Cooler Than Cool: worthless and priceless

“…an aesthetics of interaction.”

“We’re not complaining that the values people once believed in are now empty; to the contrary, we’re doing our best to empty them more and more. Get used to it. Stealing is a thrill in itself; this enjoyment is the real reason for postmodern appropriation. We aim to undermine those “convictions” of authenticity and truth, of proper meaning and right order, that sometimes seem to be as dear to Marxist dialecticians as they are to bureaucrats in the Pentagon. Speaking in my own voice is a tedious chore, one that the forces of law and order are all too eager to impose. They want to make me responsible, to chain me to myself….But forgetting myself, speaking in others’ stolen voices, speaking in tongues: all this is pleasure and liberation. Let a hundred simulacra bloom, let a thousand costumes and disguises contend.”

“I only wanted to find great people and let them talk about themselves and talk about what they usually liked to talk about and I’d film them.”

If you’re following some of the more entertaining (if insular and a bit masturbatory) debates in the art world right now, there’s a concerted number of voices decrying the academicization of art aesthetics – which essentially means the elimination of them to serve the politics of the moment. This manifests in different ways, whether in that works are solely to be interpreted through a specific ideological lens or only considering specific groupthink (or approved ideology, edit as you will), ignoring and denying all other.

I might suggest an example in the recent interpretation of Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale which has handmaids that are African – American, which in Atwood’s book was biblicaly impermissible to Gilead’s theocrats, as non whites – whether by biological or social designation (such as Jews) – were deported or executed. It’s an interesting tell of the ideology of the producers of this series, that Atwood’s novel’s reach (abuse of power in the name of religion being no surprise) is narrowed to serve a very specific interpretation (the abuse of women in the name of religion being no surprise). It’s reminiscent of the debate as to whether Hillary Clinton lost the last American Presidential Election, or if Trump won it…and that historical event clearly delineated that many ideologies don’t always intersect smoothly. To offer a further nod to Atwood’s Gilead, it’s like how calling oneself a “Christian” can mean anything, or nothing, and that Atwood, in her book, showed clearly that enslaving anyone in the name of your invisible friend is a poor, poor thing. End of tangent.

This is one of the ways in which art schools and their respective ideological apparatus limit dissent and reinforce their own propaganda. In his excellent book on Art and Sociology, Editor Jeremy Tanner asserts that art historians often value works that sociologists dismiss and vice versa, and that where their ideologies overlap in an “art object” (an inexact, but workable term) is as rare as a unicorn. “Taste is the enemy of art” declared Marcel Duchamp infamously, and Warhol’s further fracture of what might be called high or low taste is well known, and still reverberates.

I recently attended an artist talk where Warhol’s image of Marilyn – do we even need a last name – was shown as how “pop” and “art” meet and take on a viral life beyond even what McLuhan expected or guessed at…and the artist in question was / is still producing versions of Warhol’s Marilyn that further challenge – or collude with, or enhance, or erode – taste, consumerism and capital. This article is an interesting one, in that light, and this rebuttal is also worth considering.

As to where I stand in this debate, I find myself more often channelling Bartleby and asserting that I’d rather not…..or more exactly, I prefer to take things as they are, at times, in a more Modernist assertion of social interactions, and am less interested in a post structural framework that, as postmodernism eats its children alive, hurtles us towards cultural immolation by means of Trump or Clinton, a post truthiness where ideology eschews all the things that make Art enjoyable and accessible, and yet still challenging….

It might seem strange that the previous tangent was inspired by Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold), a collaborative  exhibition by Katie Mazi and Jenn Judson. It’s a show that borders on silly, and that refuses – simply will not – take itself seriously. Yet in doing so, it offers an amusing and sometimes very slick demonstration of the joint nature of creation (beyond the artists to the models, even), how photography can beautifully capture a performative experience, and that it is good, sometimes, to take what you do seriously, while never taking yourself so, in that vein.

The teasing online statement they provided was minimal, but inviting: “Do you like art and do you like to laugh and/or cry? Good. It’s a photo show. Two amateur photographers, ten plus+ amateur models and one new body of work. Some call the photos dumb, others call them sexy. It’s up to you to come to the show and decide for yourself. Kate Mazi and Jenn Judson present to you: Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold). A photo based exhibition that you have to see to believe.“

The works in the Dennis Tourbin space at NAC are primarily photographs: but there’s also the clothing, and some items, presented, that were part of the tableaux that the artists present. The images are kitschy and cheesy, seemingly frivolous, and the models seem to invite us to join in at their unselfconscious self mockery, that is as clear and bright as the colours.

The titles are as evocative, as they are silly: I’m reminded of children’s toys or games, which fits with the aesthetic of play in that these are like Halloween costumes, or children (in age or at heart) playing dress up. Daddy Cool, Hot Wheels, Fresh Cut, Iceboxxx, Bingo Babe (my favourite), My Name Is (Gator Ray) and Dynamite Dude are all titles that (as they’re listed separate from the photo works, as the pieces are numbered on the wall) you can easily match to the images, after an initial tour of the show.

In conversation with the artists, several ideas came to the fore: the idea of “throwing people off, producing something that seems familiar but then jars”, a seemingly familiar aesthetic which then falls apart with the models, purposefully fracturing the initial reading of the images. All the models are amateurs, and friends of the artists, and from various communities other than / including the visual arts, so there’s a freshness and honesty to the roles they perform that’s not overtly determined by expectation. Both Judson and Mazi sheepishly describe themselves as hoarders when it comes to clothes and items that were relevant to Ice Cold, and that immediacy in a personal space also manifests in how the sites range from St. Catharines to Hamilton to Niagara Falls to Grimsby. Taking this aspect of the local further, an earlier version of this was displayed across the street on St. Paul, at the Mahtay Cafe, with the catchy title of They Hate Us ‘Cause They Ain’t Us 2017. It’s very fresh work, so not as clearly defined in their minds and more about the creation – the performance of it – at this point. They collaborate in a very seamless manner, with no specific roles but both doing everything (both work at the same place, and there’s an intensity between art and life with the creation / process of these works) that is echoed in a “real willingness of the models to become the characters”. As this is a continuing body of work (there was also a piece in the #Canada150 exhibition at City Hall, in downtown St. Catharines, playing upon the attraction / repulsion of tourist traps, and on a subtle level explored the dependence of the economic health of the region on this industry), Mazi and Judson talked about future video pieces, and the works at NAC are surely cinematic (both in the larger than life personas and in the graphic and vivid nature of the “scenes”). Their artistic choices were “made on the fly, reactive and immediate”: even though you’re only seeing one image for each character, there are about ten photos selected from each shoot, and “uniqueness” within the larger narrative of all the characters and images and scenes is important. The characters “should be individuals” within the larger story that Mazi and Judson are creating here…so some basic parameters are set, and then flexibility, in terms of interacting with the models and the sites, lead to results that are only partly expected, but more about possibilities.

There is the idea of kitsch, for sure: works that evoke an emotional response over an intellectual one, and that’s applicable here. But that’s also a superficial reading that doesn’t do the works full justice, as there’s also a sense that this work couldn’t be made anywhere else other than a region that is so tourism dependant (the same way that Levine Flexhaug’s work had a different resonance here, with his paintings sharing a sensibility with the many and ongoing tableaux of the Falls).

Their statement in the show perhaps encapsulates it best: “Two years ago, a shared love of Muppet Treasure Island brought Katie and Jenn together. Since that moment, the two have realized that their lives connect in ways beyond foolish puppetry on the big screen. Combining both their closets and their sense of humour, this new collaboration series is an authentic blend of their individual artistic styles.

Cooler than Cool is a series of digital posters that challenge the aesthetic of what has been considered “cool” in the worlds of art, fashion and leisure. Each of these looks have been constructed in order for the characters to better perform their style. This work is era – less, timeless, worthless and priceless.

So bad it’s good, so wrong it’s right. Its Cooler than Cool.”  

This collaborative, sometimes excessive, cinematic display of cultural fractures of “cool / not cool” is on display at NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) until the weekend of October 8th.


All images are copyright of the artists.

Memory and Place: At an Intersection of Nations

but they had their being once
and left a place to stand on.
Al Purdy, Roblin’s Mills

Its fitting that the first exhibition to open, and the first event of Celebration of Nations, was Awakening of the Spirit in the VISA Gallery, curated by Samuel Thomas. This became clear at the last event I attended (the curatorial talk on the Sunday following the Thursday opening reception), when Samuel spoke of his selections for this show. He began with the works of Daphne Odjig; one of her pieces (In Touch With Her Spirit) was also the main media image for the show, and (a testament to the quality of her work) seemed to become a defacto visual signifier for the several days worth of events that comprised Celebration

Its also appropriate as Odjig’s activism (and artwork) opened doors – sometimes forcing them open, sometimes knocking them down – for many Indigenous visual artists, and by extension, many people. Awakening the Spirit, to paraphrase Thomas, was built around three images specifically, as the basis for whats in the gallery. The first of these was Odjig’s aforementioned Spirit, then Norval Morrisseau’s Virgin Mary and then Carl Beam’s Apache Spirit Dancer (he also commented that the overall title of the exhibition takes its impetus from the spiritual focus of the three “foundation” works). This isn’t to say these are the only notable pieces, whether talking about aesthetic quality or historical relevance: Joshim Kakegamic, Roy Thomas, Leland Bell, Simon Brascoupe, Bruce King and Christi Belcourt round out the wall works, and Vince Bomberry and Carl Simeon have sculptural works here, as well. Its a strong, quality exhibition, with the possibility of connections and challenges between many of the images and objects on display.

In Touch With Her Spirit, Daphne Odjig

Samuel Thomas joked that he didn’t want to present “something that looked like a yard sale” and he’s done a fine job here in what he’s shepherded into the gallery. Unsurprising, really, as he’s an artist and activist (and a past recipient of the OAC’s Aboriginal Arts Award) and his manner was one that echoed his words of wanting to share the vision of Suzanne Rochon – Burnett, and her collection.

There are several important intersecting narratives that converge in the gallery. I’ve said before that art history is a form of history, and the legacies of Odjig, Morrisseau and Beam are very much the notion of having been the shoulders upon which others stood and are still standing.

One of the last exhibitions I saw in Saskatchewan was at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. This was 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. and was an exploration of what’s colloquially called the “Indian Group of Seven.” (I might interject a line Thomas cited in his VISA talk, of Odjig asking why her work was described relative to Picasso, and why Picasso isn’t compared to her, as she was (is) more relevant her. This might be a bit of misspoken recollection, by Thomas – or me, hah – as Morrisseau, not Odjig, was often labelled the “Picasso of the North”, but the more relevant question of who / where is the arbiter of quality still stands).

The large room that is the VISA can be walked / read counter clockwise (this is how Thomas toured the works, and it’s an effective approach). The artists’ works aren’t interspersed, so it can be read like chapters, which helped Thomas to build the story around his choices.

Morrisseau and Odjig were also teachers (of Thomas and Bell, according to Samuel Thomas) and the creation and support of Indigenised institutions is ongoing and still important. Thomas spoke of the Manitoulin School (this could refer to formal groups or more organic ones within the Woodlands tradition) and these community centred initiatives are still promoting and preparing Indigenous artists (the current Brock Chancellor, Shirley Cheechoo, is a contemporary chapter in this with the Weengushk Film Institute).

There is a diversity of style: Simon Brascoupe’s works are more like petroglyphs, with the acrylic looking more like stains within stencils, and Bruce King’s works are more thickly and richly painted, with the acrylic juicy and gooey. Morrisseau and Odjig are more “flat” in the use of colour. Morrisseau is arguably the best known example of the Woodlands School, and immediately recognisable. (Another personal interjection, which I do less as a marker of subjectivity, but of the importance of these artists: one of the first artists I ever encountered as a boy, who made me want to be part of that world, was Morrisseau. His illustrations for Legends of my People, The Great Ojibway, introduced me to the strength and power of his work.)

The space is full, but not crammed. The bright colours and strong flowing lines of Odjig and Morrisseau compliment each other, with exceptions: four more earthy and sensual images by Odjig have more formally in common with Carl Beam’s works, diagonally across the room. Beam’s large paper works (sometimes silkscreen, sometimes emulsion and ink) are more restrained in tone and hue, but this gives power to his appropriated images, often political in nature (several of his works are scattered around the Marilyn I. Walker School, on display year round). Beam was well known for his desire to be known as an “Indian who makes Art”, not an “Indian Artist.” An important distinction, when many spaces (half a century ago, and yes, still now) employ tokenism or ghetto mentalities in labelling Indigenous artists (for example, a University Art Acquisitions committee member – at an anonymous place, in Saskatoon, ahem – once barked they had money for “real” artists and “other” money for “Indian artists”…and many artist run centres are just as segregated, though their lip service to “indigenisation” is as loud as it is hollow). At this moment, allow me to employ the soapbox I seem to have found myself standing upon to praise the PAC (Performing Arts Centre) as the locus point for Celebration of Nations. I’d add that it was announced that Annie Wilson is now in the employ of the PAC, and that should please anyone who knows her work with In the Soil.  

Returning to VISA: Beam’s works are subtle, sometimes darkly dense and requiring a focused attention to parse the images, and other times they’re like decoding a puzzle, with his sampled images being presented in a manner that requires us to read them like a visual sentence. Albert in the Blue Zone, Chief, Spirit of the Eagle: all are strong pieces, and you can understand the curator’s desire to not mix & match the artists here, but allow their singular voices to speak. Beam builds on Joshim Kakegamic (also a printmaker, and one of the founders / facilitators of the Triple K Co – operative Press that helped disseminate Morrisseu’s images to so many places where so many of us encountered them) and then Thomas adds another voice to the story, and so on, and we go further in this visual history of Indigenous / Canadian Art.

Thomas ended with Christi Belcourt (as regards wall works) and this offers not so much a “conclusion” as an updating to contemporary dialogue, as Belcourt’s Untitled acts as a marker of her own ongoing advocacy. Untitled, though acrylic on canvas, has aspects of patterning that are also seen in the pieces by Roy Thomas, and Belcourt’s role as a Metis artist / activist is a good image to take with you as you visit NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) to see We Aspire: an exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara (but we’ll get there, in a moment).

As Odjig passed in 2016, this also offers a sense of continuity, and of a new generation acting on the example of the old…(the quote I began this piece with is an acknowledgement that many of the artists in Spirit have passed, and their artworks are a foundation for those of us who are here now).

But it’s worth noting that the politics that suffuse the room are not suffocating, nor do they act as justifications for poor work, as we see too often in contemporary Canadian “art.” When Thomas talked about Bruce King’s acrylic works, he directly stated that he enjoyed them greatly, and wished to share King’s fine paintings with others. The works are political, but also aesthetically engaging, and may – as I experienced – also remind viewers of the first time they saw an Odjig or Morrisseau, and were struck by its beauty.

The almost minimalist use of paint by Brascoupe (simple and sparse, more about symbols and edges that are very clean but then fade like dust, in 6 Roosters or Birds – Tree of Life) plays well off the glotty, textural surfaces of Bruce King. Two Crows or Sioux Country become abstracted and gooey as you stand in front of them, colour like paste and putty, but stepping back allows the scenes to coalesce and become small scenes that transcend their medium.

This show is a taste of what’s to come, curator Samuel Thomas promised, and in conversation he indicated that the breadth and depth of the Suzanne Rochon- Burnett Collection was almost intimidating. Many works needed to be framed for this show, and many were relocated from pride of place in living spaces where, to paraphrase Rochon -Burnett’s daughter, they eat breakfast or do day to day work “with” them. I won’t attempt to encapsulate Rochon – Burnett’s life and contributions to culture, as its done far better here. The quality of the work presented, and how Thomas indicated that each of these artists was a personal friend, and how their works and their larger historical roles also played out in Rochon – Burnett’s own life, offers an inspired intersection of art and life.

Conversely, it was a bit difficult to endure several of the speeches the night the exhibition opened (your intrepid #artcriticfromhell considered heckling them, but my mouth was often full of bison, ahem). Hearing the chair of Brock’s Board of Directors so heartily congratulate Brock on its support of cultural communities was galling hypocrisy, considering their incompetence / ignorance / arguably malevolence (edit as you like), with Martin Van Zon / Interkom and the AGN cabal, with Rodman Hall. At a wonderful symposium at the Mendel Art Gallery years ago, Dr. Len Findlay pointed out that universities are often willing and able manufacturers of alibis for the ideological state apparatus, as in governments and politicians; the latter, or variant nameless Brock administrators (like the ones who arbitrarily and anonymously cancelled the hiring of a new Rodman Director), are better at mimicking ethics, but still as poor (or uninterested) at actualizing them.

I mention this not to remount my soapbox, but to step outside the gallery, and to temper the hopefulness of the several days of Celebration of Nations with the reality of a stuttering, sputtering Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. I know many who will say “residential schools weren’t so bad” despite never knowing anyone who went to one. I’ve offered to introduce some of this very sure, if very ignorant, throng to friends and acquaintances I met in my time out west that would offer first person accounts that not only challenge that assertion, but bulldoze it fully….sometimes they even say “yes” to this and change their minds. 

Leaving Awakening The Spirit (this is in the VISA until the end of September), there are two exhibitions at NAC (Niagara Artist Centre) that intersect with Spirit, and that further the dialogue from Celebration of Nations. We Aspire (An exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara) is in the Dennis Tourbin Members Gallery and features the works of Brian Kon, Sterling Kon, Amanda Pont-Shanks, and Julia Simone. This is only briefly on display, until the 22nd of September, and was supported by the Niagara Region Métis Council, as well as the PAC.

The statement: “Honouring the tradition of Métis dot art and bead work, We Aspire features work by four Métis visual artists living in Niagara. The custom of bead patterning was traditionally used by the Métis to adorn their clothes, equipment and animals.” Mixing the traditional with the contemporary, the words of Brian Kon are succinct: “The Métis were known as the ‘flower bead people’, my art is intended to honour the skills and artistry of my ancestors by using traditional and historic bead patterns as the inspiration for my work.”

NAC’s Dennis Tourbin space is a responsive one, often in (positive) flux, with many local artists using it as both an experimental arena, but it also, with its short exhibition spans and the excellent engagement with local artists and communities by NAC, offers immediate representations of Niagara.

There is a similarity of form in these works, but individual characteristics of the artists manifest here and there. The titles offer a personal touch: Brian Kon’s Grandmother’s Garden evokes a sense of family, with its not quite mirrored floral design; Amanda Pont-Shanks Rocks, delicately painted make you want to pick them up and hold them in your hand, and have a connection to those who held them before, and will hold them after; Sterling Kron’s After Batoche names a site – and a chapter – of Canadian history that, depending if you learned it in school or not, illustrates the contested histories of what was / what is / what might yet be Canada. Untitled, also by Kron is equally yet subtly political, as it offers a vibrant blue and white rendering of the Métis symbol that you may recognize from flags and other insignia of these peoples whom are too often ignored or forgotten when we talk about the Nations of Canada. Its the first work on the left gallery wall, and if you enter through that door, it will be what greets you as you begin looking at We Aspire. If you come from the other side, it will be the last work that you see as you leave NAC and step outside. Both of these are fitting for experiencing this show, and the history and ideas the artists encapsulate in their works.

But before you leave NAC, the back Showroom Gallery beckons you to visit the first programmed exhibition of Fall 2017 at the centre. You can read my preview of Where the Weather Happens, curated by Amy Malbeuf and Jessie Short, with works by Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault arranged around the large gallery space, here. The two shows on display at NAC are, to use that metaphor again, chapters: Weather is the result of the curators’ research into “the diversity and skill of Métis artists working across Canada…Through this exhibition, the artists’ works are placed in conversation with each other, exploring the human relationship with the natural world. Each artist explores these relationships as an individual informed by their worldview as a Métis person.”

Baerg and Nault “face” each other, with a sculptural work by Nault suspended in the middle of the space. Koebel has works at the “front” and “back” of the gallery. Similar to how Awakening the Spirit presented the individual works of the many artists there as “wholes”, Weather also allows Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin / Time Journey (acrylic on laser cut canvas) to occupy the entire left wall. There’s pieces both fat and slim, solid and shredded, to create a “landscape” of symbols that might be eclipses or planets, like celestial calendar markings on a white wall.

Nault’s Entangled Bodies (3) is directly behind you, in the middle of the space, as you face the middle “segment” of Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin (he employs the natural breaks in the wall to “frame” his work). Bodies (3) – like Entangled Bodies (2) and Entangled Bodies (4) – is comprised of a mixture of organic materials, including wood (bark or log, depending on the piece), wax or beeswax, human hair and rope, though the last seems more as part of the installation of these objects, which hang either freely in space or just out from the right hand wall. But the shadows cast front and back, when combined with the gentle swaying of the delicate exposed roots of Bodies (3) give the work a span beyond its physical self, with the silhouettes stretching out into the room. Though smaller in size, Entangled Bodies (4), with pale waxen fingers either emerging like blooms from the tree bark, may be the strongest of Nault’s contributions to Where the Weather Happens. In the accompanying text from Malbeuf and Short, this work is alluded to with Nault “not claiming the place she now lives but letting it claim her.”

Before I go much further, here’s more from the curatorial text: “The troposphere is a layer of the earth’s atmosphere in which human beings exist, connecting the land to the perceived sky. It is the place where nearly all of the weather on earth happens. The works of Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault activate the land and sky, and all that is within, through their intimate and delicate expression of deep connection to this space of energetic flux. Where The Weather Happens is an expression of the relationship and interactions between the land and sky as beings who live within this space.” (This hangs on the wall, in the gallery proper, ephemeral and soft, positioned so you might see it last, after walking in and among the art.)

The same language could be applied to the works of Norval Morrisseau or Daphne Odjig in Awakening The Spirit, and the often meditative yet ornate pieces in We Aspire. The materials in use by the three artists in Weather, however, are more demonstrative of the sentiments expressed, as with Koebel’s deer skin for her many drums that cover a wall in Awasisisoniyas: Family Allowance. Made from 2013 to 2017, they seem to await hands to retrieve them and begin to play them, to fully articulate them as they’re intended.

It was a hectic weekend, when all of these shows opened (I’ve not mentioned any of the talks, seminars or performances, or even the screenings, to hold my focus and your attention), and although two of the three are only up for brief periods, it serves all three well to be experienced in tandem. Whether that’s done in the manner I’ve chosen here, which might be described as chronological as to when they opened, or chronological in terms of the histories they present (Spirit’s artists are older, and several are deceased, while the artists in We Aspire are much younger, and the curators / artists in Weather are between) is entirely flexible, and a point on which I have no preference or suggestion. I remember an exhibition of work by Micah Lexier and a show he curated of influences upon his practice, at the College Gallery. His work was upstairs, not quite directly above the pieces by people like Eric Cameron, alluding to a sense of growth and change that, while not overt, had a subtle power in understanding both shows.

Awakening of the Spirit (Select Works from the Suzanne Rochon – Burnett Collection) is on display until September 30th in the VISA Gallery at the MIWSFPA, and We Aspire: (An exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara) can be seen at the Niagara Artist Centre (354 St. Paul, in downtown St. Catharines). That closes on the 22nd of September, but Where the Weather Happens will be on view until December of 2017.


There was a request to not photograph at events or in gallery spaces during Celebration of Nations, and the lack of images in this post reflects my respecting that. However, the Odjig image is from the PAC website, and in this article I attempted to have a wide variety of links regarding the artists. If you’re on FB, there is also an excellent panoramic view of the VISA space, with Awakening The Spirit here

 

Upcoming Forecast at NAC

Now that the clamour around July 1st (I like to call it Dominion Day, still, but I’m an unreconstructed historical bastard) and the immediate demonstrative sesquicentennial of Canada is past, many of us are looking at the anniversary year of 2017 – 2018 as an opportunity to explore, examine and perhaps redefine the narrative of Canadian history, and where / how Canada fits within larger historical arcs that shaped – and continue to influence – this country, with its founding “nations.” That’s a good place to begin: the idea of the “two solitudes” espoused by Hugh MacLennan has ceded to a “nation to nation” idea that acknowledges the many who were here before 1867 (and here now, still). At the same time, a favourite joke I heard this summer was that if you think Canadians apologize too much / too easily, ask them about residential schools…

That is something to keep in mind when you encounter the next exhibition at Niagara Artists Centre (NAC) which opens on Saturday, September 9th. If you’re familiar with artist run centres, you know they generally schedule exhibitions far in advance, sometimes shifting them around to better serve either party, but also to allow for connections to the larger Niagara cultural space wherein NAC exists and interacts. So that the exhibition Where the Weather Happens is the first exhibition by NAC, in the sesquicentennial year, is appropriate synchronicity.  

Where the Weather Happens, a group exhibition co curated by Amy Malbeuf and Jessie Short features the work of Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault. You might be more familiar with Malbeuf’s artistic practice, and Jessie Short is a past Director of the Aboriginal Curatorial Collective; the ACC has facilitated and fostered a number of Indigenous curators and artists across Canada, sometimes through exhibitions, conferences or partnering with other groups. A proud moment during my tenure as Editorial Chair at BlackFlash Magazine was literally handing over an issue to the ACC, no oversight or limits, that coincided with their symposium in Saskatoon. Malbeuf’s multidisciplinary practice has been exhibited nationally; she’s received a Lieutenant Governor of Alberta Emerging Artist Award and a William and Meredith Saunderson Prize for Emerging Artists in Canada from the Hnatyshyn Foundation. Short is also a writer, but is perhaps best known for her filmmaking and curatorial practice.

The three artists that will comprise Weather are a diverse, contrasting mix: the one whose work I’m most familiar with is Jason Baerg, whose solo exhibition / performance was at the Mendel Art Gallery during my time in Saskatoon. Baerg identifies as Cree Metis, and describes his works as “[formally] he pushes new boundaries in digital interventions in drawing, painting and installation.” Another past exhibition by Baerg worth considering was titled Kimowanihtâwak, ᑭᒧᐊᐧᓂᐦᑖᐤ, S/he Makes It Rain, which in the words of curator / writer Amber Anderson asked   “Who gets to be the author of history?  Who does history represent?  Who is underrepresented?  What are we proud of?  What should we be concerned about?” All significant points to consider amid #canada150.

Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault have not, to my knowledge, exhibited in Niagara before; their sharp and considered voices will surely expand the debate about histories, whether in a local or national theatre.  Koebel is an  Otipemisiwak (Métis) and Nehiyaw (Cree) artist and Indigenous arts animator originally from Lac La Biche, Alberta (and the recipient of the 2014 OAC Aboriginal Arts Award, as an emerging artist) whereas Nault is a multi-disciplinary artist of Métis and mixed European descent and member of the collective No. Is a Complete Sentence. Nault is finishing her MFA this summer, and “her art practice and research are grounded in queer, feminist, and Indigenous worldviews. Through her work she strives to elicit a sense of social and ecological responsibility to one another on a damaged planet, exploring the connections between humans and nature.” These interrelations between different peoples and the places that define those relationships are also relevant in the artwork of Koebel: she uses her intersecting roles as an artist and teacher “to facilitate learning about social, political and cultural issues from an Indigenous perspective…Jaime’s traditional and contemporary art practices include Métis beadwork, drawings, ink on drums, and fish scale art….[Koebel] and her three children perform as Jaime & the Jiglets, a Métis dance group that entertains and teaches through stories and audience interaction.”

I’m tempted to offer a somewhat humorous take on my expectations for this show, another fine example (like Twenty Three Days at Sea, last October) of NAC bringing artists from wider communities into this one to expand the conversation. In Canada, the perennial conversation is about the weather, and it’s both a literal and metaphorical term for place, and who “we” are, or are not. Where the Weather Happens opens on the 8th of September, at NAC, on St. Paul Street in downtown STC.

The image to the left is After winter // signs of life (1), pastel and drawing paper, from 2016, copyright of the artist Sheri Nault

“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).