June-Etta Chenard: depth and meaning

In a recent conversation about the downtown of STC, we all agreed that many of the spaces along St. Paul offer interesting and engaging art works (frequently for sale). As I was enjoying June-Etta Chenard’s latest exhibition in the city (located at Mahtay Cafe and Lounge, which you hopefully visited this past December), I realized it was a year ago that she exhibited in the Dennis Tourbin space at the Niagara Artist Centre (So Invisible was the name of that selection of works).

That previous show was my first encounter with her works (I’m sure I saw some online, as we intersect with similar social circles), and their detail, discipline and the nature of the materials she uses and the intensity of her practice is still evident in the works from this past December.

Many of the works in Interior Landscapes at Mahtay have a specific narrative that sometimes is intrinsic to fully appreciating them, and other times they can simply be enjoyed viscerally and aesthetically. This is a good overview of June-Etta’s practice: there are works that are intensely vibrant, like Homage to the Sun Dancer or Voix des femmes / Voices of Women, with rich reds and deep blacks and then (in Homage) a soft snowy white that invites your touch. This is similar to how Where Am I? Where Are You? doesn’t seem to be on paper but on some form of cloth, the folds and divots in the surface leading down to a yellowing “stain.” Chenard nd often uses papers such as Wenzhou Chinese Rice Paper, or Japanese Gampi Tissue paper in her practice. Yet other works defy this physicality, seeming almost ethereal and ephemeral in the lighter, translucent colours and hues, with a layering of shapes and forms that seem almost dreamlike. Offer New Propositions or Prayer Kite Arising are among these more “delicate” pieces.

Chenard has exhibited nationally (New Brunswick and British Columbia, so nearly fully from East to West) and internationally (including Virginia and Pennsylvania). Her experience is diverse, and activism plays a strong role in a number of her works, such as Schools I Didn’t Learn In School, which lists the names of Canada’s many – far more than many know, or want to know about – residential schools. In the aforementioned Where Am I? Where Are You? Chenard lists the traditional Indigenous names of the places she’s lived. This mixture of personal and political is also present with In A Soldier’s Billfold, that incorporates photographs of herself, her mother and father that her father carried with him.

June-Etta’s works are dense: not just literally, with the layers and objects and elements enmeshed within the works, but also in terms of the ideas and histories (both her own and those various sites she’s inhabited, and we inhabit). She’s an artist whose work I enjoy encountering when I have time to spend with it, or can visit repeatedly, as the visual acumen she displays entices me to pay attention to the particular aspects that expand and enhance her work. Interior Landscapes was on display this past December, but I fully expect to see more of her work in the future at NAC or among other sites in Niagara.

We Are Fiction Non Fiction: Avery Mikolič- Rourke

Avery Mikolič- O’Rourke’s aesthetic of image and time.

It will come as no surprise that I don’t always behave in the prescribed manner in gallery spaces (perhaps this is because, at an early age, I absorbed Atwood’s idea about how galleries are such serious, dour spaces that seem too sanitary, like someone’s gone around spraying air freshener to eliminate the smell of blood..and I’m not referencing Istvan Kantor, if that means anything to you).

At the last In The Soil Fest (2018) Rhizomes may have been the most successful I’ve experienced in exploiting the physical space to benefit the art / artists. One of these was an installation by Avery Mikolič- O’Rourke intended to explore “the mediating effect of personal documentation on the experience of memory and self-identity”, evocatively titled This Here Proves: We Are Fiction Non-Fiction. Ushered into a more comfortably domestic scene than others in Silver Spire, I found myself in a small kitchen space with several people, amid numerous small televisions, and, to my discovery, a camera that was filming and showing us “in real time” on another monitor, in the space. The video loops weren’t immediately accessible or interpolated as “art” by the several women in the space with me, and they began to talk among themselves about everything BUT the art. I decided to watch the videos, but also watch them interacting, or choosing not to interact, with the videos. It was also a fascinating experiment in how none of us thought to open the door and leave the cramped space (okay, I did, but I was being #artcriticvoyeur), and we waited for Avery to return to “let us out.”

The descriptor regarding Fiction Non-Fiction: this “is the most recent iteration of an ongoing series of video installations that mine personal and family home-video as a way to explore the complex and labyrinthine concepts of memory and identity, as filtered through- and effected by- our attempts to capture and record our lives…This project aims to provide viewers with a new perspective on the genre of home-video as well as their own practices of self-documentation and presentation. Through the sharing of parallel familial histories, as seen captured on film- a simultaneous mix of both the candid and performed- viewers are invited to engage with these unfiltered memories, to look into these lives and reflect on their own histories. The work questions, in a confrontational albeit roundabout way, the function of memory in an age of photographic and video documentation, the role of this documentation in the performance and construction of identity, and asks: how has the camera changed your life?”

This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered Mikolič- O’Rourke’s work (a recent performance by Fourth Way, at Warehouse, was enjoyable aurally but with the masks worn by himself and his bandmates it transgressed into Georges Franju Eyes Without A Face territory, fascinatingly horrifying…and I’ve joked in the past that another endeavour, Senegal AstroTurf, may have given me audio rug-burn, ahem). An artist who can be described as multimedia – or interdisciplinary, as both terms are appropriately vague and inclusive – Avery “has…since 2012 [been] producing work that combines performance with documentary [and] the artist is interested in exploring the many perspectives within singular moments, the relationship between memory and documentation, and the complex beauty of the banal.”

I sat down to chat with him this past month, though it seemed a bit funny, as Mikolič- O’Rourke and I have had many conversations, encompassing the frustratingly ahistorical nature of much cultural production / consumption, how artworks work – or don’t – from one media format to another, and he has, on occasion, soothed your intrepid #artcriticfromhell with the assurance that what we were about to experience is “neither performance, nor art.”

When I asked him, as a point of beginning, to describe his work briefly, perhaps with less an eye to detail than language designed to intrigue, he spoke of how he’s often examining the detritus and minutia of daily culture, both as it pertains to “pop culture” but also within our surroundings (average daily life acknowledging his demographic and how who we are is often defined by these things). We revisited his piece in ITS, but also another work – TMBS_remix003/511 – that shared aesthetics / formal concerns, and even some of his painted works, such as Refuge Triptych or Smoke Break.

In his practice, he often follows the concept, the idea, and that defines what medium is employed to fully realize the artwork. And, some pieces may stretch over several media before completion. TMBS_remix003/511 is a series of image transfers in a large wall work that originated as a small video clip, exported at 24 frames / second, then arranged digitally in a grid format. The “stills” are sized out and printed on standard sheets, in a monochromatic frame by frame rendering. This “silly, random” video shot behind the bus terminal shows a simple plastic bag blowing, floating in the wind. In some ways this was so cliched and uninteresting, but also quite stunning aesthetically (an amusing contradiction, “documenting” the irrelevant that becomes a rare unexpected moment of beauty and amusement to be examined, to be broken down into segments and “fractured” – not in a pejorative sense but more-so in terms of examining it second by second, “breaking it open” to try and understand why the scene entices and attracts).

The rows of the “same image” offer minute changes that are difficult to see (revealing everything in the end strips it of movement and is – again – contradictory), and despite the “fracturing” of the video into components more is concealed than revealed. By dissecting this memory into a visual autopsy, Avery is trying to determine why this is interesting to him. Returning to the work in Rhizomes, which was a series of unmediated, unedited video that is almost like a photo album that we examine later, searching for why we took that unimpressive, banal shot, these pieces were “intuitive shooting, intuitive responses, intuitive exploration of the video.”

Some of the footage in Fiction Non-Fiction was his own, some from his parents though he commented that there was a randomness in both “sources.” In some ways this filtered into the interactions in the smaller space in Rhizomes, where there was “repeat value” of the scenes looping, and also what Avery called a “choose your own adventure” quality (if you’re familiar with that youth book series) in how viewers might consume or construct the works. Alternately, a memory can also be said to change every time you access it (consider Susan Sontag’s idea that with photographs, we’ve externalized memory, made our memories “dependant” on an object outside ourselves. How does video “play” into that? If you’ve happened to see some of artist Sandy Middleton‘s photo collage works, where found photos are stitched together, based upon similarity of pose or scene, what does that say about an image – an object – we associate with “truth”? Returning to video, how many court cases – whether the infamous O.J. Simpson one, or many others – had what seemed “clear” video documentation, yet resulted in verdicts opposite what seemed to be “captured”?)

There’s something disconcertingly but undeniably erratic and perfunctory about the images, whether moving or still, or in the translation (with the suggestion that some things may not survive the process, or are changed, radically, in the steps) from one to the other. To come back to the musical performances that are also an intrinsic part of Mikolič- O’Rourke’s practice, and the aforementioned masks that are the latest example of performative gestures by different groups he’s collaborated with, I want to cite Jacques Attali’s theories of music. Essentially, Attali postulates that performances are unique, and more “true”, than a recording, which is codified, set, and dead: live performances shift with the musician and the audience, and exist more so in memory, in a personal “examination” of the event. That primacy, that privileging of a moment, no matter how facile and fleeting, is seen in both the fleeting ephemera of TMBS_remix003/511 but also in the oddly personal moments of Fiction Non-Fiction.

There’s a totemic, intensely referential nature of the image(s) employed by Avery, but there’s also an implicit degradation of the same image(s) as it / they are transferred into different forms: not so much factual as imaginative retelling.

The ideas that intersect in his work can also be seen in past installations, such as his work in Invasive Species (installed in the MIWSFP) or Site-Seer or Time and Space, both which were interventions in the STC downtown. Some of his video production work can be seen in Sweet T’ar or Last Night I Slept in My Car (you can find both on youtube, that space which has forever shifted video art, artists and consumption) to give you a further idea of his aesthetic and attitude. From there, you can see a few more things he’s done and is doing online, and engage further with Mikolič- O’Rourke’s unique, yet also strangely banal, aesthetic.

All images are courtesy of the artist and In The Soil, and are (in order of appearance) This Here Proves We Are Fiction Non Fiction (installation detail), TMBS_remix003/511, Refuge Triptych and 09_31_17.

Conor Mac Neill’s Tall Tales (and Tails)

I will offer a disclosure, before I begin to talk about Conor Mac Neill‘s Canadian Myths and Legends. As a child, and still now as an adult, I am always reading ghost stories and accounts of monsters, so when I walked into the gallery space (one of two, at Niagara Pumphouse), and saw an image of Ogopogo or – more exciting to me – Sarah Ann Tracey, I was not only intrigued as an arts writer, making my first visit to the Pumphouse, but had that moment of keen joy you often experience, as a child, when confronted with something exciting. Its not accidental – and I wasn’t at all surprised – to find out Mac Neill also has produced a childrens’ book and is an animator. The night of the reception, he had copies of his latest book on sale, as well.

I’ve joked before about synchronicity: since my return to Niagara, I’ve also spent a great deal of time on Youtube, watching old CBC / CTV shows about the ghosts of Niagara, or the ghost ships of Niagara, and one of the papers I contribute to, The Sound out of St. Catharines, has tapped into a local urban legend / mythology with a column on The Screaming Tunnels. All of this, in certain ways, makes me an ideal audience for Canadian Myths and Legends, despite my age (some have argued I have never grown up, ahem).

Another portrait, James Andrews, also has a “ghosts of Niagara” resonance, as he is another “casualty” of the Great Lakes, like Edmund Fitzgerald, or the Great Lakes / Michigan Triangle or the Black Dog of Lake Erie or South Bay Bessie. Mac Neill described the show as two different bodies of work, and its installed in such a manner in the space, with Sarah, with Commodore Andrews and several others as portraits along one wall, and The Tail of Ogopogo, Old Yellowtop, The Gaasyendietha and The modern day Wendigo grouped together, like to like.

The modern day Wendigo

Before I offer Conor’s own words and some further impressions of my own, I want to add one more intersecting element.

The evening of the reception, Mac Neill spoke about how, as a child, his family moved from Ireland to Newfoundland. This caught my attention for two reasons, though really one that unites both places, with ideas of folklore and stories (and Mummering in Newfoundland) told to you as a child that you still cherish as an adult (a side tangent: as a child I watched some CBC thing, narrated by Gordon Pinsent – a Newfoundlander, if I’m not mistaken – about a ghost ship in NOTL, and how one of the sailors, one night, saw the headless ghost of a past captain, murdered by a jealous husband or jilted lover, I disremember, but the image of the headless uniformed body walking nonchalantly – or floating, to be exact – above the deck, to the horror of the crew, is still vivid. I must find that show, to watch again…).

The Gaasyendietha

One of my favourite books is American Gods by Neil Gaiman: one of his characters, Essie Tregowan came to mind, during Mac Neill’s brief talk about his works. As a child, at the start of her sad – or perhaps simply human, which is funny, in light of monsters and legends – story, Essie could never get enough “tales of the piskies and the spriggans, of the black dogs of the moors and the seal-women of the Channel. And, though the squire laughed at such things, the kitchen-folk always put out a china saucer of the creamiest milk at night, put it outside the kitchen door, for the piskies.” Later, in the “new world” when she’s old the hot Virginia sun can barely warm her, she thinks of how her daughter “Phyllida’s children would come to Essie for tales, and she would tell them of the Black Dog of the Moors, and of Raw-Head and Bloody-Bones, or the Apple Tree Man, but they were not interested; they only wanted tales of Jack—Jack up the Beanstalk, or Jack Giant-killer, or Jack and his Cat and the King. She loved those children as if they were her own flesh and blood, although sometimes she would call them by the names of those long dead.”

The Tail of the Ogopogo

Its worth noting that the person in American Gods who tells Essie’s tale, Mr. Ibis, comments at some point that one must trust the story, if not the story teller.

In his statement for the show, Mac Neill also cites the following, from D. Abraham: “There is no better way to understand a culture deeply than to know and appreciate its mythos, its stories, its dreams. Indeed, many of the symbols in our dreams are universal, or at least culture-wide, symbols whose meaning is invested in the mythic stories that they inhabit. And there are those who believe that these symbols and these stories are encoded in the very cells of our species’ DNA.”

Sarah Ann Tracey

Sarah Ann Tracy stands in front of a somewhat dark background, and even if you didn’t already know that she supposedly extends her short life by haunting Fort George, you’d surely get an eerie sense from her portrait. But she’s not frightening: I’m reminded of the poltergeist that inhabits the Marr Residence, which I used to live next door to, in Saskatoon, and they only became fussy when the Historical or Heritage group meeting became overlong, and I can’t fault that. Her large eyes are striking, and the whorls of her hair and her toy cat make her, on the one hand, just a small girl like any other, but the ethereal light, and her story, tell us otherwise.

Other scenes are more active, more vibrant in colour. There is a contrast of play and seriousness, a mix of myth and legend and a tongue in cheek contemporary re imagining – retelling – of some of the older stories.

I am loathe to offer too much about the specific works, as they have a joy, a vitality, that you have to experience in person. His process, a painterly approach to digital printed on canvas serves the works well (one might imagine several of the “portraits” sitting above a mantlepiece in a home). As well, there is an aspect of this show, this work that is collaborative with Mac Neill’s son, Declan, and he has smaller, expressive works also in the gallery space (in considering the work by both Mac Neills’,  I was reminded of how many books for children are important to adults, whether the obvious, like Edward Gorey, or one that I read as a boy, Norval Morrisseau‘s Legends of My People: The Great Ojibway, where his images enchanged me as much as the tales, like why the birch tree is ‘scarred’).

This comes back to an idea that informs much of Mac Neill’s work: there is a child like wonder to it, a child like sensibility to it, but that’s not saying its “childish.” In fact, there is a sense here of the importance of stories we learn as children, and repeat to our children, and how, as he illustrates, literally and metaphorically, that is important to many of us, whatever our age.

The exhibition Canadian Myths and Legends is on display at the Niagara Pumphouse in Niagara-on-the-Lake until November 28th (247 Ricardo Street). Gallery hours are Tuesday – Sunday from 11 AM to 4 PM and his book is on sale at the gallery. All images are copyright the artist. You can see much more of Conor Mac Neill’s practice in various media here