William Griffiths: a history in texture and time / lovely ruins

The people who knew me when I coined the term “karaoke modernism” would be alternately confused or elated at how often I speak, these days in Niagara, about the quality of the painting I’m encountering.

The next issue of The Sound, Niagara’s magazine of arts and culture that suffers me to write about Art, in all its shabby glory (Art, not The Sound) will include an artist profile on Matt Caldwell, whose work caught my eye from the first time I saw it at NAC.

I want to mention grote, and linoleum, and other industrial pastes and chunky filler you would use for holes and gaps in walls (Matt mentioned the current exhibition at the Albright Knox, of Clyfford Styll and Mark Bradford, which I highly recommend). Caldwell’s subtle ridges and marks are more engaging to me than the current fad, Agnes Martin, and speak more about the necessary rigour of looking. After all, in one of the streams of Western painting, where narrative has been deemed unneeded, the best painters were / are exploring what painting can be, especially in delicate ways (gradations of greys, variations of white, subtleties of colour as gradated as a computer graphics program. The image below is Seal, by Caldwell, from 2015).

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So, if you eschew narrative, give me something beautiful, or engaging, to admire. If you’re going to abandon a larger social narrative, then work your aesthetic. There is nothing “wrong” with art that foregrounds aesthetics: the problem more so happens when individuals presume they’re making lovely work, but aren’t, and have no concept to fall back upon, for validity. However, the work I’ll be focusing on here melds both of these…

William Griffiths’ exhibition DIG, at the Niagara Artist Centre, is a show I’ve been looking forward to seeing since I encountered several of his works, specifically in the What About Rodman Hall? Exhibition but also online.  There is a quality to Griffiths’ work that is immediately engaging: perhaps that’s because many of the works, like the one in the Rodman show, are smaller and thus invite consideration of their texture and the almost sculptural nature of the application of paint. Also acknowledging my own obsession with industrial wastelands, the rust and metal flake landscapes of the GTA and Niagara (or my time in the mercury laden vistas of Windsor), there are aspects of his work that appeal to me personally.

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His statement: “My art straddles two worlds: photography and painting. My inspiration, consciously or subconsciously, comes from the environment, and the allure found within. I am intrigued by the beauty in the natural world (landscapes, trees, rocks), as well as the beauty in man’s manufactured masses (metal, deteriorating structures, forgotten dwellings). I photograph overlooked objects, and use them as inspiration for abstract work. I strive to recreate the moment, and express what I see.”

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There is a uniformity here, in terms of size, and framing (mostly being square) that fosters a base for the diversity of the works:  various objects are “embedded”, sometimes acting as focal points, other times being submerged in the paint, as though they’re submerged, or obscured, fighting to the surface.

In conversation with Will, we never used the trendy term “palimpsest”, but it factors into his works in a number of ways. DIG in the Dennis Tourbin space at NAC spans nearly a decade, and the seed for the majority of these works occurs in his photographic practice (sometimes in his interest in naturalism, other times in documenting – though that’s too formal a word, I think, denying the immediacy and whimsy at play – this area). A line from our conversation: “history is a treasure hunt.” I like that, as it also suggests “concealed” stories, awaiting a “discoverer.”

The names of several of the works will allude to this, if you’re familiar with “here”, or they’ll act as a “map”: Epworth Circle, Grand Trunk, Michigan Central, Chrysler and Queen, McCleary and Pyramid.

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Pyramid is on the wall “bend”, as I like to designate it, book ending the display of works: I don’t believe it’s the largest work, but it alludes to such, not just because the picture plane is dominated by a degraded and disintegrating pyramid, parts seeming to flake and break, but also in that (in that subjective critic voice I employ) it’s a work I saw two days after visiting Niagara Falls, and seeing the triumvirate of decline that is the Skylon Tower, the Casino and the pyramid shaped IMAX theatre. In some ways, Griffiths’ Pyramid is a portrait of that site: less about minutiae in reproduction as encapsulating the sentiment and sensibility of the sites he “remembers” and paints.

Even the historical – artistically, or otherwise – signifiers that any “pyramid” evokes are: Pyramid is a disturbing portrait of the Falls. This work – and several others in the show, with their insinuations (by title, or by imagery / object) to the industrial history / contemporary wasteland of this region are almost rebuttals – or acidic “corrections” – to the idealist, Marxist murals of Diego Rivera you’ll still see in Detroit, about a “workers’ paradise.” (May I extend my hyperbole and say that the infamous story of Rockefeller having the Rivera mural destroyed / covered up as he found it politically / ideologically “suspect” reminds me of the caustic, if knowing, voice of Anna Szaflarski in her historical meditation on GM and St. Catharines, in A Man’s Job, or the knowing, regretful drunkenness from Stephen Remus’s accompanying text to that installation…).

Everything is defined by place, and where you stand, and what you “see” from there. And “memory….is an internal rumour”, Santayana (yes, the same one who talks about repeating what we haven’t learned) warns us…

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Pyramid strikes me as a singular work: just as Vacant Lot, near the front of the gallery, is also unique, with its slab of black rubber hanging down over the face of the painting. The flat, discarded matte quality makes it as much of a “found” object as other fragments that are part of Griffiths’ painted assemblages (more paint than assemblage). McCleary’s flat blues are broken by a red grey “valve”, somewhat off centre.

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Other works employ geometric, abstract shapes: flat blues, light and dark, and a range of browns to yellows encompassing many flavours of rust and ruin. Three delicate circles of orange punctuate a work (In Time…almost like seconds or hesitation points). Others offer rectangles and angular forms within the picture plane, mimicking the black frames of the work: sometimes richly textured, like a paste, other times seeming to be a ripped or torn scrap (North St.), as though Griffiths is literally covering / revealing a narrative in these works.

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His process begins in photography, and in roaming through areas in Niagara, and taking pictures that may be more “landscape” or may be more so when a small piece, an object or a texture, catches his eye. Thus, when I talk about these works – especially the wall with the “quieter” work that is “based” upon St. Peter’s Cemetery in Thorold – I talk about them as depictions of St. Catharines, and sometimes Niagara, as much as any “landscape” artist. In depictions, we capture, and come to know – or define, perhaps being more about our sentiments – a site. And places exist most truthfully in our mind’s eye, or in the stories we “tell” about them.

More of his statement: “I use unorthodox materials, and experiment with different mediums to emulate the surfaces I see. I am constantly challenging myself, and inventing new ways to relate what I see. I search for methods outside the norm to express myself. I take the medium into unfamiliar practices, and push it to create a new language for itself. Colour, texture and depth are the tools I use to bridge unconventional and traditional acts of painting. By merging abstract and representational methods, I work to create mood and beauty through transformation, similar to nature’s regeneration and structural decay. Leaving myself open to chance and mistakes gives way to new ideas, and this creative process is most important to me, regardless of the work’s final outcome.”

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These are works that function well individually, but stronger as a group, like a painted essay of place. Will and I were talking, as well, about various commercial galleries in STC and beyond, and during this conversation, the works at the TAG gallery, that focus on historical prints of Niagara came up, when discussing audiences and agendas. TAG has an annual show (and a side gallery, year round) devoted to these historic depictions of place. Will Griffiths’ exhibition DIG would be an exciting contrast to that “history”, as it is also grounded “here”, and is perhaps simply a later chapter (in a different language: an abstracted synthesis of found objects with rich textured paint) of Niagara.

DIG runs at NAC until July 2nd, but you can see more of Will Griffiths’ works at the Jordan Art Gallery.

 

Artist Profile: Kate Mazi

There is a playful absurdity to Kate Mazi’s art work: its enticing (the brightly coloured ironing boards, climbing up a wall), but there’s also an intuitive immediacy to it. The contrast of the multicoloured structures on the white wall is just fun, and invite further consideration, but don’t require it, to make an impression. Maybe they’re like a cheerleading pyramid: or insects scuttling across the white gallery wall…

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That was her assemblage work from VISA4F06 at Rodman Hall. Full disclosure: seeing an image of that in Canadian Art’s annual “analysis” of Canadian Art Schools (I call it the “glamour and lies” issue) was one of my first impressions of the Niagara visual arts community. But you’re likely more familiar with her works from several exhibitions in the past eight months, both in the VISA Gallery and NAC (a four person exhibition that just closed, Case Closed is the latest).

Mazi’s art is interdisciplinary in form: genuinely so as the medium serves the concept, and it eschews specificity of medium defining all (like some painters or photographs whom position themselves firmly as such). Her current affinity is more so with photography / digital, installation or drawing. The latter are all “newer” mediums that allow for ambiguity and flexibility, whereas (conversely) drawing is a medium that can be almost anything and can encompass almost everything.

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As the start of a new series in The Sound highlighting local artists, Kate and I sat down and she graciously responded to my impertinent questions. My additional comments are within the [brackets].

BG: Describe your studio practice in several sentences.

KM: My practice is very dependant on the different media or ideas I am working with. I collect objects I find compelling, that I know will be useful to me later, or I will seek certain things in order to use for an already established idea. I choose things based on their everydayness, their aesthetic (shape/colour/texture) and usually their potential to represent a larger issue. I am very interested in social issues, particularly animal rights, although this isn’t always present in my work. I hope to continue finding ways I can critique commercial/consumer culture by drawing attention to the absurdity of the everyday/familiar…. I am very intuitive in the way I work, but often accept those intuitions as being part of a bigger idea and different media motivates me to do different things.

I am constantly being pulled into different media to see what it can offer my ideas. Most recently I have fallen into digital photography – which seems most appropropriate for the work I am trying to produce about food. I enjoy the layers of consumption. It can be visualized ast “ Animal (usually)  > Food > Replica of Food > Photo > Consumed Photo > No Product”, as a kind of framing idea.

Photography and installation are so much more aligned conceptually with the subject matter I am interested in, although painting does have it’s uses – it’s just different. I cherish painting for its immediacy and the fluid nature of the medium – the experience of painting alone is quite visceral and wonderful especially because I am so attracted to colour. I enjoy paintings for interactions I cannot get from found objects and photographs.

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Sometimes painting overlaps with my other media, but usually for really specific reasons.

 BG: Why do you make art? How did you start? Why is it important to you?

KM:  Art has always been present in my life, but it wasn’t until late high-school that I realized I had adequate technical skills and conceptual ideas were percolating, even if not yet ‘fully realized.’ I would always focus on ‘creative’ aspects of projects and assignments from the earliest I could remember – I valued being ‘good’ at art in a different way than I did being ‘good’ at other subjects…

Art making is important to me because I have always questioned the world and how things are. Art is a way of seeing or re-seeing the world and being able to highlight different aspects of how things are or aren’t. I like how art can be as equally “useless” as it is “important”. I make art now because the process of collecting objects, making work and showing work is challenging, addicting and rewarding. Conceptual art helps me think about the world, and critique it. I want to make things that are unseen, yet visible.

My favourite right now is BGL [the trio recently represented Canada at the Venice Biennale. They’ve been described as “sassy and satirical”, “very playful and love to provoke.”] I love what they are doing. Their pieces can be so humourous and I like how they use spectacle to draw attention to social and political concerns…I can relate greatly with commercial/consumer aspects. I’m always intrigued by collaborative projects as well; there is so much more that comes from working with multiple people.

BG: What’s a highlight of your practice, from the past year? What do you have coming up that we should know about?

KM: The highlight of my practice would be the Honours Exhibition I was a part of last spring in Rodman Hall Art Gallery, along with that – one of my works from that show being featured in Canadian Art – Winter 2016 [the aforementioned ironing boards, and the colourful architecturally defined corner of the lower gallery that Mazi made new is this work, all geometric slabs of pure colour, objects – a bright blue purse – that seem banal and exciting, simultaneously].

I also enjoy organizing shows – so the Art Block show in the MIW Gallery in December was also a highlight of this past year. The Brock Art Collective organized something completely new for students and it was a great success. This show got about 40 students involved, sold over $2000 in student work (that fully went back to students) and had an amazing reception turn out. [I would add that Mazi had a major hand in organizing Million Dollar Pink, Brock University’s Fourth Annual Juried Art Exhibition, also at NAC and juried by Linda Steer and Derek Knight.]

BG: What’s your favourite work you’ve made, in the last year? Why?

KM: My favourite work in the last year would have to be my Play Food series [these were the works in Case Closed at NAC. I’d add that a work for sale in Small Feats that was incredibly sexy and grotesque simultaneously, is part of this series, and I wished I had gotten to it before it sold..]. I knew little about digital photography going into it, and my results were far better than what I could imagine. This work really engages in topics I feel strongest about. I want to keep working using these techniques I have taught myself. I have many things ‘collected’ for this process of image making to use.   

 

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.”

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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.