Of Masks and Metamorphosis: Clelia Scala

Sometimes the least likely places are where you’ll find the more interesting artwork. In past artist features, I’ve mentioned how several sites in the downtown of STC rotate exhibitions by artists (some of excellent quality, in places like Rise Above or Bolete or Studio 4). I recently visited Garden City Essentials not to purchase anything (although the space smelled very good…) but to see Melanie MacDonald’s Lichen paintings. The richly rendered works contrast well with the white walls, and dominate one side of the slim “hole in the wall” space.

The Post Office in Thorold is another such site: the past two exhibitions have featured works by Sandy Middleton and Geoff Farnsworth, and as you read this, Clelia Scala will have either installed her exhibition of new works (that intersect with puppetry and performance, with masks that look evocative on a wall but truly only become “alive” when used by the actors / artists for whom she often creates them) or you may yet have time to catch the opening reception on the 10th of October. The shows there run for several months, so a quick trip to 18 Front Street North in Thorold is worth your time.

A bit more background about the Post Office, before exploring the artistic practice of Clelia Scala, whose work is likely familiar to you, if you’ve been an appreciator of STRUTT; it’s an historic space (and I’m just offering a teaser here. shannonpassero.com/pages/community for more) that sat empty for a decade before, in working with Heritage Thorold, Shannon Passero revitalized the space. A bit of the online history: “The Post Office received a National Trust of Canada Award in 2016 and was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act in 2003. Post offices in Canada have always been important buildings in the community. They were often large and impressive buildings in central locations that became meeting places for the residents of the municipality.” Lest you suspect an advertorial, the reason I praise the Office is because all of the artists I’ve spoken to, who’ve exhibited there, have nothing but praise for it. This furthers an idea I put out at the beginning of this piece, in mentioning spaces and people that foster visual culture and local artists in Niagara. (But, if I tell the truth and shame the devil — or The Underworld Crew, and that will make sense momentarily — I’m blunt enough to appreciate the fine wine at all the Post Office openings, which flows freely. And I’m blunt enough to contrast the Post Office and Passero’s actions to those of people who say they support culture and yet have missed nearly every meeting of the Rodman Hall Alliance, and then bark that they’re only interested in “relocating the Rodman collection elsewhere”….)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Returning to Scalia’s work: Clelia’s masks have also turned up in other places, such as in the play Boys, Girls & Other Mythological Creatures (Carousel Players, 2017 – and yes, that’s the one that saw people using “religion” to enact ignorance make the news here in STC). For last year’s Voix de Ville, she fashioned a rich red horned and hideous (in the best possible way) mask for The Underworld. That was one of five masks for that event alone. Other works move into puppetry. Mr. Croc’s Dinner Party (where she created the heads and hands, and frequent and longtime collaborator Alexa Fraser designed the body and costumes) is a favourite of mine. These were made for XPT (Xperimental Puppetry Theater) Center for Puppetry Arts, in Atlanta GA, in 2017. I appreciate these as several characters – such as the lion, with its full plush mane, or the aforementioned Mr. Croc, are all very elegantly clad in tuxedos and ties and tails…yes. I’ll make that pun. After all, humour is an element here, but also the uncanny. That’s a term that arose several times when we spoke, as well as a mutual appreciation — and inspiration — found in literature and reading, from Borges to Kafka. Texts that focus on metamorphosis, but also an uncomfortable sense of interpretation feed Clelia’s work (a possible — hopefully future — mask based upon the discordant readings of Nabokov’s Lolita, that Clelia described and is only at the planning stage, is an example of this aesthetic. This sprouted from a character’s comment that “you talk like a book.” There is always either a dominant, or undercurrent, of the performative in Scala’s mask. When she conceives of them, it’s of them in action, like a musical instrument that might be lovely as an object, but fully lives when “used”).

The Uncanny is something that Jung focused on a great deal, and being less pedantic than Freud, is someone whose ideas have found a wider audience: strange or mysterious, especially, if not exclusively, in an unsettling manner, it’s also a term that offers a hint of the unnatural (like a lion in formal wear, or like the characters in Goatsong, from STRUTT in 2014, where the woman’s mask is a distended face. And the goat headed man is an enduring symbol of perhaps a god, perhaps a demon, depending what you worship…). Theriocephaly (a fancy term for humans with animals heads) is ancient in artistic depictions, going back thousands of years… and perhaps the formality of Mr. Elephant’s Party (2016) is akin to Ganesha, one of the most popular, and widely worshipped deities in Hinduism. Lest I be too academic here, let me mention one of my most favourite graphic novels, The Invisibles, and how King Mob would often loudly proclaim “I worship a God with an Elephant Head!” as Ganesha, among his many attributes (wisdom, arts, cultural) is also a remover of obstacles…But when I saw the not quite life size puppets from Mr. Elephant’s Party, with heads of a Hippopotamus, a Gazelle, a Cheetah, and the previously mentioned Lion and Elephant, I immediately thought of them as avatars, in a mythos from contemporary Hinduism to ancient Sumeria (and if, like myself, you were addicted to LOST, then you see Taweret, looking appropriately maternal as “lady of the birth house”, as she embodies childbirth and fertility. Here Miss Hippo seems to wear a lovely little ensemble in earthy blue and green, perhaps less exotic than the Gazelle headed diva to her right, but less intimidating, too).

 

 

 

 

What Clelia is showing at the Post Office is a mix of new and old works, under the exhibition title of Metamorphosis. The space itself is a hallway, very simple and tight but quite long. it’s augmented previous exhibitions. Sandy Middleton’s landscapes took on a narrative quality as you read them as a linear story. Geoff Farnsworth presented larger portrait pieces that flanked you like a crowd, that meshed in an unexpected way with the nature of the store itself. The shows are approximately two months long (Clelia’s work will be there until December). A teaser, from our conversation, is that several of the masks will reference Milton’s Paradise Lost, Collodi’s Pinocchio, and Dante’s Inferno. We share, it seems, an interest in Dante Alighieri’s Wood of the Suicides… I’m already imagining the hallway gallery with “faces” you walk between, falling under discomfiting gazes. In a similar vein, as Clelia and I let our conversation roam back and forth, she also introduced me to the concept of medieval schandmaske (shame masks). Another way in which the history of masks is a living — if disturbing — story. Perhaps some are familiar with “plague masks”, with their prominent, exaggerated proboscises that were more feared than comforting, suggesting that your “final” metamorphosis, death, was waiting impatiently upon you….

Scala described her masks as combining several streams of thought, but especially literature and the notion of change, or metamorphosis. Masks speak to this both directly and implicitly, whether literally in offering disguise, or more metaphorically, in offering freedom from pre existing, interpolated identity / identities. Artists from James Ensor to Euripides have employed them as motifs.

Text is also something that is often directly incorporated into the masks. Oftentimes the books, or a fragment of text, will inspire and initiate the process of creation. To offer an overview of her process: Clelia will focus on a phrase, or perhaps even a paragraph, but a point in the text that is notable, and that speaks very directly to her. This references back to how a past teacher in a class on American Literature encouraged students to focus on individual sentences and “unpack them, and it changed the way you read, and how you interact with the text.” These words essentially become kernels that masks are built around, and grow outward, sometimes clearly delineated back to the source, other times changing along the way.

Visit her site: her experience and breadth of her practice is wide, and here I’ve focused primarily on the masks, in support of her exhibition Metamorphosis. But that’s one of many ways in which her artistic practice exists. All images are courtesy the artist’s web site, and information about them can be found there.

Thunderbirds in Welland

You may remember the exhibition at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery that offered a minimal installation of Carl Beam opposite Frederick Hagan, allowing the works to argue back and forth across the wide gallery space; this (Across This Mighty Land being the show title) was fitting, as an early event / exhibition in the Niagara region to mark #Canada150 and all the intersecting and disagreeing narratives around the sesquicentennial.

Right now, at the Welland Museum (140 King Street, Welland, ON) there’s an exhibition within that vein, but also offering a different chapter in that historical, yet contemporary debate. Norval Morrisseau is one of Canada’s most significant artists, often being called “Canada’s Picasso”: but I also feel that when I speak of his work and legacy during #Canada150 I have to cite a conversation that Steve Loft and Andrea Kunard initiated around the exhibition Steeling The Gaze, which was a travelling show from the National Gallery. In that show, Loft and Kunard spoke of how the Indigenous artists resisted – and the curators considered and respected – the idea of not being designated as “Canadian” in the accompanying artist cards. This is notable not just as it was an exhibition of Indigenous artists, and we know, so briefly into #Canada150, that nationality is not a neutral or default term, but also that an institution like the NGC, which has its protocols and practices that are as rigid as a religion, acquiesced to change.

How does this matter, with Norval Morrisseau’s work in the Welland Museum, in the exhibition Our Voices? The descriptor is brief, allowing the art to speak for itself: “Our Voices is a look at the heritage and culture of the First Nations, Métis, Iroquois, and Inuit peoples, featuring the artwork of Norval Morrisseau.”

His paintings are as recognizable — moreso, to be blunt, as I doubt you (or I) could differentiate between a J.E.H. MacDonald and a Frank Johnson, oh faithful reader — as any Group of Seven. I recently acknowledged that his work was among the first of any Canadian (I’ll default Canadian here, in respect, not in hegemonic colonization) artists I encountered as a boy, and that set me on my own path in the Canadian Art world. Further: “One of Morrisseau’s early commissions was for a large mural in the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67, a revolutionary exhibit voicing the dissatisfaction of the First Nations People of Canada with their social and political situation.”

Morisseau often signed his works in Cree syllabics as “Copper Thunderbrid”, as his pen-name for his Anishinaabe name Miskwaabik Animikii. The image on the PSA for this show is of Morrisseau’s Thunderbird Entity: blues and oranges and purples and yellows blend and challenge the eye, and the abstracted feathers and powerful hooked beak make this a strong choice to represent this show, and attract the viewer.

Morrisseau is acknowledged as not solely the founder of the Woodlawn School of Art, but is arguably its best known proponent.

The thirteen paintings on display in the Welland Museum are installed among objects from the Museum’s own collection, as well as some loaned to them; of note are artifacts from the Museum’s own Metis Gallery. This is the sole permanent display of Métis handiworks in Niagara (hopefully you had a chance to visit the excellent exhibition recently at NAC facilitated by the Niagara Region Métis Council, as part of Celebration of Nations, as a testament to this thriving nation in a local context).

Our Hippie Family with its rich earthy colours and flowing dark lines on a black background features several figures, interacting with each other, oblivious to the viewer. Many of his best loved works are of female archetypes (the recent exhibition in the VISA gallery displayed one of his Virgin Mary images): The Great Earth Mother is a fine example of this, with the goddess less “human” than amorphic, more like an organic Gaia, fluid and shifting, than a more rigid “portrait.”

Loon with Human Face is one of his more totemic works, as his heritage often defined his imagery. Other works are more direct portraiture in his unique style, with colours flatly applied but still vivid and enticing.

This exhibition is on display (Welland Museum asks for a small fee to see it, and it’s well worth it) until 2018. If you had a chance to experience his work during Celebration of Nations, this offers more nuance. If not, this is also a good place to begin to examine who we are and where, and might be, during #Canada150.

Cooler Than Cool: worthless and priceless

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

“We’re not complaining that the values people once believed in are now empty; to the contrary, we’re doing our best to empty them more and more. Get used to it. Stealing is a thrill in itself; this enjoyment is the real reason for postmodern appropriation. We aim to undermine those “convictions” of authenticity and truth, of proper meaning and right order, that sometimes seem to be as dear to Marxist dialecticians as they are to bureaucrats in the Pentagon. Speaking in my own voice is a tedious chore, one that the forces of law and order are all too eager to impose. They want to make me responsible, to chain me to myself….But forgetting myself, speaking in others’ stolen voices, speaking in tongues: all this is pleasure and liberation. Let a hundred simulacra bloom, let a thousand costumes and disguises contend.”(Steven Shaviro, Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism)

“I only wanted to find great people and let them talk about themselves and talk about what they usually liked to talk about and I’d film them.”(Warhol)

If you’re following some of the more entertaining (if insular and a bit masturbatory) debates in the art world right now, there’s a concerted number of voices decrying the academicization of art aesthetics – which essentially means the elimination of them to serve the politics of the moment. This manifests in different ways, whether in that works are solely to be interpreted through a specific ideological lens or only considering specific groupthink (or approved ideology, edit as you will), ignoring and denying all other.

I might suggest an example in the recent interpretation of Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale which has handmaids that are African – American, which in Atwood’s book was biblicaly impermissible to Gilead’s theocrats, as non whites – whether by biological or social designation (such as Jews) – were deported or executed. It’s an interesting tell of the ideology of the producers of this series, that Atwood’s novel’s reach (abuse of power in the name of religion being no surprise) is narrowed to serve a very specific interpretation (the abuse of women in the name of religion being no surprise). It’s reminiscent of the debate as to whether Hillary Clinton lost the last American Presidential Election, or if Trump won it…and that historical event clearly delineated that many ideologies don’t always intersect smoothly. To offer a further nod to Atwood’s Gilead, it’s like how calling oneself a “Christian” can mean anything, or nothing, and that Atwood, in her book, showed clearly that enslaving anyone in the name of your invisible friend is a poor, poor thing. End of tangent.

This is one of the ways in which art schools and their respective ideological apparatus limit dissent and reinforce their own propaganda. In his excellent book on Art and Sociology, Editor Jeremy Tanner asserts that art historians often value works that sociologists dismiss and vice versa, and that where their ideologies overlap in an “art object” (an inexact, but workable term) is as rare as a unicorn. “Taste is the enemy of art” declared Marcel Duchamp infamously, and Warhol’s further fracture of what might be called high or low taste is well known, and still reverberates.

I recently attended an artist talk where Warhol’s image of Marilyn – do we even need a last name – was shown as how “pop” and “art” meet and take on a viral life beyond even what McLuhan expected or guessed at…and the artist in question was / is still producing versions of Warhol’s Marilyn that further challenge – or collude with, or enhance, or erode – taste, consumerism and capital. This article is an interesting one, in that light, and this rebuttal is also worth considering.

As to where I stand in this debate, I find myself more often channelling Bartleby and asserting that I’d rather not…..or more exactly, I prefer to take things as they are, at times, in a more Modernist assertion of social interactions, and am less interested in a post structural framework that, as postmodernism eats its children alive, hurtles us towards cultural immolation by means of Trump or Clinton, a post truthiness where ideology eschews all the things that make Art enjoyable and accessible, and yet still challenging….

It might seem strange that the previous tangent was inspired by Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold), a collaborative  exhibition by Katie Mazi and Jenn Judson. It’s a show that borders on silly, and that refuses – simply will not – take itself seriously. Yet in doing so, it offers an amusing and sometimes very slick demonstration of the joint nature of creation (beyond the artists to the models, even), how photography can beautifully capture a performative experience, and that it is good, sometimes, to take what you do seriously, while never taking yourself so, in that vein.

The teasing online statement they provided was minimal, but inviting: “Do you like art and do you like to laugh and/or cry? Good. It’s a photo show. Two amateur photographers, ten plus+ amateur models and one new body of work. Some call the photos dumb, others call them sexy. It’s up to you to come to the show and decide for yourself. Kate Mazi and Jenn Judson present to you: Cooler Than Cool (Ice Cold). A photo based exhibition that you have to see to believe.“

The works in the Dennis Tourbin space at NAC are primarily photographs: but there’s also the clothing, and some items, presented, that were part of the tableaux that the artists present. The images are kitschy and cheesy, seemingly frivolous, and the models seem to invite us to join in at their unselfconscious self mockery, that is as clear and bright as the colours.

The titles are as evocative, as they are silly: I’m reminded of children’s toys or games, which fits with the aesthetic of play in that these are like Halloween costumes, or children (in age or at heart) playing dress up. Daddy Cool, Hot Wheels, Fresh Cut, Iceboxxx, Bingo Babe (my favourite), My Name Is (Gator Ray) and Dynamite Dude are all titles that (as they’re listed separate from the photo works, as the pieces are numbered on the wall) you can easily match to the images, after an initial tour of the show.

In conversation with the artists, several ideas came to the fore: the idea of “throwing people off, producing something that seems familiar but then jars”, a seemingly familiar aesthetic which then falls apart with the models, purposefully fracturing the initial reading of the images. All the models are amateurs, and friends of the artists, and from various communities other than / including the visual arts, so there’s a freshness and honesty to the roles they perform that’s not overtly determined by expectation. Both Judson and Mazi sheepishly describe themselves as hoarders when it comes to clothes and items that were relevant to Ice Cold, and that immediacy in a personal space also manifests in how the sites range from St. Catharines to Hamilton to Niagara Falls to Grimsby. Taking this aspect of the local further, an earlier version of this was displayed across the street on St. Paul, at the Mahtay Cafe, with the catchy title of They Hate Us ‘Cause They Ain’t Us 2017. It’s very fresh work, so not as clearly defined in their minds and more about the creation – the performance of it – at this point. They collaborate in a very seamless manner, with no specific roles but both doing everything (both work at the same place, and there’s an intensity between art and life with the creation / process of these works) that is echoed in a “real willingness of the models to become the characters”. As this is a continuing body of work (there was also a piece in the #Canada150 exhibition at City Hall, in downtown St. Catharines, playing upon the attraction / repulsion of tourist traps, and on a subtle level explored the dependence of the economic health of the region on this industry), Mazi and Judson talked about future video pieces, and the works at NAC are surely cinematic (both in the larger than life personas and in the graphic and vivid nature of the “scenes”). Their artistic choices were “made on the fly, reactive and immediate”: even though you’re only seeing one image for each character, there are about ten photos selected from each shoot, and “uniqueness” within the larger narrative of all the characters and images and scenes is important. The characters “should be individuals” within the larger story that Mazi and Judson are creating here…so some basic parameters are set, and then flexibility, in terms of interacting with the models and the sites, lead to results that are only partly expected, but more about possibilities.

There is the idea of kitsch, for sure: works that evoke an emotional response over an intellectual one, and that’s applicable here. But that’s also a superficial reading that doesn’t do the works full justice, as there’s also a sense that this work couldn’t be made anywhere else other than a region that is so tourism dependant (the same way that Levine Flexhaug’s work had a different resonance here, with his paintings sharing a sensibility with the many and ongoing tableaux of the Falls).

Their statement in the show perhaps encapsulates it best: “Two years ago, a shared love of Muppet Treasure Island brought Katie and Jenn together. Since that moment, the two have realized that their lives connect in ways beyond foolish puppetry on the big screen. Combining both their closets and their sense of humour, this new collaboration series is an authentic blend of their individual artistic styles.

Cooler than Cool is a series of digital posters that challenge the aesthetic of what has been considered “cool” in the worlds of art, fashion and leisure. Each of these looks have been constructed in order for the characters to better perform their style. This work is era – less, timeless, worthless and priceless.

So bad it’s good, so wrong it’s right. Its Cooler than Cool.”  

This collaborative, sometimes excessive, cinematic display of cultural fractures of “cool / not cool” is on display at NAC (Niagara Artists Centre) until the weekend of October 8th.


All images are copyright of the artists.