Some initial thoughts on Welland: nostalgia and rust

I spent part of my first morning in Welland, starting off the month long period I’ll be here connecting with artists and spaces in the Rose City, by visiting the Central Library and their local history section. Oftentimes I’ve been accused of talking too much about politics and history in my reviews and articles, but that kind of ignorance is really only worth mentioning for its foolishness, and to remind people of the intersecting spaces that art, history, politics and place all occupy.

A side project, while I’m in Welland, is to photograph and perhaps do a bit more research on the house that my maternal grandmother was born in, that my great grandfather (her father) built: this has been interesting already, as everyone knows that family histories are vague and volatile, and are a fine example of what Heather Hart talked about, with her Northern Oracle artwork, about how oral histories (especially important ones, like familial ones) are just as subject to editing and errors as written ones, and become just as ‘official’ – or ‘calcified’ – in the repetition, as others are in the reprinting.

There’s already been some confusion and errors, mixed up numbers and other family fog in play, on that front.

So, I found myself reading about the John Deere plant, the unexpected and brutal closures that kneecapped the community (under Harper‘s indifferent government of 2009 – when the current repackaged goods passing himself off as ‘moral’ was making over $100, 000 a year as “speaker”). I read about Atlas Steel, which, in a manner somewhat synchronous, was a site I photographed extensively when I last visited in December. Atlas, and its impact in the community, will inform an upcoming exhibition at the Welland Museum, they’re soliciting stories and remembrances from people in the community (two friends of mine, nearly half a century apart in age, both have family that worked there, I discovered recently. Both will be visiting me at AIH studios, and one, Sandy Fairbairn, has already offered some amazing information re: Welland, and how my family might intersect with that story).

When I last visited, I walked around a lot, as I like to acquaint myself with cities that way (I once almost got mugged in Kelowna, when I was there for an exhibition of my work, but discovering the Japanese Gardens balanced that out): in that respect I passed by not just the Atlas site, but many houses that struck me as solid, brick and firm bones, and yet abandoned, and I considered a line from Notes from Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara (Carmelita Patrias and Larry Savage). The elimination of good, secure jobs – effects the community in various insidious ways. This acts as the inverse of the ‘trickledown’ mythology of privileging the wealthy to supposedly help those of us below (opposite, as well, as the former is proven, whereas even most economists – a group I’d compare to astrologists, but I have no wish to insult the latter – know the latter might be what Patrias and Savage described as a failure to lead economically or wilful mismanagement).

After all, I was still living in St. Catharines when Free Trade and then NAFTA took their toll, and the downtown was like the backdrop to a Springsteen video about how ‘those jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.’ Anna Szaflarski’s ‘A Man’s Job‘ has been in my mind, too, of late, with my anticipation of a residency spent in Welland, but also with recently reading Craig Davidson’s Cataract City. Both of those references – Szaflarski and Davidson – offer a more edged interpretation than the more ideologically ‘pure’ labour narrative. But if you’re reading this, you’ve read other pieces of mine, and know that I appreciate, and insist upon, the importance of contested narratives.

With Welland’s more industrial grounding (I enjoyed the basement area of the Welland Musuem, which made the social historian in me see I’m just scratching the surface, in thinking of Atlas Steel) perhaps, Joel’s Allentown is more fitting (Out in Bethlehem / they’re killing time / filling out forms / standing in line).

But returning to speaking of visual arts: one of the main goals of today was to visit Rod Dowling’s works near the Canal. I’d written on his work for a larger project, Art in the Open, about works in the public sphere from cenotaphs to murals, civic memorials to public art projects. This not only piqued my curiosity regarding history, and the history of art in Niagara, but also about the specific histories that we might think we know, or assume we know (I’ve tormented several friends with how the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, from the War of 1812, was bloody, brutal and in a graveyard as darkness fell, so let’s not pretend that war isn’t always all hell, and somehow fought by Marquess of Queensberry Rules ). Rod Dowling was a figure who’s works I’d surely encountered while growing up here, but had no recollection of that: but to steal a line from Elizabeth Chitty, when we were speakinig of our histories in St. Catharines, we ‘both broke a leg in a rush to get out of Niagara.’ (And yes, now both of us are deeply engaged with culture here, which amuses us both, I think).

And in returning to Niagara, after time in other industrial spaces like Windsor / Detroit (oh Zug Island, and the abandoned urban wastelands, and the empty factories, all like indexical signs, remnants of past glory), and after my research and experiences on modernism, karaoke modernism™ and the faith, fraud and formalism (as I bluntly titled this piece) of such utopic ideas on the Prairies, Dowling‘s sculptures intrigued me. In some ways, they offered a challenge to some formal modernist thought; alternately, living outside the gallery space, they become part of a wider, less academic, conversation.

The three works (Listeners, The Aqueduct and The Knot) seemed to be extensions of the city, today (the oft repeated descriptor is that they ‘reference the industrial and shipping history of Welland’, in superficial formality, with nautical allusions and such): in the cold blowing snow and -15 temperatures this week, in a landscape of grey metal skeletons of stairwells, barriers and other infrastructure canalside, these tall slim installations seem less ‘art’ than abandoned relics of production, now still and inert. Perhaps they’re also raw sprouted appendages of Welland – bursting from the earth under the city, pushing shoving forcing upwards, like memories surfacing or truths rising to be visible. Do I push this analogy even further, and talk about how many people I know who’ve worked in industrial spaces and now suffer from illnesses that appeared later, coming to the surface long after the jobs are done? My Saskatchewan must show, for a moment and I’ll mention that the debate about who cleans up oil wells and pipelines is just another chapter in the conversation that sees Uranium City sit empty and dangerous in Saskatchewan, or about who cleans up the old GM site in St. Catharines? Sometimes the detritus of economic progress is fallow ground (the article I linked out to re: Modernism cites the hope and controversy, the legacies both positive and negative, of nuclear power, and perhaps a day trip to Niagara Falls to revisit that history is also in order….)

I’ve had several conversations with people in the Welland cultural community as to whether its a wasteland or simply needs to be excavated more compassionately, and of course, the opiate crisis has hit this city more harshly than other places. I walk by pawnbrokers and rub – and – tugs, and wonder if I’m seeing St. Catharines’ past, or its future, or just one aspect of a city, with others to share.

Stepping back to the shale sky and Dowling’s interventions: they’re vaguely industrial (unlike other pieces by Dowling that are brightly coloured, suggesting malleable children’s twist toys, oversized playthings with a hint of Oldenburg’s absurdity), with twists that are pipe like, or forms that imply a utilitarian focus, or shines, still on some pieces hinting at well maintained tools. Other parts rust and have lost their finish. I’m reminded of cheap used pipes from an emergency plumbing job that is all you can afford, but hinting back to better times….

In past cities I’ve lived in, public art works have been rotated from location to location: I wonder how Knot or The Listeners would work, in the empty field further down East Main Street, among the weeds and trash and detritus that was once intrinsic to a process, a place and a city, and now most can’t even name what it is – or was, to be exact.

To return to my comments re: Modernism, there is a sentiment in that ideology, in the hopeful manifestions of that progressive ideology post WWII, that promised ‘never before’ and saw only a rich incline in human welfare and work and Welland (as manifest in the Deere plant, for example), as an archetype of many similar cities in Canada and further.

That failed, as all utopias do, and now these fragments are shored against the ruins, to bastardize Eliot: perhaps I should avoid rereading The Wasteland and Other Poems, while I’m here.

All images shot by the writer (the scenes of the Atlas site are from December 2018), and these works by Rod Dowling can be seen along the Welland Canal, just past the Community Wellness Complex. Many more of his works can be seen across Niagara, and a visit to Art in the Open will offer a good beginning in exploring his work. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell does offer the disclaimer that I may have been listening to Dido’s ‘White Flag’ on repeat while walking the city.

Ephemeral Architecture: Natalie Hunter at RHAC

When I first visited Natalie Hunter‘s exhibition Staring into the sun – though I prefer to think of it as an installation, as it spans both rooms of the Hansen Gallery at Rodman Hall plus the windows of the front space – Chief Curator / Acting Director Marcie Bronson offered an informal tour of the show. There were several ideas that she shared, but there’s also a formalism, a pure aestheticism to the works that Hunter has here, that’s a bit different from her past curatorial ventures (or artistic collaborations, as with Amy Friend or Donna Akrey).

Staring is a dramatic show, not solely in terms of the use of light and shadow, but also in the vibrant and vivacious colours, but in the way hue, tone and shape flow and move and stretch on the walls, changing as day turns to evening. Helios (the aforementioned work on the front bay windows, high above your head) can be seen from the parking lot, back-lit warmly, or if you’re standing inside in front of them, their flat strong blues, pinks and rich golden yellows are enticing. RHAC has numerous smatterings of stained glass windows throughout the building, rich and ornate, and Hunter’s piece is in dialogue with these. When first seeing Helios, I was reminded of the gentle, hazy and beautiful way that light passes through the stained glass on the first floor landing. Staring into the sun is another good example of how the ‘white cube’ is good, for some works, but other artists can do so much more in less ‘conventional’ sites.

In conversation with several fellow gallery goers, we’ve all agreed that Helios is a work (or three works, perhaps) that would be lovely to keep in the space in a semi permanent manner (I remember a similar discussion regarding the wall paper works by Alex Cu Unjieng from Material Girls). Helios exists differently external to RHAC, and is similar to Fernandes’ Philia in that it visually seeps out from the architecture, while simultaneously accentuating the shape of Rodman Hall.

All the works interrelate (except for Songs of May, located in the alcoves on the landing, leading down to the lower gallery space. As an installation choice this can be double edged. It allows for works to have a singular power, but sometimes makes them easy to miss, or separation from works in the Hansen can weaken them. Honestly, I often forgot these were there, and that’s not a comment on May but on their ‘remove’, so to speak. Alternately, when I’ve visited Heather Hart’s Oracle, and come back up from the lower gallery, the light streaming in from the back ‘yard’ area of RHAC has benefited May and they stand well alone).

Though there are images and symbolism in the individual pieces (some of which are more easily discernible than others), the ‘source’ of many of the collaged and collared and combined tableaux are not the immediate factor when engaging with them. But first here’s the statement regarding the sometimes ephemeral but often architectural Staring into the sun:Using light as a material in her photo-based sculptures and installations, Natalie Hunter explores the relationship between memory and physical space….Hunter photographed windows in familiar rooms of her childhood home, revealing intimate interiors that frame views of the external world. Using vibrant colour filters….Hunter layers multiple exposures taken minutes or hours apart, and prints on transparent and translucent films that she hangs, ripples, and drapes to interact with architectural and ambient characteristics of [RHAC].

The sky seemed to fold in ribbons of palest sunlight, Mirrored in light and Triple Window are to your right, as you enter the Hansen (or the room furthest from the natural light of the windows). Sometimes it isn’t the filmy ‘skins’ that catch your eye, but the soft globules of hue and tone on the walls, or the greyish shadows bleeding into yellows and greens. In the same manner Helios is one work when seen from the Hansen, and another when standing in the parking lot, The sky seemed to fold is multi faceted from multiple views: directly, the coloured films are blade thin edges, and the shadows and colours on the wall slant left or right. From either side, the rough slathers of pure colour become more patterned; you can approach them and try to discern the shapes within, or not (window blinds, patterns suggesting drapery or curtains, delicately feminine or domestic, if I may stereotype). Triple Window ‘points’ to the floor in the corner where its shadow thrusts downward, echoes that right angle, and then the wood patterning in the floor adds another level / layer / tier to this angular aesthetic. More of her words: Luminous and transient, the viewer’s experience of the works shifts with subtle changes in light and environment. Alluding to enduring routines and the passage of time, these works, as Hunter describes, “touch on how traces of our interior, most private spaces linger in our minds long after we’ve left them behind.”

The unique architectural touches of Hansen have been touchstones for numerous shows in this space, and Hunter moves out from the walls with Caught in Corners. The simple clean wood of the ‘frames’ sit on the floor, and the opaque ‘sheet’ of shapes and coloured forms loops and weaves through them. These almost act as resting points for the eyes, as they exist in a singular manner – being ‘flat’ colour, not transparent – and counterpoints to the wall works that shift and shimmer like Mirrored in Light, which almost bookends Caught and Helios, from one end of the Hansen to the other.

I usually suggest multiple visits to exhibitions (this is partly due to my own propensity to visit shows often, but not for overly long periods), but with Staring, the quality of light – and thus the time of day, or evening (when its all artificially lit, or when Helios takes on a different vibrancy in the darkness of night) changes the show, and your experience of it. Staring into the sun is at RHAC until April 28th and there’s an artist talk on the 28th of March.

Images are courtesy RHAC, or the writer; more of Natalie Hunter’s art can be seen here.

Happy Valentine’s Day

It is funny, as one of the things I’ve learned so far in 2019 is that when I think I don’t have time to finish something, as I’ve been juggling a few different things, and preparing for a writer’s residency, that I usually, in fact, end up doing more. So, this year I continue my annual Valentine’s Day cards, but also did one for the cover of the February issue of The Sound.

I offer the blurb from the inside cover of this month’s issue, which offers some background on this decades long project of creating and sharing Valentines so people can either enjoy them, or share them with others. Pick up a copy of this month’s The Sound (there’s a number of excellent articles by our regular contributors), and here’s my words about the Valentines I disperse each year: “In 2002, I exhibited at the Mendel Art Gallery and the cover image was one of many I created for that (all printed 4′ by 4′, rich and glossy); the series was titled “love.” I scanned fresh hearts from a local pork slaughterhouse, at high resolutions and then manipulated them into patterns and motifs that were floral and decorative: I’ve described these hearts as inappropriately beautiful, as viewers would be drawn to them, then repulsed, somewhat, when seeing the titles revealing their creation (such as eightfreshhearts, as the cover image is named. Oh, and those faint bloody trails making ‘heart’ shapes are natural, not digital).
Since then, I’ve had an annual tradition of making Valentine’s Day cards, and sharing these with friends (amusingly, several of my female friends who are married comment that I am their most reliable ‘valentine’). Sometimes I incorporate the words of Neruda, or Cohen, or others. But it all began with Gaiman‘s Rose Walker: “Have you ever been in love? Horrible, isn’t it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defences. You build up this whole armour, for years, so nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life… You give them a piece of you. They don’t ask for it. They do something dumb one day like kiss you, or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness…It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It’s a soul-hurt, a body-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. Nothing should be able to do that. Especially not love. I hate love.”

Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell wishes you a HVD, whatever that means, and again offers these valentines I’ve created over the past few years to any and all who’d like to share them (‘this one goes out to the one I love’) as you see fit.

Us and Everything: Carl Beam

Carl Beam‘s works are intensely political, employing and combining pop culture references and personal symbols and metaphors. Whether encountering several powerful pieces in the MIWSFPA, installed in the hallways, or the numerous works that made the exhibition Across This Mighty Land: A Visual Debate Carl Beam & Frederick Hagan at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery a critical and considered #Canada150 moment, Beam’s artwork is significant to many. In this respect, its fitting that the second floor of the Performing Arts Centre (a space that, of late, has installed a two story tall image by Amy Friend) features a number of his pieces.

Installed on the right hand wall as you turn, after ascending the stairs to the Joy Williams Lobby (near the glassed lounge overlooking St. Paul), there’s a mix of smaller and larger works. Like much of Beam’s work, they interrelate in dialogue with each other.

Before we get to the individual works (including pieces from his groundbreaking The Columbus Project and the later series The Whale of Our Being), I offer some background on a person who’s arguably one of the most significant Canadian artists of the later 20th century. Beam also, despite his appropriate distaste for the constricting label (often meant as a ghettoized dismissal by “real” artists) of an Indigenous artist, broke ground for artists like Ed Poitras, Ruth Cuthand, Rebecca Belmore and many others.

Born Carl Edward Migwans (1943 – 2005), he “made Canadian art history as the first artist of Native Ancestry (Ojibwe), to have his work purchased by the National Gallery of Canada as Contemporary Art. A major retrospective of his work, mounted [by the same institution], was exhibited in 2010, recognizing Beam as one of Canada’s most important artists.”His skill in various media was impressively extensive: “photographic mediums, mixed media, oil, acrylic, spontaneously scripted text on canvas, works on paper, Plexiglas, stone, cement, wood, handmade ceramic pottery, and found objects, in addition to etching, lithography, and screen process.”

I’ll offer an aside (acknowledging Beam’s legacy) with two anecdotes regarding (Canadian) institutional relationships to Indigenous artists. When Ed Poitras represented Canada at the Venice Biennial, a curator friend at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon reported a frantic exchange with the National Gallery in Ottawa, as they owned NONE of his work, and wanted to quickly remedy that oversight. Conversely, an amazing exhibit I reviewed years ago, curated by Steve Loft and Andrea Kunard, featured the works of Indigenous artists working in lens based media, from the National Gallery collection. I mention the latter (titled Steeling the Gaze) for how the artists and curators, in the labels and didactic panels, wanted to be listed by their tribal affiliations, not under the homogenizing blanket of “Canadian.” Anyone who’s ever worked in collections and institutions would goggle at that leap, from a lack of consideration to a malleable compromise.

Beam was (is) indispensable to that cultural shift, but not solely that repositioning.

Leaving the PAC, that change manifests in the wailing / gnashing of teeth by the well paid puppets of resource industries (Murphy or Mansbridge, crass or ingratiating, as they cash their oily cheques) decrying how we can’t just force pipelines through areas anymore, and might – gasp – have to negotiate or listen to the people who will – as Saskatchewan, from uranium onward – be left messes made and environments destroyed. May I don my shabby [M]Marxist hat for a moment, and ask why the only freedom that matters is the freedom to do business? Or, borrowing from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, consider an age where personal freedom is considered a sacred thing, but only for those that ALREADY possess (hmm, sounds like ownership again) it.

But your intrepid #artcriticfromhell digresses (again, always, #sorrynotsorry). Beam’s art spur this, as the night of the reception there was a panel discussion on Indigenous-Settler relations, using Short Hills as a touchstone, transcending the PAC’s “artistic” space. The speakers explored several topics, not the least being whether “we” “own the earth” or if “we” “are meant to be stewards” of the biosphere. (I recently watched IO and the main character posits that an atmospheric shift forcing a human exodus off-planet isn’t apocalyptic, but Earth saving herself by expunging us…..). The title of this sampling of Beam’s aesthetic – Us and Everything – resonates in that respect, if considered opposites, or symbiotic….

In conversation with several of the cultural coordinators at the City of St. Catharines, they hinted that there would be further adjunct / intersecting events and talks centred around the work, as these pieces are on display for nearly a year. Go see them often (before going to the Film House, hmm?). As the arguments around pipelines intensify, and we slouch – like a rough beast – towards the next federal election, or see Queen’s Park looking to monetize the Greenbelt, Beam’s work will have different things to say, or the same thing, again, perhaps. The accompanying didactic: Beam’s “work is thought-provoking and provides an opportunity for the local community to engage with his themes relating to the history of indigenous relations in North America and the human connection to the environment.”

There’s a mix of larger works and smaller ones: Beam’s recognizable usage of images both historical and contemporary is present, and the pieces stretch over nearly two decades. Beam, like many artists whom work in collage, appropriating and sampling imagery from diverse sources, also repeats some images that either previously held an iconic quality. A classic Northern Renaissance pieta – perhaps Quarton, perhaps not – is all angles and mourning. My art history degree was focused on this period, and its quite emotive. There’s an image of Hoiia-Wotoma, also known as Wolf Robe, from a 1909 photograph. This image has been used / misused and abused by many artists, sometimes acknowledging the man in Gill’s photo, sometimes not. Some argue this image – as, considering the history of colonialism, and with a nod to the Columbus Project, Hoiia-Wotoma’s image became a stereotypical symbol of the “long vanished Indian” – was the basis of the Buffalo Head or Indian Head Nickel. Several artworks feature an image of Jennifer Lopez: this had a relevance to Beam’s work at the time he made them nearly two decades ago (‘Lopez, while giving a strong voice to women…is still an agent of consumerism’, the panel claims), but also has a relevance in the public sphere since . Consider the rhetoric from George Bush II, about how the U.S. anthem simply couldn’t be sung in anything but English, or the ongoing debate about walls, immigration, and colonialism that is festering like a uniquely American (as in hypocritical) sore, south of the border…. To return to the accompanying statement: Areas of Beam’s work explore relations between Western and Indigenous peoples and tensions that exist in those relationships.

All the works have accompanying text, but nothing too long nor dense. The writing offers points of access or consideration, not solely in an artistic context. In speaking to several younger individuals after the panel discussion, many were amazed at there having been a time in “pop culture”, especially music, that wasn’t heavily informed (and, ahem, improved, as diverse voices always will, in any creative medium) by Latino, Hispanic or (with A Tribe Called Red recently playing the PAC) Indigenous voices in many languages telling stories both unique and universal. The titles of respective prints hint at Beam’s intention. Untitled (Jennifer the Conqueror) is one of the works employing an iconic image of Lopez; Untitled (Sitting Bull Pieta) incorporates an historical shot of Sitting Bull (also known as Húŋkešni, undefeated in battle by the U.S. Army and assassinated, argued by some historians, in a manner that would make the C.I.A. in Central and South America proud); and many other poignant works like Untitled (Mountain Glaciers). I mention the latter as the curator’s text asks whether, ‘aside from in myths and legends, is it possible to move a mountain?’ This reminded me of one of my favourite lines of St. Paul (shush, #artcriticfromhell isn’t a ‘christian’, as I’ve read the bible, and have a minor in theology, so I know better). If I speak in the tongues of men and angles, but have not love, I am but a clanging gong and tingling cymbal. If I have faith to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. This verse always seemed to speak about hope and intention, a way to move forward, and a way to consider where ‘we’ are going. In that respect it resonates back to the panel the night of the opening, speaking of Short Hills but also the Two Row Wampum. One of the speakers, Elizabeth Chitty, talked of Beam’s work as a potential guide for how to move forward, and I very much like that idea, and would suggest you keep that in mind when you visit the works.

Carl Beam: Us and Everything is on display in the Joy Williams Lobby, at the Performing Arts Centre, in downtown St. Catharines for nearly the entirety of 2019. All images (except the header, which is courtesy the artist’s estate) are courtesy of Justus Duntsch, the co curator of this exhibition, and whom has generously shared these images from his collection.