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

 

Afterimage: Uneven Echoes

I wanted a dialectic between one’s perception of the place in totality and one’s own relation to the field as walked…a way of measuring oneself against the indeterminacy of the land. I am not interested in looking at sculpture which is solely defined by its internal relationships. (Richard Serra)

Simplicity of form is not necessarily simplicity of experience. (Robert Morris)

Afterimage fills all the galleries at Rodman and is on display all summer. The two “side rooms” that have been in play for the last few exhibitions have been amalgamated into one larger space (in the rear of Rodman), and this serves Afterimage well. Gayle Young’s audio (Cedar Cliff- “oo”) wafts out over the space, and the denseness and richness of John Noestheden’s paintings (or sculptures – we’ll explore that momentarily – titled, respectively Spaceline 20a, 20b, 20c and 20d) are balanced by the emptiness between and around them. Reinhard Reitzenstein’s 6000 laser cut trees, one of which would easily fit in your hand, made of recycled paper that creep like ivy upwards and outwards (in Ghost Willow) also employs a denseness balanced by gaps that allows for a conversation between the artists. It’s not that the artworks in the side gallery, closer to the front, aren’t worthy. But the rear gallery functions so well in terms of its curated installation (unsurprisingly, if you remember Gunilla Josephson’s exhibition Houses and Whispers, as that show was also curated by Marcie Bronson) that it’s where I find myself, with every visit.

Noestheden’s works in this back space are acrylic on aluminum, with “stardust” mixed in. Their execution and texture are earthy, like furrows of mud. The forms – too solid, to be painting – resemble earth works or dirt mounds, in colours that alternately suggest “black earth” or others in powerful primaries (the yellow Spaceline 6 shimmers reflection “in” the floor, so it’s like the floor work Spaceline 13 that stretches out is a diptych to the mirrored work, or like all “three” function from floor to wall to floor again, to remaining in our eyes after we look elsewhere….). Others are in pale blue (higher up, in a corner, almost to be missed) and another is lower, on the same wall but opposite end, in a reddish chartreuse. These softer tones seems too delicate for the whorls and chunks and bumps that form these acrylics and mixed media on aluminum blocks of paint and minerals.

The trio of artists here don’t interact in a prescribed manner, nor a fully equal manner: despite my praise of his works in the back gallery space, Noestheden’s work in the front two rooms is the weakest, and his repeated citation of “stardust” and other ideas during the tripart artists talk served to make his work less interesting and more affected or pretentious. Perhaps the weight he attached to this lecture about his pieces was inversely proportionate to how uninteresting they are visually.

 Its unsurprising that he spent so much time on the Prairies: there’s more than a little of the self involved Karaoke Modernist in his work, mistaking aspects that are perhaps important to him as being universally so, or that by the citation of the term “stardust” that it might have wider or deeper meaning. His works in the front rooms (Artefact Echoes or 1389 Breaths) are failures visually, and any larger pedantic prose doesn’t remedy that, though some of the pieces improve by association with the works by Reinhard, leeching some meaning and depth from Seed Tree or Forest Emerging. Perhaps this is also why the front rooms are less impressive than the back one: Noestheden has some quality in the front rooms by implication, whereas in the back gallery all three artists function as one larger installation.

This high ceilinged and predominantly empty room, wide and high, is the dominant and dominating gallery: an engaging and visually exciting environment that seems sparse, but isn’t.

Gayle Young (whose history is impressive) spoke eloquently and simply about her audio works, offering some nuance and depth, and options to how we might experience it. Rodman itself is intrinsic to the melded experiential audio (“the resonance of the building is important”), and there’s a spot where you can hear all three “streams” flow together. Young declared the sound as much “ours” as hers, and “you create your own mix by moving through the space” through her “swathe of noise” sampled / assembled from the Bruce Trail in Grimsby (from river and highway to raindrops and fauna and other walked ambience…). While standing in the back space, Reinhard offered the following, encompassing Afterimage in its entirety: “All these works are derivative of memory, of larger ideas, of past experiences, of pasts both universal and personal.”

Reitzenstein’s Willow is meant to evoke how a gigantic willow was removed to facilitate the back expansion of Rodman Hall, and he spoke of how its roots are surely still under the floor of the gallery in back of the building. His works in public space, from the Lutz Teutloff Collection at Brock University, or around the Niagara region all “observe and chronicle trees under siege. Displaced by architecture and manufacturing, they adapt to changing and extreme environmental conditions, supported by mutual relationships within their ecological communities.” Ghost Willows is a memento mori: just as Young’s work is an echo, a recording, of a temporal and remembered, now past, experience. The chunkiness of Noestheden (Spaceplot F) to the recycled, disposable components of Reitzenstein (needing to be repaired, sometimes replaced, daily) to the ephemera of Young’s audio (Cedar Cliff- “ah” or Cedar Cliff- “ee”) that fills the space – and none of it – is an enjoyable dialogue of remembrance: what has been, what was, what is all meet and highlight their similarities, and contrast their differences.

An afterimage, by definition, is an ephemeral thing: sometimes it exists only in memory, or as a degraded version of the original, like the spots we see after staring at the sun. It’s almost an act of negation more than affirmation: what it references is, by definition, gone, no longer existing, solely in memory. Its past: and the past is fleeting. The formal definition is “a visual image or other sense impression that persists after the stimulus that caused it is no longer operative.”

This Afterimage will be visible until the 20th of August, 2017, at Rodman Hall; it will be followed by Material Girls, a show touring from the Dunlop in Regina.

 

In the Soil, Sewer Music

To write about visual art is in itself a difficult endeavour that attempts to graft speech onto vision (usually): to apply language to audio art is equally rife for fracture. But sometimes those “failures” are the most interesting, as they break expectations or assumptions. More possibilities present themselves.

It is, to paraphrase Duncan MacDonald, like going to an art school to make music, because most music schools are a bit more prescribed, and won’t allow the transgression of artmaking in their hallowed halls. There’s an aspect of this, in his collaborative piece for In The Soil, titled Music for Sewers, that privileges the experiential: attempting to put what you hear and feel into words degrades your experience, and only limits your interaction. Eleanor Antion, a significant if underrated artist associated with the FLUXUS group of the ’60s, put it best: “All art works are conceptual machines…All art exists in the mind.”

And art in the public sphere where the environment and audiences are so diverse and different that they deny classification, makes it “worse” – or “better”, perhaps. In John Perreault’s Street Music I, “he dialed calls for two hours from one midtown Manhattan telephone booth to another and hung up after three rings, which may or may not have been heard by passersby. It was a work so displaced, scattered, and marginal that it resided only in the imagination of the artist and the audience to whom it was later described.”(Paglia, from her Glittering Images).

But back to the installation proper: although MacDonald is the designated artist, its really a variation on the improvisational performances that he’s done with several fellow artists. Listed like a band lineup, MacDonald does “bangy things”, Ben Mikuska “big strings”, Arnie McBay “skinny strings”, and my favourite designation: Greg Betts provides “face.” Music for Sewers will be in the old raceway (visible from MacDonald’s office in the MIWSFPA), the watery offshoot of the old Welland Canal, that used to power the Canada Hair Cloth Building that the Walker absorbed and reformed. The “adaptive re use of the industrial Hair Cloth building” as the architect of the MIWSFPA stated once displays that “we were very aware of the palimpsest of history in your building.” This manifests in many small ways: Music for Sewers might be another example.

The project statement is delightfully honest and fresh: “We have been improvising and making what at times could be referred to as music for about 4 years now. This installation work will be our first public presentation as of yet”.

Now, the performances have been recorded, if untraditionally and experimentally. But MacDonald was coy about whether there’d be a speaker in the sewer or if his merry band would be “below”, translating their frenzy to a “public sphere.”

If you detect a hint of the absurd here, you’re correct: its in the spirit of John Cage, who could make some deep points about listening / creating in a manner that cast the whole framework of assumptions in a critical – perhaps heretical – light. In conversation about Sewers, Jacques Attali’s book Noise: Political Economy of Music was spoken of, by MacDonald, as a touchstone for experiencing this aural intervention beneath our feet and street. It’s an odd text that proposes a number of ideas about how we understand “music” which meld nicely with the visceral immediacy of Sewers. Attali talks about a way of thinking, not about objects and commodity but wider conversations. His division of the history of music offers gems like “repeating” where performances of music are all about a fidelity of imitation of an idealized, “perfect” recording.

Sewers isn’t that. It’s a site of reactionary reactive collaborative noise performance; a “readyfelt” (like readymade) physical experience of audio (like Darren Copeland or Myriam Bleau, who construct very formal, technically heavy situation, then react intuitively and instinctively within it). Past public audio interventions MacDonald played a hand in were Music Box Revolving Door, which led to pedestrians pausing unexpectedly to rethink their relationship to where they are / were, or another public art piece in Kitchener where “the entrance to city hall becomes a music box.” Again, absurd plays on propriety and perverted expectations that make you see the wider possibilities of experience.

In the heady days of late capitalist modernism / late modernist capitalism, an experience of unexpected “Sewer Music” is less about a “use” but moreso a “joy” value. Picture a balloon, a gleeful and treasured “nothing” filled with air, all temporal emptiness but a well known symbol of happiness and celebration. Here we come back to Attali, talking about how we must “possess” music, and thus collect it in an artificial form that is so exact and defined it denies the original, unique, ephemeral, shared performative experience…

Music for Sewers will be brief, fleeting, then only a memory. If you tell someone you heard it, they may assume you’re just delusional. Description may be impossible: but it will be a unique, perhaps impossible to “code” into words, experience. Go and seek it out.

#trynottocryinpublic revisited / redux

The second half of this BFA Honours Exhibition at Rodman Hall that is all under the umbrella title of #trynottocryinpublic is significantly different than the first: its wider in terms of media, and some of the artists are in their own “rooms”, creating spaces that are more installations than specific works. This is, in some ways, a pleasant surprise, but also not: students can be delightfully diverse. To pick up a thread from my previous thoughts on #trynottocryinpublic, sometimes the framework of art schools limits them more than expands their horizons….

If I was to choose a word to encompass this instalment, it would be “excess.” That’s a word that offers multiple interpretations and several of the artists in this show explore it in different ways. There are four individuals in the back, lower space at Rodman: Jess Wright, Sarah Bryans, Miranda Farrell and Jenn Judson.

Judson’s work is what engages me the most, which is ironic, as what she shows us in the main gallery space is primarily detritus of her performance based works, or props for the same (this is not to say its not done without thought or consideration. The masks that are intrinsic to her works hang along one wall, but one of the hooks is empty, suggesting that the process may be ongoing elsewhere, outside of Rodman’s space).

I would say that Judson’s works (both photographic and sculptural) are the strongest in this show: but unlike the first instalment, its not a clear superiority to the other artists here, but more, perhaps, a dependant one. And, as any reaction to art always incorporates a subjectivity that’s personal (even if by conspicuous absence,  if you attempt to suffocate it by only speaking in institutionally approved voices), her employment of various means by which to allude to her performance series is something of significant interest to me, from my own rare practice that’s been performative as well.

But, before I speak to Judson’s contribution to #trynottocryinpublic, I’ll offer some thoughts on her co exhibitors’s works.

Jess Wright presents two distinct series of “portraits.” The Flower Portraits, with the emphasis on the eyes, the shiny flat surfaces combined with the powerful – if, in one case, doughnut eyed – gazes of her women, are stronger works than what I’ll call the “Girl” series (Girl with Snap-back, Girl with Golden Frame, Girl with Plastic Earing). Wright’s portraits are excessive: sometimes too excessive, sometimes just the right amount of excess, and a hot mess of enthusiastic portrayal of individuals that are perhaps a bit loud, a bit much, but not in the least boring or repetitive. I suggest repeated visits, so you don’t overdose on the hot pinks and pop culture bits and pieces. Small bites of the tasty colours and forms would be best.

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She also has two lovely “bust” portraits that are sitting in an alcove that’s just outside of the lower gallery proper: these two could be considered a third series, but I enjoy them as a separate pair, like a matched set. Perhaps a “marriage” portrait, an updated Arnolfini, but my art history is showing: but they’re different from the other series, and the gold frames seem ideal (with the lovely green fringe on the one). All of Wright’s works show a progression, with different formal techniques explored (but with literal continuity, as with the plastic earings straddling both series).

Miranda Farrell and Sarah Bryans are completely different from this: Farrell creates an environment that is more like a photo album she’s sharing with us, of memories. This is appropriate for a room (she takes over one of the “alcoves” entirely, as Bryans also does) titled Come Home Year. There are times this installation works perfectly, evoking memory and nostalgia: other times it looks too personal to be professional, like I’m walking through a scrapbook that relies on a personal connection instead of being able to evoke one in the viewer.

Several larger photographs, especially with the small, almost toy like houses, mixed with objects that are like placeholders or remnants of memories are intermixed with illustrations that isolate and highlight by the use – or the absence – of colour. I use the term “illustration” here as the family scenes are obviously of importance, and in the black and white suggest either something lost, or something hoped for, or something that is more about what’s in your mind’s eye than existing outside of it, in “reality.”

Sarah Bryans’s work was, perhaps, the weakest in this manifestation of #trynottocryinpublic, for me (though the collaborations between Judson and Wright didn’t work for me, either, and I must admit to confusion that two practices that are so disparate – an excess of object, for Wright, and the object as almost bland signifier of something that isn’t even happening in the gallery, but is “elsewhere” – should try to meet, but that might also be the argument for trying it, too. Collaboration with someone who works just as you do would be pointless, in many contexts….).

Bryans uses the motif of the infant again and again, and in some of the works presented the intervention and documentation of the same is interesting: but “untouched purity and shared potentiality of new forms”, to use her words, is not how I see the baby, and found the motif more confusing and confused in its implications. Even for a critic as subjective as myself, I’m unsure how much I want to project into such a vague symbol: and the baby itself doesn’t have the skill and discipline of execution that would make it more impressive, and more believable, as a dynamic, living symbol.

Perhaps that’s why both Farrell and Bryans are in their own “rooms”: the removed spaces being filled with solely their works hopes for an exponential focusing of their ideas. That works, in some ways, with Farrell, but not so much with Bryans. If all of Wright’s works were in the same small space, they might make me ill, with their colours and forms and eyes, so they benefit from being separated. I don’t know if Judson’s would be benefit – or be stronger, bluntly – if they were “alone” in a similar manner. As I mentioned earlier, the excess / starkness of Judson and Wright seems to augment the other, and perhaps I’m really leaning towards reading the front, immediate space at the back of Rodman Hall as the main show of #trynottocryinpublic, as reading it as a whole makes Farrell and Bryans the lesser of the four. If considered as separate shows, on individual merits, they fare better, or I’m inclined to be more amenable to their presentations.

Returning to the main space: Judson’s works are minimalist. Even the titles suggest that they’re just “after the event.” Untitled (Gas Pumper) or Untitled (Homeowner) are simple and direct. My personal favourites are Untitled (Bus Rider) and Untitled (Church Goer). The latter depicts the kneeling, masked person of the title, with two men behind him / her / them, in a conversation that suggests nothing is amiss. That subtlety is echoed in how the masks, along the longer wall, all hang on simple hooks, save for one exposed hook, suggesting that someone, somewhere, may be wearing it and the performance – or actions / interventions – are still going on, outside the gallery space.

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These images are almost an afterthought: Marina Abramović , the current high priestess of performance art in the West, has stated how “[f]rom the very early stage when I started doing performance art in the ’70s, the general attitude – not just me, but also my colleagues – was that there should not be any documentation, that the performance itself is artwork and there should be no documentation.” (She has, however, profited significantly from various forms of documentation of her works, both with Ulay and beyond. I am reminded of St. Paul’s “the love of money is the root of all evil” being modified so as not to offend, ahem, to “money IS the root of all evil”).

This second instalment of #trynottocryinpublic is much more diverse than the first: its much more confused, so much more “all over the place”, so much more excessive (even Judson’s acts, though quietly alluded to, suggest an excess of action, just not in the white gallery space).

That, in some ways, makes this more successful: there is more, and there’s more failure, but there’s something wonderful about failure, if that failure can be excessive and engaging (my less than enthusiastic comments re: Bryans’ work, for example, are partly due to how I want to see the “baby” installed on Rodman’s lawn, or the MIWSFPA’s lawn, creepycrawling towards someone, all white and slug like….).

Even the collaborations between Judson and Wright, or Wright’s “overthetop” portraits, are not “safe.” Sometimes they seduce, and sometimes they screech. Both are worthy experiences.

#trynottocryinpublic is / was interesting, at times disappointing, at other times exciting. Now, the question is what will all of these BFA Honours Graduates do next…..

 

#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.