“Once we had words” : Colin Nun at NAC

Once we had words.
Ox and Falcon. Plow.
There was clarity.
Savage as horns uncurved.
(Stan Rice)

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”
(Alice: Through The Looking Glass)

Let me impart a secret to you: I distrust and generally consider words inherently dangerous. Perhaps this is familiarity breeding contempt: language is a tool I’ve used, and employ often, and it’s something that can and does turn, like a sharp tool that cuts or a snake in your hands (no offence to snakes).

It’s appropriate I’m sharing this observation now, almost two years after I strongly alluded to this impiety on my part, in writing about a show at NAC in 2015. This was Eric Schmaltz’ The Assembly Line of Babel. Perhaps you saw the collaborative work he helped produce at In the Soil, in 2017, where his exploration of the viral nature of language took on an even more corporeal form. The video projection looked like a close up of the antibodies and blood cells at play in our own systems….not exactly what Anderson meant, but surely its mutated, like any disease, since then.

Colin Nun‘s exhibition at the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC furthers this conversation. Before I subject you to more of my words, here are his own about his “text-based paintings. His work consists of carefully constructed typographic motifs deeply rooted in graphic design…Nun’s primary objective is to paint words that convey their meaning – simply put, to use words as imagery. He challenges how ‘normal’ letters and words are represented and questions what letterforms can become if pushed to their limits…[creating] tension between the letterforms, an optical effect he calls “visual vibration”. With influences seeded in pop culture, cinema, advertising graphics and ephemera, Nun experiments how language is depicted and how the viewer perceives language.”

Nun is a Welland based artist, but also studied at the Niagara College of Applied Arts and NSCAD in Halifax (the latter is notable for the proliferation of text based, or text challenging – such as Cathy Busby or Gerald Ferguson – or text challenged – whose work might most optimistically be described as manure for other more worthwhile – artists, whom have defined NSCAD’s mixed legacy).

The works in NAC (and this has been a very good season for exhibitions in the Dennis Tourbin Space in the downtown of STC, with some excellent artists that are both new and more familiar) are varied. Some are clearly recognisable as words (Good Luck (Gold) shines forth in gold on black, reminiscent of The Price is Right or other garish, forcefully loud design) while others, if not placed in the context of the larger “sentences” would function as linear abstractions that are more drawerly and “post painterly” than text. Union, from 2017, looks like a maze or labyrinth, a snake filling a condensed space, more than writing. Other wordworks (my term for his letterforms) straddle this: Fuse, in white on blue is all chunky letters jammed down together visually mimicking a wall socket, while Void, like Union, is stretched and distended so that the variant subtleties of the image suggest a gap the viewer might step into, or be swallowed within.

Some of the wordworks / letterforms are immediate in their interpretation. Beast in white muscular letters on bright arterial red suggests something organic with its rounded corners, but still has the “loudness” of an animal’s roar, or the redblood eyes of a stalking predator. Crux and Deluxe are more complicated and play with the canvas as a picture plane, more “creative” in their typesetting arrangement. The letters in Deluxe all are held within, or contained within, a larger “D” and seem to recede from us. They’re also like part of a puzzle where we need to locate and arrange the components. Here Nun perhaps alludes to word games, where the pieces are given to us and how we assemble them creates them, or defines them, but in the end that says more about our ability to see the words, or what words we “see” than any objective “sign” (It is a theory that…It is the theory that…The language you speak determines how you think. Yes, it affects how you see everything…”)

Others are more direct (Deadringer, even “repeating” itself, so to speak), others are more obtuse, some are quite blunt and others are more bellicose, offering more of a struggle (Gemini). Silence is almost illegible, from the manner in which the word raises off the canvas in an edged serration that barely separates it from the mottled grey. This might work better as braille, if the rigid gallery space allowed us to break custom and “read” Nun’s painting tactilely, with our knowing fingers. Like glyphs carved in, or glyphs carved out, language is a marker, saying “we were here.”

Even better – this may be my favourite work at NAC – the word(s) loop. Perhaps this painting is meant as a snapshot of a reel that rolls by us, so that Silence – we see the top half of the word below the “main” rendering of it, a lower half above – is reiterated like a rolling Tibetan Prayer Wheel, worshipping without voice. Or maybe it’s that old riddle: what do you break the moment you mention it?

Although this exhibition isn’t as visually entrancing as shows that preceded it in the Dennis Tourbin Space (Adam Vollick’s landscapes capture colour like it’s a living thing, or Sheldon Rooney’s amusing scenes that suggest an Agatha Christie like mystery with complications and confabulations), the work “speaks” literally to a universal space: words, how we use them, and how they use us, with their implicit baggage that they carry, which we are sometimes aware of, and other times ignore.

 

We live in an age of excessive and often ignorant rhetoric: Colin Nun’s exhibition at NAC is a playful reminder of the power of words, and might be urging us to be mindful of their power and place in the larger sphere (Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict).

Colin Nun’s solo exhibition is on display at Niagara Artist Centre, at 254 St. Paul Street, in Downtown St. Catharines, until August 25th, 2017.

All images are copyright of the artist, and the uncited words in italics are from the 2016 film Arrival, based on Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. Seek them both out before / after / during your visit to Colin Nun’s exhibition or his site

 

The Garden City Food Co Op: An ending, or a stepping stone?

There’s no one factor definitively at fault for the demise of the four years’ dream that was the Garden City Food Co Op, attempting to remedy the “food desert” in downtown St. Catharines . As with most community endeavours, there were factors that were more pervasive (and part of the larger ongoing “landscape” of Niagara) and others that may have been preventable, and were unique to this situation.

I come not to praise Caesar but to bury him; the ill he did lives after him, the good is interred with his bones. This is not flippant facetiousness but to indicate that some of the “ills” demonstrated here – volunteer burnout, for example – are evident in other organizations, other Niagara groups both social and cultural. Many groups run on the blood of the same overlapping pool of volunteers. That was clear in the makeup of the Garden City Food Co Op [GCFC] from the beginning (in 2013), with its board bearing connections and histories with various groups past and present in the region. It’s also clear in how the AGMs ebbed from several hundred in attendance, at early meetings, to barely making quorum in the final one on May 28, 2017, when dissolving the group.

I’ve been encountering a cynicism from many individuals whom purchased memberships and feel that they received nothing for their contribution. In conversation with several board members, it was explained that the $120 membership fee was spent on staff and other clearly demonstrable expenses (such as research that is currently being used by City Hall in hopes of luring a bigger box grocery store to the downtown). There were also “sponsored memberships” to ensure groups and individuals that were essential to the GCFC’s mandate were included, and represented. One board member cited that there is a misunderstanding about what collectives might hope to accomplish, in terms of long term goals, and that immediate gratification wasn’t the goal, but to effectively and deeply alter the “food desert” of the downtown. There was a plethora of enthusiasm from the board, but not necessarily a match of experience. And the history of the collective – and the divisions and tensions that happened in choosing the downtown site – also demonstrated that there wasn’t a unanimity of vision and focus that may have worked against the eventual success of the GCFC.

Several determinants need to be cited, as cumulative speed bumps that eventually derailed GCFC’s momentum; the less than ideal timeline of the capital campaign, due to delays in approval from the Financial Services Commission of Ontario (a six month period to raise $500,000 proved impossible); the developer, Nick Atalick, seemingly forgetting – or not being reminded – of his commitment to the GCFC, amid his desire to ‘revitalize’ the downtown with a condo project in the designated GCFC site, which surely euthanized an already crippled fundraising initiative; issues around communication / miscommunication with invested (or hoped to be so) groups; and aforementioned volunteer burnout.

Several of these raise further questions: was the Commission’s decision expected or avoidable – a roundabout way of asking if this was an error on the part of the GCFC or simply an unpleasant hoop (that any of us who’ve worked with nonprofits, collectives, etc., are familiar with) that had to be “jumped through?” Atalick’s proposal to city hall in April of 2016 was the first time that the GCFC was made aware of his condo “dreams” for the downtown; was this a lack of communication, a lack of oversight, or, to paraphrase another GCFC board member, was Atalick just flush with his own ideas of how to “revitalize” the downtown? Whether this constitutes a breach of trust is another matter to consider (or whether this is a variation on how renters are victims of the whims of owners).  The emergency meetings that followed Atalick’s bombshell saw the members just barely vote to rethink and reform what they’d planned, but by a nearly even split. One board member commented that, in retrospect, it might have been a cleaner, or more direct, end of the GCFC than allowing it to languish to a slow death, with no interest or activity from volunteers to rebuild….

This is as good a place in this difficult story to point out that the downtown has been in flux, often flailing about for simple solutions to a complex problem (whether in the push for a grocery store downtown, condos – though with Toronto and Port Dalhousie as lessons, that one’s specious – or the MIWSFPA) since before most of us were born, and shows no signs of resolving.

Poverty suffuses this debate, returning to the previously quoted community gardener.  Its pervasive (if unacknowledged) in STC, whether the working poor or those hanging by fingernails on the ledge of tenacious employment. That the space for the GCFC was to be displaced for condos also beggars where the civic politicians and leaders were in this debate, and whether the lip service from that quarter is also a contributing factor in the GCFC’s end….That the landscape of downtown St. Catharines has changed dramatically from the inception of the GCFC can’t be denied, either, whether we term it gentrification or revitalization, whether an opportunity or a displacement.

Some have said the GCFC should have modelled itself more on the Rutabagga Collective, a 1970s collective  that had smaller goals: but that group also was volunteer dependant, and had a fluidity that eventually contributed to its dissolution, in trying to accomplish less (or “more realistically”, edit as you will).

But this is also that great arrogant beast, hindsight. When the “rethink” process was taking place over the last few months, volunteer engagement and involvement was much less than needed or hoped: as available funds had already been spent, there was no staff or website to further this process…the rethink process failed as many GCFC members were too spent, and too deflated, to begin again.

In Buffalo, or Welland, there are successful groups of this ilk, serving members and the communities. So why not here?  Applying these questions to another site: my future updates on Rodman Hall will be exploring whether the community is willing – and thus able – to support the space, or if it will fall to the inertia and lethargy that many complain is Niagara. Or, quoting another board member, they “just learned what you need to know for next time.” A “common purpose” foundation has been laid.

It’s worth noting that the same day that I began to seriously sink my teeth into this article, I had to make a run down to the Market in downtown STC; seeking peas and strawberries for my father, a supplement to his weekly shopping. The quantity and quality of what was there, on a Tuesday afternoon, was significant. I could have purchased the same thing from several vendors, all of excellent – and local – quality.

One of the board members I spoke with indicate that their heart is broken at its failure, but would try it again, in a moment….to return to the Shakespearean quote at the beginning, will the good accomplished be forgotten, or built upon?

Of all the issues here, the most important is the most obvious: what next? Is this an ending, or a stepping stone?

This was an enterprise that was (is) positive – and necessary – in many ways. Is this dead, now? Who’s stepping in or stepping up to revitalize this? Or will people complain without commitment or offer nothing but critique without solutions? That’s not a question I can answer for you, Niagara. That one is up to you, you might say….

 

#concretecloud [glass and concrete and stone]

I walk the city late at night / does everyone here do the same / the people fill the city because / the city fills the people (Everything But The Girl)

“The public has a right to art. The public needs art, and it is the responsibility of a “self-proclaimed” artist to realise the public needs art, and not to make bourgeois art for the few and ignore the masses. I am interested in making art to be experienced and explored by as many individuals as possible with as many different individual ideas about the given piece with no final meaning attached. The viewer creates the reality, the meaning, the conception of the piece. I am merely a middleman trying to bring ideas together.” (Keith Haring)

There is a line in Cloud Atlas that “truth is singular. Its “versions” are mistruths”, a disarming equivocation of meaninglessness. I don’t entirely disagree with that, with my own doubts about postmodernism and its fervent rabid cannibalistic children currently running amok in the Canadian art world, but I like – I insist upon – the idea of “publics” that overlap or perhaps challenge each other while literally occupying the same space. Perhaps this is because publics are less active, less exclusive, than the idea of histories in the plural (Slavoj Žižek once pointed out, like a Cassandra, that a personal history – criticising bell hooks specifically – is essentially conservative, dismissing empathy or any universality and privileging personal bias or experience). Histories in plural defy and deny universality. Publics, however, suggest we could have our feet in several, as they require less commitment, less official, academic accreditation, and that we act in each space with the influence of the others, or perhaps simultaneously.

In light of that tangent, Cher Krause Knight asserts that “art’s publicness rests in the quality and impact of its exchange with audiences … at its most public, art extends opportunities for community engagement but cannot demand particular conclusion.” That is another way of saying that vagueness of publics, of communities, is inherent when you bring art outside of the gallery and into the public sphere.

This was in my mind as I watched and interacted with Donna Akrey’s students as they pulled or pushed, carried or otherwise moved their works through the downtown of St. Catharines, a place that even without the incendiary accelerant  of “art” is a site of contested narratives. This mobile exhibition aspect of Concrete Cloud happened on the 5th of July.

Some of them played upon the notion of interactivity as with Jess McClelland’s A Rather Peculiar Metaphor for Multi Tasking; transforming the wooden flat with wheels that many used as a base of their pieces, McClelland instead cut his into a wide hoop worn around his waist, with various plaster casts of (his own) hands. These either helpfully proffered the pamphlet produced by the students, with a map and brief descriptors, or offered a pen for making notes, or offered direction by pointing, or affirmation in a gesture waiting for a “high five.” Amber Lee Williams’ Chewing Gum and Walking is a monstrous perversion of its title; as she pulled it around downtown and the group paused at various prominent sites (the downtown library, City Hall), the pinkish glob blended disconcertingly well with the trashcan detritus of the urban scenes. Later, when the works were “parked” (Akrey’s excellent description, with nuances I’ll touch on later) in Niagara Artist Centre, Williams’ work became an organic Donald Judd. McClelland’s, conversely, was still interesting as it hung on the wall, but seemed less effective than when he was “wearing” it, like a tour guide awaiting questions from random pedestrians….

 

 

 

 

 

This conflation / contradiction between art and activity, the gallery space where the works now “rest” – and where they can be visited, still – is another aspect of public art / art in the public sphere. Several works are gelded there, but were beautiful when resting among the meticulously maintained green lawn of City Hall, or among the cool leafy and tree lined shade of the library. Others, when positioned among the flowers and overgrown stones of the old city hall, across from the Market, seemed either extensions of the floral markers of “the garden city” or more critical examinations of the gap between that name and the concrete heat haze of the downtown.

Syerra Jasmin’s Newfangled, assembled from discarded and dead wood, painted a stark white – even down to the base – was blindingly artificial as it sat in the sun (like the white sterile gallery walls reaching out to nature). Michaela Laurie’s Untitled was a beautiful work (hot glue formed into organic hollows and bowls, “growing” out of black gravel) that she periodically “watered” as we walked; it was one of many smaller “gardens” that blended synthetic and natural elements.

Jill Newman’s my fake plants died because I did not pretend to water them is funny, but caustic on more rigourous examination. On the day of the Concrete Cloud “walk” I was finishing an article on the demise of the Garden City Food Co Op, in downtown STC, and one of the issues was the silence (perhaps hypocritical, perhaps a “fake” posture of support) of civic officials. In light of this wider political discourse, Newman’s work became a more cynical commentary on “place.”

Madison McFayden’s Melting Lemons, made of wax and oil pastel, are just lovely and odd: and they did show some “sweat” in the midday sun (which only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in, I’m told). But the idea of gardens, of nature, manifested in other works: Thomas Denton’s Dead Space employs soil, water and grass, along with plastic and plaster; Chardon Trimble-Kirk’s Liminal is found wood, but with metal and paint, and inspiration for this piece is from the Merritt Trail. Many of the works – flat wooden squares were the aforementioned “bases” of the pieces, a universal starting point for the group – had small “fences” constructed around them. These evoked the idea of tiny, secret gardens, but also echoing the ordered, rectangular oases of flowers or plants that the group encountered as they walked from the MIWSFPA to Service Ontario to the Bus Terminal, in a meandering loop around the urban core of STC.

There was something both eerie and enticing in seeing, at the monolithic, pseudo modernist bus terminal in the downtown, all grey concrete and fumes, several young people pulling their own tiny “gardens”, these little islands of real / false green. Amid the brick and wire mesh, the downtown’s reality – both positive and negative, was highlighted by this: “I believe in the city as a natural human environment, but we must humanize it. It’s art that will redefine public space in the 21st century.” (Antony Gormley)

That’s a wider, broader umbrella: in conversation, Donna Akrey talked about how her ongoing works defined her role as educator with this class. One of the most charming aspect of her recent exhibition Also Also at Rodman were the multicoloured light boxes that shimmered out from the houses along the street leading up to Rodman: not solely for aesthetic joy, but also that the residents welcomed art into their sphere, outside the gallery. My own involvement in ephemeral and temporary interventions like Street Meet Festival: a festival for street, public and graffiti art in Saskatoon or the loose collective Finding City has made the argument (I say in a positive sense) about publics and spaces a recurring concern.

These pieces are “parked” now, at NAC: Ahmed Bader’s Synthetic Seas seems almost sad, in that space, as the “boat” he built had a shiny black garbage bag sail, ballooning up with wind, suggesting both movement and the breeze. His detritus materials meshed well with the “glass and concrete and stone” of STC’s downtown. The cardboard and vinyl bags echoed the recycle bins and garbage Bader passed, suggesting lost possibilities of the materials….

In that respect, the works of Concrete Cloud are – were – more real when outside, at the James Street Entrance of the Library, near other public artworks, among the shade, or when arranged around the “garbage and the flowers” of Market Square or the Courthouse / City Hall.

Again and again, when speaking about art in the public sphere, I return to an idea of how it is, at best, a moment of unexpected joy: this is appropriately – necessarily, with the diversity and discrepancy of dissenting “publics” – vague. Concrete Cloud, the “mobile class exhibition” that wandered the downtown of STC for several hours on the 5th of July, 2017, was that: a bit odd, a bit clunky, a bit off and at times engaging, other times not. Perhaps the best way to see the more successful works are as conversations, perhaps with the public encountered, the people who saw them as they went about their day, and those of us who saw them as punctuations of a larger conversation about place and space, and the city as it is, and as it is not. The concrete happened already, and the cloud is what we remember – or don’t – after the works are “parked” and done at NAC.

All images were shot by the writer: more images can be seen at the FB page for this exhibition, along with some videos of the walk and works. 

Discarded Beauty: Steve deBruyn

There are some unexpected contradictions in the “installation of painted wooden sculptures” currently at NAC. Or, if I defer to his description of Pile On, the singular work, as Steve deBruyn intends the free standing and precariously balanced “pillars”, along with the wall works partly inspired by Kurt Schwitters’ assemblages, as a singular whole; an inclusive installation that envelops the visitor.

Many of the components were fashioned by deBruyn, with NAC volunteers, in the week leading up to the show opening, which adds to this interpretation. A singular artist, perhaps, but many hands in the making of the installation.

Many of the pieces have a ragged quality, a roughness, and may give you a splinter if you handle them (deBruyn wasn’t precious, at the reception, and both handled the works himself and encouraged visitors to do the same). But then you’ll notice delicate and exacting evidence of the artist’s hand (the colours and patterns and textures that unite all the components, subtle yet significant, or the cleanliness and perfection of some edges and lines, harshly contrasted to the ramshackle detritus within the same piece. One set of sculptures, flowing and bending with wainscoting, making them look like escaped, “wilder” house works, on the right side of the gallery, are delightful in this lively, almost jolly, manner. The repetition of the pink purple blue black crisscross pattern pieces in the wall works, the random – perhaps added after, perhaps already a part of the slat or chunk added to the works – splotches of paint that further make the pieces connect across and around the room).

The works presented here are very much “worker’s” art (like George Sawchuck): the materials from which they’re constructed, how they’re installed and the recognizable components (pressboard), have a proletarian – almost plebian, or common –  aspect. Its funny how some artworks inspire you to leave any heavier theory at the door, while other works invoke the same (often remote, often academic or irrelevant) ideas into a real, and lived space. It’s impossible for me to separate these works from my conversation with Steve in which he talked about working “at a lumber yard—and busy constructing a backyard deck when called to discuss his upcoming exhibit—deBruyn’s work responds to the common discarded construction materials he refuses to build his sculptures, echoes of the skateboard culture he was once very much a part of, and his own sensibilities about the narrowness of our perceptions of what is beautiful in our living spaces and built surroundings.”

There’s an interesting contradiction, if you’re familiar with Kurt Schwitters’ Construction for Noble Ladies (1919) and the almost overtly masculine (yet not as the pillars tilt and the pressboard looks cheap like an overtly macho poser) pieces from deBruyn. He pointed out how some of the works, with mouldings and finishing you’d expect in any good suburban bathroom had gouges and breaks in their making, a hand less concerned with making a “perfect” object than exposing the ludicrous nature of it all (like Schwitters’ mocking of “noble ladies”….)

The back gallery at NAC is installed in a manner that spaces the wall works out at regular intervals – all are relatively similar in size, and all share not just colours, but also are constructed from shared pieces of wood (evidence of repurposing) that further unify them, as a perimeter around the room, defining the space. Fragments are arranged in an orderly manner to form the whole: whether this is “modernist” or more about crafting a seamless suburban renovation is debatable. All property is theft, comrade, and maybe I’m talking about the wealthy, ignorant suburbanites or how I hope that some of the source materials were “liberated and secured” for these alternately bright, or blighted, wall works.

The pillars lean in a way that suggest they’ll be coming down soon, and you might not want to be under them when that happens. They’re painted in the same colours that unite many of the works – there’s the small painting card sample, near the comment book: Peach Brick, Lotus Petal, Copper Trail, Green Grey Mist and Northern Landscape (I still wish I’d somehow gotten a job naming paints, but I’m sure I would have lost it, in the beige, impotent spaces. I’d go slowly crazy, calling things Arterial Spray Red or Leprosy Grey or Gangrene Green…this might seem like an indulgent tangent, but deBruyn and I also talked about work and trying to do what you want while having to pay for what you need…). All of these scream inoffensive interior design, and all – on their own, if you painted a room and not a work of art made from cast offs and crap that sat in your backyard for months – would suit any bourgeois bathroom.

The six columns are generally one solid paint chip colour, whereas the wall pieces have flat shapes in variable samples from this selection, often arching up from the bottom of the “plane”, in geometric shapes (trapezoids and pyramids – once again, a reference to building or construction, perhaps?).

To return to the statement for the show: “[H]is objective is only to have audiences reconsider the environments that we spend our lives in and possibilities for greater aesthetic pleasure from them.” In that respect, deBruyn succeeds: these pieces are fragments, discarded or torn, it seems, from the houses and rooms that we build – or have others build – for “us.” With current debates regarding houses, whether the cost or who gets to own, and who never will, I see these as something that my generation and those after us might consider as future (or current) housing.

Its not coincidental that as I wrote about this work, I spoke with a friend who does street photography and he mentioned a squat under one of the bridges that had been burned out in the past week. There is a stronger conceptual connection between that now discarded, abandoned space and deBruyn’s backyard, where some of the elements of these works in Pile On were subjected to the elements, than the suburban spaces the colours and finer details allude to, obliquely. 

 Steve deBruyn’s exhibition Pile On is on display until Saturday 22 July. 

2017 Redesign & Purge

There are facts that sometimes are quite banal but carry the weight of a blow to the chest: such as considering that I launched this blog over a dozen years ago, and that it has continued to grow and change along with myself and the places I’ve lived in. In light of that, it seemed like a good idea (or perhaps, if I may quote one of my favourite editors, its an aspect of my overly introspective self) to engage in some redesign and re evaluation of what should still be online, and what can be archived and removed, for posterity.

In light of that, I’ve updated The A Word to be almost exclusive to my ongoing time in Niagara, which is fast approaching two years. I’ve removed a number of posts that included radio conversations centred on when I lived in Saskatoon, and also several reviews of the same ilk. However, it seemed important to leave, at least for now, a few posts of significance: specifically one that highlights the ongoing institutional racism at the University of Saskatchewan (as it had a hand in my leaving that place, as it is acceptable to criticise others, but not the racists within “our” own party, comrade), another that highlights the bullying cowardice of aka artist run and several others in the community when called to account on exploiting artists and not paying them, and another about a controversial series of events as regards public art in Saskatoon.

What that means as any other links are gone: you’re welcome to contact me, as radio shows are archived. However, it seemed time to move on, and to remove the last vestiges of that site at this site, hah.

As a further update: there will be an upcoming review of the current exhibition at NAC, Pile On, and I’ll be finishing off and publishing a few things over the Summer of 2017. These include a further review of Anna Szaflarski’s LTTE publication (you can listen to her latest podcast here), as well as a longer review of Philip Monk’s award winning book Is Toronto Burning? : Three Years in the Making (and Unmaking) of the Toronto Art Scene.

Perhaps the most appropriate external factor as it relates to how I’ve removed much of the #YXE coverage from this site is that in 2018 Art From The Margins: New Perspectives on the Visual Culture of Saskatchewan (McGill University Press) will be published. The chapter I contributed to that book focuses on my role in that community over the nearly two decades I wrote about art there, and contributed to the larger cultural community. I’ll be sure to share links to that – and perhaps a teaser PDF, even – when it hits the shelves.

Sesquicentennial Divide

When I’d last visited the Grimsby Public Art Gallery, for their Bi Annual exhibition, it was an argumentative / entertaining balance between strong contemporary works and pieces that were more specific to a regionalist aesthetic. The current GPAG show – Across This Mighty Land: A Visual Debate Carl Beam & Frederick Hagan – functions in a similar manner. Through a simplicity of installation and curatorial focus, Land offers a worthwhile addition to the Canada 150 debate that’s already contentious.

Before delving in, if “across this mighty land” is tickling you, I’ll offer a possible citation: Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railway Trilogy employs the phrase (perhaps he samples it, too). The citation of the CNR in “nation building” / colonialism, or that some oil / tar sands / pipeline advocates wistfully evoke this for the unilateral imposition of a project that neither wanted nor allowed any voice other than John A. MacDonald, is apropos enough for the GPAG’s “visual debate.”

Accordingly, Land “examines commonly held perceptions about European exploration in Canada, seeking a better understanding of the significant and lasting effect that explorers had on the land and on Indigenous peoples.” All works are part of the GPAG’s collection, which is excellent: art galleries – like libraries, and the gallery resides within one – are repositories of history.   

Further: “Between 1986 and 1989 Canada Post issued the Exploration of Canada stamps…reproduced from paintings by Frederick Hagan. Research for the project piqued Hagan’s curiosity and he continued to work on related subjects. His lithographic portfolio, Exploration, depicts the journeys of 18 explorers, the landscapes and people they encountered; and the consequences of their actions. The works reflect a traditional, euro-centric view of the exploration and settlement of Canada.”  His career and influence is impressive: this “painter, lithographer, watercolourist, and art instructor spanned more than seven decades and inspired generations of emerging young artists. He is not specifically affiliated with a particular art movement or school of thought, but rather his work has been described as autobiographical” (National Gallery of Canada).   

On the opposing walls is Carl Beam, an Ojibway whose artwork employs his heritage to interact with intersecting stories and peoples, and their narratives. Here, he’s “[using] small mixed media works on paper…much like a sketchbook or preliminary drawings, to develop the imagery for his major works.”

The gallery’s four large walls are evenly split between them: two “L”s facing each other. Beam’s works are uniform in size and read like a story: some images and text repeat. The strong contrast of the images are matched by the force and roughness of the words.  The latter often dominate the prints and lead your eye in interpreting the appropriated images and (sometimes) newspaper “clippings.” END GAME, GHOST, SKIN, NO EXIT: large, all capitalized, and with a sureness of hand that is echoed in other markings on other prints. These words seem to be warnings: equal parts fatalism and fury.

They’re like a diary: Beam often “[integrated] personal memory with issues related to the environment, brutality, and a rethinking of the ways histories are told]” (from the NGC site).

Beam’s palette is soft, resembling stains and washes: different from the heavy colours and denseness of Hagan. His series (all Beam’s works are untitled) suggest a stillness, a contemplation – a concerted deconstruction of a history, rather than an eager celebration of it. Some of Hagan’s images could be from a history text (prior to 1968, or perhaps still in play, based on some current debates about indigenous and settlers here). Hagan’s “explorers” are reminiscent of the romanticizing of figures – like Brock, perhaps – whose official role is all “courage” and “faith.” Beam’s art remind us that the Beothuk (among many) are long extinct, and in 2016 the Catholic Church pulled a lawyerly unethical scam to escape paying for its residential school sins…

Another Hagan depicts stiff uniformed men around a table, a select clique, looking very British and official, but with sinister hints and other less clearly idealized players in the dark corners (a buffalo headed “prisoner” seemingly threatened by the raised hand of one of the group. Another image, rough and cartoonish, suggests the horrors of Catholic missionary zeal. I’d cite the film Black Robe, as a further footnote to differing histories).

James Daschuk’s Clearing The Plains (Americans favour bloody slaughter, while Canadians bureaucratically starve out the “other”) would be an excellent accompanying text to Land, in this contested space: not solely GPAG, but also Niagara or across Canada, in this sesquicentennial year.

Land evokes ideas outside the gallery, fostering conversation and contention about the country, nation, and history we live within, and interact with, every day. Praise to GPAG for this show. Land speaks to the importance of a genuine discussion around Canada 150….Beam and Hagan’s lifespans suggest a commonality, but also further details. Hagan lived from 1918 to 2003, born at the end of the Great War (relevant not solely for the current centenary marking that bloody madness that destroyed empires, birthed the first fascist and communist states, and is often religiously invoked, with Vimy Ridge, as when Canada “came of age’”). Beam’s lived from 1943 to 2005: growing up in the post WW II era, the ending of the British Empire and colonial overlords like France sharing in the U.K.’s difficulty of negotiating rising nationalism and independence movements from Algeria to Vietnam, Kenya to Khartoum. The American Indian Movement began in the early 1970s, when Beam was not yet 30…

The curatorial statement is eloquently hopeful: “[We] seek to show how the history that has divided us can, through thought and understanding, be used to initiate conversations with the potential to bring us together. After hundreds of years of division, conflict and occasional agreement, examining these two perspectives on Canadian history will be a provocative launch for our sesquicentennial programming.”

Images in this review are courtesy the GPAG, and are, in order of appearance, both “untitled”, with the first by Carl Beam and the second by Frederick Hagan.

This show runs until the 19th of March, with a reception on the 5th, at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery.

 

Levine Flexhaug: “a man without land is nothing”

“I’m gonna get some land one of these days. A man without land is nothing.”
Mordecai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz                         

The iconic, familiar nature of Richler’s statement from his fine novel is similar to the “iconic” familiarity of a Levine Flexhaug. Both are more complicated than a superficial reading of either would imply. Both are immediately recognisable to several generations of Canadians, providing shape to personal and public histories, and realities of “Canada”.

That utopic desire (lust, even) forms and deforms Duddy; and in the end it fails him as moral guidance, unsurpisingly. In this vein, the works of Flexhaug – which are finely kitsch in the Arthur Danto manner of evoking emotion over intellect, but with a darker turn on that which I’ll expand later on – invite consideration of Duddy’s grandfather, Simcha Kravitz, more so than Duddy himself. It is, after all, Simcha’s mantra that Duddy recites and enacts, with all the besmirched flaws that are attendant to any dream “made real.”

Equally disconcerting, it’s difficult, sometimes, to respect the contemporary Canadian art scene, as it also demonstrates repeatedly the dissonance between what’s promised and what’s presented.

Granted, I’m a gleeful apostate, arrogantly yelling “fraud” while I tighten my lion’s skin around my girth and everyone prays for my return to the desert (or bar). I’m sure I lack gravitas, as sometimes I’ll read other arts writers, and think ‘[he] talked very well, but he talked nonsense. He talked about art as though it were the most important thing in the world’ (Somerset Maugham). Perhaps I’m matching absurdity to absurdity, hoping they cancel each other, or, in exponential interaction, transcend each other.

The exhibition inspiring such spleeny introspection (both of myself and it, and the art world oeuvre that “we” all navigate like a fish through water, often unaware) is A Sublime Vernacular: The Landscape Paintings of Levine Flexhaug. Curated by Nancy Tousley and Peter White, Vernacular originated at the Grand Prairie Art Gallery (AB). Rodman Hall is the second-to-last stop for this conspicuous – perhaps absurd – outtake from Canadian Art History.

The descriptor: “Vernacular offers the first overview of the extraordinary career of Levine Flexhaug (1918-1974), an itinerant painter who sold thousands of variations of essentially the same landscape painting in national parks, resorts, department stores and bars across western Canada from the late 1930s through the early 1960s….a Flexhaug image represents a Western icon, a silent unspoiled Eden that encapsulates the conventions of sublime landscape painting in a kind of painter’s shorthand, and offers a point of entry for consideration of significant critical questions ranging from issues of taste, originality versus repetition in art, the appeal of landscape and its iconography.”

Before examining Vernacular, another digression concerning art and the worlds it inhabits outside the gallery (especially when the art in question is “owned” literally, or emotionally, by many differing peoples).

Perhaps you saw the AGO exhibition featuring Group of Seven member Lawren Harris, The Idea of North. Less likely, perhaps you also endured the “review” of said exhibition in Canadian Art magazine. It committed the sin of assuming contemporary ethics and “morals” can be applied to a painter from a century earlier with an ignorance broadcasting more about the reviewers than issues regarding Harris’ art or era. It’s similar to damning Mark Twain for his language in Huckleberry Finn, comfortable in a “virtuous” bubble of censorious ahistorical shaming. (I’d add that Huck’s interior struggle, choosing to be a “sinner” rather than “return” the “stolen property” that is his friend Jim, is as incisive – if mirrored – a moral tale as Richler’s Kravitz…).

Harris’ actual paintings – and the historical factors therein, the period in which they and he lived – were irrelevant to CA’s “reviewers.” This gap between words and artworks also appears in the curatorial rhetoric around Vernacular. But the question is whether that’s as fatal an error as what the Canadian Art clique indulged in, or whether it’s a more positive evocation, like Wayne Morgan relating his very personal history with Levine’s work and world, in both his essay and at the talk he gave at Rodman.

Flexhaug’s work is less sublime (of grand beauty evoking wonder and admiration ) than kitsch (lowbrow, mass-produced art / design sampling popular / cultural icons). There’s no irony in its kitschiness: the curators generously dismiss the inherent art world degradation of using that term, but that’s (perhaps) of a similar projection as the CA take on Harris. The curatorial language and rhetoric may fade when confronted with the artworks, or simply fail in a form of deference to the physical works. Its arguable whether Levine could even draw – or paint, if we’re honest. I’m erring on the side of doubt: but we all know that in these glorious days of the post post modern age of anxiety, “art” is whatever the “artist” says it is (looking at you, Abramović).

 

There might be the odd inoffensive piece that’s then degraded through excessive repetition, with replications that in their multitude dilute any external pretence of quality. The three monochromatic birds appear in several ways, in many works. The elk / moose reappears, the bison does too, and the linear childishness of the eyes on the many versions of these “exotic” beasts is either laughable or pathetic.

It’s an odd show: bizarre in a mildly engaging way, where the overall effect is so much more than an individual banal work. Many walls are crammed. A dense clot of landscapes. I want to use the word “glut” over and over, just as Dr. Sharilyn Ingram, in speaking of Flexhaug, kept using the word “churn” to describe his proliferate practice.

The first wall you encounter as you move to the back spaces – so often used as an informal “title” wall that’s an introduction to an exhibition, an adjunct to it – is a flat blue (the “most loved colour”, according to Komar and Melamid – more on them, later) with a single Flexhaug displayed. It’s a rare moment of visual rest. All the other three rooms (and the side alcove) are salon style, with works so tightly packed together so they become one, a linear assemblage of dozens, or hundreds (literally).

Considering the glut (!) of the work, and that it either demands a long visit to attempt to break that barrier of excess, to seek – if you even want to do so – the rare markers of individuality in this passel of images, this initial piece is a calm anchor.

In fact, it might be a worthy consideration that this wall could rotate with a new piece, every day, every week, allowing each work the spotlight as a singular creation, and standing or failing on its own. The viewer might feel less shell shocked than they do, once they walk down the steps into the exhibition proper.

A Sublimer Vernacular, as presented at Rodman Hall is – this is flippant but not inexact – like Canadian landscape on steroids. It’s the Group of Seven’s bastard cousin (like calendar aesthetics), mass produced and mass displayed, breathtaking (inspiring awe?) in quantity, if not quality, as there are nearly 500 works.

Different gallery spaces at Rodman do have distinctions: one room is earlier works, one room is later works, so the works that are a little more unique are in these rooms (tondos in one room, or others that have an atmospheric quality that is too subtle for a Flexhaug. The room of later works has several larger pieces that are more narrative, with figures, even – humanity never pollutes a Levine, except by implication, with the gaze or other evidence, like cabins. There’s a lightness of tone and hand that is not the standard (scripted?) Flexhaug, but give hints of the rough edges of his formation, and later the slippage of his “style” with age).

But if this artist is so important, as the curators posit, then shouldn’t the presentation proffer more possibility to attend the artworks? Garner a bit more respectful installation that doesn’t just overwhelm en masse and thus suggest a need to hide a poverty of “talent”?

Granted, the dense excess does offer a kind of sublime, a version of “awe”. But I’m unconvinced that Vernacular isn’t just poorly executed simulacra that is so conceptually devoid that it not only invites but demands we supply meaning rather than face the abysmal failure of both the individual works and an art world that seems to offer this “snake oil.”

Vernacular forces meaning from the viewer  as Levine is silent (several people have referred to the artist as the “immortal” Flexhaug: unchanging, static, frozen, like a vampire that bleeds life from others, and is thus animated by others? Utopias are immortal, and thus stagnant, dead spaces – and there’s rarely a person in his landscapes…).

The installation suggests the whole is more than the sum of the parts. All Flexhaug works are any Flexhaug works. Though there’s minor distinctions (the web site has categories that delineate these), there’s rarely any doubt about a work being a Flexhaug, or falling outside the canon.

Flexaug is an archetype – or stereotype – of landscape whose familiarity “breeds contempt” (the talk that Sharilyn Ingram and Wayne Morgan gave about Levine,“Making Art for the Market: Flexhaug in Context”, had the joking subtitle of “my Aunt had one of those.”) That says something about Canada, moving towards our 150th anniversary, with comforting “vernaculars.” Mordecai Richler alluded to this: “If Canada had a soul (a doubtful proposition, Moses thought) then it wasn’t to be found in Batoche or the Plains of Abraham or Fort Walsh or Charlottetown or Parliament Hill, but in The Caboose and thousands of bars like it that knit the country together from Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, to the far side of Vancouver Island.” Flexhaug’s work often hung in places like that, I’ve been told, by several collectors.

One of Richler’s characters also acidly asserts that “not all neglected artists are unjustly neglected.” Apply that as you will: perhaps I share that sentiment still, here, or I’ve begun to use Flexhaug as others have – like the curators – to foster an idea and an investment of my own….

But in approaching this exhibition, a certain cynicism is appropriate: Levine is neither of high quality, nor is he an artist whose lack of “sublime” aesthetics is fully balanced (or justified) by the historical or social relevance of his works in a larger socioeconomic theatre (Jana Sterbak’s Vanitas comes to mind – a literally revolting work that has much to add to a larger conversation about feminism, fashion and consumption).

On a certain level, Levine fills me with despair. I visited a Sublime Vernacular prepared to hate the show, rife with pregnant contempt. I left questioning a variety of things, but not the ability of these works to speak contemporaneously (even if it’s ventriloquism, just the superimposed voices from the curators – or myself, or others bringing their own narratives to fill the vacuum here, and alien to Levine’s intent. Assuming, of course, that he had one, and wasn’t just interested in selling you a cheap facsimile of an unattainable dream, and more power to him….but his work is still the necessary and evocative catalyst for these conversations).

Since it first occurred to me, and my liberal sharing of it with many who’ve seen the show (the Rodman version or others), the Duddy Kravitz / Simcha arc of how a “man without land is nothing” has only become more fixed for me in interpreting Sublime. I truly believe that Flexhaug could have painted a picture that Simcha hung in the back of a cramped shop in the urban dirt that was St. Urbain’s Street. That Eastern ghetto matches the Prairie dust bowl and “Dirty Thirties” that shaped the teenage Levine: another echo of Kravitz, who “sprung…up dirty and sad, spiky also, like grass beside the railroad tracks.”(Kravitz)

These Eden-esque landscapes of Levine evoke an unattainable paradise and play upon the manner in which we dream of a site, a place entirely fantastic that has little to physically (literally) do with the geography, or the lived reality or experience, of our world.

In further conversation with a variety of individuals, how these “magic realist” works fit (or don’t) within a region dominated by the legend and history of Niagara Falls came up repeatedly. To continue to sample from Canadian writers, when I think of Niagara Falls, I think less of how I grew up here, visiting as a child, then of the dysfunctional familial dynamic of Barbara Gowdy’s Falling Angels. The possibly senile, possibly Sibyllic / seeress mother in that novel either drops or throws her child to his death on a trip to the Falls – the only boy child, after three girls whose wars with their alcoholic and angry father comes to a close when he himself climbs over the railing and plunges to his death, or destiny, in the concluding scene at the cataracts.

The works are singularly unpromising: but their repeated failure in the aesthetic field is perhaps fitting, as they evoke failed dreams of a cottage, a place of one’s own, a dream of a retreat and a space of beauty away from our everyday drudge and destitution.

This is base work that appeals to base instincts, but that doesn’t invalidate those sentiments.

I’ll end here by returning to the darker side of Richler’s words, the knowing mockery of Duddy’s idol, Jerry Dingleman, the “Boy Wonder” of Duddy’s grandfather: “But if you had you’d know about these old men. Sitting in their dark cramped ghetto corners they wrote the most mawkish, school-girlish stuff about green fields and sky. Terrible poetry, but touching when you consider the circumstances under which it was written. Your grandfather [Simcha] doesn’t want any land. He wouldn’t know what to with it….Now you’ve frightened him. They want to die in the same suffocating way they lived, bent over a cutting table or a freezing junk yard shack.”

We’ll never have it. Do we even really want it? The pursuit of it has offered more difficulty, as so many attempts to find or create a utopia usually ends badly for those involved. Or do we just want the dream, the painting on the wall?

A final idea from the presentation by Ingram and Morgan was Komar and Melamid’s mid 1990s project about the “most wanted painting” that resulted in images that share more than a passing resemblance to Levine. A reviewer acerbically summed up that project thusly: “I don’t read this as a wicked skewering of bourgeois taste. I see it demonstrating the catastrophic failure of the establishment.”

Our taste fails, as our dreams of Eden do the same: or, worse yet, they were never even real, in the first place. Lack of authenticity only accentuated by excess: like a room full of works that leave you empty and despairing.

A Sublime Vernacular: The Landscape Paintings of Levine Flexhaug is on display at Rodman Hall until the 12th of March.

The images in this piece are Untitled (Mountain lake with deer) (detail), nd. (Collection of Wayne Morgan and Sharilyn J. Ingram) and Untitled (Mountain lake with deer and three birds), nd. (Collection of Greg and Debbie McIntyre, Regina, Saskatchewan).

 

What About Rodman Hall? Complete Chapters

An idea that was suggested to me by several people in the Niagara Region and beyond was to post a complete version of the series I’ve written (so far) for The Sound this past Fall under the umbrella of What About Rodman Hall?
In sitting down to do that, so all the chapters can be read from one page of links, I realized that there’s also opportunity to put a bit of background in play.

All of the coverage with The Sound started with the exhibition at Niagara Artists Centre. My thoughts on that show and some of the ideas and information that were in the air at that time can be read here.

Not long after that show opened, I spoke with the consultant in question, Martin Van Zon, from Interkom Smart Marketing, on the air on CFBU, as part of the ongoing show I produced there, Niagara Voices and Views. That conversation can be heard here.

The first article was a teaser to direct people to The Sound’s website for the longer series, and was the only one from the series to appear in printed form. As the four evenings of consultations happened over two weeks, at the beginning of a month, it made more sense to post the series online, as they could be more relevant, in terms of immediacy of the events, and also for ease of sharing. At this time, too, the Facebook group that would eventually lead to the Rodman Hall Alliance was forming, so online seemed expedient for that, as well.

The second, third, fourth, fifth and the final sixth chapter, all dealing with the Interkom consultations, are at the previous links. The What About Rodman Hall? series will continue and build on these, as more information comes to light.

Along those lines, there will be another update in the first issue of The Sound of 2017, that has some significant information and also offers important ideas about the future of Rodman Hall.

The image above is courtesy Donna Akrey (her solo show opens at Rodman Hall this February).

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…

katie.three

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.

katie.two

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.

Katie.one

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.   

 

A Painted History at Rodman Hall

One of the ways in which art galleries, especially public ones like Rodman Hall, matter is that they are repositories of history. Many people don’t equate galleries, or visual art, with the same local and larger relevance that we attribute to museums, or libraries, but perhaps that’s just because its rarely given the respect it merits in “educational” or “public” spaces.

This applies to other cultural media: music and theatre, for example, are spaces that have been repeatedly cut and dismissed in our educational spaces, and this concordantly has led to a lack of appreciation – and lack of ability to engage with – these spheres. To dismiss The Voice of Fire is to dismiss John Cage – or Rebecca Belmore or Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptin, if we want to speak of challenging historical artworks that break our preconceptions- and then I must dismiss you: ignorant opinions are solely that, and I don’t suffer them anymore, gladly or otherwise.

When I first encountered a gallery collection intimately, like I did at the Art Gallery of Windsor, and later on curating several shows of photographic work from The Photographers Gallery on the prairies, and seeing the richness of both historical “records”, I was seduced by its diversity, and how they functioned as fully as an archive of a site as any text or manuscript. (This isn’t a new thing: Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus or Goya’s Portrait of the Royal Family would have gotten both of them executed if their overlords had understood the symbols / signifiers both included, for the like minded, in their paintings….)

We’re also seeing more attention paid to historical Canadian painting: there’s been renewed interest (besides the Group of Seven), whether the more traditional genre painters of post WW II (Paraskeva Clark’s Church at Perkins Mills, Quebec or Doris McCarthy’s Mal Bay with Fish Racks – both in Rodman’s collection) or the focus on Canadian abstraction from the 60s (Jack Bush just got a great deal of love in a massive show at the AGO). There’s a wonderful exhibition on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton right now, of Montreal painters of the mid twentieth century, well worth checking out. But like all nationalist privileging, not all is good: I’ll be glad when we stop canonizing Agnes Martin.

This brings us to A Painter’s Country: Canadian Landscape Paintings selected from the Permanent Collection, curated by outgoing Director Stuart Reid. The statement: “This exhibition traces an almost 100-year history of Canadian artists painting the landscape as their primary subject matter. The luminaries of Canadian art history including members of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries are represented…The title of the show is borrowed from A. Y. Jackson’s autobiography of the same name, in which he describes the early years being a member of the Group of Seven during an awakening of nationalism. Those painters were determined to forge a distinctive style of painting particular to Canada, its rugged terrain, and wilderness. The exhibition looks at the predominant mode of depicting the land from an omniscient vantage point, of asserting governance over the vast domain, unifying a national perspective, and vision.”

McCarthy Mal Bay Fish Sheds, 1954, watercolour, 24 x 27in_HRlt

The artists on display are something of a “greatest hits” from the collection, with names you’ll recognize: the aforementioned Clark and McCarthy are alongside A.Y. Jackson’s Laurentian Landscape, Rawdon, Quebec, September 1953, Lawren Harris’ Sand Lake, Algoma and Varley’s Arctic Seascape. All three are Group of Seven: their contemporary Emily Carr is also here, with Forest Vistas. McCarthy’s work, mentioned earlier, is a delicate watercolour where the forms of the boats and the buildings become geometrics leading towards an abstracted flow of form and angles. Its a  bit askew in its viewpoint, of the Gaspé. Harris’ works are more organic, almost soft in the rendering of shapes, and Jackson has a fluidity to his forms that is similar: both seem to paint the landscape as a living, breathing entity.

McCarthy’s Haliburton VIllage is all snowy quiet and smoking chimneys, and the almost mechanically ordered marks of McCarthy’s brush define the white blue slaloms in the foreground. Clark’s Perkin Mills is a bit askew in its format, almost like its tipped towards us, but it works as the gravestones tilt and the sky is overpresent, back to fore. Charles Comfort’s Georgian Bay is almost the stereotype of the iconic Canadian landscape: lonely, isolated trees in the harsh yet beautiful scene, empty of any peoples, there for the “taking.” David Milne’s works, minimal and stark, are always jolting when presented with the rich and heavy colours of Carr or Casson or Jackson. Arbuckle’s Trinity Newfoundland No. 2 has the charm of a postcard: the sky over the Atlantic is as lovely as the ocean behind the tiny structure, evoking memory and mythology of place.

ia 3200jackson 

These smaller works are mounted in the side gallery, the “parlour” space. But Country also acts in conjunction with the other two shows on display this summer at Rodman. Its always enjoyable, and adds layers of potential interaction and understanding, when galleries present multiple shows as “statements” or “questions” on the same subject, like a conversation. Reading the Talk (which “brings together work by contemporary First Nations artists who critically examine relationships to land, region and territory”) will open at Rodman on May 21. Elizabeth Chitty’s The Grass is still Green (which opens July 4, focuses on the “Two Row Wampum, the 1613 agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Europeans that outlines a commitment to friendship, peace between peoples, and living in parallel forever—as long as the grass is green, as long as the rivers flow downhill and as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west”). Chitty’s works about this site have enriched our historical conversations about it (when not outright shifting the ground they stand on, if I may offer such an egregious pun), and Reading will place this same question of terra nuillus (“nobody’s land”, or the idea that it was land for the “taking”) in a more provincial, national and international frame.

Part of the genesis Country was in Reid seeing Picturing the Americas at the AGO recently, and a comment from participating writer / theorist Dot Tuer stating that landscape painting was  a manner of “asserting governance over the land.” Reid also expanded, in conversation, about her comments to how painting a landscape is an extension of cartography, and thus in naming, owning, a space or site (Consider how many of the venerated landscapes of Canadian Art history – like Varley, or Harris –  are emptied of people, or are rich areas just waiting to be exploited: terra nuilus is an idea that the land here was “uninhabited”, just “waiting” to be “claimed” by settlers. You may be unfamiliar with the term, but we’re still living the assumption…)

There is also an element of philanthropy to Country: this show is very “reverent”, presenting “gems of landscapes”, and since Rodman Hall’s role in the community is still a topic of debate, many of these works are gifts, or were purchased with funds bequeathed from a person’s estate to the gallery. Many see spaces like Rodman as sites for where their works will come to rest: most public galleries across this country – and others – can mark the germ of their beginning in a generous gift of artworks, or the means to acquire and care for artworks.

This brings me to a point I must raise, in light of the “re evaluation” that Brock is moving forward with, regarding Rodman Hall and their responsibilities (what they perceive as such, and what the larger community and stakeholders believes was agreed to, back in 2003). There are many works in this show that are worth significant amounts of money, not solely in the Canadian art market, but also considering that the wider world is starting to acknowledge, and pay high prices, for paintings by people like Lawren Harris. His Sand Lake, Algoma is from the prime period of his output: 1920, when the Group of Seven were producing their most lauded – and now, most valuable, in a monetary sense – works.

What will happen to this work, if Brock divests itself of Rodman? Does Brock “own” the work? Does that honour the wishes of Bruce Hill, who bequeathed it in 1964, from the Charlotte Muriel Hill Collection (his mother, perhaps)? Whom is making this decision, and what is their agenda? My conversation with the consultant, Martin Van Zon, seemed heavy on the university’s agenda of “austerity.” So, whom do we ask about this, and from whom shall we be receiving answers? The report that Interkom is producing will be presented to Brock in June: when it comes to the rest of us is unclear, in Van Zon’s own words.

To return to the gallery space: A Painter’s Country will be on display until August 28, in the now contested site of Rodman Hall. May I propose a comparison of mythologies, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, when you visit this, with the other shows that will open this summer, that also offer constructions and collusions about place and history, and the country “we” live in?

Images in this piece are McCarthy’s Mal Bay Fish Sheds and Jackson’s Laurentian Landscape, Rawdon, Quebec.