Teach us to care and not to care (T.S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday)
As 2018 comes to an end and I struggle to finish a few articles about exhibitions ongoing and opening, I did not intend to become distracted by Victor Vasarely‘s piece Laika (1964, porcelain). This monochromatic piece delicately sits above the formally similar mantle in Rodman Hall, and is the most striking work in this final iteration of Up Close and In Motion. In later pieces I may revisit Hortense Gordon’s work (as she’s an artist that, like many of that period and gender, is now starting to get some more critical attention) or how Boutillier’s Tennis Twins have stared, knowingly, from the other room of the Hansen Gallery for months, unyielding, but right now, Laika touches me in a way they don’t.
With my long and rigourous review of Up Close, I thought I was done with the responding to this rotating, evolving exhibition(s), but perhaps its fitting that the last one (ideally) I’ll speak about has pulled me out of a grey reverie by the invocations of its title. A wider historical narrative is provided here. Briefly, Laika went from being a Moscow street dog to one of the first animals to orbit the Earth, as part of the early Soviet experiments to see how – or if – animals, and thus humans, could survive in space. She didn’t survive (as with so many of these tests, there is no contingency plan for return, of course) but is commemorated on the Monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow. Her brief life has captured the imagination of numerous individuals, either in print or in film. I might argue that the scene in Guardians of the Galaxy, where Rocket snarls at a “space dog” in one of the Collector’s vitrines is an exchange with a still alive, surviving Laika, though decades have passed.
As someone who’s recently written on the artwork of Lucia Lakatos that explores our hypocritical, selfish and (at best) problematic relationship with (other) animals, and who frankly prefers animals to people, Laika is controversial figure: a clear site of contested narratives. When I responded to Lakatos’ works, I found myself reminded of the Pigoons from Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy, and how the use and abuse of them was an unavoidable step in their evolution towards beings perhaps as ethical as the humans in those novels. Arguably, they are the meek whom shall inherit the Earth. There’s also no shortage of science fiction that posits how a Laika incident might “jumpstart” a “beast” to being beyond their “master” and reverse that relationship (the original book that Planet of the Apes was based upon plays with assumptions in this area very well).
Before making assumptions about Vasarely, with his Slavic sounding name, its good to know that he was an artist of Hungarian – French descent who is, in the annals of Western Art History, considered a “grandfather” or “leader” of the “op art” movement. A simple definition: “Op art works are abstract, with many better known pieces created in black and white. Typically, they give the viewer the impression of movement, hidden images, flashing and vibrating patterns, or of swelling or warping.” Bridget Riley is the artist that exemplifies this aesthetic, for me, and its likely you’ve encountered a reproduction of one of her works.
In light of that, there’s a contradiction here in Laika: the format of the work is clean, industrial, and the variation in “holes” in the piece suggest some kind of heating / cooling apparatus, perhaps with different shapes to accommodate an interlocking piece of machinery. The raised circle hints at Malevichian Suprematism or a sense of order and unity: the porcelain nature of the work is also evocative, an intricate and exquisite objet d’art.
This seems to fracture how Laika, in one context, was an unwanted feral beast that was used in a manner she never could understand, and sent to a surely unpleasant death for a “greater good.” Perhaps it isn’t wrong to consider that Vasarely, being from what have been called by Timothy Snyder the “bloodlands” of Europe “between Hitler and Stalin” was making a statement with this work (in 1964) about the larger political landscape in Europe. But at the same time, Laika has become Laika, commemorated like other “heroes of the Fatherland” (Stalin is back in vogue, in Russia, though its unclear if he ever “left.” May I quote Proverbs? “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly.”)
Laika is formal and seems to have more relation to the marbled fireplace it sits above, or the elaborate cornices and the chandeliers in the Hansen Gallery space than any of the larger historical narratives the title suggests. Its all interpolation: the contrasted black and the white might speak to anything from alluding to the mottled fur of a stray canine to the ideological positioning Vasarely found himself living within (his own association with the Bauhaus movement brings to mind the blood and vagaries of [M]modernist growing pains in the 20th Century).
2018 is almost done, and 2019 looms: Spider Jerusalem would assert that progress is inevitable despite our essentially degraded natures, but I don’t know if I share that sentiment right now. Vasarely’s Laika seems more of a taunt than anything else, more of a testament to meaninglessness, to sacrifice that is unknown and perhaps unknowing. That it is a beautiful work is undeniable, and that it alludes to an order, a formalism that is hopeful as well as idealistic is clear: but whether or not that is true is something else, as Laika also seems empty and vapid. Laika also reminds me of one of the less dramatic, yet perhaps most “real”, chapters in Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, titled Best Man Fall. But even in that, the dog is used to tell someone else’s story….
The final iteration of Up Close and In Motion is on display for a few more days, as we slouch towards 2019. Please check out Rodma Hall’s website for their hours, and all images are courtesy RHAC and myself. The title of this article (regarding dogs and men) is from a quote attributed to Marie de Rabutin-Chantal).
In conversation with a fellow writer / critic recently, the subject turned to the exhibition Carry Forward that had been at Rodman Hall. We shared the opinion that the show could have been divided by a line framing four works that were quite interesting and very strong in the conceptual framework proposed by curator Lisa Myers: the rest, on the opposite side of the gallery, seemed muddled and unresolved. Or, at the least, paled next to the aesthetics of Claxton, Alvarez or Bowen.
When considering the year long exploration / series of exhibitions of Rodman Hall’s collection – titled Up Close and In Motion, with various addendum, like 4/11, or 6/11, to mark its progression – that has been installed in various month long excerpts in the Hansen Gallery (ending in January 2019), there is a similar fracture.
The initial “phases” curated by Emma German (whom conceived the project, in conjunction with a focus upon a Slow Art Day aesthetic) were engaging and offered multiple points of entry with intersections and dialogues between visitors and artworks.
My response to, and review, of Brendan Fernandes’ Philia exemplifies this. This work is a rarely seen treasure of the RHAC collection, but frankly the didactic panel, written by German. expanded and enlarged the work’s importance (and I f**king hate art with neon, but that fell to the side in light of what Fernandes was “illuminating”, if I may put it that way).
The current incarnation of #UCIM, as I write this, continues an aesthetic that has been dominant since Jimmy Limit assumed a degree of the curatorial reins. He’s an interesting artist who has shown both in Rodman and spaces such as Gallery 44 and Clint Roenisch: but his choices are more formal, offering a comparatively empty discourse compared to the more richly nuanced selections by German. But right now, the Hansen gallery is filled, with one exception, with works that offer a space of formal connection, but little else.
This is manifest in both the absence of didactic panels to expand the work (which would have left me to hate Philia, bluntly), and engage the visitor.
Also problematically, the works that Limit himself has produced in the gallery space have only superficial relationships – if at all – to the works from the collection. Ernest Harris, Jr.’s piece Mel’s Brushes, commissioned for #UCIM by German, directly referenced the work of Melanie MacDonald that was installed concurrently over the other mantle, in the other room, and that alluded strongly to Tobey Anderson (his four works presented as part of his almost “scientific” series in response to his cancer), whom Harris praised in the accompanying didactic. This excerpt from his conversation with German highlighted how Harris credited Anderson as both a mentor and major supporter of his artistic practice. In that respect, the works at play in Hansen all fed and spoke to each other, and also to the contemporary and the historical space of artists in Niagara, living and deceased.
Harris, MacDonald and Anderson – and later Boyle and Moffat (who, after seeing their works in the Hansen, I made a point of visiting works by both on permanent display in the MIWSFPA) – all positioned themselves within larger community frameworks. This was often an agenda of German’s selections from the RHAC collection.
Dennis Tourbin, whom had two works in #UCIM that I was so impressed by that I devoted singular reviews to each (one more local, one more national), is also someone who’s left a space here for others to stand upon, as the front gallery space at NAC (often used for local and emerging artists, a sentiment I think he’d approve) is named for him.
Limit’s series of untitled pieces are vibrant and fun, and the objects are lovely and push against the more historical space of the Hansen. There’s a [M]modernist appeal (art in simplicity), a cleanliness and disciplined execution that makes me want to handle the works (so round and slick), and his painting of coloured “rectangles” – or frames, if you will – on the wall with simple shelves to hold the works tussle and clash with the carved, delicate and almost fussy cornices and details of the Hansen space. The objects are rough yet evocative, and I always love when artists paint the walls to enhance their work. In that “proper” space, a slab of blue or yellow is an “affront” to the gentility of the space, just like Donna Akrey’s playful “toys” or Amy Friend’s “mementos” that worked with / against the “domestic” space.
But conceptually the connections between Limit’s interventions and the other works are either nonexistent or more about skin deep relations (lemons, circles, yellows) than how Fernandes’ Philia interacted with Genevieve Cadieux‘s works (both significant for imagery and art from groups that have too often been underrepresented in galleries and collections). There’s definitely not the points of reference I previously cited with Harris, MacDonald, Anderson or Carol Wren on the back wall.
This is “echoed” in how Douglas Boutilier’s Tennis Twins have looked out on the spaces for several variations of #UCIM, unimpressed and stoic, in their gaze and being, separate metaphorically and literally, alone on a wall almost like an alcove.
Even later iterations, from German, with John Boyle‘s imagery of St. Paul Street in St. Catharines. which led to a long, very long social media feed involving several local artists about when, where and why Boyle chose that site. This involved his major role in visual arts in St. Catharines, with NAC and Rodman, having a deeper, more considered, relevance outside the Hansen space. And I have little use for Stompin’ Tom Connors, but putting Boyle’s hagiographic rendering of Connors in a “fancy” space was entertaining. Though titled Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom, the work was more complicated than that jingoist statement. Boyle’s role in founding CARFAC and Connors’ advocacy for regionalist culture meshed in that frighteningly colourful, perhaps garish, work.
When I encountered the Barbara Hepworth in the Hansen, in a recent iteration of #UCIM, it was disheartening to see that her choice of yellow, in a harsh slab of flat colour among monochromatic renderings, seemed to be the sole reason for its inclusion: this put it on a par with the lemons of an unfamiliar artist named Cleveland. That seems a bit of a slight, a facile dismissal, to someone who was one of the very, very few female artists of her generation to make an indelible mark in the Modernist canon. It would be a bit like talking about Anderson’s pieces that focused / explored his fatal cancer diagnosis in terms of modernist or art historical use of colour…..or only speaking of Tourbin’s work about the October Crisis in terms of its formal flat pop art colour, and not how a local artist I respect greatly raised a good point about “contested narratives” in response to my review of it, that was a bit (appropriately, considering the historical position of the piece) caustic.
Am I being an asshole in my harshness re: the “post German” / “Limit defined” chapters? Am I being an #artcriticfromhell? Am I speaking a (difficult) truth? Am I, as I was told by one of the same people who used to dismiss me as “art critic from hell”, being a “Strelnikov” and expecting too much or expecting too “specifically”?
I offer this criticism, or this place within which to stand and question – to look back over a year and revisit what has been, in light of what is now in the Hansen space – as someone who has curated several exhibitions in a similar community / public space(s). I chose artworks both by artists who simply visited the #YXE space (Allison Rossiter had many fine works that were the backbone of my exhibitionPersonal Geographies, and Eldon Garnet’s “pile” works were a major part of another show I put together from the #usask collection). Others were featured who helped to define that site over decades (Thelma Pepper’s photographic / audio “portraits” of a generation that helped form Saskatchewan, for better or worse, were significant pieces of an earlier show I curated on ideas of place).
But let’s add another flavour to the mix: a curator whom I worked with, and admire greatly, Robert McKaskell (known for interventions and work he did with General Idea) once spoke of curating in a public gallery (we were both at the Art Gallery of Windsor, at the time) in this manner. That anyone, if they’re willing to make the effort, should be able to find works in a public gallery space they can appreciate: but McKaskell was more than willing to meet people halfway, so while the AGW might be showing the supposedly controversial works of Donigan Cummings, McKaskell curated a large show of “big animals in small landscapes” that, with some engagement (like in a slow art day manner) offered some interesting historical comments on the Windsor – Essex region, but also on the wider (as in British, or French) history of the area, in what artists and ideas were prevalent when the AGW was in its infancy. In citing this, the use of “lemon” or “yellow” or the circular motifs that linked works by Jean Arp (De la familles des etoilles) or Jeanne Rhéaume (Nature Morte aux Tomatoes) or Herbert Beyer (Two Sinking Spheres) actually simple and inviting points of access for any gallery goer, an unpretentious line between them all.
Now, I’ve alluded before to how some think your intrepid #artcriticfromhell too often talks politics and not “the art.” However, it has been a while since I’ve offered an update on Rodman Hall and the ongoing death by a thousand ignorant cuts that Brock University seems to wish to inflict on them, before walking away like a sated vampire in 2023. Its not accidental that German’s contract at RHAC ended and #UCIM has somewhat faltered without her.
Its not coincidental that Brock has not deigned to hire a replacement for their main installation person, nor that it has delayed in hiring a person to replace the public programming position (though Brock also advertised a Director position a long time ago, and then, opaquely and ignorantly, declined to hire one and appointed someone who seems to lack the experience, or interest, to do the job properly. But its perhaps unfair to expect “administrative director” Tom Arkell to serve two masters, and really, we all know that, like Martin Van Zon, he’ll bring his “experience” to the service of Brock, not Rodman).
One of the disheartening – or enraging, edit as preferred – facts about many university spaces like Brock is that they slash support for cultural spaces like RHAC, and devalue them (except, of course, to attempt to take credit for the many OAAG awards that RHAC and their staff and artists – like Marcie Bronson – have garnered, arguably despite Brock University, not thanks to it). Then, when those spaces are unable to function at the previous excellent levels, they’re punished for the idiocy, ignorance and decisions of University administrative cabal members. The recent exhibitionNorthern Oracle opened late, due to “infrastructure issues” and one can’t help but wonder if that is due to the staff shortage, lack of prioritization of RHAC’s needs, or that the administrative elite at Brock don’t know / don’t care (ignorance and apathy, again. At least we don’t hear any more about the “Art Gallery of Niagara”, where that ill thought plan may have led to the loss of the same collection that is the source of #UCIM).
By the time you read this, the final iteration of Up Close and In Motion will be installed in the Hansen space at Rodman Hall. This series of exhibitions has been a highlight of 2018 for me, and in both the quality and consideration of the “first” spate of choices but also in seeing how Brock’s choices do impact RHAC and do impact culture in this city and this region. Up Close has been educational, both in terms of what is the history of exhibitions and visual art as history in Niagara, but also the gap between words and actions within the cultural sphere, as seen in the “relationship” between RHAC and Brock University.
All images are copyright / courtesy RHAC and provided either by them or myself. Up Close and In Motion will run into January, 2019, in the Hansen Gallery in Rodman Hall Art Centre.
Earlier this Fall, one of those works was located to a new (and hopefully permanent) home at City Hall in downtown St. Catharines. Located on the second floor (a prime area for people to encounter the piece, and the vivid colours and expressive nature of the work(s) will surely capture the distracted attention of visitors), Abstract City Hall is a product of many hands. The large painting offers various impressions of the city, and for being a collaborative construction possesses a unity that makes it a dramatic and strong work.
Just past the stairs at 50 Church Street, “Abstract City Hall was created during a two-hour acrylics art class. Prior to the lesson, the instructor Mark Roe, multi-disciplinary artist and active Willow Arts Community member— took a photograph of City Hall, enlarged it and divided the image onto 18 reclaimed boards…They began by looking at famous artistic works that pushed the boundaries of visual arts, colour theory and technique. Each member was then given reclaimed art board with what appeared to be a random geometric design as a starting point. The group used the fundamentals they had learned to produce an abstract piece of art. Unknown to the members, the 18 art works when exhibited together would create one large collaborative abstract art piece of St. Catharines City Hall.”
Further: “The idea was to go beyond a two-hour acrylics art class and to reveal to the Willow Arts Community Members that they are a unique part of a larger picture. This exhibit reflects how local government, a national arts organization – Rodman Hall Art Centre, and individuals living with mental illness/addictions can come together to celebrate diverse artists in the community.”
There’s architectural references in the work, but also flat shapes and more painterly forms that are less about capturing a site than sharing an impression; when the work was installed at RHAC in the lecture room, along the back wall, it acted as an ecapsulation of Rodman and the Willow as a space that involved and was created by many. Architecture is, in many ways, the most abstract of art forms as it often is meant to express and contain ideas as much as people, and through its functionality also helps us to define our world, our city, both as it exists in physically and how we exist in relation to it.
But I’ll offer a final comment (after the admonition to go and see it, repeatedly, as we all know that the city – or how we are, or how we intersect with it- changes quite often):
aethereal Spirit bright as moving air blue as city dawn happy as light released by the Day over the city’s new buildings —
Abstract City Hall is on display at St. Catharines City Hall, at 50 Church Street, in downtown St. Catharines for the forseeable future. Head upstairs to experienc Motion: the 2018 Juried Exhibit from the City of St. Catharines, as it also offers multiple interpretations of the city (including a focus on the Burgoyne Bridge, which has become a locus point for discussions of mental health and how we, as a community, support people in that situation). All images are courtesy of St. Catharines Culture, and the quote that I end this piece with is Elegy for Neal Cassady by Allen Ginsberg (from The Fall of America).
I am a fan of the uncanny, the “odd” artwork, in collections and in exhibitions. Perhaps this is a side effect of my work in various art gallery vaults and archives. When you’re intimately familiar with mandates and directives, bloodlessly glued together by committee and veering inevitably into the inoffensively banal, to come across an art work either freaky or phantasmagorical can be endearingly pleasing.
For example: for several years I toiled in the University Collection of (what passes for) the University of Saskatchewan. Part of a mad crack team engaged in the first ever full inventory of that often gluttonous, often clotted (conceptually) morass, you could become inured to the historical speed bumps of karaoke modernism™. Or how many faculty gleefully steal works off walls to take home (‘but I thought that Rauschenberg was mine, after all these years’…or buy me a drink and I’ll tell you how we had to almost call security to get into the University President’s residence, and that was ONLY to appraise and confirm the art that was supposed to be there. I might build upon Atwood’s assertion in Cat’s Eye about how too often ownership is equated to creation, and here it was really just “borrowing” being equated to “ownership.” Apparently, academics don’t just thieve ideas…your intrepid #artcriticfromhell entertains, but digresses, ahem).
Yet sometimes you encounter a work as obtuse physically as it is disturbing visually: a two by four foot piece, covered in tiny ceramic baby faces, white porcelain row after row, with one three times larger and brightly yellow in the middle left side, like a three dimensional flag of #babyfaces (don’t ask me the artist’ name, as I uncharacteristically dis remember). How it got in the #usask collection no one could say, and if it ever saw the lights of a gallery space or installation spot on campus before I documented and made a file for it, I’m pretty sure it never did after (I did suggest to the long suffering if somewhat inept Director that I’d love to curate it into a show, perhaps with Alice Cooper’s Dead Babies wafting down. It was hollow, so we could disguise the audio components within it. This received less than enthusiastic support…a prophet is without honour, whatever, pearls before swine).
What is that I hear? “What is the point of this latest amusing, if self indulgent, tangent?” Well, let me explain.
The latest iteration of Up Close and In Motion is one that has more works than previous, and has works that span a few different eras and ideas: my tangent about unusual and unexpected works in collections connects to this version of Up Close because of one work specifically, but also how this art work interacts and influences others in the Hansen space.
But first, let me recount the works in the space, beginning with the one that set me down the path of considering eerily engaging art works: this is Douglas Boutilier‘s Tennis Twins, in the front of the two rooms that comprise Hansen, looking across the space towards Jimmy Limit’s work above / on / intervening with the fireplace mantle.
I’m pleased Tennis Twins is in a separate room, to allow for the examination and space (a Slow Art Day approach, one I must repeatedly credit curator / writer Emma German, who was the force behind previous Up Close installations, for introducing to me) it requires. Alternately, Limit’s untitled (stoneware, ceramics) in the “second” room has a conversation with Herbert Bayer‘s Two Sinking Spheres (a serigraph – silkscreen print – that employs the flatness and richness of colour of that medium well, and is a year younger than I, ahem) and Jeanne Rhéaume‘s more “traditional” Nature Morte aux Tomatoes, sitting above the fireplace, facing untitled. The scabby textured abstracted tomatoes (I have spent much of this summer gardening, and have lost many a battle to the ants and the weather with my tomatoes, but also won a few, so I see rotted and soft and succulence all in the same still life here. A personal preference is also for the naming of works with “nature morte” instead of still life, as it offers a playful take on the immortalisation of something meant to be fleeting, a memento mori that makes the art historian in me also consider the works of Joel – Peter Witkin, who photographed luscious and evocative “still life / nature mortes sometimes with cadaver parts among the fruit….)
The orbs of Bayer’s work (I mentioned that it dates from the early 1970s, which is clear in its formal elements, whether minimalist or still pushing [M]modernism) echo the tomatoes of Rhéaume which – in a triangle of aesthetic resonance – are present in the blue and white orbs of Limit’s untitled. The slab of green painted wall behind Limit’s sculptures, the twinned shelves upon which the objects sit, and the play of shadows on the walls below the artwork all repeat formal geometric elements found in the works, or the idea of “twinning”, of repeated imagery, whether the circles of Bayer or the women of Boutilier.
Many of the works here are vivid in colour (Tennis Twins is the exception, but the gaze of the women as their eyes follow you critically – disapprovingly – around the rooms have a power, too) but what is fascinating to me here is how I found myself referring to this show as the “Twinned” Up Close, for the objects of Limit (2018), the globes of Beyer (1973), the gunky red ovals of Rhéaume (1950) and the sisters / clones / dopplegängers (a woman and her fetch, perhaps, but I’m also reminded of the trickster, chameleon Manitou that wore many faces, even your own) of Boutilier. Sometimes a simple approach, an almost “banal” to return to that word I used as an insult earlier, allows for subtle and yet significant “strings” to be drawn between very different works, from very different periods, and very different hands.
Up Close and In Motion has been installed in various forms and formats for nearly a year: channelling the official gallery voice, the upcoming “phases” of 8 through 11 “will feature St. Catharines-based artist Jimmy Limit selecting works from the permanent collection and creating new works in response. Limit’s photographic work illustrates his interest in objects for their formal characteristics, rather than function.” Limit had one of the more engaging exhibitions at Rodman of the last decade, curated by Marcie Bronson, in 2014, titled Recent Advancements. Formal aspects have defined his choices here, in Phase 8, where “he has selected three works that depict doubles….[the] green paint used for the plinths and walls behind his works is taken from a green in the Jeanne Rhéaume still life…and a similar hue is also found in Herbert Bayer’s Sinking Spheres.”
Limit‘s own practice highlights “varied subjects for their aesthetic interest rather than function,…[engaging] them from a strictly formal standpoint by stacking, balancing, and arranging them to establish interesting visual relationships that emphasize similarities or contrasts in colour, shape and texture. By taking common objects out of context, or altering their appearances through industrial techniques like powder coating and ceramic casting, Limit makes them seem strange and forces us to look at them in new ways.”
This manifestation of UCIM runs until early October: as a side note, Heather Hart’s Northern Oracle will have an opening reception on November 1st, and you can follow RHAC on social media for details about adjunct programming (talks, workshops, etc.) around Oracle.