From here to there and space between: Cody and Connor Smith

For works that are as much about how they’re made as what they show, the pieces in I Have A Vision In My Mind Of A Life That I’ve Left Behind have a presence, as they punctuate the walls that surround you in the Showroom Gallery at NAC. All are massive works: the sheer physical nature of the show (with pieces as big as the industrial garage door that also is in the space, that – with its implications of travel – seems to work with the large collaborative paintings) will be the first impression it makes on you. The titles also imply “elsewhere” or, again, the exotica of other places: Feels Like California or Lucid Dreams of the Northern Passage or (my future home) Berlin. That city, invoked by the title, is also relevant to this show for another reason, but before I explore that, let us go then, you and I, to the statement of the artists in this show. The installation allows for your to stand in the middle of the gallery as you read their words, and be engulfed in the landscape of their works, and I suggest you do so when you visit.

Vision presents “collaborative paintings created by two brothers [Cody and Connor Smith], while living 5000 kilometres apart from each other. Their collaborative process involved sending paintings back and forth between Toronto and Vancouver over the course of one year. The resulting works are hybrid images that existed simultaneously in multiple geographical areas.” This sense of two artists can be seen in how the pieces betray some very different styles of mark making, and some very different use of texture, line and other formal aspects. But to return to my earlier comment about Berlin: in the recent debates regarding monuments and history, Berlin was cited as a space with contentious baggage that has managed to mark what has happened in a considered and genuine way (Eisenman and Happold’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is such a work). So, in light of how the works presented by the Smiths are less capturing a place than a creation of one, incorporating memories or impressions as much as any “real” imagery of the place, pieces like Upper Canada or (appropriately titled, suggesting brevity and a fleeting nature) Glimpse are more interpretations than representations. Unless, of course, it’s understood that these are personal representations: paintings are often more creation of a moment than a photographic “capture” of one.

The pieces in their size shouldn’t dissuade you from examining respective details: the gloppy dabs and dollops of paint, like indexical proof of the frenetic painting of one of the Smiths are built upon with more subtle lines. The latter, finer marks are less expressive but are like editing, forming the original spattersmattersplatter into a cyclist, or a building, or another recognizable subject. Other sections, with dazzling yellows and blues offer respite from the intense scratchy marks that convey action and an intense hand (oil, acrylic, chalk, charcoal and marker are listed as mediums, but really, I imagine anything that facilitates and is at hand, with the sense of immediacy with these works, has been used). In their statement, they offer that the paintings are ongoing, never actually being finished, and that the collaboration is at times adversarial, at other times more united, and the logistics of sending the works (canvas is easily stretched / restretched / stretched) back and forth can be both an advantage (time to consider) and problem (one’s vision isn’t just left behind, or is actively sent away to be effected, or changed, or degraded by another’s vision).  A moon, in dirty whites and dark greens, floating in a pure blue sky whose flatness is complimented by the yellow gold architecture of a building floating above water (there seems to be water, or waterways in all the works; again, suggesting a “road” to elsewhere, a river flowing away, with the prominence of boats and vessels here, too) is a highlight. Paint that looks like string, both in its raised texture, and how it tangles and twists and creates forms less than it creates action is common: the cyclists in one work are less dramatic than the ‘x’ of the spokes on their bikes that catch your eye across the gallery.

I Have A Vision In My Mind Of A Life That I’ve Left Behind is on display in the NAC Showroom Gallery until the middle of January, 2018: visit the show a few times, as the size of the works may initially intimidate, and their strengths can be found in the details.

Cooler Than Cool: worthless and priceless

“…an aesthetics of interaction.”

“We’re not complaining that the values people once believed in are now empty; to the contrary, we’re doing our best to empty them more and more. Get used to it. Stealing is a thrill in itself; this enjoyment is the real reason for postmodern appropriation. We aim to undermine those “convictions” of authenticity and truth, of proper meaning and right order, that sometimes seem to be as dear to Marxist dialecticians as they are to bureaucrats in the Pentagon. Speaking in my own voice is a tedious chore, one that the forces of law and order are all too eager to impose. They want to make me responsible, to chain me to myself….But forgetting myself, speaking in others’ stolen voices, speaking in tongues: all this is pleasure and liberation. Let a hundred simulacra bloom, let a thousand costumes and disguises contend.”

“I only wanted to find great people and let them talk about themselves and talk about what they usually liked to talk about and I’d film them.”

If you’re following some of the more entertaining (if insular and a bit masturbatory) debates in the art world right now, there’s a concerted number of voices decrying the academicization of art aesthetics – which essentially means the elimination of them to serve the politics of the moment. This manifests in different ways, whether in that works are solely to be interpreted through a specific ideological lens or only considering specific groupthink (or approved ideology, edit as you will), ignoring and denying all other.

I might suggest an example in the recent interpretation of Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale which has handmaids that are African – American, which in Atwood’s book was biblicaly impermissible to Gilead’s theocrats, as non whites – whether by biological or social designation (such as Jews) – were deported or executed. It’s an interesting tell of the ideology of the producers of this series, that Atwood’s novel’s reach (abuse of power in the name of religion being no surprise) is narrowed to serve a very specific interpretation (the abuse of women in the name of religion being no surprise). It’s reminiscent of the debate as to whether Hillary Clinton lost the last American Presidential Election, or if Trump won it…and that historical event clearly delineated that many ideologies don’t always intersect smoothly. To offer a further nod to Atwood’s Gilead, it’s like how calling oneself a “Christian” can mean anything, or nothing, and that Atwood, in her book, showed clearly that enslaving anyone in the name of your invisible friend is a poor, poor thing. End of tangent.

This is one of the ways in which art schools and their respective ideological apparatus limit dissent and reinforce their own propaganda. In his excellent book on Art and Sociology, Editor Jeremy Tanner asserts that art historians often value works that sociologists dismiss and vice versa, and that where their ideologies overlap in an “art object” (an inexact, but workable term) is as rare as a unicorn. “Taste is the enemy of art” declared Marcel Duchamp infamously, and Warhol’s further fracture of what might be called high or low taste is well known, and still reverberates.

I recently attended an artist talk where Warhol’s image of Marilyn – do we even need a last name – was shown as how “pop” and “art” meet and take on a viral life beyond even what McLuhan expected or guessed at…and the artist in question was / is still producing versions of Warhol’s Marilyn that further challenge – or collude with, or enhance, or erode – taste, consumerism and capital. This article is an interesting one, in that light, and this rebuttal is also worth considering.

As to where I stand in this debate, I find myself more often channelling Bartleby and asserting that I’d rather not…..or more exactly, I prefer to take things as they are, at times, in a more Modernist assertion of social interactions, and am less interested in a post structural framework that, as postmodernism eats its children alive, hurtles us towards cultural immolation by means of Trump or Clinton, a post truthiness where ideology eschews all the things that make Art enjoyable and accessible, and yet still challenging….

It might seem strange that the previous tangent was inspired by Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold), a collaborative  exhibition by Katie Mazi and Jenn Judson. It’s a show that borders on silly, and that refuses – simply will not – take itself seriously. Yet in doing so, it offers an amusing and sometimes very slick demonstration of the joint nature of creation (beyond the artists to the models, even), how photography can beautifully capture a performative experience, and that it is good, sometimes, to take what you do seriously, while never taking yourself so, in that vein.

The teasing online statement they provided was minimal, but inviting: “Do you like art and do you like to laugh and/or cry? Good. It’s a photo show. Two amateur photographers, ten plus+ amateur models and one new body of work. Some call the photos dumb, others call them sexy. It’s up to you to come to the show and decide for yourself. Kate Mazi and Jenn Judson present to you: Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold). A photo based exhibition that you have to see to believe.“

The works in the Dennis Tourbin space at NAC are primarily photographs: but there’s also the clothing, and some items, presented, that were part of the tableaux that the artists present. The images are kitschy and cheesy, seemingly frivolous, and the models seem to invite us to join in at their unselfconscious self mockery, that is as clear and bright as the colours.

The titles are as evocative, as they are silly: I’m reminded of children’s toys or games, which fits with the aesthetic of play in that these are like Halloween costumes, or children (in age or at heart) playing dress up. Daddy Cool, Hot Wheels, Fresh Cut, Iceboxxx, Bingo Babe (my favourite), My Name Is (Gator Ray) and Dynamite Dude are all titles that (as they’re listed separate from the photo works, as the pieces are numbered on the wall) you can easily match to the images, after an initial tour of the show.

In conversation with the artists, several ideas came to the fore: the idea of “throwing people off, producing something that seems familiar but then jars”, a seemingly familiar aesthetic which then falls apart with the models, purposefully fracturing the initial reading of the images. All the models are amateurs, and friends of the artists, and from various communities other than / including the visual arts, so there’s a freshness and honesty to the roles they perform that’s not overtly determined by expectation. Both Judson and Mazi sheepishly describe themselves as hoarders when it comes to clothes and items that were relevant to Ice Cold, and that immediacy in a personal space also manifests in how the sites range from St. Catharines to Hamilton to Niagara Falls to Grimsby. Taking this aspect of the local further, an earlier version of this was displayed across the street on St. Paul, at the Mahtay Cafe, with the catchy title of They Hate Us ‘Cause They Ain’t Us 2017. It’s very fresh work, so not as clearly defined in their minds and more about the creation – the performance of it – at this point. They collaborate in a very seamless manner, with no specific roles but both doing everything (both work at the same place, and there’s an intensity between art and life with the creation / process of these works) that is echoed in a “real willingness of the models to become the characters”. As this is a continuing body of work (there was also a piece in the #Canada150 exhibition at City Hall, in downtown St. Catharines, playing upon the attraction / repulsion of tourist traps, and on a subtle level explored the dependence of the economic health of the region on this industry), Mazi and Judson talked about future video pieces, and the works at NAC are surely cinematic (both in the larger than life personas and in the graphic and vivid nature of the “scenes”). Their artistic choices were “made on the fly, reactive and immediate”: even though you’re only seeing one image for each character, there are about ten photos selected from each shoot, and “uniqueness” within the larger narrative of all the characters and images and scenes is important. The characters “should be individuals” within the larger story that Mazi and Judson are creating here…so some basic parameters are set, and then flexibility, in terms of interacting with the models and the sites, lead to results that are only partly expected, but more about possibilities.

There is the idea of kitsch, for sure: works that evoke an emotional response over an intellectual one, and that’s applicable here. But that’s also a superficial reading that doesn’t do the works full justice, as there’s also a sense that this work couldn’t be made anywhere else other than a region that is so tourism dependant (the same way that Levine Flexhaug’s work had a different resonance here, with his paintings sharing a sensibility with the many and ongoing tableaux of the Falls).

Their statement in the show perhaps encapsulates it best: “Two years ago, a shared love of Muppet Treasure Island brought Katie and Jenn together. Since that moment, the two have realized that their lives connect in ways beyond foolish puppetry on the big screen. Combining both their closets and their sense of humour, this new collaboration series is an authentic blend of their individual artistic styles.

Cooler than Cool is a series of digital posters that challenge the aesthetic of what has been considered “cool” in the worlds of art, fashion and leisure. Each of these looks have been constructed in order for the characters to better perform their style. This work is era – less, timeless, worthless and priceless.

So bad it’s good, so wrong it’s right. Its Cooler than Cool.”  

This collaborative, sometimes excessive, cinematic display of cultural fractures of “cool / not cool” is on display at NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) until the weekend of October 8th.


All images are copyright of the artists.

Memory and Place: At an Intersection of Nations

but they had their being once
and left a place to stand on.
Al Purdy, Roblin’s Mills

Its fitting that the first exhibition to open, and the first event of Celebration of Nations, was Awakening of the Spirit in the VISA Gallery, curated by Samuel Thomas. This became clear at the last event I attended (the curatorial talk on the Sunday following the Thursday opening reception), when Samuel spoke of his selections for this show. He began with the works of Daphne Odjig; one of her pieces (In Touch With Her Spirit) was also the main media image for the show, and (a testament to the quality of her work) seemed to become a defacto visual signifier for the several days worth of events that comprised Celebration

Its also appropriate as Odjig’s activism (and artwork) opened doors – sometimes forcing them open, sometimes knocking them down – for many Indigenous visual artists, and by extension, many people. Awakening the Spirit, to paraphrase Thomas, was built around three images specifically, as the basis for whats in the gallery. The first of these was Odjig’s aforementioned Spirit, then Norval Morrisseau’s Virgin Mary and then Carl Beam’s Apache Spirit Dancer (he also commented that the overall title of the exhibition takes its impetus from the spiritual focus of the three “foundation” works). This isn’t to say these are the only notable pieces, whether talking about aesthetic quality or historical relevance: Joshim Kakegamic, Roy Thomas, Leland Bell, Simon Brascoupe, Bruce King and Christi Belcourt round out the wall works, and Vince Bomberry and Carl Simeon have sculptural works here, as well. Its a strong, quality exhibition, with the possibility of connections and challenges between many of the images and objects on display.

In Touch With Her Spirit, Daphne Odjig

Samuel Thomas joked that he didn’t want to present “something that looked like a yard sale” and he’s done a fine job here in what he’s shepherded into the gallery. Unsurprising, really, as he’s an artist and activist (and a past recipient of the OAC’s Aboriginal Arts Award) and his manner was one that echoed his words of wanting to share the vision of Suzanne Rochon – Burnett, and her collection.

There are several important intersecting narratives that converge in the gallery. I’ve said before that art history is a form of history, and the legacies of Odjig, Morrisseau and Beam are very much the notion of having been the shoulders upon which others stood and are still standing.

One of the last exhibitions I saw in Saskatchewan was at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. This was 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. and was an exploration of what’s colloquially called the “Indian Group of Seven.” (I might interject a line Thomas cited in his VISA talk, of Odjig asking why her work was described relative to Picasso, and why Picasso isn’t compared to her, as she was (is) more relevant her. This might be a bit of misspoken recollection, by Thomas – or me, hah – as Morrisseau, not Odjig, was often labelled the “Picasso of the North”, but the more relevant question of who / where is the arbiter of quality still stands).

The large room that is the VISA can be walked / read counter clockwise (this is how Thomas toured the works, and it’s an effective approach). The artists’ works aren’t interspersed, so it can be read like chapters, which helped Thomas to build the story around his choices.

Morrisseau and Odjig were also teachers (of Thomas and Bell, according to Samuel Thomas) and the creation and support of Indigenised institutions is ongoing and still important. Thomas spoke of the Manitoulin School (this could refer to formal groups or more organic ones within the Woodlands tradition) and these community centred initiatives are still promoting and preparing Indigenous artists (the current Brock Chancellor, Shirley Cheechoo, is a contemporary chapter in this with the Weengushk Film Institute).

There is a diversity of style: Simon Brascoupe’s works are more like petroglyphs, with the acrylic looking more like stains within stencils, and Bruce King’s works are more thickly and richly painted, with the acrylic juicy and gooey. Morrisseau and Odjig are more “flat” in the use of colour. Morrisseau is arguably the best known example of the Woodlands School, and immediately recognisable. (Another personal interjection, which I do less as a marker of subjectivity, but of the importance of these artists: one of the first artists I ever encountered as a boy, who made me want to be part of that world, was Morrisseau. His illustrations for Legends of my People, The Great Ojibway, introduced me to the strength and power of his work.)

The space is full, but not crammed. The bright colours and strong flowing lines of Odjig and Morrisseau compliment each other, with exceptions: four more earthy and sensual images by Odjig have more formally in common with Carl Beam’s works, diagonally across the room. Beam’s large paper works (sometimes silkscreen, sometimes emulsion and ink) are more restrained in tone and hue, but this gives power to his appropriated images, often political in nature (several of his works are scattered around the Marilyn I. Walker School, on display year round). Beam was well known for his desire to be known as an “Indian who makes Art”, not an “Indian Artist.” An important distinction, when many spaces (half a century ago, and yes, still now) employ tokenism or ghetto mentalities in labelling Indigenous artists (for example, a University Art Acquisitions committee member – at an anonymous place, in Saskatoon, ahem – once barked they had money for “real” artists and “other” money for “Indian artists”…and many artist run centres are just as segregated, though their lip service to “indigenisation” is as loud as it is hollow). At this moment, allow me to employ the soapbox I seem to have found myself standing upon to praise the PAC (Performing Arts Centre) as the locus point for Celebration of Nations. I’d add that it was announced that Annie Wilson is now in the employ of the PAC, and that should please anyone who knows her work with In the Soil.  

Returning to VISA: Beam’s works are subtle, sometimes darkly dense and requiring a focused attention to parse the images, and other times they’re like decoding a puzzle, with his sampled images being presented in a manner that requires us to read them like a visual sentence. Albert in the Blue Zone, Chief, Spirit of the Eagle: all are strong pieces, and you can understand the curator’s desire to not mix & match the artists here, but allow their singular voices to speak. Beam builds on Joshim Kakegamic (also a printmaker, and one of the founders / facilitators of the Triple K Co – operative Press that helped disseminate Morrisseu’s images to so many places where so many of us encountered them) and then Thomas adds another voice to the story, and so on, and we go further in this visual history of Indigenous / Canadian Art.

Thomas ended with Christi Belcourt (as regards wall works) and this offers not so much a “conclusion” as an updating to contemporary dialogue, as Belcourt’s Untitled acts as a marker of her own ongoing advocacy. Untitled, though acrylic on canvas, has aspects of patterning that are also seen in the pieces by Roy Thomas, and Belcourt’s role as a Metis artist / activist is a good image to take with you as you visit NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) to see We Aspire: an exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara (but we’ll get there, in a moment).

As Odjig passed in 2016, this also offers a sense of continuity, and of a new generation acting on the example of the old…(the quote I began this piece with is an acknowledgement that many of the artists in Spirit have passed, and their artworks are a foundation for those of us who are here now).

But it’s worth noting that the politics that suffuse the room are not suffocating, nor do they act as justifications for poor work, as we see too often in contemporary Canadian “art.” When Thomas talked about Bruce King’s acrylic works, he directly stated that he enjoyed them greatly, and wished to share King’s fine paintings with others. The works are political, but also aesthetically engaging, and may – as I experienced – also remind viewers of the first time they saw an Odjig or Morrisseau, and were struck by its beauty.

The almost minimalist use of paint by Brascoupe (simple and sparse, more about symbols and edges that are very clean but then fade like dust, in 6 Roosters or Birds – Tree of Life) plays well off the glotty, textural surfaces of Bruce King. Two Crows or Sioux Country become abstracted and gooey as you stand in front of them, colour like paste and putty, but stepping back allows the scenes to coalesce and become small scenes that transcend their medium.

This show is a taste of what’s to come, curator Samuel Thomas promised, and in conversation he indicated that the breadth and depth of the Suzanne Rochon- Burnett Collection was almost intimidating. Many works needed to be framed for this show, and many were relocated from pride of place in living spaces where, to paraphrase Rochon -Burnett’s daughter, they eat breakfast or do day to day work “with” them. I won’t attempt to encapsulate Rochon – Burnett’s life and contributions to culture, as its done far better here. The quality of the work presented, and how Thomas indicated that each of these artists was a personal friend, and how their works and their larger historical roles also played out in Rochon – Burnett’s own life, offers an inspired intersection of art and life.

Conversely, it was a bit difficult to endure several of the speeches the night the exhibition opened (your intrepid #artcriticfromhell considered heckling them, but my mouth was often full of bison, ahem). Hearing the chair of Brock’s Board of Directors so heartily congratulate Brock on its support of cultural communities was galling hypocrisy, considering their incompetence / ignorance / arguably malevolence (edit as you like), with Martin Van Zon / Interkom and the AGN cabal, with Rodman Hall. At a wonderful symposium at the Mendel Art Gallery years ago, Dr. Len Findlay pointed out that universities are often willing and able manufacturers of alibis for the ideological state apparatus, as in governments and politicians; the latter, or variant nameless Brock administrators (like the ones who arbitrarily and anonymously cancelled the hiring of a new Rodman Director), are better at mimicking ethics, but still as poor (or uninterested) at actualizing them.

I mention this not to remount my soapbox, but to step outside the gallery, and to temper the hopefulness of the several days of Celebration of Nations with the reality of a stuttering, sputtering Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. I know many who will say “residential schools weren’t so bad” despite never knowing anyone who went to one. I’ve offered to introduce some of this very sure, if very ignorant, throng to friends and acquaintances I met in my time out west that would offer first person accounts that not only challenge that assertion, but bulldoze it fully….sometimes they even say “yes” to this and change their minds. 

Leaving Awakening The Spirit (this is in the VISA until the end of September), there are two exhibitions at NAC (Niagara Artist Centre) that intersect with Spirit, and that further the dialogue from Celebration of Nations. We Aspire (An exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara) is in the Dennis Tourbin Members Gallery and features the works of Brian Kon, Sterling Kon, Amanda Pont-Shanks, and Julia Simone. This is only briefly on display, until the 22nd of September, and was supported by the Niagara Region Métis Council, as well as the PAC.

The statement: “Honouring the tradition of Métis dot art and bead work, We Aspire features work by four Métis visual artists living in Niagara. The custom of bead patterning was traditionally used by the Métis to adorn their clothes, equipment and animals.” Mixing the traditional with the contemporary, the words of Brian Kon are succinct: “The Métis were known as the ‘flower bead people’, my art is intended to honour the skills and artistry of my ancestors by using traditional and historic bead patterns as the inspiration for my work.”

NAC’s Dennis Tourbin space is a responsive one, often in (positive) flux, with many local artists using it as both an experimental arena, but it also, with its short exhibition spans and the excellent engagement with local artists and communities by NAC, offers immediate representations of Niagara.

There is a similarity of form in these works, but individual characteristics of the artists manifest here and there. The titles offer a personal touch: Brian Kon’s Grandmother’s Garden evokes a sense of family, with its not quite mirrored floral design; Amanda Pont-Shanks Rocks, delicately painted make you want to pick them up and hold them in your hand, and have a connection to those who held them before, and will hold them after; Sterling Kron’s After Batoche names a site – and a chapter – of Canadian history that, depending if you learned it in school or not, illustrates the contested histories of what was / what is / what might yet be Canada. Untitled, also by Kron is equally yet subtly political, as it offers a vibrant blue and white rendering of the Métis symbol that you may recognize from flags and other insignia of these peoples whom are too often ignored or forgotten when we talk about the Nations of Canada. Its the first work on the left gallery wall, and if you enter through that door, it will be what greets you as you begin looking at We Aspire. If you come from the other side, it will be the last work that you see as you leave NAC and step outside. Both of these are fitting for experiencing this show, and the history and ideas the artists encapsulate in their works.

But before you leave NAC, the back Showroom Gallery beckons you to visit the first programmed exhibition of Fall 2017 at the centre. You can read my preview of Where the Weather Happens, curated by Amy Malbeuf and Jessie Short, with works by Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault arranged around the large gallery space, here. The two shows on display at NAC are, to use that metaphor again, chapters: Weather is the result of the curators’ research into “the diversity and skill of Métis artists working across Canada…Through this exhibition, the artists’ works are placed in conversation with each other, exploring the human relationship with the natural world. Each artist explores these relationships as an individual informed by their worldview as a Métis person.”

Baerg and Nault “face” each other, with a sculptural work by Nault suspended in the middle of the space. Koebel has works at the “front” and “back” of the gallery. Similar to how Awakening the Spirit presented the individual works of the many artists there as “wholes”, Weather also allows Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin / Time Journey (acrylic on laser cut canvas) to occupy the entire left wall. There’s pieces both fat and slim, solid and shredded, to create a “landscape” of symbols that might be eclipses or planets, like celestial calendar markings on a white wall.

Nault’s Entangled Bodies (3) is directly behind you, in the middle of the space, as you face the middle “segment” of Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin (he employs the natural breaks in the wall to “frame” his work). Bodies (3) – like Entangled Bodies (2) and Entangled Bodies (4) – is comprised of a mixture of organic materials, including wood (bark or log, depending on the piece), wax or beeswax, human hair and rope, though the last seems more as part of the installation of these objects, which hang either freely in space or just out from the right hand wall. But the shadows cast front and back, when combined with the gentle swaying of the delicate exposed roots of Bodies (3) give the work a span beyond its physical self, with the silhouettes stretching out into the room. Though smaller in size, Entangled Bodies (4), with pale waxen fingers either emerging like blooms from the tree bark, may be the strongest of Nault’s contributions to Where the Weather Happens. In the accompanying text from Malbeuf and Short, this work is alluded to with Nault “not claiming the place she now lives but letting it claim her.”

Before I go much further, here’s more from the curatorial text: “The troposphere is a layer of the earth’s atmosphere in which human beings exist, connecting the land to the perceived sky. It is the place where nearly all of the weather on earth happens. The works of Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault activate the land and sky, and all that is within, through their intimate and delicate expression of deep connection to this space of energetic flux. Where The Weather Happens is an expression of the relationship and interactions between the land and sky as beings who live within this space.” (This hangs on the wall, in the gallery proper, ephemeral and soft, positioned so you might see it last, after walking in and among the art.)

The same language could be applied to the works of Norval Morrisseau or Daphne Odjig in Awakening The Spirit, and the often meditative yet ornate pieces in We Aspire. The materials in use by the three artists in Weather, however, are more demonstrative of the sentiments expressed, as with Koebel’s deer skin for her many drums that cover a wall in Awasisisoniyas: Family Allowance. Made from 2013 to 2017, they seem to await hands to retrieve them and begin to play them, to fully articulate them as they’re intended.

It was a hectic weekend, when all of these shows opened (I’ve not mentioned any of the talks, seminars or performances, or even the screenings, to hold my focus and your attention), and although two of the three are only up for brief periods, it serves all three well to be experienced in tandem. Whether that’s done in the manner I’ve chosen here, which might be described as chronological as to when they opened, or chronological in terms of the histories they present (Spirit’s artists are older, and several are deceased, while the artists in We Aspire are much younger, and the curators / artists in Weather are between) is entirely flexible, and a point on which I have no preference or suggestion. I remember an exhibition of work by Micah Lexier and a show he curated of influences upon his practice, at the College Gallery. His work was upstairs, not quite directly above the pieces by people like Eric Cameron, alluding to a sense of growth and change that, while not overt, had a subtle power in understanding both shows.

Awakening of the Spirit (Select Works from the Suzanne Rochon – Burnett Collection) is on display until September 30th in the VISA Gallery at the MIWSFPA, and We Aspire: (An exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara) can be seen at the Niagara Artist Centre (354 St. Paul, in downtown St. Catharines). That closes on the 22nd of September, but Where the Weather Happens will be on view until December of 2017.


There was a request to not photograph at events or in gallery spaces during Celebration of Nations, and the lack of images in this post reflects my respecting that. However, the Odjig image is from the PAC website, and in this article I attempted to have a wide variety of links regarding the artists. If you’re on FB, there is also an excellent panoramic view of the VISA space, with Awakening The Spirit here

 

Discarded Beauty: Steve deBruyn

There are some unexpected contradictions in the “installation of painted wooden sculptures” currently at NAC. Or, if I defer to his description of Pile On, the singular work, as Steve deBruyn intends the free standing and precariously balanced “pillars”, along with the wall works partly inspired by Kurt Schwitters’ assemblages, as a singular whole; an inclusive installation that envelops the visitor.

Many of the components were fashioned by deBruyn, with NAC volunteers, in the week leading up to the show opening, which adds to this interpretation. A singular artist, perhaps, but many hands in the making of the installation.

Many of the pieces have a ragged quality, a roughness, and may give you a splinter if you handle them (deBruyn wasn’t precious, at the reception, and both handled the works himself and encouraged visitors to do the same). But then you’ll notice delicate and exacting evidence of the artist’s hand (the colours and patterns and textures that unite all the components, subtle yet significant, or the cleanliness and perfection of some edges and lines, harshly contrasted to the ramshackle detritus within the same piece. One set of sculptures, flowing and bending with wainscoting, making them look like escaped, “wilder” house works, on the right side of the gallery, are delightful in this lively, almost jolly, manner. The repetition of the pink purple blue black crisscross pattern pieces in the wall works, the random – perhaps added after, perhaps already a part of the slat or chunk added to the works – splotches of paint that further make the pieces connect across and around the room).

The works presented here are very much “worker’s” art (like George Sawchuck): the materials from which they’re constructed, how they’re installed and the recognizable components (pressboard), have a proletarian – almost plebian, or common –  aspect. Its funny how some artworks inspire you to leave any heavier theory at the door, while other works invoke the same (often remote, often academic or irrelevant) ideas into a real, and lived space. It’s impossible for me to separate these works from my conversation with Steve in which he talked about working “at a lumber yard—and busy constructing a backyard deck when called to discuss his upcoming exhibit—deBruyn’s work responds to the common discarded construction materials he refuses to build his sculptures, echoes of the skateboard culture he was once very much a part of, and his own sensibilities about the narrowness of our perceptions of what is beautiful in our living spaces and built surroundings.”

There’s an interesting contradiction, if you’re familiar with Kurt Schwitters’ Construction for Noble Ladies (1919) and the almost overtly masculine (yet not as the pillars tilt and the pressboard looks cheap like an overtly macho poser) pieces from deBruyn. He pointed out how some of the works, with mouldings and finishing you’d expect in any good suburban bathroom had gouges and breaks in their making, a hand less concerned with making a “perfect” object than exposing the ludicrous nature of it all (like Schwitters’ mocking of “noble ladies”….)

The back gallery at NAC is installed in a manner that spaces the wall works out at regular intervals – all are relatively similar in size, and all share not just colours, but also are constructed from shared pieces of wood (evidence of repurposing) that further unify them, as a perimeter around the room, defining the space. Fragments are arranged in an orderly manner to form the whole: whether this is “modernist” or more about crafting a seamless suburban renovation is debatable. All property is theft, comrade, and maybe I’m talking about the wealthy, ignorant suburbanites or how I hope that some of the source materials were “liberated and secured” for these alternately bright, or blighted, wall works.

The pillars lean in a way that suggest they’ll be coming down soon, and you might not want to be under them when that happens. They’re painted in the same colours that unite many of the works – there’s the small painting card sample, near the comment book: Peach Brick, Lotus Petal, Copper Trail, Green Grey Mist and Northern Landscape (I still wish I’d somehow gotten a job naming paints, but I’m sure I would have lost it, in the beige, impotent spaces. I’d go slowly crazy, calling things Arterial Spray Red or Leprosy Grey or Gangrene Green…this might seem like an indulgent tangent, but deBruyn and I also talked about work and trying to do what you want while having to pay for what you need…). All of these scream inoffensive interior design, and all – on their own, if you painted a room and not a work of art made from cast offs and crap that sat in your backyard for months – would suit any bourgeois bathroom.

The six columns are generally one solid paint chip colour, whereas the wall pieces have flat shapes in variable samples from this selection, often arching up from the bottom of the “plane”, in geometric shapes (trapezoids and pyramids – once again, a reference to building or construction, perhaps?).

To return to the statement for the show: “[H]is objective is only to have audiences reconsider the environments that we spend our lives in and possibilities for greater aesthetic pleasure from them.” In that respect, deBruyn succeeds: these pieces are fragments, discarded or torn, it seems, from the houses and rooms that we build – or have others build – for “us.” With current debates regarding houses, whether the cost or who gets to own, and who never will, I see these as something that my generation and those after us might consider as future (or current) housing.

Its not coincidental that as I wrote about this work, I spoke with a friend who does street photography and he mentioned a squat under one of the bridges that had been burned out in the past week. There is a stronger conceptual connection between that now discarded, abandoned space and deBruyn’s backyard, where some of the elements of these works in Pile On were subjected to the elements, than the suburban spaces the colours and finer details allude to, obliquely. 

 Steve deBruyn’s exhibition Pile On is on display until Saturday 22 July. 

Denouement (the outcome of a complex series of events) / Rodman Hall

Camille Paglia once very caustically (and astutely) observed that many “still regard abstract painting with suspicion, as if it were a hoax or fraud. Given this lingering skepticism, it might be wise to admit that there is more bad than good abstract art, which has been compromised over the decades by a host of inept imitations.” The same can be said of artworks in the realm of new media, whether moving or still: in fact, sometimes these can be even worse, as they combine a navel gazing discourse that is more about “how” something was made, rather than why, and much new media work has also bartered aesthetics for ideology, being so focused upon “personalism” that it becomes more of a soliloquy – or narcolepsy inducing lecture – than anything else.

But all that means is that any gallery visitor needs to be discerning: and sometimes gems can be found in unexpected places. It’s always difficult to gage what to expect from a BFA graduating show, just like with an MFA show: these days, with institutional cronyism and ponzi schemes giving us “visual arts PhDs” in Canada, it’s only likely to muddy the waters – or more exactly, add more urine in the artistic pool. But there are interesting ways in which this can be challenged. I’ve always felt that having Brock BFA grads exhibit their works in Rodman Hall upped the ante, presented a real challenge to the students, and gave them a true first step into what a considered – and qualitative – practice must be, post university.

The current slate of graduates, showing in Denouement at Rodman Hall, is an eclectic mix. Several works are quite good, several others fall short. The intricate detail of Taylor Umer’s monochromatic pieces, the “landscapes” of Robin Nisbet that fracture space and time but still offer enough “ground” for the viewer, or the exploration of memory in a personal motif as in the works of Becca Marshall are diverse in concept and execution.

The work that I’ve been back to see several times, and spent the most time with, is that of Kylie Mitchell. Multiple interlocking works, with simple titles like something, august 12, doll or burn it which belie their evocative suggestion of an intense story we must hear…It is also the work that personifies the title of the show the best; not in terms of finishing a degree or this exhibition as an “end point” but in the “complex events” she hints at, or the stories she alludes to, obliquely and directly.

There’s several reasons why this is the work I’ve chosen to highlight, to spend time with and try to articulate its attraction, that intersect with each other: the installation benefits from being in a separate room, allowing the projections, images and monitors to converse with each other, without interference from other work, and thus invites our contemplation as we stand within the environment. Perhaps it’s also that Gunilla Josephson’s works were recently here, too, and my mind is on how video can be a space, not simply a wall work. But perhaps it’s the way in which one of the works (august 12) both embraces the machinery that defines it, and yet also offers a very personal and immediate bridge across what can be distancing technology.

As you enter her space, along the left hand side of the wall are three monitors, all at the same level, seemingly identical in size and form. Each loops: words are typed, corrected, brief statements that are as terse as they are uncomfortably personal, and then an invisible hand “backspaces” it all, unwriting unmaking unsaying it all. Only to do so again, and erase again, and type again, for ever and ever. Charged phrases: I should have said something, or she’s dead, or equally cutting snippets of conversations that are painfully real. Small bites of speech that are hard to swallow, and perhaps we sick back up, and then swallow again. Another loop, like trauma in memory (“Do you really think there is a real point where then stops and now begins?” Maggie had asked him. “Don’t you know that down deep the things that happen to you never really stop happening to you?” (Peter Straub, KOKO)).

Mitchell’s words: “The premise of this series of work is based on three students from Brock, who agreed to meet with me and discuss moments in their lives that have deeply shaped them today.” She went on to shape and mold these, but I’m loathe to add more than that. There’s a gravity to the room, and the images and objects within it, that facilitates personal interpretation and projection of one’s own moments and histories where everything changed, and was never the same again. Something that might be awkward is incisive: and the universal nature of stories that might be despairing, regretful or that simply remind us that we are unified by that which we have experienced transcends form and technology to be about communication, that often failed and failing attempt to know another person, and their life. 

Denouement, the Brock University Department of Visual Arts Honours Exhibition, runs until April 30th at Rodman Hall Arts Centre.

The image above is a video still from Kylie MItchell’s bracelet, 2017.

Also [Art ] Also [Play] Also [Absurd]: Donna Akrey at Rodman Hall

Donna Akrey’s aesthetic – I hesitate to even use that word, as it’s so loaded, too heavy, for the works at Rodman Hall that Donna invites us to (genuinely) play with, or that might hold us up (a shaped cushion attached to the wall, easing my lower back pain as I lean against it) – is an awareness and an immersion in the moment, unreservedly.

I’m reminded of Salman Rushdie’s assertion – from the mouth of one of his narrators, a photographer – that “realism isn’t a set of rules, it’s an intention.” A directness that eschews rhetoric or hesitation is demanded when you engage with Also Also; the front three rooms are Akrey’s, and their domestic history helps to suggest an ease, and accessibility, with the works. There’s even a station for “collaborating” with the artist, blurring lines between Akrey and ourselves further.

Akrey’s art seems to eschew academic language or prohibitive discourses about interactivity and access and expectations with “art” and the “gallery” that are deterrents – prophylactics, really – to immediacy – to the very ideas of interactivity, even – for the individual viewer (…just like that last sentence, hah, may demonstrate. Sorry, but not really).

Marcie Bronson, the curator of this exhibition (again, perhaps too formal a word: let’s say collaborator. That’s also a nod to Bronson’s ability, as she’s mid wifed the works of Amy Friend and Gunilla Josephson previously) suggested this contradiction. She and Akrey toured visitors through the show and Bronson offered that Akrey’s solo exhibition Also Also is about what we see, how we see and what do we expect to see, in the two rooms (and more, and more on that in a moment) at Rodman.

Another amusing comment; when Akrey said that there’s the idea that she might be “doing this art thing wrong.” I’d proffer that her work is about fun, both facile and deeper, and the enjoyment of the visitor, in a way that relies on their good intentions, “interacting without malice” (quoting Bronson, again). There’s a refusal to be “serious” in many of the works Akrey presents, refusing to have their squareness forced into a round hole of some external theoretical or academic dryness.

The curatorial / artistic / communal statement elaborates further on this desire to evoke a freshness in gallery behaviour: “Akrey is interested in how habit shapes the way we experience and engage with the world around us. Rooted in her astute observation of patterns of communication and consumption, her work humorously intervenes to raise discussion about social and environmental issues, often responding directly to a particular site or community.” She further sums up her approach: “I imagine the absurd as real, because sometimes the real is so absurd.”

When Akrey spoke of the ideas that inspire Middle Ground, with reflected light, mirrors and an activity as soothing as its mindless, she reminisced of walking around rooms as a child with a mirror propped under her chin, traipsing about in a manner absurd and untroubled by what “walking” and “looking” is “expected” to be….

There’s a power in enchanting details: the shiny silver elbows of the softish sculpture in the front room, like a person’s bent arm, fabric wrinkling like a sleeve. The brief Fireplace Videos are odd vignettes. Unrelated, non narrative and non committal, they’re moments in time that are being shared with you, looping, and undemanding of any conceptually rigorous looking. They’re similar to those burning yule log X – Mas channels (the first Fireplace video is white sleetsnow spatterflying across a flat aquamarine field, beautifully hypnotic. Another is of the same plant sitting on the fireplace below the flatscreen, more enticing on screen than in life).

As you sit and watch these, you begin to feel like the plants in the work behind you (Plant Life), ebbing and slowly moving (breathing?), one plant to one blocky television. All nine perch on plinths, near the window, like “real” plants might be placed in any homey space. Relaxing, perhaps vegetating (you and the plants), if you will.

Pieces here extend back 15 years, but there’s newer works (one piece is a bit lesser, or a bit different, now, that the Levine Flexhaug show is gone, as it was responsive to that. But as it’s titled ⅓ ⅓ ⅓ , we can just say ⅓ has shifted). Her collaborators include artists like Margaret Flood (with Eclipse), preparateur Matthew Tegel (the previously cited ) and hopefully us, too. A workstation with tools and supplies is provided, with an encouraging tag (listing the workstation and shelves displaying works as by “Akrey and gallery visitors”).

There’s also a site-specific outdoor installation that relies on the cooperation of neighbourhood residents in Rodman’s immediate area. This series of pieces can be best experienced at night: as I left Rodman, the evening of the talk / tour, the soft glows of the tiny box works placed at several houses on St. Paul Crescent were unexpected moments of joy and light. Guideposts without a map, or destination, just a marker to be enjoyed for its simple being.  

In Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beasts, he cites the rareness of a child’s first visit to a zoo: how these animals are exotic and unknown wonders, unmediated by any expectations. Later, the child might run to see the majestic lions, and habitual, mediated expectation replaces wonder and awe. There’s an element of that in Also Also: go rub your face against the works in Prop, let the soft bulges massage your back, and consider a gallery that might be a comfortable, welcoming space where there is no misbehaving, just enjoyment. Donna Akrey’s Also Also is at Rodman until April 30th.

All images here are courtesy, and copyright, of the artist.

Bananas, banality and Beuys at NAC

Its entertaining to rigourously examine what merits attention, as art, or “Art.” I have absolutely no idea why the bananas – the plethoras of banana peels, I should say, to be accurate, both freshly cast aside and others that we can almost smell the rot emanating from in the photographs in the space at NAC – fascinate me so. The installation is banal: its collaborative (more than one artist, though one person acts as the instigator, or gatherer, of images, both literally from other contributors, but also in how these are peels “found” while out, and captured in these snaps). Some images are silly, while repetition both elaborates and bores.

It could all be blamed on Joseph Beuys, whose destruction of the notion of art school has continued long after his death (may the good be buried with him, as the evil lives after, so let it be with Caesar). If we live in an age where anyone can self designate as an artist, where anyone can be an artist (and consequently, to invert Beuys, no one is an “Artist” – note the capital), then by extension anything can be designated as “Art,” by nothing more than that self referential act.

Let me cite from Alice Gregory’s review of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks: “Such retroactive and remote anointing is far more difficult in the context of contemporary art, which for the past century has often been the product of speech acts. I am an artist because I say I am an artist. This is art because I say it is.”
Now, this can, as with everything, offer possibility and putridity. But the playfulness of what’s presented here is so unpretentious, and so direct that I do enjoy it.

If you think I’ve had a momentary (or ongoing) loss of my art critic acumen, allow me to contrast and elaborate.

Some of the worst “art” I’ve ever been subjected to could be considered abject – there’s a joke there, I’ll come to in a moment – abuses of that ego. One of the last exhibitions I saw on the Prairies – Abject Abstract – displayed two vomitous examples of this elbows out, self aggrandaizing artcrime. What makes them notable is that they sinned in a manner like flip sides of a coin: both coming to the same horrid place, but via parallel paths.

Jon Vaughn mixed spray paint, scrappy prints and paper into pieces that attested to a lack of compositional talent or skill, and hinted at colour blindness (actually, that’s unfair. I’ve known artist who were / are colour blind who demonstrated a finer, qualified hand). There was an assertion of “primitivism” or “rawness” to these things: but if forced, I would say that if we speak of these as “untrained” works, they have more in common with a lack of toilet training and the resultant feces….
Amazingly, in the same show, were the works of Allysha Larsen: whereas Vaughn was a blocked and excessive suppository, Larsen had a few strokes and blots that bastardized the measured considerations of Gottleib, or Kline. These were just as boorishly amateur, as unpleasant as Vaughn, but they fairly vibrated with “artistic” self importance.

Both postured: both failed, and both polluted – and sadly, continue to do so, I’m sure – the artistic waters. Look out, someone has urinated in the pool.
Now, what does this have to do with bananas, or the exhibition at NAC?

To quote a (regretful) former mentor, I make “pretty words as I say ugly things.” Perhaps I am just, like my most favourite protagonist from Richler, Barney Panofsky, “a voracious reader, but you would be mistaken if you took that as evidence of my quality…[a]t bottom, I am obliged to acknowledge…the baseness of my soul. My ugly competitive nature”.

Perhaps – to return to that egregiousness of posture and pretension – this is why I enjoy the banana peels.

Bananganza (it took a few tries to say that without bursting into laughter) “is an exhibit of banana peel photos collected in collaboration since 2014. Inspiration commenced one evening upon visiting a movie theatre. In the parking spot next to mine, it appeared as if all four passengers of the now – gone car had woofed down a banana each, leaving the peels by their respective car doors. The decomposed peels looked like…strange creatures: bats, geese, turtles, birds…I was compelled to snap a photo.” Those are the words of Kristin Stahlman, who has images here, but has a primary role as the accumulator of these images: the person to credit (or blame) for, Bananganza.

Further guiding words from Kristin: “Being an avid walker, I began noticing banana peels nearly everywhere and stopped to snap a photo of each….I posted the small collection on social media, where my friends joined in. Soon the random tossed banana peel photo collection expanded to include peel photos sent from all over – the furthest sent from Venice, Italy.”
There’s humour: Lynie Clifford (Tonawanda, NY) has Poor Froggy, all black and rigid and amphibian shaped. Stahlman has The Bird: also dark and stiff.
But, as is so often with humour, there’s a less jocular underbelly. A personal favourite is the larger Dance, by Dan Hogan, purple and almost like an organ, suggesting a morbidity and almost murder scene tableaux (or, if I may be a bit tasteless – sorry – it almost evokes a severed member, if you follow my meaning). Full Deck, by Lee Jacob (unknown location) shows the fresh, almost pretty bright yellows with mottles of brown and tan, of what must be an easy dozen peels on a wooden deck. Someone gluttonously, ravenously, sated their appetite here, and left the indexical signifier of their own personal bananaganza for an unsuspecting witness. Louise Hominuk (Southampton, ON) has snapped Beach Banana: but the splashes of yellow exposed from the gravel and stones suggest a poorly buried body more than a discovered treasure. Some images are less remote, and are from our own downtown: Stahlman’s Graffiti Peel is a wonderful take on how many photos are shot in front of the multi storey graffiti mura just off St. Paul, down from the PAC. Sydney Kripp’s Muck Tryst offers us a peel almost as dark a brown as the mud and foul water it floats within. The puddle reflects a street light in a shimmery manner: the label with ruined bar code is clearly visible.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure of my position: I’ve been habitually, and obsessively, photographing shopping carts I encounter as I walk the streets of St.Catharines. Some are simple, some are more complicated, but all are found, and I solely document, with no modification, movement or interference.
This has simply been enjoyable to do, and to post on social media, and with a quote or words of my own, sometimes relating to the scene, sometimes grafted onto it with less immediate relation to the scene. Others have told me about being infected by my “seeing” and “noticing”, sometimes in a relaxed, comic manner, and sometimes in a manner that activates their environment in a new way. In some ways, I am a uniquely qualified – and very interested and receptive – audience, to this endeavour.
Of late, I’ve been thinking of my documentation of these as my latest research into late capitalist modernism / late modernist capitalism. Evidence of how the only freedom that matters is the freedom to consume, but also, with how they’re always empty, suggesting a Lacanian desire that is never to be sated, but that permeates and demands and suffuses our world…
The banana peels can be like that: discards of consumption, indexical evidence of consuming, and with the current debate and concern about food prices, this can take on a sinister tone. I spoke recently with a professor from Brock about water, for the recent World Water Day: he asserted that all those futurist warnings about how water will be the new oil, and we’ll see wars and imperialistic forays for water as we’ve seen in Iraq or Afghanistan is unlikely. What he did assert is that at a domestic level we will see shortages and the resultant societal strains and fractures that may take us to the same violence in a different manner.
I think about that with food, when I look at some of these banana peels, these discards: as Atwood said in Year of the Flood, “hunger is a powerful reorganizer of the conscience.”

Bananganza is on display at NAC until the first of April.

A Word 09.10.2015 Anna Szaflarski and A Man’s Job

This week’s episode of the A Word is, on the surface, a very specific one to St. Catharines, while being a conversation between two people whom have connections to “here” but yet also are not from “here”…

First, let us all enjoy that I’m the NAC Member of the Moment for October, and you can read about that at the preceding link. Much praise to the community here, which has been exceptionally warm and welcoming. Many thanks to NAC and many others here who have made me feel very much at home.

Something else to consider in terms of your visual arts world in STC this Thanksgiving weekend are the plethora of events and exhibitions coming up at Rodman Hall. Here’s some information about Spare Parts,  which Stuart Reid talked about on the show a few week ago, and Donna Szőke’s exhibition which opens this weekend. I’ll be doing some follow up in the next few days to see about having her come on the A Word.

If you pick up this month’s edition of The Sound, you can also see some thoughts of mine on her upcoming show, Bill Burns’ exhibition which opens later this month, and some impressions of Shifting Perspectives. It’s not yet online, so you’ll need to pick up a print copy. When its up, I’ll share them.

But let’s return to Anna Szaflarski’s trio of installation / intervention works being presented through NAC that open this Thanksgiving weekend (a fitting analogy, perhaps, that fits in with the latter part of our conversation about “family” ) titled A Man’s Job. They’re located at NAC (354 St. Paul Street), the NAC Flea Market Gallery (46 Turner Crescent) and at the Golden Pheasant (244 Ontario Street).

Let me steal the words of the gallery :

At each newsbox location poster editions of A Man’s Job by Anna will be available for pick-up. The poster is comprised of a chronological collection of newspaper headlines tracking the relationship between the employees and the auto industry in Niagara that spans over sixty years (1940-2011). As Anna explains,

“I was researching in the library archives for another project, but quickly noticed the frequency of headlines pertaining to GM; unions, lay-offs, which rotated from hopeful to pessimistic with regularity like the wheels of a mill…Together the fluid back and forth begins to lose all meaning; an eventual entropic disintegration.”

You can listen to us here. An image of the poster is below linked to a larger version.

There is also a further piece of writing, that Szaflarski presents as part of her Letters to the Editor series where her writings are paired with another person’s response to the same subject. You can either pick up this at the news boxes too, or read her – and Stephen Remus’ essay – here.

This was very much the basis of many of the points in our talk, and I really enjoyed Stephen’s excellent contribution here, and if you have a sense of the history of this place and its relationship with manufacturing (especially in a familial or more personal way), you will, as well.

You may find me at the Golden Pheasant later on doing research on public reaction to this very interesting example of art in the public realm.

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BABELTECH™ and the power of language at NAC

And then one day he realised that of course he was always staring at his hand when he wrote, was always watching the pen as it moved along, gripped by his fingers, his fingers floating there in front of his eyes just above the words, above that single white sheet, just above these words i’m writing now, his fingers between him and all that, like another person, a third person, when all along you thot it was just the two of you talking and he suddenly realized it was the three of them, handling it on from one to the other, his hand translating itself, his words slipping thru his fingers into the written world. You. – bpNichol

Language is a virus. Laurie Anderson warned us. We weren’t listening. Like most warnings from the mid to late twentieth century made by artisitic prognosticators, she’s been ignored. (I can’t help but inject that other female contemporaries like Jenny Holzer, or Barbara Kruger, have seen their formal aesthetics appropriated, while the ideas that so challenged their – and our – worlds were not quite so popular…).

Now, Anderson is cited ad nauseum, but this is a dissapointing facile failure. Its repeated, but misunderstood. We don’t fear language like a virus as we should, like a drug resistant TB that might sweep across our city, leaving us without breathe to communicate.

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I’ll admit that these dark thoughts came to me while standing in front of two of the works in Eric Schmaltz’ exhibition BABELTECH INDUSTRIES™ presents…
THE ASSEMBLY LINE OF BABEL at Niagara Artists Centre: FUTURE and NOTHING, respectively, hung on the back wall as an apocryphal pairing, separated from the majority of works presented in the space which run along one wall.

Formally, they all employ a common template, with recurring sections and words: Assembly Instructions / Components / Tools Required / Product Detail all are contained in grey institutional boxes that move down the right side. Pride of space is given to a larger square captioned Exploded View. Like any good guide / map / instructional display, trademarks and disclaimers and warnings proliferate.

There’s something about their construction that references the impenetrable hopelessness of an IKEA catalogue but also the generic and overtly genuine and eager public health warnings (how to use that anti bacterial wash to avoid spreading the flu that will weaken our immune systems for future pestilences, perhaps).

Each image bears the disclaimer running along the bottom of the image, in its own thin grey box: USE PRODUCT AT OWN RISK. BABELTECH™ IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY BREAKDOWN IN COMMUNICATION OR MALFUNCTION: after all, tools – like language – can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and just as everything looks like a hammer to a nail, language has NEVER been a clear medium through which meaning travels from one to the other without some form of corruption, correction, critique…or code, perhaps.

Perhaps the “Old Stock Canadians” reading this will nod in agreement….or our once and future king, Stephen Harper, will enlighten us at a later date. The King’s speech, or the King’s English, if you will.

Schmaltz is described as a “language artist, writer, & researcher” and that first term is the one that my enjoyment of this show hinges upon, as it can incorporate so much, and so many incongruous threads….BABELTECH™ are both works in words but also in image, and this offers a multiplicities of readings and ways in which to interact with the pieces. How might these works be spoken? In describing them, I find this to be a liberation, not a challenge….its is appropriate here to the reference of “Babel”, but I’ll evoke a number of those later, too, as they are multiple, and can mean many things to many people.

This is a good point to admit that I’m a fan of the late bpNichol, whose works were self described as borderblur, whether his graphic Selected Organs: Part of an Autobiography or more challenging Martyrology Books. I encountered his works when I was 13 (ABC: The Aleph Beth Book, which is usually listed under his “visual” works), and since then my expectations of poetry have never dropped. Kaie Kellough’s performance, the same evening as Schmaltz’s exhibition, is worthy of mention in this lineage, but more on that in a moment….boundaries are there to be broken, not to constrain, like a living, growing map that’s more about the intangibles than about the clear, hard edged marks. Was bpNichol drawing or writing? Visual or literary? Speaking or sketching?

Let’s delve into some art theory (sorry, only time this review I’ll do this to you) for a moment, and consider the notions of signs. Some are indexical, that provide physical evidence of an object, such as a shoe print, or referential, like others that are made to look like what they resemble (the simple drawing of a tree, or the gender symbols on washrooms).

But what matters here is the more abstracted sign, that has no clear, immediate or obvious relation to that which it “represents” and we’ve simply – as a society, a community, or within even more intimate spaces of communication – agreed that “this” means “that.”

Amusingly, Letraset (I’ve had numerous moments of nostalgia for the 90s since my return to Southern Ontario, and this is / is not one of them) is ideal for this. It’s all components, parts and assemblages, literally breaking apart words and symbols to make new ones, literally cutting and sticking components together to make something new, newish or disturbingly familiar…

For example, on one level the seven pieces could be a fragment word poem. Read them as a sentence, traditionally Western, from left to right: CAPITAL INTELLIGENCE DESIRE AUTOMATION SINGULARITY DATA TECHNOMICS ENNUI LANGUAGE MACHINE SIMULATION THANATROPIC SUBJECTIVATION FUTURE NOTHING. They could be switched around to form different relations to the word that proceeds or follows them, sentences or associations that build or destroy, like blocks or bricks of language.

I’d be curious to have had someone track my interaction the first time I saw them: to track my viewing, or the viewing of others…CAPITAL to DESIRE back to CAPITAL…FUTURE NOTHING FUTURE NOTHING THANATROPIC MACHINE MACHINE…our veiwing constructs the “sentence” and our attentions defines what is the verb and what is the noun. THANATROPIC DESIRE THANATROPIC DESIRE…or perhaps if I was in more of a Marxist mood, CAPITAL DESIRE AUTOMATION ENNUI ENNUI CAPITAL DESIRE and repeat as compelled…

But each work / each word in itself is an individual poem, a unique work of art: whether deconstructed in Components down to its “bones”, or reconfigured in a new way in Product Detail (which may, or may not, be seen as having a relation to the “word” itself, like any “finished product” image in a set of assembly instructions) that are simple images that could stand on their own aesthetics. THANATROPIC’s is almost like a mystic sigil, with an eye, perhaps. SUBJECTIVATION alternately resembles a plant, or foraging locust. FUTURE is more architectural, suggesting an arch or monument. NOTHING resembles a weathervane, a compass gone awry. ENNUI seems to hang in space, a hook with no loop…while DATA is dense and solid and pointing, with a purpose. LANGUAGE combines loops and points, both rounded and pointed, contradictory…

I could look for “definitions” of THANATROPIC or SUBJECTIVATION: or I could accept the ones provided by Schmaltz that don’t presume or preclude other interpretations, or the nuance of communications (though no responsibility is taken for miscommunication or malfunction…deliberate critically at your own risk. No slavery to preset meanings here, and no “freedom” in submission to someone else’s definitions).

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But let’s return to Babel as the titled point of reference: the story of the ill fated Tower is from Genesis 10 – 11, after the Flood, in which humanity, speaking a single language came together to construct this architectural wonder (I was often told as a child that the premise was to build it “to heaven”, an act of unbelievable hubris) but “God confounded their speech so that they could no longer understand each other and scattered them around the world.”

A typical “Sunday school” story to “explain” different languages, with a vengeful, prideful God “punishing” humanity with a multiplicity of language .

Ironic, when you think about the Judeo – Christian focus on the Ten Commandments and “so it shall be written, so it shall be done” mantra of the film of the same mythology…(my art historian is more of a fan of the Golden Legends that incorporate the flowering of Joseph’s staff, or the eroticizing of the ear of the Virgin Mary as the site of the Angel’s announcement of her impregnatoin).

But if we’re going to step into that realm, I’d rather mention Borges The Library of Babel, with its books that are alternately infinite and limited (read it. My description shall but pale in comparison). Or the babel fish of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the notions of memetics and (mis) communication from Richard Dawkins might also be worthy of consideration here. William S. Burroughs The Ticket That Exploded may be of use in choosing a place to stand and which word you might wish to assemble. All of these are relevant when considering the BABELTECH™.

Less theoretically, BABELTECH™ is an ode to the formal possibilities of Letraset: I say that without irony or smugness, but considering the “prefab” nature of the words and language therein, they can again be seen as either constricting or liberating, and what Schmaltz has done here is entertaining and unique. While depending on the medium of Letraset, he also transcends it, and makes it so much more than it usually is…

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My affinity for concrete poetry was something that made me appreciate Kaie Kellough’s reading, especially the initial performance of RAIL that was as much musical as visceral. Kellough worked the components of spoken language in a way that reminded me of early painted abstraction. It was dangerous and honest in breaking language down to noise / sound / speech, like how past Modernist painters broke their practice down to geometrics, “pure” colours, monochromes and a refusal to tolerate any pretty pretense of “picture box space.”

rr rll rail ll rr rll rr r rail became an intoxicating chant. This in itself was hypnotic and seductive and reminded me of what good spoken word concrete poetics can be.

And then things went to another level. But first let me say it was an excellent pairing at NAC as this fluidity of speaking, this breaking down of the Components, this irreverence of Assembly, and an exposure of the banality of the usual use of language by Kai Kellough only enhanced your experience of BABELTECH™ on the walls when Kellough was done. His voice filled the room and interacted with the works, especially FUTURE or DESIRE or CAPITAL.

That other level: from an exercise that could be deemed formal, Kellough moved to a piece about the current immigration crisis that was able to cut through the calcified cynicism of the media narratives, election rhetoric, posturing and the essential egotism of the debate here in the first world. I offer nothing more in terms of description than my high praise, my appreciative amazement at his ability to move everyone in the room, and that if the opportunity presents itself to hear this artist speak, you must take it.

BABELTECH INDUSTRIES™ presents…THE ASSEMBLY LINE OF BABEL, an exhibit by Eric Schmaltz at Niagara Artists Centre, was regrettably only on display for a week. Perhaps, like language, its just fleeting…

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Happy Valentine’s Day…

…and, as I’ve said on Twitter, I won’t be going to see Fifty Shades of Grey but will re read Georges Bataille’s L’histoire de l’oeil. I like my smut to be really pervery (it’s a word).

Amazingly enough, I may be doing it alone, but I am open to a reading date, ahem. But I have a tradition of making and sending Valentine’s cards every year. A friend talks about it here. So, in light of that, here’s this year’s version. Feel free to share and share alike and the image links to a larger version.

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