Cooler Than Cool: worthless and priceless

“…an aesthetics of interaction.”

“We’re not complaining that the values people once believed in are now empty; to the contrary, we’re doing our best to empty them more and more. Get used to it. Stealing is a thrill in itself; this enjoyment is the real reason for postmodern appropriation. We aim to undermine those “convictions” of authenticity and truth, of proper meaning and right order, that sometimes seem to be as dear to Marxist dialecticians as they are to bureaucrats in the Pentagon. Speaking in my own voice is a tedious chore, one that the forces of law and order are all too eager to impose. They want to make me responsible, to chain me to myself….But forgetting myself, speaking in others’ stolen voices, speaking in tongues: all this is pleasure and liberation. Let a hundred simulacra bloom, let a thousand costumes and disguises contend.”

“I only wanted to find great people and let them talk about themselves and talk about what they usually liked to talk about and I’d film them.”

If you’re following some of the more entertaining (if insular and a bit masturbatory) debates in the art world right now, there’s a concerted number of voices decrying the academicization of art aesthetics – which essentially means the elimination of them to serve the politics of the moment. This manifests in different ways, whether in that works are solely to be interpreted through a specific ideological lens or only considering specific groupthink (or approved ideology, edit as you will), ignoring and denying all other.

I might suggest an example in the recent interpretation of Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale which has handmaids that are African – American, which in Atwood’s book was biblicaly impermissible to Gilead’s theocrats, as non whites – whether by biological or social designation (such as Jews) – were deported or executed. It’s an interesting tell of the ideology of the producers of this series, that Atwood’s novel’s reach (abuse of power in the name of religion being no surprise) is narrowed to serve a very specific interpretation (the abuse of women in the name of religion being no surprise). It’s reminiscent of the debate as to whether Hillary Clinton lost the last American Presidential Election, or if Trump won it…and that historical event clearly delineated that many ideologies don’t always intersect smoothly. To offer a further nod to Atwood’s Gilead, it’s like how calling oneself a “Christian” can mean anything, or nothing, and that Atwood, in her book, showed clearly that enslaving anyone in the name of your invisible friend is a poor, poor thing. End of tangent.

This is one of the ways in which art schools and their respective ideological apparatus limit dissent and reinforce their own propaganda. In his excellent book on Art and Sociology, Editor Jeremy Tanner asserts that art historians often value works that sociologists dismiss and vice versa, and that where their ideologies overlap in an “art object” (an inexact, but workable term) is as rare as a unicorn. “Taste is the enemy of art” declared Marcel Duchamp infamously, and Warhol’s further fracture of what might be called high or low taste is well known, and still reverberates.

I recently attended an artist talk where Warhol’s image of Marilyn – do we even need a last name – was shown as how “pop” and “art” meet and take on a viral life beyond even what McLuhan expected or guessed at…and the artist in question was / is still producing versions of Warhol’s Marilyn that further challenge – or collude with, or enhance, or erode – taste, consumerism and capital. This article is an interesting one, in that light, and this rebuttal is also worth considering.

As to where I stand in this debate, I find myself more often channelling Bartleby and asserting that I’d rather not…..or more exactly, I prefer to take things as they are, at times, in a more Modernist assertion of social interactions, and am less interested in a post structural framework that, as postmodernism eats its children alive, hurtles us towards cultural immolation by means of Trump or Clinton, a post truthiness where ideology eschews all the things that make Art enjoyable and accessible, and yet still challenging….

It might seem strange that the previous tangent was inspired by Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold), a collaborative  exhibition by Katie Mazi and Jenn Judson. It’s a show that borders on silly, and that refuses – simply will not – take itself seriously. Yet in doing so, it offers an amusing and sometimes very slick demonstration of the joint nature of creation (beyond the artists to the models, even), how photography can beautifully capture a performative experience, and that it is good, sometimes, to take what you do seriously, while never taking yourself so, in that vein.

The teasing online statement they provided was minimal, but inviting: “Do you like art and do you like to laugh and/or cry? Good. It’s a photo show. Two amateur photographers, ten plus+ amateur models and one new body of work. Some call the photos dumb, others call them sexy. It’s up to you to come to the show and decide for yourself. Kate Mazi and Jenn Judson present to you: Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold). A photo based exhibition that you have to see to believe.“

The works in the Dennis Tourbin space at NAC are primarily photographs: but there’s also the clothing, and some items, presented, that were part of the tableaux that the artists present. The images are kitschy and cheesy, seemingly frivolous, and the models seem to invite us to join in at their unselfconscious self mockery, that is as clear and bright as the colours.

The titles are as evocative, as they are silly: I’m reminded of children’s toys or games, which fits with the aesthetic of play in that these are like Halloween costumes, or children (in age or at heart) playing dress up. Daddy Cool, Hot Wheels, Fresh Cut, Iceboxxx, Bingo Babe (my favourite), My Name Is (Gator Ray) and Dynamite Dude are all titles that (as they’re listed separate from the photo works, as the pieces are numbered on the wall) you can easily match to the images, after an initial tour of the show.

In conversation with the artists, several ideas came to the fore: the idea of “throwing people off, producing something that seems familiar but then jars”, a seemingly familiar aesthetic which then falls apart with the models, purposefully fracturing the initial reading of the images. All the models are amateurs, and friends of the artists, and from various communities other than / including the visual arts, so there’s a freshness and honesty to the roles they perform that’s not overtly determined by expectation. Both Judson and Mazi sheepishly describe themselves as hoarders when it comes to clothes and items that were relevant to Ice Cold, and that immediacy in a personal space also manifests in how the sites range from St. Catharines to Hamilton to Niagara Falls to Grimsby. Taking this aspect of the local further, an earlier version of this was displayed across the street on St. Paul, at the Mahtay Cafe, with the catchy title of They Hate Us ‘Cause They Ain’t Us 2017. It’s very fresh work, so not as clearly defined in their minds and more about the creation – the performance of it – at this point. They collaborate in a very seamless manner, with no specific roles but both doing everything (both work at the same place, and there’s an intensity between art and life with the creation / process of these works) that is echoed in a “real willingness of the models to become the characters”. As this is a continuing body of work (there was also a piece in the #Canada150 exhibition at City Hall, in downtown St. Catharines, playing upon the attraction / repulsion of tourist traps, and on a subtle level explored the dependence of the economic health of the region on this industry), Mazi and Judson talked about future video pieces, and the works at NAC are surely cinematic (both in the larger than life personas and in the graphic and vivid nature of the “scenes”). Their artistic choices were “made on the fly, reactive and immediate”: even though you’re only seeing one image for each character, there are about ten photos selected from each shoot, and “uniqueness” within the larger narrative of all the characters and images and scenes is important. The characters “should be individuals” within the larger story that Mazi and Judson are creating here…so some basic parameters are set, and then flexibility, in terms of interacting with the models and the sites, lead to results that are only partly expected, but more about possibilities.

There is the idea of kitsch, for sure: works that evoke an emotional response over an intellectual one, and that’s applicable here. But that’s also a superficial reading that doesn’t do the works full justice, as there’s also a sense that this work couldn’t be made anywhere else other than a region that is so tourism dependant (the same way that Levine Flexhaug’s work had a different resonance here, with his paintings sharing a sensibility with the many and ongoing tableaux of the Falls).

Their statement in the show perhaps encapsulates it best: “Two years ago, a shared love of Muppet Treasure Island brought Katie and Jenn together. Since that moment, the two have realized that their lives connect in ways beyond foolish puppetry on the big screen. Combining both their closets and their sense of humour, this new collaboration series is an authentic blend of their individual artistic styles.

Cooler than Cool is a series of digital posters that challenge the aesthetic of what has been considered “cool” in the worlds of art, fashion and leisure. Each of these looks have been constructed in order for the characters to better perform their style. This work is era – less, timeless, worthless and priceless.

So bad it’s good, so wrong it’s right. Its Cooler than Cool.”  

This collaborative, sometimes excessive, cinematic display of cultural fractures of “cool / not cool” is on display at NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) until the weekend of October 8th.


All images are copyright of the artists.

Case Closed at the NAC

Case Closed, the latest exhibition in the Dennis Tourbin Members’ Space at NAC (Niagara Artist Centre), is a four person endeavour: Katie Mazi, Matt Caldwell, Jenn Judson and Alexandra Muresan. There is no real conceptual or literal stream that unites them: that all are students from Brock’s School of Visual Arts – or have been – is the loose thread that binds them together, but its unnecessary knowledge to any interaction or enjoyment of the very different works.

As is so often the case, in a group show, some artists recede and others pronounce: as always, this is as much about the works presented as it is about how they interact (or don’t), and the subjective nature of any interaction – whether ‘criticism’ or otherwise.

The debate about the subjective in criticism has been explored well (in The Walrus, with two disagreeing articles) and poorly (Canadian Art, unsurprisingly). I’d add a more interesting – if controversial – voice to the debate, and cite Ezra Pound’s assertion that an opinion is like a cheque drawn on a bank account. If there’s anything there, it has value: if the epistemological reservoir is empty, it should be considered a fraud and treated as such. Only informed opinions are valid. I’ll keep saying it until a few voices fall silent or become more considered….

Jenn Judson’s works, that I very much enjoyed in #trynottocryinpublic (the second instalment, at Rodman Hall) are not displayed to their best advantage here; or more exactly, they exist as static objects without the photographs of the amusing interventions / performances that they were / are part of, in Judson’s performative practice.

This is one of those times when I suspect that some artists are stronger when they have a space to themselves, and need not converse with other art / artists. If these were meant to invite gallery goers to put them on, then the familiar difficulty of fostering genuine interaction with people who enter a gallery may have been too much to break. But the masks are lovely objects, odd and fun, as much craft as fine art.

Alexandra Muresan’s works are also “quiet”, but in a different manner: both of the wall works she presents here are titled Ornate Fiction. The delicate “drawings” on the fabric works (they’re described as “ink and sheer”, which could also work as an evocative title) float on the walls, moving as you move past them, stirred by the air you move through, around you and them. On the one hand, the delicacy of the drawings, monochromatic and linear – with the rare larger “void” of dark – are secondary to the texture, the white and sheer. The lines are minimal: sometimes very illustrative, sometimes hinting at figures, sometimes alluding form.

I’d say the same here, as I did with Judson: I want to see a gallery space with nothing but these works, as they could become an environment, a quiet space that would invite and demand repeated visits to enjoy the more immediate textural aspects of Ornate Fiction and then to return to explore the images on the material, the figures and tableaux Muresan “sketches.”

That silence, that subtlety, is also present in Caldwell’s large paintings: whereas Mazi’s works almost assault our eyes with colours as luscious as they seem “fake.” But I’ll come to digital works like Play Food, by Mazi, in a moment.

Blue Stake and Seal are both by Caldwell: you may be familiar with his work from a few past student initiatives that have also been in the NAC space. Stake is massive, larger than a person, and hangs on a back wall. Seal is off to the side, more isolated. The initial impression of Caldwell’s work is flatness, a muted presence that offers small differences in tonalities that are as understated, as reserved, as the ridges and textures that you may miss on first appraisal. His palette seems almost banal: then you suddenly see a few random pin pricks of bright yellow, or as in other works of his I’ve seen, a thin rough strip of hot orange. Both Seal and Stake have a similar “ridge” that runs diagonally across the surface, like a bulge we’d see in a bed sheet or material. The scrappy geometric “patterning” is scraped and some colour seems almost scratched or rusted off, exposing other colour beneath. None are bright or forceful: pale fleshy tones, muted olives, an almost muddy orangey red – nothing dominates. All the better for when your eye suddenly catches on one of the small splashes of brightness and contrast, or when you see the roughly sketched hand in the upper corner of Seal.

Different paints have different characteristics, different advantages and personalities: Caldwell works in acrylic, and charcoal, and the flatness of acrylic, the way it dries quickly and allows for layers that don’t mix (like oil) or that are opaque (unlike watercolour), is well employed here.

These works are interesting in the larger debate about painting, and the ongoing argument about abstraction’s relevance or lack thereof. These “histories”, change from place to place, and to return to the aforementioned notion of “subjectivity” in art criticism, the same exists in art production. There are painters who eschew “realism” or “narrative” as pandering to what painting is not, an external definition that denies the essential physicality of paint, of the act of painting. I’m neutral on that argument, right now: I can see not just both sides, but the multiplicity of “sides” that are as infinite as the number of painters, art critics and art historians…..

That historical positioning is also something I considered in the works of Mazi: her bright blues, her rich reds, her fake “eggs” and “bacon” fairly leap off the wall, and the flat backgrounds of pure colour, pinks and oranges and greens, or the seemingly gingham or geometric patterns of the “table cloths” on which her “food sits can’t help but evoke Pop Art (Paglia, in her Glittering Images, cites it as the last true art movement in America, a sentiment that  the late capitalist modernist / late modernist capitalist in me enjoys…).

Play Food comprises six images, all the same size, on a wall between Muresan and Caldwell: described as digital photographs, there is an unreality to the sextet. An ice cream cone floats in space, and below it the “egg” looks as much like an eye as a facsimile of food, the red and blue and yellow all fighting for our attention in a manner that echoes Newman’s “Who’s afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue?” in a way he never intended, nor would condone. The bacon strips next to the egg are cleanly plastic: but the hamburger above the faux bacon is mouth watering, the meat hitting you right in the stomach. Another notion of desire, I suppose, but it also makes me think of the Atwood character, a vegetarian who said a “hamburger is an emotion”, and that’s fine Lacanian desire, for sure.

There’s also a “domesticity” to these images, as any image of food suggests social interaction, and asks who has “prepared” it, and whom is expected to eat: Mazi has smaller prints of these images for sale, sitting atop a red ironing board.

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Mazi’s works are almost discordant: whereas Caldwell’s are muted, his colours almost bland. These are the stronger two, of the four artists in this show, but that might also be exacerbated by the differences in their practices (Case Closed was advertised as four artists in four different media, and that difference does perhaps make them not play together, very well, to the detriment of some artists over others). But that’s my initial impression: I’ve been back to see the show about three times, and may yet change my mind, and that may speak to how its best to engage with each artist – each work – separately, to allow for its own character: the gauziness of Museran’s fabric works, the playfulness of Judson, the fervour of Mazi and the hush of Caldwell……

 

#trynottocryinpublic revisited / redux

The second half of this BFA Honours Exhibition at Rodman Hall that is all under the umbrella title of #trynottocryinpublic is significantly different than the first: its wider in terms of media, and some of the artists are in their own “rooms”, creating spaces that are more installations than specific works. This is, in some ways, a pleasant surprise, but also not: students can be delightfully diverse. To pick up a thread from my previous thoughts on #trynottocryinpublic, sometimes the framework of art schools limits them more than expands their horizons….

If I was to choose a word to encompass this instalment, it would be “excess.” That’s a word that offers multiple interpretations and several of the artists in this show explore it in different ways. There are four individuals in the back, lower space at Rodman: Jess Wright, Sarah Bryans, Miranda Farrell and Jenn Judson.

Judson’s work is what engages me the most, which is ironic, as what she shows us in the main gallery space is primarily detritus of her performance based works, or props for the same (this is not to say its not done without thought or consideration. The masks that are intrinsic to her works hang along one wall, but one of the hooks is empty, suggesting that the process may be ongoing elsewhere, outside of Rodman’s space).

I would say that Judson’s works (both photographic and sculptural) are the strongest in this show: but unlike the first instalment, its not a clear superiority to the other artists here, but more, perhaps, a dependant one. And, as any reaction to art always incorporates a subjectivity that’s personal (even if by conspicuous absence,  if you attempt to suffocate it by only speaking in institutionally approved voices), her employment of various means by which to allude to her performance series is something of significant interest to me, from my own rare practice that’s been performative as well.

But, before I speak to Judson’s contribution to #trynottocryinpublic, I’ll offer some thoughts on her co exhibitors’s works.

Jess Wright presents two distinct series of “portraits.” The Flower Portraits, with the emphasis on the eyes, the shiny flat surfaces combined with the powerful – if, in one case, doughnut eyed – gazes of her women, are stronger works than what I’ll call the “Girl” series (Girl with Snap-back, Girl with Golden Frame, Girl with Plastic Earing). Wright’s portraits are excessive: sometimes too excessive, sometimes just the right amount of excess, and a hot mess of enthusiastic portrayal of individuals that are perhaps a bit loud, a bit much, but not in the least boring or repetitive. I suggest repeated visits, so you don’t overdose on the hot pinks and pop culture bits and pieces. Small bites of the tasty colours and forms would be best.

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She also has two lovely “bust” portraits that are sitting in an alcove that’s just outside of the lower gallery proper: these two could be considered a third series, but I enjoy them as a separate pair, like a matched set. Perhaps a “marriage” portrait, an updated Arnolfini, but my art history is showing: but they’re different from the other series, and the gold frames seem ideal (with the lovely green fringe on the one). All of Wright’s works show a progression, with different formal techniques explored (but with literal continuity, as with the plastic earings straddling both series).

Miranda Farrell and Sarah Bryans are completely different from this: Farrell creates an environment that is more like a photo album she’s sharing with us, of memories. This is appropriate for a room (she takes over one of the “alcoves” entirely, as Bryans also does) titled Come Home Year. There are times this installation works perfectly, evoking memory and nostalgia: other times it looks too personal to be professional, like I’m walking through a scrapbook that relies on a personal connection instead of being able to evoke one in the viewer.

Several larger photographs, especially with the small, almost toy like houses, mixed with objects that are like placeholders or remnants of memories are intermixed with illustrations that isolate and highlight by the use – or the absence – of colour. I use the term “illustration” here as the family scenes are obviously of importance, and in the black and white suggest either something lost, or something hoped for, or something that is more about what’s in your mind’s eye than existing outside of it, in “reality.”

Sarah Bryans’s work was, perhaps, the weakest in this manifestation of #trynottocryinpublic, for me (though the collaborations between Judson and Wright didn’t work for me, either, and I must admit to confusion that two practices that are so disparate – an excess of object, for Wright, and the object as almost bland signifier of something that isn’t even happening in the gallery, but is “elsewhere” – should try to meet, but that might also be the argument for trying it, too. Collaboration with someone who works just as you do would be pointless, in many contexts….).

Bryans uses the motif of the infant again and again, and in some of the works presented the intervention and documentation of the same is interesting: but “untouched purity and shared potentiality of new forms”, to use her words, is not how I see the baby, and found the motif more confusing and confused in its implications. Even for a critic as subjective as myself, I’m unsure how much I want to project into such a vague symbol: and the baby itself doesn’t have the skill and discipline of execution that would make it more impressive, and more believable, as a dynamic, living symbol.

Perhaps that’s why both Farrell and Bryans are in their own “rooms”: the removed spaces being filled with solely their works hopes for an exponential focusing of their ideas. That works, in some ways, with Farrell, but not so much with Bryans. If all of Wright’s works were in the same small space, they might make me ill, with their colours and forms and eyes, so they benefit from being separated. I don’t know if Judson’s would be benefit – or be stronger, bluntly – if they were “alone” in a similar manner. As I mentioned earlier, the excess / starkness of Judson and Wright seems to augment the other, and perhaps I’m really leaning towards reading the front, immediate space at the back of Rodman Hall as the main show of #trynottocryinpublic, as reading it as a whole makes Farrell and Bryans the lesser of the four. If considered as separate shows, on individual merits, they fare better, or I’m inclined to be more amenable to their presentations.

Returning to the main space: Judson’s works are minimalist. Even the titles suggest that they’re just “after the event.” Untitled (Gas Pumper) or Untitled (Homeowner) are simple and direct. My personal favourites are Untitled (Bus Rider) and Untitled (Church Goer). The latter depicts the kneeling, masked person of the title, with two men behind him / her / them, in a conversation that suggests nothing is amiss. That subtlety is echoed in how the masks, along the longer wall, all hang on simple hooks, save for one exposed hook, suggesting that someone, somewhere, may be wearing it and the performance – or actions / interventions – are still going on, outside the gallery space.

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These images are almost an afterthought: Marina Abramović , the current high priestess of performance art in the West, has stated how “[f]rom the very early stage when I started doing performance art in the ’70s, the general attitude – not just me, but also my colleagues – was that there should not be any documentation, that the performance itself is artwork and there should be no documentation.” (She has, however, profited significantly from various forms of documentation of her works, both with Ulay and beyond. I am reminded of St. Paul’s “the love of money is the root of all evil” being modified so as not to offend, ahem, to “money IS the root of all evil”).

This second instalment of #trynottocryinpublic is much more diverse than the first: its much more confused, so much more “all over the place”, so much more excessive (even Judson’s acts, though quietly alluded to, suggest an excess of action, just not in the white gallery space).

That, in some ways, makes this more successful: there is more, and there’s more failure, but there’s something wonderful about failure, if that failure can be excessive and engaging (my less than enthusiastic comments re: Bryans’ work, for example, are partly due to how I want to see the “baby” installed on Rodman’s lawn, or the MIWSFPA’s lawn, creepycrawling towards someone, all white and slug like….).

Even the collaborations between Judson and Wright, or Wright’s “overthetop” portraits, are not “safe.” Sometimes they seduce, and sometimes they screech. Both are worthy experiences.

#trynottocryinpublic is / was interesting, at times disappointing, at other times exciting. Now, the question is what will all of these BFA Honours Graduates do next…..