Excelsior! 1975 – 2015 / Dave Gordon @ NAC

Dave Gordon’s exhibition at Niagara Artists Centre is the kind of show with different meaning(s) to different groups: some of these are ideas that directly relate to what’s presented, and some of these are about what his art – or more broadly, his aesthetic – is implying.

That’s not an unusual consideration for a show that chronicles 4 decades of an artist’s practice – and life – especially when that artist is someone whose own artistic origins coincide with the advent of artist run centers in Ontario. Arguably, artist run culture is still one of the strongest definers of the Canadian art world, though it’s a bit frayed (the need to remind an artist run centre in Saskatoon that its not  “exposure / experience” but exploitation to NOT pay artist’s fees more disgusts than angers me. Further nausea is induced by outgoing Sask Arts Board “CEO” Ranjan Thakre – who helped end SCN under a Sask Party agenda that also destroyed the Sask Film Tax Credit – dismissing allegations of fraud in the same space….have these groups become as bad as that which they oppose(d) with their neo liberal selfish incompetence?)

Forgive my nostalgia: this is also a side effect of Gordon’s aesthetic, I fear…

It was interesting to hear Gordon speak, at the opening of Excelsior! 1975 – 2015 in the Showroom Gallery, about people like John Boyle and Greg Curnoe, both of whom I discovered at the Art Gallery of Windsor while helping Bob McKaskell research his exhibition Making It New: Canadian Art in the 1960’s. The fight regarding artist fees, and the establishment of “alternate spaces” is a history we too often forget[1].

I was also in attendance at what might have been Curnoe’s last artist talk before his untimely death, and heard him hold forth regarding a project that took his ideas of London Regionalism (“place is as important as subject” Gordon said at NAC, when invoking Curnoe’s ideology) to an almost absurd length, as he read the history of the tract of land he lived on to the audience, favouring his own fascination over the disinterest of the crowd (another aspect, perhaps, of his “regionalism”…)

Gordon’s work (some large, some smaller) fills the back gallery space, with works from variant series including Woodpiles, Clouds and Chicken à la King. There’s primarily paintings, but also drawing: a series of “text” or “scrawled” works are among my favourite, with them sharing the title of Don’t Carp London ON 1975. Gordon invokes names from that era that aren’t too “regionalist” – like the Rabinovitch twins – but are wider, like Roald Nasgaard, that acolyte of karaoke modernism on the prairies. There’s at least one found object incorporated as part of the painting Excelsior! though the duck (goose? I may have lived on the Prairies but I’m a city boy) acts as a “period” if you “read” the works from the portrait of Jean Genet moving clockwise from the left entrance and loop the room back to where you came in.

The portrait of Jean Genet (from the HeadLands Series) seems to make more sense than the bird in encapsulating Gordon’s aesthetic, but in an inverse manner. The accompanying cursive quote (It is not up to the artist or the poet to find potential solutions to the problem of evil) is the opposite of the ideal that art can, and must, change the world. This remote cynicism seems in defiance of the caustic portraits of former Ontario premier Mike Harris as Prince of Waters, whose “Common Sense Revolution” invariably led to Walkerton and waterborne fatalities…

 

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Further, Genet’s dalliances with “evil”, and his own “outsider” existential disregard for social norms, flies completely in the face (sorry, no pun intended) of the image of Bashar Al Assad: the skulls painted into his eyes offer an indictment of him that embraces the idea that the artist does have a moral role to play. This is among the later works that act as Gordon’s works from his trip to Syria (the directness of his impressions of his trip there expand the idea of regionalism, as we’re seeing it through his eyes).

In a more immediate (and contemporary, in light of Election 2015) manner, the work that entertained me the most were the portraits of our current Canadian Ruler and several of his court – sorry, I mean the current PM and various cabinet ministers – present and past, some departed by choice, others not.

Dean Del Mastro looks like he’d blend with The Godfather, looking solid of jaw and dismayed of expression. Bev Oda, with sunglasses and cigarette is channeling Lou Reed, easily the “cool” one of the group. Jason Kenny’s was perhaps the most unsettling: the night following seeing this unflattering rendering, I was watching the news and saw Kenney maligning some opponent with the same waddle of chins, camera angle from below (Remember how reporters would wait until later in the day to photograph Richard Nixon, as his five o’clock shadow was excessive and…well…criminalizing, to be honest?). Peter McKay seems a bit stunned with his tiny, dot eyes and pouched mouth, and the man himself, Stephen Harper, looks out at us askance, suspicious perhaps, painted in a manner that makes him appear to have a dirty face and a dismissive manner. John Baird’s face fills the frame, aggressively making eye contact with all. Vic Toews looks harsh and rough, like an Old Testament judge, eager to punish: his head breaks the picture frame, like Big Brother Watching Us. Tony Clement looks taken by surprise, and Rona Ambrose looks unimpressed, while Jim Flaherty seems to have a touch of indigestion…

I was once told that I’m the “most subjective art critic ever”: judge that freely in the previous passage, but I think some of you may agree with my assessment here…

There are also smaller portraits of artists (I use that term interchangeably for Arthur Rimbaud or Joseph Beuys, Philip Guston or Al Purdy) and some are granted larger spaces of note. There’s a portrait of Margaret Laurence, but also a quote from her excellent book The Diviners. Frida Kahlo will always have my love not just for herself and her work but also her declaration of her contempt for the “art bitches” of Paris, a term I’ve applied to many a place and person. The Greatest Canadian (Tommy Douglas) shares a wall with an amusing take on The Group of 7 (the seven dwarfs appear, and the same humour we saw applied to the Conservative Cabinet is here, but less acerbic).

The performance by SOUND SOUND followed after the talk and reception, upstairs: I’d not experienced this space before, and it was lovely, as a potential projection / event space, and the atmosphere was engaging even before the visuals and audio began (I was both amused and vaguely uneasy when I looked up at some point and saw the massive upper stretch of Silver Spire United Church, lit with a greenish light, seeming to look down upon us, perhaps with sternness…)

Ever since I became acquainted with Gary James Joynes or Rutger Zuyderveldt, I’ve found that its best to come to audio installations with an openness, as the best I’ve experienced (such as the aforementioned artists’ works in Sounds Like Audio Art Festival III) can overwhelm your senses and be alternately evocative and almost excessive in pushing their physicality.

There was (perhaps) a narrative to the variant projections on the massive screens at the far end of the rooftop. Apocalyptic scenes specific and iconic (images of 9/11) or more poetic and less recognizable mixed with quiet moments, all drone and ambience. These were punctuated by an almost minimalist dance of flames and smoke that was broken by the performers’ shadows, a clean delineated black among the frothing oranges. Another projection reformatted a more three dimensional version of Picasso’s Guernica: how can’t you think that Death rides the pale horse that dominates those tableaux of misery?

This was an unusual pairing, of Sound Sound and Excelsior!, but my long sentence in academia has not made me demand that all fits within boxes like a television dinner tray.

Perhaps it wasn’t such an odd evening of diverse works, if you see them as images of our world, and who defines it, whether the history (including the people and places that form it) of forty years ago, or the history of the 21st century as we’ve constructed it, so far…

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[1] A friend of mine whose history as a cultural worker is significant once commented to me that the foundation of ARCs and their “activist” mandate was intrinsically linked to the influx of conscientious objectors to Viet Nam, implying both a more “American” energy and activism but also cast ARCs as part of that larger social justice milieu. I also like to think of ARCs as having a link in this manner to groups like the SDS with their rough push for change, and perhaps this is why when places like the aforementioned ARC or Thakre betray their responsibilities they remind me of corrupt regimes.

Emily Andrews at NAC

Emily Andrews’ work in the Denis Tourbon Members Gallery at Niagara Artists Centre requires attention and consideration: but that doesn’t bely the playful nature of it, and that several of the works made me smile, if not laugh out loud.

Upon examination, you’ll notice recurring images and recurring themes, and start to see how the pieces seem to have conversations with each other as well as the viewer. At other times they seem to reference external narratives, from Alice in Wonderland to other pop cultural discourse (whether high fashion of the current or historic eras) that all combine in a way both amusing and entertaining. But the figures that appear also go further back than that, appropriate to a show that references dreamscapes: the many animal headed players (often very meticulously dressed) can either suggest A Midsummer Night’s Dream or older, more disturbing archetypes of beast men / women and the roles they’ve played in myths, folklore and dreams.

A small, but lovely work is Mary Ann! Fetch Me My Gloves This Moment!, with the white rabbit ascending the stairs, several clocks, an old fashioned key and a small pig to the side (A favourite scene in Alice in Wonderland of mine is the baby that turns into a pig, and the baby / pig’s caretakers – before they foist him off on Alice – singing a song about how you should “speak harshly to your little boy / and beat him when he sneezes”). None of the clocks have the same time, and the cool, refined woman sitting in the foreground is obviously the one giving the order within the title.

The titles (Celestial Paradise, Flame-Curtained Horizon, The Butterfly of Versailles) are all dramatic: these are all tableaux, scenes constructed (literally, in collage format) by Andrews. There is a very “post modern” mash up at play with several works, too, where you can attempt to recognize the historical figures that are “sampled”: this “flattening” is also apparent in that some of the figures display a cool fashion style that indicates that Mad Men may be done, but that the interest it generated in vintage / retro fashion is alive and well, and that sometimes making the old new again is very good.

The images sampled are iconic on a variety of levels (Alice appears in Far From Ordinary, along with some Llamas, and they’re also in Llaminoes, while she walks through several other works – like the images on the wall are really windows and the characters pass from one to the other with us, as we move along the gallery wall) that in their repetition in the images suggest a larger conversation, and almost act as quotes or footnotes.

But that all sounds very academic and staid, and there’s definitely a sense of humour in the works: here’s the statement for the show.

Far From Ordinary: A Series of Dreamscapes Made with Very Precise Slices, is the second solo exhibition for Andrews and includes a collection of surrealistic scenes in the form of hand-cut photo collages.  These intricately crafted pieces explore a whole new level of phantasmagoria that balances on the line of reality and imagination.  

Two images are on a different wall, facing the longer one that holds the majority of the images. Both of these are a little different, as they seemed very jammed, and extremely dense in their composition. Shades of Grey is glossy and deep, and you can recognize an image of the iconic Frida Kahlo among others, and Dream Factory does play like a reverie, with incompatible architecture and scenes mashed together, like any dream where the rules of reality are more fluid, or flexible, or simply irrelevant.

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The Flame Curtained Horizon
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Dream Factory

I saw this exhibition on the Saturday evening, having arrived in St. Catharines a bit more than 24 hours before, on a hellacious trip that brought me from the Prairies. Dreamscapes was the first show I saw here, after arrival, and its humour and quality made it a very good one. Or perhaps I’m still reeling from my experience in Northern Ontario, where I was unsure if I was awake or dreaming on the bus as we left Sudbury, all darkness and odd nightmares, and in a landscape both hauntingly familiar and incredibly foreign, like any dream country we’ve all experienced…