2020: thanks for the dance, it was hell, it was swell, it was fun

All things considered, I had to admit I was not writing about a great moment in world art. And something must be wrong if my words could be used for purposes I had not intended….Once it was clear that my opinions were being used as a way of touting an artist, the similarity between the art world and a racetrack or gambling casino was only too clear. I was not anxious to print my value judgements, and instead started writing letters to artists’ friends that were private critiques, devoting my published essays more and more to problematic issues. (Barbara Rose, who passed in the closing days of 2020, from Autocritique, Essays on Art and Anti Art, 1963 – 1987)

As in the previous lockdown in 2020, your intrepid #artcriticfromhell has been attempting to use his time in a positive manner. So, I’ve been seeking out books, movies and shows that might fill the time in a way that is more fulfilling, and not to make me think of emptiness and that which is lost. Recently, I watched the second season of The Boys (I read the comic series years ago, a harrowing but insightful story). There’s a sequence that begins one of the episodes that came to mind, in thinking of this ‘year end’ reflection on 2020. A young man, who lives with his mother spends a majority of his time inundated with loud, abrasive assertions of despair and doom. This wafts down upon him by radio, the large television that seems to loom over his bed while he sleeps, that blares around his room, inescapable, like a device of torture akin to how Noriega was ‘assaulted’ with music to try and force his capitulation, and his doom scrolling in the shrill bedlam of social media. Isolated, he loses his connection to reality, and murders a local vendor, ‘believing’ this person to be one of the ‘superheroes’ hidden among the general populace. In many ways, this poor misguided murderer is more an object of pity than contempt, though there’s an element of both intermixed. Watching that scene – or being subjected to it – I also heard the world weary voice of Robertson Davies. One of his characters, Dunstan Ramsay, in conversation with an old friend (or perhaps enemy, in the way that goes) asks: “You remember what Goethe said? No, of course you don’t. He said he’d never heard of a crime of which he could not believe himself capable.”

These anecdotes are meant to reflect how many of us feel we survived, or escaped, 2020, with losses and difficulties that have marked us, and that some things have changed irrevocably.

2020 is done. It was a year that brought the unexpected, and in other ways simply accelerated cultural issues already at play in the Niagara Region; things we knew were coming simply arrived sooner. I’d love to begin this with a more inspiring quote, that it has been a ‘long December and there is reason to believe that maybe this year will be better than the last’, but I have such a feeling of anxiety and exhaustion – and I share this with many – that the tepid hope expressed in that line is simply not true. Instead I’ll continue with my pretentious citing of philosophy and proffer that “mostly it is loss which teaches us about the worth of things.” (Schopenhauer, another happy Germanic thinker).

Two events defined 2020 for me, and although COVID 19 is inextricable from both, they are not the primary narrative. The shuttering of Rodman Hall Art Centre is one, on a regional level, and the other is the death of RM Vaughan, a finely caustic and insightful arts writer. This wonderful column he penned for the CBC is a touchstone for me, in thinking of the vagaries of writing about art in Canada, and there is a good remembrance of the man and his life here

An image of the interior of Rodman Hall Art Centre, Marcie Bronson, 2020

As to the closure of Rodman Hall Art Centre (that a few individuals in the Niagara community are either in denial about – one who accosted me to bleat that ‘Nino will keep the gallery’, or others who have been absent from the debate and are simply too ignorant to see what is in front of them): this was, bluntly, not a surprise. COVID simply sped up a process that was near completion. Just as Brock University lied in terms of blaming their decades long ‘demolition through neglect’ of RHAC on Doug Ford, COVID offered another plausible denial, with neo liberal austerity and jibber about ‘belt tightening.’ Amusingly, the most recent piece of propaganda put out by Brock, and the MIWSFPA, aimed at hoodwinking potential students to shred their money towards a ‘degree’, had a large section on Rodman Hall. The previous web site for RHAC has vanished and you can now see the Rodman Hall Inc. site here, which looks slick and promises much, but as I chronicled in a previous article about this situation, there’s many promises, and MOU’s (memorandums of understanding), but those, in the end, mean nothing. Considering Brock’s neglect, they may mean less than that. 

The ‘Art Gallery of Niagara’ had a nice web site, too, if also light on information and rich in platitudes. So, we’ll see what happens, but an acidic skepticism is hard to restrain, in this situation. 

Frankly, like many in Niagara, I have a combination of despair and apathy, and I’ll offer that when “irritated by the absurd remarks of two people whose conversation you happen to overhear, you should imagine that you are listening to a dialogue of two fools in a comedy.” (more Goethe)

Interior of Rodman Hall, Shauna MacLeod, 2020 (post sale and closure)

Some spaces stepped up into the online sphere, others were left lagging behind. As it’s the time of year when a plethora of year end reviews, ubiquitous listings of ‘best shows’ or ‘notable events’ proliferate, many of my brethren of arts writers find themselves lost. Many spaces have not re opened, or did so only briefly, and many ventures into online and social media spaces stuttered or were lame attempts that were doomed to failure (in several instances, the willful inability to engage online communities had come home to roost).

To inject personal experience, I’ve visited Niagara Artist Centre once since February (when invited to see an exhibition in the Dennis Tourbin space). Other galleries in the Niagara Region have offered select viewings (13th Street Gallery being the most consistent, but this is surely due to their larger, barn like structure, that provides for keeping appropriate distances). Small Feats, which has been a staple of the Niagara arts scene for years, was delayed and then happened just as 2020 was winding down, but to many it was like – like many things in 2020 – it never happened at all. Perhaps a more salient event from the past year would be that NAC’s window was smashed, and I offer the following from the newsletter update:

Someone threw a brick through NAC’s storefront window a couple weeks back, it’s not the first incident of its kind downtown lately. Apparently, while lining up a window for a similar smashing at Craft Arts Market just up the street, our culprit was heard to declare, ‘I hate this place and everything it stands for!’ The disgruntled art school drop-out and one man wrecking crew is known to police and they phoned NAC to add some pages to their file.

During our conversation, the constable and I agreed there was little point in charging the suspect as they’re living on the streets, couldn’t pay the fine, and pushing the case through routine would just be a drag on the already beleaguered system. And then the cop asked, ‘What do you think we should do?’ This was a first. I can’t recall our Artist-run Centre being asked for advice from law enforcement ever before. It was a surprise that made plain how exasperated authorities must be dealing with street-level problems of inequality. I told him that as near as I could estimate we had one of two options, Guaranteed or Universal Basic Income. He said he didn’t know much about either, but that they sounded alright to him.

If I’m to suggest significant landmarks from 2020, I’d tender this piece on the Drapell and Saxe exhibition; another about a show you might yet visit in 2021, at City Hall in St. Catharines, about Truth and Reconciliation; some thoughts on St. Catharines Arts Award Winner Danny Custodio’s fine images, that were at Smokestack in Hamilton, and was a new iteration of his show at Rodman Hall, which was the last (of two) there; Geoff Farnsworth’s Colour Worker at the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre; and perhaps lastly – and I’ve alluded to it earlier in this dirge – my final piece in the years long saga of the demolition through neglect of Rodman Hall Art Centre, which I snappishly, if accurately (to the consternation of some) titled an Autopsy for Rodman Hall (several months earlier, when RHAC first closed, with slim dreams it might re open, I did submit this piece, too.)

Perhaps with the lack of spaces and community events to engage with, it is appropriate to more so examine 2020 within a personal context. With that leave, I’ll also offer two ‘letters’ from 2020 that volunteer alternate readings.

Sandy Fairbairn, St.Catharines May 13, 2017

One of these is the exhibition I helped mount in Welland, of Sandy Fairbairn’s images of that city: Welland: Times Present Times Past was at AIH Studios just prior to the first lockdown. James Takeo volunteered some insightful considerations of that community focused venture here. Another is a piece I published in the dying days of 2020 (an apt, if perhaps tasteless analogy of the last year): some reminiscence and ramblings to a selection of Farbairn’s images of St. Catharines, that can be ‘enjoyed’ here, provocatively titled Hometown.

When I tendered some thoughts about 2019 last January, it’s safe to say that your intrepid #artcriticfromhell was a bit edged (as I employed the fine film Velvet Buzzsaw as a uniting trope). Absurdity and a mix of angry apathy were in play, in that article, but still with a dark humour more hopeful than despairing.

Hoboman, from Velvet Buzzsaw, 2019

Now, things seem worse, and to even look back at evaluations from early 2020 of 2019 feels naive, and blissfully ignorant. Some of the preparatory research I’ve done for this seemed either too pollyanna or too jaded, and articles I found valid were direct and depressing (such as Hyperallergic’s reworking of the ‘most powerful people in the Art World’ trope to focus on those most powerless and often invisible.)

There’s much trepidation as we begin 2021, and appropriately so. But perhaps it’s good to look back at some of the exhibitions I’ve mentioned here, and to do so with clear eyes. COVID brought many things to the surface in 2020: some positive, some negative. Perhaps that’s a good point to return to the proposed Rodman Hall Art Centre, Inc., as a harbinger: it could be a positive beginning, or an ignominious ending. Too much remains to be seen, too much is unknown, and while some of it is in our hands, much is not: and that is also true of 2021.

The header image for this article is from Shauna MacLeod, captured during the removal of Willow Arts Community’s supplies and other such materials from Rodman Hall Art Centre, shortly after the sale and closure of the space. The title is a shameless appropriation of Leonard Cohen’s lyrics, from Thanks for the Dance.