Up Close and In Motion: A year in review

In conversation with a fellow writer / critic recently, the subject turned to the exhibition Carry Forward that had been at Rodman Hall. We shared the opinion that the show could have been divided by a line framing four works that were quite interesting and very strong in the conceptual framework proposed by curator Lisa Myers: the rest, on the opposite side of the gallery, seemed muddled and unresolved. Or, at the least, paled next to the aesthetics of Claxton, Alvarez or Bowen.

When considering the year long exploration / series of exhibitions of Rodman Hall’s collection – titled Up Close and In Motion, with various addendum, like 4/11, or 6/11, to mark its progression – that has been installed in various month long excerpts in the Hansen Gallery (ending in January 2019), there is a similar fracture.

The initial “phases” curated by Emma German (whom conceived the project, in conjunction with a focus upon a Slow Art Day aesthetic) were engaging and offered multiple points of entry with intersections and dialogues between visitors and artworks.

My response to, and review, of Brendan Fernandes’ Philia exemplifies this. This work is a rarely seen treasure of the RHAC collection, but frankly the didactic panel, written by German. expanded and enlarged the work’s importance (and I f**king hate art with neon, but that fell to the side in light of what Fernandes was “illuminating”, if I may put it that way).

Brendan Fernandes’ Philia, installation shot.

The current incarnation of #UCIM, as I write this, continues an aesthetic that has been dominant since Jimmy Limit assumed a degree of the curatorial reins. He’s an interesting artist who has shown both in Rodman and spaces such as Gallery 44 and Clint Roenisch: but his choices are more formal, offering a comparatively empty discourse compared to the more richly nuanced selections by German. But right now, the Hansen gallery is filled, with one exception, with works that offer a space of formal connection, but little else.

This is manifest in both the absence of didactic panels to expand the work (which would have left me to hate Philia, bluntly), and engage the visitor.

Untitled, Jimmy Limit (one of several installed works by the artist for #UCIM)

Also problematically, the works that Limit himself has produced in the gallery space have only superficial relationships – if at all – to the works from the collection. Ernest Harris, Jr.’s piece Mel’s Brushes, commissioned for #UCIM by German, directly referenced the work of Melanie MacDonald that was installed concurrently over the other mantle, in the other room, and that alluded strongly to Tobey Anderson (his four works presented as part of his almost “scientific” series in response to his cancer), whom Harris praised in the accompanying didactic. This excerpt from his conversation with German highlighted how Harris credited Anderson as both a mentor and major supporter of his artistic practice. In that respect, the works at play in Hansen all fed and spoke to each other, and also to the contemporary and the historical space of artists in Niagara, living and deceased.

Harris, MacDonald and Anderson – and later Boyle and Moffat (who, after seeing their works in the Hansen, I made a point of visiting works by both on permanent display in the MIWSFPA) – all positioned themselves within larger community frameworks. This was often an agenda of German’s selections from the RHAC collection.

Dennis Tourbin, whom had two works in #UCIM that I was so impressed by that I devoted singular reviews to each (one more local, one more national), is also someone who’s left a space here for others to stand upon, as the front gallery space at NAC (often used for local and emerging artists, a sentiment I think he’d approve) is named for him.

Limit’s series of untitled pieces are vibrant and fun, and the objects are lovely and push against the more historical space of the Hansen. There’s a [M]modernist appeal (art in simplicity), a cleanliness and disciplined execution that makes me want to handle the works (so round and slick), and his painting of coloured “rectangles” – or frames, if you will – on the wall with simple shelves to hold the works tussle and clash with the carved, delicate and almost fussy cornices and details of the Hansen space. The objects are rough yet evocative, and I always love when artists paint the walls to enhance their work. In that “proper” space, a slab of blue or yellow is an “affront” to the gentility of the space, just like Donna Akrey’s playful “toys” or Amy Friend’s “mementos” that worked with / against the “domestic” space.

But conceptually the connections between Limit’s interventions and the other works are either nonexistent or more about skin deep relations (lemons, circles, yellows) than how Fernandes’ Philia interacted with Genevieve Cadieux‘s works (both significant for imagery and art from groups that have too often been underrepresented in galleries and collections). There’s definitely not the points of reference I previously cited with Harris, MacDonald, Anderson or Carol Wren on the back wall.

This is “echoed” in how Douglas Boutilier’s Tennis Twins have looked out on the spaces for several variations of #UCIM, unimpressed and stoic, in their gaze and being, separate metaphorically and literally, alone on a wall almost like an alcove.

Douglas Boutillier’s Tennis Twins.
Tobey C. Anderson, selected works from Silken Twine series.

Even later iterations, from German, with John Boyle‘s imagery of St. Paul Street in St. Catharines. which led to a long, very long social media feed involving several local artists about when, where and why Boyle chose that site. This involved his major role in visual arts in St. Catharines, with NAC and Rodman, having a deeper, more considered, relevance outside the Hansen space. And I have little use for Stompin’ Tom Connors, but putting Boyle’s hagiographic rendering of Connors in a “fancy” space was entertaining. Though titled Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom, the work was more complicated than that jingoist statement. Boyle’s role in founding CARFAC and Connors’ advocacy for regionalist culture meshed in that frighteningly colourful, perhaps garish, work.

When I encountered the Barbara Hepworth in the Hansen, in a recent iteration of #UCIM, it was disheartening to see that her choice of yellow, in a harsh slab of flat colour among monochromatic renderings, seemed to be the sole reason for its inclusion: this put it on a par with the lemons of an unfamiliar artist named Cleveland. That seems a bit of a slight, a facile dismissal, to someone who was one of the very, very few female artists of her generation to make an indelible mark in the Modernist canon. It would be a bit like talking about Anderson’s pieces that focused / explored his fatal cancer diagnosis in terms of modernist or art historical use of colour…..or only speaking of Tourbin’s work about the October Crisis in terms of its formal flat pop art colour, and not how a local artist I respect greatly raised a good point about “contested narratives” in response to my review of it, that was a bit (appropriately, considering the historical position of the piece) caustic.

Installation shot (L – R: Cleveland, Hepworth, Limit)

Am I being an asshole in my harshness re: the “post German” / “Limit defined” chapters? Am I being an #artcriticfromhell? Am I speaking a (difficult) truth? Am I, as I was told by one of the same people who used to dismiss me as “art critic from hell”, being a “Strelnikov” and expecting too much or expecting too “specifically”?

I offer this criticism, or this place within which to stand and question – to look back over a year and revisit what has been, in light of what is now in the Hansen space – as someone who has curated several exhibitions in a similar community / public space(s). I chose artworks both by artists who simply visited the #YXE space (Allison Rossiter had many fine works that were the backbone of my exhibition Personal Geographies, and Eldon Garnet’s “pile” works were a major part of another show I put together from the #usask collection). Others were featured who helped to define that site over decades (Thelma Pepper’s photographic / audio “portraits” of a generation that helped form Saskatchewan, for better or worse, were significant pieces of an earlier show I curated on ideas of place).

But let’s add another flavour to the mix: a curator whom I worked with, and admire greatly, Robert McKaskell (known for interventions and work he did with General Idea) once spoke of curating in a public gallery (we were both at the Art Gallery of Windsor, at the time) in this manner. That anyone, if they’re willing to make the effort, should be able to find works in a public gallery space they can appreciate: but McKaskell was more than willing to meet people halfway, so while the AGW might be showing the supposedly controversial works of Donigan Cummings, McKaskell curated a large show of “big animals in small landscapes” that, with some engagement (like in a slow art day manner) offered some interesting historical comments on the Windsor – Essex region, but also on the wider (as in British, or French) history of the area, in what artists and ideas were prevalent when the AGW was in its infancy. In citing this, the use of “lemon” or “yellow” or the circular motifs that linked works by Jean Arp (De la familles des etoilles) or Jeanne Rhéaume (Nature Morte aux Tomatoes) or Herbert Beyer (Two Sinking Spheres) actually simple and inviting points of access for any gallery goer, an unpretentious line between them all.

Untitled, Jimmy Limit

Now, I’ve alluded before to how some think your intrepid #artcriticfromhell too often talks politics and not “the art.” However, it has been a while since I’ve offered an update on Rodman Hall and the ongoing death by a thousand ignorant cuts that Brock University seems to wish to inflict on them, before walking away like a sated vampire in 2023. Its not accidental that German’s contract at RHAC ended and #UCIM has somewhat faltered without her.

Its not coincidental that Brock has not deigned to hire a replacement for their main installation person, nor that it has delayed in hiring a person to replace the public programming position (though Brock also advertised a Director position a long time ago, and then, opaquely and ignorantly, declined to hire one and appointed someone who seems to lack the experience, or interest, to do the job properly. But its perhaps unfair to expect “administrative director” Tom Arkell to serve two masters, and really, we all know that, like Martin Van Zon, he’ll bring his “experience” to the service of Brock, not Rodman).

One of the disheartening – or enraging, edit as preferred – facts about many university spaces like Brock is that they slash support for cultural spaces like RHAC, and devalue them (except, of course, to attempt to take credit for the many OAAG awards that RHAC and their staff and artists – like Marcie Bronson – have garnered, arguably despite Brock University, not thanks to it). Then, when those spaces are unable to function at the previous excellent levels, they’re punished for the idiocy, ignorance and decisions of University administrative cabal members. The recent exhibition Northern Oracle opened late, due to “infrastructure issues” and one can’t help but wonder if that is due to the staff shortage, lack of prioritization of RHAC’s needs, or that the administrative elite at Brock don’t know / don’t care (ignorance and apathy, again. At least we don’t hear any more about the “Art Gallery of Niagara”, where that ill thought plan may have led to the loss of the same collection that is the source of #UCIM).

John Boyle,  Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom

By the time you read this, the final iteration of Up Close and In Motion will be installed in the Hansen space at Rodman Hall. This series of exhibitions has been a highlight of 2018 for me, and in both the quality and consideration of the “first” spate of choices but also in seeing how Brock’s choices do impact RHAC and do impact culture in this city and this region. Up Close has been educational, both in terms of what is the history of exhibitions and visual art as history in Niagara, but also the gap between words and actions within the cultural sphere, as seen in the “relationship” between RHAC and Brock University.

All images are copyright / courtesy RHAC and provided either by them or myself. Up Close and In Motion will run into January, 2019, in the Hansen Gallery in Rodman Hall Art Centre.

Dennis Tourbin : October Fragments

“..these fragments I have shored against my ruins” (Eliot)

Its been suggested by Winnipeg artist / writer Cliff Eyland when we met in the gulag archipelago of Saskatoon, that I’m more like an American – specifically a New Yorker, Cliff said – than a Canadian. When I didn’t express offense at this, but amusement, he elaborated to say that he had this impression (one that’s only deepened since, he said recently) due to my almost combative nature of speaking about art, that I not only seemed interested in “contested narratives”, but that I thrive on them. This isn’t untrue, and perhaps that’s why I disdain so much “arts writing” that ignores – or actively denies – how some of the best Art encompasses contradictory ideas.

Recently, while enjoying the lovely book co-produced by Rodman Hall for Sarindar Dhaliwal’s Radcliffe Line and Other Geographies, a conversation I had with RHAC Curator Marcie Bronson about that exhibition came back to me. Specifically, how I saw it from one place when I wrote on it for Magenta (embracing my history nerd aesthetic). Talking to Marcie, and then Sarindar’s talk, offered two differing / intersecting, narratives. Bronson was interested in a piece that had a more feminist positioning, whereas Dhaliwal reminisced with memories and experiences that defined the creation of each work. Even more, for example, Dhaliwal had a piece referencing Enoch Powell, and a quick google search will explain why if I returned to Radcliffe now, many current media tropes about “immigrants” and “nation” would “colour” my response

My, what a tangent: but as I faced Dennis Tourbin’s painting October Fragments at Rodman Hall, the newest addition to Emma German’s curatorial challenge Up Close and In Motion, contested narratives surfaced. This massive painting whose name references The October Crisis, Quebec Separatism (or perhaps you prefer “Nationalism”?) and the terrorist FLQ (ah, wait, perhaps you prefer “freedom fighters”?) offers a reminder of what was one of the most dividing moments of Canadian history. Back then another Trudeau was in Rideau Hall (“How far will you go”, they asked Pierre when he employed the War Measures Act, and his response was typically caustic and clear (or maybe you prefer “arrogant”?): “Just watch me.”)

A large, colourful, yet flat, piece, Tourbin gives us scraps painted from newspapers, both privileging / problematizing the torn bits of “headline” by isolating them in heavy black, acidic yellows, a slash of red and loud purple. There’s a forced iconicism to the “fragments.” (we don’t consider Canadian history iconic, do we? I mean, there’s Oka, with the nose-to-nose-eye-to-eye-stare-down but I’m at a loss for another…). FLQ terrorist (or you prefer “activist”?) Paul Rose “raises his fist in defiance” (I’m quoting the painting quoting a newspaper article) leaving the courtroom. Then Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, in another “fragment” of the picture, peering down at LaPorte’s corpse. LaPorte was murdered by the FLQ, after being abducted, just as British Trade Commissioner James Cross was, but instead released.

Or, let’s “channel” the unofficial FLQ manifesto (written by Pierre Vallières, while imprisoned in America, following the tradition of “prison” manifestos, from Gramsci to Trotsky), with the unforgettable title of White N***ers of  America. The FLQ considered Cross an instrument of the colonial British Empire and LaPorte a quisling, a traitor. The FLQ and many of the “thinkers” of this movement were – as the October Crisis occurred in 1970 – avowedly Marxist, just like (arguably one of the greatest Canadian – or should I say Quebecois, revising again – painters ever) Paul – Emile Borduas’ La Refus Globale was years earlier, just as the SDS, or Weathermen in America, or sundry other revolutionary groups of that era. Yes, it’s surely more nuanced than that brief synopsis suggests, but I’ve already talked “too much about politics and not art” as I so often do. Visit your library, and read multiple historians, of both the right and left, with skepticism of any who asserts only one “version.”

Much has changed in the nearly five decades since the October Crisis: but I still know people that disagreeing with their opinion on it will brook an argument, and it may be a scar, but it still itches, for sure.

Here’s some of Tourbin’s own words on his work in this political arena: “…I had been developing individual visual poems, large colourful canvases of painted words, painted poems. A recurring theme in these works was the subject of The October Crisis…[something] that fascinated me right from the beginning. The idea that language could become so much part of our destiny intrigued me. I began to write about my impressions of the October Crisis, My impressions of how the details of the events were presented to the public through the News media….was dealing with a specific event in history and I was able to draw on the resources of the media.
I could use pictures of the actual events, sounds of the people involved, the News broadcasts, the newspaper headlines. These fragmented pieces of information became the narrative elements for the entire work.”

An interesting side note: many of the works that German has selected for Up Close have been personally evocative for me (Philia brought me back to the 1990s and HIV / AIDS, for example). When first seeing October Fragments, I was reminded of studying this in high school and how that project was one of many from that time (researching Robespierre’s Terror in the French Revolution, in my French Class, or Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute or Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. The latter two novels both inhabit the Duplessis era Quebec that birthed the FLQ…). These all set me on my path of obsession with “sites of contested narratives” in history, and in visual arts – and that is something I share, I think, with Tourbin, in many of his works, but especially here in October Fragments.

 This version of Up Close and In Motion is on display at RHAC. It will shift soon, and again, until the historical exploration of the collection at RHAC continues into 2019. Image credit: Danny Custodio, Rodman Hall Art Centre.

Dennis Tourbin: layering time, place and space

Years ago, in a conversation with someone whom also has that rare affliction of being both an arts writer / critic and having obtained a degree (and published in the field) of art history, we decided to enumerate the differences between art critics and art historians. Our (perhaps inebriated) comments were incisive, if caustic (offensive doesn’t preclude veracity).

Despite that jocular irreverence, several ideas proved enduring. For example: art historians are more “official” and reluctant to change positions. In fact, one of the best teachers I ever had, who turned me onto the living and dangerous nature of art history, insisted “your opinion is irrelevant, as you’re nobody”. Look to the canon and genuflect footnote cite endnote and quote, forever and ever, amen.

Yet, when I was taking Early Italian Renaissance Art from him and cited Paglia’s Sexual Personae and Rosenberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Early Renaissance and Modern Oblivion, or a scintilla of Foucault, he verified my sources and then embarrassed me in class, using me as a response to students’ complaints re: his pedantism.

Oh, sometimes I miss the university. Then I remember being mocked for daring to cite, in a paper about the art of the French Revolution – with sardonic contempt, for sure – Mao’s assertion that it hasn’t been long enough to decide if it was a good or a bad thing.

But what’s this tangent have to do with Dennis Tourbin’s La ville dort (translated as The city sleeps)? La ville dort is currently dominating one wall in the Hansen Gallery at Rodman Hall facing John Moffat’s massive psychedelia of Rechatin Miscalculated? (Regrettably, I shan’t be discussing Moffat here, but he has works in the MIWSFPS. Go. See them. #artcriticfromhell insists.)

The point: Tourbin does many things in La ville that I usually disdain (i.e. excessive text and iridescent, almost violent hues). Yet Tourbin presents an enamouring work I’ve visited repeatedly when I should’ve been reviewing (as promised) other pieces. But I had to go take one more look, basking in its burnished glow and evocative words.

The vertical work, to the right of the fireplace, has flat green “water” and golden land with text fragments “written on the earth.” Many of Tourbin’s contemporaries from this era (early 1970s – John Boyle or Greg Curnoe, both in the last instalment of curator Emma German’s Up Close and In Motion) employed similar fonts with cleanliness and ease. Some of the text is “cut off” by the topography, the map shape, and the words alternate in hue from reds to blues to yellows to blacks and more. Although the gold and greens visually seized my eyes and pulled my body over, the poetic words are what held me. This, especially: When I leave St. Catharines now, I only take enough memories to do me for the year. That’s what St. Catharines means to me.

This evokes my previous thoughts on Up Close, of “I’m not from here, I just live here” or how there is no point where “then” stops and “now” begins, in exploring STC’s history and being.

Dennis Tourbin La ville dort

Tourbin died in 1998. The front gallery space at NAC bears his name (it’s a space often focused on emerging / local artists, continuing his legacy). The didactic panel cites his major role and influence here in St. Catharines, along with Boyle, Moffat, Tobey C. Anderson. Ernest Harris, Jr.’s painting is still on display in the adjunct space in Hansen, and in conversation with German the idea of the interconnectivity, the suffusing environment that many artists live within, like fish in water, was mentioned. These recent manifestations of Up Close are regionally aware: it’s worth noting the role that St. Catharines based artists and activists have played in the history of Canadian Art, as German is showing us in most recent iterations of  her examination of RHAC’s collection. This echoes history cited in The History of Painting in Canada: Toward a People’s Art (published several years after Tourbin’s piece was made) or by Robert McKaskell in his Making it New! (the big sixties show).

In 2012, Rodman presented, in collaboration with CRAM International and NAC (curated by the inestimable Marcie Bronson) Dennis Tourbin: The Language of Visual Poetry, described as a “city-wide celebration of the St. Catharines-born artist’s life and work.” Observing how Up Close is / has been structured, German seems with the last few iterations to be using Ernest Harris, Jr.’s painting (which still rests above the mantle in Hansen) as a base: a contemporary artist in STC whose work is not only about another contemporary STC artist (in being titled Mel’s Brushes, as in painter Melanie MacDonald, who had a work in a past Up Close) but that acts as an endpoint for an historical line from “then” (Tourbin, or previously Anderson, or Boyle) to “now” with Ernest’s painting (a portrait in painting tools – brushes – rendered in a painterly manner. The lines intersect in multiple ways).

To bring it to contemporary times, I also can’t look at this piece with its title La ville dort / The city sleeps and not think of the large number of individuals who are part of A Better Niagara and that have put their hats into the ring for positions on regional council and to (paraphrase Laura Ip) “reset the region”, perhaps to wake it up.

This version of Up Close will shift soon: I could tease you with who’ll be showing next, but instead I’ll just remind you to go see it, go often, and spend time in this considered selection from RH’s collection. Frankly, looking at how Brock University is underfunding, understaffing and generally neglecting Rodman Hall (and how many tenured faculty at the MIWSFPS are complicity silent on the issue), your time may be limited.

Up Close And In Motion will be on display, in different ways and forms, until January 2019.

Image credit: Danny Custodio, of Dennis Tourbin, “La ville dort”, 1973, acrylic on canvas, Gift of Nadia Laham, 2012, collection of Rodman Hall Art Centre/Brock University. . 

 

Cooler Than Cool: worthless and priceless

“..an aesthetics of interaction.”(Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis)

“We’re not complaining that the values people once believed in are now empty; to the contrary, we’re doing our best to empty them more and more. Get used to it. Stealing is a thrill in itself; this enjoyment is the real reason for postmodern appropriation. We aim to undermine those “convictions” of authenticity and truth, of proper meaning and right order, that sometimes seem to be as dear to Marxist dialecticians as they are to bureaucrats in the Pentagon. Speaking in my own voice is a tedious chore, one that the forces of law and order are all too eager to impose. They want to make me responsible, to chain me to myself….But forgetting myself, speaking in others’ stolen voices, speaking in tongues: all this is pleasure and liberation. Let a hundred simulacra bloom, let a thousand costumes and disguises contend.”(Steven Shaviro, Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism)

“I only wanted to find great people and let them talk about themselves and talk about what they usually liked to talk about and I’d film them.”(Warhol)

If you’re following some of the more entertaining (if insular and a bit masturbatory) debates in the art world right now, there’s a concerted number of voices decrying the academicization of art aesthetics – which essentially means the elimination of them to serve the politics of the moment. This manifests in different ways, whether in that works are solely to be interpreted through a specific ideological lens or only considering specific groupthink (or approved ideology, edit as you will), ignoring and denying all other.

I might suggest an example in the recent interpretation of Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale which has handmaids that are African – American, which in Atwood’s book was biblicaly impermissible to Gilead’s theocrats, as non whites – whether by biological or social designation (such as Jews) – were deported or executed. It’s an interesting tell of the ideology of the producers of this series, that Atwood’s novel’s reach (abuse of power in the name of religion being no surprise) is narrowed to serve a very specific interpretation (the abuse of women in the name of religion being no surprise). It’s reminiscent of the debate as to whether Hillary Clinton lost the last American Presidential Election, or if Trump won it…and that historical event clearly delineated that many ideologies don’t always intersect smoothly. To offer a further nod to Atwood’s Gilead, it’s like how calling oneself a “Christian” can mean anything, or nothing, and that Atwood, in her book, showed clearly that enslaving anyone in the name of your invisible friend is a poor, poor thing. End of tangent.

This is one of the ways in which art schools and their respective ideological apparatus limit dissent and reinforce their own propaganda. In his excellent book on Art and Sociology, Editor Jeremy Tanner asserts that art historians often value works that sociologists dismiss and vice versa, and that where their ideologies overlap in an “art object” (an inexact, but workable term) is as rare as a unicorn. “Taste is the enemy of art” declared Marcel Duchamp infamously, and Warhol’s further fracture of what might be called high or low taste is well known, and still reverberates.

I recently attended an artist talk where Warhol’s image of Marilyn – do we even need a last name – was shown as how “pop” and “art” meet and take on a viral life beyond even what McLuhan expected or guessed at…and the artist in question was / is still producing versions of Warhol’s Marilyn that further challenge – or collude with, or enhance, or erode – taste, consumerism and capital. This article is an interesting one, in that light, and this rebuttal is also worth considering.

As to where I stand in this debate, I find myself more often channelling Bartleby and asserting that I’d rather not…..or more exactly, I prefer to take things as they are, at times, in a more Modernist assertion of social interactions, and am less interested in a post structural framework that, as postmodernism eats its children alive, hurtles us towards cultural immolation by means of Trump or Clinton, a post truthiness where ideology eschews all the things that make Art enjoyable and accessible, and yet still challenging….

It might seem strange that the previous tangent was inspired by Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold), a collaborative  exhibition by Katie Mazi and Jenn Judson. It’s a show that borders on silly, and that refuses – simply will not – take itself seriously. Yet in doing so, it offers an amusing and sometimes very slick demonstration of the joint nature of creation (beyond the artists to the models, even), how photography can beautifully capture a performative experience, and that it is good, sometimes, to take what you do seriously, while never taking yourself so, in that vein.

The teasing online statement they provided was minimal, but inviting: “Do you like art and do you like to laugh and/or cry? Good. It’s a photo show. Two amateur photographers, ten plus+ amateur models and one new body of work. Some call the photos dumb, others call them sexy. It’s up to you to come to the show and decide for yourself. Kate Mazi and Jenn Judson present to you: Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold). A photo based exhibition that you have to see to believe.“

The works in the Dennis Tourbin space at NAC are primarily photographs: but there’s also the clothing, and some items, presented, that were part of the tableaux that the artists present. The images are kitschy and cheesy, seemingly frivolous, and the models seem to invite us to join in at their unselfconscious self mockery, that is as clear and bright as the colours.

The titles are as evocative, as they are silly: I’m reminded of children’s toys or games, which fits with the aesthetic of play in that these are like Halloween costumes, or children (in age or at heart) playing dress up. Daddy Cool, Hot Wheels, Fresh Cut, Iceboxxx, Bingo Babe (my favourite), My Name Is (Gator Ray) and Dynamite Dude are all titles that (as they’re listed separate from the photo works, as the pieces are numbered on the wall) you can easily match to the images, after an initial tour of the show.

In conversation with the artists, several ideas came to the fore: the idea of “throwing people off, producing something that seems familiar but then jars”, a seemingly familiar aesthetic which then falls apart with the models, purposefully fracturing the initial reading of the images. All the models are amateurs, and friends of the artists, and from various communities other than / including the visual arts, so there’s a freshness and honesty to the roles they perform that’s not overtly determined by expectation. Both Judson and Mazi sheepishly describe themselves as hoarders when it comes to clothes and items that were relevant to Ice Cold, and that immediacy in a personal space also manifests in how the sites range from St. Catharines to Hamilton to Niagara Falls to Grimsby. Taking this aspect of the local further, an earlier version of this was displayed across the street on St. Paul, at the Mahtay Cafe, with the catchy title of They Hate Us ‘Cause They Ain’t Us 2017. It’s very fresh work, so not as clearly defined in their minds and more about the creation – the performance of it – at this point. They collaborate in a very seamless manner, with no specific roles but both doing everything (both work at the same place, and there’s an intensity between art and life with the creation / process of these works) that is echoed in a “real willingness of the models to become the characters”. As this is a continuing body of work (there was also a piece in the #Canada150 exhibition at City Hall, in downtown St. Catharines, playing upon the attraction / repulsion of tourist traps, and on a subtle level explored the dependence of the economic health of the region on this industry), Mazi and Judson talked about future video pieces, and the works at NAC are surely cinematic (both in the larger than life personas and in the graphic and vivid nature of the “scenes”). Their artistic choices were “made on the fly, reactive and immediate”: even though you’re only seeing one image for each character, there are about ten photos selected from each shoot, and “uniqueness” within the larger narrative of all the characters and images and scenes is important. The characters “should be individuals” within the larger story that Mazi and Judson are creating here…so some basic parameters are set, and then flexibility, in terms of interacting with the models and the sites, lead to results that are only partly expected, but more about possibilities.

There is the idea of kitsch, for sure: works that evoke an emotional response over an intellectual one, and that’s applicable here. But that’s also a superficial reading that doesn’t do the works full justice, as there’s also a sense that this work couldn’t be made anywhere else other than a region that is so tourism dependant (the same way that Levine Flexhaug’s work had a different resonance here, with his paintings sharing a sensibility with the many and ongoing tableaux of the Falls).

Their statement in the show perhaps encapsulates it best: “Two years ago, a shared love of Muppet Treasure Island brought Katie and Jenn together. Since that moment, the two have realized that their lives connect in ways beyond foolish puppetry on the big screen. Combining both their closets and their sense of humour, this new collaboration series is an authentic blend of their individual artistic styles.

Cooler than Cool is a series of digital posters that challenge the aesthetic of what has been considered “cool” in the worlds of art, fashion and leisure. Each of these looks have been constructed in order for the characters to better perform their style. This work is era – less, timeless, worthless and priceless.

So bad it’s good, so wrong it’s right. Its Cooler than Cool.”  

This collaborative, sometimes excessive, cinematic display of cultural fractures of “cool / not cool” is on display at NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) until the weekend of October 8th.


All images are copyright of the artists.