Up Close and In Motion: A year in review

In conversation with a fellow writer / critic recently, the subject turned to the exhibition Carry Forward that had been at Rodman Hall. We shared the opinion that the show could have been divided by a line framing four works that were quite interesting and very strong in the conceptual framework proposed by curator Lisa Myers: the rest, on the opposite side of the gallery, seemed muddled and unresolved. Or, at the least, paled next to the aesthetics of Claxton, Alvarez or Bowen.

When considering the year long exploration / series of exhibitions of Rodman Hall’s collection – titled Up Close and In Motion, with various addendum, like 4/11, or 6/11, to mark its progression – that has been installed in various month long excerpts in the Hansen Gallery (ending in January 2019), there is a similar fracture.

The initial “phases” curated by Emma German (whom conceived the project, in conjunction with a focus upon a Slow Art Day aesthetic) were engaging and offered multiple points of entry with intersections and dialogues between visitors and artworks.

My response to, and review, of Brendan Fernandes’ Philia exemplifies this. This work is a rarely seen treasure of the RHAC collection, but frankly the didactic panel, written by German. expanded and enlarged the work’s importance (and I f**king hate art with neon, but that fell to the side in light of what Fernandes was “illuminating”, if I may put it that way).

Brendan Fernandes’ Philia, installation shot.

The current incarnation of #UCIM, as I write this, continues an aesthetic that has been dominant since Jimmy Limit assumed a degree of the curatorial reins. He’s an interesting artist who has shown both in Rodman and spaces such as Gallery 44 and Clint Roenisch: but his choices are more formal, offering a comparatively empty discourse compared to the more richly nuanced selections by German. But right now, the Hansen gallery is filled, with one exception, with works that offer a space of formal connection, but little else.

This is manifest in both the absence of didactic panels to expand the work (which would have left me to hate Philia, bluntly), and engage the visitor.

Untitled, Jimmy Limit (one of several installed works by the artist for #UCIM)

Also problematically, the works that Limit himself has produced in the gallery space have only superficial relationships – if at all – to the works from the collection. Ernest Harris, Jr.’s piece Mel’s Brushes, commissioned for #UCIM by German, directly referenced the work of Melanie MacDonald that was installed concurrently over the other mantle, in the other room, and that alluded strongly to Tobey Anderson (his four works presented as part of his almost “scientific” series in response to his cancer), whom Harris praised in the accompanying didactic. This excerpt from his conversation with German highlighted how Harris credited Anderson as both a mentor and major supporter of his artistic practice. In that respect, the works at play in Hansen all fed and spoke to each other, and also to the contemporary and the historical space of artists in Niagara, living and deceased.

Harris, MacDonald and Anderson – and later Boyle and Moffat (who, after seeing their works in the Hansen, I made a point of visiting works by both on permanent display in the MIWSFPA) – all positioned themselves within larger community frameworks. This was often an agenda of German’s selections from the RHAC collection.

Dennis Tourbin, whom had two works in #UCIM that I was so impressed by that I devoted singular reviews to each (one more local, one more national), is also someone who’s left a space here for others to stand upon, as the front gallery space at NAC (often used for local and emerging artists, a sentiment I think he’d approve) is named for him.

Limit’s series of untitled pieces are vibrant and fun, and the objects are lovely and push against the more historical space of the Hansen. There’s a [M]modernist appeal (art in simplicity), a cleanliness and disciplined execution that makes me want to handle the works (so round and slick), and his painting of coloured “rectangles” – or frames, if you will – on the wall with simple shelves to hold the works tussle and clash with the carved, delicate and almost fussy cornices and details of the Hansen space. The objects are rough yet evocative, and I always love when artists paint the walls to enhance their work. In that “proper” space, a slab of blue or yellow is an “affront” to the gentility of the space, just like Donna Akrey’s playful “toys” or Amy Friend’s “mementos” that worked with / against the “domestic” space.

But conceptually the connections between Limit’s interventions and the other works are either nonexistent or more about skin deep relations (lemons, circles, yellows) than how Fernandes’ Philia interacted with Genevieve Cadieux‘s works (both significant for imagery and art from groups that have too often been underrepresented in galleries and collections). There’s definitely not the points of reference I previously cited with Harris, MacDonald, Anderson or Carol Wren on the back wall.

This is “echoed” in how Douglas Boutilier’s Tennis Twins have looked out on the spaces for several variations of #UCIM, unimpressed and stoic, in their gaze and being, separate metaphorically and literally, alone on a wall almost like an alcove.

Douglas Boutillier’s Tennis Twins.
Tobey C. Anderson, selected works from Silken Twine series.

Even later iterations, from German, with John Boyle‘s imagery of St. Paul Street in St. Catharines. which led to a long, very long social media feed involving several local artists about when, where and why Boyle chose that site. This involved his major role in visual arts in St. Catharines, with NAC and Rodman, having a deeper, more considered, relevance outside the Hansen space. And I have little use for Stompin’ Tom Connors, but putting Boyle’s hagiographic rendering of Connors in a “fancy” space was entertaining. Though titled Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom, the work was more complicated than that jingoist statement. Boyle’s role in founding CARFAC and Connors’ advocacy for regionalist culture meshed in that frighteningly colourful, perhaps garish, work.

When I encountered the Barbara Hepworth in the Hansen, in a recent iteration of #UCIM, it was disheartening to see that her choice of yellow, in a harsh slab of flat colour among monochromatic renderings, seemed to be the sole reason for its inclusion: this put it on a par with the lemons of an unfamiliar artist named Cleveland. That seems a bit of a slight, a facile dismissal, to someone who was one of the very, very few female artists of her generation to make an indelible mark in the Modernist canon. It would be a bit like talking about Anderson’s pieces that focused / explored his fatal cancer diagnosis in terms of modernist or art historical use of colour…..or only speaking of Tourbin’s work about the October Crisis in terms of its formal flat pop art colour, and not how a local artist I respect greatly raised a good point about “contested narratives” in response to my review of it, that was a bit (appropriately, considering the historical position of the piece) caustic.

Installation shot (L – R: Cleveland, Hepworth, Limit)

Am I being an asshole in my harshness re: the “post German” / “Limit defined” chapters? Am I being an #artcriticfromhell? Am I speaking a (difficult) truth? Am I, as I was told by one of the same people who used to dismiss me as “art critic from hell”, being a “Strelnikov” and expecting too much or expecting too “specifically”?

I offer this criticism, or this place within which to stand and question – to look back over a year and revisit what has been, in light of what is now in the Hansen space – as someone who has curated several exhibitions in a similar community / public space(s). I chose artworks both by artists who simply visited the #YXE space (Allison Rossiter had many fine works that were the backbone of my exhibition Personal Geographies, and Eldon Garnet’s “pile” works were a major part of another show I put together from the #usask collection). Others were featured who helped to define that site over decades (Thelma Pepper’s photographic / audio “portraits” of a generation that helped form Saskatchewan, for better or worse, were significant pieces of an earlier show I curated on ideas of place).

But let’s add another flavour to the mix: a curator whom I worked with, and admire greatly, Robert McKaskell (known for interventions and work he did with General Idea) once spoke of curating in a public gallery (we were both at the Art Gallery of Windsor, at the time) in this manner. That anyone, if they’re willing to make the effort, should be able to find works in a public gallery space they can appreciate: but McKaskell was more than willing to meet people halfway, so while the AGW might be showing the supposedly controversial works of Donigan Cummings, McKaskell curated a large show of “big animals in small landscapes” that, with some engagement (like in a slow art day manner) offered some interesting historical comments on the Windsor – Essex region, but also on the wider (as in British, or French) history of the area, in what artists and ideas were prevalent when the AGW was in its infancy. In citing this, the use of “lemon” or “yellow” or the circular motifs that linked works by Jean Arp (De la familles des etoilles) or Jeanne Rhéaume (Nature Morte aux Tomatoes) or Herbert Beyer (Two Sinking Spheres) actually simple and inviting points of access for any gallery goer, an unpretentious line between them all.

Untitled, Jimmy Limit

Now, I’ve alluded before to how some think your intrepid #artcriticfromhell too often talks politics and not “the art.” However, it has been a while since I’ve offered an update on Rodman Hall and the ongoing death by a thousand ignorant cuts that Brock University seems to wish to inflict on them, before walking away like a sated vampire in 2023. Its not accidental that German’s contract at RHAC ended and #UCIM has somewhat faltered without her.

Its not coincidental that Brock has not deigned to hire a replacement for their main installation person, nor that it has delayed in hiring a person to replace the public programming position (though Brock also advertised a Director position a long time ago, and then, opaquely and ignorantly, declined to hire one and appointed someone who seems to lack the experience, or interest, to do the job properly. But its perhaps unfair to expect “administrative director” Tom Arkell to serve two masters, and really, we all know that, like Martin Van Zon, he’ll bring his “experience” to the service of Brock, not Rodman).

One of the disheartening – or enraging, edit as preferred – facts about many university spaces like Brock is that they slash support for cultural spaces like RHAC, and devalue them (except, of course, to attempt to take credit for the many OAAG awards that RHAC and their staff and artists – like Marcie Bronson – have garnered, arguably despite Brock University, not thanks to it). Then, when those spaces are unable to function at the previous excellent levels, they’re punished for the idiocy, ignorance and decisions of University administrative cabal members. The recent exhibition Northern Oracle opened late, due to “infrastructure issues” and one can’t help but wonder if that is due to the staff shortage, lack of prioritization of RHAC’s needs, or that the administrative elite at Brock don’t know / don’t care (ignorance and apathy, again. At least we don’t hear any more about the “Art Gallery of Niagara”, where that ill thought plan may have led to the loss of the same collection that is the source of #UCIM).

John Boyle,  Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom

By the time you read this, the final iteration of Up Close and In Motion will be installed in the Hansen space at Rodman Hall. This series of exhibitions has been a highlight of 2018 for me, and in both the quality and consideration of the “first” spate of choices but also in seeing how Brock’s choices do impact RHAC and do impact culture in this city and this region. Up Close has been educational, both in terms of what is the history of exhibitions and visual art as history in Niagara, but also the gap between words and actions within the cultural sphere, as seen in the “relationship” between RHAC and Brock University.

All images are copyright / courtesy RHAC and provided either by them or myself. Up Close and In Motion will run into January, 2019, in the Hansen Gallery in Rodman Hall Art Centre.

Goodbye Rubberhead / Geography, Memory and Canadiana at Rodman Hall

When I was a child, one of the albums that was played over and over again was Stompin’ Tom Connors at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. It featured a few other singers, but it was a double record, live, and only years later did I learn that there is, in fact, a film of it (that I watched this in Saskatchewan – roll on, roll on, Skatchwan – was fitting. I was sick with a fever, so there’s a filmy dream quality to that memory).

Now, at the risk of having my Canadian citizenship revoked, I generally can take or leave a lot of Connors‘ music, and the songs I enjoy tend to be the less popular ones. There’s points where nostalgia overrides quality, of course, and if I still had a band we’d still do Sudbury Saturday Night and I can sing all the words to Goodbye Rubberhead. (“..that woman of mine will be in a box of pine before I hock my old guitar….” Okay, that one hasn’t aged very well, ahem, sorry.)

Songs like Movin’ In (From Montreal by Train) and Tilsonburg are the spiritual ancestors of The Tragically Hip’s Bobcaygeon or Wheat Kings (perhaps my favourite Hip song, and definitely because of having lived in the “Paris of the Prairies”). Perhaps that’s the endurance of Connors: stories about the places we live in, our stories, are important. I made a similar observation years ago, for a show that Elwood Jimmy curated of Indigenous artists and artists of colour who worked in video, as the documentary tradition was one that was to be respected, and employed, to tell your own story.

But here’s the thing: in seeing John Boyle’s Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom, in the latest iteration of Up Close and In Motion at Rodman Hall,  this evocation of “CanCon” was not only brought back to me, but had a new layer added to it. Another sheen of regionalism, or perhaps another aspect of the history that informs contemporary culture (The Rheostatics, whom made In The Soil 2017 so wonderful, make no bones of their debt to Connor). Further, Connors was often uncompromising in his Canadian nationalism, willing to publicly criticise artists and funders whom he felt were too sycophantic to America, or too focused on America, over Canadian audiences or stories.

This painting is by John Boyle, whom like many of the current artists on display in the Hansen space (Greg Curnoe among them, of the same era and political positioning as Boyle), has had a strong hand in not only the history of art in the Niagara and Southern Ontario region, but is a name that came up repeatedly years ago when I was working at the Art Gallery of Windsor. I was one of several researchers for Bob McKaskell’s exhibition Making It New! (the big sixties show!) (I was engaged with this endeavour in the mid 1990s, and this show later travelled to a few different locales). This period – the 1960s – was significant to Canadian art: artist run centres – like Niagara Artist Centre (NAC) (founded in 1969) – were established, and some of the same breaking of barriers and heirarchy that we saw in other social spaces also took place in the Canadian art world. Spaces exclusively for, and about, female artists came into being. Artists of colour, of Indigenous heritage, as well as queer or social activistist oriented, moved into the mainstream, no longer willing to be ignored or marginalized (though there’s much work still to be done there. Too many instances of ghettoization and exploitation of said artists to “secure” funding still happens, and it is still disrespectful exploitation…looking at you, Gordon Snelgrove).

The “novel” idea that artists must be paid for their work (though some places, and some people, still seem to need reminding of this – still looking at you, Saskatoon) was just one way the landscape shifted tectonically. Boyle was a player in that, both as an artist but also in a seminal case regarding artist fees in public galleries. CARFAC was founded in this period (1968, in London, and Greg Curnoe was one of the original board members). Their most recent campaign – Has the Artist been paid? – indicates how this battle, that Boyle, along with many like minded artists and activists started – indicates that this battle is far from settled…and Connors also must be mentioned, in terms of his starting a record label and supporting Canadian musicians, and how that ground has continued to be built upon.

Ideas of Canadian content have been besmirched by people like Bryan Adams (“Now, now, the Canadian Government has apologised for Bryan Adams on several occasions”) and it can be as much of a bane as a boon (my own experience of karaoke Mmodernism™ on the prairies echoed that). But what’s also engaging about Boyle’s Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom (made in 1974) is how it fits within the current 24 hour news cycle jabber emanating from America, how we may be engaged in a trade war that can only escalate, and how American POTUS ignorance is combining with somewhat typical American cowardly deference (whether GOP spinelessness or the American unwillingness to genuinely criticise and hold to account their president, too blinded by their “faith” in their “exceptionalism”).

In Boyle’s painting, Tom smiles back at us, as St. Paul Street stretches in the background. Tom, in fact, stands at the point on Ontario and St. Paul where Boyle’s studio used to be, and Boyle’s work was (like Greg Curnoe, who has a piece to the right of Boyle in the Hansen Gallery) always informed by his immediate surroundings, his lived experience, and his community. St. Paul, as painted here, is an historic, not contemporary (not even to 1974, when Boyle painted this. One of the ways in which I enjoy social media is that when I posted something about this painting, it turned into a discussion – with images provided by the participants – of St. Paul from previous eras): Connors’ shirt and side burns are flamboyantly from the 1970s and the colours owe more to fantasy than realism.

Perhaps that’s also a nod to the idealism that informed that 1960s into arly 1970s period, especially in terms of telling – and valuing – Canadian stories. Perhaps its also a good reminder of how cities and neighbourhoods are shaped as much by ideals as business, as much by people as by anything else. In a long ranging conversation that was inspired by this work, I told local artist / educator Arnold McBay that art cannot change the world, but it can change people, and then its up to us to do something with that.

 

This latest version of Up Close and In Motion is on display until the end of June, but new and different works will be on display until January 2019.