A Fall Update: What About Rodman Hall?

Well, ‘the time has come,” the Walrus said,”To talk of many things: of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–of cabbages–and kings–and why the sea is boiling hot–And whether pigs have wings.”

Why, yes, your intrepid #artcriticfromhell is ‘pleased’ to offer you an update on what is happening now regarding Brock University and Rodman Hall Art Centre. Allow me to explain my silly opening quote / metaphor; with those references to ‘kings’ – as in dismissive arrogant types – a Hutchings or a Fearon, even a Vivian, perhaps – that wish we’d just defer to our ‘betters’ on the topic of RHAC; ‘cabbages’ as in reheated bile in Brock PSAs that are opaque in their obtuseness, ahem; and ‘whether pigs have wings’ – no need to explain that one, I hope, since I’m sure you saw that flying pig, too, when Brock asserted they NEVER planned to sell RHAC to those developers, whom I guess would be working for free, cough cough.

But perhaps I should warn you, before we begin, as when The Sound broke the story regarding Brock – or the Hutchings Cabal, as it’s more accurate to term it such– planning to sell RHAC back in the Spring, Dean of Humanities Carol Merriman insinuated that we were ‘fake news.’ Mind, we weren’t the ones proffering mistruths so baldly, such as saying they’d supported RHAC strongly, when they’ve declined to fill three (3!) positions there in the last few years, emaciating the gallery through a process of ‘demolition by neglect’, to paraphrase Rebecca Caan.

Ah, forgive my skepticism: when I commented the other day that I was unsure if I should finish this update, or watch Evil Dead, a friend who’s involvement has been more in depth and nuanced then mine suggested the movie, as it has a clear end….

Since we last talked about Brock and RHAC, there’s been a few developments, several of which have been reported in The Standard, with varying degrees of (in)accuracy. The story has also been picked up at a national level by Canadian Art. They provided articles that both detailed the original ‘plan’ this past spring by Brock to divest itself of RHAC and ‘steal the collection for two dollars’ (Mark Elliot), but also the revised plan to hand over the space and the collection to a community board, with a more appropriate – and realistic, from both a financial and cultural position – plan for 2023. Several faculty have been adamant and insistent on making sure the university knows what it would be losing, and what the true stakes and real stakeholders are, in this debate. Praise to several of these, which includes Donna Szoke and Amy Friend.

Also this summer, St. Catharines City Council, at the urging of Councillor Carlos Garcia, and after presentations by former St. Catharines Cultural Coordinator Caan and former Councillor Mark Elliot (who, when he won the STC Arts Award for Making a Difference, repeated his assertion that Brock ‘stole’ RHAC and the collection for a toonie, and he will happily reimburse them – even with interest, so $4 – to get it out of their hands), struck a committee to gain information and break the Stalinist silence from the Hutchings Cabal at Brock. This is specifically regarding the most recent feasibility report by Alf Bogusky and Ann Pappert. City Hall, after all, offered support to the university regarding their MIWSFPA endeavour, and as pointed out at that same Council meeting, citizens of this city would be coming to them, not Brock, to ask why RHAC was shuttered and why we have no longer have a quality public gallery here.

They – again, unlike the Brock cabal – would not find it so easy to ignore questions and concerns, and would demand some accountability from Brock administration.

Some necessary praise: the students (Rachel McCartney and Sarah Martin, especially) at MIWSFPA have been amazing, in both protesting and making their voices heard, and not being interested in the refusal – whether ideological or just ignorance – on the part of said cabal to not take their concerns seriously. With protests at various Brock events to derail the spin, one of the reasons why myself, and others, are somewhat hopeful, is due to them.

The ‘new’ board that has recently incorporated with intent to have RHAC and its collection returned to them has several notable names with significant experience (one of them, Reinhard Reitzenstein, made one of my favourite comments during the Van Zon consultations, pointing out that neither Van Zon, or his AGN types, had any idea or experience for what they were talking about).

The relevant information from their PSA released in late June:

Rodman Hall Art Centre Inc. is a community-based not-for-profit corporation whose first orderof business is to develop a phased transition plan with Brock University to return the public art gallery back into community hands. This initiative is a constructive response to Brock University’s goal to reduce their financial obligation for the art museum. Rodman Hall Art Centre Inc. is dedicated to ensuring the future excellence of Niagara’s award-winning professional art museum, and to provide inspiring contemporary art exhibitions and public programs. RHAC Inc. intends to raise funds from a wide variety of sources, engage community volunteers and leverage the historical home and gardens to create a cultural destination for residents and visitors to Niagara.

Unlike, again, the opaque curtain that Brock employed regarding their decision, this RHAC Inc. update also offered biographical information and the relevant experience of their board members. These include Jean Bridge (Chair of RHAC inc., who’s both an artist and educator of long standing in the community, as well as the ‘founder of nGen Niagara Interactive Media Generator, now Innovate Niagara and the Generator at One’), Ken Lucyshyn (Executive Vice-President, Aggregates & Construction at Walker Industries Holdings limited. That company name may be familiar to you from the recent Niagara Pumphouse Walker Industries Art Competition) and the aforementioned Reitzenstein (internationally renowned artist, associate professor of Sculpture at the University of Buffalo. His past experience is impressive, having ‘served on the Boards of MacMaster University Museum of Art and the Art Gallery of Hamilton, and Grimsby Public Art Gallery’). In past conversations about RHAC, the fact that the grounds, as well as the gallery spaces, are a treasure to be preserved is acknowledged with the presence on the RHAC Inc. Board of Darren Schmahl (horticulturist and educator at Niagara Catholic District School Board and the Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture.’ It is very edifying to have ‘an authority on the history of the gardens at Rodman Hall and contributor to their current design’ as part of this group). The group is rounded out by two excellent examples of the balance present in this group: Shawn Tylee (Manager, Corporate Affairs, Rankin Construction. He ‘brings a wealth of knowledge in Business Marketing, Strategic Planning, Client Relations and Contract Negotiations to’ the group. Again, this is important as Brock – with Van Zon, but this self serving ignorance has been repeated by others there, afterwards – has implied the ‘irrelevance’ of RHAC, while instructing them to not scuttle the MIWSFPA fund raising of the past decade, and then neither supporting nor replacing staff whom could raise and enhance RHAC’s public profile…) and Dr. Peter Vietgen. Vietgen is an ‘Associate Professor of Visual Arts Education in the Teacher Education Program at Brock University and the current President of the Canadian Society for Education through Art’.

All are experienced and informed choices to shepherd RHAC towards 2023 and being rid of Brock’s mendacity (as I must mention AGAIN that blaming Doug Ford for this ‘austerity’ is self servingly disingenuous, since Van Zon was jibbering about developers long before Ford as a premier was even suggested by the most absurd of comedians….).

This is a hopeful turn, and one that surely wouldn’t have happened, I suspect, if V.P. Finance Hutchings hadn’t departed for job with the City of Brantford. An amusing aside: a friend works at an auto shop, and described how, in the midst of changing Hutchings’ radiator that he was subjected to a gleeful monologue by the former Brock employee as to how glad he was to finally rid the uni of RHAC. Rather funny, when you consider the eagerness with which he and his lot blamed Doug Ford for the necessary cutbacks, though this all started several years ago before the idea of Ford as Premier was anything other than a bad joke. Amusingly, again in a painful manner, is that a similar ignorant wielding of a bloody axe under the misguided dissembling of austerity is ALSO what Hutchings was doing, aping Doug.

Is the RHAC and Brock saga over? Not bloody likely, your intrepid #artcriticfromhell would say. After all, a little over a year ago, many of us thought Brock would no longer foster plans, public or secretive, to ‘steal the collection and building’ (again, I praise Mark Elliot’s acerbic exactness). It is not inappropriate to be wary until 2023, and the building and collection are out of Brock’s grasp: but I must end with this. Is the cultural community willing to step up, in terms of support both financial and vocally, to ensure RHAC survives? We’re having this conversation again because a window to ensure Brock behaved appropriately was missed. Will we miss it again?

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).