“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

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.

 

∞ Lightness by Adam CK Vollick

One of my favourite books about art is Camille Paglia’s Glittering Images: this is not solely for how her knowledge of art history surpasses that of most arts writers / critics, but also due to the format. She selected a variety of works from antiquity to present day, writing succinctly and yet very accessibly about why they are important to her, and were – are – relevant to many.

This exclusive focus is something I’ve imitated, as a form of flattery: and oftentimes when confronted with exhibitions that encompass several artists, or when you’re engaging with a show like ∞ Lightness by Adam CK Vollick, which is, of this writing, in the Dennis Tourbin Members Gallery at Niagara Artists Centre. 

He offers “four different interconnected bodies of work.” What held my attention on my visits to the space were the “Spacetime Paintings [which Vollick describes as ] impressionistic photographs [which are] made in the camera [and all are] Niagara specific landscapes from our beautiful region.” The book that was on display during the reception had names for the works (the ones on the wall are without labels) that sometimes revealed their specific site of origins, and offered titles. These aren’t crucial, but do offer nuance. A flower might be fire, or we might see that the local is more mysterious than we assumed. But specific place names aren’t crucial, as the landscapes have an evocative nature (no pun intended) that we can imagine ourselves being within…

In the gallery they’re mounted in shiny silver frames, and the twenty one pieces are small but have a vibrancy that invites closer examination; alternately, across the room they become bright exclamation points of colour that seize your eye and reel you in.

There are several larger pieces (three) above these and two larger ones on the other side of the gallery. Returning to the long wall in NAC there’s also three black and white images sitting below the main “line” of “landscapes.” The larger images, in an ironic manner, are less powerful than the smaller images (the colour and depth of quality is absent, almost diluted in their power compared to the works below them). 

Conversely, the three monochromatic pieces are wonderful in their subtle detail considering the limited palette at play, and merit crouching on the ground to experience ‘face to face.’ As they’re shot with infrared film they’re reversed: so the delicate lines of trees in one are fine white lines on a rich black background, seeming to oscillate forward and back. These three images are almost more windows than flat images: the one on the left depicts what might be mist, or similar atmospheric events (my prairie asserts itself, and I see borealis), and the middle one, the least “active” of the compositions, stretches on endlessly with quiet details here and there as your eye moves deeper into the landscape.

The long cinematic line (if you’re familiar with Vollick’s practice, you’ll understand how his practices influence each other, and how movement can be alluded to as effectively as it can be depicted directly) of colour images above these three, however, is the strength of the exhibition. Whether close up to works that are painterly in their detail (Vollick joked about making “blurry pictures” but the segments where his colours blur and meld are matched by a cleanliness that emphasises how these are captured moments of “space” and “time”) or across the room so a blotch of red, or yellow or blue / green shouts at you, these are the anchors of the space.

Before you consider I’m dismissing everything else in the space, I’ll cite a conversation I had with a fine local painter, who described the large drawn piece opposite the small space/time works as being reminiscent of Magritte in its form and symbols. I saw its sparseness and scratchy sketchy quality as being what the surrealist artist would scrawl when he wakes up in the night and wants to remember his dream to paint it in a more elaborate manner later. (This isn’t Balzarian projection: the piece is titled the dreamer.)

But it’s a more remote, still image: the Spacetime Paintings are alive, are moving, and suggest a memory, a lived experience that like many experiences might be a bit frayed at the edges, or like some memories may be a bit soft around the edges when we “recall” it. Memories are (perhaps) like breathe on water; there’s also that idea that photographs define memory more than a memory does. Vollick’s Spacetime Paintings suggest that universality, as well as the more personal invitation to interpret these sites he presents for us. 

All images are copyright of the artist, and many more of his images, as well as works in other media, can be seen at Vollick’s site

Amber Lee Williams / “Embracing Randomness”

When I attended the RHIZOME activities at MIWSFPA during the 2016 In the Soil Festival, I strayed from the designated areas, as I often do. I found myself in the studio space where Amber Lee Williams was “inviting participants to pose for a blind contour drawing [for] her interactive exhibit. Each drawing will be done individually and privately but the drawings will be connected through medium and drawing surface.” The rooms had the drawings arranged on the walls, and you sat / stood /acted among them as Amber rendered you in a similar manner.  I was trespassing during “down time” of her performance, but she was gracious enough to answer my questions then, and talked about both process and portraits. Blind contour, for those unfamiliar, is when an artist draws a subject without looking at the paper (often considered a “warm up exercise”, with the intent to loosen the hand and encourage creativity, but like any medium, can be different things in different “hands”).  

When I sat down to talk with Amber again, her work in Devolve: Creation/Movement/Fluidity at Niagara Artist Centre had just opened, in the Dennis Tourbin space. Her encaustic works are lovely in texture and tone and mark a further exploration and refinement of her use of this often difficult medium of wax and pigment.

We talked about her practice – which exists in a threefold manner – and the ideas that have informed her artwork over her artistic career. Her work is likely familiar to you if you live in the STC area, and seeing some of her photographs in a show nearly a year ago makes me pleased to feature Amber Lee Williams as the latest instalment in The Sound’s ongoing local artists series.

gallery2 gallery1

As mentioned, Amber works in three different “areas” of art: encaustic painting, photography (a more recent practice), and the blind contours. These are very different and unique media, with distinctive history and baggage. None is the “favourite”, but wanting to work on them all together or have them influence each other, is an aspect of Williams’ art. But they’re “all different” and Williams says she can’t speak of them as one “entity”. I might posit that her practice is an umbrella and these are all under that arching cover.

A term she used often is “embracing randomness.” Williams spoke of process as “a vessel for the creativity of the act, and sometimes even in the selection of the works, to see what’s worked, and what has not.”

Her works in the NAC embody this: rich encaustic abstraction, the generous application of colour, the use of a blow torch, then repeating the wax and the pigment and the melting and seeing what colours come to the fore. There’s a slim vertical triptych, mostly black, mimicking wood grain or veins that “flow” like pencil marks through the wax. This blackish web “sits” on top of the oranges and off whites: there’s similar depth to others, at NAC, such as two small works on the back wall. Primarily whitish, the small dots and blots of colour in them make these encaustics resemble mould or colourful lichen. Another triptych have wax and colour like icing or fudge, slathered on a form and now cooled and hardened.

encaustic1 encaustic3

Returning to Williams’ contours, another sentiment that informs her work takes shape: that the process is not so much about control, but about setting up a framework (some rules, a specific technique) to get to the end result.

This returns again to “embracing randomness”: Williams expressed a dislike for very “formal” drawing, with the pressure of intention in a “final result.” With blind contours, if she looked she’d want to make it “perfect”, remove and erase any marks that aren’t “good enough”, with over determination ruining potential creativity. She prefers “taking chances, embracing the questionable nature of the outcome, and the process that defines all” (there’s a similarity to William Griffiths’ ongoing painted process where a work is never truly “finished”).

encaustic8 encaustic10If she’s unhappy with a piece, it’s recycled, or discarded: “fearless creativity. Step up to the edge and take the chance of destroying the piece if there’s a chance you can make it better.”

The break from one process to another fosters continuous work (“encaustic painting day”, as it takes four or five hours, but contours are fast and more social. This was clear with In the Soil, as it became a social performative space, of the drawing with participants and collaborators).

Photography is perhaps the most technically formal of Williams’ work, with f stops / light readings, focal lengths and such. But in creating multiple replicated images, it has an element of experimentation where you can discard or repeat. When asked about her “most significant piece of the past year”, Amber indicated that being introduced to photography as an art form was notable. She’d always enjoyed taking pictures, but with the influence of a class taught by the fine artist Amy Friend (an excellent artist / educator) she’s begun exploring analog, film, lumen prints, pinhole and “hasn’t felt this obsession since discovering encaustic”. It’s a medium that she can see working with for some time. She mentioned  an artist whom she’s interested in right now, Joseph Parra: a young, Baltimore-based photographer who produces CMYK screen prints of photographs printed by hand, or photos that are sanded, cut, braided and that represent more than just the physical identity of the subject. This is similar to what Williams wants to do with her blind contours and photography. She also cited the necessity of it being tactile and that it has that immediate physical connection, both to her and viewers.

If you missed Devolve: Creation/Movement/Fluidity (all the images in this post are from that exhibition), Amber will be exhibiting more photographic works at NAC in November, and more of her work can be seen here.