Reading The Talk: Wampum, Covenants and History

It’s not that Vanessa Dion Fletcher’s Relationship or Transaction is the “best” work in Reading The Talk, at Rodman Hall Art Gallery: but it encapsulates succinctly — and sharply — many ideas that suffuse the entire show.

Talk is curated by Lisa Myers and Rachelle Dickenson, but it’s more a “collaborative” exhibition. The artists communicated back and forth in the time leading up to installation (it’s a touring show, and has been installed differently in different venues, like a living, shifting thing – like language, perhaps), and considering the calibre of the artists (Michael Belmore, but also Hannah Claus, Patricia Deadman, Keesic Douglas and Melissa General), Talk is more about multiple voices acting in tandem than in an hierarchical, prescribed manner. This is appropriate as “Talk brings together work by contemporary First Nations artists who critically examine relationships to land, region and territory. Through a variety of practices […these] artists consider distinct indigenous perspectives on the history of treaties in the land now referred to as Canada.”

More from Myers and Dickenson: “Inspired by the historical Dish with One Spoon Treaty […] each artist [was invited] to consider the effects of this specific treaty as well as the function of wampum beads as mnemonic devices [techniques a person can use to improve their ability to remember] used by leaders to “read the talk” of agreements between nations […] Talk raises questions of land use and value, and elucidates the continuing role of both treaties and the wampum for Indigenous peoples.”

Transaction is installed in a manner that enhances, in a lower bracketed alcove, and the nature of the sculptural assemblage (screenprints, jute twine, but primarily five dollar notes, all blue and shiny and bluntly enticing) will entice. Made in 2014, Transaction “reconfigures the 1764 Covenant Chain wampum, used to establish a key agreement between Indigenous [Anishinaabe, Mississaugas and Haudenosaunee] and British nations. Dion Fletcher weaves together a combination of printed bills on paper signifying the quahog and whelk shells customarily used for wampum belts. The paper currency also references treaty annuities still paid each year to members of treaty regions and highlights the exploitive values placed on treaty land.”

It’s a wide floor work: the imagery of the “belt” may elude you until you stand further back, and see the “1764” and the two figures clasping hands defined by the blue and white pattern. This formal dichotomy enhances the work: many will only see the money, the five dollar bills (or may show up with a pair of scissors to steal it), and not see the whole “belt” as a commentary on the Covenant Chain wampum’s history, its successes and failures. All the debate about the recent changes to “Oh Canada” remind me of how many Indigenous artists I know sing it as “our home ON Native Land…” Meanwhile, the terra nullius in A Painters’ Country, in another room at Rodman, presents fertile, abundant landscapes that were all “empty” and “unclaimed.”

After seeing Transaction, walk Elizabeth Chitty’s The Grass is Still Green on Rodman’s front lawn. But more on that in a later issue. Though I use it here to insert Chitty’s observations about how in the colonial tradition “what is usable is primarily [what is] saleable.” So, is it a relationship, or a transaction? And how is the text of the wampum belt to be read?

Reading the Talk runs until the end of August, 2016, at Rodman Hall, but originated at the RMG.

Sandy Middleton / a multiplicity of practice

You’ve likely seen images from Sandy Middleton’s continuing St. Catharines Legacy Project: her endeavour to create a photographic archive of all St. Catharines residents is ongoing. Middleton is also an accomplished photographer: her open studio at In The Soil featured a number of larger works that incorporate non-traditional processes, and her works that were in What About Rodman Hall? at NAC were playful in process and from. This balances nicely with the Legacy Project (SCLP), where what photography can be outside the gallery space, as a social record, dominates.

So Middleton is a clear choice for this instalment of The Sound’s series highlighting STC artists.

BG: Tell us a bit about your diverse studio practice.

SM: I’ve had some difficulty as my practice is somewhat fractured: the need to make art, be financially viable and to communicate. For a long while I made the art I thought I “needed” to make, that I felt would be pleasing to others and saleable. It didn’t mean I disliked that work but I wasn’t really listening to myself. I only starting working as a fine artist again in 2011 and in that brief time I’ve grown immensely.

I am now able to have two artistic practices: the work I sell at fairs and exhibitions (as in the recent Toronto Art Fair) but also the work with personal  meaning / relevance that’s not necessarily saleable. Also I’ve been working on open ended project-based works which seem to fall into a completely different category as something I NEED to do (The St. Catharines Legacy Project, for example).

I graduated from Ryerson in Still Photography a long time ago and my road (if graphed) would resemble the rise / fall of the stock market. There’s never a gentle upward trajectory as an artist. Every decision takes you down a new road. Many dead-end.

I truly thought I wanted to be a fashion photographer like Richard Avedon but at school fashion didn’t interest me at all – more so still life and portraiture. I began my commercial practice in Toronto after graduation, for approximately 10 years, taking on a variety of jobs but never focusing on one area, be it headshots, weddings or advertising. I liked doing too many things. Somehow with my varied interests my photo work morphed into fine craft / design based work after this.. It wasn’t really until I closed my design business in 2010 that I decided I wanted to go back where I started with fine art photography (a long road home). Making art and being creative came naturally; it chose me.

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I enjoy working in my own bubble, but sometimes I follow (and admire) the work of lesser-known  artists in my own circle. Two painters, Toronto-based Julie Himel and Guelph-based Laurie Skantos, both create the type of painting I can enjoy for a long time and would want in my home. I also love the work of Ottawa-based Su Sheedy; her encaustic painting technique is unique and I aspire to that fluidly / ability in my own work. You lose yourself in her pieces. As a photographer, I admire Osheen Harruthoonyan and Eliane Excoffier for their analog-based practices. Their photos are dreamlike and curious. Japanese artist Ken Matsubara’s time-based work is unforgettable and mesmerizing.

BG: What’s a highlight of your practice, from the past year?

SM: The highlight has definitely been my portrait project. I’ve met and photographed over 250 people so far in St. Catharines, and developed new contacts and relationships and met many wonderful people. I love the images and am excited to see how it will progress and how it will be seen in twenty – thirty years. I call it my life’s work and my intention is to continue it for as long as possible.

I am next shooting SCLPP Sunday August 7th and you can sign up here or email me. Also, I’m in the Grimsby Art Gallery Bi Annual art exhibition this Summer / Fall.

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

SM: My favourite work is usually my most recent, especially if it takes me in a new direction. I’m working on creating a bigger body of work for exhibition in public art galleries. I started the Family Album series in 2012: it’s about loss and memory, notably within families and our connections to each other. I’m working on a series utilizing wax, layered images and found objects that address untold secrets and stigma. Its an exciting time for me creatively and I’ve found I’m able to create the work I need without concerning myself with the end result.


If you live in St. Catharines, you can be part of SCLP, and the Grimbsy Art Gallery’s 2016 Bi Annual Juried Exhibition has opened at the GPAG this August. I offer some thoughts about it here. 

Grimsby Bi Annual 2016 / Regional Contrasts

I’d never visited the Grimsby Art Gallery before, but unlike many arts writers, I have a long history with smaller galleries, whether community oriented, more “museum” focused, or spaces – like GPAG, or a favourite of mine in Saskatchewan, the Mann Art Gallery – that offer an intersection of regional and wider artistic concerns, whether provincial or even national, in their tone. Sometimes these spaces acknowledge their role very actively, as when the Godfrey Dean was a venue for The Paradise Institute, as it toured the country, allowing many to experience it that wouldn’t be able to, otherwise. 

The latest incarnation of the Grimsby Public Art Gallery Bi – Annual Juried Exhibition opened on the 5th of August, and it seemed a perfect opportunity to explore the space for the first time. With just short of forty artists in the exhibition, it guaranteed to offer an interesting cross section of art in Niagara.

The gallery space – like many in Canada – is housed in the library, and this is something I always find interesting: the Dunlop, in Regina, is similar, and this has been a primarily positive experience, though intersections with civic spaces (like libraries) and the attendant political framework can be both edifying and degrading, in terms of audience. This is not different from how university galleries can also find themselves negotiating with the institutions they must interact with daily, and their respective ideologies and biases.

The exhibition was curated by a trio. Ingrid Mayrhofer (described as an artist, curator & educator), Mary Reid (the Director / Curator of the Woodstock Art Gallery) and Gerrie Loveys (Assistant Curator, Peel Art Gallery, Museum & Archives). The gallery is quite full, not quite salon style in terms of installation, but it is a safe assumption that the curators brought a sense of inclusivity to their task. When you visit the gallery, there’s a small pamphlet that lists off the works / artists, but also has more in depth descriptions of the curators.

Carrie Perreault’s Untitled (For Elizabeth) (rice, plastic, metal) is easily the best piece, not just for its uniqueness among the works here, but that it seizes your attention immediately and then precedes to define how you negotiate the room. The disembodied “feet” – whitish, formed by the grains of rice that cover the “socks”, walk into the gallery space, ahead of you: there is a “break” between one set of “feet” and another, but this is a work that strikes me as genuinely contemporary, and that is exciting both in a formal manner (non traditional material, installation in a manner that questions / challenges the space of the gallery and the visitor, pushing interaction) but that also offers conceptual questions. As a somewhat indexical sign of another person, aspects of absence are a consideration – you could ask who “Elizabeth” is – or was – or you could consider these as being a variation on footprints that suggest a lack as much as a presence. Untitled invites you to construct a story around the elements Perreault provides. (The image below is NOT the install at GPAG).

Perrault, Untitled (For Elizabeth).
Carrie Perreault, Untitled (For Elizabeth).

Synchronized Flight and Nesting are two works further back in the corner, like rewards you’ll have to traverse the room and the corner to enjoy. Veronika Beaulieu’s works have a delicacy of form and construction that remind me of some of Zachari Logan’s drawings: these are paper collage on wood panel, deep black backgrounds and with a minutiae of form and finesse.

Lisa Skog’s Landscape, in clay, is one of a number of fine craft works of quality and interest: multiple reddish brown works of varying heights that suggest a ragged city scape, or perhaps a rough interpretation of an Emily Carr scene. The “poles” are textured and incised.

Anita Granger presents a diptych, in a manner, of two “pears.”. One of these, Repaired (the other is titled Non-Perishable) sports a zipper on its front, but this is more amusing than macabre. Its funny the same way that, of course, as these are made of bronze / stone, that they’re both “non perishable”. I resisted the urge to touch them both, though I wanted to, very much. Malcolm Gear’s Stripped Jar (stoneware clay) has a simplicity but also a touch of absurdity with its strong diagonal, straddling art / art object, as you could use this fine craft piece or just appropriately declare it art and display it. Sandy Middleton’s Dreamwalking 2 is another of her haunting photographs, an unpeopled landscape that’s sparse in its tonality and that is atmospheric, suggesting a site both familiar and foreboding.

Arnold McBay’s Glyph (acrylic, plaster on panel) may be my favourite painting of the exhibition, with the cleanliness of the black symbol on the white thick surface. It’s a small work, so you can appreciate how the plaster sits on the panel, as sculptural as it is painted. Glyph is a fine successor to the history of hard edge painting / pop art appropriation of known symbols / the everyday street sign designated as “art” by its placement in the refined gallery air. Less can be more, and that’s something that several of the pieces here, in the Bi Annual, should consider and perhaps incorporate. Many works are too busy, too frenetic, and exhaust the eye rather than reward it. Tina Newlove’s Self Portrait is scratchy linear simple (very atypical of oil painting), no excess of line or colour here, and suggests a surety of hand. All brown rusty beige, she looks askew at us, eschewing eye contact from this slender canvas.

Returning to three dimensional works: Nikola Wojewoda-Patti has two works in clay and mixed media. The titles suggest a larger series that these are sampled from, as we have The Gatekeeper, Ally to the Weeping Queen and The Concubine, Ally to the Mute Queen. Both sit on plinths so we have to look up to them. In William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive, Slick Henry is an artist (loosely based on Mark Pauline of SRL) “who lives in a place named Factory in the Dog Solitude; a large, poisoned expanse of deserted factories and dumps, perhaps in New Jersey…[where he’s creating] large robotic sculptures”, with names like “the Judge, the Investigators ….the Corpsegrinder and the Witch”. He can’t explain way, but there is a logic to it, to him, and a suggestion of a larger story that these characters inhabit, and that by giving them physical form he frees them, and gives them life. Wojewoda-Patti’s characters imply an external drama: I’d like to see more, and know the story within which they exist. 

Linda Ruscio McIntosh’s SPIRIT TREES also presents engaging texture and colour, being mixed media on rusted steel (the rusty blood palette, with whites and greys, balances the sheen of the metal). The title is a bit heavy handed: the ethereal nature of the scene is obvious. Robin Nisbet’s Light Rail in acrylic, looks best from across the room, where the marks and darkness blend and meld to create a wet dark scene from a lost night highway. This is next to Peter Adams’ Red River Series #1: Yangtze, which is very red, very blotchy, and has a redeeming quality in the black scratchy lines that try to offer some shape and order to the loud colours.

Janny Frazer’s Dwellings Light Sculpture is the only other “floor” work, besides Perrault (others are mounted on plinths). It’s a bit haphazard, like a light table with small structures, the glow of the table alternating with the black lines of the tiny domicile structures atop it. A bit of a noisy piece after the cleanliness of Perrault.

There’s a divisive quality to the show: some of the works are definitely contemporary, and would work at Rodman or at Niagara Artists Centre, displaying a level of conceptual and formal execution that is praiseworthy.

Others manifest that compromise that community gallery’s often must make, in representing a community with artworks that have more of a value in terms of regionalism than in representing quality work. I’m reminded of how the aforementioned Mann Gallery in Prince Albert, with its annual Winter juried show, has attempted to expand and push what Art is, and can be, in that small city.

Conversely, I’m also hearing the words of Robin Metcalfe, who spoke of how when you run a gallery in a regionalist space in Canada, you must respect that area, as your role is to serve alternate and sometimes disparate stakeholders (I once wrote a long piece for FUSE Magazine about the political waters and partners that the second Joni Mitchell exhibition served, at the Mendel Art Gallery, and how public galleries must be inclusive, but also diverse).

The 2016 Bi Annual Exhibition is very dominated by painting, and this is unsurprising: and many of the works (like Maureen Paxton‘s Séance has fun with the picture plane and where we are positioned as the viewer, and Samantha Goeree’s Transcendance I, II and III bring together texture and photography with an able, aesthetic hand) display a subtlety that merit your attention. Others do not, and suggest a certain banality and safety that any large, local exhibition has to negotiate. Ignore these pieces, and consider that there’s some quality work in this space that bridges a variety of media.

The 2016 Grimsby Public Art Gallery Bi Annual Exhibition is on display until the 11th of September.


konkreet vizual pome: bill bissett

There’s a dearth of self-congratulatory rhetoric in cultural communities about being uniquely “different”: but I favour Theodor Adorno, whom acerbically observed that when confronted with something genuinely groundbreaking, most people fall back on the shameless assertion that they “don’t understand”. Look at the accolades filmmaker Bruce LaBruce is garnering, internationally, and the silence he endures, in his native Canada, to see this illustrated.

I suspect this attitude – a virulent discourse in Canada, where academic groupthink is more subtle, and quieter, but insidiously pervasive – is why bill bissett is not widely proclaimed as an odd, difficult genius, though he clearly is one. His collections of poetry include Th influenza uv logik, Loving without being vulnrabul, Scars on th seehors, narrativ enigma, and northern wild roses. Many cultural historians are obsessed with labeling and compartmentalizing artists: bissett breaks and defies that sloth.

bissett treats language and speech as a mutable, protean thing, writing phonetically / frankly. The idea (or certainty) that language is surely a virus (perhaps you saw Eric Schmaltz’s Babeltech Industries™ presents The Assembly Line of Babel last year at NAC that explored this “disease” beautifully), a form that confines more than it communicates, and must be treated with creative skepticism, is a stream in bissett’s work.

First, praise to Gregory Betts, the Director of the Festival of Readers here in St. Catharines, whom had a major role in mounting bill’s exhibition. We chatted at the opening reception for lunarian life (at NAC) amid “paintings n drawings in konkreet vizual pomes.”

NAC’s Dennis Tourbin Gallery space is filled with bissett’s works: they’re grouped together loosely by formal distinctions, but these aren’t excluding. The hand of the artist, in the free and focused marks made in the paintings, are echoed in the smaller black and white drawings, and even in pieces where the “typewriter” text builds layers letter on letter like architecture or blended voices that fight and focus and reform into something else. A square work, black text amassed and a mess on white is nearly illegible in rich dark typeset; a line at the bottom clearly says if we find ourselvs missing weul find each othr aftr all.

The larger paintings are bright in flat rich colour (yellow dominates) with simplicity of form and mark: figures gaze out of at us, and the circular “sun” motif repeats. I associate the latter with Barbelith from The Invisibles (“the name of the “placenta” for humanity…a supernatural moon seeming both intelligent and connects the hologram of our subjective reality to the realm outside of our space-time, the domain of the magic mirror, and helps humans to realize their true nature beyond the subjective concept of ‘self’…”)

This isn’t overtly projective on my part. bill’s words: “bill bissett originalee from lunaria ovr 300 yeers ago in lunarian timesent by shuttul thru halifax nova scotia originalee wantid 2b dansr n figur skatr became a poet n paintr in my longings after 12 operaysyuns reelee preventid me from following thinishul direksyuns – bill bissett garnered international attention in the 1960s as a preeminent figure of the counterculture movement in Canada and the United Kingdom.”

There’s a more symbolic than “realistic”quality here. bissett influenced one of my favourite poets, bpnichol (author of The Martyrology, so perhaps bill’s the patron saint of concrete poetry? nichol’s ABC: The Aleph Beth Book impressed me greatly, as a teenager). bissett explores the same fluid interactions between letter and shape, word and form.

The smaller black and white drawings are a separate body of work, and the textual pieces, that seem to be the detritus (or evidence) of a typewriter gone mad, aroused and angry in its repeated “striking” of the “keyboard keys”, could be described as a third. The monochromatic drawings have a playful quality, and sometimes seem like growths, as though bodies have sprouted new and different organs, and other times the same figures that look out, or embrace, or kiss or otherwise entangle with each other, reappear.

Let’s step away from the artworks and return to bissett, who in “1964…founded blewointment press, which published the works of bpNichol and Steve McCaffery, among others. bissett’s charged readings, which never fail to amaze his audiences, incorporate sound poetry, chanting and singing, the verve of which is only matched by his prolific writing career-more than seventy books of bissett’s poetry have been published. A pioneer of sound, visual and performance poetry – eschewing the artificial hierarchies of meaning and the privileging of things (“proper” nouns) over actions imposed on language by capital letters; the metric limitations imposed on the possibilities of expression by punctuation; and the illusion of formal transparency imposed on the written word by standard (rather than phonetic) spelling-bissett composes his poems as scripts for pure performance and has consistently worked to extend the boundaries of language and visual image, honing a synthesis of the two in the medium of concrete poetry…exercising his native tongue dissent, bissett continues to dance upon upon the cutting edge of poetics and performance works.”

This exhibition closes Saturday, October 15th, and bissett will be performing the last evening of the show.

I want to make one final point, using bissett as a means to an end, here: in the 1970s, bissett was maligned and slandered by several politicians, whom targeted the funding he and his publications received. This was the same ignorant mantra we saw with Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, and in other examples I’m too tired to cite (does this happen once a decade, like a recurrence of herpes?). I won’t name the deservedly forgotten politicians that abused bissett. I will echo what I said to someone recently about Voice of Fire: its value has only skyrocketed, financially and artistically, since some overpaid, ignorant and hideously expensive (with their salaries and gold plated pensions) politicians failed to make political hay of what “offended” them. The ardent queerness (as in gay) of bissett’s work surely offended many: and as lunarian life at NAC demonstrates, he continues to contribute to the larger cultural dialogue, pushing boundaries and causing (appropriate) trouble.