Denouement (the outcome of a complex series of events) / Rodman Hall

Camille Paglia once very caustically (and astutely) observed that many “still regard abstract painting with suspicion, as if it were a hoax or fraud. Given this lingering skepticism, it might be wise to admit that there is more bad than good abstract art, which has been compromised over the decades by a host of inept imitations.” The same can be said of artworks in the realm of new media, whether moving or still: in fact, sometimes these can be even worse, as they combine a navel gazing discourse that is more about “how” something was made, rather than why, and much new media work has also bartered aesthetics for ideology, being so focused upon “personalism” that it becomes more of a soliloquy – or narcolepsy inducing lecture – than anything else.

But all that means is that any gallery visitor needs to be discerning: and sometimes gems can be found in unexpected places. It’s always difficult to gage what to expect from a BFA graduating show, just like with an MFA show: these days, with institutional cronyism and ponzi schemes giving us “visual arts PhDs” in Canada, it’s only likely to muddy the waters – or more exactly, add more urine in the artistic pool. But there are interesting ways in which this can be challenged. I’ve always felt that having Brock BFA grads exhibit their works in Rodman Hall upped the ante, presented a real challenge to the students, and gave them a true first step into what a considered – and qualitative – practice must be, post university.

The current slate of graduates, showing in Denouement at Rodman Hall, is an eclectic mix. Several works are quite good, several others fall short. The intricate detail of Taylor Umer’s monochromatic pieces, the “landscapes” of Robin Nisbet that fracture space and time but still offer enough “ground” for the viewer, or the exploration of memory in a personal motif as in the works of Becca Marshall are diverse in concept and execution.

The work that I’ve been back to see several times, and spent the most time with, is that of Kylie Mitchell. Multiple interlocking works, with simple titles like something, august 12, doll or burn it which belie their evocative suggestion of an intense story we must hear…It is also the work that personifies the title of the show the best; not in terms of finishing a degree or this exhibition as an “end point” but in the “complex events” she hints at, or the stories she alludes to, obliquely and directly.

There’s several reasons why this is the work I’ve chosen to highlight, to spend time with and try to articulate its attraction, that intersect with each other: the installation benefits from being in a separate room, allowing the projections, images and monitors to converse with each other, without interference from other work, and thus invites our contemplation as we stand within the environment. Perhaps it’s also that Gunilla Josephson’s works were recently here, too, and my mind is on how video can be a space, not simply a wall work. But perhaps it’s the way in which one of the works (august 12) both embraces the machinery that defines it, and yet also offers a very personal and immediate bridge across what can be distancing technology.

As you enter her space, along the left hand side of the wall are three monitors, all at the same level, seemingly identical in size and form. Each loops: words are typed, corrected, brief statements that are as terse as they are uncomfortably personal, and then an invisible hand “backspaces” it all, unwriting unmaking unsaying it all. Only to do so again, and erase again, and type again, for ever and ever. Charged phrases: I should have said something, or she’s dead, or equally cutting snippets of conversations that are painfully real. Small bites of speech that are hard to swallow, and perhaps we sick back up, and then swallow again. Another loop, like trauma in memory (“Do you really think there is a real point where then stops and now begins?” Maggie had asked him. “Don’t you know that down deep the things that happen to you never really stop happening to you?” (Peter Straub, KOKO)).

Mitchell’s words: “The premise of this series of work is based on three students from Brock, who agreed to meet with me and discuss moments in their lives that have deeply shaped them today.” She went on to shape and mold these, but I’m loathe to add more than that. There’s a gravity to the room, and the images and objects within it, that facilitates personal interpretation and projection of one’s own moments and histories where everything changed, and was never the same again. Something that might be awkward is incisive: and the universal nature of stories that might be despairing, regretful or that simply remind us that we are unified by that which we have experienced transcends form and technology to be about communication, that often failed and failing attempt to know another person, and their life. 

Denouement, the Brock University Department of Visual Arts Honours Exhibition, runs until April 30th at Rodman Hall Arts Centre.

The image above is a video still from Kylie MItchell’s bracelet, 2017.

Also [Art ] Also [Play] Also [Absurd]: Donna Akrey at Rodman Hall

Donna Akrey’s aesthetic – I hesitate to even use that word, as it’s so loaded, too heavy, for the works at Rodman Hall that Donna invites us to (genuinely) play with, or that might hold us up (a shaped cushion attached to the wall, easing my lower back pain as I lean against it) – is an awareness and an immersion in the moment, unreservedly.

I’m reminded of Salman Rushdie’s assertion – from the mouth of one of his narrators, a photographer – that “realism isn’t a set of rules, it’s an intention.” A directness that eschews rhetoric or hesitation is demanded when you engage with Also Also; the front three rooms are Akrey’s, and their domestic history helps to suggest an ease, and accessibility, with the works. There’s even a station for “collaborating” with the artist, blurring lines between Akrey and ourselves further.

Akrey’s art seems to eschew academic language or prohibitive discourses about interactivity and access and expectations with “art” and the “gallery” that are deterrents – prophylactics, really – to immediacy – to the very ideas of interactivity, even – for the individual viewer (…just like that last sentence, hah, may demonstrate. Sorry, but not really).

Marcie Bronson, the curator of this exhibition (again, perhaps too formal a word: let’s say collaborator. That’s also a nod to Bronson’s ability, as she’s mid wifed the works of Amy Friend and Gunilla Josephson previously) suggested this contradiction. She and Akrey toured visitors through the show and Bronson offered that Akrey’s solo exhibition Also Also is about what we see, how we see and what do we expect to see, in the two rooms (and more, and more on that in a moment) at Rodman.

Another amusing comment; when Akrey said that there’s the idea that she might be “doing this art thing wrong.” I’d proffer that her work is about fun, both facile and deeper, and the enjoyment of the visitor, in a way that relies on their good intentions, “interacting without malice” (quoting Bronson, again). There’s a refusal to be “serious” in many of the works Akrey presents, refusing to have their squareness forced into a round hole of some external theoretical or academic dryness.

The curatorial / artistic / communal statement elaborates further on this desire to evoke a freshness in gallery behaviour: “Akrey is interested in how habit shapes the way we experience and engage with the world around us. Rooted in her astute observation of patterns of communication and consumption, her work humorously intervenes to raise discussion about social and environmental issues, often responding directly to a particular site or community.” She further sums up her approach: “I imagine the absurd as real, because sometimes the real is so absurd.”

When Akrey spoke of the ideas that inspire Middle Ground, with reflected light, mirrors and an activity as soothing as its mindless, she reminisced of walking around rooms as a child with a mirror propped under her chin, traipsing about in a manner absurd and untroubled by what “walking” and “looking” is “expected” to be….

There’s a power in enchanting details: the shiny silver elbows of the softish sculpture in the front room, like a person’s bent arm, fabric wrinkling like a sleeve. The brief Fireplace Videos are odd vignettes. Unrelated, non narrative and non committal, they’re moments in time that are being shared with you, looping, and undemanding of any conceptually rigorous looking. They’re similar to those burning yule log X – Mas channels (the first Fireplace video is white sleetsnow spatterflying across a flat aquamarine field, beautifully hypnotic. Another is of the same plant sitting on the fireplace below the flatscreen, more enticing on screen than in life).

As you sit and watch these, you begin to feel like the plants in the work behind you (Plant Life), ebbing and slowly moving (breathing?), one plant to one blocky television. All nine perch on plinths, near the window, like “real” plants might be placed in any homey space. Relaxing, perhaps vegetating (you and the plants), if you will.

Pieces here extend back 15 years, but there’s newer works (one piece is a bit lesser, or a bit different, now, that the Levine Flexhaug show is gone, as it was responsive to that. But as it’s titled ⅓ ⅓ ⅓ , we can just say ⅓ has shifted). Her collaborators include artists like Margaret Flood (with Eclipse), preparateur Matthew Tegel (the previously cited ) and hopefully us, too. A workstation with tools and supplies is provided, with an encouraging tag (listing the workstation and shelves displaying works as by “Akrey and gallery visitors”).

There’s also a site-specific outdoor installation that relies on the cooperation of neighbourhood residents in Rodman’s immediate area. This series of pieces can be best experienced at night: as I left Rodman, the evening of the talk / tour, the soft glows of the tiny box works placed at several houses on St. Paul Crescent were unexpected moments of joy and light. Guideposts without a map, or destination, just a marker to be enjoyed for its simple being.  

In Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beasts, he cites the rareness of a child’s first visit to a zoo: how these animals are exotic and unknown wonders, unmediated by any expectations. Later, the child might run to see the majestic lions, and habitual, mediated expectation replaces wonder and awe. There’s an element of that in Also Also: go rub your face against the works in Prop, let the soft bulges massage your back, and consider a gallery that might be a comfortable, welcoming space where there is no misbehaving, just enjoyment. Donna Akrey’s Also Also is at Rodman until April 30th.

All images here are courtesy, and copyright, of the artist.

A Painted History at Rodman Hall

One of the ways in which art galleries, especially public ones like Rodman Hall, matter is that they are repositories of history. Many people don’t equate galleries, or visual art, with the same local and larger relevance that we attribute to museums, or libraries, but perhaps that’s just because its rarely given the respect it merits in “educational” or “public” spaces.

This applies to other cultural media: music and theatre, for example, are spaces that have been repeatedly cut and dismissed in our educational spaces, and this concordantly has led to a lack of appreciation – and lack of ability to engage with – these spheres. To dismiss The Voice of Fire is to dismiss John Cage – or Rebecca Belmore or Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptin, if we want to speak of challenging historical artworks that break our preconceptions- and then I must dismiss you: ignorant opinions are solely that, and I don’t suffer them anymore, gladly or otherwise.

When I first encountered a gallery collection intimately, like I did at the Art Gallery of Windsor, and later on curating several shows of photographic work from The Photographers Gallery on the prairies, and seeing the richness of both historical “records”, I was seduced by its diversity, and how they functioned as fully as an archive of a site as any text or manuscript. (This isn’t a new thing: Breughel’s The Fall of Icarus or Goya’s Portrait of the Royal Family would have gotten both of them executed if their overlords had understood the symbols / signifiers both included, for the like minded, in their paintings….)

We’re also seeing more attention paid to historical Canadian painting: there’s been renewed interest (besides the Group of Seven), whether the more traditional genre painters of post WW II (Paraskeva Clark’s Church at Perkins Mills, Quebec or Doris McCarthy’s Mal Bay with Fish Racks – both in Rodman’s collection) or the focus on Canadian abstraction from the 60s (Jack Bush just got a great deal of love in a massive show at the AGO). There’s a wonderful exhibition on display at the Art Gallery of Hamilton right now, of Montreal painters of the mid twentieth century, well worth checking out. But like all nationalist privileging, not all is good: I’ll be glad when we stop canonizing Agnes Martin.

This brings us to A Painter’s Country: Canadian Landscape Paintings selected from the Permanent Collection, curated by outgoing Director Stuart Reid. The statement: “This exhibition traces an almost 100-year history of Canadian artists painting the landscape as their primary subject matter. The luminaries of Canadian art history including members of the Group of Seven and their contemporaries are represented…The title of the show is borrowed from A. Y. Jackson’s autobiography of the same name, in which he describes the early years being a member of the Group of Seven during an awakening of nationalism. Those painters were determined to forge a distinctive style of painting particular to Canada, its rugged terrain, and wilderness. The exhibition looks at the predominant mode of depicting the land from an omniscient vantage point, of asserting governance over the vast domain, unifying a national perspective, and vision.”

McCarthy Mal Bay Fish Sheds, 1954, watercolour, 24 x 27in_HRlt

The artists on display are something of a “greatest hits” from the collection, with names you’ll recognize: the aforementioned Clark and McCarthy are alongside A.Y. Jackson’s Laurentian Landscape, Rawdon, Quebec, September 1953, Lawren Harris’ Sand Lake, Algoma and Varley’s Arctic Seascape. All three are Group of Seven: their contemporary Emily Carr is also here, with Forest Vistas. McCarthy’s work, mentioned earlier, is a delicate watercolour where the forms of the boats and the buildings become geometrics leading towards an abstracted flow of form and angles. Its a  bit askew in its viewpoint, of the Gaspé. Harris’ works are more organic, almost soft in the rendering of shapes, and Jackson has a fluidity to his forms that is similar: both seem to paint the landscape as a living, breathing entity.

McCarthy’s Haliburton VIllage is all snowy quiet and smoking chimneys, and the almost mechanically ordered marks of McCarthy’s brush define the white blue slaloms in the foreground. Clark’s Perkin Mills is a bit askew in its format, almost like its tipped towards us, but it works as the gravestones tilt and the sky is overpresent, back to fore. Charles Comfort’s Georgian Bay is almost the stereotype of the iconic Canadian landscape: lonely, isolated trees in the harsh yet beautiful scene, empty of any peoples, there for the “taking.” David Milne’s works, minimal and stark, are always jolting when presented with the rich and heavy colours of Carr or Casson or Jackson. Arbuckle’s Trinity Newfoundland No. 2 has the charm of a postcard: the sky over the Atlantic is as lovely as the ocean behind the tiny structure, evoking memory and mythology of place.

ia 3200jackson 

These smaller works are mounted in the side gallery, the “parlour” space. But Country also acts in conjunction with the other two shows on display this summer at Rodman. Its always enjoyable, and adds layers of potential interaction and understanding, when galleries present multiple shows as “statements” or “questions” on the same subject, like a conversation. Reading the Talk (which “brings together work by contemporary First Nations artists who critically examine relationships to land, region and territory”) will open at Rodman on May 21. Elizabeth Chitty’s The Grass is still Green (which opens July 4, focuses on the “Two Row Wampum, the 1613 agreement between the Haudenosaunee and Europeans that outlines a commitment to friendship, peace between peoples, and living in parallel forever—as long as the grass is green, as long as the rivers flow downhill and as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west”). Chitty’s works about this site have enriched our historical conversations about it (when not outright shifting the ground they stand on, if I may offer such an egregious pun), and Reading will place this same question of terra nuillus (“nobody’s land”, or the idea that it was land for the “taking”) in a more provincial, national and international frame.

Part of the genesis Country was in Reid seeing Picturing the Americas at the AGO recently, and a comment from participating writer / theorist Dot Tuer stating that landscape painting was  a manner of “asserting governance over the land.” Reid also expanded, in conversation, about her comments to how painting a landscape is an extension of cartography, and thus in naming, owning, a space or site (Consider how many of the venerated landscapes of Canadian Art history – like Varley, or Harris –  are emptied of people, or are rich areas just waiting to be exploited: terra nuilus is an idea that the land here was “uninhabited”, just “waiting” to be “claimed” by settlers. You may be unfamiliar with the term, but we’re still living the assumption…)

There is also an element of philanthropy to Country: this show is very “reverent”, presenting “gems of landscapes”, and since Rodman Hall’s role in the community is still a topic of debate, many of these works are gifts, or were purchased with funds bequeathed from a person’s estate to the gallery. Many see spaces like Rodman as sites for where their works will come to rest: most public galleries across this country – and others – can mark the germ of their beginning in a generous gift of artworks, or the means to acquire and care for artworks.

This brings me to a point I must raise, in light of the “re evaluation” that Brock is moving forward with, regarding Rodman Hall and their responsibilities (what they perceive as such, and what the larger community and stakeholders believes was agreed to, back in 2003). There are many works in this show that are worth significant amounts of money, not solely in the Canadian art market, but also considering that the wider world is starting to acknowledge, and pay high prices, for paintings by people like Lawren Harris. His Sand Lake, Algoma is from the prime period of his output: 1920, when the Group of Seven were producing their most lauded – and now, most valuable, in a monetary sense – works.

What will happen to this work, if Brock divests itself of Rodman? Does Brock “own” the work? Does that honour the wishes of Bruce Hill, who bequeathed it in 1964, from the Charlotte Muriel Hill Collection (his mother, perhaps)? Whom is making this decision, and what is their agenda? My conversation with the consultant, Martin Van Zon, seemed heavy on the university’s agenda of “austerity.” So, whom do we ask about this, and from whom shall we be receiving answers? The report that Interkom is producing will be presented to Brock in June: when it comes to the rest of us is unclear, in Van Zon’s own words.

To return to the gallery space: A Painter’s Country will be on display until August 28, in the now contested site of Rodman Hall. May I propose a comparison of mythologies, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, when you visit this, with the other shows that will open this summer, that also offer constructions and collusions about place and history, and the country “we” live in?

Images in this piece are McCarthy’s Mal Bay Fish Sheds and Jackson’s Laurentian Landscape, Rawdon, Quebec.

 

#trynottocryinpublic / what succeeds, what fails

Painting can display a breathtaking diversity. Now, granted, that can be said about any form of artmaking, and it can be a weakness, as well as a strength. But when one considers a few things (lets call them suppositions) painting is an active site for this debate.

There are painters out there (not karaoke modernists, but others worth your time – I’d recommend Jonathan Forrest’s dimensional paintings) that can make an effective point for how the lineage of Greenberg and Reinhardt is explored in their work. There are painters who are primitives, that have an immediacy and rawness of experience (the late Paul Sisestki’s works), and clearly ne’er the twain shall meet of those aforementioned ideologies.

As for me, I’m all about narrative, all about stories, all about how images can be used to act as a subversive and yet direct form of “history.”

There is an element to this conversation, of pedagogy, too, as its rare to encounter a painter who hasn’t been formed (or deformed) by “art school” in this day. Sometimes that, I suspect, is why I tend to be dismissive of abstraction, in a “contemporary” setting: one has to acknowledge that not all stories have been told, so ignoring narrative is an act of special privilege that ignores the voices that haven’t been allowed to speak.

On another level, our teachers shape us, and sometimes they do what I saw years ago, when I endured a lecture by Ron Shuebrook, and realized all his MFA students started working in so many different media, and all left painting like him. Art school might be about “unlearning” assumption, or it might be about being immersed in a space that makes you unaware that any other ideas might be valid, or of consideration (Full disclosure: I taught for more than a dozen years, in an art department, in studio. However, as I taught primarily at senior levels, in digital media, my classroom incorporated a reading package that always reminded students that there are spaces outside the university…).

And this brings us to the first instalment of #trynottocryinpublic, currently at Rodman Hall in St. Catharines. This first of two exhibitions under the same umbrellas is made up of three artists who are “emerging”, literally from their degree at Brock into the larger art world. Fostered by two very different instructors from the School of Visual Arts at Brock (Donna Szöke and Shawn Serfas), this is part of the BFA Honours course that is a partnership between Rodman and the MIWSFPA.

All three – Liz Hayden, Fraser Brown and Kaia Toop – work in paint. They share the back, lower rooms at Rodman. They will be followed by an exhibition of their “classmates”, as this manifestation of #trynottocryinpublic ends this Saturday, April 9th.

Toop’s work is easily the strongest, and is the work that merits repeated viewings. There’s a playful aspect to her work, but also an unsettling one. Her pieces with flamingos, manatees, zebras and fawns are high points of the entire exhibition. There’s a maturity of execution here. For example, There are improbable things by Toop (the strongest piece in the exhibition) is a scene that’s disturbing on more rigorous looking but that may initially disarm you with its absurdity and inanity.

In improbable things, the factory is reminiscent of a Diego Rivera (his mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts, for example), dark and textured, a space that’s cramped and a bit suffocating as we gaze into it. The flamingos are both bright pink against the dull factory. I’m also reminded of Alice in Wonderland and the games of croquet that used animals as “toys” and “tools” with a blithe cruelty.

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The flamingos float: as does the fawn in a work in a back space, though it seems more frightened and its posture suggests that its almost “turtling”, if I may use cross – fauna language, against harm. The painting to the right of that isolates a stag on a pink blank background, with scraps of what could be newsprint, or other papery detritus, stuck to it. This is repeated in several other works, where the animals seem damaged by some kind of “leftover” (that word appears in each title) of a manufactured, or manufacturing environment…animals in sites of environmental destruction or damage often have been photographed slick with oily wastes, and other dumped garbage. These are more subtle versions of ducks and geese with their necks caught (perhaps terminally) in six pack plastic rings we’ve discarded without thought or consideration.

In conversation, Toop talked about using her own experience working in a factory setting, and the “unnatural” aspect of that, as applies to humans. That will surely add an element of distress to how we read her animals, as they no longer seem to be within these sites by choice but are trapped there. This may be literal, or it may be the same way that most of us are trapped in sites of labour: I’ll resist any Marxist banalities of employment as prison, though I might suggest a recent excellent article in Hyperallergic, and the avoidance of silly banalities in the same “space” we see from an AGYU “artist” who confuses exploitation of labour with a “statement” about it.

In closing, I want to touch on something that bothered me, about this exhibition.

It is the work of BFA Honours students, and as such they are about to leave one framework for potentially others, with different, yet similar, challenges (the title of the show, I was told, is a play on the stresses felt by students in the course, which I commented would only get worse if they chose to continue in the cultural minefields and barbarisms that are Canadian art…).

I haven’t mentioned works by the other two artists in the show: partly this is due to how Toop’s work held my attention easily and repeatedly.

But it is also a consideration of how (as Steve Remus once challenged me) I resist bringing full critical weight against undergraduates, as their pedagogy can be overtly defining, perhaps deafening them to other voices outside the classroom.

In light of that, though, I feel its important to point out that looking at Liz Hayden’s works, I saw – literally – some of the same “wide” brushstrokes I saw in Shawn Serfas’ Inland series. I’ve encountered other works by Fraser Brown, at NAC, and though I wasn’t overly impressed, they struck me as having potential (a phrase I used when I was teaching that can translate as meaning I am very excited to see what you do next). His work in this show is repetitive and, like Hayden’s, seems to take refuge in its medium of execution: to elaborate, as I’ve positioned my thoughts here as being specific to paint, painting is also a medium in the art world that actively resists any conversation, still, about anything other than how it is done.

Granted, we see techno fetishism in many other spaces (I can think of a horrid show that used 3 D printing in a manner that suggested poverty of thought and rigour): but when, for example, one is asked to speak about your work in a manner OTHER than how it was made, there’s still significant resistance among painters to do so. There is also still a fostering of taking refuge more in repetition, an almost mindless praise of “activity”, than in considered making, a counsel to keep “painting” as opposed to exposing yourself to other, more disparate – and perhaps even outright disagreeing – ideas.

Again – there’s a space for this, and a well executed object is a necessity for something to be considered art, for many of us (I waiver, back and forth on this). But in looking at the works of Liz Hayden, I see the hand of her instructor too heavily in her marks and her paint. In Fraser Brown’s work, I see a repetitiveness that becomes excessive and serves to simply make what might have been engaging if disciplined become formulaic and boring.

I don’t say this with rancor, or point it out with malice: but something a student might strive for is a uniqueness of voice, a means and manner by which to find your own place to stand. Perhaps its too soon to ask that of Brown and Hayden: perhaps the strength of Toop’s work serves to highlight the weaknesses in theirs (I once reviewed an exhibition of Jane Ash Poitras’s work that was ill served by being in the same gallery as Rebecca Belmore. The latter has a clarity that further exposed the tepid muddle of the former).

This exhibition closes this Saturday: the next instalment features four artists of the same class, and perhaps in seeing a larger whole, I may see differently. But right now I wonder about pedagogy and practice, and how that is a debate that’s been happening in (and outside of) art schools across the country in a serious way that may, or may not, lead to a shift like we saw back in 1968.

 

A Word 30.10.2015 Donna Szőke / Cloud / Satellite

As some of you may have noticed, the radio shows are a bit more sporadic, hah, than when I was on the prairies: that’s just the way things roll these days, as I’m finding myself occupied by my writing (two pieces are in the current issue of The Sound, one on a previous guest Anna Szaflarski’s work It’s a Man’s Job and another about Bill Burns’ show at Rodman, and I’ll be talking to Bill for a future A Word Niagara) and by my job. However, I am keeping up with putting out conversations of note, and this one is definitely one of those.

Donna Szőke has two exhibitions up right now: Cloud at Rodman Hall and Satellite at the VISA Gallery. We talk about some of the ideas that formed the works as well as the directions the work drove my thoughts and some other gallery goers I spoke with, and you have a chance to hear Donna speak about her works on Thursday, November 12th, at Rodman.

You can listen to us here.

The image I’ve posted below is of her piece Decoy which sits invitingly atop a mantle in one of Rodman’s elaborate rooms) which both enthralls and disgusts me, in person. Look but don’t touch, when you see it

Szoke_Decoy Final