More than surface: Just Resting Your Eyes at Rodman Hall

It’s necessary to first acknowledge that Just Resting My Eyes, the first of the two part exhibition at Rodman Hall featuring the work of Honours graduates from Brock University’s Department of Visual Arts, should be on display longer than two weeks. The works by Denise Apostolatos, Victoria Morinello, Jill Newman, Jacob Primeau and Aaron Thompson are often dense and inviting, and on my repeated visits have shifted in my interpretation, and in their relationship to each other. The art works in this exhibition occupy the larger back gallery space but also the side long “hallway” as well as the small inset alcove that faces the ‘title wall.’

Just Resting My Eyes is dominated by painted and drawn work. In some ways this enhances the show, as he painterly nature of Victoria Morinello’s Bittersweet Temptations (1 through 6) located in the recesses adjacent to the “meeting room” with image transfers rendered more visually enticing through mixed media (paint, plastic wrapping, scratchy scrawling marks and erasures) both contrasts and casts in relief the difference of Jacob Primeau’s Familiar Strangers. The latter is a massive acrylic and oil on canvas, whereas Temptations are smaller (four installed together as a block aren’t a tenth of the size of Strangers). Morinello has larger pieces in the lower gallery space, “facing” each other – no pun intended as the women in the loose triptych, all sharing the title The Holy Trinity with individual descriptors of (foil) or (plastic), as matches their making, all have expressive manners.

Unlike some previous iterations of BFA graduates exhibitions, Eyes is installed so that the respective artists (and yes, I’ll use that term here, as the quality and consideration of the works mark them as more that than students) intermix. Jill Newman’s linear, monochromatic blind contours occupy most of the side hallway, with smaller works that have a strength in repetition, a clean beauty in execution of sharp black on white or glowing white on black. The wall itself bears some of her loose, and sure, lines. Further down in this space, Primeau – who presents what is one of the two (okay, maybe three – I reserve the right to change my mind on future visits) best works in the show – offers four in a series titled Selected Street Photography. Though these are night images, and are dark, the flaring spots of street lights or the glistening of the reflection of artificial lighting in these is echoed (realized? recreated?) in his painting in the other room, Strangers. Just as Newman’s rough, yet considered drawings here offer insight into her own larger paintings hanging in the back space, Primeau is revealing something of his process. Or, to parse from several excellent conversations in the space with several artists (who also straddle painting and photography) it may not be  linear progression, from photo to painting, and that only art historians (and, ahem, perhaps critics) want a linear, approved, official “history” when in fact images are made and conceived in a more organic, bleeding process that is more reminiscent of osmosis than “order.”

When I’ve visited, I’ve found myself going back and forth, from the hallway with these smaller pieces, to the alcove with Morinello’s tiny works, and then into the large gallery proper: referencing back and forth, or just exploring the visual lines of connection that bind the works together.

Newman’s pieces are installed to the right of Primeau (he has three large works, and a display case shows many small works on paper. These have too much detail and finesse to be just “studies”). Whereas Primeau’s Strangers is a dense work that illustrates a city street scene (not literally so much as conceptually, with the washes of purple and yellow, and the thick dabs of red and yellow accentuating the tableaux, as an umbrella or the glow and reflection of a car tail light), Newman’s paintings are nearly all the same square dimension, with one much larger. They’re installed mostly grouped together: outside, inside and outside, inside pt. II are a diptych far to the left, with quiet pinks, deep blacks, gentle yellows and milky whites that suggest more watercolour than acrylic, a fine subtle hand that allows for the drips and washes that build form and shape. A vertical arrangement of four are titled (top to bottom) glimpse, ocular, disillusion and spectacle (all dated 2018. Appropriately for a graduating show, the majority of works by all the artists are 2018). glimpse is thickly painted, in tones almost chocolatey, and unlike other works that suggest a window or a framed space, is rich textured surface. Below it, ocular with its bands of pink, yellow and grey with black flecks (black appears outside the yellow “frame”, too, a bit roughly) shares the compositional element of ‘rounded bars’ with outside, inside. But the larger works, and several smaller, allude to the same vegetation that dominated her drawings in the hallway (such as looking blindly (interior plants) (1 – 150), which are a series of cards you’re encouraged to handle, but with respect).

Aaron Thompson has several works in Just Resting My Eyes, but the significant work is one that will force you to do the opposite of the exhibition title. His work – or works – Shoulder to shoulder, 2017 – 2018 is / are like most of the pieces on display: enhanced by the accompanying statements from the artists, but not necessary to an appreciation of it (for example, Newman’s looking blindly is blind contour drawing. This adds a level of appreciation, but the work is already visually engaging, just as Primeau’s text aides, but isn’t essential, to Strangers).

Shoulder to shoulder is the work that on my visits may not immediately pull the visitor in, but will hold them for the longest duration: mixing ideas and assumptions of low and high culture, of consumption in both a considered and gluttonous manner, Thompson has presented a largesse of tiny paintings that reference, challenge, demean or enhance the Mona Lisa, or perhaps just the idea of the Mona Lisa.

Some works are listed as Google Image #1 or Google Image #3, and other titles act as less of a list than a dictionary of cultural references: there’s one that has Lion – O from Thundercats, another trio are tiny renderings of faces in the manner of Francis Bacon (all of these are painted by Thompson, from sources “found” on the web. Some are considered, others are just crass). A sample: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self-portrait (detail) / Space Lisa / Captain Spaulding /  Obey Mona (They Live) / Rene Magritte, Son of Man (Mona Lisa) / Willem de Kooning, Pink Angels / Duotone Mona Lisa (detail) / Jackson Pollock, Guardians of the Secret (detail) / Lion – O – na Lisa / Batman Duchamp / Bashful Lisa / Zombie Lisa / and Fear and Loathing in Florence (Raoul Duke), which is a personal favourite. There is, of course, a version of Duchamp‘s infamous L.H.O.O.Q., who could be said to “shoulder” significant blame or credit for the state of the contemporary “art” world….

Any words to describe this piece are unequal to the task: you must experience it.

I would, however, in my role as art critic, offer the following observation of Thompson’s Shoulder to shoulder. With the failure of postmodernism as a viable theory by which to approach culture (unsurprisingly, as post modernism is based on the context of doubt, without a viable system to replace what it challenges. Some older art historical texts defined post – 1968 as an “Age of Anxiety.” I like this as an umbrella, and for the capitalisation), a variety of thinkers far more verbose (and surely more intelligent) than I have proffered alternatives.

One of interest is “digimodernism” which, in one aspect, suggests that we’re exponentially creating and consuming images as never before in human history. In light of this, language, and the idea of systematic ordering and designation that often manifests through language, is not only impossible now, but beyond irrelevant. While wasting time in attempting to order what images we’ve seen, more are being made. Some, like what Thompson shows here, occupy multiple theoretical spaces simultaneously, often in uncomfortable (if not very conflicting ways). It’s all the Mona Lisa. None of them are the Mona Lisa. All of them are Art. None of it is Art. Edit and arrange as you will, if you like, but the person next to you will edit and arrange differently, and your systems may meet, meld or modify each other, to create a third fourth fifth (and so on, and so on) system.

This isn’t entirely an alien thought: consider colour theory, as in the work of American artist Josef Albers (with his square works that show difference is more common in the colour palette than we’d imagine). Consider that horrid intro painting class exercise, of taking any colour and painting five gradations between it and full black, or full white. Now think of doing that on a computer, where each of those “steps” might be used to do five more steps to black, or white, and then again and again, as the technology (like accessing a million variant, previously unimagined iterations of Mona Lisa) may be (if not literally, then practically) infinite in variations and combinations.

Everything is possible, yet nothing is genuine. “Authentic” is a term either meaningless or uninteresting, boring even, perhaps even intellectually / creatively “lazy” in not embracing potential diversity. This is how “we see now.”

How does “the hand of the artist”, that “arbiter of genius” or commodity defined through rarity or uniqueness, fit here, with Thompson rendering each one, but with a source or “inspiration” elsewhere we can find and “own” digitally?

Modernism didn’t so much fail as spawn numerous “children” that moved too fast for Cronus to catch and eat them, preventing their rise, and his fall….or alternately, Cronus castrating his father might be hyperbole for postmodernism negating the surety of Modernism, and look at what the “younger generation” does with that “freedom.”

Allow me to rein in my hyperbole: Shoulder to shoulder, 2017 – 2018 is impressive in execution and presentation. Perhaps the best work in the show, surely my favourite work, in Just Resting Your Eyes.

I’ll end with a bit of the blurb: “Occupying Rodman Hall’s third floor studios during the 2017 – 18 academic year, students in the Honours Studio course have been mentored by gallery staff and Visual Arts professors Donna Szöke, Shawn Serfas, Derek Knight, and Donna Akrey….[both of] these two unique exhibits capture the exceptional vitality and daring of the emerging artist.

Such exhibits from the Department of Visual Arts are a key part of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts’ mandate to build connections between the community and the breadth of talent and creativity that we celebrate at Brock University.” One might think this means that RHAC is not only a valuable, but necessary, component of Brock University, a space to be funded and not strangled. A site that, if Brock were to divest itself from, would leave a black hole that might collapse the fragile structure left…but I’ll be offering some further thoughts on Brock University’s ongoing “annulment” of what they call “support” of RHAC in the future.

Just Resting Your Eyes is only display for a brief period at Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines, closing on April 8th. Go see it. All images are courtesy of Rodman Hall Art Centre. The next instalment Turnin’ This Car Around opens on Friday, April 13th at 7 PM.

 

Inland Space / Shawn Serfas

One of the things that has become relevant for me lately is the idea of synchronicity: or perhaps I’m investing too much into the idea that the exhibition Inland, by Shawn Serfas, an Assistant Professor at Brock University, brings together a number of uniquely relevant, if somewhat unpredictable, points.

After all, the Canadian art world is small: so the fact that Serfas was a student of mine during his BFA (Saskatoon), before he his MFA (Alberta), isn’t that odd. He’s just mounted a major exhibition of his work at Rodman Hall, and perhaps thoughts of “prairie modernism” or “prairie abstraction” still inform his work. My own attitudes about those motifs have shifted / are shifting (partly due to geography, partly due to other factors). This supplies an interesting coincidence, a possibility to go deeper in looking at Inland, which has been curated by Stuart Reid.

There’s also external factors in considering contemporary abstract painting: Ellsworth Kelly has passed, and a massive retrospective of Frank Stella was recently mounted. But it’s also worth considering Camille Paglia’s acerbic — and insightful — declaration that many “regard abstract painting with suspicion, as if it were a hoax or fraud… there is more bad than good abstract art, which has been compromised over the decades by a host of inept imitations”.

Jerry Saltz calls it “zombie modernism” (and all the facile St. Justs to his Robespierre rush to quote it, like good ignorant zealots). In Saskatoon, where Shawn and I met, I christened it “karaoke modernism.” Imitative form without the spark of creativity: not even simulacra, but arrogant mimesis. The last exhibition I saw on the prairies, Abject Abstract, presented two excremental examples of this: Jon Vaughn and Allysha Larsen. They personify how often those whom imitate the giants are as offensive as they are unoriginal. I mention those not just for appropriate derision, but to highlight that distance allows insight and proffers maturity. Serfas left, and has expanded his vision and his practice. The geographic reference encapsulated in the title of his exhibition is another entertaining interpretation (or coincidence).

His work fills the “lower” space: the two smaller alcove rooms and the larger, sunken space. The works alternate between massive, “manly” paintings, often dominated by darks with breaks of vivid colour; these works seem covered in an oily black “scum”, almost “dirty.” You can stand amidst these works, having them encircle you, and interact with them as they interact with each other. Yellow T, Forge or Blacken (all part of the Inland Series) are the more interesting. These are a painted series of “monoliths.” Slit No. 2 is all oily blacks, vasoline gelled whites with a red “dock” at the bottom, like an industrial waste site, the interior organs of a sewer system. Forge offers some light blues, muddy bloody dirty blacks scabbing over again, a lighter thicker tab in glutty white but tainted with yellow and red streaks that ooze into the “dock” at the bottom.

Second White from this series stands apart visually – and literally, as it hangs in an alcove. This work is as white as the others are black. Second is cracked and flaky: more solemn, more funerary than the foreboding oppression of its peers. This is like a period to a sentence. This quiet nature is the opposite of the massive sweeping brush strokes (as in Forge), like a parody of the “artist’s hand” – titanic brush marks, more than a foot wide, glistening with (Stuart’s words) the “liquidity of paint” and “wet layers” with “crackling surfaces.”

Two elderly ladies in the space with me saw it all as architecture: temple and arches, balistrades and buildings. Serfas’s own words about the Inland works cited fear and foreboding, venom and poison in the viscosity of the massive works. Our shared dalliances with Prairie Modernism manifested again, as he asserted that he “sources my abstraction from the landscape”, often referencing aerial photography, geomorphology, “multiple layers of complex information” and metaphor that silence or augment or change each other (the prairie notion of the palimpsest rears its head, also). Meanings are more combinatons of layers than one dominating a “lower” one

There are several smaller works that charm, while fracturing the space between painting and sculpture. The smaller pieces are almost all from the Portrait of a Mark series: of this group, Seeing, Inland Yellow and Trench are the best. Trench is within a plain white frame, and pale greens and light blue swell out in a bulge more bodily than painterly, though rough and delicate mark making unites all the works by Serfas, small and large. The bulge is then cut into, with the large “trench”of the title: you see a cross section that has bits of red, and other almost grotesque painted “chunks”and iridiscent nodules that seems like fat or cartilage. It’s like an unruly, seeping organ on a sterile white slab; or the green is minty fresh and inviting, like icing. Perhaps this work is my favourite as I wish to consume it.

Trench hangs on a wall by itself: Seeing and Inland Yellow sit next to each other. The former is based on a scrappy, perhaps degraded series of stripes (red on green, green on red) with a snaked form on top of it. It’s intestinal, and the colours are muddy or dullish. Inland Yellow has a flat, sometimes sagging, sometimes stretched and bubbled “skin” that seems to have tears that expose another linear “post painterly” background (the art historian in me sees this a metaphor for some of my previus points about the history of abstract painting, with the mimesis or mockery of what’s gone before, or what’s “contemporary”).

Cross No. 2 again offers the “cleanliness” of art history burst and broken by the goey lack of restraint of the last 50 years that some modernist painters would dismiss as degraded (in conversation, Serfas designated some areas of works as more mind than heart, or more thinking than feeling. This is a flexible framework, when seeing clean, hard edged “docks” and “tags” arguing with almost violent and raw detritus of mark making. Some of the colourful gluts bulging forth also have delicate translucent gel threads, like ligaments or tendons. Another smaller work, Key, has its black and white linear background broken repeatedly by unadulterated chunks of colour, but Summ suggests a later stage, and the unruly glutty tumours of paint are like a cancer run amok, serving itself, consuming the work, becoming the work. The works you’ll see in the small alcoves as you leave the gallery, outside the gallery proper, have gluts that are free from the canvas and sit on the ledge.

The installation is evocative: many of these works speak to each other in complimentary or conflicting ways, and you may discover a work in another room that answers back to a previously seen piece, or that furthers the conversation. And that is perhaps the best place to leave Inland: Serfas spoke often of the “pluralism” in his work, the multiplicities of meaning intersecting in the same space. I’ve seen the show three times already and I’ll see it again, and the works that hold me each time are different on each visit.