Opaque and Obtuse: more light than heat

The exhibition more light than heat (Teresa Carlesimo with Michael DiRisio, curated by Carina Magazzeni) is an opaque exhibition. On numerous visits, a sentiment has become more formed in my mind. Essentially, that the necessary context for a full appreciation of this exhibition is unavailable to the visitor, and that even upon numerous visits, has not become more transparent or accessible.

Anyone who’s suffered through my writings on art over the past few years knows I’m a fan of a phrase by Alice Gregory, as it so perfectly encapsulates what is so often a problem in contemporary art – especially Canadian, with its intense academic flavour. Or perhaps taint, if you will, is a better phrase. Gregory asserts that “…contemporary art…for the past century has often been the product of speech acts. I am an artist because I say I am an artist. This is art because I say it is.” This is dually appropriate for more light than heat as the statement on the wall for the show is evocatively well written and erudite: the artworks in the gallery, though sometimes well executed, are not.

Allow me to invoke the curator’s aforementioned words: more light than heat invokes an uneasiness with space. The exhibition features common construction materials manipulated into sculptural forms, participatory installations and fictional spaces, and video works that push recognizable forms to their formless limits. [The] Hamilton-based artists…present an exhibition that exposes their behind-the-scenes inquiries into the built environment through a series of works that play with the authenticity of building materials and inexpensive “fast construction.” Through this, the exhibition gestures towards the ways by which our everyday spaces cannot be separated from capitalism, nor our world’s current environmental shift. more light than heat is a discussion that doesn’t necessarily provide the answers or illuminate a solidified thesis—rather, the exhibition exists as an agitation with materiality, the built environment, and natural resources to pose questions about our everyday spaces.

Acting as an extension of their recent presentation of a form of formlessness presented at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, this exhibition at Rodman Hall Art Centre can be understood as an elongated exposure of artistic process and labour.

It’s an amusing slur to assume that most art writers will use the term ‘derivative’ to slag off art works: here, however, with uninspired appropriations of ideas and formal tenets from artists like Dan Flavin (with his use of fluorescent lighting) or Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors, it is true. Frankly, Marinko Jareb’s mirror installation in the washroom at NAC does more to destabilize the visitor than the ‘mirror’ work in more light than heat, named Untitled (clouds). This is not to say that the exhibition fails completely in terms of visual seduction. A video loop by Carlesimo, Montebello 01, which sits on the landing before you enter the larger back gallery space is somewhat engaging, and the fragmented video projection of the depth we wanted, needed, so we compressed it all has its moments of success. But the proliferation of ‘marble’ makes no clear or accessible correlation to the ‘history’ of Rodman Hall (with its marble fireplaces), and the random objects in a form of assembly are mute as to any relevance or interaction with the visitor. There is an unfinished, and unresolved, quality to this show: in speaking of it as a ‘gesture’, it is an incomplete one, and in doing so falters more so than suggest contested possibilities. It’s like incomplete student work; no offence to some of the fine student work I’ve experienced lately, especially in the photo show Translations at the MIWSFPA.

Years ago, when I interacted with a series of works by Jane Ash Poitras, her paintings were accompanied by several page statements: the viewer had no interest to read these, as the artworks themselves seemed almost to be afterthoughts – an inconvenience – to the words. Similar to the situation at Rodman Hall, Danny Custodio’s exhibition Flower Carpets/Tapetes Floridos on display concurrent to more light than heat is very beautiful, and offers a great deal to the viewer that invites you to mine the larger ideas behind the photographs. Returning to the Poitras show, Rebecca Belmore’s blood on the snow was also on display, and with almost no accompanying statement or didactic, the sculpture was far more evocative and interesting.

I’m also reminded of a curatorial venture from Corrina Ghaznavi which I visited nearly a decade ago, where the positioning of the artists, and their interrelation, was so specific to her yet was not communicated to anyone else. In that respect, the gallery goer was left cold.

The text on the wall for more light than heat is well written. The artworks are not well executed, nor achieve what art must be: a well made, and meaningful – to the visitors, not just the artists – object. I offer this having experienced more light than heat on nearly a dozen occasions, and despite my ‘reputation’, I don’t enjoy having to point out that a show fails. This is doubly problematic as the artists are alumni of Brock, and could have offered an interesting rejoinder to some of the facile dismissal of Rodman’s relevance to the MIWSFPA coming from Brock administration. If this is the last exhibition to experience at Rodman, before its closure, it is a disappointing one.

This is neither a strong show visually, nor alluring conceptually: it mimics what might be the forms of art without the self criticality and consideration of the viewer necessary to speak more strongly, and more clearly. I wanted more – require more, bluntly – and that was not on display here.

more light than heat, an exhibition by Teresa Carlesimo with Michael DiRisio an curated by Carina Magazzeni, is on display at Rodman Hall Art Centre until the 15th of March, 2020. All images are courtesy Rodman Hall.

Painting Modernity

[Jasper] Johns recognized that one’s knowledge of reality is at best fragmented, impure and incomplete. He may incorporate attributes associated with the traditions of abstract art, still life, portraiture and trompe l’oeil realism but in the final analysis his art belongs to none of these traditions because he refuses to subscribe to the ideologies and belief systems inherent in each of them.” John Yau, The United States of Jasper Johns

I once told a #karaokemodernist, when he whinged that I ‘hate painting’ that, I, in fact, just hated his ‘painting’ (I did make air quotes, as I spoke to him). This came to mind recently when I encountered, like stepping in leavings on a sidewalk, the slosh from someone who jabbered about ‘moderns’ and had – perhaps, being charitable – read one or two things about the highly contested (and very engaging within that arguing) dialogue of Modernism.

Years ago, I was also a panellist for a fine show titled Rewilding Modernity, and two of the strongest voices from that exhibition – both female curators – spoke of their ‘pugilistic approach’ to Modernism.

The panel I sat on was an interesting mix wherein the participants (Barry Schwabsky among us) couldn’t even agree on what that term meant. Schwabsky (an interesting critic out of the U.K.) had a Eurocentric focus, feeling the need to offer a history of the term. I countered this with Slavoj Žižek’s idea that ‘we’ in the ‘West’ are like the character in the film Memento, who know something important happened but can’t exactly remember what, though it casts a shadow over our amnesiatic efforts).

When I visited an exhibition at 13th Street Winery in this new year, with the straightforward title of Modern Masters, these (of course) contested narratives were in my mind. The list – and the breadth – of the artists on display are challenging, not just to the visitor, but also to each other. I often consider Ad Reinhardt, a fine painter and art historian, who joked that his works were often installed separately from other artists working in abstraction, as his aesthetic asked hard questions of the other paintings. I see this as a good thing, as conversations – or again, arguments – happen within the gallery space, and the viewer is ‘caught’ between and within them. This – as many of the paintings are visually arresting and enticing – is a wonderful thing.

Cynthia Chapman, And So On, 2019.

The works exist within a few loose frameworks. There are pieces by Riopelle or Joyce Weiland (her work, March, is as playful as much of her paintings), that date back decades, and some that are as recent as 2019. There’s a Karl Appel (who co founded Cobra, and his Two Heads has splashes of yellow on white) and a Nichole Katsuras (Decision Before Dawn has chunky blues, looking like they’ve burst out of the black). Cynthia Chapman’s And So On also offers flickers of colour on a darkened field, whereas Jean McEwen and Kazio Nakamura are more frenetic in their application of colour. There’s also discourse between the artists / artworks: Henry Saxe does it most directly, with his Homage a Riopelle (and Homage a Borduas, as both are argualy among the first rank of painters of their generation, not just Canadian). The time span of the works also offers potential to see how some of the artists here directly, or more ephemerally, influenced those who came after them. The quantity and power, in the larger sizes of works on display, make it an experience that can be overwhelming, and the viewer should give themselves over to, letting the colour and forms wash over them, almost. Julian Bell in the book What is Painting? Representation and Modern Art offers an idea, from the (in)famous action painter Jackson Pollock: “I think they should look not for, but look passively…it should be enjoyed just as music as enjoyed.” Bell elaborates on this: “In other words, there was no prior context to the painting itself. The viewer’s eyes would submit, and the painting would act.”

Henry Saxe, 2nd Fence, 1962.

Most is abstracted, and very large. The space is something of an ‘art barn’ (I say without prejudice) so its a massive space that allows the pieces to ‘breathe’, if you will. Some names will be familiar to you, others may not. As well, though primarily two dimensional, several very solid metal works break into the physical space (and can, perhaps, be seen as emissaries of the outdoor art collection ‘straying’ into the gallery space proper). Doug Bentham is the most prolific representation of this (his works are less impressive, however, than Ball #20 2nd Variation or Le Loup Garou by Doug Saxe, who also has some vivid painted works on display).

Some of the work was passable, some was puerile and some was pulchritudinous. The press release describes this as a ‘blue chip’ collection but its too uneven for that (though I saw an Otto Rogers I enjoyed, Tall Tree On Cliff Edge, which despite having seen much of his work on the prairies, was never the case before Modern Masters). Clearly, it is all work that has sold for a fine price, but even though a work like Michael Adamson’s The Sun, The Sun may be expensive, it’s still mimicry of Hans Hoffman.

Jean Paul Riopelle, Et Vert, 1966.

With the heavy weight given to abstraction, I’m tempted to bastardize a line from Clement Greenberg’s comments that photography is hard because it is so easy: he meant that because the process was predetermined, in ‘taking’ images, that the artist had to push themselves towards more criticality. Abstraction, in eschewing story telling, stands solely on a formal ground: if it fails to interest visually, it fails. More John Yau, about American master Jasper Johns, but relevant here: “The desire for immediacy is overwhelming…One of the issues painters must face is how to locate this desire in a medium which cannot overcome its own physical presence; they must grapple with what that presence could mean in a secular world where no belief or ideology is central. For while painting is no longer a way to show the viewer that the earthly world is connected to the heavens, so we can believe that we can be released from what we are and become what we dream, the desire for release remains unabated.”

David Bolduc, Wing Chun, 1980.

This is not to say that there aren’t artists here who offer landscapes translated and transformed, but the strongest works exemplify that “..painting…is based on the fact that only what can be seen there is there. It really is an object…What you see is what you see.’ (Frank Stella, who defined hard edged abstraction in the last century). David Bolduc’s Wing Chun is very ‘there’, in this sense. Don’t stand in front of it expecting, but just experience it.

Modern Masters is on display at the Gallery at 13th Street Winery until the middle of March: go see it, and go see it often, as I’ve barely offered a taste of what’s on display, and the show is as diverse as the space is tall and wide and full of works. The gallery hours are 10 AM to 5 PM, Tuesday to Saturday, and it’s located at 1776 Fourth Ave., St. Catharines. As well as the gallery space, the outdoor artworks are worth a visit, as they sometimes work within, or challenge, the landscape. The header image is Kazio Nakamura, Reflection ’83, 1983.

Open Secrets: Carrie Perreault’s period of adjustment

Everybody here / Comes from somewhere / But they would just as soon forget / And disguise And sheer humiliation / Of your teenage station / Nobody cares, no one remembers and nobody cares (REM)

Natalie Hunter‘s Staring Into The Sun was an exhibition that changed, literally in terms of the light and shadows, over the period it was at Rodman Hall. But it also changed for me and my interpretation, in terms of where I was ‘standing’ in relation to the translucent, ephemeral works (again, both literally, but also where my mental and emotional positioning was, too). So, whereas my initial interactions with that work were more formal (such as how Helios, on the windows, had different facets whether inside or outside the gallery), when I visited the last week it was on display I was thinking more of death, grieving, loss and that which is left behind, whether more permanent or that which ‘flees like a shadow, and continueth not’ (Job).

Its a variation on the amenable object, but more personal. One of the reasons I still enjoy writing about art after all this time is that works are fluid, and not only do we respond to them, but sometimes we encounter an artwork that seems to speak directly to us, in a way that doesn’t rely on language or words and thus can cut through the barriers we build. A favourite writer of mine, Margaret Laurence described it aptly as how ‘what goes on inside isn’t ever the same as what goes on outside.’

This brings us to period of adjustment, a solo exhibition by Carrie Perreault, currently on display at the Niagara Artist Centre. period of adjustment is difficult work: not solely in that the emotional engagement of the visitor is necessary to a full – if variant – experience, but that it may evoke emotions and memories on a personal, familial or social level, that may make you uncomfortable. Perhaps as much so as the young woman in the large video projection methodically, painfully and clearly regretfully ‘abusing’ the ‘other’ woman – the artist herself, sitting stoically, enduring, thinking soon it will be over until the video loops again and again and again – by smashing eggs on her head. The crack of impact is louder than you’d expect: the innards and goo stream down her hair, face, shirt and reside in her lap. But she never breaks eye contact with you. It might be described as a pleading look, but somehow you know she knows – from past experience – that we can (we will?) do nothing.

This is a re enactment of past suffering. That’s obvious to any of us who’ve ever sat in that chair. Its almost as though its a forced social ritual, that no one enjoys but must be done. Perform and display your pain for others, who might ignore it, or might even be amused, or just look away in disgust.

The exhibition can be read as four separate but interlinked works, like squabbling siblings. The prints on the left hand wall (I have always taken the weather personally, 2017, intaglio, screen print, mixed media) aren’t the first thing you’ll notice, nor will they alternately engage and repulse you, like Untitled (eggs) (2018, the aforementioned video projection – or For once in your life, just let it go (2018), a work ensconced in the alcove room at the back of the gallery. The last will aurally assault you, then as the blood begins to flow, will both enthrall and repel you. It merits its own ‘room’, though the pick pick pick leaks out into the ‘proper’ space, tainting it. period of adjustment is most affecting – and effective – when experienced alone. Perhaps you’re more introspective then. Or more vulnerable.

There is, after all, no real clear point when ‘then’ stops and ‘now’ begins: emotions and memory are insidious, you might say, that way (like a bit that keeps pushing through the ink, that bit of ‘deformity’ or ‘scar’ on the concrete….)

Over my dead body (2019) rests slab-like in the not-quite centre of the room. Concrete and mixed media, the whorls in the (mostly) flat surface allude to a grinding down, an erasure, a palimpsest that – by definition – fails, with bits of colour there and here showing through, rising to the surface, like a subconscious emotion that won’t be drowned, despite your efforts, or the efforts of others – [t]here’s a downstairs in everybody. That’s where we live. (Gaiman). Perreault’s process of creating, destroying, creating, erasing, marking and making, then concealing those marks (as in weather) are a way in which the non video works are united in this show.

The exhibition statement: Working primarily in sculpture and performance, Carrie Perreault balances resistance and restraint in onerous actions that recount long-term precarity. In making her work, she expends great effort to achieve minimal results. This isn’t about labour; she prioritizes process to reflect on systems of abuse and their connection to emotional and psychological experiences. Through gestural, often repetitive acts and narratives that resist closure, she alludes to complex trauma and its residual effects. By exploring, in a visceral way, failures, vulnerabilities, and the limits of her body, Perreault makes viewers keenly aware of their own.

I’m a firm believer in synchronicity, during my time in Niagara: Carrie and I have known each other since not long after my arrival here. During the walk through she generously gave me, the day period of adjustment opened, we spoke of family and how bonds of family bind both ways. They bind us up, support us, help us, and they are also a bond from which it is difficult, perhaps impossible to extricate oneself. (Gaiman) This conversation took place several weeks after my father’s death, and there are nothing but mixed feelings with such a ‘large death’ as that, and personal memories and experiences unique to the situation make it deeper and thicker, like the pasty, flat white silk screened ‘disguises’ and ‘masks’ that Perreault layered upon her printed work in this exhibition.

More emotional synchronicity: what we (don’t) say to our families, what they (don’t) say to us, and what we (are taught to) hide from each other. A friend talked about therapy and being asked about familial relationships and rating them from 0 to 5. She lied and said 4 (kindness over honesty). Her parent WAS honest and said 0, and she spit anger at how ‘truth’ can be a ‘favourite set of brass knuckles’ (Dunn)… . This led to a conversation about the lies we tell for the social fabric that may sometimes drown us and destroy and degrade us. Castles built in sand, words not so much unspoken as unheard, a deafness that is not physical but emotional: it wears you down like razed concrete or an egg to the head, repeated. One of my favourite biblical family quotes is Jesus’s advice to a child, regarding his parents, to ‘leave the dead to bury the dead.

There are aspects of Perreault’s work – eggs, obviously – that speak to [at] those of us who’ve been bullied as children and remember when we weren’t protected, and our pleas for help were not only ignored, but ridiculed: but damaged people are dangerous as we know we will survive (Hart). Further, there’s an internalizing of this treatment: we deny it ourselves, eradicating all traces (as with weather or body) or we engage in rituals we’re perhaps unaware of, on a conscious level, ignoring how we make ourselves bleed and suffer (as with For once in your life).

This is what we were taught. We’ve learned our lessons well. Look how smooth the prints and concrete are, how well disguised and ‘bland’, and how stoic and intense are the players in period of adjustment.

One of NAC’s ongoing Homecoming series, period of engagement is on display there until August 17th, 2019. This exhibition is partially accessible. There is ramp access at the entrance of the Niagara Artists Centre. The gallery is on the ground floor along with three non-gendered bathrooms, one of which is accessible. There will be an audio description of the exhibition available. If you have specific accommodation requests please get in touch with natasha@nac.org

Carrie Perreault will give an artist talk about period of adjustment at NAC, but check their FB and website for details.

June-Etta Chenard: depth and meaning

In a recent conversation about the downtown of STC, we all agreed that many of the spaces along St. Paul offer interesting and engaging art works (frequently for sale). As I was enjoying June-Etta Chenard’s latest exhibition in the city (located at Mahtay Cafe and Lounge, which you hopefully visited this past December), I realized it was a year ago that she exhibited in the Dennis Tourbin space at the Niagara Artist Centre (So Invisible was the name of that selection of works).

That previous show was my first encounter with her works (I’m sure I saw some online, as we intersect with similar social circles), and their detail, discipline and the nature of the materials she uses and the intensity of her practice is still evident in the works from this past December.

Many of the works in Interior Landscapes at Mahtay have a specific narrative that sometimes is intrinsic to fully appreciating them, and other times they can simply be enjoyed viscerally and aesthetically. This is a good overview of June-Etta’s practice: there are works that are intensely vibrant, like Homage to the Sun Dancer or Voix des femmes / Voices of Women, with rich reds and deep blacks and then (in Homage) a soft snowy white that invites your touch. This is similar to how Where Am I? Where Are You? doesn’t seem to be on paper but on some form of cloth, the folds and divots in the surface leading down to a yellowing “stain.” Chenard nd often uses papers such as Wenzhou Chinese Rice Paper, or Japanese Gampi Tissue paper in her practice. Yet other works defy this physicality, seeming almost ethereal and ephemeral in the lighter, translucent colours and hues, with a layering of shapes and forms that seem almost dreamlike. Offer New Propositions or Prayer Kite Arising are among these more “delicate” pieces.

Chenard has exhibited nationally (New Brunswick and British Columbia, so nearly fully from East to West) and internationally (including Virginia and Pennsylvania). Her experience is diverse, and activism plays a strong role in a number of her works, such as Schools I Didn’t Learn In School, which lists the names of Canada’s many – far more than many know, or want to know about – residential schools. In the aforementioned Where Am I? Where Are You? Chenard lists the traditional Indigenous names of the places she’s lived. This mixture of personal and political is also present with In A Soldier’s Billfold, that incorporates photographs of herself, her mother and father that her father carried with him.

June-Etta’s works are dense: not just literally, with the layers and objects and elements enmeshed within the works, but also in terms of the ideas and histories (both her own and those various sites she’s inhabited, and we inhabit). She’s an artist whose work I enjoy encountering when I have time to spend with it, or can visit repeatedly, as the visual acumen she displays entices me to pay attention to the particular aspects that expand and enhance her work. Interior Landscapes was on display this past December, but I fully expect to see more of her work in the future at NAC or among other sites in Niagara.