Ephemeral Architecture: Natalie Hunter at RHAC

When I first visited Natalie Hunter‘s exhibition Staring into the sun – though I prefer to think of it as an installation, as it spans both rooms of the Hansen Gallery at Rodman Hall plus the windows of the front space – Chief Curator / Acting Director Marcie Bronson offered an informal tour of the show. There were several ideas that she shared, but there’s also a formalism, a pure aestheticism to the works that Hunter has here, that’s a bit different from her past curatorial ventures (or artistic collaborations, as with Amy Friend or Donna Akrey).

Staring is a dramatic show, not solely in terms of the use of light and shadow, but also in the vibrant and vivacious colours, but in the way hue, tone and shape flow and move and stretch on the walls, changing as day turns to evening. Helios (the aforementioned work on the front bay windows, high above your head) can be seen from the parking lot, back-lit warmly, or if you’re standing inside in front of them, their flat strong blues, pinks and rich golden yellows are enticing. RHAC has numerous smatterings of stained glass windows throughout the building, rich and ornate, and Hunter’s piece is in dialogue with these. When first seeing Helios, I was reminded of the gentle, hazy and beautiful way that light passes through the stained glass on the first floor landing. Staring into the sun is another good example of how the ‘white cube’ is good, for some works, but other artists can do so much more in less ‘conventional’ sites.

In conversation with several fellow gallery goers, we’ve all agreed that Helios is a work (or three works, perhaps) that would be lovely to keep in the space in a semi permanent manner (I remember a similar discussion regarding the wall paper works by Alex Cu Unjieng from Material Girls). Helios exists differently external to RHAC, and is similar to Fernandes’ Philia in that it visually seeps out from the architecture, while simultaneously accentuating the shape of Rodman Hall.

All the works interrelate (except for Songs of May, located in the alcoves on the landing, leading down to the lower gallery space. As an installation choice this can be double edged. It allows for works to have a singular power, but sometimes makes them easy to miss, or separation from works in the Hansen can weaken them. Honestly, I often forgot these were there, and that’s not a comment on May but on their ‘remove’, so to speak. Alternately, when I’ve visited Heather Hart’s Oracle, and come back up from the lower gallery, the light streaming in from the back ‘yard’ area of RHAC has benefited May and they stand well alone).

Though there are images and symbolism in the individual pieces (some of which are more easily discernible than others), the ‘source’ of many of the collaged and collared and combined tableaux are not the immediate factor when engaging with them. But first here’s the statement regarding the sometimes ephemeral but often architectural Staring into the sun:Using light as a material in her photo-based sculptures and installations, Natalie Hunter explores the relationship between memory and physical space….Hunter photographed windows in familiar rooms of her childhood home, revealing intimate interiors that frame views of the external world. Using vibrant colour filters….Hunter layers multiple exposures taken minutes or hours apart, and prints on transparent and translucent films that she hangs, ripples, and drapes to interact with architectural and ambient characteristics of [RHAC].

The sky seemed to fold in ribbons of palest sunlight, Mirrored in light and Triple Window are to your right, as you enter the Hansen (or the room furthest from the natural light of the windows). Sometimes it isn’t the filmy ‘skins’ that catch your eye, but the soft globules of hue and tone on the walls, or the greyish shadows bleeding into yellows and greens. In the same manner Helios is one work when seen from the Hansen, and another when standing in the parking lot, The sky seemed to fold is multi faceted from multiple views: directly, the coloured films are blade thin edges, and the shadows and colours on the wall slant left or right. From either side, the rough slathers of pure colour become more patterned; you can approach them and try to discern the shapes within, or not (window blinds, patterns suggesting drapery or curtains, delicately feminine or domestic, if I may stereotype). Triple Window ‘points’ to the floor in the corner where its shadow thrusts downward, echoes that right angle, and then the wood patterning in the floor adds another level / layer / tier to this angular aesthetic. More of her words: Luminous and transient, the viewer’s experience of the works shifts with subtle changes in light and environment. Alluding to enduring routines and the passage of time, these works, as Hunter describes, “touch on how traces of our interior, most private spaces linger in our minds long after we’ve left them behind.”

The unique architectural touches of Hansen have been touchstones for numerous shows in this space, and Hunter moves out from the walls with Caught in Corners. The simple clean wood of the ‘frames’ sit on the floor, and the opaque ‘sheet’ of shapes and coloured forms loops and weaves through them. These almost act as resting points for the eyes, as they exist in a singular manner – being ‘flat’ colour, not transparent – and counterpoints to the wall works that shift and shimmer like Mirrored in Light, which almost bookends Caught and Helios, from one end of the Hansen to the other.

I usually suggest multiple visits to exhibitions (this is partly due to my own propensity to visit shows often, but not for overly long periods), but with Staring, the quality of light – and thus the time of day, or evening (when its all artificially lit, or when Helios takes on a different vibrancy in the darkness of night) changes the show, and your experience of it. Staring into the sun is at RHAC until April 28th and there’s an artist talk on the 28th of March.

Images are courtesy RHAC, or the writer; more of Natalie Hunter’s art can be seen here.

Sound your barbaric yawp: Heather Hart’s Northern Oracle

She’s convinced of her own legitimacy, her right to pronounce: I and my kind are here on sufferance. (Atwood)

Heather Hart began her artist talk, on the evening that Northern Oracle opened at RHAC, with a game of “telephone.” It only involved several people, but even among the limited group, what she said became quickly unrecognizable. This set the architecture (a bad pun, that’ll become clear later) for how her works, both in terms of what’s at Rodman Hall, and what she’s facilitated / created in the past, are about the gaps / truths between (and within) oral and written “narratives.”

In showing several pieces that incorporated personal yet public historical tropes, Hart also indicated how we can’t assume that what’s written down is perfect (she cited an instance of research where a name was mispelled and this became the repeated “official” spelling). Neither should we be as ready to declare – or discount – oral traditions, either. A critical listening and questioning of historical allegories is a strong undertone of Hart’s practice. In looking through my notes from Hart’s talk (touching on other incarnations of “Oracle” that were Eastern, or Southern), certain terms recurred and I want to inject here: slippage, echoes, recollections or memories that depend upon a site and (conversely) a nomadic experiences of place . This latter one is interesting for suggesting we interact with place not so much from experiences as what we’ve been told about a site.

The previous Rodman exhibition, Carry Forward, talked in some ways about the danger of assuming a “written document” or an “historical document” is always factual / valid. Hart expands that conversation, saying that oral traditions are also a space for historical, social or ideological assumptions – or degradation – of facts, where contested narratives are undermined by unfounded suppositions. Perhaps you saw that interesting story from the Prairies about what constitutes Métis territory, and how thats already garnering friction among the Lakota, Cree and Salteux on the plains. How that contested narrative plays out is yet to be determined, as issues about historical “legitimacy” – whatever that means, depending on who’s speaking to / at whom – is more universal than unique.

Northern Oracle‘s “rooftop” dominates the gallery, and frankly, the drawings on some of the other walls to the right in the open, high ceiling gallery, aren’t effective nor impressive. On repeated visits, I climb the roof, or I go inside the “attic” interior, or I sit on the tar paper and talk to others, and yes, I have, by the time you’re reading this, gone and “sounded my barbaric yawp over the rooftops” (Whitman) while shouting some of my favourite words, from Ginsberg to Job to Akhmatova or Eliot’s The Waste Land.

The statement: Northern Oracle is an ambitious rooftop installation that emerges from the floor of the gallery, and is accompanied by a series of mixed media drawings. Through her work, Heather Hart considers Black histories, access to ownership, taking up physical space, and the significance of having a place to call home. Visitors will be able to access both the rooftop and its floor level attic, while further contemplating and enacting upon the corollary of these vantage points. The “Oracle”, located in the attic, is the heart of the work and is a site-specific shrine where visitors may leave behind offerings.

Northern Oracle will provide a performative area, a locale for demonstration of power, influence, and direction where the idiom, “shout it from the rooftop” will be made literal. Throughout the exhibition, the space will be activated by performances, lectures and workshops.

When Hart shared past iterations of Oracle, one was outdoors, in a wooded area: there the roof seemed to emerge from the ground, and I see the one in Rodman similarily, like a rising, or surfacing, architecture or story. In this respect, having this work here resonates outside the gallery, if we think of Hart’s own connections to African American history, and many recent honourings of Harriett Tubman here in Niagara, from the naming of schools to the campaign to preserve and restore the church on Geneva that was integral to her activities, and frankly, to this place. Even the superficial “underground” connection (railroad or ideas, emerging upwards) plays with this allusion.

Hart shared several projects with the crowd the night of the opening, when she spoke: several explore that misused and misinterpreted idiom of relational aesthetics, but in a manner that is very effective (The Black Lunch Table Project, or Build a Brother, or The Porch Project).

Perhaps that’s why, in thinking of her work here, I sometimes consider it more architecture than art, as architecture is built for people and ideas, and is often more of a space for people and ideas than “art” has been.

Unsurprisingly, my responses to artworks are often subjective, and I was once told my writing about art privileges subjectivity (my own implied, perhaps) above all else. There’s many art works I’ve found exquisitely evocative and inspiring, but oftentimes for reasons different than what was intended. My repeated invocations of Jeanne Randolph’s ideas of the amenable object have helped me realize that this is as valid as any other interpretation.

In light of that, despite having visited Oracle a dozen times already (even leaving a reception for something else at RHAC to spend time with Hart’s structure), I have only gone “inside” it once. The title – Northern Oracle – alludes to the drawing in the interior and the manner in which visitors are encourage to interact with it, with provided gold leaf. That interests me not at all but I’ve repeatedly climbed the roof, sat on the window “ledges”, ascended to the apex of the tar paper tiles and touched the ceiling. Its wrong to say I’m uninterested in the interior, though: when I’ve sat on the very edge of the roof’s high point, admiring the play of shadows on the wall behind it, or looking out over the gallery space from a new and unusual spot, I realized that the chimney on the roof offers a view down into the space. What you need to peer through the “drawing” if inside with the “Oracle” you can see by simply looking straight down, past the clear glass / plastic covering the “lid” of the chimney.

Somehow that seems more interesting, more intimate, to look down to the empty chair with seemingly discarded clothes and clothes. It seems more secret, more powerful, and in that respect intersects with the power of being on the roof, with being in an unfamiliar “position” of strength, from which to project your voice, your words and your self out into the space.

From the second visit to the Oracle, I knew that I’d stand on top and recite Ginsberg’s When the Light Appears, Boy (there’s a video in my social media feed, though I may do it again). This offers an idea of what Hart’s piece can inspire. Visit the work, and consider that if you could stand on a rooftop and yell whatever you like, what would you say?

Northern Oracle is on display at Rodman Hall until March 3rd, 2019. All images are courtesy Rodman Hall Art Centre.

Laika: the more one comes to know men, the more one comes to admire the dog

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). 

Dennis Tourbin : October Fragments

“..these fragments I have shored against my ruins” (Eliot)

Its been suggested by Winnipeg artist / writer Cliff Eyland when we met in the gulag archipelago of Saskatoon, that I’m more like an American – specifically a New Yorker, Cliff said – than a Canadian. When I didn’t express offense at this, but amusement, he elaborated to say that he had this impression (one that’s only deepened since, he said recently) due to my almost combative nature of speaking about art, that I not only seemed interested in “contested narratives”, but that I thrive on them. This isn’t untrue, and perhaps that’s why I disdain so much “arts writing” that ignores – or actively denies – how some of the best Art encompasses contradictory ideas.

Recently, while enjoying the lovely book co-produced by Rodman Hall for Sarindar Dhaliwal’s Radcliffe Line and Other Geographies, a conversation I had with RHAC Curator Marcie Bronson about that exhibition came back to me. Specifically, how I saw it from one place when I wrote on it for Magenta (embracing my history nerd aesthetic). Talking to Marcie, and then Sarindar’s talk, offered two differing / intersecting, narratives. Bronson was interested in a piece that had a more feminist positioning, whereas Dhaliwal reminisced with memories and experiences that defined the creation of each work. Even more, for example, Dhaliwal had a piece referencing Enoch Powell, and a quick google search will explain why if I returned to Radcliffe now, many current media tropes about “immigrants” and “nation” would “colour” my response

My, what a tangent: but as I faced Dennis Tourbin’s painting October Fragments at Rodman Hall, the newest addition to Emma German’s curatorial challenge Up Close and In Motion, contested narratives surfaced. This massive painting whose name references The October Crisis, Quebec Separatism (or perhaps you prefer “Nationalism”?) and the terrorist FLQ (ah, wait, perhaps you prefer “freedom fighters”?) offers a reminder of what was one of the most dividing moments of Canadian history. Back then another Trudeau was in Rideau Hall (“How far will you go”, they asked Pierre when he employed the War Measures Act, and his response was typically caustic and clear (or maybe you prefer “arrogant”?): “Just watch me.”)

A large, colourful, yet flat, piece, Tourbin gives us scraps painted from newspapers, both privileging / problematizing the torn bits of “headline” by isolating them in heavy black, acidic yellows, a slash of red and loud purple. There’s a forced iconicism to the “fragments.” (we don’t consider Canadian history iconic, do we? I mean, there’s Oka, with the nose-to-nose-eye-to-eye-stare-down but I’m at a loss for another…). FLQ terrorist (or you prefer “activist”?) Paul Rose “raises his fist in defiance” (I’m quoting the painting quoting a newspaper article) leaving the courtroom. Then Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, in another “fragment” of the picture, peering down at LaPorte’s corpse. LaPorte was murdered by the FLQ, after being abducted, just as British Trade Commissioner James Cross was, but instead released.

Or, let’s “channel” the unofficial FLQ manifesto (written by Pierre Vallières, while imprisoned in America, following the tradition of “prison” manifestos, from Gramsci to Trotsky), with the unforgettable title of White N***ers of  America. The FLQ considered Cross an instrument of the colonial British Empire and LaPorte a quisling, a traitor. The FLQ and many of the “thinkers” of this movement were – as the October Crisis occurred in 1970 – avowedly Marxist, just like (arguably one of the greatest Canadian – or should I say Quebecois, revising again – painters ever) Paul – Emile Borduas’ La Refus Globale was years earlier, just as the SDS, or Weathermen in America, or sundry other revolutionary groups of that era. Yes, it’s surely more nuanced than that brief synopsis suggests, but I’ve already talked “too much about politics and not art” as I so often do. Visit your library, and read multiple historians, of both the right and left, with skepticism of any who asserts only one “version.”

Much has changed in the nearly five decades since the October Crisis: but I still know people that disagreeing with their opinion on it will brook an argument, and it may be a scar, but it still itches, for sure.

Here’s some of Tourbin’s own words on his work in this political arena: “…I had been developing individual visual poems, large colourful canvases of painted words, painted poems. A recurring theme in these works was the subject of The October Crisis…[something] that fascinated me right from the beginning. The idea that language could become so much part of our destiny intrigued me. I began to write about my impressions of the October Crisis, My impressions of how the details of the events were presented to the public through the News media….was dealing with a specific event in history and I was able to draw on the resources of the media.
I could use pictures of the actual events, sounds of the people involved, the News broadcasts, the newspaper headlines. These fragmented pieces of information became the narrative elements for the entire work.”

An interesting side note: many of the works that German has selected for Up Close have been personally evocative for me (Philia brought me back to the 1990s and HIV / AIDS, for example). When first seeing October Fragments, I was reminded of studying this in high school and how that project was one of many from that time (researching Robespierre’s Terror in the French Revolution, in my French Class, or Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute or Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. The latter two novels both inhabit the Duplessis era Quebec that birthed the FLQ…). These all set me on my path of obsession with “sites of contested narratives” in history, and in visual arts – and that is something I share, I think, with Tourbin, in many of his works, but especially here in October Fragments.

 This version of Up Close and In Motion is on display at RHAC. It will shift soon, and again, until the historical exploration of the collection at RHAC continues into 2019. Image credit: Danny Custodio, Rodman Hall Art Centre.