Cooler Than Cool: worthless and priceless

“…an aesthetics of interaction.”

“We’re not complaining that the values people once believed in are now empty; to the contrary, we’re doing our best to empty them more and more. Get used to it. Stealing is a thrill in itself; this enjoyment is the real reason for postmodern appropriation. We aim to undermine those “convictions” of authenticity and truth, of proper meaning and right order, that sometimes seem to be as dear to Marxist dialecticians as they are to bureaucrats in the Pentagon. Speaking in my own voice is a tedious chore, one that the forces of law and order are all too eager to impose. They want to make me responsible, to chain me to myself….But forgetting myself, speaking in others’ stolen voices, speaking in tongues: all this is pleasure and liberation. Let a hundred simulacra bloom, let a thousand costumes and disguises contend.”

“I only wanted to find great people and let them talk about themselves and talk about what they usually liked to talk about and I’d film them.”

If you’re following some of the more entertaining (if insular and a bit masturbatory) debates in the art world right now, there’s a concerted number of voices decrying the academicization of art aesthetics – which essentially means the elimination of them to serve the politics of the moment. This manifests in different ways, whether in that works are solely to be interpreted through a specific ideological lens or only considering specific groupthink (or approved ideology, edit as you will), ignoring and denying all other.

I might suggest an example in the recent interpretation of Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale which has handmaids that are African – American, which in Atwood’s book was biblicaly impermissible to Gilead’s theocrats, as non whites – whether by biological or social designation (such as Jews) – were deported or executed. It’s an interesting tell of the ideology of the producers of this series, that Atwood’s novel’s reach (abuse of power in the name of religion being no surprise) is narrowed to serve a very specific interpretation (the abuse of women in the name of religion being no surprise). It’s reminiscent of the debate as to whether Hillary Clinton lost the last American Presidential Election, or if Trump won it…and that historical event clearly delineated that many ideologies don’t always intersect smoothly. To offer a further nod to Atwood’s Gilead, it’s like how calling oneself a “Christian” can mean anything, or nothing, and that Atwood, in her book, showed clearly that enslaving anyone in the name of your invisible friend is a poor, poor thing. End of tangent.

This is one of the ways in which art schools and their respective ideological apparatus limit dissent and reinforce their own propaganda. In his excellent book on Art and Sociology, Editor Jeremy Tanner asserts that art historians often value works that sociologists dismiss and vice versa, and that where their ideologies overlap in an “art object” (an inexact, but workable term) is as rare as a unicorn. “Taste is the enemy of art” declared Marcel Duchamp infamously, and Warhol’s further fracture of what might be called high or low taste is well known, and still reverberates.

I recently attended an artist talk where Warhol’s image of Marilyn – do we even need a last name – was shown as how “pop” and “art” meet and take on a viral life beyond even what McLuhan expected or guessed at…and the artist in question was / is still producing versions of Warhol’s Marilyn that further challenge – or collude with, or enhance, or erode – taste, consumerism and capital. This article is an interesting one, in that light, and this rebuttal is also worth considering.

As to where I stand in this debate, I find myself more often channelling Bartleby and asserting that I’d rather not…..or more exactly, I prefer to take things as they are, at times, in a more Modernist assertion of social interactions, and am less interested in a post structural framework that, as postmodernism eats its children alive, hurtles us towards cultural immolation by means of Trump or Clinton, a post truthiness where ideology eschews all the things that make Art enjoyable and accessible, and yet still challenging….

It might seem strange that the previous tangent was inspired by Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold), a collaborative  exhibition by Katie Mazi and Jenn Judson. It’s a show that borders on silly, and that refuses – simply will not – take itself seriously. Yet in doing so, it offers an amusing and sometimes very slick demonstration of the joint nature of creation (beyond the artists to the models, even), how photography can beautifully capture a performative experience, and that it is good, sometimes, to take what you do seriously, while never taking yourself so, in that vein.

The teasing online statement they provided was minimal, but inviting: “Do you like art and do you like to laugh and/or cry? Good. It’s a photo show. Two amateur photographers, ten plus+ amateur models and one new body of work. Some call the photos dumb, others call them sexy. It’s up to you to come to the show and decide for yourself. Kate Mazi and Jenn Judson present to you: Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold). A photo based exhibition that you have to see to believe.“

The works in the Dennis Tourbin space at NAC are primarily photographs: but there’s also the clothing, and some items, presented, that were part of the tableaux that the artists present. The images are kitschy and cheesy, seemingly frivolous, and the models seem to invite us to join in at their unselfconscious self mockery, that is as clear and bright as the colours.

The titles are as evocative, as they are silly: I’m reminded of children’s toys or games, which fits with the aesthetic of play in that these are like Halloween costumes, or children (in age or at heart) playing dress up. Daddy Cool, Hot Wheels, Fresh Cut, Iceboxxx, Bingo Babe (my favourite), My Name Is (Gator Ray) and Dynamite Dude are all titles that (as they’re listed separate from the photo works, as the pieces are numbered on the wall) you can easily match to the images, after an initial tour of the show.

In conversation with the artists, several ideas came to the fore: the idea of “throwing people off, producing something that seems familiar but then jars”, a seemingly familiar aesthetic which then falls apart with the models, purposefully fracturing the initial reading of the images. All the models are amateurs, and friends of the artists, and from various communities other than / including the visual arts, so there’s a freshness and honesty to the roles they perform that’s not overtly determined by expectation. Both Judson and Mazi sheepishly describe themselves as hoarders when it comes to clothes and items that were relevant to Ice Cold, and that immediacy in a personal space also manifests in how the sites range from St. Catharines to Hamilton to Niagara Falls to Grimsby. Taking this aspect of the local further, an earlier version of this was displayed across the street on St. Paul, at the Mahtay Cafe, with the catchy title of They Hate Us ‘Cause They Ain’t Us 2017. It’s very fresh work, so not as clearly defined in their minds and more about the creation – the performance of it – at this point. They collaborate in a very seamless manner, with no specific roles but both doing everything (both work at the same place, and there’s an intensity between art and life with the creation / process of these works) that is echoed in a “real willingness of the models to become the characters”. As this is a continuing body of work (there was also a piece in the #Canada150 exhibition at City Hall, in downtown St. Catharines, playing upon the attraction / repulsion of tourist traps, and on a subtle level explored the dependence of the economic health of the region on this industry), Mazi and Judson talked about future video pieces, and the works at NAC are surely cinematic (both in the larger than life personas and in the graphic and vivid nature of the “scenes”). Their artistic choices were “made on the fly, reactive and immediate”: even though you’re only seeing one image for each character, there are about ten photos selected from each shoot, and “uniqueness” within the larger narrative of all the characters and images and scenes is important. The characters “should be individuals” within the larger story that Mazi and Judson are creating here…so some basic parameters are set, and then flexibility, in terms of interacting with the models and the sites, lead to results that are only partly expected, but more about possibilities.

There is the idea of kitsch, for sure: works that evoke an emotional response over an intellectual one, and that’s applicable here. But that’s also a superficial reading that doesn’t do the works full justice, as there’s also a sense that this work couldn’t be made anywhere else other than a region that is so tourism dependant (the same way that Levine Flexhaug’s work had a different resonance here, with his paintings sharing a sensibility with the many and ongoing tableaux of the Falls).

Their statement in the show perhaps encapsulates it best: “Two years ago, a shared love of Muppet Treasure Island brought Katie and Jenn together. Since that moment, the two have realized that their lives connect in ways beyond foolish puppetry on the big screen. Combining both their closets and their sense of humour, this new collaboration series is an authentic blend of their individual artistic styles.

Cooler than Cool is a series of digital posters that challenge the aesthetic of what has been considered “cool” in the worlds of art, fashion and leisure. Each of these looks have been constructed in order for the characters to better perform their style. This work is era – less, timeless, worthless and priceless.

So bad it’s good, so wrong it’s right. Its Cooler than Cool.”  

This collaborative, sometimes excessive, cinematic display of cultural fractures of “cool / not cool” is on display at NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) until the weekend of October 8th.


All images are copyright of the artists.

Memory and Place: At an Intersection of Nations

but they had their being once
and left a place to stand on.
Al Purdy, Roblin’s Mills

Its fitting that the first exhibition to open, and the first event of Celebration of Nations, was Awakening of the Spirit in the VISA Gallery, curated by Samuel Thomas. This became clear at the last event I attended (the curatorial talk on the Sunday following the Thursday opening reception), when Samuel spoke of his selections for this show. He began with the works of Daphne Odjig; one of her pieces (In Touch With Her Spirit) was also the main media image for the show, and (a testament to the quality of her work) seemed to become a defacto visual signifier for the several days worth of events that comprised Celebration

Its also appropriate as Odjig’s activism (and artwork) opened doors – sometimes forcing them open, sometimes knocking them down – for many Indigenous visual artists, and by extension, many people. Awakening the Spirit, to paraphrase Thomas, was built around three images specifically, as the basis for whats in the gallery. The first of these was Odjig’s aforementioned Spirit, then Norval Morrisseau’s Virgin Mary and then Carl Beam’s Apache Spirit Dancer (he also commented that the overall title of the exhibition takes its impetus from the spiritual focus of the three “foundation” works). This isn’t to say these are the only notable pieces, whether talking about aesthetic quality or historical relevance: Joshim Kakegamic, Roy Thomas, Leland Bell, Simon Brascoupe, Bruce King and Christi Belcourt round out the wall works, and Vince Bomberry and Carl Simeon have sculptural works here, as well. Its a strong, quality exhibition, with the possibility of connections and challenges between many of the images and objects on display.

In Touch With Her Spirit, Daphne Odjig

Samuel Thomas joked that he didn’t want to present “something that looked like a yard sale” and he’s done a fine job here in what he’s shepherded into the gallery. Unsurprising, really, as he’s an artist and activist (and a past recipient of the OAC’s Aboriginal Arts Award) and his manner was one that echoed his words of wanting to share the vision of Suzanne Rochon – Burnett, and her collection.

There are several important intersecting narratives that converge in the gallery. I’ve said before that art history is a form of history, and the legacies of Odjig, Morrisseau and Beam are very much the notion of having been the shoulders upon which others stood and are still standing.

One of the last exhibitions I saw in Saskatchewan was at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. This was 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. and was an exploration of what’s colloquially called the “Indian Group of Seven.” (I might interject a line Thomas cited in his VISA talk, of Odjig asking why her work was described relative to Picasso, and why Picasso isn’t compared to her, as she was (is) more relevant her. This might be a bit of misspoken recollection, by Thomas – or me, hah – as Morrisseau, not Odjig, was often labelled the “Picasso of the North”, but the more relevant question of who / where is the arbiter of quality still stands).

The large room that is the VISA can be walked / read counter clockwise (this is how Thomas toured the works, and it’s an effective approach). The artists’ works aren’t interspersed, so it can be read like chapters, which helped Thomas to build the story around his choices.

Morrisseau and Odjig were also teachers (of Thomas and Bell, according to Samuel Thomas) and the creation and support of Indigenised institutions is ongoing and still important. Thomas spoke of the Manitoulin School (this could refer to formal groups or more organic ones within the Woodlands tradition) and these community centred initiatives are still promoting and preparing Indigenous artists (the current Brock Chancellor, Shirley Cheechoo, is a contemporary chapter in this with the Weengushk Film Institute).

There is a diversity of style: Simon Brascoupe’s works are more like petroglyphs, with the acrylic looking more like stains within stencils, and Bruce King’s works are more thickly and richly painted, with the acrylic juicy and gooey. Morrisseau and Odjig are more “flat” in the use of colour. Morrisseau is arguably the best known example of the Woodlands School, and immediately recognisable. (Another personal interjection, which I do less as a marker of subjectivity, but of the importance of these artists: one of the first artists I ever encountered as a boy, who made me want to be part of that world, was Morrisseau. His illustrations for Legends of my People, The Great Ojibway, introduced me to the strength and power of his work.)

The space is full, but not crammed. The bright colours and strong flowing lines of Odjig and Morrisseau compliment each other, with exceptions: four more earthy and sensual images by Odjig have more formally in common with Carl Beam’s works, diagonally across the room. Beam’s large paper works (sometimes silkscreen, sometimes emulsion and ink) are more restrained in tone and hue, but this gives power to his appropriated images, often political in nature (several of his works are scattered around the Marilyn I. Walker School, on display year round). Beam was well known for his desire to be known as an “Indian who makes Art”, not an “Indian Artist.” An important distinction, when many spaces (half a century ago, and yes, still now) employ tokenism or ghetto mentalities in labelling Indigenous artists (for example, a University Art Acquisitions committee member – at an anonymous place, in Saskatoon, ahem – once barked they had money for “real” artists and “other” money for “Indian artists”…and many artist run centres are just as segregated, though their lip service to “indigenisation” is as loud as it is hollow). At this moment, allow me to employ the soapbox I seem to have found myself standing upon to praise the PAC (Performing Arts Centre) as the locus point for Celebration of Nations. I’d add that it was announced that Annie Wilson is now in the employ of the PAC, and that should please anyone who knows her work with In the Soil.  

Returning to VISA: Beam’s works are subtle, sometimes darkly dense and requiring a focused attention to parse the images, and other times they’re like decoding a puzzle, with his sampled images being presented in a manner that requires us to read them like a visual sentence. Albert in the Blue Zone, Chief, Spirit of the Eagle: all are strong pieces, and you can understand the curator’s desire to not mix & match the artists here, but allow their singular voices to speak. Beam builds on Joshim Kakegamic (also a printmaker, and one of the founders / facilitators of the Triple K Co – operative Press that helped disseminate Morrisseu’s images to so many places where so many of us encountered them) and then Thomas adds another voice to the story, and so on, and we go further in this visual history of Indigenous / Canadian Art.

Thomas ended with Christi Belcourt (as regards wall works) and this offers not so much a “conclusion” as an updating to contemporary dialogue, as Belcourt’s Untitled acts as a marker of her own ongoing advocacy. Untitled, though acrylic on canvas, has aspects of patterning that are also seen in the pieces by Roy Thomas, and Belcourt’s role as a Metis artist / activist is a good image to take with you as you visit NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) to see We Aspire: an exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara (but we’ll get there, in a moment).

As Odjig passed in 2016, this also offers a sense of continuity, and of a new generation acting on the example of the old…(the quote I began this piece with is an acknowledgement that many of the artists in Spirit have passed, and their artworks are a foundation for those of us who are here now).

But it’s worth noting that the politics that suffuse the room are not suffocating, nor do they act as justifications for poor work, as we see too often in contemporary Canadian “art.” When Thomas talked about Bruce King’s acrylic works, he directly stated that he enjoyed them greatly, and wished to share King’s fine paintings with others. The works are political, but also aesthetically engaging, and may – as I experienced – also remind viewers of the first time they saw an Odjig or Morrisseau, and were struck by its beauty.

The almost minimalist use of paint by Brascoupe (simple and sparse, more about symbols and edges that are very clean but then fade like dust, in 6 Roosters or Birds – Tree of Life) plays well off the glotty, textural surfaces of Bruce King. Two Crows or Sioux Country become abstracted and gooey as you stand in front of them, colour like paste and putty, but stepping back allows the scenes to coalesce and become small scenes that transcend their medium.

This show is a taste of what’s to come, curator Samuel Thomas promised, and in conversation he indicated that the breadth and depth of the Suzanne Rochon- Burnett Collection was almost intimidating. Many works needed to be framed for this show, and many were relocated from pride of place in living spaces where, to paraphrase Rochon -Burnett’s daughter, they eat breakfast or do day to day work “with” them. I won’t attempt to encapsulate Rochon – Burnett’s life and contributions to culture, as its done far better here. The quality of the work presented, and how Thomas indicated that each of these artists was a personal friend, and how their works and their larger historical roles also played out in Rochon – Burnett’s own life, offers an inspired intersection of art and life.

Conversely, it was a bit difficult to endure several of the speeches the night the exhibition opened (your intrepid #artcriticfromhell considered heckling them, but my mouth was often full of bison, ahem). Hearing the chair of Brock’s Board of Directors so heartily congratulate Brock on its support of cultural communities was galling hypocrisy, considering their incompetence / ignorance / arguably malevolence (edit as you like), with Martin Van Zon / Interkom and the AGN cabal, with Rodman Hall. At a wonderful symposium at the Mendel Art Gallery years ago, Dr. Len Findlay pointed out that universities are often willing and able manufacturers of alibis for the ideological state apparatus, as in governments and politicians; the latter, or variant nameless Brock administrators (like the ones who arbitrarily and anonymously cancelled the hiring of a new Rodman Director), are better at mimicking ethics, but still as poor (or uninterested) at actualizing them.

I mention this not to remount my soapbox, but to step outside the gallery, and to temper the hopefulness of the several days of Celebration of Nations with the reality of a stuttering, sputtering Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women. I know many who will say “residential schools weren’t so bad” despite never knowing anyone who went to one. I’ve offered to introduce some of this very sure, if very ignorant, throng to friends and acquaintances I met in my time out west that would offer first person accounts that not only challenge that assertion, but bulldoze it fully….sometimes they even say “yes” to this and change their minds. 

Leaving Awakening The Spirit (this is in the VISA until the end of September), there are two exhibitions at NAC (Niagara Artist Centre) that intersect with Spirit, and that further the dialogue from Celebration of Nations. We Aspire (An exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara) is in the Dennis Tourbin Members Gallery and features the works of Brian Kon, Sterling Kon, Amanda Pont-Shanks, and Julia Simone. This is only briefly on display, until the 22nd of September, and was supported by the Niagara Region Métis Council, as well as the PAC.

The statement: “Honouring the tradition of Métis dot art and bead work, We Aspire features work by four Métis visual artists living in Niagara. The custom of bead patterning was traditionally used by the Métis to adorn their clothes, equipment and animals.” Mixing the traditional with the contemporary, the words of Brian Kon are succinct: “The Métis were known as the ‘flower bead people’, my art is intended to honour the skills and artistry of my ancestors by using traditional and historic bead patterns as the inspiration for my work.”

NAC’s Dennis Tourbin space is a responsive one, often in (positive) flux, with many local artists using it as both an experimental arena, but it also, with its short exhibition spans and the excellent engagement with local artists and communities by NAC, offers immediate representations of Niagara.

There is a similarity of form in these works, but individual characteristics of the artists manifest here and there. The titles offer a personal touch: Brian Kon’s Grandmother’s Garden evokes a sense of family, with its not quite mirrored floral design; Amanda Pont-Shanks Rocks, delicately painted make you want to pick them up and hold them in your hand, and have a connection to those who held them before, and will hold them after; Sterling Kron’s After Batoche names a site – and a chapter – of Canadian history that, depending if you learned it in school or not, illustrates the contested histories of what was / what is / what might yet be Canada. Untitled, also by Kron is equally yet subtly political, as it offers a vibrant blue and white rendering of the Métis symbol that you may recognize from flags and other insignia of these peoples whom are too often ignored or forgotten when we talk about the Nations of Canada. Its the first work on the left gallery wall, and if you enter through that door, it will be what greets you as you begin looking at We Aspire. If you come from the other side, it will be the last work that you see as you leave NAC and step outside. Both of these are fitting for experiencing this show, and the history and ideas the artists encapsulate in their works.

But before you leave NAC, the back Showroom Gallery beckons you to visit the first programmed exhibition of Fall 2017 at the centre. You can read my preview of Where the Weather Happens, curated by Amy Malbeuf and Jessie Short, with works by Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault arranged around the large gallery space, here. The two shows on display at NAC are, to use that metaphor again, chapters: Weather is the result of the curators’ research into “the diversity and skill of Métis artists working across Canada…Through this exhibition, the artists’ works are placed in conversation with each other, exploring the human relationship with the natural world. Each artist explores these relationships as an individual informed by their worldview as a Métis person.”

Baerg and Nault “face” each other, with a sculptural work by Nault suspended in the middle of the space. Koebel has works at the “front” and “back” of the gallery. Similar to how Awakening the Spirit presented the individual works of the many artists there as “wholes”, Weather also allows Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin / Time Journey (acrylic on laser cut canvas) to occupy the entire left wall. There’s pieces both fat and slim, solid and shredded, to create a “landscape” of symbols that might be eclipses or planets, like celestial calendar markings on a white wall.

Nault’s Entangled Bodies (3) is directly behind you, in the middle of the space, as you face the middle “segment” of Baerg’s Ayaniskach Pimâcihowin (he employs the natural breaks in the wall to “frame” his work). Bodies (3) – like Entangled Bodies (2) and Entangled Bodies (4) – is comprised of a mixture of organic materials, including wood (bark or log, depending on the piece), wax or beeswax, human hair and rope, though the last seems more as part of the installation of these objects, which hang either freely in space or just out from the right hand wall. But the shadows cast front and back, when combined with the gentle swaying of the delicate exposed roots of Bodies (3) give the work a span beyond its physical self, with the silhouettes stretching out into the room. Though smaller in size, Entangled Bodies (4), with pale waxen fingers either emerging like blooms from the tree bark, may be the strongest of Nault’s contributions to Where the Weather Happens. In the accompanying text from Malbeuf and Short, this work is alluded to with Nault “not claiming the place she now lives but letting it claim her.”

Before I go much further, here’s more from the curatorial text: “The troposphere is a layer of the earth’s atmosphere in which human beings exist, connecting the land to the perceived sky. It is the place where nearly all of the weather on earth happens. The works of Jason Baerg, Jaime Koebel and Sheri Nault activate the land and sky, and all that is within, through their intimate and delicate expression of deep connection to this space of energetic flux. Where The Weather Happens is an expression of the relationship and interactions between the land and sky as beings who live within this space.” (This hangs on the wall, in the gallery proper, ephemeral and soft, positioned so you might see it last, after walking in and among the art.)

The same language could be applied to the works of Norval Morrisseau or Daphne Odjig in Awakening The Spirit, and the often meditative yet ornate pieces in We Aspire. The materials in use by the three artists in Weather, however, are more demonstrative of the sentiments expressed, as with Koebel’s deer skin for her many drums that cover a wall in Awasisisoniyas: Family Allowance. Made from 2013 to 2017, they seem to await hands to retrieve them and begin to play them, to fully articulate them as they’re intended.

It was a hectic weekend, when all of these shows opened (I’ve not mentioned any of the talks, seminars or performances, or even the screenings, to hold my focus and your attention), and although two of the three are only up for brief periods, it serves all three well to be experienced in tandem. Whether that’s done in the manner I’ve chosen here, which might be described as chronological as to when they opened, or chronological in terms of the histories they present (Spirit’s artists are older, and several are deceased, while the artists in We Aspire are much younger, and the curators / artists in Weather are between) is entirely flexible, and a point on which I have no preference or suggestion. I remember an exhibition of work by Micah Lexier and a show he curated of influences upon his practice, at the College Gallery. His work was upstairs, not quite directly above the pieces by people like Eric Cameron, alluding to a sense of growth and change that, while not overt, had a subtle power in understanding both shows.

Awakening of the Spirit (Select Works from the Suzanne Rochon – Burnett Collection) is on display until September 30th in the VISA Gallery at the MIWSFPA, and We Aspire: (An exhibit of work by Métis artists in Niagara) can be seen at the Niagara Artist Centre (354 St. Paul, in downtown St. Catharines). That closes on the 22nd of September, but Where the Weather Happens will be on view until December of 2017.


There was a request to not photograph at events or in gallery spaces during Celebration of Nations, and the lack of images in this post reflects my respecting that. However, the Odjig image is from the PAC website, and in this article I attempted to have a wide variety of links regarding the artists. If you’re on FB, there is also an excellent panoramic view of the VISA space, with Awakening The Spirit here

 

Joel Smith’s My City / the seen & unseen

“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful, but the beauty is grim.” (Morley)

What is engaging about Joel Smith’s work is that there’s an immediacy of vision (you’d be unsurprised to learn he captured many of these images while out cycling) and also a joy in unexpected scenes. Though not all the images are of, and in, Niagara, there’s also this elevation of the local to a more engaging level. The discarded and ruined shopping carts drowned in the running water are something that is so ubiquitous that most of us don’t even see them when we pass them, but here, through Smith’s lens, they become mysterious, a bit haunted, and starting points for a story about this spectacle that the artist presents for us.

Whether it’s the bright blue sky with a smattering of clouds (bright as moving air / blue as city dawn / happy as light / released by day / over the city’s new buildings) behind the arched neck of a street lamp, or a rare vertical piece that balances a solid orange structure with a dark deep blue sky that looks like it might have been hammered into place, or a plug in a brick wall that is framed by Smith so as to show the often ignored aesthetic touches all around us, these are “snapshots” that are lovely in their simplicity.

Another scene of the downtown that makes a street many of us walk down every day appear differently than we think of it – if we even think of James Street at all, as we traverse it on the way to our destinations also gives us pause. Like the close up of the concrete sidewalk with its echoed grooves in an ordered aesthetic we trod blithely and repeatedly, these scenes are doubly beautiful as they are unexpected. I can talk about Brutalism, and Modernism or other isms, but vision trumps words here, and are more seductive. Like the blue sky, delicate urban touches and unexpected scenes, you just need to look at them and be quiet.

 

While there’s a formal strength to the scenes here (architecture becomes space and shape and weight) there’s also a sentiment (not sentimentality) to the world Smith shows here. The aforementioned shot of James Street, but also urban spaces and more natural spaces that have a sense of whimsy (the tenacious sprout of green thriving in the middle of a tarry street), or that we might have just stumbled upon them while out, and it’s a rare moment of serenity worth preserving. The tangled deadwood on the shore as the sun sets on the water is one of these. Landscape that invites us in, and makes us want to be in that place, is always fine.  

There is a highlighting of the familiar in Joel Smith’s photographs that reminds that there are interesting and beautiful scenes and settings around us, if we simply stop and pay attention.

———————————————

Joel Smith is a photographer who has worked in both digital and traditional formats, for over two decades, and his work is informed by the world around him, from his cycling to his family to his work and life in the downtown of St. Catharines. More of his work can be seen on Instagram.

The exhibition of work that can be seen at the Mahtay Cafe & Lounge (241 St. Paul Street) is his first solo show of his photographic works, and just a small sampling of his larger “images” of the city and environment around and within it.

This is also the site – in the event room – for the continuing Rodman Hall 5 X 2 Visual Conversations, which happens every second Tuesday of September, October and November. Smith will be talking about his work at the first instalment in September, and all are welcome.

 

Afterimage: Uneven Echoes

I wanted a dialectic between one’s perception of the place in totality and one’s own relation to the field as walked…a way of measuring oneself against the indeterminacy of the land. I am not interested in looking at sculpture which is solely defined by its internal relationships. (Richard Serra)

Simplicity of form is not necessarily simplicity of experience. (Robert Morris)

Afterimage fills all the galleries at Rodman and is on display all summer. The two “side rooms” that have been in play for the last few exhibitions have been amalgamated into one larger space (in the rear of Rodman), and this serves Afterimage well. Gayle Young’s audio (Cedar Cliff- “oo”) wafts out over the space, and the denseness and richness of John Noestheden’s paintings (or sculptures – we’ll explore that momentarily – titled, respectively Spaceline 20a, 20b, 20c and 20d) are balanced by the emptiness between and around them. Reinhard Reitzenstein’s 6000 laser cut trees, one of which would easily fit in your hand, made of recycled paper that creep like ivy upwards and outwards (in Ghost Willow) also employs a denseness balanced by gaps that allows for a conversation between the artists. It’s not that the artworks in the side gallery, closer to the front, aren’t worthy. But the rear gallery functions so well in terms of its curated installation (unsurprisingly, if you remember Gunilla Josephson’s exhibition Houses and Whispers, as that show was also curated by Marcie Bronson) that it’s where I find myself, with every visit.

Noestheden’s works in this back space are acrylic on aluminum, with “stardust” mixed in. Their execution and texture are earthy, like furrows of mud. The forms – too solid, to be painting – resemble earth works or dirt mounds, in colours that alternately suggest “black earth” or others in powerful primaries (the yellow Spaceline 6 shimmers reflection “in” the floor, so it’s like the floor work Spaceline 13 that stretches out is a diptych to the mirrored work, or like all “three” function from floor to wall to floor again, to remaining in our eyes after we look elsewhere….). Others are in pale blue (higher up, in a corner, almost to be missed) and another is lower, on the same wall but opposite end, in a reddish chartreuse. These softer tones seems too delicate for the whorls and chunks and bumps that form these acrylics and mixed media on aluminum blocks of paint and minerals.

The trio of artists here don’t interact in a prescribed manner, nor a fully equal manner: despite my praise of his works in the back gallery space, Noestheden’s work in the front two rooms is the weakest, and his repeated citation of “stardust” and other ideas during the tripart artists talk served to make his work less interesting and more affected or pretentious. Perhaps the weight he attached to this lecture about his pieces was inversely proportionate to how uninteresting they are visually.

 Its unsurprising that he spent so much time on the Prairies: there’s more than a little of the self involved Karaoke Modernist in his work, mistaking aspects that are perhaps important to him as being universally so, or that by the citation of the term “stardust” that it might have wider or deeper meaning. His works in the front rooms (Artefact Echoes or 1389 Breaths) are failures visually, and any larger pedantic prose doesn’t remedy that, though some of the pieces improve by association with the works by Reinhard, leeching some meaning and depth from Seed Tree or Forest Emerging. Perhaps this is also why the front rooms are less impressive than the back one: Noestheden has some quality in the front rooms by implication, whereas in the back gallery all three artists function as one larger installation.

This high ceilinged and predominantly empty room, wide and high, is the dominant and dominating gallery: an engaging and visually exciting environment that seems sparse, but isn’t.

Gayle Young (whose history is impressive) spoke eloquently and simply about her audio works, offering some nuance and depth, and options to how we might experience it. Rodman itself is intrinsic to the melded experiential audio (“the resonance of the building is important”), and there’s a spot where you can hear all three “streams” flow together. Young declared the sound as much “ours” as hers, and “you create your own mix by moving through the space” through her “swathe of noise” sampled / assembled from the Bruce Trail in Grimsby (from river and highway to raindrops and fauna and other walked ambience…). While standing in the back space, Reinhard offered the following, encompassing Afterimage in its entirety: “All these works are derivative of memory, of larger ideas, of past experiences, of pasts both universal and personal.”

Reitzenstein’s Willow is meant to evoke how a gigantic willow was removed to facilitate the back expansion of Rodman Hall, and he spoke of how its roots are surely still under the floor of the gallery in back of the building. His works in public space, from the Lutz Teutloff Collection at Brock University, or around the Niagara region all “observe and chronicle trees under siege. Displaced by architecture and manufacturing, they adapt to changing and extreme environmental conditions, supported by mutual relationships within their ecological communities.” Ghost Willows is a memento mori: just as Young’s work is an echo, a recording, of a temporal and remembered, now past, experience. The chunkiness of Noestheden (Spaceplot F) to the recycled, disposable components of Reitzenstein (needing to be repaired, sometimes replaced, daily) to the ephemera of Young’s audio (Cedar Cliff- “ah” or Cedar Cliff- “ee”) that fills the space – and none of it – is an enjoyable dialogue of remembrance: what has been, what was, what is all meet and highlight their similarities, and contrast their differences.

An afterimage, by definition, is an ephemeral thing: sometimes it exists only in memory, or as a degraded version of the original, like the spots we see after staring at the sun. It’s almost an act of negation more than affirmation: what it references is, by definition, gone, no longer existing, solely in memory. Its past: and the past is fleeting. The formal definition is “a visual image or other sense impression that persists after the stimulus that caused it is no longer operative.”

This Afterimage will be visible until the 20th of August, 2017, at Rodman Hall; it will be followed by Material Girls, a show touring from the Dunlop in Regina.

 

Discarded Beauty: Steve deBruyn

There are some unexpected contradictions in the “installation of painted wooden sculptures” currently at NAC. Or, if I defer to his description of Pile On, the singular work, as Steve deBruyn intends the free standing and precariously balanced “pillars”, along with the wall works partly inspired by Kurt Schwitters’ assemblages, as a singular whole; an inclusive installation that envelops the visitor.

Many of the components were fashioned by deBruyn, with NAC volunteers, in the week leading up to the show opening, which adds to this interpretation. A singular artist, perhaps, but many hands in the making of the installation.

Many of the pieces have a ragged quality, a roughness, and may give you a splinter if you handle them (deBruyn wasn’t precious, at the reception, and both handled the works himself and encouraged visitors to do the same). But then you’ll notice delicate and exacting evidence of the artist’s hand (the colours and patterns and textures that unite all the components, subtle yet significant, or the cleanliness and perfection of some edges and lines, harshly contrasted to the ramshackle detritus within the same piece. One set of sculptures, flowing and bending with wainscoting, making them look like escaped, “wilder” house works, on the right side of the gallery, are delightful in this lively, almost jolly, manner. The repetition of the pink purple blue black crisscross pattern pieces in the wall works, the random – perhaps added after, perhaps already a part of the slat or chunk added to the works – splotches of paint that further make the pieces connect across and around the room).

The works presented here are very much “worker’s” art (like George Sawchuck): the materials from which they’re constructed, how they’re installed and the recognizable components (pressboard), have a proletarian – almost plebian, or common –  aspect. Its funny how some artworks inspire you to leave any heavier theory at the door, while other works invoke the same (often remote, often academic or irrelevant) ideas into a real, and lived space. It’s impossible for me to separate these works from my conversation with Steve in which he talked about working “at a lumber yard—and busy constructing a backyard deck when called to discuss his upcoming exhibit—deBruyn’s work responds to the common discarded construction materials he refuses to build his sculptures, echoes of the skateboard culture he was once very much a part of, and his own sensibilities about the narrowness of our perceptions of what is beautiful in our living spaces and built surroundings.”

There’s an interesting contradiction, if you’re familiar with Kurt Schwitters’ Construction for Noble Ladies (1919) and the almost overtly masculine (yet not as the pillars tilt and the pressboard looks cheap like an overtly macho poser) pieces from deBruyn. He pointed out how some of the works, with mouldings and finishing you’d expect in any good suburban bathroom had gouges and breaks in their making, a hand less concerned with making a “perfect” object than exposing the ludicrous nature of it all (like Schwitters’ mocking of “noble ladies”….)

The back gallery at NAC is installed in a manner that spaces the wall works out at regular intervals – all are relatively similar in size, and all share not just colours, but also are constructed from shared pieces of wood (evidence of repurposing) that further unify them, as a perimeter around the room, defining the space. Fragments are arranged in an orderly manner to form the whole: whether this is “modernist” or more about crafting a seamless suburban renovation is debatable. All property is theft, comrade, and maybe I’m talking about the wealthy, ignorant suburbanites or how I hope that some of the source materials were “liberated and secured” for these alternately bright, or blighted, wall works.

The pillars lean in a way that suggest they’ll be coming down soon, and you might not want to be under them when that happens. They’re painted in the same colours that unite many of the works – there’s the small painting card sample, near the comment book: Peach Brick, Lotus Petal, Copper Trail, Green Grey Mist and Northern Landscape (I still wish I’d somehow gotten a job naming paints, but I’m sure I would have lost it, in the beige, impotent spaces. I’d go slowly crazy, calling things Arterial Spray Red or Leprosy Grey or Gangrene Green…this might seem like an indulgent tangent, but deBruyn and I also talked about work and trying to do what you want while having to pay for what you need…). All of these scream inoffensive interior design, and all – on their own, if you painted a room and not a work of art made from cast offs and crap that sat in your backyard for months – would suit any bourgeois bathroom.

The six columns are generally one solid paint chip colour, whereas the wall pieces have flat shapes in variable samples from this selection, often arching up from the bottom of the “plane”, in geometric shapes (trapezoids and pyramids – once again, a reference to building or construction, perhaps?).

To return to the statement for the show: “[H]is objective is only to have audiences reconsider the environments that we spend our lives in and possibilities for greater aesthetic pleasure from them.” In that respect, deBruyn succeeds: these pieces are fragments, discarded or torn, it seems, from the houses and rooms that we build – or have others build – for “us.” With current debates regarding houses, whether the cost or who gets to own, and who never will, I see these as something that my generation and those after us might consider as future (or current) housing.

Its not coincidental that as I wrote about this work, I spoke with a friend who does street photography and he mentioned a squat under one of the bridges that had been burned out in the past week. There is a stronger conceptual connection between that now discarded, abandoned space and deBruyn’s backyard, where some of the elements of these works in Pile On were subjected to the elements, than the suburban spaces the colours and finer details allude to, obliquely. 

 Steve deBruyn’s exhibition Pile On is on display until Saturday 22 July. 

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.

Amber Lee Williams / “Embracing Randomness”

When I attended the RHIZOME activities at MIWSFPA during the 2016 In the Soil Festival, I strayed from the designated areas, as I often do. I found myself in the studio space where Amber Lee Williams was “inviting participants to pose for a blind contour drawing [for] her interactive exhibit. Each drawing will be done individually and privately but the drawings will be connected through medium and drawing surface.” The rooms had the drawings arranged on the walls, and you sat / stood /acted among them as Amber rendered you in a similar manner.  I was trespassing during “down time” of her performance, but she was gracious enough to answer my questions then, and talked about both process and portraits. Blind contour, for those unfamiliar, is when an artist draws a subject without looking at the paper (often considered a “warm up exercise”, with the intent to loosen the hand and encourage creativity, but like any medium, can be different things in different “hands”).  

When I sat down to talk with Amber again, her work in Devolve: Creation/Movement/Fluidity at Niagara Artist Centre had just opened, in the Dennis Tourbin space. Her encaustic works are lovely in texture and tone and mark a further exploration and refinement of her use of this often difficult medium of wax and pigment.

We talked about her practice – which exists in a threefold manner – and the ideas that have informed her artwork over her artistic career. Her work is likely familiar to you if you live in the STC area, and seeing some of her photographs in a show nearly a year ago makes me pleased to feature Amber Lee Williams as the latest instalment in The Sound’s ongoing local artists series.

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As mentioned, Amber works in three different “areas” of art: encaustic painting, photography (a more recent practice), and the blind contours. These are very different and unique media, with distinctive history and baggage. None is the “favourite”, but wanting to work on them all together or have them influence each other, is an aspect of Williams’ art. But they’re “all different” and Williams says she can’t speak of them as one “entity”. I might posit that her practice is an umbrella and these are all under that arching cover.

A term she used often is “embracing randomness.” Williams spoke of process as “a vessel for the creativity of the act, and sometimes even in the selection of the works, to see what’s worked, and what has not.”

Her works in the NAC embody this: rich encaustic abstraction, the generous application of colour, the use of a blow torch, then repeating the wax and the pigment and the melting and seeing what colours come to the fore. There’s a slim vertical triptych, mostly black, mimicking wood grain or veins that “flow” like pencil marks through the wax. This blackish web “sits” on top of the oranges and off whites: there’s similar depth to others, at NAC, such as two small works on the back wall. Primarily whitish, the small dots and blots of colour in them make these encaustics resemble mould or colourful lichen. Another triptych have wax and colour like icing or fudge, slathered on a form and now cooled and hardened.

encaustic1 encaustic3

Returning to Williams’ contours, another sentiment that informs her work takes shape: that the process is not so much about control, but about setting up a framework (some rules, a specific technique) to get to the end result.

This returns again to “embracing randomness”: Williams expressed a dislike for very “formal” drawing, with the pressure of intention in a “final result.” With blind contours, if she looked she’d want to make it “perfect”, remove and erase any marks that aren’t “good enough”, with over determination ruining potential creativity. She prefers “taking chances, embracing the questionable nature of the outcome, and the process that defines all” (there’s a similarity to William Griffiths’ ongoing painted process where a work is never truly “finished”).

encaustic8 encaustic10If she’s unhappy with a piece, it’s recycled, or discarded: “fearless creativity. Step up to the edge and take the chance of destroying the piece if there’s a chance you can make it better.”

The break from one process to another fosters continuous work (“encaustic painting day”, as it takes four or five hours, but contours are fast and more social. This was clear with In the Soil, as it became a social performative space, of the drawing with participants and collaborators).

Photography is perhaps the most technically formal of Williams’ work, with f stops / light readings, focal lengths and such. But in creating multiple replicated images, it has an element of experimentation where you can discard or repeat. When asked about her “most significant piece of the past year”, Amber indicated that being introduced to photography as an art form was notable. She’d always enjoyed taking pictures, but with the influence of a class taught by the fine artist Amy Friend (an excellent artist / educator) she’s begun exploring analog, film, lumen prints, pinhole and “hasn’t felt this obsession since discovering encaustic”. It’s a medium that she can see working with for some time. She mentioned  an artist whom she’s interested in right now, Joseph Parra: a young, Baltimore-based photographer who produces CMYK screen prints of photographs printed by hand, or photos that are sanded, cut, braided and that represent more than just the physical identity of the subject. This is similar to what Williams wants to do with her blind contours and photography. She also cited the necessity of it being tactile and that it has that immediate physical connection, both to her and viewers.

If you missed Devolve: Creation/Movement/Fluidity (all the images in this post are from that exhibition), Amber will be exhibiting more photographic works at NAC in November, and more of her work can be seen here.

 

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. 

In the Soil, Sewer Music

To write about visual art is in itself a difficult endeavour that attempts to graft speech onto vision (usually): to apply language to audio art is equally rife for fracture. But sometimes those “failures” are the most interesting, as they break expectations or assumptions. More possibilities present themselves.

It is, to paraphrase Duncan MacDonald, like going to an art school to make music, because most music schools are a bit more prescribed, and won’t allow the transgression of artmaking in their hallowed halls. There’s an aspect of this, in his collaborative piece for In The Soil, titled Music for Sewers, that privileges the experiential: attempting to put what you hear and feel into words degrades your experience, and only limits your interaction. Eleanor Antion, a significant if underrated artist associated with the FLUXUS group of the ’60s, put it best: “All art works are conceptual machines…All art exists in the mind.”

And art in the public sphere where the environment and audiences are so diverse and different that they deny classification, makes it “worse” – or “better”, perhaps. In John Perreault’s Street Music I, “he dialed calls for two hours from one midtown Manhattan telephone booth to another and hung up after three rings, which may or may not have been heard by passersby. It was a work so displaced, scattered, and marginal that it resided only in the imagination of the artist and the audience to whom it was later described.”(Paglia, from her Glittering Images).

But back to the installation proper: although MacDonald is the designated artist, its really a variation on the improvisational performances that he’s done with several fellow artists. Listed like a band lineup, MacDonald does “bangy things”, Ben Mikuska “big strings”, Arnie McBay “skinny strings”, and my favourite designation: Greg Betts provides “face.” Music for Sewers will be in the old raceway (visible from MacDonald’s office in the MIWSFPA), the watery offshoot of the old Welland Canal, that used to power the Canada Hair Cloth Building that the Walker absorbed and reformed. The “adaptive re use of the industrial Hair Cloth building” as the architect of the MIWSFPA stated once displays that “we were very aware of the palimpsest of history in your building.” This manifests in many small ways: Music for Sewers might be another example.

The project statement is delightfully honest and fresh: “We have been improvising and making what at times could be referred to as music for about 4 years now. This installation work will be our first public presentation as of yet”.

Now, the performances have been recorded, if untraditionally and experimentally. But MacDonald was coy about whether there’d be a speaker in the sewer or if his merry band would be “below”, translating their frenzy to a “public sphere.”

If you detect a hint of the absurd here, you’re correct: its in the spirit of John Cage, who could make some deep points about listening / creating in a manner that cast the whole framework of assumptions in a critical – perhaps heretical – light. In conversation about Sewers, Jacques Attali’s book Noise: Political Economy of Music was spoken of, by MacDonald, as a touchstone for experiencing this aural intervention beneath our feet and street. It’s an odd text that proposes a number of ideas about how we understand “music” which meld nicely with the visceral immediacy of Sewers. Attali talks about a way of thinking, not about objects and commodity but wider conversations. His division of the history of music offers gems like “repeating” where performances of music are all about a fidelity of imitation of an idealized, “perfect” recording.

Sewers isn’t that. It’s a site of reactionary reactive collaborative noise performance; a “readyfelt” (like readymade) physical experience of audio (like Darren Copeland or Myriam Bleau, who construct very formal, technically heavy situation, then react intuitively and instinctively within it). Past public audio interventions MacDonald played a hand in were Music Box Revolving Door, which led to pedestrians pausing unexpectedly to rethink their relationship to where they are / were, or another public art piece in Kitchener where “the entrance to city hall becomes a music box.” Again, absurd plays on propriety and perverted expectations that make you see the wider possibilities of experience.

In the heady days of late capitalist modernism / late modernist capitalism, an experience of unexpected “Sewer Music” is less about a “use” but moreso a “joy” value. Picture a balloon, a gleeful and treasured “nothing” filled with air, all temporal emptiness but a well known symbol of happiness and celebration. Here we come back to Attali, talking about how we must “possess” music, and thus collect it in an artificial form that is so exact and defined it denies the original, unique, ephemeral, shared performative experience…

Music for Sewers will be brief, fleeting, then only a memory. If you tell someone you heard it, they may assume you’re just delusional. Description may be impossible: but it will be a unique, perhaps impossible to “code” into words, experience. Go and seek it out.

#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.