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.

Dennis Tourbin: layering time, place and space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dennis Tourbin La ville dort

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shelter vs Symbolism / The Tent Project at GPAG

“Housing is absolutely essential to human flourishing. Without stable shelter, it all falls apart.” (M. Desmond)

Almost ten years ago, a Quebec-based activist art group Folie/Culture were engaged in a project Nomadic Dwellings across Canada. When I experienced Dwellings out West, they’d been creating this work for about two years. It resonated in every city they visited, with rising rents, plummeting wages and precarious employment making the idea of having a safe roof over your head (let alone home ownership) a dream slipping away. The idea is as relevant now – more so, bluntly – as it was then. Nomadic Dwellings called on “architects / artists to conceive nomadic dwellings for itinerants. The shelters had to be designed for one person, with materials that were easily found in Canada, inexpensive, and recyclable if possible. They also had to be reusable and easy to set up by one person alone.”

Two ideas made this a worthy project. One was as an intervention intended to bring communities that perhaps don’t always “see” each other together. And that, for more than a decade previous, Folie/Culture had “facilitated contemporary art projects with a specific focus on awareness building in mental health. They encourage the work of artists who intervene in the field of social perceptions, engaging a public who may not otherwise encounter contemporary art.”

Even though it was long ago and far away, Dwellings came to mind at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery, among the various mixed media works by John Notten, all presented (sheltered, if you will) under the title of The Tent Project. His words: “A thin membrane of fabric is stretched over an armature; such is a tent. A simple yet ingenious architectural form, it appears across countless centuries and virtually every culture. It is an ancient shelter that has protected both royalty and the homeless.” Further: The Tent Project is described as “a body of work that explores the many personalities of a simple and familiar object.”

The GPAG is packed with various works, of various styles and sizes, united through the recurring tent “shape”: Flotsam and Jetsam is a massive interactive piece where you can make the tiny blue tents (reminiscent of Monopoly markers) undulate. Vault, with its stereotypical camping chair invites the viewer to sit under the ramshackle “tent” roof. Works are also two dimensional, and video works can be found along the back part of the gallery (Pop Up Tent City is one of these, but Notten melds and incorporates various media together under – pun intended – the idea of “tent”, as with Plan for Pop Up Tent City #1, which is collaged).

It’s a dense installation. However, I left feeling somewhat empty. Perhaps the reason I was also reminded of Nomadic Dwellings was because that was something that didn’t use “art” to sanitize a serious issue, nor did it neutralize a serious social issue through aesthetics. The reason many public art works fail, and why many have little time for art that cite social capital, is because it – to paraphrase Sontag – “tourists in someone’s reality”, using their lived experience, their genuine hardship, to not help the situation – or those within it – but instead references (perhaps exploits) their suffering for an artwork of arguable moral and ethically value. (like an online petition or “likes” on social media..)

When I attended part of Notten’s opening talk, I found that in speaking to several pieces the formal aesthetic – or the idea of “tent” – was the defining, perhaps dominating factor (one piece that incorporates an overhead shot of a tent city was talked about in aesthetic language, with no regard for what – and who – was being presented – or ignored).  Some of the pieces used “tent” more like a formal Modernist “shape” absent any clear acknowledgement of the people and concerns that so informed Folie/Culture’s work….

Notten has shown in Scotiabank Nuite Blanche: a valid critique of many NB artists has been that the works are variations on “plop art”, a term used for art parachuted into a public sphere and has no relation or respect for that community or that area. Alternately, a simplistic use of the idea of “tent” is aimed at a less discerning or critical audience, and a clearer message. I’ve commented in the past how GPAG is an uneven curatorial space (shows that featured Carl Beam, or Shelley Niro, or Tony Calzetta were all excellent, but GPAG is a community centred gallery, and I know many curators who talk about how public galleries have diverse – and often conflicting agendas around showing individuals in their community who may not be of the same quality, but that have great relevance to their public and regional stakeholders).

Occupy (detail), The Tent Project, John Notten Plan for Pop Up Tent City #2, John Notten  No Name (2017), The Tent Project, John NottenGo see The Tent Project, but consider artists who’ve worked with similar subject matter – and have not eliminated the people from the imagery or objects – like Karen Spencer with her project employing billboards and postcards sent to public figures, from journalists to politicians. Amusingly, Spencer and I disagreed greatly on her work, and how it related to the people she was dialoguing with / depicting (this was, I feel, her larger goal, as I suspect is the same with Notten). Perhaps, considering the current situation with “America”, tents are simply incapable of being simply forms, and are now too charged, too tainted, by our current world, to not illicit darker implications….

The Tent Project will be on display at the GPAG until August 12, 2018. All images are from the GPAG or the artist’s web site. Clockwise from left: Occupy (detail, 2017), Plan for Pop Up Tent City #2 (2017) and No Name (2017).