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.

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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.

 

Artist Profile: Matt Caldwell

The latest in The Sound’s series highlighting local visual artists in Niagara looks at Matt Caldwell: I first encountered his artwork  in Million Dollar Pink, in the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC. His works alternate in size, but are immediately recognizable: the subtle, almost bland, tones suggest an industrial aesthetic in his abstracted, roughly geometric works. Their hypnotic monotony is broken by running dabs and scratches of bright colours; these “appear” to you, after you’ve “watched” these drawn / painted pieces for a while….

MC: My studio practice has definitely changed recently. It’s more fluid than ever and it definitely tends to my focus on painting…there’s a lot of automatic decision making but also too much hesitation and internal processing of how I imagine a work’s outcome. If I had a studio to myself, I think there’d be lots of screaming. Just a routine release of extra energy.

BG: Why do you make art, how did you begin, and why is making art important to you?

MC: I’m not actually sure how many kids enjoy drawing at a young age but I will assume it’s a fair amount if not the entire sum of them. Is that when I started making art?  There really isn’t a starting point for me but looking back, say fifteen years ago, you don’t consider the standards of the art world. The funny thing is that the academic aspect might deprive artists of some original or pure ideas for work resulting in something may have been more interesting than what they’ve decided to pursue after education. In short, I find my interests lean towards a person’s raw capabilities of thinking and problem solving. Not that I only find interest in abstraction or mark-making, but I find it to be the most natural path for me at this time. There’s something thrilling about a few strokes of a colour and a month later you may hate that decision. It’s a fun and miserable experience all at once.

BG: Who is your favourite artist right now and / or the most significant artist (contemporary or historical) in relation to your practice?

MC: Paul Kremer’s colour-field paintings are both impressive and influential (for me) in his style of composition, using just three colours and the white of the canvas to create illusions of shadow and three-dimensional form. The banality of it really captivates me as it rides a line of simplicity but seems to rely on the pull of the eye through his use of tonal value. This keeps me considering my own work as I often have a disregard for major contrast.

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As for the most influential artist right now I’d chose a personal favourite, Mark Bradford (probably because he’s currently showing at Albright-Knox in Buffalo in Shade: Clyfford Still / Mark Bradford. Still [a significant abstract expressionist who passed in 1980) is also a favourite. I enjoy Bradford’s process and intuitive thinking when creating what he considers paintings. His use of found objects (old signs, advertisements, posters, etc.) from lower income urban zones create works rich in history through the items but also through his experience of retrieving the items and living in the areas. I like the idea of scavenging / recycling the old to create a further existence / experience for “loaded” objects as their “meanings” are edited or shifted as they’re collaged together. There’s great attention to detail in his work and it says a lot about his conceptual path as he spends his life tending what could be considered trash.

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BG: What’s a highlight of your practice, from the past year? What do you have coming up that we should know about?

MC: I graduated from Brock University as a “studio art” major ( a great feeling to be finished school – for now – and that  I’m no longer a “student artist.”) CASE CLOSED, at the Niagara Artists Centre in May where I showed with my “colleagues”(Alex Muresan, Katie Mazi, Jenn Judson) was something of a nod to our exit from Brock. It was truly exciting to see how well the show meshed. I have a collaborative work with Marissa Tomlinson at the Niagara Falls Art Gallery, with local artists exploring interpretations of “portrait”. Beyond that I’ve been doing a lot more drawing and photography until I get a larger space to work on some bigger paintings.

BG: What’s a significant piece you’ve made recently and why?

MC: A work that’s still in progress, an incomplete piece, is my current favourite: it was something of a breakthrough piece for me. I’ve been happily stuck painting rectangles /squares, re-painting layers / being tedious with my process, but in this new piece I broke free from some of the restrictions I put on myself and too often struggle to lose. There’s a habit involved in my work, not a bad one, but one that prevents me from picking up new ones.

Matt Caldwell’s work is on display until September 29th, at 8058 Oakwood Drive, Niagara Falls, ON, as part of the juried exhibition “Are You Looking at Me?”