Collected Art Writing Challenges from New Art Examiner

In late 2018, I was contacted by New Art Examiner with the offer of being one of their contributing writers for their ongoing Writers Challenges: an editorial person at the magazine, or a contributing writer, would suggest an artwork or (as in one case here) an idea, and we’d all write approximately 250 words on this subject. These were then published at the NAE site, with an accompanying image.

Recently, this collaborative project has fallen by the wayside. Officially, I was told that it became a bit too much for editorial staff to maintain, in light of the regular online and print aspects of the magazine. I suspect, however, that one of the contributors who has an inflated sense of ego, only matched by his ignorance (a fine example of that Mordecai Richler acidic truism that not all neglected writers are neglected unjustly), soured the collaboration, like urinating in a pool. The pages at NAE are no longer there, so I shared my responses here, as I intentionally wrote playful and irreverant responses: NAE’s masthead is ‘Without Fear or Favor’, and I attempted to fulfill that mandate.

Further, I wrote a longer response to a recent exhibition of Joseph Beuys’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and that can be read here.

Joseph Stalin once upbraided his son for ‘exploiting his father’s name: “But I’m a Stalin too,” said Vasily. “No, you’re not,” replied Stalin. “You’re not Stalin and I’m not Stalin…Stalin is what he is in the newspapers and the portraits, not you, no not even me!”’

The Cedar Tavern Singers, in their jauntily caustic The Physical Impossibility of Damien Hirst in the Mind of the Living (satirizing his most famous work’s title) go further: “He’s a YBA artist that’s right why be an artist when you can just take the piss???!!”

It’s impossible to extricate Hirst’s artwork from his persona: his performed identity is more Cesare Borgia than Cecily Brown. Proliferation leads to a keener awareness of the poverty of his aesthetic.

But let’s turn that on its head: if Flesh Tint was by anyone else, would I so smugly dismiss it? Would I give it a more rigorous examination, attempting to discern – even projecting – a greater relevance into this work?

Well, you can’t have it both ways. In a bizarre horror story I read years ago, a person so ‘colourful’ he’s inspired numerous characters by countless authors is ‘stalked’ and kidnapped by famous fictional characters, imprisoned in a library basement because he exists more ‘truly’ to many as dramatis personae than as a person.

Hirst is less artist than caricature (but it’s said an age gets the art it deserves), and Flesh Tint is a recycled ‘appropriated’ ‘postmodernist’ Seurat (no offence, Georges).

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It’s been suggested by cancers of critics (like murders of crows) that the worst insult to spit at artworks is ‘derivative.’ In confronting Nicholson’s 1937 (titled the year of execution), I must ask, after Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White, why denigrate originality with simulacra? 1937 is imitation without innovation, unnecessarily muddying the waters of excitement and energy that was (intermittently) Modernism. The colours are banal and uninspired, the tones so soft as to be irrelevant and easily ignored, more wallpaper than worthy.

But I revere Ad Reinhardt’s black-on-black abstracts, decades after Nicholson. And I often ‘spit’ at ahistorical ‘critics’ knee-jerking their shallow immediacy as elucidation.

So, consider 1937 – the year defining the painting, perhaps. WWII looms, Stalin’s ‘Great Purge’ begins, the Hindenburg detonates, the rape of Nanking commences, and Franco is ‘inspiring’ Picasso to paint Guernica this very same year. But Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted that year, so never mind those Soviet show trials.

Yet 1937 has some affinity to Chamberlain’s hopeful / hopeless assertion of ‘peace in our time’ (1938), and despite what Thomas Hirschhorn declares, personal enthusiasm is not a panacea to the reality of others, or even ourselves. Nicholson seems to try, here, but falls short, conceptually and formally, from his Constructivist gospel: but I’m a brutal orphan in the ‘deconstructed postmodernist dystopia’ where subjectivity is an inescapable blessing and curse.

1937 was also the year SPAM was first marketed. Nicholson’s 1937 would make a nice label for that. Maybe it did.

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I recently read Goddamn This War!, a graphic novel about WWI with art / story by Tardi with a ‘chronology’ by Jean-Pierre Verney. The opprobrium of the true genesis of the 20th century makes me long to read the original French, as surely its more shrieking in that tongue (The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells). Entire pages in War! feature the disfigured faces of soldiers. Its been suggested the surfeit of ‘monster’ films in the 1920s was society’s ‘way’ of ‘dealing’ with these ‘monsters’ (“No mockeries now for them”). Correspondingly, words are often less brutally evocative than images: not Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen. “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”: Temple Grandin has more mercy in her slaughterhouses than Owen knew, here.
Turner’s painting is a fussy contrivance. I’ve recently been compelled to revisit the Group of Seven, and one of their number, Frederick Varley rendered For What? (1917 – 1919) with mounting corpses muddy, wheelbarrow overflowed deathly war machine slag (“no prayers nor bells”…) His words: “We are forever tainted with [the war’s] abortiveness and its cruel drama….we’d be healthier to forget…we never can. ”
Yet Turner mimics a ‘war banner’: this perverts (corrects?) the vainglorious ‘king & country’ militant madness that never asks “[w]hat does it mean—to kill your children? Kill them and then…go in there and sing about it!”(Findley) Its been suggested I’ve a “Russian” (dark?) soul. I answer Owen with Solzhenitsyn: “Dwell on the past, and lose an eye. Forget the past and lose both eyes.”

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Despite my sordid academic experience, I eschew excessive art theory. Literary works (whether poetry or prose) are better, as the visceral language often elicits a reaction from [my] readers that mirrors my own. That lusty reprobate Irving Layton asserted that “if poetry is like an orgasm, an academic can be likened to someone who studies the passion-stains on the bedsheets.”

Accordingly, I was reading Utopias: Russian Modernist Texts 1905 – 1940 when I saw Hilary Williams’ Lime Green Structures in a Gap. Amidst Pasternak, Akhamatova and Filonov, was Zinaida Gippius: “The waves of other-worldly nausea foam up / break into spray and scatter in black mist / and into darkness, inter outermost darkness.”

Gap has a scratchy scabby quality: blackish “foam” consuming green “structures” (corrosion eating away, bubbling dark “slag” detritus). Faint colour swallowed by undulating blacks. A recent dialogue with an artist who ‘draws in paint’ explored charcoal’s physical nature, how he’d render, paint over, then retrace the pebbly powdery thick marks, building “structures.”

I once spoke at a panel about the ‘fallowness’ of ‘modernity.’ Another spoke of our relationship with industry as a harbinger of this, citing Fukishima, nuclear narratives of promise leading to pestilence, like the dark clouds in Gap (Layton’s sarcasm fits: perhaps I’m an illiterate deciphering grotty blotches).

Gap evokes Aghasyan’s Ghost city and the dark miasma of the Bhopal Disaster; a harmatia of utopias where they consume themselves, like the undulating murkiness enveloping – suffocating – the bright structures and gap.

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This challenge was a suggestion of the term ‘Hidden Trifle’, with no accompanying or defining image.

My initial impression of “hidden trifle” is of secreting dessert to avoid sharing.

That’s appropriate, as its reminiscent of Paglia’s dismissal of contemporary artists’ freedom to produce anything as nothing they do matters anymore to anyone else, as they traded “freedom” for relevance…glut on that ‘richness’ even unto nausea, and endure that well-proven trope that excessive self indulgence causes gastronomic illness (or artistic gout). Perhaps you’re force-feeding that dessert you love to others; making them sick of it (and you). They won’t visit your table – or gallery – again.

I prefer delicate, flaky trifle but I’ve no sweet tooth (though liquor IS an ingredient). But if hidden, it can’t be shared; eating’s like Art, best in dialogue (a conversation over food, stretching this metaphor even more).

I serve two anecdotes.

Alice Gregory offered this palette cleanser: “[art] for the past century has often been the product of speech acts. I am an artist because I say I am an artist. This is art because I say it is.” Trifle is ‘something of little value’ or ‘to speak with little purpose’ or ‘wasting (time and money)’.

I suppose its an acquired taste…

An ex subjected me to competitive cooking shows: one challenge was creating an aesthetically amazing dish – but NOT to be eaten. Taste was irrelevant; this reversal, this perversion, is still fascinating to me. Superficially seductive but potentially poisonous (at worst) or sickening (at best); a pretty ‘trifle’ whose unpalatable nature is ‘hidden’…did someone mention Abramović?

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In a darkly amusing Neil Gaiman story, a line came to mind when looking at Vaso libellula by Venini: this is “a manifestation of Order, here incarnated for us in the form of this cardboard box.” Later, at the story’s conclusion, another character smugly comments in a loud aside, “nobody’s interesting would be a cardboard box!” To add an even more inappropriate subjective reference, I’ve spent most of the last month wandering around the ‘rust belt wonderland’ of a city other than my usual one, and while considering the Vaso libellula I came across an abandoned, ill used cooler. ‘Her’ maw like lid wide open: empty but for dirt and detritus. I took a picture. I always do. Then it became ‘art’, to be admired and freed from being useful (like a vase kept ’empty’). As guidance – or a shepherding, as I just demonstrated the (perhaps inappropriate) breadth of my frame[s] of reference – in speaking to Vaso libellula was Braque’s phrase: “The vase gives shape to emptiness and music to silence.” Presence defined by absence (the Gaiman character whom is the empty box is named Kilderkin: from Middle English for a “cask for liquids”, and perhaps its half full, half empty, soon to be drunk, and then the ‘shape of emptiness’ returns, having only been full temporarily, emptiness and absence being the default state).

I find this piece empty: but all art is empty, frankly, only “bestowed with power by individuals, institutions of sacred or worldly power or imagined communities.” Perhaps what bothers me here is that its so obvious, and to return to Shimmering Jenny of the Chaos Brigade (Gaiman again – am I filling the empty space too flippantly? Should have put something else there, then, before handing it to me), boring is more unforgivable than madness. At least that’s entertaining.

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Brian Jungen’s work evokes conflicting sentiments. The initial response is a remembrance of his solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta: Shapeshifter and Cetology, were aesthetically breathtaking, yet equally realized in the conceptual “recycling” of “trashy” plastic lawn chairs. Objects hideously unpromising became a larger whole that was one of the finest pieces of Art I’ve experienced. Jungen does that again, here, with banal sports equipment. Amusingly, there’s no hockey equipment re purposed in these pieces (suspiciously “unCanadian”?)

Alternately, Jungen’s art elicits another uncomfortable “Canadian” issue: cultural appropriation.

Contemporary Canadian cultural conversations are (often) haunted by the spectre of cultural appropriation. Jungen’s work complicates and contradicts this debate with multiple, intersecting interpretations. Two artists I’ve reviewed recently – Brendan Tang and Sonny Assu – create within contrasting cultural spheres that intersect and inform them, less about “purity” than possibility. The vivid reds, slick blacks, soft, inviting whites are seductive (consumption and capitalism, of course, also lurk in the background with these pleasing “objects”).

This is a form of cultural criticism: living in Niagara, the legacy of someone like Stan Mikita is necessary to understanding the current controversy regarding Colin Kaepernick, and how the implicit “nationalism” of sports can also be a site to challenge, and trouble, our national “narratives.” Jungen is of both Dane-Zaa and Swiss ancestry based in the North Okanagan. These factors help define these pieces as a “self portrait” while simultaneously a comment on the larger national argument spurred by #Canada150 celebrations and condemnations.

Be[e]ing & Seeing: Compounding Visions


The current exhibition on display on the main floor of the Riverbrink Art Museum is not its usual art historical discourse: Charmaine Lurch offers a number of works from her ongoing practice, in both three dimensional and ‘flat’ media. She “is a sculptor, painter and installation artist who creates work that imagines inside and outside of history, involves quiet moments of joy, and draws our attention to human-environmental relationalities. an inherent sense of movement resides in the pieces. Lurch maps belonging and representation in space and place, outside of normative racial scripts.” Compounding Vision, which encompasses three rooms in the Riverbrink, flowing from one to another with works that encourage you to move between and back and forth, is on display until the first of February, 2020. This incorporates several bodies of work. The official gallery statement is that “Charmaine Lurch interrogates complex histories of humans and the environment. This exhibition presents the artist’s recent work exploring borders and boundaries, in painting, photography, sculpture and installation.”

If you’re familiar with the Riverbrink, it’s a ‘domestic’ space, so Lurch’s exhibition lives in several rooms that, with their architecture and smaller features, still strongly allude to a ‘living’ space. Several of her paintings – with wire entwined and piercing the canvas – hang in a room with a fireplace, and challenge this ‘atmosphere.’ Travellers, for example, with its dark blues and silhouetted figures, accentuated by the small ‘rivets’ of wire that then web outwards (like arteries, or ‘drawing’ in thin metal), offers subtleties of tone that are a contrast to the beige room. The grouping of four figures, facing each other in a conversational circle are as bound by the implied conversation happening between them, in the scene Lurch offers, as they are by the ‘strings’ that bind them together.

This mixed media work is more ‘physical’ than the photographs that are in the longer room which is the ‘main’ space of Compounding Vision (which are larger, more detailed ‘close ups’ of the image in the fist room, which may be familiar to you from the exhibition invitation image). Untitled (which are archival prints on acrylic) span the full wall of this room, with large images of wire (in rich blacks and some visceral dark reds and bright rust coloured ‘copper’) formed into bodily shapes: sometimes hands, sometimes torsos. Their stark white backgrounds serve the delicate – drawn in wire, captured in a photograph – nature of the sculpture Lurch ‘documents’ here.

There’s a formal connection between Travellers and the Untitled series and several smaller paintings on display, that are darker in colour and construction. Hand of Sycorax and Foot of Sycorax are horizontal works, like dark ‘strips’ on a wall where the aforementioned hand and foot rest upon the picture plane, and extend beyond the canvas edge in their sculptural succinctness. Lurch offers us enough to define the forms, very smartly, and this minimalism is like a gesture drawing in wire, lovely in form and allusion. Installed side by side, slightly higher than ‘normal’ (perhaps to enhance their visual power, perhaps in response to the wainscotting of the wall – this was a domestic space, like a small salon, when Samuel Weir lived here long ago), these may be my favourite pieces in Compounding Vision.

A motif here – in title, across diverse pieces – is the term ‘sycorax’. Allow me to offer this bit of background: Sycorax “is an unseen character in William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest (1611). She is a vicious and powerful witch and the mother of Caliban, one of the few native inhabitants of the island on which Prospero, the hero of the play, is stranded. According to the backstory provided by the play, Sycorax, while pregnant with Caliban, was banished from her home in Algiers to the island on which the play takes place. Memories of Sycorax, who dies several years before the main action of the play begins, define several of the relationships in the play. Relying on his filial connection to Sycorax, Caliban claims ownership of the island…Postcolonialist writers and critics see Sycorax as giving voice to peoples, particularly women, recovering from the effects of colonisation.” The emphasis there is mine, and that last point is the relevant one for engaging with Charmaine Lurch’s images that cite Sycorax in Compounding Vision. In an immediate manner, having Lurch artistically ‘occupy’ the often art historical ‘traditional’ ‘heritage’ site of the Riverbrink, as a Canadian artist who has often contributed to exhibitions and conversations such as Here We Are: Black Contemporary Canadian Art (ROM) or We’re Here, From Here: Contemporary Canadian Black Art (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) or Every. Now. Then: Framing Nationhood (AGO) , evoking Sycorax, is truly an ‘interrogation [of] complex histories of humans and the environment.’ Consider that here in Niagara with Dick’s Creek, named after Richard Pierpoint, who was taken in the slave trade from his native Senegal, and fought for both his freedom and as a Loyalist, in Niagara. But remember that this is either not known widely or not part of the official history, and you begin to see an element of Caliban as something other than just metaphor, in Canadian ‘history.’

In this respect, the ‘there / not there’ silhouettes in her paintings, the subtlety – perhaps the invisibility, or the manner in which the negative space in the photographs is more prevalent than the ‘wire’ and ‘metal’ of the figures – suggests someone easily ignored, or denied, by an uncaring, dismissive eye. Caliban is labelled a ‘savage’, in The Tempest. But many readings consider his anger to be appropriate, that of the ‘outsider’ who sees things as they truly are, in reality. His most famous line is about the only profit of having been taught language is that he now can swear: but oh so many things are oh so deserving of being damned, especially when others deny or ignore them….

Compounding Vision is also, in some ways, a sampling of Lurch’s wider practice: but there is inter-connectivity in her various series, and her ‘Bees’ dominate the largest room, installed in the middle, running the length of the space, and you can walk around them for full appreciation of their construction. This might seem a very separate work from ‘Sycorax’, but isn’t, at all.

Lurch’s words: ‘There are 200 species of native bees in Toronto. Working and moving around us daily, these creatures are mostly invisible, and hyper-visible when unwanted or deemed out of place. The movements of the bees act as a lens by which to view the space in between these polarities as active and productive. This series of oversized wire bee sculptures and wire relief on canvas, is a project materialized through science and art using metaphor to explore themes of Black subjectivity and re-imagined futures. It is about the act of seeing and un-seeing, and the choices therein. This dichotomy reflects how we meet and respond to racialized subjects in everyday encounters, and can be seen in the interplay of light on the works and the shadows they cast. The sculptures…evoke a virtual invisibility and present a nuanced conversation on how black subjects are seen and understood in space and place, past present and future.’ Going further, the manner in which the ‘Bees’ are installed also implies an idea of ‘exotica’, something to be observed at a remove. It’s reminiscent of the late Indigenous performance artist Jame Luna saying how many ‘galleries’ install ‘traditional’ ‘Indian art’ as though it’s an artifact, suggesting these cultures and people are ‘of the past’, not now. Consider that, the next time you’re attending an event and a land dedication is spoken, especially the assertion that many groups, such as the Haudenosaunee here, are alive and well and as ‘real’ – perhaps moreso, to many – than any vestige of ‘British Empire.’

Compounding Vision is the most ‘contemporary’ exhibit I’ve experienced at the Riverbrink Art Museum, but positioning this work here is also a response, in some ways, to the usual historical and artistic aesthetic on display there. Riverbrink could be called a ‘heritage’ site, with all the positive and negative baggage that brings with such contested narratives and terms. Upstairs, for example, was a past selection of works from Weir’s collection, which birthed the RAM, titled Picturing Indians, which might do a better job of examining whether a people make their own images, of themselves and their world, or others make and name them, instead. As Indigenous artist David Neel has observed, if you don’t do it yourself, others will be eager to do that for you.

Charmaine Lurch’s solo exhibition Compounding Vision, curated by Riverbrink Director / Curator Debra Antoncic,is at the Riverbrink Art Museum until February 1st, 2020. The RAM is located at 116 Queen Street, in the village of Queenston, in Niagara-on-the-Lake. All images are courtesy the RAM or The SoundSTC.



A Fall Update: What About Rodman Hall?

Well, ‘the time has come,” the Walrus said,”To talk of many things: of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–of cabbages–and kings–and why the sea is boiling hot–And whether pigs have wings.”

Why, yes, your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is ‘pleased’ to offer you an update on what is happening now regarding Brock University and Rodman Hall Art Centre. Allow me to explain my silly opening quote / metaphor; with those references to ‘kings’ – as in dismissive arrogant types – a Hutchings or a Fearon, even a Vivian, perhaps – that wish we’d just defer to our ‘betters’ on the topic of RHAC; ‘cabbages’ as in reheated bile in Brock PSAs that are opaque in their obtuseness, ahem; and ‘whether pigs have wings’ – no need to explain that one, I hope, since I’m sure you saw that flying pig, too, when Brock asserted they NEVER planned to sell RHAC to those developers, whom I guess would be working for free, cough cough.

But perhaps I should warn you, before we begin, as when The Sound broke the story regarding Brock – or the Hutchings Cabal, as it’s more accurate to term it such– planning to sell RHAC back in the Spring, Dean of Humanities Carol Merriman insinuated that we were ‘fake news.’ Mind, we weren’t the ones proffering mistruths so baldly, such as saying they’d supported RHAC strongly, when they’ve declined to fill three (3!) positions there in the last few years, emaciating the gallery through a process of ‘demolition by neglect’, to paraphrase Rebecca Caan.

Ah, forgive my skepticism: when I commented the other day that I was unsure if I should finish this update, or watch Evil Dead, a friend who’s involvement has been more in depth and nuanced then mine suggested the movie, as it has a clear end….

Since we last talked about Brock and RHAC, there’s been a few developments, several of which have been reported in The Standard, with varying degrees of (in)accuracy. The story has also been picked up at a national level by Canadian Art. They provided articles that both detailed the original ‘plan’ this past spring by Brock to divest itself of RHAC and ‘steal the collection for two dollars’ (Mark Elliot), but also the revised plan to hand over the space and the collection to a community board, with a more appropriate – and realistic, from both a financial and cultural position – plan for 2023. Several faculty have been adamant and insistent on making sure the university knows what it would be losing, and what the true stakes and real stakeholders are, in this debate. Praise to several of these, which includes Donna Szoke and Amy Friend.

Also this summer, St. Catharines City Council, at the urging of Councillor Carlos Garcia, and after presentations by former St. Catharines Cultural Coordinator Caan and former Councillor Mark Elliot (who, when he won the STC Arts Award for Making a Difference, repeated his assertion that Brock ‘stole’ RHAC and the collection for a toonie, and he will happily reimburse them – even with interest, so $4 – to get it out of their hands), struck a committee to gain information and break the Stalinist silence from the Hutchings Cabal at Brock. This is specifically regarding the most recent feasibility report by Alf Bogusky and Ann Pappert. City Hall, after all, offered support to the university regarding their MIWSFPA endeavour, and as pointed out at that same Council meeting, citizens of this city would be coming to them, not Brock, to ask why RHAC was shuttered and why we have no longer have a quality public gallery here.

They – again, unlike the Brock cabal – would not find it so easy to ignore questions and concerns, and would demand some accountability from Brock administration.

Some necessary praise: the students (Rachel McCartney and Sarah Martin, especially) at MIWSFPA have been amazing, in both protesting and making their voices heard, and not being interested in the refusal – whether ideological or just ignorance – on the part of said cabal to not take their concerns seriously. With protests at various Brock events to derail the spin, one of the reasons why myself, and others, are somewhat hopeful, is due to them.

The ‘new’ board that has recently incorporated with intent to have RHAC and its collection returned to them has several notable names with significant experience (one of them, Reinhard Reitzenstein, made one of my favourite comments during the Van Zon consultations, pointing out that neither Van Zon, or his AGN types, had any idea or experience for what they were talking about).

The relevant information from their PSA released in late June:

Rodman Hall Art Centre Inc. is a community-based not-for-profit corporation whose first orderof business is to develop a phased transition plan with Brock University to return the public art gallery back into community hands. This initiative is a constructive response to Brock University’s goal to reduce their financial obligation for the art museum. Rodman Hall Art Centre Inc. is dedicated to ensuring the future excellence of Niagara’s award-winning professional art museum, and to provide inspiring contemporary art exhibitions and public programs. RHAC Inc. intends to raise funds from a wide variety of sources, engage community volunteers and leverage the historical home and gardens to create a cultural destination for residents and visitors to Niagara.

Unlike, again, the opaque curtain that Brock employed regarding their decision, this RHAC Inc. update also offered biographical information and the relevant experience of their board members. These include Jean Bridge (Chair of RHAC inc., who’s both an artist and educator of long standing in the community, as well as the ‘founder of nGen Niagara Interactive Media Generator, now Innovate Niagara and the Generator at One’), Ken Lucyshyn (Executive Vice-President, Aggregates & Construction at Walker Industries Holdings limited. That company name may be familiar to you from the recent Niagara Pumphouse Walker Industries Art Competition) and the aforementioned Reitzenstein (internationally renowned artist, associate professor of Sculpture at the University of Buffalo. His past experience is impressive, having ‘served on the Boards of MacMaster University Museum of Art and the Art Gallery of Hamilton, and Grimsby Public Art Gallery’). In past conversations about RHAC, the fact that the grounds, as well as the gallery spaces, are a treasure to be preserved is acknowledged with the presence on the RHAC Inc. Board of Darren Schmahl (horticulturist and educator at Niagara Catholic District School Board and the Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture.’ It is very edifying to have ‘an authority on the history of the gardens at Rodman Hall and contributor to their current design’ as part of this group). The group is rounded out by two excellent examples of the balance present in this group: Shawn Tylee (Manager, Corporate Affairs, Rankin Construction. He ‘brings a wealth of knowledge in Business Marketing, Strategic Planning, Client Relations and Contract Negotiations to’ the group. Again, this is important as Brock – with Van Zon, but this self serving ignorance has been repeated by others there, afterwards – has implied the ‘irrelevance’ of RHAC, while instructing them to not scuttle the MIWSFPA fund raising of the past decade, and then neither supporting nor replacing staff whom could raise and enhance RHAC’s public profile…) and Dr. Peter Vietgen. Vietgen is an ‘Associate Professor of Visual Arts Education in the Teacher Education Program at Brock University and the current President of the Canadian Society for Education through Art’.

All are experienced and informed choices to shepherd RHAC towards 2023 and being rid of Brock’s mendacity (as I must mention AGAIN that blaming Doug Ford for this ‘austerity’ is self servingly disingenuous, since Van Zon was jibbering about developers long before Ford as a premier was even suggested by the most absurd of comedians….).

This is a hopeful turn, and one that surely wouldn’t have happened, I suspect, if V.P. Finance Hutchings hadn’t departed for job with the City of Brantford. An amusing aside: a friend works at an auto shop, and described how, in the midst of changing Hutchings’ radiator that he was subjected to a gleeful monologue by the former Brock employee as to how glad he was to finally rid the uni of RHAC. Rather funny, when you consider the eagerness with which he and his lot blamed Doug Ford for the necessary cutbacks, though this all started several years ago before the idea of Ford as Premier was anything other than a bad joke. Amusingly, again in a painful manner, is that a similar ignorant wielding of a bloody axe under the misguided dissembling of austerity is ALSO what Hutchings was doing, aping Doug.

Is the RHAC and Brock saga over? Not bloody likely, your intrepid #artcriticfromhell would say. After all, a little over a year ago, many of us thought Brock would no longer foster plans, public or secretive, to ‘steal the collection and building’ (again, I praise Mark Elliot’s acerbic exactness). It is not inappropriate to be wary until 2023, and the building and collection are out of Brock’s grasp: but I must end with this. Is the cultural community willing to step up, in terms of support both financial and vocally, to ensure RHAC survives? We’re having this conversation again because a window to ensure Brock behaved appropriately was missed. Will we miss it again?

‘Despair is the damp of hell’ (Donne) / Käthe Kollwitz: Art and Life

“It is said that scattered through Despair’s domain are a multitude of tiny windows, hanging in the void. Each window looks out onto a different scene, being, in our world, a mirror. Sometimes you will look into a mirror and feel the eyes of Despair upon you, feel her hook catch and snag on your heart. Despair says little, and is patient.” (Gaiman)

“It seems exploitative to look at harrowing photographs of other people’s pain in an art gallery.” (Sontag)

Several years ago – was it that long? That in itself is an indictment of the situation to which it alludes – Ai Weiwei (whom may bear the burden of being the most significant contemporary artist of our time) shared / created / ‘authored’ an image described as a ‘posthumous appropriation’ of Alan Kurdi, the migrant boy who drowned seeking asylum with his family. Prone, still and alone on the sand, the image has been elevated into that sphere of photographs that don’t simply record history, but define it. There was, however, an intense debate at the time, as to whether this bordered on exploitation. The display of the body of a child whose death was fully preventable, a testament to the ongoing cruelty and depravity of the world we not only live in but aid and abet is vile, to many. Perhaps it’s vile for the impolite reminder. Perhaps it’s vile for casting a light on something sooner – easier – forgotten.  After all, “[t]he human eye is a wonderful device. With a little effort, it can fail to see even the most glaring injustice.” (Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon)

But that this image played a role in the last Canadian federal election is undeniable: and that it resonates now, years later, is a testimony to its power.

There is, in many ways, a crisis of authenticity in the wider – but definitely manifest in the Canadian – art world. One of my critical brethren observed recently that she’d not seen more than she could count on one hand (with fingers to spare) good artwork ‘about’ Donald Trump. This is, frankly, unsurprising: the art world – in its variant forms and cabals – already has an ‘echo chamber’ problem to those of us who straddle those diverse spaces, and it’s especially cast in relief for those of us whom occupy contested spaces of culture and community.

On a recent trip to the AGO, I was focused upon the sample of works by Joseph Beuys there, for an article I was writing: unsurprisingly, I found that the true gem of that visit wasn’t Beuys but Käthe Kollwitz. The gallery was in the midst of a sampling, presented through several past exhibitions, of a bequest of her work. From the writing around it, at the gallery site, I expected a small room and a few iconic pieces. Instead, several rooms highlighted this amazing artist’s works in print and sculpture, and this made the visit worthwhile.

Many of the walls are painted darker colours, and Kollwitz’ palette is the restrained monochromatic of her intaglio and lithographic prints: many images entrance by the quality – the formal brilliance – of her execution of this medium, and this only further entrances the viewer when you step back and are ‘gut punched’ by the scenes of misery, suffering and the manner in which Kollwitz has capture the faces of her people. I use that term instead of subjects, as the works overflow with empathy and emotion.

A small sculptural work is where we’ll begin: the glut of figures in this Soldiers’ Wives Waving Goodbye (conceived 1937 / 38, cast in 1938) are like a piece of emotional detritus that Kollwitz has cast in bronze. These women know their men are going to their deaths: this is not so much sending off their husbands (and fathers, as two small children huddle, almost burrowing into the dresses of a woman in the front of the assembly) as a funeral gathering.

Soldiers’ Wives Waving Goodbye, 1938

The way in which the many become one, the individual becomes universal evokes the admonition that ‘the poor will be with us always.’ Pensive Woman (1893), where the pale, bloodless woman’s face is again obscured by a raised hand, is clearly a wailing wife, daughter – or mother, if we return to Allan Kurdi.

In the midst of Kollwitz, I hear this not as a dismissal, as a boon to apathy, but as a condemnation of us, of our failure as a species, as our inability to be human or humane. But ‘at the end of the day you’re another day older / and that’s all you can say for the life of the poor / it’s a struggle, it’s a war / and there’s nothing that anyone’s giving / one more day standing about, what is it for? one day less to be living…’

Municipal Shelter, 1926

Kollwitz’s aesthetic was a refreshing panacea, a reminder, of what art can and should be: both executed with a technical acumen and with an emotional quality that will find you examining one small print from over a century ago, enthralled by her delicate cross hatching and engulfing voids, and then lost in the faces of her figures. Titles are almost irrelevant: her works take on an historical, documentary demeanour, and whether you’re looking at her recording or interpretation of suffering in her time and place or whether these could as easily be people suffering right now, here or around the world is what makes her work matter. She resonates across history: dwell on the past, lose an eye, but forget the past and lose both (Solzhenitsen).

The Downtrodden: Poor Family, 1900

The Downtrodden: Poor Family (1900), with the husband hiding his face with shame behind his lax hand, the mother attending the child, all waxen and waning. Their poverty and want lifts off the ink, just as with Municipal Shelter (1926): this work is more minimal, less dark and dense, and though the children cradled by their mother’s body may be sleeping, her closed eyes and mussed hair suggest a failed attempt to momentarily forget their sparse and starving reality. Death (1893 – 1897) returns us to a dank, dark – almost suffocating in its cramped shabbiness – room, with a skull lurking behind a distraught child, and a man who seems to have abandoned life, having long since lost hope. Need (1893 – 1897) again shows a woman with hands cast up to her head, imploring, perhaps, to the voids of inky black that dominate so many of Kollwitz’s works, and receiving no answer, no mercy (‘at the end of the day you’re another day colder / and the shirt on your back doesn’t keep out the chill / and the righteous hurry past / they don’t hear the little ones crying / and the plague is coming on fast, ready to kill / one day nearer to dying’)…..

Need, 1893 – 1897

The works Death and Need also remind me of that classic line – only remembered, and only as saccharine holiday nostalgia, not as a spur to social action – that these children are named Want and Ignorance, and beware them greatly, the Ghost of Christmas Present warned. But shush, never mind, how many shopping days until X Mas, hmmm?

Death, 1893 – 1897

Simultaneous to Käthe Kollwitz: Art and Life (this is the last of three parts of what the AGO was presenting) is a selection of images and diaries from Betty Goodwin. Both were very popular, when I visited. Goodwin turned internal and personal pain and suffering into artworks that the viewer can see themselves within, that inspire an empathy with their audience. Kollwitz, on the other hand, seemed to look at the suffering around her and was able to ensconce that in her prints and sculptures, so that a visitor with her people feels their pain, and is moved by their distress and despair.

The header image is Woman with Dead Child, 1903, by Kollwitz. This last installment of Käthe Kollwitz: Art and Life was on view at the AGO until the end of July, 2019.