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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mori McCrae’s ON SITE: corporeality and absence

The personally engaging aspect of the brief exhibitions in the Denn Tourbin space are that they seem to offer a brief taste of different artistic practices here to a newcomer like myself. I’ve mentioned previously seeing an exhibition in this space less than 24 hours after my arrival in St.Catharines, and that immediacy of presentation – and in this space being a “raw” slice of the community – is something I enjoy.
The slice comment is an allusion to the current exhibition there, an installation / environment that incorporates finished works but these are also part of a larger ongoing reaction to the space. Mori McCrae’s ON SITE is / are many things (note the multiplicity, my unwillingness to refer to it solely as one thing or as a multitude of parts..). Considering that she presents objects that seem like excised corporeal components, removed from – or alluding to – an absent whole, this is fitting. This also matches with how part of the genesis for this installation was her residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland.

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There’s a number of works that will pull you near: near the front of the left gallery entrance is a work that seems, with the sheen of the material, almost like fat. But there’s also a vertical pattern that runs down the middle of the piece, like an exposed spine, cleanly circular and naked.

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This rough rectangle pokes out from the wall in a vee, as its hung in a manner that allows it to sag forward. This makes some of the interior details of the work more prevalent: the layers of material, the folds that are exposed to our view, that make the work as sculptural as drawn (useless distinctions here – the surface and objects are worked is a better descriptor). It’s pale pink fleshy, then deeper reds, some marks that seem scars or just a continuation onto these pieces of the words on the walls that already seemed to be everywhere when I visited. The matching oval “holes” seem vulnerable, like a wound. The thin, delicate words that are so ordered across the red interior are like the striated lines of muscle fascia. Edges of this work have the sporadically spaced “stitches”, raised braided marks that further the sense of this piece as a ripped fragment of a larger body…fat, bone, cartilage, all captured in paper and paint and the artist’s hands.
There’s an asylum quality to the text, creeping and insinuating onto so many surfaces, like a resident of Arkham (Lovecraft is never far from my mind, when asylums are near): and here is a good point to interrupt my hyperbole about her lovely delicate constructions and cite her statement about her show at NAC.
Recently I attended the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland.  The house and grounds were part of the estate of Sir Tyrone Guthrie, generously bequeathed to the state upon his death in 1970. His vision was to provide a haven for artists to develop.
While researching the centre I became aware that the residency had a posh reputation. However, when I returned from my stay three weeks later to my home in St. Catharines, I had formed my own ideas.  The paring down of the basic daily acts of working, eating, exercise and sleeping, under the watchful care of the centre’s unobtrusive staff, left me with the impression of residing at a “benign asylum,” in the very best sense of both words.
[Throughout] the duration of the exhibit, where along with visual works, I will install enlarged versions of the poetry I wrote while at this residency on the walls of the Niagara Artist Centre in an attempt to bring this benign asylum here to St. Catharines.
There’s an ambiguity to the works, that suggests a space where alternate, perhaps even disagreeing, interpretations are permitted. In conversation with McCrae, I appreciatively noted how some works could be internal organs, or a rendering of pelvic bones, or even cross sections of bones or cellular, microscopic portraits that are more abstracted than recognizable.
A work in the back part of the gallery, fittingly solo on its own short wall (pinned like a diagram or an excised sample with shiny silver T pins, almost as brutal as medical), is worthy of your attention. It’s engrossing and grotesque. The clear mylar overtop doesn’t inhibit escaping strands and strips that hang nearly to the floor, but instead makes it even more pseudo medical, psuedo antiseptic. These hang, loose and less decorative, like a tassel, then like tendrils, or evidence of a ripped connection to another component…

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The large shape is softly curved, or something like buttocks, fleshy and rounded, maybe even like a fine cut or loin. There’s cavities along the lower part, and the rounded patterns mimicking a spinal column are here again (it’s a motif that marks several other pieces in the gallery). The upper edge has a contour that is reminiscent of a hip bone, or even a clavicle / shoulder blade curve…this might be the upper back, hung on a wall.
There’s several smaller works: some are framed, and the text on the walls varies between strength and subtlety, words that are bold or barely legible. When I first visited several walls had the faint lines of grey, making walls into ruled note paper, and McCrae’s words were in her own cursive hand.
Let’s jump backwards for a moment: Judy Graham had work in NAC just prior to McCrae: her drawn works incorporated spills and drips and seemed more stained and soiled than “drawn”, in the excellent style of Betty Godwin’s works. Delicate marks gave way to vivid stains on large sheets of paper, with words as much incised as written, as much graphic as literary.
Returning to now: that same expressiveness is here with McCrae. And jumping back to the present, I revisited McCrae’s installation on the last day of its presence in NAC.
The words are now bold and a bit reminiscent of blood in their colour: the stripes get long longer still then dissolve or it startles lifts then reclaims to simmering elements. This makes the text on several works more inviting, and the words that appear on works are as evocative.
sHE FUmBLED AT HIS THUMBS FAINTLy TRACED HIS LIPS FLAMINGO PINK POKED STONE runs down one piece. The aforementioned smaller framed pieces, titled liver and pelvic bowl, hang on a sliver of wall, adding to the density of their composition. The larger curved work with the dangling strips has changed: a dark rich reddish stain is now just below its lower edge, as though the work has seeped into the wall, just as the words could be seen to have oozed out through them to be visible to the visitor (some have appeared in new spaces since my last visit, like above the door frame).
It’s regrettable that the show wasn’t up longer, but the briefness is also exciting, as ON SITE transformed the space and will take another form elsewhere (I’m reminded of Hazel Meyers’ tendency to paint and draw on gallery walls, exhibiting the same project in different spaces that become diverse segments of a larger whole). And that is, perhaps, a strength: ON SITE will occupy another space and graft further ideas about the Guthrie residency and McCrae’s translation of it to a different place, in literal and ephemeral ways.