Joel Smith’s My City / the seen & unseen

“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful, but the beauty is grim.” (Morley)

What is engaging about Joel Smith’s work is that there’s an immediacy of vision (you’d be unsurprised to learn he captured many of these images while out cycling) and also a joy in unexpected scenes. Though not all the images are of, and in, Niagara, there’s also this elevation of the local to a more engaging level. The discarded and ruined shopping carts drowned in the running water are something that is so ubiquitous that most of us don’t even see them when we pass them, but here, through Smith’s lens, they become mysterious, a bit haunted, and starting points for a story about this spectacle that the artist presents for us.

Whether it’s the bright blue sky with a smattering of clouds (bright as moving air / blue as city dawn / happy as light / released by day / over the city’s new buildings) behind the arched neck of a street lamp, or a rare vertical piece that balances a solid orange structure with a dark deep blue sky that looks like it might have been hammered into place, or a plug in a brick wall that is framed by Smith so as to show the often ignored aesthetic touches all around us, these are “snapshots” that are lovely in their simplicity.

Another scene of the downtown that makes a street many of us walk down every day appear differently than we think of it – if we even think of James Street at all, as we traverse it on the way to our destinations also gives us pause. Like the close up of the concrete sidewalk with its echoed grooves in an ordered aesthetic we trod blithely and repeatedly, these scenes are doubly beautiful as they are unexpected. I can talk about Brutalism, and Modernism or other isms, but vision trumps words here, and are more seductive. Like the blue sky, delicate urban touches and unexpected scenes, you just need to look at them and be quiet.

 

While there’s a formal strength to the scenes here (architecture becomes space and shape and weight) there’s also a sentiment (not sentimentality) to the world Smith shows here. The aforementioned shot of James Street, but also urban spaces and more natural spaces that have a sense of whimsy (the tenacious sprout of green thriving in the middle of a tarry street), or that we might have just stumbled upon them while out, and it’s a rare moment of serenity worth preserving. The tangled deadwood on the shore as the sun sets on the water is one of these. Landscape that invites us in, and makes us want to be in that place, is always fine.  

There is a highlighting of the familiar in Joel Smith’s photographs that reminds that there are interesting and beautiful scenes and settings around us, if we simply stop and pay attention.

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Joel Smith is a photographer who has worked in both digital and traditional formats, for over two decades, and his work is informed by the world around him, from his cycling to his family to his work and life in the downtown of St. Catharines. More of his work can be seen on Instagram.

The exhibition of work that can be seen at the Mahtay Cafe & Lounge (241 St. Paul Street) is his first solo show of his photographic works, and just a small sampling of his larger “images” of the city and environment around and within it.

This is also the site – in the event room – for the continuing Rodman Hall 5 X 2 Visual Conversations, which happens every second Tuesday of September, October and November. Smith will be talking about his work at the first instalment in September, and all are welcome.

 

Now and Then: Amy Friend at Rodman Hall

In Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, a challenging work on self and memory, a character reflects “I remembered the words particularly: Somebody pulled a thread of the fabric and it all dissolved.” I read that after my engaging walkthrough at Rodman Hall Art Centre of Amy Friend’s Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life, where the idea of fact and fiction in familial history was encapsulated by curator Marcie Bronson’s observation about “pulling the thread that unravels everything.” (Her last curatorial venture at Rodman was the architecturally appropriate — and also exploring place / space / remembrance — The Radcliffe Line and Other Stories by Sarindar Dhaliwal).

Before I progress to the artworks, I’ll quote Bronson further: the specificity of the side space at Rodman, the architectural / historical insistence / presence of the building invites “more experimental work” that can answer back to a space with equal personality. In some ways, its perfect that Friend employs the aesthetics of the space in her attempts to “pull apart meaning and have people exist within it.”

The interesting thing about the specific work that dominates Amy Friend’s exhibition at Rodman Hall — titled Where The Land Meets The Sea — is that the piece is (at the least) dualistic. Is it most fully itself when you stand in front of the mirror, with Rodman’s architecture incorporated into your looking / reflection, the ghostly landscape behind, or when you’re stepping around / tempted to stroke the silken sea on the floor, but “face to face” with the hanging impressionist backlit scene?

Both. Either. Neither – you’re in an environment you define by where you stand, as with all art, whether between the silken room or your dirty reflection.

It’s a quiet exhibition: perhaps contrasting the raucous freneticism of Inland in the back gallery. Ordinary is a pensive show, calm and thoughtful: the mirror is fitting for that, or that you can see all the work from various places in the gallery. There’s a complicated beauty here that leads to difficult moments of contemplation about our being, at times intrusive and voyeuristic (these are from a family still living and visiting the gallery, knowing these objects and images more intimately and perhaps more — or less? — reverently than us). And like all families, they’re “scratchy… based on truth and lies… fabricated and ephemeral.”

Where The Land is, in many ways, the defining piece. The image on the silk is an amorphic landscape, all gaps and absences, softness and fades, less about what is there than what is not. Allusion is a powerful methodology.

“There is so much of everything that nothing is hidden quite nicely” might almost be forgotten (though assembled over the fireplace in the gallery, and perhaps the first artwork you see as you enter), but symbolizes the kernel of the exhibition. “Ordinary” marked its genesis in a collection of objects from a distant deceased relative of Friend’s, and the respective — or posthumously assigned — importance of this detritus sparked the exploration of memory and family. Especially the gaps, as much as the shared experiences, of kin.

Various objects in “nothing” include: several straight razors; a Berthing card (“time stands still in travel”); fragments — not scraps, as that suggests garbage — of paper, yellowed and with worn folds soon to be tears (some are treasured notes, turned facing the wall, their intimacy hidden like a family secret unspoken); a pair of glasses; some medals that suggest military service; keys, of variant shapes and styles; a photograph of a man, wallet-sized; various indexical evidence of a life. Remnants with an iconic power, no matter how inappropriate or banal they appear for such consideration.

Analyzing the rooms as a whole (like a family parlor): there’s a play of opposites in the work. Mirror / memory, archives and objects, odd family mementos and images of distracted and vague meaning. The process of the images on the gallery walls involve 8mm (shot by Friend’s mother) projected onto mirrors (dirty, with skin flakes from other, unknown viewers, whose indexical history intrudes and obscures) and then photographed. Oceans and Silkworms depicts her grandmother, who raised silkworms in their attic: a literal “thread” to the larger flowing piece Land. The skin dust on the mirrors leads to “gaps” in the 8mm projections – another literal representation, illustrating “holes” in family memory. The degradation of the original 8mm displays the degradation of remembrance.

To return to the conversation I had with Bronson and Friend: many visitors to the space find it evokes their own personal memories, using the space as we did, to talk of family history / family secrets (as there’s no didactic panel, the conversations seem to fullfil that function, that need). Our conversation in that space was as much about art as it was about our families and the very specific nature of photography as it relates to reflection and forgetfulness.

In Star Gazing, a multiple portrait of the artist has not only the reflected present-day artist, but a “child Amy” in the 8mm image that turns to look at us (now) or her mother (then) shooting the original film. But we also now step into this exchange, this conversation through time. Friend asserted that her mother was rarely in these images (hence the importance of another image, Travelling Light, as she’s there by “accident”, indicating something else of importance by her pointing). Gender is always a factor in family – or domestic spaces, if you will, and women are often the default memory keepers. Consider our mothers and grandmothers with objects and albums, or how prevalent that it’s a female family member whom holds the literal and metaphorical “history” of a clan. Martha Langford’s excellent work with family albums (what they reveal, what they hide) is part of this story.

It’s history in a space (both with Amy’s work, but augmented by Rodman’s ambience) and spaces breathe and have life. Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life employs a seductive beauty to trouble our perceptions of ourselves and our relations to others.