We can do better, or why you shouldn’t support Canadian Art Magazine’s pleas for your cash

I recently had a conversation with local artist Bruce Thompson: we’re both in the downtown of STC often, but this time we were in his studio. This is one of the NAC spaces on St. Paul. We often have intense, and serious conversations about both the local art community and the wider national, or international one. Usually one of us is on their way somewhere else, and we have to cut the discussion (or debate, or argument – meant in the best way) short. So, Bruce told me to come by and we picked up a few conversational threads we’d had to let drop previously.

He made a point the other day, in response to a piece I shared from frieze magazine: a smart and critical article about “clean collections.” When I shared it on social media, I used it as an opportunity to again point out how Canadian Art Magazine is a shoddy screed of ill considered ideologies compared to texts like frieze, or e – texte, or Art In America. (In light of the “correcting” of the Emily Carr painting at the AGO, this is a very Canadian concern. Art is messy business.)

I decline to share anything here from CA- which repeatedly claims to be “Canada’s most widely read art magazine.” Crudely, if this is true (I’ll revisit that in a moment) its like dog faeces being the most widely encountered faeces. You still don’t want to step in it. Speaking to a number of recent BFA grads and emerging artists here, I suggested they avoid reading it at all, like avoiding anyone with a cold you don’t want to catch. This is a radical departure for me, as I’ve always been an advocate of Doris Lessing’s idea that you need to engage with writing you may disagree with, and not just dismiss it. But there’s a difference between contested narratives, and ignorant ones, to paraphrase the recently passed Harlan Ellison. 

This might seem extreme, but after reading a piece by one of their editors, which appears to endorse twitter mob censorship and making challenging artworks into “unart” while misrepresenting the situation in question (which is even more offensive and unprofessional in light of smarter pieces like this) it is time to ignore – and no longer support – such sophistry.

This is one of many reasons why I have contempt for CA. This has been, after all, the same year where they killed off a significant Indigenous artist, while resurrecting a gallery that hasn’t existed for nearly a decade. This was in their issue before last, with their insert advertorial about #YXE beginning with The Red Shift Gallery, which ceased operations quite some time ago…interesting that an Indigenous arts space is treated so shabbily, but we must consider the following: 

“My problem with Liberalism [as often manifest by CA’s board] is that it’s more concerned with policing people’s language and thoughts without requiring them to do anything to fix the problem. White liberal college students speak of “safe spaces”, “trigger words”, “micro aggressions” and “white privilege” while not having to do anything, or more importantly, give up anything.” (Phoebe Maltz Bovy)

Apparently one of the “dirty words” they were exploring, though not naming in the issue devoted to that theme, is “fact”, or “editorial rigour” or “accountability.”

A screen grab (July 3rd) from CA’s FB page.

But returning to the conversation that spurred this post. Thompson’s point was this, and it’s a good one: we, as Canadians – whatever that means and we should be open to that honest contested difference in definition – should not abdicate our critical discourse, our responsibility to be able to speak, write and thus think and question critically our cultural spheres and cultural productions. My response was that there’s many good writers out there: just avoid the horrid umbrellas of mediocrity and incompetence, the hideous spaces that are more concerned with parting you from your money than offering intelligent articles for your cash. Also, be aware that you don’t become a karaoke modernist, as I saw in Saskatoon and Regina, where “conversations” are deformed by regionalism and when your ideas – and artwork – is shown to fall short of the critical rigour demanded in other, sometimes international, spaces, take it as a challenge, not as an excuse to assert regionalist incest under the guise of “nationalism.” 

This is why it is disappointing to anyone who has some knowledge of stories covered by CA, which is happy to run articles and hypocrisy from individuals criticizing the galleries re: inclusiveness, while both are employees and loud advocates for one of the most institutionally racist universities in Western Canada. This isn’t just a problem with CA, but they’ve been getting cosy in groupthink with another online screed space that proclaims a “return to art criticism” while parachuting someone into a space where they know nothing of the history or the importance of what they’re covering, which is a more extensive or expensive version of just wasting your money – and once respected plaform – on paying for a friend’s cross country vacation, where they talk more about the farmer’s market than art. 

At a certain point, a critical reader stops engaging, as the work is shoddy, biased and plays fast and loose with facts. This is not a worthy endeavour to support, either with your intellectual energy or your cash.

I’m revisiting this poverty of thought because this latest plea for financial support from Canadian Art was just forwarded to me. Once my schadenfreude laughter dissipated I had to respond:

A”re you into what Canadian Art has been doing recently? Perhaps you never were before? The best way you can support us is with a print subscription, which is only $20 a year. The changes at the magazine over the last two years have shaken our foundation of legacy subscribers/donors; their voices are loud and influential (despite their opinion otherwise). If you believe in the changes we’ve begun, and are in a position to support us with a subscription, it would go such a long way to helping us to continue doing what we do. Thank you.”

I would advocate NOT subscribing or supporting Canadian Art Magazine in any way or form, or offering any financial support, until a clear and transparent house cleaning – an enema, if you will – occurs there. How can a magazine claim to be significant when it gives voices to some of the worst and most hypocritical institutional racists I interacted with, in the Canadian Art sphere?

Frankly, CA has engaged in some very questionable behaviour that is undeserving of financial support. This suggests instead that its symptoms of financial distress are correctly correlated to their lack of quality, oversight and ethically questionable positioning of themselves as advocates when they give voice to hypocrites.

Saying someone’s voice is important when you’re panhandling for their disposable income is akin to how, years ago, a University I worked at undermined digital media in every decision. But “suddenly” it was time for an external review – with power over financial support – which asked about changes and initiatives promised in digital / new media sphere. Suddenly I went from an exploited sessional who was told to make do with what shoddy equipment was provided by other areas, for digital imaging / video, to being a “valued member of the department.” Then the University of Saskatchewan Art Department got a middling evaluation in the review. Not enough to shake the calcified status quo but easy to ignore and be ignored (“we’re a good painting / school” asserted one tenured doorstop but as with CA’s words in their pleas for subscribers, saying it doesn’t make it so) and everything went back to “normal.”

Several years later, more digital media is taught in high schools there than at the Art Department, and they’ve lost ground to their primary regional competition, the University of Regina, that will never be regained.

A waste of money, a passel of expensive egos in a fetid recipe of incompetence and ignorance. That’s also Canadian Art: years ago I had to argue with a “fact checker” over Starlight Tours in Saskatchewan, for a review of Ruth Cuthand’s work. This is just another point of unprofessionalism and incompetence that is seen in the “death” of Pechawis or granting Marcus Miller, a loud and well paid advocate for one of the most institutionally racist art departments in Canada, a platform.

Unlike the editors at CA, I don’t advocate censoring them, or silencing their idiocy and incompetence. But there is far better art writing out there in unexpected places (the paper at which I’m Assistant Editor, The Sound, devoted major resources and space to covering the issue of Rodman Hall and Brock University. But there are many better spaces out there providing considered and intelligent – and genuinely provocative – content that makes it very easy to eschew the juvenalia of CA.

We live in an time where the promise of more funding for the Canada Council seems to have stuttered, and where cultural workers are paid as poorly – or worse – than they were twenty years ago (another legacy of the Boomers, perhaps).

This is a time where it should be understood that choosing to not support an organization or a group that claims to value all opinions but disproves this quite fervently by their actions is the ethical choice. It is, in the end, no different than how we have to consider, as members of various degrees of activity in cultural communities in Canada, whether to support ARCs or not, gaging actions to intent, ideology to truth. I say this as I have been an active supporter of NAC since my arrival in St. Catharines, and an active supporter with time and money to a number of other cultural spaces. However, I advocate repeatedly for more rigorous oversight, as aka artist run has never acknowledged its abuse of governance, deliberate misleading of members at an AGM in suppressing facts, and having to be shamed into paying emerging artists – the latter should be an offense that results in a loss of funding. Why that didn’t happen is an example of the same institutional calcification and hypocrisy that defines the current version of Canadian Art.

Further, my own involvement with cultural spaces has been significant and varied: but it didn’t preclude that when those spaces become rancid, and boards and staff won’t address it, that I would blindly support them. BlackFlash Magazine was a publication I supported in many ways over a long period (helping to formalize the Editorial Committee, introducing image reproduction fees and guidelines to deal with Board / EC friction and conflict of interest as pertaining to contributors). I am a founding member of PAVED, and saw aka artist run through several bad spells of board incompetence and staff difficulty: ending my support of those groups was difficult, but when the institutions begin to rot and won’t change, washing one’s hands is the best approach (aka is an effective corollory to CA, as the director of said ARC responded to criticisms of how artists were unpaid, or members openly misled at AGMs, by accusing critics of “misogyny”). My contributions – whether in volunteer time or in financial terms – are better spent elsewhere, in spaces that merit them, and put them to good use that serves a larger community, not an exclusive clique.

Culture is important. Canadian art and artists are important. We deserve better, and must demand better, before we continue to support a failed institution that seems to brush off mistakes and decisions that not only invite criticism, but are inherently flawed (and clearly so to anyone outside the CA bubble). This is very possible (there are several examples of boards and directors being ousted by members, or being forced out due to their mismanagement, in the history of ARCs and other collectives, in Canada). It is also necessary, as throwing hard earned and sparse cultural funds at this rubbishy state of affairs will not improve the situation.

Giving money to Canadian Art Magazine is an endorsement of their failure, and that will only lead to worse, and more egregiously shoddy examples of their incompetence.

We need to do better, and we merit better. #DEFUNDCANADIANARTMAGAZINE

 

 

Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell shows his credentials for Haldimand Art Works

I’m very pleased to be speaking at this event for Haldimand Art Works and what I’ve put together below is a bit of an introduction.

Years ago I was asked to speak to the Master of Fine Arts Critical Studies Group at the University of Saskatchewan, where I had taught for 14 years, before the usual university cabal – overpaid administrators and incompetent tenured faculty only concerned with their own salaries – embraced “austerity” and let many of us go. I mention this as being invited back, four years or so later to talk to their MFA / MA students, in my very public role as an arts writer in Saskatoon, was amusing, because I had a reputation – well deserved – for saying what I thought, and being liberal in my criticisms of my former employer. This was often like shooting fish in a barrel, but when most of your faculty hadn’t exhibited artwork in more than a decade, nor shown in a faculty show for longer, it is good to not “shoot the messenger” but perhaps consider the facts of the situation. Amusingly, a piece I wrote used that title, when I was responding to an artist run centre that had to be shamed (by myself, and others) into paying artists, and an attempt to smear me backfired.

I mention these for several reasons: the latter situation with a horrid artist run centre illustrates what I often see as the necessity of art, and art writing, mattering to the community, and not being caught up in esoteric, or more airy, issues (I’ve often been accused of being “too political” or “too historical”, to which I usually said perhaps the problem was that they were “too ignorant” – or that if you criticise art for being “too political” what you might mean is that it’s not “your politics”).

I also cite the MFA class as the piece I wrote for them, before I spoke to them, was called “Who Cares, Why Bother: the existential crisis of writing art criticism in a small community.” Amusingly, this has, after much arguing, struggle and alcohol (on my part, I won’t presume to speak for the main editor) become a chapter in Art From The Margins: Visual Culture in Saskatchewan. More relevantly, when I spoke to that class, I selected three articles I thought important, that I’d written, and we talked about them and the ideas around them. I’ve done a similar thing here, so you’ll have an idea of who I am, how I write, and how I approach the useless yet sometimes groundbreaking exercise in egotism that is too often art criticism / art writing.

Lacie made me laugh when I saw that she used my somewhat tongue in cheek sobriquet of #artcriticfromhell. That was originally thrown at me, as an insult, by someone who felt I was too flippant, not academic enough, not formal enough – essentially, as I said to them, not enough like what they THOUGHT art criticism should be, in their narrow expectations and views.

I’ve also been called by another artist / arts administrator the “most subjective” critic they know, and another said I was the “most direct” (trust me, the way she said it, it was an insult, too). I accept all these, and another artist once called me a Strelnikov (from Dr. Zhivago) as he said I expected too much of art, and was too demanding, and was too critical when “art” (my quotes, not his) didn’t live up to this. This is also true, in part.

What I’ve linked out to, here, are all articles that are important not just in seeing how I approach what I do, and my rules for doing it, but also one of the most important aspects of what I do: my connection to community.

My biography is here, and I’ve worn many hats, and done many things, within cultural spaces. Volunteering is very important to me: and this link, from my time with CFCR 90.5 FM illustrates that, with some fun links.

But some of the pieces that I’ll be happy to reference or talk about when I meet with you all are below. However, one of the hats I wear right now is facilitator for the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Image Maker Conversations, and I enjoy that greatly as its a very open, inclusive dialogue about making images, and images themselves, and I’m happy to talk about larger issues that inform writing about art, and the ideas – and sometimes idiocy, ahem – behind it.

My agenda as an arts writer has often been informed by a desire to foster conversations about art in spaces and with people that don’t always feel they’re invited to be part of this discussion, and to offer the idea that art writing, like art itself, can be enjoyed by many diverse and different groups, in different ways.

This is just a selection, and much of my writing is online, and easily found with a web search.

Lure of the Local, Material Girls (The Sound), Philia (The Sound, and I have many pieces at The Sound, and you can follow the “ART” drop down menu for them), A Confluence Field Trips (HAL), Every Prophet In Their House (HAL), Patrick Traer (Galleries West), Modern Women at Magenta Magazine (more articles by me are here) and two pieces I wrote for Canadian Art.

This is a downloadable PDF of a longer piece I wrote for FUSE Magazine: I regard it as an important piece as issues of audience, and who is being served, or not being served, in gallery and cultural spaces, was a topic I focused upon.

I wrote for Planet S for nearly a decade, but their archive is not well designed. Here’s the last piece I wrote for them, before I left Saskatoon, and it’s a fun piece for many reasons.

Change. Change. Chaaaaange.

“Change. Change. Change. Change … change. Change. Chaaange. When you say words a lot they don’t mean anything. Or maybe they don’t mean anything anyway, and we just think they do.” (Gaiman)

“I’m going to dance now, I’m afraid.” (Gaiman)

As some of you may have noticed, it has been a little while since there’s been an update to this site. This hasn’t been because I’ve not been writing, but since the last months of 2017 I’ve been taking on a more active role with The Sound, as the Assistant Editor, which includes being able to now post articles there. There’s many amazing writers whom contribute to The Sound, so check it out (Emily Spanton‘s ongoing series about drug addiction merits your attention and this recent dissection of the upcoming Ontario Election by Patrick Crummey is very good).

In light of that, I’ll be doing less updates here, but encourage you to visit The Sound‘s site, and as I said, there’s many things happening there, in terms of local visual arts coverage.

I must add that the Post Industrial Landscape photo series is expanding, and that’s also wonderfully time consuming (and very enjoyable. This past week two new contributors have passed on wonderful images, and a recent suggestion of having an “intern” to help make a PDF of the current status of the project was suggested by someone, I think, who wants the “job”). A new tiny cart has come into my possession and will be travelling east, while the original tiny cart is on its way back from Saskatoon and Winnipeg, with images documenting this. My Instagram is the best place to see my ongoing photo work.

A teaser: I will be resuming doing pod casting in the near future. These will be posted here, for download or sharing or just your enjoyment or offence, edit as you will. This is an endeavour facilitated through the Niagara Podcaster’s Network, an award winning group worthy of your support.

A further teaser: there are some complications regarding my contribution to Art From The Margins: A New Perspective on Visual Culture in Saskatchewan. I may post my chapter here, as that’s a place that I need to wash the filth of, from my feet, for good, and this solicited chapter is the last ligament to be severed to allow for evolution and growth….or like a hairball to be expunged, for further breathe.

A shameless plug: The St. Catharines Arts Awards are happening this June, and Chris Illich (Publisher, Managing Editor) has been nominated and The Sound has also been nominated as Patron. Thank you, for this, and we look forward to continuing to support our community, as it supports #wearethesound.

 

The distance between us: thoughts on The Florida Project and The Square

Spoiler Alert: if you’ve not yet seen either of these films, the following piece mentions various scenes and plot points.

The difficulty in writing a review of The Florida Project is twofold, and both of these aspects speak to the power of the film.

The visuals are overwhelming in an aesthetic sense, with the pastel (yet vibrant) colours, with motels that seem to have fallen – and been damaged in the degradation – out of a Disneyland paradise, overwhelming architecture (Project must be seen on the big screen) that proclaims a dreamy ideal that is repeatedly, and directly, exposed as false by the characters on screen. The base lives of quiet desperation chronicled by the characters belies the “fairy tale” facades of the scrubby motels that are the backdrop to their daily struggles. All of my words there are not the equal of the few seconds where Mooney or Dickey traverse their decayed “Disneyland”.

But going deeper than how The Florida Project exposes a facade of America that’s often – still – obscured by performative, or slightly worn, artifice (like sequins worn from a gaudy costume), the emotional resonance of the film is hard to put into words. The stories of the people transcend the idea of “players”, or “actors” (unsurprisingly, Bria Vinaite and Brooklyn Prince are fresh faces, unmitigated and truthful in their portrayals. But they hold their emotional weight with Willem Dafoe here, like tragic participants in a inevitably sad story….).

It’s a rough, emotionally raw film: the manner in which it ends is perhaps one of the finest examples of the vision of Sean Baker (director / writer) and Chris Bergoch (writer). As the story builds to what can be seen as an inevitable confrontation, we’re given a scene that is alternately a visually enticing “escape” but also one that we know is fake.

The Florida Project has been praised in many reviews as a story about childhood, and I’d echo that, in that its a contemporary foray in that genre. But I’d add go beyond that, in light of the ending (in conversations with many, both within and without the cultural sphere, the closing scene has marked us all without exception). Firstly, the manner in which the Disney “castle” backdrop suddenly comes to the fore, in Mooney’s world, took me back to watching The Wonderful World of Disney as a child, after supper on Sunday nights, with my siblings. What we watched eludes me, and like many memories, it’s more visual and emotional than relatable in language. This experience was elicited so immediately, and so easily, by this scene, when I’d not thought of it in years.

Less warmly, the lies we’re told in childhood and the loss of innocence that comes hand-in-hand with the loss of those years is implicit to the desperate nature of Mooney’s flight from the failure of her domestic situation and the intrusion of cold reality into her world. An addendum to that last statement: Halley (Vinaite, as Mooney’s mother) jokes at one point that she’s a “failure as a mother”, in an amusing exchange with Defoe where the privileging of “tourists” above all else is discussed. But Halley reminds me of a lot of parents I know, who do the best they can with what they have, and that are doomed to fail despite doing all they can. Their situations say more about “America” than anything else. In full disclosure, I saw I, Tonya (the story of Tonya Harding’s brief rise and long fall) the same week as The Florida Project, and class and the lies of the “American Dream” inform my interpretations.

I hesitate to cite Donald Trump’s America. Too many of my critical brethren (especially in privileged sites like Canadian Art) seem to think they have an obligation to cite Trump in any and every piece they write, whether relevant or not. I eschew the idiocy that artists are magical unicorns that can change the world, to quote an excellent response to the 2017 Berlin Biennale. But the fact that The Florida Project is fictional does not make it any less true, or any less resonant, for what America is, right now, as opposed to what it would like to pretend it is (Horatio Alger is dead, and the American Dream never was true). Like Disneyland, once you see the facade, you can’t pretend that it is not there. The centre doesn’t hold.

The Florida Project is that rarity, in that it seduces and saddens, simultaneously. It’s required viewing for 21st century America (like a look in the mirror…).

———————————————

The Florida Project could be described as exposing a reality often obscured by artifice. The Square is something else entirely, and to attempt to encapsulate what it was about is as difficult as trying to define relational aesthetics, which is an art world citation that appears, either by direct reference, or implicit in interactions and artworks, throughout the film.

The Square seems more a series of vignettes that are interconnected, that in some ways enhance each other, or do the opposite, or do nothing at all with each other. It’s a long film: at some points it drags, but several scenes evoke a visceral response that is reminiscent of Gaspar Noé and his irreverent fracture of what film is / should be / “shouldn’t” entail (Enter The Void, perhaps, or Irreversible). Ruben Östlund is both the writer and director of this lauded film, as it won the Palme d’Or and been vetted at various international festivals.

A “digression, but a pertinent one” (to quote Mordecai Richler’s verbose Barney Panofsky): I’ve been consuming a lot of film lately, and one of note that I saw for the first time was Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

It’s not good: I can’t help but feel that it benefits from how, in the visual arts world (especially the Canadian contingent), “meaning” and “relevance” is projected into something whether its there or not, and that ontological quality is neither relevant nor to be considered, comrade.

But – a very large “but” – there’s an idea suggested in the article Cinema crudité in Harper’s Magazine, that what Wiseau does is refute – or ignore – our expectations of what film should be, that are not any more set in stone than the idea that once the camera didn’t move at all, or that characters couldn’t speak over each other (Robert Altman’s Nashville). As one critic said to W. D. Griffiths indignantly, why didn’t he show people’s feet? Our expectations of what is a “movie” is as facile as anything else, as prescriptive as any propaganda: consider David Lynch, or Eisenstein’s invention of the “cutaway” in Potemkin or Anger or Riefenstahl. Film is not an old medium, and what we expect is not always all that can be done. “Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind.” (Doris Lessing)

I must mention Adorno’s idea from Minima Moralia, that when many are confronted with something genuinely new they often fall back on the “shamelessly modern assertion that they don’t understand.” (I mentioned that I’ve been a bit of a cinephile lately: Luv, from Blade Runner 2049 spits that “in the face of the fabulous new, your only thought is to kill it”).

Returning to The Square: it’s a complex film, that bores sometimes, but then holds your attention so well that you’ll “awake” when the scene is done to realise that the action that just elapsed has affected you physically, with heart racing.

I offer two tangential observations, and I reserve the right to change my mind later (the aforementioned Harper article on Wiseau, by Tom Bissell, spoke smartly of how repeated viewings of a film, or time to digest what we’ve experienced, can and must change our opinions).

Firstly, in its overt and subliminal exploration of relational aesthetics, I return to Richler: “Life [is] absurd, and nobody ever truly understood anybody else. Not a comforting philosophy…”

The conversations, arguments and confrontations suggest this gulf that exists, whether occurring naturally or influenced by characters’ actions. Exchanges are fraught with potential disaster. The stuttering, angry and resentful exchange – only to be resolved in some manner – between the critic Ann and the curator Christian (Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang), with the dangerously tilting artwork in the background, and the accelerating crashing noises suggesting impending failure was one of the finest scenes in The Square. It blended humour and pathos well, and was alternately touching and moronic.

That’s a scene that slyly but audibly threatens: but the second observation I’d offer about The Square is more grotesque, and its a tableaux that’s haunted me. It’s a scene that could be removed and presented on its own, and in the succession of vignettes its one that balances some of the banal segments with a violence (implied and literal) that shows what performance art could be, if it wasn’t so irrelevantly self referential and self aggrandising.

Another digression: my dismissal of performance art is because I’ve endured too much of it that proclaims transgression and not only fails to deliver, but gives you boredom instead. It need not be like this: if you’ve seen The Artist Is Present, I suggest researching what Marina Abramović and Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) did when they were still collaborators, and many of their works (Relation in Space, or Relation in Time) made audiences uncomfortable, and skirted danger to themselves and others. Ambromović’s seminal Rhythm 0 where she invited “participants” to do what they liked to her with objects provided, maintaining a passive role, is horrifying (that took place in 1974. We’ve gone backwards, not forwards, since..). But if it’s strained and anxiety inducing, it is indisputably (as with Chris Burden’s Shoot, from 1971), and perhaps criminally, real.

When we see what passes for performance art now, of eating too many Big Macs or sitting on an ice cube with a lit candle and expecting your “audience” to endure the boredom you’re inflicting, apathy is understandable. In conversation with an audio performance artist and a painter once, in Regina, I let slip that I often secretly think of many Canadian “performance artists” as akin to the obligatory, somewhat abusive, porn scenes where the “money shot” is on the female performers’ face, and she’s just being used as a reluctant receptacle of someone’s unpleasant manifestation of ego….

A funny story: several years ago, at the now closed Mendel Art Gallery, I was in the audience for a performative work that was in the tradition of 1960s musical “happenings.” Afterwards, several individuals who identify as “performance artists” complained about the length, “boring” nature and “irrelevance” of the work. My demeanour was tested as I had often thought the exact same of their practice, and wondered at their blinders in walking out of the piece, when they’d often attempted to shame viewers who had tried to flee their own exercises in ego….

Returning to The Square. What the character Oleg (portrayed by Terry Notary) does, for a performance work at a fancy gala at the X Royal Museum transcends all that garbage.

It’s not surprising that the promotional images for the movie have been Oleg atop a table, looking aggressively Simian. His physical posture asserts he owns the room and anyone within it (as he demonstrates, pushing it further and further, rapaciously). What begins as the usual “art” that toys with transgression and discomfort escalates into true violence. Again, reality and film collide and merge: this piece is a reinterpretation – in homage – to Oleg Kulik’s various works where he has, in the role of a dog, been known to bite gallery goers who ignored the warnings. In the larger issue of relational aesthetics that The Square offers, its worth noting that Kulik (the real Oleg as opposed to the film Oleg) states his “intention is to describe what he sees as a crisis of contemporary culture, a result of an overly refined cultural language which creates barriers between individuals.”

The manner in which the scene ends – is abruptly cut – leaves us wondering if it terminated with the ultimate act of murderous violence (by a righteously aroused mob, what Slavoj Žižek prosaically terms “divine violence”, where the reaction is immediate, unthinking and thus “pure”). The thin veneer of society, as exemplified by this moneyed, privileged gathering, erodes at this artistic scratching. 

This lack of clear resolution permeates The Square: in conversations, to conflicts, in how this is not the sole death  – or more exact, murder – that may have happened in The Square. We’re left to decide for ourselves what transpired here. In conversation, several people asserted that a disturbing sequence is due to the “ghost” of one of the “victims”….

This bring us around again to a “problem” with relational aesthetics: a failure of narrative consensus (“That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.” My apologies: T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock is a poem I love and is often in my mind).

The tagline (both for the movie, and the artwork in the film from which the name is taken) is how “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”

This wasn’t true to my experience of (the film) The Square. I’d cite, more accurate to my impression, an artwork that curator Christian demonstrates to his two daughters. A gallery visitor, to gain entry to a show, must push one of two buttons. One declares that you trust people, while the other states that you mistrust people. The LED displays on the wall keep count: those who trust are nearly fifty, and only three seemed comfortable enough to openly declare their cynicism for humanity.

But the exhibition (based on the detritus and protective covers), indicates its not yet been opened to the public. The numbers are thus false: and I found myself wondering if the “mistrust” numbers were to encourage honesty (so you needn’t be the “only” one to doubt), or if the numbers were presented to force a more positive, hopeful facade (people are exponentially more trusting, “people are essentially good” but civilisation corrupts, as Rousseau would say. But flouting this is the opening sequence where Christian has his phone and wallet stolen in a grift that is unique enough to demand respect, and that plays on trust. However, we find out later he also assumed his cuff-links were taken, and they were not. For a moment in the narrative you wonder how reliable his recounting of his experience is…do we “trust” Christian, or “distrust” him?).

The Square offers us hints, but not resolution; narratives but no conclusion. In some ways, its a different story constructed from the same components as The Florida Project. Both offer truth and artifice, allusion and honesty. I plan to watch them both again.


The Square and The Florida Project were both on view at the Film House in the Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines in January of 2018. Many thanks to the staff of both the Film House and Niagara Artist Centre who have a strong hand in programming films unavailable elsewhere in Niagara. The upcoming schedule can be seen here.

From here to there and space between: Cody and Connor Smith

For works that are as much about how they’re made as what they show, the pieces in I Have A Vision In My Mind Of A Life That I’ve Left Behind have a presence, as they punctuate the walls that surround you in the Showroom Gallery at NAC. All are massive works: the sheer physical nature of the show (with pieces as big as the industrial garage door that also is in the space, that – with its implications of travel – seems to work with the large collaborative paintings) will be the first impression it makes on you. The titles also imply “elsewhere” or, again, the exotica of other places: Feels Like California or Lucid Dreams of the Northern Passage or (my future home) Berlin. That city, invoked by the title, is also relevant to this show for another reason, but before I explore that, let us go then, you and I, to the statement of the artists in this show. The installation allows for your to stand in the middle of the gallery as you read their words, and be engulfed in the landscape of their works, and I suggest you do so when you visit.

Vision presents “collaborative paintings created by two brothers [Cody and Connor Smith], while living 5000 kilometres apart from each other. Their collaborative process involved sending paintings back and forth between Toronto and Vancouver over the course of one year. The resulting works are hybrid images that existed simultaneously in multiple geographical areas.” This sense of two artists can be seen in how the pieces betray some very different styles of mark making, and some very different use of texture, line and other formal aspects. But to return to my earlier comment about Berlin: in the recent debates regarding monuments and history, Berlin was cited as a space with contentious baggage that has managed to mark what has happened in a considered and genuine way (Eisenman and Happold’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is such a work). So, in light of how the works presented by the Smiths are less capturing a place than a creation of one, incorporating memories or impressions as much as any “real” imagery of the place, pieces like Upper Canada or (appropriately titled, suggesting brevity and a fleeting nature) Glimpse are more interpretations than representations. Unless, of course, it’s understood that these are personal representations: paintings are often more creation of a moment than a photographic “capture” of one.

The pieces in their size shouldn’t dissuade you from examining respective details: the gloppy dabs and dollops of paint, like indexical proof of the frenetic painting of one of the Smiths are built upon with more subtle lines. The latter, finer marks are less expressive but are like editing, forming the original spattersmattersplatter into a cyclist, or a building, or another recognizable subject. Other sections, with dazzling yellows and blues offer respite from the intense scratchy marks that convey action and an intense hand (oil, acrylic, chalk, charcoal and marker are listed as mediums, but really, I imagine anything that facilitates and is at hand, with the sense of immediacy with these works, has been used). In their statement, they offer that the paintings are ongoing, never actually being finished, and that the collaboration is at times adversarial, at other times more united, and the logistics of sending the works (canvas is easily stretched / restretched / stretched) back and forth can be both an advantage (time to consider) and problem (one’s vision isn’t just left behind, or is actively sent away to be effected, or changed, or degraded by another’s vision).  A moon, in dirty whites and dark greens, floating in a pure blue sky whose flatness is complimented by the yellow gold architecture of a building floating above water (there seems to be water, or waterways in all the works; again, suggesting a “road” to elsewhere, a river flowing away, with the prominence of boats and vessels here, too) is a highlight. Paint that looks like string, both in its raised texture, and how it tangles and twists and creates forms less than it creates action is common: the cyclists in one work are less dramatic than the ‘x’ of the spokes on their bikes that catch your eye across the gallery.

I Have A Vision In My Mind Of A Life That I’ve Left Behind is on display in the NAC Showroom Gallery until the middle of January, 2018: visit the show a few times, as the size of the works may initially intimidate, and their strengths can be found in the details.