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).
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.