Artist Profile: Kate Mazi

There is a playful absurdity to Kate Mazi’s art work: its enticing (the brightly coloured ironing boards, climbing up a wall), but there’s also an intuitive immediacy to it. The contrast of the multicoloured structures on the white wall is just fun, and invite further consideration, but don’t require it, to make an impression. Maybe they’re like a cheerleading pyramid: or insects scuttling across the white gallery wall…

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That was her assemblage work from VISA4F06 at Rodman Hall. Full disclosure: seeing an image of that in Canadian Art’s annual “analysis” of Canadian Art Schools (I call it the “glamour and lies” issue) was one of my first impressions of the Niagara visual arts community. But you’re likely more familiar with her works from several exhibitions in the past eight months, both in the VISA Gallery and NAC (a four person exhibition that just closed, Case Closed is the latest).

Mazi’s art is interdisciplinary in form: genuinely so as the medium serves the concept, and it eschews specificity of medium defining all (like some painters or photographs whom position themselves firmly as such). Her current affinity is more so with photography / digital, installation or drawing. The latter are all “newer” mediums that allow for ambiguity and flexibility, whereas (conversely) drawing is a medium that can be almost anything and can encompass almost everything.

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As the start of a new series in The Sound highlighting local artists, Kate and I sat down and she graciously responded to my impertinent questions. My additional comments are within the [brackets].

BG: Describe your studio practice in several sentences.

KM: My practice is very dependant on the different media or ideas I am working with. I collect objects I find compelling, that I know will be useful to me later, or I will seek certain things in order to use for an already established idea. I choose things based on their everydayness, their aesthetic (shape/colour/texture) and usually their potential to represent a larger issue. I am very interested in social issues, particularly animal rights, although this isn’t always present in my work. I hope to continue finding ways I can critique commercial/consumer culture by drawing attention to the absurdity of the everyday/familiar…. I am very intuitive in the way I work, but often accept those intuitions as being part of a bigger idea and different media motivates me to do different things.

I am constantly being pulled into different media to see what it can offer my ideas. Most recently I have fallen into digital photography – which seems most appropropriate for the work I am trying to produce about food. I enjoy the layers of consumption. It can be visualized ast “ Animal (usually)  > Food > Replica of Food > Photo > Consumed Photo > No Product”, as a kind of framing idea.

Photography and installation are so much more aligned conceptually with the subject matter I am interested in, although painting does have it’s uses – it’s just different. I cherish painting for its immediacy and the fluid nature of the medium – the experience of painting alone is quite visceral and wonderful especially because I am so attracted to colour. I enjoy paintings for interactions I cannot get from found objects and photographs.

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Sometimes painting overlaps with my other media, but usually for really specific reasons.

 BG: Why do you make art? How did you start? Why is it important to you?

KM:  Art has always been present in my life, but it wasn’t until late high-school that I realized I had adequate technical skills and conceptual ideas were percolating, even if not yet ‘fully realized.’ I would always focus on ‘creative’ aspects of projects and assignments from the earliest I could remember – I valued being ‘good’ at art in a different way than I did being ‘good’ at other subjects…

Art making is important to me because I have always questioned the world and how things are. Art is a way of seeing or re-seeing the world and being able to highlight different aspects of how things are or aren’t. I like how art can be as equally “useless” as it is “important”. I make art now because the process of collecting objects, making work and showing work is challenging, addicting and rewarding. Conceptual art helps me think about the world, and critique it. I want to make things that are unseen, yet visible.

My favourite right now is BGL [the trio recently represented Canada at the Venice Biennale. They’ve been described as “sassy and satirical”, “very playful and love to provoke.”] I love what they are doing. Their pieces can be so humourous and I like how they use spectacle to draw attention to social and political concerns…I can relate greatly with commercial/consumer aspects. I’m always intrigued by collaborative projects as well; there is so much more that comes from working with multiple people.

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

KM: The highlight of my practice would be the Honours Exhibition I was a part of last spring in Rodman Hall Art Gallery, along with that – one of my works from that show being featured in Canadian Art – Winter 2016 [the aforementioned ironing boards, and the colourful architecturally defined corner of the lower gallery that Mazi made new is this work, all geometric slabs of pure colour, objects – a bright blue purse – that seem banal and exciting, simultaneously].

I also enjoy organizing shows – so the Art Block show in the MIW Gallery in December was also a highlight of this past year. The Brock Art Collective organized something completely new for students and it was a great success. This show got about 40 students involved, sold over $2000 in student work (that fully went back to students) and had an amazing reception turn out. [I would add that Mazi had a major hand in organizing Million Dollar Pink, Brock University’s Fourth Annual Juried Art Exhibition, also at NAC and juried by Linda Steer and Derek Knight.]

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

KM: My favourite work in the last year would have to be my Play Food series [these were the works in Case Closed at NAC. I’d add that a work for sale in Small Feats that was incredibly sexy and grotesque simultaneously, is part of this series, and I wished I had gotten to it before it sold..]. I knew little about digital photography going into it, and my results were far better than what I could imagine. This work really engages in topics I feel strongest about. I want to keep working using these techniques I have taught myself. I have many things ‘collected’ for this process of image making to use.   

 

Now and Then: Amy Friend at Rodman Hall

In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, a challenging work on self and memory, a character reflects “I remembered the words particularly: Somebody pulled a thread of the fabric and it all dissolved.” I read that after my engaging walkthrough at Rodman Hall Art Centre of Amy Friend’s Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life, where the idea of fact and fiction in familial history was encapsulated by curator Marcie Bronson’s observation about “pulling the thread that unravels everything.” (Her last curatorial venture at Rodman was the architecturally appropriate — and also exploring place / space / remembrance — The Radcliffe Line and Other Stories by Sarindar Dhaliwal).

Before I progress to the artworks, I’ll quote Bronson further: the specificity of the side space at Rodman, the architectural / historical insistence / presence of the building invites “more experimental work” that can answer back to a space with equal personality. In some ways, its perfect that Friend employs the aesthetics of the space in her attempts to “pull apart meaning and have people exist within it.”

The interesting thing about the specific work that dominates Amy Friend’s exhibition at Rodman Hall — titled Where The Land Meets The Sea — is that the piece is (at the least) dualistic. Is it most fully itself when you stand in front of the mirror, with Rodman’s architecture incorporated into your looking / reflection, the ghostly landscape behind, or when you’re stepping around / tempted to stroke the silken sea on the floor, but “face to face” with the hanging impressionist backlit scene?

Both. Either. Neither – you’re in an environment you define by where you stand, as with all art, whether between the silken room or your dirty reflection.

It’s a quiet exhibition: perhaps contrasting the raucous freneticism of Inland in the back gallery. Ordinary is a pensive show, calm and thoughtful: the mirror is fitting for that, or that you can see all the work from various places in the gallery. There’s a complicated beauty here that leads to difficult moments of contemplation about our being, at times intrusive and voyeuristic (these are from a family still living and visiting the gallery, knowing these objects and images more intimately and perhaps more — or less? — reverently than us). And like all families, they’re “scratchy… based on truth and lies… fabricated and ephemeral.”

Where The Land is, in many ways, the defining piece. The image on the silk is an amorphic landscape, all gaps and absences, softness and fades, less about what is there than what is not. Allusion is a powerful methodology.

“There is so much of everything that nothing is hidden quite nicely” might almost be forgotten (though assembled over the fireplace in the gallery, and perhaps the first artwork you see as you enter), but symbolizes the kernel of the exhibition. “Ordinary” marked its genesis in a collection of objects from a distant deceased relative of Friend’s, and the respective — or posthumously assigned — importance of this detritus sparked the exploration of memory and family. Especially the gaps, as much as the shared experiences, of kin.

Various objects in “nothing” include: several straight razors; a Berthing card (“time stands still in travel”); fragments — not scraps, as that suggests garbage — of paper, yellowed and with worn folds soon to be tears (some are treasured notes, turned facing the wall, their intimacy hidden like a family secret unspoken); a pair of glasses; some medals that suggest military service; keys, of variant shapes and styles; a photograph of a man, wallet-sized; various indexical evidence of a life. Remnants with an iconic power, no matter how inappropriate or banal they appear for such consideration.

Analyzing the rooms as a whole (like a family parlor): there’s a play of opposites in the work. Mirror / memory, archives and objects, odd family mementos and images of distracted and vague meaning. The process of the images on the gallery walls involve 8mm (shot by Friend’s mother) projected onto mirrors (dirty, with skin flakes from other, unknown viewers, whose indexical history intrudes and obscures) and then photographed. Oceans and Silkworms depicts her grandmother, who raised silkworms in their attic: a literal “thread” to the larger flowing piece Land. The skin dust on the mirrors leads to “gaps” in the 8mm projections – another literal representation, illustrating “holes” in family memory. The degradation of the original 8mm displays the degradation of remembrance.

To return to the conversation I had with Bronson and Friend: many visitors to the space find it evokes their own personal memories, using the space as we did, to talk of family history / family secrets (as there’s no didactic panel, the conversations seem to fullfil that function, that need). Our conversation in that space was as much about art as it was about our families and the very specific nature of photography as it relates to reflection and forgetfulness.

In Star Gazing, a multiple portrait of the artist has not only the reflected present-day artist, but a “child Amy” in the 8mm image that turns to look at us (now) or her mother (then) shooting the original film. But we also now step into this exchange, this conversation through time. Friend asserted that her mother was rarely in these images (hence the importance of another image, Travelling Light, as she’s there by “accident”, indicating something else of importance by her pointing). Gender is always a factor in family – or domestic spaces, if you will, and women are often the default memory keepers. Consider our mothers and grandmothers with objects and albums, or how prevalent that it’s a female family member whom holds the literal and metaphorical “history” of a clan. Martha Langford’s excellent work with family albums (what they reveal, what they hide) is part of this story.

It’s history in a space (both with Amy’s work, but augmented by Rodman’s ambience) and spaces breathe and have life. Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life employs a seductive beauty to trouble our perceptions of ourselves and our relations to others.

Inland Space / Shawn Serfas

One of the things that has become relevant for me lately is the idea of synchronicity: or perhaps I’m investing too much into the idea that the exhibition Inland, by Shawn Serfas, an Assistant Professor at Brock University, brings together a number of uniquely relevant, if somewhat unpredictable, points.

After all, the Canadian art world is small: so the fact that Serfas was a student of mine during his BFA (Saskatoon), before he his MFA (Alberta), isn’t that odd. He’s just mounted a major exhibition of his work at Rodman Hall, and perhaps thoughts of “prairie modernism” or “prairie abstraction” still inform his work. My own attitudes about those motifs have shifted / are shifting (partly due to geography, partly due to other factors). This supplies an interesting coincidence, a possibility to go deeper in looking at Inland, which has been curated by Stuart Reid.

There’s also external factors in considering contemporary abstract painting: Ellsworth Kelly has passed, and a massive retrospective of Frank Stella was recently mounted. But it’s also worth considering Camille Paglia’s acerbic — and insightful — declaration that many “regard abstract painting with suspicion, as if it were a hoax or fraud… there is more bad than good abstract art, which has been compromised over the decades by a host of inept imitations”.

Jerry Saltz calls it “zombie modernism” (and all the facile St. Justs to his Robespierre rush to quote it, like good ignorant zealots). In Saskatoon, where Shawn and I met, I christened it “karaoke modernism.” Imitative form without the spark of creativity: not even simulacra, but arrogant mimesis. The last exhibition I saw on the prairies, Abject Abstract, presented two excremental examples of this: Jon Vaughn and Allysha Larsen. They personify how often those whom imitate the giants are as offensive as they are unoriginal. I mention those not just for appropriate derision, but to highlight that distance allows insight and proffers maturity. Serfas left, and has expanded his vision and his practice. The geographic reference encapsulated in the title of his exhibition is another entertaining interpretation (or coincidence).

His work fills the “lower” space: the two smaller alcove rooms and the larger, sunken space. The works alternate between massive, “manly” paintings, often dominated by darks with breaks of vivid colour; these works seem covered in an oily black “scum”, almost “dirty.” You can stand amidst these works, having them encircle you, and interact with them as they interact with each other. Yellow T, Forge or Blacken (all part of the Inland Series) are the more interesting. These are a painted series of “monoliths.” Slit No. 2 is all oily blacks, vasoline gelled whites with a red “dock” at the bottom, like an industrial waste site, the interior organs of a sewer system. Forge offers some light blues, muddy bloody dirty blacks scabbing over again, a lighter thicker tab in glutty white but tainted with yellow and red streaks that ooze into the “dock” at the bottom.

Second White from this series stands apart visually – and literally, as it hangs in an alcove. This work is as white as the others are black. Second is cracked and flaky: more solemn, more funerary than the foreboding oppression of its peers. This is like a period to a sentence. This quiet nature is the opposite of the massive sweeping brush strokes (as in Forge), like a parody of the “artist’s hand” – titanic brush marks, more than a foot wide, glistening with (Stuart’s words) the “liquidity of paint” and “wet layers” with “crackling surfaces.”

Two elderly ladies in the space with me saw it all as architecture: temple and arches, balistrades and buildings. Serfas’s own words about the Inland works cited fear and foreboding, venom and poison in the viscosity of the massive works. Our shared dalliances with Prairie Modernism manifested again, as he asserted that he “sources my abstraction from the landscape”, often referencing aerial photography, geomorphology, “multiple layers of complex information” and metaphor that silence or augment or change each other (the prairie notion of the palimpsest rears its head, also). Meanings are more combinatons of layers than one dominating a “lower” one

There are several smaller works that charm, while fracturing the space between painting and sculpture. The smaller pieces are almost all from the Portrait of a Mark series: of this group, Seeing, Inland Yellow and Trench are the best. Trench is within a plain white frame, and pale greens and light blue swell out in a bulge more bodily than painterly, though rough and delicate mark making unites all the works by Serfas, small and large. The bulge is then cut into, with the large “trench”of the title: you see a cross section that has bits of red, and other almost grotesque painted “chunks”and iridiscent nodules that seems like fat or cartilage. It’s like an unruly, seeping organ on a sterile white slab; or the green is minty fresh and inviting, like icing. Perhaps this work is my favourite as I wish to consume it.

Trench hangs on a wall by itself: Seeing and Inland Yellow sit next to each other. The former is based on a scrappy, perhaps degraded series of stripes (red on green, green on red) with a snaked form on top of it. It’s intestinal, and the colours are muddy or dullish. Inland Yellow has a flat, sometimes sagging, sometimes stretched and bubbled “skin” that seems to have tears that expose another linear “post painterly” background (the art historian in me sees this a metaphor for some of my previus points about the history of abstract painting, with the mimesis or mockery of what’s gone before, or what’s “contemporary”).

Cross No. 2 again offers the “cleanliness” of art history burst and broken by the goey lack of restraint of the last 50 years that some modernist painters would dismiss as degraded (in conversation, Serfas designated some areas of works as more mind than heart, or more thinking than feeling. This is a flexible framework, when seeing clean, hard edged “docks” and “tags” arguing with almost violent and raw detritus of mark making. Some of the colourful gluts bulging forth also have delicate translucent gel threads, like ligaments or tendons. Another smaller work, Key, has its black and white linear background broken repeatedly by unadulterated chunks of colour, but Summ suggests a later stage, and the unruly glutty tumours of paint are like a cancer run amok, serving itself, consuming the work, becoming the work. The works you’ll see in the small alcoves as you leave the gallery, outside the gallery proper, have gluts that are free from the canvas and sit on the ledge.

The installation is evocative: many of these works speak to each other in complimentary or conflicting ways, and you may discover a work in another room that answers back to a previously seen piece, or that furthers the conversation. And that is perhaps the best place to leave Inland: Serfas spoke often of the “pluralism” in his work, the multiplicities of meaning intersecting in the same space. I’ve seen the show three times already and I’ll see it again, and the works that hold me each time are different on each visit.