Case Closed at the NAC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Painted History at Rodman Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Images of Incarceration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Geography as metaphor : Vai e Vem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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