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.

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.