In the Soil 2017: your intrepid #artcriticfromhell’s purely subjective synopsis

It’s been suggested that what truly makes Art in the public sphere successful are moments of unexpected joy. Perhaps when you’ve suddenly remembered, amidst Pendulum Pulses music and the entrancing Sojourn of Spectaculous Wunderkle Things, an installation that fills the entire community room at the Mahtay Cafe in downtown St. Catharines (with black light and jellyfish, squid like and Cthulhu – like beasts) that the Rheostatics have just started playing in the Festival Hub.

A mad rush ensues through back alleys, past white tents housing various performers and activities on James Street, but you pause as the first sounds of their opening song wafts across the downtown. The Rheostatics began one of the most anticipated events of In The Soil 2017  with Saskatchewan (“…the moon hung high… in the canopy of sky. Home, Caroline, home”). This wasn’t my premiere experience of In The Soil since I returned here (from Saskatchewan), but that’s a moment I’ll treasure. It joyously defined In The Soil 2017 for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At this (second for me) extravaganza, it became more like the joke one of the performers made onstage: spending twelve hours in the downtown, forget a change of clothes, crash at a friend’s downtown place, and lurch awake the next day to pinball from site to site, from theatre to art to music to installations to events that straddle such descriptions. My first day culminated in The Sex Appeal (“…this song goes out to all the millennials in the house. It’s called “eat ass & call me daddy….””) and Pizza Sharks. My ears haven’t yet recovered from the latter. The sheer volume that rolled out from the Merchant Ale House was physical, almost enough to stifle your heartbeat.

Saturday was a day of itineraries and schedules, initially devoted to theatre; Young Drunk Punk (Bruce McCulloch’s sometimes coarse, always cutting monologues) and lemontree creations MSM (men seeking men) specifically. MSM (dance theatre which sampled online chats of men seeking men) was graphic and salacious, not for the faint, but had moments of emotional honesty that bridged gender and orientation easily. It made me feel a bit old, but also reminded me how far we’ve come – oh, did I just make that pun? LOL. Well, “we all need someone we can cream on / and if you want to / you can cream on me…”

And more music. And Ceasars. Okay, it’s not “Art” but I must praise the bartenders for their excellent work in the Hub. My research was thorough. A lubricant to the enjoyment of In The Soil, for sure; or a sedative so you’re not too taken aback at the shambling Cloak of Cosmoss, as she silently, unhurriedly wandered the Hub all weekend…

Perhaps it should’ve been milk, as Katie Mazi’s Spent Cows of the 20th & 21st Century, which graced the window of Beechwood Donuts, was a slick porcelain white pile /herd of tiny cattle. Rose McCormick’s Children’s Toys for the Apocalypse (I repeatedly photographed floating backlit Barbie in that instalment of RHIZOMES in the MIWSFPA. As the world ends, #allwehaveisplay) and Lacie Williamson’s Garbage and the Beautiful Embrace both appealed. Garbage invited you to “write down whatever you wish to let go of, and toss it over the balcony. May your worries fall to rest while you rise above the garbage heap.”

 

 

 

 

 

I felt lighter – a placebo perhaps, but so what, I say, so what – scrawling “Saskatoon,” crumpling and jettisoning it away….

 

 

 

 

 

An interjection to my reminiscence: those of you familiar with my rants know that paying artists for their work is a significant issue. In The Soil deserves your support (as it marks a decade, next year) not solely for the quality and quantity of performers, but because Soil pays artist fees to every participating artist, as well as professional production fees,  and the marketing around the fest is excellent and effective (the free booklets were indispensable to any festival goer). Too many festivals are exploitive: perhaps one of the major reasons that In The Soil is about to mark a decade – no small feat for a festival of this breadth – is due to it being respectful of participants and being not solely artist driven but by investing in the artists, making artists invest back in the festival.

Stepping off soapbox now: let us return, you and I, to RHIZOMES. Sandy Middleton’s Shadow Play was literally collaborative: stencils and objects and visitors become actors in the projections, with Middleton less a “director” than facilitator. Middleton will be posting images over the next while, so that Play – and In The Soil – has a continuing online component, after the hectic events. Blue, by Whetstone Productions, was described as “Clown meets the Blues by way of ’30s Berlin Cabaret with a detour through Las Vegas in this interactive solo musical all about love.” I attended against my better judgement (clowns!) but it was one of the best performances of In The Soil 2017: pathos and humour, and love songs that I have added to my playlist. #youlowdowndirtydogIstillloveyou #stabyouintheeyewithmyhighheel #ImallforlovebutIcantseethelight

I spent approximately six hours at the Merchant Saturday (not consecutively). The dulcet strains of Supernatural Buffalo to the raucous thunder of Strange Shakes were equally outstanding (I’d heard rave reviews about both, but not yet enjoyed them. The festival format, offering concise tastes of performers both local and beyond, has acted as a prompt for myself and others to experience more). Know performed for the first time at the Merch that evening, another fine teaser of an excellent local band: #willyoulovemealrightwillyoulovemealrightwillyoulovemealright.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The purple pink blue lights lent an ephemeral, eerie atmosphere; the lime green drum sat atop the hot orange shag carpet. Again, an In The Soil experience as visual as aural: loud in both senses.

Sunday I was nearly eaten by The Cardboard Land Creature (brought to life by the Summer Collective) in the interactive village at the Festival Hub. 

But, after documenting for posterity, my escape was facilitated by one of the numerous industrious #inthesoilfest volunteers. This might have been foreshadowing for seeing The Ash – Mouth Man by the Stolen Theatre Collective; consumption was a recurring trope in that play. Ash was a story equal parts humourous and horrid (offstage hushed sibilant ghostly voices and balloons will never be the same, for me); it also played with audience interaction.

 

Further spatterings of music saw In The Soil to its conclusion, to the Dirty Cabaret VI that evening at the Odd Fellows Temple. But before that, Aaron Berger + The Blues Stars offered a medley of songs in the Hub, under a greying sky that would break into a downpour as I stood inside the parking garage on Garden Park & Carlisle, listening to Sound Sound, interspersed with the outdoor percussion of the falling sheets of rain.

Alternately abrasive in tone, then suddenly delicate and deliberate, Sound Sound embodied the energy and will that is a hallmark of In The Soil: coming together to create a larger whole, for the enjoyment of many, in unexpected ways in unexpected places.  

In the Soil Arts Festival ran from April 28 – 30 in the downtown of St. Catharines. Next year will make the tenth incarnation of the festival. All images here are poorly shot by the writer, with the exception of several shots from Joel Smith and Liz Hayden, and the Shadow Play image, shot by Sandy Middleton. 

Sandy Middleton / a multiplicity of practice

You’ve likely seen images from Sandy Middleton’s continuing St. Catharines Legacy Project: her endeavour to create a photographic archive of all St. Catharines residents is ongoing. Middleton is also an accomplished photographer: her open studio at In The Soil featured a number of larger works that incorporate non-traditional processes, and her works that were in What About Rodman Hall? at NAC were playful in process and from. This balances nicely with the Legacy Project (SCLP), where what photography can be outside the gallery space, as a social record, dominates.

So Middleton is a clear choice for this instalment of The Sound’s series highlighting STC artists.

BG: Tell us a bit about your diverse studio practice.

SM: I’ve had some difficulty as my practice is somewhat fractured: the need to make art, be financially viable and to communicate. For a long while I made the art I thought I “needed” to make, that I felt would be pleasing to others and saleable. It didn’t mean I disliked that work but I wasn’t really listening to myself. I only starting working as a fine artist again in 2011 and in that brief time I’ve grown immensely.

I am now able to have two artistic practices: the work I sell at fairs and exhibitions (as in the recent Toronto Art Fair) but also the work with personal  meaning / relevance that’s not necessarily saleable. Also I’ve been working on open ended project-based works which seem to fall into a completely different category as something I NEED to do (The St. Catharines Legacy Project, for example).

I graduated from Ryerson in Still Photography a long time ago and my road (if graphed) would resemble the rise / fall of the stock market. There’s never a gentle upward trajectory as an artist. Every decision takes you down a new road. Many dead-end.

I truly thought I wanted to be a fashion photographer like Richard Avedon but at school fashion didn’t interest me at all – more so still life and portraiture. I began my commercial practice in Toronto after graduation, for approximately 10 years, taking on a variety of jobs but never focusing on one area, be it headshots, weddings or advertising. I liked doing too many things. Somehow with my varied interests my photo work morphed into fine craft / design based work after this.. It wasn’t really until I closed my design business in 2010 that I decided I wanted to go back where I started with fine art photography (a long road home). Making art and being creative came naturally; it chose me.

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I enjoy working in my own bubble, but sometimes I follow (and admire) the work of lesser-known  artists in my own circle. Two painters, Toronto-based Julie Himel and Guelph-based Laurie Skantos, both create the type of painting I can enjoy for a long time and would want in my home. I also love the work of Ottawa-based Su Sheedy; her encaustic painting technique is unique and I aspire to that fluidly / ability in my own work. You lose yourself in her pieces. As a photographer, I admire Osheen Harruthoonyan and Eliane Excoffier for their analog-based practices. Their photos are dreamlike and curious. Japanese artist Ken Matsubara’s time-based work is unforgettable and mesmerizing.

BG: What’s a highlight of your practice, from the past year?

SM: The highlight has definitely been my portrait project. I’ve met and photographed over 250 people so far in St. Catharines, and developed new contacts and relationships and met many wonderful people. I love the images and am excited to see how it will progress and how it will be seen in twenty – thirty years. I call it my life’s work and my intention is to continue it for as long as possible.

I am next shooting SCLPP Sunday August 7th and you can sign up here or email me. Also, I’m in the Grimsby Art Gallery Bi Annual art exhibition this Summer / Fall.

unnamedBG: What’s your favourite work you’ve made, in the last year? Why?

SM: My favourite work is usually my most recent, especially if it takes me in a new direction. I’m working on creating a bigger body of work for exhibition in public art galleries. I started the Family Album series in 2012: it’s about loss and memory, notably within families and our connections to each other. I’m working on a series utilizing wax, layered images and found objects that address untold secrets and stigma. Its an exciting time for me creatively and I’ve found I’m able to create the work I need without concerning myself with the end result.

 

If you live in St. Catharines, you can be part of SCLP, and the Grimbsy Art Gallery’s 2016 Bi Annual Juried Exhibition has opened at the GPAG this August. I offer some thoughts about it here. 

Grimsby Bi Annual 2016 / Regional Contrasts

I’d never visited the Grimsby Art Gallery before, but unlike many arts writers, I have a long history with smaller galleries, whether community oriented, more “museum” focused, or spaces – like GPAG, or a favourite of mine in Saskatchewan, the Mann Art Gallery – that offer an intersection of regional and wider artistic concerns, whether provincial or even national, in their tone. Sometimes these spaces acknowledge their role very actively, as when the Godfrey Dean was a venue for The Paradise Institute, as it toured the country, allowing many to experience it that wouldn’t be able to, otherwise. 

The latest incarnation of the Grimsby Public Art Gallery Bi – Annual Juried Exhibition opened on the 5th of August, and it seemed a perfect opportunity to explore the space for the first time. With just short of forty artists in the exhibition, it guaranteed to offer an interesting cross section of art in Niagara.

The gallery space – like many in Canada – is housed in the library, and this is something I always find interesting: the Dunlop, in Regina, is similar, and this has been a primarily positive experience, though intersections with civic spaces (like libraries) and the attendant political framework can be both edifying and degrading, in terms of audience. This is not different from how university galleries can also find themselves negotiating with the institutions they must interact with daily, and their respective ideologies and biases.

The exhibition was curated by a trio. Ingrid Mayrhofer (described as an artist, curator & educator), Mary Reid (the Director / Curator of the Woodstock Art Gallery) and Gerrie Loveys (Assistant Curator, Peel Art Gallery, Museum & Archives). The gallery is quite full, not quite salon style in terms of installation, but it is a safe assumption that the curators brought a sense of inclusivity to their task. When you visit the gallery, there’s a small pamphlet that lists off the works / artists, but also has more in depth descriptions of the curators.

Carrie Perreault’s Untitled (For Elizabeth) (rice, plastic, metal) is easily the best piece, not just for its uniqueness among the works here, but that it seizes your attention immediately and then precedes to define how you negotiate the room. The disembodied “feet” – whitish, formed by the grains of rice that cover the “socks”, walk into the gallery space, ahead of you: there is a “break” between one set of “feet” and another, but this is a work that strikes me as genuinely contemporary, and that is exciting both in a formal manner (non traditional material, installation in a manner that questions / challenges the space of the gallery and the visitor, pushing interaction) but that also offers conceptual questions. As a somewhat indexical sign of another person, aspects of absence are a consideration – you could ask who “Elizabeth” is – or was – or you could consider these as being a variation on footprints that suggest a lack as much as a presence. Untitled invites you to construct a story around the elements Perreault provides. (The image below is NOT the install at GPAG).

Perrault, Untitled (For Elizabeth).

Carrie Perreault, Untitled (For Elizabeth).

Synchronized Flight and Nesting are two works further back in the corner, like rewards you’ll have to traverse the room and the corner to enjoy. Veronika Beaulieu’s works have a delicacy of form and construction that remind me of some of Zachari Logan’s drawings: these are paper collage on wood panel, deep black backgrounds and with a minutiae of form and finesse.

Lisa Skog’s Landscape, in clay, is one of a number of fine craft works of quality and interest: multiple reddish brown works of varying heights that suggest a ragged city scape, or perhaps a rough interpretation of an Emily Carr scene. The “poles” are textured and incised.

Anita Granger presents a diptych, in a manner, of two “pears.”. One of these, Repaired (the other is titled Non-Perishable) sports a zipper on its front, but this is more amusing than macabre. Its funny the same way that, of course, as these are made of bronze / stone, that they’re both “non perishable”. I resisted the urge to touch them both, though I wanted to, very much. Malcolm Gear’s Stripped Jar (stoneware clay) has a simplicity but also a touch of absurdity with its strong diagonal, straddling art / art object, as you could use this fine craft piece or just appropriately declare it art and display it. Sandy Middleton’s Dreamwalking 2 is another of her haunting photographs, an unpeopled landscape that’s sparse in its tonality and that is atmospheric, suggesting a site both familiar and foreboding.

Arnold McBay’s Glyph (acrylic, plaster on panel) may be my favourite painting of the exhibition, with the cleanliness of the black symbol on the white thick surface. It’s a small work, so you can appreciate how the plaster sits on the panel, as sculptural as it is painted. Glyph is a fine successor to the history of hard edge painting / pop art appropriation of known symbols / the everyday street sign designated as “art” by its placement in the refined gallery air. Less can be more, and that’s something that several of the pieces here, in the Bi Annual, should consider and perhaps incorporate. Many works are too busy, too frenetic, and exhaust the eye rather than reward it. Tina Newlove’s Self Portrait is scratchy linear simple (very atypical of oil painting), no excess of line or colour here, and suggests a surety of hand. All brown rusty beige, she looks askew at us, eschewing eye contact from this slender canvas.

Returning to three dimensional works: Nikola Wojewoda-Patti has two works in clay and mixed media. The titles suggest a larger series that these are sampled from, as we have The Gatekeeper, Ally to the Weeping Queen and The Concubine, Ally to the Mute Queen. Both sit on plinths so we have to look up to them. In William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive, Slick Henry is an artist (loosely based on Mark Pauline of SRL) “who lives in a place named Factory in the Dog Solitude; a large, poisoned expanse of deserted factories and dumps, perhaps in New Jersey…[where he’s creating] large robotic sculptures”, with names like “the Judge, the Investigators ….the Corpsegrinder and the Witch”. He can’t explain way, but there is a logic to it, to him, and a suggestion of a larger story that these characters inhabit, and that by giving them physical form he frees them, and gives them life. Wojewoda-Patti’s characters imply an external drama: I’d like to see more, and know the story within which they exist. 

Linda Ruscio McIntosh’s SPIRIT TREES also presents engaging texture and colour, being mixed media on rusted steel (the rusty blood palette, with whites and greys, balances the sheen of the metal). The title is a bit heavy handed: the ethereal nature of the scene is obvious. Robin Nisbet’s Light Rail in acrylic, looks best from across the room, where the marks and darkness blend and meld to create a wet dark scene from a lost night highway. This is next to Peter Adams’ Red River Series #1: Yangtze, which is very red, very blotchy, and has a redeeming quality in the black scratchy lines that try to offer some shape and order to the loud colours.

Janny Frazer’s Dwellings Light Sculpture is the only other “floor” work, besides Perrault (others are mounted on plinths). It’s a bit haphazard, like a light table with small structures, the glow of the table alternating with the black lines of the tiny domicile structures atop it. A bit of a noisy piece after the cleanliness of Perrault.

There’s a divisive quality to the show: some of the works are definitely contemporary, and would work at Rodman or at Niagara Artists Centre, displaying a level of conceptual and formal execution that is praiseworthy.

Others manifest that compromise that community gallery’s often must make, in representing a community with artworks that have more of a value in terms of regionalism than in representing quality work. I’m reminded of how the aforementioned Mann Gallery in Prince Albert, with its annual Winter juried show, has attempted to expand and push what Art is, and can be, in that small city.

Conversely, I’m also hearing the words of Robin Metcalfe, who spoke of how when you run a gallery in a regionalist space in Canada, you must respect that area, as your role is to serve alternate and sometimes disparate stakeholders (I once wrote a long piece for FUSE Magazine about the political waters and partners that the second Joni Mitchell exhibition served, at the Mendel Art Gallery, and how public galleries must be inclusive, but also diverse).

The 2016 Bi Annual Exhibition is very dominated by painting, and this is unsurprising: and many of the works (like Maureen Paxton‘s Séance has fun with the picture plane and where we are positioned as the viewer, and Samantha Goeree’s Transcendance I, II and III bring together texture and photography with an able, aesthetic hand) display a subtlety that merit your attention. Others do not, and suggest a certain banality and safety that any large, local exhibition has to negotiate. Ignore these pieces, and consider that there’s some quality work in this space that bridges a variety of media.

The 2016 Grimsby Public Art Gallery Bi Annual Exhibition is on display until the 11th of September.