Abstract City Hall: a city seen in part and in whole

I’ve posted several articles  on the work that The Willow Arts Community (whom were recently honoured, along with Rodman Hall, at the OAAG Awards) and they’re an active group with various projects ongoing. Hopefully you attended Songs From The Willow, or the reception at RHAC when a number of works both visual and aural were shared by the Willow Community members.

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).

Twins, doppelgängers and fetchs

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.

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.

What About Rodman Hall? A Recap: So Far, So What?

As we approach the Fall of 2018, and some decisions have apparently been made, some of which have been made public, many of which have not, I decided it was time to consider re visiting the ongoing relationship, it its deterioration or denouement, edit as you will, between Brock University and Rodman Hall Art Centre.

To facilitate that, I’ve made all of the articles (my lord, I didn’t realize there were so many) available here, on my own site, and created this post as a gateway to everything you need to know (that I’m able to share at this time, as many of you know there’s more, and know more, than I’ve been able to share, but may yet do so, in the Fall…specifically how some staff have been treated, and the pharisees at Brock, who say one thing and do another, in that sphere).

These can also be found at The Sound, but more light on this situation, more availability and information, is always good, especially to counter some of the past actions and attitudes from Brock University on this issue.

Some links are still external, and if these don’t work, just message me, and I’ll correct them.

It all started with an exhibition at NAC which I speak about here.

Not long after that show opened, I spoke with the consultant in question, Martin Van Zon, from Interkom Smart Marketing, on the air on CFBU, as part of the ongoing show I produced there, Niagara Voices and Views. That conversation can be heard here.

The first article was a teaser to direct people to The Sound’s website for the longer series, and was the only one from the initial series to appear in printed form. As the four evenings of consultations happened over two weeks, at the beginning of a month, it made more sense to post the series online, as they could be more relevant, in terms of immediacy of the events, and also for ease of sharing. At this time, too, the Facebook group that would eventually lead to the Rodman Hall Alliance was forming, so online seemed expedient for that, as well.

The second, third, fourth and fifth chapters, all dealing with the Interkom consultations, are at the previous links. There’s two more chapters, that focus on the Barlow Report and the presentation that Janis Barlow gave, at The Masonic Temple about the report and proces, that can be found here and here.

There was an update that came much later, which was more like a chart, with an image provided by Brittany Brooks. This was in response to the Rodman Hall Coaltion consultations in late 2017.

I’ll be resharing these links on my various social media spaces. As always, any who feel that they have information they want to share with myself or The Sound, regarding this issue, please contact us as you feel most comfortable. If necessary, confidentiality will be respected, as I’ve been happy to do all along this series.

As I have promised / threatened, a further update, perhaps where I offer some things I’ve known and have been reluctant to share but am feeling must be put out for public consideration, will be coming in the Fall of 2018.