#trynottocryinpublic / what succeeds, what fails

Painting can display a breathtaking diversity. Now, granted, that can be said about any form of artmaking, and it can be a weakness, as well as a strength. But when one considers a few things (lets call them suppositions) painting is an active site for this debate.

There are painters out there (not karaoke modernists, but others worth your time – I’d recommend Jonathan Forrest’s dimensional paintings) that can make an effective point for how the lineage of Greenberg and Reinhardt is explored in their work. There are painters who are primitives, that have an immediacy and rawness of experience (the late Paul Sisestki’s works), and clearly ne’er the twain shall meet of those aforementioned ideologies.

As for me, I’m all about narrative, all about stories, all about how images can be used to act as a subversive and yet direct form of “history.”

There is an element to this conversation, of pedagogy, too, as its rare to encounter a painter who hasn’t been formed (or deformed) by “art school” in this day. Sometimes that, I suspect, is why I tend to be dismissive of abstraction, in a “contemporary” setting: one has to acknowledge that not all stories have been told, so ignoring narrative is an act of special privilege that ignores the voices that haven’t been allowed to speak.

On another level, our teachers shape us, and sometimes they do what I saw years ago, when I endured a lecture by Ron Shuebrook, and realized all his MFA students started working in so many different media, and all left painting like him. Art school might be about “unlearning” assumption, or it might be about being immersed in a space that makes you unaware that any other ideas might be valid, or of consideration (Full disclosure: I taught for more than a dozen years, in an art department, in studio. However, as I taught primarily at senior levels, in digital media, my classroom incorporated a reading package that always reminded students that there are spaces outside the university…).

And this brings us to the first instalment of #trynottocryinpublic, currently at Rodman Hall in St. Catharines. This first of two exhibitions under the same umbrellas is made up of three artists who are “emerging”, literally from their degree at Brock into the larger art world. Fostered by two very different instructors from the School of Visual Arts at Brock (Donna Szöke and Shawn Serfas), this is part of the BFA Honours course that is a partnership between Rodman and the MIWSFPA.

All three – Liz Hayden, Fraser Brown and Kaia Toop – work in paint. They share the back, lower rooms at Rodman. They will be followed by an exhibition of their “classmates”, as this manifestation of #trynottocryinpublic ends this Saturday, April 9th.

Toop’s work is easily the strongest, and is the work that merits repeated viewings. There’s a playful aspect to her work, but also an unsettling one. Her pieces with flamingos, manatees, zebras and fawns are high points of the entire exhibition. There’s a maturity of execution here. For example, There are improbable things by Toop (the strongest piece in the exhibition) is a scene that’s disturbing on more rigorous looking but that may initially disarm you with its absurdity and inanity.

In improbable things, the factory is reminiscent of a Diego Rivera (his mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts, for example), dark and textured, a space that’s cramped and a bit suffocating as we gaze into it. The flamingos are both bright pink against the dull factory. I’m also reminded of Alice in Wonderland and the games of croquet that used animals as “toys” and “tools” with a blithe cruelty.

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The flamingos float: as does the fawn in a work in a back space, though it seems more frightened and its posture suggests that its almost “turtling”, if I may use cross – fauna language, against harm. The painting to the right of that isolates a stag on a pink blank background, with scraps of what could be newsprint, or other papery detritus, stuck to it. This is repeated in several other works, where the animals seem damaged by some kind of “leftover” (that word appears in each title) of a manufactured, or manufacturing environment…animals in sites of environmental destruction or damage often have been photographed slick with oily wastes, and other dumped garbage. These are more subtle versions of ducks and geese with their necks caught (perhaps terminally) in six pack plastic rings we’ve discarded without thought or consideration.

In conversation, Toop talked about using her own experience working in a factory setting, and the “unnatural” aspect of that, as applies to humans. That will surely add an element of distress to how we read her animals, as they no longer seem to be within these sites by choice but are trapped there. This may be literal, or it may be the same way that most of us are trapped in sites of labour: I’ll resist any Marxist banalities of employment as prison, though I might suggest a recent excellent article in Hyperallergic, and the avoidance of silly banalities in the same “space” we see from an AGYU “artist” who confuses exploitation of labour with a “statement” about it.

In closing, I want to touch on something that bothered me, about this exhibition.

It is the work of BFA Honours students, and as such they are about to leave one framework for potentially others, with different, yet similar, challenges (the title of the show, I was told, is a play on the stresses felt by students in the course, which I commented would only get worse if they chose to continue in the cultural minefields and barbarisms that are Canadian art…).

I haven’t mentioned works by the other two artists in the show: partly this is due to how Toop’s work held my attention easily and repeatedly.

But it is also a consideration of how (as Steve Remus once challenged me) I resist bringing full critical weight against undergraduates, as their pedagogy can be overtly defining, perhaps deafening them to other voices outside the classroom.

In light of that, though, I feel its important to point out that looking at Liz Hayden’s works, I saw – literally – some of the same “wide” brushstrokes I saw in Shawn Serfas’ Inland series. I’ve encountered other works by Fraser Brown, at NAC, and though I wasn’t overly impressed, they struck me as having potential (a phrase I used when I was teaching that can translate as meaning I am very excited to see what you do next). His work in this show is repetitive and, like Hayden’s, seems to take refuge in its medium of execution: to elaborate, as I’ve positioned my thoughts here as being specific to paint, painting is also a medium in the art world that actively resists any conversation, still, about anything other than how it is done.

Granted, we see techno fetishism in many other spaces (I can think of a horrid show that used 3 D printing in a manner that suggested poverty of thought and rigour): but when, for example, one is asked to speak about your work in a manner OTHER than how it was made, there’s still significant resistance among painters to do so. There is also still a fostering of taking refuge more in repetition, an almost mindless praise of “activity”, than in considered making, a counsel to keep “painting” as opposed to exposing yourself to other, more disparate – and perhaps even outright disagreeing – ideas.

Again – there’s a space for this, and a well executed object is a necessity for something to be considered art, for many of us (I waiver, back and forth on this). But in looking at the works of Liz Hayden, I see the hand of her instructor too heavily in her marks and her paint. In Fraser Brown’s work, I see a repetitiveness that becomes excessive and serves to simply make what might have been engaging if disciplined become formulaic and boring.

I don’t say this with rancor, or point it out with malice: but something a student might strive for is a uniqueness of voice, a means and manner by which to find your own place to stand. Perhaps its too soon to ask that of Brown and Hayden: perhaps the strength of Toop’s work serves to highlight the weaknesses in theirs (I once reviewed an exhibition of Jane Ash Poitras’s work that was ill served by being in the same gallery as Rebecca Belmore. The latter has a clarity that further exposed the tepid muddle of the former).

This exhibition closes this Saturday: the next instalment features four artists of the same class, and perhaps in seeing a larger whole, I may see differently. But right now I wonder about pedagogy and practice, and how that is a debate that’s been happening in (and outside of) art schools across the country in a serious way that may, or may not, lead to a shift like we saw back in 1968.