Collected Art Writing Challenges from New Art Examiner

In late 2018, I was contacted by New Art Examiner with the offer of being one of their contributing writers for their ongoing Writers Challenges: an editorial person at the magazine, or a contributing writer, would suggest an artwork or (as in one case here) an idea, and we’d all write approximately 250 words on this subject. These were then published at the NAE site, with an accompanying image.

Recently, this collaborative project has fallen by the wayside. Officially, I was told that it became a bit too much for editorial staff to maintain, in light of the regular online and print aspects of the magazine. I suspect, however, that one of the contributors who has an inflated sense of ego, only matched by his ignorance (a fine example of that Mordecai Richler acidic truism that not all neglected writers are neglected unjustly), soured the collaboration, like urinating in a pool. The pages at NAE are no longer there, so I shared my responses here, as I intentionally wrote playful and irreverant responses: NAE’s masthead is ‘Without Fear or Favor’, and I attempted to fulfill that mandate.

Further, I wrote a longer response to a recent exhibition of Joseph Beuys’ exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and that can be read here.

Joseph Stalin once upbraided his son for ‘exploiting his father’s name: “But I’m a Stalin too,” said Vasily. “No, you’re not,” replied Stalin. “You’re not Stalin and I’m not Stalin…Stalin is what he is in the newspapers and the portraits, not you, no not even me!”’

The Cedar Tavern Singers, in their jauntily caustic The Physical Impossibility of Damien Hirst in the Mind of the Living (satirizing his most famous work’s title) go further: “He’s a YBA artist that’s right why be an artist when you can just take the piss???!!”

It’s impossible to extricate Hirst’s artwork from his persona: his performed identity is more Cesare Borgia than Cecily Brown. Proliferation leads to a keener awareness of the poverty of his aesthetic.

But let’s turn that on its head: if Flesh Tint was by anyone else, would I so smugly dismiss it? Would I give it a more rigorous examination, attempting to discern – even projecting – a greater relevance into this work?

Well, you can’t have it both ways. In a bizarre horror story I read years ago, a person so ‘colourful’ he’s inspired numerous characters by countless authors is ‘stalked’ and kidnapped by famous fictional characters, imprisoned in a library basement because he exists more ‘truly’ to many as dramatis personae than as a person.

Hirst is less artist than caricature (but it’s said an age gets the art it deserves), and Flesh Tint is a recycled ‘appropriated’ ‘postmodernist’ Seurat (no offence, Georges).

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It’s been suggested by cancers of critics (like murders of crows) that the worst insult to spit at artworks is ‘derivative.’ In confronting Nicholson’s 1937 (titled the year of execution), I must ask, after Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White, why denigrate originality with simulacra? 1937 is imitation without innovation, unnecessarily muddying the waters of excitement and energy that was (intermittently) Modernism. The colours are banal and uninspired, the tones so soft as to be irrelevant and easily ignored, more wallpaper than worthy.

But I revere Ad Reinhardt’s black-on-black abstracts, decades after Nicholson. And I often ‘spit’ at ahistorical ‘critics’ knee-jerking their shallow immediacy as elucidation.

So, consider 1937 – the year defining the painting, perhaps. WWII looms, Stalin’s ‘Great Purge’ begins, the Hindenburg detonates, the rape of Nanking commences, and Franco is ‘inspiring’ Picasso to paint Guernica this very same year. But Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted that year, so never mind those Soviet show trials.

Yet 1937 has some affinity to Chamberlain’s hopeful / hopeless assertion of ‘peace in our time’ (1938), and despite what Thomas Hirschhorn declares, personal enthusiasm is not a panacea to the reality of others, or even ourselves. Nicholson seems to try, here, but falls short, conceptually and formally, from his Constructivist gospel: but I’m a brutal orphan in the ‘deconstructed postmodernist dystopia’ where subjectivity is an inescapable blessing and curse.

1937 was also the year SPAM was first marketed. Nicholson’s 1937 would make a nice label for that. Maybe it did.

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I recently read Goddamn This War!, a graphic novel about WWI with art / story by Tardi with a ‘chronology’ by Jean-Pierre Verney. The opprobrium of the true genesis of the 20th century makes me long to read the original French, as surely its more shrieking in that tongue (The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells). Entire pages in War! feature the disfigured faces of soldiers. Its been suggested the surfeit of ‘monster’ films in the 1920s was society’s ‘way’ of ‘dealing’ with these ‘monsters’ (“No mockeries now for them”). Correspondingly, words are often less brutally evocative than images: not Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen. “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”: Temple Grandin has more mercy in her slaughterhouses than Owen knew, here.
Turner’s painting is a fussy contrivance. I’ve recently been compelled to revisit the Group of Seven, and one of their number, Frederick Varley rendered For What? (1917 – 1919) with mounting corpses muddy, wheelbarrow overflowed deathly war machine slag (“no prayers nor bells”…) His words: “We are forever tainted with [the war’s] abortiveness and its cruel drama….we’d be healthier to forget…we never can. ”
Yet Turner mimics a ‘war banner’: this perverts (corrects?) the vainglorious ‘king & country’ militant madness that never asks “[w]hat does it mean—to kill your children? Kill them and then…go in there and sing about it!”(Findley) Its been suggested I’ve a “Russian” (dark?) soul. I answer Owen with Solzhenitsyn: “Dwell on the past, and lose an eye. Forget the past and lose both eyes.”

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Despite my sordid academic experience, I eschew excessive art theory. Literary works (whether poetry or prose) are better, as the visceral language often elicits a reaction from [my] readers that mirrors my own. That lusty reprobate Irving Layton asserted that “if poetry is like an orgasm, an academic can be likened to someone who studies the passion-stains on the bedsheets.”

Accordingly, I was reading Utopias: Russian Modernist Texts 1905 – 1940 when I saw Hilary Williams’ Lime Green Structures in a Gap. Amidst Pasternak, Akhamatova and Filonov, was Zinaida Gippius: “The waves of other-worldly nausea foam up / break into spray and scatter in black mist / and into darkness, inter outermost darkness.”

Gap has a scratchy scabby quality: blackish “foam” consuming green “structures” (corrosion eating away, bubbling dark “slag” detritus). Faint colour swallowed by undulating blacks. A recent dialogue with an artist who ‘draws in paint’ explored charcoal’s physical nature, how he’d render, paint over, then retrace the pebbly powdery thick marks, building “structures.”

I once spoke at a panel about the ‘fallowness’ of ‘modernity.’ Another spoke of our relationship with industry as a harbinger of this, citing Fukishima, nuclear narratives of promise leading to pestilence, like the dark clouds in Gap (Layton’s sarcasm fits: perhaps I’m an illiterate deciphering grotty blotches).

Gap evokes Aghasyan’s Ghost city and the dark miasma of the Bhopal Disaster; a harmatia of utopias where they consume themselves, like the undulating murkiness enveloping – suffocating – the bright structures and gap.

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This challenge was a suggestion of the term ‘Hidden Trifle’, with no accompanying or defining image.

My initial impression of “hidden trifle” is of secreting dessert to avoid sharing.

That’s appropriate, as its reminiscent of Paglia’s dismissal of contemporary artists’ freedom to produce anything as nothing they do matters anymore to anyone else, as they traded “freedom” for relevance…glut on that ‘richness’ even unto nausea, and endure that well-proven trope that excessive self indulgence causes gastronomic illness (or artistic gout). Perhaps you’re force-feeding that dessert you love to others; making them sick of it (and you). They won’t visit your table – or gallery – again.

I prefer delicate, flaky trifle but I’ve no sweet tooth (though liquor IS an ingredient). But if hidden, it can’t be shared; eating’s like Art, best in dialogue (a conversation over food, stretching this metaphor even more).

I serve two anecdotes.

Alice Gregory offered this palette cleanser: “[art] for the past century has often been the product of speech acts. I am an artist because I say I am an artist. This is art because I say it is.” Trifle is ‘something of little value’ or ‘to speak with little purpose’ or ‘wasting (time and money)’.

I suppose its an acquired taste…

An ex subjected me to competitive cooking shows: one challenge was creating an aesthetically amazing dish – but NOT to be eaten. Taste was irrelevant; this reversal, this perversion, is still fascinating to me. Superficially seductive but potentially poisonous (at worst) or sickening (at best); a pretty ‘trifle’ whose unpalatable nature is ‘hidden’…did someone mention Abramović?

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In a darkly amusing Neil Gaiman story, a line came to mind when looking at Vaso libellula by Venini: this is “a manifestation of Order, here incarnated for us in the form of this cardboard box.” Later, at the story’s conclusion, another character smugly comments in a loud aside, “nobody’s interesting would be a cardboard box!” To add an even more inappropriate subjective reference, I’ve spent most of the last month wandering around the ‘rust belt wonderland’ of a city other than my usual one, and while considering the Vaso libellula I came across an abandoned, ill used cooler. ‘Her’ maw like lid wide open: empty but for dirt and detritus. I took a picture. I always do. Then it became ‘art’, to be admired and freed from being useful (like a vase kept ’empty’). As guidance – or a shepherding, as I just demonstrated the (perhaps inappropriate) breadth of my frame[s] of reference – in speaking to Vaso libellula was Braque’s phrase: “The vase gives shape to emptiness and music to silence.” Presence defined by absence (the Gaiman character whom is the empty box is named Kilderkin: from Middle English for a “cask for liquids”, and perhaps its half full, half empty, soon to be drunk, and then the ‘shape of emptiness’ returns, having only been full temporarily, emptiness and absence being the default state).

I find this piece empty: but all art is empty, frankly, only “bestowed with power by individuals, institutions of sacred or worldly power or imagined communities.” Perhaps what bothers me here is that its so obvious, and to return to Shimmering Jenny of the Chaos Brigade (Gaiman again – am I filling the empty space too flippantly? Should have put something else there, then, before handing it to me), boring is more unforgivable than madness. At least that’s entertaining.

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Brian Jungen’s work evokes conflicting sentiments. The initial response is a remembrance of his solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta: Shapeshifter and Cetology, were aesthetically breathtaking, yet equally realized in the conceptual “recycling” of “trashy” plastic lawn chairs. Objects hideously unpromising became a larger whole that was one of the finest pieces of Art I’ve experienced. Jungen does that again, here, with banal sports equipment. Amusingly, there’s no hockey equipment re purposed in these pieces (suspiciously “unCanadian”?)

Alternately, Jungen’s art elicits another uncomfortable “Canadian” issue: cultural appropriation.

Contemporary Canadian cultural conversations are (often) haunted by the spectre of cultural appropriation. Jungen’s work complicates and contradicts this debate with multiple, intersecting interpretations. Two artists I’ve reviewed recently – Brendan Tang and Sonny Assu – create within contrasting cultural spheres that intersect and inform them, less about “purity” than possibility. The vivid reds, slick blacks, soft, inviting whites are seductive (consumption and capitalism, of course, also lurk in the background with these pleasing “objects”).

This is a form of cultural criticism: living in Niagara, the legacy of someone like Stan Mikita is necessary to understanding the current controversy regarding Colin Kaepernick, and how the implicit “nationalism” of sports can also be a site to challenge, and trouble, our national “narratives.” Jungen is of both Dane-Zaa and Swiss ancestry based in the North Okanagan. These factors help define these pieces as a “self portrait” while simultaneously a comment on the larger national argument spurred by #Canada150 celebrations and condemnations.

About Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters, BlackFlash, ArtSeen, ti<, Long Exposure, New Art Examiner and Magenta. Past curatorial projects include REGION (Contemporary Saskatchewan Painting) and Personal Geographies (an overview of The Photographers Gallery collection). In 2020 he'll be curating a show of photographs at AIH Studios titled Welland Times Present Times Past. Gazzola was Editorial Chair of BlackFlash Magazine (3 years), and was the visual arts critic for Planet S Magazine. He held the latter role for more than a decade, publishing reviews about Saskatoon visual arts and the larger community twice monthly. Since 2015, he's been a frequent contributor to The SoundSTC and is the facilitator of the 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversations, through Rodman Hall Art Centre. An exhibition of his lens based works titled Discarded will open at NAC in July 2020.
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