More calendar than quality: the mediocrity and mythology of Lawren Harris in Where the Universe Sings

One of the more significant artworks I’ve experienced was about landscape, and played upon the very Canadian imagery and imagination of snow and winter. It was a piece that was visceral in its ability to make me truly feel ‘cold’; both in the sense of winter, but also more metaphorically, evoking death and abandonment. This work, being by Rebecca Belmore, might seem odd – politically – to describe as a very ‘Canadian’ work. But it suggests death at the hands of the environment – or more exactly, the environment – the landscape – employed as a means to murder (whether Neil Stonechild or Chanie Wenjack), and that is an idea as old – older – than the country, and many have argued that’s intrinsic to the ‘national imaginary’ of this place / these places.

(A caustic side note: when the The Idea of North was reviewed by Canadian Art Magazine, their ideological purity in condemning the colonial artist, the ‘taint’ if you will, of the show was shrill. Yet when I wrote a piece for them, several years before, about Ruth Cuthand’s retrospective at the Mendel, and positioned the show in the site of Stonechild and ‘starlight tours‘, their editorial cabal all but accused me of making stories up, despite my citation of a government report as meticulous as it was damning…I mention this here, too, to ensure that I don’t fall into the same ignorantly dismissive trap, as regards Harris, and to ensure my criticisms are considered and not simply a Maoist ‘struggle session‘…)

Before I decided to brave the biographical endeavour Where the Universe Sings (which might be better described as more fan fiction than factual) about Lawren Harris at the Film House in St. Catharines, I was familiar with his work and the larger oeuvre of the Group of Seven. My experience in numerous collections and archives (including helping to document and database the University of Saskatchewan’s collection, with Snelgrove and Kenderdine further challenging landscape) as well as my art history degree at the University of Windsor informs my reaction. My degree fell within that period where I could take classes more ‘traditional’ (one that began with the French Revolution and ended with World War I) but also was taught by Iain Baxter& (whose role with N.E. Thing Co. helped shape conceptual art in Canada and further) and the late Kym Pruesse, whom introduced me to critical theory in ways and words that I still cite, now.

This response has festered in my mind for some time, since I first watched Where the Universe Sings: and in finishing this piece (finally, ahem), my walking around Welland and seeing houses and spaces that seem to have much in common (both in current condition, but in the history they allude to, or manifest) with Harris’ In the Ward paintings have spurred me towards completion. As the Group might have alluded to, where you are defines what you create

Sunday Morning, 1920

After watching the film, co produced by the excellent and necessary TVO, intended to accompany the exhibition The Idea of North (at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but also at the Hammer and a few other sites), I turned to my friend. She’s a cultural appreciator, but isn’t an artist. I’ve been responsible for ‘doing art’ to her on a few occasions, and she’s accustomed to my irreverence, and was amused when I commented that ‘I didn’t think my opinion of Harris could be lesser, but it is, now.’ In a way, this was the opposite effect desired by the producers, who seemed to want to create a hagiography of the painter. As so often happens with heavy handed (and thus transparent) embellishment, the opposite response was achieved. In further conversation with a number of artists and cultural instigators in Niagara about this film, I found myself saying a variation on the following: I’m often offended by the vagaries of pseudo historical advertisements that bleed the messy humanity out of artists in a sanitized caricature.

To describe the film as hagiography is an understatement: but, again, this is not solely the fault of the producers of Sings. The Group of Seven are given a pride of place in Canadiana, whether that they’re the only ‘artists’ most Canadians can cite, easily and without consideration, or alternately they’re dismissed as kitsch, folk, regurgitation, not as good as proclaimed (a uniquely Canadian ‘tall poppy’ response), all with a vehemence that shows that apathy, not hate, is truly the opposite of love. Both positions smack of propaganda, whether through your grandparents’ calendar or art school rhetoric.

Harris’ ‘North’ work is safe, in a manner that, if you’ve ever worked in a public gallery, translates as inoffensive (though, in this day and age, anything might be offensive, and sadly, that’s also very ‘Canadian’ now). The crowd, when my friend and I looked back over them, seemed predominantly of a senior vintage, and thus wanted assurance of the relevance of Harris and the Group of Seven. A bland, but affirming, dinner was expected, and delivered. But you might be hungry again in half an hour.

However, that’s not what bothers me about this film: what is problematic is that it was skin deep, and sometimes not even that. Harris was, in many ways, a difficult figure, and someone who at times courted controversy, and at other times tried to suffocate it. Perhaps this tepid portrayal of Harris is to be expected, though, as the works that dominated the AGO show are his theosophically shaped pieces and in many instances he painted repainted re repainted these visually staid works until any hints of uniqueness or excitement were blanched out, like over boiled vegetables or grey tasteless meat.

Ah, let us try to say something positive before we proceed further: I went to this film in the hope of learning more about his St. John’s Ward works, as these urban vignettes have a veracity, a vibrancy to them that I rarely saw in any of his other works. At some point in the film, the fact that Harris considered himself a lesser painter than Tom Thomson is discussed. If you’ve experienced Thompson’s works, wind and space seem captured in a manner ‘realistic’ but not overtly ‘realism.’ The wearisomeness of Harris’s works – that seem as cold and potentially as dead as the Arctic that supposedly informed them – is cast even more clearly in contrast. On a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario as a teenager, I remember seeing the small studies by variant members of the Group of Seven, all tiny and on board, done quickly and roughly and in a raw fashion: these captured the power of the landscape (whereas the repetition of mediated process in Harris’ ‘northern’ works aims to make them more impotent than impressive….)

The works that Harris produced that are grouped under the umbrella of The Ward, or St. John’s Ward, are amazing . Perhaps they’re a wealthy dilettante touristing in the poverty of others, or perhaps they’re a man of privilege empathizing with the plight of others, and producing works that owe something to Daumier. Perhaps that he made sketches for these while out walking – as my own practice is now defined by walking my neighbourhood or outside of my usual neighbourhood – and that they are real, and not so mediated as his ‘religious’ works of theosophical ‘purity’, is what moves me and so many others. These are social realism that’s also social history: this is Toronto growing and transforming, reminiscent of Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, or some of Timothy Findley‘s stories of Rosedale and Toronto, of a place not so sure and becoming itself. For all Harris’ ink and paint spilled on the notion of a “Canadian” art, these Ward works are more “Canadian” to me than any others. They have anthropological as well as aesthetic value.

(A quick side note, alluding backwards to the tripe offered by Canadian Art Magazine in response to the AGO exhibition. My own critical focus often incorporates social history, historical positioning and sites of contested narratives. CA too often insists upon a lens charitably described as insistent ‘cultural Marxism’. That’s useful as a critique but often offers no way forward; in a similar manner, post modernist discourses offer doubt, but no assertions, and I’ve often ruefully called it an ‘unliveable theory.’ However, I’d add that I also often can cite biblical and religious references – my art historical research and published works rely on it – and find it necessary to know the ideas, even if not in agreement with them.)

Winter in the Ward, N.D.
In the Ward, 1920

Let’s leave St. John’s Ward for a moment and go west, as Harris went north: when I saw the massive projected winter scenes, Algoma or Northern Ontario, I suddenly was back on the prairie, the vast empty whiteness, the Wacousta syndrome of impending, unavoidable death in the / caused by landscape. This leads to another criticism of the film. There’s no attempt to position Harris’ works in present day discourse (perhaps unfair, but sometimes this can augment as much as challenge an artist). Neither do the producers explore the work of artists contemporaneous to Harris (outside vague allusions to other Group members and the adulation of Emily Carr). This might seem unimportant, but is necessary, when Universe avers so often Harris’ relevance and supposed ‘vision.’ But this shuttering, wearing of blinders to focus solely on Harris further hobbles this film. Harris returned to Canada – Vancouver, specifically – from Taos in the later years of his life, and suddenly I saw the works of Shadbolt and several other abstractionists of that period in a different, deeper light. But this is ignored (odd for all the focus on ‘Canada’, but again, no attempt to place Harris in relation to what might be the only truly internationally worthy school of Canadian painting is made, either). But the posturing of the evening ‘soirées’ are, of course, mentioned; more classist (ah, my narcoleptic Marxist finally arises) and self aggrandizing of the ‘artist as visionary’ than any artist actually being visionary.

Winter in the Northern Woods, N.D.,
Lake Superior, 1924
North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926

In considering Universe, and using it as a touchstone for a larger debate, several other ideas must be injected, here. In many ways, no discussion of the romantic landscape can be complete without the banality and universality of Levine Flexhaug. The exhibition of his work that has made its way across Canada is not ‘good’ art, in terms of execution or skill. But I find myself (and I’m not alone in this) returning to it as it offered a dream, a hope, of escape and release; both in the ‘Canadian’ idea of a idyllic space of respite and peace, but in a larger sense of ease and saftey, of calmness and satisfaction, that seems an impossiblity to many of us, now. If you’re familiar with a more in depth history of Harris’ life, both personal and political, then perhaps these calm cool spaces are a retreat from his less than ideal reality, as well.

Flexhaug’s ‘Edens’ were economical, as he often sold them out of his trunk, and there’s a proletarian and yet also very capitalist intent intersecting in his often horrid works where dozens upon dozens are like cheap copies without a proper undegraded ‘original.’ These are scenes you could imagine the denizens of St. John’s Ward having on their walls. In this imagined relational aesthetic, reality and artifice engage with each other.

Harris made many of the Ward works in the early decades of the twentieth century, and in that time cities and urban spaces were experiencing growing pains. Of late, I’ve been reading and watching a number of works that take place in England of either the Regency period or the Victorian era, and one of the characters comments that poverty is, for all and intents and responses, a crime, and treated as best unseen, ignored, or punished when it is so inconvenient as to be visible. The authenticity of Harris’ paintings where poverty is simply another landmark in the city are still powerful, and recognizable, windows on the world.

I once lived in a space in Windsor that also opened right out onto the street. There’s an opening scene in a contemporary and perhaps offensively brillian adapatoin of Oliver Twist that speaks of lives lived in ‘quiet desperation’ (Rousseau), in poverty and want. That sequence is built around the voyeuristic nature of a similar front window, and is something I’ve considered often, as privacy is not for the poor, even in many less literal ways. Hence, this place caught my attention and I include it here.

This is how my daily often uncharted meanderings through Welland, or the works of Albert J. Franck or Harris’own evocative Ward works resonate more than any overworked and exhausted ‘idea of north’ that is so plastic that reality sloughs off of it. I would even argue that Harris’ depictions of St. John’s Ward demonstrate that he was a better artist, at times, than he considered, but perhaps also reveal that stultifying ‘Canadian’ sentiment of preferring that which is safe – like the comfortably ‘iconic’ calendar image of North Shore, Lake Superior – and not that which is more challenging, more human, and thus, perhaps less ‘predictable.’

The Ward works are a different kind of ‘north’, a less palatable ‘landscape.’ This is a different ‘history’ (though Arthur Gos – as the first official photographer of the City of Toronto – produced many important images of this neighbourhood). I can’t help but feel the denizens of St. John’s Ward would understand that Belmore work far more, and Harris’ empathetic and engaging scenes of their world, and respect it far more, than any tepid and naive theosopohical meanderings of ‘northen’ places less real than the dirty snow and true winter of their daily existence.

During my time writing for the Planet in Saskatoon, I had the opportunity (or duty, edit as you will) to review Joni Mitchell’s second exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery. Unlike her first, it wasn’t self aggrandizing, poorly executed painting (anyone who presents a self portrait as Van Gogh without irony would, of course, be the same person who demanded that the Mendel suspend non smoking rules so she might do so during her talk). However, her second show – Green Flag Song – explored issues outside her ego, specifically the war in Iraq under George Bush II. This was an engaging exhibition, and I praised it in an issue of FUSE: amusingly, one group in Saskatoon sent me hate mail for daring to criticize her initial solo show, and then ‘my’ community sent me hate mail for NOT dismissing her far better, genuinely artistic, second show. And you wonder why your intrepid #artcriticfromhell drinks, ahem.

Instead of narcissism, Mitchell offered criticality looking outwards: interestingly, a similarly themed exhibition by Faith Moosang had been on display at one of the ARCs in the city, but was less well realized, and Mitchell’s celebrity pushed the conversation into places that might otherwise have been unreachable. It was an exhibition that offered a considered eye, and Mitchell used her power for others, so to speak, and not for herself.

But Where the Universe Sings offers none of this: perhaps I expected too much, but even a brief mention of how WWI – an event which cast in contrast significant fractures in Canadian socity, in terms of class, heritage and race – ‘traumatized’ Harris is glossed over (personally, I’ve always suspected that the works of some war artists like Casson and Varley may have troubled Harris’ rarely challenged assumptions). Despite running for nearly an hour, less information was offered than was obfuscated: if you’ve read Ross King‘s book on the Group, or even explored other less reverential texts, this film will leave you feeling you ate a tasteless meal.

It need not have been so: when I’m asked about biographical films about visual artists, I suggest two that are (unsurprisingly) about two of the most significant artists in the history of the West: Francis Bacon and Francisco Goya. The former is minimal; panning images of Bacon’s work in various galleries, and a narration made up of the words and writing of Bacon himself, as insightful and brutally incisive as any of his paintings. The latter features Robert Hughes, and his approach to Goya is smart, critical and self referential in a way that exploits his vast knowledge and helps you delve deeper into Goya’s dark ocean of meaning and method.

Where the Universe Sings is not at the same level as these: but this isn’t surprising, as the works of Harris that are (unsucessfully) canonized here aren’t of the same level as Bacon or Goya. A harsh comparison? Perhaps, but anyone watching this film is not informed of what Harris’ own contemporaries were doing (whether challenging what art might be, or offering a new and challenging voice), as it might, to paraphrase one such artist (Ad Reinhardt), lead to uncomfortable questions being asked of Harris’ paintings and his assured – perhaps arrogant – aesthetic.

I’ve often spoken of contested narratives, and in writing about Canadian art for nearly two decades, the deforming influence of regionlism has often been a factor. My dismissal of karaoke [M]modernism™ was based upon an ignorant privileging of place over all else, and here, in Canada, we still often confuse quality with proximity (even the recent debates about hiring practices, or whom is to be shown in major spaces, has a provincial, pedantic rankness). On a certain level, this film is a longer, cinematic version of the calendars of Group of Seven works that skim the surface of what they’ve done, and that make them more palatable (more pablum) than provocative.

Grey Day in Town, 1923
January Thaw, Edge of Town, 1921.

All images are taken from online sources, and if unnamed are images I’ve shot during my stay in Welland in February / March 2019, while walking among the various urban neighbourhoods.

Rust Belt Wonderland

The title of this post is from a conversation with James Takeo, as I often enjoy ‘speaking in collage.’

Like many of my generation, I have mixed feelings regarding labour movements and the rhetoric on both sides of this debate. This is especially true for me, as someone who’s worked in cultural spaces (where I’m sure I’m one of many men who’ve been sexually harassed and are still told we must have ‘liked it’) but also service industry spaces. My anecdotal education and resultant understandings of the larger national and international narratives are both very positive and very negative.

The first real job I had was at a private Golf Club here (I still have contempt for golf, and it may have made me very sympathetic to radical Marxist thought at a young age, hah), and in the tenure of my employment there (from about grade 10 to the summer of my departure for university) it ‘went union.’ This could have been easily avoided – it was an acrimonious fight – if the Manager, and especially the person ‘in charge’ of the servers (the place employed women almost exclusively as wait staff and you can connect the dots on your own as to how that influenced the situation) were not so fond of punative responses to concerns both genuine and trifling.

This was the first union I held membership in, and the last one I held a membership in was the union for sessional instructors at the University of Saskatchewan – which was often wilfully or hopelessly ignorant and useless, and fed my distaste for the Saskatchewan NDP. So, I’ve had very different ‘levels’ of experience, therein.

However, as I said, I’ve conflicting emotions: one of the primary reasons I chose to leave Saskatchewan after nearly two decades there is that the board of an artist run centre I worked at was as incompetent as they were interfering. Several were good and faithful partisans for the Sask NDP, but happy to treat staff like serfs. That is the situation that comes to mind when I hear someone warn that when an employer – even, if not especially in cultural spaces – says you don’t ‘need’ a union, you’d best watch your back.

I’m unsure what I think, right now, as there’s too little information, regarding this story about the Remai Modern’s board and implied civic interference (oh, do not ask me or others about how we gave up applying for jobs at the Mendel, the Remai’s precursor, as being a unionized City Employee mattered more than experience or competence, and the ongoing turnover in many of the jobs there was a predictable consequence, which also feeds my ambivalence or dismissal of unions). But several of the people who are leaving the board, by choice or not, are not people I would ever work with or for, ever again.

So, I’ve returned to Niagara after an absence of many years – years spent in the (theoretical) labour stronghold of Windsor, Canada’s ‘automotive capital’ and then in Saskatchewan. Remember when Tommy Douglas was voted ‘The Greatest Canadian’? Not long before my departure, there were few places that were worse, for most workers, than the land god gave to Cain.

I say that not just from working as a sessional at the University of Saskatchewan but also at Pepper Bros. Pizza while doing my post grad degree. A few months back when several attempted to shame Geoffrey Owens, I shared on Twitter that while doing my MFA, when I was teaching as part of a scholarship, I was also working at an artist run centre, doing some freelance design and writing work, and at the aforementioned pizza place. The latter ensured I would always be able to eat, at least, as that delusionally smug Boomer bullshit that you should only be paying a percentage of your paycheque for rent is as ludicrous as their idea that they hit a triple when they were born on third base….

In my previous post, I talked a bit about my research regarding the labour histories of Welland (this book is one I’m making my way through, not in order, and also as a good reason to visit the Welland Library, on my daily walks about the Rose City). Although I’d intended – and I still will be doing so, at The ArtSpace – to be connecting with contemporary artists and cultural instigators here, reading that has helped shape and direct where some of my thoughts have gone, as I walk the Rose City, sometimes during the day, and recently at night, when I require my evening cigarette(s)…..

One of the works that I wrote about for Art in the Open was Bas de Groot‘s Welland Canal Monument, that was completed after his death (though if you visit it today, you can also walk across the street and see a mural on the side of the Welland Museum, also by de Groot. His work is found in various locales around Niagara). This was one of many pieces (the various pieces in Lundy’s Lane in Niagara Falls, or the Battle of Beaver Dams 1812 memorials that spoke caustically and relevantly 200 years later about ‘nation building’ and ‘how mighty tongues tell mighty lies‘, or the Welland Mural project remnants I’ve passed every day here, in different parts of the city) that was a visual history of Niagara.

There’s a line from an artist / writer I admire of how he sometimes will “…become inebriated on history in its material forms…” (Jeremy Borsos), and that’s something that happens to me, with public art, monuments or memorials.

The figures in this installation are life size, and though rough, are very human, very dynamic, and sometimes relate to each other, and other times seem isolated. Any ‘proper’ art historical consideration of public artworks that employ and combine a number of figures – especially in the sense of commemorating an event – has to look back at Auguste Rodin‘s The Burghers of Calais. Several are less defined by their faces than by their actions, in carrying a heavy burden that bends the form of the man, or another that seems to be taking a moment to rest with his shovel between his knees, the turned head and clasped hands suggesting contemplation, not just of the enormity of the task of the Canal, but perhaps considering the future it will help build, for this city, region and country.

Conversely, the kneeling worker and the sitting woman seem engaged in conversation, with her head tilting in an ‘interested’ manner, and both figures with their faces expressive, suggesting an interaction that alludes to how the Canal was a site of interaction and intersection for many peoples and groups. The text from the Welland Heritage Council offers the following summation:
The monument will remind us of the importance of multiculturalism to development in Welland – past, present, and future. Industries, businesses, and citizens have prospered in Welland and the Niagara Peninsula through the efforts of people who built the canal. Some of these workers lost their lives digging with picks and shovels, many left their families and friends when they came to Canada in search of work.

There’s another figure, removed from the group, dressed more casually, seeming younger, and ‘his’ gaze looks out towards the water, and is the only member of the group that seems to be here, now, in Merritt Park. On my visits I think of him as ‘the boy’, the descendant of the workers who make up the rest of this scene, and the physical space between them is also the space of time.

A further historical / factual consideration, from Art in the Open’s informative site: Although the statues and fountain were originally designed by Bas de Groot, he passed away before its completion […] It was completed by Mylinda and William Jurgenson and the aforementioned child [sitting separately] was the work of Perry Wakulich (more work by Wakulich can be seen in The Spirit of St. Catharines public work). Scott Robinson Landscaping was responsible for the landscaping and fountain itself. It is unlikely that the city of Welland, and much of Niagara, would have thrived as it has in the past, and continues to do so now, without the Canal. In that respect, this monument is just as much about those who made that happen, and their descendants and beneficiaries, as the Canal itself.

From where I’m staying, the Welland Bridge (also known as bridge 13) is easily visible, and walking towards it and then to the left will bring you to de Groot’s work. Walking in the opposite direction brings you to the remnants of the Atlas Steels plant, something I mentioned in the previous post: a site that’s captured my imagination.

Part of that is due to how, since my return to Niagara, I’ve been capturing images as I’m out walking of abandoned and discarded items. This started with shopping carts, but has since expanded to couches, chairs, anything that piques my visual interest. In that respect, I knew that when I visited Welland again I’d have to revisit the Atlas space on East Main, and that it would still be snowy and wintry – or perhaps we might have an early spring thaw – would simply make the site more intersesting, like any landscape that transforms and changes.

When I visit places (eiter new or revisiting) I often employ impressions of places and then let both my intuition and research guide me, in responding. As I was braving the minus twenty wind and blowing snow to get these shots of the Atlas detritus, I was reminded of the excellent works of Julianna D’Intino, whose lens – based practice often explores very local and personal narratives (we met at the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 which I faciliate, and I offer a shameless plug in inviting any and all in Niagara to visit this group, when we meet in downtown St. Catharines). The personal is political, but I often felt that this phrase has been – like many slogans – more coloured by those using it than by its original intent, or perhaps by the idea that it can be more open, more adaptable, than one specific interpretation.

I mentioned D’Intino’s work because a number of artists in this region have been exploring the legacy – and the loss – of the industrial and manufacturing base that was the reason for this region to prosper and even exist. Some did it in more mediated ways, others in more immediate. Its almost amusing that as I write and post these images and ideas online, in response to sculptural installations in the public sphere, or monuments intentional or incidental, that a line from Steve Remus about GM comes into my head, from an abrasive and amazing piece of writing from him (which I paraphrase): look around the city, and there’s nothing here with GM’s name on it, they just used the place up and left, and left nothing behind but a mess (I paraphrase, but have the sentiment accurate).

The ongoing legal issues over the old GM site in St. Catharines are “history in a material form”, but not so much a sculpture, a monument, an artist makign work about the history of the place in both words and objects, but the leftovers, what’s unwanted and discarded for someone else to clean up.

Places are often imaginary: they exist more truly in our heads, in our memories and in senses of nostalgia or faith (or perhaps hope, which seems encapsulated in the figures in Merritt park). As well, the objects – or perhaps the absence, the emptiness – of the Atlas space also spurs recollections and reflection. I’m fond of Jeanne Randolph‘s positing that when we encounter an art object, we are both influencing and influenced, defined and defining, and in this collaboration create the meaning of the work, but really just use it to help define our own selves and experiences.

de Groot’s memorial shares this mental and emotional space for me, with the Atlas wasteland: both are landmarks in the ‘Rust Belt Wonderland’ that is my Welland, here, in 2019.

All images were taken by the writer during the week beginning March 4th, 2019.

Us and Everything: Carl Beam

Carl Beam‘s works are intensely political, employing and combining pop culture references and personal symbols and metaphors. Whether encountering several powerful pieces in the MIWSFPA, installed in the hallways, or the numerous works that made the exhibition Across This Mighty Land: A Visual Debate Carl Beam & Frederick Hagan at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery a critical and considered #Canada150 moment, Beam’s artwork is significant to many. In this respect, its fitting that the second floor of the Performing Arts Centre (a space that, of late, has installed a two story tall image by Amy Friend) features a number of his pieces.

Installed on the right hand wall as you turn, after ascending the stairs to the Joy Williams Lobby (near the glassed lounge overlooking St. Paul), there’s a mix of smaller and larger works. Like much of Beam’s work, they interrelate in dialogue with each other.

Before we get to the individual works (including pieces from his groundbreaking The Columbus Project and the later series The Whale of Our Being), I offer some background on a person who’s arguably one of the most significant Canadian artists of the later 20th century. Beam also, despite his appropriate distaste for the constricting label (often meant as a ghettoized dismissal by “real” artists) of an Indigenous artist, broke ground for artists like Ed Poitras, Ruth Cuthand, Rebecca Belmore and many others.

Born Carl Edward Migwans (1943 – 2005), he “made Canadian art history as the first artist of Native Ancestry (Ojibwe), to have his work purchased by the National Gallery of Canada as Contemporary Art. A major retrospective of his work, mounted [by the same institution], was exhibited in 2010, recognizing Beam as one of Canada’s most important artists.”His skill in various media was impressively extensive: “photographic mediums, mixed media, oil, acrylic, spontaneously scripted text on canvas, works on paper, Plexiglas, stone, cement, wood, handmade ceramic pottery, and found objects, in addition to etching, lithography, and screen process.”

I’ll offer an aside (acknowledging Beam’s legacy) with two anecdotes regarding (Canadian) institutional relationships to Indigenous artists. When Ed Poitras represented Canada at the Venice Biennial, a curator friend at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon reported a frantic exchange with the National Gallery in Ottawa, as they owned NONE of his work, and wanted to quickly remedy that oversight. Conversely, an amazing exhibit I reviewed years ago, curated by Steve Loft and Andrea Kunard, featured the works of Indigenous artists working in lens based media, from the National Gallery collection. I mention the latter (titled Steeling the Gaze) for how the artists and curators, in the labels and didactic panels, wanted to be listed by their tribal affiliations, not under the homogenizing blanket of “Canadian.” Anyone who’s ever worked in collections and institutions would goggle at that leap, from a lack of consideration to a malleable compromise.

Beam was (is) indispensable to that cultural shift, but not solely that repositioning.

Leaving the PAC, that change manifests in the wailing / gnashing of teeth by the well paid puppets of resource industries (Murphy or Mansbridge, crass or ingratiating, as they cash their oily cheques) decrying how we can’t just force pipelines through areas anymore, and might – gasp – have to negotiate or listen to the people who will – as Saskatchewan, from uranium onward – be left messes made and environments destroyed. May I don my shabby [M]Marxist hat for a moment, and ask why the only freedom that matters is the freedom to do business? Or, borrowing from Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, consider an age where personal freedom is considered a sacred thing, but only for those that ALREADY possess (hmm, sounds like ownership again) it.

But your intrepid #artcriticfromhell digresses (again, always, #sorrynotsorry). Beam’s art spur this, as the night of the reception there was a panel discussion on Indigenous-Settler relations, using Short Hills as a touchstone, transcending the PAC’s “artistic” space. The speakers explored several topics, not the least being whether “we” “own the earth” or if “we” “are meant to be stewards” of the biosphere. (I recently watched IO and the main character posits that an atmospheric shift forcing a human exodus off-planet isn’t apocalyptic, but Earth saving herself by expunging us…..). The title of this sampling of Beam’s aesthetic – Us and Everything – resonates in that respect, if considered opposites, or symbiotic….

In conversation with several of the cultural coordinators at the City of St. Catharines, they hinted that there would be further adjunct / intersecting events and talks centred around the work, as these pieces are on display for nearly a year. Go see them often (before going to the Film House, hmm?). As the arguments around pipelines intensify, and we slouch – like a rough beast – towards the next federal election, or see Queen’s Park looking to monetize the Greenbelt, Beam’s work will have different things to say, or the same thing, again, perhaps. The accompanying didactic: Beam’s “work is thought-provoking and provides an opportunity for the local community to engage with his themes relating to the history of indigenous relations in North America and the human connection to the environment.”

There’s a mix of larger works and smaller ones: Beam’s recognizable usage of images both historical and contemporary is present, and the pieces stretch over nearly two decades. Beam, like many artists whom work in collage, appropriating and sampling imagery from diverse sources, also repeats some images that either previously held an iconic quality. A classic Northern Renaissance pieta – perhaps Quarton, perhaps not – is all angles and mourning. My art history degree was focused on this period, and its quite emotive. There’s an image of Hoiia-Wotoma, also known as Wolf Robe, from a 1909 photograph. This image has been used / misused and abused by many artists, sometimes acknowledging the man in Gill’s photo, sometimes not. Some argue this image – as, considering the history of colonialism, and with a nod to the Columbus Project, Hoiia-Wotoma’s image became a stereotypical symbol of the “long vanished Indian” – was the basis of the Buffalo Head or Indian Head Nickel. Several artworks feature an image of Jennifer Lopez: this had a relevance to Beam’s work at the time he made them nearly two decades ago (‘Lopez, while giving a strong voice to women…is still an agent of consumerism’, the panel claims), but also has a relevance in the public sphere since . Consider the rhetoric from George Bush II, about how the U.S. anthem simply couldn’t be sung in anything but English, or the ongoing debate about walls, immigration, and colonialism that is festering like a uniquely American (as in hypocritical) sore, south of the border…. To return to the accompanying statement: Areas of Beam’s work explore relations between Western and Indigenous peoples and tensions that exist in those relationships.

All the works have accompanying text, but nothing too long nor dense. The writing offers points of access or consideration, not solely in an artistic context. In speaking to several younger individuals after the panel discussion, many were amazed at there having been a time in “pop culture”, especially music, that wasn’t heavily informed (and, ahem, improved, as diverse voices always will, in any creative medium) by Latino, Hispanic or (with A Tribe Called Red recently playing the PAC) Indigenous voices in many languages telling stories both unique and universal. The titles of respective prints hint at Beam’s intention. Untitled (Jennifer the Conqueror) is one of the works employing an iconic image of Lopez; Untitled (Sitting Bull Pieta) incorporates an historical shot of Sitting Bull (also known as Húŋkešni, undefeated in battle by the U.S. Army and assassinated, argued by some historians, in a manner that would make the C.I.A. in Central and South America proud); and many other poignant works like Untitled (Mountain Glaciers). I mention the latter as the curator’s text asks whether, ‘aside from in myths and legends, is it possible to move a mountain?’ This reminded me of one of my favourite lines of St. Paul (shush, #artcriticfromhell isn’t a ‘christian’, as I’ve read the bible, and have a minor in theology, so I know better). If I speak in the tongues of men and angles, but have not love, I am but a clanging gong and tingling cymbal. If I have faith to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. This verse always seemed to speak about hope and intention, a way to move forward, and a way to consider where ‘we’ are going. In that respect it resonates back to the panel the night of the opening, speaking of Short Hills but also the Two Row Wampum. One of the speakers, Elizabeth Chitty, talked of Beam’s work as a potential guide for how to move forward, and I very much like that idea, and would suggest you keep that in mind when you visit the works.

Carl Beam: Us and Everything is on display in the Joy Williams Lobby, at the Performing Arts Centre, in downtown St. Catharines for nearly the entirety of 2019. All images (except the header, which is courtesy the artist’s estate) are courtesy of Justus Duntsch, the co curator of this exhibition, and whom has generously shared these images from his collection. 

Shelter vs Symbolism / The Tent Project at GPAG

“Housing is absolutely essential to human flourishing. Without stable shelter, it all falls apart.” (M. Desmond)

Almost ten years ago, a Quebec-based activist art group Folie/Culture were engaged in a project Nomadic Dwellings across Canada. When I experienced Dwellings out West, they’d been creating this work for about two years. It resonated in every city they visited, with rising rents, plummeting wages and precarious employment making the idea of having a safe roof over your head (let alone home ownership) a dream slipping away. The idea is as relevant now – more so, bluntly – as it was then. Nomadic Dwellings called on “architects / artists to conceive nomadic dwellings for itinerants. The shelters had to be designed for one person, with materials that were easily found in Canada, inexpensive, and recyclable if possible. They also had to be reusable and easy to set up by one person alone.”

Two ideas made this a worthy project. One was as an intervention intended to bring communities that perhaps don’t always “see” each other together. And that, for more than a decade previous, Folie/Culture had “facilitated contemporary art projects with a specific focus on awareness building in mental health. They encourage the work of artists who intervene in the field of social perceptions, engaging a public who may not otherwise encounter contemporary art.”

Even though it was long ago and far away, Dwellings came to mind at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery, among the various mixed media works by John Notten, all presented (sheltered, if you will) under the title of The Tent Project. His words: “A thin membrane of fabric is stretched over an armature; such is a tent. A simple yet ingenious architectural form, it appears across countless centuries and virtually every culture. It is an ancient shelter that has protected both royalty and the homeless.” Further: The Tent Project is described as “a body of work that explores the many personalities of a simple and familiar object.”

The GPAG is packed with various works, of various styles and sizes, united through the recurring tent “shape”: Flotsam and Jetsam is a massive interactive piece where you can make the tiny blue tents (reminiscent of Monopoly markers) undulate. Vault, with its stereotypical camping chair invites the viewer to sit under the ramshackle “tent” roof. Works are also two dimensional, and video works can be found along the back part of the gallery (Pop Up Tent City is one of these, but Notten melds and incorporates various media together under – pun intended – the idea of “tent”, as with Plan for Pop Up Tent City #1, which is collaged).

It’s a dense installation. However, I left feeling somewhat empty. Perhaps the reason I was also reminded of Nomadic Dwellings was because that was something that didn’t use “art” to sanitize a serious issue, nor did it neutralize a serious social issue through aesthetics. The reason many public art works fail, and why many have little time for art that cite social capital, is because it – to paraphrase Sontag – “tourists in someone’s reality”, using their lived experience, their genuine hardship, to not help the situation – or those within it – but instead references (perhaps exploits) their suffering for an artwork of arguable moral and ethically value. (like an online petition or “likes” on social media..)

When I attended part of Notten’s opening talk, I found that in speaking to several pieces the formal aesthetic – or the idea of “tent” – was the defining, perhaps dominating factor (one piece that incorporates an overhead shot of a tent city was talked about in aesthetic language, with no regard for what – and who – was being presented – or ignored).  Some of the pieces used “tent” more like a formal Modernist “shape” absent any clear acknowledgement of the people and concerns that so informed Folie/Culture’s work….

Notten has shown in Scotiabank Nuite Blanche: a valid critique of many NB artists has been that the works are variations on “plop art”, a term used for art parachuted into a public sphere and has no relation or respect for that community or that area. Alternately, a simplistic use of the idea of “tent” is aimed at a less discerning or critical audience, and a clearer message. I’ve commented in the past how GPAG is an uneven curatorial space (shows that featured Carl Beam, or Shelley Niro, or Tony Calzetta were all excellent, but GPAG is a community centred gallery, and I know many curators who talk about how public galleries have diverse – and often conflicting agendas around showing individuals in their community who may not be of the same quality, but that have great relevance to their public and regional stakeholders).

Occupy (detail), The Tent Project, John Notten Plan for Pop Up Tent City #2, John Notten  No Name (2017), The Tent Project, John NottenGo see The Tent Project, but consider artists who’ve worked with similar subject matter – and have not eliminated the people from the imagery or objects – like Karen Spencer with her project employing billboards and postcards sent to public figures, from journalists to politicians. Amusingly, Spencer and I disagreed greatly on her work, and how it related to the people she was dialoguing with / depicting (this was, I feel, her larger goal, as I suspect is the same with Notten). Perhaps, considering the current situation with “America”, tents are simply incapable of being simply forms, and are now too charged, too tainted, by our current world, to not illicit darker implications….

The Tent Project will be on display at the GPAG until August 12, 2018. All images are from the GPAG or the artist’s web site. Clockwise from left: Occupy (detail, 2017), Plan for Pop Up Tent City #2 (2017) and No Name (2017).