Moving Through Space: Motion at STC City Hall

I am a walker. When I’ve lived and visited other cities or towns, I make a point of exploring in this manner, seeing things and being within a space, to know a place. This was entertaining when I’d visit the thrift shops in Detroit, or when I was in Banff, for different, yet related, reasons. That’s a factor in responding to Motion | The 2018 City of St. Catharines Annual Juried Exhibit that opened late September and runs until March (2019) for several interlinked reasons.

Many of the scenes depicted by the artists in paint or photography or textile are part of “my city.” Mary Burke’s A City on the Move is a fragment of St. Paul Street I pass through often (as I’ve frequented Plan B, which is prominent to her composition). Morning Rush, by David Rose, offers a vignette of Geneva Street that’s another of my “routes”, and the unique architectural fragments of that Welland / Geneva intersection (with the Golden Grill, that I remember passing as a teenager living here, decades ago) are rendered in a way that alludes to the title: roughly, with no excessive detail, like a blur in passing as you move. Full disclosure: when I visited the St. Catharines Art Association recently David had one of my favourite pieces for the group critique, a work that evoked winter light and a sense of nostalgia.

My favourite work right now – perhaps, as there’s another in close competition for that, and I reserve the right to change my mind, as often happens with exhibitions that are on display for long periods that I revisit – is Quin McColgan’s photograph Downtown. It dates from 2015 and offers a very different view than many of the other landscapes that dominate Motion. Taken from several stories above St. Paul, this is a less “optimistic”, less “charming” portrait. The colours and the prominent decay and wear in the street and buildings are, frankly, more the St. Catharines I know, that I live and walk – move, if you will – through. (With some of the incidences of violence recently in the downtown, there’s the usual chorus of the death of said space, both specifically and in other urban areas in the region. As someone who lives and works in that space, I’ll quote Susan Musgrave: “Sometimes it seemed they hadn’t really died so much as I myself had become a ghost….” The subtle and quiet tones of McColgan’s works suggest a less celebratory scene that many of the artists have chosen, for Motion.)

The exhibition is on the 3rd Floor of City Hall at 50 Church Street in downtown St. Catharines: this hallway space works very well – surprisingly – with several of the works, but more on that in a moment. The curatorial call / statement is this: Motion called upon artists to consider what movement of everyday life in our community looks like. This exhibit provides the audience with an opportunity to consider what the process of movement means to them in their community. How does it feel? What does it sound like? What objects or infrastructure enable this transportation? Fifteen local artists demonstrate what Motion in the City means to them through their work.

Unsurprisingly, Motion favours painting: also unsurprisingly, the Burgoyne Bridge is a favoured subject. But before I offer some thoughts – both positive and perhaps a bit more edged as to the prominence of that landmark – on works like Zoom or Crossing, I’ll cite another “bridgework” and the piece previously hinted at, that competes with McColgan, for me. Gillian Dickson’s Truck on Skyway blends hints of abstraction with some modernist forms to produce an atmosphere that makes it the most accomplished painting in Motion. The manner in which the bridge can dominate the skyline for a person on the ground is present in the monolithic rendering of the supports and the bridge, and the sky is bright yet seems to shimmer, perhaps with a humidity and concrete asphalt heat so common to Niagara summers.

But the bridge that appears most often here is Burgoyne: this can be interpreted in terms of how its white “bone” (like ribs, or spine, perhaps) arched installation has been the subject of many pictures and advertising / tourism moments in Niagara. A bit less positive: the recent report regarding massive budget overruns and how that demonstrates a Petrowski, a Caslin, if you will, of self serving incompetence in Niagara civic governance employs the Burgoyne as a “landmark” in a way other than physical (some have called it, in various social media spaces, a ‘white elephant’, but that’s a bit unfair).

It’s on people’s minds, clearly. When I began writing this response to Motion, it was before two individuals in less than a week had attempted to end their lives by jumping from the bridge (I’m reminded of one of my favourite writers, Timothy Findley, whose characters often struggled with such issues, saying that the “insane”, perhaps suicidal, person is not someone who has lost their reason, but lost everything EXCEPT their reason…).

In light of these events, again, the bridge takes on a different sense, a different personality, something that is both an icon of positivism but also a space of despair….

Some of the depictions of the bridge are more about the movement – the motion – implied by its formal aesthetic, as much as how many (like myself) welcomed its opening so I needn’t go through the muddy snow and seasonal slushy mud by the creek to visit Rodman Hall. Jennifer Gruhl’s digital photograph, with rich reds and deep blacks, titled Zoom is more dynamic than Marge Dorant’s painting Crossing (but Dorant has the flat blue sky and bright white steel in an equally abstract composition that makes me think of the many times I’ve walked that bridge and seen the flat blue sky and the shining white steel).

Other artists explore alternate visual interpretations: Marinko Jareb’s Box Trick Model has his usual enjoyable irreverence, but also has a personal history to it that will make you smile.

Like all City Hall exhibitions, Motion is on display for an extended period (it closes March 15th, 2019). In the brief period the show has been on display, events in the city – as with Burgoyne, for example – have changed how I see it, and interact with it. I’ll be visiting again, as more things happen, to see how the show “moves” in a similar, or different, responsive manner.

More than surface: Just Resting Your Eyes at Rodman Hall

It’s necessary to first acknowledge that Just Resting My Eyes, the first of the two part exhibition at Rodman Hall featuring the work of Honours graduates from Brock University’s Department of Visual Arts, should be on display longer than two weeks. The works by Denise Apostolatos, Victoria Morinello, Jill Newman, Jacob Primeau and Aaron Thompson are often dense and inviting, and on my repeated visits have shifted in my interpretation, and in their relationship to each other. The art works in this exhibition occupy the larger back gallery space but also the side long “hallway” as well as the small inset alcove that faces the ‘title wall.’

Just Resting My Eyes is dominated by painted and drawn work. In some ways this enhances the show, as he painterly nature of Victoria Morinello’s Bittersweet Temptations (1 through 6) located in the recesses adjacent to the “meeting room” with image transfers rendered more visually enticing through mixed media (paint, plastic wrapping, scratchy scrawling marks and erasures) both contrasts and casts in relief the difference of Jacob Primeau’s Familiar Strangers. The latter is a massive acrylic and oil on canvas, whereas Temptations are smaller (four installed together as a block aren’t a tenth of the size of Strangers). Morinello has larger pieces in the lower gallery space, “facing” each other – no pun intended as the women in the loose triptych, all sharing the title The Holy Trinity with individual descriptors of (foil) or (plastic), as matches their making, all have expressive manners.

Unlike some previous iterations of BFA graduates exhibitions, Eyes is installed so that the respective artists (and yes, I’ll use that term here, as the quality and consideration of the works mark them as more that than students) intermix. Jill Newman’s linear, monochromatic blind contours occupy most of the side hallway, with smaller works that have a strength in repetition, a clean beauty in execution of sharp black on white or glowing white on black. The wall itself bears some of her loose, and sure, lines. Further down in this space, Primeau – who presents what is one of the two (okay, maybe three – I reserve the right to change my mind on future visits) best works in the show – offers four in a series titled Selected Street Photography. Though these are night images, and are dark, the flaring spots of street lights or the glistening of the reflection of artificial lighting in these is echoed (realized? recreated?) in his painting in the other room, Strangers. Just as Newman’s rough, yet considered drawings here offer insight into her own larger paintings hanging in the back space, Primeau is revealing something of his process. Or, to parse from several excellent conversations in the space with several artists (who also straddle painting and photography) it may not be  linear progression, from photo to painting, and that only art historians (and, ahem, perhaps critics) want a linear, approved, official “history” when in fact images are made and conceived in a more organic, bleeding process that is more reminiscent of osmosis than “order.”

When I’ve visited, I’ve found myself going back and forth, from the hallway with these smaller pieces, to the alcove with Morinello’s tiny works, and then into the large gallery proper: referencing back and forth, or just exploring the visual lines of connection that bind the works together.

Newman’s pieces are installed to the right of Primeau (he has three large works, and a display case shows many small works on paper. These have too much detail and finesse to be just “studies”). Whereas Primeau’s Strangers is a dense work that illustrates a city street scene (not literally so much as conceptually, with the washes of purple and yellow, and the thick dabs of red and yellow accentuating the tableaux, as an umbrella or the glow and reflection of a car tail light), Newman’s paintings are nearly all the same square dimension, with one much larger. They’re installed mostly grouped together: outside, inside and outside, inside pt. II are a diptych far to the left, with quiet pinks, deep blacks, gentle yellows and milky whites that suggest more watercolour than acrylic, a fine subtle hand that allows for the drips and washes that build form and shape. A vertical arrangement of four are titled (top to bottom) glimpse, ocular, disillusion and spectacle (all dated 2018. Appropriately for a graduating show, the majority of works by all the artists are 2018). glimpse is thickly painted, in tones almost chocolatey, and unlike other works that suggest a window or a framed space, is rich textured surface. Below it, ocular with its bands of pink, yellow and grey with black flecks (black appears outside the yellow “frame”, too, a bit roughly) shares the compositional element of ‘rounded bars’ with outside, inside. But the larger works, and several smaller, allude to the same vegetation that dominated her drawings in the hallway (such as looking blindly (interior plants) (1 – 150), which are a series of cards you’re encouraged to handle, but with respect).

Aaron Thompson has several works in Just Resting My Eyes, but the significant work is one that will force you to do the opposite of the exhibition title. His work – or works – Shoulder to shoulder, 2017 – 2018 is / are like most of the pieces on display: enhanced by the accompanying statements from the artists, but not necessary to an appreciation of it (for example, Newman’s looking blindly is blind contour drawing. This adds a level of appreciation, but the work is already visually engaging, just as Primeau’s text aides, but isn’t essential, to Strangers).

Shoulder to shoulder is the work that on my visits may not immediately pull the visitor in, but will hold them for the longest duration: mixing ideas and assumptions of low and high culture, of consumption in both a considered and gluttonous manner, Thompson has presented a largesse of tiny paintings that reference, challenge, demean or enhance the Mona Lisa, or perhaps just the idea of the Mona Lisa.

Some works are listed as Google Image #1 or Google Image #3, and other titles act as less of a list than a dictionary of cultural references: there’s one that has Lion – O from Thundercats, another trio are tiny renderings of faces in the manner of Francis Bacon (all of these are painted by Thompson, from sources “found” on the web. Some are considered, others are just crass). A sample: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self-portrait (detail) / Space Lisa / Captain Spaulding /  Obey Mona (They Live) / Rene Magritte, Son of Man (Mona Lisa) / Willem de Kooning, Pink Angels / Duotone Mona Lisa (detail) / Jackson Pollock, Guardians of the Secret (detail) / Lion – O – na Lisa / Batman Duchamp / Bashful Lisa / Zombie Lisa / and Fear and Loathing in Florence (Raoul Duke), which is a personal favourite. There is, of course, a version of Duchamp‘s infamous L.H.O.O.Q., who could be said to “shoulder” significant blame or credit for the state of the contemporary “art” world….

Any words to describe this piece are unequal to the task: you must experience it.

I would, however, in my role as art critic, offer the following observation of Thompson’s Shoulder to shoulder. With the failure of postmodernism as a viable theory by which to approach culture (unsurprisingly, as post modernism is based on the context of doubt, without a viable system to replace what it challenges. Some older art historical texts defined post – 1968 as an “Age of Anxiety.” I like this as an umbrella, and for the capitalisation), a variety of thinkers far more verbose (and surely more intelligent) than I have proffered alternatives.

One of interest is “digimodernism” which, in one aspect, suggests that we’re exponentially creating and consuming images as never before in human history. In light of this, language, and the idea of systematic ordering and designation that often manifests through language, is not only impossible now, but beyond irrelevant. While wasting time in attempting to order what images we’ve seen, more are being made. Some, like what Thompson shows here, occupy multiple theoretical spaces simultaneously, often in uncomfortable (if not very conflicting ways). It’s all the Mona Lisa. None of them are the Mona Lisa. All of them are Art. None of it is Art. Edit and arrange as you will, if you like, but the person next to you will edit and arrange differently, and your systems may meet, meld or modify each other, to create a third fourth fifth (and so on, and so on) system.

This isn’t entirely an alien thought: consider colour theory, as in the work of American artist Josef Albers (with his square works that show difference is more common in the colour palette than we’d imagine). Consider that horrid intro painting class exercise, of taking any colour and painting five gradations between it and full black, or full white. Now think of doing that on a computer, where each of those “steps” might be used to do five more steps to black, or white, and then again and again, as the technology (like accessing a million variant, previously unimagined iterations of Mona Lisa) may be (if not literally, then practically) infinite in variations and combinations.

Everything is possible, yet nothing is genuine. “Authentic” is a term either meaningless or uninteresting, boring even, perhaps even intellectually / creatively “lazy” in not embracing potential diversity. This is how “we see now.”

How does “the hand of the artist”, that “arbiter of genius” or commodity defined through rarity or uniqueness, fit here, with Thompson rendering each one, but with a source or “inspiration” elsewhere we can find and “own” digitally?

Modernism didn’t so much fail as spawn numerous “children” that moved too fast for Cronus to catch and eat them, preventing their rise, and his fall….or alternately, Cronus castrating his father might be hyperbole for postmodernism negating the surety of Modernism, and look at what the “younger generation” does with that “freedom.”

Allow me to rein in my hyperbole: Shoulder to shoulder, 2017 – 2018 is impressive in execution and presentation. Perhaps the best work in the show, surely my favourite work, in Just Resting Your Eyes.

I’ll end with a bit of the blurb: “Occupying Rodman Hall’s third floor studios during the 2017 – 18 academic year, students in the Honours Studio course have been mentored by gallery staff and Visual Arts professors Donna Szöke, Shawn Serfas, Derek Knight, and Donna Akrey….[both of] these two unique exhibits capture the exceptional vitality and daring of the emerging artist.

Such exhibits from the Department of Visual Arts are a key part of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts’ mandate to build connections between the community and the breadth of talent and creativity that we celebrate at Brock University.” One might think this means that RHAC is not only a valuable, but necessary, component of Brock University, a space to be funded and not strangled. A site that, if Brock were to divest itself from, would leave a black hole that might collapse the fragile structure left…but I’ll be offering some further thoughts on Brock University’s ongoing “annulment” of what they call “support” of RHAC in the future.

Just Resting Your Eyes is only display for a brief period at Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines, closing on April 8th. Go see it. All images are courtesy of Rodman Hall Art Centre. The next instalment Turnin’ This Car Around opens on Friday, April 13th at 7 PM.

 

Part 1. What About Rodman Hall? The Exhibition at NAC

Several years ago, the University of Saskatchewan launched an “austerity” review. Various committees “evaluated” employees, departments, programs, etc. Oh, the anecdotes I could relate, before it imploded brutally, as many hateful things do. You may remember reading about it in the NP or Globe. Lawsuits are pending.

Now, during that “process” the College Art Gallery was deemed extraneous, all staff should be dismissed, and the University art collection should pass to Library Services. That committee lacked anyone with any gallery, museums or collections experience: it did have several from, ahem, Library Services. They’re probably unaware that the College had been recently singled out for heady praise by the outgoing editor of Canadian Art as one of the finer University galleries in Canada.

Considering that the gallery and storage spaces were barely a decade old, and very good ones, this was a questionable suggestion. Amusingly, the current U of S president recently got a puff piece hand job in the local paper, talking about how much he “values” the University art collection. Like most foul politicians, he assumes we’ve forgotten his verbose Op Eds in the same rag in support of the aforementioned austerity hypocrisy…
But what’s that got to do with here?

Let’s examine the recent rumblings out of Brock University about “redefining” its relationship to Rodman Hall Art Centre. For those unfamiliar, Brock took on Rodman in 2003, for the token fee of two dollars, and the agreement that no assets or holdings would be sold off for 20 years. An article in The Standard last spring (2015, not 2023) cited VP Finance and Administration Brian Hutchings saying that Brock is “looking to reduce its subsidy by 50%” and where Rodman fits in Brock’s orbit is being “studied.” An announcement was recently made of hiring an external consultant.

But note that charged language of austerity: “subsidy?” The same article mentioned surprise on the part of Peter Partridge at this declaration: what is less obvious than the “bean counters” (using NAC Director Remus’ caustic naming) is whether any consultation has happened with wider stakeholders than the “citizen’s advisory committee” of which Partridge is part. And we saw many “consultants” at the U of S, of the LEAN variety…

Since the initial declaration of the potential abandonment of Rodman by Brock, it has been all quiet….or muffled, if you will. Some of my forays into this have been met with refusals to comment, those declining to decline comment, and those whom don’t respond at all…

And let us not forget this is happening in the unpleasant shadow of the university’s recent (almost criminally negligent) handling of a case of sexual harassment, that seemed more about message and damage control than a respecting and respectful community.

Now, some of you are surely saying: “Wasn’t this supposed to be an art review? What tangent is Gazzola leading us on, now?”

Let us go then, you and I, to Niagara Artist Centre’s current exhibition What About Rodman Hall?

To paraphrase Stephen Remus, Director of NAC, it is intended to initiate — if not, perhaps, forcefully broker — genuine dialogue about Rodman’s future. This must include voices like BFA Honours student Liz Hayden (currently exhibiting there, as part of a collaborative educational project between MIWSFPA and Rodman, in #trynottocryinpublic) stating that “the loss of Rodman Hall would be a loss not only to art students, or the arts community, but to every resident of the area. “Imagining the City” without it is too dreadful to contemplate.”

The exhibition statement: “The place of the Rodman Hall Art Centre in our community is once again the subject of deliberation. Brock University, which in 2003 pledged to be the sole operator of the art gallery for twenty years, is now reconsidering the terms of its supporting role…Why is it that our community leaders have not always recognized the value of having a strong, well-resourced public or university art gallery like Rodman Hall? A large and diverse collection of art work has been assembled for the exhibit. Some of it is obviously aimed at creating controversy; all of it is thoughtfully created and provocative.”

Donna Szoke’s Let Me Stand (a “postcard” of balsa wood) implores “let me stand on your shoulders so I can see into the future.” Perhaps you saw her recent exhibition at Rodman, with equally incisive text.

Geoff Farnsworth’s painting is sarcastic: titled Proposal to Relocate Rodman Hall to Lundy’s Lane, it depicts his worry “that short term bureaucratic economic policy may rush one of the outstanding beacons of the…cultural Niagara hub…Lundy’s Lane [as a] low brow tourist vacuum with fast food and bargain basement strip motifs seems a fitting metaphor as repercussion in the event of this scenario.”

Melanie MacDonald highlights an aspect of Rodman — and thus the city and region’s history — with her painting Precarious. An apt title for a depiction of teacups delicately balanced upon one another. the metaphor is twofold: a literal reminder of how “through the first four decades of its existence, Rodman depended on its Women’s Committee…who met…over cups of tea and worked cooperatively to organize activities that would support the arts centre.” Further, “the teacups are stacked precariously to underline the delicacy and fragility of the many relationships between citizens and organizations. The colours are inverted…demonstrating how things seem to have flipped to a top-down, bureaucratic style of management from the grass-roots, civic-minded activities of Rodman’s origins and formative years.”

Other artists of note include Carolyn Wren’s delicate projection Longing, Sandy Middleton’s Ghosts in the Hall, Brittany Brook’s Everything I Saw: Marcie Bronson’s simple and direct 24 Titles evokes history in a manner similar to MacDonald, highlighting the labour and energy and sense of community that Rodman has “housed.”

Carrie Perreault (who also has a video work that’s a bit rude in raising an undeniable point) dominates a wall with Don’t Make Me Spell It Out in Macaroni And Paint It Gold. The media here are various and inclusive: there was a somewhat funereal performance the night of the opening reception, too.

Let’s step away from NAC, for a moment: I want to share some information, from a source I decline to name (well, several, to be honest). It’s been postulated that Rodman will be “given” to a “newly formed non profit” in the summer of 2016, whose mandate will be to then sell the parkland and building. This money will then be the base of a larger fundraising campaign to build a new public gallery, downtown, on the site of the current police station. Several questions have been raised by my sources on this front: isn’t this redundant, in light of already having a public gallery, in Rodman? Where will further monies, re: building and operational funding be coming from? I’ll mention Saskatoon again, and the situation with the Remai Modern there, with budget overruns and the tussle and tug of city, community and governance, and ask why this is being considered as an option for here.

Stepping back into NAC’s exhibition: there are selected quotes from past Rodman Directors on the back wall. The words of Shirley Madill (2008 – 2011): “Rodman…is more than a building and grounds. It embodies the visions of its founders, a collecgive group of individuals who understood the need for and led the way for an art centre for the community of St. Catharines. Directors and Curators that followed continued this vision and collected and showcased Canadian Art. Its history (and future?) is embedded in place.”

This exhibition — like the title implies — should be the beginning of this conversation, not the end, like a decision handed down from on high (a bad pun, for Brock, especially considering the aforementioned relationship of the downtown to the MIWSFPA, through “Art in the City” and how that seemed to mark a more collaborative relationship). Now, the university has just hired “Interkom Smart Marketing earlier this year to develop next steps in their study of Rodman Hall’s future. Martin van Zon and the team at Interkom [are] now reaching out to stakeholders in the community to examine what the future of Rodman Hall may look like.” So, make your voice heard: start by visiting the show at NAC, and ensure the community is respected as a stakeholder here. Don’t be afraid to yell loudly, to ensure ignoring you is difficult.

The multi part series chonicling Interkom’s four evenings of “consultations” on the “future” of Rodman Hall, and the concept of the Art Gallery of Niagara begins here.