The Lure of the Local

“Travel is the only context in which some people ever look around. If we spent half the energy looking at our own neighborhoods, we’d probably learn twice as much.” (Lucy Lippard)

I have a game I like to play, here in Niagara: I didn’t start it, but I’ve surely pushed it further.
At a reception nearly three (3!) years ago, NAC Minister of Energy, Minds and Resources Stephen Remus introduced me to several people as being “from Saskatchewan.” I didn’t correct him, but it circulated, and still does, that I was “sprung…up dirty and sad, spiky also, like grass beside the railroad tracks” (Duddy Kravitz) on the prairies. My time in the gulag archipelago of #YXE was nearly two decades, but I was neither born nor a child there (though I’d argue I was too often the only adult in the room).

Even more perverse: my curatorial background (what, you thought your intrepid #artcriticfromhell was one of those ilk who jabbers yet can’t do? Shush, it’s an understandable assumption, based on “my” brethren. But I digress) is very Saskatoon grassroots, as I’ve curated works from the University of Saskatchewan collection,The Photographers Gallery (TPG) Archive and Video Vérité (frequently  focused on the history / histrionics of collecting in Saskatoon, as I also worked at the College Gallery at #usask for some time, assisting in their first and widest inventory of their archive and artworks). Another curatorial venture was REGION which explored contemporary painting in Saskatchewan.

Amusingly, as I write this, the (please, Jesus, Mary and Joseph the carpenter, let it be the) final edits on my contribution to a book / anthology titled Art on the Margins: Visual Culture in Saskatchewan are flying back and forth in the dark email ether twilight zone.

I torment my innocent readers with these anecdotes for two reasons, both shockingly positive.

My own focus in writing, curating and the sludge of Canadian art history has repeatedly been about immediate community, with the history written in the visual arts of a place, a very present “site of contested narratives.”

Secondly (and more relevant to you) is that the latest rendering of Up Close and In Motion (titled Phase 4 / 11) at Rodman Hall is very much a St. Catharines chapter: this is important both for how Ernest Harris, Jr., created a specific painting for 4 / 11, but also in that all the artists on display have a very strong presence in STC’s artistic history. I appreciate this latest evolution, curated by (former) Assistant Curator Emma German, as a means to learn more about my current community, which although no longer “new” to me, still offers exciting anecdotes and visual narratives of “here.”

Ernest Harris, Jr.’s Mel’s Brushes in the front part of the Hansen Gallery is responsive to the artworks German has selected for the back area (more details on them in a moment). His words: “I’m a fan of most of the artists featured during these upcoming months – a who’s who of regionalist all-stars – but I have the strongest connection to the phase 4 artists.”

Mel’s Brushes could also be seen as a gateway to appreciating the 4 / 11 selections, or conversely (yet complimentary), Harris’ painting might be seen as the final punctuation to MacDonald, Wren and Anderson’s works. Backward and forwards, just like an experience of memory which place and artworks can evoke. Read this visual or painted “sentence” as you see fit. Or do what I enjoy in exploring conjunctive interrelations between the artworks: treat them as puzzle pieces that fit together in different ways on different visits, with different orders, to offer unique, yet still contextually / conceptually interlinked, (his)stories.

This (I suspect) is what German would emphasize, with her ideas of Slow Art Day, and with her more creative and less “formal” exploration of the collection at Rodman Hall Art Centre.

Carolyn Wren’s Sheaf of Wheat (a linocut print) sits on the far wall, far opposite the window in the front room. Tobey C. Anderson’s Silken Twine #22, #27, #39 and #41 are to your right, if the window is to your back, and Melanie MacDonald’s Salt and Pepper Muskies sits above the fireplace. The installation is different than previous Up Close and In Motion “phases” in that the three collection pieces occupy the same room. On my initial visit I entered that room first, then went to Harris’ painting. But on subsequent visits, I spent more time with Mel’s Brushes, as its physical separation – and frankly its the most visually dominating of the four (with its rich black void and how it makes the banality of brushes in a tin monumental) – fosters this focused interaction.

 

Anderson’s work is interesting to me in a similar manner to Philia (by Brendan Fernandes, in an earlier UCIM) as these artworks resonates outside of the Hansen gallery and in a wider historical sense. Several friends from both Toronto and Montreal had asked after the CRAM International when I told them I was moving to St. Catharines, and Anderson specifically. It’s likely that I’ve encountered Anderson’s work elsewhere, but I disremember.  These four paintings are from a series that’s as much epithet as resistance, as much memento mori as a visual “diary” of someone who played a major role in the artistic / cultural melee of St. Catharines. They’re small, but dense and vibrant. The bright colours, the organic shapes and abstracted scenes are reminiscent of microscopic slides of disease or other variant biological samples, seen through intense magnification.

These are also self portraiture: perhaps in that Anderson was attempting to “control” his illness, rendering an aspect of his identity onto canvas. These are the remnants of him. I never met him, but his influence on this place has been cited many times to me, and in the quiet “contemplation” of Slow Art Day, of the ruminative interactions that German wants to – and has – evoked with the “up close” part of UCIM, I have met Tobey Anderson.

Art is, after all, the most direct yet most subversive form of history: as it is sometimes the most intimate, yet most symbolic, form of autobiography. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell likes to “speak in collage”, so I offer this, which Anderson’s work evoked from me: “Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” (Sontag, Illness as Metaphor)

Ernest’s words offer another point of entry (some of the same sentiments / facts came up in brief chat with German): “Carolyn Wren was my high school art teacher and …[s]he was teaching at a university level, something I only realized in my freshman year at Brock. Wren also introduced me to Kate Bush, Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson. Her impact on my young mind can not be overstated. I was still in high school when I was introduced to Tobey C. Anderson as the incoming director of Niagara Artists Centre. His paintings, particularly Idi Amin / Madonna / Mandela / Dada (1989), had a direct influence on me and my first real body of work, which in turn led to my first professional art show a few years later at [appropriately] NAC.”

 

There’s a simplicity to Wren’s work (lino encourages this, and in the right hands, this print medium can be expressive, graphic and emotionally moving) that, if you turn right from Mel’s Brushes can lure you from across the space. But, as Harris indicates, Wren is more important to him as a teacher, and more importantly, a teacher you encounter while malleable and receptive and without whom you can’t imagine being the artist you are now. (Amusing side point: Harris and I have both worked with Evergon, one of the most significant photo / lens based artists in Canadian Art history. Evergon is / was, in many ways, an influence on me like how Wren, or Anderson, were for Ernest.)

MacDonald’s Salt and Pepper Muskies is the only work that matches Harris for size: and both sit above mantles, in an amusing manner, as both seem too playful, too “banal” for the clichéd mantle space (many shows I’ve seen here, however, challenge the architectural “expectations” of the Hansen). MacDonald is the artist I’m most familiar with, of this quartet (the tendons of history and experience join Harris to the others, quite firmly, making this a four person show, in my eyes). Her excellent Florida Noir may be the best painting show I’ve experienced in Niagara; her use of paint, creating surfaces pearlescent and bright, and forms that suggest you might reach out and grab them made that exhibition one of my favourites ever in the Dennis Tourbin (another local artist of significance) gallery. In a fitting definition of “community”, Harris “gave Mel painting lessons” when she attended university (the formal attention to detail in Harris’ – or Mel’s Brushes was present in MacDonald’s Noir exhibition. But I also have to cite how a recent conversation with the founder / director of a community arts organisation emphasised the cyclical nature of supporting local artists so they might mentor and foster aspiring and emerging, so they might one day be mentors to the next upcoming group or generation…)

In past incarnations of Up Close and In Motion, artists from other communities whose artworks – and their own experiences and histories – have augmented Niagara and St. Catharines have been featured (Jones, Dagneault, Cadieux and Tang). I know that future instalments of UCIM will feature several regional artists, continuing this year long exploration of the history of Rodman Hall in a more active (hence “motion”) and more intense (“up close”) way.

4 / 11 has been personally enjoyable and enlightening. When I was first living on the prairies, I read  Lucy Lippard’s Lure of the Local,  and one of the contributors to that anthology made a comment that still lives in my head: “I’m not from here, I just live here.” Up Close and In Motion‘s latest “chapter” literally illustrates the importance of the history and community that Rodman Hall holds in its collection and reinforces the gallery, the centre and the collection’s importance (as so often manifest through the staff, of course), and the quality of visual arts, and artists, in this variant and intersecting “site.” And by “site” I mean not just St. Catharines, but the diverse ways RHAC has presence in Niagara, and beyond (from Harris to Fernandes, from Wren to Cadieux).

This incarnation of Up Close and In Motion (part of the ongoing project) curated by (former) Assistant Curator Emma German is on display until June 23rd. You can read more about it here and here. Different works by different artists from the RHAC collection will be in the Hansen, however, as part of the year long exploration of the collection, until January 2019. All images are courtesy / copyright of Rodman Hall and the artists.

MacDonald’s Menagerie at NAC

We author places, as much as remember them. Its an idea from the writings of Peter Straub, and considering how often literary references came up in my conversation with Melanie MacDonald (as it did, too, with Clelia Scala), this seems a good “place” to begin to talk about the paintings she has on display at NAC. Her exhibition Florida Noir opened on October 28 and is hopefully still there, as you read this. If not, her site merits your perusal. She continues to exhibit in Niagara, and beyond. Her recent solo show at the Niagara Falls Art Gallery was excellent. The monumental, yet also very playful paintings filled the gallery and offered multiple points of entry for the viewers; including both her meticulous style and her evocative imagery.

Before entering the Dennis Tourbin space, perhaps you’ve encountered her lichen works downtown, with their obsessive attention to detail, making the potentially banal quite entrancing.

MacDonald’s site offers many examples of her work, as well as concise thoughts on her practice. Her words: “By painting mass-produced, cheapened objects of the not-so-distant past, my work brings to mind the hand or touch of a brush of the original sculptor and painter. By re-framing them as large-scale paintings the viewer is given the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with these lost or forgotten domestic objects.”

What is on display at NAC offers a bit of a different narrative, perhaps because its more specific to a place (“…Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste” is a favourite line from American Gods). In conversation, MacDonald cited Douglas Coupland (who sometimes fancies himself an artist, and some fancy as a cultural prognosticator): “Florida isn’t so much a place where one goes to reinvent oneself, as it is a place where one goes if one no longer wished to be found.”

As always with her work, the objects are rendered in a manner that is both precious and empowers them as iconic signifiers: perhaps even harbingers that are more warnings, or more apocalyptic, than you might normally consider a cute little cockatoo or a darling pink flamingo to encapsulate. Gator – Florida Souvenir or Pink Flamingo – Florida Souvenir transcend their knick knack triviality (while in her studio, MacDonald showed me two of the kitschy objects that inspired this work — I disremember if they were salt and pepper shakers or not — but they were both made in Japan, which implied an artisan quality and preciousness in the same way that seeing “Made in China” makes one assume shoddiness, whether fairly or not).

 

 

 

 

 

 

The manner in which MacDonald has captured the texture and the shine of the various animals of the “menagerie” — a glistening swan, a pearly pelican, a cockatoo that shines in reds, yellows and porcelain whites — takes the original objects, which she photographs repeatedly, as part of her process, to impressive levels. The “animals” themselves dominate the paintings. They fill the frame, like portraiture. The backgrounds are designed to serve this, in a banal humid light, often derived from “paint by numbers” images and other stereotypical renderings of sunsets that suggest the tourism (like “Snowbirds” fleeing winter) or the utopian dream too often projected onto Florida (the desperate film noir Midnight Cowboy: “It’s not, not bad, huh? There’s no heat here, but you know, by the time winter comes, I’ll be in Florida.”). Stephen King’s Duma Key, to return to literary tools to more deeply enjoy Florida Noir, offers both a heaven and a hell in “the Sunshine State.” Pieces like Sea Horse or Dolphin are nostalgic souvenirs, with a childlike preciousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These were found by MacDonald in various Florida locals, almost like foraging for mementos. MacDonald has talked about future paintings that will show these pieces broken, in shards, and if Florida Noir is a visual essay about place and space, memory and projection, it’s not hard to see what those future pieces are implying, as these objects break and fail (like Florida, like America, perhaps in Mar – A – Lago on a golf course…)

Florida Noir will be in the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC (354 St. Paul) until November 10th. Her Lichen paintings are at Garden City Essentials (35 James Street). Check out both spaces in downtown STC. All images are courtesy the artist’s web site, and are respectively Pink Flamingos, Dark Swan, Shark and Cockatoo.)

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.