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.