In the Soil, Sewer Music

To write about visual art is in itself a difficult endeavour that attempts to graft speech onto vision (usually): to apply language to audio art is equally rife for fracture. But sometimes those “failures” are the most interesting, as they break expectations or assumptions. More possibilities present themselves.

It is, to paraphrase Duncan MacDonald, like going to an art school to make music, because most music schools are a bit more prescribed, and won’t allow the transgression of artmaking in their hallowed halls. There’s an aspect of this, in his collaborative piece for In The Soil, titled Music for Sewers, that privileges the experiential: attempting to put what you hear and feel into words degrades your experience, and only limits your interaction. Eleanor Antion, a significant if underrated artist associated with the FLUXUS group of the ’60s, put it best: “All art works are conceptual machines…All art exists in the mind.”

And art in the public sphere where the environment and audiences are so diverse and different that they deny classification, makes it “worse” – or “better”, perhaps. In John Perreault’s Street Music I, “he dialed calls for two hours from one midtown Manhattan telephone booth to another and hung up after three rings, which may or may not have been heard by passersby. It was a work so displaced, scattered, and marginal that it resided only in the imagination of the artist and the audience to whom it was later described.”(Paglia, from her Glittering Images).

But back to the installation proper: although MacDonald is the designated artist, its really a variation on the improvisational performances that he’s done with several fellow artists. Listed like a band lineup, MacDonald does “bangy things”, Ben Mikuska “big strings”, Arnie McBay “skinny strings”, and my favourite designation: Greg Betts provides “face.” Music for Sewers will be in the old raceway (visible from MacDonald’s office in the MIWSFPA), the watery offshoot of the old Welland Canal, that used to power the Canada Hair Cloth Building that the Walker absorbed and reformed. The “adaptive re use of the industrial Hair Cloth building” as the architect of the MIWSFPA stated once displays that “we were very aware of the palimpsest of history in your building.” This manifests in many small ways: Music for Sewers might be another example.

The project statement is delightfully honest and fresh: “We have been improvising and making what at times could be referred to as music for about 4 years now. This installation work will be our first public presentation as of yet”.

Now, the performances have been recorded, if untraditionally and experimentally. But MacDonald was coy about whether there’d be a speaker in the sewer or if his merry band would be “below”, translating their frenzy to a “public sphere.”

If you detect a hint of the absurd here, you’re correct: its in the spirit of John Cage, who could make some deep points about listening / creating in a manner that cast the whole framework of assumptions in a critical – perhaps heretical – light. In conversation about Sewers, Jacques Attali’s book Noise: Political Economy of Music was spoken of, by MacDonald, as a touchstone for experiencing this aural intervention beneath our feet and street. It’s an odd text that proposes a number of ideas about how we understand “music” which meld nicely with the visceral immediacy of Sewers. Attali talks about a way of thinking, not about objects and commodity but wider conversations. His division of the history of music offers gems like “repeating” where performances of music are all about a fidelity of imitation of an idealized, “perfect” recording.

Sewers isn’t that. It’s a site of reactionary reactive collaborative noise performance; a “readyfelt” (like readymade) physical experience of audio (like Darren Copeland or Myriam Bleau, who construct very formal, technically heavy situation, then react intuitively and instinctively within it). Past public audio interventions MacDonald played a hand in were Music Box Revolving Door, which led to pedestrians pausing unexpectedly to rethink their relationship to where they are / were, or another public art piece in Kitchener where “the entrance to city hall becomes a music box.” Again, absurd plays on propriety and perverted expectations that make you see the wider possibilities of experience.

In the heady days of late capitalist modernism / late modernist capitalism, an experience of unexpected “Sewer Music” is less about a “use” but moreso a “joy” value. Picture a balloon, a gleeful and treasured “nothing” filled with air, all temporal emptiness but a well known symbol of happiness and celebration. Here we come back to Attali, talking about how we must “possess” music, and thus collect it in an artificial form that is so exact and defined it denies the original, unique, ephemeral, shared performative experience…

Music for Sewers will be brief, fleeting, then only a memory. If you tell someone you heard it, they may assume you’re just delusional. Description may be impossible: but it will be a unique, perhaps impossible to “code” into words, experience. Go and seek it out.

Part 1. What About Rodman Hall? The Exhibition at NAC

Several years ago, the University of Saskatchewan launched an “austerity” review. Various committees “evaluated” employees, departments, programs, etc. Oh, the anecdotes I could relate, before it imploded brutally, as many hateful things do. You may remember reading about it in the NP or Globe. Lawsuits are pending.

Now, during that “process” the College Art Gallery was deemed extraneous, all staff should be dismissed, and the University art collection should pass to Library Services. That committee lacked anyone with any gallery, museums or collections experience: it did have several from, ahem, Library Services. They’re probably unaware that the College had been recently singled out for heady praise by the outgoing editor of Canadian Art as one of the finer University galleries in Canada.

Considering that the gallery and storage spaces were barely a decade old, and very good ones, this was a questionable suggestion. Amusingly, the current U of S president recently got a puff piece hand job in the local paper, talking about how much he “values” the University art collection. Like most foul politicians, he assumes we’ve forgotten his verbose Op Eds in the same rag in support of the aforementioned austerity hypocrisy…
But what’s that got to do with here?

Let’s examine the recent rumblings out of Brock University about “redefining” its relationship to Rodman Hall Art Centre. For those unfamiliar, Brock took on Rodman in 2003, for the token fee of two dollars, and the agreement that no assets or holdings would be sold off for 20 years. An article in The Standard last spring (2015, not 2023) cited VP Finance and Administration Brian Hutchings saying that Brock is “looking to reduce its subsidy by 50%” and where Rodman fits in Brock’s orbit is being “studied.” An announcement was recently made of hiring an external consultant.

But note that charged language of austerity: “subsidy?” The same article mentioned surprise on the part of Peter Partridge at this declaration: what is less obvious than the “bean counters” (using NAC Director Remus’ caustic naming) is whether any consultation has happened with wider stakeholders than the “citizen’s advisory committee” of which Partridge is part. And we saw many “consultants” at the U of S, of the LEAN variety…

Since the initial declaration of the potential abandonment of Rodman by Brock, it has been all quiet….or muffled, if you will. Some of my forays into this have been met with refusals to comment, those declining to decline comment, and those whom don’t respond at all…

And let us not forget this is happening in the unpleasant shadow of the university’s recent (almost criminally negligent) handling of a case of sexual harassment, that seemed more about message and damage control than a respecting and respectful community.

Now, some of you are surely saying: “Wasn’t this supposed to be an art review? What tangent is Gazzola leading us on, now?”

Let us go then, you and I, to Niagara Artist Centre’s current exhibition What About Rodman Hall?

To paraphrase Stephen Remus, Director of NAC, it is intended to initiate — if not, perhaps, forcefully broker — genuine dialogue about Rodman’s future. This must include voices like BFA Honours student Liz Hayden (currently exhibiting there, as part of a collaborative educational project between MIWSFPA and Rodman, in #trynottocryinpublic) stating that “the loss of Rodman Hall would be a loss not only to art students, or the arts community, but to every resident of the area. “Imagining the City” without it is too dreadful to contemplate.”

The exhibition statement: “The place of the Rodman Hall Art Centre in our community is once again the subject of deliberation. Brock University, which in 2003 pledged to be the sole operator of the art gallery for twenty years, is now reconsidering the terms of its supporting role…Why is it that our community leaders have not always recognized the value of having a strong, well-resourced public or university art gallery like Rodman Hall? A large and diverse collection of art work has been assembled for the exhibit. Some of it is obviously aimed at creating controversy; all of it is thoughtfully created and provocative.”

Donna Szoke’s Let Me Stand (a “postcard” of balsa wood) implores “let me stand on your shoulders so I can see into the future.” Perhaps you saw her recent exhibition at Rodman, with equally incisive text.

Geoff Farnsworth’s painting is sarcastic: titled Proposal to Relocate Rodman Hall to Lundy’s Lane, it depicts his worry “that short term bureaucratic economic policy may rush one of the outstanding beacons of the…cultural Niagara hub…Lundy’s Lane [as a] low brow tourist vacuum with fast food and bargain basement strip motifs seems a fitting metaphor as repercussion in the event of this scenario.”

Melanie MacDonald highlights an aspect of Rodman — and thus the city and region’s history — with her painting Precarious. An apt title for a depiction of teacups delicately balanced upon one another. the metaphor is twofold: a literal reminder of how “through the first four decades of its existence, Rodman depended on its Women’s Committee…who met…over cups of tea and worked cooperatively to organize activities that would support the arts centre.” Further, “the teacups are stacked precariously to underline the delicacy and fragility of the many relationships between citizens and organizations. The colours are inverted…demonstrating how things seem to have flipped to a top-down, bureaucratic style of management from the grass-roots, civic-minded activities of Rodman’s origins and formative years.”

Other artists of note include Carolyn Wren’s delicate projection Longing, Sandy Middleton’s Ghosts in the Hall, Brittany Brook’s Everything I Saw: Marcie Bronson’s simple and direct 24 Titles evokes history in a manner similar to MacDonald, highlighting the labour and energy and sense of community that Rodman has “housed.”

Carrie Perreault (who also has a video work that’s a bit rude in raising an undeniable point) dominates a wall with Don’t Make Me Spell It Out in Macaroni And Paint It Gold. The media here are various and inclusive: there was a somewhat funereal performance the night of the opening reception, too.

Let’s step away from NAC, for a moment: I want to share some information, from a source I decline to name (well, several, to be honest). It’s been postulated that Rodman will be “given” to a “newly formed non profit” in the summer of 2016, whose mandate will be to then sell the parkland and building. This money will then be the base of a larger fundraising campaign to build a new public gallery, downtown, on the site of the current police station. Several questions have been raised by my sources on this front: isn’t this redundant, in light of already having a public gallery, in Rodman? Where will further monies, re: building and operational funding be coming from? I’ll mention Saskatoon again, and the situation with the Remai Modern there, with budget overruns and the tussle and tug of city, community and governance, and ask why this is being considered as an option for here.

Stepping back into NAC’s exhibition: there are selected quotes from past Rodman Directors on the back wall. The words of Shirley Madill (2008 – 2011): “Rodman…is more than a building and grounds. It embodies the visions of its founders, a collecgive group of individuals who understood the need for and led the way for an art centre for the community of St. Catharines. Directors and Curators that followed continued this vision and collected and showcased Canadian Art. Its history (and future?) is embedded in place.”

This exhibition — like the title implies — should be the beginning of this conversation, not the end, like a decision handed down from on high (a bad pun, for Brock, especially considering the aforementioned relationship of the downtown to the MIWSFPA, through “Art in the City” and how that seemed to mark a more collaborative relationship). Now, the university has just hired “Interkom Smart Marketing earlier this year to develop next steps in their study of Rodman Hall’s future. Martin van Zon and the team at Interkom [are] now reaching out to stakeholders in the community to examine what the future of Rodman Hall may look like.” So, make your voice heard: start by visiting the show at NAC, and ensure the community is respected as a stakeholder here. Don’t be afraid to yell loudly, to ensure ignoring you is difficult.

The multi part series chonicling Interkom’s four evenings of “consultations” on the “future” of Rodman Hall, and the concept of the Art Gallery of Niagara begins here.

Now and Then: Amy Friend at Rodman Hall

In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, a challenging work on self and memory, a character reflects “I remembered the words particularly: Somebody pulled a thread of the fabric and it all dissolved.” I read that after my engaging walkthrough at Rodman Hall Art Centre of Amy Friend’s Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life, where the idea of fact and fiction in familial history was encapsulated by curator Marcie Bronson’s observation about “pulling the thread that unravels everything.” (Her last curatorial venture at Rodman was the architecturally appropriate — and also exploring place / space / remembrance — The Radcliffe Line and Other Stories by Sarindar Dhaliwal).

Before I progress to the artworks, I’ll quote Bronson further: the specificity of the side space at Rodman, the architectural / historical insistence / presence of the building invites “more experimental work” that can answer back to a space with equal personality. In some ways, its perfect that Friend employs the aesthetics of the space in her attempts to “pull apart meaning and have people exist within it.”

The interesting thing about the specific work that dominates Amy Friend’s exhibition at Rodman Hall — titled Where The Land Meets The Sea — is that the piece is (at the least) dualistic. Is it most fully itself when you stand in front of the mirror, with Rodman’s architecture incorporated into your looking / reflection, the ghostly landscape behind, or when you’re stepping around / tempted to stroke the silken sea on the floor, but “face to face” with the hanging impressionist backlit scene?

Both. Either. Neither – you’re in an environment you define by where you stand, as with all art, whether between the silken room or your dirty reflection.

It’s a quiet exhibition: perhaps contrasting the raucous freneticism of Inland in the back gallery. Ordinary is a pensive show, calm and thoughtful: the mirror is fitting for that, or that you can see all the work from various places in the gallery. There’s a complicated beauty here that leads to difficult moments of contemplation about our being, at times intrusive and voyeuristic (these are from a family still living and visiting the gallery, knowing these objects and images more intimately and perhaps more — or less? — reverently than us). And like all families, they’re “scratchy… based on truth and lies… fabricated and ephemeral.”

Where The Land is, in many ways, the defining piece. The image on the silk is an amorphic landscape, all gaps and absences, softness and fades, less about what is there than what is not. Allusion is a powerful methodology.

“There is so much of everything that nothing is hidden quite nicely” might almost be forgotten (though assembled over the fireplace in the gallery, and perhaps the first artwork you see as you enter), but symbolizes the kernel of the exhibition. “Ordinary” marked its genesis in a collection of objects from a distant deceased relative of Friend’s, and the respective — or posthumously assigned — importance of this detritus sparked the exploration of memory and family. Especially the gaps, as much as the shared experiences, of kin.

Various objects in “nothing” include: several straight razors; a Berthing card (“time stands still in travel”); fragments — not scraps, as that suggests garbage — of paper, yellowed and with worn folds soon to be tears (some are treasured notes, turned facing the wall, their intimacy hidden like a family secret unspoken); a pair of glasses; some medals that suggest military service; keys, of variant shapes and styles; a photograph of a man, wallet-sized; various indexical evidence of a life. Remnants with an iconic power, no matter how inappropriate or banal they appear for such consideration.

Analyzing the rooms as a whole (like a family parlor): there’s a play of opposites in the work. Mirror / memory, archives and objects, odd family mementos and images of distracted and vague meaning. The process of the images on the gallery walls involve 8mm (shot by Friend’s mother) projected onto mirrors (dirty, with skin flakes from other, unknown viewers, whose indexical history intrudes and obscures) and then photographed. Oceans and Silkworms depicts her grandmother, who raised silkworms in their attic: a literal “thread” to the larger flowing piece Land. The skin dust on the mirrors leads to “gaps” in the 8mm projections – another literal representation, illustrating “holes” in family memory. The degradation of the original 8mm displays the degradation of remembrance.

To return to the conversation I had with Bronson and Friend: many visitors to the space find it evokes their own personal memories, using the space as we did, to talk of family history / family secrets (as there’s no didactic panel, the conversations seem to fullfil that function, that need). Our conversation in that space was as much about art as it was about our families and the very specific nature of photography as it relates to reflection and forgetfulness.

In Star Gazing, a multiple portrait of the artist has not only the reflected present-day artist, but a “child Amy” in the 8mm image that turns to look at us (now) or her mother (then) shooting the original film. But we also now step into this exchange, this conversation through time. Friend asserted that her mother was rarely in these images (hence the importance of another image, Travelling Light, as she’s there by “accident”, indicating something else of importance by her pointing). Gender is always a factor in family – or domestic spaces, if you will, and women are often the default memory keepers. Consider our mothers and grandmothers with objects and albums, or how prevalent that it’s a female family member whom holds the literal and metaphorical “history” of a clan. Martha Langford’s excellent work with family albums (what they reveal, what they hide) is part of this story.

It’s history in a space (both with Amy’s work, but augmented by Rodman’s ambience) and spaces breathe and have life. Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life employs a seductive beauty to trouble our perceptions of ourselves and our relations to others.

Inland Space / Shawn Serfas

One of the things that has become relevant for me lately is the idea of synchronicity: or perhaps I’m investing too much into the idea that the exhibition Inland, by Shawn Serfas, an Assistant Professor at Brock University, brings together a number of uniquely relevant, if somewhat unpredictable, points.

After all, the Canadian art world is small: so the fact that Serfas was a student of mine during his BFA (Saskatoon), before he his MFA (Alberta), isn’t that odd. He’s just mounted a major exhibition of his work at Rodman Hall, and perhaps thoughts of “prairie modernism” or “prairie abstraction” still inform his work. My own attitudes about those motifs have shifted / are shifting (partly due to geography, partly due to other factors). This supplies an interesting coincidence, a possibility to go deeper in looking at Inland, which has been curated by Stuart Reid.

There’s also external factors in considering contemporary abstract painting: Ellsworth Kelly has passed, and a massive retrospective of Frank Stella was recently mounted. But it’s also worth considering Camille Paglia’s acerbic — and insightful — declaration that many “regard abstract painting with suspicion, as if it were a hoax or fraud… there is more bad than good abstract art, which has been compromised over the decades by a host of inept imitations”.

Jerry Saltz calls it “zombie modernism” (and all the facile St. Justs to his Robespierre rush to quote it, like good ignorant zealots). In Saskatoon, where Shawn and I met, I christened it “karaoke modernism.” Imitative form without the spark of creativity: not even simulacra, but arrogant mimesis. The last exhibition I saw on the prairies, Abject Abstract, presented two excremental examples of this: Jon Vaughn and Allysha Larsen. They personify how often those whom imitate the giants are as offensive as they are unoriginal. I mention those not just for appropriate derision, but to highlight that distance allows insight and proffers maturity. Serfas left, and has expanded his vision and his practice. The geographic reference encapsulated in the title of his exhibition is another entertaining interpretation (or coincidence).

His work fills the “lower” space: the two smaller alcove rooms and the larger, sunken space. The works alternate between massive, “manly” paintings, often dominated by darks with breaks of vivid colour; these works seem covered in an oily black “scum”, almost “dirty.” You can stand amidst these works, having them encircle you, and interact with them as they interact with each other. Yellow T, Forge or Blacken (all part of the Inland Series) are the more interesting. These are a painted series of “monoliths.” Slit No. 2 is all oily blacks, vasoline gelled whites with a red “dock” at the bottom, like an industrial waste site, the interior organs of a sewer system. Forge offers some light blues, muddy bloody dirty blacks scabbing over again, a lighter thicker tab in glutty white but tainted with yellow and red streaks that ooze into the “dock” at the bottom.

Second White from this series stands apart visually – and literally, as it hangs in an alcove. This work is as white as the others are black. Second is cracked and flaky: more solemn, more funerary than the foreboding oppression of its peers. This is like a period to a sentence. This quiet nature is the opposite of the massive sweeping brush strokes (as in Forge), like a parody of the “artist’s hand” – titanic brush marks, more than a foot wide, glistening with (Stuart’s words) the “liquidity of paint” and “wet layers” with “crackling surfaces.”

Two elderly ladies in the space with me saw it all as architecture: temple and arches, balistrades and buildings. Serfas’s own words about the Inland works cited fear and foreboding, venom and poison in the viscosity of the massive works. Our shared dalliances with Prairie Modernism manifested again, as he asserted that he “sources my abstraction from the landscape”, often referencing aerial photography, geomorphology, “multiple layers of complex information” and metaphor that silence or augment or change each other (the prairie notion of the palimpsest rears its head, also). Meanings are more combinatons of layers than one dominating a “lower” one

There are several smaller works that charm, while fracturing the space between painting and sculpture. The smaller pieces are almost all from the Portrait of a Mark series: of this group, Seeing, Inland Yellow and Trench are the best. Trench is within a plain white frame, and pale greens and light blue swell out in a bulge more bodily than painterly, though rough and delicate mark making unites all the works by Serfas, small and large. The bulge is then cut into, with the large “trench”of the title: you see a cross section that has bits of red, and other almost grotesque painted “chunks”and iridiscent nodules that seems like fat or cartilage. It’s like an unruly, seeping organ on a sterile white slab; or the green is minty fresh and inviting, like icing. Perhaps this work is my favourite as I wish to consume it.

Trench hangs on a wall by itself: Seeing and Inland Yellow sit next to each other. The former is based on a scrappy, perhaps degraded series of stripes (red on green, green on red) with a snaked form on top of it. It’s intestinal, and the colours are muddy or dullish. Inland Yellow has a flat, sometimes sagging, sometimes stretched and bubbled “skin” that seems to have tears that expose another linear “post painterly” background (the art historian in me sees this a metaphor for some of my previus points about the history of abstract painting, with the mimesis or mockery of what’s gone before, or what’s “contemporary”).

Cross No. 2 again offers the “cleanliness” of art history burst and broken by the goey lack of restraint of the last 50 years that some modernist painters would dismiss as degraded (in conversation, Serfas designated some areas of works as more mind than heart, or more thinking than feeling. This is a flexible framework, when seeing clean, hard edged “docks” and “tags” arguing with almost violent and raw detritus of mark making. Some of the colourful gluts bulging forth also have delicate translucent gel threads, like ligaments or tendons. Another smaller work, Key, has its black and white linear background broken repeatedly by unadulterated chunks of colour, but Summ suggests a later stage, and the unruly glutty tumours of paint are like a cancer run amok, serving itself, consuming the work, becoming the work. The works you’ll see in the small alcoves as you leave the gallery, outside the gallery proper, have gluts that are free from the canvas and sit on the ledge.

The installation is evocative: many of these works speak to each other in complimentary or conflicting ways, and you may discover a work in another room that answers back to a previously seen piece, or that furthers the conversation. And that is perhaps the best place to leave Inland: Serfas spoke often of the “pluralism” in his work, the multiplicities of meaning intersecting in the same space. I’ve seen the show three times already and I’ll see it again, and the works that hold me each time are different on each visit.