Up Close and In Motion: A year in review

In conversation with a fellow writer / critic recently, the subject turned to the exhibition Carry Forward that had been at Rodman Hall. We shared the opinion that the show could have been divided by a line framing four works that were quite interesting and very strong in the conceptual framework proposed by curator Lisa Myers: the rest, on the opposite side of the gallery, seemed muddled and unresolved. Or, at the least, paled next to the aesthetics of Claxton, Alvarez or Bowen.

When considering the year long exploration / series of exhibitions of Rodman Hall’s collection – titled Up Close and In Motion, with various addendum, like 4/11, or 6/11, to mark its progression – that has been installed in various month long excerpts in the Hansen Gallery (ending in January 2019), there is a similar fracture.

The initial “phases” curated by Emma German (whom conceived the project, in conjunction with a focus upon a Slow Art Day aesthetic) were engaging and offered multiple points of entry with intersections and dialogues between visitors and artworks.

My response to, and review, of Brendan Fernandes’ Philia exemplifies this. This work is a rarely seen treasure of the RHAC collection, but frankly the didactic panel, written by German. expanded and enlarged the work’s importance (and I f**king hate art with neon, but that fell to the side in light of what Fernandes was “illuminating”, if I may put it that way).

Brendan Fernandes’ Philia, installation shot.

The current incarnation of #UCIM, as I write this, continues an aesthetic that has been dominant since Jimmy Limit assumed a degree of the curatorial reins. He’s an interesting artist who has shown both in Rodman and spaces such as Gallery 44 and Clint Roenisch: but his choices are more formal, offering a comparatively empty discourse compared to the more richly nuanced selections by German. But right now, the Hansen gallery is filled, with one exception, with works that offer a space of formal connection, but little else.

This is manifest in both the absence of didactic panels to expand the work (which would have left me to hate Philia, bluntly), and engage the visitor.

Untitled, Jimmy Limit (one of several installed works by the artist for #UCIM)

Also problematically, the works that Limit himself has produced in the gallery space have only superficial relationships – if at all – to the works from the collection. Ernest Harris, Jr.’s piece Mel’s Brushes, commissioned for #UCIM by German, directly referenced the work of Melanie MacDonald that was installed concurrently over the other mantle, in the other room, and that alluded strongly to Tobey Anderson (his four works presented as part of his almost “scientific” series in response to his cancer), whom Harris praised in the accompanying didactic. This excerpt from his conversation with German highlighted how Harris credited Anderson as both a mentor and major supporter of his artistic practice. In that respect, the works at play in Hansen all fed and spoke to each other, and also to the contemporary and the historical space of artists in Niagara, living and deceased.

Harris, MacDonald and Anderson – and later Boyle and Moffat (who, after seeing their works in the Hansen, I made a point of visiting works by both on permanent display in the MIWSFPA) – all positioned themselves within larger community frameworks. This was often an agenda of German’s selections from the RHAC collection.

Dennis Tourbin, whom had two works in #UCIM that I was so impressed by that I devoted singular reviews to each (one more local, one more national), is also someone who’s left a space here for others to stand upon, as the front gallery space at NAC (often used for local and emerging artists, a sentiment I think he’d approve) is named for him.

Limit’s series of untitled pieces are vibrant and fun, and the objects are lovely and push against the more historical space of the Hansen. There’s a [M]modernist appeal (art in simplicity), a cleanliness and disciplined execution that makes me want to handle the works (so round and slick), and his painting of coloured “rectangles” – or frames, if you will – on the wall with simple shelves to hold the works tussle and clash with the carved, delicate and almost fussy cornices and details of the Hansen space. The objects are rough yet evocative, and I always love when artists paint the walls to enhance their work. In that “proper” space, a slab of blue or yellow is an “affront” to the gentility of the space, just like Donna Akrey’s playful “toys” or Amy Friend’s “mementos” that worked with / against the “domestic” space.

But conceptually the connections between Limit’s interventions and the other works are either nonexistent or more about skin deep relations (lemons, circles, yellows) than how Fernandes’ Philia interacted with Genevieve Cadieux‘s works (both significant for imagery and art from groups that have too often been underrepresented in galleries and collections). There’s definitely not the points of reference I previously cited with Harris, MacDonald, Anderson or Carol Wren on the back wall.

This is “echoed” in how Douglas Boutilier’s Tennis Twins have looked out on the spaces for several variations of #UCIM, unimpressed and stoic, in their gaze and being, separate metaphorically and literally, alone on a wall almost like an alcove.

Douglas Boutillier’s Tennis Twins.
Tobey C. Anderson, selected works from Silken Twine series.

Even later iterations, from German, with John Boyle‘s imagery of St. Paul Street in St. Catharines. which led to a long, very long social media feed involving several local artists about when, where and why Boyle chose that site. This involved his major role in visual arts in St. Catharines, with NAC and Rodman, having a deeper, more considered, relevance outside the Hansen space. And I have little use for Stompin’ Tom Connors, but putting Boyle’s hagiographic rendering of Connors in a “fancy” space was entertaining. Though titled Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom, the work was more complicated than that jingoist statement. Boyle’s role in founding CARFAC and Connors’ advocacy for regionalist culture meshed in that frighteningly colourful, perhaps garish, work.

When I encountered the Barbara Hepworth in the Hansen, in a recent iteration of #UCIM, it was disheartening to see that her choice of yellow, in a harsh slab of flat colour among monochromatic renderings, seemed to be the sole reason for its inclusion: this put it on a par with the lemons of an unfamiliar artist named Cleveland. That seems a bit of a slight, a facile dismissal, to someone who was one of the very, very few female artists of her generation to make an indelible mark in the Modernist canon. It would be a bit like talking about Anderson’s pieces that focused / explored his fatal cancer diagnosis in terms of modernist or art historical use of colour…..or only speaking of Tourbin’s work about the October Crisis in terms of its formal flat pop art colour, and not how a local artist I respect greatly raised a good point about “contested narratives” in response to my review of it, that was a bit (appropriately, considering the historical position of the piece) caustic.

Installation shot (L – R: Cleveland, Hepworth, Limit)

Am I being an asshole in my harshness re: the “post German” / “Limit defined” chapters? Am I being an #artcriticfromhell? Am I speaking a (difficult) truth? Am I, as I was told by one of the same people who used to dismiss me as “art critic from hell”, being a “Strelnikov” and expecting too much or expecting too “specifically”?

I offer this criticism, or this place within which to stand and question – to look back over a year and revisit what has been, in light of what is now in the Hansen space – as someone who has curated several exhibitions in a similar community / public space(s). I chose artworks both by artists who simply visited the #YXE space (Allison Rossiter had many fine works that were the backbone of my exhibition Personal Geographies, and Eldon Garnet’s “pile” works were a major part of another show I put together from the #usask collection). Others were featured who helped to define that site over decades (Thelma Pepper’s photographic / audio “portraits” of a generation that helped form Saskatchewan, for better or worse, were significant pieces of an earlier show I curated on ideas of place).

But let’s add another flavour to the mix: a curator whom I worked with, and admire greatly, Robert McKaskell (known for interventions and work he did with General Idea) once spoke of curating in a public gallery (we were both at the Art Gallery of Windsor, at the time) in this manner. That anyone, if they’re willing to make the effort, should be able to find works in a public gallery space they can appreciate: but McKaskell was more than willing to meet people halfway, so while the AGW might be showing the supposedly controversial works of Donigan Cummings, McKaskell curated a large show of “big animals in small landscapes” that, with some engagement (like in a slow art day manner) offered some interesting historical comments on the Windsor – Essex region, but also on the wider (as in British, or French) history of the area, in what artists and ideas were prevalent when the AGW was in its infancy. In citing this, the use of “lemon” or “yellow” or the circular motifs that linked works by Jean Arp (De la familles des etoilles) or Jeanne Rhéaume (Nature Morte aux Tomatoes) or Herbert Beyer (Two Sinking Spheres) actually simple and inviting points of access for any gallery goer, an unpretentious line between them all.

Untitled, Jimmy Limit

Now, I’ve alluded before to how some think your intrepid #artcriticfromhell too often talks politics and not “the art.” However, it has been a while since I’ve offered an update on Rodman Hall and the ongoing death by a thousand ignorant cuts that Brock University seems to wish to inflict on them, before walking away like a sated vampire in 2023. Its not accidental that German’s contract at RHAC ended and #UCIM has somewhat faltered without her.

Its not coincidental that Brock has not deigned to hire a replacement for their main installation person, nor that it has delayed in hiring a person to replace the public programming position (though Brock also advertised a Director position a long time ago, and then, opaquely and ignorantly, declined to hire one and appointed someone who seems to lack the experience, or interest, to do the job properly. But its perhaps unfair to expect “administrative director” Tom Arkell to serve two masters, and really, we all know that, like Martin Van Zon, he’ll bring his “experience” to the service of Brock, not Rodman).

One of the disheartening – or enraging, edit as preferred – facts about many university spaces like Brock is that they slash support for cultural spaces like RHAC, and devalue them (except, of course, to attempt to take credit for the many OAAG awards that RHAC and their staff and artists – like Marcie Bronson – have garnered, arguably despite Brock University, not thanks to it). Then, when those spaces are unable to function at the previous excellent levels, they’re punished for the idiocy, ignorance and decisions of University administrative cabal members. The recent exhibition Northern Oracle opened late, due to “infrastructure issues” and one can’t help but wonder if that is due to the staff shortage, lack of prioritization of RHAC’s needs, or that the administrative elite at Brock don’t know / don’t care (ignorance and apathy, again. At least we don’t hear any more about the “Art Gallery of Niagara”, where that ill thought plan may have led to the loss of the same collection that is the source of #UCIM).

John Boyle,  Yankee Go Home – Stompin’ Tom

By the time you read this, the final iteration of Up Close and In Motion will be installed in the Hansen space at Rodman Hall. This series of exhibitions has been a highlight of 2018 for me, and in both the quality and consideration of the “first” spate of choices but also in seeing how Brock’s choices do impact RHAC and do impact culture in this city and this region. Up Close has been educational, both in terms of what is the history of exhibitions and visual art as history in Niagara, but also the gap between words and actions within the cultural sphere, as seen in the “relationship” between RHAC and Brock University.

All images are copyright / courtesy RHAC and provided either by them or myself. Up Close and In Motion will run into January, 2019, in the Hansen Gallery in Rodman Hall Art Centre.

The Lure of the Local

“Travel is the only context in which some people ever look around. If we spent half the energy looking at our own neighborhoods, we’d probably learn twice as much.” (Lucy Lippard)

I have a game I like to play, here in Niagara: I didn’t start it, but I’ve surely pushed it further.
At a reception nearly three (3!) years ago, NAC Minister of Energy, Minds and Resources Stephen Remus introduced me to several people as being “from Saskatchewan.” I didn’t correct him, but it circulated, and still does, that I was “sprung…up dirty and sad, spiky also, like grass beside the railroad tracks” (Duddy Kravitz) on the prairies. My time in the gulag archipelago of #YXE was nearly two decades, but I was neither born nor a child there (though I’d argue I was too often the only adult in the room).

Even more perverse: my curatorial background (what, you thought your intrepid #artcriticfromhell was one of those ilk who jabbers yet can’t do? Shush, it’s an understandable assumption, based on “my” brethren. But I digress) is very Saskatoon grassroots, as I’ve curated works from the University of Saskatchewan collection,The Photographers Gallery (TPG) Archive and Video Vérité (frequently  focused on the history / histrionics of collecting in Saskatoon, as I also worked at the College Gallery at #usask for some time, assisting in their first and widest inventory of their archive and artworks). Another curatorial venture was REGION which explored contemporary painting in Saskatchewan.

Amusingly, as I write this, the (please, Jesus, Mary and Joseph the carpenter, let it be the) final edits on my contribution to a book / anthology titled Art on the Margins: Visual Culture in Saskatchewan are flying back and forth in the dark email ether twilight zone.

I torment my innocent readers with these anecdotes for two reasons, both shockingly positive.

My own focus in writing, curating and the sludge of Canadian art history has repeatedly been about immediate community, with the history written in the visual arts of a place, a very present “site of contested narratives.”

Secondly (and more relevant to you) is that the latest rendering of Up Close and In Motion (titled Phase 4 / 11) at Rodman Hall is very much a St. Catharines chapter: this is important both for how Ernest Harris, Jr., created a specific painting for 4 / 11, but also in that all the artists on display have a very strong presence in STC’s artistic history. I appreciate this latest evolution, curated by (former) Assistant Curator Emma German, as a means to learn more about my current community, which although no longer “new” to me, still offers exciting anecdotes and visual narratives of “here.”

Ernest Harris, Jr.’s Mel’s Brushes in the front part of the Hansen Gallery is responsive to the artworks German has selected for the back area (more details on them in a moment). His words: “I’m a fan of most of the artists featured during these upcoming months – a who’s who of regionalist all-stars – but I have the strongest connection to the phase 4 artists.”

Mel’s Brushes could also be seen as a gateway to appreciating the 4 / 11 selections, or conversely (yet complimentary), Harris’ painting might be seen as the final punctuation to MacDonald, Wren and Anderson’s works. Backward and forwards, just like an experience of memory which place and artworks can evoke. Read this visual or painted “sentence” as you see fit. Or do what I enjoy in exploring conjunctive interrelations between the artworks: treat them as puzzle pieces that fit together in different ways on different visits, with different orders, to offer unique, yet still contextually / conceptually interlinked, (his)stories.

This (I suspect) is what German would emphasize, with her ideas of Slow Art Day, and with her more creative and less “formal” exploration of the collection at Rodman Hall Art Centre.

Carolyn Wren’s Sheaf of Wheat (a linocut print) sits on the far wall, far opposite the window in the front room. Tobey C. Anderson’s Silken Twine #22, #27, #39 and #41 are to your right, if the window is to your back, and Melanie MacDonald’s Salt and Pepper Muskies sits above the fireplace. The installation is different than previous Up Close and In Motion “phases” in that the three collection pieces occupy the same room. On my initial visit I entered that room first, then went to Harris’ painting. But on subsequent visits, I spent more time with Mel’s Brushes, as its physical separation – and frankly its the most visually dominating of the four (with its rich black void and how it makes the banality of brushes in a tin monumental) – fosters this focused interaction.


Anderson’s work is interesting to me in a similar manner to Philia (by Brendan Fernandes, in an earlier UCIM) as these artworks resonates outside of the Hansen gallery and in a wider historical sense. Several friends from both Toronto and Montreal had asked after the CRAM International when I told them I was moving to St. Catharines, and Anderson specifically. It’s likely that I’ve encountered Anderson’s work elsewhere, but I disremember.  These four paintings are from a series that’s as much epithet as resistance, as much memento mori as a visual “diary” of someone who played a major role in the artistic / cultural melee of St. Catharines. They’re small, but dense and vibrant. The bright colours, the organic shapes and abstracted scenes are reminiscent of microscopic slides of disease or other variant biological samples, seen through intense magnification.

These are also self portraiture: perhaps in that Anderson was attempting to “control” his illness, rendering an aspect of his identity onto canvas. These are the remnants of him. I never met him, but his influence on this place has been cited many times to me, and in the quiet “contemplation” of Slow Art Day, of the ruminative interactions that German wants to – and has – evoked with the “up close” part of UCIM, I have met Tobey Anderson.

Art is, after all, the most direct yet most subversive form of history: as it is sometimes the most intimate, yet most symbolic, form of autobiography. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell likes to “speak in collage”, so I offer this, which Anderson’s work evoked from me: “Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” (Sontag, Illness as Metaphor)

Ernest’s words offer another point of entry (some of the same sentiments / facts came up in brief chat with German): “Carolyn Wren was my high school art teacher and …[s]he was teaching at a university level, something I only realized in my freshman year at Brock. Wren also introduced me to Kate Bush, Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson. Her impact on my young mind can not be overstated. I was still in high school when I was introduced to Tobey C. Anderson as the incoming director of Niagara Artists Centre. His paintings, particularly Idi Amin / Madonna / Mandela / Dada (1989), had a direct influence on me and my first real body of work, which in turn led to my first professional art show a few years later at [appropriately] NAC.”


There’s a simplicity to Wren’s work (lino encourages this, and in the right hands, this print medium can be expressive, graphic and emotionally moving) that, if you turn right from Mel’s Brushes can lure you from across the space. But, as Harris indicates, Wren is more important to him as a teacher, and more importantly, a teacher you encounter while malleable and receptive and without whom you can’t imagine being the artist you are now. (Amusing side point: Harris and I have both worked with Evergon, one of the most significant photo / lens based artists in Canadian Art history. Evergon is / was, in many ways, an influence on me like how Wren, or Anderson, were for Ernest.)

MacDonald’s Salt and Pepper Muskies is the only work that matches Harris for size: and both sit above mantles, in an amusing manner, as both seem too playful, too “banal” for the clichéd mantle space (many shows I’ve seen here, however, challenge the architectural “expectations” of the Hansen). MacDonald is the artist I’m most familiar with, of this quartet (the tendons of history and experience join Harris to the others, quite firmly, making this a four person show, in my eyes). Her excellent Florida Noir may be the best painting show I’ve experienced in Niagara; her use of paint, creating surfaces pearlescent and bright, and forms that suggest you might reach out and grab them made that exhibition one of my favourites ever in the Dennis Tourbin (another local artist of significance) gallery. In a fitting definition of “community”, Harris “gave Mel painting lessons” when she attended university (the formal attention to detail in Harris’ – or Mel’s Brushes was present in MacDonald’s Noir exhibition. But I also have to cite how a recent conversation with the founder / director of a community arts organisation emphasised the cyclical nature of supporting local artists so they might mentor and foster aspiring and emerging, so they might one day be mentors to the next upcoming group or generation…)

In past incarnations of Up Close and In Motion, artists from other communities whose artworks – and their own experiences and histories – have augmented Niagara and St. Catharines have been featured (Jones, Dagneault, Cadieux and Tang). I know that future instalments of UCIM will feature several regional artists, continuing this year long exploration of the history of Rodman Hall in a more active (hence “motion”) and more intense (“up close”) way.

4 / 11 has been personally enjoyable and enlightening. When I was first living on the prairies, I read  Lucy Lippard’s Lure of the Local,  and one of the contributors to that anthology made a comment that still lives in my head: “I’m not from here, I just live here.” Up Close and In Motion‘s latest “chapter” literally illustrates the importance of the history and community that Rodman Hall holds in its collection and reinforces the gallery, the centre and the collection’s importance (as so often manifest through the staff, of course), and the quality of visual arts, and artists, in this variant and intersecting “site.” And by “site” I mean not just St. Catharines, but the diverse ways RHAC has presence in Niagara, and beyond (from Harris to Fernandes, from Wren to Cadieux).

This incarnation of Up Close and In Motion (part of the ongoing project) curated by (former) Assistant Curator Emma German is on display until June 23rd. You can read more about it here and here. Different works by different artists from the RHAC collection will be in the Hansen, however, as part of the year long exploration of the collection, until January 2019. All images are courtesy / copyright of Rodman Hall and the artists.