Thompson’s we know more now: experience rendered in mark-making

In the interest of full disclosure, Bruce Thompson and I speak quite often, on a variety of topics that often centre on, but are not confined to, visual arts. Like many I’ve come to know in the cultural community here, I was familiar with his practice before we actually met. His large ‘cityscapes’ in a group show – the first exhibition in the VISA Gallery space, when the MIWSFPA opened, in 2015 – were vibrant and active, and very large. That curatorial project by Emma German (hopefully you caught her Up Close and In Motion series at RHAC last year) also introduced me to other artists, like Candace Couse and Carrie Perreault, who are – like Bruce – engaged and engaging components of the visual arts here in Niagara.

Right now, along with having a work in the Transformations exhibition at City Hall in downtown St. Catharines (on the 3rd floor), Thompson has a new body of work on display at Rise Above, on St. Paul Street in downtown STC. This is a series that he’s just completed, and you can see the entire grouping installed at RA. A quick side point: Rise Above – along with fine food, mmmm, seitan, mmm – has featured some excellent artists over the past year. Geoff Farnsworth, for example, had a number of large works on display there that frankly looked more impressive on the rough brick walls than they did on the gallery white where I’d first seen them. I must mention again that there’s a number of places in the downtown – Beechwood Donuts, Mahtay Cafe, among them – that exhibit quality work by excellent regional artists.

Thompson’s most recent pieces are less dense than the works I saw years ago in the VISA. Perhaps that’s because those pieces were more about cumulative experiences (looking out at the city from his window, and building upon the larger works as he added / looked each day) whereas the works at RA are more like vignettes. Unsurprisingly, these new works have a point of origin in looking out the window while exercising, on a track / loop, and thus are more singular, even if seen again and again as Thomson exercises: the walking in between allows for a consideration of the image, which translates into how some parts of the ‘window’ scene are emphasized, others are not, and the work becomes as much about the experience of the memory as any ‘snapshot’ of the window view.

Here’s Thompson’s words regarding the works, titled we know more now: In this series of works, I am transforming the everyday into the phenomenological, recreating moments of my day into an essence of experience. Is there any meaningful relationship between the wear lines on my plates and cups at home and my weekly trips to exercise at the gym? As we are aging and striving to stay in the world, we are also contemplating, positioning, seeing the same world everyday in new ways, changing and morphing as we go about our daily routines. These landscapes are the poetic, if impossible to imagine, space between my trips to the gym to exercise and the cracks and lines on the plates that I use everyday. Drawing and painting from photographs and memory, I recreate these everyday spaces filtered through a process of mark-making. The cracks in the plates become overlaid lines on the views from the windows of the gym. I transform this view into a moment of visual form; amalgamating, tracing and carving lines into the canvas, then reconnecting them into the layers of the composition. Each new mark becomes an additive iteration and a record of the process, building a new visual experience from the integration of drawing, painting, and memory.

Works like i only look for lost days or i only imagine the rain put you in Thompson’s space: the lines are alternately weathered webbing or more direct, with colour laid down in solid blocks. Many of the ‘moments’ are framed by a white ‘border’, suggesting a peephole ‘outside’. We are kept at a distance, looking outwards, stuck within, in a laborious space. When I sat down with Thompson in the RA space, several ideas came up in our conversation. Later, when we picked up the conversation, an idea from David Milne (a well known Canadian painter, often associated with the Group of Seven, but separate from them), seemed relevant: “The painter doesn’t try to reproduce the scene before him… he simplifies and eliminates until he knows exactly what stirred him, sets this down in colour and line as simply and as powerfully as possible and so translates his impression into an aesthetic emotion.” Thompson conceived of these images as a group – a sentence, or story, if you will – and that they can be seen ‘all at once’ in the RA space is fitting. An aforementioned seed of germination of we know more now are plates (‘dinner plates as elements of time and memory’) with the finer, grayer and more subtle lines that intersect with the landscapes. There’s also an ‘aspect of interruption’ at play here: the fragmented image, the ‘broken’ lines of the ‘plates’, and that these are detritus of a memory or action by Thompson that are encapsulated in the images hanging in the space. Painting is, after all, a creation of a moment, whereas photography is a capturing of one. Some titles reflect this: between not for certain and solid reflection or the view from here, for example.

In some ways we know more now is a visual notebook of experience (both immediate, with the windows, and more indexical, with the ‘plates’). On display until the end of October, this is a show you should visit several times (as its installed on facing walls, if you sit in opposing spaces you can ‘be’ with both walls of the show).

Bruce Thompson’s exhibition of new works we know more now is on display at Rise Above (120 St. Paul Street, in downtown St. Catharines) until the end of October, 2019. Bruce is an artist who lives and works in St. Catharines, Ontario. He completed his BA in Visual Art from Brock University and his MFA from the University of Windsor. His recent work is mainly focused on bringing the everyday happenings – walks, objects, and the phenomenological, to visual form. Previous work dealt with LGBTQ couple’s portraits and gatherings. He is also a professional actor and singer, having performed all over North America as well as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and in touring productions of Titanic and Forever Plaid. He has won several awards for his acting work in San Francisco and was in the Broadway production of Les Miserables at the Imperial Theater in New York. All images are courtesy the artist.

A Fall Update: What About Rodman Hall?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The relevant information from their PSA released in late June:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soldiers’ Wives Waving Goodbye, 1938

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

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

Municipal Shelter, 1926

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

The Downtrodden: Poor Family, 1900

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

Need, 1893 – 1897

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

Death, 1893 – 1897

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

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

Meet me at the Curtain Call

A fellow arts writer has a bit of an obsession with a statement made by a curator several years ago, that she ‘doesn’t know what Art is’: the curator in question is unimpressive, while often praised, within the Canadian overtly academic trench, so depending where you stand, this frankness has several ramifications. There’s definitely an element of incompetence and politicization in Kitty Scott’s comment about ‘not knowing’: alternately, I like to interpret it in a manner reminiscent of how even a blind pig finds an acorn now and again. After all, anyone familiar with the history of art knows that – like history, like society – change is constant, and in an excellent anthology of art writing stretching back centuries, Jeremy Tanner points out that many art historians deny the relevance of works that have severe sociological implications, just as many sociologists are bereft of any knowledge of history, especially art history, which can be both subversive and direct. Tanner posits they are more alike in their blinkering than either would like to admit.

All of that is in response to art in gallery spaces. What happens when we’re engaging with public art, or art in the public sphere, as I like to term it? After all, when someone enters a gallery space, there’s a convention at play, regarding looking and engaging, that puts the onus, in many ways, on the ‘visitor.’ But when works emerge from that (too often) ‘white cube’, and occupy sites that intersect with many different communities, they (must) become something else. Several years ago, there was a kerfuffle regarding Keeley Haftner‘s Found Compressions. It was installed in a neighbourhood that had, on its own, engaged in an intense clean up and revitalization: placing a work made of ‘garbage’ without consulting residents or stakeholders within said area led to vitriol and vandalism.

However, other works have employed irony and challenge effectively: look at the number of installations that happened, that intelligently explored the historical narrative around the War of 1812 when Harper tried to direct public money to create monuments that favoured his simplistic and ideologically shuttered propaganda? Several across Canada looked at stories not already told, or ignored, or that Harpo neither intended nor wanted…

This brings us to the here and now, and downtown St. Catharines, where Lilly Otašević’s Curtain Call has just been raised on the side of the Performing Arts Centre (facing Carlisle Street, but easily seen as you walk up St. Paul, with NAC behind you to your left). Some background information, before we approach the multi-hued, massive work that ‘hangs’ a storey above the sidewalk: Curtain Call ‘was funded, in part, by a grant from the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Canada 150 program, through the Celebration of Nations/Célébration de nation project being led by the PAC…a portion of the PAC’s initial construction budget had been designated for a public art project, and this process has been ongoing for several years.” I’d inject that several cities across Canada often earmark financial (and construction) support for artworks to compliment their spaces. A notable one was in Saskatoon a few years ago, where the new police station, as part of its design and mandate, commissioned an installation out front as a reminder / warning regarding MMIWG (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls – do I have to explain that acronym, still? Oh, right, Andrew Scheer is making a run for PM, Kenney is back like a zombie parasite, so yes, yes, I do…). Connecting to this, Otašević’s “metal sculpture was created to look like a wampum belt, with colourful beads that follow a wavy shape along the wall” (an accompanying panel, and the full and final ‘setting’ of the piece should be completed, by the time you’re reading this). The shortlist from which Otašević was selected included five other finalists, by “a jury made up of local arts professionals and St. Catharines staff.”

You can see more of Otašević’s aesthetic and public works here at her site. Her practice is multi-faceted, and having been born and educated in Belgrade, she brings an interesting sensibility to public artworks (I may be extrapolating too much, but my interaction with the public artworks created by immigrants to Canada often display an awareness of history and its contested narratives that many here either deny or choose to ignore. Several artists I’ve worked with, or whose practice has helped shape my attitudes and expectations about art in the public space have been from Eastern Europe, and that’s a space that encapsulates ‘contested narratives’ like few others). Other public works: Crescendo can be seen in Burlington, Mobius in Toronto, and Unity is in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China.

Perhaps you remember Elizabeth Chitty’s OAAG Award Winning community art project at Rodman Hall that ‘grew’ a wampum belt on the fertile and lovely grounds there, working with both Indigenous groups here but also recent newcomers. Slightly before that, an exhibition – Reading the Talk, also at RHAC – featured a sardonic, and definitely caustic in its satire, ‘take’ on the wampum belt treaty by Vanessa Dion Fletcher. Too much ‘art in the public sphere’ is simply ‘plop art’ still: pieces ‘dropped’ into a public space that say nothing to, nor respect, nor help define or refine the history of those communities, whether local or national (we’ve all endured those horrid karaoke modernist blocks and shapes that seem to occupy a great deal of space, yet we can pass by daily and not remember ‘seeing’…).

Curtain Call is vibrant in colour, and I’ve already enjoyed it as the sun sets, and may make a point of viewing it as the sun rises and shimmers and reflects on the blues, oranges, yellows and indigo of the flowing, bending work: too often, public art is a horrid failure, where it’s not only lacking in aesthetic, but to steal a joke, actually is an anaesthetic to good taste. Otašević’s Curtain Call is both engaging visually and relevant in an historical, as well as contemporary, sense of place and space.

All images are courtesy City of St. Catharines, and copyright of the artist.