Memory and Place: At an Intersection of Nations

but they had their being once
and left a place to stand on.
Al Purdy, Roblin’s Mills

Its fitting that the first exhibition to open, and the first event of Celebration of Nations, was Awakening of the Spirit in the VISA Gallery, curated by Samuel Thomas. This became clear at the last event I attended (the curatorial talk on the Sunday following the Thursday opening reception), when Samuel spoke of his selections for this show. He began with the works of Daphne Odjig; one of her pieces (In Touch With Her Spirit) was also the main media image for the show, and (a testament to the quality of her work) seemed to become a defacto visual signifier for the several days worth of events that comprised Celebration

Its also appropriate as Odjig’s activism (and artwork) opened doors – sometimes forcing them open, sometimes knocking them down – for many Indigenous visual artists, and by extension, many people. Awakening the Spirit, to paraphrase Thomas, was built around three images specifically, as the basis for whats in the gallery. The first of these was Odjig’s aforementioned Spirit, then Norval Morrisseau’s Virgin Mary and then Carl Beam’s Apache Spirit Dancer (he also commented that the overall title of the exhibition takes its impetus from the spiritual focus of the three “foundation” works). This isn’t to say these are the only notable pieces, whether talking about aesthetic quality or historical relevance: Joshim Kakegamic, Roy Thomas, Leland Bell, Simon Brascoupe, Bruce King and Christi Belcourt round out the wall works, and Vince Bomberry and Carl Simeon have sculptural works here, as well. Its a strong, quality exhibition, with the possibility of connections and challenges between many of the images and objects on display.

In Touch With Her Spirit, Daphne Odjig

Samuel Thomas joked that he didn’t want to present “something that looked like a yard sale” and he’s done a fine job here in what he’s shepherded into the gallery. Unsurprising, really, as he’s an artist and activist (and a past recipient of the OAC’s Aboriginal Arts Award) and his manner was one that echoed his words of wanting to share the vision of Suzanne Rochon – Burnett, and her collection.

There are several important intersecting narratives that converge in the gallery. I’ve said before that art history is a form of history, and the legacies of Odjig, Morrisseau and Beam are very much the notion of having been the shoulders upon which others stood and are still standing.

One of the last exhibitions I saw in Saskatchewan was at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. This was 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. and was an exploration of what’s colloquially called the “Indian Group of Seven.” (I might interject a line Thomas cited in his VISA talk, of Odjig asking why her work was described relative to Picasso, and why Picasso isn’t compared to her, as she was (is) more relevant her. This might be a bit of misspoken recollection, by Thomas – or me, hah – as Morrisseau, not Odjig, was often labelled the “Picasso of the North”, but the more relevant question of who / where is the arbiter of quality still stands).

The large room that is the VISA can be walked / read counter clockwise (this is how Thomas toured the works, and it’s an effective approach). The artists’ works aren’t interspersed, so it can be read like chapters, which helped Thomas to build the story around his choices.

Morrisseau and Odjig were also teachers (of Thomas and Bell, according to Samuel Thomas) and the creation and support of Indigenised institutions is ongoing and still important. Thomas spoke of the Manitoulin School (this could refer to formal groups or more organic ones within the Woodlands tradition) and these community centred initiatives are still promoting and preparing Indigenous artists (the current Brock Chancellor, Shirley Cheechoo, is a contemporary chapter in this with the Weengushk Film Institute).

There is a diversity of style: Simon Brascoupe’s works are more like petroglyphs, with the acrylic looking more like stains within stencils, and Bruce King’s works are more thickly and richly painted, with the acrylic juicy and gooey. Morrisseau and Odjig are more “flat” in the use of colour. Morrisseau is arguably the best known example of the Woodlands School, and immediately recognisable. (Another personal interjection, which I do less as a marker of subjectivity, but of the importance of these artists: one of the first artists I ever encountered as a boy, who made me want to be part of that world, was Morrisseau. His illustrations for Legends of my People, The Great Ojibway, introduced me to the strength and power of his work.)

The space is full, but not crammed. The bright colours and strong flowing lines of Odjig and Morrisseau compliment each other, with exceptions: four more earthy and sensual images by Odjig have more formally in common with Carl Beam’s works, diagonally across the room. Beam’s large paper works (sometimes silkscreen, sometimes emulsion and ink) are more restrained in tone and hue, but this gives power to his appropriated images, often political in nature (several of his works are scattered around the Marilyn I. Walker School, on display year round). Beam was well known for his desire to be known as an “Indian who makes Art”, not an “Indian Artist.” An important distinction, when many spaces (half a century ago, and yes, still now) employ tokenism or ghetto mentalities in labelling Indigenous artists (for example, a University Art Acquisitions committee member – at an anonymous place, in Saskatoon, ahem – once barked they had money for “real” artists and “other” money for “Indian artists”…and many artist run centres are just as segregated, though their lip service to “indigenisation” is as loud as it is hollow). At this moment, allow me to employ the soapbox I seem to have found myself standing upon to praise the PAC (Performing Arts Centre) as the locus point for Celebration of Nations. I’d add that it was announced that Annie Wilson is now in the employ of the PAC, and that should please anyone who knows her work with In the Soil.  

Returning to VISA: Beam’s works are subtle, sometimes darkly dense and requiring a focused attention to parse the images, and other times they’re like decoding a puzzle, with his sampled images being presented in a manner that requires us to read them like a visual sentence. Albert in the Blue Zone, Chief, Spirit of the Eagle: all are strong pieces, and you can understand the curator’s desire to not mix & match the artists here, but allow their singular voices to speak. Beam builds on Joshim Kakegamic (also a printmaker, and one of the founders / facilitators of the Triple K Co – operative Press that helped disseminate Morrisseu’s images to so many places where so many of us encountered them) and then Thomas adds another voice to the story, and so on, and we go further in this visual history of Indigenous / Canadian Art.

Thomas ended with Christi Belcourt (as regards wall works) and this offers not so much a “conclusion” as an updating to contemporary dialogue, as Belcourt’s Untitled acts as a marker of her own ongoing advocacy. Untitled, though acrylic on canvas, has aspects of patterning that are also seen in the pieces by Roy Thomas, and Belcourt’s role as a Metis artist / activist is a good image to take with you as you visit NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) to see We Aspire: an exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara (but we’ll get there, in a moment).

As Odjig passed in 2016, this also offers a sense of continuity, and of a new generation acting on the example of the old…(the quote I began this piece with is an acknowledgement that many of the artists in Spirit have passed, and their artworks are a foundation for those of us who are here now).

But it’s worth noting that the politics that suffuse the room are not suffocating, nor do they act as justifications for poor work, as we see too often in contemporary Canadian “art.” When Thomas talked about Bruce King’s acrylic works, he directly stated that he enjoyed them greatly, and wished to share King’s fine paintings with others. The works are political, but also aesthetically engaging, and may – as I experienced – also remind viewers of the first time they saw an Odjig or Morrisseau, and were struck by its beauty.

The almost minimalist use of paint by Brascoupe (simple and sparse, more about symbols and edges that are very clean but then fade like dust, in 6 Roosters or Birds – Tree of Life) plays well off the glotty, textural surfaces of Bruce King. Two Crows or Sioux Country become abstracted and gooey as you stand in front of them, colour like paste and putty, but stepping back allows the scenes to coalesce and become small scenes that transcend their medium.

This show is a taste of what’s to come, curator Samuel Thomas promised, and in conversation he indicated that the breadth and depth of the Suzanne Rochon- Burnett Collection was almost intimidating. Many works needed to be framed for this show, and many were relocated from pride of place in living spaces where, to paraphrase Rochon -Burnett’s daughter, they eat breakfast or do day to day work “with” them. I won’t attempt to encapsulate Rochon – Burnett’s life and contributions to culture, as its done far better here. The quality of the work presented, and how Thomas indicated that each of these artists was a personal friend, and how their works and their larger historical roles also played out in Rochon – Burnett’s own life, offers an inspired intersection of art and life.

Conversely, it was a bit difficult to endure several of the speeches the night the exhibition opened (your intrepid #artcriticfromhell considered heckling them, but my mouth was often full of bison, ahem). Hearing the chair of Brock’s Board of Directors so heartily congratulate Brock on its support of cultural communities was galling hypocrisy, considering their incompetence / ignorance / arguably malevolence (edit as you like), with Martin Van Zon / Interkom and the AGN cabal, with Rodman Hall. At a wonderful symposium at the Mendel Art Gallery years ago, Dr. Len Findlay pointed out that universities are often willing and able manufacturers of alibis for the ideological state apparatus, as in governments and politicians; the latter, or variant nameless Brock administrators (like the ones who arbitrarily and anonymously cancelled the hiring of a new Rodman Director), are better at mimicking ethics, but still as poor (or uninterested) at actualizing them.

I mention this not to remount my soapbox, but to step outside the gallery, and to temper the hopefulness of the several days of Celebration of Nations with the reality of a stuttering, sputtering Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. I know many who will say “residential schools weren’t so bad” despite never knowing anyone who went to one. I’ve offered to introduce some of this very sure, if very ignorant, throng to friends and acquaintances I met in my time out west that would offer first person accounts that not only challenge that assertion, but bulldoze it fully….sometimes they even say “yes” to this and change their minds. 

Leaving Awakening The Spirit (this is in the VISA until the end of September), there are two exhibitions at NAC (Niagara Artist Centre) that intersect with Spirit, and that further the dialogue from Celebration of Nations. We Aspire (An exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara) is in the Dennis Tourbin Members Gallery and features the works of Brian Kon, Sterling Kon, Amanda Pont-Shanks, and Julia Simone. This is only briefly on display, until the 22nd of September, and was supported by the Niagara Region Métis Council, as well as the PAC.

The statement: “Honouring the tradition of Métis dot art and bead work, We Aspire features work by four Métis visual artists living in Niagara. The custom of bead patterning was traditionally used by the Métis to adorn their clothes, equipment and animals.” Mixing the traditional with the contemporary, the words of Brian Kon are succinct: “The Métis were known as the ‘flower bead people’, my art is intended to honour the skills and artistry of my ancestors by using traditional and historic bead patterns as the inspiration for my work.”

NAC’s Dennis Tourbin space is a responsive one, often in (positive) flux, with many local artists using it as both an experimental arena, but it also, with its short exhibition spans and the excellent engagement with local artists and communities by NAC, offers immediate representations of Niagara.

There is a similarity of form in these works, but individual characteristics of the artists manifest here and there. The titles offer a personal touch: Brian Kon’s Grandmother’s Garden evokes a sense of family, with its not quite mirrored floral design; Amanda Pont-Shanks Rocks, delicately painted make you want to pick them up and hold them in your hand, and have a connection to those who held them before, and will hold them after; Sterling Kron’s After Batoche names a site – and a chapter – of Canadian history that, depending if you learned it in school or not, illustrates the contested histories of what was / what is / what might yet be Canada. Untitled, also by Kron is equally yet subtly political, as it offers a vibrant blue and white rendering of the Métis symbol that you may recognize from flags and other insignia of these peoples whom are too often ignored or forgotten when we talk about the Nations of Canada. Its the first work on the left gallery wall, and if you enter through that door, it will be what greets you as you begin looking at We Aspire. If you come from the other side, it will be the last work that you see as you leave NAC and step outside. Both of these are fitting for experiencing this show, and the history and ideas the artists encapsulate in their works.

But before you leave NAC, the back Showroom Gallery beckons you to visit the first programmed exhibition of Fall 2017 at the centre. You can read my preview of Where the Weather Happens, curated by Amy Malbeuf and Jessie Short, with works by Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault arranged around the large gallery space, here. The two shows on display at NAC are, to use that metaphor again, chapters: Weather is the result of the curators’ research into “the diversity and skill of Métis artists working across Canada…Through this exhibition, the artists’ works are placed in conversation with each other, exploring the human relationship with the natural world. Each artist explores these relationships as an individual informed by their worldview as a Métis person.”

Baerg and Nault “face” each other, with a sculptural work by Nault suspended in the middle of the space. Koebel has works at the “front” and “back” of the gallery. Similar to how Awakening the Spirit presented the individual works of the many artists there as “wholes”, Weather also allows Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin / Time Journey (acrylic on laser cut canvas) to occupy the entire left wall. There’s pieces both fat and slim, solid and shredded, to create a “landscape” of symbols that might be eclipses or planets, like celestial calendar markings on a white wall.

Nault’s Entangled Bodies (3) is directly behind you, in the middle of the space, as you face the middle “segment” of Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin (he employs the natural breaks in the wall to “frame” his work). Bodies (3) – like Entangled Bodies (2) and Entangled Bodies (4) – is comprised of a mixture of organic materials, including wood (bark or log, depending on the piece), wax or beeswax, human hair and rope, though the last seems more as part of the installation of these objects, which hang either freely in space or just out from the right hand wall. But the shadows cast front and back, when combined with the gentle swaying of the delicate exposed roots of Bodies (3) give the work a span beyond its physical self, with the silhouettes stretching out into the room. Though smaller in size, Entangled Bodies (4), with pale waxen fingers either emerging like blooms from the tree bark, may be the strongest of Nault’s contributions to Where the Weather Happens. In the accompanying text from Malbeuf and Short, this work is alluded to with Nault “not claiming the place she now lives but letting it claim her.”

Before I go much further, here’s more from the curatorial text: “The troposphere is a layer of the earth’s atmosphere in which human beings exist, connecting the land to the perceived sky. It is the place where nearly all of the weather on earth happens. The works of Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault activate the land and sky, and all that is within, through their intimate and delicate expression of deep connection to this space of energetic flux. Where The Weather Happens is an expression of the relationship and interactions between the land and sky as beings who live within this space.” (This hangs on the wall, in the gallery proper, ephemeral and soft, positioned so you might see it last, after walking in and among the art.)

The same language could be applied to the works of Norval Morrisseau or Daphne Odjig in Awakening The Spirit, and the often meditative yet ornate pieces in We Aspire. The materials in use by the three artists in Weather, however, are more demonstrative of the sentiments expressed, as with Koebel’s deer skin for her many drums that cover a wall in Awasisisoniyas: Family Allowance. Made from 2013 to 2017, they seem to await hands to retrieve them and begin to play them, to fully articulate them as they’re intended.

It was a hectic weekend, when all of these shows opened (I’ve not mentioned any of the talks, seminars or performances, or even the screenings, to hold my focus and your attention), and although two of the three are only up for brief periods, it serves all three well to be experienced in tandem. Whether that’s done in the manner I’ve chosen here, which might be described as chronological as to when they opened, or chronological in terms of the histories they present (Spirit’s artists are older, and several are deceased, while the artists in We Aspire are much younger, and the curators / artists in Weather are between) is entirely flexible, and a point on which I have no preference or suggestion. I remember an exhibition of work by Micah Lexier and a show he curated of influences upon his practice, at the College Gallery. His work was upstairs, not quite directly above the pieces by people like Eric Cameron, alluding to a sense of growth and change that, while not overt, had a subtle power in understanding both shows.

Awakening of the Spirit (Select Works from the Suzanne Rochon – Burnett Collection) is on display until September 30th in the VISA Gallery at the MIWSFPA, and We Aspire: (An exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara) can be seen at the Niagara Artist Centre (354 St. Paul, in downtown St. Catharines). That closes on the 22nd of September, but Where the Weather Happens will be on view until December of 2017.


There was a request to not photograph at events or in gallery spaces during Celebration of Nations, and the lack of images in this post reflects my respecting that. However, the Odjig image is from the PAC website, and in this article I attempted to have a wide variety of links regarding the artists. If you’re on FB, there is also an excellent panoramic view of the VISA space, with Awakening The Spirit here

 

Artist Profile: Matt Caldwell

The latest in The Sound’s series highlighting local visual artists in Niagara looks at Matt Caldwell: I first encountered his artwork  in Million Dollar Pink, in the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC. His works alternate in size, but are immediately recognizable: the subtle, almost bland, tones suggest an industrial aesthetic in his abstracted, roughly geometric works. Their hypnotic monotony is broken by running dabs and scratches of bright colours; these “appear” to you, after you’ve “watched” these drawn / painted pieces for a while….

MC: My studio practice has definitely changed recently. It’s more fluid than ever and it definitely tends to my focus on painting…there’s a lot of automatic decision making but also too much hesitation and internal processing of how I imagine a work’s outcome. If I had a studio to myself, I think there’d be lots of screaming. Just a routine release of extra energy.

BG: Why do you make art, how did you begin, and why is making art important to you?

MC: I’m not actually sure how many kids enjoy drawing at a young age but I will assume it’s a fair amount if not the entire sum of them. Is that when I started making art?  There really isn’t a starting point for me but looking back, say fifteen years ago, you don’t consider the standards of the art world. The funny thing is that the academic aspect might deprive artists of some original or pure ideas for work resulting in something may have been more interesting than what they’ve decided to pursue after education. In short, I find my interests lean towards a person’s raw capabilities of thinking and problem solving. Not that I only find interest in abstraction or mark-making, but I find it to be the most natural path for me at this time. There’s something thrilling about a few strokes of a colour and a month later you may hate that decision. It’s a fun and miserable experience all at once.

BG: Who is your favourite artist right now and / or the most significant artist (contemporary or historical) in relation to your practice?

MC: Paul Kremer’s colour-field paintings are both impressive and influential (for me) in his style of composition, using just three colours and the white of the canvas to create illusions of shadow and three-dimensional form. The banality of it really captivates me as it rides a line of simplicity but seems to rely on the pull of the eye through his use of tonal value. This keeps me considering my own work as I often have a disregard for major contrast.

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As for the most influential artist right now I’d chose a personal favourite, Mark Bradford (probably because he’s currently showing at Albright-Knox in Buffalo in Shade: Clyfford Still / Mark Bradford. Still [a significant abstract expressionist who passed in 1980) is also a favourite. I enjoy Bradford’s process and intuitive thinking when creating what he considers paintings. His use of found objects (old signs, advertisements, posters, etc.) from lower income urban zones create works rich in history through the items but also through his experience of retrieving the items and living in the areas. I like the idea of scavenging / recycling the old to create a further existence / experience for “loaded” objects as their “meanings” are edited or shifted as they’re collaged together. There’s great attention to detail in his work and it says a lot about his conceptual path as he spends his life tending what could be considered trash.

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

MC: I graduated from Brock University as a “studio art” major ( a great feeling to be finished school – for now – and that  I’m no longer a “student artist.”) CASE CLOSED, at the Niagara Artists Centre in May where I showed with my “colleagues”(Alex Muresan, Katie Mazi, Jenn Judson) was something of a nod to our exit from Brock. It was truly exciting to see how well the show meshed. I have a collaborative work with Marissa Tomlinson at the Niagara Falls Art Gallery, with local artists exploring interpretations of “portrait”. Beyond that I’ve been doing a lot more drawing and photography until I get a larger space to work on some bigger paintings.

BG: What’s a significant piece you’ve made recently and why?

MC: A work that’s still in progress, an incomplete piece, is my current favourite: it was something of a breakthrough piece for me. I’ve been happily stuck painting rectangles /squares, re-painting layers / being tedious with my process, but in this new piece I broke free from some of the restrictions I put on myself and too often struggle to lose. There’s a habit involved in my work, not a bad one, but one that prevents me from picking up new ones.

Matt Caldwell’s work is on display until September 29th, at 8058 Oakwood Drive, Niagara Falls, ON, as part of the juried exhibition “Are You Looking at Me?”

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.   

 

#trynottocryinpublic / what succeeds, what fails

Painting can display a breathtaking diversity. Now, granted, that can be said about any form of artmaking, and it can be a weakness, as well as a strength. But when one considers a few things (lets call them suppositions) painting is an active site for this debate.

There are painters out there (not karaoke modernists, but others worth your time – I’d recommend Jonathan Forrest’s dimensional paintings) that can make an effective point for how the lineage of Greenberg and Reinhardt is explored in their work. There are painters who are primitives, that have an immediacy and rawness of experience (the late Paul Sisestki’s works), and clearly ne’er the twain shall meet of those aforementioned ideologies.

As for me, I’m all about narrative, all about stories, all about how images can be used to act as a subversive and yet direct form of “history.”

There is an element to this conversation, of pedagogy, too, as its rare to encounter a painter who hasn’t been formed (or deformed) by “art school” in this day. Sometimes that, I suspect, is why I tend to be dismissive of abstraction, in a “contemporary” setting: one has to acknowledge that not all stories have been told, so ignoring narrative is an act of special privilege that ignores the voices that haven’t been allowed to speak.

On another level, our teachers shape us, and sometimes they do what I saw years ago, when I endured a lecture by Ron Shuebrook, and realized all his MFA students started working in so many different media, and all left painting like him. Art school might be about “unlearning” assumption, or it might be about being immersed in a space that makes you unaware that any other ideas might be valid, or of consideration (Full disclosure: I taught for more than a dozen years, in an art department, in studio. However, as I taught primarily at senior levels, in digital media, my classroom incorporated a reading package that always reminded students that there are spaces outside the university…).

And this brings us to the first instalment of #trynottocryinpublic, currently at Rodman Hall in St. Catharines. This first of two exhibitions under the same umbrellas is made up of three artists who are “emerging”, literally from their degree at Brock into the larger art world. Fostered by two very different instructors from the School of Visual Arts at Brock (Donna Szöke and Shawn Serfas), this is part of the BFA Honours course that is a partnership between Rodman and the MIWSFPA.

All three – Liz Hayden, Fraser Brown and Kaia Toop – work in paint. They share the back, lower rooms at Rodman. They will be followed by an exhibition of their “classmates”, as this manifestation of #trynottocryinpublic ends this Saturday, April 9th.

Toop’s work is easily the strongest, and is the work that merits repeated viewings. There’s a playful aspect to her work, but also an unsettling one. Her pieces with flamingos, manatees, zebras and fawns are high points of the entire exhibition. There’s a maturity of execution here. For example, There are improbable things by Toop (the strongest piece in the exhibition) is a scene that’s disturbing on more rigorous looking but that may initially disarm you with its absurdity and inanity.

In improbable things, the factory is reminiscent of a Diego Rivera (his mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts, for example), dark and textured, a space that’s cramped and a bit suffocating as we gaze into it. The flamingos are both bright pink against the dull factory. I’m also reminded of Alice in Wonderland and the games of croquet that used animals as “toys” and “tools” with a blithe cruelty.

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The flamingos float: as does the fawn in a work in a back space, though it seems more frightened and its posture suggests that its almost “turtling”, if I may use cross – fauna language, against harm. The painting to the right of that isolates a stag on a pink blank background, with scraps of what could be newsprint, or other papery detritus, stuck to it. This is repeated in several other works, where the animals seem damaged by some kind of “leftover” (that word appears in each title) of a manufactured, or manufacturing environment…animals in sites of environmental destruction or damage often have been photographed slick with oily wastes, and other dumped garbage. These are more subtle versions of ducks and geese with their necks caught (perhaps terminally) in six pack plastic rings we’ve discarded without thought or consideration.

In conversation, Toop talked about using her own experience working in a factory setting, and the “unnatural” aspect of that, as applies to humans. That will surely add an element of distress to how we read her animals, as they no longer seem to be within these sites by choice but are trapped there. This may be literal, or it may be the same way that most of us are trapped in sites of labour: I’ll resist any Marxist banalities of employment as prison, though I might suggest a recent excellent article in Hyperallergic, and the avoidance of silly banalities in the same “space” we see from an AGYU “artist” who confuses exploitation of labour with a “statement” about it.

In closing, I want to touch on something that bothered me, about this exhibition.

It is the work of BFA Honours students, and as such they are about to leave one framework for potentially others, with different, yet similar, challenges (the title of the show, I was told, is a play on the stresses felt by students in the course, which I commented would only get worse if they chose to continue in the cultural minefields and barbarisms that are Canadian art…).

I haven’t mentioned works by the other two artists in the show: partly this is due to how Toop’s work held my attention easily and repeatedly.

But it is also a consideration of how (as Steve Remus once challenged me) I resist bringing full critical weight against undergraduates, as their pedagogy can be overtly defining, perhaps deafening them to other voices outside the classroom.

In light of that, though, I feel its important to point out that looking at Liz Hayden’s works, I saw – literally – some of the same “wide” brushstrokes I saw in Shawn Serfas’ Inland series. I’ve encountered other works by Fraser Brown, at NAC, and though I wasn’t overly impressed, they struck me as having potential (a phrase I used when I was teaching that can translate as meaning I am very excited to see what you do next). His work in this show is repetitive and, like Hayden’s, seems to take refuge in its medium of execution: to elaborate, as I’ve positioned my thoughts here as being specific to paint, painting is also a medium in the art world that actively resists any conversation, still, about anything other than how it is done.

Granted, we see techno fetishism in many other spaces (I can think of a horrid show that used 3 D printing in a manner that suggested poverty of thought and rigour): but when, for example, one is asked to speak about your work in a manner OTHER than how it was made, there’s still significant resistance among painters to do so. There is also still a fostering of taking refuge more in repetition, an almost mindless praise of “activity”, than in considered making, a counsel to keep “painting” as opposed to exposing yourself to other, more disparate – and perhaps even outright disagreeing – ideas.

Again – there’s a space for this, and a well executed object is a necessity for something to be considered art, for many of us (I waiver, back and forth on this). But in looking at the works of Liz Hayden, I see the hand of her instructor too heavily in her marks and her paint. In Fraser Brown’s work, I see a repetitiveness that becomes excessive and serves to simply make what might have been engaging if disciplined become formulaic and boring.

I don’t say this with rancor, or point it out with malice: but something a student might strive for is a uniqueness of voice, a means and manner by which to find your own place to stand. Perhaps its too soon to ask that of Brown and Hayden: perhaps the strength of Toop’s work serves to highlight the weaknesses in theirs (I once reviewed an exhibition of Jane Ash Poitras’s work that was ill served by being in the same gallery as Rebecca Belmore. The latter has a clarity that further exposed the tepid muddle of the former).

This exhibition closes this Saturday: the next instalment features four artists of the same class, and perhaps in seeing a larger whole, I may see differently. But right now I wonder about pedagogy and practice, and how that is a debate that’s been happening in (and outside of) art schools across the country in a serious way that may, or may not, lead to a shift like we saw back in 1968.