Obscured and overt, obvious and implied / Amber Lee Williams’ (un)hidden at the VISA

Amber Lee Williams’ exhibition (un)hidden incorporates several distinct bodies of work that intersect with each other, growing out of and into each other. That isn’t so much a pun as an acknowledgement of the personal and very physical narratives that define Williams’ practice, diverse in media (polaroid emulsion lifts on cotton rag paper to readymade yet enhanced mason jars) if interconnected in concept and content.

This convergence occurs literally in the VISA gallery. The music boxes along the one wall (gutted and mounted in tiny jutting “drawers”), audio both comforting and creepy, wafts out to join you as you move among the mason jars mounted on plinths (Preserves (Jar Installation)). These are unembellished metaphors of vessels, but also offer images at the bottom of these glasses that correspond to the images on two other gallery walls (Preserves (Jar Image Installation) or Change or Over the Shoulder).

Several of these prints (Upper Body Lower Body for example) blend abstraction and recognizable depictions that play off each other, in colour and form, and one final wall (if you walk clockwise around the space, beginning with the enticing music boxes) offers a large “contact” sheet. This acts as a visual “statement”, in tandem with Williams’ written one, but also as an indicator as to many of her ideas visually realized around you originated. To stand in front of these black and white images where Williams, with her daughter and partner, recreates “hidden mother” images that once proliferated in archival, or Victorian, photography, and then turn and move among the tiny shelves protruding from the wall, with music box “guts” you’re invited to wind (multiple chimings that overlap and layer, in and out of sync with each other), to stylized renderings of “motherhood” that are as illustrative as they are conceptual, is to see that Williams has offered a very autobiographical exhibition.Besides being a strong show aesthetically, there is a sense of her self, here, that is very much like a journal of memory and being.

Despite its title, (un)hidden is a very physical, corporeal show. The artworks grounded in a physical being. This – like the different artworks that overlap and enhance each other, employs the artist’s strong sense of identity (as seen in her past works, and that Williams is one of the hardest working, and most prolific artists in STC. Thus who she is, to me – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – is very much defined by the images she creates) as a base to explore different concepts of “mother”, seen or unseen, overt or simply implied.

If I consider a main “framework” (my recent engaging conversations with curator Emma German have me considering how we interact with art, how we expect to do so, or don’t expect to do so) its that Williams’ (un)hidden has a great deal of resonance, with connections only clearly seen / understood upon completion of the work, with instinct and intuition in process that informs the realization but is not overt or limiting in its construction. As someone who can, of course, not ever be a mother, nor has children or any desire in that area, I never felt that this exhibition didn’t offer me experiences that are engaging visually and conceptually.

One of my favourite authors, Salman Rushdie, in The Moor’s Last Sigh, gives voice to an artist who is also a mother (or vice versa) and one critic of that book described her (Aurora Zogoiby) as “too much of an artist to be a good mother.” With Williams, the opposite is true, though even that’s too simplistic a statement. The pieces in un(hidden) suggest a gradation of meaning where something is not so much visible as intimated, no so much missing as alluded to, and thus present and absent simultaneously. This is where the visual surpasses language. This multiplicity of Art is like a mason jar that suggest domesticity and careful nurturing and that, upon closer examination, offers an image “sunk” within it that elevates it to portraiture, both on a personal level of the artist’s experience, but also as a trope of mother / mothering / the complicated dynamic between being an artist and a mother.

Her statement is well written and expansive: I’ll offer a few excerpts.

“This body of work is in some ways a documentation of my experience as a mother, and an exploration of the individual and shared themes of motherhood in general. While the work was created from a personal point of view, I connect it to the timelessness of motherhood and the universal truth: we are all born.”

(un)hiddenis the culmination of a year-long independent study course (VISA 3F99) with Professor Amy Friend. I was pregnant when the project began, and gave birth to my second daughter at the end of January this year. My studio processes involved experimental photographic techniques with Polaroid emulsion lifts and lumen printing; while incorporating sculpture and installation as an integral part of the work. My intention for this work was to explore the idea of a “contemporary hidden mother”, with other themes of motherhood, relationships between family members, and the loss that we all face in the inevitable passing of time.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is an exhibition of imagery and elusiveness (in conversation, the idea of creating an image or object and trusting in the intuitive nature of the process while understanding that interlinking concepts will reveal themselves later was a recurring point). Like the mothers that are concealed, or only revealed by implication or a sudden glimpsed detail (whether the historical photographs that Williams displays, from her own collection or in the restaging of these in Hidden Mother Contact Sheet) this show offers obvious signifiers and understated ones.

Williams is also one of the artists who’ll be exhibiting in the 2018 In The Soil Arts Festival, with a new work that continues some of the ideas found (or to be found) in (un)hidden. Her Self Portrait as a Female Fountain will be installed at the corner of St. Paul and Bond Streets in the downtown, but as with all In The Soil events and exhibitors, check back at their site for the latest updates and any variations. Williams performed continuously through ITS last year, although she may have walked right by you without recognition, and she commented that ITS is a space where she likes to challenge herself and step outside her usual comfort zone of artmaking. Personally, I look forward to seeing how Bruce Nauman might be reconfigured through a female, maternal or perhaps simply contemporary lens. It might be a commentary on gender (performative or otherwise) but it also has some connection back to Williams’ Breastmilk on Baby’s Breath 1 and 2, from (un)hidden.

(un)hidden is on display until the end of April in the MIWSFPA, in the VISA Gallery. In The Soil Arts Festival will begin its tenth anniversary extravaganza on April 27th, 2018.

All images generously provided by, and copyright, of the artist.

 

More than surface: Just Resting Your Eyes at Rodman Hall

It’s necessary to first acknowledge that Just Resting My Eyes, the first of the two part exhibition at Rodman Hall featuring the work of Honours graduates from Brock University’s Department of Visual Arts, should be on display longer than two weeks. The works by Denise Apostolatos, Victoria Morinello, Jill Newman, Jacob Primeau and Aaron Thompson are often dense and inviting, and on my repeated visits have shifted in my interpretation, and in their relationship to each other. The art works in this exhibition occupy the larger back gallery space but also the side long “hallway” as well as the small inset alcove that faces the ‘title wall.’

Just Resting My Eyes is dominated by painted and drawn work. In some ways this enhances the show, as he painterly nature of Victoria Morinello’s Bittersweet Temptations (1 through 6) located in the recesses adjacent to the “meeting room” with image transfers rendered more visually enticing through mixed media (paint, plastic wrapping, scratchy scrawling marks and erasures) both contrasts and casts in relief the difference of Jacob Primeau’s Familiar Strangers. The latter is a massive acrylic and oil on canvas, whereas Temptations are smaller (four installed together as a block aren’t a tenth of the size of Strangers). Morinello has larger pieces in the lower gallery space, “facing” each other – no pun intended as the women in the loose triptych, all sharing the title The Holy Trinity with individual descriptors of (foil) or (plastic), as matches their making, all have expressive manners.

Unlike some previous iterations of BFA graduates exhibitions, Eyes is installed so that the respective artists (and yes, I’ll use that term here, as the quality and consideration of the works mark them as more that than students) intermix. Jill Newman’s linear, monochromatic blind contours occupy most of the side hallway, with smaller works that have a strength in repetition, a clean beauty in execution of sharp black on white or glowing white on black. The wall itself bears some of her loose, and sure, lines. Further down in this space, Primeau – who presents what is one of the two (okay, maybe three – I reserve the right to change my mind on future visits) best works in the show – offers four in a series titled Selected Street Photography. Though these are night images, and are dark, the flaring spots of street lights or the glistening of the reflection of artificial lighting in these is echoed (realized? recreated?) in his painting in the other room, Strangers. Just as Newman’s rough, yet considered drawings here offer insight into her own larger paintings hanging in the back space, Primeau is revealing something of his process. Or, to parse from several excellent conversations in the space with several artists (who also straddle painting and photography) it may not be  linear progression, from photo to painting, and that only art historians (and, ahem, perhaps critics) want a linear, approved, official “history” when in fact images are made and conceived in a more organic, bleeding process that is more reminiscent of osmosis than “order.”

When I’ve visited, I’ve found myself going back and forth, from the hallway with these smaller pieces, to the alcove with Morinello’s tiny works, and then into the large gallery proper: referencing back and forth, or just exploring the visual lines of connection that bind the works together.

Newman’s pieces are installed to the right of Primeau (he has three large works, and a display case shows many small works on paper. These have too much detail and finesse to be just “studies”). Whereas Primeau’s Strangers is a dense work that illustrates a city street scene (not literally so much as conceptually, with the washes of purple and yellow, and the thick dabs of red and yellow accentuating the tableaux, as an umbrella or the glow and reflection of a car tail light), Newman’s paintings are nearly all the same square dimension, with one much larger. They’re installed mostly grouped together: outside, inside and outside, inside pt. II are a diptych far to the left, with quiet pinks, deep blacks, gentle yellows and milky whites that suggest more watercolour than acrylic, a fine subtle hand that allows for the drips and washes that build form and shape. A vertical arrangement of four are titled (top to bottom) glimpse, ocular, disillusion and spectacle (all dated 2018. Appropriately for a graduating show, the majority of works by all the artists are 2018). glimpse is thickly painted, in tones almost chocolatey, and unlike other works that suggest a window or a framed space, is rich textured surface. Below it, ocular with its bands of pink, yellow and grey with black flecks (black appears outside the yellow “frame”, too, a bit roughly) shares the compositional element of ‘rounded bars’ with outside, inside. But the larger works, and several smaller, allude to the same vegetation that dominated her drawings in the hallway (such as looking blindly (interior plants) (1 – 150), which are a series of cards you’re encouraged to handle, but with respect).

Aaron Thompson has several works in Just Resting My Eyes, but the significant work is one that will force you to do the opposite of the exhibition title. His work – or works – Shoulder to shoulder, 2017 – 2018 is / are like most of the pieces on display: enhanced by the accompanying statements from the artists, but not necessary to an appreciation of it (for example, Newman’s looking blindly is blind contour drawing. This adds a level of appreciation, but the work is already visually engaging, just as Primeau’s text aides, but isn’t essential, to Strangers).

Shoulder to shoulder is the work that on my visits may not immediately pull the visitor in, but will hold them for the longest duration: mixing ideas and assumptions of low and high culture, of consumption in both a considered and gluttonous manner, Thompson has presented a largesse of tiny paintings that reference, challenge, demean or enhance the Mona Lisa, or perhaps just the idea of the Mona Lisa.

Some works are listed as Google Image #1 or Google Image #3, and other titles act as less of a list than a dictionary of cultural references: there’s one that has Lion – O from Thundercats, another trio are tiny renderings of faces in the manner of Francis Bacon (all of these are painted by Thompson, from sources “found” on the web. Some are considered, others are just crass). A sample: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Self-portrait (detail) / Space Lisa / Captain Spaulding /  Obey Mona (They Live) / Rene Magritte, Son of Man (Mona Lisa) / Willem de Kooning, Pink Angels / Duotone Mona Lisa (detail) / Jackson Pollock, Guardians of the Secret (detail) / Lion – O – na Lisa / Batman Duchamp / Bashful Lisa / Zombie Lisa / and Fear and Loathing in Florence (Raoul Duke), which is a personal favourite. There is, of course, a version of Duchamp‘s infamous L.H.O.O.Q., who could be said to “shoulder” significant blame or credit for the state of the contemporary “art” world….

Any words to describe this piece are unequal to the task: you must experience it.

I would, however, in my role as art critic, offer the following observation of Thompson’s Shoulder to shoulder. With the failure of postmodernism as a viable theory by which to approach culture (unsurprisingly, as post modernism is based on the context of doubt, without a viable system to replace what it challenges. Some older art historical texts defined post – 1968 as an “Age of Anxiety.” I like this as an umbrella, and for the capitalisation), a variety of thinkers far more verbose (and surely more intelligent) than I have proffered alternatives.

One of interest is “digimodernism” which, in one aspect, suggests that we’re exponentially creating and consuming images as never before in human history. In light of this, language, and the idea of systematic ordering and designation that often manifests through language, is not only impossible now, but beyond irrelevant. While wasting time in attempting to order what images we’ve seen, more are being made. Some, like what Thompson shows here, occupy multiple theoretical spaces simultaneously, often in uncomfortable (if not very conflicting ways). It’s all the Mona Lisa. None of them are the Mona Lisa. All of them are Art. None of it is Art. Edit and arrange as you will, if you like, but the person next to you will edit and arrange differently, and your systems may meet, meld or modify each other, to create a third fourth fifth (and so on, and so on) system.

This isn’t entirely an alien thought: consider colour theory, as in the work of American artist Josef Albers (with his square works that show difference is more common in the colour palette than we’d imagine). Consider that horrid intro painting class exercise, of taking any colour and painting five gradations between it and full black, or full white. Now think of doing that on a computer, where each of those “steps” might be used to do five more steps to black, or white, and then again and again, as the technology (like accessing a million variant, previously unimagined iterations of Mona Lisa) may be (if not literally, then practically) infinite in variations and combinations.

Everything is possible, yet nothing is genuine. “Authentic” is a term either meaningless or uninteresting, boring even, perhaps even intellectually / creatively “lazy” in not embracing potential diversity. This is how “we see now.”

How does “the hand of the artist”, that “arbiter of genius” or commodity defined through rarity or uniqueness, fit here, with Thompson rendering each one, but with a source or “inspiration” elsewhere we can find and “own” digitally?

Modernism didn’t so much fail as spawn numerous “children” that moved too fast for Cronus to catch and eat them, preventing their rise, and his fall….or alternately, Cronus castrating his father might be hyperbole for postmodernism negating the surety of Modernism, and look at what the “younger generation” does with that “freedom.”

Allow me to rein in my hyperbole: Shoulder to shoulder, 2017 – 2018 is impressive in execution and presentation. Perhaps the best work in the show, surely my favourite work, in Just Resting Your Eyes.

I’ll end with a bit of the blurb: “Occupying Rodman Hall’s third floor studios during the 2017 – 18 academic year, students in the Honours Studio course have been mentored by gallery staff and Visual Arts professors Donna Szöke, Shawn Serfas, Derek Knight, and Donna Akrey….[both of] these two unique exhibits capture the exceptional vitality and daring of the emerging artist.

Such exhibits from the Department of Visual Arts are a key part of the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts’ mandate to build connections between the community and the breadth of talent and creativity that we celebrate at Brock University.” One might think this means that RHAC is not only a valuable, but necessary, component of Brock University, a space to be funded and not strangled. A site that, if Brock were to divest itself from, would leave a black hole that might collapse the fragile structure left…but I’ll be offering some further thoughts on Brock University’s ongoing “annulment” of what they call “support” of RHAC in the future.

Just Resting Your Eyes is only display for a brief period at Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines, closing on April 8th. Go see it. All images are courtesy of Rodman Hall Art Centre. The next instalment Turnin’ This Car Around opens on Friday, April 13th at 7 PM.

 

Artist Feature: J.E. Simpson

There is a phrase – it can’t properly be called a sentence – that kept arising in conversation with Jonathan (J.E.) Simpson when I visited his studio, several weeks after seeing his work at Niagara Artist Centre: contradiction / conjunction / intersection / interpretation. If you’re familiar with his sculptural works – or his “printed” derivations of the same, and I’ll elaborate on that in a moment – this may seem like a “sentence” from his “writings” or an excerpt from one of his “texts.”

Simpson’s practice is both process based but aesthetically seductive. One sculpture, If A Tree Falls (which doubles as a “press”, as he takes rubbings off of it) that dominates part of his studio is a chunk of driftwood that he’s “etched” what he sometimes calls a continuous sentence, or is a ‘stream of consciousness’ text. This was done using a weighted hammer and bits like you’d see in a printing press, suggesting a process both physically industrial but also nostalgic to archival print methods.

Its amusing that with works that, although lovely objects, so dependant on text, I find myself thinking I shouldn’t call it ‘sculpture’ as its also a ‘print’, or refer to it as a static object, as one work is the means by which he makes others (rubbing fine paper on the imprinted text word letters to get rubbings, like variable editions and impressions of the object, extending his artwork’s ‘reality’ into new spheres. A footprint is to shoe as these rubbings are to the words / works…).

Our conversations about his art have been intensely enjoyable: “Performativity and gesture are central to my work. It begins as a seed germinating in my mind, and through my labour is reified in a seemingly mundane trope: that of letters carved onto a tree.” Or another concise observation: “J. E. Simpson is an artist at the intersection of writing and sculpting. Working with fallen and found tree trunks and branches, he blankets their wooden surfaces with text, building narratives using automatic free flowing and collage writing processes.”

Dream Log is reminiscent of a torso: the chunk of wood is wider at top than below, and in behind is a bit of decay and you can peer or poke inside. While visiting Simpson’s studio, he graciously allowed me to handle his work, and the texture of the wood itself is as inviting as the desire to trace the delicate inscribed letters. At that time, Dream Log was mounted on a stand so it was slightly “taller” than I. It seemed I might be grasping it by his her their hips as a prelude to a dance, which is an amusing and positive manner to talk about the artist / art object / art critic relationship….

Up, Down, Strange, Charm, Bottom and Top is thinner and longer: and with some of his works, Simpson has employed them in performances and the words become worn down, eroded (echoing another aspect of the trees themselves) and become texture rather than signage, indexical evidence of a faded and forgotten thought.

Returning to contradiction / conjunction / intersection / interpretation: Simpson’s employ of language / text with all its cultural baggage and primacy in engaging with art offers multiple means by which to understand his works. Or to quote our conversation, to help use the pieces to define our reality. A smaller work, Prometheus Unbound, is formally different from other pieces and explores this idea.

This may sound pretentious, but consider images and books and authors and phrases that we cite as our favourites, and that how “possessing” these helps define us. These are often rife with personal memories, anchoring us. An interesting aside with Simpson was where he talked about “not having access to the full stories” anymore, on Dream Log, for example, as he “wrote” etched notched scotched chiseled them and they’ve “become” something else. Memory, in the 21st century, is even more informed / deformed by Susan Sontag’s assertion that we rely an image to remember, and may lose the memory without such external “placeholders.” Simpson’s Dream Log is like that: in that manner it transcends an “art object” and becomes a landmark of memory or experience. To return to a book as a comparison: not only is having a treasured book to reread a spur of reflection and memory for the reader, but it also is / was / will be (forgive my German slamming of words together in this article, but its influenced by Simpson’s similar use of language) for the originating author. My favourite author, Mordecai Richler, often blended occurrences and interpretation, fact and fiction.

More contradiction: that objects so aesthetically alluring offer excellent springboards for debates about authorship vs. interpretation, or how important it is (or isn’t) to the artist or the “viewer” to fully understand what was intended. Intention is a collaborative venture that changes whether I’m running my fingers over the raw elegance of Dream Log or if the piece “changes” to accommodate or challenge another visitor.

 

Simpson attended OCAD, and now lives in Niagara. He exhibited some of these pieces (and the paper works that he frottaged from the woodworks, which led to charcoal getting on people’s hands and the works spreading even further, with a wider group, from mark to rubbing to smears to smudge) at NAC in the members space this past winter. You can see more here.