Welcome to the Rust Belt Wonderland. (James Takeo)
For nearly an entire month this Winter / Spring, your intrepid #artcriticfromhell did an informal residency at AIH Studios, right on East Main in Welland. During that time, I connected with and listened to a number of artists and cultural instigators: individuals with large dreams about what Welland might be in five years time, and others whom offered histories of the Rose City as encapsulated by the Welland Murals Project we walked by, while talking on past / present / future, or by the Canoes (more on both of those endeavours and their remnants, literal and psychological, on the streets of Welland, in a moment). I also responded and considered Bas de Groot’s Welland Workers Memorial, where the figures alternately sit or labour in Merritt Park, or the tubular Modernism of Rod Dowling (more and more, over my time there, the latter came to resemble the inner workings of the city, as a house has ‘veins’ and ‘limbs.’ Dowling’s pieces seemed to be the symbolic history ‘bursting up’ while de Groot’s were more static and ‘resting’, both formed how I thought about the Rose City).
The genesis for this consideration began with the Rodman Hall 5 x 2 Visual Conversations in St. Catharines (a monthly endeavour where people share images and we chat in a friendly and fun environment about what’s presented, and the ideas intersecting therein). Last October, in conjunction with an exhibition at AIH studios, the ‘5 x 2’ as I call it, relocated there, and we were lucky enough to see works in the flesh and in projection from a number of Welland based artists (de Montmollin, Calzetta, Bedard, Takeo and others). During that evening, a debate – with an edge of the best kind – formed that I – as 5 x 2 host, facilitator, MC, edit as you will, ahem – took no part in, as it was something very specific to that geography and the people involved.
Is Welland an undervalued cultural space of untapped potential, or was it like a corpse giving one last spasm? My time in Welland, where I walked and roamed on foot often, was nostalgic to my misspent youth in St. Catharines. In the 1980s and 1990s, when STC was post manufacturing base and yet to chart a course out, when it was perhaps narcoleptic, perhaps waiting to be put out of its misery….much I’ve seen here in Welland reminds me of St. Paul before I left for Windsor – another rust belt wonderland. This is (quoting James Takeo) a working class city that’s no longer working, and doesn’t know what anything means, anymore…but Takeo also is a loud advocate here, with the Welland Art Space, and he’s (with my joy) ‘owned’ my off the cuff term of “cultural instigator.” Keep an eye out for what he’s doing in Welland, with his interventions and actions.
Takeo also put out another point. Welland wants to support culture, but has no idea how to do it. This is where the legacy of the Canoe Project or the Murals is less positive. That informed my dialogue with Michael Bedard, an artist who’s relocated to Welland from larger places and spaces. He asked why Welland has NEVER had an Art Gallery, when smaller sites have and support them, and this led to conversations about the ‘profound negativity’ that may be at play here. Consider the John Deere closure in 2009 (I spent some time in the local history section of the fine Welland Public Library, partly tracking down family history but also reading Notes from Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara, written by Carmelita Patrias and Larry Savage). This was a classic NAFTA result of a productive space shuttered to relocate somewhere cheaper, and the workers and community be damned. When a blow is unexpected, or undeserved, it is always worse, and one might argue that the wound never heals, as betrayal is more permeating (a side note: this occurred in 2009, as I said, and the Harper Cabal, of whom #ScheerHypocrite was a good and willing lackey, was literally SILENT on the closure. But, yeah, sure, Postmedia, he’s “moral”, collecting that salary of 125 K plus since his mid twenties, with golden handshakes coming out of his ass….).
If you visit the murals that are left, you’ll see many in a poor state, and they were installed and ‘secured’ in such a manner to make their removal impossible. I’d add that public artworks MUST be portable, as this demonstrates well. Perhaps this is also formed by how Welland has had to change to serve canals, or how cities are growing, organic and amorphic entities. In conversation, it was suggested – with an edge, again, as many conversations there were enjoyably pugilistic, unsurprising for a city that is too often the butt of jokes by ‘siblings’ that are no worse, nor any better, in many ways – that it might be better to simply cover several of the murals, along Main or on Division. This would prevent further degradation, and that perhaps depriving the wider community of these pieces might spur a respect and consideration (for future projects if not past ones). I’m reminded of these artists, whom brought attention to things too often ignored…
Here, Takeo’s comments take on a different flavour. The sour taste left in many mouths over how the murals and canoes have not been cared for has made some unwilling to support cultural endeavours – and I don’t just mean the usual suspects, but artists whom felt ill used and disrespected.
At the reception for Now Here at AIH, I chatted briefly with Mayor Frank Campion outside the AIH space on Main. From where we stood we could see one of the canoes of the Welland Canoe project, by Marion Forget, that needs care and maintenance. Another aspect that was brought to my attention was that its installation was ill considered (the work, Star Constellations, used fluorescent paint with the intent it would be vibrant in the evenings, but the stark florescent from the bus terminal make that impossible). This is reminiscent of the avoidable issue around Found Compressions that could have been ameliorated if more community consultation was employed regarding placement.
In conversation with a number of civic activists , community and cultural stakeholders and politicians, when I still produced and hosted Niagara Voices and Views on CFBU (cfbu.ca), the idea of ‘culture’ as an ‘economic driver’ came up repeatedly. But would that be economically beneficial to all, or were cultural workers to be the new – ongoing, same old same old – exploited labour to drive the cancerous behemoth of capitalism?
I must add a moment of snark. I recently unsuscribed from an online magazine I’ve enjoyed for its contrarian and considered views when it published a piece of partisan trash by an astrologer – oh, I’m sorry, I mean economist, no offense to astrologers – who derided Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for being economically ignorant. Yet the writer had a large erection for Ronald Reagan during the entire diatribe. In his opinion or ignorance, ahem, trickle down economics works, of course, and ‘merica didn’t go from the greatest creditor in the world to the greatest debtor on Reagan’s watch, ahem, ahem. For the record, I’m not sure about Ocasio-Cortez, but she is not relevant to the lies and ignorance and incompetence and greed being ‘replayed’ for the last thirty odd years which has directely led to the closure of a financially viable and productive John Deere plant to benefit ‘shareholders’…..
Short term versus long term is a dialogue that must be held, and must have speakers whom know of what they speak, both experientially and regionally. Otherwise, a community already in crisis (‘not working’) sees murals and images about itself, designed to edity, erode and degrade and cannot help but see itself reflected in that same horrid manner.
During that conversation at the 5 x 2, a comment was made that AIH didn’t “feel like Welland.” What that meant depends on where you stand, or where you live; whether that’s in one of the less ‘rusted’ areas of Welland, or one of the cities in Niagara that seem to make Welland a regular butt of jokes. An amusing aside: a good friend, a very talented musician, whom (like myself) is based in St. Catharines but often visits other cities in the Niagara region, shares my affection for Welland, and we both consider Niagara Falls to be a cadaver with a thin sheen of make up, like how fake beauty spots originally came about as imitations of syphillitic marks among the upper class….
So, to answer a dangerous question, what IS the state of the arts in Welland, as gleaned from my brief stay (hmm, mistyped ‘stray’ initially, presume what you will) in the community of Rose City?
Its hopeful, but wary, and perhaps hopeful but despairing. That old phrase of ‘hoping for the best but expecting the worst’ echoes, but I might say that the worst has already been. This might be in the long disused docks along the Canal, if you walk past King Street, or the aforementioned numerous closures of manufacturing plants. One of the aspects of my residency there was, of course, my walking: so passing the late Ross Beard’s contribution to the Welland Murals, on Niagara Street, was a regular path. The work took on a darker tone at times (especially at night, and not for the obvious reason. East Main Street was often as quiet as the grave after 10 PM, which made my walks ideal for allowing ideas to fester and foment in my head. But – like many things in Welland – when you consider more deeply (like seeing Dowling’s public works along Colony as unintended grave markers for the industries long closed and long gone from the Canal….) it takes on a role as a harbinger, a signpost, a warning.
Beard passed away not long before I visited Welland, but his presence, influence and contributions are still felt by many. Will his mural survive better than the others (a rhetorical question, as all were installed and treated the same way)? As I write this, Brock University is making another attempt to convert Rodman Hall Art Centre into quick cash (I’d compare them to a payday loan lender, but there are clear government regulations and oversight in those spaces, and they are known for rapacious business practices on the vulnerable. Brock will tell you that they’re doing this ‘for the students’ as they raise tuition and eliminate options or offer degraded courses that will limp along, perhaps, without Rodman…). That same greed of the few is what ended John Deere, and although Welland might benefit from Toronto ‘flight’ and some form of gentrification (there are spaces in St. Catharines that have negotiated that high wire well, and other spaces that have not), it might not.
When I’d wake up in the morning, weather permitting, I’d sit on the steps of AIH on East Main and have my coffee, or tea, and my cigarette, while looking across at the bus station. This was more interesting than you’d imagine. Not only could I see Bas de Groot’s Beavers, just barely, from where I was, but also Forget’s canoe. I could peer left to Bridge 13, or right towards Atlas, far past the massage parlours and pawn shops.
In these quiet – usually, as I often engaged with people passing by – moments, you could see both spaces that were surviving, even prospering, and others that were not. I’ve said how Welland reminded me of St. Catharines when I was in high school, and I can distinctly remember coming down St. Paul, and it was as quiet, as boarded up and destitute, as King Street was when I walked it my last week there, late at night. Boards and closures and bars on windows in both places.
Further, though, the bus station made me think of Saskatoon, which had a ‘boom’ and then it went ‘bust.’ ‘Developers’ snatched up chunks of real estate in the downtown, from 1st to 3rd Avenue, demolished older buildings, some with character and history, but now are just empty lots, sometimes parking, sometimes juts abandoned, with no money to do anything to them.
It was pointed out to me that the City of Welland owns many of the empty lots around the city. In Saskatoon, the city began to pressure – and then tax, to be more effective – the owners of said lots, to force action or at least a sale to someone who might allay this urban blight. The bus station made me think of how many I knew whom abandoned, dusting their feet, Saskatoon around the same time I did. I was also thinking of how Niagara is still poor in terms of transit; so if Welland has no art gallery, if things are not happening culturally there, it is impossible to visit St. Catharines or Niagara Falls past 6 or 7 or 8 PM – or at all, on some days. Then the sense of isolation gives way to a sense of despair, that not only does ‘nothing happen here’ but you’re unable to go elsewhere where ‘things’ do ‘happen.’
I’ll be returning to Welland for several events and exhibitions: one is the previously mentioned exhibition of Atlas Steels at the Welland Museum, as it is being programmed extensively (according to the call) through individuals’ memories, photographs and other personal and public reminisences. This is looking backwards. Looking forwards, the Visual Artists of Welland are a recently formed group (I met several of their members when I visited the Welland ArtSpace) that has already begun to push expectations and foster change in the Rose City. In partnership with civic leadership (whom do want to support culture, and perhaps in not knowing ‘how’ to do that, present an opportunity for those whom do, and have – a dangerous word, I know – vision), they’ll be presenting three exhibitions over the rest of 2019 (one in April, coming up quickly, and two in June).
There’s an idea that things ending can offer opportunity to grow new endeavours in the rich soil of what’s passed: that’s hopeful, but there is still that perfidious, persisting, negativity, that Bedard talked about, and that Takeo warns about as not just a prophylactic to creativity but as something that can cut projects off at the knees or disable them so that they don’t fulfill their promise, and taint expectations and curdle hopes.
Frankly, I see Welland as having great potential (but perhaps I’m seeing it through the lens of Guerilla Park, and I mention that not just because when I visit Welland again, it’ll be on my list, but also because that site happened because of community initiative and energy, and the city fell into line and supports what they, ahem, should have been doing all along). When I think of places to visit when I venture beyond St. Catharines, Welland is a place that was both welcoming and eager to do things differently, to look forward as much as be aware of the past. I only visit Niagara Falls for the historic sites, being a nerd of that stripe, and when I’ve walked and driven there, the wasteland seems to outweigh the wonderland…..but that’s unfair. That is a space that’s been ill used and exploited, to the god of tourism, and I saw what THAT did to the downtown of Windsor, with the casino there…
Visit Welland. Don’t assume, but explore. When I grew up here, I can’t remember ever visiting the city (despite my maternal family history being there, and a house my great grandfather built still standing, and graves in Holy Cross across from Seaway Mall marking further family roots). I regret this: and there are spaces like these ones, that offer a hopeful view of the city. Perhaps a more selfish, and more specfic idea, is that a friend who’s a fine artist visited Atlas Steels with me, and both of us with our cameras and research have used that derelict space to do more, to create more, and to make more, and in doing so are making Welland a vibrant place to many who dismiss, or deny, what it could be now, or could be with a bit of work (like the Guerilla Park clean up).
The title of this piece is taken from a song by Doves, which I listend to as I walked the streets and bridges of Welland: purely coincidentally, it is playing when the intrepid band of survivors reach their destination of the devastated city of Los Angeles in the movie Zombieland. I relied heavily on Venture Niagara’s Art in the Open web site, which has extensive information for visiting public art, and work in the public sphere, in Welland, and I suggest it to anyone in Niagara, whether in Welland or elsewhere in the region.
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I’ll be returning to Welland, both for more cultural specific events but also for more urban exploring; and this is, like many of my pieces about Welland, a mixture of fact and opinion, and thus feedback is welcome. Many thanks to AIH Studios for hosting me during this month long residency, and to the many artists and spaces that made me welcome and continued a conversation about arts and culture in Welland, Niagara and beyond. You can read my past missives from the rust belt wonderland that are more tangential here and here: and I talk about two artists whose work I encountered / talked with while in Welland here and here. It would be remiss to not include this piece, my long overdue response to Lawren Harris: Where the Universe Sings, as my residency in Welland helped me to come to some definitive conclusions around Harris’ work and the film in question.
One of the more significant artworks I’ve experienced was about landscape, and played upon the very Canadian imagery and imagination of snow and winter. It was a piece that was visceral in its ability to make me truly feel ‘cold’; both in the sense of winter, but also more metaphorically, evoking death and abandonment. This work, being by Rebecca Belmore, might seem odd – politically – to describe as a very ‘Canadian’ work. But it suggests death at the hands of the environment – or more exactly, the environment – the landscape – employed as a means to murder (whether Neil Stonechild or Chanie Wenjack), and that is an idea as old – older – than the country, and many have argued that’s intrinsic to the ‘national imaginary’ of this place / these places.
(A caustic side note: when the The Idea of North was reviewed by Canadian Art Magazine, their ideological purity in condemning the colonial artist, the ‘taint’ if you will, of the show was shrill. Yet when I wrote a piece for them, several years before, about Ruth Cuthand’s retrospective at the Mendel, and positioned the show in the site of Stonechild and ‘starlight tours‘, their editorial cabal all but accused me of making stories up, despite my citation of a government report as meticulous as it was damning…I mention this here, too, to ensure that I don’t fall into the same ignorantly dismissive trap, as regards Harris, and to ensure my criticisms are considered and not simply a Maoist ‘struggle session‘…)
Before I decided to brave the biographical endeavour Where the Universe Sings (which might be better described as more fan fiction than factual) about Lawren Harris at the Film House in St. Catharines, I was familiar with his work and the larger oeuvre of the Group of Seven. My experience in numerous collections and archives (including helping to document and database the University of Saskatchewan’s collection, with Snelgrove and Kenderdine further challenging landscape) as well as my art history degree at the University of Windsor informs my reaction. My degree fell within that period where I could take classes more ‘traditional’ (one that began with the French Revolution and ended with World War I) but also was taught by Iain Baxter& (whose role with N.E. Thing Co. helped shape conceptual art in Canada and further) and the late Kym Pruesse, whom introduced me to critical theory in ways and words that I still cite, now.
This response has festered in my mind for some time, since I first watched Where the Universe Sings: and in finishing this piece (finally, ahem), my walking around Welland and seeing houses and spaces that seem to have much in common (both in current condition, but in the history they allude to, or manifest) with Harris’ In the Ward paintings have spurred me towards completion. As the Group might have alluded to, where you are defines what you create
After watching the film, co produced by the excellent and necessary TVO, intended to accompany the exhibition The Idea of North (at the Art Gallery of Ontario, but also at the Hammer and a few other sites), I turned to my friend. She’s a cultural appreciator, but isn’t an artist. I’ve been responsible for ‘doing art’ to her on a few occasions, and she’s accustomed to my irreverence, and was amused when I commented that ‘I didn’t think my opinion of Harris could be lesser, but it is, now.’ In a way, this was the opposite effect desired by the producers, who seemed to want to create a hagiography of the painter. As so often happens with heavy handed (and thus transparent) embellishment, the opposite response was achieved. In further conversation with a number of artists and cultural instigators in Niagara about this film, I found myself saying a variation on the following: I’m often offended by the vagaries of pseudo historical advertisements that bleed the messy humanity out of artists in a sanitized caricature.
To describe the film as hagiography is an understatement: but, again, this is not solely the fault of the producers of Sings. The Group of Seven are given a pride of place in Canadiana, whether that they’re the only ‘artists’ most Canadians can cite, easily and without consideration, or alternately they’re dismissed as kitsch, folk, regurgitation, not as good as proclaimed (a uniquely Canadian ‘tall poppy’ response), all with a vehemence that shows that apathy, not hate, is truly the opposite of love. Both positions smack of propaganda, whether through your grandparents’ calendar or art school rhetoric.
Harris’ ‘North’ work is safe, in a manner that, if you’ve ever worked in a public gallery, translates as inoffensive (though, in this day and age, anything might be offensive, and sadly, that’s also very ‘Canadian’ now). The crowd, when my friend and I looked back over them, seemed predominantly of a senior vintage, and thus wanted assurance of the relevance of Harris and the Group of Seven. A bland, but affirming, dinner was expected, and delivered. But you might be hungry again in half an hour.
However, that’s not what bothers me about this film: what is problematic is that it was skin deep, and sometimes not even that. Harris was, in many ways, a difficult figure, and someone who at times courted controversy, and at other times tried to suffocate it. Perhaps this tepid portrayal of Harris is to be expected, though, as the works that dominated the AGO show are his theosophically shaped pieces and in many instances he painted repainted re repainted these visually staid works until any hints of uniqueness or excitement were blanched out, like over boiled vegetables or grey tasteless meat.
Ah, let us try to say something positive before we proceed further: I went to this film in the hope of learning more about his St. John’s Ward works, as these urban vignettes have a veracity, a vibrancy to them that I rarely saw in any of his other works. At some point in the film, the fact that Harris considered himself a lesser painter than Tom Thomson is discussed. If you’ve experienced Thompson’s works, wind and space seem captured in a manner ‘realistic’ but not overtly ‘realism.’ The wearisomeness of Harris’s works – that seem as cold and potentially as dead as the Arctic that supposedly informed them – is cast even more clearly in contrast. On a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario as a teenager, I remember seeing the small studies by variant members of the Group of Seven, all tiny and on board, done quickly and roughly and in a raw fashion: these captured the power of the landscape (whereas the repetition of mediated process in Harris’ ‘northern’ works aims to make them more impotent than impressive….)
The works that Harris produced that are grouped under the umbrella of The Ward, or St. John’s Ward, are amazing . Perhaps they’re a wealthy dilettante touristing in the poverty of others, or perhaps they’re a man of privilege empathizing with the plight of others, and producing works that owe something to Daumier. Perhaps that he made sketches for these while out walking – as my own practice is now defined by walking my neighbourhood or outside of my usual neighbourhood – and that they are real, and not so mediated as his ‘religious’ works of theosophical ‘purity’, is what moves me and so many others. These are social realism that’s also social history: this is Toronto growing and transforming, reminiscent of Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, or some of Timothy Findley‘s stories of Rosedale and Toronto, of a place not so sure and becoming itself. For all Harris’ ink and paint spilled on the notion of a “Canadian” art, these Ward works are more “Canadian” to me than any others. They have anthropological as well as aesthetic value.
(A quick side note, alluding backwards to the tripe offered by Canadian Art Magazine in response to the AGO exhibition. My own critical focus often incorporates social history, historical positioning and sites of contested narratives. CA too often insists upon a lens charitably described as insistent ‘cultural Marxism’. That’s useful as a critique but often offers no way forward; in a similar manner, post modernist discourses offer doubt, but no assertions, and I’ve often ruefully called it an ‘unliveable theory.’ However, I’d add that I also often can cite biblical and religious references – my art historical research and published works rely on it – and find it necessary to know the ideas, even if not in agreement with them.)
Let’s leave St. John’s Ward for a moment and go west, as Harris went north: when I saw the massive projected winter scenes, Algoma or Northern Ontario, I suddenly was back on the prairie, the vast empty whiteness, the Wacousta syndrome of impending, unavoidable death in the / caused by landscape. This leads to another criticism of the film. There’s no attempt to position Harris’ works in present day discourse (perhaps unfair, but sometimes this can augment as much as challenge an artist). Neither do the producers explore the work of artists contemporaneous to Harris (outside vague allusions to other Group members and the adulation of Emily Carr). This might seem unimportant, but is necessary, when Universe avers so often Harris’ relevance and supposed ‘vision.’ But this shuttering, wearing of blinders to focus solely on Harris further hobbles this film. Harris returned to Canada – Vancouver, specifically – from Taos in the later years of his life, and suddenly I saw the works of Shadbolt and several other abstractionists of that period in a different, deeper light. But this is ignored (odd for all the focus on ‘Canada’, but again, no attempt to place Harris in relation to what might be the only truly internationally worthy school of Canadian painting is made, either). But the posturing of the evening ‘soirées’ are, of course, mentioned; more classist (ah, my narcoleptic Marxist finally arises) and self aggrandizing of the ‘artist as visionary’ than any artist actually being visionary.
In considering Universe, and using it as a touchstone for a larger debate, several other ideas must be injected, here. In many ways, no discussion of the romantic landscape can be complete without the banality and universality of Levine Flexhaug. The exhibition of his work that has made its way across Canada is not ‘good’ art, in terms of execution or skill. But I find myself (and I’m not alone in this) returning to it as it offered a dream, a hope, of escape and release; both in the ‘Canadian’ idea of a idyllic space of respite and peace, but in a larger sense of ease and saftey, of calmness and satisfaction, that seems an impossiblity to many of us, now. If you’re familiar with a more in depth history of Harris’ life, both personal and political, then perhaps these calm cool spaces are a retreat from his less than ideal reality, as well.
Flexhaug’s ‘Edens’ were economical, as he often sold them out of his trunk, and there’s a proletarian and yet also very capitalist intent intersecting in his often horrid works where dozens upon dozens are like cheap copies without a proper undegraded ‘original.’ These are scenes you could imagine the denizens of St. John’s Ward having on their walls. In this imagined relational aesthetic, reality and artifice engage with each other.
Harris made many of the Ward works in the early decades of the twentieth century, and in that time cities and urban spaces were experiencing growing pains. Of late, I’ve been reading and watching a number of works that take place in England of either the Regency period or the Victorian era, and one of the characters comments that poverty is, for all and intents and responses, a crime, and treated as best unseen, ignored, or punished when it is so inconvenient as to be visible. The authenticity of Harris’ paintings where poverty is simply another landmark in the city are still powerful, and recognizable, windows on the world.
This is how my daily often uncharted meanderings through Welland, or the works of Albert J. Franck or Harris’own evocative Ward works resonate more than any overworked and exhausted ‘idea of north’ that is so plastic that reality sloughs off of it. I would even argue that Harris’ depictions of St. John’s Ward demonstrate that he was a better artist, at times, than he considered, but perhaps also reveal that stultifying ‘Canadian’ sentiment of preferring that which is safe – like the comfortably ‘iconic’ calendar image of North Shore, Lake Superior – and not that which is more challenging, more human, and thus, perhaps less ‘predictable.’
The Ward works are a different kind of ‘north’, a less palatable ‘landscape.’ This is a different ‘history’ (though Arthur Gos – as the first official photographer of the City of Toronto – produced many important images of this neighbourhood). I can’t help but feel the denizens of St. John’s Ward would understand that Belmore work far more, and Harris’ empathetic and engaging scenes of their world, and respect it far more, than any tepid and naive theosopohical meanderings of ‘northen’ places less real than the dirty snow and true winter of their daily existence.
During my time writing for the Planet in Saskatoon, I had the opportunity (or duty, edit as you will) to review Joni Mitchell’s second exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery. Unlike her first, it wasn’t self aggrandizing, poorly executed painting (anyone who presents a self portrait as Van Gogh without irony would, of course, be the same person who demanded that the Mendel suspend non smoking rules so she might do so during her talk). However, her second show – Green Flag Song – explored issues outside her ego, specifically the war in Iraq under George Bush II. This was an engaging exhibition, and I praised it in an issue of FUSE: amusingly, one group in Saskatoon sent me hate mail for daring to criticize her initial solo show, and then ‘my’ community sent me hate mail for NOT dismissing her far better, genuinely artistic, second show. And you wonder why your intrepid #artcriticfromhell drinks, ahem.
Instead of narcissism, Mitchell offered criticality looking outwards: interestingly, a similarly themed exhibition by Faith Moosang had been on display at one of the ARCs in the city, but was less well realized, and Mitchell’s celebrity pushed the conversation into places that might otherwise have been unreachable. It was an exhibition that offered a considered eye, and Mitchell used her power for others, so to speak, and not for herself.
But Where the Universe Sings offers none of this: perhaps I expected too much, but even a brief mention of how WWI – an event which cast in contrast significant fractures in Canadian socity, in terms of class, heritage and race – ‘traumatized’ Harris is glossed over (personally, I’ve always suspected that the works of some war artists like Casson and Varley may have troubled Harris’ rarely challenged assumptions). Despite running for nearly an hour, less information was offered than was obfuscated: if you’ve read Ross King‘s book on the Group, or even explored other less reverential texts, this film will leave you feeling you ate a tasteless meal.
It need not have been so: when I’m asked about biographical films about visual artists, I suggest two that are (unsurprisingly) about two of the most significant artists in the history of the West: Francis Bacon and Francisco Goya. The former is minimal; panning images of Bacon’s work in various galleries, and a narration made up of the words and writing of Bacon himself, as insightful and brutally incisive as any of his paintings. The latter features Robert Hughes, and his approach to Goya is smart, critical and self referential in a way that exploits his vast knowledge and helps you delve deeper into Goya’s dark ocean of meaning and method.
Where the Universe Sings is not at the same level as these: but this isn’t surprising, as the works of Harris that are (unsucessfully) canonized here aren’t of the same level as Bacon or Goya. A harsh comparison? Perhaps, but anyone watching this film is not informed of what Harris’ own contemporaries were doing (whether challenging what art might be, or offering a new and challenging voice), as it might, to paraphrase one such artist (Ad Reinhardt), lead to uncomfortable questions being asked of Harris’ paintings and his assured – perhaps arrogant – aesthetic.
I’ve often spoken of contested narratives, and in writing about Canadian art for nearly two decades, the deforming influence of regionlism has often been a factor. My dismissal of karaoke [M]modernism™ was based upon an ignorant privileging of place over all else, and here, in Canada, we still often confuse quality with proximity (even the recent debates about hiring practices, or whom is to be shown in major spaces, has a provincial, pedantic rankness). On a certain level, this film is a longer, cinematic version of the calendars of Group of Seven works that skim the surface of what they’ve done, and that make them more palatable (more pablum) than provocative.
All images are taken from online sources, and if unnamed are images I’ve shot during my stay in Welland in February / March 2019, while walking among the various urban neighbourhoods.
I spent part of my first morning in Welland, starting off the month long period I’ll be here connecting with artists and spaces in the Rose City, by visiting the Central Library and their local history section. Oftentimes I’ve been accused of talking too much about politics and history in my reviews and articles, but that kind of ignorance is really only worth mentioning for its foolishness, and to remind people of the intersecting spaces that art, history, politics and place all occupy.
A side project, while I’m in Welland, is to photograph and perhaps do a bit more research on the house that my maternal grandmother was born in, that my great grandfather (her father) built: this has been interesting already, as everyone knows that family histories are vague and volatile, and are a fine example of what Heather Hart talked about, with her Northern Oracle artwork, about how oral histories (especially important ones, like familial ones) are just as subject to editing and errors as written ones, and become just as ‘official’ – or ‘calcified’ – in the repetition, as others are in the reprinting.
There’s already been some confusion and errors, mixed up numbers and other family fog in play, on that front.
So, I found myself reading about the John Deere plant, the unexpected and brutal closures that kneecapped the community (under Harper‘s indifferent government of 2009 – when the current repackaged goods passing himself off as ‘moral’ was making over $100, 000 a year as “speaker”). I read about Atlas Steel, which, in a manner somewhat synchronous, was a site I photographed extensively when I last visited in December. Atlas, and its impact in the community, will inform an upcoming exhibition at the Welland Museum, they’re soliciting stories and remembrances from people in the community (two friends of mine, nearly half a century apart in age, both have family that worked there, I discovered recently. Both will be visiting me at AIH studios, and one, Sandy Fairbairn, has already offered some amazing information re: Welland, and how my family might intersect with that story).
When I last visited, I walked around a lot, as I like to acquaint myself with cities that way (I once almost got mugged in Kelowna, when I was there for an exhibition of my work, but discovering the Japanese Gardens balanced that out): in that respect I passed by not just the Atlas site, but many houses that struck me as solid, brick and firm bones, and yet abandoned, and I considered a line from Notes from Union Power: Solidarity and Struggle in Niagara (Carmelita Patrias and Larry Savage). The elimination of good, secure jobs – effects the community in various insidious ways. This acts as the inverse of the ‘trickledown’ mythology of privileging the wealthy to supposedly help those of us below (opposite, as well, as the former is proven, whereas even most economists – a group I’d compare to astrologists, but I have no wish to insult the latter – know the latter might be what Patrias and Savage described as a failure to lead economically or wilful mismanagement).
After all, I was still living in St. Catharines when Free Trade and then NAFTA took their toll, and the downtown was like the backdrop to a Springsteen video about how ‘those jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.’ Anna Szaflarski’s ‘A Man’s Job‘ has been in my mind, too, of late, with my anticipation of a residency spent in Welland, but also with recently reading Craig Davidson’s Cataract City. Both of those references – Szaflarski and Davidson – offer a more edged interpretation than the more ideologically ‘pure’ labour narrative. But if you’re reading this, you’ve read other pieces of mine, and know that I appreciate, and insist upon, the importance of contested narratives.
With Welland’s more industrial grounding (I enjoyed the basement area of the Welland Musuem, which made the social historian in me see I’m just scratching the surface, in thinking of Atlas Steel) perhaps, Joel’s Allentown is more fitting (Out in Bethlehem / they’re killing time / filling out forms / standing in line).
But returning to speaking of visual arts: one of the main goals of today was to visit Rod Dowling’s works near the Canal. I’d written on his work for a larger project, Art in the Open, about works in the public sphere from cenotaphs to murals, civic memorials to public art projects. This not only piqued my curiosity regarding history, and the history of art in Niagara, but also about the specific histories that we might think we know, or assume we know (I’ve tormented several friends with how the Battle of Lundy’s Lane, from the War of 1812, was bloody, brutal and in a graveyard as darkness fell, so let’s not pretend that war isn’t always all hell, and somehow fought by Marquess of Queensberry Rules ). Rod Dowling was a figure who’s works I’d surely encountered while growing up here, but had no recollection of that: but to steal a line from Elizabeth Chitty, when we were speakinig of our histories in St. Catharines, we ‘both broke a leg in a rush to get out of Niagara.’ (And yes, now both of us are deeply engaged with culture here, which amuses us both, I think).
And in returning to Niagara, after time in other industrial spaces like Windsor / Detroit (oh Zug Island, and the abandoned urban wastelands, and the empty factories, all like indexical signs, remnants of past glory), and after my research and experiences on modernism, karaoke modernism™ and the faith, fraud and formalism (as I bluntly titled this piece) of such utopic ideas on the Prairies, Dowling‘s sculptures intrigued me. In some ways, they offered a challenge to some formal modernist thought; alternately, living outside the gallery space, they become part of a wider, less academic, conversation.
The three works (Listeners, The Aqueduct and The Knot) seemed to be extensions of the city, today (the oft repeated descriptor is that they ‘reference the industrial and shipping history of Welland’, in superficial formality, with nautical allusions and such): in the cold blowing snow and -15 temperatures this week, in a landscape of grey metal skeletons of stairwells, barriers and other infrastructure canalside, these tall slim installations seem less ‘art’ than abandoned relics of production, now still and inert. Perhaps they’re also raw sprouted appendages of Welland – bursting from the earth under the city, pushing shoving forcing upwards, like memories surfacing or truths rising to be visible. Do I push this analogy even further, and talk about how many people I know who’ve worked in industrial spaces and now suffer from illnesses that appeared later, coming to the surface long after the jobs are done? My Saskatchewan must show, for a moment and I’ll mention that the debate about who cleans up oil wells and pipelines is just another chapter in the conversation that sees Uranium City sit empty and dangerous in Saskatchewan, or about who cleans up the old GM site in St. Catharines? Sometimes the detritus of economic progress is fallow ground (the article I linked out to re: Modernism cites the hope and controversy, the legacies both positive and negative, of nuclear power, and perhaps a day trip to Niagara Falls to revisit that history is also in order….)
I’ve had several conversations with people in the Welland cultural community as to whether its a wasteland or simply needs to be excavated more compassionately, and of course, the opiate crisis has hit this city more harshly than other places. I walk by pawnbrokers and rub – and – tugs, and wonder if I’m seeing St. Catharines’ past, or its future, or just one aspect of a city, with others to share.
Stepping back to the shale sky and Dowling’s interventions: they’re vaguely industrial (unlike other pieces by Dowling that are brightly coloured, suggesting malleable children’s twist toys, oversized playthings with a hint of Oldenburg’s absurdity), with twists that are pipe like, or forms that imply a utilitarian focus, or shines, still on some pieces hinting at well maintained tools. Other parts rust and have lost their finish. I’m reminded of cheap used pipes from an emergency plumbing job that is all you can afford, but hinting back to better times….
In past cities I’ve lived in, public art works have been rotated from location to location: I wonder how Knot or The Listeners would work, in the empty field further down East Main Street, among the weeds and trash and detritus that was once intrinsic to a process, a place and a city, and now most can’t even name what it is – or was, to be exact.
To return to my comments re: Modernism, there is a sentiment in that ideology, in the hopeful manifestions of that progressive ideology post WWII, that promised ‘never before’ and saw only a rich incline in human welfare and work and Welland (as manifest in the Deere plant, for example), as an archetype of many similar cities in Canada and further.
That failed, as all utopias do, and now these fragments are shored against the ruins, to bastardize Eliot: perhaps I should avoid rereading The Wasteland and Other Poems, while I’m here.
All images shot by the writer (the scenes of the Atlas site are from December 2018), and these works by Rod Dowling can be seen along the Welland Canal, just past the Community Wellness Complex. Many more of his works can be seen across Niagara, and a visit to Art in the Open will offer a good beginning in exploring his work. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell does offer the disclaimer that I may have been listening to Dido’s ‘White Flag’ on repeat while walking the city.