Opaque and Obtuse: more light than heat

The exhibition more light than heat (Teresa Carlesimo with Michael DiRisio, curated by Carina Magazzeni) is an opaque exhibition. On numerous visits, a sentiment has become more formed in my mind. Essentially, that the necessary context for a full appreciation of this exhibition is unavailable to the visitor, and that even upon numerous visits, has not become more transparent or accessible.

Anyone who’s suffered through my writings on art over the past few years knows I’m a fan of a phrase by Alice Gregory, as it so perfectly encapsulates what is so often a problem in contemporary art – especially Canadian, with its intense academic flavour. Or perhaps taint, if you will, is a better phrase. Gregory asserts that “…contemporary art…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.” This is dually appropriate for more light than heat as the statement on the wall for the show is evocatively well written and erudite: the artworks in the gallery, though sometimes well executed, are not.

Allow me to invoke the curator’s aforementioned words: more light than heat invokes an uneasiness with space. The exhibition features common construction materials manipulated into sculptural forms, participatory installations and fictional spaces, and video works that push recognizable forms to their formless limits. [The] Hamilton-based artists…present an exhibition that exposes their behind-the-scenes inquiries into the built environment through a series of works that play with the authenticity of building materials and inexpensive “fast construction.” Through this, the exhibition gestures towards the ways by which our everyday spaces cannot be separated from capitalism, nor our world’s current environmental shift. more light than heat is a discussion that doesn’t necessarily provide the answers or illuminate a solidified thesis—rather, the exhibition exists as an agitation with materiality, the built environment, and natural resources to pose questions about our everyday spaces.

Acting as an extension of their recent presentation of a form of formlessness presented at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, this exhibition at Rodman Hall Art Centre can be understood as an elongated exposure of artistic process and labour.

It’s an amusing slur to assume that most art writers will use the term ‘derivative’ to slag off art works: here, however, with uninspired appropriations of ideas and formal tenets from artists like Dan Flavin (with his use of fluorescent lighting) or Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, it is true. Frankly, Marinko Jareb’s mirror installation in the washroom at NAC does more to destabilize the visitor than the ‘mirror’ work in more light than heat, named Untitled (clouds). This is not to say that the exhibition fails completely in terms of visual seduction. A video loop by Carlesimo, Montebello 01, which sits on the landing before you enter the larger back gallery space is somewhat engaging, and the fragmented video projection of the depth we wanted, needed, so we compressed it all has its moments of success. But the proliferation of ‘marble’ makes no clear or accessible correlation to the ‘history’ of Rodman Hall (with its marble fireplaces), and the random objects in a form of assembly are mute as to any relevance or interaction with the visitor. There is an unfinished, and unresolved, quality to this show: in speaking of it as a ‘gesture’, it is an incomplete one, and in doing so falters more so than suggest contested possibilities. It’s like incomplete student work; no offence to some of the fine student work I’ve experienced lately, especially in the photo show Translations at the MIWSFPA.

Years ago, when I interacted with a series of works by Jane Ash Poitras, her paintings were accompanied by several page statements: the viewer had no interest to read these, as the artworks themselves seemed almost to be afterthoughts – an inconvenience – to the words. Similar to the situation at Rodman Hall, Danny Custodio’s exhibition Flower Carpets/Tapetes Floridos on display concurrent to more light than heat is very beautiful, and offers a great deal to the viewer that invites you to mine the larger ideas behind the photographs. Returning to the Poitras show, Rebecca Belmore’s blood on the snow was also on display, and with almost no accompanying statement or didactic, the sculpture was far more evocative and interesting.

I’m also reminded of a curatorial venture from Corrina Ghaznavi which I visited nearly a decade ago, where the positioning of the artists, and their interrelation, was so specific to her yet was not communicated to anyone else. In that respect, the gallery goer was left cold.

The text on the wall for more light than heat is well written. The artworks are not well executed, nor achieve what art must be: a well made, and meaningful – to the visitors, not just the artists – object. I offer this having experienced more light than heat on nearly a dozen occasions, and despite my ‘reputation’, I don’t enjoy having to point out that a show fails. This is doubly problematic as the artists are alumni of Brock, and could have offered an interesting rejoinder to some of the facile dismissal of Rodman’s relevance to the MIWSFPA coming from Brock administration. If this is the last exhibition to experience at Rodman, before its closure, it is a disappointing one.

This is neither a strong show visually, nor alluring conceptually: it mimics what might be the forms of art without the self criticality and consideration of the viewer necessary to speak more strongly, and more clearly. I wanted more – require more, bluntly – and that was not on display here.

more light than heat, an exhibition by Teresa Carlesimo with Michael DiRisio an curated by Carina Magazzeni, is on display at Rodman Hall Art Centre until the 15th of March, 2020. All images are courtesy Rodman Hall.

Painting Modernity

[Jasper] Johns recognized that one’s knowledge of reality is at best fragmented, impure and incomplete. He may incorporate attributes associated with the traditions of abstract art, still life, portraiture and trompe l’oeil realism but in the final analysis his art belongs to none of these traditions because he refuses to subscribe to the ideologies and belief systems inherent in each of them.” John Yau, The United States of Jasper Johns

I once told a #karaokemodernist, when he whinged that I ‘hate painting’ that, I, in fact, just hated his ‘painting’ (I did make air quotes, as I spoke to him). This came to mind recently when I encountered, like stepping in leavings on a sidewalk, the slosh from someone who jabbered about ‘moderns’ and had – perhaps, being charitable – read one or two things about the highly contested (and very engaging within that arguing) dialogue of Modernism.

Years ago, I was also a panellist for a fine show titled Rewilding Modernity, and two of the strongest voices from that exhibition – both female curators – spoke of their ‘pugilistic approach’ to Modernism.

The panel I sat on was an interesting mix wherein the participants (Barry Schwabsky among us) couldn’t even agree on what that term meant. Schwabsky (an interesting critic out of the U.K.) had a Eurocentric focus, feeling the need to offer a history of the term. I countered this with Slavoj Žižek’s idea that ‘we’ in the ‘West’ are like the character in the film Memento, who know something important happened but can’t exactly remember what, though it casts a shadow over our amnesiatic efforts).

When I visited an exhibition at 13th Street Winery in this new year, with the straightforward title of Modern Masters, these (of course) contested narratives were in my mind. The list – and the breadth – of the artists on display are challenging, not just to the visitor, but also to each other. I often consider Ad Reinhardt, a fine painter and art historian, who joked that his works were often installed separately from other artists working in abstraction, as his aesthetic asked hard questions of the other paintings. I see this as a good thing, as conversations – or again, arguments – happen within the gallery space, and the viewer is ‘caught’ between and within them. This – as many of the paintings are visually arresting and enticing – is a wonderful thing.

Cynthia Chapman, And So On, 2019.

The works exist within a few loose frameworks. There are pieces by Riopelle or Joyce Weiland (her work, March, is as playful as much of her paintings), that date back decades, and some that are as recent as 2019. There’s a Karl Appel (who co founded Cobra, and his Two Heads has splashes of yellow on white) and a Nichole Katsuras (Decision Before Dawn has chunky blues, looking like they’ve burst out of the black). Cynthia Chapman’s And So On also offers flickers of colour on a darkened field, whereas Jean McEwen and Kazio Nakamura are more frenetic in their application of colour. There’s also discourse between the artists / artworks: Henry Saxe does it most directly, with his Homage a Riopelle (and Homage a Borduas, as both are argualy among the first rank of painters of their generation, not just Canadian). The time span of the works also offers potential to see how some of the artists here directly, or more ephemerally, influenced those who came after them. The quantity and power, in the larger sizes of works on display, make it an experience that can be overwhelming, and the viewer should give themselves over to, letting the colour and forms wash over them, almost. Julian Bell in the book What is Painting? Representation and Modern Art offers an idea, from the (in)famous action painter Jackson Pollock: “I think they should look not for, but look passively…it should be enjoyed just as music as enjoyed.” Bell elaborates on this: “In other words, there was no prior context to the painting itself. The viewer’s eyes would submit, and the painting would act.”

Henry Saxe, 2nd Fence, 1962.

Most is abstracted, and very large. The space is something of an ‘art barn’ (I say without prejudice) so its a massive space that allows the pieces to ‘breathe’, if you will. Some names will be familiar to you, others may not. As well, though primarily two dimensional, several very solid metal works break into the physical space (and can, perhaps, be seen as emissaries of the outdoor art collection ‘straying’ into the gallery space proper). Doug Bentham is the most prolific representation of this (his works are less impressive, however, than Ball #20 2nd Variation or Le Loup Garou by Doug Saxe, who also has some vivid painted works on display).

Some of the work was passable, some was puerile and some was pulchritudinous. The press release describes this as a ‘blue chip’ collection but its too uneven for that (though I saw an Otto Rogers I enjoyed, Tall Tree On Cliff Edge, which despite having seen much of his work on the prairies, was never the case before Modern Masters). Clearly, it is all work that has sold for a fine price, but even though a work like Michael Adamson’s The Sun, The Sun may be expensive, it’s still mimicry of Hans Hoffman.

Jean Paul Riopelle, Et Vert, 1966.

With the heavy weight given to abstraction, I’m tempted to bastardize a line from Clement Greenberg’s comments that photography is hard because it is so easy: he meant that because the process was predetermined, in ‘taking’ images, that the artist had to push themselves towards more criticality. Abstraction, in eschewing story telling, stands solely on a formal ground: if it fails to interest visually, it fails. More John Yau, about American master Jasper Johns, but relevant here: “The desire for immediacy is overwhelming…One of the issues painters must face is how to locate this desire in a medium which cannot overcome its own physical presence; they must grapple with what that presence could mean in a secular world where no belief or ideology is central. For while painting is no longer a way to show the viewer that the earthly world is connected to the heavens, so we can believe that we can be released from what we are and become what we dream, the desire for release remains unabated.”

David Bolduc, Wing Chun, 1980.

This is not to say that there aren’t artists here who offer landscapes translated and transformed, but the strongest works exemplify that “..painting…is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object…What you see is what you see.’ (Frank Stella, who defined hard edged abstraction in the last century). David Bolduc’s Wing Chun is very ‘there’, in this sense. Don’t stand in front of it expecting, but just experience it.

Modern Masters is on display at the Gallery at 13th Street Winery until the middle of March: go see it, and go see it often, as I’ve barely offered a taste of what’s on display, and the show is as diverse as the space is tall and wide and full of works. The gallery hours are 10 AM to 5 PM, Tuesday to Saturday, and it’s located at 1776 Fourth Ave., St. Catharines. As well as the gallery space, the outdoor artworks are worth a visit, as they sometimes work within, or challenge, the landscape. The header image is Kazio Nakamura, Reflection ’83, 1983.

Open Secrets: Carrie Perreault’s period of adjustment

Everybody here / Comes from somewhere / But they would just as soon forget / And disguise And sheer humiliation / Of your teenage station / Nobody cares, no one remembers and nobody cares (REM)

Natalie Hunter‘s Staring Into The Sun was an exhibition that changed, literally in terms of the light and shadows, over the period it was at Rodman Hall. But it also changed for me and my interpretation, in terms of where I was ‘standing’ in relation to the translucent, ephemeral works (again, both literally, but also where my mental and emotional positioning was, too). So, whereas my initial interactions with that work were more formal (such as how Helios, on the windows, had different facets whether inside or outside the gallery), when I visited the last week it was on display I was thinking more of death, grieving, loss and that which is left behind, whether more permanent or that which ‘flees like a shadow, and continueth not’ (Job).

Its a variation on the amenable object, but more personal. One of the reasons I still enjoy writing about art after all this time is that works are fluid, and not only do we respond to them, but sometimes we encounter an artwork that seems to speak directly to us, in a way that doesn’t rely on language or words and thus can cut through the barriers we build. A favourite writer of mine, Margaret Laurence described it aptly as how ‘what goes on inside isn’t ever the same as what goes on outside.’

This brings us to period of adjustment, a solo exhibition by Carrie Perreault, currently on display at the Niagara Artist Centre. period of adjustment is difficult work: not solely in that the emotional engagement of the visitor is necessary to a full – if variant – experience, but that it may evoke emotions and memories on a personal, familial or social level, that may make you uncomfortable. Perhaps as much so as the young woman in the large video projection methodically, painfully and clearly regretfully ‘abusing’ the ‘other’ woman – the artist herself, sitting stoically, enduring, thinking soon it will be over until the video loops again and again and again – by smashing eggs on her head. The crack of impact is louder than you’d expect: the innards and goo stream down her hair, face, shirt and reside in her lap. But she never breaks eye contact with you. It might be described as a pleading look, but somehow you know she knows – from past experience – that we can (we will?) do nothing.

This is a re enactment of past suffering. That’s obvious to any of us who’ve ever sat in that chair. Its almost as though its a forced social ritual, that no one enjoys but must be done. Perform and display your pain for others, who might ignore it, or might even be amused, or just look away in disgust.

The exhibition can be read as four separate but interlinked works, like squabbling siblings. The prints on the left hand wall (I have always taken the weather personally, 2017, intaglio, screen print, mixed media) aren’t the first thing you’ll notice, nor will they alternately engage and repulse you, like Untitled (eggs) (2018, the aforementioned video projection – or For once in your life, just let it go (2018), a work ensconced in the alcove room at the back of the gallery. The last will aurally assault you, then as the blood begins to flow, will both enthrall and repel you. It merits its own ‘room’, though the pick pick pick leaks out into the ‘proper’ space, tainting it. period of adjustment is most affecting – and effective – when experienced alone. Perhaps you’re more introspective then. Or more vulnerable.

There is, after all, no real clear point when ‘then’ stops and ‘now’ begins: emotions and memory are insidious, you might say, that way (like a bit that keeps pushing through the ink, that bit of ‘deformity’ or ‘scar’ on the concrete….)

Over my dead body (2019) rests slab-like in the not-quite centre of the room. Concrete and mixed media, the whorls in the (mostly) flat surface allude to a grinding down, an erasure, a palimpsest that – by definition – fails, with bits of colour there and here showing through, rising to the surface, like a subconscious emotion that won’t be drowned, despite your efforts, or the efforts of others – [t]here’s a downstairs in everybody. That’s where we live. (Gaiman). Perreault’s process of creating, destroying, creating, erasing, marking and making, then concealing those marks (as in weather) are a way in which the non video works are united in this show.

The exhibition statement: Working primarily in sculpture and performance, Carrie Perreault balances resistance and restraint in onerous actions that recount long-term precarity. In making her work, she expends great effort to achieve minimal results. This isn’t about labour; she prioritizes process to reflect on systems of abuse and their connection to emotional and psychological experiences. Through gestural, often repetitive acts and narratives that resist closure, she alludes to complex trauma and its residual effects. By exploring, in a visceral way, failures, vulnerabilities, and the limits of her body, Perreault makes viewers keenly aware of their own.

I’m a firm believer in synchronicity, during my time in Niagara: Carrie and I have known each other since not long after my arrival here. During the walk through she generously gave me, the day period of adjustment opened, we spoke of family and how bonds of family bind both ways. They bind us up, support us, help us, and they are also a bond from which it is difficult, perhaps impossible to extricate oneself. (Gaiman) This conversation took place several weeks after my father’s death, and there are nothing but mixed feelings with such a ‘large death’ as that, and personal memories and experiences unique to the situation make it deeper and thicker, like the pasty, flat white silk screened ‘disguises’ and ‘masks’ that Perreault layered upon her printed work in this exhibition.

More emotional synchronicity: what we (don’t) say to our families, what they (don’t) say to us, and what we (are taught to) hide from each other. A friend talked about therapy and being asked about familial relationships and rating them from 0 to 5. She lied and said 4 (kindness over honesty). Her parent WAS honest and said 0, and she spit anger at how ‘truth’ can be a ‘favourite set of brass knuckles’ (Dunn)… . This led to a conversation about the lies we tell for the social fabric that may sometimes drown us and destroy and degrade us. Castles built in sand, words not so much unspoken as unheard, a deafness that is not physical but emotional: it wears you down like razed concrete or an egg to the head, repeated. One of my favourite biblical family quotes is Jesus’s advice to a child, regarding his parents, to ‘leave the dead to bury the dead.

There are aspects of Perreault’s work – eggs, obviously – that speak to [at] those of us who’ve been bullied as children and remember when we weren’t protected, and our pleas for help were not only ignored, but ridiculed: but damaged people are dangerous as we know we will survive (Hart). Further, there’s an internalizing of this treatment: we deny it ourselves, eradicating all traces (as with weather or body) or we engage in rituals we’re perhaps unaware of, on a conscious level, ignoring how we make ourselves bleed and suffer (as with For once in your life).

This is what we were taught. We’ve learned our lessons well. Look how smooth the prints and concrete are, how well disguised and ‘bland’, and how stoic and intense are the players in period of adjustment.

One of NAC’s ongoing Homecoming series, period of engagement is on display there until August 17th, 2019. This exhibition is partially accessible. There is ramp access at the entrance of the Niagara Artists Centre. The gallery is on the ground floor along with three non-gendered bathrooms, one of which is accessible. There will be an audio description of the exhibition available. If you have specific accommodation requests please get in touch with natasha@nac.org

Carrie Perreault will give an artist talk about period of adjustment at NAC, but check their FB and website for details.

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.