Case Closed at the NAC

Case Closed, the latest exhibition in the Dennis Tourbin Members’ Space at NAC (Niagara Artist Centre), is a four person endeavour: Katie Mazi, Matt Caldwell, Jenn Judson and Alexandra Muresan. There is no real conceptual or literal stream that unites them: that all are students from Brock’s School of Visual Arts – or have been – is the loose thread that binds them together, but its unnecessary knowledge to any interaction or enjoyment of the very different works.

As is so often the case, in a group show, some artists recede and others pronounce: as always, this is as much about the works presented as it is about how they interact (or don’t), and the subjective nature of any interaction – whether ‘criticism’ or otherwise.

The debate about the subjective in criticism has been explored well (in The Walrus, with two disagreeing articles) and poorly (Canadian Art, unsurprisingly). I’d add a more interesting – if controversial – voice to the debate, and cite Ezra Pound’s assertion that an opinion is like a cheque drawn on a bank account. If there’s anything there, it has value: if the epistemological reservoir is empty, it should be considered a fraud and treated as such. Only informed opinions are valid. I’ll keep saying it until a few voices fall silent or become more considered….

Jenn Judson’s works, that I very much enjoyed in #trynottocryinpublic (the second instalment, at Rodman Hall) are not displayed to their best advantage here; or more exactly, they exist as static objects without the photographs of the amusing interventions / performances that they were / are part of, in Judson’s performative practice.

This is one of those times when I suspect that some artists are stronger when they have a space to themselves, and need not converse with other art / artists. If these were meant to invite gallery goers to put them on, then the familiar difficulty of fostering genuine interaction with people who enter a gallery may have been too much to break. But the masks are lovely objects, odd and fun, as much craft as fine art.

Alexandra Muresan’s works are also “quiet”, but in a different manner: both of the wall works she presents here are titled Ornate Fiction. The delicate “drawings” on the fabric works (they’re described as “ink and sheer”, which could also work as an evocative title) float on the walls, moving as you move past them, stirred by the air you move through, around you and them. On the one hand, the delicacy of the drawings, monochromatic and linear – with the rare larger “void” of dark – are secondary to the texture, the white and sheer. The lines are minimal: sometimes very illustrative, sometimes hinting at figures, sometimes alluding form.

I’d say the same here, as I did with Judson: I want to see a gallery space with nothing but these works, as they could become an environment, a quiet space that would invite and demand repeated visits to enjoy the more immediate textural aspects of Ornate Fiction and then to return to explore the images on the material, the figures and tableaux Muresan “sketches.”

That silence, that subtlety, is also present in Caldwell’s large paintings: whereas Mazi’s works almost assault our eyes with colours as luscious as they seem “fake.” But I’ll come to digital works like Play Food, by Mazi, in a moment.

Blue Stake and Seal are both by Caldwell: you may be familiar with his work from a few past student initiatives that have also been in the NAC space. Stake is massive, larger than a person, and hangs on a back wall. Seal is off to the side, more isolated. The initial impression of Caldwell’s work is flatness, a muted presence that offers small differences in tonalities that are as understated, as reserved, as the ridges and textures that you may miss on first appraisal. His palette seems almost banal: then you suddenly see a few random pin pricks of bright yellow, or as in other works of his I’ve seen, a thin rough strip of hot orange. Both Seal and Stake have a similar “ridge” that runs diagonally across the surface, like a bulge we’d see in a bed sheet or material. The scrappy geometric “patterning” is scraped and some colour seems almost scratched or rusted off, exposing other colour beneath. None are bright or forceful: pale fleshy tones, muted olives, an almost muddy orangey red – nothing dominates. All the better for when your eye suddenly catches on one of the small splashes of brightness and contrast, or when you see the roughly sketched hand in the upper corner of Seal.

Different paints have different characteristics, different advantages and personalities: Caldwell works in acrylic, and charcoal, and the flatness of acrylic, the way it dries quickly and allows for layers that don’t mix (like oil) or that are opaque (unlike watercolour), is well employed here.

These works are interesting in the larger debate about painting, and the ongoing argument about abstraction’s relevance or lack thereof. These “histories”, change from place to place, and to return to the aforementioned notion of “subjectivity” in art criticism, the same exists in art production. There are painters who eschew “realism” or “narrative” as pandering to what painting is not, an external definition that denies the essential physicality of paint, of the act of painting. I’m neutral on that argument, right now: I can see not just both sides, but the multiplicity of “sides” that are as infinite as the number of painters, art critics and art historians…..

That historical positioning is also something I considered in the works of Mazi: her bright blues, her rich reds, her fake “eggs” and “bacon” fairly leap off the wall, and the flat backgrounds of pure colour, pinks and oranges and greens, or the seemingly gingham or geometric patterns of the “table cloths” on which her “food sits can’t help but evoke Pop Art (Paglia, in her Glittering Images, cites it as the last true art movement in America, a sentiment that  the late capitalist modernist / late modernist capitalist in me enjoys…).

Play Food comprises six images, all the same size, on a wall between Muresan and Caldwell: described as digital photographs, there is an unreality to the sextet. An ice cream cone floats in space, and below it the “egg” looks as much like an eye as a facsimile of food, the red and blue and yellow all fighting for our attention in a manner that echoes Newman’s “Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?” in a way he never intended, nor would condone. The bacon strips next to the egg are cleanly plastic: but the hamburger above the faux bacon is mouth watering, the meat hitting you right in the stomach. Another notion of desire, I suppose, but it also makes me think of the Atwood character, a vegetarian who said a “hamburger is an emotion”, and that’s fine Lacanian desire, for sure.

There’s also a “domesticity” to these images, as any image of food suggests social interaction, and asks who has “prepared” it, and whom is expected to eat: Mazi has smaller prints of these images for sale, sitting atop a red ironing board.

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Mazi’s works are almost discordant: whereas Caldwell’s are muted, his colours almost bland. These are the stronger two, of the four artists in this show, but that might also be exacerbated by the differences in their practices (Case Closed was advertised as four artists in four different media, and that difference does perhaps make them not play together, very well, to the detriment of some artists over others). But that’s my initial impression: I’ve been back to see the show about three times, and may yet change my mind, and that may speak to how its best to engage with each artist – each work – separately, to allow for its own character: the gauziness of Museran’s fabric works, the playfulness of Judson, the fervour of Mazi and the hush of Caldwell……