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.

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. 

William Griffiths: a history in texture and time / lovely ruins

The people who knew me when I coined the term “karaoke modernism” would be alternately confused or elated at how often I speak, these days in Niagara, about the quality of the painting I’m encountering.

The next issue of The Sound, Niagara’s magazine of arts and culture that suffers me to write about Art, in all its shabby glory (Art, not The Sound) will include an artist profile on Matt Caldwell, whose work caught my eye from the first time I saw it at NAC.

I want to mention grote, and linoleum, and other industrial pastes and chunky filler you would use for holes and gaps in walls (Matt mentioned the current exhibition at the Albright Knox, of Clyfford Styll and Mark Bradford, which I highly recommend). Caldwell’s subtle ridges and marks are more engaging to me than the current fad, Agnes Martin, and speak more about the necessary rigour of looking. After all, in one of the streams of Western painting, where narrative has been deemed unneeded, the best painters were / are exploring what painting can be, especially in delicate ways (gradations of greys, variations of white, subtleties of colour as gradated as a computer graphics program. The image below is Seal, by Caldwell, from 2015).

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So, if you eschew narrative, give me something beautiful, or engaging, to admire. If you’re going to abandon a larger social narrative, then work your aesthetic. There is nothing “wrong” with art that foregrounds aesthetics: the problem more so happens when individuals presume they’re making lovely work, but aren’t, and have no concept to fall back upon, for validity. However, the work I’ll be focusing on here melds both of these…

William Griffiths’ exhibition DIG, at the Niagara Artist Centre, is a show I’ve been looking forward to seeing since I encountered several of his works, specifically in the What About Rodman Hall? Exhibition but also online.  There is a quality to Griffiths’ work that is immediately engaging: perhaps that’s because many of the works, like the one in the Rodman show, are smaller and thus invite consideration of their texture and the almost sculptural nature of the application of paint. Also acknowledging my own obsession with industrial wastelands, the rust and metal flake landscapes of the GTA and Niagara (or my time in the mercury laden vistas of Windsor), there are aspects of his work that appeal to me personally.

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His statement: “My art straddles two worlds: photography and painting. My inspiration, consciously or subconsciously, comes from the environment, and the allure found within. I am intrigued by the beauty in the natural world (landscapes, trees, rocks), as well as the beauty in man’s manufactured masses (metal, deteriorating structures, forgotten dwellings). I photograph overlooked objects, and use them as inspiration for abstract work. I strive to recreate the moment, and express what I see.”

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There is a uniformity here, in terms of size, and framing (mostly being square) that fosters a base for the diversity of the works:  various objects are “embedded”, sometimes acting as focal points, other times being submerged in the paint, as though they’re submerged, or obscured, fighting to the surface.

In conversation with Will, we never used the trendy term “palimpsest”, but it factors into his works in a number of ways. DIG in the Dennis Tourbin space at NAC spans nearly a decade, and the seed for the majority of these works occurs in his photographic practice (sometimes in his interest in naturalism, other times in documenting – though that’s too formal a word, I think, denying the immediacy and whimsy at play – this area). A line from our conversation: “history is a treasure hunt.” I like that, as it also suggests “concealed” stories, awaiting a “discoverer.”

The names of several of the works will allude to this, if you’re familiar with “here”, or they’ll act as a “map”: Epworth Circle, Grand Trunk, Michigan Central, Chrysler and Queen, McCleary and Pyramid.

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Pyramid is on the wall “bend”, as I like to designate it, book ending the display of works: I don’t believe it’s the largest work, but it alludes to such, not just because the picture plane is dominated by a degraded and disintegrating pyramid, parts seeming to flake and break, but also in that (in that subjective critic voice I employ) it’s a work I saw two days after visiting Niagara Falls, and seeing the triumvirate of decline that is the Skylon Tower, the Casino and the pyramid shaped IMAX theatre. In some ways, Griffiths’ Pyramid is a portrait of that site: less about minutiae in reproduction as encapsulating the sentiment and sensibility of the sites he “remembers” and paints.

Even the historical – artistically, or otherwise – signifiers that any “pyramid” evokes are: Pyramid is a disturbing portrait of the Falls. This work – and several others in the show, with their insinuations (by title, or by imagery / object) to the industrial history / contemporary wasteland of this region are almost rebuttals – or acidic “corrections” – to the idealist, Marxist murals of Diego Rivera you’ll still see in Detroit, about a “workers’ paradise.” (May I extend my hyperbole and say that the infamous story of Rockefeller having the Rivera mural destroyed / covered up as he found it politically / ideologically “suspect” reminds me of the caustic, if knowing, voice of Anna Szaflarski in her historical meditation on GM and St. Catharines, in A Man’s Job, or the knowing, regretful drunkenness from Stephen Remus’s accompanying text to that installation…).

Everything is defined by place, and where you stand, and what you “see” from there. And “memory….is an internal rumour”, Santayana (yes, the same one who talks about repeating what we haven’t learned) warns us…

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Pyramid strikes me as a singular work: just as Vacant Lot, near the front of the gallery, is also unique, with its slab of black rubber hanging down over the face of the painting. The flat, discarded matte quality makes it as much of a “found” object as other fragments that are part of Griffiths’ painted assemblages (more paint than assemblage). McCleary’s flat blues are broken by a red grey “valve”, somewhat off centre.

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Other works employ geometric, abstract shapes: flat blues, light and dark, and a range of browns to yellows encompassing many flavours of rust and ruin. Three delicate circles of orange punctuate a work (In Time…almost like seconds or hesitation points). Others offer rectangles and angular forms within the picture plane, mimicking the black frames of the work: sometimes richly textured, like a paste, other times seeming to be a ripped or torn scrap (North St.), as though Griffiths is literally covering / revealing a narrative in these works.

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His process begins in photography, and in roaming through areas in Niagara, and taking pictures that may be more “landscape” or may be more so when a small piece, an object or a texture, catches his eye. Thus, when I talk about these works – especially the wall with the “quieter” work that is “based” upon St. Peter’s Cemetery in Thorold – I talk about them as depictions of St. Catharines, and sometimes Niagara, as much as any “landscape” artist. In depictions, we capture, and come to know – or define, perhaps being more about our sentiments – a site. And places exist most truthfully in our mind’s eye, or in the stories we “tell” about them.

More of his statement: “I use unorthodox materials, and experiment with different mediums to emulate the surfaces I see. I am constantly challenging myself, and inventing new ways to relate what I see. I search for methods outside the norm to express myself. I take the medium into unfamiliar practices, and push it to create a new language for itself. Colour, texture and depth are the tools I use to bridge unconventional and traditional acts of painting. By merging abstract and representational methods, I work to create mood and beauty through transformation, similar to nature’s regeneration and structural decay. Leaving myself open to chance and mistakes gives way to new ideas, and this creative process is most important to me, regardless of the work’s final outcome.”

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These are works that function well individually, but stronger as a group, like a painted essay of place. Will and I were talking, as well, about various commercial galleries in STC and beyond, and during this conversation, the works at the TAG gallery, that focus on historical prints of Niagara came up, when discussing audiences and agendas. TAG has an annual show (and a side gallery, year round) devoted to these historic depictions of place. Will Griffiths’ exhibition DIG would be an exciting contrast to that “history”, as it is also grounded “here”, and is perhaps simply a later chapter (in a different language: an abstracted synthesis of found objects with rich textured paint) of Niagara.

DIG runs at NAC until July 2nd, but you can see more of Will Griffiths’ works at the Jordan Art Gallery.

 

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.

 

Bananas, banality and Beuys at NAC

Its entertaining to rigourously examine what merits attention, as art, or “Art.” I have absolutely no idea why the bananas – the plethoras of banana peels, I should say, to be accurate, both freshly cast aside and others that we can almost smell the rot emanating from in the photographs in the space at NAC – fascinate me so. The installation is banal: its collaborative (more than one artist, though one person acts as the instigator, or gatherer, of images, both literally from other contributors, but also in how these are peels “found” while out, and captured in these snaps). Some images are silly, while repetition both elaborates and bores.

It could all be blamed on Joseph Beuys, whose destruction of the notion of art school has continued long after his death (may the good be buried with him, as the evil lives after, so let it be with Caesar). If we live in an age where anyone can self designate as an artist, where anyone can be an artist (and consequently, to invert Beuys, no one is an “Artist” – note the capital), then by extension anything can be designated as “Art,” by nothing more than that self referential act.

Let me cite from Alice Gregory’s review of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks: “Such retroactive and remote anointing is far more difficult in the context of contemporary art, which for the past century has often been the product of speech acts. I am an artist because I say I am an artist. This is art because I say it is.”
Now, this can, as with everything, offer possibility and putridity. But the playfulness of what’s presented here is so unpretentious, and so direct that I do enjoy it.

If you think I’ve had a momentary (or ongoing) loss of my art critic acumen, allow me to contrast and elaborate.

Some of the worst “art” I’ve ever been subjected to could be considered abject – there’s a joke there, I’ll come to in a moment – abuses of that ego. One of the last exhibitions I saw on the Prairies – Abject Abstract – displayed two vomitous examples of this elbows out, self aggrandaizing artcrime. What makes them notable is that they sinned in a manner like flip sides of a coin: both coming to the same horrid place, but via parallel paths.

Jon Vaughn mixed spray paint, scrappy prints and paper into pieces that attested to a lack of compositional talent or skill, and hinted at colour blindness (actually, that’s unfair. I’ve known artist who were / are colour blind who demonstrated a finer, qualified hand). There was an assertion of “primitivism” or “rawness” to these things: but if forced, I would say that if we speak of these as “untrained” works, they have more in common with a lack of toilet training and the resultant feces….
Amazingly, in the same show, were the works of Allysha Larsen: whereas Vaughn was a blocked and excessive suppository, Larsen had a few strokes and blots that bastardized the measured considerations of Gottleib, or Kline. These were just as boorishly amateur, as unpleasant as Vaughn, but they fairly vibrated with “artistic” self importance.

Both postured: both failed, and both polluted – and sadly, continue to do so, I’m sure – the artistic waters. Look out, someone has urinated in the pool.
Now, what does this have to do with bananas, or the exhibition at NAC?

To quote a (regretful) former mentor, I make “pretty words as I say ugly things.” Perhaps I am just, like my most favourite protagonist from Richler, Barney Panofsky, “a voracious reader, but you would be mistaken if you took that as evidence of my quality…[a]t bottom, I am obliged to acknowledge…the baseness of my soul. My ugly competitive nature”.

Perhaps – to return to that egregiousness of posture and pretension – this is why I enjoy the banana peels.

Bananganza (it took a few tries to say that without bursting into laughter) “is an exhibit of banana peel photos collected in collaboration since 2014. Inspiration commenced one evening upon visiting a movie theatre. In the parking spot next to mine, it appeared as if all four passengers of the now – gone car had woofed down a banana each, leaving the peels by their respective car doors. The decomposed peels looked like…strange creatures: bats, geese, turtles, birds…I was compelled to snap a photo.” Those are the words of Kristin Stahlman, who has images here, but has a primary role as the accumulator of these images: the person to credit (or blame) for, Bananganza.

Further guiding words from Kristin: “Being an avid walker, I began noticing banana peels nearly everywhere and stopped to snap a photo of each….I posted the small collection on social media, where my friends joined in. Soon the random tossed banana peel photo collection expanded to include peel photos sent from all over – the furthest sent from Venice, Italy.”
There’s humour: Lynie Clifford (Tonawanda, NY) has Poor Froggy, all black and rigid and amphibian shaped. Stahlman has The Bird: also dark and stiff.
But, as is so often with humour, there’s a less jocular underbelly. A personal favourite is the larger Dance, by Dan Hogan, purple and almost like an organ, suggesting a morbidity and almost murder scene tableaux (or, if I may be a bit tasteless – sorry – it almost evokes a severed member, if you follow my meaning). Full Deck, by Lee Jacob (unknown location) shows the fresh, almost pretty bright yellows with mottles of brown and tan, of what must be an easy dozen peels on a wooden deck. Someone gluttonously, ravenously, sated their appetite here, and left the indexical signifier of their own personal bananaganza for an unsuspecting witness. Louise Hominuk (Southampton, ON) has snapped Beach Banana: but the splashes of yellow exposed from the gravel and stones suggest a poorly buried body more than a discovered treasure. Some images are less remote, and are from our own downtown: Stahlman’s Graffiti Peel is a wonderful take on how many photos are shot in front of the multi storey graffiti mura just off St. Paul, down from the PAC. Sydney Kripp’s Muck Tryst offers us a peel almost as dark a brown as the mud and foul water it floats within. The puddle reflects a street light in a shimmery manner: the label with ruined bar code is clearly visible.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure of my position: I’ve been habitually, and obsessively, photographing shopping carts I encounter as I walk the streets of St.Catharines. Some are simple, some are more complicated, but all are found, and I solely document, with no modification, movement or interference.
This has simply been enjoyable to do, and to post on social media, and with a quote or words of my own, sometimes relating to the scene, sometimes grafted onto it with less immediate relation to the scene. Others have told me about being infected by my “seeing” and “noticing”, sometimes in a relaxed, comic manner, and sometimes in a manner that activates their environment in a new way. In some ways, I am a uniquely qualified – and very interested and receptive – audience, to this endeavour.
Of late, I’ve been thinking of my documentation of these as my latest research into late capitalist modernism / late modernist capitalism. Evidence of how the only freedom that matters is the freedom to consume, but also, with how they’re always empty, suggesting a Lacanian desire that is never to be sated, but that permeates and demands and suffuses our world…
The banana peels can be like that: discards of consumption, indexical evidence of consuming, and with the current debate and concern about food prices, this can take on a sinister tone. I spoke recently with a professor from Brock about water, for the recent World Water Day: he asserted that all those futurist warnings about how water will be the new oil, and we’ll see wars and imperialistic forays for water as we’ve seen in Iraq or Afghanistan is unlikely. What he did assert is that at a domestic level we will see shortages and the resultant societal strains and fractures that may take us to the same violence in a different manner.
I think about that with food, when I look at some of these banana peels, these discards: as Atwood said in Year of the Flood, “hunger is a powerful reorganizer of the conscience.”

Bananganza is on display at NAC until the first of April.

Mori McCrae’s ON SITE: corporeality and absence

The personally engaging aspect of the brief exhibitions in the Denn Tourbin space are that they seem to offer a brief taste of different artistic practices here to a newcomer like myself. I’ve mentioned previously seeing an exhibition in this space less than 24 hours after my arrival in St.Catharines, and that immediacy of presentation – and in this space being a “raw” slice of the community – is something I enjoy.
The slice comment is an allusion to the current exhibition there, an installation / environment that incorporates finished works but these are also part of a larger ongoing reaction to the space. Mori McCrae’s ON SITE is / are many things (note the multiplicity, my unwillingness to refer to it solely as one thing or as a multitude of parts..). Considering that she presents objects that seem like excised corporeal components, removed from – or alluding to – an absent whole, this is fitting. This also matches with how part of the genesis for this installation was her residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland.

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There’s a number of works that will pull you near: near the front of the left gallery entrance is a work that seems, with the sheen of the material, almost like fat. But there’s also a vertical pattern that runs down the middle of the piece, like an exposed spine, cleanly circular and naked.

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This rough rectangle pokes out from the wall in a vee, as its hung in a manner that allows it to sag forward. This makes some of the interior details of the work more prevalent: the layers of material, the folds that are exposed to our view, that make the work as sculptural as drawn (useless distinctions here – the surface and objects are worked is a better descriptor). It’s pale pink fleshy, then deeper reds, some marks that seem scars or just a continuation onto these pieces of the words on the walls that already seemed to be everywhere when I visited. The matching oval “holes” seem vulnerable, like a wound. The thin, delicate words that are so ordered across the red interior are like the striated lines of muscle fascia. Edges of this work have the sporadically spaced “stitches”, raised braided marks that further the sense of this piece as a ripped fragment of a larger body…fat, bone, cartilage, all captured in paper and paint and the artist’s hands.
There’s an asylum quality to the text, creeping and insinuating onto so many surfaces, like a resident of Arkham (Lovecraft is never far from my mind, when asylums are near): and here is a good point to interrupt my hyperbole about her lovely delicate constructions and cite her statement about her show at NAC.
Recently I attended the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Ireland.  The house and grounds were part of the estate of Sir Tyrone Guthrie, generously bequeathed to the state upon his death in 1970. His vision was to provide a haven for artists to develop.
While researching the centre I became aware that the residency had a posh reputation. However, when I returned from my stay three weeks later to my home in St. Catharines, I had formed my own ideas.  The paring down of the basic daily acts of working, eating, exercise and sleeping, under the watchful care of the centre’s unobtrusive staff, left me with the impression of residing at a “benign asylum,” in the very best sense of both words.
[Throughout] the duration of the exhibit, where along with visual works, I will install enlarged versions of the poetry I wrote while at this residency on the walls of the Niagara Artist Centre in an attempt to bring this benign asylum here to St. Catharines.
There’s an ambiguity to the works, that suggests a space where alternate, perhaps even disagreeing, interpretations are permitted. In conversation with McCrae, I appreciatively noted how some works could be internal organs, or a rendering of pelvic bones, or even cross sections of bones or cellular, microscopic portraits that are more abstracted than recognizable.
A work in the back part of the gallery, fittingly solo on its own short wall (pinned like a diagram or an excised sample with shiny silver T pins, almost as brutal as medical), is worthy of your attention. It’s engrossing and grotesque. The clear mylar overtop doesn’t inhibit escaping strands and strips that hang nearly to the floor, but instead makes it even more pseudo medical, psuedo antiseptic. These hang, loose and less decorative, like a tassel, then like tendrils, or evidence of a ripped connection to another component…

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The large shape is softly curved, or something like buttocks, fleshy and rounded, maybe even like a fine cut or loin. There’s cavities along the lower part, and the rounded patterns mimicking a spinal column are here again (it’s a motif that marks several other pieces in the gallery). The upper edge has a contour that is reminiscent of a hip bone, or even a clavicle / shoulder blade curve…this might be the upper back, hung on a wall.
There’s several smaller works: some are framed, and the text on the walls varies between strength and subtlety, words that are bold or barely legible. When I first visited several walls had the faint lines of grey, making walls into ruled note paper, and McCrae’s words were in her own cursive hand.
Let’s jump backwards for a moment: Judy Graham had work in NAC just prior to McCrae: her drawn works incorporated spills and drips and seemed more stained and soiled than “drawn”, in the excellent style of Betty Godwin’s works. Delicate marks gave way to vivid stains on large sheets of paper, with words as much incised as written, as much graphic as literary.
Returning to now: that same expressiveness is here with McCrae. And jumping back to the present, I revisited McCrae’s installation on the last day of its presence in NAC.
The words are now bold and a bit reminiscent of blood in their colour: the stripes get long longer still then dissolve or it startles lifts then reclaims to simmering elements. This makes the text on several works more inviting, and the words that appear on works are as evocative.
sHE FUmBLED AT HIS THUMBS FAINTLy TRACED HIS LIPS FLAMINGO PINK POKED STONE runs down one piece. The aforementioned smaller framed pieces, titled liver and pelvic bowl, hang on a sliver of wall, adding to the density of their composition. The larger curved work with the dangling strips has changed: a dark rich reddish stain is now just below its lower edge, as though the work has seeped into the wall, just as the words could be seen to have oozed out through them to be visible to the visitor (some have appeared in new spaces since my last visit, like above the door frame).
It’s regrettable that the show wasn’t up longer, but the briefness is also exciting, as ON SITE transformed the space and will take another form elsewhere (I’m reminded of Hazel Meyers’ tendency to paint and draw on gallery walls, exhibiting the same project in different spaces that become diverse segments of a larger whole). And that is, perhaps, a strength: ON SITE will occupy another space and graft further ideas about the Guthrie residency and McCrae’s translation of it to a different place, in literal and ephemeral ways.

A Word 30.10.2015 Donna Szőke / Cloud / Satellite

As some of you may have noticed, the radio shows are a bit more sporadic, hah, than when I was on the prairies: that’s just the way things roll these days, as I’m finding myself occupied by my writing (two pieces are in the current issue of The Sound, one on a previous guest Anna Szaflarski’s work It’s a Man’s Job and another about Bill Burns’ show at Rodman, and I’ll be talking to Bill for a future A Word Niagara) and by my job. However, I am keeping up with putting out conversations of note, and this one is definitely one of those.

Donna Szőke has two exhibitions up right now: Cloud at Rodman Hall and Satellite at the VISA Gallery. We talk about some of the ideas that formed the works as well as the directions the work drove my thoughts and some other gallery goers I spoke with, and you have a chance to hear Donna speak about her works on Thursday, November 12th, at Rodman.

You can listen to us here.

The image I’ve posted below is of her piece Decoy which sits invitingly atop a mantle in one of Rodman’s elaborate rooms) which both enthralls and disgusts me, in person. Look but don’t touch, when you see it

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A Word 09.10.2015 Anna Szaflarski and A Man’s Job

This week’s episode of the A Word is, on the surface, a very specific one to St. Catharines, while being a conversation between two people whom have connections to “here” but yet also are not from “here”…

First, let us all enjoy that I’m the NAC Member of the Moment for October, and you can read about that at the preceding link. Much praise to the community here, which has been exceptionally warm and welcoming. Many thanks to NAC and many others here who have made me feel very much at home.

Something else to consider in terms of your visual arts world in STC this Thanksgiving weekend are the plethora of events and exhibitions coming up at Rodman Hall. Here’s some information about Spare Parts,  which Stuart Reid talked about on the show a few week ago, and Donna Szőke’s exhibition which opens this weekend. I’ll be doing some follow up in the next few days to see about having her come on the A Word.

If you pick up this month’s edition of The Sound, you can also see some thoughts of mine on her upcoming show, Bill Burns’ exhibition which opens later this month, and some impressions of Shifting Perspectives. It’s not yet online, so you’ll need to pick up a print copy. When its up, I’ll share them.

But let’s return to Anna Szaflarski’s trio of installation / intervention works being presented through NAC that open this Thanksgiving weekend (a fitting analogy, perhaps, that fits in with the latter part of our conversation about “family” ) titled A Man’s Job. They’re located at NAC (354 St. Paul Street), the NAC Flea Market Gallery (46 Turner Crescent) and at the Golden Pheasant (244 Ontario Street).

Let me steal the words of the gallery :

At each newsbox location poster editions of A Man’s Job by Anna will be available for pick-up. The poster is comprised of a chronological collection of newspaper headlines tracking the relationship between the employees and the auto industry in Niagara that spans over sixty years (1940-2011). As Anna explains,

“I was researching in the library archives for another project, but quickly noticed the frequency of headlines pertaining to GM; unions, lay-offs, which rotated from hopeful to pessimistic with regularity like the wheels of a mill…Together the fluid back and forth begins to lose all meaning; an eventual entropic disintegration.”

You can listen to us here. An image of the poster is below linked to a larger version.

There is also a further piece of writing, that Szaflarski presents as part of her Letters to the Editor series where her writings are paired with another person’s response to the same subject. You can either pick up this at the news boxes too, or read her – and Stephen Remus’ essay – here.

This was very much the basis of many of the points in our talk, and I really enjoyed Stephen’s excellent contribution here, and if you have a sense of the history of this place and its relationship with manufacturing (especially in a familial or more personal way), you will, as well.

You may find me at the Golden Pheasant later on doing research on public reaction to this very interesting example of art in the public realm.

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