considering that the wider world is starting to acknowledge, and pay high prices, for paintings by people like Lawren Harris. His Sand Lake, Algoma is from the prime period of his output: 1920, when the Group of Seven were producing their most lauded – and now, most valuable, in a monetary sense – works.

What will happen to this work, if Brock divests itself of Rodman? Does Brock “own” the work? Does that honour the wishes of Bruce Hill, who bequeathed it in 1964, from the Charlotte Muriel Hill Collection (his mother, perhaps)? Whom is making this decision, and what is their agenda? My conversation with the consultant, Martin Van Zon, seemed heavy on the university’s agenda of “austerity.” So, whom do we ask about this, and from whom shall we be receiving answers? The report that Interkom is producing will be presented to Brock in June: when it comes to the rest of us is unclear, in Van Zon’s own words.

To return to the gallery space: A Painter’s Country will be on display until August 28, in the now contested site of Rodman Hall. May I propose a comparison of mythologies, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, when you visit this, with the other shows that will open this summer, that also offer constructions and collusions about place and history, and the country “we” live in?

Images in this piece are McCarthy’s Mal Bay Fish Sheds and Jackson’s Laurentian Landscape, Rawdon, Quebec.

 

Images of Incarceration

History exists in a multiplicity of perhaps “unofficial” ways. Howard Zinn’s excellent A People’s History of the United States is a book I never get tired of recommending for its immediacy and honesty. We rarely think about mug shots as an aspect of societal history (I will not embarrass anyone by asking for a show of hands, to see how many of us have participated in this “research”) but like many things we take for granted, how it started, and how its changed (or not) is a rich source, a social archive. We take DNA testing for granted, in criminal investigations now, and one need only watch any of the avalanche of CSI shows to see a “hubris of science.” It’s amazing to consider any crimes go unsolved, hmm, if I may be sarcastic, with CSI to the rescue…

Photography is (arguably) a century and a half old, and how its has changed the world is still an ongoing endeavour. Before I go any further, here’s the statement for the exhibition that spurred these thoughts, Arresting Images: Mug Shots from the OPP Museum, which is at the Welland Museum here in Niagara:

Arresting Images features 100 historic mug shots from The OPP Museum’s permanent collection, dating from 1886 to 1908. The exhibition provides a first and rare opportunity for the public to view these historical photographic portraits since they were originally collected in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The collection was assembled by the Niagara Falls “Ontario Police” – precursors of today’s Ontario Provincial Police.

Arresting Images highlights historical themes and social circumstances of the period addressing the subjects of crime and law enforcement as well as the emerging use of photographic portraits as a police identification tool.

Represented in the collection are pickpockets, confidence men, escaped fugitives, shoplifters, horse thieves, burglars, safe blowers and others. These images are compelling, fascinating and thought-provoking”. There are “100 historic mug shots from The OPP Museum’s permanent collection, dating from 1886 to 1908” that form this exhibition.

There’s a very enjoyable aspect to this show, a bit of black humour: and because the practice of “mug shots” was still in its infancy, there’s more character and individuality in these “portraits” – even being able to use that term – than we’d see now. Don McGill looks ready to cuff you if you get too close (Burglary and Larceny, around 1900) and Charles Murray (1907) with affected – but exact – descriptors of “thin face” and “sallow” complexion, sits in a shirt that’s torn and blows the camera apart with a clear, steady gaze. “[B]oth he and the times were tough” declares the accompanying text.

As we have a debate about which female icon shall grace Canadian currency, that we choose, as opposed to being imposed on us by the Empire, ahem, its good to learn about Rebecca Shanley, alias Carne. Her crime is listed as “elopement”: but sources of the period (New York Times, 1888) indicate she, in fact, “eloped” with another man, taking the daughter from the discarded husband, Shanley, with her. This could, perhaps, be considered a missing persons case: or may I refer you to how it would be a good half century before women could be considered “persons”, and not “property”?

The shots are presented with brief bits of information, that I’ve sampled / alluded to here: but this was an emerging practice, so not all the information is codified, as in a standard form, and sometimes the charges seem arbitrary and odd, even if we try to forget that this is another era, a different world (that might sound excessive, but picture a world where taking a photo is a rarity, not something so ubiquitous we forget its importance).

One William Rae, alias Frank Hall has his “trade” listed as “thief”, while Peter Lake alias Lane alias Grand Central Pete is guilty of Con & Bunco, whatever that may promise to be (and it is a great designation. I fear I’ll be disappointed when its revealed to be banal…). Lake also looks a bit aggrieved at the indignity of this whole process.

Its also good to consider a few later ideas about crime and punishment as you look at Arresting Images. Michel Foucault, whose research often focused on the notion and construction of “criminal” in the West, especially in works like The Punitive Society or Penal Theories and Institutions, offers two interesting thoughts to bring to the museum. One is that “visibility is a trap”: the other is that “The ‘Enlightenment’, which discovered the liberties, also invented the disciplines.” The latter comment is from his writings in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

The exhibition runs until May 21st at the Welland Historical Museum: it offers a glimpse at a history long gone, but still relevant today.

 

Geography as metaphor : Vai e Vem

The VISA Gallery in the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts is a site that is all over the place, displaying exhibitions of various stripes, since its inception last Fall. Now, that may, in fact, sound like an insult, but considering that the exhibition currently on display (until May 28th) is titled Back and Forth, and is one of the more challenging explorations of place and distance as regards artmaking (whether the images and objects in the gallery themselves, or in the conversations that shaped them) I’ve encountered, it is a compliment. Or a challenge, at least.

And henceforth I will refer to the exhibition as Vai e Vem, as the statement from collaborator / writer / curator Nadja de Carvalho Lamas, from the University of Joinville Region (UNIVILLE), of Brazil, names it. I’ll cite further words of hers: “The challenge is in the relationship between the exhibited works within the exhibition space itself; when we attempt to comprehend the tense dialogue between the artworks as we encounter them together. The possible relationships are intriguing, provoking significant and unique aesthetic reflections.”

The artworks in the space are from four artists: Jefferson Kielwagen and Tirotti, from Brazil, and Ehryn Torrell and Duncan MacDonald, of Canada. Vai e Vem began as a conversation between Carvalho Lamas and MacDonald, from a 2014 residency in Uruguay where they met. As it progressed, MacDonald invited Torrell, from London, ON, and Carvalho Lamas invited the aforementioned two artists from her home city. “The relationship and exchanges between the artists…took place entirely online, as they did not know each other beforehand. The four artists share strong links with conceptual art [and] have established art practices, academic backgrounds and experience with university teaching and research.” A previous incarnation was at the Museu de Arte de Joinville in Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil, in February of 2016.

That last bit may have caught your eye: Santa Catarina to St. Catharines. I’ll inject something else, from one of my favourite writers, in his usage of “backwards and forwards.” There is no point when now begins and then stops: all places are the same place, as we carry them all with us, and inside us, to “new” places.

There are several works that will immediately engage you. One is Tirotti’s projection on an inviting, relaxing chair, whose dark brown perfectly highlights the blue white of the “pages” of the “book”, turning by themselves with great speed, endlessly repetitively. This video installation, Un Permanecer / A Remaining is situated in a corner, like one reading removed from the larger social bustle. There is a ghostly quality to Un Permanecer: an absence defines the work, though the actions continues…

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Jefferson Kielwagon’s Péralo no céa / Pearl in the Sky is a work that further explores the notion of place and displace, and the images in the gallery are perhaps documentation, perhaps just a snap of a moment. The title card describes the work as an “intervention”, which is perhaps the best way to describe it. More of the descriptor, for the six images on the wall, that are somewhat bland and uninviting: “Three pearls were sent to the sky. Each pearl was tied to a helium balloon. The balloons were then released one at a time.”

I imagine someone completely unaware of the larger project, the art or the artist, finding this pearl on the ground, far from where it was set aloft. Let’s be romantic: imagine a person seeing it descend and holding out their hand, like awaiting manna from heaven, from an unknown and unknowable donor….

MacDonald’s Piano Burn appears twice for us: being consumed by flames on a large video monitor, for nearly an hour, all vivid and sexy in its destructive beauty. There’s a smaller photograph to the side, like a dead thing in a field. My previous conversations with MacDonald about his work focused on the strictures and structures placed upon music – its performance, the commodity of it – by economic forces and assumptions of consumerism. Watching this piano burn I can’t help but feel that the bulkiness of the instrument, the intimidating manner in which children are trained to “play” (the wrong word, surely, as its not fun), like an act of recitation and “education”  that suffocates any joy of music, is being reduced to ash in a field, to blow away and be done.

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That aspect of temporality, of something “past” is present in many of the works here.

I once commented that Amy Friend’s work played upon how “time stands still in travel.” Most of the artists in Vai e Vem are more about a “flattening”, but not in that hideous neo liberal way that discards meaning: instead, meanings and ideas and experiences are allowed to translate to other sites – from Santa Catarina to St. Catharines, from Brazil to Canada, from nation to nation, country to country, with all the respective “national imaginaries” that both sites encompass: from  Simón Bolívar to Queen Elizabeth, and respective societal fragments that we inaccurately weld together and self servingly (with laziness, perhaps) call “history.”

Tirotti’s Outras Visitas / Other Visits is dated 2016. I only mention the date for this work, instead of the others, as it illustrates its immediacy, as with its video monitor and digital prints its a mish mash of “here” and “there”, Santa Catarina and St. Catharines (but this is here, for me, but there for him, and thus the inevitable mutability of place), a Back and Forth / Vai e Vem, if you will. Outras Visitas with its Google images infers immediacy and reality. My unfinished schooling in religion did introduce me to Boethius, who postulated that God does all things simultaneously, and everything is happening, has happened, will happen in one Divine moment that we simply are unable to understand, with our limited notion of time and place…..

Kielwagen’s Troca de Entidades / Entity Swap (another “intervention”) also approaches this blending in a religious manner: a plastic figurine representing Exú Marabô “an entity worshipped in Brazilian Umbanda” was placed by Kielwagen in a Vodou temple (for Papa-da Alphonze) in Haiti. An image on the wall documents this: another image shows how Kielwagen then placed Dambala, from Haitian Vodou, in a Candomblé temple (Mãe Jacilia D’Oshum) in Joinville. Voodoo, it should be noted, is the only religion to ever absorb Christianity, and not the usual Imperial reversal.

I’ve not mentioned Torrell’s works. They’re literally and conceptually the most static, in this space. The back wall of the gallery is filled with her scrappy works, more colour than form, flat and repetitive, acrylic and collaged rough shapes. That could mean pieces like Easy Glamour, Filters and Screens or Wood Pulp are blandly inappropriate to this exhibition: or it could mean they act as a ground, a heavy base (ironic, as a favourite piece is titled Flotsam), to pull us back in when we forget where “we are.” An anchor point to the absent actions of MacDonald, Tirotti and Kielwagen, that only visit the gallery in passing, after the fact.

Vai e Vem / Back and Forth is an uncanny, challenging show. Visit it. Follow the artists online, as they may exist more “there” than in a gallery space. Consider the gallery space as just a portal, an incomplete encounter, or a temporal opportunity. Art, after all, is all in our heads.

In the Soil, Sewer Music

To write about visual art is in itself a difficult endeavour that attempts to graft speech onto vision (usually): to apply language to audio art is equally rife for fracture. But sometimes those “failures” are the most interesting, as they break expectations or assumptions. More possibilities present themselves.

It is, to paraphrase Duncan MacDonald, like going to an art school to make music, because most music schools are a bit more prescribed, and won’t allow the transgression of artmaking in their hallowed halls. There’s an aspect of this, in his collaborative piece for In The Soil, titled Music for Sewers, that privileges the experiential: attempting to put what you hear and feel into words degrades your experience, and only limits your interaction. Eleanor Antion, a significant if underrated artist associated with the FLUXUS group of the ’60s, put it best: “All art works are conceptual machines…All art exists in the mind.”

And art in the public sphere where the environment and audiences are so diverse and different that they deny classification, makes it “worse” – or “better”, perhaps. In John Perreault’s Street Music I, “he dialed calls for two hours from one midtown Manhattan telephone booth to another and hung up after three rings, which may or may not have been heard by passersby. It was a work so displaced, scattered, and marginal that it resided only in the imagination of the artist and the audience to whom it was later described.”(Paglia, from her Glittering Images).

But back to the installation proper: although MacDonald is the designated artist, its really a variation on the improvisational performances that he’s done with several fellow artists. Listed like a band lineup, MacDonald does “bangy things”, Ben Mikuska “big strings”, Arnie McBay “skinny strings”, and my favourite designation: Greg Betts provides “face.” Music for Sewers will be in the old raceway (visible from MacDonald’s office in the MIWSFPA), the watery offshoot of the old Welland Canal, that used to power the Canada Hair Cloth Building that the Walker absorbed and reformed. The “adaptive re use of the industrial Hair Cloth building” as the architect of the MIWSFPA stated once displays that “we were very aware of the palimpsest of history in your building.” This manifests in many small ways: Music for Sewers might be another example.

The project statement is delightfully honest and fresh: “We have been improvising and making what at times could be referred to as music for about 4 years now. This installation work will be our first public presentation as of yet”.

Now, the performances have been recorded, if untraditionally and experimentally. But MacDonald was coy about whether there’d be a speaker in the sewer or if his merry band would be “below”, translating their frenzy to a “public sphere.”

If you detect a hint of the absurd here, you’re correct: its in the spirit of John Cage, who could make some deep points about listening / creating in a manner that cast the whole framework of assumptions in a critical – perhaps heretical – light. In conversation about Sewers, Jacques Attali’s book Noise: Political Economy of Music was spoken of, by MacDonald, as a touchstone for experiencing this aural intervention beneath our feet and street. It’s an odd text that proposes a number of ideas about how we understand “music” which meld nicely with the visceral immediacy of Sewers. Attali talks about a way of thinking, not about objects and commodity but wider conversations. His division of the history of music offers gems like “repeating” where performances of music are all about a fidelity of imitation of an idealized, “perfect” recording.

Sewers isn’t that. It’s a site of reactionary reactive collaborative noise performance; a “readyfelt” (like readymade) physical experience of audio (like Darren Copeland or Myriam Bleau, who construct very formal, technically heavy situation, then react intuitively and instinctively within it). Past public audio interventions MacDonald played a hand in were Music Box Revolving Door, which led to pedestrians pausing unexpectedly to rethink their relationship to where they are / were, or another public art piece in Kitchener where “the entrance to city hall becomes a music box.” Again, absurd plays on propriety and perverted expectations that make you see the wider possibilities of experience.

In the heady days of late capitalist modernism / late modernist capitalism, an experience of unexpected “Sewer Music” is less about a “use” but moreso a “joy” value. Picture a balloon, a gleeful and treasured “nothing” filled with air, all temporal emptiness but a well known symbol of happiness and celebration. Here we come back to Attali, talking about how we must “possess” music, and thus collect it in an artificial form that is so exact and defined it denies the original, unique, ephemeral, shared performative experience…

Music for Sewers will be brief, fleeting, then only a memory. If you tell someone you heard it, they may assume you’re just delusional. Description may be impossible: but it will be a unique, perhaps impossible to “code” into words, experience. Go and seek it out.

#trynottocryinpublic revisited / redux

The second half of this BFA Honours Exhibition at Rodman Hall that is all under the umbrella title of #trynottocryinpublic is significantly different than the first: its wider in terms of media, and some of the artists are in their own “rooms”, creating spaces that are more installations than specific works. This is, in some ways, a pleasant surprise, but also not: students can be delightfully diverse. To pick up a thread from my previous thoughts on #trynottocryinpublic, sometimes the framework of art schools limits them more than expands their horizons….

If I was to choose a word to encompass this instalment, it would be “excess.” That’s a word that offers multiple interpretations and several of the artists in this show explore it in different ways. There are four individuals in the back, lower space at Rodman: Jess Wright, Sarah Bryans, Miranda Farrell and Jenn Judson.

Judson’s work is what engages me the most, which is ironic, as what she shows us in the main gallery space is primarily detritus of her performance based works, or props for the same (this is not to say its not done without thought or consideration. The masks that are intrinsic to her works hang along one wall, but one of the hooks is empty, suggesting that the process may be ongoing elsewhere, outside of Rodman’s space).

I would say that Judson’s works (both photographic and sculptural) are the strongest in this show: but unlike the first instalment, its not a clear superiority to the other artists here, but more, perhaps, a dependant one. And, as any reaction to art always incorporates a subjectivity that’s personal (even if by conspicuous absence,  if you attempt to suffocate it by only speaking in institutionally approved voices), her employment of various means by which to allude to her performance series is something of significant interest to me, from my own rare practice that’s been performative as well.

But, before I speak to Judson’s contribution to #trynottocryinpublic, I’ll offer some thoughts on her co exhibitors’s works.

Jess Wright presents two distinct series of “portraits.” The Flower Portraits, with the emphasis on the eyes, the shiny flat surfaces combined with the powerful – if, in one case, doughnut eyed – gazes of her women, are stronger works than what I’ll call the “Girl” series (Girl with Snap-back, Girl with Golden Frame, Girl with Plastic Earing). Wright’s portraits are excessive: sometimes too excessive, sometimes just the right amount of excess, and a hot mess of enthusiastic portrayal of individuals that are perhaps a bit loud, a bit much, but not in the least boring or repetitive. I suggest repeated visits, so you don’t overdose on the hot pinks and pop culture bits and pieces. Small bites of the tasty colours and forms would be best.

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She also has two lovely “bust” portraits that are sitting in an alcove that’s just outside of the lower gallery proper: these two could be considered a third series, but I enjoy them as a separate pair, like a matched set. Perhaps a “marriage” portrait, an updated Arnolfini, but my art history is showing: but they’re different from the other series, and the gold frames seem ideal (with the lovely green fringe on the one). All of Wright’s works show a progression, with different formal techniques explored (but with literal continuity, as with the plastic earings straddling both series).

Miranda Farrell and Sarah Bryans are completely different from this: Farrell creates an environment that is more like a photo album she’s sharing with us, of memories. This is appropriate for a room (she takes over one of the “alcoves” entirely, as Bryans also does) titled Come Home Year. There are times this installation works perfectly, evoking memory and nostalgia: other times it looks too personal to be professional, like I’m walking through a scrapbook that relies on a personal connection instead of being able to evoke one in the viewer.

Several larger photographs, especially with the small, almost toy like houses, mixed with objects that are like placeholders or remnants of memories are intermixed with illustrations that isolate and highlight by the use – or the absence – of colour. I use the term “illustration” here as the family scenes are obviously of importance, and in the black and white suggest either something lost, or something hoped for, or something that is more about what’s in your mind’s eye than existing outside of it, in “reality.”

Sarah Bryans’s work was, perhaps, the weakest in this manifestation of #trynottocryinpublic, for me (though the collaborations between Judson and Wright didn’t work for me, either, and I must admit to confusion that two practices that are so disparate – an excess of object, for Wright, and the object as almost bland signifier of something that isn’t even happening in the gallery, but is “elsewhere” – should try to meet, but that might also be the argument for trying it, too. Collaboration with someone who works just as you do would be pointless, in many contexts….).

Bryans uses the motif of the infant again and again, and in some of the works presented the intervention and documentation of the same is interesting: but “untouched purity and shared potentiality of new forms”, to use her words, is not how I see the baby, and found the motif more confusing and confused in its implications. Even for a critic as subjective as myself, I’m unsure how much I want to project into such a vague symbol: and the baby itself doesn’t have the skill and discipline of execution that would make it more impressive, and more believable, as a dynamic, living symbol.

Perhaps that’s why both Farrell and Bryans are in their own “rooms”: the removed spaces being filled with solely their works hopes for an exponential focusing of their ideas. That works, in some ways, with Farrell, but not so much with Bryans. If all of Wright’s works were in the same small space, they might make me ill, with their colours and forms and eyes, so they benefit from being separated. I don’t know if Judson’s would be benefit – or be stronger, bluntly – if they were “alone” in a similar manner. As I mentioned earlier, the excess / starkness of Judson and Wright seems to augment the other, and perhaps I’m really leaning towards reading the front, immediate space at the back of Rodman Hall as the main show of #trynottocryinpublic, as reading it as a whole makes Farrell and Bryans the lesser of the four. If considered as separate shows, on individual merits, they fare better, or I’m inclined to be more amenable to their presentations.

Returning to the main space: Judson’s works are minimalist. Even the titles suggest that they’re just “after the event.” Untitled (Gas Pumper) or Untitled (Homeowner) are simple and direct. My personal favourites are Untitled (Bus Rider) and Untitled (Church Goer). The latter depicts the kneeling, masked person of the title, with two men behind him / her / them, in a conversation that suggests nothing is amiss. That subtlety is echoed in how the masks, along the longer wall, all hang on simple hooks, save for one exposed hook, suggesting that someone, somewhere, may be wearing it and the performance – or actions / interventions – are still going on, outside the gallery space.

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These images are almost an afterthought: Marina Abramović , the current high priestess of performance art in the West, has stated how “[f]rom the very early stage when I started doing performance art in the ’70s, the general attitude – not just me, but also my colleagues – was that there should not be any documentation, that the performance itself is artwork and there should be no documentation.” (She has, however, profited significantly from various forms of documentation of her works, both with Ulay and beyond. I am reminded of St. Paul’s “the love of money is the root of all evil” being modified so as not to offend, ahem, to “money IS the root of all evil”).

This second instalment of #trynottocryinpublic is much more diverse than the first: its much more confused, so much more “all over the place”, so much more excessive (even Judson’s acts, though quietly alluded to, suggest an excess of action, just not in the white gallery space).

That, in some ways, makes this more successful: there is more, and there’s more failure, but there’s something wonderful about failure, if that failure can be excessive and engaging (my less than enthusiastic comments re: Bryans’ work, for example, are partly due to how I want to see the “baby” installed on Rodman’s lawn, or the MIWSFPA’s lawn, creepycrawling towards someone, all white and slug like….).

Even the collaborations between Judson and Wright, or Wright’s “overthetop” portraits, are not “safe.” Sometimes they seduce, and sometimes they screech. Both are worthy experiences.

#trynottocryinpublic is / was interesting, at times disappointing, at other times exciting. Now, the question is what will all of these BFA Honours Graduates do next…..

 

#trynottocryinpublic / what succeeds, what fails

Painting can display a breathtaking diversity. Now, granted, that can be said about any form of artmaking, and it can be a weakness, as well as a strength. But when one considers a few things (lets call them suppositions) painting is an active site for this debate.

There are painters out there (not karaoke modernists, but others worth your time – I’d recommend Jonathan Forrest’s dimensional paintings) that can make an effective point for how the lineage of Greenberg and Reinhardt is explored in their work. There are painters who are primitives, that have an immediacy and rawness of experience (the late Paul Sisestki’s works), and clearly ne’er the twain shall meet of those aforementioned ideologies.

As for me, I’m all about narrative, all about stories, all about how images can be used to act as a subversive and yet direct form of “history.”

There is an element to this conversation, of pedagogy, too, as its rare to encounter a painter who hasn’t been formed (or deformed) by “art school” in this day. Sometimes that, I suspect, is why I tend to be dismissive of abstraction, in a “contemporary” setting: one has to acknowledge that not all stories have been told, so ignoring narrative is an act of special privilege that ignores the voices that haven’t been allowed to speak.

On another level, our teachers shape us, and sometimes they do what I saw years ago, when I endured a lecture by Ron Shuebrook, and realized all his MFA students started working in so many different media, and all left painting like him. Art school might be about “unlearning” assumption, or it might be about being immersed in a space that makes you unaware that any other ideas might be valid, or of consideration (Full disclosure: I taught for more than a dozen years, in an art department, in studio. However, as I taught primarily at senior levels, in digital media, my classroom incorporated a reading package that always reminded students that there are spaces outside the university…).

And this brings us to the first instalment of #trynottocryinpublic, currently at Rodman Hall in St. Catharines. This first of two exhibitions under the same umbrellas is made up of three artists who are “emerging”, literally from their degree at Brock into the larger art world. Fostered by two very different instructors from the School of Visual Arts at Brock (Donna Szöke and Shawn Serfas), this is part of the BFA Honours course that is a partnership between Rodman and the MIWSFPA.

All three – Liz Hayden, Fraser Brown and Kaia Toop – work in paint. They share the back, lower rooms at Rodman. They will be followed by an exhibition of their “classmates”, as this manifestation of #trynottocryinpublic ends this Saturday, April 9th.

Toop’s work is easily the strongest, and is the work that merits repeated viewings. There’s a playful aspect to her work, but also an unsettling one. Her pieces with flamingos, manatees, zebras and fawns are high points of the entire exhibition. There’s a maturity of execution here. For example, There are improbable things by Toop (the strongest piece in the exhibition) is a scene that’s disturbing on more rigorous looking but that may initially disarm you with its absurdity and inanity.

In improbable things, the factory is reminiscent of a Diego Rivera (his mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts, for example), dark and textured, a space that’s cramped and a bit suffocating as we gaze into it. The flamingos are both bright pink against the dull factory. I’m also reminded of Alice in Wonderland and the games of croquet that used animals as “toys” and “tools” with a blithe cruelty.

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The flamingos float: as does the fawn in a work in a back space, though it seems more frightened and its posture suggests that its almost “turtling”, if I may use cross – fauna language, against harm. The painting to the right of that isolates a stag on a pink blank background, with scraps of what could be newsprint, or other papery detritus, stuck to it. This is repeated in several other works, where the animals seem damaged by some kind of “leftover” (that word appears in each title) of a manufactured, or manufacturing environment…animals in sites of environmental destruction or damage often have been photographed slick with oily wastes, and other dumped garbage. These are more subtle versions of ducks and geese with their necks caught (perhaps terminally) in six pack plastic rings we’ve discarded without thought or consideration.

In conversation, Toop talked about using her own experience working in a factory setting, and the “unnatural” aspect of that, as applies to humans. That will surely add an element of distress to how we read her animals, as they no longer seem to be within these sites by choice but are trapped there. This may be literal, or it may be the same way that most of us are trapped in sites of labour: I’ll resist any Marxist banalities of employment as prison, though I might suggest a recent excellent article in Hyperallergic, and the avoidance of silly banalities in the same “space” we see from an AGYU “artist” who confuses exploitation of labour with a “statement” about it.

In closing, I want to touch on something that bothered me, about this exhibition.

It is the work of BFA Honours students, and as such they are about to leave one framework for potentially others, with different, yet similar, challenges (the title of the show, I was told, is a play on the stresses felt by students in the course, which I commented would only get worse if they chose to continue in the cultural minefields and barbarisms that are Canadian art…).

I haven’t mentioned works by the other two artists in the show: partly this is due to how Toop’s work held my attention easily and repeatedly.

But it is also a consideration of how (as Steve Remus once challenged me) I resist bringing full critical weight against undergraduates, as their pedagogy can be overtly defining, perhaps deafening them to other voices outside the classroom.

In light of that, though, I feel its important to point out that looking at Liz Hayden’s works, I saw – literally – some of the same “wide” brushstrokes I saw in Shawn Serfas’ Inland series. I’ve encountered other works by Fraser Brown, at NAC, and though I wasn’t overly impressed, they struck me as having potential (a phrase I used when I was teaching that can translate as meaning I am very excited to see what you do next). His work in this show is repetitive and, like Hayden’s, seems to take refuge in its medium of execution: to elaborate, as I’ve positioned my thoughts here as being specific to paint, painting is also a medium in the art world that actively resists any conversation, still, about anything other than how it is done.

Granted, we see techno fetishism in many other spaces (I can think of a horrid show that used 3 D printing in a manner that suggested poverty of thought and rigour): but when, for example, one is asked to speak about your work in a manner OTHER than how it was made, there’s still significant resistance among painters to do so. There is also still a fostering of taking refuge more in repetition, an almost mindless praise of “activity”, than in considered making, a counsel to keep “painting” as opposed to exposing yourself to other, more disparate – and perhaps even outright disagreeing – ideas.

Again – there’s a space for this, and a well executed object is a necessity for something to be considered art, for many of us (I waiver, back and forth on this). But in looking at the works of Liz Hayden, I see the hand of her instructor too heavily in her marks and her paint. In Fraser Brown’s work, I see a repetitiveness that becomes excessive and serves to simply make what might have been engaging if disciplined become formulaic and boring.

I don’t say this with rancor, or point it out with malice: but something a student might strive for is a uniqueness of voice, a means and manner by which to find your own place to stand. Perhaps its too soon to ask that of Brown and Hayden: perhaps the strength of Toop’s work serves to highlight the weaknesses in theirs (I once reviewed an exhibition of Jane Ash Poitras’s work that was ill served by being in the same gallery as Rebecca Belmore. The latter has a clarity that further exposed the tepid muddle of the former).

This exhibition closes this Saturday: the next instalment features four artists of the same class, and perhaps in seeing a larger whole, I may see differently. But right now I wonder about pedagogy and practice, and how that is a debate that’s been happening in (and outside of) art schools across the country in a serious way that may, or may not, lead to a shift like we saw back in 1968.

 

Bananas, banality and Beuys at NAC

Its entertaining to rigourously examine what merits attention, as art, or “Art.” I have absolutely no idea why the bananas – the plethoras of banana peels, I should say, to be accurate, both freshly cast aside and others that we can almost smell the rot emanating from in the photographs in the space at NAC – fascinate me so. The installation is banal: its collaborative (more than one artist, though one person acts as the instigator, or gatherer, of images, both literally from other contributors, but also in how these are peels “found” while out, and captured in these snaps). Some images are silly, while repetition both elaborates and bores.

It could all be blamed on Joseph Beuys, whose destruction of the notion of art school has continued long after his death (may the good be buried with him, as the evil lives after, so let it be with Caesar). If we live in an age where anyone can self designate as an artist, where anyone can be an artist (and consequently, to invert Beuys, no one is an “Artist” – note the capital), then by extension anything can be designated as “Art,” by nothing more than that self referential act.

Let me cite from Alice Gregory’s review of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks: “Such retroactive and remote anointing is far more difficult in the context of contemporary art, which for the past century has often been the product of speech acts. I am an artist because I say I am an artist. This is art because I say it is.”
Now, this can, as with everything, offer possibility and putridity. But the playfulness of what’s presented here is so unpretentious, and so direct that I do enjoy it.

If you think I’ve had a momentary (or ongoing) loss of my art critic acumen, allow me to contrast and elaborate.

Some of the worst “art” I’ve ever been subjected to could be considered abject – there’s a joke there, I’ll come to in a moment – abuses of that ego. One of the last exhibitions I saw on the Prairies – Abject Abstract – displayed two vomitous examples of this elbows out, self aggrandaizing artcrime. What makes them notable is that they sinned in a manner like flip sides of a coin: both coming to the same horrid place, but via parallel paths.

Jon Vaughn mixed spray paint, scrappy prints and paper into pieces that attested to a lack of compositional talent or skill, and hinted at colour blindness (actually, that’s unfair. I’ve known artist who were / are colour blind who demonstrated a finer, qualified hand). There was an assertion of “primitivism” or “rawness” to these things: but if forced, I would say that if we speak of these as “untrained” works, they have more in common with a lack of toilet training and the resultant feces….
Amazingly, in the same show, were the works of Allysha Larsen: whereas Vaughn was a blocked and excessive suppository, Larsen had a few strokes and blots that bastardized the measured considerations of Gottleib, or Kline. These were just as boorishly amateur, as unpleasant as Vaughn, but they fairly vibrated with “artistic” self importance.

Both postured: both failed, and both polluted – and sadly, continue to do so, I’m sure – the artistic waters. Look out, someone has urinated in the pool.
Now, what does this have to do with bananas, or the exhibition at NAC?

To quote a (regretful) former mentor, I make “pretty words as I say ugly things.” Perhaps I am just, like my most favourite protagonist from Richler, Barney Panofsky, “a voracious reader, but you would be mistaken if you took that as evidence of my quality…[a]t bottom, I am obliged to acknowledge…the baseness of my soul. My ugly competitive nature”.

Perhaps – to return to that egregiousness of posture and pretension – this is why I enjoy the banana peels.

Bananganza (it took a few tries to say that without bursting into laughter) “is an exhibit of banana peel photos collected in collaboration since 2014. Inspiration commenced one evening upon visiting a movie theatre. In the parking spot next to mine, it appeared as if all four passengers of the now – gone car had woofed down a banana each, leaving the peels by their respective car doors. The decomposed peels looked like…strange creatures: bats, geese, turtles, birds…I was compelled to snap a photo.” Those are the words of Kristin Stahlman, who has images here, but has a primary role as the accumulator of these images: the person to credit (or blame) for, Bananganza.

Further guiding words from Kristin: “Being an avid walker, I began noticing banana peels nearly everywhere and stopped to snap a photo of each….I posted the small collection on social media, where my friends joined in. Soon the random tossed banana peel photo collection expanded to include peel photos sent from all over – the furthest sent from Venice, Italy.”
There’s humour: Lynie Clifford (Tonawanda, NY) has Poor Froggy, all black and rigid and amphibian shaped. Stahlman has The Bird: also dark and stiff.
But, as is so often with humour, there’s a less jocular underbelly. A personal favourite is the larger Dance, by Dan Hogan, purple and almost like an organ, suggesting a morbidity and almost murder scene tableaux (or, if I may be a bit tasteless – sorry – it almost evokes a severed member, if you follow my meaning). Full Deck, by Lee Jacob (unknown location) shows the fresh, almost pretty bright yellows with mottles of brown and tan, of what must be an easy dozen peels on a wooden deck. Someone gluttonously, ravenously, sated their appetite here, and left the indexical signifier of their own personal bananaganza for an unsuspecting witness. Louise Hominuk (Southampton, ON) has snapped Beach Banana: but the splashes of yellow exposed from the gravel and stones suggest a poorly buried body more than a discovered treasure. Some images are less remote, and are from our own downtown: Stahlman’s Graffiti Peel is a wonderful take on how many photos are shot in front of the multi storey graffiti mura just off St. Paul, down from the PAC. Sydney Kripp’s Muck Tryst offers us a peel almost as dark a brown as the mud and foul water it floats within. The puddle reflects a street light in a shimmery manner: the label with ruined bar code is clearly visible.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure of my position: I’ve been habitually, and obsessively, photographing shopping carts I encounter as I walk the streets of St.Catharines. Some are simple, some are more complicated, but all are found, and I solely document, with no modification, movement or interference.
This has simply been enjoyable to do, and to post on social media, and with a quote or words of my own, sometimes relating to the scene, sometimes grafted onto it with less immediate relation to the scene. Others have told me about being infected by my “seeing” and “noticing”, sometimes in a relaxed, comic manner, and sometimes in a manner that activates their environment in a new way. In some ways, I am a uniquely qualified – and very interested and receptive – audience, to this endeavour.
Of late, I’ve been thinking of my documentation of these as my latest research into late capitalist modernism / late modernist capitalism. Evidence of how the only freedom that matters is the freedom to consume, but also, with how they’re always empty, suggesting a Lacanian desire that is never to be sated, but that permeates and demands and suffuses our world…
The banana peels can be like that: discards of consumption, indexical evidence of consuming, and with the current debate and concern about food prices, this can take on a sinister tone. I spoke recently with a professor from Brock about water, for the recent World Water Day: he asserted that all those futurist warnings about how water will be the new oil, and we’ll see wars and imperialistic forays for water as we’ve seen in Iraq or Afghanistan is unlikely. What he did assert is that at a domestic level we will see shortages and the resultant societal strains and fractures that may take us to the same violence in a different manner.
I think about that with food, when I look at some of these banana peels, these discards: as Atwood said in Year of the Flood, “hunger is a powerful reorganizer of the conscience.”

Bananganza is on display at NAC until the first of April.

Confluence Field Trips at the VISA Gallery

The tale is the map that is the territory. You must remember this. (Neil Gaiman)

I’m interested in the “secret” or “buried” histories of places. This is just my latest trope within sites of contested narratives. A recent British murder mystery I watched was built around the “lost rivers of London” and how a place can exist for so long and change so radically that something is not so much “hidden” as genuinely forgotten. But even if the formally mighty River Fleet became fouled as Smithfield abbatoirs dumped meaty effluvia into it, until it became part of the London sewer system, it still shaped the city. The Fleet defined Farrington Road, and like the River Effra or River Wallbrook or many others, the ‘borders between much of the capital owes much to its buried waterways’, to quote the BBC.

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These are ideas that Elizabeth Chitty asks us to consider in her Confluence Field Trips. Its interdependant combinations of production and presentation from Dick’s Creek to the VISA Art Gallery in The Mariyn I. Walker School of Performing and Fine Arts (barely 15 minutes apart by foot, much more distant metaphorically) straddle spaces both public and private.

This gallery manifestation of Confluence “is part of the artist’s project which includes a website (confluencefieldtrip.ca), walking project, and performance. From September – November, the public was invited to CLAIM SPACE | SEE AND BE SEEN | HEAR AND BE HEARD in three Confluence Field Trips in Canal Valley, St. Catharines.

The “confluence” of the title is that of Dick’s Creek and Twelve Mile Creek…viewed during Confluence Field Trip #1 from Brock University’s Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts to Rodman Hall Art Centre. Dick’s Creek is presumed named for Richard Pierpoint, escaped slave, soldier and settler griot, but is generally known by the name of Old Welland Canal – commerce trumping both nature and black history.

[Confluence] was predicated by the opening in autumn 2015 of two major arts buildings in St. Catharines: the MIW School and the City of St. Catharines’ First Ontario Performing Arts Centre. These buildings overlook Canal Valley, and mark a new phase in a site rich with cycles of wilderness, industry, abandonment, and reclamation”.

What you experience in the gallery is indivisably dependant on what “walkers” experienced. Chitty’s insightful words: “About a hundred people [participated] in seventeen walks conducted mostly in silence except for speaking into an audio recorder, while the artist walked with them wearing a chest-mounted camera. Governance and policy impacts on natural and built space, embodied experience, and marginalized narratives emerge from this work.”

It’s fitting that Confluence is within one of the sites that instigated it. This increases its historical and contemporary relevance, and perhaps troubles the more dominant narrative of economic inclusion and prosperity. Or, if you follow some of the links at Chitty’s site, and the larger history of St. Catharines’ founding, “what has been is what will be, and there is nothing new under the sun”… The economic driver of the confluence of waterways gives way to the economic engine that was auto manufacturing (a confluence of borders and trade) and that we hope is now succeeded by the “cultural city” as economic revitalization.

In light of that, my description of what you see in the VISA space is but a taste, (a map, if you remember the quote that begin this meandering tangent of a review).

On the wall furthest from the gallery entrance is the largest of the videos in the exhibition. It incorporates aspects of all the walks, so its size is merited. Approximately half an hour in length, its bracketed on the three other gallery walls by three other “walks” that are represented by two video monitors apiece (six total). Each small monitor has a set of headphones.
There is audio in the space for the main video on the wall, while another is a ‘mix’ of various audio that also appears in the ‘headphoned’ videos.
There’s a number of voices and sites along the various Confluence walks, but the stories that are most dominant in Chitty’s installation connects back to ’embodied experience’ and ‘marginalized narratives.’ An example of this is from what Chitty calls Walk # 16, from the path described as Confluence Field Trip # 2. In the audio of this walk, you hear the voice of a participant, who’s from Senegal; Richard Pierpoint was, too (once know, less politely but accurately, as Africa’s “slave coast”). So this aural excerpt starts with this gentleman’s voice (in French), wondering what Pierpoint’s ‘original [Senegalese] name’ was, which blends into Elizabeth’s voice talking about Pierpoint and the important role he played in the history of “here.” (Chitty suggests the book A Stolen Life: Looking for Richard Pierpoint).

Another story of place that infuses VISA is found in the audio program centred around the totem pole erected as part of the Canadian Centenniary. This was made by Douglas Cramner of Namgis First Nation in Alert Bay, and seems incongruous here, grafted onto this space in a manner that ignores the different Indigenous nations that comprise this country (it could also exemplify taking a symbol and emptying out its meaning to force hegemonic imperial narratives). This city,this territory, has alternately been claimed by the Haudenosaunee (of the Iroquois Confederacy of Six Nations) or the Anishinaabe. There’s a greater consideration of the specifics of history these days: Chitty illustrates this at her page about territory, and in highlighting what we know – or what we don’t – about the treaties that (like Pierpoint) formed this place (Nanfan or Treaty of Niagara or Wampum Belts Associated With the War of 1812, to name several). And now Isaac Brock University has a Chancellor who told me that she intends her legacy to be that Indigenous history is accorded the respect deserved in a Nation to Nation educational discourse.

But perhaps this all simply comes back to awareness and openess. In late October, when confronted with the impossibility of my usual path to Rodman Hall, I found myself along the lower mud and leaves of Dick’s Creek, the sun shining on the river, the site beautiful and somehow new to me, despite having lived here for nearly two decades, nearly twenty years ago. This was a gift, so that my return to this place was not just a redux, but something new, something undiscovered. The bridge and the water, that this space was mere minutes from St. Paul and had always been here and that I’d never know this seemed impossible.
In light of that, when you visit Chitty’s work at the VISA, it isn’t the end of a project anymore than how history “ends”, but is a place we inhabit and name, and rename, remake and see through new eyes.

 

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You can also see this review in the current issue of The Sound, available all around downtown St.Catharines.

Mori McCrae’s ON SITE: corporeality and absence

The personally engaging aspect of the brief exhibitions in the Denn Tourbin space are that they seem to offer a brief taste of different artistic practices here to a newcomer like myself. I’ve mentioned previously seeing an exhibition in this space less than 24 hours after my arrival in St.Catharines, and that immediacy of presentation – and in this space being a “raw” slice of the community – is something I enjoy.
The slice comment is an allusion to the current exhibition there, an installation / environment that incorporates finished works but these are also part of a larger ongoing reaction to the space. Mori McCrae’s ON SITE is / are many things (note the multiplicity, my unwillingness to refer to it solely as one thing or as a multitude of parts..). Considering that she presents objects that seem like excised corporeal components, removed from – or alluding to – an absent whole, this is fitting. This also matches with how part of the genesis for this installation was her residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland.

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There’s a number of works that will pull you near: near the front of the left gallery entrance is a work that seems, with the sheen of the material, almost like fat. But there’s also a vertical pattern that runs down the middle of the piece, like an exposed spine, cleanly circular and naked.

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This rough rectangle pokes out from the wall in a vee, as its hung in a manner that allows it to sag forward. This makes some of the interior details of the work more prevalent: the layers of material, the folds that are exposed to our view, that make the work as sculptural as drawn (useless distinctions here – the surface and objects are worked is a better descriptor). It’s pale pink fleshy, then deeper reds, some marks that seem scars or just a continuation onto these pieces of the words on the walls that already seemed to be everywhere when I visited. The matching oval “holes” seem vulnerable, like a wound. The thin, delicate words that are so ordered across the red interior are like the striated lines of muscle fascia. Edges of this work have the sporadically spaced “stitches”, raised braided marks that further the sense of this piece as a ripped fragment of a larger body…fat, bone, cartilage, all captured in paper and paint and the artist’s hands.
There’s an asylum quality to the text, creeping and insinuating onto so many surfaces, like a resident of Arkham (Lovecraft is never far from my mind, when asylums are near): and here is a good point to interrupt my hyperbole about her lovely delicate constructions and cite her statement about her show at NAC.
Recently I attended the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland.  The house and grounds were part of the estate of Sir Tyrone Guthrie, generously bequeathed to the state upon his death in 1970. His vision was to provide a haven for artists to develop.
While researching the centre I became aware that the residency had a posh reputation. However, when I returned from my stay three weeks later to my home in St. Catharines, I had formed my own ideas.  The paring down of the basic daily acts of working, eating, exercise and sleeping, under the watchful care of the centre’s unobtrusive staff, left me with the impression of residing at a “benign asylum,” in the very best sense of both words.
[Throughout] the duration of the exhibit, where along with visual works, I will install enlarged versions of the poetry I wrote while at this residency on the walls of the Niagara Artist Centre in an attempt to bring this benign asylum here to St. Catharines.
There’s an ambiguity to the works, that suggests a space where alternate, perhaps even disagreeing, interpretations are permitted. In conversation with McCrae, I appreciatively noted how some works could be internal organs, or a rendering of pelvic bones, or even cross sections of bones or cellular, microscopic portraits that are more abstracted than recognizable.
A work in the back part of the gallery, fittingly solo on its own short wall (pinned like a diagram or an excised sample with shiny silver T pins, almost as brutal as medical), is worthy of your attention. It’s engrossing and grotesque. The clear mylar overtop doesn’t inhibit escaping strands and strips that hang nearly to the floor, but instead makes it even more pseudo medical, psuedo antiseptic. These hang, loose and less decorative, like a tassel, then like tendrils, or evidence of a ripped connection to another component…

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The large shape is softly curved, or something like buttocks, fleshy and rounded, maybe even like a fine cut or loin. There’s cavities along the lower part, and the rounded patterns mimicking a spinal column are here again (it’s a motif that marks several other pieces in the gallery). The upper edge has a contour that is reminiscent of a hip bone, or even a clavicle / shoulder blade curve…this might be the upper back, hung on a wall.
There’s several smaller works: some are framed, and the text on the walls varies between strength and subtlety, words that are bold or barely legible. When I first visited several walls had the faint lines of grey, making walls into ruled note paper, and McCrae’s words were in her own cursive hand.
Let’s jump backwards for a moment: Judy Graham had work in NAC just prior to McCrae: her drawn works incorporated spills and drips and seemed more stained and soiled than “drawn”, in the excellent style of Betty Godwin’s works. Delicate marks gave way to vivid stains on large sheets of paper, with words as much incised as written, as much graphic as literary.
Returning to now: that same expressiveness is here with McCrae. And jumping back to the present, I revisited McCrae’s installation on the last day of its presence in NAC.
The words are now bold and a bit reminiscent of blood in their colour: the stripes get long longer still then dissolve or it startles lifts then reclaims to simmering elements. This makes the text on several works more inviting, and the words that appear on works are as evocative.
sHE FUmBLED AT HIS THUMBS FAINTLy TRACED HIS LIPS FLAMINGO PINK POKED STONE runs down one piece. The aforementioned smaller framed pieces, titled liver and pelvic bowl, hang on a sliver of wall, adding to the density of their composition. The larger curved work with the dangling strips has changed: a dark rich reddish stain is now just below its lower edge, as though the work has seeped into the wall, just as the words could be seen to have oozed out through them to be visible to the visitor (some have appeared in new spaces since my last visit, like above the door frame).
It’s regrettable that the show wasn’t up longer, but the briefness is also exciting, as ON SITE transformed the space and will take another form elsewhere (I’m reminded of Hazel Meyers’ tendency to paint and draw on gallery walls, exhibiting the same project in different spaces that become diverse segments of a larger whole). And that is, perhaps, a strength: ON SITE will occupy another space and graft further ideas about the Guthrie residency and McCrae’s translation of it to a different place, in literal and ephemeral ways.