RP2 @ NAC

Ready Player Two, at NAC, is not one exhibition (in four chapters, you might say) but (at least) two. They’re not separate entities, but blend together, offering a progression from the Plate Glass Gallery (The Kitchen) to the Dennis Tourbin Space (The Rec Room) and finally the end point – the maturity, and I’ll revisit that term later – of the Showroom Gallery (The Comic Book Shop and The Arcade). This is appropriate, that the components sift one into the other. Brendan Lee Salish Tang and Sonny Assu’s works in Ready are often collaborative (literally and conceptually) but have aspects and characteristics unique to each (Tang’s Manga Ormolu 5.0-q or Assu’s Quantum Warp Theory are both lovely “signature” works). Many pieces (such as Broken Treaties) have facets showing both artist’s personal aesthetic, but also details displaying a shared creation.

The installation of the work, the nature of the NAC space, however, may engender an interaction with Ready Player Two different than intended. I doubt that’d bother Tang and Assu, as in their talk at the opening reception, a sense of playfulness and interactivity with viewers was clear. Before we step inside the gallery, you and I, and rest a moment on the Rec Room green couch amidst wood panelling and patterned carpet, with Memento Mori: VCR, Late-night Programming looping infinitely, comics (Alpha Flight!) and magazines that immerse you in a nostalgic bubble of youth, memory and sentiment, I proffer the curatorial statement: An art exhibit about the joys of gaming, sci-fi, and comics; About cultural identity, pop culture, and growing up a ‘geek’; Partly nostalgic for an adolescence spent living in the rec-rooms of the 1980s and 90s; Also humourous, imaginative, and executed with a great level of craft.

The previous incarnation of Ready Player Two was at The Reach Gallery, curated by Laura Schneider. More curatorial words: [the artists] combine elements from science fiction, comic book, and gaming cultures to consider how these forms alternately reinforce and transcend racial boundaries in youth culture. In their individual practices, Tang and Assu frequently negotiate the material and conceptual dynamics of culture and ethnicity. Informed by their mixed-race backgrounds and experiences of Canadian life in the 1980s and 1990s, for this exhibition the artists bring together found objects, selections from previous bodies of work, and new collaborative pieces to create immersive spaces that evoke the adolescent sanctuaries of their time: the basement, the arcade, and the comic book store.

This is a dense show, as multi faceted as its multidisciplinary and meticulous. I reserve the right to revisit Ready and talk about it in different ways, with different artworks, in the future. This multiplicity of potential interpretations is a mark of the excellence of Assu and Tang’s art. My initial response was to interpret the multiple spaces through a lens of experiences that impress themselves upon you and thus form you into the person – the man – you are. Assu, in his talk, spoke of a formative aspect of his being / practice that encapsulates this. To quote his bio: Sonny Assu (Liǥwildaʼx̱w of the Kwakwaka’wakw Nations) was raised in North Delta, BC, over 250 km away from his home ancestral home on Vancouver Island. Having been raised as your everyday average suburbanite, it wasn’t until he was eight years old that he discovered his Liǥwildax̱w/Kwakwaka’wakw heritage. Later in life, this discovery would be the conceptual focal point that helped launch his unique art practice.

Hence the Kitchen painting by Assu (Doesn’t Look Like Anyone Lives Here. Let’s Live Here!) illustrated aspects of how terra nullius, this denial of what was here “before” 1867, the #Canada150 national imaginary, manifests in people, not just in pictures or places…

Nostalgia is most pervasive in The Rec Room. This can lead visitors to simply be swayed by the evocation of communal experiences, and happy, with rose coloured glasses looking backwards sentimentality. After all, I remember reading the Alpha Flight comics there, and the characters now seem so stilted and stereotyped, so token and flat…..but its an uncomfortable fact that Shaman and Talisman were the first Indigenous super heroes I read, and enjoyed. History is difficult, and complex, and it is not something we stand outside of, as its participatory as well as problematic.

The Showroom Gallery – ideally the end of your traverse from outside to the Tourbin space – is the “art” of the exhibition, but this doesn’t mean its any less “playful”, simply that its “mature”, to revisit that loaded term. Standing in Shop or Arcade, you see the adults that were formed by the experiences in the other spaces, and you experience an aspect of how there is no point when “now” begins and “then” ends, in our personal – and public – (his)stories.

I could talk about each of the many pieces back here, as a locus of interpretation of Ready Player Two, but the pieces that pulled me in aesthetically, and then in their details and considered execution held me, are by Assu. These works face each other across the gallery space. Giant Sized Spectacular #1, #3, #6, #7, #9, #10, #11 and #12 (all 2017, all acrylic, ink and comic book pages) and a series along the back wall (including We All Must Deal With the Monster Within, You have betrayed the dream and SNIKT, also all 2017, also painted “samples” of comic book pages on panel).

Pop culture has undergone a radical repositioning in the “proper” art world in recent decades (I can remember being challenged for citing Gaiman’s Sandman series, in post grad writing, yet two years later academics were falling all over themselves to “discourse” about Buffy the Vampire Slayer – the best TV series, ever, perhaps, but its besmirching to see the weather vane acolytes of academia try to “own” something they previously dismissed…).

In light of this, with Spectacular, I was reminded of one of the most powerful stories I ever read – in any media: the original (1981) X Men two-issue Days of Future Past, which was nowhere near as “sanitized” as cinematic versions. It’s a time travel story (taking place in 1980 / 2014, and plays upon that standard trope of time travel in sci fi – do you prevent the future, or do you contribute to the inevitable?) but what makes it relevant here is that it took the idea of genocide – that mutants like the X Men are hated simply for existing, and that many want to see them eradicated in a “final solution” – further than ever. A classic scene is the adult Kate Pryde walking through the concentration camp, passing graves of “classic” Marvel superheroes (i.e. Fantastic Four and Spider Man). Several years later, the X Men graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, an even more powerful and controversial take on Mutant Genocide appeared: featuring religious fanatic convinced he does the “Lord’s” work by wiping out all mutants, and he eagerly embraces a bloody means to “justify” his ends. (That story begins with the murder of two Mutant children, bodies hung in swing sets as warnings: shades of Emmett Till, perhaps…)

I’ll add a dangerous side note. In God Loves, Man Kills, one of the X Men gets into a fistfight with a human (both teenagers, just out for an evening, no superhero drama here) as the human calls her a “Mutie Lover.” Kitty Pryde is the angry Mutant teen. When her friend, Stevie, a human friend / teacher, tells her “they’re only words, child”, Kitty screams at her African American friend: “What if he’d called me a n**ger Lover, Stevie, would they be “just words” then?”

It’s unflinchingly raw and cuts to truth brooking no facade of gentility. Back to “reality”: a meme in social media has been asking, in light of the John A. MacDonald statue removal, where would you like the statue of the man who tried to massacre your grandmother installed? In light of the ongoing institutional (intentional?) failures of the TRC, of MMIW, of the Canadian Catholic Church getting a pass on their part in “Rez Schools”, one can understand why an Indigenous artist and activist like Assu would find the X Men so relevant. Oh, did I offend you? Good, it means you’re paying attention. Its easier to see the truth of our reality through a story than what is in front of us…

Oh, your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is #sorrynotsorry: I talk “too much politics” and not enough “art” (as a talent free performance artist once whined at me).

There’s also an undercurrent of masculine identity here: formative and playful, but also that idea that, instead of no longer being a child and “putting away childish things”, to examine them for the lessons learned, or ideas proliferated that may have been exposed as propaganda. Two male artists of colour examining the tools and toys of masculinity is one way to approach Ready Player Two, and is what I mean when I say I plan to revisit and consider other works not discussed here, at a later date. Thankfully, Ready is open until December.

Assu’s painted collages are formal contrasts between the strength and solidity of his “referencing” the stories that are smaller, delicate, yet vivid in a different way from his painted layering. Palimpsest – where the “original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain” – isn’t new, but here Assu employs this, enhancing and enriching through combination the “surface” and the “ground.” The delicate blues, the gentle pinks, seem almost too “soft” for what’s being shown. In this instance, the punctilious nature of both artists is a means to an idea. (I offer an apology to Brendan Tang, one of my favourite artists, for not focusing as much on the exquisite works like Manga Ormolu Prototype 1 & 2. A work recently on display at Rodman Hall even reminded a Brock official that RHAC is more than they assume, ahem – but Ready Player Two has so much, too much, and I’m not disingenuous when I say I may revisit it, like I’ve done with Up Close and In Motion at RHAC).

Ready Player Two is almost too much, to be honest. Perhaps that’s why the couch of Rec Room is attractive, as you can pause and return to examine the determining, shaping stories alluded to in Kitchen (In Lieu of Expansion and Fear I choose to Take my Chances and Roll the Dice by Tang) or explore the implications of toys and what they teach us (G.I. PoC, in the Shop, also by Tang). Both artists have extensive web sites (Tang’s is here, Assu’s here), and these can only assist in making sure that the numerous works are considered as fully as they deserve.

This exhibition is at NAC until December 7th, 2018.

MacDonald’s Menagerie at NAC

We author places, as much as remember them. Its an idea from the writings of Peter Straub, and considering how often literary references came up in my conversation with Melanie MacDonald (as it did, too, with Clelia Scala), this seems a good “place” to begin to talk about the paintings she has on display at NAC. Her exhibition Florida Noir opened on October 28 and is hopefully still there, as you read this. If not, her site merits your perusal. She continues to exhibit in Niagara, and beyond. Her recent solo show at the Niagara Falls Art Gallery was excellent. The monumental, yet also very playful paintings filled the gallery and offered multiple points of entry for the viewers; including both her meticulous style and her evocative imagery.

Before entering the Dennis Tourbin space, perhaps you’ve encountered her lichen works downtown, with their obsessive attention to detail, making the potentially banal quite entrancing.

MacDonald’s site offers many examples of her work, as well as concise thoughts on her practice. Her words: “By painting mass-produced, cheapened objects of the not-so-distant past, my work brings to mind the hand or touch of a brush of the original sculptor and painter. By re-framing them as large-scale paintings the viewer is given the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with these lost or forgotten domestic objects.”

What is on display at NAC offers a bit of a different narrative, perhaps because its more specific to a place (“…Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste” is a favourite line from American Gods). In conversation, MacDonald cited Douglas Coupland (who sometimes fancies himself an artist, and some fancy as a cultural prognosticator): “Florida isn’t so much a place where one goes to reinvent oneself, as it is a place where one goes if one no longer wished to be found.”

As always with her work, the objects are rendered in a manner that is both precious and empowers them as iconic signifiers: perhaps even harbingers that are more warnings, or more apocalyptic, than you might normally consider a cute little cockatoo or a darling pink flamingo to encapsulate. Gator – Florida Souvenir or Pink Flamingo – Florida Souvenir transcend their knick knack triviality (while in her studio, MacDonald showed me two of the kitschy objects that inspired this work — I disremember if they were salt and pepper shakers or not — but they were both made in Japan, which implied an artisan quality and preciousness in the same way that seeing “Made in China” makes one assume shoddiness, whether fairly or not).

 

 

 

 

 

 

The manner in which MacDonald has captured the texture and the shine of the various animals of the “menagerie” — a glistening swan, a pearly pelican, a cockatoo that shines in reds, yellows and porcelain whites — takes the original objects, which she photographs repeatedly, as part of her process, to impressive levels. The “animals” themselves dominate the paintings. They fill the frame, like portraiture. The backgrounds are designed to serve this, in a banal humid light, often derived from “paint by numbers” images and other stereotypical renderings of sunsets that suggest the tourism (like “Snowbirds” fleeing winter) or the utopian dream too often projected onto Florida (the desperate film noir Midnight Cowboy: “It’s not, not bad, huh? There’s no heat here, but you know, by the time winter comes, I’ll be in Florida.”). Stephen King’s Duma Key, to return to literary tools to more deeply enjoy Florida Noir, offers both a heaven and a hell in “the Sunshine State.” Pieces like Sea Horse or Dolphin are nostalgic souvenirs, with a childlike preciousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These were found by MacDonald in various Florida locals, almost like foraging for mementos. MacDonald has talked about future paintings that will show these pieces broken, in shards, and if Florida Noir is a visual essay about place and space, memory and projection, it’s not hard to see what those future pieces are implying, as these objects break and fail (like Florida, like America, perhaps in Mar – A – Lago on a golf course…)

Florida Noir will be in the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC (354 St. Paul) until November 10th. Her Lichen paintings are at Garden City Essentials (35 James Street). Check out both spaces in downtown STC. All images are courtesy the artist’s web site, and are respectively Pink Flamingos, Dark Swan, Shark and Cockatoo.)

Memory and Place: At an Intersection of Nations

but they had their being once
and left a place to stand on.
Al Purdy, Roblin’s Mills

Its fitting that the first exhibition to open, and the first event of Celebration of Nations, was Awakening of the Spirit in the VISA Gallery, curated by Samuel Thomas. This became clear at the last event I attended (the curatorial talk on the Sunday following the Thursday opening reception), when Samuel spoke of his selections for this show. He began with the works of Daphne Odjig; one of her pieces (In Touch With Her Spirit) was also the main media image for the show, and (a testament to the quality of her work) seemed to become a defacto visual signifier for the several days worth of events that comprised Celebration

Its also appropriate as Odjig’s activism (and artwork) opened doors – sometimes forcing them open, sometimes knocking them down – for many Indigenous visual artists, and by extension, many people. Awakening the Spirit, to paraphrase Thomas, was built around three images specifically, as the basis for whats in the gallery. The first of these was Odjig’s aforementioned Spirit, then Norval Morrisseau’s Virgin Mary and then Carl Beam’s Apache Spirit Dancer (he also commented that the overall title of the exhibition takes its impetus from the spiritual focus of the three “foundation” works). This isn’t to say these are the only notable pieces, whether talking about aesthetic quality or historical relevance: Joshim Kakegamic, Roy Thomas, Leland Bell, Simon Brascoupe, Bruce King and Christi Belcourt round out the wall works, and Vince Bomberry and Carl Simeon have sculptural works here, as well. Its a strong, quality exhibition, with the possibility of connections and challenges between many of the images and objects on display.

In Touch With Her Spirit, Daphne Odjig

Samuel Thomas joked that he didn’t want to present “something that looked like a yard sale” and he’s done a fine job here in what he’s shepherded into the gallery. Unsurprising, really, as he’s an artist and activist (and a past recipient of the OAC’s Aboriginal Arts Award) and his manner was one that echoed his words of wanting to share the vision of Suzanne Rochon – Burnett, and her collection.

There are several important intersecting narratives that converge in the gallery. I’ve said before that art history is a form of history, and the legacies of Odjig, Morrisseau and Beam are very much the notion of having been the shoulders upon which others stood and are still standing.

One of the last exhibitions I saw in Saskatchewan was at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. This was 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. and was an exploration of what’s colloquially called the “Indian Group of Seven.” (I might interject a line Thomas cited in his VISA talk, of Odjig asking why her work was described relative to Picasso, and why Picasso isn’t compared to her, as she was (is) more relevant her. This might be a bit of misspoken recollection, by Thomas – or me, hah – as Morrisseau, not Odjig, was often labelled the “Picasso of the North”, but the more relevant question of who / where is the arbiter of quality still stands).

The large room that is the VISA can be walked / read counter clockwise (this is how Thomas toured the works, and it’s an effective approach). The artists’ works aren’t interspersed, so it can be read like chapters, which helped Thomas to build the story around his choices.

Morrisseau and Odjig were also teachers (of Thomas and Bell, according to Samuel Thomas) and the creation and support of Indigenised institutions is ongoing and still important. Thomas spoke of the Manitoulin School (this could refer to formal groups or more organic ones within the Woodlands tradition) and these community centred initiatives are still promoting and preparing Indigenous artists (the current Brock Chancellor, Shirley Cheechoo, is a contemporary chapter in this with the Weengushk Film Institute).

There is a diversity of style: Simon Brascoupe’s works are more like petroglyphs, with the acrylic looking more like stains within stencils, and Bruce King’s works are more thickly and richly painted, with the acrylic juicy and gooey. Morrisseau and Odjig are more “flat” in the use of colour. Morrisseau is arguably the best known example of the Woodlands School, and immediately recognisable. (Another personal interjection, which I do less as a marker of subjectivity, but of the importance of these artists: one of the first artists I ever encountered as a boy, who made me want to be part of that world, was Morrisseau. His illustrations for Legends of my People, The Great Ojibway, introduced me to the strength and power of his work.)

The space is full, but not crammed. The bright colours and strong flowing lines of Odjig and Morrisseau compliment each other, with exceptions: four more earthy and sensual images by Odjig have more formally in common with Carl Beam’s works, diagonally across the room. Beam’s large paper works (sometimes silkscreen, sometimes emulsion and ink) are more restrained in tone and hue, but this gives power to his appropriated images, often political in nature (several of his works are scattered around the Marilyn I. Walker School, on display year round). Beam was well known for his desire to be known as an “Indian who makes Art”, not an “Indian Artist.” An important distinction, when many spaces (half a century ago, and yes, still now) employ tokenism or ghetto mentalities in labelling Indigenous artists (for example, a University Art Acquisitions committee member – at an anonymous place, in Saskatoon, ahem – once barked they had money for “real” artists and “other” money for “Indian artists”…and many artist run centres are just as segregated, though their lip service to “indigenisation” is as loud as it is hollow). At this moment, allow me to employ the soapbox I seem to have found myself standing upon to praise the PAC (Performing Arts Centre) as the locus point for Celebration of Nations. I’d add that it was announced that Annie Wilson is now in the employ of the PAC, and that should please anyone who knows her work with In the Soil.  

Returning to VISA: Beam’s works are subtle, sometimes darkly dense and requiring a focused attention to parse the images, and other times they’re like decoding a puzzle, with his sampled images being presented in a manner that requires us to read them like a visual sentence. Albert in the Blue Zone, Chief, Spirit of the Eagle: all are strong pieces, and you can understand the curator’s desire to not mix & match the artists here, but allow their singular voices to speak. Beam builds on Joshim Kakegamic (also a printmaker, and one of the founders / facilitators of the Triple K Co – operative Press that helped disseminate Morrisseu’s images to so many places where so many of us encountered them) and then Thomas adds another voice to the story, and so on, and we go further in this visual history of Indigenous / Canadian Art.

Thomas ended with Christi Belcourt (as regards wall works) and this offers not so much a “conclusion” as an updating to contemporary dialogue, as Belcourt’s Untitled acts as a marker of her own ongoing advocacy. Untitled, though acrylic on canvas, has aspects of patterning that are also seen in the pieces by Roy Thomas, and Belcourt’s role as a Metis artist / activist is a good image to take with you as you visit NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) to see We Aspire: an exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara (but we’ll get there, in a moment).

As Odjig passed in 2016, this also offers a sense of continuity, and of a new generation acting on the example of the old…(the quote I began this piece with is an acknowledgement that many of the artists in Spirit have passed, and their artworks are a foundation for those of us who are here now).

But it’s worth noting that the politics that suffuse the room are not suffocating, nor do they act as justifications for poor work, as we see too often in contemporary Canadian “art.” When Thomas talked about Bruce King’s acrylic works, he directly stated that he enjoyed them greatly, and wished to share King’s fine paintings with others. The works are political, but also aesthetically engaging, and may – as I experienced – also remind viewers of the first time they saw an Odjig or Morrisseau, and were struck by its beauty.

The almost minimalist use of paint by Brascoupe (simple and sparse, more about symbols and edges that are very clean but then fade like dust, in 6 Roosters or Birds – Tree of Life) plays well off the glotty, textural surfaces of Bruce King. Two Crows or Sioux Country become abstracted and gooey as you stand in front of them, colour like paste and putty, but stepping back allows the scenes to coalesce and become small scenes that transcend their medium.

This show is a taste of what’s to come, curator Samuel Thomas promised, and in conversation he indicated that the breadth and depth of the Suzanne Rochon- Burnett Collection was almost intimidating. Many works needed to be framed for this show, and many were relocated from pride of place in living spaces where, to paraphrase Rochon -Burnett’s daughter, they eat breakfast or do day to day work “with” them. I won’t attempt to encapsulate Rochon – Burnett’s life and contributions to culture, as its done far better here. The quality of the work presented, and how Thomas indicated that each of these artists was a personal friend, and how their works and their larger historical roles also played out in Rochon – Burnett’s own life, offers an inspired intersection of art and life.

Conversely, it was a bit difficult to endure several of the speeches the night the exhibition opened (your intrepid #artcriticfromhell considered heckling them, but my mouth was often full of bison, ahem). Hearing the chair of Brock’s Board of Directors so heartily congratulate Brock on its support of cultural communities was galling hypocrisy, considering their incompetence / ignorance / arguably malevolence (edit as you like), with Martin Van Zon / Interkom and the AGN cabal, with Rodman Hall. At a wonderful symposium at the Mendel Art Gallery years ago, Dr. Len Findlay pointed out that universities are often willing and able manufacturers of alibis for the ideological state apparatus, as in governments and politicians; the latter, or variant nameless Brock administrators (like the ones who arbitrarily and anonymously cancelled the hiring of a new Rodman Director), are better at mimicking ethics, but still as poor (or uninterested) at actualizing them.

I mention this not to remount my soapbox, but to step outside the gallery, and to temper the hopefulness of the several days of Celebration of Nations with the reality of a stuttering, sputtering Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. I know many who will say “residential schools weren’t so bad” despite never knowing anyone who went to one. I’ve offered to introduce some of this very sure, if very ignorant, throng to friends and acquaintances I met in my time out west that would offer first person accounts that not only challenge that assertion, but bulldoze it fully….sometimes they even say “yes” to this and change their minds. 

Leaving Awakening The Spirit (this is in the VISA until the end of September), there are two exhibitions at NAC (Niagara Artist Centre) that intersect with Spirit, and that further the dialogue from Celebration of Nations. We Aspire (An exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara) is in the Dennis Tourbin Members Gallery and features the works of Brian Kon, Sterling Kon, Amanda Pont-Shanks, and Julia Simone. This is only briefly on display, until the 22nd of September, and was supported by the Niagara Region Métis Council, as well as the PAC.

The statement: “Honouring the tradition of Métis dot art and bead work, We Aspire features work by four Métis visual artists living in Niagara. The custom of bead patterning was traditionally used by the Métis to adorn their clothes, equipment and animals.” Mixing the traditional with the contemporary, the words of Brian Kon are succinct: “The Métis were known as the ‘flower bead people’, my art is intended to honour the skills and artistry of my ancestors by using traditional and historic bead patterns as the inspiration for my work.”

NAC’s Dennis Tourbin space is a responsive one, often in (positive) flux, with many local artists using it as both an experimental arena, but it also, with its short exhibition spans and the excellent engagement with local artists and communities by NAC, offers immediate representations of Niagara.

There is a similarity of form in these works, but individual characteristics of the artists manifest here and there. The titles offer a personal touch: Brian Kon’s Grandmother’s Garden evokes a sense of family, with its not quite mirrored floral design; Amanda Pont-Shanks Rocks, delicately painted make you want to pick them up and hold them in your hand, and have a connection to those who held them before, and will hold them after; Sterling Kron’s After Batoche names a site – and a chapter – of Canadian history that, depending if you learned it in school or not, illustrates the contested histories of what was / what is / what might yet be Canada. Untitled, also by Kron is equally yet subtly political, as it offers a vibrant blue and white rendering of the Métis symbol that you may recognize from flags and other insignia of these peoples whom are too often ignored or forgotten when we talk about the Nations of Canada. Its the first work on the left gallery wall, and if you enter through that door, it will be what greets you as you begin looking at We Aspire. If you come from the other side, it will be the last work that you see as you leave NAC and step outside. Both of these are fitting for experiencing this show, and the history and ideas the artists encapsulate in their works.

But before you leave NAC, the back Showroom Gallery beckons you to visit the first programmed exhibition of Fall 2017 at the centre. You can read my preview of Where the Weather Happens, curated by Amy Malbeuf and Jessie Short, with works by Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault arranged around the large gallery space, here. The two shows on display at NAC are, to use that metaphor again, chapters: Weather is the result of the curators’ research into “the diversity and skill of Métis artists working across Canada…Through this exhibition, the artists’ works are placed in conversation with each other, exploring the human relationship with the natural world. Each artist explores these relationships as an individual informed by their worldview as a Métis person.”

Baerg and Nault “face” each other, with a sculptural work by Nault suspended in the middle of the space. Koebel has works at the “front” and “back” of the gallery. Similar to how Awakening the Spirit presented the individual works of the many artists there as “wholes”, Weather also allows Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin / Time Journey (acrylic on laser cut canvas) to occupy the entire left wall. There’s pieces both fat and slim, solid and shredded, to create a “landscape” of symbols that might be eclipses or planets, like celestial calendar markings on a white wall.

Nault’s Entangled Bodies (3) is directly behind you, in the middle of the space, as you face the middle “segment” of Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin (he employs the natural breaks in the wall to “frame” his work). Bodies (3) – like Entangled Bodies (2) and Entangled Bodies (4) – is comprised of a mixture of organic materials, including wood (bark or log, depending on the piece), wax or beeswax, human hair and rope, though the last seems more as part of the installation of these objects, which hang either freely in space or just out from the right hand wall. But the shadows cast front and back, when combined with the gentle swaying of the delicate exposed roots of Bodies (3) give the work a span beyond its physical self, with the silhouettes stretching out into the room. Though smaller in size, Entangled Bodies (4), with pale waxen fingers either emerging like blooms from the tree bark, may be the strongest of Nault’s contributions to Where the Weather Happens. In the accompanying text from Malbeuf and Short, this work is alluded to with Nault “not claiming the place she now lives but letting it claim her.”

Before I go much further, here’s more from the curatorial text: “The troposphere is a layer of the earth’s atmosphere in which human beings exist, connecting the land to the perceived sky. It is the place where nearly all of the weather on earth happens. The works of Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault activate the land and sky, and all that is within, through their intimate and delicate expression of deep connection to this space of energetic flux. Where The Weather Happens is an expression of the relationship and interactions between the land and sky as beings who live within this space.” (This hangs on the wall, in the gallery proper, ephemeral and soft, positioned so you might see it last, after walking in and among the art.)

The same language could be applied to the works of Norval Morrisseau or Daphne Odjig in Awakening The Spirit, and the often meditative yet ornate pieces in We Aspire. The materials in use by the three artists in Weather, however, are more demonstrative of the sentiments expressed, as with Koebel’s deer skin for her many drums that cover a wall in Awasisisoniyas: Family Allowance. Made from 2013 to 2017, they seem to await hands to retrieve them and begin to play them, to fully articulate them as they’re intended.

It was a hectic weekend, when all of these shows opened (I’ve not mentioned any of the talks, seminars or performances, or even the screenings, to hold my focus and your attention), and although two of the three are only up for brief periods, it serves all three well to be experienced in tandem. Whether that’s done in the manner I’ve chosen here, which might be described as chronological as to when they opened, or chronological in terms of the histories they present (Spirit’s artists are older, and several are deceased, while the artists in We Aspire are much younger, and the curators / artists in Weather are between) is entirely flexible, and a point on which I have no preference or suggestion. I remember an exhibition of work by Micah Lexier and a show he curated of influences upon his practice, at the College Gallery. His work was upstairs, not quite directly above the pieces by people like Eric Cameron, alluding to a sense of growth and change that, while not overt, had a subtle power in understanding both shows.

Awakening of the Spirit (Select Works from the Suzanne Rochon – Burnett Collection) is on display until September 30th in the VISA Gallery at the MIWSFPA, and We Aspire: (An exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara) can be seen at the Niagara Artist Centre (354 St. Paul, in downtown St. Catharines). That closes on the 22nd of September, but Where the Weather Happens will be on view until December of 2017.


There was a request to not photograph at events or in gallery spaces during Celebration of Nations, and the lack of images in this post reflects my respecting that. However, the Odjig image is from the PAC website, and in this article I attempted to have a wide variety of links regarding the artists. If you’re on FB, there is also an excellent panoramic view of the VISA space, with Awakening The Spirit here

 

“Once we had words” : Colin Nun at NAC

Once we had words.
Ox and Falcon. Plow.
There was clarity.
Savage as horns uncurved.
(Stan Rice)

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”
(Alice: Through The Looking Glass)

Let me impart a secret to you: I distrust and generally consider words inherently dangerous. Perhaps this is familiarity breeding contempt: language is a tool I’ve used, and employ often, and it’s something that can and does turn, like a sharp tool that cuts or a snake in your hands (no offence to snakes).

It’s appropriate I’m sharing this observation now, almost two years after I strongly alluded to this impiety on my part, in writing about a show at NAC in 2015. This was Eric Schmaltz’ The Assembly Line of Babel. Perhaps you saw the collaborative work he helped produce at In the Soil, in 2017, where his exploration of the viral nature of language took on an even more corporeal form. The video projection looked like a close up of the antibodies and blood cells at play in our own systems….not exactly what Anderson meant, but surely its mutated, like any disease, since then.

Colin Nun‘s exhibition at the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC furthers this conversation. Before I subject you to more of my words, here are his own about his “text-based paintings. His work consists of carefully constructed typographic motifs deeply rooted in graphic design…Nun’s primary objective is to paint words that convey their meaning – simply put, to use words as imagery. He challenges how ‘normal’ letters and words are represented and questions what letterforms can become if pushed to their limits…[creating] tension between the letterforms, an optical effect he calls “visual vibration”. With influences seeded in pop culture, cinema, advertising graphics and ephemera, Nun experiments how language is depicted and how the viewer perceives language.”

Nun is a Welland based artist, but also studied at the Niagara College of Applied Arts and NSCAD in Halifax (the latter is notable for the proliferation of text based, or text challenging – such as Cathy Busby or Gerald Ferguson – or text challenged – whose work might most optimistically be described as manure for other more worthwhile – artists, whom have defined NSCAD’s mixed legacy).

The works in NAC (and this has been a very good season for exhibitions in the Dennis Tourbin Space in the downtown of STC, with some excellent artists that are both new and more familiar) are varied. Some are clearly recognisable as words (Good Luck (Gold) shines forth in gold on black, reminiscent of The Price is Right or other garish, forcefully loud design) while others, if not placed in the context of the larger “sentences” would function as linear abstractions that are more drawerly and “post painterly” than text. Union, from 2017, looks like a maze or labyrinth, a snake filling a condensed space, more than writing. Other wordworks (my term for his letterforms) straddle this: Fuse, in white on blue is all chunky letters jammed down together visually mimicking a wall socket, while Void, like Union, is stretched and distended so that the variant subtleties of the image suggest a gap the viewer might step into, or be swallowed within.

Some of the wordworks / letterforms are immediate in their interpretation. Beast in white muscular letters on bright arterial red suggests something organic with its rounded corners, but still has the “loudness” of an animal’s roar, or the redblood eyes of a stalking predator. Crux and Deluxe are more complicated and play with the canvas as a picture plane, more “creative” in their typesetting arrangement. The letters in Deluxe all are held within, or contained within, a larger “D” and seem to recede from us. They’re also like part of a puzzle where we need to locate and arrange the components. Here Nun perhaps alludes to word games, where the pieces are given to us and how we assemble them creates them, or defines them, but in the end that says more about our ability to see the words, or what words we “see” than any objective “sign” (It is a theory that…It is the theory that…The language you speak determines how you think. Yes, it affects how you see everything…”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Others are more direct (Deadringer, even “repeating” itself, so to speak), others are more obtuse, some are quite blunt and others are more bellicose, offering more of a struggle (Gemini). Silence is almost illegible, from the manner in which the word raises off the canvas in an edged serration that barely separates it from the mottled grey. This might work better as braille, if the rigid gallery space allowed us to break custom and “read” Nun’s painting tactilely, with our knowing fingers. Like glyphs carved in, or glyphs carved out, language is a marker, saying “we were here.”

Even better – this may be my favourite work at NAC – the word(s) loop. Perhaps this painting is meant as a snapshot of a reel that rolls by us, so that Silence – we see the top half of the word below the “main” rendering of it, a lower half above – is reiterated like a rolling Tibetan Prayer Wheel, worshipping without voice. Or maybe it’s that old riddle: what do you break the moment you mention it?

Although this exhibition isn’t as visually entrancing as shows that preceded it in the Dennis Tourbin Space (Adam Vollick’s landscapes capture colour like it’s a living thing, or Sheldon Rooney’s amusing scenes that suggest an Agatha Christie like mystery with complications and confabulations), the work “speaks” literally to a universal space: words, how we use them, and how they use us, with their implicit baggage that they carry, which we are sometimes aware of, and other times ignore.

We live in an age of excessive and often ignorant rhetoric: Colin Nun’s exhibition at NAC is a playful reminder of the power of words, and might be urging us to be mindful of their power and place in the larger sphere (Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict).

Colin Nun’s solo exhibition is on display at Niagara Artist Centre, at 254 St. Paul Street, in Downtown St. Catharines, until August 25th, 2017.

All images are copyright of the artist, and the uncited words in italics are from the 2016 film Arrival, based on Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. Seek them both out before / after / during your visit to Colin Nun’s exhibition or his site