More calendar than quality: the mediocrity and mythology of Lawren Harris in Where the Universe Sings

One of the more significant artworks I’ve experienced was about landscape, and played upon the very Canadian imagery and imagination of snow and winter. It was a piece that was visceral in its ability to make me truly feel ‘cold’; both in the sense of winter, but also more metaphorically, evoking death and abandonment. This work, being by Rebecca Belmore, might seem odd – politically – to describe as a very ‘Canadian’ work. But it suggests death at the hands of the environment – or more exactly, the environment – the landscape – employed as a means to murder (whether Neil Stonechild or Chanie Wenjack), and that is an idea as old – older – than the country, and many have argued that’s intrinsic to the ‘national imaginary’ of this place / these places.

(A caustic side note: when the The Idea of North was reviewed by Canadian Art Magazine, their ideological purity in condemning the colonial artist, the ‘taint’ if you will, of the show was shrill. Yet when I wrote a piece for them, several years before, about Ruth Cuthand’s retrospective at the Mendel, and positioned the show in the site of Stonechild and ‘starlight tours‘, their editorial cabal all but accused me of making stories up, despite my citation of a government report as meticulous as it was damning…I mention this here, too, to ensure that I don’t fall into the same ignorantly dismissive trap, as regards Harris, and to ensure my criticisms are considered and not simply a Maoist ‘struggle session‘…)

Before I decided to brave the biographical endeavour Where the Universe Sings (which might be better described as more fan fiction than factual) about Lawren Harris at the Film House in St. Catharines, I was familiar with his work and the larger oeuvre of the Group of Seven. My experience in numerous collections and archives (including helping to document and database the University of Saskatchewan’s collection, with Snelgrove and Kenderdine further challenging landscape) as well as my art history degree at the University of Windsor informs my reaction. My degree fell within that period where I could take classes more ‘traditional’ (one that began with the French Revolution and ended with World War I) but also was taught by Iain Baxter& (whose role with N.E. Thing Co. helped shape conceptual art in Canada and further) and the late Kym Pruesse, whom introduced me to critical theory in ways and words that I still cite, now.

This response has festered in my mind for some time, since I first watched Where the Universe Sings: and in finishing this piece (finally, ahem), my walking around Welland and seeing houses and spaces that seem to have much in common (both in current condition, but in the history they allude to, or manifest) with Harris’ In the Ward paintings have spurred me towards completion. As the Group might have alluded to, where you are defines what you create

Sunday Morning, 1920

After watching the film, co produced by the excellent and necessary TVO, intended to accompany the exhibition The Idea of North (at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but also at the Hammer and a few other sites), I turned to my friend. She’s a cultural appreciator, but isn’t an artist. I’ve been responsible for ‘doing art’ to her on a few occasions, and she’s accustomed to my irreverence, and was amused when I commented that ‘I didn’t think my opinion of Harris could be lesser, but it is, now.’ In a way, this was the opposite effect desired by the producers, who seemed to want to create a hagiography of the painter. As so often happens with heavy handed (and thus transparent) embellishment, the opposite response was achieved. In further conversation with a number of artists and cultural instigators in Niagara about this film, I found myself saying a variation on the following: I’m often offended by the vagaries of pseudo historical advertisements that bleed the messy humanity out of artists in a sanitized caricature.

To describe the film as hagiography is an understatement: but, again, this is not solely the fault of the producers of Sings. The Group of Seven are given a pride of place in Canadiana, whether that they’re the only ‘artists’ most Canadians can cite, easily and without consideration, or alternately they’re dismissed as kitsch, folk, regurgitation, not as good as proclaimed (a uniquely Canadian ‘tall poppy’ response), all with a vehemence that shows that apathy, not hate, is truly the opposite of love. Both positions smack of propaganda, whether through your grandparents’ calendar or art school rhetoric.

Harris’ ‘North’ work is safe, in a manner that, if you’ve ever worked in a public gallery, translates as inoffensive (though, in this day and age, anything might be offensive, and sadly, that’s also very ‘Canadian’ now). The crowd, when my friend and I looked back over them, seemed predominantly of a senior vintage, and thus wanted assurance of the relevance of Harris and the Group of Seven. A bland, but affirming, dinner was expected, and delivered. But you might be hungry again in half an hour.

However, that’s not what bothers me about this film: what is problematic is that it was skin deep, and sometimes not even that. Harris was, in many ways, a difficult figure, and someone who at times courted controversy, and at other times tried to suffocate it. Perhaps this tepid portrayal of Harris is to be expected, though, as the works that dominated the AGO show are his theosophically shaped pieces and in many instances he painted repainted re repainted these visually staid works until any hints of uniqueness or excitement were blanched out, like over boiled vegetables or grey tasteless meat.

Ah, let us try to say something positive before we proceed further: I went to this film in the hope of learning more about his St. John’s Ward works, as these urban vignettes have a veracity, a vibrancy to them that I rarely saw in any of his other works. At some point in the film, the fact that Harris considered himself a lesser painter than Tom Thomson is discussed. If you’ve experienced Thompson’s works, wind and space seem captured in a manner ‘realistic’ but not overtly ‘realism.’ The wearisomeness of Harris’s works – that seem as cold and potentially as dead as the Arctic that supposedly informed them – is cast even more clearly in contrast. On a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario as a teenager, I remember seeing the small studies by variant members of the Group of Seven, all tiny and on board, done quickly and roughly and in a raw fashion: these captured the power of the landscape (whereas the repetition of mediated process in Harris’ ‘northern’ works aims to make them more impotent than impressive….)

The works that Harris produced that are grouped under the umbrella of The Ward, or St. John’s Ward, are amazing . Perhaps they’re a wealthy dilettante touristing in the poverty of others, or perhaps they’re a man of privilege empathizing with the plight of others, and producing works that owe something to Daumier. Perhaps that he made sketches for these while out walking – as my own practice is now defined by walking my neighbourhood or outside of my usual neighbourhood – and that they are real, and not so mediated as his ‘religious’ works of theosophical ‘purity’, is what moves me and so many others. These are social realism that’s also social history: this is Toronto growing and transforming, reminiscent of Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, or some of Timothy Findley‘s stories of Rosedale and Toronto, of a place not so sure and becoming itself. For all Harris’ ink and paint spilled on the notion of a “Canadian” art, these Ward works are more “Canadian” to me than any others. They have anthropological as well as aesthetic value.

(A quick side note, alluding backwards to the tripe offered by Canadian Art Magazine in response to the AGO exhibition. My own critical focus often incorporates social history, historical positioning and sites of contested narratives. CA too often insists upon a lens charitably described as insistent ‘cultural Marxism’. That’s useful as a critique but often offers no way forward; in a similar manner, post modernist discourses offer doubt, but no assertions, and I’ve often ruefully called it an ‘unliveable theory.’ However, I’d add that I also often can cite biblical and religious references – my art historical research and published works rely on it – and find it necessary to know the ideas, even if not in agreement with them.)

Winter in the Ward, N.D.
In the Ward, 1920

Let’s leave St. John’s Ward for a moment and go west, as Harris went north: when I saw the massive projected winter scenes, Algoma or Northern Ontario, I suddenly was back on the prairie, the vast empty whiteness, the Wacousta syndrome of impending, unavoidable death in the / caused by landscape. This leads to another criticism of the film. There’s no attempt to position Harris’ works in present day discourse (perhaps unfair, but sometimes this can augment as much as challenge an artist). Neither do the producers explore the work of artists contemporaneous to Harris (outside vague allusions to other Group members and the adulation of Emily Carr). This might seem unimportant, but is necessary, when Universe avers so often Harris’ relevance and supposed ‘vision.’ But this shuttering, wearing of blinders to focus solely on Harris further hobbles this film. Harris returned to Canada – Vancouver, specifically – from Taos in the later years of his life, and suddenly I saw the works of Shadbolt and several other abstractionists of that period in a different, deeper light. But this is ignored (odd for all the focus on ‘Canada’, but again, no attempt to place Harris in relation to what might be the only truly internationally worthy school of Canadian painting is made, either). But the posturing of the evening ‘soirées’ are, of course, mentioned; more classist (ah, my narcoleptic Marxist finally arises) and self aggrandizing of the ‘artist as visionary’ than any artist actually being visionary.

Winter in the Northern Woods, N.D.,
Lake Superior, 1924
North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926

In considering Universe, and using it as a touchstone for a larger debate, several other ideas must be injected, here. In many ways, no discussion of the romantic landscape can be complete without the banality and universality of Levine Flexhaug. The exhibition of his work that has made its way across Canada is not ‘good’ art, in terms of execution or skill. But I find myself (and I’m not alone in this) returning to it as it offered a dream, a hope, of escape and release; both in the ‘Canadian’ idea of a idyllic space of respite and peace, but in a larger sense of ease and saftey, of calmness and satisfaction, that seems an impossiblity to many of us, now. If you’re familiar with a more in depth history of Harris’ life, both personal and political, then perhaps these calm cool spaces are a retreat from his less than ideal reality, as well.

Flexhaug’s ‘Edens’ were economical, as he often sold them out of his trunk, and there’s a proletarian and yet also very capitalist intent intersecting in his often horrid works where dozens upon dozens are like cheap copies without a proper undegraded ‘original.’ These are scenes you could imagine the denizens of St. John’s Ward having on their walls. In this imagined relational aesthetic, reality and artifice engage with each other.

Harris made many of the Ward works in the early decades of the twentieth century, and in that time cities and urban spaces were experiencing growing pains. Of late, I’ve been reading and watching a number of works that take place in England of either the Regency period or the Victorian era, and one of the characters comments that poverty is, for all and intents and responses, a crime, and treated as best unseen, ignored, or punished when it is so inconvenient as to be visible. The authenticity of Harris’ paintings where poverty is simply another landmark in the city are still powerful, and recognizable, windows on the world.

I once lived in a space in Windsor that also opened right out onto the street. There’s an opening scene in a contemporary and perhaps offensively brillian adapatoin of Oliver Twist that speaks of lives lived in ‘quiet desperation’ (Rousseau), in poverty and want. That sequence is built around the voyeuristic nature of a similar front window, and is something I’ve considered often, as privacy is not for the poor, even in many less literal ways. Hence, this place caught my attention and I include it here.

This is how my daily often uncharted meanderings through Welland, or the works of Albert J. Franck or Harris’own evocative Ward works resonate more than any overworked and exhausted ‘idea of north’ that is so plastic that reality sloughs off of it. I would even argue that Harris’ depictions of St. John’s Ward demonstrate that he was a better artist, at times, than he considered, but perhaps also reveal that stultifying ‘Canadian’ sentiment of preferring that which is safe – like the comfortably ‘iconic’ calendar image of North Shore, Lake Superior – and not that which is more challenging, more human, and thus, perhaps less ‘predictable.’

The Ward works are a different kind of ‘north’, a less palatable ‘landscape.’ This is a different ‘history’ (though Arthur Gos – as the first official photographer of the City of Toronto – produced many important images of this neighbourhood). I can’t help but feel the denizens of St. John’s Ward would understand that Belmore work far more, and Harris’ empathetic and engaging scenes of their world, and respect it far more, than any tepid and naive theosopohical meanderings of ‘northen’ places less real than the dirty snow and true winter of their daily existence.

During my time writing for the Planet in Saskatoon, I had the opportunity (or duty, edit as you will) to review Joni Mitchell’s second exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery. Unlike her first, it wasn’t self aggrandizing, poorly executed painting (anyone who presents a self portrait as Van Gogh without irony would, of course, be the same person who demanded that the Mendel suspend non smoking rules so she might do so during her talk). However, her second show – Green Flag Song – explored issues outside her ego, specifically the war in Iraq under George Bush II. This was an engaging exhibition, and I praised it in an issue of FUSE: amusingly, one group in Saskatoon sent me hate mail for daring to criticize her initial solo show, and then ‘my’ community sent me hate mail for NOT dismissing her far better, genuinely artistic, second show. And you wonder why your intrepid #artcriticfromhell drinks, ahem.

Instead of narcissism, Mitchell offered criticality looking outwards: interestingly, a similarly themed exhibition by Faith Moosang had been on display at one of the ARCs in the city, but was less well realized, and Mitchell’s celebrity pushed the conversation into places that might otherwise have been unreachable. It was an exhibition that offered a considered eye, and Mitchell used her power for others, so to speak, and not for herself.

But Where the Universe Sings offers none of this: perhaps I expected too much, but even a brief mention of how WWI – an event which cast in contrast significant fractures in Canadian socity, in terms of class, heritage and race – ‘traumatized’ Harris is glossed over (personally, I’ve always suspected that the works of some war artists like Casson and Varley may have troubled Harris’ rarely challenged assumptions). Despite running for nearly an hour, less information was offered than was obfuscated: if you’ve read Ross King‘s book on the Group, or even explored other less reverential texts, this film will leave you feeling you ate a tasteless meal.

It need not have been so: when I’m asked about biographical films about visual artists, I suggest two that are (unsurprisingly) about two of the most significant artists in the history of the West: Francis Bacon and Francisco Goya. The former is minimal; panning images of Bacon’s work in various galleries, and a narration made up of the words and writing of Bacon himself, as insightful and brutally incisive as any of his paintings. The latter features Robert Hughes, and his approach to Goya is smart, critical and self referential in a way that exploits his vast knowledge and helps you delve deeper into Goya’s dark ocean of meaning and method.

Where the Universe Sings is not at the same level as these: but this isn’t surprising, as the works of Harris that are (unsucessfully) canonized here aren’t of the same level as Bacon or Goya. A harsh comparison? Perhaps, but anyone watching this film is not informed of what Harris’ own contemporaries were doing (whether challenging what art might be, or offering a new and challenging voice), as it might, to paraphrase one such artist (Ad Reinhardt), lead to uncomfortable questions being asked of Harris’ paintings and his assured – perhaps arrogant – aesthetic.

I’ve often spoken of contested narratives, and in writing about Canadian art for nearly two decades, the deforming influence of regionlism has often been a factor. My dismissal of karaoke [M]modernism™ was based upon an ignorant privileging of place over all else, and here, in Canada, we still often confuse quality with proximity (even the recent debates about hiring practices, or whom is to be shown in major spaces, has a provincial, pedantic rankness). On a certain level, this film is a longer, cinematic version of the calendars of Group of Seven works that skim the surface of what they’ve done, and that make them more palatable (more pablum) than provocative.

Grey Day in Town, 1923
January Thaw, Edge of Town, 1921.

All images are taken from online sources, and if unnamed are images I’ve shot during my stay in Welland in February / March 2019, while walking among the various urban neighbourhoods.

Full Fathom Five Flattened: Kurt Swinghammer’s Melt at NAC

And icebergs do have their own noises, as they creak and float and melt.

(Nathalie Boisard-Beudin)

Let’s begin by asking a relevant, contemporary question – and very Canadian – question: do you hate the Group of Seven? Or do you hate the “idea” – the miasma of cultural smog, like a Chernobyl of radioactive “culture” – of the Group of Seven?

Who’s actually experienced one in person, even with all the Steve Martin inspired Lawren Harris “love” at the AGO, recently? If you simply encountered the works without preamble or historical / cultural frameworks of support, would you pause and “watch” them? My question is informed by both Aaron Thompson’s visceral critique of the idea of Mona Lisa, as well as Emma German’s recent talk about Slow Art Day.

But what, my exasperated readers ask, does this have to do with Kurt Swinghammmer’s exhibition Meanwhile out on Hudson’s Bay which features Melt: a new series of paintings in the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC? This is currently on display and charms on both a superficial level but also (like an iceberg) has depths of humour, caustic and gentle?

The statement: “It was close to 100 years ago that Group Of Seven founder Lawren Harris painted highly stylized depictions of snow capped Rocky Mountains and Arctic ice flows. As a young art enthusiast, Kurt Swinghammer absorbed this work via reproductions hung in his public school. In his teens, Swinghammer was soaking up library books on the modernist colour field work of Group of Eleven’s Jack Bush along with the British Op Art movement Bridget Riley. These three streams of influence come together in Swinghammer’s new series of acrylic paintings called “Melt.”

Each canvas shows a graphically designed iceberg floating in an infinite body of water. Hundreds of carefully mixed shards of colour achieves a strong sense of depth and has become a signature technique for Swinghammer. The Melt series continues his interest in exploring a traditional Canadian subject matter in a contemporary manner.”

But let’s step away from that historical interpretation for a moment, and just consider what’s in the gallery space. One larger painting is the opening “word” of a sentence that then consists of several smaller ones, though there’s a unity of form, execution and composition that makes them function as a unit, like pages in a book.

These are paintings that are superficially contradictory: they appear flat (often cold colours applied in shapes suggestive of construction paper cut outs) but, on closer observation, the shadows and lighting, the gradations of the scenes of “icebergs” are much more subtle – and much more painterly – than initially “assumed.”

This proffers an interesting formal means by which to consider Swinghammer’s response / interpretation to the mythology – or the monolith – that is the Group of Seven, or specifically pieces like Lawren Harris’ “Lake and Mountains” or “Mountains in Snow” (1928 and 1929).  Often described dismissively as “calendar art” but their prevalence, their insinuation, into the Canadian cultural psyche, can’t be so facilely dismissed. (A conversation I had with a local artist, a very good painter, recently centered on how some aspects of the Group of Seven were simply absorbed into his practice, into assumptions and actions regarding painting, and the realization of this subconscious dogma only became consciously known to him much later on….).

In one way, these works in Melt continue Harris’ exploration of mystical and often pantheistic sensibilities that led him into more geometric abstraction. But let’s ignore that for a moment, all the art historical babblegab: aesthetically, these are lovely works that are so well painted that the images seduce you instead of technique. Considering how similar each is to the other, they all have a unique charm, a simplicity that – as with landscape, and as we even saw with Flexhaug – though repetitive, doesn’t become tiresome. There’s a delightful allure to each painting.

In Atwood’s book Survival, she offers that “There is a sense in Canadian literature that the true and only season here is winter: the others are either preludes to it or mirages concealing it.” Although I’m also a proponent of the Wacousta syndrome, as Atwood is, Swinghammer offers a more hopeful, more positive, presentation of “winter.” After all, the show is called “Melt”, and the colours of the waters are rife with vibrant shapes that suggest activity and life.

These are delicate and disciplined paintings (when taking a photograph of one, I saw that what I presumed to be glare from the lights was, in fact, Swinghammer so perfectly capturing light in his painting that I “assumed” it to be “real”). They can be appreciated historically, or simply on an immediate level of aesthetic joy, of colour and contrast and shape and form. There are ideas at play that deepen their effect: and like Rothko once asserted, “a painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.”

Melt, a new series of paintings by Kurt Swinghammer  (which was part of a larger installation titled Meanwhile out on Hudson’s Bay) is currently at Niagara Artist Centre, and on display for two more weeks. This Friday, May 11th, you can experience those works as well as Emma Lee Fleury’s Sprout and About (Plate Glass Gallery) and a new exhibition, Bevan Ramsay’s Lesser Gods.

 

Levine Flexhaug: “a man without land is nothing”

“I’m gonna get some land one of these days. A man without land is nothing.”
Mordecai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz                         

The iconic, familiar nature of Richler’s statement from his fine novel is similar to the “iconic” familiarity of a Levine Flexhaug. Both are more complicated than a superficial reading of either would imply. Both are immediately recognisable to several generations of Canadians, providing shape to personal and public histories, and realities of “Canada”.

That utopic desire (lust, even) forms and deforms Duddy; and in the end it fails him as moral guidance, unsurpisingly. In this vein, the works of Flexhaug – which are finely kitsch in the Arthur Danto manner of evoking emotion over intellect, but with a darker turn on that which I’ll expand later on – invite consideration of Duddy’s grandfather, Simcha Kravitz, more so than Duddy himself. It is, after all, Simcha’s mantra that Duddy recites and enacts, with all the besmirched flaws that are attendant to any dream “made real.”

Equally disconcerting, it’s difficult, sometimes, to respect the contemporary Canadian art scene, as it also demonstrates repeatedly the dissonance between what’s promised and what’s presented.

Granted, I’m a gleeful apostate, arrogantly yelling “fraud” while I tighten my lion’s skin around my girth and everyone prays for my return to the desert (or bar). I’m sure I lack gravitas, as sometimes I’ll read other arts writers, and think ‘[he] talked very well, but he talked nonsense. He talked about art as though it were the most important thing in the world’ (Somerset Maugham). Perhaps I’m matching absurdity to absurdity, hoping they cancel each other, or, in exponential interaction, transcend each other.

The exhibition inspiring such spleeny introspection (both of myself and it, and the art world oeuvre that “we” all navigate like a fish through water, often unaware) is A Sublime Vernacular: The Landscape Paintings of Levine Flexhaug. Curated by Nancy Tousley and Peter White, Vernacular originated at the Grand Prairie Art Gallery (AB). Rodman Hall is the second-to-last stop for this conspicuous – perhaps absurd – outtake from Canadian Art History.

The descriptor: “Vernacular offers the first overview of the extraordinary career of Levine Flexhaug (1918-1974), an itinerant painter who sold thousands of variations of essentially the same landscape painting in national parks, resorts, department stores and bars across western Canada from the late 1930s through the early 1960s….a Flexhaug image represents a Western icon, a silent unspoiled Eden that encapsulates the conventions of sublime landscape painting in a kind of painter’s shorthand, and offers a point of entry for consideration of significant critical questions ranging from issues of taste, originality versus repetition in art, the appeal of landscape and its iconography.”

Before examining Vernacular, another digression concerning art and the worlds it inhabits outside the gallery (especially when the art in question is “owned” literally, or emotionally, by many differing peoples).

Perhaps you saw the AGO exhibition featuring Group of Seven member Lawren Harris, The Idea of North. Less likely, perhaps you also endured the “review” of said exhibition in Canadian Art magazine. It committed the sin of assuming contemporary ethics and “morals” can be applied to a painter from a century earlier with an ignorance broadcasting more about the reviewers than issues regarding Harris’ art or era. It’s similar to damning Mark Twain for his language in Huckleberry Finn, comfortable in a “virtuous” bubble of censorious ahistorical shaming. (I’d add that Huck’s interior struggle, choosing to be a “sinner” rather than “return” the “stolen property” that is his friend Jim, is as incisive – if mirrored – a moral tale as Richler’s Kravitz…).

Harris’ actual paintings – and the historical factors therein, the period in which they and he lived – were irrelevant to CA’s “reviewers.” This gap between words and artworks also appears in the curatorial rhetoric around Vernacular. But the question is whether that’s as fatal an error as what the Canadian Art clique indulged in, or whether it’s a more positive evocation, like Wayne Morgan relating his very personal history with Levine’s work and world, in both his essay and at the talk he gave at Rodman.

Flexhaug’s work is less sublime (of grand beauty evoking wonder and admiration ) than kitsch (lowbrow, mass-produced art / design sampling popular / cultural icons). There’s no irony in its kitschiness: the curators generously dismiss the inherent art world degradation of using that term, but that’s (perhaps) of a similar projection as the CA take on Harris. The curatorial language and rhetoric may fade when confronted with the artworks, or simply fail in a form of deference to the physical works. Its arguable whether Levine could even draw – or paint, if we’re honest. I’m erring on the side of doubt: but we all know that in these glorious days of the post post modern age of anxiety, “art” is whatever the “artist” says it is (looking at you, Abramović).

 

There might be the odd inoffensive piece that’s then degraded through excessive repetition, with replications that in their multitude dilute any external pretence of quality. The three monochromatic birds appear in several ways, in many works. The elk / moose reappears, the bison does too, and the linear childishness of the eyes on the many versions of these “exotic” beasts is either laughable or pathetic.

It’s an odd show: bizarre in a mildly engaging way, where the overall effect is so much more than an individual banal work. Many walls are crammed. A dense clot of landscapes. I want to use the word “glut” over and over, just as Dr. Sharilyn Ingram, in speaking of Flexhaug, kept using the word “churn” to describe his proliferate practice.

The first wall you encounter as you move to the back spaces – so often used as an informal “title” wall that’s an introduction to an exhibition, an adjunct to it – is a flat blue (the “most loved colour”, according to Komar and Melamid – more on them, later) with a single Flexhaug displayed. It’s a rare moment of visual rest. All the other three rooms (and the side alcove) are salon style, with works so tightly packed together so they become one, a linear assemblage of dozens, or hundreds (literally).

Considering the glut (!) of the work, and that it either demands a long visit to attempt to break that barrier of excess, to seek – if you even want to do so – the rare markers of individuality in this passel of images, this initial piece is a calm anchor.

In fact, it might be a worthy consideration that this wall could rotate with a new piece, every day, every week, allowing each work the spotlight as a singular creation, and standing or failing on its own. The viewer might feel less shell shocked than they do, once they walk down the steps into the exhibition proper.

A Sublimer Vernacular, as presented at Rodman Hall is – this is flippant but not inexact – like Canadian landscape on steroids. It’s the Group of Seven’s bastard cousin (like calendar aesthetics), mass produced and mass displayed, breathtaking (inspiring awe?) in quantity, if not quality, as there are nearly 500 works.

Different gallery spaces at Rodman do have distinctions: one room is earlier works, one room is later works, so the works that are a little more unique are in these rooms (tondos in one room, or others that have an atmospheric quality that is too subtle for a Flexhaug. The room of later works has several larger pieces that are more narrative, with figures, even – humanity never pollutes a Levine, except by implication, with the gaze or other evidence, like cabins. There’s a lightness of tone and hand that is not the standard (scripted?) Flexhaug, but give hints of the rough edges of his formation, and later the slippage of his “style” with age).

But if this artist is so important, as the curators posit, then shouldn’t the presentation proffer more possibility to attend the artworks? Garner a bit more respectful installation that doesn’t just overwhelm en masse and thus suggest a need to hide a poverty of “talent”?

Granted, the dense excess does offer a kind of sublime, a version of “awe”. But I’m unconvinced that Vernacular isn’t just poorly executed simulacra that is so conceptually devoid that it not only invites but demands we supply meaning rather than face the abysmal failure of both the individual works and an art world that seems to offer this “snake oil.”

Vernacular forces meaning from the viewer  as Levine is silent (several people have referred to the artist as the “immortal” Flexhaug: unchanging, static, frozen, like a vampire that bleeds life from others, and is thus animated by others? Utopias are immortal, and thus stagnant, dead spaces – and there’s rarely a person in his landscapes…).

The installation suggests the whole is more than the sum of the parts. All Flexhaug works are any Flexhaug works. Though there’s minor distinctions (the web site has categories that delineate these), there’s rarely any doubt about a work being a Flexhaug, or falling outside the canon.

Flexaug is an archetype – or stereotype – of landscape whose familiarity “breeds contempt” (the talk that Sharilyn Ingram and Wayne Morgan gave about Levine,“Making Art for the Market: Flexhaug in Context”, had the joking subtitle of “my Aunt had one of those.”) That says something about Canada, moving towards our 150th anniversary, with comforting “vernaculars.” Mordecai Richler alluded to this: “If Canada had a soul (a doubtful proposition, Moses thought) then it wasn’t to be found in Batoche or the Plains of Abraham or Fort Walsh or Charlottetown or Parliament Hill, but in The Caboose and thousands of bars like it that knit the country together from Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, to the far side of Vancouver Island.” Flexhaug’s work often hung in places like that, I’ve been told, by several collectors.

One of Richler’s characters also acidly asserts that “not all neglected artists are unjustly neglected.” Apply that as you will: perhaps I share that sentiment still, here, or I’ve begun to use Flexhaug as others have – like the curators – to foster an idea and an investment of my own….

But in approaching this exhibition, a certain cynicism is appropriate: Levine is neither of high quality, nor is he an artist whose lack of “sublime” aesthetics is fully balanced (or justified) by the historical or social relevance of his works in a larger socioeconomic theatre (Jana Sterbak’s Vanitas comes to mind – a literally revolting work that has much to add to a larger conversation about feminism, fashion and consumption).

On a certain level, Levine fills me with despair. I visited a Sublime Vernacular prepared to hate the show, rife with pregnant contempt. I left questioning a variety of things, but not the ability of these works to speak contemporaneously (even if it’s ventriloquism, just the superimposed voices from the curators – or myself, or others bringing their own narratives to fill the vacuum here, and alien to Levine’s intent. Assuming, of course, that he had one, and wasn’t just interested in selling you a cheap facsimile of an unattainable dream, and more power to him….but his work is still the necessary and evocative catalyst for these conversations).

Since it first occurred to me, and my liberal sharing of it with many who’ve seen the show (the Rodman version or others), the Duddy Kravitz / Simcha arc of how a “man without land is nothing” has only become more fixed for me in interpreting Sublime. I truly believe that Flexhaug could have painted a picture that Simcha hung in the back of a cramped shop in the urban dirt that was St. Urbain’s Street. That Eastern ghetto matches the Prairie dust bowl and “Dirty Thirties” that shaped the teenage Levine: another echo of Kravitz, who “sprung…up dirty and sad, spiky also, like grass beside the railroad tracks.”(Kravitz)

These Eden-esque landscapes of Levine evoke an unattainable paradise and play upon the manner in which we dream of a site, a place entirely fantastic that has little to physically (literally) do with the geography, or the lived reality or experience, of our world.

In further conversation with a variety of individuals, how these “magic realist” works fit (or don’t) within a region dominated by the legend and history of Niagara Falls came up repeatedly. To continue to sample from Canadian writers, when I think of Niagara Falls, I think less of how I grew up here, visiting as a child, then of the dysfunctional familial dynamic of Barbara Gowdy’s Falling Angels. The possibly senile, possibly Sibyllic / seeress mother in that novel either drops or throws her child to his death on a trip to the Falls – the only boy child, after three girls whose wars with their alcoholic and angry father comes to a close when he himself climbs over the railing and plunges to his death, or destiny, in the concluding scene at the cataracts.

The works are singularly unpromising: but their repeated failure in the aesthetic field is perhaps fitting, as they evoke failed dreams of a cottage, a place of one’s own, a dream of a retreat and a space of beauty away from our everyday drudge and destitution.

This is base work that appeals to base instincts, but that doesn’t invalidate those sentiments.

I’ll end here by returning to the darker side of Richler’s words, the knowing mockery of Duddy’s idol, Jerry Dingleman, the “Boy Wonder” of Duddy’s grandfather: “But if you had you’d know about these old men. Sitting in their dark cramped ghetto corners they wrote the most mawkish, school-girlish stuff about green fields and sky. Terrible poetry, but touching when you consider the circumstances under which it was written. Your grandfather [Simcha] doesn’t want any land. He wouldn’t know what to with it….Now you’ve frightened him. They want to die in the same suffocating way they lived, bent over a cutting table or a freezing junk yard shack.”

We’ll never have it. Do we even really want it? The pursuit of it has offered more difficulty, as so many attempts to find or create a utopia usually ends badly for those involved. Or do we just want the dream, the painting on the wall?

A final idea from the presentation by Ingram and Morgan was Komar and Melamid’s mid 1990s project about the “most wanted painting” that resulted in images that share more than a passing resemblance to Levine. A reviewer acerbically summed up that project thusly: “I don’t read this as a wicked skewering of bourgeois taste. I see it demonstrating the catastrophic failure of the establishment.”

Our taste fails, as our dreams of Eden do the same: or, worse yet, they were never even real, in the first place. Lack of authenticity only accentuated by excess: like a room full of works that leave you empty and despairing.

A Sublime Vernacular: The Landscape Paintings of Levine Flexhaug is on display at Rodman Hall until the 12th of March.

The images in this piece are Untitled (Mountain lake with deer) (detail), nd. (Collection of Wayne Morgan and Sharilyn J. Ingram) and Untitled (Mountain lake with deer and three birds), nd. (Collection of Greg and Debbie McIntyre, Regina, Saskatchewan).

 

A Painted History at Rodman Hall

One of the ways in which art galleries, especially public ones like Rodman Hall, matter is that they are repositories of history. Many people don’t equate galleries, or visual art, with the same local and larger relevance that we attribute to museums, or libraries, but perhaps that’s just because its rarely given the respect it merits in “educational” or “public” spaces.

This applies to other cultural media: music and theatre, for example, are spaces that have been repeatedly cut and dismissed in our educational spaces, and this concordantly has led to a lack of appreciation – and lack of ability to engage with – these spheres. To dismiss The Voice of Fire is to dismiss John Cage – or Rebecca Belmore or Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptin, if we want to speak of challenging historical artworks that break our preconceptions- and then I must dismiss you: ignorant opinions are solely that, and I don’t suffer them anymore, gladly or otherwise.

When I first encountered a gallery collection intimately, like I did at the Art Gallery of Windsor, and later on curating several shows of photographic work from The Photographers Gallery on the prairies, and seeing the richness of both historical “records”, I was seduced by its diversity, and how they functioned as fully as an archive of a site as any text or manuscript. (This isn’t a new thing: Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus or Goya’s Portrait of the Royal Family would have gotten both of them executed if their overlords had understood the symbols / signifiers both included, for the like minded, in their paintings….)

We’re also seeing more attention paid to historical Canadian painting: there’s been renewed interest (besides the Group of Seven), whether the more traditional genre painters of post WW II (Paraskeva Clark’s Church at Perkins Mills, Quebec or Doris McCarthy’s Mal Bay with Fish Racks – both in Rodman’s collection) or the focus on Canadian abstraction from the 60s (Jack Bush just got a great deal of love in a massive show at the AGO). There’s a wonderful exhibition on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton right now, of Montreal painters of the mid twentieth century, well worth checking out. But like all nationalist privileging, not all is good: I’ll be glad when we stop canonizing Agnes Martin.

This brings us to A Painter’s Country: Canadian Landscape Paintings selected from the Permanent Collection, curated by outgoing Director Stuart Reid. The statement: “This exhibition traces an almost 100-year history of Canadian artists painting the landscape as their primary subject matter. The luminaries of Canadian art history including members of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries are represented…The title of the show is borrowed from A. Y. Jackson’s autobiography of the same name, in which he describes the early years being a member of the Group of Seven during an awakening of nationalism. Those painters were determined to forge a distinctive style of painting particular to Canada, its rugged terrain, and wilderness. The exhibition looks at the predominant mode of depicting the land from an omniscient vantage point, of asserting governance over the vast domain, unifying a national perspective, and vision.”

McCarthy Mal Bay Fish Sheds, 1954, watercolour, 24 x 27in_HRlt

The artists on display are something of a “greatest hits” from the collection, with names you’ll recognize: the aforementioned Clark and McCarthy are alongside A.Y. Jackson’s Laurentian Landscape, Rawdon, Quebec, September 1953, Lawren Harris’ Sand Lake, Algoma and Varley’s Arctic Seascape. All three are Group of Seven: their contemporary Emily Carr is also here, with Forest Vistas. McCarthy’s work, mentioned earlier, is a delicate watercolour where the forms of the boats and the buildings become geometrics leading towards an abstracted flow of form and angles. Its a  bit askew in its viewpoint, of the Gaspé. Harris’ works are more organic, almost soft in the rendering of shapes, and Jackson has a fluidity to his forms that is similar: both seem to paint the landscape as a living, breathing entity.

McCarthy’s Haliburton VIllage is all snowy quiet and smoking chimneys, and the almost mechanically ordered marks of McCarthy’s brush define the white blue slaloms in the foreground. Clark’s Perkin Mills is a bit askew in its format, almost like its tipped towards us, but it works as the gravestones tilt and the sky is overpresent, back to fore. Charles Comfort’s Georgian Bay is almost the stereotype of the iconic Canadian landscape: lonely, isolated trees in the harsh yet beautiful scene, empty of any peoples, there for the “taking.” David Milne’s works, minimal and stark, are always jolting when presented with the rich and heavy colours of Carr or Casson or Jackson. Arbuckle’s Trinity Newfoundland No. 2 has the charm of a postcard: the sky over the Atlantic is as lovely as the ocean behind the tiny structure, evoking memory and mythology of place.

ia 3200jackson 

These smaller works are mounted in the side gallery, the “parlour” space. But Country also acts in conjunction with the other two shows on display this summer at Rodman. Its always enjoyable, and adds layers of potential interaction and understanding, when galleries present multiple shows as “statements” or “questions” on the same subject, like a conversation. Reading the Talk (which “brings together work by contemporary First Nations artists who critically examine relationships to land, region and territory”) will open at Rodman on May 21. Elizabeth Chitty’s The Grass is still Green (which opens July 4, focuses on the “Two Row Wampum, the 1613 agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Europeans that outlines a commitment to friendship, peace between peoples, and living in parallel forever—as long as the grass is green, as long as the rivers flow downhill and as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west”). Chitty’s works about this site have enriched our historical conversations about it (when not outright shifting the ground they stand on, if I may offer such an egregious pun), and Reading will place this same question of terra nuillus (“nobody’s land”, or the idea that it was land for the “taking”) in a more provincial, national and international frame.

Part of the genesis Country was in Reid seeing Picturing the Americas at the AGO recently, and a comment from participating writer / theorist Dot Tuer stating that landscape painting was  a manner of “asserting governance over the land.” Reid also expanded, in conversation, about her comments to how painting a landscape is an extension of cartography, and thus in naming, owning, a space or site (Consider how many of the venerated landscapes of Canadian Art history – like Varley, or Harris –  are emptied of people, or are rich areas just waiting to be exploited: terra nuilus is an idea that the land here was “uninhabited”, just “waiting” to be “claimed” by settlers. You may be unfamiliar with the term, but we’re still living the assumption…)

There is also an element of philanthropy to Country: this show is very “reverent”, presenting “gems of landscapes”, and since Rodman Hall’s role in the community is still a topic of debate, many of these works are gifts, or were purchased with funds bequeathed from a person’s estate to the gallery. Many see spaces like Rodman as sites for where their works will come to rest: most public galleries across this country – and others – can mark the germ of their beginning in a generous gift of artworks, or the means to acquire and care for artworks.

This brings me to a point I must raise, in light of the “re evaluation” that Brock is moving forward with, regarding Rodman Hall and their responsibilities (what they perceive as such, and what the larger community and stakeholders believes was agreed to, back in 2003). There are many works in this show that are worth significant amounts of money, not solely in the Canadian art market, but also considering that the wider world is starting to acknowledge, and pay high prices, for paintings by people like Lawren Harris. His Sand Lake, Algoma is from the prime period of his output: 1920, when the Group of Seven were producing their most lauded – and now, most valuable, in a monetary sense – works.

What will happen to this work, if Brock divests itself of Rodman? Does Brock “own” the work? Does that honour the wishes of Bruce Hill, who bequeathed it in 1964, from the Charlotte Muriel Hill Collection (his mother, perhaps)? Whom is making this decision, and what is their agenda? My conversation with the consultant, Martin Van Zon, seemed heavy on the university’s agenda of “austerity.” So, whom do we ask about this, and from whom shall we be receiving answers? The report that Interkom is producing will be presented to Brock in June: when it comes to the rest of us is unclear, in Van Zon’s own words.

To return to the gallery space: A Painter’s Country will be on display until August 28, in the now contested site of Rodman Hall. May I propose a comparison of mythologies, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, when you visit this, with the other shows that will open this summer, that also offer constructions and collusions about place and history, and the country “we” live in?

Images in this piece are McCarthy’s Mal Bay Fish Sheds and Jackson’s Laurentian Landscape, Rawdon, Quebec.