Chapter 4: Who cares? Why bother? The existential issue of writing about art in a small community (or how the Emperor has no clothes)


When I told people I was leaving Saskatoon in the Summer of 2015 after nearly two decades in that cultural sphere, a colleague and friend, Professor Mona Holmlund, approached me again with the request to contribute a chapter to her anthology about “Visual Culture” in Saskatchewan. This was something she was doing, initially through the University of Saskatchewan, but she wanted more voices with greater variety and diversity, both in terms of class and race. She also wanted the viewpoint of someone like myself who had a foot in the non academic world, and also – as she pointed out to me – had published more than anyone, for longer, about that place’s visual culture (as well as with my nearly decade long radio show where I interviewed so many local and national artists or curators as they passed through Saskatoon).

I had declined when initially approached, as there was no money, and I am – still – not so interested to have my legitimacy exploited by academics and institutions.

But, since I was leaving Saskatoon, likely for good, and with mixed feelings, I agreed.

Over approximately the next two years, we went back and forth with many revisions. When it went to its ‘academic’ editors (if it’s happening it will be in partnership with McGill University Press. No small thing, I suppose), one of the two wanted my chapter removed. I’m “Chapter Four” in this anthology, which is a good position, in light of some of the other writers’ positions; early enough to help shape a reader’s understanding, and yet not offering a tone of authority or any homogeneous assertion, as a first or last might.

Mona told me about this, and I became even more tired and frustrated, as I was asked to be part of this due to the validity of my – often ‘outsider’ – voice in #YXE, and I told her I was toying with pulling the chapter. We talked, I left it hanging, and we’ve not been in touch since, but she has my tacit permission to include it. I made it clear I am exhausted, and frankly, in terms of Saskatoon, would prefer to ‘leave the dead to bury the dead.’

BUT I have often flirted with the idea of putting it online, at my site, and sharing it from there. As there’s no contract between Mona and I, no money, no remuneration, this is my right, entirely, and Mona had said she was fine with that, even if / when the book comes out.

It is somewhat dated, as it was ‘finished’ some time ago: but I offer it here, with only one proviso, that some things have changed in terms of my opinion of some of the people cited here. Unsurprisingly, that has been that some people I mention here, that I praise, I have now seen another side of them – or a side I was unwilling to ‘see’ – and considered revising the chapter to reflect that. However, I felt it was more important to preserve this as a moment, and to the integrity of the book chapter when / if it sees publication.

I often joke that as an arts critic / writer, I am responsive in the moment, but reserve the right to change my mind, or opinion, based on time and experience. Some of these opinions are the same: some are not.

Who cares? Why bother? The existential issue of writing about art in a small community (or how the Emperor has no clothes) begins below.

Feedback is welcome: as always, I will respond in kind, regarding respect or lack thereof.

B. Gazzola, July 2019


The remnants of the Victoria Bridge in Saskatoon (July 2015).

I sometimes look back on #YXEArts with the affection of a lover that you hoped would improve themselves and be worthy of your affections and attentions: but like karaoke modernism, it was never as good as “you” thought … forgive me. Nostalgia makes my hyperbole self indulgent, and we forget our place when we leave it behind.

B. Gazzola, A Confluence of Geographies

I’m not from here / I just live here / grew up somewhere far away / come here thinking I’d never stay long / I’d be going back soon someday / I’m not from here / but people tell me it’s not like it used to be / they say I should have been here / back about ten year / before it got ruined by folks like me

James McMurtry

There’s a kind of bookending, in starting this chapter with those two quotes. The first is from a long piece published nearly a year following, but still fresh from, my departure from Saskatoon; and James McMurtry’s lyrics still have an unexpected resonance to me, even now, decades after I first read them. They bracket this eulogy together with my own words at the opposite end of my chronicle of a nearly two decade relationship with Saskatoon’s visual arts community.

I originally encountered McMurtry’s words in 1998 during my MFA at the University of Saskatchewan, and the line “I’m not from here / I just live here” became increasingly relevant as the sometimes xenophobic nature of art in Saskatoon became clearer to me. From 1997 to 2015 it was my home: yet I was never part of it, if I am honest about my own positioning and that of others related to me. Though I can safely say that no one else has ever published as much about that city’s art scene as I have done (and continue to do), I was always “outside.” It was an insult sometimes hurled at me, and like most painful assertions, the truth is what hurt. My dismissal of what I saw as “karaoke modernism”i or my expectations of that place only fostered this distance: now that it’s literal, and I’ve left, I see it more clearly.

There is a line from a book of poems by Allen Ginsberg (given to me by a friend who moved to Saskatoon before me and helped facilitate my own relocation there, before she escaped the Prairies): “i’m going to try speaking some reckless words, and i want u to try to listen recklessly!” Sometimes I felt that was my role, whether incidental or intentional, in that site, too: and that informs why I am no longer “there”. The last exhibition of my own work in Saskatoon was very consciously titled the Prophet Series: for “a prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

After I had completed both a BFA and BA in Art History at the University of Windsor, I moved to Saskatoon to pursue an MFA (primarily in digital imagery) at the University of Saskatchewan because the program there had a strong emphasis on teaching. I arrived in Saskatoon having worked at Artcite and the Art Gallery Windsor: the former in a gallery / communications capacity, and the latter as part of a research team. From the time I earned my MFA until 2010 I taught in the department of Art and Art History at the University of Saskatchewan, while also working at AKA Artist Run Centre (as Artistic Coordinator), the University’s Kenderdine Art Gallery (as gallery assistant, but primarily in the documentation / organization of the University’s art collection), and a number of other cultural spaces, over that dozen years. I served on the board of AKA Artist Run centre, The Photographers Gallery and Video Verite (the two merged to become PAVED Arts, of which I was a founding member), and I was editorial chair of Blackflash magazine for nearly five years. In this latter role, I helped reorganize and professionalize aspects of the magazine, and fostered an editorial committee and board that was less academic, less “safe,” and more engaged.

And I continued my art practice, including two exhibitions at PAVED Arts: The Performative Lens, with Evergon, and the aforementioned Prophet works.

My curatorial projects have been both historical and contemporary and often about place.

Currently, I’m collaborating with a colleague in London, U.K., over producing an exhibition tentatively titled TPG UK / SK, which would sample from the collections of The Photographers Gallery in Saskatoon (now in the collection of the Remai Modern) and Photographers Gallery London, as both organizations share historical markers of importance, despite their apparent distance.

However, over the past dozen years, the focus of my energies has been on my writing, primarily about visual arts. My critical writings have appeared in national publications, but, germane to the current discussion, I was the art critic with Planet S Magazine in Saskatoon for over a decade (2002 -2015). From 2006 to 2015, I hosted / produced a radio show / podcast in Saskatoon titled The A Word on CFCR 90.5 FM,ii which encompassed reviews and interviews with guests that were both regional and national.

In 2011 I was named a “Civic Art Star” by the Saskatoon StarPhoenix (rather touching, as I often criticized both the quantity and quality of their own visual arts coverage, and our ideologies were rarely in agreement in the partisan Prairie landscape). However, in 2013, AKA Artist Run and I parted ways, in a manner that reflects the ongoing concerns of unprofessionalism and abuses of power that have degraded too many artist run centres, and have often led to the closure of such potentially important sites due to cronyism. Art critic RM Vaughn notes “Canadian artists and intellectuals are feverishly devoted to the concept of free speech — the concept, but not the actual practice. Every time I have written something about art that people decided not to agree with, there has followed a campaign by artists and their pet writers to have me denounced, fired and then flayed alive with a butter knife.”iii I mention this as it colours my opinion of the site I’m discussing, as much as my commitment to emerging artists was / is defined by my years of teaching. The manner in which AKA’s board chose to break our relationship made the fissures that would stress further and deeper, and eventually break my relationship with Saskatoon / YXEArts.

In the summer of 2015 I returned to Ontario, and currently reside in St. Catharines, ON (my previously cited “A Confluence of Geographies”, from Hamilton Arts & Letters,iv offers an erudite summation of that departure and arrival). Since my arrival I’ve continued to publish writings on visual arts: as well, at CFBU 103.7 /, I helped develop and facilitate a contemporary news show, Niagara Voices and Views, exploring issues both cultural and social, and promoting voices not always heard – or listened to – in the Niagara Region.

So, now you “know” your unreliable narrator. Despite what I’ve just pretentiously posited as my resumé to the task, it’s a daunting and arguably futile endeavour to write about what it was like to be the primary art critic / arts writer in Saskatoon for nearly two decades. When I describe myself as such, I say this without (much) arrogance, but due to the sheer volume of words I published, and that I produced and hosted a radio show about visual arts for such an extended period.

I was involved with various organizations in the cultural sphere in many ways, as I enumerated above. But the position I occupied primarily was a critic and writer in the community, with one foot in both the world of the visual arts but firmly grounded outside of it. My articles with Planet S Magazine, which was more a music magazine with variant articles from a predominantly left wing, social justice narrative, ensured I never forgot that the pieces I published were read by those who wouldn’t enter an art gallery at the point of a gun.

To many, “galleries are frightening places, places of evaluation, of judgement”:v this applies to what’s in them, including the people who step into those spaces. Not all are welcome, and many are all but prohibited, whether by class or race or gender (I often return to this conversation – or contention – when I speak about the telling distinction of “public art” or “art in the public sphere”…)

But just as my community at that time was multifaceted – or perhaps contradictory – so was I.

Though I taught at the U of S, in the Art department, for 12 years, my attitudes about art schools, and the “education” therein, is similar to how I speak about Art: as a critic. This all played a role in how my voice matured in my time in Saskatoon. My early optimism for that department was eroded when an “external review” in the early 2000s became more about the long past (and arguably irrelevant, to contemporary students) mythology of Emma Lake (“I will not go to Emma Lake as an artist. I might go to Emma Lake as an arsonist,” the artist and writer Lee Henderson caustically averred).vi It is now not only unsurprising, but could be seen as inevitable, that my own experience would lead to me questioning that department in the voice I found myself possessing, whether in Planet S or in Canadian Art. I often prodded them, as here, in an article for the Planet listing upcoming exhibitions of note:

It’s been more than a decade since the last faculty show by the U of S Art Department, and according to them, “the opportunity to mount an exhibition of new work by the studio faculty of the University of Saskatchewan fills a gap in our history and reveals the diversity of art produced in the department at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” In fine academic fashion, some of the work is not new (or diverse), but if nothing else, this is an opportunity to see work by Mary Longman and Alison Norlen from their amazing solo shows of the past year or so — and perhaps this will begin a new tradition of an annual exhibition. Overall, I mention this show not so much because of quality, but because who knows when a department head will try to herd these cats again?vii

While a sessional lecturer at the U of S and in an effort to offer the best class I could I pushed involvement outside the academic spaces, pointing out the necessity of seeking out a community and opportunities elsewhere if the University of Saskatchewan would not provide them. It is at this time that I was a founding board member of PAVED Arts, offering digital media classes and equipment in a variety of forms, stepping into a space the University, “my university”, had chosen to ignore.

This sentiment of making change, forcing change, creating dialogue for change, perhaps had its impetus here, for me. This would be mirrored in a piece I wrote for Planet S when Steeling the Gaze was at the Mendel Art Gallery: how could one speak honestly about the institutional racism implicit, but being deconstructed, at the National Gallery of Canada by co-curators Steve Loft and Andrea Kunard while ignoring the concurrent complaints about the University of Saskatchewan?

In Saskatoon, we live in a city where the Department of Art and Art History has been accused of being less than rigorous investigating accusations of systematic racism, and that until a few years ago had no tenured aboriginal faculty. If we head to City Hall, we hear rumours of a hushed plan to cancel the Urban Aboriginal Grant, something that PAVED (with artist / curator Aleyna Mae) used to facilitate aboriginal youth creating amazing work, in image and music. No, nothing to see here, move along please. Conversely, the Mendel deserves props for hosting Gaze at the same time our Prime Minister warrants contempt for trying to reduce our history to the War of 1812 and hockey. But as Howard Zinn said, “The memory of oppressed people… cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface.”viii

My naiveté fell away, and I saw more clearly, and found myself needing to speak about these fractures between what is said / what is done. To return to now, standing outside and far away from there, I can see how my departure would be inevitable, and that a small community clings to its self-serving mythologies as fiercely as any other “larger” space might. I didn’t follow party lines but got “distracted” by unpleasant realities.

My old voice would have simply reiterated what the visual arts community said, but louder and wider; now I see a larger sphere, a larger theatre, with more to engage, and more to argue…with different loyalties and different responsibilities. Or, to paraphrase a Doris Lessing character, the party would have had to have me shot to preserve unity if I kept that up. As I handed off the responsibilities of covering visual arts on CFCR 90.5 FM to two new people, whom would shape it into what they saw fit, I heard the words of the Program Director. He was reminding them that you owe nothing to any gallery, or organization, that you cover, but solely your listeners.

Perhaps it’s because I now am no longer “there” that I think it possible to give some shape to my experience. Just as I look for illumination about artworks in literature, I look for an identifiable narrative there, too, to graft onto my time as a critic in Saskatoon. Salman Rushdie, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, proffers that “the only people who see the whole picture…are the ones who step out of the frame.” ix

I’d argue that’s the role of the critic, in a visual arts community; and it only becomes stronger, more crisply defined from a distance, now, as I consider my time there, what I accomplished and where I succeeded. And especially where I failed. Repeatedly. As I may be continuing to do, here, with this. In the words of Doris Lessing, “I don’t know why I still find it so hard to accept that words are faulty and their very nature inaccurate.”x

In the winter of 2012, I was invited to speak to a postgraduate class at the University of Saskatchewan about the role I had “carved out”, to quote their instructor, in the community, with my words. My position, as the sole instructor in any new media area had been eliminated in the latest / ongoing rounds of austerity the year before; I had repeatedly pointed out, on air and in print, that you could now get more education in digital imagery / editing / web design at Aden Bowman high school in Saskatoon, and any respect for the humanities as “practiced” at that university had been eroded. I suspected several MFA students had asked for me to visit partly to see what might happen, and what I might say: I was expected to “speak recklessly”, I imagine.

The teacher was Joan Borsa, a writer / curator / teacher whom I respect greatly, and who very much facilitated her class incorporating diverse, and potentially dangerous people (considering my repeated criticisms of the University). Sometimes I have hope for higher education, due to individuals like her.

Borsa wanted me to speak about what I did, why I did it, and anything that would inform both the MFA students and foster a worthwhile discussion. This wasn’t the first time I was faced with speaking about why I chose to begin writing about art, and the larger issues that defined it in that community, but it was in many ways a crucial one. I had attempted to articulate it before, but in a less critical manner than I felt the students deserved.

At my website, for example, I offered the following: that I began writing about shows that merited attention (positive or negative) and weren’t getting it elsewhere. Intelligent discourse about art is a rarity, and in some places has atrophied, as it has been so long since it thrived or was encouraged.

In speaking to these students – some of whom were younger, some of whom were my age – it was a rare and wonderful opportunity to speak honestly and directly about why it’s important to talk about art, and why it’s important to have voices that disagree, challenge and antagonize, even. I also hoped – and I found it to be true – that I might bring some healthy skepticism – some criticism, if you will – to my own position in that community, and in being honest to these students, hope that they might offer some engaged truths to me, too. I might speak about how I saw my role: and perhaps they might be comfortable enough to tell me how they saw me. There is a certain doubt I bring to art writing, I admitted to these MFAs. It was a cynical time, after all, as they were being confronted with the unjust fact that now they might need a PhD to even hope for the tenured dream. (An art education panel at AKA that I spoke at, in 2008, was almost comical when an art professor, safely ensconced in tenure at the University of Regina, wistfully commented that the PhD was “interesting.” When I asked if they and their cohorts would be told to get one, or see their positions lost to those who did, they seemed confused, like most with privilege react, to the affront that they might lose it.)

I began by stating to that class how it is extremely trendy (and safely transgressive) to talk about how more Art is not necessarily a good thing, or a necessary thing. Even that bastion of consumerism, Canadian Art, which styles itself as “Canada’s most widely read art magazine”, and is (arguably) considered the flagship of art periodicals in this country, mentioned this in a past issue, without a trace of irony. There is undoubtedly quantity, but quality is a question. Even the vitriolic current debate about the use of the personal voice, the individual narrative, in criticism, is less of an issue for me than that the quality of writing be better, and that the points made are not so much subjective / objective as well expressed, and relevant to the conversation (I thank Earl Miller, an excellent curator / critic, for this illuminating dissection). After all, any historian with even the roughest understanding of feminism will understand that in many instances the pejorative labelling of “subjectivity” simply means it is not an “official” or “approved” position.

Because writing about art, and art criticism, has multiplied exponentially in tandem with art making, in these heady times I explored then, with those students, and revisit now, a few ideas that have been circulating in my mind about this “activity”, on both a personal and a larger basis. Some of these ideas illustrate the failure of art writing: others explore its necessity. Some of them had their genesis in spaces where I was solely a witness, not a participating voice.

One such moment occurred at a panel at AKA artist run to accompany Heather Passmore’s solo exhibition, where the speakers were verbose in evaluating notions of “gatekeepers” (The show was titled this). Passmore’s work was an almost breathtakingly massive archive of rejection letters from galleries, artist run centres and universities, but also larger “rejection letters” she’d drawn and “doodled” upon, now poster-sized ironic works of art.

This panel was narcoleptic and unsatisfying, until it was broken by an interjection by the then-associate curator at the Mendel Art Gallery (which was at the time Saskatoon’s premiere public gallery and the pre-cursor to the new Remai Modern). Curator and arts administrator Jen Budney’s blunt assertion was that visual arts communities are hypocrites. They may say they crave “criticality” but will respond with affront, rage and (as demonstrated at that moment by some present) belligerent ignorance at any suggestion of something they don’t condone. I stifled my pleased laughter as I left the room, but was thinking of Theodor Adorno’s idea that when confronted with something genuinely different, truly pushing boundaries, “most fall back on the shamelessly modern assertion that they simply don’t understand.”xi

A brief aside, that enlarges this anecdote: the loose title of this confession (“Who cares? Why bother?”) comes courtesy of the late critic Chester Pelkey, who in many ways acted as a mentor to me. He was a rough one at times, an approach I suspect I merited – I was often subject to a dissection of my writings prefaced with that same challenging phrase. This was a common interrogation he shot at “artists”, and his position as one of the significant critics of photo-based art in Canada lent weight to that salvo. He was often the only reason to read Border Crossings, perhaps the “second best” art magazine in Canada, after Canadian Art.

I also cite Pelkey’s “rudeness” to indicate how often the role of the critic is to cut through the fog of art: the often arrogant assertions by “artists” that what they do is incredibly ground-breaking, when it doesn’t appear so, from where others stand. His bluntness is echoed in art critic Boris Groys’ warning regarding the “avant garde” and the true role it plays in the social capital narrative. Groys’ words, from The Total Art of Stalinism: “These questions undoubtedly arise out of a rather naive and “rosy” notion of art that gradually gained currency in twentieth- century aesthetics. According to this view, art is an activity that is independent of power and seeks to assert the autonomy of the individual and the attendant virtues of individual freedom. Historically, however, art that is universally regarded as good has frequently served to embellish and glorify power.”xii

So I’ll admit further arrogance: to me, the purpose of writing about art is often to act as “interpreter”, to add nuance, but also acting as one who points out that the emperor may be naked.

Nearly everyone is familiar with this Hans Christian Anderson story. The king promenades in an old set of clothes while declaring them wonderfully new. All parrot agreement, until a small child speaks the unpleasant truth, and the spell is broken (nobody says what happened to the child, but we’ve already covered the “reward” for insightful dissent…). But it’s amusing to consider an earlier version. The king is sold a suit of fine clothing by con men whom claim that only men who aren’t the sons of the men they presume to be their fathers are unable to see the finery…the serendipitous parallels regarding patrimony, or providence and the notion of propriety in the Art world are almost too amusing to resist.

A distinction between art critics and art historians (as I occupy both worlds) is that art historians rarely originate an idea, but rely on what has come before them, and thus are more children in an intellectual discourse always differing or depending upon their elders…and sometimes display similar “difficulties” in determining if something is there, or simply what you’re pretending to see.

With such a wide-ranging industry invested in greater production of art, and expanded frameworks built up around it, we must remember that critical looking, and critical enquiry, is needed to ensure we don’t become masturbatory and self-seeking. Let me speak recklessly and ask that you listen openly, here. Not all opinions are valid: informed opinions are necessary. Let’s be even more heretical, shall we, now that we’ve crossed a line? Informed rarely means academic. Informed can mean educated, but often times in “teaching spaces”, more critical thoughts are prohibited than permitted. In his A B C’s of Reading, Ezra Pound ventures, “ANY general statement is like a cheque drawn on a bank. Its value depends on what is there to meet it. If Mr. Rockefeller draws a cheque for a million dollars it is good. If I draw one for a million it is a joke, a hoax, it has no value. If it is taken seriously, the writing of it becomes a criminal act. The same applies with cheques against knowledge. If Marconi says something about ultra-short waves it MEANS something. Its meaning can only be properly estimated by someone who KNOWS.exiii

Again, I think, I expose my enjoyment of the role of “maverick” that I was given once and still find comfortable.  Curator / writer Elizabeth Matheson christened me such, when she recruited me to be part of the Strandline Curatorial Collective. Founded in 2016, “Strandline is a group of professional independent curators who research, organize and present contemporary visual art events in Saskatchewan, including gallery exhibitions, symposia, and art fairs.”xiv I warned her that I don’t play well in collectives, and she assured me that my “maverick style” was what they wanted in terms of my participation. This was a positive, if brief, experience, as Strandline seemed to have more in common with early artist run centers, bringing together individuals with different skills and interests to foster specific events, with more of an atmosphere of collaborative non-hierarchical actions and dialogue.

Returning to the Gatekeepers panel, I was silent on why I believe there’s so little interest in writing about art outside the academic / artistic field for “other” audiences, or, in conjunction with this, why there is so little interest in those wide audiences in the insular art “communities”, or why they dismiss them so out of hand. One of the members of the audience asked at one point why I, as the person in the room who had published the most of anyone about art, was not on the panel. I simply smiled and refilled the coffee maker, and got more cookies for those in attendance. Part of the reason for my silence then, considering my obvious willingness to be so forthright elsewhere, was that I was protesting the composition of the panel, which seemed more about easy politics than genuine debate, and it was easy to be silent there without any regret, or fear of repercussions.

As my aforementioned (perhaps inevitable) parting from AKA came about at the hands of an AKAboard member (one of whom openly admitted their motivation to “punish” me for a review they disliked from years before), this also serves as fine punctuation of Budney’s incisive points about welcome and unwelcome – and thus punished – voices. But perhaps even more distressing with that panel, and what may truly have fed my apathy is that it was the same safe “conversation” with the safe same “points” among the usual “groupthink.”

Indeed, at a roundtable years later at the Mendel Art Gallery, specifically talking about art writing within the university / academic / art magazine sphere, a glorified custodian of a university gallery asserted that he wouldn’t “dumb down” his incomprehensible gallery curatorial statements I responded that his assumptions of superiority were essentially flawed, if he was unable to eschew jargon for better communication. This smug willingness to have fewer people engage with the art – other than the usual suspects, whom would be there anyway – than abandon the “approved” language of the ivory tower reminds me that, “The whirlwind is in the thorn trees, and it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks”xv…or, as a past editor of Canadian Art told me, “Can’t you just write a review just like the ones in the magazine already?”

This echoes, appropriately, how much of contemporary art is so self-referential that any iconic signifiers, or any possibility for an interaction with the viewer (as in cultural critic Jeanne Randolph’s amenable object where the viewer posits more of the meaning of the work than the creator of the same) isn’t just impossible, but actively refuted. One must ask who is “gatekeeping”, and who is on each side of the “gate”, or if anyone is trying to “get in”, at all…

Alice Gregory’s review of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks offers an elaboration of this abyss between the worlds of the “artists” or the “artistic community” and those of us whom are by choice or by circumstance external from it and speaking from the outside in. Gregory, in reviewing the sketchbooks and such of Basquiat, now long since martyred and sainted by the art world, wears the robe of the writer in privileging words over image in attempting to decode for the reader the importance of Basquiat. I’m unsure if she does that, but she uses this as an example of what so many find amiss with contemporary art: “…contemporary art, which 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.”xvi

That incisive fragment is of value for two reasons: the opacity of the “art object” and the insular, personal narrative behind it / around it that’s unclear to any lacking the personal relationship and intimacy of the same, being first. The other implied point is that the jargon, the language of art, will define the piece, and it is as impenetrable and smug as it is refuting of any criticism of the entire milieu. The indictment regarding dissent, as articulated at the Gatekeepers panel, is in play here, too. All interlocked.

This may expose another bias of mine, in my favouring of “populist” spaces that ask the difficult, perhaps even rude, question, that you’ll never hear in an MFA Art Criticism program. But “populist” isn’t my term for them. I appropriated it from an “academic” who intended it as an insult, I believe, in response to one of my reviews, regarding the heated debate in Saskatoon then over what she’d call “public art” and what I call “art in the public sphere.”xvii

My insistence on privileging the public(s) in this framework, and the dismissal of them by the artist with whom I spoke, illustrates effectively our positions regarding “populism.” In my experience, these “populist” spaces (manifest for me in Planet S, and in CFCR) were often liberating and rewarding. The audience was wide, deep and genuinely diverse, as those who’ve stepped into the unregulated waters of various media can understand. There’s no preset canon: this possibility, this often pugnacious and combative space for an exchange of ideas and thoughts was the best classroom I ever had, for writing. That I published in nearly every issue over my decade plus run with the Planet, whose priority under four editors was never visual arts, is a testament to a hunger for ideas and considered expressions of the same, as well as a receptiveness to rigorous looking, learning and even – especially – disagreement.

In seizing the opportunity I’d been given to foster that quality of dialogue amongst those graduate students in 2012, I selected three past articles of mine for them to review, before we met. Among these, I intentionally chose a piece I’d written about an exhibition by a faculty member in their department, whose work was roundly praised by the university and roundly criticised by the larger visual arts community. I intentionally chose this as it would offer points of contention and criticism for how artists position themselves, how the community responds to that, and how communities should respond to it.

I begin here, as I did then, with“Prom Qualms,”xviii which was my review of Becoming, an exhibition by a tenured University of Saskatchewan faculty member; an article that earned me praise and punishment. But it also helped change the conversation about art in Saskatoon. Thus it acts as a starting point, and is formative to the later articles that are its companion signposts in this chapter, and for my time, in Saskatoon. These are: my unexpected praise of Joni Mitchell’s Green Flag Songxix while situating it within a larger and needed debate about public spaces and stakeholders, and my unwelcome positioning of Ruth Cuthand’s Back Talkin spaces outside of the bloodless gallery walls, invoking and exposing institutional racism, for Canadian Art.xx

I originally attended the artist’ talk for Becoming secure in the knowledge I’d not be writing about the show, as I was unimpressed with the work. Becoming was this artist’s latest foray into portraiture, with past images exploring the performative aspect of “dressing up”, whether in costume or more historical dress. This exhibition focused upon “the enduring cultural tradition” of the prom. There were a number of large colour photographs of various teenage girls in prom dresses, sometimes looking very adult, other times clowning with their girlfriends in mimicry of a “best friends forever” yearbook image. One wall also depicted “before” photos, of the girls not “in costume”. There were also a several small video monitors, simply looping photographing of the girls, and was edited so as to incorporate images of the girls in their everyday garb. Shot in front of school lockers, the only audio is the ambient talk between the artist and her subjects. The only works that offered an interesting fracture to the overall narrative of Becoming were four images of discarded prom dresses, shot from above, puddled on the floor. These were almost separate, along the back wall.

The response by many attendees in the ensuing discussion post artist’s talk made very clear why writing about it was necessary (Lee Henderson, who was also in attendance, approached me after the raucous conversation, and asked if I had changed my mind about writing on the show, and encouraged me to do so, as the debate had been affecting). Prom Qualms is, in many ways, a fine example of how critical writing is very valid– if it’s done honestly, openly, and with a consideration for the multiplicity of audience seeking a conversation that may transcend the object and truly become, itself, “art in the public realm”. Conversely, if a review of Becomingwas an assignment for a class in the pedantic spaces of the contemporary art school, the multiplicity / intersectionality of feminism may be denied by a “teacher”… or the politics of queer, class and race may be dismissed, as well. If this work had been presented in a classroom environment, with all its ideological apparatus and encumbrances, would anyone have been able to ask, as someone did, “Where are all the fat girls?”

That quote opened my review. Furthermore,

the artist talk became one of the more lively exchanges of recent memory, as my opening salvo indicated. A number of individuals emphasized some other relevant points that this work speaks to, such as elitism, class, and whether [the artist] is saying to the girls that “this is the hoop you already know, from pop culture. Jump through it for me.” Becoming confronts us with the question as to whether this depiction of “prom” or “grad” is just the overlaying of prefabricated consumer forms under the guise of “individuality” and “self – definition”, leading to no dissonance, and a snug, constricting fit within pre – existing paradigms of performative, artificial femininity.xxi

Other comments about the absence of high school “losers”, the impoverished or less than confidently photogenic, were succinctly stated (and I, like any good critic, stole this for my piece – with appropriate credits, of course). Whether these were simply the “alpha girls” – and some other very incisive points regarding the exclusionary “default” nature of high school social strata – were made by queer performance artist Cindy Baker. The comment about the presentation of another social hoop simply exacerbating pre-existing social pressures on teenage girls was raised by Joan Borsa. The late art educator Peter Purdue injected amusement that this might be “affirming” as he remembered when refuting constricting “feminine” clothing was an auger of independence, and a staunchly feminist artist was making work just next door in AKA that was deconstructing the idea of “dress” of all its stricture and structures.

I often joked that a “group” wrote this review (Truly, I really just stitched it together from the outrage and anger of those in attendance at the talk.) In highlighting the fractures between how the artist and the rest of us saw the work, my review compared Becoming to its more successful predecessor in the PAVED gallery space, 21:

The previous exhibition at PAVED, Elwood Jimmy’s 21, also spoke about myths that are imposed upon one group of people by another: but that show offered some genuine raw voices, that may disconcert and insult us but that have an uncomfortable legitimacy. Becoming is too much like a photo spread in Teen Cosmo. There’s no real answers [or questions] presented here, and the nostalgia is a little too sentimental and sweet and cloying … I am unsure Becoming has anything of genuine critical value to offer, or if it’s simply another manifestation of “prom” mythology. Perhaps that is the point.xxii

Sometimes you speak with the wider communities, in their concerns: and sometimes you speak, not so much against them, as trying to offer a considered widening of the conversation. So, when Joni Mitchell (arguably one of her generation’s finest songwriters, an icon of music both in Canada and internationally; unlike many of her “boomer” contemporaries, she’s continued to write, perform and win praise for it) was granted a second solo exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery in 2009, many in the community were contemptuous, amused or angry. Many dismissed it as a publicity stunt, another mercenary means to an end. Understandably: her first show Voices (at the Mendel in 2000) was atrocious. Her self-portrait as Van Gogh was representative: delusions of grandeur mixed with an amateur quality only rivalled by her sense of entitlement. But, as I said to then Mendel CEO / Director Gilles Hébert, who bears the brunt of responsibility for that show, the publicity it garnered could not have been obtained otherwise short of a deal with the Devil…and to his credit, he laughed quite loudly at my audacity.

And, as I touched upon repeatedly in the article in FUSE, there are multiple publics that deserve to be engaged, and compromise is the touchstone of public – and shared – spaces. Perhaps Voices served to placate the politicians (both in city council or elsewhere) when the Mendel turned around and co presented TRIBE’s solo exhibition of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptin’s An Indian Act: An Indian Shooting the Indian Act. This exhibition presented several of the accomplished artist’s large format paintings, but pride of place was given to a rifle, mounted and framed, and a video of Yuxweluptin using said rifle to shoot a copy of the Indian Act – repeatedly. The perforated pages were also mounted on the wall, like a carcass hanging on the wall. His artist’s talk was notable for the declaration that he had no time for “hate politics” disguised as “reform.” His words were as accurate as his rifle shots, and just as intentional.

My article on Green Flag Song was published in the now defunct FUSE Magazine, which fancied itself a bastion of social justice as well as art.  I was always amused at their disinterest in colonial issues in Canada, but their obsession with the contested site of Palestine / Israel…I couldn’t help but feel that this was how they manifested an “academic” approach to these issues in art, as Palestine allowed for a posturing, a pulpit, without the possibility – or pressure – to enact meaningful, local change. Results, as they say about academia, were not required or possible in choosing to “stand” there. I mention this here not just to be critical, but to also reflect back on the pragmatism that was at play in my review of Green Flag Song.

As I stated in that article, I was prepared to savage the show, the gallery, and the curatorial offender who propagated this abuse of “Art” in the cause of celebrity:

Assertions that … giving her a solo show [at] the Mendel is pandering to “philistines” at city hall or in government (who hold the purse strings) and that this exhibition bastardizes the Mendel’s vision, were made before the show as even mounted, and continue now, by some who haven’t seen the work yet. I don’t excuse or spare myself here. I was waiting, knives out, to savage this show. But after seeing the work … I have come to begrudgingly admit that the work is far better than I expected. I have come to understand that the exhibition in the gallery is only the focus for a number of issues that brought it there. These also continue to influence how this community sees it.xxiii

In seeing the work, in talking to then Mendel CEO / Director Vince Varga and Chief Curator Dan Ring (now retired Emeritus), a more considered, and less easily delineated, conversation took place. Who “owns” a public space, who merits representation – and who doesn’t – and what are our own ideological frameworks that define our reaction to the same were all considered.

Some of these are so ingrained as to be invisible (Mitchell was attacked by some whom seemed to momentarily forgot their commitment to feminism, or even their academic rhetoric of “inclusiveness” – or perhaps the façade slipped, and the emperor was again nude, for a rich moment…).

In FUSE, I dared to ask why Mitchell was a misuse of the space: the Mendel (among many sites, both in Saskatoon and elsewhere) has had curators just as shuttered by abhorrent nepotism that sees personal relationships too often taint professional ones. The same side gallery that Mitchell occupied had seen a parade of exhibitions by artists of varying quality that seemed unfinished and unresolved, and were far poorer in execution and concept than Mitchell’s socially conscious and controversial observations on the (second) Iraq war. Further: an abstract painter in Saskatoon lamented to me for a full two hours about how the Remai Modern should have hired Director A instead of Director B as she knew she’d get various shows with Director B. This was not presented as opinion – or cronyism – so much as an egregious slight of the “artistic community”. Is this any less / more obscene than Mitchell’s “name recognition”?

As I asked in my review of Flag:

Does one describe a pop star who paints as a “tourist,” but not tenured faculty who use the space to drop an unresolved and unengaging work? Is it “touristing” to re write Yeats [as Mitchell did], but not “touristing” to treat a solo show here – a much coveted opportunity, for many – as one’s right to drop a work that is unfinished and irrelevant, and then smugly invoke that magic postmodern word “process” as an escape hatch? Is it “touristing” to pretend to be an activist with one’s practice, citing all the appropriate names, and yet deny one’s privilege and power? xxiv

Or am I to be censured, for speaking this? Perhaps, as Budney asserted at the Gatekeepers panel, this is undesired and prohibited criticality.

I regret that I am not at ground zero (with the soon to be opened Remai Modern) to further explore this very Canadian difficulty, the dichotomy between the regional and the international. As Tanner noted in The Sociology of Art: “The success of particular artists and art movements was attributed not to the aesthetic properties and resonances of the works of art but to the economic and political power of prominent gatekeepers in the art world, able to confer or withhold the honorific label of art and impose hierarchies of values which were shaped by economic rather than aesthetic interests.” xxv 

Even though it’s now closed, in anticipation and preparation for the Remai Modern, the politicized space that was the Mendel still casts a shadow. Perhaps it exists more strongly now in the minds of many as it has no physical space, or exhibitions on display, to interfere with memories and affections. It was, to myself and many others, one of Western Canada’s finest galleries. Their programming was often visionary: in writing about the exhibition Modern Visions, marking a half century of the Mendel, I stated that

this confrontational inclusiveness in Visions is impressive, and a smart snapshot of the gallery’s history — and by extension, Saskatoon’s history. The Mendel has changed significantly over its half-century, defying the political pressures that many civic galleries are often beholden to. Arthur Miller said that, “an era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted,” but that can be a positive thing, and speak more about a rich possibility replacing a dogmatic orthodoxy. Modern Visions acts more as a step forward than a nostalgic look backwards.xxvi

Which brings me to my third and final excerpted review. I alluded to this ‘step forward’, when speaking of Ruth Cuthand’s work there, in her retrospective Back Talk; I liked to quip that her work offended all the people it should, in all the appropriate ways. Cuthand is an artist and educator whose work stretches over several decades and various media, often chosen to augment her ideas. Her most recent works are all about the crisis of access to clean water in places like Attawapiskat but also her own reserve (Little Pine), and bluntly all across the continent. Her work has often depicted how “there is a third world in every first world, and vice versa”.xxvii Her practice is diverse: rough drawings, photo collage, video and delicate beaded works on velvet. The latter are, in many ways, the apex of Cuthand’s practice: rendering diseases that decimated Indigenous populations, a biological “gift” of colonialism, in round and colourful microscopic cross sections of diphtheria or smallpox.

In highlighting Cuthand’s paintings in a group show, I began with the acerbic assertion that “it could also be that much art — and many artists — are irrelevant to larger society. (Calm down — it’s a hard truth, but a truth nonetheless).” xxviii Her retrospective sampled multiple bodies of work (eight, in fact) that illustrated the necessity of art to engage with its communities:

Back Talk filled several of the Mendel Art Gallery’s spaces, but the series Misuse is Abuse (1990) stood out. The title is taken from the governmental stamp on school supplies “magnanimously” distributed to residential-school students; that genteel veneer is dispelled by the words and actions of the so-called educators in Cuthand’s drawings. Several have long nails and maws that suggest the children are to be eaten, not just assimilated. One figure admonishes an Indian doll in a dunce cap with: “Bad bad Indian, Commandment No. 1: Never disappoint a white liberal.” Many of the large, crudely rendered pencil drawings incorporate vulgar cliches; “All they need is discipline” and “Nobody likes an Uppity Indian” are brutal. In response to complaints about her work [when this was shown as part of her MFA exhibition], Cuthand borrowed titles from the Group of Seven. The “uppity Indian” has a new, supposedly inoffensive title: “January Thaw, Edge of Town.” (Saskatoon has a notorious history of dumping “uppity Indians” at the “edge of town” in winter.)xxix

Amusingly, Canadian Art’s fact checker asked for proof of the notorious “Starlight Tours”, which I refer to in the “dumping” of that last line: forwarding the Saskatchewan Government’s report on it was dismissed as unacceptable (the comment “You’ve cited one example. Are there others?” indicated that the report was most likely unread), and so I decided to simply overwhelm them with multiple references, from links to books to links to articles in papers that they’d be familiar with (“legitimate” ones, perhaps), such as the Globe and Mail. Years later, when I’d write on an exhibition that was about the experiences of residential school survivors, I’d refer to this revealing “doubt”, this moment of ideological state apparatus at play:

I’ve been reading Boris Groys’ excellent book The Art of Stalinism lately. It’s fascinating, not just for its unvarnished look at a much-misunderstood period in the history of art, but also for some of the asides (often barbed) he makes about “Western” art history. One of these is the idea that “real art” is somehow separate from economy, class or the other strictures and structures of society. The writing you’ll see in Canadian Art magazine is a good example of this — but ignoring class just makes it very clear that the higher the position you hold, the more you can’t ignore those “below”

My departure from AKA, whose board circumvented their director (and chair) at the urging of several board members with strong ties to the art department, coincided with another issue I raised regarding Indigenous / non Indigenous relations in the visual arts community, and again touched upon Cuthand:

So: back to the aforementioned hypocrisy, as another work of note here is Nicole Paul’s Unwanted Children of the Indian Residential Schools. Paul samples text from artist Cathy Busby, specifically Busby’s appropriation of the PM’s apology for residential schools. Some of you may remember Busby’s Budget Cuts billboard that was on 20th St. several years ago, which has become a touchstone (for me and many others) about how politicians are gleeful liars. Budget Cuts listed all the aboriginal-focused programs eliminated by the Harper government since the “apology.” Talk is cheap when the actions that follow are the same, or worse. This raises another point: it’s odd the Art Department is engaged in this project. If you’ve seen the TransformUS report that came out of that area, you’ll note that section 5.1, BFA honours program states, “Faculty Member awarded SAB Lieutenant Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award.” That’s obviously Ruth Cuthand, who last taught there in 2005 — as a sessional, not faculty. Cuthand also expressed exasperation to me about when she did apply for a tenure position at the U of S. There’s no finer definition of institutional racism than passing off the work of others as your own, while keeping those same individuals away from genuine power.xxxi

Several weeks later I was no longer employed at AKA “artist run”: two years later I’d leave Saskatoon. Allow me to quote my preamble to a review of Mary Longman’s impressive billboard project, Warrior Woman, that overlooked the gentrified (or displacing, edit as you will) site of Riversdale, in Saskatoon:

I was chatting recently with a fellow cultural worker (anonymously: organisations that cite “critical dialogue” in their mandate, like an art department or artist run centre, can be exceptionally Stalinist and reactionary to dissent). We were bemoaning the disparity in many artistic organisations between a genuine engagement with a site, and fluctuating narratives of a place that directly challenge comfortable, current ones, and the half assed political glad-handing we usually see in these spaces.xxxii

I was once accused of being an art writer who doesn’t write about art but politics: I embraced the comment as an unintended compliment.

There is no ‘crisis’ in criticism. Rather, the traditional mandates of art criticism are obsolete”.xxxiii

So, what’s the point of critical writing, in a small community? I’m not so arrogant to presume I speak for others: nor do I want that responsibility. My time in cultural spaces, like universities, has shown me that no one makes a better oppressor of thought than a former revolutionary thinker…and that old joke about putting one’s hand in bucket of water, pulling it out and the hole that is left is how much you’ll be missed, is indisputable. Personally so, I now know. Perhaps that is the aspect of “failure” as manifest here, in this piece…At its best, it’s an offer of dialogue, sometimes respectful, sometimes affirming, and other times very challenging – of the artwork itself, or the ideological framework that the artist espouses; a contribution to a contested and exciting dialogue.

I like to think that I had a long-standing relationship with the multifaceted “arts” community of Saskatoon, and built on our shared history, and refreshed and rejuvenated old conversations with new ones. Or, as demonstrated by my continuing, if reluctant, involvement in YXE Arts issues, and larger, communities there, I still feel the need to “again, widen the debate.”xxxiv

It’s been said that many artists simply make the same piece over and over again, refining and honing it to perfection. There is a similar theme in my writing, and I’ll end on the idea that all my articles are about history, site and place, and how history is often a collaborative delusion, but that art is one of the things that can cut through that, to speak “truth to power”. That phrase is ragged and abused, but still valid. And other times, art helps obscure, and then it’s the role of the critic to do the “cutting”. I am deeply intrigued by sites of contested narratives, and the conversations and arguments that are intrinsic to that.

As to my time in Saskatoon, I might make a small joke in light of the above thoughts about “pacing the cage”, from the last article I wrote for Planet S, two week before I departed the prairies:

It’s synchronicity that my final Planet S review, before my departure from Saskatoon, is about the play of memory / fantasy, place / displace, remembrance and sadness.

It’s been my privilege to write about art here for more than a decade with Planet S, and perhaps this visual arts community, with its courage and cowardice, its integrity and ignorance, has appreciated having a critic in residence. Or not. Best not to look back — look at what happened to Lot’s wife. I love you with all my heart, Saskatoon, and I hate you with an intensity that frightens. Oh, did you really think I would begin to lie to you now, when I’m leaving? Not bloody likely. Kinana’skomitina’wa’w, ki’htwa’m, ka-wa’p(a)mit(i)na’n, Saskatoon.xxxv

Selected Bibliography

All of the articles I cite in this piece are available online, either in html or PDF format, and I recommend that they be read in tandem with this piece. There is a selected bibliography below, as well. Some links to facilitate this are as follows:


“A Confluence of Geographies”, Hamilton Arts & Letters (focused on Finding City 2015, specifically Monique Motut-Firth’s residency in Saskatoon and Elizabeth Chitty’s Confluence Field Trips in St.Catharines, 2015 – 2016)


Ave Atque Vale: Hail Tribe, Farewell Mendel, Hamilton Arts & Letters

“Last Picture Show: Amalie Atkins”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“The Fifth World: Tribe”, Magenta Magazine, Toronto

“Perfect Goodbye: Modern Visions at the Mendel”, Planet S Magazine

“Modern Visions”, Magenta Magazine, Toronto

“Tammi Campbell & Kara Uzelmen ‘concerning certain events’”, Galleries West Magazine

“In The Making”, Magenta Magazine, Toronto

“New Voices in a New Place”, Ominocity, Saskatoon

“Sympathetic Magic”, Magenta Magazine, Toronto

“Stronger Than Stone: some thoughts and ideas”, CARFAC SK Newsletter

“Faith, Fraud & Formalism: ReWilding Modernity at the Mendel”, Hamilton Arts & Letters


“Modern Women: Who’s Afraid of Orange, Purple and Green?”, Magenta Magazine

“Patrick Traer: A Survey”, Galleries West Magazine

“Public Perusal: Mary Longman”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Looking Back, Moving Forward”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon


“Rebellion and Revolution: Les Automatistes & Shaping SK”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Lost in Translation: Susan Shantz”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Beautiful Mercy: Eli Bornstein”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Digital History: Buffy Sainte-Marie”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Come Home”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Ladies in the Lead”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“‘Perfect’ People: Janet Werner”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Resistance is not Futile”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Dark Coffee: Barbara Reimer”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon


“Every Prophet in Their House: Beneath a Petroliferous Moon”, Hamilton Arts &


“History Repeating”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Suitable for Framing”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“The Real World: StreetGraphix”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon


“Ruth Cuthand: BackTalk”, Canadian Art Magazine, Toronto

“Habitaptation: Future Shocks”, Canadian Art Magazine, Toronto

“Modern Sprawl: Formerly Exit Five”, BlackFlash Magazine, Saskatoon

“Ten Cautionary Tales: Joseph Anderson”, Hamilton Arts & Letters


“Grid Roads and Genocide: The World is not Flat”, FUSE Magazine, Toronto

“How I learned to stop worry…”(catalogue essay), Shifts, University of Saskatchewan


“Culture, Community and Audience: Joni Mitchell’s Green Flag Song”, FUSE Magazine, Toronto

i I invite those intrigued by my term “karaoke modernism” to read my piece “Faith, Fraud & Formalism: ReWilding Modernity at the Mendel,” Hamilton Arts & Letters, 2014-15.

ii (some past episodes are available online at

iii Vaughan, “Never read the comments: notes from 25 years of art criticism,” CBC, March 31, 2016

iv Gazzola, “A Confluence of Geographies,” Hamilton Arts & Letters, 2015/16

v Atwood, Cat’s Eye, 46

vi Henderson, A Regional Declaration of Evangelical Criticality, 2008

vii Gazzola, “Fall Arts Guide: Bart Gazzola’s Top Five Most Anticipated Fall Art Exhibits”, Planet S, September 21, 2011

viii Gazzola, “Resistance is not Futile,” Planet S Magazine, February 7, 2013

ix Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, 43

x Lessing. The Golden Notebook, 1394

xi Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damage Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, 213

xii Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant- Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship and Beyond, 7

xiii Pound, ABC of Reading, 35

xiv Matheson, Strandline Curatorial Collective, “Overview”

xv Johnny Cash, “The Man Comes Around,” 2002

xvi Alice Gregory, “New Art,” Harper’s Magazine, August 2015

xvii This is an idea taken from Dr. Cameron Cartiere, from the Street Meet Public Art Festival Panel, 2015. She graciously encouraged my theft and usage of the term.

xviii Gazzola, “Prom Qualms,” Planet S Magazine, 2007

xix Gazzola, “Culture, Community and Audience: Joni Mitchell’s Green Flag Song,” FUSE Magazine, July 1, 2009

xx Gazzola, “Review: Ruth Cuthand, “BackTalk,’” Canadian Art Magazine, September 15, 2011

xxi Gazzola, “Prom Qualms,” Planet S Magazine, 2007

xxii Ibid.

xxiii Gazzola, “Culture, Community and Audience”, FUSE Magazine, July 1, 2009

xxiv Ibid.

xxv Tanner, “Sociology, Aesthetic Form and the Specificity of Art,” 207

xxvi Gazzola, “Modern Visions,” Magenta Magazine, 2015

xxvii Trinh, “Of Other Peoples: Beyond the Salvage Paradigm,”140-42

xxviii Gazzola. “Time for Talk,” Planet S Magazine, May 5, 2011

xxix Gazzola, “Review: Ruth Cuthand, “BackTalk’”

xxx Gazzola, “Looking Back, Moving Forward,” Planet S Magazine, February 20, 2013

xxxi Ibid.

xxxii Gazzola, “Public Discourse,” Planet S Magazine, September 4, 2014

xxxiii Sofia Leiby and Jason Lazarus, in “Speculations on Digital Arts Media’s Future(s),” by Susanna Schouweiler, May 25, 2015

xxxiv From my recent online comments to Mitch Speed’s “Does the Right Hand Cover for the Left?: The Case of the Remai Modern and Its Errant Board,” MOMUS, 2016.

xxxv Bart Gazzola, “Last Picture Show: Amalie Atkins,” Planet S Magazine, July 23, 2015


Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damage Life. Translated by E.F.N. Jephcott. New York: Verso 1951

Atwood, Margaret. Cat’s Eye. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart 1988

Gazzola, Bart. “Time for Talk.” Planet S Magazine, May 5, 2011.

— “Review: Ruth Cuthand,BackTalk’.” Canadian Art Magazine, September 15, 2011.

— “Looking Back, Moving Forward.” Planet S Magazine, February 20, 2013.

— “Public Discourse.” Planet S Magazine, September 4, 2014.

— “A Confluence of Geographies. Hamilton Arts & Letters, 2015-16,

— “Faith, Fraud & Formalism: ReWilding Modernity at the Mendel.” Hamilton Arts & Letters, 2014-15.

— “Fall Arts Guide: Bart Gazzola’s Top Five Most Anticipated Fall Art Exhibits.” Planet S, September 21, 2011.

— “Prom Qualms”. Originally published in Planet S Magazine, 2007. Will be available on the author’s website,

— “Resistance is not Futile.” Planet S Magazine, February 7, 2013.

— “Culture, Community and Audience: Joni Mitchell’s Green Flag Song.” FUSE Magazine, July 1, 2009.

— “Review: Ruth Cuthand,BackTalk.’” Canadian Art Magazine, September 15, 2011.

— “Last Picture Show: Amalie Atkins.” Planet S Magazine, July 23, 2015.

Cash, Johnny, vocal performance of “The Man Comes Around,” by Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around, American Records/Universal, 2002

Gregory, Alice. “New Art.” Harper’s Magazine, August 2015.

Groys, Boris. The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant- Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship and Beyond. Translated by Charles Rougle. New York: Verso 2011

Henderson, Lee. A Regional Declaration of Evangelical Criticality, 2008.

Lessing, Doris. The Golden Notebook, Toronto: Harper Perennial Classics 2008

Matheson, Elizabeth. “Overview”, Strandline Curatorial Collective Inc.

Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions Publishing 2010

Rushdie, Salman. The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf 1999

Schouweiler, Susannah.“Speculations on Digital Arts Media’s Future(s).” Mn Artists. May 25, 2015.

Tanner, Jeremy. “Sociology, Aesthetic Form and the Specificity of Art.” In Sociology of Art: A Reader, edited by Jeremy Tanner, 207-215. New York: Routledge, 2003

Trinh, T. Minh-Ha. “Of Other Peoples: Beyond the Salvage Paradigm.” In Discussions in Contemporary Culture, edited by Hal Foster, 121-141. Washington: Bay Press 1987

Vaughan, R.M. “Never read the comments: notes from 25 years of art criticism,” CBC, March 31, 2016. years-of-art-criticism-1.3514616

It takes an ocean of trust in the kingdom of rust: the state of the arts in Welland

Welcome to the Rust Belt Wonderland. (James Takeo)

For nearly an entire month this Winter / Spring, your intrepid #artcriticfromhell did an informal residency at AIH Studios, right on East Main in Welland. During that time, I connected with and listened to a number of artists and cultural instigators: individuals with large dreams about what Welland might be in five years time, and others whom offered histories of the Rose City as encapsulated by the Welland Murals Project we walked by, while talking on past / present / future, or by the Canoes (more on both of those endeavours and their remnants, literal and psychological, on the streets of Welland, in a moment). I also responded and considered Bas de Groot’s Welland Workers Memorial, where the figures alternately sit or labour in Merritt Park, or the tubular Modernism of Rod Dowling (more and more, over my time there, the latter came to resemble the inner workings of the city, as a house has ‘veins’ and ‘limbs.’ Dowling’s pieces seemed to be the symbolic history ‘bursting up’ while de Groot’s were more static and ‘resting’, both formed how I thought about the Rose City).

Yes, that is a safe: I choose to interpret this as a hidden treasure, like the unique shot of the rocking chair on the canal above.

The genesis for this consideration began with the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Visual Conversations in St. Catharines (a monthly endeavour where people share images and we chat in a friendly and fun environment about what’s presented, and the ideas intersecting therein). Last October, in conjunction with an exhibition at AIH studios, the ‘5 x 2’ as I call it, relocated there, and we were lucky enough to see works in the flesh and in projection from a number of Welland based artists (de Montmollin, Calzetta, Bedard, Takeo and others). During that evening, a debate – with an edge of the best kind – formed that I – as 5 x 2 host, facilitator, MC, edit as you will, ahem – took no part in, as it was something very specific to that geography and the people involved.

Is Welland an undervalued cultural space of untapped potential, or was it like a corpse giving one last spasm? My time in Welland, where I walked and roamed on foot often, was nostalgic to my misspent youth in St. Catharines. In the 1980s and 1990s, when STC was post manufacturing base and yet to chart a course out, when it was perhaps narcoleptic, perhaps waiting to be put out of its misery….much I’ve seen here in Welland reminds me of St. Paul before I left for Windsor – another rust belt wonderland. This is (quoting James Takeo) a working class city that’s no longer working, and doesn’t know what anything means, anymore…but Takeo also is a loud advocate here, with the Welland Art Space, and he’s (with my joy) ‘owned’ my off the cuff term of “cultural instigator.” Keep an eye out for what he’s doing in Welland, with his interventions and actions.

“Sometimes I suspect that we build our traps ourselves, then we back into them, pretending amazement the while.” (Gaiman)

Takeo also put out another point. Welland wants to support culture, but has no idea how to do it. This is where the legacy of the Canoe Project or the Murals is less positive. That informed my dialogue with Michael Bedard, an artist who’s relocated to Welland from larger places and spaces. He asked why Welland has NEVER had an Art Gallery, when smaller sites have and support them, and this led to conversations about the ‘profound negativity’ that may be at play here. Consider the John Deere closure in 2009 (I spent some time in the local history section of the fine Welland Public Library, partly tracking down family history but also reading Notes from Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara, written by Carmelita Patrias and Larry Savage). This was a classic NAFTA result of a productive space shuttered to relocate somewhere cheaper, and the workers and community be damned. When a blow is unexpected, or undeserved, it is always worse, and one might argue that the wound never heals, as betrayal is more permeating (a side note: this occurred in 2009, as I said, and the Harper Cabal, of whom #ScheerHypocrite was a good and willing lackey, was literally SILENT on the closure. But, yeah, sure, Postmedia, he’s “moral”, collecting that salary of 125 K plus since his mid twenties, with golden handshakes coming out of his ass….).

A work by James Takeo I encontered when we visited Picture Perfect Tattoo Studio on King: an interesting response to the overtly iconic yet problematic historical – indexical, perhaps – placeholder that is Bridge 13.

If you visit the murals that are left, you’ll see many in a poor state, and they were installed and ‘secured’ in such a manner to make their removal impossible. I’d add that public artworks MUST be portable, as this demonstrates well. Perhaps this is also formed by how Welland has had to change to serve canals, or how cities are growing, organic and amorphic entities. In conversation, it was suggested – with an edge, again, as many conversations there were enjoyably pugilistic, unsurprising for a city that is too often the butt of jokes by ‘siblings’ that are no worse, nor any better, in many ways – that it might be better to simply cover several of the murals, along Main or on Division. This would prevent further degradation, and that perhaps depriving the wider community of these pieces might spur a respect and consideration (for future projects if not past ones). I’m reminded of these artists, whom brought attention to things too often ignored…

Welland Art Wall, 147 East Main ( James Takeo, Christopher Lagesten, Meaghan Mulcair, Wendy McIntyre, Dan Cormier, Celina Therrien, Atom Dellow and Karen Edwards). This has become a landmark that brightens, literally, the downtown, but is also a project that was community driven.

Here, Takeo’s comments take on a different flavour. The sour taste left in many mouths over how the murals and canoes have not been cared for has made some unwilling to support cultural endeavours – and I don’t just mean the usual suspects, but artists whom felt ill used and disrespected.

At the reception for Now Here at AIH, I chatted briefly with Mayor Frank Campion outside the AIH space on Main. From where we stood we could see one of the canoes of the Welland Canoe project, by Marion Forget, that needs care and maintenance. Another aspect that was brought to my attention was that its installation was ill considered (the work, Star Constellations, used fluorescent paint with the intent it would be vibrant in the evenings, but the stark florescent from the bus terminal make that impossible). This is reminiscent of the avoidable issue around Found Compressions that could have been ameliorated if more community consultation was employed regarding placement.

In conversation with a number of civic activists , community and cultural stakeholders and politicians, when I still produced and hosted Niagara Voices and Views on CFBU (, the idea of ‘culture’ as an ‘economic driver’ came up repeatedly. But would that be economically beneficial to all, or were cultural workers to be the new – ongoing, same old same old – exploited labour to drive the cancerous behemoth of capitalism?

I must add a moment of snark. I recently unsuscribed from an online magazine I’ve enjoyed for its contrarian and considered views when it published a piece of partisan trash by an astrologer – oh, I’m sorry, I mean economist, no offense to astrologers – who derided Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for being economically ignorant. Yet the writer had a large erection for Ronald Reagan during the entire diatribe. In his opinion or ignorance, ahem, trickle down economics works, of course, and ‘merica didn’t go from the greatest creditor in the world to the greatest debtor on Reagan’s watch, ahem, ahem. For the record, I’m not sure about Ocasio-Cortez, but she is not relevant to the lies and ignorance and incompetence and greed being ‘replayed’ for the last thirty odd years which has directely led to the closure of a financially viable and productive John Deere plant to benefit ‘shareholders’…..

Short term versus long term is a dialogue that must be held, and must have speakers whom know of what they speak, both experientially and regionally. Otherwise, a community already in crisis (‘not working’) sees murals and images about itself, designed to edity, erode and degrade and cannot help but see itself reflected in that same horrid manner.

During that conversation at the 5 x 2, a comment was made that AIH didn’t “feel like Welland.” What that meant depends on where you stand, or where you live; whether that’s in one of the less ‘rusted’ areas of Welland, or one of the cities in Niagara that seem to make Welland a regular butt of jokes. An amusing aside: a good friend, a very talented musician, whom (like myself) is based in St. Catharines but often visits other cities in the Niagara region, shares my affection for Welland, and we both consider Niagara Falls to be a cadaver with a thin sheen of make up, like how fake beauty spots originally came about as imitations of syphillitic marks among the upper class….

So, to answer a dangerous question, what IS the state of the arts in Welland, as gleaned from my brief stay (hmm, mistyped ‘stray’ initially, presume what you will) in the community of Rose City?

Its hopeful, but wary, and perhaps hopeful but despairing. That old phrase of ‘hoping for the best but expecting the worst’ echoes, but I might say that the worst has already been. This might be in the long disused docks along the Canal, if you walk past King Street, or the aforementioned numerous closures of manufacturing plants. One of the aspects of my residency there was, of course, my walking: so passing the late Ross Beard’s contribution to the Welland Murals, on Niagara Street, was a regular path. The work took on a darker tone at times (especially at night, and not for the obvious reason. East Main Street was often as quiet as the grave after 10 PM, which made my walks ideal for allowing ideas to fester and foment in my head. But – like many things in Welland – when you consider more deeply (like seeing Dowling’s public works along Colony as unintended grave markers for the industries long closed and long gone from the Canal….) it takes on a role as a harbinger, a signpost, a warning.

Beard passed away not long before I visited Welland, but his presence, influence and contributions are still felt by many. Will his mural survive better than the others (a rhetorical question, as all were installed and treated the same way)? As I write this, Brock University is making another attempt to convert Rodman Hall Art Centre into quick cash (I’d compare them to a payday loan lender, but there are clear government regulations and oversight in those spaces, and they are known for rapacious business practices on the vulnerable. Brock will tell you that they’re doing this ‘for the students’ as they raise tuition and eliminate options or offer degraded courses that will limp along, perhaps, without Rodman…). That same greed of the few is what ended John Deere, and although Welland might benefit from Toronto ‘flight’ and some form of gentrification (there are spaces in St. Catharines that have negotiated that high wire well, and other spaces that have not), it might not.

When I’d wake up in the morning, weather permitting, I’d sit on the steps of AIH on East Main and have my coffee, or tea, and my cigarette, while looking across at the bus station. This was more interesting than you’d imagine. Not only could I see Bas de Groot’s Beavers, just barely, from where I was, but also Forget’s canoe. I could peer left to Bridge 13, or right towards Atlas, far past the massage parlours and pawn shops.

In these quiet – usually, as I often engaged with people passing by – moments, you could see both spaces that were surviving, even prospering, and others that were not. I’ve said how Welland reminded me of St. Catharines when I was in high school, and I can distinctly remember coming down St. Paul, and it was as quiet, as boarded up and destitute, as King Street was when I walked it my last week there, late at night. Boards and closures and bars on windows in both places.

Further, though, the bus station made me think of Saskatoon, which had a ‘boom’ and then it went ‘bust.’ ‘Developers’ snatched up chunks of real estate in the downtown, from 1st to 3rd Avenue, demolished older buildings, some with character and history, but now are just empty lots, sometimes parking, sometimes juts abandoned, with no money to do anything to them.

It was pointed out to me that the City of Welland owns many of the empty lots around the city. In Saskatoon, the city began to pressure – and then tax, to be more effective – the owners of said lots, to force action or at least a sale to someone who might allay this urban blight. The bus station made me think of how many I knew whom abandoned, dusting their feet, Saskatoon around the same time I did. I was also thinking of how Niagara is still poor in terms of transit; so if Welland has no art gallery, if things are not happening culturally there, it is impossible to visit St. Catharines or Niagara Falls past 6 or 7 or 8 PM – or at all, on some days. Then the sense of isolation gives way to a sense of despair, that not only does ‘nothing happen here’ but you’re unable to go elsewhere where ‘things’ do ‘happen.’

I’ll be returning to Welland for several events and exhibitions: one is the previously mentioned exhibition of Atlas Steels at the Welland Museum, as it is being programmed extensively (according to the call) through individuals’ memories, photographs and other personal and public reminisences. This is looking backwards. Looking forwards, the Visual Artists of Welland are a recently formed group (I met several of their members when I visited the Welland ArtSpace) that has already begun to push expectations and foster change in the Rose City. In partnership with civic leadership (whom do want to support culture, and perhaps in not knowing ‘how’ to do that, present an opportunity for those whom do, and have – a dangerous word, I know – vision), they’ll be presenting three exhibitions over the rest of 2019 (one in April, coming up quickly, and two in June).

There’s an idea that things ending can offer opportunity to grow new endeavours in the rich soil of what’s passed: that’s hopeful, but there is still that perfidious, persisting, negativity, that Bedard talked about, and that Takeo warns about as not just a prophylactic to creativity but as something that can cut projects off at the knees or disable them so that they don’t fulfill their promise, and taint expectations and curdle hopes.

Frankly, I see Welland as having great potential (but perhaps I’m seeing it through the lens of Guerilla Park, and I mention that not just because when I visit Welland again, it’ll be on my list, but also because that site happened because of community initiative and energy, and the city fell into line and supports what they, ahem, should have been doing all along). When I think of places to visit when I venture beyond St. Catharines, Welland is a place that was both welcoming and eager to do things differently, to look forward as much as be aware of the past. I only visit Niagara Falls for the historic sites, being a nerd of that stripe, and when I’ve walked and driven there, the wasteland seems to outweigh the wonderland…..but that’s unfair. That is a space that’s been ill used and exploited, to the god of tourism, and I saw what THAT did to the downtown of Windsor, with the casino there…

Holy Cross Cemetery, which has graves dating back over a century, including my great grandparents.

Visit Welland. Don’t assume, but explore. When I grew up here, I can’t remember ever visiting the city (despite my maternal family history being there, and a house my great grandfather built still standing, and graves in Holy Cross across from Seaway Mall marking further family roots). I regret this: and there are spaces like these ones, that offer a hopeful view of the city. Perhaps a more selfish, and more specfic idea, is that a friend who’s a fine artist visited Atlas Steels with me, and both of us with our cameras and research have used that derelict space to do more, to create more, and to make more, and in doing so are making Welland a vibrant place to many who dismiss, or deny, what it could be now, or could be with a bit of work (like the Guerilla Park clean up).

The title of this piece is taken from a song by Doves, which I listend to as I walked the streets and bridges of Welland: purely coincidentally, it is playing when the intrepid band of survivors reach their destination of the devastated city of Los Angeles in the movie Zombieland. I relied heavily on Venture Niagara’s Art in the Open web site, which has extensive information for visiting public art, and work in the public sphere, in Welland, and I suggest it to anyone in Niagara, whether in Welland or elsewhere in the region.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I’ll be returning to Welland, both for more cultural specific events but also for more urban exploring; and this is, like many of my pieces about Welland, a mixture of fact and opinion, and thus feedback is welcome. Many thanks to AIH Studios for hosting me during this month long residency, and to the many artists and spaces that made me welcome and continued a conversation about arts and culture in Welland, Niagara and beyond. You can read my past missives from the rust belt wonderland that are more tangential here and here: and I talk about two artists whose work I encountered / talked with while in Welland here and here. It would be remiss to not include this piece, my long overdue response to Lawren Harris: Where the Universe Sings, as my residency in Welland helped me to come to some definitive conclusions around Harris’ work and the film in question.

After Batoche: the paintings of Brian Kon

Let us be honest, if we dare: most Canadians are uninterested in Reconciliation.

Oh, sure, you can’t attend many events these days without the lip service “acknowledgements” but just as the “killers in high places say their prayers out loud”, this is just accommodating, even a bit shady (flavoured by hypocrisy) rhetoric.

Allow me to fully expose my Saskatchewan (like a skin rash, ahem) for a moment to illustrate this.

The current President of #usask is probably unable to visit the lavatory without making sure someone sees him doing a land acknowledgement. More relevantly, he also was Dean of Arts & Humanities when a significant – and well founded I found, when I spoke to those involved – complaint regarding the disrespect / dismissal / degradation of the sole tenured Indigenous faculty in the ‘art’ department. Even ‘better’, when some documents came to light re: departmental ‘self evaluation’ (delusion, ahem, some may say), it was disgusting if unsurprising to see one of Canada’s most groundbreaking Indigenous artists listed as ‘faculty’ when she’d not taught there in almost a decade, was a loud voice in the aforementioned smothered complaint, and had spoken often of her shabby treatment at the hands of those whom helped spawn this ‘report.’

This is a uniquely Canadian approach: polite, effete, yet just as firm. We don’t have a Sand Creek or Wounded Knee here, but perhaps someone might ask why the Catholic Cult in Canada gets a free pass on their genocidal alacrity in the Residential Schools?

Again, it is very Canadian to oppress through the rule of law rather than slaughter: Crazy Horse was murdered, but when Sitting Bull sought refuge in Canada, he and his people were starved into fleeing, as the bureaucracy (not being “Canadian Indians” they couldn’t be ‘supported’) offered genocide through ‘red tape’, if you will.

I must channel a friend and activist – and instigator that I so miss having on my old radio show – Marcel Petit, who would ask why any of these people – on all sides, as he was generous in his very experiential and factual condemnation of hypocrisy – would change a situation that benefits them. So, the distaste around Trudeau is not shock to many of us, and like many situations, the revolution will seem impossible until after it happens, and you can then see that it was inevitable. Only the form of it would be still defined, and that may also only be clear in hindsight, too.

Echoes of Silence, 2017

But what has spurred this latest tangent? Well, I’ve been doing a writer’s residency in Welland, exploring history, place, space and how all these might manifest or be deformed through art, both in terms of the art in the public sphere here but with what contemporary creators are doing here / there now. In visiting the Welland Public Library, I came across the work of Brian Kon, who’s art I’ve encountered before (when Brock University along with a few other groups was marking Celebration of Nations last year) but like many things, it seemed to expand a thought I was having about larger issues outside the gallery space.

Kon‘s works can be found in the lower area of Welland’s City Hall space, as the building’s architecture acknowledges the slope on which it sits: one wall is designated as a ‘gallery’ space, and works are hung salon style here. In many ways this doesn’t serve the work: some are too high, and if there are similarities in work – as there is with Kon’s aesthetic, as he’s a Métis artist so pattern and repetition are cultural touchstones in the works here, as you may be familiar with from Christi Belcourt’s pieces – they can become wallpaper, which isn’t fair to the art or artists.

Red River Summer, 2016

Kon presents ten works, all acrylic on canvas and most fairly uniform in size, if not alignment. The majority are on black backgrounds (Prairie Sky or Autumn’s Light) , but a striking work is on a reddish brown field (Echoes of Silence), and another is easily the focal point of all the pieces with its solid blue background (the above pictured Red River Summer).

The accompanying statement: As a Métis artist in the Niagara region, Brian hopes to raise awareness of Indigenous issues within Canada…[he] creates modern versions of bead patterns traditionally used by Métis to adorn their personal possessions and clothing. Using the quill end of a feather, Brian applies each “bead” to [canvas] as a single dot of paint. One of his works will, as of March 2019, be on display at Queen’s Park, the provincial legislature in Toronto. His words: I use my art to help to tell the story of the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. Much of my work is made by studying historic artifacts that tell the story of this unique part of Canada’s history and pays homage to my indigenous heritage…

You may have seen Kon’s work in an exhibition at Niagara Artist Centre, as part of We Aspire with Sterling Kon, Amanda Pont-Shanks, and Julia Simone, in the Dennis Tourbin gallery last September (in conjunction with another show at NAC of Métis artists on a more national level, to dialogue with the regional works in Aspire).

Perhaps you also experienced Christi Belcourt‘s works that explore similar formal and conceptual concerns at Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines in Material Girls. But similarly to how this exhibition of Kon’s work offers a taste and could spur further research on the rich history of the Métis in Canada, what I spent more time with at this show was a small photographic image that Kon included as the inspiration for his work (further down the wall) titled Forgotten.

Forgotten, 2017

This reproduction of the Indigenous children bracketed by dour nuns (no one, in this image, looks anything other than pained at worst, or indifferent at best), Kon explains, is the inspiration for the painting. He specifically mentions in his statement the empty eyes of the Indigenous children, some of the 150, 000 inmates (let’s not pretend they were students, or there by their or their parents’ choice) of the Residential School system, which closed much later than we like to think – 1998 – and was more horrific than most can – or are willing – to imagine.

Kon draws literal but also symbolic lines between this image and the specific work Forgotten, but its understandable if you see other pieces on display – Family Roots or Echoes of Silence – as being informed by this historical image and the larger archive – and the many victims and perpetrators – invoked by its grainy, monochromatic power.

An ongoing contested narrative in responding to art, or making art, is that there are works that may not be aesthetically gripping but are historically or socially incisive, resonating in terms of larger issues (there are also many works that are awe inspiring in terms of beauty, but are as empty as a cardboard box…). A work NOT on display at the Welland Public Library but one that you can see at Kon’s website is After Batoche: the place referenced by the title is a space I’ve visited. Let us end this article by returning to Saskatchewan, where Batoche is and where the Battle of Batoche took place in 1885, and where I chose to ‘stand’ to initially approach Kon‘s work.

The Northwest Rebellion and Louis Riel are good weathervanes for how Canadians approach the history Kon ‘illustrastes’, and also for where people ‘stand’ in the larger issue of reconciliation and where Canada is now, and where it might be in the future. (Amusingly there is a statue in downtown St. Catharines that commemorates a soldier fallen during said rebellion, and the implicit ideology of many war memorials has swirled around this piece. Perhaps you remember a few years ago, when the Harper government™ was throwing money and such behind spotting the country with memorials to the War of 1812 – and that a number of artists turned his ideological smugness on its head?)

Church, rectory and rectory of Saint Antoine de Padoue in Batoche.

When I visited Batoche – to the best of my recollection this would have been in the early 2000s – the graveyard and the historic sites seemed haunted, and despite the warm summer day it was a chililng place, in some ways. What happened there is often not taught in schools, even today, and if you know what happened to Louis Riel or Gabriel Dumont, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that between the Red River and Batoche to Oka that not much has truly changed…
In Kon’s work, there’s vivid colour and there’s often darkness of the backgrounds or the fields upon which he paints his pinpoints, his ‘acrylic beads’ of history and memory and hope. In engaging with this work, sometimes I see more of a void than light, more of what has happened than what could be, in the next century.

After Batoche, 2017

Images are either from the artist’s site or shot by the writer, with the exception of the image of Batoche, from an online commons source. Kon’s exhibition is on display at the Welland Public Library in downtown Welland.

More calendar than quality: the mediocrity and mythology of Lawren Harris in Where the Universe Sings

One of the more significant artworks I’ve experienced was about landscape, and played upon the very Canadian imagery and imagination of snow and winter. It was a piece that was visceral in its ability to make me truly feel ‘cold’; both in the sense of winter, but also more metaphorically, evoking death and abandonment. This work, being by Rebecca Belmore, might seem odd – politically – to describe as a very ‘Canadian’ work. But it suggests death at the hands of the environment – or more exactly, the environment – the landscape – employed as a means to murder (whether Neil Stonechild or Chanie Wenjack), and that is an idea as old – older – than the country, and many have argued that’s intrinsic to the ‘national imaginary’ of this place / these places.

(A caustic side note: when the The Idea of North was reviewed by Canadian Art Magazine, their ideological purity in condemning the colonial artist, the ‘taint’ if you will, of the show was shrill. Yet when I wrote a piece for them, several years before, about Ruth Cuthand’s retrospective at the Mendel, and positioned the show in the site of Stonechild and ‘starlight tours‘, their editorial cabal all but accused me of making stories up, despite my citation of a government report as meticulous as it was damning…I mention this here, too, to ensure that I don’t fall into the same ignorantly dismissive trap, as regards Harris, and to ensure my criticisms are considered and not simply a Maoist ‘struggle session‘…)

Before I decided to brave the biographical endeavour Where the Universe Sings (which might be better described as more fan fiction than factual) about Lawren Harris at the Film House in St. Catharines, I was familiar with his work and the larger oeuvre of the Group of Seven. My experience in numerous collections and archives (including helping to document and database the University of Saskatchewan’s collection, with Snelgrove and Kenderdine further challenging landscape) as well as my art history degree at the University of Windsor informs my reaction. My degree fell within that period where I could take classes more ‘traditional’ (one that began with the French Revolution and ended with World War I) but also was taught by Iain Baxter& (whose role with N.E. Thing Co. helped shape conceptual art in Canada and further) and the late Kym Pruesse, whom introduced me to critical theory in ways and words that I still cite, now.

This response has festered in my mind for some time, since I first watched Where the Universe Sings: and in finishing this piece (finally, ahem), my walking around Welland and seeing houses and spaces that seem to have much in common (both in current condition, but in the history they allude to, or manifest) with Harris’ In the Ward paintings have spurred me towards completion. As the Group might have alluded to, where you are defines what you create

Sunday Morning, 1920

After watching the film, co produced by the excellent and necessary TVO, intended to accompany the exhibition The Idea of North (at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but also at the Hammer and a few other sites), I turned to my friend. She’s a cultural appreciator, but isn’t an artist. I’ve been responsible for ‘doing art’ to her on a few occasions, and she’s accustomed to my irreverence, and was amused when I commented that ‘I didn’t think my opinion of Harris could be lesser, but it is, now.’ In a way, this was the opposite effect desired by the producers, who seemed to want to create a hagiography of the painter. As so often happens with heavy handed (and thus transparent) embellishment, the opposite response was achieved. In further conversation with a number of artists and cultural instigators in Niagara about this film, I found myself saying a variation on the following: I’m often offended by the vagaries of pseudo historical advertisements that bleed the messy humanity out of artists in a sanitized caricature.

To describe the film as hagiography is an understatement: but, again, this is not solely the fault of the producers of Sings. The Group of Seven are given a pride of place in Canadiana, whether that they’re the only ‘artists’ most Canadians can cite, easily and without consideration, or alternately they’re dismissed as kitsch, folk, regurgitation, not as good as proclaimed (a uniquely Canadian ‘tall poppy’ response), all with a vehemence that shows that apathy, not hate, is truly the opposite of love. Both positions smack of propaganda, whether through your grandparents’ calendar or art school rhetoric.

Harris’ ‘North’ work is safe, in a manner that, if you’ve ever worked in a public gallery, translates as inoffensive (though, in this day and age, anything might be offensive, and sadly, that’s also very ‘Canadian’ now). The crowd, when my friend and I looked back over them, seemed predominantly of a senior vintage, and thus wanted assurance of the relevance of Harris and the Group of Seven. A bland, but affirming, dinner was expected, and delivered. But you might be hungry again in half an hour.

However, that’s not what bothers me about this film: what is problematic is that it was skin deep, and sometimes not even that. Harris was, in many ways, a difficult figure, and someone who at times courted controversy, and at other times tried to suffocate it. Perhaps this tepid portrayal of Harris is to be expected, though, as the works that dominated the AGO show are his theosophically shaped pieces and in many instances he painted repainted re repainted these visually staid works until any hints of uniqueness or excitement were blanched out, like over boiled vegetables or grey tasteless meat.

Ah, let us try to say something positive before we proceed further: I went to this film in the hope of learning more about his St. John’s Ward works, as these urban vignettes have a veracity, a vibrancy to them that I rarely saw in any of his other works. At some point in the film, the fact that Harris considered himself a lesser painter than Tom Thomson is discussed. If you’ve experienced Thompson’s works, wind and space seem captured in a manner ‘realistic’ but not overtly ‘realism.’ The wearisomeness of Harris’s works – that seem as cold and potentially as dead as the Arctic that supposedly informed them – is cast even more clearly in contrast. On a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario as a teenager, I remember seeing the small studies by variant members of the Group of Seven, all tiny and on board, done quickly and roughly and in a raw fashion: these captured the power of the landscape (whereas the repetition of mediated process in Harris’ ‘northern’ works aims to make them more impotent than impressive….)

The works that Harris produced that are grouped under the umbrella of The Ward, or St. John’s Ward, are amazing . Perhaps they’re a wealthy dilettante touristing in the poverty of others, or perhaps they’re a man of privilege empathizing with the plight of others, and producing works that owe something to Daumier. Perhaps that he made sketches for these while out walking – as my own practice is now defined by walking my neighbourhood or outside of my usual neighbourhood – and that they are real, and not so mediated as his ‘religious’ works of theosophical ‘purity’, is what moves me and so many others. These are social realism that’s also social history: this is Toronto growing and transforming, reminiscent of Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, or some of Timothy Findley‘s stories of Rosedale and Toronto, of a place not so sure and becoming itself. For all Harris’ ink and paint spilled on the notion of a “Canadian” art, these Ward works are more “Canadian” to me than any others. They have anthropological as well as aesthetic value.

(A quick side note, alluding backwards to the tripe offered by Canadian Art Magazine in response to the AGO exhibition. My own critical focus often incorporates social history, historical positioning and sites of contested narratives. CA too often insists upon a lens charitably described as insistent ‘cultural Marxism’. That’s useful as a critique but often offers no way forward; in a similar manner, post modernist discourses offer doubt, but no assertions, and I’ve often ruefully called it an ‘unliveable theory.’ However, I’d add that I also often can cite biblical and religious references – my art historical research and published works rely on it – and find it necessary to know the ideas, even if not in agreement with them.)

Winter in the Ward, N.D.
In the Ward, 1920

Let’s leave St. John’s Ward for a moment and go west, as Harris went north: when I saw the massive projected winter scenes, Algoma or Northern Ontario, I suddenly was back on the prairie, the vast empty whiteness, the Wacousta syndrome of impending, unavoidable death in the / caused by landscape. This leads to another criticism of the film. There’s no attempt to position Harris’ works in present day discourse (perhaps unfair, but sometimes this can augment as much as challenge an artist). Neither do the producers explore the work of artists contemporaneous to Harris (outside vague allusions to other Group members and the adulation of Emily Carr). This might seem unimportant, but is necessary, when Universe avers so often Harris’ relevance and supposed ‘vision.’ But this shuttering, wearing of blinders to focus solely on Harris further hobbles this film. Harris returned to Canada – Vancouver, specifically – from Taos in the later years of his life, and suddenly I saw the works of Shadbolt and several other abstractionists of that period in a different, deeper light. But this is ignored (odd for all the focus on ‘Canada’, but again, no attempt to place Harris in relation to what might be the only truly internationally worthy school of Canadian painting is made, either). But the posturing of the evening ‘soirées’ are, of course, mentioned; more classist (ah, my narcoleptic Marxist finally arises) and self aggrandizing of the ‘artist as visionary’ than any artist actually being visionary.

Winter in the Northern Woods, N.D.,
Lake Superior, 1924
North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926

In considering Universe, and using it as a touchstone for a larger debate, several other ideas must be injected, here. In many ways, no discussion of the romantic landscape can be complete without the banality and universality of Levine Flexhaug. The exhibition of his work that has made its way across Canada is not ‘good’ art, in terms of execution or skill. But I find myself (and I’m not alone in this) returning to it as it offered a dream, a hope, of escape and release; both in the ‘Canadian’ idea of a idyllic space of respite and peace, but in a larger sense of ease and saftey, of calmness and satisfaction, that seems an impossiblity to many of us, now. If you’re familiar with a more in depth history of Harris’ life, both personal and political, then perhaps these calm cool spaces are a retreat from his less than ideal reality, as well.

Flexhaug’s ‘Edens’ were economical, as he often sold them out of his trunk, and there’s a proletarian and yet also very capitalist intent intersecting in his often horrid works where dozens upon dozens are like cheap copies without a proper undegraded ‘original.’ These are scenes you could imagine the denizens of St. John’s Ward having on their walls. In this imagined relational aesthetic, reality and artifice engage with each other.

Harris made many of the Ward works in the early decades of the twentieth century, and in that time cities and urban spaces were experiencing growing pains. Of late, I’ve been reading and watching a number of works that take place in England of either the Regency period or the Victorian era, and one of the characters comments that poverty is, for all and intents and responses, a crime, and treated as best unseen, ignored, or punished when it is so inconvenient as to be visible. The authenticity of Harris’ paintings where poverty is simply another landmark in the city are still powerful, and recognizable, windows on the world.

I once lived in a space in Windsor that also opened right out onto the street. There’s an opening scene in a contemporary and perhaps offensively brillian adapatoin of Oliver Twist that speaks of lives lived in ‘quiet desperation’ (Rousseau), in poverty and want. That sequence is built around the voyeuristic nature of a similar front window, and is something I’ve considered often, as privacy is not for the poor, even in many less literal ways. Hence, this place caught my attention and I include it here.

This is how my daily often uncharted meanderings through Welland, or the works of Albert J. Franck or Harris’own evocative Ward works resonate more than any overworked and exhausted ‘idea of north’ that is so plastic that reality sloughs off of it. I would even argue that Harris’ depictions of St. John’s Ward demonstrate that he was a better artist, at times, than he considered, but perhaps also reveal that stultifying ‘Canadian’ sentiment of preferring that which is safe – like the comfortably ‘iconic’ calendar image of North Shore, Lake Superior – and not that which is more challenging, more human, and thus, perhaps less ‘predictable.’

The Ward works are a different kind of ‘north’, a less palatable ‘landscape.’ This is a different ‘history’ (though Arthur Gos – as the first official photographer of the City of Toronto – produced many important images of this neighbourhood). I can’t help but feel the denizens of St. John’s Ward would understand that Belmore work far more, and Harris’ empathetic and engaging scenes of their world, and respect it far more, than any tepid and naive theosopohical meanderings of ‘northen’ places less real than the dirty snow and true winter of their daily existence.

During my time writing for the Planet in Saskatoon, I had the opportunity (or duty, edit as you will) to review Joni Mitchell’s second exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery. Unlike her first, it wasn’t self aggrandizing, poorly executed painting (anyone who presents a self portrait as Van Gogh without irony would, of course, be the same person who demanded that the Mendel suspend non smoking rules so she might do so during her talk). However, her second show – Green Flag Song – explored issues outside her ego, specifically the war in Iraq under George Bush II. This was an engaging exhibition, and I praised it in an issue of FUSE: amusingly, one group in Saskatoon sent me hate mail for daring to criticize her initial solo show, and then ‘my’ community sent me hate mail for NOT dismissing her far better, genuinely artistic, second show. And you wonder why your intrepid #artcriticfromhell drinks, ahem.

Instead of narcissism, Mitchell offered criticality looking outwards: interestingly, a similarly themed exhibition by Faith Moosang had been on display at one of the ARCs in the city, but was less well realized, and Mitchell’s celebrity pushed the conversation into places that might otherwise have been unreachable. It was an exhibition that offered a considered eye, and Mitchell used her power for others, so to speak, and not for herself.

But Where the Universe Sings offers none of this: perhaps I expected too much, but even a brief mention of how WWI – an event which cast in contrast significant fractures in Canadian socity, in terms of class, heritage and race – ‘traumatized’ Harris is glossed over (personally, I’ve always suspected that the works of some war artists like Casson and Varley may have troubled Harris’ rarely challenged assumptions). Despite running for nearly an hour, less information was offered than was obfuscated: if you’ve read Ross King‘s book on the Group, or even explored other less reverential texts, this film will leave you feeling you ate a tasteless meal.

It need not have been so: when I’m asked about biographical films about visual artists, I suggest two that are (unsurprisingly) about two of the most significant artists in the history of the West: Francis Bacon and Francisco Goya. The former is minimal; panning images of Bacon’s work in various galleries, and a narration made up of the words and writing of Bacon himself, as insightful and brutally incisive as any of his paintings. The latter features Robert Hughes, and his approach to Goya is smart, critical and self referential in a way that exploits his vast knowledge and helps you delve deeper into Goya’s dark ocean of meaning and method.

Where the Universe Sings is not at the same level as these: but this isn’t surprising, as the works of Harris that are (unsucessfully) canonized here aren’t of the same level as Bacon or Goya. A harsh comparison? Perhaps, but anyone watching this film is not informed of what Harris’ own contemporaries were doing (whether challenging what art might be, or offering a new and challenging voice), as it might, to paraphrase one such artist (Ad Reinhardt), lead to uncomfortable questions being asked of Harris’ paintings and his assured – perhaps arrogant – aesthetic.

I’ve often spoken of contested narratives, and in writing about Canadian art for nearly two decades, the deforming influence of regionlism has often been a factor. My dismissal of karaoke [M]modernism™ was based upon an ignorant privileging of place over all else, and here, in Canada, we still often confuse quality with proximity (even the recent debates about hiring practices, or whom is to be shown in major spaces, has a provincial, pedantic rankness). On a certain level, this film is a longer, cinematic version of the calendars of Group of Seven works that skim the surface of what they’ve done, and that make them more palatable (more pablum) than provocative.

Grey Day in Town, 1923
January Thaw, Edge of Town, 1921.

All images are taken from online sources, and if unnamed are images I’ve shot during my stay in Welland in February / March 2019, while walking among the various urban neighbourhoods.