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.”

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.