All the world’s a stage: de Montmollin’s Dreams, Delusions, and Other Traffic Circles

Gabrielle de Montmollin’s work exists on multiple levels of interpretation and appreciation. When I encountered the art she had in the latest incarnation of the Grimsby Public Art Gallery’s Biannual Exhibition, I laughed out loud. Another piece, in this series (Lizard Legs Mash-up) that I saw in the gallery / studio / living space in Welland (AIH Studios) she keeps with artist Tony Calzetta, was all sexydirtysilly, on first impression. But – as with Gold Bowl, Black Boots and Miss Pink and the Giraffes (from the GPAG show) – when I carried the images away in my mind and considered them later, they all became more disturbing, eerie and unsettling. All the works in the series Dreams, Delusions, and Other Traffic Circles are colourful and attractive, and although Montmollin is a prolific artist whose extensive history of images (exploring both aesthetic and politic concerns) can be seen at her site, this is the [doll’s] body of work that has garnered my attention, here.

Her words: “Dreams, Delusions, and Other Traffic Circles is a series of contemporary surrealist still lifes…[perhaps] more surrealist than they are still lifes. The photographs…are narratives of objects in ambiguous relationships, weird juxtapositions and disconcerting non sequiturs. The ‘wallpaper’ is the element that runs throughout. [It indicates] that everything happens on a set, it is theatre….There is no obvious or hidden relationship between the players on the set and the wallpaper. Max Ernst defined the structure of the surrealist painting as “A linking of two realities that by all appearances have nothing to link them, in a setting that by all appearances does not fit them.” I am not a painter but this is a good description of my photographs.”

This irreverence, this dramatic (perhaps of the theatre of the absurd) staging of scenes by Montmollin is an excellent repository for the viewer to construct stories, or invest their own experience. Tomato Wedding, for example, was the inspiration for an entertaining conversation between the artist, myself, and several others when the three person exhibition Now Here was on display in Welland. The wedding couple dolls face a surfeit of tomatoes (as someone who grew up half Italian, and have found that heritage – in a real sense, in an artificial sense – can be like being cornered by a bunch of tomatoes, like muggers in an alley, like a swarm of hegemony, this piece is (again) superficially funny but scratch that glossy veneer and its more disconcerting). Or maybe I was reminded of all the cherry tomatoes I’ve been picking these past few years, more for my parents than I.

Clementine Coven, with its tiny delicate high heels, or Ménage à trois, which is not what you’re thinking, at all (even through there’s a duck in this tableaux and I was thinking of Leda and Zeus. If that piques your interest, you can visit the AIH Studios in Welland, to see that to which I allude, for yourself).

At their feet has an amusing ‘pop your heads off your dolls’ referent, but knowing Montmollin’s work and having spoken to her on numerous occasions, about her art, my writing, and the larger art / social worlds we exist within (or against), I get a bit of Judith and Holofernes here, or maybe a bit of Salome and the Head of John the Baptist. In considering the repetition of the wallpaper, the scenes being “staged” in the same “space”, there’s not just a theatrical context to consider, but perhaps also how different ‘classics’ can be remounted in different ways (I think of a version of King Lear I saw staged as a British military drama, replete with uniforms, or how I’ve played Puck in a contemporary restaging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Titania, Hippolyta and Helena were all (simply fabulous, ahem) drag queens). We reinterpret stories to keep them alive, or to make them real, to ourselves and others.

There’s a sensibility here reminiscent of Barbara Gowdy‘s writings, especially the short stories in We So Seldom Look on Love: deathly (murderously, in at least one story) serious but also (in)appropriately ribald. Sadman, Muscleman and Flamenco à trois suggest horror, inanity and rom – com farce (with nudity, so perhaps more R than PG13, and that young fellow in the foreground does look like a very young Peter Sellers), respectively. Blessing of the zebras is frantically joyous, although you may find it takes a bit of effort to find the “blesser”, amidst the harem of zebras (that is the proper name for a group of said animals…which, considering Jesus’ relationship to supposed “fallen” women, illustrates the intersecting ideas at play in Montmollin’s Dreams, Delusions, and Other Traffic Circles. To return to a piece I mentioned at the beginning of this article: Lizard Legs Mash-up has a bawdy, perhaps Rabelaisian, quality. Perhaps its a fittingly twisted take on ‘Reptilian Theory’, popularized by that wingnut David Icke. Research at your own risk, ahem, and no offence to Montmollin by that association). Gabrielle’s words: “..my art is based on imagination; I am interested in telling stories, play and mystery.” As well, “[besides] personal imaginings she works to find visual expression for her feelings about social justice issues and politics.”

Her career / practice is extensive and I offer you here only the most recent glimpse of what she’s done: she “began her career in television and film before switching her interest to still photography. For many years she worked exclusively with black and white film photographing throwaway plastic toys and dolls arranged in constructed, fantasy settings. She developed darkroom manipulations using extreme bleaching and painting and drawing on paper negatives. Since realizing that digital photography did not provide her with the same creative possibilities she has been working with mixed media blending painting, drawing and montage elements with digital prints.” She’s exhibited in many solo and group exhibitions in Canada, the United States, Belgium, Italy, France and The Netherlands. The website for AIH Studios (also known as Art is Hell Studios) offers many examples of past works, and I encourage you to visit it, as well as their gallery space, in Welland.

Sound your barbaric yawp: Heather Hart’s Northern Oracle

She’s convinced of her own legitimacy, her right to pronounce: I and my kind are here on sufferance. (Atwood)

Heather Hart began her artist talk, on the evening that Northern Oracle opened at RHAC, with a game of “telephone.” It only involved several people, but even among the limited group, what she said became quickly unrecognizable. This set the architecture (a bad pun, that’ll become clear later) for how her works, both in terms of what’s at Rodman Hall, and what she’s facilitated / created in the past, are about the gaps / truths between (and within) oral and written “narratives.”

In showing several pieces that incorporated personal yet public historical tropes, Hart also indicated how we can’t assume that what’s written down is perfect (she cited an instance of research where a name was mispelled and this became the repeated “official” spelling). Neither should we be as ready to declare – or discount – oral traditions, either. A critical listening and questioning of historical allegories is a strong undertone of Hart’s practice. In looking through my notes from Hart’s talk (touching on other incarnations of “Oracle” that were Eastern, or Southern), certain terms recurred and I want to inject here: slippage, echoes, recollections or memories that depend upon a site and (conversely) a nomadic experiences of place . This latter one is interesting for suggesting we interact with place not so much from experiences as what we’ve been told about a site.

The previous Rodman exhibition, Carry Forward, talked in some ways about the danger of assuming a “written document” or an “historical document” is always factual / valid. Hart expands that conversation, saying that oral traditions are also a space for historical, social or ideological assumptions – or degradation – of facts, where contested narratives are undermined by unfounded suppositions. Perhaps you saw that interesting story from the Prairies about what constitutes Métis territory, and how thats already garnering friction among the Lakota, Cree and Salteux on the plains. How that contested narrative plays out is yet to be determined, as issues about historical “legitimacy” – whatever that means, depending on who’s speaking to / at whom – is more universal than unique.

Northern Oracle‘s “rooftop” dominates the gallery, and frankly, the drawings on some of the other walls to the right in the open, high ceiling gallery, aren’t effective nor impressive. On repeated visits, I climb the roof, or I go inside the “attic” interior, or I sit on the tar paper and talk to others, and yes, I have, by the time you’re reading this, gone and “sounded my barbaric yawp over the rooftops” (Whitman) while shouting some of my favourite words, from Ginsberg to Job to Akhmatova or Eliot’s The Waste Land.

The statement: Northern Oracle is an ambitious rooftop installation that emerges from the floor of the gallery, and is accompanied by a series of mixed media drawings. Through her work, Heather Hart considers Black histories, access to ownership, taking up physical space, and the significance of having a place to call home. Visitors will be able to access both the rooftop and its floor level attic, while further contemplating and enacting upon the corollary of these vantage points. The “Oracle”, located in the attic, is the heart of the work and is a site-specific shrine where visitors may leave behind offerings.

Northern Oracle will provide a performative area, a locale for demonstration of power, influence, and direction where the idiom, “shout it from the rooftop” will be made literal. Throughout the exhibition, the space will be activated by performances, lectures and workshops.

When Hart shared past iterations of Oracle, one was outdoors, in a wooded area: there the roof seemed to emerge from the ground, and I see the one in Rodman similarily, like a rising, or surfacing, architecture or story. In this respect, having this work here resonates outside the gallery, if we think of Hart’s own connections to African American history, and many recent honourings of Harriett Tubman here in Niagara, from the naming of schools to the campaign to preserve and restore the church on Geneva that was integral to her activities, and frankly, to this place. Even the superficial “underground” connection (railroad or ideas, emerging upwards) plays with this allusion.

Hart shared several projects with the crowd the night of the opening, when she spoke: several explore that misused and misinterpreted idiom of relational aesthetics, but in a manner that is very effective (The Black Lunch Table Project, or Build a Brother, or The Porch Project).

Perhaps that’s why, in thinking of her work here, I sometimes consider it more architecture than art, as architecture is built for people and ideas, and is often more of a space for people and ideas than “art” has been.

Unsurprisingly, my responses to artworks are often subjective, and I was once told my writing about art privileges subjectivity (my own implied, perhaps) above all else. There’s many art works I’ve found exquisitely evocative and inspiring, but oftentimes for reasons different than what was intended. My repeated invocations of Jeanne Randolph’s ideas of the amenable object have helped me realize that this is as valid as any other interpretation.

In light of that, despite having visited Oracle a dozen times already (even leaving a reception for something else at RHAC to spend time with Hart’s structure), I have only gone “inside” it once. The title – Northern Oracle – alludes to the drawing in the interior and the manner in which visitors are encourage to interact with it, with provided gold leaf. That interests me not at all but I’ve repeatedly climbed the roof, sat on the window “ledges”, ascended to the apex of the tar paper tiles and touched the ceiling. Its wrong to say I’m uninterested in the interior, though: when I’ve sat on the very edge of the roof’s high point, admiring the play of shadows on the wall behind it, or looking out over the gallery space from a new and unusual spot, I realized that the chimney on the roof offers a view down into the space. What you need to peer through the “drawing” if inside with the “Oracle” you can see by simply looking straight down, past the clear glass / plastic covering the “lid” of the chimney.

Somehow that seems more interesting, more intimate, to look down to the empty chair with seemingly discarded clothes and clothes. It seems more secret, more powerful, and in that respect intersects with the power of being on the roof, with being in an unfamiliar “position” of strength, from which to project your voice, your words and your self out into the space.

From the second visit to the Oracle, I knew that I’d stand on top and recite Ginsberg’s When the Light Appears, Boy (there’s a video in my social media feed, though I may do it again). This offers an idea of what Hart’s piece can inspire. Visit the work, and consider that if you could stand on a rooftop and yell whatever you like, what would you say?

Northern Oracle is on display at Rodman Hall until March 3rd, 2019. All images are courtesy Rodman Hall Art Centre.

June-Etta Chenard: depth and meaning

In a recent conversation about the downtown of STC, we all agreed that many of the spaces along St. Paul offer interesting and engaging art works (frequently for sale). As I was enjoying June-Etta Chenard’s latest exhibition in the city (located at Mahtay Cafe and Lounge, which you hopefully visited this past December), I realized it was a year ago that she exhibited in the Dennis Tourbin space at the Niagara Artist Centre (So Invisible was the name of that selection of works).

That previous show was my first encounter with her works (I’m sure I saw some online, as we intersect with similar social circles), and their detail, discipline and the nature of the materials she uses and the intensity of her practice is still evident in the works from this past December.

Many of the works in Interior Landscapes at Mahtay have a specific narrative that sometimes is intrinsic to fully appreciating them, and other times they can simply be enjoyed viscerally and aesthetically. This is a good overview of June-Etta’s practice: there are works that are intensely vibrant, like Homage to the Sun Dancer or Voix des femmes / Voices of Women, with rich reds and deep blacks and then (in Homage) a soft snowy white that invites your touch. This is similar to how Where Am I? Where Are You? doesn’t seem to be on paper but on some form of cloth, the folds and divots in the surface leading down to a yellowing “stain.” Chenard nd often uses papers such as Wenzhou Chinese Rice Paper, or Japanese Gampi Tissue paper in her practice. Yet other works defy this physicality, seeming almost ethereal and ephemeral in the lighter, translucent colours and hues, with a layering of shapes and forms that seem almost dreamlike. Offer New Propositions or Prayer Kite Arising are among these more “delicate” pieces.

Chenard has exhibited nationally (New Brunswick and British Columbia, so nearly fully from East to West) and internationally (including Virginia and Pennsylvania). Her experience is diverse, and activism plays a strong role in a number of her works, such as Schools I Didn’t Learn In School, which lists the names of Canada’s many – far more than many know, or want to know about – residential schools. In the aforementioned Where Am I? Where Are You? Chenard lists the traditional Indigenous names of the places she’s lived. This mixture of personal and political is also present with In A Soldier’s Billfold, that incorporates photographs of herself, her mother and father that her father carried with him.

June-Etta’s works are dense: not just literally, with the layers and objects and elements enmeshed within the works, but also in terms of the ideas and histories (both her own and those various sites she’s inhabited, and we inhabit). She’s an artist whose work I enjoy encountering when I have time to spend with it, or can visit repeatedly, as the visual acumen she displays entices me to pay attention to the particular aspects that expand and enhance her work. Interior Landscapes was on display this past December, but I fully expect to see more of her work in the future at NAC or among other sites in Niagara.

Laika: the more one comes to know men, the more one comes to admire the dog

Teach us to care and not to care (T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday)

As 2018 comes to an end and I struggle to finish a few articles about exhibitions ongoing and opening, I did not intend to become distracted by Victor Vasarely‘s piece Laika (1964, porcelain). This monochromatic piece delicately sits above the formally similar mantle in Rodman Hall, and is the most striking work in this final iteration of Up Close and In Motion. In later pieces I may revisit Hortense Gordon’s work (as she’s an artist that, like many of that period and gender, is now starting to get some more critical attention) or how Boutillier’s Tennis Twins have stared, knowingly, from the other room of the Hansen Gallery for months, unyielding, but right now, Laika touches me in a way they don’t.

With my long and rigourous review of Up Close, I thought I was done with the responding to this rotating, evolving exhibition(s), but perhaps its fitting that the last one (ideally) I’ll speak about has pulled me out of a grey reverie by the invocations of its title. A wider historical narrative is provided here. Briefly, Laika went from being a Moscow street dog to one of the first animals to orbit the Earth, as part of the early Soviet experiments to see how – or if – animals, and thus humans, could survive in space. She didn’t survive (as with so many of these tests, there is no contingency plan for return, of course) but is commemorated on the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow. Her brief life has captured the imagination of numerous individuals, either in print or in film. I might argue that the scene in Guardians of the Galaxy, where Rocket snarls at a “space dog” in one of the Collector’s vitrines is an exchange with a still alive, surviving Laika, though decades have passed.

As someone who’s recently written on the artwork of Lucia Lakatos that explores our hypocritical, selfish and (at best) problematic relationship with (other) animals, and who frankly prefers animals to people, Laika is controversial figure: a clear site of contested narratives. When I responded to Lakatos’ works, I found myself reminded of the Pigoons from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy, and how the use and abuse of them was an unavoidable step in their evolution towards beings perhaps as ethical as the humans in those novels. Arguably, they are the meek whom shall inherit the Earth. There’s also no shortage of science fiction that posits how a Laika incident might “jumpstart” a “beast” to being beyond their “master” and reverse that relationship (the original book that Planet of the Apes was based upon plays with assumptions in this area very well).

Before making assumptions about Vasarely, with his Slavic sounding name, its good to know that he was an artist of Hungarian – French descent who is, in the annals of Western Art History, considered a “grandfather” or “leader” of the “op art” movement. A simple definition: “Op art works are abstract, with many better known pieces created in black and white. Typically, they give the viewer the impression of movement, hidden images, flashing and vibrating patterns, or of swelling or warping.” Bridget Riley is the artist that exemplifies this aesthetic, for me, and its likely you’ve encountered a reproduction of one of her works.

In light of that, there’s a contradiction here in Laika: the format of the work is clean, industrial, and the variation in “holes” in the piece suggest some kind of heating / cooling apparatus, perhaps with different shapes to accommodate an interlocking piece of machinery. The raised circle hints at Malevichian Suprematism or a sense of order and unity: the porcelain nature of the work is also evocative, an intricate and exquisite objet d’art.

This seems to fracture how Laika, in one context, was an unwanted feral beast that was used in a manner she never could understand, and sent to a surely unpleasant death for a “greater good.” Perhaps it isn’t wrong to consider that Vasarely, being from what have been called by Timothy Snyder the “bloodlands” of Europe “between Hitler and Stalin” was making a statement with this work (in 1964) about the larger political landscape in Europe. But at the same time, Laika has become Laika, commemorated like other “heroes of the Fatherland” (Stalin is back in vogue, in Russia, though its unclear if he ever “left.” May I quote Proverbs? “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.”)

Laika is formal and seems to have more relation to the marbled fireplace it sits above, or the elaborate cornices and the chandeliers in the Hansen Gallery space than any of the larger historical narratives the title suggests. Its all interpolation: the contrasted black and the white might speak to anything from alluding to the mottled fur of a stray canine to the ideological positioning Vasarely found himself living within (his own association with the Bauhaus movement brings to mind the blood and vagaries of [M]modernist growing pains in the 20th Century).

2018 is almost done, and 2019 looms: Spider Jerusalem would assert that progress is inevitable despite our essentially degraded natures, but I don’t know if I share that sentiment right now. Vasarely’s Laika seems more of a taunt than anything else, more of a testament to meaninglessness, to sacrifice that is unknown and perhaps unknowing. That it is a beautiful work is undeniable, and that it alludes to an order, a formalism that is hopeful as well as idealistic is clear: but whether or not that is true is something else, as Laika also seems empty and vapid. Laika also reminds me of one of the less dramatic, yet perhaps most “real”, chapters in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, titled Best Man Fall. But even in that, the dog is used to tell someone else’s story….

The final iteration of Up Close and In Motion is on display for a few more days, as we slouch towards 2019. Please check out Rodma Hall’s website for their hours, and all images are courtesy RHAC and myself. The title of this article (regarding dogs and men) is from a quote attributed to Marie de Rabutin-Chantal).