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).

 

“The bottom is a really interesting place” / A conversation with artist Bevan Ramsay

Bevan Ramsay’s installation of sculptural work Lesser Gods opened at NAC on May 11th: it’s aesthetically striking, but it also led to many conversations that evening about STC’s urban core, who it serves, and who slips through the cracks. I spoke with Ramsay that evening and we followed up online. I suggest visiting Lesser Gods before, or while, reading this.

“I wanted the portraits to honor the dignity and individuality of each sitter…”

The decision to title the pieces with quotes as opposed to names stemmed from a very basic decision to respect the privacy of the subjects. Several of them asked specifically that their names not be made public in exhibiting the work, and so, for me, that determined that none of them should have the names of the subjects attached…I had so much informative and interesting material [from our discussions] that was both very personal to the subject and functionally anonymous. I reviewed my conversations with the subject and chose a quote that seemed to me to capture something of that person’s character or outlook or both.

For instance the first piece I did titled “The bottom is a really interesting place” is actually a portrait of a relatively young man (mid-thirties) who was aged beyond his years from a childhood in foster care, an ongoing battle with mental illness that began in his late teens, and life on the streets, which entails irregular and interrupted sleep as well as terrible nutrition. Incredibly, given all that, he had a remarkably philosophical view of his predicament. We spent an entire afternoon together with him telling me his whole life story, which was replete with challenges, failures, victories, and near-misses. Through it all, and despite being sleep deprived (the previous evening was very cold), he maintained a kind of stoic perspective, and almost  amusement at his life’s path. So when I came to title that piece I kept returning to one comment he made about how complex and unpredictable his life of extreme poverty had turned out to be: “The bottom is a really interesting place”

The subjects’ poses are both intentional and incidental products of the process. With Lesser Gods I approached the portraits through a Baroque lens as opposed to Classical or other stylistic traditions of portraiture because of Baroque’s emphasis on conveying the idiosyncratic character and personality of the sitter. This approach seemed like the obvious choice since a big part of my goal in Lesser Gods was to have the viewer really spend some time considering the particular individual and the personality and life that led to their appearance when we met.

I wanted the portraits to honor the dignity and individuality of each sitter rather than idealizing them – or worse, homelessness – in some way that might diminish the reality. When I photographed the subjects I asked each person to “pose” as they wished to be represented. From there (continuing the Baroque tradition) I permitted myself some small tweaks to that pose / posture if they contributed to or amplified an aspect of what I believed the sitter was trying to convey about themselves, or if the modification conveyed more of what seemed admirable about the person.

At the end of the day, a good artistic portrait needs an element of caricature. A lot of it has to do with creating the portrait in achromatic or monochromatic material. Without the visual heavy lifting that colour, hue or tone does in real life, you have to exaggerate what’s there three-dimensionally to capture the likeness. Considering the poses and their relation to the exhibition title, Lesser Gods references the Humanist tradition (Man as God or Man in the image of God concept while acknowledging human frailty – even emphasizing frailty – as an essential and beautiful part of being human). So, I wasn’t very concerned with making the sitters appear “Godlike” but rather to honor whatever – or how – they chose to present to me. The poses that you see are really the product of an expressive collaboration between the sitters and myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“…they didn’t want the relationship between their identities and their current circumstances to be made immutable…”

It took two years from inception to begin making the first piece. It was necessary to deeply research portraiture as a practice, as well as the historical position of what I was undertaking.

I had to train myself as a portraitist – largely from scratch having never done this before. But I think what really slowed me down was wrestling with the moral, psychological and emotional implications of what I was attempting. I’m not completely at peace with those aspects of the project even now, but at a certain point I decided that, for better or worse, those things probably weren’t going to get any more resolved by me so it was time to “begin.”

The formal process was really quite simple. I’d see a homeless person on the street that captured my curiosity in some way and approach them by simply saying that I was an artist and I wanted to do their portrait. The nearly universal human response to this approach seems to be flattery (mixed with disbelief and a touch of skepticism). Thankfully, in my experience, that first one always wins out, and I’d find myself in an open-ended discussion with the person. They’d ask me about myself and vice versa. They’d want to know immediately what would be involved on their end, and once they understood that all I really needed was for them to hold still while I took a few pictures we’d usually progress to a more social interaction. Once I’d outlined my project, they were eager to share their story, and anecdotes and opinions with someone who was keen to listen to their voices.

All the participants were paid in cash on the spot, after the photos had been taken. No one asked for money, and I didn’t use it as incentive, but that was definitely an important requirement from my end in approaching the project.

Everyone I spoke with was very excited to know that someone was trying in some way to communicate the experience of people from their walk of life to the rest of society. A number also asked early on that their names not be used. Personally, my read on this wasn’t that they were in any way ashamed of themselves or their circumstances so much as that they didn’t want the relationship between their identities and their current circumstances to be made immutable in some way. As far as their feelings about the representations, I hope that they’d be pleased. I had some contact information for each person, but have nevertheless never been able to track them down again. I still can’t help but look for them whenever I’m in the neighbourhoods where we met…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“…a relentlessly capitalist society that seems to essentially devalue individuals…”

The work isn’t yet slated to show anywhere else, but I am submitting it to various venues. I’m cautiously optimistic that it will resonate and find an audience in most cities as the income chasm in our society continues to open and more and more people find themselves on the losing end of that equation.

Ultimately, though, and I’m planning to get started on this this summer, the final version of the pieces will be carved out of white marble. Specifically, the marble for this project comes from the quarry that was used exclusively to quarry the marble for New York City Hall (it was decommissioned immediately thereafter). I’m very hopeful I can get these shown in City Hall as part of the architecture, which would in my mind complete Lesser Gods conceptually. It’s hard to pin down what I would like to see come out of this project as a conversation. But I do hope that it might inspire questioning of what it means for our individual senses of our own humanity to be active participants in a relentlessly capitalist society that seems to essentially devalue individuals by way of instrumental logic.

This is an edited version of our exchange: Lesser Gods is on display until August 3rd at Niagara Artist Centre. All images were taken by Emily Spanton, whose conversation with St. Catharines City Councillor Mike Britton, in response to Ramsay’s exhibition, is also in the June issue of The Sound, and can be read here