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.

Farnsworth: The Figure is More Than it Seems

It’s not disrespectful to Geoff Farnsworth to say that I had ulterior motives when I asked him about being the artist that The Sound featured in the latest in the series highlighting visual artists in Niagara. They all are, after all, positive ones. Geoff’s artworks have engaged me since I arrived in St. Catharines, especially his portraits and his liquified manner of working with paint, and I knew that he’d just moved into the new Niagara Artist Centre Studio space on St. Paul Street, and I wanted to check out that exciting space again.

This is a space that has just been “opened” by Niagara Artists Centre [NAC], and that right now has several significant artists (Bruce Thompson, for example) already working therein. I’m just mentioning it here as there will be further events that happen there, but it’s a site to add to your list of artistic spaces in St. Catharines to watch. Props to NAC in expanding what they do, but also in terms of expanding opportunities for local artists (I hear that there will be a component where artists will sell works, so remember to buy more art…).

On the day we talked, Farnsworth had several pieces in a two-person exhibition with Justin Pawson in the NAC Dennis Tourbin space, had paintings on display at the restaurant Bolete in downtown St. Catharines, and was, as usual, producing new works and sending works to and fro to various galleries that represent him, in Ontario, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. A graduate of the Art Students League of New York, Farnsworth has an extensive exhibition record: currently, he teaches at Niagara College.

His work is often portraiture, or more accurately, portraiture is an essential component to his art. His use of paint defines his practice as much as any imagery. Several of the pieces at NAC (Sartori in Red and Blue, Amygdala Unit or Semi Bionic Nude Resting Her Head on a Dream Bird) display this facility in how he captures faces and expressions in his “models.” The faces of the “twins” in Unit are as similar as they’re unique from the other. Dabs and dollops of colour build up the faces, strokes that seem heavily and simultaneously refined. These painterly mucoid thicknesses surround the twins, in a background as deeply dark as it is frenetic.

When compared to the works in the downstairs dining room of Bolette, Farnworth’s subjects don’t emerge from the minimalist backgrounds so much as congeal like ectoplasm from it. His facility in interpretive portraiture is alluring .

Another figure (at Bolette) gazes downward, a predominantly blue face and dark hair emerging from a lighter, almost viscous pale plane. Others showcase Farnsworth’s use of hue and colours that are primarily amenable to each other, but then spiked by a splash of brighter, almost violent contrast. A woman reclines beneath an arc of ice cream cone orbs, gazing out impassively at us from behind dark framed glasses with canary yellow hair (Ice Cream Koan). She’s diagonal to another woman, soft salmons and off white grey blues, sitting with spoon and bowl in front of a harsh blue streak cutting the background. But she seems oblivious, to us and the expressive scene behind her back: another piece is evocatively titled Skye Eyes Wide Shut, a calm piece that angles from Smashing the Ancient Vase, a more scribbly vibrant work.

Several small works (easily held in your hands) that were in the NAC studio space, though less overtly expressive than the larger paintings, have a wonderful immediacy (his daughter’s disgruntled face in one, all grimace and pouts, or a figure across a table in another, whose mass was clear in the thick rough globs, fast and sure in execution that capture a moment and the model’s attitude perfectly).

Full disclosure, oh readers: Farnsworth has offered to paint my portrait, and I suspect that the opposite of what might happen with Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud, where the subject might be wary of how you “come out” will occur. His depictions have an ethereal nature that still seem very grounded in the person he knows, and is trying to capture an experience.

When Geoff and I were arguing about Adorno and Rothko, Art and History, he cited the following lines as they relate to an influence, Max Ernst, whom wore many hats in the spheres of surrealism and dada: “A painter may know what he does not want. But woe betide him if he wants to know what he does not want! A painter is lost if he finds himself. The fact that he has succeeded in not finding himself is regarded… as his only achievement.”