Evolving Environments: Janny Fraser

Let’s begin with praise for the Grimsby Public Art Gallery. The two Biannual exhibitions I’ve experienced since my relocation to Niagara, and several individual shows I’ve seen there in that same span, have acted as introductions to various excellent artists. Many regional galleries in Canada punch above their weight, so to speak, and GPAG is among them. One of those artists is Janny Fraser, who’s sculptural works in the less recent of those shows was a highlight of somewhat disjointed exhibition (or diverse, to put it differently, in terms of media and concept, but group shows based on regional frameworks are often that way). Her Dwellings Lights Sculpture was one of only two ‘floor works’ in that show, but it played symbolically with ‘house’ in terms of some of the forms in the self lit sculpture.

Dwellings, as installed at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery.

This aspect of place and domicile is an interesting one to consider, as I recently spoke with Fraser in Welland (where she lives, though she has a significant history with Niagara Artist Centre in St. Catharines). Our conversation was as much about the history of the ‘Rose City’ as expressed in heritage sites (I’m a walker who likes to roam the cities I visit in this manner), and also about the future of Welland in terms of who lives there, who can live there, and who might live there in the future. This concern of Toronto ‘flight’ and the demographics in the ‘rust belt wonderland’ (to quote Welland artist / cultural instigator / activist James Takeo) informs my response to her work, but is something, in terms of her materials and her own history, that is implicit, if subtle.

“Communities “, photo installation at Welland City Hall (depitcted houses from Welland, Port Colborne, Thorold, St Catharines)

A quick teaser: over my last month in Welland I’ve engaged with a number of artists and instigators in said community, posing a simple question: What is the state of the arts, especially as pertains to visual arts, in Welland? The seed for this was planted at a larger conversation that took place at AIH Studios on East Main there, as part of the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Visual Conversation series. That evening, a lively debate took place over whether this is a site with untapped potential or if it is as much of a spent wasteland as the Atlas Steels site. I’ve written a few things, available online, that touch upon works installed in Welland that give some base to that conversation (Bas de Groot’s Welland Workers Monument, or Rod Dowling’s tubular metalwork that seem like the industrial arteries of the city bursting out of the ground, like a past trying to assert that its not ‘gone’…). I’ll be offering further takes on this, citing ideas put forth in dialogue with cultural producers and proponents here; the taste I offer now is that sometimes there is a ‘profound negativity’ (unsurprising for a community that took a hit like the 2009 John Deere closure) but also a renewed will (as Takeo puts it, and I’ll expand on in the future, the city is eager to support the arts, but with stutters in the past like the Murals and Canoe project, are not sure how to go about doing that….).

Late Day Sun I, from the Urbanization Series.

Returning to Janny’s sometime ‘industrial’, sometime delicate in their fabricated assemblages: her artworks “deal with time as the vehicle of change and transformation visible in landscape and urban overviews. I use photography and photo-collage as part of these mixed media and porcelain mosaic constructions, contrasting human and natural habitats. Convex and concave mirrors, lenses and magnifying glasses draw the viewer into the pieces.” A wide selection of her works can be seen at her site (jannyfraser.com) or at the Jordan Art Gallery web site, as Fraser is a founding member of that space. Perhaps the way I’ve framed this overview of her work is because that first piece of hers I saw had little ‘houses’ (displayed like a neighbourhood in the GPAG work from three years ago, or on box-like plinths, or skeletal structures that raise them up in other arrangements) and often the source objects of her constructions suggest a ‘domestic’ referent. In that piece – Dwelling – there are also branches ‘below’ the ‘housing’, and this use of wood and branches and such materials, sometimes more worked or woven in one instance (as in Gathered Environments, a very monochromatic exhibition – but Fraser’s palette is often restrained, but this allows for the details to come forth, as in pieces like Late Day Sun or Remains of the Day). In the few examples mentioned there, you can clearly see how certain motifs repeat in her practice, just as some formal elements of construction recur and straddle respective bodies of work. Fraser often employs “multiples and repetition of smaller works to create the elements of a larger installation.”

Landscape Transformations, GPAG.
Time Images, at the Carnegie Gallery, Dundas, ON.

Landscape Transformations, Gathered Environments or Sense of Place are all titles but also serve accurately and evocatively as descriptive responses. Organic elements are often incorporated into her works, and elements of the everyday (chairs, boxes, books) take on a new life and different meaning through how Fraser augments and enhances their appearance and thus changes their being and how they’re ‘read’ as works of art. The ‘tables’ in Fragments, when it was at the old NAC space, or Parallel Metaphors in Cambridge, or the ‘cases’ that seem like tiny toy houses but when opened up reveal innards that are both intricate and reminiscent of clockwork are all objects that transcend their ‘original’ source or state.

River, from the Time Image Series.

In Time Images, when it was at the Dundas Art Gallery, the works on the wall and the manner in which the ‘chairs’ have been worked by Fraser make them a singular artwork more so than individual pieces. In several of her descriptive notes about her works, you can see how though focused upon a certain piece, that it can also be applied to others: The porcelain mosaics are imprinted with numbers, found objects, letters, and timepieces to suggest the fossil remains of traces left behind in the process of change, fracture, and transformation.

As she uses somewhat banal objects (wood, chairs), Fraser also has an “ongoing series of altered books [which] provide a narrative, questioning the sustainability of high density urbanization, congested highways, as well as the loss of a sense of place as a result of globalization.” Its interesting to consider that in the century since Duchamp’s ‘appropriated’ the mundane and by positioning it in a gallery to isolate and highlight what we might look at everyday but not ‘see’, that numerous artists have expanded that sentiment; oftentimes taking the best of that immediacy and still insinuating the artist’s ‘hand’ to guide how we might interpolate this simple thing that is, perhaps, not so simple, and that is not so much inanimate as a repository for ideas and ideologies. After all, Fraser’s ‘house’ work Dwelling, that I saw at GPAG, also came to mind when I reviewed The Tent Project there, several years later, when that show fell significantly short artistically and conceptually. In that respect, Fraser’s works are both amalgamations of objects but also ideas, and offer different points of access to the viewer based on what they bring to them.

Gathered Environments, Niagara Artist Centre.

Janny Fraser’s work can be seen at the Jordan Art Gallery, or at her own site (jannyfraser.com). All images are courtesy of the artist, or from her own site or that of the Jordan Art Gallery. The header image is Horizon Lines, from the Urbanization Series.

Artist Feature: J.E. Simpson

There is a phrase – it can’t properly be called a sentence – that kept arising in conversation with Jonathan (J.E.) Simpson when I visited his studio, several weeks after seeing his work at Niagara Artist Centre: contradiction / conjunction / intersection / interpretation. If you’re familiar with his sculptural works – or his “printed” derivations of the same, and I’ll elaborate on that in a moment – this may seem like a “sentence” from his “writings” or an excerpt from one of his “texts.”

Simpson’s practice is both process based but aesthetically seductive. One sculpture, If A Tree Falls (which doubles as a “press”, as he takes rubbings off of it) that dominates part of his studio is a chunk of driftwood that he’s “etched” what he sometimes calls a continuous sentence, or is a ‘stream of consciousness’ text. This was done using a weighted hammer and bits like you’d see in a printing press, suggesting a process both physically industrial but also nostalgic to archival print methods.

Its amusing that with works that, although lovely objects, so dependant on text, I find myself thinking I shouldn’t call it ‘sculpture’ as its also a ‘print’, or refer to it as a static object, as one work is the means by which he makes others (rubbing fine paper on the imprinted text word letters to get rubbings, like variable editions and impressions of the object, extending his artwork’s ‘reality’ into new spheres. A footprint is to shoe as these rubbings are to the words / works…).

Our conversations about his art have been intensely enjoyable: “Performativity and gesture are central to my work. It begins as a seed germinating in my mind, and through my labour is reified in a seemingly mundane trope: that of letters carved onto a tree.” Or another concise observation: “J. E. Simpson is an artist at the intersection of writing and sculpting. Working with fallen and found tree trunks and branches, he blankets their wooden surfaces with text, building narratives using automatic free flowing and collage writing processes.”

Dream Log is reminiscent of a torso: the chunk of wood is wider at top than below, and in behind is a bit of decay and you can peer or poke inside. While visiting Simpson’s studio, he graciously allowed me to handle his work, and the texture of the wood itself is as inviting as the desire to trace the delicate inscribed letters. At that time, Dream Log was mounted on a stand so it was slightly “taller” than I. It seemed I might be grasping it by his her their hips as a prelude to a dance, which is an amusing and positive manner to talk about the artist / art object / art critic relationship….

Up, Down, Strange, Charm, Bottom and Top is thinner and longer: and with some of his works, Simpson has employed them in performances and the words become worn down, eroded (echoing another aspect of the trees themselves) and become texture rather than signage, indexical evidence of a faded and forgotten thought.

Returning to contradiction / conjunction / intersection / interpretation: Simpson’s employ of language / text with all its cultural baggage and primacy in engaging with art offers multiple means by which to understand his works. Or to quote our conversation, to help use the pieces to define our reality. A smaller work, Prometheus Unbound, is formally different from other pieces and explores this idea.

This may sound pretentious, but consider images and books and authors and phrases that we cite as our favourites, and that how “possessing” these helps define us. These are often rife with personal memories, anchoring us. An interesting aside with Simpson was where he talked about “not having access to the full stories” anymore, on Dream Log, for example, as he “wrote” etched notched scotched chiseled them and they’ve “become” something else. Memory, in the 21st century, is even more informed / deformed by Susan Sontag’s assertion that we rely an image to remember, and may lose the memory without such external “placeholders.” Simpson’s Dream Log is like that: in that manner it transcends an “art object” and becomes a landmark of memory or experience. To return to a book as a comparison: not only is having a treasured book to reread a spur of reflection and memory for the reader, but it also is / was / will be (forgive my German slamming of words together in this article, but its influenced by Simpson’s similar use of language) for the originating author. My favourite author, Mordecai Richler, often blended occurrences and interpretation, fact and fiction.

More contradiction: that objects so aesthetically alluring offer excellent springboards for debates about authorship vs. interpretation, or how important it is (or isn’t) to the artist or the “viewer” to fully understand what was intended. Intention is a collaborative venture that changes whether I’m running my fingers over the raw elegance of Dream Log or if the piece “changes” to accommodate or challenge another visitor.


Simpson attended OCAD, and now lives in Niagara. He exhibited some of these pieces (and the paper works that he frottaged from the woodworks, which led to charcoal getting on people’s hands and the works spreading even further, with a wider group, from mark to rubbing to smears to smudge) at NAC in the members space this past winter. You can see more here.