Tammy Jane Lepp: transformation & metamorphosis

At the last In The Soil (2018), Silver Spire United Church was the main site for Rhizomes, a variety of installations / performances / interventions by a diversity of artists. This not only was a very mindful and effective adaptation of the spaces within the church / centre by respective artists, but even while being guided to one installation or another, the lovely interior of the church was, in itself, an enchanting environment. One of the artists whose work was installed in the Silver Spire was Tammy Jane Lepp: her piece fe·cund was arguably the most seductive work in Rhizomes. This was something that insinuated you on several sensual levels (while talking to Tammy, in front of the work, I often “unzipped” the “casing” it was in, to put my face forward and breathe it in, for example).

This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered Lepps‘ work: at the previous In The Soil (2017), she, Joanne Ring, Kelsey Cheslock and Lisa Renee McKenzie had collaborated on an immersive installation in the side event space at Mahtay. Alternately seductive and playful while also somewhat corporeal and unsettling, Sojourn of Spectaculous Wunderkle Things had fluorescent components, found and hand made elements, and yet allowed for performers during ITS to take the stage and respond and modify the space with their own music / audio contributions. Personally, despite your intrepid #artcriticfromhell’s being “full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse; at times, indeed, almost ridiculous— almost, at times, the Fool” (whoops, sorry, a bit of Prufrock there), I must also confess to being a fan of the Cthulhu Mythos (more so what others have done with it than Lovecraft himself). Thus, this installation appealed to me both in a positive recreation / reinterpretation of an immersive ecological space (I may or may not have been napping in one of the “alcoves” as ITS 2017 was intense) but also had an edge. This manifested at night, where the unearthly glow of the works fully “came to life” (reanimated, ahem, you might say).

Now, this was four artists (McKenzie’s work in ITS 2018 was something I hope you had the chance to encounter, as well), and collaboration is a compromise and a conversation (I have been known to say I only collaborate well when I’m in charge, ahem). However, when sitting cross legged inside the “greenhouse” of clear plastic and vinyl, filled with a variety of earthy elements that seemed to more so fill the confined space with scent than a physical occupation, this sense of evocation of emotion and concept returned to me.

Lepp’s sculpture, installations and wearable artworks have an organic quality that’s an essential aspect of her creative process. She employs an intuitive approach to her imaginative and eerie works,  preferring to allow pieces to evolve, collaboratively with the materials themselves, rather than having a defined plan as to the final outcome. Her works are emotionally evocative, and this originates in her process, which is often raw and unchallenged by any “finished” agenda.  This experiential, responsive methodology manifests in pieces (like fe·cund), that are more sensual than didactic, more about the physicality of the piece, and the corporeal nature of its creation. A poet as well as an artist, Lepp’s own words encapsulate the experience of her visual work: transformation, birth and rebirth, growth, metamorphosis and an abundance – perhaps an excess – of sensual cues.

A multidisciplinary artist and teacher based in St. Catharines, ON, Tammy Jane Lepp has exhibited extensively in the Niagara region since her graduation from the Art Centre of Central Technical School (Toronto).

One of the reasons I enjoy very much doing these ongoing artist features is that it facilitates my interest in what many artists are doing (this echoes in my hosting the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Image Makers Conversation. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is nosy, always wanting to know what artists are making / creating). I’ve spoken with Lepp on numerous occasions (in fact, at ITS 2018, we may, ahem, have held up the line at Rhizome and I was so excited and enamoured of  fe·cund that we had an animated conversation about it, with (the aforementioned) many delays of me unzipping the “greenhouse” and breathing deeply and with great satisfaction.

 

 

RP2 @ NAC

Ready Player Two, at NAC, is not one exhibition (in four chapters, you might say) but (at least) two. They’re not separate entities, but blend together, offering a progression from the Plate Glass Gallery (The Kitchen) to the Dennis Tourbin Space (The Rec Room) and finally the end point – the maturity, and I’ll revisit that term later – of the Showroom Gallery (The Comic Book Shop and The Arcade). This is appropriate, that the components sift one into the other. Brendan Lee Salish Tang and Sonny Assu’s works in Ready are often collaborative (literally and conceptually) but have aspects and characteristics unique to each (Tang’s Manga Ormolu 5.0-q or Assu’s Quantum Warp Theory are both lovely “signature” works). Many pieces (such as Broken Treaties) have facets showing both artist’s personal aesthetic, but also details displaying a shared creation.

The installation of the work, the nature of the NAC space, however, may engender an interaction with Ready Player Two different than intended. I doubt that’d bother Tang and Assu, as in their talk at the opening reception, a sense of playfulness and interactivity with viewers was clear. Before we step inside the gallery, you and I, and rest a moment on the Rec Room green couch amidst wood panelling and patterned carpet, with Memento Mori: VCR, Late-night Programming looping infinitely, comics (Alpha Flight!) and magazines that immerse you in a nostalgic bubble of youth, memory and sentiment, I proffer the curatorial statement: An art exhibit about the joys of gaming, sci-fi, and comics; About cultural identity, pop culture, and growing up a ‘geek’; Partly nostalgic for an adolescence spent living in the rec-rooms of the 1980s and 90s; Also humourous, imaginative, and executed with a great level of craft.

The previous incarnation of Ready Player Two was at The Reach Gallery, curated by Laura Schneider. More curatorial words: [the artists] combine elements from science fiction, comic book, and gaming cultures to consider how these forms alternately reinforce and transcend racial boundaries in youth culture. In their individual practices, Tang and Assu frequently negotiate the material and conceptual dynamics of culture and ethnicity. Informed by their mixed-race backgrounds and experiences of Canadian life in the 1980s and 1990s, for this exhibition the artists bring together found objects, selections from previous bodies of work, and new collaborative pieces to create immersive spaces that evoke the adolescent sanctuaries of their time: the basement, the arcade, and the comic book store.

This is a dense show, as multi faceted as its multidisciplinary and meticulous. I reserve the right to revisit Ready and talk about it in different ways, with different artworks, in the future. This multiplicity of potential interpretations is a mark of the excellence of Assu and Tang’s art. My initial response was to interpret the multiple spaces through a lens of experiences that impress themselves upon you and thus form you into the person – the man – you are. Assu, in his talk, spoke of a formative aspect of his being / practice that encapsulates this. To quote his bio: Sonny Assu (Liǥwildaʼx̱w of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations) was raised in North Delta, BC, over 250 km away from his home ancestral home on Vancouver Island. Having been raised as your everyday average suburbanite, it wasn’t until he was eight years old that he discovered his Liǥwildax̱w/Kwakwaka’wakw heritage. Later in life, this discovery would be the conceptual focal point that helped launch his unique art practice.

Hence the Kitchen painting by Assu (Doesn’t Look Like Anyone Lives Here. Let’s Live Here!) illustrated aspects of how terra nullius, this denial of what was here “before” 1867, the #Canada150 national imaginary, manifests in people, not just in pictures or places…

Nostalgia is most pervasive in The Rec Room. This can lead visitors to simply be swayed by the evocation of communal experiences, and happy, with rose coloured glasses looking backwards sentimentality. After all, I remember reading the Alpha Flight comics there, and the characters now seem so stilted and stereotyped, so token and flat…..but its an uncomfortable fact that Shaman and Talisman were the first Indigenous super heroes I read, and enjoyed. History is difficult, and complex, and it is not something we stand outside of, as its participatory as well as problematic.

The Showroom Gallery – ideally the end of your traverse from outside to the Tourbin space – is the “art” of the exhibition, but this doesn’t mean its any less “playful”, simply that its “mature”, to revisit that loaded term. Standing in Shop or Arcade, you see the adults that were formed by the experiences in the other spaces, and you experience an aspect of how there is no point when “now” begins and “then” ends, in our personal – and public – (his)stories.

I could talk about each of the many pieces back here, as a locus of interpretation of Ready Player Two, but the pieces that pulled me in aesthetically, and then in their details and considered execution held me, are by Assu. These works face each other across the gallery space. Giant Sized Spectacular #1, #3, #6, #7, #9, #10, #11 and #12 (all 2017, all acrylic, ink and comic book pages) and a series along the back wall (including We All Must Deal With the Monster Within, You have betrayed the dream and SNIKT, also all 2017, also painted “samples” of comic book pages on panel).

Pop culture has undergone a radical repositioning in the “proper” art world in recent decades (I can remember being challenged for citing Gaiman’s Sandman series, in post grad writing, yet two years later academics were falling all over themselves to “discourse” about Buffy the Vampire Slayer – the best TV series, ever, perhaps, but its besmirching to see the weather vane acolytes of academia try to “own” something they previously dismissed…).

In light of this, with Spectacular, I was reminded of one of the most powerful stories I ever read – in any media: the original (1981) X Men two-issue Days of Future Past, which was nowhere near as “sanitized” as cinematic versions. It’s a time travel story (taking place in 1980 / 2014, and plays upon that standard trope of time travel in sci fi – do you prevent the future, or do you contribute to the inevitable?) but what makes it relevant here is that it took the idea of genocide – that mutants like the X Men are hated simply for existing, and that many want to see them eradicated in a “final solution” – further than ever. A classic scene is the adult Kate Pryde walking through the concentration camp, passing graves of “classic” Marvel superheroes (i.e. Fantastic Four and Spider Man). Several years later, the X Men graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, an even more powerful and controversial take on Mutant Genocide appeared: featuring religious fanatic convinced he does the “Lord’s” work by wiping out all mutants, and he eagerly embraces a bloody means to “justify” his ends. (That story begins with the murder of two Mutant children, bodies hung in swing sets as warnings: shades of Emmett Till, perhaps…)

I’ll add a dangerous side note. In God Loves, Man Kills, one of the X Men gets into a fistfight with a human (both teenagers, just out for an evening, no superhero drama here) as the human calls her a “Mutie Lover.” Kitty Pryde is the angry Mutant teen. When her friend, Stevie, a human friend / teacher, tells her “they’re only words, child”, Kitty screams at her African American friend: “What if he’d called me a n**ger Lover, Stevie, would they be “just words” then?”

It’s unflinchingly raw and cuts to truth brooking no facade of gentility. Back to “reality”: a meme in social media has been asking, in light of the John A. MacDonald statue removal, where would you like the statue of the man who tried to massacre your grandmother installed? In light of the ongoing institutional (intentional?) failures of the TRC, of MMIW, of the Canadian Catholic Church getting a pass on their part in “Rez Schools”, one can understand why an Indigenous artist and activist like Assu would find the X Men so relevant. Oh, did I offend you? Good, it means you’re paying attention. Its easier to see the truth of our reality through a story than what is in front of us…

Oh, your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is #sorrynotsorry: I talk “too much politics” and not enough “art” (as a talent free performance artist once whined at me).

There’s also an undercurrent of masculine identity here: formative and playful, but also that idea that, instead of no longer being a child and “putting away childish things”, to examine them for the lessons learned, or ideas proliferated that may have been exposed as propaganda. Two male artists of colour examining the tools and toys of masculinity is one way to approach Ready Player Two, and is what I mean when I say I plan to revisit and consider other works not discussed here, at a later date. Thankfully, Ready is open until December.

Assu’s painted collages are formal contrasts between the strength and solidity of his “referencing” the stories that are smaller, delicate, yet vivid in a different way from his painted layering. Palimpsest – where the “original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain” – isn’t new, but here Assu employs this, enhancing and enriching through combination the “surface” and the “ground.” The delicate blues, the gentle pinks, seem almost too “soft” for what’s being shown. In this instance, the punctilious nature of both artists is a means to an idea. (I offer an apology to Brendan Tang, one of my favourite artists, for not focusing as much on the exquisite works like Manga Ormolu Prototype 1 & 2. A work recently on display at Rodman Hall even reminded a Brock official that RHAC is more than they assume, ahem – but Ready Player Two has so much, too much, and I’m not disingenuous when I say I may revisit it, like I’ve done with Up Close and In Motion at RHAC).

Ready Player Two is almost too much, to be honest. Perhaps that’s why the couch of Rec Room is attractive, as you can pause and return to examine the determining, shaping stories alluded to in Kitchen (In Lieu of Expansion and Fear I choose to Take my Chances and Roll the Dice by Tang) or explore the implications of toys and what they teach us (G.I. PoC, in the Shop, also by Tang). Both artists have extensive web sites (Tang’s is here, Assu’s here), and these can only assist in making sure that the numerous works are considered as fully as they deserve.

This exhibition is at NAC until December 7th, 2018.

Dennis Tourbin: layering time, place and space

Years ago, in a conversation with someone whom also has that rare affliction of being both an arts writer / critic and having obtained a degree (and published in the field) of art history, we decided to enumerate the differences between art critics and art historians. Our (perhaps inebriated) comments were incisive, if caustic (offensive doesn’t preclude veracity).

Despite that jocular irreverence, several ideas proved enduring. For example: art historians are more “official” and reluctant to change positions. In fact, one of the best teachers I ever had, who turned me onto the living and dangerous nature of art history, insisted “your opinion is irrelevant, as you’re nobody”. Look to the canon and genuflect footnote cite endnote and quote, forever and ever, amen.

Yet, when I was taking Early Italian Renaissance Art from him and cited Paglia’s Sexual Personae and Rosenberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Early Renaissance and Modern Oblivion, or a scintilla of Foucault, he verified my sources and then embarrassed me in class, using me as a response to students’ complaints re: his pedantism.

Oh, sometimes I miss the university. Then I remember being mocked for daring to cite, in a paper about the art of the French Revolution – with sardonic contempt, for sure – Mao’s assertion that it hasn’t been long enough to decide if it was a good or a bad thing.

But what’s this tangent have to do with Dennis Tourbin’s La ville dort (translated as The city sleeps)? La ville dort is currently dominating one wall in the Hansen Gallery at Rodman Hall facing John Moffat’s massive psychedelia of Rechatin Miscalculated? (Regrettably, I shan’t be discussing Moffat here, but he has works in the MIWSFPS. Go. See them. #artcriticfromhell insists.)

The point: Tourbin does many things in La ville that I usually disdain (i.e. excessive text and iridescent, almost violent hues). Yet Tourbin presents an enamouring work I’ve visited repeatedly when I should’ve been reviewing (as promised) other pieces. But I had to go take one more look, basking in its burnished glow and evocative words.

The vertical work, to the right of the fireplace, has flat green “water” and golden land with text fragments “written on the earth.” Many of Tourbin’s contemporaries from this era (early 1970s – John Boyle or Greg Curnoe, both in the last instalment of curator Emma German’s Up Close and In Motion) employed similar fonts with cleanliness and ease. Some of the text is “cut off” by the topography, the map shape, and the words alternate in hue from reds to blues to yellows to blacks and more. Although the gold and greens visually seized my eyes and pulled my body over, the poetic words are what held me. This, especially: When I leave St. Catharines now, I only take enough memories to do me for the year. That’s what St. Catharines means to me.

This evokes my previous thoughts on Up Close, of “I’m not from here, I just live here” or how there is no point where “then” stops and “now” begins, in exploring STC’s history and being.

Dennis Tourbin La ville dort

Tourbin died in 1998. The front gallery space at NAC bears his name (it’s a space often focused on emerging / local artists, continuing his legacy). The didactic panel cites his major role and influence here in St. Catharines, along with Boyle, Moffat, Tobey C. Anderson. Ernest Harris, Jr.’s painting is still on display in the adjunct space in Hansen, and in conversation with German the idea of the interconnectivity, the suffusing environment that many artists live within, like fish in water, was mentioned. These recent manifestations of Up Close are regionally aware: it’s worth noting the role that St. Catharines based artists and activists have played in the history of Canadian Art, as German is showing us in most recent iterations of  her examination of RHAC’s collection. This echoes history cited in The History of Painting in Canada: Toward a People’s Art (published several years after Tourbin’s piece was made) or by Robert McKaskell in his Making it New! (the big sixties show).

In 2012, Rodman presented, in collaboration with CRAM International and NAC (curated by the inestimable Marcie Bronson) Dennis Tourbin: The Language of Visual Poetry, described as a “city-wide celebration of the St. Catharines-born artist’s life and work.” Observing how Up Close is / has been structured, German seems with the last few iterations to be using Ernest Harris, Jr.’s painting (which still rests above the mantle in Hansen) as a base: a contemporary artist in STC whose work is not only about another contemporary STC artist (in being titled Mel’s Brushes, as in painter Melanie MacDonald, who had a work in a past Up Close) but that acts as an endpoint for an historical line from “then” (Tourbin, or previously Anderson, or Boyle) to “now” with Ernest’s painting (a portrait in painting tools – brushes – rendered in a painterly manner. The lines intersect in multiple ways).

To bring it to contemporary times, I also can’t look at this piece with its title La ville dort / The city sleeps and not think of the large number of individuals who are part of A Better Niagara and that have put their hats into the ring for positions on regional council and to (paraphrase Laura Ip) “reset the region”, perhaps to wake it up.

This version of Up Close will shift soon: I could tease you with who’ll be showing next, but instead I’ll just remind you to go see it, go often, and spend time in this considered selection from RH’s collection. Frankly, looking at how Brock University is underfunding, understaffing and generally neglecting Rodman Hall (and how many tenured faculty at the MIWSFPS are complicity silent on the issue), your time may be limited.

Up Close And In Motion will be on display, in different ways and forms, until January 2019.

Image credit: Danny Custodio, of Dennis Tourbin, “La ville dort”, 1973, acrylic on canvas, Gift of Nadia Laham, 2012, collection of Rodman Hall Art Centre/Brock University. . 

 

“The bottom is a really interesting place” / A conversation with artist Bevan Ramsay

Bevan Ramsay’s installation of sculptural work Lesser Gods opened at NAC on May 11th: it’s aesthetically striking, but it also led to many conversations that evening about STC’s urban core, who it serves, and who slips through the cracks. I spoke with Ramsay that evening and we followed up online. I suggest visiting Lesser Gods before, or while, reading this.

“I wanted the portraits to honor the dignity and individuality of each sitter…”

The decision to title the pieces with quotes as opposed to names stemmed from a very basic decision to respect the privacy of the subjects. Several of them asked specifically that their names not be made public in exhibiting the work, and so, for me, that determined that none of them should have the names of the subjects attached…I had so much informative and interesting material [from our discussions] that was both very personal to the subject and functionally anonymous. I reviewed my conversations with the subject and chose a quote that seemed to me to capture something of that person’s character or outlook or both.

For instance the first piece I did titled “The bottom is a really interesting place” is actually a portrait of a relatively young man (mid-thirties) who was aged beyond his years from a childhood in foster care, an ongoing battle with mental illness that began in his late teens, and life on the streets, which entails irregular and interrupted sleep as well as terrible nutrition. Incredibly, given all that, he had a remarkably philosophical view of his predicament. We spent an entire afternoon together with him telling me his whole life story, which was replete with challenges, failures, victories, and near-misses. Through it all, and despite being sleep deprived (the previous evening was very cold), he maintained a kind of stoic perspective, and almost  amusement at his life’s path. So when I came to title that piece I kept returning to one comment he made about how complex and unpredictable his life of extreme poverty had turned out to be: “The bottom is a really interesting place”

The subjects’ poses are both intentional and incidental products of the process. With Lesser Gods I approached the portraits through a Baroque lens as opposed to Classical or other stylistic traditions of portraiture because of Baroque’s emphasis on conveying the idiosyncratic character and personality of the sitter. This approach seemed like the obvious choice since a big part of my goal in Lesser Gods was to have the viewer really spend some time considering the particular individual and the personality and life that led to their appearance when we met.

I wanted the portraits to honor the dignity and individuality of each sitter rather than idealizing them – or worse, homelessness – in some way that might diminish the reality. When I photographed the subjects I asked each person to “pose” as they wished to be represented. From there (continuing the Baroque tradition) I permitted myself some small tweaks to that pose / posture if they contributed to or amplified an aspect of what I believed the sitter was trying to convey about themselves, or if the modification conveyed more of what seemed admirable about the person.

At the end of the day, a good artistic portrait needs an element of caricature. A lot of it has to do with creating the portrait in achromatic or monochromatic material. Without the visual heavy lifting that colour, hue or tone does in real life, you have to exaggerate what’s there three-dimensionally to capture the likeness. Considering the poses and their relation to the exhibition title, Lesser Gods references the Humanist tradition (Man as God or Man in the image of God concept while acknowledging human frailty – even emphasizing frailty – as an essential and beautiful part of being human). So, I wasn’t very concerned with making the sitters appear “Godlike” but rather to honor whatever – or how – they chose to present to me. The poses that you see are really the product of an expressive collaboration between the sitters and myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“…they didn’t want the relationship between their identities and their current circumstances to be made immutable…”

It took two years from inception to begin making the first piece. It was necessary to deeply research portraiture as a practice, as well as the historical position of what I was undertaking.

I had to train myself as a portraitist – largely from scratch having never done this before. But I think what really slowed me down was wrestling with the moral, psychological and emotional implications of what I was attempting. I’m not completely at peace with those aspects of the project even now, but at a certain point I decided that, for better or worse, those things probably weren’t going to get any more resolved by me so it was time to “begin.”

The formal process was really quite simple. I’d see a homeless person on the street that captured my curiosity in some way and approach them by simply saying that I was an artist and I wanted to do their portrait. The nearly universal human response to this approach seems to be flattery (mixed with disbelief and a touch of skepticism). Thankfully, in my experience, that first one always wins out, and I’d find myself in an open-ended discussion with the person. They’d ask me about myself and vice versa. They’d want to know immediately what would be involved on their end, and once they understood that all I really needed was for them to hold still while I took a few pictures we’d usually progress to a more social interaction. Once I’d outlined my project, they were eager to share their story, and anecdotes and opinions with someone who was keen to listen to their voices.

All the participants were paid in cash on the spot, after the photos had been taken. No one asked for money, and I didn’t use it as incentive, but that was definitely an important requirement from my end in approaching the project.

Everyone I spoke with was very excited to know that someone was trying in some way to communicate the experience of people from their walk of life to the rest of society. A number also asked early on that their names not be used. Personally, my read on this wasn’t that they were in any way ashamed of themselves or their circumstances so much as that they didn’t want the relationship between their identities and their current circumstances to be made immutable in some way. As far as their feelings about the representations, I hope that they’d be pleased. I had some contact information for each person, but have nevertheless never been able to track them down again. I still can’t help but look for them whenever I’m in the neighbourhoods where we met…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“…a relentlessly capitalist society that seems to essentially devalue individuals…”

The work isn’t yet slated to show anywhere else, but I am submitting it to various venues. I’m cautiously optimistic that it will resonate and find an audience in most cities as the income chasm in our society continues to open and more and more people find themselves on the losing end of that equation.

Ultimately, though, and I’m planning to get started on this this summer, the final version of the pieces will be carved out of white marble. Specifically, the marble for this project comes from the quarry that was used exclusively to quarry the marble for New York City Hall (it was decommissioned immediately thereafter). I’m very hopeful I can get these shown in City Hall as part of the architecture, which would in my mind complete Lesser Gods conceptually. It’s hard to pin down what I would like to see come out of this project as a conversation. But I do hope that it might inspire questioning of what it means for our individual senses of our own humanity to be active participants in a relentlessly capitalist society that seems to essentially devalue individuals by way of instrumental logic.

This is an edited version of our exchange: Lesser Gods is on display until August 3rd at Niagara Artist Centre. All images were taken by Emily Spanton, whose conversation with St. Catharines City Councillor Mike Britton, in response to Ramsay’s exhibition, is also in the June issue of The Sound, and can be read here