Peculiar Practices in Grimsby & Beyond

The Grimsby Public Art Gallery is a site that merits regular visits; there’s more in this region than is perhaps obvious, as I recently visited the TAG Art Gallery again, and found some enjoyable new photographic works (by Danny Custodio) amongst familiar works. Along those same lines, in doing some recent research regarding art in the public sphere, it’s another way in which stories and contested narratives are rich in this area, if you pay attention.

GPAG’s space is a fine one: and although it’s a standard “gallery cube”, in a library building, this seems to be taken as a challenge in terms of past exhibitions there (Carl Beam’s works as a part of the Canada 150 events, or Jordyn Stewart’s Public Ice Installation, or a recent screening of Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance all testify to enlivened programming).

Fabulous Fictions & Peculiar Practices is an exhibition that incorporates at least three individuals, and considering its original incarnation at the Peel Art Gallery (curated by Tom Smart, in 2016), and that it includes several folios, could be said to intersect with several more. Dieter Grund of Presswork Editions was invaluable in execution of many of the works, as any artist who’s ever worked with a master printmaker knows.

The works in the gallery are text heavy: this is somewhat balanced by two massive paintings by Tony Calzetta, on the immediate right as you enter. CRY! CRY! CRY! and Dirty Boy are both acrylic and charcoal on canvas, with a strength and directness that makes them powerfully simple. The stylized waters, the spurting and flowing lines, and the boldness of the framing of both works in black offers a contrast of bright colour and childlike shapes.

But although those two works will immediately engage you as you enter, the rest of the space will pull you away to interact with the smaller, more detailed and intricate pieces. Whether you read all the text, or some of it on multiple visits – or enjoy it as mark making you needn’t decipher – is up to you. Some are reminiscent of book page layouts: others play with fonts and text in a way more graphic than typeset (The Ravenous Beasts At Fairy Godmothers House are white scratchy words on black, bracketing above and below a sketch of the named house), and words “speak” in scribbly scrabbly ways, or in more insistent, detailed and tiny tidy insistent forms. Some works are cruciform in shape, furthering the planes in which text and image meet and meld or meander around and with each other. The titles betray a wry humour: Ms. Smith Is Hard Put To Explain To Her Husband How She Came To Spend The Night Unexpectedly in Phillip’s Nightgown is one. Other evocative titles that hook you in: Comma Fucked, or Those Lousy Pessimists Sometimes Make a Guy So Blue All He Wants to Do Is Run Amuck, or Sullenness in Machines in Advance of Outright Rage. I suspect these are speaking directly to me, but that’s a consistent quality of good artwork, to reach out in that manner.

Sometimes a random fragment offers a portal to the whole: GOD TALKS IN HIS SLEEP, proclaim wobbly globby letters, sharp white on black and yellow, in the work How God Talks in His Sleep and Other Fabulous Fictions. That succinct sentiment is what I took away, and still hold, and have been applying elsewhere (the same way I quote my favourite stories and books incessantly). It may also favour my use of literature in approaching art, as I thought of Neil Gaiman’s wonderful character Sam who posited that maybe God created the world and went to hang with her girlfriends….or perhaps it’s more sinister, like “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn / In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming…”

Fiction’s conception was this: “Tony Calzetta [painter, draughtsman and printmaker recently relocated to Welland] and his printmaker friend Dieter Grund … were looking for a project they could work on together. Tony suggested they collaborate with … [Toronto based Governor-General Award winning novelist, poet and painter] Leon Rooke to produce a limited edition livre d’artist [artist’s book, but that’s almost too confining a term]…instead of the customary practice of the artist illustrating the writer’s text, they would approach the Fabulous Fictions project the other way round.

Tony presented Leon with a number of small drawings [and he] wrote sketches for nineteen of the images, which artist and author then winnowed down to a select nine ‘Fabulous Fictions’. Tony reworked the original drawings and combined them with Leon’s texts and media that included intaglio, woodcut and digital printing. In addition, one of the drawings and its text, How God Talks in His Sleep, was reimagined as an interactive paper sculpture and attached to the front of the slipcase.” (that comes from the notes from The Porcupine’s Quill publisher, Tim Inkster, and it’s worth considering the intersection of how this project is part of GPAG’s annual spring celebration of the book arts, which is a wonderfully fluid and fun area, that many artists reconfigure playfully. This year, Waygooze 2017 continues this nearly four decade long tradition; by the time you read this, the April 29th event will have passed, but anthologies of the contributors from this year, and the past years, are available).

Fabulous Fictions & Peculiar Practices runs until the middle of May, and is open seven days a week; and this show requires multiple “readings.”

Images here are courtesy Tony Calzetta and the Grimsby Public Art Gallery. There is also an artist talk with Tony Calzetta this Sunday, May 7th. More information is available here

Sesquicentennial Divide

When I’d last visited the Grimsby Public Art Gallery, for their Bi Annual exhibition, it was an argumentative / entertaining balance between strong contemporary works and pieces that were more specific to a regionalist aesthetic. The current GPAG show – Across This Mighty Land: A Visual Debate Carl Beam & Frederick Hagan – functions in a similar manner. Through a simplicity of installation and curatorial focus, Land offers a worthwhile addition to the Canada 150 debate that’s already contentious.

Before delving in, if “across this mighty land” is tickling you, I’ll offer a possible citation: Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railway Trilogy employs the phrase (perhaps he samples it, too). The citation of the CNR in “nation building” / colonialism, or that some oil / tar sands / pipeline advocates wistfully evoke this for the unilateral imposition of a project that neither wanted nor allowed any voice other than John A. MacDonald, is apropos enough for the GPAG’s “visual debate.”

Accordingly, Land “examines commonly held perceptions about European exploration in Canada, seeking a better understanding of the significant and lasting effect that explorers had on the land and on Indigenous peoples.” All works are part of the GPAG’s collection, which is excellent: art galleries – like libraries, and the gallery resides within one – are repositories of history.   

Further: “Between 1986 and 1989 Canada Post issued the Exploration of Canada stamps…reproduced from paintings by Frederick Hagan. Research for the project piqued Hagan’s curiosity and he continued to work on related subjects. His lithographic portfolio, Exploration, depicts the journeys of 18 explorers, the landscapes and people they encountered; and the consequences of their actions. The works reflect a traditional, euro-centric view of the exploration and settlement of Canada.”  His career and influence is impressive: this “painter, lithographer, watercolourist, and art instructor spanned more than seven decades and inspired generations of emerging young artists. He is not specifically affiliated with a particular art movement or school of thought, but rather his work has been described as autobiographical” (National Gallery of Canada).   

On the opposing walls is Carl Beam, an Ojibway whose artwork employs his heritage to interact with intersecting stories and peoples, and their narratives. Here, he’s “[using] small mixed media works on paper…much like a sketchbook or preliminary drawings, to develop the imagery for his major works.”

The gallery’s four large walls are evenly split between them: two “L”s facing each other. Beam’s works are uniform in size and read like a story: some images and text repeat. The strong contrast of the images are matched by the force and roughness of the words.  The latter often dominate the prints and lead your eye in interpreting the appropriated images and (sometimes) newspaper “clippings.” END GAME, GHOST, SKIN, NO EXIT: large, all capitalized, and with a sureness of hand that is echoed in other markings on other prints. These words seem to be warnings: equal parts fatalism and fury.

They’re like a diary: Beam often “[integrated] personal memory with issues related to the environment, brutality, and a rethinking of the ways histories are told]” (from the NGC site).

Beam’s palette is soft, resembling stains and washes: different from the heavy colours and denseness of Hagan. His series (all Beam’s works are untitled) suggest a stillness, a contemplation – a concerted deconstruction of a history, rather than an eager celebration of it. Some of Hagan’s images could be from a history text (prior to 1968, or perhaps still in play, based on some current debates about indigenous and settlers here). Hagan’s “explorers” are reminiscent of the romanticizing of figures – like Brock, perhaps – whose official role is all “courage” and “faith.” Beam’s art remind us that the Beothuk (among many) are long extinct, and in 2016 the Catholic Church pulled a lawyerly unethical scam to escape paying for its residential school sins…

Another Hagan depicts stiff uniformed men around a table, a select clique, looking very British and official, but with sinister hints and other less clearly idealized players in the dark corners (a buffalo headed “prisoner” seemingly threatened by the raised hand of one of the group. Another image, rough and cartoonish, suggests the horrors of Catholic missionary zeal. I’d cite the film Black Robe, as a further footnote to differing histories).

James Daschuk’s Clearing The Plains (Americans favour bloody slaughter, while Canadians bureaucratically starve out the “other”) would be an excellent accompanying text to Land, in this contested space: not solely GPAG, but also Niagara or across Canada, in this sesquicentennial year.

Land evokes ideas outside the gallery, fostering conversation and contention about the country, nation, and history we live within, and interact with, every day. Praise to GPAG for this show. Land speaks to the importance of a genuine discussion around Canada 150….Beam and Hagan’s lifespans suggest a commonality, but also further details. Hagan lived from 1918 to 2003, born at the end of the Great War (relevant not solely for the current centenary marking that bloody madness that destroyed empires, birthed the first fascist and communist states, and is often religiously invoked, with Vimy Ridge, as when Canada “came of age’”). Beam’s lived from 1943 to 2005: growing up in the post WW II era, the ending of the British Empire and colonial overlords like France sharing in the U.K.’s difficulty of negotiating rising nationalism and independence movements from Algeria to Vietnam, Kenya to Khartoum. The American Indian Movement began in the early 1970s, when Beam was not yet 30…

The curatorial statement is eloquently hopeful: “[We] seek to show how the history that has divided us can, through thought and understanding, be used to initiate conversations with the potential to bring us together. After hundreds of years of division, conflict and occasional agreement, examining these two perspectives on Canadian history will be a provocative launch for our sesquicentennial programming.”

Images in this review are courtesy the GPAG, and are, in order of appearance, both “untitled”, with the first by Carl Beam and the second by Frederick Hagan.

This show runs until the 19th of March, with a reception on the 5th, at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery.

 

Grimsby Bi Annual 2016 / Regional Contrasts

I’d never visited the Grimsby Art Gallery before, but unlike many arts writers, I have a long history with smaller galleries, whether community oriented, more “museum” focused, or spaces – like GPAG, or a favourite of mine in Saskatchewan, the Mann Art Gallery – that offer an intersection of regional and wider artistic concerns, whether provincial or even national, in their tone. Sometimes these spaces acknowledge their role very actively, as when the Godfrey Dean was a venue for The Paradise Institute, as it toured the country, allowing many to experience it that wouldn’t be able to, otherwise. 

The latest incarnation of the Grimsby Public Art Gallery Bi – Annual Juried Exhibition opened on the 5th of August, and it seemed a perfect opportunity to explore the space for the first time. With just short of forty artists in the exhibition, it guaranteed to offer an interesting cross section of art in Niagara.

The gallery space – like many in Canada – is housed in the library, and this is something I always find interesting: the Dunlop, in Regina, is similar, and this has been a primarily positive experience, though intersections with civic spaces (like libraries) and the attendant political framework can be both edifying and degrading, in terms of audience. This is not different from how university galleries can also find themselves negotiating with the institutions they must interact with daily, and their respective ideologies and biases.

The exhibition was curated by a trio. Ingrid Mayrhofer (described as an artist, curator & educator), Mary Reid (the Director / Curator of the Woodstock Art Gallery) and Gerrie Loveys (Assistant Curator, Peel Art Gallery, Museum & Archives). The gallery is quite full, not quite salon style in terms of installation, but it is a safe assumption that the curators brought a sense of inclusivity to their task. When you visit the gallery, there’s a small pamphlet that lists off the works / artists, but also has more in depth descriptions of the curators.

Carrie Perreault’s Untitled (For Elizabeth) (rice, plastic, metal) is easily the best piece, not just for its uniqueness among the works here, but that it seizes your attention immediately and then precedes to define how you negotiate the room. The disembodied “feet” – whitish, formed by the grains of rice that cover the “socks”, walk into the gallery space, ahead of you: there is a “break” between one set of “feet” and another, but this is a work that strikes me as genuinely contemporary, and that is exciting both in a formal manner (non traditional material, installation in a manner that questions / challenges the space of the gallery and the visitor, pushing interaction) but that also offers conceptual questions. As a somewhat indexical sign of another person, aspects of absence are a consideration – you could ask who “Elizabeth” is – or was – or you could consider these as being a variation on footprints that suggest a lack as much as a presence. Untitled invites you to construct a story around the elements Perreault provides. (The image below is NOT the install at GPAG).

Perrault, Untitled (For Elizabeth).

Carrie Perreault, Untitled (For Elizabeth).

Synchronized Flight and Nesting are two works further back in the corner, like rewards you’ll have to traverse the room and the corner to enjoy. Veronika Beaulieu’s works have a delicacy of form and construction that remind me of some of Zachari Logan’s drawings: these are paper collage on wood panel, deep black backgrounds and with a minutiae of form and finesse.

Lisa Skog’s Landscape, in clay, is one of a number of fine craft works of quality and interest: multiple reddish brown works of varying heights that suggest a ragged city scape, or perhaps a rough interpretation of an Emily Carr scene. The “poles” are textured and incised.

Anita Granger presents a diptych, in a manner, of two “pears.”. One of these, Repaired (the other is titled Non-Perishable) sports a zipper on its front, but this is more amusing than macabre. Its funny the same way that, of course, as these are made of bronze / stone, that they’re both “non perishable”. I resisted the urge to touch them both, though I wanted to, very much. Malcolm Gear’s Stripped Jar (stoneware clay) has a simplicity but also a touch of absurdity with its strong diagonal, straddling art / art object, as you could use this fine craft piece or just appropriately declare it art and display it. Sandy Middleton’s Dreamwalking 2 is another of her haunting photographs, an unpeopled landscape that’s sparse in its tonality and that is atmospheric, suggesting a site both familiar and foreboding.

Arnold McBay’s Glyph (acrylic, plaster on panel) may be my favourite painting of the exhibition, with the cleanliness of the black symbol on the white thick surface. It’s a small work, so you can appreciate how the plaster sits on the panel, as sculptural as it is painted. Glyph is a fine successor to the history of hard edge painting / pop art appropriation of known symbols / the everyday street sign designated as “art” by its placement in the refined gallery air. Less can be more, and that’s something that several of the pieces here, in the Bi Annual, should consider and perhaps incorporate. Many works are too busy, too frenetic, and exhaust the eye rather than reward it. Tina Newlove’s Self Portrait is scratchy linear simple (very atypical of oil painting), no excess of line or colour here, and suggests a surety of hand. All brown rusty beige, she looks askew at us, eschewing eye contact from this slender canvas.

Returning to three dimensional works: Nikola Wojewoda-Patti has two works in clay and mixed media. The titles suggest a larger series that these are sampled from, as we have The Gatekeeper, Ally to the Weeping Queen and The Concubine, Ally to the Mute Queen. Both sit on plinths so we have to look up to them. In William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive, Slick Henry is an artist (loosely based on Mark Pauline of SRL) “who lives in a place named Factory in the Dog Solitude; a large, poisoned expanse of deserted factories and dumps, perhaps in New Jersey…[where he’s creating] large robotic sculptures”, with names like “the Judge, the Investigators ….the Corpsegrinder and the Witch”. He can’t explain way, but there is a logic to it, to him, and a suggestion of a larger story that these characters inhabit, and that by giving them physical form he frees them, and gives them life. Wojewoda-Patti’s characters imply an external drama: I’d like to see more, and know the story within which they exist. 

Linda Ruscio McIntosh’s SPIRIT TREES also presents engaging texture and colour, being mixed media on rusted steel (the rusty blood palette, with whites and greys, balances the sheen of the metal). The title is a bit heavy handed: the ethereal nature of the scene is obvious. Robin Nisbet’s Light Rail in acrylic, looks best from across the room, where the marks and darkness blend and meld to create a wet dark scene from a lost night highway. This is next to Peter Adams’ Red River Series #1: Yangtze, which is very red, very blotchy, and has a redeeming quality in the black scratchy lines that try to offer some shape and order to the loud colours.

Janny Frazer’s Dwellings Light Sculpture is the only other “floor” work, besides Perrault (others are mounted on plinths). It’s a bit haphazard, like a light table with small structures, the glow of the table alternating with the black lines of the tiny domicile structures atop it. A bit of a noisy piece after the cleanliness of Perrault.

There’s a divisive quality to the show: some of the works are definitely contemporary, and would work at Rodman or at Niagara Artists Centre, displaying a level of conceptual and formal execution that is praiseworthy.

Others manifest that compromise that community gallery’s often must make, in representing a community with artworks that have more of a value in terms of regionalism than in representing quality work. I’m reminded of how the aforementioned Mann Gallery in Prince Albert, with its annual Winter juried show, has attempted to expand and push what Art is, and can be, in that small city.

Conversely, I’m also hearing the words of Robin Metcalfe, who spoke of how when you run a gallery in a regionalist space in Canada, you must respect that area, as your role is to serve alternate and sometimes disparate stakeholders (I once wrote a long piece for FUSE Magazine about the political waters and partners that the second Joni Mitchell exhibition served, at the Mendel Art Gallery, and how public galleries must be inclusive, but also diverse).

The 2016 Bi Annual Exhibition is very dominated by painting, and this is unsurprising: and many of the works (like Maureen Paxton‘s Séance has fun with the picture plane and where we are positioned as the viewer, and Samantha Goeree’s Transcendance I, II and III bring together texture and photography with an able, aesthetic hand) display a subtlety that merit your attention. Others do not, and suggest a certain banality and safety that any large, local exhibition has to negotiate. Ignore these pieces, and consider that there’s some quality work in this space that bridges a variety of media.

The 2016 Grimsby Public Art Gallery Bi Annual Exhibition is on display until the 11th of September.