Up Close and In Motion: A year in review

In conversation with a fellow writer / critic recently, the subject turned to the exhibition Carry Forward that had been at Rodman Hall. We shared the opinion that the show could have been divided by a line framing four works that were quite interesting and very strong in the conceptual framework proposed by curator Lisa Myers: the rest, on the opposite side of the gallery, seemed muddled and unresolved. Or, at the least, paled next to the aesthetics of Claxton, Alvarez or Bowen.

When considering the year long exploration / series of exhibitions of Rodman Hall’s collection – titled Up Close and In Motion, with various addendum, like 4/11, or 6/11, to mark its progression – that has been installed in various month long excerpts in the Hansen Gallery (ending in January 2019), there is a similar fracture.

The initial “phases” curated by Emma German (whom conceived the project, in conjunction with a focus upon a Slow Art Day aesthetic) were engaging and offered multiple points of entry with intersections and dialogues between visitors and artworks.

My response to, and review, of Brendan Fernandes’ Philia exemplifies this. This work is a rarely seen treasure of the RHAC collection, but frankly the didactic panel, written by German. expanded and enlarged the work’s importance (and I f**king hate art with neon, but that fell to the side in light of what Fernandes was “illuminating”, if I may put it that way).

Brendan Fernandes’ Philia, installation shot.

The current incarnation of #UCIM, as I write this, continues an aesthetic that has been dominant since Jimmy Limit assumed a degree of the curatorial reins. He’s an interesting artist who has shown both in Rodman and spaces such as Gallery 44 and Clint Roenisch: but his choices are more formal, offering a comparatively empty discourse compared to the more richly nuanced selections by German. But right now, the Hansen gallery is filled, with one exception, with works that offer a space of formal connection, but little else.

This is manifest in both the absence of didactic panels to expand the work (which would have left me to hate Philia, bluntly), and engage the visitor.

Untitled, Jimmy Limit (one of several installed works by the artist for #UCIM)

Also problematically, the works that Limit himself has produced in the gallery space have only superficial relationships – if at all – to the works from the collection. Ernest Harris, Jr.’s piece Mel’s Brushes, commissioned for #UCIM by German, directly referenced the work of Melanie MacDonald that was installed concurrently over the other mantle, in the other room, and that alluded strongly to Tobey Anderson (his four works presented as part of his almost “scientific” series in response to his cancer), whom Harris praised in the accompanying didactic. This excerpt from his conversation with German highlighted how Harris credited Anderson as both a mentor and major supporter of his artistic practice. In that respect, the works at play in Hansen all fed and spoke to each other, and also to the contemporary and the historical space of artists in Niagara, living and deceased.

Harris, MacDonald and Anderson – and later Boyle and Moffat (who, after seeing their works in the Hansen, I made a point of visiting works by both on permanent display in the MIWSFPA) – all positioned themselves within larger community frameworks. This was often an agenda of German’s selections from the RHAC collection.

Dennis Tourbin, whom had two works in #UCIM that I was so impressed by that I devoted singular reviews to each (one more local, one more national), is also someone who’s left a space here for others to stand upon, as the front gallery space at NAC (often used for local and emerging artists, a sentiment I think he’d approve) is named for him.

Limit’s series of untitled pieces are vibrant and fun, and the objects are lovely and push against the more historical space of the Hansen. There’s a [M]modernist appeal (art in simplicity), a cleanliness and disciplined execution that makes me want to handle the works (so round and slick), and his painting of coloured “rectangles” – or frames, if you will – on the wall with simple shelves to hold the works tussle and clash with the carved, delicate and almost fussy cornices and details of the Hansen space. The objects are rough yet evocative, and I always love when artists paint the walls to enhance their work. In that “proper” space, a slab of blue or yellow is an “affront” to the gentility of the space, just like Donna Akrey’s playful “toys” or Amy Friend’s “mementos” that worked with / against the “domestic” space.

But conceptually the connections between Limit’s interventions and the other works are either nonexistent or more about skin deep relations (lemons, circles, yellows) than how Fernandes’ Philia interacted with Genevieve Cadieux‘s works (both significant for imagery and art from groups that have too often been underrepresented in galleries and collections). There’s definitely not the points of reference I previously cited with Harris, MacDonald, Anderson or Carol Wren on the back wall.

This is “echoed” in how Douglas Boutilier’s Tennis Twins have looked out on the spaces for several variations of #UCIM, unimpressed and stoic, in their gaze and being, separate metaphorically and literally, alone on a wall almost like an alcove.

Douglas Boutillier’s Tennis Twins.
Tobey C. Anderson, selected works from Silken Twine series.

Even later iterations, from German, with John Boyle‘s imagery of St. Paul Street in St. Catharines. which led to a long, very long social media feed involving several local artists about when, where and why Boyle chose that site. This involved his major role in visual arts in St. Catharines, with NAC and Rodman, having a deeper, more considered, relevance outside the Hansen space. And I have little use for Stompin’ Tom Connors, but putting Boyle’s hagiographic rendering of Connors in a “fancy” space was entertaining. Though titled Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom, the work was more complicated than that jingoist statement. Boyle’s role in founding CARFAC and Connors’ advocacy for regionalist culture meshed in that frighteningly colourful, perhaps garish, work.

When I encountered the Barbara Hepworth in the Hansen, in a recent iteration of #UCIM, it was disheartening to see that her choice of yellow, in a harsh slab of flat colour among monochromatic renderings, seemed to be the sole reason for its inclusion: this put it on a par with the lemons of an unfamiliar artist named Cleveland. That seems a bit of a slight, a facile dismissal, to someone who was one of the very, very few female artists of her generation to make an indelible mark in the Modernist canon. It would be a bit like talking about Anderson’s pieces that focused / explored his fatal cancer diagnosis in terms of modernist or art historical use of colour…..or only speaking of Tourbin’s work about the October Crisis in terms of its formal flat pop art colour, and not how a local artist I respect greatly raised a good point about “contested narratives” in response to my review of it, that was a bit (appropriately, considering the historical position of the piece) caustic.

Installation shot (L – R: Cleveland, Hepworth, Limit)

Am I being an asshole in my harshness re: the “post German” / “Limit defined” chapters? Am I being an #artcriticfromhell? Am I speaking a (difficult) truth? Am I, as I was told by one of the same people who used to dismiss me as “art critic from hell”, being a “Strelnikov” and expecting too much or expecting too “specifically”?

I offer this criticism, or this place within which to stand and question – to look back over a year and revisit what has been, in light of what is now in the Hansen space – as someone who has curated several exhibitions in a similar community / public space(s). I chose artworks both by artists who simply visited the #YXE space (Allison Rossiter had many fine works that were the backbone of my exhibition Personal Geographies, and Eldon Garnet’s “pile” works were a major part of another show I put together from the #usask collection). Others were featured who helped to define that site over decades (Thelma Pepper’s photographic / audio “portraits” of a generation that helped form Saskatchewan, for better or worse, were significant pieces of an earlier show I curated on ideas of place).

But let’s add another flavour to the mix: a curator whom I worked with, and admire greatly, Robert McKaskell (known for interventions and work he did with General Idea) once spoke of curating in a public gallery (we were both at the Art Gallery of Windsor, at the time) in this manner. That anyone, if they’re willing to make the effort, should be able to find works in a public gallery space they can appreciate: but McKaskell was more than willing to meet people halfway, so while the AGW might be showing the supposedly controversial works of Donigan Cummings, McKaskell curated a large show of “big animals in small landscapes” that, with some engagement (like in a slow art day manner) offered some interesting historical comments on the Windsor – Essex region, but also on the wider (as in British, or French) history of the area, in what artists and ideas were prevalent when the AGW was in its infancy. In citing this, the use of “lemon” or “yellow” or the circular motifs that linked works by Jean Arp (De la familles des etoilles) or Jeanne Rhéaume (Nature Morte aux Tomatoes) or Herbert Beyer (Two Sinking Spheres) actually simple and inviting points of access for any gallery goer, an unpretentious line between them all.

Untitled, Jimmy Limit

Now, I’ve alluded before to how some think your intrepid #artcriticfromhell too often talks politics and not “the art.” However, it has been a while since I’ve offered an update on Rodman Hall and the ongoing death by a thousand ignorant cuts that Brock University seems to wish to inflict on them, before walking away like a sated vampire in 2023. Its not accidental that German’s contract at RHAC ended and #UCIM has somewhat faltered without her.

Its not coincidental that Brock has not deigned to hire a replacement for their main installation person, nor that it has delayed in hiring a person to replace the public programming position (though Brock also advertised a Director position a long time ago, and then, opaquely and ignorantly, declined to hire one and appointed someone who seems to lack the experience, or interest, to do the job properly. But its perhaps unfair to expect “administrative director” Tom Arkell to serve two masters, and really, we all know that, like Martin Van Zon, he’ll bring his “experience” to the service of Brock, not Rodman).

One of the disheartening – or enraging, edit as preferred – facts about many university spaces like Brock is that they slash support for cultural spaces like RHAC, and devalue them (except, of course, to attempt to take credit for the many OAAG awards that RHAC and their staff and artists – like Marcie Bronson – have garnered, arguably despite Brock University, not thanks to it). Then, when those spaces are unable to function at the previous excellent levels, they’re punished for the idiocy, ignorance and decisions of University administrative cabal members. The recent exhibition Northern Oracle opened late, due to “infrastructure issues” and one can’t help but wonder if that is due to the staff shortage, lack of prioritization of RHAC’s needs, or that the administrative elite at Brock don’t know / don’t care (ignorance and apathy, again. At least we don’t hear any more about the “Art Gallery of Niagara”, where that ill thought plan may have led to the loss of the same collection that is the source of #UCIM).

John Boyle,  Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom

By the time you read this, the final iteration of Up Close and In Motion will be installed in the Hansen space at Rodman Hall. This series of exhibitions has been a highlight of 2018 for me, and in both the quality and consideration of the “first” spate of choices but also in seeing how Brock’s choices do impact RHAC and do impact culture in this city and this region. Up Close has been educational, both in terms of what is the history of exhibitions and visual art as history in Niagara, but also the gap between words and actions within the cultural sphere, as seen in the “relationship” between RHAC and Brock University.

All images are copyright / courtesy RHAC and provided either by them or myself. Up Close and In Motion will run into January, 2019, in the Hansen Gallery in Rodman Hall Art Centre.

Contemplation and Consideration: Up Close & In Motion at RHAC

Assistant Curator Emma German’s Hot Talk took place on Slow Art Day. This was appropriate, given the ideas at play in her ongoing, year long curatorial examination of Rodman Hall’s permanent collection, Up Close and In Motion.

Two ideas cited during her presentation acknowledge this. Firstly, she described the Hansen Gallery, at RHAC (part of the original house built by Thomas Rodman Merritt, with fireplaces, cornices, decorative domestic flourishes) as “experiential.” This recognizes the uniqueness (no white cube here) of Hansen. When we talked about Up Close German showed me the floorplan of the Hansen, which seemed too plain and linear, too generic, for that very unique space.

Many past exhibitions have responded to its architecture. Forty Five Years of Collecting (2007) had a salon / every available scrap of wall is to be used aesthetic, while other collection shows like A Painter’s Country matched “classic” Group of Seven pieces to the “historical” space. Maggie Groat’s 2014 intervention / interaction is another German mentioned, in her research of how a collection might be presented unconventionally but more relevantly. (This is both an informative and enjoyable reminder of the richness of RHAC’s past exhibitions).

The other idea German mentioned cited the exhibitions’ title: “up close” suggesting time spent contemplating the displayed works  (thus only three in the two rooms, with ample space for the viewer to occupy, to converse with the pieces) and “motion” as the works change at set intervals. The literal space suggests you be a less frantic visitor: but the brief exhibition window means you must make the most of your visit. I can remember works installed in gallery washrooms (unisex, maximizing visitors, ahem) as studies have shown that half a minute is the average time a visitor allots to “art.” More time is spent washing your hands (hopefully..).

The Hansen Gallery was a factor, in scrutinizing the first three “phases” of Up Close: what German has hoped to provide here is a different framework for experiencing Art. So, Brendan FernandesPhilia had the front room to itself not solely for its neon nature, and David Rokeby’s Plot Against Time #2 (Flurry) rests in the same spot, over the mantle, not simply because the dark, hushed and almost whispery scene demands space, in the soft diffused, lately cold, light from the bay window. Also so the visitor might be alone with them, and not have their time together intruded upon by the (equally lovely) massive work of Geneviève Cadieux – from the first instalment of Up Close – or the tiny, layered urban impressions by Janet Jones. These were / are safely in the other room. You can visit them, with renewed attentions, and consider your own walking and looking between them, taking your time with the artwork(s) and your thought(s).

I must add something amusing. Several artists German curated are ones I’ve been unimpressed with, having experienced “them” in other places, other spaces. But it occurred to me I’ve never seen these artists installed in this manner, privileging their individuality over a larger curatorial narrative. Perhaps that’s also why the RHAC version of Material Girls impressed me, as I know the curatorial staff at RHAC saw its installation as more collaborative with the artists than previous, curatorially “top down” incarnations…

In her talk, German also spoke of the “life” of these objects, “resting” in a kind of stasis, like mummies, in the vault, when not “alive” in the gallery: thus, how in the first instalment of Up Close, Cadieux and Daigneault and Fernandes interacted was unique, and won’t happen again. In this same way, any visit to these works, in this “slow” aesthetic German is presenting, emphasises the uniqueness of the visitor as well as the art object. The environment of Up Close is about the individual artworks but also the larger framework of looking, with consideration and contemplation. No need to rush through, say you’ve “seen” the show, and yet forget it before you’ve walked out the front door….

Informative text panels are provided, yet German spoke of how she encourages people to experience the art, individually, then as a group, repeatedly, and then read the words. Employ them as a component of your own dialogue with the art. If you read my impressions of Philia, by Fernandes, you’ll remember my own admission of how the piece was interesting, but the text offers a depth that animated ideas of my own, re: HIV / AIDS, and I found in that artwork a repository, or a catalyst, for my own experiences. Jeanne Randolph spoke of this, in her essay The Amenable Object, of how most viewers provide much of the content, if not the lens, through which we understand artwork (I’ve often played this on people who find much art empty, arrogant and self centred, as they won’t / can’t / daren’t leave their own echo chamber).

Right now, the aforementioned Rokeby video installation, Jones’ delicate paintings and a Brendan Tang sculpture await visitors in the Hansen space. Tang’s ceramic constructions, merging stereotypes of Asian vases with Manga influenced slickness, with imagery and symbols that are symbolic and humourous, have brought the artist significant praise nationally and beyond. A fine example of the depth and quality of RHAC’s collection. Another way, perhaps, in which some at Brock who should be aware of the value and importance of RHAC might be reminded of it….again, until they pay attention, perhaps.

But that’s not why I mention Manga Ormolu Ver. 5.0-K: here, in Up Close, the singular work can be walked around, examined and experienced to its full potential. When I last saw Tang’s work, in an amazing show with a half dozen pieces, it was overwhelming, but perhaps didn’t serve me – or the pieces – as well as one whose only “challenge” in the Hansen is Jone’s painting. Jones offers a respite to Tang’s serpentine detail, as her painterly softness and play of light and fluorescence will make you marvel at her acumen in Solo #1 – 4. It may sound like a back handed compliment, but Jones uses paint in a manner that makes you wonder if its paint, with depth and imitation of refracted light that (like Cadieux’s photo works) changes with where you stand, literally, in the gallery.

Up Close and In Motion isn’t about quantity, like many collections exhibitions, but quality. How that quality is defined is fluid and changing (just like the works on display will). It’s about they speak to each other and help define and elaborate each other’s meaning, and we help redefine it over the year, with repeated visits and with the recollections of what was there before, and the expectations of what’s upcoming. It’s almost as though I’m talking about visiting people, not inanimate objects: but these works are indexical referents of many hands, many people.

Another aspect of this intuitive curatorial exploration of RHAC’s collection is that several local artists have been invited to make work in response to works in said collection, and this will be in the space with the future incarnations. Ernest Harris, Jr. (whose work was in Small Feats, and who, along with other artists like Melanie MacDonald, has had an annual open studio show and sale in downtown STC) will be the first of these, opening on May 8th. The teasing text: “Often recording details of their immediate surroundings and elements of everyday life, the artists [in the next instalment of Up Close] have made important contributions to the development of local artist-run culture. Tying together what he learned from these artists, many of whom are peers, mentors, and friends, Harris stimulates an active exchange between multiple generations of St. Catharines-based artists that have been both influential and relevant to his practice.” Again, the idea of the art object as a living thing that speaks to us, and a history and site, is present here.

Up Close and In Motion is neither a linear, nor a chronological show about the collection, but an endeavour that offers a different way to know the artworks that comprise the RHAC collection. German’s words: Up Close “frames the exhibition space as flexible…tracing important developments in contemporary art across genres such as hybridity within material structures, sculptural experimentation, performative gesture, and time-based media, many of these works will be displayed for the first time since being acquired for Rodman Hall’s permanent collection. At this moment, we invite you to experience the permanent collection and consider the role it plays in representing our common aspirations, collective imagination and community spirit.”

Up Close and In Motion will be on display, with different artworks and artists, until January 2019. The images in this article are courtesy Rodman Hall, and are copyright of the artists (respectively, Brendan Tang, Janet Jones and the last is a teaser for Harris’ upcoming show. The image is St. Paul’s Variety Meatball, 2017, ink and watercolour on paper).

 

Loss and Memory / Brendan Fernandes’ Philia pulses within the walls of Rodman Hall Art Centre

There’s few artworks as powerful as those which speak directly, even personally, to you. Much is ascribed to “Art”, especially in the “Trumpian” era where (too) many presume artists are magical unicorns and saviours. Frequently, that’s aggrandizing bullshit from charlatans. Rarely, it’s so true that it leaves you silent and almost shocked at how the artist managed to reach into your heart and place it on the wall; even, as with Brendan FernandesPhilia, to evoke people and times you’ve forgotten, and leave you wondering how you mislaid that history, manifest in friends and family, that was / is so important. There’s power in artworks “where the past could pull you backward.” (Piccirilli)

Philia is part of the first installment of Emma German’s year-long Rodman Hall curatorial project Up Close and In Motion. I’ll be sitting down with Emma to talk more about it, and the ideas behind it, in future issues, as it changes and as local artists respond visually. This current chapter in this visual history of RHAC (and the reflected larger community) has three works, in the Hansen Gallery. Don’t mistake my singular focus on Philia as dismissing Genevieve Cadieux’s Séquence no. 7 or Michel Daigneault’s Tremor #1. They both deserve your time and repeated visits.

Fernandes’s piece was part of his exhibition Brendan Fernandes: They, at RHAC in 2014. Philia was part of “Encomium, a performance work based on a series of written scores that were inspired by Plato’s Symposium, a classical text in which love is examined through speeches of praise. Performed at Rodman Hall… Encomium consisted of two male dancers tenuously counter-balancing before separating.”

Philia sits above one of the offwhite marble fireplaces, in the left hand room as you enter the Hansen space. Neon and plexiglass (from an edition of three), the letters flash in pink then red, spelling out EROS and SOS, respectively. The font is decorative. The room pulses. Fernandes’ art is often shaped by his training in classical / modern dance, and Philia is “a repetitive dance that communicates conflicting messages of love and caution” (from the didactics by German).

However, its the following that elevated Philia: “In alluding to SOS, a universal signal of distress, Fernandes makes reference to the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic, and the effects of pain and loss felt when love is severed.” And I was suddenly reminded of the blind spot in Canadian art history regarding the (too) many artists lost to HIV/AIDS, and the many works that are truthful and tragic mementos of that time. Among the best is General Idea’s One Year of AZT (a room filled with giant pills, of a drug that was one of many hopeful / hopeless failing treatments. I recommend the fine movie Dallas Buyers Club to revisit that crisis). G.I.’s reworking / updating of Robert Indiana’s LOVE series (blissful psychedelia executed in the 1960s) into AIDS (remember when Maggie Thatcher floated the idea of HIV camps? Memory is dangerous and necessary, and Art — note the capital — a landmark for uncomfortable remembering).

Only one member of General Idea remains: the deathbed portrait of Felix Partz (Felix, June 5, 1994) by AA Bronson is horrifyingly intimate. There’s an oft cited (and misunderstood) line from Adorno: “To write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Some interpreted that as a moratorium: others understand that its necessary to speak “barbarically”, not to ignore (like lurid neon, enticing with a throbbing pink pulse, a bit raw. Or a deathbed portrait of Partz succumbing to an epidemic that was too often “invisible”).

Fernandes work’s a bit gaudy: too bright, too loud, too flowery; somewhat brittle and facile, like an overtly false smile, hiding sadness, and the delicate frailty of the neon almost openly alludes to hollowness (a memento mori in inappropriately vibrant drag). There’s ides of “performative masculinity” that suggests you can’t be weak, you can’t be vulnerable, you can’t be unsure or sad or weeping or soft. The emphatic, neon urgency of Philia eschews that.

Fernandes’ artwork is often performative: so its unsurprising that Philia is an “active” work with its “heartbeat”, but how it plays on the domestic Hansen gallery enhances this. The room seems so empty, like something / someone is absent, and the “words” over the mantle are indexical spurs to recollection (Amy Friend’s exhibition Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life used the fireplace in a similar manner, with familial “heirlooms” installed above it, as repositories of memory. RHAC again employs its “domestic” space well).

I’m old enough to have lost a number of friends to HIV/AIDS. I remember Day Without Art, when, bluntly, it mattered. On my repeated visits to RHAC, the words of Ursula K.Le Guin resonate: “There are always areas of vast silence in any culture, and part of an artist’s job is to go into those areas and come back from the silence with something to say.”

Up Close and In Motion will evolve over the next year: several artists will be installing visual responses to differing incarnations, as curated by Emma German. A curator’s talk (and talk with The Sound) is upcoming.