Writers’ Blocks: Sheldon Rooney’s visual library

Sheldon Rooney’s work is often derivative: I don’t mean that in a derogatory manner, but his work takes its inspiration, its genesis, from elsewhere. His ongoing series of album covers, for example, or works that reference musicians or actors, are illustrative interpretations of his musical and cultural interests. He was recently nominated in the Established Artist Category for the 2018 St. Catharines Arts Awards (sadly, he didn’t win, but this year saw a deep ocean of quality nominees. Buy one of his works to make it up to him, ahem, #buymoreart).

In the latest incarnation of Up Close and In Motion, the same wall that recently had Tobey C. Anderson’s work exploring his mortal illness, or that had Janet Jones’ abstracted suffusive paintings, is now filled with many small portraits of different writers of import to Rooney (these are delicate wood burnings where the lines and details so common in Rooney’s work seems to belie this process). Rooney’s playful humour is in the title: Writers’ Blocks is both the name of the series, and a literal description of the work, and also references the malady of the not quite same name.

An amusing side point, that also will hopefully inform your enjoyment / interaction with Rooney’s work at Rodman. I realized in thinking on this work that I rely greatly on literature, and in conversations for articles about artists like Melanie MacDonald or Clelia Scala, literature was a common point, that informed and deepend how I understood their practice, and what they were making.

So, in light of that visual “sampling” of Rooney’s reading, I offer a “review” that bookends: Rooney chooses writers to illustrate, to depict, and I have chosen images of these writers and will offer an excerpt of their writing, that is important to me. From words to images back to words: your intrepid #artcriticfromhell offers this non traditional response to Rooney’s work, furthering some of the ideas that curator Emma German has highlighted with her focus on Slow Art Day, but also with presenting artworks that demand visual attention, and considered looking. Writing about art has almost always been about literature, for me, too, and one of the authors Rooney offers as a portrait (Robertson Davies) was an early influence in this area.

“So, let us go then, you and I” (T.S. Eliot, whom I don’t remember seeing among the faces Rooney rendered here), and here’s my selected “biography” of the authors Rooney has “sampled” for us. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell suggests you seek these authors out, and read them yourself, and see why the artist consideres them worthy, and why I find such joy in his “library.”

Timothy Findley: “Literature was intended to be dangerous. Art was meant to be dangerous. Ideas were nothing if they were not dangerous.”

Timothy Findley

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anaïs Nin: “Worlds self made are so full of monsters and demons.”

Anais Nin

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irvine Welsh: “Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a fuckin couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth; choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.”

Irvine Welsh

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jack Kerouac: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

Jack Kerouac

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sir Salman Rushdie: “A poet’s work … to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”

Salman Rushdie

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walt Whitman: “Some people are so much sunlight to the square inch. I am still bathing in the cheer he radiated.”

Walt Whitman

 

 

 

 

 

 

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “Les grandes personnes ne comprennent jamais rien toutes seules, et c’est fatigant, pour les enfants, de toujours et toujours leur donner des explications. / Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”

Antoine St. Exupery

 

 

 

 

 

 

W. Somerset Maugham: “People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.”

Somerset Maugham

 

 

 

 

 

 

ee cummings:

“i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite new a thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones,and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the,shocking fuzz
of your electric furr,and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh….And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you so quite new”

ee cummings

 

 

 

 

 

 

George Orwell: “I tell you Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes: only in the mind of the party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the party holds to be truth, is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party.”

George Orwell

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sheldon Rooney’s many “portraits” that make up his piece Writers’ Blocks is on display at Rodman Hall, as part of the most recent version of Up Close and In Motion, right now. This exhibition shifts often, so go soon, and go often.

You can see the entire series here, along with other work by Rooney.

Goodbye Rubberhead / Geography, Memory and Canadiana at Rodman Hall

When I was a child, one of the albums that was played over and over again was Stompin’ Tom Connors at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. It featured a few other singers, but it was a double record, live, and only years later did I learn that there is, in fact, a film of it (that I watched this in Saskatchewan – roll on, roll on, Skatchwan – was fitting. I was sick with a fever, so there’s a filmy dream quality to that memory).

Now, at the risk of having my Canadian citizenship revoked, I generally can take or leave a lot of Connors‘ music, and the songs I enjoy tend to be the less popular ones. There’s points where nostalgia overrides quality, of course, and if I still had a band we’d still do Sudbury Saturday Night and I can sing all the words to Goodbye Rubberhead. (“..that woman of mine will be in a box of pine before I hock my old guitar….” Okay, that one hasn’t aged very well, ahem, sorry.)

Songs like Movin’ In (From Montreal by Train) and Tilsonburg are the spiritual ancestors of The Tragically Hip’s Bobcaygeon or Wheat Kings (perhaps my favourite Hip song, and definitely because of having lived in the “Paris of the Prairies”). Perhaps that’s the endurance of Connors: stories about the places we live in, our stories, are important. I made a similar observation years ago, for a show that Elwood Jimmy curated of Indigenous artists and artists of colour who worked in video, as the documentary tradition was one that was to be respected, and employed, to tell your own story.

But here’s the thing: in seeing John Boyle’s Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom, in the latest iteration of Up Close and In Motion at Rodman Hall,  this evocation of “CanCon” was not only brought back to me, but had a new layer added to it. Another sheen of regionalism, or perhaps another aspect of the history that informs contemporary culture (The Rheostatics, whom made In The Soil 2017 so wonderful, make no bones of their debt to Connor). Further, Connors was often uncompromising in his Canadian nationalism, willing to publicly criticise artists and funders whom he felt were too sycophantic to America, or too focused on America, over Canadian audiences or stories.

This painting is by John Boyle, whom like many of the current artists on display in the Hansen space (Greg Curnoe among them, of the same era and political positioning as Boyle), has had a strong hand in not only the history of art in the Niagara and Southern Ontario region, but is a name that came up repeatedly years ago when I was working at the Art Gallery of Windsor. I was one of several researchers for Bob McKaskell’s exhibition Making It New! (the big sixties show!) (I was engaged with this endeavour in the mid 1990s, and this show later travelled to a few different locales). This period – the 1960s – was significant to Canadian art: artist run centres – like Niagara Artist Centre (NAC) (founded in 1969) – were established, and some of the same breaking of barriers and heirarchy that we saw in other social spaces also took place in the Canadian art world. Spaces exclusively for, and about, female artists came into being. Artists of colour, of Indigenous heritage, as well as queer or social activistist oriented, moved into the mainstream, no longer willing to be ignored or marginalized (though there’s much work still to be done there. Too many instances of ghettoization and exploitation of said artists to “secure” funding still happens, and it is still disrespectful exploitation…looking at you, Gordon Snelgrove).

The “novel” idea that artists must be paid for their work (though some places, and some people, still seem to need reminding of this – still looking at you, Saskatoon) was just one way the landscape shifted tectonically. Boyle was a player in that, both as an artist but also in a seminal case regarding artist fees in public galleries. CARFAC was founded in this period (1968, in London, and Greg Curnoe was one of the original board members). Their most recent campaign – Has the Artist been paid? – indicates how this battle, that Boyle, along with many like minded artists and activists started – indicates that this battle is far from settled…and Connors also must be mentioned, in terms of his starting a record label and supporting Canadian musicians, and how that ground has continued to be built upon.

Ideas of Canadian content have been besmirched by people like Bryan Adams (“Now, now, the Canadian Government has apologised for Bryan Adams on several occasions”) and it can be as much of a bane as a boon (my own experience of karaoke Mmodernism™ on the prairies echoed that). But what’s also engaging about Boyle’s Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom (made in 1974) is how it fits within the current 24 hour news cycle jabber emanating from America, how we may be engaged in a trade war that can only escalate, and how American POTUS ignorance is combining with somewhat typical American cowardly deference (whether GOP spinelessness or the American unwillingness to genuinely criticise and hold to account their president, too blinded by their “faith” in their “exceptionalism”).

In Boyle’s painting, Tom smiles back at us, as St. Paul Street stretches in the background. Tom, in fact, stands at the point on Ontario and St. Paul where Boyle’s studio used to be, and Boyle’s work was (like Greg Curnoe, who has a piece to the right of Boyle in the Hansen Gallery) always informed by his immediate surroundings, his lived experience, and his community. St. Paul, as painted here, is an historic, not contemporary (not even to 1974, when Boyle painted this. One of the ways in which I enjoy social media is that when I posted something about this painting, it turned into a discussion – with images provided by the participants – of St. Paul from previous eras): Connors’ shirt and side burns are flamboyantly from the 1970s and the colours owe more to fantasy than realism.

Perhaps that’s also a nod to the idealism that informed that 1960s into arly 1970s period, especially in terms of telling – and valuing – Canadian stories. Perhaps its also a good reminder of how cities and neighbourhoods are shaped as much by ideals as business, as much by people as by anything else. In a long ranging conversation that was inspired by this work, I told local artist / educator Arnold McBay that art cannot change the world, but it can change people, and then its up to us to do something with that.

 

This latest version of Up Close and In Motion is on display until the end of June, but new and different works will be on display until January 2019. 

 

“The bottom is a really interesting place” / A conversation with artist Bevan Ramsay

Bevan Ramsay’s installation of sculptural work Lesser Gods opened at NAC on May 11th: it’s aesthetically striking, but it also led to many conversations that evening about STC’s urban core, who it serves, and who slips through the cracks. I spoke with Ramsay that evening and we followed up online. I suggest visiting Lesser Gods before, or while, reading this.

“I wanted the portraits to honor the dignity and individuality of each sitter…”

The decision to title the pieces with quotes as opposed to names stemmed from a very basic decision to respect the privacy of the subjects. Several of them asked specifically that their names not be made public in exhibiting the work, and so, for me, that determined that none of them should have the names of the subjects attached…I had so much informative and interesting material [from our discussions] that was both very personal to the subject and functionally anonymous. I reviewed my conversations with the subject and chose a quote that seemed to me to capture something of that person’s character or outlook or both.

For instance the first piece I did titled “The bottom is a really interesting place” is actually a portrait of a relatively young man (mid-thirties) who was aged beyond his years from a childhood in foster care, an ongoing battle with mental illness that began in his late teens, and life on the streets, which entails irregular and interrupted sleep as well as terrible nutrition. Incredibly, given all that, he had a remarkably philosophical view of his predicament. We spent an entire afternoon together with him telling me his whole life story, which was replete with challenges, failures, victories, and near-misses. Through it all, and despite being sleep deprived (the previous evening was very cold), he maintained a kind of stoic perspective, and almost  amusement at his life’s path. So when I came to title that piece I kept returning to one comment he made about how complex and unpredictable his life of extreme poverty had turned out to be: “The bottom is a really interesting place”

The subjects’ poses are both intentional and incidental products of the process. With Lesser Gods I approached the portraits through a Baroque lens as opposed to Classical or other stylistic traditions of portraiture because of Baroque’s emphasis on conveying the idiosyncratic character and personality of the sitter. This approach seemed like the obvious choice since a big part of my goal in Lesser Gods was to have the viewer really spend some time considering the particular individual and the personality and life that led to their appearance when we met.

I wanted the portraits to honor the dignity and individuality of each sitter rather than idealizing them – or worse, homelessness – in some way that might diminish the reality. When I photographed the subjects I asked each person to “pose” as they wished to be represented. From there (continuing the Baroque tradition) I permitted myself some small tweaks to that pose / posture if they contributed to or amplified an aspect of what I believed the sitter was trying to convey about themselves, or if the modification conveyed more of what seemed admirable about the person.

At the end of the day, a good artistic portrait needs an element of caricature. A lot of it has to do with creating the portrait in achromatic or monochromatic material. Without the visual heavy lifting that colour, hue or tone does in real life, you have to exaggerate what’s there three-dimensionally to capture the likeness. Considering the poses and their relation to the exhibition title, Lesser Gods references the Humanist tradition (Man as God or Man in the image of God concept while acknowledging human frailty – even emphasizing frailty – as an essential and beautiful part of being human). So, I wasn’t very concerned with making the sitters appear “Godlike” but rather to honor whatever – or how – they chose to present to me. The poses that you see are really the product of an expressive collaboration between the sitters and myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“…they didn’t want the relationship between their identities and their current circumstances to be made immutable…”

It took two years from inception to begin making the first piece. It was necessary to deeply research portraiture as a practice, as well as the historical position of what I was undertaking.

I had to train myself as a portraitist – largely from scratch having never done this before. But I think what really slowed me down was wrestling with the moral, psychological and emotional implications of what I was attempting. I’m not completely at peace with those aspects of the project even now, but at a certain point I decided that, for better or worse, those things probably weren’t going to get any more resolved by me so it was time to “begin.”

The formal process was really quite simple. I’d see a homeless person on the street that captured my curiosity in some way and approach them by simply saying that I was an artist and I wanted to do their portrait. The nearly universal human response to this approach seems to be flattery (mixed with disbelief and a touch of skepticism). Thankfully, in my experience, that first one always wins out, and I’d find myself in an open-ended discussion with the person. They’d ask me about myself and vice versa. They’d want to know immediately what would be involved on their end, and once they understood that all I really needed was for them to hold still while I took a few pictures we’d usually progress to a more social interaction. Once I’d outlined my project, they were eager to share their story, and anecdotes and opinions with someone who was keen to listen to their voices.

All the participants were paid in cash on the spot, after the photos had been taken. No one asked for money, and I didn’t use it as incentive, but that was definitely an important requirement from my end in approaching the project.

Everyone I spoke with was very excited to know that someone was trying in some way to communicate the experience of people from their walk of life to the rest of society. A number also asked early on that their names not be used. Personally, my read on this wasn’t that they were in any way ashamed of themselves or their circumstances so much as that they didn’t want the relationship between their identities and their current circumstances to be made immutable in some way. As far as their feelings about the representations, I hope that they’d be pleased. I had some contact information for each person, but have nevertheless never been able to track them down again. I still can’t help but look for them whenever I’m in the neighbourhoods where we met…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“…a relentlessly capitalist society that seems to essentially devalue individuals…”

The work isn’t yet slated to show anywhere else, but I am submitting it to various venues. I’m cautiously optimistic that it will resonate and find an audience in most cities as the income chasm in our society continues to open and more and more people find themselves on the losing end of that equation.

Ultimately, though, and I’m planning to get started on this this summer, the final version of the pieces will be carved out of white marble. Specifically, the marble for this project comes from the quarry that was used exclusively to quarry the marble for New York City Hall (it was decommissioned immediately thereafter). I’m very hopeful I can get these shown in City Hall as part of the architecture, which would in my mind complete Lesser Gods conceptually. It’s hard to pin down what I would like to see come out of this project as a conversation. But I do hope that it might inspire questioning of what it means for our individual senses of our own humanity to be active participants in a relentlessly capitalist society that seems to essentially devalue individuals by way of instrumental logic.

This is an edited version of our exchange: Lesser Gods is on display until August 3rd at Niagara Artist Centre. All images were taken by Emily Spanton, whose conversation with St. Catharines City Councillor Mike Britton, in response to Ramsay’s exhibition, is also in the June issue of The Sound, and can be read here