Excelsior! 1975 – 2015 / Dave Gordon @ NAC

Dave Gordon’s exhibition at Niagara Artists Centre is the kind of show with different meaning(s) to different groups: some of these are ideas that directly relate to what’s presented, and some of these are about what his art – or more broadly, his aesthetic – is implying.

That’s not an unusual consideration for a show that chronicles 4 decades of an artist’s practice – and life – especially when that artist is someone whose own artistic origins coincide with the advent of artist run centers in Ontario. Arguably, artist run culture is still one of the strongest definers of the Canadian art world, though it’s a bit frayed (the need to remind an artist run centre in Saskatoon that its not  “exposure / experience” but exploitation to NOT pay artist’s fees more disgusts than angers me. Further nausea is induced by outgoing Sask Arts Board “CEO” Ranjan Thakre – who helped end SCN under a Sask Party agenda that also destroyed the Sask Film Tax Credit – dismissing allegations of fraud in the same space….have these groups become as bad as that they oppose(d) with their neo liberal selfish incompetence?)

Forgive my nostalgia: this is also a side effect of Gordon’s aesthetic, I fear…

It was interesting to hear Gordon speak, at the opening of Excelsior! 1975 – 2015 in the Showroom Gallery, about people like John Boyle and Greg Curnoe, both of whom I discovered at the Art Gallery of Windsor while helping Bob McKaskell research his exhibition Making It New: Canadian Art in the 1960’s. The fight regarding artist fees, and the establishment of “alternate spaces” is a history we too often forget[1].

I was also in attendance at what might have been Curnoe’s last artist talk before his untimely death, and heard him hold forth regarding a project that took his ideas of London Regionalism (“place is as important as subject” Gordon said at NAC, when invoking Curnoe’s ideology) to an almost absurd length, as he read the history of the tract of land he lived on to the audience, favouring his own fascination over the disinterest of the crowd (another aspect, perhaps, of his “regionalism”…)

Gordon’s work (some large, some smaller) fills the back gallery space, with works from variant series including Woodpiles, Clouds and Chicken à la King. There’s primarily paintings, but also drawing: a series of “text” or “scrawled” works are among my favourite, with them sharing the title of Don’t Carp London ON 1975. Gordon invokes names from that era that aren’t too “regionalist” – like the Rabinovitch twins – but are wider, like Roald Nasgaard, that acolyte of karaoke modernism on the prairies. There’s at least one found object incorporated as part of the painting Excelsior! though the duck (goose? I may have lived on the Prairies but I’m a city boy) acts as a “period” if you “read” the works from the portrait of Jean Genet moving clockwise from the left entrance and loop the room back to where you came in.

The portrait of Jean Genet (from the HeadLands Series) seems to make more sense than the bird in encapsulating Gordon’s aesthetic, but in an inverse manner. The accompanying cursive quote (It is not up to the artist or the poet to find potential solutions to the problem of evil) is the opposite of the ideal that art can, and must, change the world. This remote cynicism seems in defiance of the caustic portraits of former Ontario premier Mike Harris as Prince of Waters, whose “Common Sense Revolution” invariably led to Walkerton and waterborne fatalities…

 

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Further, Genet’s dalliances with “evil”, and his own “outsider” existential disregard for social norms, flies completely in the face (sorry, no pun intended) of the image of Bashar Al Assad: the skulls painted into his eyes offer an indictment of him that embraces the idea that the artist does have a moral role to play. This is among the later works that act as Gordon’s works from his trip to Syria (the directness of his impressions of his trip there expand the idea of regionalism, as we’re seeing it through his eyes).

In a more immediate (and contemporary, in light of Election 2015) manner, the work that entertained me the most were the portraits of our current Canadian Ruler and several of his court – sorry, I mean the current PM and various cabinet ministers – present and past, some departed by choice, others not.

Dean Del Mastro looks like he’d blend with The Godfather, looking solid of jaw and dismayed of expression. Bev Oda, with sunglasses and cigarette is channeling Lou Reed, easily the “cool” one of the group. Jason Kenny’s was perhaps the most unsettling: the night following seeing this unflattering rendering, I was watching the news and saw Kenney maligning some opponent with the same waddle of chins, camera angle from below (Remember how reporters would wait until later in the day to photograph Richard Nixon, as his five o’clock shadow was excessive and…well…criminalizing, to be honest?). Peter McKay seems a bit stunned with his tiny, dot eyes and pouched mouth, and the man himself, Stephen Harper, looks out at us askance, suspicious perhaps, painted in a manner that makes him appear to have a dirty face and a dismissive manner. John Baird’s face fills the frame, aggressively making eye contact with all. Vic Toews looks harsh and rough, like an Old Testament judge, eager to punish: his head breaks the picture frame, like Big Brother Watching Us. Tony Clement looks taken by surprise, and Rona Ambrose looks unimpressed, while Jim Flaherty seems to have a touch of indigestion…

I was once told that I’m the “most subjective art critic ever”: judge that freely in the previous passage, but I think some of you may agree with my assessment here…

There are also smaller portraits of artists (I use that term interchangeably for Arthur Rimbaud or Joseph Beuys, Philip Guston or Al Purdy) and some are granted larger spaces of note. There’s a portrait of Margaret Laurence, but also a quote from her excellent book The Diviners. Frida Kahlo will always have my love not just for herself and her work but also her declaration of her contempt for the “art bitches” of Paris, a term I’ve applied to many a place and person. The Greatest Canadian (Tommy Douglas) shares a wall with an amusing take on The Group of 7 (the seven dwarfs appear, and the same humour we saw applied to the Conservative Cabinet is here, but less acerbic).

The performance by SOUND SOUND followed after the talk and reception, upstairs: I’d not experienced this space before, and it was lovely, as a potential projection / event space, and the atmosphere was engaging even before the visuals and audio began (I was both amused and vaguely uneasy when I looked up at some point and saw the massive upper stretch of Silver Spire United Church, lit with a greenish light, seeming to look down upon us, perhaps with sternness…)

Ever since I became acquainted with Gary James Joynes or Rutger Zuyderveldt, I’ve found that its best to come to audio installations with an openness, as the best I’ve experienced (such as the aforementioned artists’ works in Sounds Like Audio Art Festival III) can overwhelm your senses and be alternately evocative and almost excessive in pushing their physicality.

There was (perhaps) a narrative to the variant projections on the massive screens at the far end of the rooftop. Apocalyptic scenes specific and iconic (images of 9/11) or more poetic and less recognizable mixed with quiet moments, all drone and ambience. These were punctuated by an almost minimalist dance of flames and smoke that was broken by the performers’ shadows, a clean delineated black among the frothing oranges. Another projection reformatted a more three dimensional version of Picasso’s Guernica: how can’t you think that Death rides the pale horse that dominates those tableaux of misery?

This was an unusual pairing, of Sound Sound and Excelsior!, but my long sentence in academia has not made me demand that all fits within boxes like a television dinner tray.

Perhaps it wasn’t such an odd evening of diverse works, if you see them as images of our world, and who defines it, whether the history (including the people and places that form it) of forty years ago, or the history of the 21st century as we’ve constructed it, so far…

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[1] A friend of mine whose history as a cultural worker is significant once commented to me that the foundation of ARCs and their “activist” mandate was intrinsically linked to the influx of conscientious objectors to Viet Nam, implying both a more “American” energy and activism but also cast ARCs as part of that larger social justice milieu. I also like to think of ARCs as having a link in this manner to groups like the SDS with their rough push for change, and perhaps this is why when places like the aforementioned ARC or Thakre betray their responsibilities they remind me of corrupt regimes.

Don’t shoot the messenger: aka and the exploitation of emerging artists

There was a recent complaint regarding my comments on air, on The A Word on CFCR, calling aka artist run a pimp for exploiting emerging artists with its “TBA” space, which I also prefer to call “The Unpaid Intern” space. I was accused of pursuing a “vendetta.” I’d like to take some time to clarify that, although I feel I made my point quite concisely on air. However, this is something that should be elaborated upon, so the larger community is aware of it, and this is an easy way to do so.

aka’s 2014 was not one of their best years: the early tone was set with a significant cut from one of their main funders, the Canada Council.

In response to this, aka decided to emulate paved art’s very popular – with artists but also funders – Toon’s Kitchen initiative. This is a worthy model: but aka missed the main thing that makes Toon’s focus on local artists – sometimes emerging, sometimes experienced – so worthy of praise and support. paved pays artist fees, and pays fees to any writers commissioned to respond to the work. This is not only appropriate for an artist run centre, but is an irrefutable part of its mandate and reason for being.

There was a time when artist fees were not paid, when major galleries would act as though the artists should thank them for the show. CARFAC fought for a pay scale that is still in usage: many ARCs literally shamed mainstream galleries into paying fees (and yes, there is an echo of that public shaming in what I’m doing here). Its sad to see that the fight isn’t just unfinished, but that natural allies, like aka, are choosing to exploit emerging and inexperienced artists, with (at best) delusional or (more likely) cynical arguments, claiming “exposure” and “experience”.

Those are common lines – or lies –  put out by organizations that are looking for a reason not to pay artists of any media (I’m sure you’ve seen that social media post about how to respond to a restaurant that wants you to play for exposure and experience, and how shamelessly exploitative the idea is shown to be when reversed).

It’s even more transparently false here, where the attendance aka gets in two months may match the Frances Morrison Library Gallery space for two weeks. You’ll get more exposure at Unreal City, or The Woods: and though none of these places pay fees, they are NOT artist run centres. They also allow work to be sold off the wall. Frankly, all three places have done a better job publicizing their exhibitions than aka has done with their TBA space.

Experience, considering that the ‘unpaid intern’ artists do their own vinyl and seem to have no installation support, is akin to how getting mugged and learning to be more wary is also “experience”. This is where my cynical re titling the space “Unpaid Intern” speaks to how this exploitation is something we see elsewhere, at magazines or businesses that want the benefits without any investment or respect for the intern. Remember the outrage that was the response to the governor of the Bank of Canada suggesting the unemployed millennial “volunteer” instead? Sadly, there’s more offenders of this variety in cultural spaces than corporate ones, these days.

Arguably, there has never been a harder time to be an emerging artist: whether its the debt load many carry out of their BFA or MFA, or that there are fewer and fewer jobs at less and less pay. There’s no real space in the city specifically dedicated to emerging artists, as in larger urban centres. The art school at the University of Saskatchewan rarely prepares its graduates for post degree action: most MFA students are unknown in the larger community, and the BFA program is poverty stricken in terms of larger community connections.

Traditionally, ARCs have been stepping stones: many have focused on the demographic of emerging artists, who are often seeking a community to continue making work and to exhibit it post university.

Exploiting a group that is inexperienced, and yet often very eager and excellent is despicable. To try and claim you’re assisting them, when your next door neighbour is paying them fees as well as supporting their exhibition both physically and media wise, when in fact you’re using them to make yourself look better to your funders, is reprehensible. Exploitation is defined as benefiting unfairly from the work of others, or to use a person in an unfair and selfish way. That is also, when combined with a focus to use the unaware, trusting and inexperienced, a very accurate definition of a pimp.

To call this a “vendetta” is willful misconstruing. I worked with students and emerging artists for nearly 15 years here, so seeing that they are respected and rewarded appropriately is important to me. During that time I worked with the Visual Arts Student Union to foster professional development, and make them aware of their options, as well as their rights. Perhaps a better question is why an artist run centre is not as concerned about this as I am.

I might also suggest attempting to shoot the messenger is neither an effective or positive approach. Nor is it merited.

After all, I’ve given significant coverage to several artists at aka this past year (Shanelle Papp, Joi Arcand, Shelley Niro, Felicia Gay, Mary Longman), and may continue to do so, if the work is deserving (its an active community, and some things are more worthy of coverage than others). I produced five radio shows this June / July alone to support Sounds Like IV: bluntly, without me, there would have been no media coverage of that worthy festival save a piece in VERB.

The Canada Council has cut aka twice in the last five years. The previous one was significant enough to mobilize the community to prevent a feared shutdown: despite the accusations of a “vendetta” on my part, I have no interest in seeing that. But I also have no interest in fostering the illusion that aka is a healthy, functional space which respects its mandate or fosters its role in this community.

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I’m updating this now, in 2016, as some things need to be highlighted, and I’m long past the reach of those whom lack integrity, by sins of omission or commission, in Saskatoon.

I should add, that since this post originally went up, Stephanie Kate (as she identifies on FB, or as her actual name is, Stephanie Norris ) smeared me and maligned me online (there were some outright lies in her FB post, such as claiming I named her, but her ignorance, is, once again, unsurprising). I did not respond to that, as the CFCR board and Director responded appropriately, though Norris puled and whined online, as most children do when they don’t get their way, that they didn’t cave to her “demands.” Perhaps, if she’d stopped for a moment to think, she’d have realized that those in the musical sphere, such as CFCR, have a very negative response to artists NOT being paid, or the old tripe that aka administrator Tarin Dehod (whom was Tarin Hughes at the time of this abuse and dereliction of duty) used in attempting to justify the TBA space, of “exposure” and “experience.”

At the time of the yoga teacher (Norris has no experience with galleries, nor artist run centre experience) complaining, she was a board member of paved: they declined to become involved in her vendetta despite her attempts to sully them in this matter.

This may be due to paved’s board chair and staff being aware that aka was breaking a major ethical rule in not paying artists (Gary Young had raised concerns about this, at an aka AGM, and was dismissed), and perhaps due to the fact that aka had essentially “stolen” paved’s Toon’s Kitchen idea and passed it off as their own (except, of course, for the payment and the production support a media centre like paved can provide).

Tellingly, the only people who complained about my comments about aka NOT paying artists were Norris, as the yoga teacher of the aka director, aka’s board (which had already been criticised for a number of other failures of governance), and the aka director’s significant other [at that time], Travis Cole. He didn’t inform his board at BlackFlash that he was inappropriately tainting his professional space with personal biases (his complaint was made as ME of BlackFlash, and CFCR was unaware of his personal relationship until I brought it to their attention).

However, it’s important to highlight and name the complainants: as I’m sure Norris was paid a full artist fee for her role in an exhibition at paved in 2016, and is really unable to see the larger issue. She’s perhaps blinded by her “friendship” and ignorance regarding the roles – and rules – of ARC culture. This ignorance was clear in her slanderous declaration of me as having no respect for women, when my history in Saskatoon clearly showed otherwise, and when she, in fact demonstrates a lack of respect for women in ignoring that at least one female artist was NOT being paid in that space.

I add this update for two reasons:  Stephanie Norris needs to be named, as she enjoyed the benefit of smearing me on FB without any context or debate, and because anyone who wishes to submit to BlackFlash Magazine, or support them, should be warned of the lack of editorial integrity or professionalism that the current ME – Travis Cole –  exhibited.

As well, if reading about the actions of the individuals involved here concerns you, I suggest contacting the chair of the Saskatchewan Arts Board, Pamela Acton, at pj.action@sasktel.net. The Canada Council lacks the will or the integrity to deal with this situation, as they were unwilling to even acknowledge the governance failures at aka, whether due to incompetence or wilful abuse of position.