More than surface: Just Resting Your Eyes at Rodman Hall

It’s necessary to first acknowledge that Just Resting My Eyes, the first of the two part exhibition at Rodman Hall featuring the work of Honours graduates from Brock University’s Department of Visual Arts, should be on display longer than two weeks. The works by Denise Apostolatos, Victoria Morinello, Jill Newman, Jacob Primeau and Aaron Thompson are often dense and inviting, and on my repeated visits have shifted in my interpretation, and in their relationship to each other. The art works in this exhibition occupy the larger back gallery space but also the side long “hallway” as well as the small inset alcove that faces the ‘title wall.’

Just Resting My Eyes is dominated by painted and drawn work. In some ways this enhances the show, as he painterly nature of Victoria Morinello’s Bittersweet Temptations (1 through 6) located in the recesses adjacent to the “meeting room” with image transfers rendered more visually enticing through mixed media (paint, plastic wrapping, scratchy scrawling marks and erasures) both contrasts and casts in relief the difference of Jacob Primeau’s Familiar Strangers. The latter is a massive acrylic and oil on canvas, whereas Temptations are smaller (four installed together as a block aren’t a tenth of the size of Strangers). Morinello has larger pieces in the lower gallery space, “facing” each other – no pun intended as the women in the loose triptych, all sharing the title The Holy Trinity with individual descriptors of (foil) or (plastic), as matches their making, all have expressive manners.

Unlike some previous iterations of BFA graduates exhibitions, Eyes is installed so that the respective artists (and yes, I’ll use that term here, as the quality and consideration of the works mark them as more that than students) intermix. Jill Newman’s linear, monochromatic blind contours occupy most of the side hallway, with smaller works that have a strength in repetition, a clean beauty in execution of sharp black on white or glowing white on black. The wall itself bears some of her loose, and sure, lines. Further down in this space, Primeau – who presents what is one of the two (okay, maybe three – I reserve the right to change my mind on future visits) best works in the show – offers four in a series titled Selected Street Photography. Though these are night images, and are dark, the flaring spots of street lights or the glistening of the reflection of artificial lighting in these is echoed (realized? recreated?) in his painting in the other room, Strangers. Just as Newman’s rough, yet considered drawings here offer insight into her own larger paintings hanging in the back space, Primeau is revealing something of his process. Or, to parse from several excellent conversations in the space with several artists (who also straddle painting and photography) it may not be  linear progression, from photo to painting, and that only art historians (and, ahem, perhaps critics) want a linear, approved, official “history” when in fact images are made and conceived in a more organic, bleeding process that is more reminiscent of osmosis than “order.”

When I’ve visited, I’ve found myself going back and forth, from the hallway with these smaller pieces, to the alcove with Morinello’s tiny works, and then into the large gallery proper: referencing back and forth, or just exploring the visual lines of connection that bind the works together.

Newman’s pieces are installed to the right of Primeau (he has three large works, and a display case shows many small works on paper. These have too much detail and finesse to be just “studies”). Whereas Primeau’s Strangers is a dense work that illustrates a city street scene (not literally so much as conceptually, with the washes of purple and yellow, and the thick dabs of red and yellow accentuating the tableaux, as an umbrella or the glow and reflection of a car tail light), Newman’s paintings are nearly all the same square dimension, with one much larger. They’re installed mostly grouped together: outside, inside and outside, inside pt. II are a diptych far to the left, with quiet pinks, deep blacks, gentle yellows and milky whites that suggest more watercolour than acrylic, a fine subtle hand that allows for the drips and washes that build form and shape. A vertical arrangement of four are titled (top to bottom) glimpse, ocular, disillusion and spectacle (all dated 2018. Appropriately for a graduating show, the majority of works by all the artists are 2018). glimpse is thickly painted, in tones almost chocolatey, and unlike other works that suggest a window or a framed space, is rich textured surface. Below it, ocular with its bands of pink, yellow and grey with black flecks (black appears outside the yellow “frame”, too, a bit roughly) shares the compositional element of ‘rounded bars’ with outside, inside. But the larger works, and several smaller, allude to the same vegetation that dominated her drawings in the hallway (such as looking blindly (interior plants) (1 – 150), which are a series of cards you’re encouraged to handle, but with respect).

Aaron Thompson has several works in Just Resting My Eyes, but the significant work is one that will force you to do the opposite of the exhibition title. His work – or works – Shoulder to shoulder, 2017 – 2018 is / are like most of the pieces on display: enhanced by the accompanying statements from the artists, but not necessary to an appreciation of it (for example, Newman’s looking blindly is blind contour drawing. This adds a level of appreciation, but the work is already visually engaging, just as Primeau’s text aides, but isn’t essential, to Strangers).

Shoulder to shoulder is the work that on my visits may not immediately pull the visitor in, but will hold them for the longest duration: mixing ideas and assumptions of low and high culture, of consumption in both a considered and gluttonous manner, Thompson has presented a largesse of tiny paintings that reference, challenge, demean or enhance the Mona Lisa, or perhaps just the idea of the Mona Lisa.

Some works are listed as Google Image #1 or Google Image #3, and other titles act as less of a list than a dictionary of cultural references: there’s one that has Lion – O from Thundercats, another trio are tiny renderings of faces in the manner of Francis Bacon (all of these are painted by Thompson, from sources “found” on the web. Some are considered, others are just crass). A sample: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self-portrait (detail) / Space Lisa / Captain Spaulding /  Obey Mona (They Live) / Rene Magritte, Son of Man (Mona Lisa) / Willem de Kooning, Pink Angels / Duotone Mona Lisa (detail) / Jackson Pollock, Guardians of the Secret (detail) / Lion – O – na Lisa / Batman Duchamp / Bashful Lisa / Zombie Lisa / and Fear and Loathing in Florence (Raoul Duke), which is a personal favourite. There is, of course, a version of Duchamp‘s infamous L.H.O.O.Q., who could be said to “shoulder” significant blame or credit for the state of the contemporary “art” world….

Any words to describe this piece are unequal to the task: you must experience it.

I would, however, in my role as art critic, offer the following observation of Thompson’s Shoulder to shoulder. With the failure of postmodernism as a viable theory by which to approach culture (unsurprisingly, as post modernism is based on the context of doubt, without a viable system to replace what it challenges. Some older art historical texts defined post – 1968 as an “Age of Anxiety.” I like this as an umbrella, and for the capitalisation), a variety of thinkers far more verbose (and surely more intelligent) than I have proffered alternatives.

One of interest is “digimodernism” which, in one aspect, suggests that we’re exponentially creating and consuming images as never before in human history. In light of this, language, and the idea of systematic ordering and designation that often manifests through language, is not only impossible now, but beyond irrelevant. While wasting time in attempting to order what images we’ve seen, more are being made. Some, like what Thompson shows here, occupy multiple theoretical spaces simultaneously, often in uncomfortable (if not very conflicting ways). It’s all the Mona Lisa. None of them are the Mona Lisa. All of them are Art. None of it is Art. Edit and arrange as you will, if you like, but the person next to you will edit and arrange differently, and your systems may meet, meld or modify each other, to create a third fourth fifth (and so on, and so on) system.

This isn’t entirely an alien thought: consider colour theory, as in the work of American artist Josef Albers (with his square works that show difference is more common in the colour palette than we’d imagine). Consider that horrid intro painting class exercise, of taking any colour and painting five gradations between it and full black, or full white. Now think of doing that on a computer, where each of those “steps” might be used to do five more steps to black, or white, and then again and again, as the technology (like accessing a million variant, previously unimagined iterations of Mona Lisa) may be (if not literally, then practically) infinite in variations and combinations.

Everything is possible, yet nothing is genuine. “Authentic” is a term either meaningless or uninteresting, boring even, perhaps even intellectually / creatively “lazy” in not embracing potential diversity. This is how “we see now.”

How does “the hand of the artist”, that “arbiter of genius” or commodity defined through rarity or uniqueness, fit here, with Thompson rendering each one, but with a source or “inspiration” elsewhere we can find and “own” digitally?

Modernism didn’t so much fail as spawn numerous “children” that moved too fast for Cronus to catch and eat them, preventing their rise, and his fall….or alternately, Cronus castrating his father might be hyperbole for postmodernism negating the surety of Modernism, and look at what the “younger generation” does with that “freedom.”

Allow me to rein in my hyperbole: Shoulder to shoulder, 2017 – 2018 is impressive in execution and presentation. Perhaps the best work in the show, surely my favourite work, in Just Resting Your Eyes.

I’ll end with a bit of the blurb: “Occupying Rodman Hall’s third floor studios during the 2017 – 18 academic year, students in the Honours Studio course have been mentored by gallery staff and Visual Arts professors Donna Szöke, Shawn Serfas, Derek Knight, and Donna Akrey….[both of] these two unique exhibits capture the exceptional vitality and daring of the emerging artist.

Such exhibits from the Department of Visual Arts are a key part of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts’ mandate to build connections between the community and the breadth of talent and creativity that we celebrate at Brock University.” One might think this means that RHAC is not only a valuable, but necessary, component of Brock University, a space to be funded and not strangled. A site that, if Brock were to divest itself from, would leave a black hole that might collapse the fragile structure left…but I’ll be offering some further thoughts on Brock University’s ongoing “annulment” of what they call “support” of RHAC in the future.

Just Resting Your Eyes is only display for a brief period at Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines, closing on April 8th. Go see it. All images are courtesy of Rodman Hall Art Centre. The next instalment Turnin’ This Car Around opens on Friday, April 13th at 7 PM.

 

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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