The Lure of the Local

“Travel is the only context in which some people ever look around. If we spent half the energy looking at our own neighborhoods, we’d probably learn twice as much.” (Lucy Lippard)

I have a game I like to play, here in Niagara: I didn’t start it, but I’ve surely pushed it further.
At a reception nearly three (3!) years ago, NAC Minister of Energy, Minds and Resources Stephen Remus introduced me to several people as being “from Saskatchewan.” I didn’t correct him, but it circulated, and still does, that I was “sprung…up dirty and sad, spiky also, like grass beside the railroad tracks” (Duddy Kravitz) on the prairies. My time in the gulag archipelago of #YXE was nearly two decades, but I was neither born nor a child there (though I’d argue I was too often the only adult in the room).

Even more perverse: my curatorial background (what, you thought your intrepid #artcriticfromhell was one of those ilk who jabbers yet can’t do? Shush, it’s an understandable assumption, based on “my” brethren. But I digress) is very Saskatoon grassroots, as I’ve curated works from the University of Saskatchewan collection,The Photographers Gallery (TPG) Archive and Video Vérité (frequently  focused on the history / histrionics of collecting in Saskatoon, as I also worked at the College Gallery at #usask for some time, assisting in their first and widest inventory of their archive and artworks). Another curatorial venture was REGION which explored contemporary painting in Saskatchewan.

Amusingly, as I write this, the (please, Jesus, Mary and Joseph the carpenter, let it be the) final edits on my contribution to a book / anthology titled Art on the Margins: Visual Culture in Saskatchewan are flying back and forth in the dark email ether twilight zone.

I torment my innocent readers with these anecdotes for two reasons, both shockingly positive.

My own focus in writing, curating and the sludge of Canadian art history has repeatedly been about immediate community, with the history written in the visual arts of a place, a very present “site of contested narratives.”

Secondly (and more relevant to you) is that the latest rendering of Up Close and In Motion (titled Phase 4 / 11) at Rodman Hall is very much a St. Catharines chapter: this is important both for how Ernest Harris, Jr., created a specific painting for 4 / 11, but also in that all the artists on display have a very strong presence in STC’s artistic history. I appreciate this latest evolution, curated by (former) Assistant Curator Emma German, as a means to learn more about my current community, which although no longer “new” to me, still offers exciting anecdotes and visual narratives of “here.”

Ernest Harris, Jr.’s Mel’s Brushes in the front part of the Hansen Gallery is responsive to the artworks German has selected for the back area (more details on them in a moment). His words: “I’m a fan of most of the artists featured during these upcoming months – a who’s who of regionalist all-stars – but I have the strongest connection to the phase 4 artists.”

Mel’s Brushes could also be seen as a gateway to appreciating the 4 / 11 selections, or conversely (yet complimentary), Harris’ painting might be seen as the final punctuation to MacDonald, Wren and Anderson’s works. Backward and forwards, just like an experience of memory which place and artworks can evoke. Read this visual or painted “sentence” as you see fit. Or do what I enjoy in exploring conjunctive interrelations between the artworks: treat them as puzzle pieces that fit together in different ways on different visits, with different orders, to offer unique, yet still contextually / conceptually interlinked, (his)stories.

This (I suspect) is what German would emphasize, with her ideas of Slow Art Day, and with her more creative and less “formal” exploration of the collection at Rodman Hall Art Centre.

Carolyn Wren’s Sheaf of Wheat (a linocut print) sits on the far wall, far opposite the window in the front room. Tobey C. Anderson’s Silken Twine #22, #27, #39 and #41 are to your right, if the window is to your back, and Melanie MacDonald’s Salt and Pepper Muskies sits above the fireplace. The installation is different than previous Up Close and In Motion “phases” in that the three collection pieces occupy the same room. On my initial visit I entered that room first, then went to Harris’ painting. But on subsequent visits, I spent more time with Mel’s Brushes, as its physical separation – and frankly its the most visually dominating of the four (with its rich black void and how it makes the banality of brushes in a tin monumental) – fosters this focused interaction.

 

Anderson’s work is interesting to me in a similar manner to Philia (by Brendan Fernandes, in an earlier UCIM) as these artworks resonates outside of the Hansen gallery and in a wider historical sense. Several friends from both Toronto and Montreal had asked after the CRAM International when I told them I was moving to St. Catharines, and Anderson specifically. It’s likely that I’ve encountered Anderson’s work elsewhere, but I disremember.  These four paintings are from a series that’s as much epithet as resistance, as much memento mori as a visual “diary” of someone who played a major role in the artistic / cultural melee of St. Catharines. They’re small, but dense and vibrant. The bright colours, the organic shapes and abstracted scenes are reminiscent of microscopic slides of disease or other variant biological samples, seen through intense magnification.

These are also self portraiture: perhaps in that Anderson was attempting to “control” his illness, rendering an aspect of his identity onto canvas. These are the remnants of him. I never met him, but his influence on this place has been cited many times to me, and in the quiet “contemplation” of Slow Art Day, of the ruminative interactions that German wants to – and has – evoked with the “up close” part of UCIM, I have met Tobey Anderson.

Art is, after all, the most direct yet most subversive form of history: as it is sometimes the most intimate, yet most symbolic, form of autobiography. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell likes to “speak in collage”, so I offer this, which Anderson’s work evoked from me: “Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” (Sontag, Illness as Metaphor)

Ernest’s words offer another point of entry (some of the same sentiments / facts came up in brief chat with German): “Carolyn Wren was my high school art teacher and …[s]he was teaching at a university level, something I only realized in my freshman year at Brock. Wren also introduced me to Kate Bush, Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson. Her impact on my young mind can not be overstated. I was still in high school when I was introduced to Tobey C. Anderson as the incoming director of Niagara Artists Centre. His paintings, particularly Idi Amin / Madonna / Mandela / Dada (1989), had a direct influence on me and my first real body of work, which in turn led to my first professional art show a few years later at [appropriately] NAC.”

 

There’s a simplicity to Wren’s work (lino encourages this, and in the right hands, this print medium can be expressive, graphic and emotionally moving) that, if you turn right from Mel’s Brushes can lure you from across the space. But, as Harris indicates, Wren is more important to him as a teacher, and more importantly, a teacher you encounter while malleable and receptive and without whom you can’t imagine being the artist you are now. (Amusing side point: Harris and I have both worked with Evergon, one of the most significant photo / lens based artists in Canadian Art history. Evergon is / was, in many ways, an influence on me like how Wren, or Anderson, were for Ernest.)

MacDonald’s Salt and Pepper Muskies is the only work that matches Harris for size: and both sit above mantles, in an amusing manner, as both seem too playful, too “banal” for the clichéd mantle space (many shows I’ve seen here, however, challenge the architectural “expectations” of the Hansen). MacDonald is the artist I’m most familiar with, of this quartet (the tendons of history and experience join Harris to the others, quite firmly, making this a four person show, in my eyes). Her excellent Florida Noir may be the best painting show I’ve experienced in Niagara; her use of paint, creating surfaces pearlescent and bright, and forms that suggest you might reach out and grab them made that exhibition one of my favourites ever in the Dennis Tourbin (another local artist of significance) gallery. In a fitting definition of “community”, Harris “gave Mel painting lessons” when she attended university (the formal attention to detail in Harris’ – or Mel’s Brushes was present in MacDonald’s Noir exhibition. But I also have to cite how a recent conversation with the founder / director of a community arts organisation emphasised the cyclical nature of supporting local artists so they might mentor and foster aspiring and emerging, so they might one day be mentors to the next upcoming group or generation…)

In past incarnations of Up Close and In Motion, artists from other communities whose artworks – and their own experiences and histories – have augmented Niagara and St. Catharines have been featured (Jones, Dagneault, Cadieux and Tang). I know that future instalments of UCIM will feature several regional artists, continuing this year long exploration of the history of Rodman Hall in a more active (hence “motion”) and more intense (“up close”) way.

4 / 11 has been personally enjoyable and enlightening. When I was first living on the prairies, I read  Lucy Lippard’s Lure of the Local,  and one of the contributors to that anthology made a comment that still lives in my head: “I’m not from here, I just live here.” Up Close and In Motion‘s latest “chapter” literally illustrates the importance of the history and community that Rodman Hall holds in its collection and reinforces the gallery, the centre and the collection’s importance (as so often manifest through the staff, of course), and the quality of visual arts, and artists, in this variant and intersecting “site.” And by “site” I mean not just St. Catharines, but the diverse ways RHAC has presence in Niagara, and beyond (from Harris to Fernandes, from Wren to Cadieux).

This incarnation of Up Close and In Motion (part of the ongoing project) curated by (former) Assistant Curator Emma German is on display until June 23rd. You can read more about it here and here. Different works by different artists from the RHAC collection will be in the Hansen, however, as part of the year long exploration of the collection, until January 2019. All images are courtesy / copyright of Rodman Hall and the artists.

Full Fathom Five Flattened: Kurt Swinghammer’s Melt at NAC

And icebergs do have their own noises, as they creak and float and melt.

(Nathalie Boisard-Beudin)

Let’s begin by asking a relevant, contemporary question – and very Canadian – question: do you hate the Group of Seven? Or do you hate the “idea” – the miasma of cultural smog, like a Chernobyl of radioactive “culture” – of the Group of Seven?

Who’s actually experienced one in person, even with all the Steve Martin inspired Lawren Harris “love” at the AGO, recently? If you simply encountered the works without preamble or historical / cultural frameworks of support, would you pause and “watch” them? My question is informed by both Aaron Thompson’s visceral critique of the idea of Mona Lisa, as well as Emma German’s recent talk about Slow Art Day.

But what, my exasperated readers ask, does this have to do with Kurt Swinghammmer’s exhibition Meanwhile out on Hudson’s Bay which features Melt: a new series of paintings in the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC? This is currently on display and charms on both a superficial level but also (like an iceberg) has depths of humour, caustic and gentle?

The statement: “It was close to 100 years ago that Group Of Seven founder Lawren Harris painted highly stylized depictions of snow capped Rocky Mountains and Arctic ice flows. As a young art enthusiast, Kurt Swinghammer absorbed this work via reproductions hung in his public school. In his teens, Swinghammer was soaking up library books on the modernist colour field work of Group of Eleven’s Jack Bush along with the British Op Art movement Bridget Riley. These three streams of influence come together in Swinghammer’s new series of acrylic paintings called “Melt.”

Each canvas shows a graphically designed iceberg floating in an infinite body of water. Hundreds of carefully mixed shards of colour achieves a strong sense of depth and has become a signature technique for Swinghammer. The Melt series continues his interest in exploring a traditional Canadian subject matter in a contemporary manner.”

But let’s step away from that historical interpretation for a moment, and just consider what’s in the gallery space. One larger painting is the opening “word” of a sentence that then consists of several smaller ones, though there’s a unity of form, execution and composition that makes them function as a unit, like pages in a book.

These are paintings that are superficially contradictory: they appear flat (often cold colours applied in shapes suggestive of construction paper cut outs) but, on closer observation, the shadows and lighting, the gradations of the scenes of “icebergs” are much more subtle – and much more painterly – than initially “assumed.”

This proffers an interesting formal means by which to consider Swinghammer’s response / interpretation to the mythology – or the monolith – that is the Group of Seven, or specifically pieces like Lawren Harris’ “Lake and Mountains” or “Mountains in Snow” (1928 and 1929).  Often described dismissively as “calendar art” but their prevalence, their insinuation, into the Canadian cultural psyche, can’t be so facilely dismissed. (A conversation I had with a local artist, a very good painter, recently centered on how some aspects of the Group of Seven were simply absorbed into his practice, into assumptions and actions regarding painting, and the realization of this subconscious dogma only became consciously known to him much later on….).

In one way, these works in Melt continue Harris’ exploration of mystical and often pantheistic sensibilities that led him into more geometric abstraction. But let’s ignore that for a moment, all the art historical babblegab: aesthetically, these are lovely works that are so well painted that the images seduce you instead of technique. Considering how similar each is to the other, they all have a unique charm, a simplicity that – as with landscape, and as we even saw with Flexhaug – though repetitive, doesn’t become tiresome. There’s a delightful allure to each painting.

In Atwood’s book Survival, she offers that “There is a sense in Canadian literature that the true and only season here is winter: the others are either preludes to it or mirages concealing it.” Although I’m also a proponent of the Wacousta syndrome, as Atwood is, Swinghammer offers a more hopeful, more positive, presentation of “winter.” After all, the show is called “Melt”, and the colours of the waters are rife with vibrant shapes that suggest activity and life.

These are delicate and disciplined paintings (when taking a photograph of one, I saw that what I presumed to be glare from the lights was, in fact, Swinghammer so perfectly capturing light in his painting that I “assumed” it to be “real”). They can be appreciated historically, or simply on an immediate level of aesthetic joy, of colour and contrast and shape and form. There are ideas at play that deepen their effect: and like Rothko once asserted, “a painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.”

Melt, a new series of paintings by Kurt Swinghammer  (which was part of a larger installation titled Meanwhile out on Hudson’s Bay) is currently at Niagara Artist Centre, and on display for two more weeks. This Friday, May 11th, you can experience those works as well as Emma Lee Fleury’s Sprout and About (Plate Glass Gallery) and a new exhibition, Bevan Ramsay’s Lesser Gods.

 

Contemplation and Consideration: Up Close & In Motion at RHAC

Assistant Curator Emma German’s Hot Talk took place on Slow Art Day. This was appropriate, given the ideas at play in her ongoing, year long curatorial examination of Rodman Hall’s permanent collection, Up Close and In Motion.

Two ideas cited during her presentation acknowledge this. Firstly, she described the Hansen Gallery, at RHAC (part of the original house built by Thomas Rodman Merritt, with fireplaces, cornices, decorative domestic flourishes) as “experiential.” This recognizes the uniqueness (no white cube here) of Hansen. When we talked about Up Close German showed me the floorplan of the Hansen, which seemed too plain and linear, too generic, for that very unique space.

Many past exhibitions have responded to its architecture. Forty Five Years of Collecting (2007) had a salon / every available scrap of wall is to be used aesthetic, while other collection shows like A Painter’s Country matched “classic” Group of Seven pieces to the “historical” space. Maggie Groat’s 2014 intervention / interaction is another German mentioned, in her research of how a collection might be presented unconventionally but more relevantly. (This is both an informative and enjoyable reminder of the richness of RHAC’s past exhibitions).

The other idea German mentioned cited the exhibitions’ title: “up close” suggesting time spent contemplating the displayed works  (thus only three in the two rooms, with ample space for the viewer to occupy, to converse with the pieces) and “motion” as the works change at set intervals. The literal space suggests you be a less frantic visitor: but the brief exhibition window means you must make the most of your visit. I can remember works installed in gallery washrooms (unisex, maximizing visitors, ahem) as studies have shown that half a minute is the average time a visitor allots to “art.” More time is spent washing your hands (hopefully..).

The Hansen Gallery was a factor, in scrutinizing the first three “phases” of Up Close: what German has hoped to provide here is a different framework for experiencing Art. So, Brendan FernandesPhilia had the front room to itself not solely for its neon nature, and David Rokeby’s Plot Against Time #2 (Flurry) rests in the same spot, over the mantle, not simply because the dark, hushed and almost whispery scene demands space, in the soft diffused, lately cold, light from the bay window. Also so the visitor might be alone with them, and not have their time together intruded upon by the (equally lovely) massive work of Geneviève Cadieux – from the first instalment of Up Close – or the tiny, layered urban impressions by Janet Jones. These were / are safely in the other room. You can visit them, with renewed attentions, and consider your own walking and looking between them, taking your time with the artwork(s) and your thought(s).

I must add something amusing. Several artists German curated are ones I’ve been unimpressed with, having experienced “them” in other places, other spaces. But it occurred to me I’ve never seen these artists installed in this manner, privileging their individuality over a larger curatorial narrative. Perhaps that’s also why the RHAC version of Material Girls impressed me, as I know the curatorial staff at RHAC saw its installation as more collaborative with the artists than previous, curatorially “top down” incarnations…

In her talk, German also spoke of the “life” of these objects, “resting” in a kind of stasis, like mummies, in the vault, when not “alive” in the gallery: thus, how in the first instalment of Up Close, Cadieux and Daigneault and Fernandes interacted was unique, and won’t happen again. In this same way, any visit to these works, in this “slow” aesthetic German is presenting, emphasises the uniqueness of the visitor as well as the art object. The environment of Up Close is about the individual artworks but also the larger framework of looking, with consideration and contemplation. No need to rush through, say you’ve “seen” the show, and yet forget it before you’ve walked out the front door….

Informative text panels are provided, yet German spoke of how she encourages people to experience the art, individually, then as a group, repeatedly, and then read the words. Employ them as a component of your own dialogue with the art. If you read my impressions of Philia, by Fernandes, you’ll remember my own admission of how the piece was interesting, but the text offers a depth that animated ideas of my own, re: HIV / AIDS, and I found in that artwork a repository, or a catalyst, for my own experiences. Jeanne Randolph spoke of this, in her essay The Amenable Object, of how most viewers provide much of the content, if not the lens, through which we understand artwork (I’ve often played this on people who find much art empty, arrogant and self centred, as they won’t / can’t / daren’t leave their own echo chamber).

Right now, the aforementioned Rokeby video installation, Jones’ delicate paintings and a Brendan Tang sculpture await visitors in the Hansen space. Tang’s ceramic constructions, merging stereotypes of Asian vases with Manga influenced slickness, with imagery and symbols that are symbolic and humourous, have brought the artist significant praise nationally and beyond. A fine example of the depth and quality of RHAC’s collection. Another way, perhaps, in which some at Brock who should be aware of the value and importance of RHAC might be reminded of it….again, until they pay attention, perhaps.

But that’s not why I mention Manga Ormolu Ver. 5.0-K: here, in Up Close, the singular work can be walked around, examined and experienced to its full potential. When I last saw Tang’s work, in an amazing show with a half dozen pieces, it was overwhelming, but perhaps didn’t serve me – or the pieces – as well as one whose only “challenge” in the Hansen is Jone’s painting. Jones offers a respite to Tang’s serpentine detail, as her painterly softness and play of light and fluorescence will make you marvel at her acumen in Solo #1 – 4. It may sound like a back handed compliment, but Jones uses paint in a manner that makes you wonder if its paint, with depth and imitation of refracted light that (like Cadieux’s photo works) changes with where you stand, literally, in the gallery.

Up Close and In Motion isn’t about quantity, like many collections exhibitions, but quality. How that quality is defined is fluid and changing (just like the works on display will). It’s about they speak to each other and help define and elaborate each other’s meaning, and we help redefine it over the year, with repeated visits and with the recollections of what was there before, and the expectations of what’s upcoming. It’s almost as though I’m talking about visiting people, not inanimate objects: but these works are indexical referents of many hands, many people.

Another aspect of this intuitive curatorial exploration of RHAC’s collection is that several local artists have been invited to make work in response to works in said collection, and this will be in the space with the future incarnations. Ernest Harris, Jr. (whose work was in Small Feats, and who, along with other artists like Melanie MacDonald, has had an annual open studio show and sale in downtown STC) will be the first of these, opening on May 8th. The teasing text: “Often recording details of their immediate surroundings and elements of everyday life, the artists [in the next instalment of Up Close] have made important contributions to the development of local artist-run culture. Tying together what he learned from these artists, many of whom are peers, mentors, and friends, Harris stimulates an active exchange between multiple generations of St. Catharines-based artists that have been both influential and relevant to his practice.” Again, the idea of the art object as a living thing that speaks to us, and a history and site, is present here.

Up Close and In Motion is neither a linear, nor a chronological show about the collection, but an endeavour that offers a different way to know the artworks that comprise the RHAC collection. German’s words: Up Close “frames the exhibition space as flexible…tracing important developments in contemporary art across genres such as hybridity within material structures, sculptural experimentation, performative gesture, and time-based media, many of these works will be displayed for the first time since being acquired for Rodman Hall’s permanent collection. At this moment, we invite you to experience the permanent collection and consider the role it plays in representing our common aspirations, collective imagination and community spirit.”

Up Close and In Motion will be on display, with different artworks and artists, until January 2019. The images in this article are courtesy Rodman Hall, and are copyright of the artists (respectively, Brendan Tang, Janet Jones and the last is a teaser for Harris’ upcoming show. The image is St. Paul’s Variety Meatball, 2017, ink and watercolour on paper).