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.

Artist Profile: Kate Mazi

There is a playful absurdity to Kate Mazi’s art work: its enticing (the brightly coloured ironing boards, climbing up a wall), but there’s also an intuitive immediacy to it. The contrast of the multicoloured structures on the white wall is just fun, and invite further consideration, but don’t require it, to make an impression. Maybe they’re like a cheerleading pyramid: or insects scuttling across the white gallery wall…

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That was her assemblage work from VISA4F06 at Rodman Hall. Full disclosure: seeing an image of that in Canadian Art’s annual “analysis” of Canadian Art Schools (I call it the “glamour and lies” issue) was one of my first impressions of the Niagara visual arts community. But you’re likely more familiar with her works from several exhibitions in the past eight months, both in the VISA Gallery and NAC (a four person exhibition that just closed, Case Closed is the latest).

Mazi’s art is interdisciplinary in form: genuinely so as the medium serves the concept, and it eschews specificity of medium defining all (like some painters or photographs whom position themselves firmly as such). Her current affinity is more so with photography / digital, installation or drawing. The latter are all “newer” mediums that allow for ambiguity and flexibility, whereas (conversely) drawing is a medium that can be almost anything and can encompass almost everything.

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As the start of a new series in The Sound highlighting local artists, Kate and I sat down and she graciously responded to my impertinent questions. My additional comments are within the [brackets].

BG: Describe your studio practice in several sentences.

KM: My practice is very dependant on the different media or ideas I am working with. I collect objects I find compelling, that I know will be useful to me later, or I will seek certain things in order to use for an already established idea. I choose things based on their everydayness, their aesthetic (shape/colour/texture) and usually their potential to represent a larger issue. I am very interested in social issues, particularly animal rights, although this isn’t always present in my work. I hope to continue finding ways I can critique commercial/consumer culture by drawing attention to the absurdity of the everyday/familiar…. I am very intuitive in the way I work, but often accept those intuitions as being part of a bigger idea and different media motivates me to do different things.

I am constantly being pulled into different media to see what it can offer my ideas. Most recently I have fallen into digital photography – which seems most appropropriate for the work I am trying to produce about food. I enjoy the layers of consumption. It can be visualized ast “ Animal (usually)  > Food > Replica of Food > Photo > Consumed Photo > No Product”, as a kind of framing idea.

Photography and installation are so much more aligned conceptually with the subject matter I am interested in, although painting does have it’s uses – it’s just different. I cherish painting for its immediacy and the fluid nature of the medium – the experience of painting alone is quite visceral and wonderful especially because I am so attracted to colour. I enjoy paintings for interactions I cannot get from found objects and photographs.

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Sometimes painting overlaps with my other media, but usually for really specific reasons.

 BG: Why do you make art? How did you start? Why is it important to you?

KM:  Art has always been present in my life, but it wasn’t until late high-school that I realized I had adequate technical skills and conceptual ideas were percolating, even if not yet ‘fully realized.’ I would always focus on ‘creative’ aspects of projects and assignments from the earliest I could remember – I valued being ‘good’ at art in a different way than I did being ‘good’ at other subjects…

Art making is important to me because I have always questioned the world and how things are. Art is a way of seeing or re-seeing the world and being able to highlight different aspects of how things are or aren’t. I like how art can be as equally “useless” as it is “important”. I make art now because the process of collecting objects, making work and showing work is challenging, addicting and rewarding. Conceptual art helps me think about the world, and critique it. I want to make things that are unseen, yet visible.

My favourite right now is BGL [the trio recently represented Canada at the Venice Biennale. They’ve been described as “sassy and satirical”, “very playful and love to provoke.”] I love what they are doing. Their pieces can be so humourous and I like how they use spectacle to draw attention to social and political concerns…I can relate greatly with commercial/consumer aspects. I’m always intrigued by collaborative projects as well; there is so much more that comes from working with multiple people.

BG: What’s a highlight of your practice, from the past year? What do you have coming up that we should know about?

KM: The highlight of my practice would be the Honours Exhibition I was a part of last spring in Rodman Hall Art Gallery, along with that – one of my works from that show being featured in Canadian Art – Winter 2016 [the aforementioned ironing boards, and the colourful architecturally defined corner of the lower gallery that Mazi made new is this work, all geometric slabs of pure colour, objects – a bright blue purse – that seem banal and exciting, simultaneously].

I also enjoy organizing shows – so the Art Block show in the MIW Gallery in December was also a highlight of this past year. The Brock Art Collective organized something completely new for students and it was a great success. This show got about 40 students involved, sold over $2000 in student work (that fully went back to students) and had an amazing reception turn out. [I would add that Mazi had a major hand in organizing Million Dollar Pink, Brock University’s Fourth Annual Juried Art Exhibition, also at NAC and juried by Linda Steer and Derek Knight.]

BG: What’s your favourite work you’ve made, in the last year? Why?

KM: My favourite work in the last year would have to be my Play Food series [these were the works in Case Closed at NAC. I’d add that a work for sale in Small Feats that was incredibly sexy and grotesque simultaneously, is part of this series, and I wished I had gotten to it before it sold..]. I knew little about digital photography going into it, and my results were far better than what I could imagine. This work really engages in topics I feel strongest about. I want to keep working using these techniques I have taught myself. I have many things ‘collected’ for this process of image making to use.   

 

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……