Rust Belt Wonderland

The title of this post is from a conversation with James Takeo, as I often enjoy ‘speaking in collage.’

Like many of my generation, I have mixed feelings regarding labour movements and the rhetoric on both sides of this debate. This is especially true for me, as someone who’s worked in cultural spaces (where I’m sure I’m one of many men who’ve been sexually harassed and are still told we must have ‘liked it’) but also service industry spaces. My anecdotal education and resultant understandings of the larger national and international narratives are both very positive and very negative.

The first real job I had was at a private Golf Club here (I still have contempt for golf, and it may have made me very sympathetic to radical Marxist thought at a young age, hah), and in the tenure of my employment there (from about grade 10 to the summer of my departure for university) it ‘went union.’ This could have been easily avoided – it was an acrimonious fight – if the Manager, and especially the person ‘in charge’ of the servers (the place employed women almost exclusively as wait staff and you can connect the dots on your own as to how that influenced the situation) were not so fond of punative responses to concerns both genuine and trifling.

This was the first union I held membership in, and the last one I held a membership in was the union for sessional instructors at the University of Saskatchewan – which was often wilfully or hopelessly ignorant and useless, and fed my distaste for the Saskatchewan NDP. So, I’ve had very different ‘levels’ of experience, therein.

However, as I said, I’ve conflicting emotions: one of the primary reasons I chose to leave Saskatchewan after nearly two decades there is that the board of an artist run centre I worked at was as incompetent as they were interfering. Several were good and faithful partisans for the Sask NDP, but happy to treat staff like serfs. That is the situation that comes to mind when I hear someone warn that when an employer – even, if not especially in cultural spaces – says you don’t ‘need’ a union, you’d best watch your back.

I’m unsure what I think, right now, as there’s too little information, regarding this story about the Remai Modern’s board and implied civic interference (oh, do not ask me or others about how we gave up applying for jobs at the Mendel, the Remai’s precursor, as being a unionized City Employee mattered more than experience or competence, and the ongoing turnover in many of the jobs there was a predictable consequence, which also feeds my ambivalence or dismissal of unions). But several of the people who are leaving the board, by choice or not, are not people I would ever work with or for, ever again.

So, I’ve returned to Niagara after an absence of many years – years spent in the (theoretical) labour stronghold of Windsor, Canada’s ‘automotive capital’ and then in Saskatchewan. Remember when Tommy Douglas was voted ‘The Greatest Canadian’? Not long before my departure, there were few places that were worse, for most workers, than the land god gave to Cain.

I say that not just from working as a sessional at the University of Saskatchewan but also at Pepper Bros. Pizza while doing my post grad degree. A few months back when several attempted to shame Geoffrey Owens, I shared on Twitter that while doing my MFA, when I was teaching as part of a scholarship, I was also working at an artist run centre, doing some freelance design and writing work, and at the aforementioned pizza place. The latter ensured I would always be able to eat, at least, as that delusionally smug Boomer bullshit that you should only be paying a percentage of your paycheque for rent is as ludicrous as their idea that they hit a triple when they were born on third base….

In my previous post, I talked a bit about my research regarding the labour histories of Welland (this book is one I’m making my way through, not in order, and also as a good reason to visit the Welland Library, on my daily walks about the Rose City). Although I’d intended – and I still will be doing so, at The ArtSpace – to be connecting with contemporary artists and cultural instigators here, reading that has helped shape and direct where some of my thoughts have gone, as I walk the Rose City, sometimes during the day, and recently at night, when I require my evening cigarette(s)…..

One of the works that I wrote about for Art in the Open was Bas de Groot‘s Welland Canal Monument, that was completed after his death (though if you visit it today, you can also walk across the street and see a mural on the side of the Welland Museum, also by de Groot. His work is found in various locales around Niagara). This was one of many pieces (the various pieces in Lundy’s Lane in Niagara Falls, or the Battle of Beaver Dams 1812 memorials that spoke caustically and relevantly 200 years later about ‘nation building’ and ‘how mighty tongues tell mighty lies‘, or the Welland Mural project remnants I’ve passed every day here, in different parts of the city) that was a visual history of Niagara.

There’s a line from an artist / writer I admire of how he sometimes will “…become inebriated on history in its material forms…” (Jeremy Borsos), and that’s something that happens to me, with public art, monuments or memorials.

The figures in this installation are life size, and though rough, are very human, very dynamic, and sometimes relate to each other, and other times seem isolated. Any ‘proper’ art historical consideration of public artworks that employ and combine a number of figures – especially in the sense of commemorating an event – has to look back at Auguste Rodin‘s The Burghers of Calais. Several are less defined by their faces than by their actions, in carrying a heavy burden that bends the form of the man, or another that seems to be taking a moment to rest with his shovel between his knees, the turned head and clasped hands suggesting contemplation, not just of the enormity of the task of the Canal, but perhaps considering the future it will help build, for this city, region and country.

Conversely, the kneeling worker and the sitting woman seem engaged in conversation, with her head tilting in an ‘interested’ manner, and both figures with their faces expressive, suggesting an interaction that alludes to how the Canal was a site of interaction and intersection for many peoples and groups. The text from the Welland Heritage Council offers the following summation:
The monument will remind us of the importance of multiculturalism to development in Welland – past, present, and future. Industries, businesses, and citizens have prospered in Welland and the Niagara Peninsula through the efforts of people who built the canal. Some of these workers lost their lives digging with picks and shovels, many left their families and friends when they came to Canada in search of work.

There’s another figure, removed from the group, dressed more casually, seeming younger, and ‘his’ gaze looks out towards the water, and is the only member of the group that seems to be here, now, in Merritt Park. On my visits I think of him as ‘the boy’, the descendant of the workers who make up the rest of this scene, and the physical space between them is also the space of time.

A further historical / factual consideration, from Art in the Open’s informative site: Although the statues and fountain were originally designed by Bas de Groot, he passed away before its completion […] It was completed by Mylinda and William Jurgenson and the aforementioned child [sitting separately] was the work of Perry Wakulich (more work by Wakulich can be seen in The Spirit of St. Catharines public work). Scott Robinson Landscaping was responsible for the landscaping and fountain itself. It is unlikely that the city of Welland, and much of Niagara, would have thrived as it has in the past, and continues to do so now, without the Canal. In that respect, this monument is just as much about those who made that happen, and their descendants and beneficiaries, as the Canal itself.

From where I’m staying, the Welland Bridge (also known as bridge 13) is easily visible, and walking towards it and then to the left will bring you to de Groot’s work. Walking in the opposite direction brings you to the remnants of the Atlas Steels plant, something I mentioned in the previous post: a site that’s captured my imagination.

Part of that is due to how, since my return to Niagara, I’ve been capturing images as I’m out walking of abandoned and discarded items. This started with shopping carts, but has since expanded to couches, chairs, anything that piques my visual interest. In that respect, I knew that when I visited Welland again I’d have to revisit the Atlas space on East Main, and that it would still be snowy and wintry – or perhaps we might have an early spring thaw – would simply make the site more intersesting, like any landscape that transforms and changes.

When I visit places (eiter new or revisiting) I often employ impressions of places and then let both my intuition and research guide me, in responding. As I was braving the minus twenty wind and blowing snow to get these shots of the Atlas detritus, I was reminded of the excellent works of Julianna D’Intino, whose lens – based practice often explores very local and personal narratives (we met at the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 which I faciliate, and I offer a shameless plug in inviting any and all in Niagara to visit this group, when we meet in downtown St. Catharines). The personal is political, but I often felt that this phrase has been – like many slogans – more coloured by those using it than by its original intent, or perhaps by the idea that it can be more open, more adaptable, than one specific interpretation.

I mentioned D’Intino’s work because a number of artists in this region have been exploring the legacy – and the loss – of the industrial and manufacturing base that was the reason for this region to prosper and even exist. Some did it in more mediated ways, others in more immediate. Its almost amusing that as I write and post these images and ideas online, in response to sculptural installations in the public sphere, or monuments intentional or incidental, that a line from Steve Remus about GM comes into my head, from an abrasive and amazing piece of writing from him (which I paraphrase): look around the city, and there’s nothing here with GM’s name on it, they just used the place up and left, and left nothing behind but a mess (I paraphrase, but have the sentiment accurate).

The ongoing legal issues over the old GM site in St. Catharines are “history in a material form”, but not so much a sculpture, a monument, an artist makign work about the history of the place in both words and objects, but the leftovers, what’s unwanted and discarded for someone else to clean up.

Places are often imaginary: they exist more truly in our heads, in our memories and in senses of nostalgia or faith (or perhaps hope, which seems encapsulated in the figures in Merritt park). As well, the objects – or perhaps the absence, the emptiness – of the Atlas space also spurs recollections and reflection. I’m fond of Jeanne Randolph‘s positing that when we encounter an art object, we are both influencing and influenced, defined and defining, and in this collaboration create the meaning of the work, but really just use it to help define our own selves and experiences.

de Groot’s memorial shares this mental and emotional space for me, with the Atlas wasteland: both are landmarks in the ‘Rust Belt Wonderland’ that is my Welland, here, in 2019.

All images were taken by the writer during the week beginning March 4th, 2019.

Some initial thoughts on Welland: nostalgia and rust

I spent part of my first morning in Welland, starting off the month long period I’ll be here connecting with artists and spaces in the Rose City, by visiting the Central Library and their local history section. Oftentimes I’ve been accused of talking too much about politics and history in my reviews and articles, but that kind of ignorance is really only worth mentioning for its foolishness, and to remind people of the intersecting spaces that art, history, politics and place all occupy.

A side project, while I’m in Welland, is to photograph and perhaps do a bit more research on the house that my maternal grandmother was born in, that my great grandfather (her father) built: this has been interesting already, as everyone knows that family histories are vague and volatile, and are a fine example of what Heather Hart talked about, with her Northern Oracle artwork, about how oral histories (especially important ones, like familial ones) are just as subject to editing and errors as written ones, and become just as ‘official’ – or ‘calcified’ – in the repetition, as others are in the reprinting.

There’s already been some confusion and errors, mixed up numbers and other family fog in play, on that front.

So, I found myself reading about the John Deere plant, the unexpected and brutal closures that kneecapped the community (under Harper‘s indifferent government of 2009 – when the current repackaged goods passing himself off as ‘moral’ was making over $100, 000 a year as “speaker”). I read about Atlas Steel, which, in a manner somewhat synchronous, was a site I photographed extensively when I last visited in December. Atlas, and its impact in the community, will inform an upcoming exhibition at the Welland Museum, they’re soliciting stories and remembrances from people in the community (two friends of mine, nearly half a century apart in age, both have family that worked there, I discovered recently. Both will be visiting me at AIH studios, and one, Sandy Fairbairn, has already offered some amazing information re: Welland, and how my family might intersect with that story).

When I last visited, I walked around a lot, as I like to acquaint myself with cities that way (I once almost got mugged in Kelowna, when I was there for an exhibition of my work, but discovering the Japanese Gardens balanced that out): in that respect I passed by not just the Atlas site, but many houses that struck me as solid, brick and firm bones, and yet abandoned, and I considered a line from Notes from Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara (Carmelita Patrias and Larry Savage). The elimination of good, secure jobs – effects the community in various insidious ways. This acts as the inverse of the ‘trickledown’ mythology of privileging the wealthy to supposedly help those of us below (opposite, as well, as the former is proven, whereas even most economists – a group I’d compare to astrologists, but I have no wish to insult the latter – know the latter might be what Patrias and Savage described as a failure to lead economically or wilful mismanagement).

After all, I was still living in St. Catharines when Free Trade and then NAFTA took their toll, and the downtown was like the backdrop to a Springsteen video about how ‘those jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.’ Anna Szaflarski’s ‘A Man’s Job‘ has been in my mind, too, of late, with my anticipation of a residency spent in Welland, but also with recently reading Craig Davidson’s Cataract City. Both of those references – Szaflarski and Davidson – offer a more edged interpretation than the more ideologically ‘pure’ labour narrative. But if you’re reading this, you’ve read other pieces of mine, and know that I appreciate, and insist upon, the importance of contested narratives.

With Welland’s more industrial grounding (I enjoyed the basement area of the Welland Musuem, which made the social historian in me see I’m just scratching the surface, in thinking of Atlas Steel) perhaps, Joel’s Allentown is more fitting (Out in Bethlehem / they’re killing time / filling out forms / standing in line).

But returning to speaking of visual arts: one of the main goals of today was to visit Rod Dowling’s works near the Canal. I’d written on his work for a larger project, Art in the Open, about works in the public sphere from cenotaphs to murals, civic memorials to public art projects. This not only piqued my curiosity regarding history, and the history of art in Niagara, but also about the specific histories that we might think we know, or assume we know (I’ve tormented several friends with how the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, from the War of 1812, was bloody, brutal and in a graveyard as darkness fell, so let’s not pretend that war isn’t always all hell, and somehow fought by Marquess of Queensberry Rules ). Rod Dowling was a figure who’s works I’d surely encountered while growing up here, but had no recollection of that: but to steal a line from Elizabeth Chitty, when we were speakinig of our histories in St. Catharines, we ‘both broke a leg in a rush to get out of Niagara.’ (And yes, now both of us are deeply engaged with culture here, which amuses us both, I think).

And in returning to Niagara, after time in other industrial spaces like Windsor / Detroit (oh Zug Island, and the abandoned urban wastelands, and the empty factories, all like indexical signs, remnants of past glory), and after my research and experiences on modernism, karaoke modernism™ and the faith, fraud and formalism (as I bluntly titled this piece) of such utopic ideas on the Prairies, Dowling‘s sculptures intrigued me. In some ways, they offered a challenge to some formal modernist thought; alternately, living outside the gallery space, they become part of a wider, less academic, conversation.

The three works (Listeners, The Aqueduct and The Knot) seemed to be extensions of the city, today (the oft repeated descriptor is that they ‘reference the industrial and shipping history of Welland’, in superficial formality, with nautical allusions and such): in the cold blowing snow and -15 temperatures this week, in a landscape of grey metal skeletons of stairwells, barriers and other infrastructure canalside, these tall slim installations seem less ‘art’ than abandoned relics of production, now still and inert. Perhaps they’re also raw sprouted appendages of Welland – bursting from the earth under the city, pushing shoving forcing upwards, like memories surfacing or truths rising to be visible. Do I push this analogy even further, and talk about how many people I know who’ve worked in industrial spaces and now suffer from illnesses that appeared later, coming to the surface long after the jobs are done? My Saskatchewan must show, for a moment and I’ll mention that the debate about who cleans up oil wells and pipelines is just another chapter in the conversation that sees Uranium City sit empty and dangerous in Saskatchewan, or about who cleans up the old GM site in St. Catharines? Sometimes the detritus of economic progress is fallow ground (the article I linked out to re: Modernism cites the hope and controversy, the legacies both positive and negative, of nuclear power, and perhaps a day trip to Niagara Falls to revisit that history is also in order….)

I’ve had several conversations with people in the Welland cultural community as to whether its a wasteland or simply needs to be excavated more compassionately, and of course, the opiate crisis has hit this city more harshly than other places. I walk by pawnbrokers and rub – and – tugs, and wonder if I’m seeing St. Catharines’ past, or its future, or just one aspect of a city, with others to share.

Stepping back to the shale sky and Dowling’s interventions: they’re vaguely industrial (unlike other pieces by Dowling that are brightly coloured, suggesting malleable children’s twist toys, oversized playthings with a hint of Oldenburg’s absurdity), with twists that are pipe like, or forms that imply a utilitarian focus, or shines, still on some pieces hinting at well maintained tools. Other parts rust and have lost their finish. I’m reminded of cheap used pipes from an emergency plumbing job that is all you can afford, but hinting back to better times….

In past cities I’ve lived in, public art works have been rotated from location to location: I wonder how Knot or The Listeners would work, in the empty field further down East Main Street, among the weeds and trash and detritus that was once intrinsic to a process, a place and a city, and now most can’t even name what it is – or was, to be exact.

To return to my comments re: Modernism, there is a sentiment in that ideology, in the hopeful manifestions of that progressive ideology post WWII, that promised ‘never before’ and saw only a rich incline in human welfare and work and Welland (as manifest in the Deere plant, for example), as an archetype of many similar cities in Canada and further.

That failed, as all utopias do, and now these fragments are shored against the ruins, to bastardize Eliot: perhaps I should avoid rereading The Wasteland and Other Poems, while I’m here.

All images shot by the writer (the scenes of the Atlas site are from December 2018), and these works by Rod Dowling can be seen along the Welland Canal, just past the Community Wellness Complex. Many more of his works can be seen across Niagara, and a visit to Art in the Open will offer a good beginning in exploring his work. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell does offer the disclaimer that I may have been listening to Dido’s ‘White Flag’ on repeat while walking the city.

Ephemeral Architecture: Natalie Hunter at RHAC

When I first visited Natalie Hunter‘s exhibition Staring into the sun – though I prefer to think of it as an installation, as it spans both rooms of the Hansen Gallery at Rodman Hall plus the windows of the front space – Chief Curator / Acting Director Marcie Bronson offered an informal tour of the show. There were several ideas that she shared, but there’s also a formalism, a pure aestheticism to the works that Hunter has here, that’s a bit different from her past curatorial ventures (or artistic collaborations, as with Amy Friend or Donna Akrey).

Staring is a dramatic show, not solely in terms of the use of light and shadow, but also in the vibrant and vivacious colours, but in the way hue, tone and shape flow and move and stretch on the walls, changing as day turns to evening. Helios (the aforementioned work on the front bay windows, high above your head) can be seen from the parking lot, back-lit warmly, or if you’re standing inside in front of them, their flat strong blues, pinks and rich golden yellows are enticing. RHAC has numerous smatterings of stained glass windows throughout the building, rich and ornate, and Hunter’s piece is in dialogue with these. When first seeing Helios, I was reminded of the gentle, hazy and beautiful way that light passes through the stained glass on the first floor landing. Staring into the sun is another good example of how the ‘white cube’ is good, for some works, but other artists can do so much more in less ‘conventional’ sites.

In conversation with several fellow gallery goers, we’ve all agreed that Helios is a work (or three works, perhaps) that would be lovely to keep in the space in a semi permanent manner (I remember a similar discussion regarding the wall paper works by Alex Cu Unjieng from Material Girls). Helios exists differently external to RHAC, and is similar to Fernandes’ Philia in that it visually seeps out from the architecture, while simultaneously accentuating the shape of Rodman Hall.

All the works interrelate (except for Songs of May, located in the alcoves on the landing, leading down to the lower gallery space. As an installation choice this can be double edged. It allows for works to have a singular power, but sometimes makes them easy to miss, or separation from works in the Hansen can weaken them. Honestly, I often forgot these were there, and that’s not a comment on May but on their ‘remove’, so to speak. Alternately, when I’ve visited Heather Hart’s Oracle, and come back up from the lower gallery, the light streaming in from the back ‘yard’ area of RHAC has benefited May and they stand well alone).

Though there are images and symbolism in the individual pieces (some of which are more easily discernible than others), the ‘source’ of many of the collaged and collared and combined tableaux are not the immediate factor when engaging with them. But first here’s the statement regarding the sometimes ephemeral but often architectural Staring into the sun:Using light as a material in her photo-based sculptures and installations, Natalie Hunter explores the relationship between memory and physical space….Hunter photographed windows in familiar rooms of her childhood home, revealing intimate interiors that frame views of the external world. Using vibrant colour filters….Hunter layers multiple exposures taken minutes or hours apart, and prints on transparent and translucent films that she hangs, ripples, and drapes to interact with architectural and ambient characteristics of [RHAC].

The sky seemed to fold in ribbons of palest sunlight, Mirrored in light and Triple Window are to your right, as you enter the Hansen (or the room furthest from the natural light of the windows). Sometimes it isn’t the filmy ‘skins’ that catch your eye, but the soft globules of hue and tone on the walls, or the greyish shadows bleeding into yellows and greens. In the same manner Helios is one work when seen from the Hansen, and another when standing in the parking lot, The sky seemed to fold is multi faceted from multiple views: directly, the coloured films are blade thin edges, and the shadows and colours on the wall slant left or right. From either side, the rough slathers of pure colour become more patterned; you can approach them and try to discern the shapes within, or not (window blinds, patterns suggesting drapery or curtains, delicately feminine or domestic, if I may stereotype). Triple Window ‘points’ to the floor in the corner where its shadow thrusts downward, echoes that right angle, and then the wood patterning in the floor adds another level / layer / tier to this angular aesthetic. More of her words: Luminous and transient, the viewer’s experience of the works shifts with subtle changes in light and environment. Alluding to enduring routines and the passage of time, these works, as Hunter describes, “touch on how traces of our interior, most private spaces linger in our minds long after we’ve left them behind.”

The unique architectural touches of Hansen have been touchstones for numerous shows in this space, and Hunter moves out from the walls with Caught in Corners. The simple clean wood of the ‘frames’ sit on the floor, and the opaque ‘sheet’ of shapes and coloured forms loops and weaves through them. These almost act as resting points for the eyes, as they exist in a singular manner – being ‘flat’ colour, not transparent – and counterpoints to the wall works that shift and shimmer like Mirrored in Light, which almost bookends Caught and Helios, from one end of the Hansen to the other.

I usually suggest multiple visits to exhibitions (this is partly due to my own propensity to visit shows often, but not for overly long periods), but with Staring, the quality of light – and thus the time of day, or evening (when its all artificially lit, or when Helios takes on a different vibrancy in the darkness of night) changes the show, and your experience of it. Staring into the sun is at RHAC until April 28th and there’s an artist talk on the 28th of March.

Images are courtesy RHAC, or the writer; more of Natalie Hunter’s art can be seen here.

Happy Valentine’s Day

It is funny, as one of the things I’ve learned so far in 2019 is that when I think I don’t have time to finish something, as I’ve been juggling a few different things, and preparing for a writer’s residency, that I usually, in fact, end up doing more. So, this year I continue my annual Valentine’s Day cards, but also did one for the cover of the February issue of The Sound.

I offer the blurb from the inside cover of this month’s issue, which offers some background on this decades long project of creating and sharing Valentines so people can either enjoy them, or share them with others. Pick up a copy of this month’s The Sound (there’s a number of excellent articles by our regular contributors), and here’s my words about the Valentines I disperse each year: “In 2002, I exhibited at the Mendel Art Gallery and the cover image was one of many I created for that (all printed 4′ by 4′, rich and glossy); the series was titled “love.” I scanned fresh hearts from a local pork slaughterhouse, at high resolutions and then manipulated them into patterns and motifs that were floral and decorative: I’ve described these hearts as inappropriately beautiful, as viewers would be drawn to them, then repulsed, somewhat, when seeing the titles revealing their creation (such as eightfreshhearts, as the cover image is named. Oh, and those faint bloody trails making ‘heart’ shapes are natural, not digital).
Since then, I’ve had an annual tradition of making Valentine’s Day cards, and sharing these with friends (amusingly, several of my female friends who are married comment that I am their most reliable ‘valentine’). Sometimes I incorporate the words of Neruda, or Cohen, or others. But it all began with Gaiman‘s Rose Walker: “Have you ever been in love? Horrible, isn’t it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up. You build up all these defences. You build up this whole armour, for years, so nothing can hurt you, then one stupid person, no different from any other stupid person, wanders into your stupid life… You give them a piece of you. They don’t ask for it. They do something dumb one day like kiss you, or smile at you, and then your life isn’t your own anymore. Love takes hostages. It gets inside you. It eats you out and leaves you crying in the darkness…It hurts. Not just in the imagination. Not just in the mind. It’s a soul-hurt, a body-hurt, a real gets-inside-you-and-rips-you-apart pain. Nothing should be able to do that. Especially not love. I hate love.”

Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell wishes you a HVD, whatever that means, and again offers these valentines I’ve created over the past few years to any and all who’d like to share them (‘this one goes out to the one I love’) as you see fit.