Evolving Environments: Janny Fraser

Let’s begin with praise for the Grimsby Public Art Gallery. The two Biannual exhibitions I’ve experienced since my relocation to Niagara, and several individual shows I’ve seen there in that same span, have acted as introductions to various excellent artists. Many regional galleries in Canada punch above their weight, so to speak, and GPAG is among them. One of those artists is Janny Fraser, who’s sculptural works in the less recent of those shows was a highlight of somewhat disjointed exhibition (or diverse, to put it differently, in terms of media and concept, but group shows based on regional frameworks are often that way). Her Dwellings Lights Sculpture was one of only two ‘floor works’ in that show, but it played symbolically with ‘house’ in terms of some of the forms in the self lit sculpture.

Dwellings, as installed at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery.

This aspect of place and domicile is an interesting one to consider, as I recently spoke with Fraser in Welland (where she lives, though she has a significant history with Niagara Artist Centre in St. Catharines). Our conversation was as much about the history of the ‘Rose City’ as expressed in heritage sites (I’m a walker who likes to roam the cities I visit in this manner), and also about the future of Welland in terms of who lives there, who can live there, and who might live there in the future. This concern of Toronto ‘flight’ and the demographics in the ‘rust belt wonderland’ (to quote Welland artist / cultural instigator / activist James Takeo) informs my response to her work, but is something, in terms of her materials and her own history, that is implicit, if subtle.

“Communities “, photo installation at Welland City Hall (depitcted houses from Welland, Port Colborne, Thorold, St Catharines)

A quick teaser: over my last month in Welland I’ve engaged with a number of artists and instigators in said community, posing a simple question: What is the state of the arts, especially as pertains to visual arts, in Welland? The seed for this was planted at a larger conversation that took place at AIH Studios on East Main there, as part of the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Visual Conversation series. That evening, a lively debate took place over whether this is a site with untapped potential or if it is as much of a spent wasteland as the Atlas Steels site. I’ve written a few things, available online, that touch upon works installed in Welland that give some base to that conversation (Bas de Groot’s Welland Workers Monument, or Rod Dowling’s tubular metalwork that seem like the industrial arteries of the city bursting out of the ground, like a past trying to assert that its not ‘gone’…). I’ll be offering further takes on this, citing ideas put forth in dialogue with cultural producers and proponents here; the taste I offer now is that sometimes there is a ‘profound negativity’ (unsurprising for a community that took a hit like the 2009 John Deere closure) but also a renewed will (as Takeo puts it, and I’ll expand on in the future, the city is eager to support the arts, but with stutters in the past like the Murals and Canoe project, are not sure how to go about doing that….).

Late Day Sun I, from the Urbanization Series.

Returning to Janny’s sometime ‘industrial’, sometime delicate in their fabricated assemblages: her artworks “deal with time as the vehicle of change and transformation visible in landscape and urban overviews. I use photography and photo-collage as part of these mixed media and porcelain mosaic constructions, contrasting human and natural habitats. Convex and concave mirrors, lenses and magnifying glasses draw the viewer into the pieces.” A wide selection of her works can be seen at her site (jannyfraser.com) or at the Jordan Art Gallery web site, as Fraser is a founding member of that space. Perhaps the way I’ve framed this overview of her work is because that first piece of hers I saw had little ‘houses’ (displayed like a neighbourhood in the GPAG work from three years ago, or on box-like plinths, or skeletal structures that raise them up in other arrangements) and often the source objects of her constructions suggest a ‘domestic’ referent. In that piece – Dwelling – there are also branches ‘below’ the ‘housing’, and this use of wood and branches and such materials, sometimes more worked or woven in one instance (as in Gathered Environments, a very monochromatic exhibition – but Fraser’s palette is often restrained, but this allows for the details to come forth, as in pieces like Late Day Sun or Remains of the Day). In the few examples mentioned there, you can clearly see how certain motifs repeat in her practice, just as some formal elements of construction recur and straddle respective bodies of work. Fraser often employs “multiples and repetition of smaller works to create the elements of a larger installation.”

Landscape Transformations, GPAG.
Time Images, at the Carnegie Gallery, Dundas, ON.

Landscape Transformations, Gathered Environments or Sense of Place are all titles but also serve accurately and evocatively as descriptive responses. Organic elements are often incorporated into her works, and elements of the everyday (chairs, boxes, books) take on a new life and different meaning through how Fraser augments and enhances their appearance and thus changes their being and how they’re ‘read’ as works of art. The ‘tables’ in Fragments, when it was at the old NAC space, or Parallel Metaphors in Cambridge, or the ‘cases’ that seem like tiny toy houses but when opened up reveal innards that are both intricate and reminiscent of clockwork are all objects that transcend their ‘original’ source or state.

River, from the Time Image Series.

In Time Images, when it was at the Dundas Art Gallery, the works on the wall and the manner in which the ‘chairs’ have been worked by Fraser make them a singular artwork more so than individual pieces. In several of her descriptive notes about her works, you can see how though focused upon a certain piece, that it can also be applied to others: The porcelain mosaics are imprinted with numbers, found objects, letters, and timepieces to suggest the fossil remains of traces left behind in the process of change, fracture, and transformation.

As she uses somewhat banal objects (wood, chairs), Fraser also has an “ongoing series of altered books [which] provide a narrative, questioning the sustainability of high density urbanization, congested highways, as well as the loss of a sense of place as a result of globalization.” Its interesting to consider that in the century since Duchamp’s ‘appropriated’ the mundane and by positioning it in a gallery to isolate and highlight what we might look at everyday but not ‘see’, that numerous artists have expanded that sentiment; oftentimes taking the best of that immediacy and still insinuating the artist’s ‘hand’ to guide how we might interpolate this simple thing that is, perhaps, not so simple, and that is not so much inanimate as a repository for ideas and ideologies. After all, Fraser’s ‘house’ work Dwelling, that I saw at GPAG, also came to mind when I reviewed The Tent Project there, several years later, when that show fell significantly short artistically and conceptually. In that respect, Fraser’s works are both amalgamations of objects but also ideas, and offer different points of access to the viewer based on what they bring to them.

Gathered Environments, Niagara Artist Centre.

Janny Fraser’s work can be seen at the Jordan Art Gallery, or at her own site (jannyfraser.com). All images are courtesy of the artist, or from her own site or that of the Jordan Art Gallery. The header image is Horizon Lines, from the Urbanization Series.

Shelter vs Symbolism / The Tent Project at GPAG

“Housing is absolutely essential to human flourishing. Without stable shelter, it all falls apart.” (M. Desmond)

Almost ten years ago, a Quebec-based activist art group Folie/Culture were engaged in a project Nomadic Dwellings across Canada. When I experienced Dwellings out West, they’d been creating this work for about two years. It resonated in every city they visited, with rising rents, plummeting wages and precarious employment making the idea of having a safe roof over your head (let alone home ownership) a dream slipping away. The idea is as relevant now – more so, bluntly – as it was then. Nomadic Dwellings called on “architects / artists to conceive nomadic dwellings for itinerants. The shelters had to be designed for one person, with materials that were easily found in Canada, inexpensive, and recyclable if possible. They also had to be reusable and easy to set up by one person alone.”

Two ideas made this a worthy project. One was as an intervention intended to bring communities that perhaps don’t always “see” each other together. And that, for more than a decade previous, Folie/Culture had “facilitated contemporary art projects with a specific focus on awareness building in mental health. They encourage the work of artists who intervene in the field of social perceptions, engaging a public who may not otherwise encounter contemporary art.”

Even though it was long ago and far away, Dwellings came to mind at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery, among the various mixed media works by John Notten, all presented (sheltered, if you will) under the title of The Tent Project. His words: “A thin membrane of fabric is stretched over an armature; such is a tent. A simple yet ingenious architectural form, it appears across countless centuries and virtually every culture. It is an ancient shelter that has protected both royalty and the homeless.” Further: The Tent Project is described as “a body of work that explores the many personalities of a simple and familiar object.”

The GPAG is packed with various works, of various styles and sizes, united through the recurring tent “shape”: Flotsam and Jetsam is a massive interactive piece where you can make the tiny blue tents (reminiscent of Monopoly markers) undulate. Vault, with its stereotypical camping chair invites the viewer to sit under the ramshackle “tent” roof. Works are also two dimensional, and video works can be found along the back part of the gallery (Pop Up Tent City is one of these, but Notten melds and incorporates various media together under – pun intended – the idea of “tent”, as with Plan for Pop Up Tent City #1, which is collaged).

It’s a dense installation. However, I left feeling somewhat empty. Perhaps the reason I was also reminded of Nomadic Dwellings was because that was something that didn’t use “art” to sanitize a serious issue, nor did it neutralize a serious social issue through aesthetics. The reason many public art works fail, and why many have little time for art that cite social capital, is because it – to paraphrase Sontag – “tourists in someone’s reality”, using their lived experience, their genuine hardship, to not help the situation – or those within it – but instead references (perhaps exploits) their suffering for an artwork of arguable moral and ethically value. (like an online petition or “likes” on social media..)

When I attended part of Notten’s opening talk, I found that in speaking to several pieces the formal aesthetic – or the idea of “tent” – was the defining, perhaps dominating factor (one piece that incorporates an overhead shot of a tent city was talked about in aesthetic language, with no regard for what – and who – was being presented – or ignored).  Some of the pieces used “tent” more like a formal Modernist “shape” absent any clear acknowledgement of the people and concerns that so informed Folie/Culture’s work….

Notten has shown in Scotiabank Nuite Blanche: a valid critique of many NB artists has been that the works are variations on “plop art”, a term used for art parachuted into a public sphere and has no relation or respect for that community or that area. Alternately, a simplistic use of the idea of “tent” is aimed at a less discerning or critical audience, and a clearer message. I’ve commented in the past how GPAG is an uneven curatorial space (shows that featured Carl Beam, or Shelley Niro, or Tony Calzetta were all excellent, but GPAG is a community centred gallery, and I know many curators who talk about how public galleries have diverse – and often conflicting agendas around showing individuals in their community who may not be of the same quality, but that have great relevance to their public and regional stakeholders).

Occupy (detail), The Tent Project, John Notten Plan for Pop Up Tent City #2, John Notten  No Name (2017), The Tent Project, John NottenGo see The Tent Project, but consider artists who’ve worked with similar subject matter – and have not eliminated the people from the imagery or objects – like Karen Spencer with her project employing billboards and postcards sent to public figures, from journalists to politicians. Amusingly, Spencer and I disagreed greatly on her work, and how it related to the people she was dialoguing with / depicting (this was, I feel, her larger goal, as I suspect is the same with Notten). Perhaps, considering the current situation with “America”, tents are simply incapable of being simply forms, and are now too charged, too tainted, by our current world, to not illicit darker implications….

The Tent Project will be on display at the GPAG until August 12, 2018. All images are from the GPAG or the artist’s web site. Clockwise from left: Occupy (detail, 2017), Plan for Pop Up Tent City #2 (2017) and No Name (2017).

 

Kintsugi: A Contemplative Whole

One of the reasons to visit the GPAG (Grimsby Public Art Gallery) is the diversity of exhibitions. Both regional (Tony Calzetta) and more national (Carl Beam) narratives have played out at the GPAG. The current exhibition, Kintsugi, (the Contemplative Art of Bruno Capolongo), also blends contemporary and historical concepts from numerous places, with the artist’s own experiences acting as a point of cohesion.

Capolongo’s work fills the gallery, and there’s variations among the paintings but also visual “rivers” (I want to use that term, as the golden grooves and rich shining “canals” within the works do act as connections between the “islands” of artwork). But to begin, “Capolongo explores kintsugi and the related Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi (where flaws and imperfections are embraced) as a metaphor for human experience. Kintsugi (golden joinery) or kintsukuroi (golden repair) is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold or other precious metals. Rather than attempting to hide the breakage, what is broken is accented, becoming part of the object’s history.”

That offers nuance to what’s presented: but whether you know that or not is not intrinsic to the enjoyment (or contemplation) of his works. Capolongo’s works of vases and other almost banal objects (Ginger Pot, or Saki Cup with Kintsugi) are rendered with a richness and chiaroscuro that is Rembrandtesque in its quality of light and form. A trio of vases that are smartly framed in black that enhance the imagery, and with golden craquelure, contrasts evocatively with the still life realism.

In one corner, several “details” – such as Yearning (icon II) – of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa (variations on Teresa’s face, from different angles, emphasising the emotional vitality of this dynamic Baroque sculpture, referencing Teresa’s orgasmic encounter with angel) depend on no external explanation. They’re evocative and will root you in that corner. One “portrait” suggests, in texture and tone, a more bronzed patina that seems aged and a bit corroded: the white gold used by Capolongo counters, and enhances, the emotive nature of the work.

Various other pieces act as separate chapters within a larger story. The aforementioned still lives balance abstraction / realism, whereas others are more ornate and less “objective”, like the Chuh Teh-Chun series. (I must mention Ad Reinhardt, and his writings on abstraction within the Islamic and Asian traditions, and what can be learned and amalgamated from that into contemporary abstraction). The sumptuous gold defines but doesn’t overwhelm (in specific works, but in the installation as a whole). Capolongo also offers saki cups mended (or realised?) with thick, almost viscous gold, to be whole and utile again, as literal examples of kintsugi. Other pieces, like Winged Dragon (Qianlong Charger with Kintsugi) blend pattern, realism and concept in a seamless yet broken manner. The details are overwhelming, and suggest a delicate and rigorous artist’s hand, as deliberate as it is flawed (as anyone’s hand would be).

That the nature of creativity isn’t always smooth, and is sometimes fraught with accidents that help to foster better artworks, is a subtext of Capolongo’s aesthetic.

Kintsugi is on display until January 14, 2018 at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery. More of his works and information about Capalongo can be found here. All images are courtesy of the artist’s website (Yearning (Icon II), Ginger Pot and Saki Cup with Kintsugi, respectively).

AIH Studios in Welland

One of the results of how the GTA’s rental market is out of control is the flight of those who can’t afford the exorbitant extortion of the “market.” This is unpleasant (look at the cities across Canada that have lost large swathes of their innovative citizens due to this) but also has an interesting side effect (perhaps temporarily): the decision by individuals and groups to leave costly spaces means they find new ones and apply their energies there. I saw this when Saskatoon’s rental costs ballooned while wages stagnated (or dropped), and many of the cultural movers / shakers scattered to fairer sites: dwell on the past, lose an eye, forget the past, lose both eyes, as Solzhenitsyn said.

In my conversation with artists Tony Calzetta and Gabrielle de Montmollin about their Art Is Hell Studios (AIH Studios) in Welland, this initial motivation of leaving an unaffordable space in the Danforth areas of Toronto – and one bluntly unhealthy and prohibitive to creativity – was cited. That’s unsurprising, but to come to Welland – a municipality that most of us even in Niagara don’t associate with cultural innovation (though having the cheapest commercial rental spaces in Southern Ontario) – was the basis of AIH Studio. When I visited the combined gallery / studio / living space, the idea of an “art haven” came up; not solely for the spacious studios Calzetta and de Montmollin have, or the front slim gallery space that, with its large window, offers any passerby a tantalizing visual invitation to enter. Frankly, the back area, perfect for a gathering of artists – formal or otherwise – seems worlds away from the front street side, which bears more earmarks of a region trying to negotiate “revitalization,” perhaps hoping to imitate what’s happened in downtown STC.

The AIH Studio used to be the Hope Center in downtown Welland: and they’re not the only ones in the area with studios, who are connecting with the local officials and other invested parties in trying to enliven the area. Malcolm Gear has a wonderful space in Welland (and beautiful works for sale) and also offers classes as diverse as the media he works in (more on his art and ideas here). Michael Bedard and Janny Fraser both have studio spaces in the area, and this might mean that Welland is looking at that positive space when the artists move in and begin to change an area, before it turns into gentrification and displacement. This is a conversation – an argument, a contestation of space – that many cities and municipalities are having: and it’s not just in a sphere of visual culture. A local activist, in response to a conversation about the Garden City Food Co Op, talked about forming a downtown citizens’ council, to ensure voices that don’t equate “citizen” with “consumer” are heard…. But that’s not the case with AIH Studios: my motivation for highlighting this space can be traced back to a visit to Welland last year and walking by it’s front window, and seeing a large piece by Tony Calzetta which brought vibrancy to the street. Seeing more of his work in Grimsby, at the GPAG, and our resultant conversations about place and art – and then seeing the exciting, sometimes visceral and often evocative lens based work of de Montmollin that share some ideas (absurdity, narrative) with Calzetta’s pieces, offering a play between the two artists in the AIH gallery space – pushed the idea of bringing attention to AIH Studios. As of this writing, they’ve been there a year and a half: bluntly, there’s a cynicism and air of defeatism still at play when mentioning Welland, but this doesn’t seem fair, or may just be a hangover, like how STC’s downtown still bears scars of its less than savoury historical baggage. But besides AIH, or Bedard’s space behind the Bank of Nova Scotia, there’s also been the Black Lantern Experience (garnering some coverage in the Tribune for an event they did in the Seaway Mall) that are more experimental and fluid. This is a site that has the history of the Welland Murals, or the Canoe Art Project, too; in that respect, AIH can be seen as another step in challenging that ennui.

But enough local history wrapped in social commentary: visit the space, right now, and you’ll see work by Calzetta and de Montmollin, and formally, they’re contrasting. Calzetta’s works are massive, working with line and colour in a manner that, when he says he sees his work as drawing, not painting, it makes sense. Line and colour are clean tools for his imagery and symbolism (in his youth he was – like many of us – influenced by animation and cartoons). The large nature of his works was a factor in seeking a more amenable studio; his pieces originate as small doodles, small sketches, and though he makes notations about translating them into larger pieces, instinct is a more directing factor. There is a coyness that contradicts the directness of his images: I see pop cultural influences like Bill Sienkiewicz, and Tony commented that Jeet Heer read his works as rife with Holocaust imagery. All of his works are dystopic to me, suggesting that “these fragments / I have shored / against my ruins” (Eliot’s The Waste Land). A touchstone of his development as an artist was his interaction with an exhibition of Philip Guston’s paintings, as a student: it wasn’t so much an instantaneous “lightbulb” moment as a more gradual, permeating one. Essentially that Guston, an abstract expressionist who began to explore more illustrative imagery (notably in his Klan series), demonstrated the universality of symbols, and how easily a viewer can create a story around the works. His use of colour is restrained, and there’s a theatrical quality to his work: like a panel in a graphic novel (here’s where cartooning manifests in his aesthetic, both in execution and in the scene it offers to us, to tell a story around). A work on display evokes Harlan Ellison’s disturbing Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever”: Calzetta slyly offered no definitive “meaning”, and de Montmollin said it reminded her more of a half fruit rendered abstractly. The piece is titled Bob Had A Good Ear For Visual Art; another on display is Burying Bones.

Montmollin’s works are very different: her process has encompassed black and white photography, both analog and digital lens work, often monochromatic but sometimes with tints and tones, and her most recent works are vividly full colour, with seductive vitality. If it seems my descriptor of Calzetta’s work was brief, my look at Montmollin’s wide practice will also be just a tease. Both Calzetta and de Montmollin have sites that are extensive in terms of images and statements. Visit these, as well as the physical space.

Her most striking works include her Crime Scene works and Carnevale at the Hotel of the Bridge of Sighs. The use of dolls and other objects as “actors” give the work a surreal quality and there’s a consideration to the images (as when she was using cut out “masks” to put on top of the dolls she used in various “scenes”, as Barbie is always smiling). Her past processes can appear erratic and instinctual (like Tony’s), as with images with extensive darkroom manipulations, painting and drawing on the photograph / contact print, reusing and repurposing parts of the process and intervening in the midst of it with other materials (we had an interesting conversation about the “remote” nature of some digital work versus the “hands on” nature of traditional film). There’s also an absurdity, a dark humour in Gabrielle’s images. They also have a cinematic quality: but more so in that you watch them, looking for that aspect that will trouble the seemingly normal nature of the whole (as with the two images that were on display in the window of AIH Studios when I visited), or that the works suggest a scene, a maquette for a larger story, and that we’re being given clues to a larger tale. Her words: “I am interested in telling stories, play and mystery.”

Both Calzetta and Montmollin are storytellers, in their art: Tony is looser, giving us rough components that we bring our own ideas to, whereas Gabrielle offers a bit more charged and loaded symbolism (her series Stephen Harper Hates Me has both a personal and very public level of engagement with viewers, even in the post Harper landscape…) AIH Studios is located at 179 East Main Street, in Welland: hours are by appointment, but you can contact them via their website (artishell.com). Like the GPAG, or Jordan Art Gallery or the new NAC artists studio space / shop on St. Paul in downtown STC, it suggests that this region doesn’t need an expensive construct (like the Art Gallery of Niagara fiasco) so much as a more acute awareness of the existing visual arts locales in the Niagara region.