Joel Smith’s My City / the seen & unseen

“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful, but the beauty is grim.” (Morley)

What is engaging about Joel Smith’s work is that there’s an immediacy of vision (you’d be unsurprised to learn he captured many of these images while out cycling) and also a joy in unexpected scenes. Though not all the images are of, and in, Niagara, there’s also this elevation of the local to a more engaging level. The discarded and ruined shopping carts drowned in the running water are something that is so ubiquitous that most of us don’t even see them when we pass them, but here, through Smith’s lens, they become mysterious, a bit haunted, and starting points for a story about this spectacle that the artist presents for us.

Whether it’s the bright blue sky with a smattering of clouds (bright as moving air / blue as city dawn / happy as light / released by day / over the city’s new buildings) behind the arched neck of a street lamp, or a rare vertical piece that balances a solid orange structure with a dark deep blue sky that looks like it might have been hammered into place, or a plug in a brick wall that is framed by Smith so as to show the often ignored aesthetic touches all around us, these are “snapshots” that are lovely in their simplicity.

Another scene of the downtown that makes a street many of us walk down every day appear differently than we think of it – if we even think of James Street at all, as we traverse it on the way to our destinations also gives us pause. Like the close up of the concrete sidewalk with its echoed grooves in an ordered aesthetic we trod blithely and repeatedly, these scenes are doubly beautiful as they are unexpected. I can talk about Brutalism, and Modernism or other isms, but vision trumps words here, and are more seductive. Like the blue sky, delicate urban touches and unexpected scenes, you just need to look at them and be quiet.

 

While there’s a formal strength to the scenes here (architecture becomes space and shape and weight) there’s also a sentiment (not sentimentality) to the world Smith shows here. The aforementioned shot of James Street, but also urban spaces and more natural spaces that have a sense of whimsy (the tenacious sprout of green thriving in the middle of a tarry street), or that we might have just stumbled upon them while out, and it’s a rare moment of serenity worth preserving. The tangled deadwood on the shore as the sun sets on the water is one of these. Landscape that invites us in, and makes us want to be in that place, is always fine.  

There is a highlighting of the familiar in Joel Smith’s photographs that reminds that there are interesting and beautiful scenes and settings around us, if we simply stop and pay attention.

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Joel Smith is a photographer who has worked in both digital and traditional formats, for over two decades, and his work is informed by the world around him, from his cycling to his family to his work and life in the downtown of St. Catharines. More of his work can be seen on Instagram.

The exhibition of work that can be seen at the Mahtay Cafe & Lounge (241 St. Paul Street) is his first solo show of his photographic works, and just a small sampling of his larger “images” of the city and environment around and within it.

This is also the site – in the event room – for the continuing Rodman Hall 5 X 2 Visual Conversations, which happens every second Tuesday of September, October and November. Smith will be talking about his work at the first instalment in September, and all are welcome.

 

Upcoming Forecast at NAC

Now that the clamour around July 1st (I like to call it Dominion Day, still, but I’m an unreconstructed historical bastard) and the immediate demonstrative sesquicentennial of Canada is past, many of us are looking at the anniversary year of 2017 – 2018 as an opportunity to explore, examine and perhaps redefine the narrative of Canadian history, and where / how Canada fits within larger historical arcs that shaped – and continue to influence – this country, with its founding “nations.” That’s a good place to begin: the idea of the “two solitudes” espoused by Hugh MacLennan has ceded to a “nation to nation” idea that acknowledges the many who were here before 1867 (and here now, still). At the same time, a favourite joke I heard this summer was that if you think Canadians apologize too much / too easily, ask them about residential schools…

That is something to keep in mind when you encounter the next exhibition at Niagara Artists Centre (NAC) which opens on Saturday, September 9th. If you’re familiar with artist run centres, you know they generally schedule exhibitions far in advance, sometimes shifting them around to better serve either party, but also to allow for connections to the larger Niagara cultural space wherein NAC exists and interacts. So that the exhibition Where the Weather Happens is the first exhibition by NAC, in the sesquicentennial year, is appropriate synchronicity.  

Where the Weather Happens, a group exhibition co curated by Amy Malbeuf and Jessie Short features the work of Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault. You might be more familiar with Malbeuf’s artistic practice, and Jessie Short is a past Director of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective; the ACC has facilitated and fostered a number of Indigenous curators and artists across Canada, sometimes through exhibitions, conferences or partnering with other groups. A proud moment during my tenure as Editorial Chair at BlackFlash Magazine was literally handing over an issue to the ACC, no oversight or limits, that coincided with their symposium in Saskatoon. Malbeuf’s multidisciplinary practice has been exhibited nationally; she’s received a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award and a William and Meredith Saunderson Prize for Emerging Artists in Canada from the Hnatyshyn Foundation. Short is also a writer, but is perhaps best known for her filmmaking and curatorial practice.

The three artists that will comprise Weather are a diverse, contrasting mix: the one whose work I’m most familiar with is Jason Baerg, whose solo exhibition / performance was at the Mendel Art Gallery during my time in Saskatoon. Baerg identifies as Cree Metis, and describes his works as “[formally] he pushes new boundaries in digital interventions in drawing, painting and installation.” Another past exhibition by Baerg worth considering was titled Kimowanihtâwak, ᑭᒧᐊᐧᓂᐦᑖᐤ, S/he Makes It Rain, which in the words of curator / writer Amber Anderson asked   “Who gets to be the author of history?  Who does history represent?  Who is underrepresented?  What are we proud of?  What should we be concerned about?” All significant points to consider amid #canada150.

Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault have not, to my knowledge, exhibited in Niagara before; their sharp and considered voices will surely expand the debate about histories, whether in a local or national theatre.  Koebel is an  Otipemisiwak (Métis) and Nehiyaw (Cree) artist and Indigenous arts animator originally from Lac La Biche, Alberta (and the recipient of the 2014 OAC Aboriginal Arts Award, as an emerging artist) whereas Nault is a multi-disciplinary artist of Métis and mixed European descent and member of the collective No. Is a Complete Sentence. Nault is finishing her MFA this summer, and “her art practice and research are grounded in queer, feminist, and Indigenous worldviews. Through her work she strives to elicit a sense of social and ecological responsibility to one another on a damaged planet, exploring the connections between humans and nature.” These interrelations between different peoples and the places that define those relationships are also relevant in the artwork of Koebel: she uses her intersecting roles as an artist and teacher “to facilitate learning about social, political and cultural issues from an Indigenous perspective…Jaime’s traditional and contemporary art practices include Métis beadwork, drawings, ink on drums, and fish scale art….[Koebel] and her three children perform as Jaime & the Jiglets, a Métis dance group that entertains and teaches through stories and audience interaction.”

I’m tempted to offer a somewhat humorous take on my expectations for this show, another fine example (like Twenty Three Days at Sea, last October) of NAC bringing artists from wider communities into this one to expand the conversation. In Canada, the perennial conversation is about the weather, and it’s both a literal and metaphorical term for place, and who “we” are, or are not. Where the Weather Happens opens on the 8th of September, at NAC, on St. Paul Street in downtown STC.

The image to the left is After winter // signs of life (1), pastel and drawing paper, from 2016, copyright of the artist Sheri Nault

“Once we had words” : Colin Nun at NAC

Once we had words.
Ox and Falcon. Plow.
There was clarity.
Savage as horns uncurved.
(Stan Rice)

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”
(Alice: Through The Looking Glass)

Let me impart a secret to you: I distrust and generally consider words inherently dangerous. Perhaps this is familiarity breeding contempt: language is a tool I’ve used, and employ often, and it’s something that can and does turn, like a sharp tool that cuts or a snake in your hands (no offence to snakes).

It’s appropriate I’m sharing this observation now, almost two years after I strongly alluded to this impiety on my part, in writing about a show at NAC in 2015. This was Eric Schmaltz’ The Assembly Line of Babel. Perhaps you saw the collaborative work he helped produce at In the Soil, in 2017, where his exploration of the viral nature of language took on an even more corporeal form. The video projection looked like a close up of the antibodies and blood cells at play in our own systems….not exactly what Anderson meant, but surely its mutated, like any disease, since then.

Colin Nun‘s exhibition at the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC furthers this conversation. Before I subject you to more of my words, here are his own about his “text-based paintings. His work consists of carefully constructed typographic motifs deeply rooted in graphic design…Nun’s primary objective is to paint words that convey their meaning – simply put, to use words as imagery. He challenges how ‘normal’ letters and words are represented and questions what letterforms can become if pushed to their limits…[creating] tension between the letterforms, an optical effect he calls “visual vibration”. With influences seeded in pop culture, cinema, advertising graphics and ephemera, Nun experiments how language is depicted and how the viewer perceives language.”

Nun is a Welland based artist, but also studied at the Niagara College of Applied Arts and NSCAD in Halifax (the latter is notable for the proliferation of text based, or text challenging – such as Cathy Busby or Gerald Ferguson – or text challenged – whose work might most optimistically be described as manure for other more worthwhile – artists, whom have defined NSCAD’s mixed legacy).

The works in NAC (and this has been a very good season for exhibitions in the Dennis Tourbin Space in the downtown of STC, with some excellent artists that are both new and more familiar) are varied. Some are clearly recognisable as words (Good Luck (Gold) shines forth in gold on black, reminiscent of The Price is Right or other garish, forcefully loud design) while others, if not placed in the context of the larger “sentences” would function as linear abstractions that are more drawerly and “post painterly” than text. Union, from 2017, looks like a maze or labyrinth, a snake filling a condensed space, more than writing. Other wordworks (my term for his letterforms) straddle this: Fuse, in white on blue is all chunky letters jammed down together visually mimicking a wall socket, while Void, like Union, is stretched and distended so that the variant subtleties of the image suggest a gap the viewer might step into, or be swallowed within.

Some of the wordworks / letterforms are immediate in their interpretation. Beast in white muscular letters on bright arterial red suggests something organic with its rounded corners, but still has the “loudness” of an animal’s roar, or the redblood eyes of a stalking predator. Crux and Deluxe are more complicated and play with the canvas as a picture plane, more “creative” in their typesetting arrangement. The letters in Deluxe all are held within, or contained within, a larger “D” and seem to recede from us. They’re also like part of a puzzle where we need to locate and arrange the components. Here Nun perhaps alludes to word games, where the pieces are given to us and how we assemble them creates them, or defines them, but in the end that says more about our ability to see the words, or what words we “see” than any objective “sign” (It is a theory that…It is the theory that…The language you speak determines how you think. Yes, it affects how you see everything…”)

Others are more direct (Deadringer, even “repeating” itself, so to speak), others are more obtuse, some are quite blunt and others are more bellicose, offering more of a struggle (Gemini). Silence is almost illegible, from the manner in which the word raises off the canvas in an edged serration that barely separates it from the mottled grey. This might work better as braille, if the rigid gallery space allowed us to break custom and “read” Nun’s painting tactilely, with our knowing fingers. Like glyphs carved in, or glyphs carved out, language is a marker, saying “we were here.”

Even better – this may be my favourite work at NAC – the word(s) loop. Perhaps this painting is meant as a snapshot of a reel that rolls by us, so that Silence – we see the top half of the word below the “main” rendering of it, a lower half above – is reiterated like a rolling Tibetan Prayer Wheel, worshipping without voice. Or maybe it’s that old riddle: what do you break the moment you mention it?

Although this exhibition isn’t as visually entrancing as shows that preceded it in the Dennis Tourbin Space (Adam Vollick’s landscapes capture colour like it’s a living thing, or Sheldon Rooney’s amusing scenes that suggest an Agatha Christie like mystery with complications and confabulations), the work “speaks” literally to a universal space: words, how we use them, and how they use us, with their implicit baggage that they carry, which we are sometimes aware of, and other times ignore.

 

We live in an age of excessive and often ignorant rhetoric: Colin Nun’s exhibition at NAC is a playful reminder of the power of words, and might be urging us to be mindful of their power and place in the larger sphere (Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict).

Colin Nun’s solo exhibition is on display at Niagara Artist Centre, at 254 St. Paul Street, in Downtown St. Catharines, until August 25th, 2017.

All images are copyright of the artist, and the uncited words in italics are from the 2016 film Arrival, based on Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. Seek them both out before / after / during your visit to Colin Nun’s exhibition or his site

 

∞ Lightness by Adam CK Vollick

One of my favourite books about art is Camille Paglia’s Glittering Images: this is not solely for how her knowledge of art history surpasses that of most arts writers / critics, but also due to the format. She selected a variety of works from antiquity to present day, writing succinctly and yet very accessibly about why they are important to her, and were – are – relevant to many.

This exclusive focus is something I’ve imitated, as a form of flattery: and oftentimes when confronted with exhibitions that encompass several artists, or when you’re engaging with a show like ∞ Lightness by Adam CK Vollick, which is, of this writing, in the Dennis Tourbin Members Gallery at Niagara Artists Centre. 

He offers “four different interconnected bodies of work.” What held my attention on my visits to the space were the “Spacetime Paintings [which Vollick describes as ] impressionistic photographs [which are] made in the camera [and all are] Niagara specific landscapes from our beautiful region.” The book that was on display during the reception had names for the works (the ones on the wall are without labels) that sometimes revealed their specific site of origins, and offered titles. These aren’t crucial, but do offer nuance. A flower might be fire, or we might see that the local is more mysterious than we assumed. But specific place names aren’t crucial, as the landscapes have an evocative nature (no pun intended) that we can imagine ourselves being within…

In the gallery they’re mounted in shiny silver frames, and the twenty one pieces are small but have a vibrancy that invites closer examination; alternately, across the room they become bright exclamation points of colour that seize your eye and reel you in.

There are several larger pieces (three) above these and two larger ones on the other side of the gallery. Returning to the long wall in NAC there’s also three black and white images sitting below the main “line” of “landscapes.” The larger images, in an ironic manner, are less powerful than the smaller images (the colour and depth of quality is absent, almost diluted in their power compared to the works below them). 

Conversely, the three monochromatic pieces are wonderful in their subtle detail considering the limited palette at play, and merit crouching on the ground to experience ‘face to face.’ As they’re shot with infrared film they’re reversed: so the delicate lines of trees in one are fine white lines on a rich black background, seeming to oscillate forward and back. These three images are almost more windows than flat images: the one on the left depicts what might be mist, or similar atmospheric events (my prairie asserts itself, and I see borealis), and the middle one, the least “active” of the compositions, stretches on endlessly with quiet details here and there as your eye moves deeper into the landscape.

The long cinematic line (if you’re familiar with Vollick’s practice, you’ll understand how his practices influence each other, and how movement can be alluded to as effectively as it can be depicted directly) of colour images above these three, however, is the strength of the exhibition. Whether close up to works that are painterly in their detail (Vollick joked about making “blurry pictures” but the segments where his colours blur and meld are matched by a cleanliness that emphasises how these are captured moments of “space” and “time”) or across the room so a blotch of red, or yellow or blue / green shouts at you, these are the anchors of the space.

Before you consider I’m dismissing everything else in the space, I’ll cite a conversation I had with a fine local painter, who described the large drawn piece opposite the small space/time works as being reminiscent of Magritte in its form and symbols. I saw its sparseness and scratchy sketchy quality as being what the surrealist artist would scrawl when he wakes up in the night and wants to remember his dream to paint it in a more elaborate manner later. (This isn’t Balzarian projection: the piece is titled the dreamer.)

But it’s a more remote, still image: the Spacetime Paintings are alive, are moving, and suggest a memory, a lived experience that like many experiences might be a bit frayed at the edges, or like some memories may be a bit soft around the edges when we “recall” it. Memories are (perhaps) like breathe on water; there’s also that idea that photographs define memory more than a memory does. Vollick’s Spacetime Paintings suggest that universality, as well as the more personal invitation to interpret these sites he presents for us. 

All images are copyright of the artist, and many more of his images, as well as works in other media, can be seen at Vollick’s site

AIH Studios in Welland

One of the results of how the GTA’s rental market is out of control is the flight of those who can’t afford the exorbitant extortion of the “market.” This is unpleasant (look at the cities across Canada that have lost large swathes of their innovative citizens due to this) but also has an interesting side effect (perhaps temporarily): the decision by individuals and groups to leave costly spaces means they find new ones and apply their energies there. I saw this when Saskatoon’s rental costs ballooned while wages stagnated (or dropped), and many of the cultural movers / shakers scattered to fairer sites: dwell on the past, lose an eye, forget the past, lose both eyes, as Solzhenitsyn said.

In my conversation with artists Tony Calzetta and Gabrielle de Montmollin about their Art Is Hell Studios (AIH Studios) in Welland, this initial motivation of leaving an unaffordable space in the Danforth areas of Toronto – and one bluntly unhealthy and prohibitive to creativity – was cited. That’s unsurprising, but to come to Welland – a municipality that most of us even in Niagara don’t associate with cultural innovation (though having the cheapest commercial rental spaces in Southern Ontario) – was the basis of AIH Studio. When I visited the combined gallery / studio / living space, the idea of an “art haven” came up; not solely for the spacious studios Calzetta and de Montmollin have, or the front slim gallery space that, with its large window, offers any passerby a tantalizing visual invitation to enter. Frankly, the back area, perfect for a gathering of artists – formal or otherwise – seems worlds away from the front street side, which bears more earmarks of a region trying to negotiate “revitalization,” perhaps hoping to imitate what’s happened in downtown STC.

The AIH Studio used to be the Hope Center in downtown Welland: and they’re not the only ones in the area with studios, who are connecting with the local officials and other invested parties in trying to enliven the area. Malcolm Gear has a wonderful space in Welland (and beautiful works for sale) and also offers classes as diverse as the media he works in (more on his art and ideas here). Michael Bedard and Janny Fraser both have studio spaces in the area, and this might mean that Welland is looking at that positive space when the artists move in and begin to change an area, before it turns into gentrification and displacement. This is a conversation – an argument, a contestation of space – that many cities and municipalities are having: and it’s not just in a sphere of visual culture. A local activist, in response to a conversation about the Garden City Food Co Op, talked about forming a downtown citizens’ council, to ensure voices that don’t equate “citizen” with “consumer” are heard…. But that’s not the case with AIH Studios: my motivation for highlighting this space can be traced back to a visit to Welland last year and walking by it’s front window, and seeing a large piece by Tony Calzetta which brought vibrancy to the street. Seeing more of his work in Grimsby, at the GPAG, and our resultant conversations about place and art – and then seeing the exciting, sometimes visceral and often evocative lens based work of de Montmollin that share some ideas (absurdity, narrative) with Calzetta’s pieces, offering a play between the two artists in the AIH gallery space – pushed the idea of bringing attention to AIH Studios. As of this writing, they’ve been there a year and a half: bluntly, there’s a cynicism and air of defeatism still at play when mentioning Welland, but this doesn’t seem fair, or may just be a hangover, like how STC’s downtown still bears scars of its less than savoury historical baggage. But besides AIH, or Bedard’s space behind the Bank of Nova Scotia, there’s also been the Black Lantern Experience (garnering some coverage in the Tribune for an event they did in the Seaway Mall) that are more experimental and fluid. This is a site that has the history of the Welland Murals, or the Canoe Art Project, too; in that respect, AIH can be seen as another step in challenging that ennui.

But enough local history wrapped in social commentary: visit the space, right now, and you’ll see work by Calzetta and de Montmollin, and formally, they’re contrasting. Calzetta’s works are massive, working with line and colour in a manner that, when he says he sees his work as drawing, not painting, it makes sense. Line and colour are clean tools for his imagery and symbolism (in his youth he was – like many of us – influenced by animation and cartoons). The large nature of his works was a factor in seeking a more amenable studio; his pieces originate as small doodles, small sketches, and though he makes notations about translating them into larger pieces, instinct is a more directing factor. There is a coyness that contradicts the directness of his images: I see pop cultural influences like Bill Sienkiewicz, and Tony commented that Jeet Heer read his works as rife with Holocaust imagery. All of his works are dystopic to me, suggesting that “these fragments / I have shored / against my ruins” (Eliot’s The Waste Land). A touchstone of his development as an artist was his interaction with an exhibition of Philip Guston’s paintings, as a student: it wasn’t so much an instantaneous “lightbulb” moment as a more gradual, permeating one. Essentially that Guston, an abstract expressionist who began to explore more illustrative imagery (notably in his Klan series), demonstrated the universality of symbols, and how easily a viewer can create a story around the works. His use of colour is restrained, and there’s a theatrical quality to his work: like a panel in a graphic novel (here’s where cartooning manifests in his aesthetic, both in execution and in the scene it offers to us, to tell a story around). A work on display evokes Harlan Ellison’s disturbing Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever”: Calzetta slyly offered no definitive “meaning”, and de Montmollin said it reminded her more of a half fruit rendered abstractly. The piece is titled Bob Had A Good Ear For Visual Art; another on display is Burying Bones.

Montmollin’s works are very different: her process has encompassed black and white photography, both analog and digital lens work, often monochromatic but sometimes with tints and tones, and her most recent works are vividly full colour, with seductive vitality. If it seems my descriptor of Calzetta’s work was brief, my look at Montmollin’s wide practice will also be just a tease. Both Calzetta and de Montmollin have sites that are extensive in terms of images and statements. Visit these, as well as the physical space.

Her most striking works include her Crime Scene works and Carnevale at the Hotel of the Bridge of Sighs. The use of dolls and other objects as “actors” give the work a surreal quality and there’s a consideration to the images (as when she was using cut out “masks” to put on top of the dolls she used in various “scenes”, as Barbie is always smiling). Her past processes can appear erratic and instinctual (like Tony’s), as with images with extensive darkroom manipulations, painting and drawing on the photograph / contact print, reusing and repurposing parts of the process and intervening in the midst of it with other materials (we had an interesting conversation about the “remote” nature of some digital work versus the “hands on” nature of traditional film). There’s also an absurdity, a dark humour in Gabrielle’s images. They also have a cinematic quality: but more so in that you watch them, looking for that aspect that will trouble the seemingly normal nature of the whole (as with the two images that were on display in the window of AIH Studios when I visited), or that the works suggest a scene, a maquette for a larger story, and that we’re being given clues to a larger tale. Her words: “I am interested in telling stories, play and mystery.”

Both Calzetta and Montmollin are storytellers, in their art: Tony is looser, giving us rough components that we bring our own ideas to, whereas Gabrielle offers a bit more charged and loaded symbolism (her series Stephen Harper Hates Me has both a personal and very public level of engagement with viewers, even in the post Harper landscape…) AIH Studios is located at 179 East Main Street, in Welland: hours are by appointment, but you can contact them via their website (artishell.com). Like the GPAG, or Jordan Art Gallery or the new NAC artists studio space / shop on St. Paul in downtown STC, it suggests that this region doesn’t need an expensive construct (like the Art Gallery of Niagara fiasco) so much as a more acute awareness of the existing visual arts locales in the Niagara region.