Erica Sherwood: ..far from prison that’s where I long to be..

Erica Sherwood’s photography at Mahtay Cafe is diverse, in terms of subject matter. Some are more nature themed, and other images straddle a visceral sensibility with a detail and colour that is arresting. However, the works that held my attention on repeated visits are both from a trip the artist took to San Francisco, and are scenes of Alcatraz. These are scenes that are evocative not only separate from that historical site of contested narratives, but in their soft tones and silence. These are serene images, and that in itself – considering the mythos of Alcatraz, both factual and fictional – makes them worth consideration, with this formal and conceptual contrast.

Soles of Prisoners is a very literal title for what Sherwood has captured with her camera and eye. But the serenity of the scene – and the absence of any person, with the empty, discarded shoes – alludes to the ‘soul’, and that some only leave prisons when they die. The idea of what is left behind, when you’re released from prison, or to consider how some prisoners have spoken that though they’re grounded, physically, they are free to dream, is also hinted at, in the empty shoes. That a site that’s all about containing people is shown as empty, with indexical leavings of the past, of the people themselves, almost makes the image haunted….

The ‘dusty’ quality of the room is contrasted by the diffuse light from the window, and the freedom of outside: but the bars are still prominent, and in knowing where the image was captured, the history of the site informs our interpretation. This is true whether in the legacy of it as a prison, nearly inescapable, or in the occupation of the site by Indians of All Tribes (IOAT), that is reminiscent of Foucault’s ideas of how the designation of what is ‘criminal’ says more about society than about any larger ‘morality’…..

These rich colours and textures are in all of the images that Sherwood has presented, and her play of digital – which she often refers to in painterly language – and ‘real’ manifests in details that pull your eye in, before it roams to other segments that engage visually and viscerally.

The ‘other’ Alcatraz image, Office Alcatraz, is less immediately unnerving than Soles of Prisoners: a pale yellow, the file cabinet and the sparseness of the architecture are almost bland. In seeing this, it’s worth imagining how this was a hub of activity, with a guard ever present, and that prisons are not just cells, but a whole administrative framework. In a wonderful series I read a long time ago, a new prisoner is given a tour of the facility by an older, cunning and callous lifer: the latter gives brief, blunt descriptions of the gangs and factions. He ends with the gaurds, whom he describes as the ‘craziest’, ’cause those bitches be here by choice.’

I’m offering only a glimpse of what Sherwood has on display: other images, from Mexico, are richer and more celebratory, and others – such as ‘self portrait’ built around her ‘eye’ – are necessary to experience in person, as the finer and worked elements of the scenes are as painterly as they are photographic. Some of her images are vibrant and active: others are quiet and forlorn, as with the ones that I spoke of here, as ever time I visit her work, those are the ones that pull me back to them…

Erica Sherwood’s work is on display at the Mahtay Cafe and Lounge in downtown St. Catharines until the end of February: Lauren Regier (who was one of the artists in the most recent St. Catharines Annual Juried Art Exhibition) also has a selection of delicate and dark pieces for your perusal. I would add that Erica has been nominated in the Emerging Artist Category for the 2020 St. Catharines Arts Awards, and would make a worthy recipent.

Opaque and Obtuse: more light than heat

The exhibition more light than heat (Teresa Carlesimo with Michael DiRisio, curated by Carina Magazzeni) is an opaque exhibition. On numerous visits, a sentiment has become more formed in my mind. Essentially, that the necessary context for a full appreciation of this exhibition is unavailable to the visitor, and that even upon numerous visits, has not become more transparent or accessible.

Anyone who’s suffered through my writings on art over the past few years knows I’m a fan of a phrase by Alice Gregory, as it so perfectly encapsulates what is so often a problem in contemporary art – especially Canadian, with its intense academic flavour. Or perhaps taint, if you will, is a better phrase. Gregory asserts that “…contemporary art…for the past century has often been the product of speech acts. I am an artist because I say I am an artist. This is art because I say it is.” This is dually appropriate for more light than heat as the statement on the wall for the show is evocatively well written and erudite: the artworks in the gallery, though sometimes well executed, are not.

Allow me to invoke the curator’s aforementioned words: more light than heat invokes an uneasiness with space. The exhibition features common construction materials manipulated into sculptural forms, participatory installations and fictional spaces, and video works that push recognizable forms to their formless limits. [The] Hamilton-based artists…present an exhibition that exposes their behind-the-scenes inquiries into the built environment through a series of works that play with the authenticity of building materials and inexpensive “fast construction.” Through this, the exhibition gestures towards the ways by which our everyday spaces cannot be separated from capitalism, nor our world’s current environmental shift. more light than heat is a discussion that doesn’t necessarily provide the answers or illuminate a solidified thesis—rather, the exhibition exists as an agitation with materiality, the built environment, and natural resources to pose questions about our everyday spaces.

Acting as an extension of their recent presentation of a form of formlessness presented at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, this exhibition at Rodman Hall Art Centre can be understood as an elongated exposure of artistic process and labour.

It’s an amusing slur to assume that most art writers will use the term ‘derivative’ to slag off art works: here, however, with uninspired appropriations of ideas and formal tenets from artists like Dan Flavin (with his use of fluorescent lighting) or Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, it is true. Frankly, Marinko Jareb’s mirror installation in the washroom at NAC does more to destabilize the visitor than the ‘mirror’ work in more light than heat, named Untitled (clouds). This is not to say that the exhibition fails completely in terms of visual seduction. A video loop by Carlesimo, Montebello 01, which sits on the landing before you enter the larger back gallery space is somewhat engaging, and the fragmented video projection of the depth we wanted, needed, so we compressed it all has its moments of success. But the proliferation of ‘marble’ makes no clear or accessible correlation to the ‘history’ of Rodman Hall (with its marble fireplaces), and the random objects in a form of assembly are mute as to any relevance or interaction with the visitor. There is an unfinished, and unresolved, quality to this show: in speaking of it as a ‘gesture’, it is an incomplete one, and in doing so falters more so than suggest contested possibilities. It’s like incomplete student work; no offence to some of the fine student work I’ve experienced lately, especially in the photo show Translations at the MIWSFPA.

Years ago, when I interacted with a series of works by Jane Ash Poitras, her paintings were accompanied by several page statements: the viewer had no interest to read these, as the artworks themselves seemed almost to be afterthoughts – an inconvenience – to the words. Similar to the situation at Rodman Hall, Danny Custodio’s exhibition Flower Carpets/Tapetes Floridos on display concurrent to more light than heat is very beautiful, and offers a great deal to the viewer that invites you to mine the larger ideas behind the photographs. Returning to the Poitras show, Rebecca Belmore’s blood on the snow was also on display, and with almost no accompanying statement or didactic, the sculpture was far more evocative and interesting.

I’m also reminded of a curatorial venture from Corrina Ghaznavi which I visited nearly a decade ago, where the positioning of the artists, and their interrelation, was so specific to her yet was not communicated to anyone else. In that respect, the gallery goer was left cold.

The text on the wall for more light than heat is well written. The artworks are not well executed, nor achieve what art must be: a well made, and meaningful – to the visitors, not just the artists – object. I offer this having experienced more light than heat on nearly a dozen occasions, and despite my ‘reputation’, I don’t enjoy having to point out that a show fails. This is doubly problematic as the artists are alumni of Brock, and could have offered an interesting rejoinder to some of the facile dismissal of Rodman’s relevance to the MIWSFPA coming from Brock administration. If this is the last exhibition to experience at Rodman, before its closure, it is a disappointing one.

This is neither a strong show visually, nor alluring conceptually: it mimics what might be the forms of art without the self criticality and consideration of the viewer necessary to speak more strongly, and more clearly. I wanted more – require more, bluntly – and that was not on display here.

more light than heat, an exhibition by Teresa Carlesimo with Michael DiRisio an curated by Carina Magazzeni, is on display at Rodman Hall Art Centre until the 15th of March, 2020. All images are courtesy Rodman Hall.

Painting Modernity

[Jasper] Johns recognized that one’s knowledge of reality is at best fragmented, impure and incomplete. He may incorporate attributes associated with the traditions of abstract art, still life, portraiture and trompe l’oeil realism but in the final analysis his art belongs to none of these traditions because he refuses to subscribe to the ideologies and belief systems inherent in each of them.” John Yau, The United States of Jasper Johns

I once told a #karaokemodernist, when he whinged that I ‘hate painting’ that, I, in fact, just hated his ‘painting’ (I did make air quotes, as I spoke to him). This came to mind recently when I encountered, like stepping in leavings on a sidewalk, the slosh from someone who jabbered about ‘moderns’ and had – perhaps, being charitable – read one or two things about the highly contested (and very engaging within that arguing) dialogue of Modernism.

Years ago, I was also a panellist for a fine show titled Rewilding Modernity, and two of the strongest voices from that exhibition – both female curators – spoke of their ‘pugilistic approach’ to Modernism.

The panel I sat on was an interesting mix wherein the participants (Barry Schwabsky among us) couldn’t even agree on what that term meant. Schwabsky (an interesting critic out of the U.K.) had a Eurocentric focus, feeling the need to offer a history of the term. I countered this with Slavoj Žižek’s idea that ‘we’ in the ‘West’ are like the character in the film Memento, who know something important happened but can’t exactly remember what, though it casts a shadow over our amnesiatic efforts).

When I visited an exhibition at 13th Street Winery in this new year, with the straightforward title of Modern Masters, these (of course) contested narratives were in my mind. The list – and the breadth – of the artists on display are challenging, not just to the visitor, but also to each other. I often consider Ad Reinhardt, a fine painter and art historian, who joked that his works were often installed separately from other artists working in abstraction, as his aesthetic asked hard questions of the other paintings. I see this as a good thing, as conversations – or again, arguments – happen within the gallery space, and the viewer is ‘caught’ between and within them. This – as many of the paintings are visually arresting and enticing – is a wonderful thing.

Cynthia Chapman, And So On, 2019.

The works exist within a few loose frameworks. There are pieces by Riopelle or Joyce Weiland (her work, March, is as playful as much of her paintings), that date back decades, and some that are as recent as 2019. There’s a Karl Appel (who co founded Cobra, and his Two Heads has splashes of yellow on white) and a Nichole Katsuras (Decision Before Dawn has chunky blues, looking like they’ve burst out of the black). Cynthia Chapman’s And So On also offers flickers of colour on a darkened field, whereas Jean McEwen and Kazio Nakamura are more frenetic in their application of colour. There’s also discourse between the artists / artworks: Henry Saxe does it most directly, with his Homage a Riopelle (and Homage a Borduas, as both are argualy among the first rank of painters of their generation, not just Canadian). The time span of the works also offers potential to see how some of the artists here directly, or more ephemerally, influenced those who came after them. The quantity and power, in the larger sizes of works on display, make it an experience that can be overwhelming, and the viewer should give themselves over to, letting the colour and forms wash over them, almost. Julian Bell in the book What is Painting? Representation and Modern Art offers an idea, from the (in)famous action painter Jackson Pollock: “I think they should look not for, but look passively…it should be enjoyed just as music as enjoyed.” Bell elaborates on this: “In other words, there was no prior context to the painting itself. The viewer’s eyes would submit, and the painting would act.”

Henry Saxe, 2nd Fence, 1962.

Most is abstracted, and very large. The space is something of an ‘art barn’ (I say without prejudice) so its a massive space that allows the pieces to ‘breathe’, if you will. Some names will be familiar to you, others may not. As well, though primarily two dimensional, several very solid metal works break into the physical space (and can, perhaps, be seen as emissaries of the outdoor art collection ‘straying’ into the gallery space proper). Doug Bentham is the most prolific representation of this (his works are less impressive, however, than Ball #20 2nd Variation or Le Loup Garou by Doug Saxe, who also has some vivid painted works on display).

Some of the work was passable, some was puerile and some was pulchritudinous. The press release describes this as a ‘blue chip’ collection but its too uneven for that (though I saw an Otto Rogers I enjoyed, Tall Tree On Cliff Edge, which despite having seen much of his work on the prairies, was never the case before Modern Masters). Clearly, it is all work that has sold for a fine price, but even though a work like Michael Adamson’s The Sun, The Sun may be expensive, it’s still mimicry of Hans Hoffman.

Jean Paul Riopelle, Et Vert, 1966.

With the heavy weight given to abstraction, I’m tempted to bastardize a line from Clement Greenberg’s comments that photography is hard because it is so easy: he meant that because the process was predetermined, in ‘taking’ images, that the artist had to push themselves towards more criticality. Abstraction, in eschewing story telling, stands solely on a formal ground: if it fails to interest visually, it fails. More John Yau, about American master Jasper Johns, but relevant here: “The desire for immediacy is overwhelming…One of the issues painters must face is how to locate this desire in a medium which cannot overcome its own physical presence; they must grapple with what that presence could mean in a secular world where no belief or ideology is central. For while painting is no longer a way to show the viewer that the earthly world is connected to the heavens, so we can believe that we can be released from what we are and become what we dream, the desire for release remains unabated.”

David Bolduc, Wing Chun, 1980.

This is not to say that there aren’t artists here who offer landscapes translated and transformed, but the strongest works exemplify that “..painting…is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object…What you see is what you see.’ (Frank Stella, who defined hard edged abstraction in the last century). David Bolduc’s Wing Chun is very ‘there’, in this sense. Don’t stand in front of it expecting, but just experience it.

Modern Masters is on display at the Gallery at 13th Street Winery until the middle of March: go see it, and go see it often, as I’ve barely offered a taste of what’s on display, and the show is as diverse as the space is tall and wide and full of works. The gallery hours are 10 AM to 5 PM, Tuesday to Saturday, and it’s located at 1776 Fourth Ave., St. Catharines. As well as the gallery space, the outdoor artworks are worth a visit, as they sometimes work within, or challenge, the landscape. The header image is Kazio Nakamura, Reflection ’83, 1983.