Goodbye Rubberhead / Geography, Memory and Canadiana at Rodman Hall

When I was a child, one of the albums that was played over and over again was Stompin’ Tom Connors at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. It featured a few other singers, but it was a double record, live, and only years later did I learn that there is, in fact, a film of it (that I watched this in Saskatchewan – roll on, roll on, Skatchwan – was fitting. I was sick with a fever, so there’s a filmy dream quality to that memory).

Now, at the risk of having my Canadian citizenship revoked, I generally can take or leave a lot of Connors‘ music, and the songs I enjoy tend to be the less popular ones. There’s points where nostalgia overrides quality, of course, and if I still had a band we’d still do Sudbury Saturday Night and I can sing all the words to Goodbye Rubberhead. (“..that woman of mine will be in a box of pine before I hock my old guitar….” Okay, that one hasn’t aged very well, ahem, sorry.)

Songs like Movin’ In (From Montreal by Train) and Tilsonburg are the spiritual ancestors of The Tragically Hip’s Bobcaygeon or Wheat Kings (perhaps my favourite Hip song, and definitely because of having lived in the “Paris of the Prairies”). Perhaps that’s the endurance of Connors: stories about the places we live in, our stories, are important. I made a similar observation years ago, for a show that Elwood Jimmy curated of Indigenous artists and artists of colour who worked in video, as the documentary tradition was one that was to be respected, and employed, to tell your own story.

But here’s the thing: in seeing John Boyle’s Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom, in the latest iteration of Up Close and In Motion at Rodman Hall,  this evocation of “CanCon” was not only brought back to me, but had a new layer added to it. Another sheen of regionalism, or perhaps another aspect of the history that informs contemporary culture (The Rheostatics, whom made In The Soil 2017 so wonderful, make no bones of their debt to Connor). Further, Connors was often uncompromising in his Canadian nationalism, willing to publicly criticise artists and funders whom he felt were too sycophantic to America, or too focused on America, over Canadian audiences or stories.

This painting is by John Boyle, whom like many of the current artists on display in the Hansen space (Greg Curnoe among them, of the same era and political positioning as Boyle), has had a strong hand in not only the history of art in the Niagara and Southern Ontario region, but is a name that came up repeatedly years ago when I was working at the Art Gallery of Windsor. I was one of several researchers for Bob McKaskell’s exhibition Making It New! (the big sixties show!) (I was engaged with this endeavour in the mid 1990s, and this show later travelled to a few different locales). This period – the 1960s – was significant to Canadian art: artist run centres – like Niagara Artist Centre (NAC) (founded in 1969) – were established, and some of the same breaking of barriers and heirarchy that we saw in other social spaces also took place in the Canadian art world. Spaces exclusively for, and about, female artists came into being. Artists of colour, of Indigenous heritage, as well as queer or social activistist oriented, moved into the mainstream, no longer willing to be ignored or marginalized (though there’s much work still to be done there. Too many instances of ghettoization and exploitation of said artists to “secure” funding still happens, and it is still disrespectful exploitation…looking at you, Gordon Snelgrove).

The “novel” idea that artists must be paid for their work (though some places, and some people, still seem to need reminding of this – still looking at you, Saskatoon) was just one way the landscape shifted tectonically. Boyle was a player in that, both as an artist but also in a seminal case regarding artist fees in public galleries. CARFAC was founded in this period (1968, in London, and Greg Curnoe was one of the original board members). Their most recent campaign – Has the Artist been paid? – indicates how this battle, that Boyle, along with many like minded artists and activists started – indicates that this battle is far from settled…and Connors also must be mentioned, in terms of his starting a record label and supporting Canadian musicians, and how that ground has continued to be built upon.

Ideas of Canadian content have been besmirched by people like Bryan Adams (“Now, now, the Canadian Government has apologised for Bryan Adams on several occasions”) and it can be as much of a bane as a boon (my own experience of karaoke Mmodernism™ on the prairies echoed that). But what’s also engaging about Boyle’s Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom (made in 1974) is how it fits within the current 24 hour news cycle jabber emanating from America, how we may be engaged in a trade war that can only escalate, and how American POTUS ignorance is combining with somewhat typical American cowardly deference (whether GOP spinelessness or the American unwillingness to genuinely criticise and hold to account their president, too blinded by their “faith” in their “exceptionalism”).

In Boyle’s painting, Tom smiles back at us, as St. Paul Street stretches in the background. Tom, in fact, stands at the point on Ontario and St. Paul where Boyle’s studio used to be, and Boyle’s work was (like Greg Curnoe, who has a piece to the right of Boyle in the Hansen Gallery) always informed by his immediate surroundings, his lived experience, and his community. St. Paul, as painted here, is an historic, not contemporary (not even to 1974, when Boyle painted this. One of the ways in which I enjoy social media is that when I posted something about this painting, it turned into a discussion – with images provided by the participants – of St. Paul from previous eras): Connors’ shirt and side burns are flamboyantly from the 1970s and the colours owe more to fantasy than realism.

Perhaps that’s also a nod to the idealism that informed that 1960s into arly 1970s period, especially in terms of telling – and valuing – Canadian stories. Perhaps its also a good reminder of how cities and neighbourhoods are shaped as much by ideals as business, as much by people as by anything else. In a long ranging conversation that was inspired by this work, I told local artist / educator Arnold McBay that art cannot change the world, but it can change people, and then its up to us to do something with that.

 

This latest version of Up Close and In Motion is on display until the end of June, but new and different works will be on display until January 2019. 

 

The distance between us: thoughts on The Florida Project and The Square

Spoiler Alert: if you’ve not yet seen either of these films, the following piece mentions various scenes and plot points.

The difficulty in writing a review of The Florida Project is twofold, and both of these aspects speak to the power of the film.

The visuals are overwhelming in an aesthetic sense, with the pastel (yet vibrant) colours, with motels that seem to have fallen – and been damaged in the degradation – out of a Disneyland paradise, overwhelming architecture (Project must be seen on the big screen) that proclaims a dreamy ideal that is repeatedly, and directly, exposed as false by the characters on screen. The base lives of quiet desperation chronicled by the characters belies the “fairy tale” facades of the scrubby motels that are the backdrop to their daily struggles. All of my words there are not the equal of the few seconds where Mooney or Dickey traverse their decayed “Disneyland”.

But going deeper than how The Florida Project exposes a facade of America that’s often – still – obscured by performative, or slightly worn, artifice (like sequins worn from a gaudy costume), the emotional resonance of the film is hard to put into words. The stories of the people transcend the idea of “players”, or “actors” (unsurprisingly, Bria Vinaite and Brooklyn Prince are fresh faces, unmitigated and truthful in their portrayals. But they hold their emotional weight with Willem Dafoe here, like tragic participants in a inevitably sad story….).

It’s a rough, emotionally raw film: the manner in which it ends is perhaps one of the finest examples of the vision of Sean Baker (director / writer) and Chris Bergoch (writer). As the story builds to what can be seen as an inevitable confrontation, we’re given a scene that is alternately a visually enticing “escape” but also one that we know is fake.

The Florida Project has been praised in many reviews as a story about childhood, and I’d echo that, in that its a contemporary foray in that genre. But I’d add go beyond that, in light of the ending (in conversations with many, both within and without the cultural sphere, the closing scene has marked us all without exception). Firstly, the manner in which the Disney “castle” backdrop suddenly comes to the fore, in Mooney’s world, took me back to watching The Wonderful World of Disney as a child, after supper on Sunday nights, with my siblings. What we watched eludes me, and like many memories, it’s more visual and emotional than relatable in language. This experience was elicited so immediately, and so easily, by this scene, when I’d not thought of it in years.

Less warmly, the lies we’re told in childhood and the loss of innocence that comes hand-in-hand with the loss of those years is implicit to the desperate nature of Mooney’s flight from the failure of her domestic situation and the intrusion of cold reality into her world. An addendum to that last statement: Halley (Vinaite, as Mooney’s mother) jokes at one point that she’s a “failure as a mother”, in an amusing exchange with Defoe where the privileging of “tourists” above all else is discussed. But Halley reminds me of a lot of parents I know, who do the best they can with what they have, and that are doomed to fail despite doing all they can. Their situations say more about “America” than anything else. In full disclosure, I saw I, Tonya (the story of Tonya Harding’s brief rise and long fall) the same week as The Florida Project, and class and the lies of the “American Dream” inform my interpretations.

I hesitate to cite Donald Trump’s America. Too many of my critical brethren (especially in privileged sites like Canadian Art) seem to think they have an obligation to cite Trump in any and every piece they write, whether relevant or not. I eschew the idiocy that artists are magical unicorns that can change the world, to quote an excellent response to the 2017 Berlin Biennale. But the fact that The Florida Project is fictional does not make it any less true, or any less resonant, for what America is, right now, as opposed to what it would like to pretend it is (Horatio Alger is dead, and the American Dream never was true). Like Disneyland, once you see the facade, you can’t pretend that it is not there. The centre doesn’t hold.

The Florida Project is that rarity, in that it seduces and saddens, simultaneously. It’s required viewing for 21st century America (like a look in the mirror…).

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The Florida Project could be described as exposing a reality often obscured by artifice. The Square is something else entirely, and to attempt to encapsulate what it was about is as difficult as trying to define relational aesthetics, which is an art world citation that appears, either by direct reference, or implicit in interactions and artworks, throughout the film.

The Square seems more a series of vignettes that are interconnected, that in some ways enhance each other, or do the opposite, or do nothing at all with each other. It’s a long film: at some points it drags, but several scenes evoke a visceral response that is reminiscent of Gaspar Noé and his irreverent fracture of what film is / should be / “shouldn’t” entail (Enter The Void, perhaps, or Irreversible). Ruben Östlund is both the writer and director of this lauded film, as it won the Palme d’Or and been vetted at various international festivals.

A “digression, but a pertinent one” (to quote Mordecai Richler’s verbose Barney Panofsky): I’ve been consuming a lot of film lately, and one of note that I saw for the first time was Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

It’s not good: I can’t help but feel that it benefits from how, in the visual arts world (especially the Canadian contingent), “meaning” and “relevance” is projected into something whether its there or not, and that ontological quality is neither relevant nor to be considered, comrade.

But – a very large “but” – there’s an idea suggested in the article Cinema crudité in Harper’s Magazine, that what Wiseau does is refute – or ignore – our expectations of what film should be, that are not any more set in stone than the idea that once the camera didn’t move at all, or that characters couldn’t speak over each other (Robert Altman’s Nashville). As one critic said to W. D. Griffiths indignantly, why didn’t he show people’s feet? Our expectations of what is a “movie” is as facile as anything else, as prescriptive as any propaganda: consider David Lynch, or Eisenstein’s invention of the “cutaway” in Potemkin or Anger or Riefenstahl. Film is not an old medium, and what we expect is not always all that can be done. “Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind.” (Doris Lessing)

I must mention Adorno’s idea from Minima Moralia, that when many are confronted with something genuinely new they often fall back on the “shamelessly modern assertion that they don’t understand.” (I mentioned that I’ve been a bit of a cinephile lately: Luv, from Blade Runner 2049 spits that “in the face of the fabulous new, your only thought is to kill it”).

Returning to The Square: it’s a complex film, that bores sometimes, but then holds your attention so well that you’ll “awake” when the scene is done to realise that the action that just elapsed has affected you physically, with heart racing.

I offer two tangential observations, and I reserve the right to change my mind later (the aforementioned Harper article on Wiseau, by Tom Bissell, spoke smartly of how repeated viewings of a film, or time to digest what we’ve experienced, can and must change our opinions).

Firstly, in its overt and subliminal exploration of relational aesthetics, I return to Richler: “Life [is] absurd, and nobody ever truly understood anybody else. Not a comforting philosophy…”

The conversations, arguments and confrontations suggest this gulf that exists, whether occurring naturally or influenced by characters’ actions. Exchanges are fraught with potential disaster. The stuttering, angry and resentful exchange – only to be resolved in some manner – between the critic Ann and the curator Christian (Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang), with the dangerously tilting artwork in the background, and the accelerating crashing noises suggesting impending failure was one of the finest scenes in The Square. It blended humour and pathos well, and was alternately touching and moronic.

That’s a scene that slyly but audibly threatens: but the second observation I’d offer about The Square is more grotesque, and its a tableaux that’s haunted me. It’s a scene that could be removed and presented on its own, and in the succession of vignettes its one that balances some of the banal segments with a violence (implied and literal) that shows what performance art could be, if it wasn’t so irrelevantly self referential and self aggrandising.

Another digression: my dismissal of performance art is because I’ve endured too much of it that proclaims transgression and not only fails to deliver, but gives you boredom instead. It need not be like this: if you’ve seen The Artist Is Present, I suggest researching what Marina Abramović and Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen) did when they were still collaborators, and many of their works (Relation in Space, or Relation in Time) made audiences uncomfortable, and skirted danger to themselves and others. Ambromović’s seminal Rhythm 0 where she invited “participants” to do what they liked to her with objects provided, maintaining a passive role, is horrifying (that took place in 1974. We’ve gone backwards, not forwards, since..). But if it’s strained and anxiety inducing, it is indisputably (as with Chris Burden’s Shoot, from 1971), and perhaps criminally, real.

When we see what passes for performance art now, of eating too many Big Macs or sitting on an ice cube with a lit candle and expecting your “audience” to endure the boredom you’re inflicting, apathy is understandable. In conversation with an audio performance artist and a painter once, in Regina, I let slip that I often secretly think of many Canadian “performance artists” as akin to the obligatory, somewhat abusive, porn scenes where the “money shot” is on the female performers’ face, and she’s just being used as a reluctant receptacle of someone’s unpleasant manifestation of ego….

A funny story: several years ago, at the now closed Mendel Art Gallery, I was in the audience for a performative work that was in the tradition of 1960s musical “happenings.” Afterwards, several individuals who identify as “performance artists” complained about the length, “boring” nature and “irrelevance” of the work. My demeanour was tested as I had often thought the exact same of their practice, and wondered at their blinders in walking out of the piece, when they’d often attempted to shame viewers who had tried to flee their own exercises in ego….

Returning to The Square. What the character Oleg (portrayed by Terry Notary) does, for a performance work at a fancy gala at the X Royal Museum transcends all that garbage.

It’s not surprising that the promotional images for the movie have been Oleg atop a table, looking aggressively Simian. His physical posture asserts he owns the room and anyone within it (as he demonstrates, pushing it further and further, rapaciously). What begins as the usual “art” that toys with transgression and discomfort escalates into true violence. Again, reality and film collide and merge: this piece is a reinterpretation – in homage – to Oleg Kulik’s various works where he has, in the role of a dog, been known to bite gallery goers who ignored the warnings. In the larger issue of relational aesthetics that The Square offers, its worth noting that Kulik (the real Oleg as opposed to the film Oleg) states his “intention is to describe what he sees as a crisis of contemporary culture, a result of an overly refined cultural language which creates barriers between individuals.”

The manner in which the scene ends – is abruptly cut – leaves us wondering if it terminated with the ultimate act of murderous violence (by a righteously aroused mob, what Slavoj Žižek prosaically terms “divine violence”, where the reaction is immediate, unthinking and thus “pure”). The thin veneer of society, as exemplified by this moneyed, privileged gathering, erodes at this artistic scratching. 

This lack of clear resolution permeates The Square: in conversations, to conflicts, in how this is not the sole death  – or more exact, murder – that may have happened in The Square. We’re left to decide for ourselves what transpired here. In conversation, several people asserted that a disturbing sequence is due to the “ghost” of one of the “victims”….

This bring us around again to a “problem” with relational aesthetics: a failure of narrative consensus (“That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.” My apologies: T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock is a poem I love and is often in my mind).

The tagline (both for the movie, and the artwork in the film from which the name is taken) is how “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”

This wasn’t true to my experience of (the film) The Square. I’d cite, more accurate to my impression, an artwork that curator Christian demonstrates to his two daughters. A gallery visitor, to gain entry to a show, must push one of two buttons. One declares that you trust people, while the other states that you mistrust people. The LED displays on the wall keep count: those who trust are nearly fifty, and only three seemed comfortable enough to openly declare their cynicism for humanity.

But the exhibition (based on the detritus and protective covers), indicates its not yet been opened to the public. The numbers are thus false: and I found myself wondering if the “mistrust” numbers were to encourage honesty (so you needn’t be the “only” one to doubt), or if the numbers were presented to force a more positive, hopeful facade (people are exponentially more trusting, “people are essentially good” but civilisation corrupts, as Rousseau would say. But flouting this is the opening sequence where Christian has his phone and wallet stolen in a grift that is unique enough to demand respect, and that plays on trust. However, we find out later he also assumed his cuff-links were taken, and they were not. For a moment in the narrative you wonder how reliable his recounting of his experience is…do we “trust” Christian, or “distrust” him?).

The Square offers us hints, but not resolution; narratives but no conclusion. In some ways, its a different story constructed from the same components as The Florida Project. Both offer truth and artifice, allusion and honesty. I plan to watch them both again.


The Square and The Florida Project were both on view at the Film House in the Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines in January of 2018. Many thanks to the staff of both the Film House and Niagara Artist Centre who have a strong hand in programming films unavailable elsewhere in Niagara. The upcoming schedule can be seen here.

MacDonald’s Menagerie at NAC

We author places, as much as remember them. Its an idea from the writings of Peter Straub, and considering how often literary references came up in my conversation with Melanie MacDonald (as it did, too, with Clelia Scala), this seems a good “place” to begin to talk about the paintings she has on display at NAC. Her exhibition Florida Noir opened on October 28 and is hopefully still there, as you read this. If not, her site merits your perusal. She continues to exhibit in Niagara, and beyond. Her recent solo show at the Niagara Falls Art Gallery was excellent. The monumental, yet also very playful paintings filled the gallery and offered multiple points of entry for the viewers; including both her meticulous style and her evocative imagery.

Before entering the Dennis Tourbin space, perhaps you’ve encountered her lichen works downtown, with their obsessive attention to detail, making the potentially banal quite entrancing.

MacDonald’s site offers many examples of her work, as well as concise thoughts on her practice. Her words: “By painting mass-produced, cheapened objects of the not-so-distant past, my work brings to mind the hand or touch of a brush of the original sculptor and painter. By re-framing them as large-scale paintings the viewer is given the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with these lost or forgotten domestic objects.”

What is on display at NAC offers a bit of a different narrative, perhaps because its more specific to a place (“…Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste” is a favourite line from American Gods). In conversation, MacDonald cited Douglas Coupland (who sometimes fancies himself an artist, and some fancy as a cultural prognosticator): “Florida isn’t so much a place where one goes to reinvent oneself, as it is a place where one goes if one no longer wished to be found.”

As always with her work, the objects are rendered in a manner that is both precious and empowers them as iconic signifiers: perhaps even harbingers that are more warnings, or more apocalyptic, than you might normally consider a cute little cockatoo or a darling pink flamingo to encapsulate. Gator – Florida Souvenir or Pink Flamingo – Florida Souvenir transcend their knick knack triviality (while in her studio, MacDonald showed me two of the kitschy objects that inspired this work — I disremember if they were salt and pepper shakers or not — but they were both made in Japan, which implied an artisan quality and preciousness in the same way that seeing “Made in China” makes one assume shoddiness, whether fairly or not).

 

 

 

 

 

 

The manner in which MacDonald has captured the texture and the shine of the various animals of the “menagerie” — a glistening swan, a pearly pelican, a cockatoo that shines in reds, yellows and porcelain whites — takes the original objects, which she photographs repeatedly, as part of her process, to impressive levels. The “animals” themselves dominate the paintings. They fill the frame, like portraiture. The backgrounds are designed to serve this, in a banal humid light, often derived from “paint by numbers” images and other stereotypical renderings of sunsets that suggest the tourism (like “Snowbirds” fleeing winter) or the utopian dream too often projected onto Florida (the desperate film noir Midnight Cowboy: “It’s not, not bad, huh? There’s no heat here, but you know, by the time winter comes, I’ll be in Florida.”). Stephen King’s Duma Key, to return to literary tools to more deeply enjoy Florida Noir, offers both a heaven and a hell in “the Sunshine State.” Pieces like Sea Horse or Dolphin are nostalgic souvenirs, with a childlike preciousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These were found by MacDonald in various Florida locals, almost like foraging for mementos. MacDonald has talked about future paintings that will show these pieces broken, in shards, and if Florida Noir is a visual essay about place and space, memory and projection, it’s not hard to see what those future pieces are implying, as these objects break and fail (like Florida, like America, perhaps in Mar – A – Lago on a golf course…)

Florida Noir will be in the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC (354 St. Paul) until November 10th. Her Lichen paintings are at Garden City Essentials (35 James Street). Check out both spaces in downtown STC. All images are courtesy the artist’s web site, and are respectively Pink Flamingos, Dark Swan, Shark and Cockatoo.)

Cooler Than Cool: worthless and priceless

“..an aesthetics of interaction.”(Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis)

“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.”(Steven Shaviro, Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism)

“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.”(Warhol)

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.