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.

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