Ephemeral Architecture: Natalie Hunter at RHAC

When I first visited Natalie Hunter‘s exhibition Staring into the sun – though I prefer to think of it as an installation, as it spans both rooms of the Hansen Gallery at Rodman Hall plus the windows of the front space – Chief Curator / Acting Director Marcie Bronson offered an informal tour of the show. There were several ideas that she shared, but there’s also a formalism, a pure aestheticism to the works that Hunter has here, that’s a bit different from her past curatorial ventures (or artistic collaborations, as with Amy Friend or Donna Akrey).

Staring is a dramatic show, not solely in terms of the use of light and shadow, but also in the vibrant and vivacious colours, but in the way hue, tone and shape flow and move and stretch on the walls, changing as day turns to evening. Helios (the aforementioned work on the front bay windows, high above your head) can be seen from the parking lot, back-lit warmly, or if you’re standing inside in front of them, their flat strong blues, pinks and rich golden yellows are enticing. RHAC has numerous smatterings of stained glass windows throughout the building, rich and ornate, and Hunter’s piece is in dialogue with these. When first seeing Helios, I was reminded of the gentle, hazy and beautiful way that light passes through the stained glass on the first floor landing. Staring into the sun is another good example of how the ‘white cube’ is good, for some works, but other artists can do so much more in less ‘conventional’ sites.

In conversation with several fellow gallery goers, we’ve all agreed that Helios is a work (or three works, perhaps) that would be lovely to keep in the space in a semi permanent manner (I remember a similar discussion regarding the wall paper works by Alex Cu Unjieng from Material Girls). Helios exists differently external to RHAC, and is similar to Fernandes’ Philia in that it visually seeps out from the architecture, while simultaneously accentuating the shape of Rodman Hall.

All the works interrelate (except for Songs of May, located in the alcoves on the landing, leading down to the lower gallery space. As an installation choice this can be double edged. It allows for works to have a singular power, but sometimes makes them easy to miss, or separation from works in the Hansen can weaken them. Honestly, I often forgot these were there, and that’s not a comment on May but on their ‘remove’, so to speak. Alternately, when I’ve visited Heather Hart’s Oracle, and come back up from the lower gallery, the light streaming in from the back ‘yard’ area of RHAC has benefited May and they stand well alone).

Though there are images and symbolism in the individual pieces (some of which are more easily discernible than others), the ‘source’ of many of the collaged and collared and combined tableaux are not the immediate factor when engaging with them. But first here’s the statement regarding the sometimes ephemeral but often architectural Staring into the sun:Using light as a material in her photo-based sculptures and installations, Natalie Hunter explores the relationship between memory and physical space….Hunter photographed windows in familiar rooms of her childhood home, revealing intimate interiors that frame views of the external world. Using vibrant colour filters….Hunter layers multiple exposures taken minutes or hours apart, and prints on transparent and translucent films that she hangs, ripples, and drapes to interact with architectural and ambient characteristics of [RHAC].

The sky seemed to fold in ribbons of palest sunlight, Mirrored in light and Triple Window are to your right, as you enter the Hansen (or the room furthest from the natural light of the windows). Sometimes it isn’t the filmy ‘skins’ that catch your eye, but the soft globules of hue and tone on the walls, or the greyish shadows bleeding into yellows and greens. In the same manner Helios is one work when seen from the Hansen, and another when standing in the parking lot, The sky seemed to fold is multi faceted from multiple views: directly, the coloured films are blade thin edges, and the shadows and colours on the wall slant left or right. From either side, the rough slathers of pure colour become more patterned; you can approach them and try to discern the shapes within, or not (window blinds, patterns suggesting drapery or curtains, delicately feminine or domestic, if I may stereotype). Triple Window ‘points’ to the floor in the corner where its shadow thrusts downward, echoes that right angle, and then the wood patterning in the floor adds another level / layer / tier to this angular aesthetic. More of her words: Luminous and transient, the viewer’s experience of the works shifts with subtle changes in light and environment. Alluding to enduring routines and the passage of time, these works, as Hunter describes, “touch on how traces of our interior, most private spaces linger in our minds long after we’ve left them behind.”

The unique architectural touches of Hansen have been touchstones for numerous shows in this space, and Hunter moves out from the walls with Caught in Corners. The simple clean wood of the ‘frames’ sit on the floor, and the opaque ‘sheet’ of shapes and coloured forms loops and weaves through them. These almost act as resting points for the eyes, as they exist in a singular manner – being ‘flat’ colour, not transparent – and counterpoints to the wall works that shift and shimmer like Mirrored in Light, which almost bookends Caught and Helios, from one end of the Hansen to the other.

I usually suggest multiple visits to exhibitions (this is partly due to my own propensity to visit shows often, but not for overly long periods), but with Staring, the quality of light – and thus the time of day, or evening (when its all artificially lit, or when Helios takes on a different vibrancy in the darkness of night) changes the show, and your experience of it. Staring into the sun is at RHAC until April 28th and there’s an artist talk on the 28th of March.

Images are courtesy RHAC, or the writer; more of Natalie Hunter’s art can be seen here.

Also [Art ] Also [Play] Also [Absurd]: Donna Akrey at Rodman Hall

Donna Akrey’s aesthetic – I hesitate to even use that word, as it’s so loaded, too heavy, for the works at Rodman Hall that Donna invites us to (genuinely) play with, or that might hold us up (a shaped cushion attached to the wall, easing my lower back pain as I lean against it) – is an awareness and an immersion in the moment, unreservedly.

I’m reminded of Salman Rushdie’s assertion – from the mouth of one of his narrators, a photographer – that “realism isn’t a set of rules, it’s an intention.” A directness that eschews rhetoric or hesitation is demanded when you engage with Also Also; the front three rooms are Akrey’s, and their domestic history helps to suggest an ease, and accessibility, with the works. There’s even a station for “collaborating” with the artist, blurring lines between Akrey and ourselves further.

Akrey’s art seems to eschew academic language or prohibitive discourses about interactivity and access and expectations with “art” and the “gallery” that are deterrents – prophylactics, really – to immediacy – to the very ideas of interactivity, even – for the individual viewer (…just like that last sentence, hah, may demonstrate. Sorry, but not really).

Marcie Bronson, the curator of this exhibition (again, perhaps too formal a word: let’s say collaborator. That’s also a nod to Bronson’s ability, as she’s mid wifed the works of Amy Friend and Gunilla Josephson previously) suggested this contradiction. She and Akrey toured visitors through the show and Bronson offered that Akrey’s solo exhibition Also Also is about what we see, how we see and what do we expect to see, in the two rooms (and more, and more on that in a moment) at Rodman.

Another amusing comment; when Akrey said that there’s the idea that she might be “doing this art thing wrong.” I’d proffer that her work is about fun, both facile and deeper, and the enjoyment of the visitor, in a way that relies on their good intentions, “interacting without malice” (quoting Bronson, again). There’s a refusal to be “serious” in many of the works Akrey presents, refusing to have their squareness forced into a round hole of some external theoretical or academic dryness.

The curatorial / artistic / communal statement elaborates further on this desire to evoke a freshness in gallery behaviour: “Akrey is interested in how habit shapes the way we experience and engage with the world around us. Rooted in her astute observation of patterns of communication and consumption, her work humorously intervenes to raise discussion about social and environmental issues, often responding directly to a particular site or community.” She further sums up her approach: “I imagine the absurd as real, because sometimes the real is so absurd.”

When Akrey spoke of the ideas that inspire Middle Ground, with reflected light, mirrors and an activity as soothing as its mindless, she reminisced of walking around rooms as a child with a mirror propped under her chin, traipsing about in a manner absurd and untroubled by what “walking” and “looking” is “expected” to be….

There’s a power in enchanting details: the shiny silver elbows of the softish sculpture in the front room, like a person’s bent arm, fabric wrinkling like a sleeve. The brief Fireplace Videos are odd vignettes. Unrelated, non narrative and non committal, they’re moments in time that are being shared with you, looping, and undemanding of any conceptually rigorous looking. They’re similar to those burning yule log X – Mas channels (the first Fireplace video is white sleetsnow spatterflying across a flat aquamarine field, beautifully hypnotic. Another is of the same plant sitting on the fireplace below the flatscreen, more enticing on screen than in life).

As you sit and watch these, you begin to feel like the plants in the work behind you (Plant Life), ebbing and slowly moving (breathing?), one plant to one blocky television. All nine perch on plinths, near the window, like “real” plants might be placed in any homey space. Relaxing, perhaps vegetating (you and the plants), if you will.

Pieces here extend back 15 years, but there’s newer works (one piece is a bit lesser, or a bit different, now, that the Levine Flexhaug show is gone, as it was responsive to that. But as it’s titled ⅓ ⅓ ⅓ , we can just say ⅓ has shifted). Her collaborators include artists like Margaret Flood (with Eclipse), preparateur Matthew Tegel (the previously cited ) and hopefully us, too. A workstation with tools and supplies is provided, with an encouraging tag (listing the workstation and shelves displaying works as by “Akrey and gallery visitors”).

There’s also a site-specific outdoor installation that relies on the cooperation of neighbourhood residents in Rodman’s immediate area. This series of pieces can be best experienced at night: as I left Rodman, the evening of the talk / tour, the soft glows of the tiny box works placed at several houses on St. Paul Crescent were unexpected moments of joy and light. Guideposts without a map, or destination, just a marker to be enjoyed for its simple being.  

In Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beasts, he cites the rareness of a child’s first visit to a zoo: how these animals are exotic and unknown wonders, unmediated by any expectations. Later, the child might run to see the majestic lions, and habitual, mediated expectation replaces wonder and awe. There’s an element of that in Also Also: go rub your face against the works in Prop, let the soft bulges massage your back, and consider a gallery that might be a comfortable, welcoming space where there is no misbehaving, just enjoyment. Donna Akrey’s Also Also is at Rodman until April 30th.

All images here are courtesy, and copyright, of the artist.

Part 1. What About Rodman Hall? The Exhibition at NAC

Several years ago, the University of Saskatchewan launched an “austerity” review. Various committees “evaluated” employees, departments, programs, etc. Oh, the anecdotes I could relate, before it imploded brutally, as many hateful things do. You may remember reading about it in the NP or Globe. Lawsuits are pending.

Now, during that “process” the College Art Gallery was deemed extraneous, all staff should be dismissed, and the University art collection should pass to Library Services. That committee lacked anyone with any gallery, museums or collections experience: it did have several from, ahem, Library Services. They’re probably unaware that the College had been recently singled out for heady praise by the outgoing editor of Canadian Art as one of the finer University galleries in Canada.

Considering that the gallery and storage spaces were barely a decade old, and very good ones, this was a questionable suggestion. Amusingly, the current U of S president recently got a puff piece hand job in the local paper, talking about how much he “values” the University art collection. Like most foul politicians, he assumes we’ve forgotten his verbose Op Eds in the same rag in support of the aforementioned austerity hypocrisy…
But what’s that got to do with here?

Let’s examine the recent rumblings out of Brock University about “redefining” its relationship to Rodman Hall Art Centre. For those unfamiliar, Brock took on Rodman in 2003, for the token fee of two dollars, and the agreement that no assets or holdings would be sold off for 20 years. An article in The Standard last spring (2015, not 2023) cited VP Finance and Administration Brian Hutchings saying that Brock is “looking to reduce its subsidy by 50%” and where Rodman fits in Brock’s orbit is being “studied.” An announcement was recently made of hiring an external consultant.

But note that charged language of austerity: “subsidy?” The same article mentioned surprise on the part of Peter Partridge at this declaration: what is less obvious than the “bean counters” (using NAC Director Remus’ caustic naming) is whether any consultation has happened with wider stakeholders than the “citizen’s advisory committee” of which Partridge is part. And we saw many “consultants” at the U of S, of the LEAN variety…

Since the initial declaration of the potential abandonment of Rodman by Brock, it has been all quiet….or muffled, if you will. Some of my forays into this have been met with refusals to comment, those declining to decline comment, and those whom don’t respond at all…

And let us not forget this is happening in the unpleasant shadow of the university’s recent (almost criminally negligent) handling of a case of sexual harassment, that seemed more about message and damage control than a respecting and respectful community.

Now, some of you are surely saying: “Wasn’t this supposed to be an art review? What tangent is Gazzola leading us on, now?”

Let us go then, you and I, to Niagara Artist Centre’s current exhibition What About Rodman Hall?

To paraphrase Stephen Remus, Director of NAC, it is intended to initiate — if not, perhaps, forcefully broker — genuine dialogue about Rodman’s future. This must include voices like BFA Honours student Liz Hayden (currently exhibiting there, as part of a collaborative educational project between MIWSFPA and Rodman, in #trynottocryinpublic) stating that “the loss of Rodman Hall would be a loss not only to art students, or the arts community, but to every resident of the area. “Imagining the City” without it is too dreadful to contemplate.”

The exhibition statement: “The place of the Rodman Hall Art Centre in our community is once again the subject of deliberation. Brock University, which in 2003 pledged to be the sole operator of the art gallery for twenty years, is now reconsidering the terms of its supporting role…Why is it that our community leaders have not always recognized the value of having a strong, well-resourced public or university art gallery like Rodman Hall? A large and diverse collection of art work has been assembled for the exhibit. Some of it is obviously aimed at creating controversy; all of it is thoughtfully created and provocative.”

Donna Szoke’s Let Me Stand (a “postcard” of balsa wood) implores “let me stand on your shoulders so I can see into the future.” Perhaps you saw her recent exhibition at Rodman, with equally incisive text.

Geoff Farnsworth’s painting is sarcastic: titled Proposal to Relocate Rodman Hall to Lundy’s Lane, it depicts his worry “that short term bureaucratic economic policy may rush one of the outstanding beacons of the…cultural Niagara hub…Lundy’s Lane [as a] low brow tourist vacuum with fast food and bargain basement strip motifs seems a fitting metaphor as repercussion in the event of this scenario.”

Melanie MacDonald highlights an aspect of Rodman — and thus the city and region’s history — with her painting Precarious. An apt title for a depiction of teacups delicately balanced upon one another. the metaphor is twofold: a literal reminder of how “through the first four decades of its existence, Rodman depended on its Women’s Committee…who met…over cups of tea and worked cooperatively to organize activities that would support the arts centre.” Further, “the teacups are stacked precariously to underline the delicacy and fragility of the many relationships between citizens and organizations. The colours are inverted…demonstrating how things seem to have flipped to a top-down, bureaucratic style of management from the grass-roots, civic-minded activities of Rodman’s origins and formative years.”

Other artists of note include Carolyn Wren’s delicate projection Longing, Sandy Middleton’s Ghosts in the Hall, Brittany Brook’s Everything I Saw: Marcie Bronson’s simple and direct 24 Titles evokes history in a manner similar to MacDonald, highlighting the labour and energy and sense of community that Rodman has “housed.”

Carrie Perreault (who also has a video work that’s a bit rude in raising an undeniable point) dominates a wall with Don’t Make Me Spell It Out in Macaroni And Paint It Gold. The media here are various and inclusive: there was a somewhat funereal performance the night of the opening reception, too.

Let’s step away from NAC, for a moment: I want to share some information, from a source I decline to name (well, several, to be honest). It’s been postulated that Rodman will be “given” to a “newly formed non profit” in the summer of 2016, whose mandate will be to then sell the parkland and building. This money will then be the base of a larger fundraising campaign to build a new public gallery, downtown, on the site of the current police station. Several questions have been raised by my sources on this front: isn’t this redundant, in light of already having a public gallery, in Rodman? Where will further monies, re: building and operational funding be coming from? I’ll mention Saskatoon again, and the situation with the Remai Modern there, with budget overruns and the tussle and tug of city, community and governance, and ask why this is being considered as an option for here.

Stepping back into NAC’s exhibition: there are selected quotes from past Rodman Directors on the back wall. The words of Shirley Madill (2008 – 2011): “Rodman…is more than a building and grounds. It embodies the visions of its founders, a collecgive group of individuals who understood the need for and led the way for an art centre for the community of St. Catharines. Directors and Curators that followed continued this vision and collected and showcased Canadian Art. Its history (and future?) is embedded in place.”

This exhibition — like the title implies — should be the beginning of this conversation, not the end, like a decision handed down from on high (a bad pun, for Brock, especially considering the aforementioned relationship of the downtown to the MIWSFPA, through “Art in the City” and how that seemed to mark a more collaborative relationship). Now, the university has just hired “Interkom Smart Marketing earlier this year to develop next steps in their study of Rodman Hall’s future. Martin van Zon and the team at Interkom [are] now reaching out to stakeholders in the community to examine what the future of Rodman Hall may look like.” So, make your voice heard: start by visiting the show at NAC, and ensure the community is respected as a stakeholder here. Don’t be afraid to yell loudly, to ensure ignoring you is difficult.

The multi part series chonicling Interkom’s four evenings of “consultations” on the “future” of Rodman Hall, and the concept of the Art Gallery of Niagara begins here.

Now and Then: Amy Friend at Rodman Hall

In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, a challenging work on self and memory, a character reflects “I remembered the words particularly: Somebody pulled a thread of the fabric and it all dissolved.” I read that after my engaging walkthrough at Rodman Hall Art Centre of Amy Friend’s Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life, where the idea of fact and fiction in familial history was encapsulated by curator Marcie Bronson’s observation about “pulling the thread that unravels everything.” (Her last curatorial venture at Rodman was the architecturally appropriate — and also exploring place / space / remembrance — The Radcliffe Line and Other Stories by Sarindar Dhaliwal).

Before I progress to the artworks, I’ll quote Bronson further: the specificity of the side space at Rodman, the architectural / historical insistence / presence of the building invites “more experimental work” that can answer back to a space with equal personality. In some ways, its perfect that Friend employs the aesthetics of the space in her attempts to “pull apart meaning and have people exist within it.”

The interesting thing about the specific work that dominates Amy Friend’s exhibition at Rodman Hall — titled Where The Land Meets The Sea — is that the piece is (at the least) dualistic. Is it most fully itself when you stand in front of the mirror, with Rodman’s architecture incorporated into your looking / reflection, the ghostly landscape behind, or when you’re stepping around / tempted to stroke the silken sea on the floor, but “face to face” with the hanging impressionist backlit scene?

Both. Either. Neither – you’re in an environment you define by where you stand, as with all art, whether between the silken room or your dirty reflection.

It’s a quiet exhibition: perhaps contrasting the raucous freneticism of Inland in the back gallery. Ordinary is a pensive show, calm and thoughtful: the mirror is fitting for that, or that you can see all the work from various places in the gallery. There’s a complicated beauty here that leads to difficult moments of contemplation about our being, at times intrusive and voyeuristic (these are from a family still living and visiting the gallery, knowing these objects and images more intimately and perhaps more — or less? — reverently than us). And like all families, they’re “scratchy… based on truth and lies… fabricated and ephemeral.”

Where The Land is, in many ways, the defining piece. The image on the silk is an amorphic landscape, all gaps and absences, softness and fades, less about what is there than what is not. Allusion is a powerful methodology.

“There is so much of everything that nothing is hidden quite nicely” might almost be forgotten (though assembled over the fireplace in the gallery, and perhaps the first artwork you see as you enter), but symbolizes the kernel of the exhibition. “Ordinary” marked its genesis in a collection of objects from a distant deceased relative of Friend’s, and the respective — or posthumously assigned — importance of this detritus sparked the exploration of memory and family. Especially the gaps, as much as the shared experiences, of kin.

Various objects in “nothing” include: several straight razors; a Berthing card (“time stands still in travel”); fragments — not scraps, as that suggests garbage — of paper, yellowed and with worn folds soon to be tears (some are treasured notes, turned facing the wall, their intimacy hidden like a family secret unspoken); a pair of glasses; some medals that suggest military service; keys, of variant shapes and styles; a photograph of a man, wallet-sized; various indexical evidence of a life. Remnants with an iconic power, no matter how inappropriate or banal they appear for such consideration.

Analyzing the rooms as a whole (like a family parlor): there’s a play of opposites in the work. Mirror / memory, archives and objects, odd family mementos and images of distracted and vague meaning. The process of the images on the gallery walls involve 8mm (shot by Friend’s mother) projected onto mirrors (dirty, with skin flakes from other, unknown viewers, whose indexical history intrudes and obscures) and then photographed. Oceans and Silkworms depicts her grandmother, who raised silkworms in their attic: a literal “thread” to the larger flowing piece Land. The skin dust on the mirrors leads to “gaps” in the 8mm projections – another literal representation, illustrating “holes” in family memory. The degradation of the original 8mm displays the degradation of remembrance.

To return to the conversation I had with Bronson and Friend: many visitors to the space find it evokes their own personal memories, using the space as we did, to talk of family history / family secrets (as there’s no didactic panel, the conversations seem to fullfil that function, that need). Our conversation in that space was as much about art as it was about our families and the very specific nature of photography as it relates to reflection and forgetfulness.

In Star Gazing, a multiple portrait of the artist has not only the reflected present-day artist, but a “child Amy” in the 8mm image that turns to look at us (now) or her mother (then) shooting the original film. But we also now step into this exchange, this conversation through time. Friend asserted that her mother was rarely in these images (hence the importance of another image, Travelling Light, as she’s there by “accident”, indicating something else of importance by her pointing). Gender is always a factor in family – or domestic spaces, if you will, and women are often the default memory keepers. Consider our mothers and grandmothers with objects and albums, or how prevalent that it’s a female family member whom holds the literal and metaphorical “history” of a clan. Martha Langford’s excellent work with family albums (what they reveal, what they hide) is part of this story.

It’s history in a space (both with Amy’s work, but augmented by Rodman’s ambience) and spaces breathe and have life. Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life employs a seductive beauty to trouble our perceptions of ourselves and our relations to others.