Collected Art Writing Challenges from New Art Examiner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I serve two anecdotes.

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

I suppose its an acquired taste…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be[e]ing & Seeing: Compounding Visions


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Diverse Transformations

In one of my favourite novels, Christie Logan (the prognosticator of garbage from Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners) offers this advice: ‘When in doubt tell the truth, if you happen to think you know it.’ But it’s also good to keep in mind (to quote another excellent writer, Kathleen Dunn from Geek Love) that others use “truth” as a ‘favourite set of brass knuckles.’ But enough qualification: let us come to the point. Transformations, the latest iteration of the City of St. Catharines annual juried exhibition, is the best version of that show I’ve seen, in my four years here in Niagara. Curatorialy, it is effective in how the works have a dialogue with each other, sometimes augmenting (as with Jonathan Shaw and Bruce Thompson’s works, hung side by side) or sometimes arguing. Contested narratives are a natural consideration for a curatorial umbrella as wonderfully open as ‘transformation.’ The statement itself is excitingly pliable: “Transformations investigates the positive and negative transitions and transformations that shape human beings and the world.”

The show is all wall work, which is unsurprising, considering the constraints of the physical space. But this is a good sampling of contemporary artists primarily of St. Catharines, but also a bit wider in Niagara. There’s over a dozen artists here: some names – and their work – will hopefully be familiar to you, but others may be new (some of the names are new to me, as well).

As you enter the space (from the front entrance, not the James Street side), the first works you encounter are by Jon Shaw and Bruce Thompson (side by side) and then Arnie McBay and Renu D’Cunha (facing the aforementioned pair, on an opposing wall). Shaw’s This Way is part of his ongoing series of the demolition of the hospital downtown (you can see more of this work at NAC, in November), with vibrant colours and fine richly dark lines that define how these fragments of history resonate, and will echo more, even after all the physical ‘evidence’ is gone. Next to This Way, Thompson’s The Circle Experiment (both of these are 2019) is less intense, but offers fine, spidery traceries of muted and ‘wintery’ tones. Placing these to the left, immediately seen as you enter the hallway, indicates that this show is very much about ‘place’, in terms of St. Catharines or Niagara, but that it’s as much about a metaphor, or emotional sense of ‘place’, than just a ‘flat’ (as in opaqueness of meaning) image. These are vignettes of experience, that change and ‘transform’, from the experience of the artist to the rendering as an ‘image’ to how we engage with – and define them – for ourselves. The fluidity of the formal elements fit the fluidity of the meaning of these two ‘cityspaces.’

Conversely, McBay and D’Cunha proffer images that are richly stark in their monochromatic play: Wholeness #2 is part of McBay’s new series of ‘O’s that are as much about execution as the ‘final’ image, blending language and symbol, with accident and intent ‘flowing’ together. D’Cunha’s Standing Strong offers textural elements that belie the flat ground the ‘figure’ floats upon, becoming abstracted in its execution that is shaped by the mixed media used. A similar allowance of the paint to flow and form as it will is found in McBay’s work.

Moving further down the hall, the works become more varied, in tone and medium: I could write on all of them, as it’s a dense, visually sumptuous selection. There’s an affinity between Lauren Regier’s photographic work Aquatilium Vasculum and Janny Fraser’s sculpture Hive #3, too. Organic ‘roots’ or ‘tentacles’ and a palette that – in both Regier and Fraser’s artwork – is restrained, subtle but with dashes here and there of deeper tints, blend with ‘metallic’ hints yet they both seem to be something you might find in an abandoned garden, behind an empty house. Whereas Fraser is more ‘direct’ – it’s a wall work, but sculptural, and you’ll want to touch and handle the ‘apple’ or the ‘clock’ – Regier is softer, with the glycee print having soft tones and a more ‘portrait’ quality to her subject. But – as with Shaw and Thompson, or McBay and D’Cunha – the works ‘talk’ to each other, and offer points of connection and points of contestation. One might imagine the artists ‘started’ in similar places, before ‘transforming’ their respective personal experiences.

There’s one more ‘pairing’, at the far end of the hallway, on the way to the James Street exit, I’ll mention in a moment. But first, there’s numerous works that further define what ‘transformation’ might mean, to many or simply one person. I’m an admirer of many of Sandy Fairbairn’s urban photographs (in the interest of full disclosure, he’ll be exhibiting many of his images of – and about – Welland at the AIH gallery space in Welland in 2020, and I’m collaboratively curating that with him). His smaller image Storefront, St. Catharines is of a ‘store’ that’s familiar to me (both when I lived in Niagara in the 1980s / 90s and now). This is a fine example of his direct yet considered – even empathetic – ‘portraits’ of store fronts and business facades, many of which have fallen into ruin and act as symbolic ‘sites’ for the economic tenuousness that has informed this region since Free Trade / NAFTA.

Works will be on view until March 2020: this is appropriate, as (despite the slim hallway offering some restrictions regarding space) this is a dense exhibition. Emily Andrews’ offers one of her surreal, somewhat unsettling paintings in Self Portrait; Colleen McTigue’s Courage is part of her Doors series, recently displayed at NAC (Andrews also showed recently in that space), and both again offer metaphors for transformations, as it pertains to self and subjectivity, rendered in acrylic and oils. One conceals, or ‘performs’ in disguise, the other offers an ‘escape’, or a revelation, in their painted scenarios.

Further down is another pairing, a conceptual diptych of image and object, perhaps. Danny Custodio presents one of his colourfully detailed photographs (you’ll have the opportunity to see more of his images, at Rodman Hall Art Centre, in November, in his solo show Flower Carpets/Tapetes Floridos). Potions #1 (Earth Healing Potion; Restores Plants and Stuff) resembles a tondo (circular) portrait formally, but you’ll seen realize you’re looking downwards into a ‘pot’ (perhaps a cauldron bubble bubble boil and trouble) whose fine realism leaps out from the rich black void of the background. To the left of Custodio, with perhaps a touch of curatorial humour, is Kym Van Stygeren’s Untitled. This small shovel is enhanced with enamel and acrylic paints, even augmented with 23k gold leaf on metal. It’s protruding from the wall, like a fancy tool waiting to be used for important, not just mundane everyday, tasks. The simple painted forms in the scoop allow the tool to ‘shine’, so to speak, with an aesthetic gleam. Like many of the artists in this show, Van Stygeren has more of her practice on display in Niagara. She has an exhibition in NOTL, at Queenston Mile Vineyard, titled Portrait Compositions (that runs until January 3rd, 2020).

There’s a strong formal aesthetic throughout the entire exhibition of Transformations. Art Weaver’s Digital Transformation is both a landscape and an entrancing ‘close up’ (I’d offer that it’s a mushroom, but the organic detail needs no ‘official’ naming), and the tondo motif from Custodio is echoed in not just Van Stygeran’s ‘tool’ but in Janet Ingrao’s stained glass Nucleus, Cause and Effect (and in McBay’s aforementioned ‘O’ work, too). Despite Transformations being painting-heavy, Ingrao’s glass works are eye catching, with both an intensity of blue-blacks and then subtle ‘scratchings’ of white to give form and depth. That linear quality visually ‘forming’ an image is in Weaver’s digital work, and even reaches back (down the hallway, if you will) to Thompson’s greyish grainy marks. This ‘spiderweb’ (pun intended) of the formal aesthetics of the works is a balance, or a counter, to how Transformations is interpreted sometimes uniquely, sometimes personally, and sometimes in a manner that encompasses multiple positions and ideas. Yvonne Benyo’s Woman Unearthed can be seen as being akin to portraiture. But so can Jan Yates’ March (Walk 29), whose title implies this is an interpretation of Yates’ world, just as Thompson’s work records an activity of his own, too, and as Shaw documents a site that has meaning both historically but personally to many who may never even see this exhibition, but drive by the Hospital demolition.

Jonathan Shaw, This Way

Transformations – the concept, not this exhibition – can be positive and negative, and being an aspect of change are a constant. Gaiman’s Brief Lives offers this amusing anecdote on that: “Um, what’s the name of the word for things not being the same always? You know, I’m sure there is one. Isn’t there? There must be a word for it … the thing that lets you know time is happening. Is there a word?” “Change.”

Arnie McBay, Wholeness #2

I often suggest that you visit artworks repeatedly, as they change as we change, in our interpretations and understanding. The 2019 City of St. Catharines Annual Juried Art Exhibit is installed at City Hall in downtown St. Catharines until the Spring of 2020. Go see it often, and approach different works each time, and in different ways. I began this review at the one end of the hall, and it would say something different, perhaps, coming the ‘opposite’ way. That’s a testament to the strength of the works displayed and the curatorial vision – I hate that word, but it works, here.

Bruce Thompson, The Circle Experiment

Transformations: The 2019 City of St. Catharines Annual Juried Art Exhibit is installed on the third floor of City Hall, in downtown St. Catharines (50 Church Street), and is on view until March, 2020. All images are courtesy St. Catharines Culture and the respective artists, and the header image is of artist Danny Custodio with his work Potions #1 (Earth Healing Potion; Restores Plants and Stuff).

Sheldon Rooney: a carnival of colour and motion

I’ve mentioned that the ongoing artist feature series that happens in The Sound is a highlight of my engagement with the Niagara cultural community. Not only do I get to sit down and talk with artists whose work I’m familiar with already, to learn more and expand my – and thus our readers’ – experience and enjoyment of artists like Emily Andrews or Sandy Middleton, I also learn more about artists whose work I might not otherwise engage with, due to time or opportunity. Sheldon Rooney‘s works caught my attention most recently when he had many small works in a group collections show at Rodman Hall: but I had a very enjoyable conversation with him when he last shared some of his eclectic and well executed vignettes at NAC.

He’ll be showing new works in that same space – the Dennis Tourbin Members Gallery (DTMG) – this month, opening on October 12th and on display until the 25th, with a closing reception on that date (7:30 PM). Titled Nuts: The Last Bag, it will continue some of the formal and conceptual aspects from his past works, but there’s also works that are very different. But all of it works very well as a larger installation of his artworks and speaks to his aesthetic and formative space.

Rooney is presenting several distinct bodies of work, but there’s overt – and sometimes very subtle – connections between them (some of his sculptural pieces could be interpreted as though the figures from his surreal drawings have emerged into three dimensional space, stepping out of the frame). Several of his images are filled with figures that suggest they’ve been collaged, but they’re drawn (with pastel and ink), and the colours and lines are rendered in a style that is intense and aesthetically adept. The tableaux he assembles, however, are a bit outrageous. Sometimes it looks like we’re being given a glimpse of a mad carnival, with odd players and eccentric costumes, as though we’re seeing a ‘theatre of the absurd’ or a quick excerpt from a larger – quite funny, perhaps unsettling – film (Fellini, perhaps). Or perhaps theatre – or a circus – is better, as the players are so active. As you gaze at these, there’s funny things happening in some corners, and I can’t help but feel each character has their own ongoing story. We just happen to be watching them, and you can spend significant time in front of many of his works, seeing what each of his people – and I use that term loosely, as not everyone is ‘just’ human, so to speak – is doing, or performing. When we spoke, Rooney described these as ‘easter eggs’, like you find in DVDs: tiny treasures that reveal themselves to you, if you take the time to look.

Hopefully you’re familiar with Rooney’s ‘wood’ works, as I think of them, where he burns and etches into wood to create scenes. Sometimes he employs the natural grain and texture of the wood itself, as with his ‘moonscape’ (with a rocket that is very 1950s vintage kitsch and a loving couple that, except for their antennas, could be from a ‘beach blanket bingo’ rom-com of that era). The moon is so often a motif for love and hope, and the natural grain of the wooden ‘canvas’ offers a ‘natural’ landscape for the young couple to ‘moon’ within. This smoothness is contrasted by the detailed and wonderfully articulated architecture within the landscape, and the ‘bolt of blue’ in the blanket. You can’t help but touch it. The marks so familiar from Rooney’s drawings take on a more physical, tactile form here.

However, to return to how I began this feature, in citing how speaking with an artist about their influences and ideas can be very enjoyable, when Rooney and I talked about his ‘notebook’ works that will also be on display at NAC, we found we shared similar approaches to art making and art writing. Literature and that the words and idea of authors like Mordecai Richler, or Ezra Pound, have shaped us both. When he was showing me one of this series, I immediately recognized a scrawled reference to Pound’s A B C of Reading, a book that helped me articulate some of my own ideas regarding art and art criticism. This ‘notebook’ series by Rooney is of large format images of simple spiral notebooks,with printed images on top of the notebook pages that he kept from 1999 – 2001 (the overall title of these works is Memories Series 1999 – 2001). When we were looking at some of his smaller works, Rooney pointed to a series of books on one of his shelves and described that as ‘my education.’ After seeing that – and the Memory Series – you can then return to the smaller colourful works (which are often inspired and referential to Guided By Voices, either more directly illustrative of GBV‘s music, or simply a visual soundtrack / inspirations from them) and see that the not quite appropriated references in those works are intentional and considered. They reflect Rooney’s diverse reading and research, as shown in the Memories ‘citations’. Along those same lines, when you attend the opening, Rooney can offer a more detailed and enthusiastic glimpse into how Guided by Voices – not just in terms of music, but the collage works produced by Robert Pollard – is integral to his artwork.

In our conversation about his works, and his upcoming show (Nuts: The Last Bag, which as I said will be at NAC, at 254 St. Paul downtown), several ideas came up, that flow from one body of work (whether defined by content or construction). Many of Rooney’s works are ‘painting to lose oneself in, full of surreal detail’, with a ‘playful absurdity in subject but never not serious in the execution.’ The assemblage of images and ideas are often intuitive: ‘don’t overthink it: don’t think too much, makes you think too much’, which is one of my favourite lines from Henry Rollins, and a good mantra for joyful, intuitive creation. When I made the analogy before that some of Rooney’s sculptures seem to have ‘walked out’ of his two dimensional images into our world, this is just an appropriate inversion to how he likes to ‘create a space for people to ‘walk’ into a scene.’ Even the ‘contested, conflicting, collaborative symbolism and symbols’ aren’t so much disrupting each other as offering multiple points of access for when you encounter Rooney’s visual constructions.

Nuts: The Last Bag opens on October 12th and has a closing reception at NAC on October 25th, at 7 PM. There are many other works I’ve not even touched upon – such as what Rooney called ‘New York on fire’ – and several sculptures that will augment and enhance your experience of his work. Visit it when it opens, and come for the reception. All images are courtesy the artist.