Sandy Middleton / a multiplicity of practice

You’ve likely seen images from Sandy Middleton’s continuing St. Catharines Legacy Project: her endeavour to create a photographic archive of all St. Catharines residents is ongoing. Middleton is also an accomplished photographer: her open studio at In The Soil featured a number of larger works that incorporate non-traditional processes, and her works that were in What About Rodman Hall? at NAC were playful in process and from. This balances nicely with the Legacy Project (SCLP), where what photography can be outside the gallery space, as a social record, dominates.

So Middleton is a clear choice for this instalment of The Sound’s series highlighting STC artists.

BG: Tell us a bit about your diverse studio practice.

SM: I’ve had some difficulty as my practice is somewhat fractured: the need to make art, be financially viable and to communicate. For a long while I made the art I thought I “needed” to make, that I felt would be pleasing to others and saleable. It didn’t mean I disliked that work but I wasn’t really listening to myself. I only starting working as a fine artist again in 2011 and in that brief time I’ve grown immensely.

I am now able to have two artistic practices: the work I sell at fairs and exhibitions (as in the recent Toronto Art Fair) but also the work with personal  meaning / relevance that’s not necessarily saleable. Also I’ve been working on open ended project-based works which seem to fall into a completely different category as something I NEED to do (The St. Catharines Legacy Project, for example).

I graduated from Ryerson in Still Photography a long time ago and my road (if graphed) would resemble the rise / fall of the stock market. There’s never a gentle upward trajectory as an artist. Every decision takes you down a new road. Many dead-end.

I truly thought I wanted to be a fashion photographer like Richard Avedon but at school fashion didn’t interest me at all – more so still life and portraiture. I began my commercial practice in Toronto after graduation, for approximately 10 years, taking on a variety of jobs but never focusing on one area, be it headshots, weddings or advertising. I liked doing too many things. Somehow with my varied interests my photo work morphed into fine craft / design based work after this.. It wasn’t really until I closed my design business in 2010 that I decided I wanted to go back where I started with fine art photography (a long road home). Making art and being creative came naturally; it chose me.

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I enjoy working in my own bubble, but sometimes I follow (and admire) the work of lesser-known  artists in my own circle. Two painters, Toronto-based Julie Himel and Guelph-based Laurie Skantos, both create the type of painting I can enjoy for a long time and would want in my home. I also love the work of Ottawa-based Su Sheedy; her encaustic painting technique is unique and I aspire to that fluidly / ability in my own work. You lose yourself in her pieces. As a photographer, I admire Osheen Harruthoonyan and Eliane Excoffier for their analog-based practices. Their photos are dreamlike and curious. Japanese artist Ken Matsubara’s time-based work is unforgettable and mesmerizing.

BG: What’s a highlight of your practice, from the past year?

SM: The highlight has definitely been my portrait project. I’ve met and photographed over 250 people so far in St. Catharines, and developed new contacts and relationships and met many wonderful people. I love the images and am excited to see how it will progress and how it will be seen in twenty – thirty years. I call it my life’s work and my intention is to continue it for as long as possible.

I am next shooting SCLPP Sunday August 7th and you can sign up here or email me. Also, I’m in the Grimsby Art Gallery Bi Annual art exhibition this Summer / Fall.

unnamedBG: What’s your favourite work you’ve made, in the last year? Why?

SM: My favourite work is usually my most recent, especially if it takes me in a new direction. I’m working on creating a bigger body of work for exhibition in public art galleries. I started the Family Album series in 2012: it’s about loss and memory, notably within families and our connections to each other. I’m working on a series utilizing wax, layered images and found objects that address untold secrets and stigma. Its an exciting time for me creatively and I’ve found I’m able to create the work I need without concerning myself with the end result.

 

If you live in St. Catharines, you can be part of SCLP, and the Grimbsy Art Gallery’s 2016 Bi Annual Juried Exhibition has opened at the GPAG this August. I offer some thoughts about it here. 

konkreet vizual pome: bill bissett

There’s a dearth of self-congratulatory rhetoric in cultural communities about being uniquely “different”: but I favour Theodor Adorno, whom acerbically observed that when confronted with something genuinely groundbreaking, most people fall back on the shameless assertion that they “don’t understand”. Look at the accolades filmmaker Bruce LaBruce is garnering, internationally, and the silence he endures, in his native Canada, to see this illustrated.

I suspect this attitude – a virulent discourse in Canada, where academic groupthink is more subtle, and quieter, but insidiously pervasive – is why bill bissett is not widely proclaimed as an odd, difficult genius, though he clearly is one. His collections of poetry include Th influenza uv logik, Loving without being vulnrabul, Scars on th seehors, narrativ enigma, and northern wild roses. Many cultural historians are obsessed with labeling and compartmentalizing artists: bissett breaks and defies that sloth.

bissett treats language and speech as a mutable, protean thing, writing phonetically / frankly. The idea (or certainty) that language is surely a virus (perhaps you saw Eric Schmaltz’s Babeltech Industries™ presents The Assembly Line of Babel last year at NAC that explored this “disease” beautifully), a form that confines more than it communicates, and must be treated with creative skepticism, is a stream in bissett’s work.

First, praise to Gregory Betts, the Director of the Festival of Readers here in St. Catharines, whom had a major role in mounting bill’s exhibition. We chatted at the opening reception for lunarian life (at NAC) amid “paintings n drawings in konkreet vizual pomes.”

NAC’s Dennis Tourbin Gallery space is filled with bissett’s works: they’re grouped together loosely by formal distinctions, but these aren’t excluding. The hand of the artist, in the free and focused marks made in the paintings, are echoed in the smaller black and white drawings, and even in pieces where the “typewriter” text builds layers letter on letter like architecture or blended voices that fight and focus and reform into something else. A square work, black text amassed and a mess on white is nearly illegible in rich dark typeset; a line at the bottom clearly says if we find ourselvs missing weul find each othr aftr all.

The larger paintings are bright in flat rich colour (yellow dominates) with simplicity of form and mark: figures gaze out of at us, and the circular “sun” motif repeats. I associate the latter with Barbelith from The Invisibles (“the name of the “placenta” for humanity…a supernatural moon seeming both intelligent and benign..it connects the hologram of our subjective reality to the realm outside of our space-time, the domain of the magic mirror, and helps humans to realize their true nature beyond the subjective concept of ‘self’…”)

This isn’t overtly projective on my part. bill’s words: “bill bissett originalee from lunaria ovr 300 yeers ago in lunarian timesent by shuttul thru halifax nova scotia originalee wantid 2b dansr n figur skatr became a poet n paintr in my longings after 12 operaysyuns reelee preventid me from following thinishul direksyuns – bill bissett garnered international attention in the 1960s as a preeminent figure of the counterculture movement in Canada and the United Kingdom.”

There’s a more symbolic than “realistic”quality here. bissett influenced one of my favourite poets, bpnichol (author of The Martyrology, so perhaps bill’s the patron saint of concrete poetry? nichol’s ABC: The Aleph Beth Book impressed me greatly, as a teenager). bissett explores the same fluid interactions between letter and shape, word and form.

The smaller black and white drawings are a separate body of work, and the textual pieces, that seem to be the detritus (or evidence) of a typewriter gone mad, aroused and angry in its repeated “striking” of the “keyboard keys”, could be described as a third. The monochromatic drawings have a playful quality, and sometimes seem like growths, as though bodies have sprouted new and different organs, and other times the same figures that look out, or embrace, or kiss or otherwise entangle with each other, reappear.

Let’s step away from the artworks and return to bissett, who in “1964…founded blewointment press, which published the works of bpNichol and Steve McCaffery, among others. bissett’s charged readings, which never fail to amaze his audiences, incorporate sound poetry, chanting and singing, the verve of which is only matched by his prolific writing career-more than seventy books of bissett’s poetry have been published. A pioneer of sound, visual and performance poetry – eschewing the artificial hierarchies of meaning and the privileging of things (“proper” nouns) over actions imposed on language by capital letters; the metric limitations imposed on the possibilities of expression by punctuation; and the illusion of formal transparency imposed on the written word by standard (rather than phonetic) spelling-bissett composes his poems as scripts for pure performance and has consistently worked to extend the boundaries of language and visual image, honing a synthesis of the two in the medium of concrete poetry…exercising his native tongue dissent, bissett continues to dance upon upon the cutting edge of poetics and performance works.”

This exhibition closes Saturday, October 15th, and bissett will be performing the last evening of the show.

I want to make one final point, using bissett as a means to an end, here: in the 1970s, bissett was maligned and slandered by several politicians, whom targeted the funding he and his publications received. This was the same ignorant mantra we saw with Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, and in other examples I’m too tired to cite (does this happen once a decade, like a recurrence of herpes?). I won’t name the deservedly forgotten politicians that abused bissett. I will echo what I said to someone recently about Voice of Fire: its value has only skyrocketed, financially and artistically, since some overpaid, ignorant and hideously expensive (with their salaries and gold plated pensions) politicians failed to make political hay of what “offended” them. The ardent queerness (as in gay) of bissett’s work surely offended many: and as lunarian life at NAC demonstrates, he continues to contribute to the larger cultural dialogue, pushing boundaries and causing (appropriate) trouble.

Artist Profile: Matt Caldwell

The latest in The Sound’s series highlighting local visual artists in Niagara looks at Matt Caldwell: I first encountered his artwork  in Million Dollar Pink, in the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC. His works alternate in size, but are immediately recognizable: the subtle, almost bland, tones suggest an industrial aesthetic in his abstracted, roughly geometric works. Their hypnotic monotony is broken by running dabs and scratches of bright colours; these “appear” to you, after you’ve “watched” these drawn / painted pieces for a while….

MC: My studio practice has definitely changed recently. It’s more fluid than ever and it definitely tends to my focus on painting…there’s a lot of automatic decision making but also too much hesitation and internal processing of how I imagine a work’s outcome. If I had a studio to myself, I think there’d be lots of screaming. Just a routine release of extra energy.

BG: Why do you make art, how did you begin, and why is making art important to you?

MC: I’m not actually sure how many kids enjoy drawing at a young age but I will assume it’s a fair amount if not the entire sum of them. Is that when I started making art?  There really isn’t a starting point for me but looking back, say fifteen years ago, you don’t consider the standards of the art world. The funny thing is that the academic aspect might deprive artists of some original or pure ideas for work resulting in something may have been more interesting than what they’ve decided to pursue after education. In short, I find my interests lean towards a person’s raw capabilities of thinking and problem solving. Not that I only find interest in abstraction or mark-making, but I find it to be the most natural path for me at this time. There’s something thrilling about a few strokes of a colour and a month later you may hate that decision. It’s a fun and miserable experience all at once.

BG: Who is your favourite artist right now and / or the most significant artist (contemporary or historical) in relation to your practice?

MC: Paul Kremer’s colour-field paintings are both impressive and influential (for me) in his style of composition, using just three colours and the white of the canvas to create illusions of shadow and three-dimensional form. The banality of it really captivates me as it rides a line of simplicity but seems to rely on the pull of the eye through his use of tonal value. This keeps me considering my own work as I often have a disregard for major contrast.

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As for the most influential artist right now I’d chose a personal favourite, Mark Bradford (probably because he’s currently showing at Albright-Knox in Buffalo in Shade: Clyfford Still / Mark Bradford. Still [a significant abstract expressionist who passed in 1980) is also a favourite. I enjoy Bradford’s process and intuitive thinking when creating what he considers paintings. His use of found objects (old signs, advertisements, posters, etc.) from lower income urban zones create works rich in history through the items but also through his experience of retrieving the items and living in the areas. I like the idea of scavenging / recycling the old to create a further existence / experience for “loaded” objects as their “meanings” are edited or shifted as they’re collaged together. There’s great attention to detail in his work and it says a lot about his conceptual path as he spends his life tending what could be considered trash.

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BG: What’s a highlight of your practice, from the past year? What do you have coming up that we should know about?

MC: I graduated from Brock University as a “studio art” major ( a great feeling to be finished school – for now – and that  I’m no longer a “student artist.”) CASE CLOSED, at the Niagara Artists Centre in May where I showed with my “colleagues”(Alex Muresan, Katie Mazi, Jenn Judson) was something of a nod to our exit from Brock. It was truly exciting to see how well the show meshed. I have a collaborative work with Marissa Tomlinson at the Niagara Falls Art Gallery, with local artists exploring interpretations of “portrait”. Beyond that I’ve been doing a lot more drawing and photography until I get a larger space to work on some bigger paintings.

BG: What’s a significant piece you’ve made recently and why?

MC: A work that’s still in progress, an incomplete piece, is my current favourite: it was something of a breakthrough piece for me. I’ve been happily stuck painting rectangles /squares, re-painting layers / being tedious with my process, but in this new piece I broke free from some of the restrictions I put on myself and too often struggle to lose. There’s a habit involved in my work, not a bad one, but one that prevents me from picking up new ones.

Matt Caldwell’s work is on display until September 29th, at 8058 Oakwood Drive, Niagara Falls, ON, as part of the juried exhibition “Are You Looking at Me?”

William Griffiths: a history in texture and time / lovely ruins

The people who knew me when I coined the term “karaoke modernism” would be alternately confused or elated at how often I speak, these days in Niagara, about the quality of the painting I’m encountering.

The next issue of The Sound, Niagara’s magazine of arts and culture that suffers me to write about Art, in all its shabby glory (Art, not The Sound) will include an artist profile on Matt Caldwell, whose work caught my eye from the first time I saw it at NAC.

I want to mention grote, and linoleum, and other industrial pastes and chunky filler you would use for holes and gaps in walls (Matt mentioned the current exhibition at the Albright Knox, of Clyfford Styll and Mark Bradford, which I highly recommend). Caldwell’s subtle ridges and marks are more engaging to me than the current fad, Agnes Martin, and speak more about the necessary rigour of looking. After all, in one of the streams of Western painting, where narrative has been deemed unneeded, the best painters were / are exploring what painting can be, especially in delicate ways (gradations of greys, variations of white, subtleties of colour as gradated as a computer graphics program. The image below is Seal, by Caldwell, from 2015).

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So, if you eschew narrative, give me something beautiful, or engaging, to admire. If you’re going to abandon a larger social narrative, then work your aesthetic. There is nothing “wrong” with art that foregrounds aesthetics: the problem more so happens when individuals presume they’re making lovely work, but aren’t, and have no concept to fall back upon, for validity. However, the work I’ll be focusing on here melds both of these…

William Griffiths’ exhibition DIG, at the Niagara Artist Centre, is a show I’ve been looking forward to seeing since I encountered several of his works, specifically in the What About Rodman Hall? Exhibition but also online.  There is a quality to Griffiths’ work that is immediately engaging: perhaps that’s because many of the works, like the one in the Rodman show, are smaller and thus invite consideration of their texture and the almost sculptural nature of the application of paint. Also acknowledging my own obsession with industrial wastelands, the rust and metal flake landscapes of the GTA and Niagara (or my time in the mercury laden vistas of Windsor), there are aspects of his work that appeal to me personally.

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His statement: “My art straddles two worlds: photography and painting. My inspiration, consciously or subconsciously, comes from the environment, and the allure found within. I am intrigued by the beauty in the natural world (landscapes, trees, rocks), as well as the beauty in man’s manufactured masses (metal, deteriorating structures, forgotten dwellings). I photograph overlooked objects, and use them as inspiration for abstract work. I strive to recreate the moment, and express what I see.”

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There is a uniformity here, in terms of size, and framing (mostly being square) that fosters a base for the diversity of the works:  various objects are “embedded”, sometimes acting as focal points, other times being submerged in the paint, as though they’re submerged, or obscured, fighting to the surface.

In conversation with Will, we never used the trendy term “palimpsest”, but it factors into his works in a number of ways. DIG in the Dennis Tourbin space at NAC spans nearly a decade, and the seed for the majority of these works occurs in his photographic practice (sometimes in his interest in naturalism, other times in documenting – though that’s too formal a word, I think, denying the immediacy and whimsy at play – this area). A line from our conversation: “history is a treasure hunt.” I like that, as it also suggests “concealed” stories, awaiting a “discoverer.”

The names of several of the works will allude to this, if you’re familiar with “here”, or they’ll act as a “map”: Epworth Circle, Grand Trunk, Michigan Central, Chrysler and Queen, McCleary and Pyramid.

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Pyramid is on the wall “bend”, as I like to designate it, book ending the display of works: I don’t believe it’s the largest work, but it alludes to such, not just because the picture plane is dominated by a degraded and disintegrating pyramid, parts seeming to flake and break, but also in that (in that subjective critic voice I employ) it’s a work I saw two days after visiting Niagara Falls, and seeing the triumvirate of decline that is the Skylon Tower, the Casino and the pyramid shaped IMAX theatre. In some ways, Griffiths’ Pyramid is a portrait of that site: less about minutiae in reproduction as encapsulating the sentiment and sensibility of the sites he “remembers” and paints.

Even the historical – artistically, or otherwise – signifiers that any “pyramid” evokes are: Pyramid is a disturbing portrait of the Falls. This work – and several others in the show, with their insinuations (by title, or by imagery / object) to the industrial history / contemporary wasteland of this region are almost rebuttals – or acidic “corrections” – to the idealist, Marxist murals of Diego Rivera you’ll still see in Detroit, about a “workers’ paradise.” (May I extend my hyperbole and say that the infamous story of Rockefeller having the Rivera mural destroyed / covered up as he found it politically / ideologically “suspect” reminds me of the caustic, if knowing, voice of Anna Szaflarski in her historical meditation on GM and St. Catharines, in A Man’s Job, or the knowing, regretful drunkenness from Stephen Remus’s accompanying text to that installation…).

Everything is defined by place, and where you stand, and what you “see” from there. And “memory….is an internal rumour”, Santayana (yes, the same one who talks about repeating what we haven’t learned) warns us…

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Pyramid strikes me as a singular work: just as Vacant Lot, near the front of the gallery, is also unique, with its slab of black rubber hanging down over the face of the painting. The flat, discarded matte quality makes it as much of a “found” object as other fragments that are part of Griffiths’ painted assemblages (more paint than assemblage). McCleary’s flat blues are broken by a red grey “valve”, somewhat off centre.

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Other works employ geometric, abstract shapes: flat blues, light and dark, and a range of browns to yellows encompassing many flavours of rust and ruin. Three delicate circles of orange punctuate a work (In Time…almost like seconds or hesitation points). Others offer rectangles and angular forms within the picture plane, mimicking the black frames of the work: sometimes richly textured, like a paste, other times seeming to be a ripped or torn scrap (North St.), as though Griffiths is literally covering / revealing a narrative in these works.

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His process begins in photography, and in roaming through areas in Niagara, and taking pictures that may be more “landscape” or may be more so when a small piece, an object or a texture, catches his eye. Thus, when I talk about these works – especially the wall with the “quieter” work that is “based” upon St. Peter’s Cemetery in Thorold – I talk about them as depictions of St. Catharines, and sometimes Niagara, as much as any “landscape” artist. In depictions, we capture, and come to know – or define, perhaps being more about our sentiments – a site. And places exist most truthfully in our mind’s eye, or in the stories we “tell” about them.

More of his statement: “I use unorthodox materials, and experiment with different mediums to emulate the surfaces I see. I am constantly challenging myself, and inventing new ways to relate what I see. I search for methods outside the norm to express myself. I take the medium into unfamiliar practices, and push it to create a new language for itself. Colour, texture and depth are the tools I use to bridge unconventional and traditional acts of painting. By merging abstract and representational methods, I work to create mood and beauty through transformation, similar to nature’s regeneration and structural decay. Leaving myself open to chance and mistakes gives way to new ideas, and this creative process is most important to me, regardless of the work’s final outcome.”

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These are works that function well individually, but stronger as a group, like a painted essay of place. Will and I were talking, as well, about various commercial galleries in STC and beyond, and during this conversation, the works at the TAG gallery, that focus on historical prints of Niagara came up, when discussing audiences and agendas. TAG has an annual show (and a side gallery, year round) devoted to these historic depictions of place. Will Griffiths’ exhibition DIG would be an exciting contrast to that “history”, as it is also grounded “here”, and is perhaps simply a later chapter (in a different language: an abstracted synthesis of found objects with rich textured paint) of Niagara.

DIG runs at NAC until July 2nd, but you can see more of Will Griffiths’ works at the Jordan Art Gallery.