“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

Full Fathom Five Flattened: Kurt Swinghammer’s Melt at NAC

And icebergs do have their own noises, as they creak and float and melt.

(Nathalie Boisard-Beudin)

Let’s begin by asking a relevant, contemporary question – and very Canadian – question: do you hate the Group of Seven? Or do you hate the “idea” – the miasma of cultural smog, like a Chernobyl of radioactive “culture” – of the Group of Seven?

Who’s actually experienced one in person, even with all the Steve Martin inspired Lawren Harris “love” at the AGO, recently? If you simply encountered the works without preamble or historical / cultural frameworks of support, would you pause and “watch” them? My question is informed by both Aaron Thompson’s visceral critique of the idea of Mona Lisa, as well as Emma German’s recent talk about Slow Art Day.

But what, my exasperated readers ask, does this have to do with Kurt Swinghammmer’s exhibition Meanwhile out on Hudson’s Bay which features Melt: a new series of paintings in the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC? This is currently on display and charms on both a superficial level but also (like an iceberg) has depths of humour, caustic and gentle?

The statement: “It was close to 100 years ago that Group Of Seven founder Lawren Harris painted highly stylized depictions of snow capped Rocky Mountains and Arctic ice flows. As a young art enthusiast, Kurt Swinghammer absorbed this work via reproductions hung in his public school. In his teens, Swinghammer was soaking up library books on the modernist colour field work of Group of Eleven’s Jack Bush along with the British Op Art movement Bridget Riley. These three streams of influence come together in Swinghammer’s new series of acrylic paintings called “Melt.”

Each canvas shows a graphically designed iceberg floating in an infinite body of water. Hundreds of carefully mixed shards of colour achieves a strong sense of depth and has become a signature technique for Swinghammer. The Melt series continues his interest in exploring a traditional Canadian subject matter in a contemporary manner.”

But let’s step away from that historical interpretation for a moment, and just consider what’s in the gallery space. One larger painting is the opening “word” of a sentence that then consists of several smaller ones, though there’s a unity of form, execution and composition that makes them function as a unit, like pages in a book.

These are paintings that are superficially contradictory: they appear flat (often cold colours applied in shapes suggestive of construction paper cut outs) but, on closer observation, the shadows and lighting, the gradations of the scenes of “icebergs” are much more subtle – and much more painterly – than initially “assumed.”

This proffers an interesting formal means by which to consider Swinghammer’s response / interpretation to the mythology – or the monolith – that is the Group of Seven, or specifically pieces like Lawren Harris’ “Lake and Mountains” or “Mountains in Snow” (1928 and 1929).  Often described dismissively as “calendar art” but their prevalence, their insinuation, into the Canadian cultural psyche, can’t be so facilely dismissed. (A conversation I had with a local artist, a very good painter, recently centered on how some aspects of the Group of Seven were simply absorbed into his practice, into assumptions and actions regarding painting, and the realization of this subconscious dogma only became consciously known to him much later on….).

In one way, these works in Melt continue Harris’ exploration of mystical and often pantheistic sensibilities that led him into more geometric abstraction. But let’s ignore that for a moment, all the art historical babblegab: aesthetically, these are lovely works that are so well painted that the images seduce you instead of technique. Considering how similar each is to the other, they all have a unique charm, a simplicity that – as with landscape, and as we even saw with Flexhaug – though repetitive, doesn’t become tiresome. There’s a delightful allure to each painting.

In Atwood’s book Survival, she offers that “There is a sense in Canadian literature that the true and only season here is winter: the others are either preludes to it or mirages concealing it.” Although I’m also a proponent of the Wacousta syndrome, as Atwood is, Swinghammer offers a more hopeful, more positive, presentation of “winter.” After all, the show is called “Melt”, and the colours of the waters are rife with vibrant shapes that suggest activity and life.

These are delicate and disciplined paintings (when taking a photograph of one, I saw that what I presumed to be glare from the lights was, in fact, Swinghammer so perfectly capturing light in his painting that I “assumed” it to be “real”). They can be appreciated historically, or simply on an immediate level of aesthetic joy, of colour and contrast and shape and form. There are ideas at play that deepen their effect: and like Rothko once asserted, “a painting is not a picture of an experience; it is an experience.”

Melt, a new series of paintings by Kurt Swinghammer  (which was part of a larger installation titled Meanwhile out on Hudson’s Bay) is currently at Niagara Artist Centre, and on display for two more weeks. This Friday, May 11th, you can experience those works as well as Emma Lee Fleury’s Sprout and About (Plate Glass Gallery) and a new exhibition, Bevan Ramsay’s Lesser Gods.

 

The distance between us: thoughts on The Florida Project and The Square

Spoiler Alert: if you’ve not yet seen either of these films, the following piece mentions various scenes and plot points.

The difficulty in writing a review of The Florida Project is twofold, and both of these aspects speak to the power of the film.

The visuals are overwhelming in an aesthetic sense, with the pastel (yet vibrant) colours, with motels that seem to have fallen – and been damaged in the degradation – out of a Disneyland paradise, overwhelming architecture (Project must be seen on the big screen) that proclaims a dreamy ideal that is repeatedly, and directly, exposed as false by the characters on screen. The base lives of quiet desperation chronicled by the characters belies the “fairy tale” facades of the scrubby motels that are the backdrop to their daily struggles. All of my words there are not the equal of the few seconds where Mooney or Dickey traverse their decayed “Disneyland”.

But going deeper than how The Florida Project exposes a facade of America that’s often – still – obscured by performative, or slightly worn, artifice (like sequins worn from a gaudy costume), the emotional resonance of the film is hard to put into words. The stories of the people transcend the idea of “players”, or “actors” (unsurprisingly, Bria Vinaite and Brooklyn Prince are fresh faces, unmitigated and truthful in their portrayals. But they hold their emotional weight with Willem Dafoe here, like tragic participants in a inevitably sad story….).

It’s a rough, emotionally raw film: the manner in which it ends is perhaps one of the finest examples of the vision of Sean Baker (director / writer) and Chris Bergoch (writer). As the story builds to what can be seen as an inevitable confrontation, we’re given a scene that is alternately a visually enticing “escape” but also one that we know is fake.

The Florida Project has been praised in many reviews as a story about childhood, and I’d echo that, in that its a contemporary foray in that genre. But I’d add go beyond that, in light of the ending (in conversations with many, both within and without the cultural sphere, the closing scene has marked us all without exception). Firstly, the manner in which the Disney “castle” backdrop suddenly comes to the fore, in Mooney’s world, took me back to watching The Wonderful World of Disney as a child, after supper on Sunday nights, with my siblings. What we watched eludes me, and like many memories, it’s more visual and emotional than relatable in language. This experience was elicited so immediately, and so easily, by this scene, when I’d not thought of it in years.

Less warmly, the lies we’re told in childhood and the loss of innocence that comes hand-in-hand with the loss of those years is implicit to the desperate nature of Mooney’s flight from the failure of her domestic situation and the intrusion of cold reality into her world. An addendum to that last statement: Halley (Vinaite, as Mooney’s mother) jokes at one point that she’s a “failure as a mother”, in an amusing exchange with Defoe where the privileging of “tourists” above all else is discussed. But Halley reminds me of a lot of parents I know, who do the best they can with what they have, and that are doomed to fail despite doing all they can. Their situations say more about “America” than anything else. In full disclosure, I saw I, Tonya (the story of Tonya Harding’s brief rise and long fall) the same week as The Florida Project, and class and the lies of the “American Dream” inform my interpretations.

I hesitate to cite Donald Trump’s America. Too many of my critical brethren (especially in privileged sites like Canadian Art) seem to think they have an obligation to cite Trump in any and every piece they write, whether relevant or not. I eschew the idiocy that artists are magical unicorns that can change the world, to quote an excellent response to the 2017 Berlin Biennale. But the fact that The Florida Project is fictional does not make it any less true, or any less resonant, for what America is, right now, as opposed to what it would like to pretend it is (Horatio Alger is dead, and the American Dream never was true). Like Disneyland, once you see the facade, you can’t pretend that it is not there. The centre doesn’t hold.

The Florida Project is that rarity, in that it seduces and saddens, simultaneously. It’s required viewing for 21st century America (like a look in the mirror…).

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The Florida Project could be described as exposing a reality often obscured by artifice. The Square is something else entirely, and to attempt to encapsulate what it was about is as difficult as trying to define relational aesthetics, which is an art world citation that appears, either by direct reference, or implicit in interactions and artworks, throughout the film.

The Square seems more a series of vignettes that are interconnected, that in some ways enhance each other, or do the opposite, or do nothing at all with each other. It’s a long film: at some points it drags, but several scenes evoke a visceral response that is reminiscent of Gaspar Noé and his irreverent fracture of what film is / should be / “shouldn’t” entail (Enter The Void, perhaps, or Irreversible). Ruben Östlund is both the writer and director of this lauded film, as it won the Palme d’Or and been vetted at various international festivals.

A “digression, but a pertinent one” (to quote Mordecai Richler’s verbose Barney Panofsky): I’ve been consuming a lot of film lately, and one of note that I saw for the first time was Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

It’s not good: I can’t help but feel that it benefits from how, in the visual arts world (especially the Canadian contingent), “meaning” and “relevance” is projected into something whether its there or not, and that ontological quality is neither relevant nor to be considered, comrade.

But – a very large “but” – there’s an idea suggested in the article Cinema crudité in Harper’s Magazine, that what Wiseau does is refute – or ignore – our expectations of what film should be, that are not any more set in stone than the idea that once the camera didn’t move at all, or that characters couldn’t speak over each other (Robert Altman’s Nashville). As one critic said to W. D. Griffiths indignantly, why didn’t he show people’s feet? Our expectations of what is a “movie” is as facile as anything else, as prescriptive as any propaganda: consider David Lynch, or Eisenstein’s invention of the “cutaway” in Potemkin or Anger or Riefenstahl. Film is not an old medium, and what we expect is not always all that can be done. “Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind.” (Doris Lessing)

I must mention Adorno’s idea from Minima Moralia, that when many are confronted with something genuinely new they often fall back on the “shamelessly modern assertion that they don’t understand.” (I mentioned that I’ve been a bit of a cinephile lately: Luv, from Blade Runner 2049 spits that “in the face of the fabulous new, your only thought is to kill it”).

Returning to The Square: it’s a complex film, that bores sometimes, but then holds your attention so well that you’ll “awake” when the scene is done to realise that the action that just elapsed has affected you physically, with heart racing.

I offer two tangential observations, and I reserve the right to change my mind later (the aforementioned Harper article on Wiseau, by Tom Bissell, spoke smartly of how repeated viewings of a film, or time to digest what we’ve experienced, can and must change our opinions).

Firstly, in its overt and subliminal exploration of relational aesthetics, I return to Richler: “Life [is] absurd, and nobody ever truly understood anybody else. Not a comforting philosophy…”

The conversations, arguments and confrontations suggest this gulf that exists, whether occurring naturally or influenced by characters’ actions. Exchanges are fraught with potential disaster. The stuttering, angry and resentful exchange – only to be resolved in some manner – between the critic Ann and the curator Christian (Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang), with the dangerously tilting artwork in the background, and the accelerating crashing noises suggesting impending failure was one of the finest scenes in The Square. It blended humour and pathos well, and was alternately touching and moronic.

That’s a scene that slyly but audibly threatens: but the second observation I’d offer about The Square is more grotesque, and its a tableaux that’s haunted me. It’s a scene that could be removed and presented on its own, and in the succession of vignettes its one that balances some of the banal segments with a violence (implied and literal) that shows what performance art could be, if it wasn’t so irrelevantly self referential and self aggrandising.

Another digression: my dismissal of performance art is because I’ve endured too much of it that proclaims transgression and not only fails to deliver, but gives you boredom instead. It need not be like this: if you’ve seen The Artist Is Present, I suggest researching what Marina Abramović and Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) did when they were still collaborators, and many of their works (Relation in Space, or Relation in Time) made audiences uncomfortable, and skirted danger to themselves and others. Ambromović’s seminal Rhythm 0 where she invited “participants” to do what they liked to her with objects provided, maintaining a passive role, is horrifying (that took place in 1974. We’ve gone backwards, not forwards, since..). But if it’s strained and anxiety inducing, it is indisputably (as with Chris Burden’s Shoot, from 1971), and perhaps criminally, real.

When we see what passes for performance art now, of eating too many Big Macs or sitting on an ice cube with a lit candle and expecting your “audience” to endure the boredom you’re inflicting, apathy is understandable. In conversation with an audio performance artist and a painter once, in Regina, I let slip that I often secretly think of many Canadian “performance artists” as akin to the obligatory, somewhat abusive, porn scenes where the “money shot” is on the female performers’ face, and she’s just being used as a reluctant receptacle of someone’s unpleasant manifestation of ego….

A funny story: several years ago, at the now closed Mendel Art Gallery, I was in the audience for a performative work that was in the tradition of 1960s musical “happenings.” Afterwards, several individuals who identify as “performance artists” complained about the length, “boring” nature and “irrelevance” of the work. My demeanour was tested as I had often thought the exact same of their practice, and wondered at their blinders in walking out of the piece, when they’d often attempted to shame viewers who had tried to flee their own exercises in ego….

Returning to The Square. What the character Oleg (portrayed by Terry Notary) does, for a performance work at a fancy gala at the X Royal Museum transcends all that garbage.

It’s not surprising that the promotional images for the movie have been Oleg atop a table, looking aggressively Simian. His physical posture asserts he owns the room and anyone within it (as he demonstrates, pushing it further and further, rapaciously). What begins as the usual “art” that toys with transgression and discomfort escalates into true violence. Again, reality and film collide and merge: this piece is a reinterpretation – in homage – to Oleg Kulik’s various works where he has, in the role of a dog, been known to bite gallery goers who ignored the warnings. In the larger issue of relational aesthetics that The Square offers, its worth noting that Kulik (the real Oleg as opposed to the film Oleg) states his “intention is to describe what he sees as a crisis of contemporary culture, a result of an overly refined cultural language which creates barriers between individuals.”

The manner in which the scene ends – is abruptly cut – leaves us wondering if it terminated with the ultimate act of murderous violence (by a righteously aroused mob, what Slavoj Žižek prosaically terms “divine violence”, where the reaction is immediate, unthinking and thus “pure”). The thin veneer of society, as exemplified by this moneyed, privileged gathering, erodes at this artistic scratching. 

This lack of clear resolution permeates The Square: in conversations, to conflicts, in how this is not the sole death  – or more exact, murder – that may have happened in The Square. We’re left to decide for ourselves what transpired here. In conversation, several people asserted that a disturbing sequence is due to the “ghost” of one of the “victims”….

This bring us around again to a “problem” with relational aesthetics: a failure of narrative consensus (“That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.” My apologies: T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock is a poem I love and is often in my mind).

The tagline (both for the movie, and the artwork in the film from which the name is taken) is how “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”

This wasn’t true to my experience of (the film) The Square. I’d cite, more accurate to my impression, an artwork that curator Christian demonstrates to his two daughters. A gallery visitor, to gain entry to a show, must push one of two buttons. One declares that you trust people, while the other states that you mistrust people. The LED displays on the wall keep count: those who trust are nearly fifty, and only three seemed comfortable enough to openly declare their cynicism for humanity.

But the exhibition (based on the detritus and protective covers), indicates its not yet been opened to the public. The numbers are thus false: and I found myself wondering if the “mistrust” numbers were to encourage honesty (so you needn’t be the “only” one to doubt), or if the numbers were presented to force a more positive, hopeful facade (people are exponentially more trusting, “people are essentially good” but civilisation corrupts, as Rousseau would say. But flouting this is the opening sequence where Christian has his phone and wallet stolen in a grift that is unique enough to demand respect, and that plays on trust. However, we find out later he also assumed his cuff-links were taken, and they were not. For a moment in the narrative you wonder how reliable his recounting of his experience is…do we “trust” Christian, or “distrust” him?).

The Square offers us hints, but not resolution; narratives but no conclusion. In some ways, its a different story constructed from the same components as The Florida Project. Both offer truth and artifice, allusion and honesty. I plan to watch them both again.


The Square and The Florida Project were both on view at the Film House in the Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines in January of 2018. Many thanks to the staff of both the Film House and Niagara Artist Centre who have a strong hand in programming films unavailable elsewhere in Niagara. The upcoming schedule can be seen here.

Cooler Than Cool: worthless and priceless

“..an aesthetics of interaction.”(Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis)

“We’re not complaining that the values people once believed in are now empty; to the contrary, we’re doing our best to empty them more and more. Get used to it. Stealing is a thrill in itself; this enjoyment is the real reason for postmodern appropriation. We aim to undermine those “convictions” of authenticity and truth, of proper meaning and right order, that sometimes seem to be as dear to Marxist dialecticians as they are to bureaucrats in the Pentagon. Speaking in my own voice is a tedious chore, one that the forces of law and order are all too eager to impose. They want to make me responsible, to chain me to myself….But forgetting myself, speaking in others’ stolen voices, speaking in tongues: all this is pleasure and liberation. Let a hundred simulacra bloom, let a thousand costumes and disguises contend.”(Steven Shaviro, Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism)

“I only wanted to find great people and let them talk about themselves and talk about what they usually liked to talk about and I’d film them.”(Warhol)

If you’re following some of the more entertaining (if insular and a bit masturbatory) debates in the art world right now, there’s a concerted number of voices decrying the academicization of art aesthetics – which essentially means the elimination of them to serve the politics of the moment. This manifests in different ways, whether in that works are solely to be interpreted through a specific ideological lens or only considering specific groupthink (or approved ideology, edit as you will), ignoring and denying all other.

I might suggest an example in the recent interpretation of Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale which has handmaids that are African – American, which in Atwood’s book was biblicaly impermissible to Gilead’s theocrats, as non whites – whether by biological or social designation (such as Jews) – were deported or executed. It’s an interesting tell of the ideology of the producers of this series, that Atwood’s novel’s reach (abuse of power in the name of religion being no surprise) is narrowed to serve a very specific interpretation (the abuse of women in the name of religion being no surprise). It’s reminiscent of the debate as to whether Hillary Clinton lost the last American Presidential Election, or if Trump won it…and that historical event clearly delineated that many ideologies don’t always intersect smoothly. To offer a further nod to Atwood’s Gilead, it’s like how calling oneself a “Christian” can mean anything, or nothing, and that Atwood, in her book, showed clearly that enslaving anyone in the name of your invisible friend is a poor, poor thing. End of tangent.

This is one of the ways in which art schools and their respective ideological apparatus limit dissent and reinforce their own propaganda. In his excellent book on Art and Sociology, Editor Jeremy Tanner asserts that art historians often value works that sociologists dismiss and vice versa, and that where their ideologies overlap in an “art object” (an inexact, but workable term) is as rare as a unicorn. “Taste is the enemy of art” declared Marcel Duchamp infamously, and Warhol’s further fracture of what might be called high or low taste is well known, and still reverberates.

I recently attended an artist talk where Warhol’s image of Marilyn – do we even need a last name – was shown as how “pop” and “art” meet and take on a viral life beyond even what McLuhan expected or guessed at…and the artist in question was / is still producing versions of Warhol’s Marilyn that further challenge – or collude with, or enhance, or erode – taste, consumerism and capital. This article is an interesting one, in that light, and this rebuttal is also worth considering.

As to where I stand in this debate, I find myself more often channelling Bartleby and asserting that I’d rather not…..or more exactly, I prefer to take things as they are, at times, in a more Modernist assertion of social interactions, and am less interested in a post structural framework that, as postmodernism eats its children alive, hurtles us towards cultural immolation by means of Trump or Clinton, a post truthiness where ideology eschews all the things that make Art enjoyable and accessible, and yet still challenging….

It might seem strange that the previous tangent was inspired by Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold), a collaborative  exhibition by Katie Mazi and Jenn Judson. It’s a show that borders on silly, and that refuses – simply will not – take itself seriously. Yet in doing so, it offers an amusing and sometimes very slick demonstration of the joint nature of creation (beyond the artists to the models, even), how photography can beautifully capture a performative experience, and that it is good, sometimes, to take what you do seriously, while never taking yourself so, in that vein.

The teasing online statement they provided was minimal, but inviting: “Do you like art and do you like to laugh and/or cry? Good. It’s a photo show. Two amateur photographers, ten plus+ amateur models and one new body of work. Some call the photos dumb, others call them sexy. It’s up to you to come to the show and decide for yourself. Kate Mazi and Jenn Judson present to you: Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold). A photo based exhibition that you have to see to believe.“

The works in the Dennis Tourbin space at NAC are primarily photographs: but there’s also the clothing, and some items, presented, that were part of the tableaux that the artists present. The images are kitschy and cheesy, seemingly frivolous, and the models seem to invite us to join in at their unselfconscious self mockery, that is as clear and bright as the colours.

The titles are as evocative, as they are silly: I’m reminded of children’s toys or games, which fits with the aesthetic of play in that these are like Halloween costumes, or children (in age or at heart) playing dress up. Daddy Cool, Hot Wheels, Fresh Cut, Iceboxxx, Bingo Babe (my favourite), My Name Is (Gator Ray) and Dynamite Dude are all titles that (as they’re listed separate from the photo works, as the pieces are numbered on the wall) you can easily match to the images, after an initial tour of the show.

In conversation with the artists, several ideas came to the fore: the idea of “throwing people off, producing something that seems familiar but then jars”, a seemingly familiar aesthetic which then falls apart with the models, purposefully fracturing the initial reading of the images. All the models are amateurs, and friends of the artists, and from various communities other than / including the visual arts, so there’s a freshness and honesty to the roles they perform that’s not overtly determined by expectation. Both Judson and Mazi sheepishly describe themselves as hoarders when it comes to clothes and items that were relevant to Ice Cold, and that immediacy in a personal space also manifests in how the sites range from St. Catharines to Hamilton to Niagara Falls to Grimsby. Taking this aspect of the local further, an earlier version of this was displayed across the street on St. Paul, at the Mahtay Cafe, with the catchy title of They Hate Us ‘Cause They Ain’t Us 2017. It’s very fresh work, so not as clearly defined in their minds and more about the creation – the performance of it – at this point. They collaborate in a very seamless manner, with no specific roles but both doing everything (both work at the same place, and there’s an intensity between art and life with the creation / process of these works) that is echoed in a “real willingness of the models to become the characters”. As this is a continuing body of work (there was also a piece in the #Canada150 exhibition at City Hall, in downtown St. Catharines, playing upon the attraction / repulsion of tourist traps, and on a subtle level explored the dependence of the economic health of the region on this industry), Mazi and Judson talked about future video pieces, and the works at NAC are surely cinematic (both in the larger than life personas and in the graphic and vivid nature of the “scenes”). Their artistic choices were “made on the fly, reactive and immediate”: even though you’re only seeing one image for each character, there are about ten photos selected from each shoot, and “uniqueness” within the larger narrative of all the characters and images and scenes is important. The characters “should be individuals” within the larger story that Mazi and Judson are creating here…so some basic parameters are set, and then flexibility, in terms of interacting with the models and the sites, lead to results that are only partly expected, but more about possibilities.

There is the idea of kitsch, for sure: works that evoke an emotional response over an intellectual one, and that’s applicable here. But that’s also a superficial reading that doesn’t do the works full justice, as there’s also a sense that this work couldn’t be made anywhere else other than a region that is so tourism dependant (the same way that Levine Flexhaug’s work had a different resonance here, with his paintings sharing a sensibility with the many and ongoing tableaux of the Falls).

Their statement in the show perhaps encapsulates it best: “Two years ago, a shared love of Muppet Treasure Island brought Katie and Jenn together. Since that moment, the two have realized that their lives connect in ways beyond foolish puppetry on the big screen. Combining both their closets and their sense of humour, this new collaboration series is an authentic blend of their individual artistic styles.

Cooler than Cool is a series of digital posters that challenge the aesthetic of what has been considered “cool” in the worlds of art, fashion and leisure. Each of these looks have been constructed in order for the characters to better perform their style. This work is era – less, timeless, worthless and priceless.

So bad it’s good, so wrong it’s right. Its Cooler than Cool.”  

This collaborative, sometimes excessive, cinematic display of cultural fractures of “cool / not cool” is on display at NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) until the weekend of October 8th.


All images are copyright of the artists.