Contemplation and Consideration: Up Close & In Motion at RHAC

Assistant Curator Emma German’s Hot Talk took place on Slow Art Day. This was appropriate, given the ideas at play in her ongoing, year long curatorial examination of Rodman Hall’s permanent collection, Up Close and In Motion.

Two ideas cited during her presentation acknowledge this. Firstly, she described the Hansen Gallery, at RHAC (part of the original house built by Thomas Rodman Merritt, with fireplaces, cornices, decorative domestic flourishes) as “experiential.” This recognizes the uniqueness (no white cube here) of Hansen. When we talked about Up Close German showed me the floorplan of the Hansen, which seemed too plain and linear, too generic, for that very unique space.

Many past exhibitions have responded to its architecture. Forty Five Years of Collecting (2007) had a salon / every available scrap of wall is to be used aesthetic, while other collection shows like A Painter’s Country matched “classic” Group of Seven pieces to the “historical” space. Maggie Groat’s 2014 intervention / interaction is another German mentioned, in her research of how a collection might be presented unconventionally but more relevantly. (This is both an informative and enjoyable reminder of the richness of RHAC’s past exhibitions).

The other idea German mentioned cited the exhibitions’ title: “up close” suggesting time spent contemplating the displayed works  (thus only three in the two rooms, with ample space for the viewer to occupy, to converse with the pieces) and “motion” as the works change at set intervals. The literal space suggests you be a less frantic visitor: but the brief exhibition window means you must make the most of your visit. I can remember works installed in gallery washrooms (unisex, maximizing visitors, ahem) as studies have shown that half a minute is the average time a visitor allots to “art.” More time is spent washing your hands (hopefully..).

The Hansen Gallery was a factor, in scrutinizing the first three “phases” of Up Close: what German has hoped to provide here is a different framework for experiencing Art. So, Brendan FernandesPhilia had the front room to itself not solely for its neon nature, and David Rokeby’s Plot Against Time #2 (Flurry) rests in the same spot, over the mantle, not simply because the dark, hushed and almost whispery scene demands space, in the soft diffused, lately cold, light from the bay window. Also so the visitor might be alone with them, and not have their time together intruded upon by the (equally lovely) massive work of Geneviève Cadieux – from the first instalment of Up Close – or the tiny, layered urban impressions by Janet Jones. These were / are safely in the other room. You can visit them, with renewed attentions, and consider your own walking and looking between them, taking your time with the artwork(s) and your thought(s).

I must add something amusing. Several artists German curated are ones I’ve been unimpressed with, having experienced “them” in other places, other spaces. But it occurred to me I’ve never seen these artists installed in this manner, privileging their individuality over a larger curatorial narrative. Perhaps that’s also why the RHAC version of Material Girls impressed me, as I know the curatorial staff at RHAC saw its installation as more collaborative with the artists than previous, curatorially “top down” incarnations…

In her talk, German also spoke of the “life” of these objects, “resting” in a kind of stasis, like mummies, in the vault, when not “alive” in the gallery: thus, how in the first instalment of Up Close, Cadieux and Daigneault and Fernandes interacted was unique, and won’t happen again. In this same way, any visit to these works, in this “slow” aesthetic German is presenting, emphasises the uniqueness of the visitor as well as the art object. The environment of Up Close is about the individual artworks but also the larger framework of looking, with consideration and contemplation. No need to rush through, say you’ve “seen” the show, and yet forget it before you’ve walked out the front door….

Informative text panels are provided, yet German spoke of how she encourages people to experience the art, individually, then as a group, repeatedly, and then read the words. Employ them as a component of your own dialogue with the art. If you read my impressions of Philia, by Fernandes, you’ll remember my own admission of how the piece was interesting, but the text offers a depth that animated ideas of my own, re: HIV / AIDS, and I found in that artwork a repository, or a catalyst, for my own experiences. Jeanne Randolph spoke of this, in her essay The Amenable Object, of how most viewers provide much of the content, if not the lens, through which we understand artwork (I’ve often played this on people who find much art empty, arrogant and self centred, as they won’t / can’t / daren’t leave their own echo chamber).

Right now, the aforementioned Rokeby video installation, Jones’ delicate paintings and a Brendan Tang sculpture await visitors in the Hansen space. Tang’s ceramic constructions, merging stereotypes of Asian vases with Manga influenced slickness, with imagery and symbols that are symbolic and humourous, have brought the artist significant praise nationally and beyond. A fine example of the depth and quality of RHAC’s collection. Another way, perhaps, in which some at Brock who should be aware of the value and importance of RHAC might be reminded of it….again, until they pay attention, perhaps.

But that’s not why I mention Manga Ormolu Ver. 5.0-K: here, in Up Close, the singular work can be walked around, examined and experienced to its full potential. When I last saw Tang’s work, in an amazing show with a half dozen pieces, it was overwhelming, but perhaps didn’t serve me – or the pieces – as well as one whose only “challenge” in the Hansen is Jone’s painting. Jones offers a respite to Tang’s serpentine detail, as her painterly softness and play of light and fluorescence will make you marvel at her acumen in Solo #1 – 4. It may sound like a back handed compliment, but Jones uses paint in a manner that makes you wonder if its paint, with depth and imitation of refracted light that (like Cadieux’s photo works) changes with where you stand, literally, in the gallery.

Up Close and In Motion isn’t about quantity, like many collections exhibitions, but quality. How that quality is defined is fluid and changing (just like the works on display will). It’s about they speak to each other and help define and elaborate each other’s meaning, and we help redefine it over the year, with repeated visits and with the recollections of what was there before, and the expectations of what’s upcoming. It’s almost as though I’m talking about visiting people, not inanimate objects: but these works are indexical referents of many hands, many people.

Another aspect of this intuitive curatorial exploration of RHAC’s collection is that several local artists have been invited to make work in response to works in said collection, and this will be in the space with the future incarnations. Ernest Harris, Jr. (whose work was in Small Feats, and who, along with other artists like Melanie MacDonald, has had an annual open studio show and sale in downtown STC) will be the first of these, opening on May 8th. The teasing text: “Often recording details of their immediate surroundings and elements of everyday life, the artists [in the next instalment of Up Close] have made important contributions to the development of local artist-run culture. Tying together what he learned from these artists, many of whom are peers, mentors, and friends, Harris stimulates an active exchange between multiple generations of St. Catharines-based artists that have been both influential and relevant to his practice.” Again, the idea of the art object as a living thing that speaks to us, and a history and site, is present here.

Up Close and In Motion is neither a linear, nor a chronological show about the collection, but an endeavour that offers a different way to know the artworks that comprise the RHAC collection. German’s words: Up Close “frames the exhibition space as flexible…tracing important developments in contemporary art across genres such as hybridity within material structures, sculptural experimentation, performative gesture, and time-based media, many of these works will be displayed for the first time since being acquired for Rodman Hall’s permanent collection. At this moment, we invite you to experience the permanent collection and consider the role it plays in representing our common aspirations, collective imagination and community spirit.”

Up Close and In Motion will be on display, with different artworks and artists, until January 2019. The images in this article are courtesy Rodman Hall, and are copyright of the artists (respectively, Brendan Tang, Janet Jones and the last is a teaser for Harris’ upcoming show. The image is St. Paul’s Variety Meatball, 2017, ink and watercolour on paper).

 

About Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters, BlackFlash, ArtSeen, ti<, Long Exposure and Magenta. Past curatorial projects include REGION (Contemporary Saskatchewan Painting) and Personal Geographies (an overview of The Photographers Gallery collection). 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. He's a frequent contributor to The SoundSTC and is the facilitator of the 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversations, through Rodman Hall Art Centre.
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