William Griffiths: a history in texture and time / lovely ruins

The people who knew me when I coined the term “karaoke modernism” would be alternately confused or elated at how often I speak, these days in Niagara, about the quality of the painting I’m encountering.

The next issue of The Sound, Niagara’s magazine of arts and culture that suffers me to write about Art, in all its shabby glory (Art, not The Sound) will include an artist profile on Matt Caldwell, whose work caught my eye from the first time I saw it at NAC.

I want to mention grote, and linoleum, and other industrial pastes and chunky filler you would use for holes and gaps in walls (Matt mentioned the current exhibition at the Albright Knox, of Clyfford Styll and Mark Bradford, which I highly recommend). Caldwell’s subtle ridges and marks are more engaging to me than the current fad, Agnes Martin, and speak more about the necessary rigour of looking. After all, in one of the streams of Western painting, where narrative has been deemed unneeded, the best painters were / are exploring what painting can be, especially in delicate ways (gradations of greys, variations of white, subtleties of colour as gradated as a computer graphics program. The image below is Seal, by Caldwell, from 2015).

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So, if you eschew narrative, give me something beautiful, or engaging, to admire. If you’re going to abandon a larger social narrative, then work your aesthetic. There is nothing “wrong” with art that foregrounds aesthetics: the problem more so happens when individuals presume they’re making lovely work, but aren’t, and have no concept to fall back upon, for validity. However, the work I’ll be focusing on here melds both of these…

William Griffiths’ exhibition DIG, at the Niagara Artist Centre, is a show I’ve been looking forward to seeing since I encountered several of his works, specifically in the What About Rodman Hall? Exhibition but also online.  There is a quality to Griffiths’ work that is immediately engaging: perhaps that’s because many of the works, like the one in the Rodman show, are smaller and thus invite consideration of their texture and the almost sculptural nature of the application of paint. Also acknowledging my own obsession with industrial wastelands, the rust and metal flake landscapes of the GTA and Niagara (or my time in the mercury laden vistas of Windsor), there are aspects of his work that appeal to me personally.

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His statement: “My art straddles two worlds: photography and painting. My inspiration, consciously or subconsciously, comes from the environment, and the allure found within. I am intrigued by the beauty in the natural world (landscapes, trees, rocks), as well as the beauty in man’s manufactured masses (metal, deteriorating structures, forgotten dwellings). I photograph overlooked objects, and use them as inspiration for abstract work. I strive to recreate the moment, and express what I see.”

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There is a uniformity here, in terms of size, and framing (mostly being square) that fosters a base for the diversity of the works:  various objects are “embedded”, sometimes acting as focal points, other times being submerged in the paint, as though they’re submerged, or obscured, fighting to the surface.

In conversation with Will, we never used the trendy term “palimpsest”, but it factors into his works in a number of ways. DIG in the Dennis Tourbin space at NAC spans nearly a decade, and the seed for the majority of these works occurs in his photographic practice (sometimes in his interest in naturalism, other times in documenting – though that’s too formal a word, I think, denying the immediacy and whimsy at play – this area). A line from our conversation: “history is a treasure hunt.” I like that, as it also suggests “concealed” stories, awaiting a “discoverer.”

The names of several of the works will allude to this, if you’re familiar with “here”, or they’ll act as a “map”: Epworth Circle, Grand Trunk, Michigan Central, Chrysler and Queen, McCleary and Pyramid.

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Pyramid is on the wall “bend”, as I like to designate it, book ending the display of works: I don’t believe it’s the largest work, but it alludes to such, not just because the picture plane is dominated by a degraded and disintegrating pyramid, parts seeming to flake and break, but also in that (in that subjective critic voice I employ) it’s a work I saw two days after visiting Niagara Falls, and seeing the triumvirate of decline that is the Skylon Tower, the Casino and the pyramid shaped IMAX theatre. In some ways, Griffiths’ Pyramid is a portrait of that site: less about minutiae in reproduction as encapsulating the sentiment and sensibility of the sites he “remembers” and paints.

Even the historical – artistically, or otherwise – signifiers that any “pyramid” evokes are: Pyramid is a disturbing portrait of the Falls. This work – and several others in the show, with their insinuations (by title, or by imagery / object) to the industrial history / contemporary wasteland of this region are almost rebuttals – or acidic “corrections” – to the idealist, Marxist murals of Diego Rivera you’ll still see in Detroit, about a “workers’ paradise.” (May I extend my hyperbole and say that the infamous story of Rockefeller having the Rivera mural destroyed / covered up as he found it politically / ideologically “suspect” reminds me of the caustic, if knowing, voice of Anna Szaflarski in her historical meditation on GM and St. Catharines, in A Man’s Job, or the knowing, regretful drunkenness from Stephen Remus’s accompanying text to that installation…).

Everything is defined by place, and where you stand, and what you “see” from there. And “memory….is an internal rumour”, Santayana (yes, the same one who talks about repeating what we haven’t learned) warns us…

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Pyramid strikes me as a singular work: just as Vacant Lot, near the front of the gallery, is also unique, with its slab of black rubber hanging down over the face of the painting. The flat, discarded matte quality makes it as much of a “found” object as other fragments that are part of Griffiths’ painted assemblages (more paint than assemblage). McCleary’s flat blues are broken by a red grey “valve”, somewhat off centre.

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Other works employ geometric, abstract shapes: flat blues, light and dark, and a range of browns to yellows encompassing many flavours of rust and ruin. Three delicate circles of orange punctuate a work (In Time…almost like seconds or hesitation points). Others offer rectangles and angular forms within the picture plane, mimicking the black frames of the work: sometimes richly textured, like a paste, other times seeming to be a ripped or torn scrap (North St.), as though Griffiths is literally covering / revealing a narrative in these works.

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His process begins in photography, and in roaming through areas in Niagara, and taking pictures that may be more “landscape” or may be more so when a small piece, an object or a texture, catches his eye. Thus, when I talk about these works – especially the wall with the “quieter” work that is “based” upon St. Peter’s Cemetery in Thorold – I talk about them as depictions of St. Catharines, and sometimes Niagara, as much as any “landscape” artist. In depictions, we capture, and come to know – or define, perhaps being more about our sentiments – a site. And places exist most truthfully in our mind’s eye, or in the stories we “tell” about them.

More of his statement: “I use unorthodox materials, and experiment with different mediums to emulate the surfaces I see. I am constantly challenging myself, and inventing new ways to relate what I see. I search for methods outside the norm to express myself. I take the medium into unfamiliar practices, and push it to create a new language for itself. Colour, texture and depth are the tools I use to bridge unconventional and traditional acts of painting. By merging abstract and representational methods, I work to create mood and beauty through transformation, similar to nature’s regeneration and structural decay. Leaving myself open to chance and mistakes gives way to new ideas, and this creative process is most important to me, regardless of the work’s final outcome.”

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These are works that function well individually, but stronger as a group, like a painted essay of place. Will and I were talking, as well, about various commercial galleries in STC and beyond, and during this conversation, the works at the TAG gallery, that focus on historical prints of Niagara came up, when discussing audiences and agendas. TAG has an annual show (and a side gallery, year round) devoted to these historic depictions of place. Will Griffiths’ exhibition DIG would be an exciting contrast to that “history”, as it is also grounded “here”, and is perhaps simply a later chapter (in a different language: an abstracted synthesis of found objects with rich textured paint) of Niagara.

DIG runs at NAC until July 2nd, but you can see more of Will Griffiths’ works at the Jordan Art Gallery.