Reopening: space implied and physical

Let us begin with a feather-light criticism: in a conversation with a fellow traveller in the Niagara visual arts community, we were speaking of the gallery at 13th Street Winery, and how it would be good to see works by Niagara artists there. It does benefit a community good to see works from wider places (a criticism I levelled at the #karaokemodernists in Saskatchewan was that there was – and is – an art world worth consideration, beyond their doors). Experiencing older works by Nakamura and Weiland is necessary: as is seeing works by contemporary painters like Chapman. All of these were in past shows. But I was pleased to see when the gallery re opened this past month, and that ‘regional’ artists like Ronald Boaks and Floyd Elzinga, whose work I was somewhat familiar with, and another who is new to me in Kimberly Joy Danielson, would be featured.

After all, with the likely closure of Rodman Hall, not just due to the convenient fog of COVID serving Brock’s claims of ‘austerity’ (oh, did you happen to see that Brian Hutchings, former administrator at Brock who seemed to make it his vocation to shutter the space was on the Ontario Sunshine list, raking in more than $100, 000 annually? Austerity? Did someone say austerity?), more spaces for local artists are needed. Without revealing too much, I know that this is on the agenda, hopefully, for 13th, and I’m very keen to see how that develops.

Installation shot of several of Ronald Boaks’ works, from his Spirit Arise series.

The Gallery at 13th is always good in offering just a teaser about their exhibitors: nothing too leading, and enough to pique your interest. For example: ‘As an abstract artist, Ronald Boaks incorporates pleasure and balance in his works. This exhibition will showcase new works from his Spirit Arise series as well as past works to illustrate his diverse exploration with technique and subject matter.’

Ronald Boaks, from Spirit Arise, at 13th Street Gallery

Perhaps you remember Boaks’ work from the Modern Masters exhibition, which was a wild smorgasbord of artists that I enjoyed greatly, and that demanded repeat visits to fully appreciate its depth and expanse. Boaks offers two somewhat distinct bodies of work here. Some is older, and though it has impressive formal moments (one wide abstraction has a wonderful incision, a deep painterly scratch, perhaps a fingernail or other less immediate ‘tool’), the works that truly will hold your attention are the more recent Spirit Arise works. These play with space and symbolism in a manner that makes them a more cohesive, and accessible, statement. Often unified by formal elements (a cloud or soft ‘spirit’ shape, a linear ‘plane’ that acts like a stage, or an axis / grid reference that is sometimes prominent, other times is more subtle, like an under painting), these newer works have an autobiographical sensibility, with a personal iconography. The majority of Boaks’ pieces are large, and this serves them, as they suggest a space the viewer might step into, too. His use of colour is restrained: pale greens, and surfaces that, until you examine them more closely, suggest they might be oxidized or collaged textures (there are elements of collage, but these are additions like stamps), built up in a subtle and conscientious manner. (To digress for a moment, this makes the installation of his work in the space, ‘next door’ to Floyd Elzinga, a smart curatorial choice. Many of Elzinga’s wall works have surfaces that, in their worked metallic surfaces, allude back to the ‘textures’ of Boaks). Works such as Expression Over Evidence, Mind Over Matter, or The Serene and The Sublime exemplify this.

Ronald Boaks, Mind Over Matter, 2014

In conversation with Boaks, the title is indicative of a sense of mourning, of the passing of those whom we love and were (or are, still) close to us. With this insight into the artist’s intent, the works do seem more meditative, with the soft, fluid and fleeting ‘clouds’ rising from the more structured lines and forms, captured in a moment, soon gone. The ‘squares’ of intense, flowing and almost pulsating colour also take on a sense of activity, a brief glimpse into an active ‘spirit’ that flickers and soon will be extinguished, with just a painted memory of its vibrancy….

Ronald Boaks, The Improbability of Dreams, 2020
Ronald Boaks, Of Virtue and Happiness, 2019
Installation shot of several of Floyd Elzinga’s works in Reopening, at 13th Street Gallery.

There is an interesting intersection between the installation of Boaks’ paintings, which you can stand among, and be in a space that he ‘invites’ you into, enfolded ‘in’ his works, and Elzinga’s pieces. Space is very immediately a concern in Elzinga’s section of the gallery, but more so in the sheer physicality of his works, and the very corporeal nature of them. Some are massive, such as NAME that hangs from the ceiling, or NAME that rests in the far back corner, stretching out into the space from above. But his sculptures are very physical, despite a delicacy of construction. ‘Branches’ that are very detailed and worked, upon closer examination, are seen to be very solid metal, surely heavy and solid, contrasting their visual ‘lightness.’ Other works, such as his ‘pine cones’, are thin and fine, but then they have a lovely natural indicator of their construction in the orange rust and flaked ‘aging’ that is as engaging as the patinas on several of his wall works. The gallery blurb: ‘Floyd Elzinga gets his inspiration from rotten stumps, broken branches, invasive species, ravaged trees as well as polar opposites and dysfunctional objects. Working for more than a decade with steel fabrication, he cleverly employs natural and non-traditional sculpting materials.’ There are many pieces here, that might make the space feel crowded, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. Being able to look up, to see a piece hanging above, or that many of the smaller pieces are on display in a relaxed manner, makes it a dense, but not overtly congested space. The textures and details are engrossing, and thus also pull you in, so one work makes the others ‘recede’ from your attentions, briefly. Jack Pine (definitely a nod, if you will, to Tom Thomson’s famous works), Windswept and Anchored, White Spruce or the several works simply and directly titled Landscape are all evocative in this manner. Elzinga has, in some ways, captured the landscape in metal and steel, in tones earthy but more about manufacturing than an organic flavour.

Floyd Elzinga, White Spruce
Floyd Elzinga, Maple Leaf. This is a work that many ‘miss’, as it hangs delicately above our heads in the gallery space.

The third artist in this troika, whose works sit in the ‘back’ space closer to the office, are perhaps the least strong of the three. Kimberly Danielson’s pieces are heavily textured, with the surfaces incised and worked in a manner that is alternately violent and organic, making the artwork seem slashed and almost brutalized (not a pejorative comment). However, after the controlled use of colour of Boaks, and the manner in which Elzinga works in a very limited palette that offers unexpected variation upon closer looking, Danielson’s colours are often excessive and harsh. In her brief statement to the work, she offers her background in psychoanalysis, and though that might lead the viewer to consider her palette from a more emotional than aesthetic viewpoint, it is often not as successful as her compatriots in Reopening. On repeated visits, several painters who accompanied me suggested that a more muted use of colour would help emphasize the rich textures and elaborate incising of line and mark making, and I tend to agree. Alternately, her works are more tightly presented than Boaks, and perhaps a bit of breathing space between them would serve them better, too. But – as always – I’ll visit again, and my response may shift.

Kimberly Danielson, The Tangled Web We Weave

As with past ‘smaller shows’ (13th Street has a good curatorial approach, in having three artists in the space as a ‘standard’, and still offering some of their other works in the office, or sometimes in a smaller, separate space), the artists’ aesthetics and images converse with each other, sometimes saying the same thing with different ‘words’, sometimes diverging, sometimes ‘disagreeing.’ These are all things to consider, to take away with you: perhaps as you leave the gallery proper, you can wander the grounds and see not just several works by Elzinga that are on permanent display, but some new ones added, as part of Reopening.

Reopening: Ronald Boaks, Floyd Elzinga and Kimberly Danielson is on display until August 1st, 2020. The gallery hours are 10 AM to 5 PM, and they’re located at 1776 Fourth Avenue, in St. Catharines. All images are courtesy the gallery, or taken by the writer, and copyright of the artists. The header image is a detail of one of Floyd Elzinga’s Hay Baal works: when you visit the exhibition, you can then walk the grounds and see alternate versions of this work, by Elzinga, outside. I must also mention that Elzinga has been nominated in the Established Artist Category in the 2020 St. Catharines Arts Awards, which is well deserved.