It takes an ocean of trust in the kingdom of rust: the state of the arts in Welland

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).

Yes, that is a safe: I choose to interpret this as a hidden treasure, like the unique shot of the rocking chair on the canal above.

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.

“Sometimes I suspect that we build our traps ourselves, then we back into them, pretending amazement the while.” (Gaiman)

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….).

A work by James Takeo I encontered when we visited Picture Perfect Tattoo Studio on King: an interesting response to the overtly iconic yet problematic historical – indexical, perhaps – placeholder that is Bridge 13.

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…

Welland Art Wall, 147 East Main ( James Takeo, Christopher Lagesten, Meaghan Mulcair, Wendy McIntyre, Dan Cormier, Celina Therrien, Atom Dellow and Karen Edwards). This has become a landmark that brightens, literally, the downtown, but is also a project that was community driven.

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…

Holy Cross Cemetery, which has graves dating back over a century, including my great grandparents.

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.

After Batoche: the paintings of Brian Kon

Let us be honest, if we dare: most Canadians are uninterested in Reconciliation.

Oh, sure, you can’t attend many events these days without the lip service “acknowledgements” but just as the “killers in high places say their prayers out loud”, this is just accommodating, even a bit shady (flavoured by hypocrisy) rhetoric.

Allow me to fully expose my Saskatchewan (like a skin rash, ahem) for a moment to illustrate this.

The current President of #usask is probably unable to visit the lavatory without making sure someone sees him doing a land acknowledgement. More relevantly, he also was Dean of Arts & Humanities when a significant – and well founded I found, when I spoke to those involved – complaint regarding the disrespect / dismissal / degradation of the sole tenured Indigenous faculty in the ‘art’ department. Even ‘better’, when some documents came to light re: departmental ‘self evaluation’ (delusion, ahem, some may say), it was disgusting if unsurprising to see one of Canada’s most groundbreaking Indigenous artists listed as ‘faculty’ when she’d not taught there in almost a decade, was a loud voice in the aforementioned smothered complaint, and had spoken often of her shabby treatment at the hands of those whom helped spawn this ‘report.’

This is a uniquely Canadian approach: polite, effete, yet just as firm. We don’t have a Sand Creek or Wounded Knee here, but perhaps someone might ask why the Catholic Cult in Canada gets a free pass on their genocidal alacrity in the Residential Schools?

Again, it is very Canadian to oppress through the rule of law rather than slaughter: Crazy Horse was murdered, but when Sitting Bull sought refuge in Canada, he and his people were starved into fleeing, as the bureaucracy (not being “Canadian Indians” they couldn’t be ‘supported’) offered genocide through ‘red tape’, if you will.

I must channel a friend and activist – and instigator that I so miss having on my old radio show – Marcel Petit, who would ask why any of these people – on all sides, as he was generous in his very experiential and factual condemnation of hypocrisy – would change a situation that benefits them. So, the distaste around Trudeau is not shock to many of us, and like many situations, the revolution will seem impossible until after it happens, and you can then see that it was inevitable. Only the form of it would be still defined, and that may also only be clear in hindsight, too.

Echoes of Silence, 2017

But what has spurred this latest tangent? Well, I’ve been doing a writer’s residency in Welland, exploring history, place, space and how all these might manifest or be deformed through art, both in terms of the art in the public sphere here but with what contemporary creators are doing here / there now. In visiting the Welland Public Library, I came across the work of Brian Kon, who’s art I’ve encountered before (when Brock University along with a few other groups was marking Celebration of Nations last year) but like many things, it seemed to expand a thought I was having about larger issues outside the gallery space.

Kon‘s works can be found in the lower area of Welland’s City Hall space, as the building’s architecture acknowledges the slope on which it sits: one wall is designated as a ‘gallery’ space, and works are hung salon style here. In many ways this doesn’t serve the work: some are too high, and if there are similarities in work – as there is with Kon’s aesthetic, as he’s a Métis artist so pattern and repetition are cultural touchstones in the works here, as you may be familiar with from Christi Belcourt’s pieces – they can become wallpaper, which isn’t fair to the art or artists.

Red River Summer, 2016

Kon presents ten works, all acrylic on canvas and most fairly uniform in size, if not alignment. The majority are on black backgrounds (Prairie Sky or Autumn’s Light) , but a striking work is on a reddish brown field (Echoes of Silence), and another is easily the focal point of all the pieces with its solid blue background (the above pictured Red River Summer).

The accompanying statement: As a Métis artist in the Niagara region, Brian hopes to raise awareness of Indigenous issues within Canada…[he] creates modern versions of bead patterns traditionally used by Métis to adorn their personal possessions and clothing. Using the quill end of a feather, Brian applies each “bead” to [canvas] as a single dot of paint. One of his works will, as of March 2019, be on display at Queen’s Park, the provincial legislature in Toronto. His words: I use my art to help to tell the story of the Indigenous people of Turtle Island. Much of my work is made by studying historic artifacts that tell the story of this unique part of Canada’s history and pays homage to my indigenous heritage…

You may have seen Kon’s work in an exhibition at Niagara Artist Centre, as part of We Aspire with Sterling Kon, Amanda Pont-Shanks, and Julia Simone, in the Dennis Tourbin gallery last September (in conjunction with another show at NAC of Métis artists on a more national level, to dialogue with the regional works in Aspire).

Perhaps you also experienced Christi Belcourt‘s works that explore similar formal and conceptual concerns at Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines in Material Girls. But similarly to how this exhibition of Kon’s work offers a taste and could spur further research on the rich history of the Métis in Canada, what I spent more time with at this show was a small photographic image that Kon included as the inspiration for his work (further down the wall) titled Forgotten.

Forgotten, 2017

This reproduction of the Indigenous children bracketed by dour nuns (no one, in this image, looks anything other than pained at worst, or indifferent at best), Kon explains, is the inspiration for the painting. He specifically mentions in his statement the empty eyes of the Indigenous children, some of the 150, 000 inmates (let’s not pretend they were students, or there by their or their parents’ choice) of the Residential School system, which closed much later than we like to think – 1998 – and was more horrific than most can – or are willing – to imagine.

Kon draws literal but also symbolic lines between this image and the specific work Forgotten, but its understandable if you see other pieces on display – Family Roots or Echoes of Silence – as being informed by this historical image and the larger archive – and the many victims and perpetrators – invoked by its grainy, monochromatic power.

An ongoing contested narrative in responding to art, or making art, is that there are works that may not be aesthetically gripping but are historically or socially incisive, resonating in terms of larger issues (there are also many works that are awe inspiring in terms of beauty, but are as empty as a cardboard box…). A work NOT on display at the Welland Public Library but one that you can see at Kon’s website is After Batoche: the place referenced by the title is a space I’ve visited. Let us end this article by returning to Saskatchewan, where Batoche is and where the Battle of Batoche took place in 1885, and where I chose to ‘stand’ to initially approach Kon‘s work.

The Northwest Rebellion and Louis Riel are good weathervanes for how Canadians approach the history Kon ‘illustrastes’, and also for where people ‘stand’ in the larger issue of reconciliation and where Canada is now, and where it might be in the future. (Amusingly there is a statue in downtown St. Catharines that commemorates a soldier fallen during said rebellion, and the implicit ideology of many war memorials has swirled around this piece. Perhaps you remember a few years ago, when the Harper government™ was throwing money and such behind spotting the country with memorials to the War of 1812 – and that a number of artists turned his ideological smugness on its head?)

Church, rectory and rectory of Saint Antoine de Padoue in Batoche.

When I visited Batoche – to the best of my recollection this would have been in the early 2000s – the graveyard and the historic sites seemed haunted, and despite the warm summer day it was a chililng place, in some ways. What happened there is often not taught in schools, even today, and if you know what happened to Louis Riel or Gabriel Dumont, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that between the Red River and Batoche to Oka that not much has truly changed…
In Kon’s work, there’s vivid colour and there’s often darkness of the backgrounds or the fields upon which he paints his pinpoints, his ‘acrylic beads’ of history and memory and hope. In engaging with this work, sometimes I see more of a void than light, more of what has happened than what could be, in the next century.

After Batoche, 2017

Images are either from the artist’s site or shot by the writer, with the exception of the image of Batoche, from an online commons source. Kon’s exhibition is on display at the Welland Public Library in downtown Welland.

The Road to Tepeyac: Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

There’s a superficial minimalism to The Road to Tepeyac that’s refuted as soon as you get near to the many ‘people’ in the gallery. The multitude of figures all face away from us, and though not life-sized, have a strength in numbers that’s augmented by the vivid colours and absorbing, engrossing details in Alinka Echeverria‘s images. Despite being ‘faceless’, each exists as a person with a specific identity, and in this manner are very authentic: its not hard to imagine their stories and backgrounds, what has perhaps brought them onto the road to Tepeyac.

There’s a laborious quality to these pilgrims: they carry the Virgin of Guadalupe with them, and it weighs some of them down, and drives them to their knees (perhaps literally, with the sheer physical burden, or with the affliction, the strain, of their ‘belief.’ More on that, in a moment). The gallery installation positions you, the viewer, in the middle of the ‘u’ of the congregation moving outwards and away. Not only are their faces unseen but oftentimes their bodies are nearly fully obscured by their painting or sculpture, shawl or other covering physically representing their ‘faith.’ Some are only visible with their bare feet, or the bottom of their shoes as they kneel towards an unseen destination, on the road to ‘see her and be seen by her’ (to quote one of the pilgrims Echeverria spoke with) at Tepeyac.

The double level of the figures (as installed in the VISA) and the ’empty’ backgrounds both privilege the figures (on my initial visit I spent a great deal of time on the intense details and exploring the various, yet similar in many instances, belongings of the wayfarers or believers) yet conversely unite them as a group. Further formal factors are ‘repeated’ in the manner in which the virgin appears sometimes as a massive painting, with hands below it gripping furiously, or a small shiny sculpture, or a towel or shawl or jacket, more utilitarian in its presentation. Some carry the same ‘icons’, brand new, others obviously worn by generations of reverential hands. Two ‘pilgrims’ carry an image of the virgin comforting Karol Wojtyła, another has balloons attached to their ‘lady’, and sometimes small images of other religious icons or family photographs are interspersed around the ‘iconic’ green robed Virgin of Guadalupe.

The accompanying statement: The Road to Tepeyac consists of over 100 images of devout Mexican pilgrims carrying their personal image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on the anniversary of her apparition in 1531. The work provides kaleidoscopic re-presentations of the sacred image and deconstructs the relationship between an invisible presence and its materialized expression.

At her talk, Echeverria offered human depth to The Road: if the works seem to enfold you, this may be due to the inclusiveness of Echeverria’s process where she sucessfully transcended a staid ‘documentary’ approach, and interacted with the ‘pilgrims.’ That Echeverria was among, not separate, manifests in her eye and in her choices and thus in the gallery, transferring that community sense to those who ‘visit’ The Road.

There is history that you can surmise, but allow me to proffer the following.

Tepeyac, also know as the Hill of Tepeyac, is “[a]ccording to the Catholic tradition,…where Saint Juan Diego met the Virgin of Guadalupe in December 1531, and received the iconic image of the Lady of Guadalupe. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe located there is one of the most visited Catholic shrines in the world. Spanish colonists erected a Catholic chapel at the site, Our Lady of Guadalupe, [often called] “the place of many miracles.” (Díaz Del Castillo). Its likely you’re familiar with Lourdes, or in a Canadian context, perhaps (like myself when much younger) you’ve visited the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Québec City.

As well, a film titled Tepeyac (1917) uses the backdrop of WWI as a fable of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s ‘intervention’, in the ‘rescue’ of the fiancé (Carlos) of the devoted heroine (Pilar Cotta as Lupita Flores). The reunited couple go to The Basilica on the 12th of December – the primary pilgrimage dates being 11 / 12 December – and undoubtedly are married under the ‘watchful’ eyes of the Virgin. As the lost were found, so does the sometimes dirty, sometimes indigent, caravan of those seeking hope and better things that Echeverria presents us pursue peace and shelter and safety, both literally and in wider, deeper ways.

We live in an age where immigrants and the poor are declared evil and dangerous in a manner that, if not unequalled in history, is unequally monstrous in vitriol, from Fox ‘News’ to social media. May I channel Lou Reed? “Give me your hungry, your tired your poor I’ll piss on ’em that’s what the Statue of Bigotry says / Your poor huddled masses, let’s club ’em to death and get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard.”

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But let us go then, you and I, outside the gallery, for a moment.

The Virgin of Guadalupe (Virgen de Guadalupe) isn’t a neutral image, nor any allusion or direct reference to Catholicism, these days. Perhaps you heard (and were offended, or edified) by the recent joke (comedians often have told harsh truths) about how supporting alleged pedophile R. Kelly in his music is no worse – arguably quantitatively ‘less evil’ – than being a Roman Catholic. We’re amidst ongoing, unending, it seems, revelations of serial child rape and those whom aid and abet, by ‘sins’ of commission or omission.

When I see many of these ‘worshippers’ I think of the disingenuous – wilful distraction of a – promise of ‘seek justice in the next world, not this one’: an opiate crisis of a different, but perhaps more insidious, kind. I disagree with much of Marx, but his assertion of religion as the opium of the masses has been, is being, will be, proven repeatedly – as it is in this show.

Its necessary to remember Diderot‘s assertion that we’ll “never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” (I enjoy thinking of how during the French Revolution – a few years prior to Diderot’s death, that Louis XVI, who was so sure he was divinely appointed, and pampered Catholic elite cabal whom were his enablers and beneficiaries and so sure, so sure, they were divinely unassailable, still saw their heads separated from their necks with little fuss or bother. Perhaps this was bloody as it was overdue justice. Did someone mention México’s own Marcial Macial or Cardinal Pell, or Law, or McCarrick or – well, we could be here all day. You take my implication).

‘Abuse of power comes as no surprise’ (Holzer) and neither is how many are eager to prostrate themselves. Echeverria evokes Alejandro Cartagena’s exhibition A Presidential Guide to Selfies, which also exposed devotion and artifice, undeserved deference given to another shoddy Mussolini, if you will. In this respect, I think of that fine comedian / satirist Mark Twain and his clarion warning that “religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool.”

So, I imagine anyone engaged in the moral gymnastics that strain and stress like a victim of Stockholm syndrome (if they’re not just ignorantly bleating to their delusional ends, like Boxer in Animal Farm) must, in their heart of hearts, feel the weight of guilt (appropriate for once, in terms of Catholicism). When I saw some of the penitents – sorry, pilgrims – almost buried under their icons, straining with them, I wondered how long they could go on. Would they pray for help, and what would they do when no one answered?

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One pilgrim is hidden nearly fully by their blue framed Guadalupe, with such thin frail legs I presume it must be a child or youngster; another kneels so far forward that he seems to have fallen under his overwhelming ‘burden’ of devotion; another devotee kneels – the position of elbows and arms makes me sure he clasps his hands in prayer – and the statue he carries seems excessively penitential suffering; so many others, in the stressed nature of clothing and what they carry, pale even more against the vivid flowers, garlands and other garnishments of what might be faith, might be fraud, or might simply be human frailty, reaching for better, for more.

Echeverria has captured their humanity both expertly but empathetically: in this way, as you stand in the gallery enfolded by the people, you’re among them, and are standing with them, either hopeful or battling hopelessness, on The Road to Tepeyac.

All images are from online sources, especially from Echeverria’s own site, or were shot by myself. This exhibition is on display at the VISA Gallery at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Peforming Arts in downtown St. Catharines. I’d like to acknowledge the research and conversation with Cree Amber Tylee that were intrinsic to this article.

More calendar than quality: the mediocrity and mythology of Lawren Harris in Where the Universe Sings

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

Sunday Morning, 1920

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.)

Winter in the Ward, N.D.
In the Ward, 1920

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.

Winter in the Northern Woods, N.D.,
Lake Superior, 1924
North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926

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.

I once lived in a space in Windsor that also opened right out onto the street. There’s an opening scene in a contemporary and perhaps offensively brillian adapatoin of Oliver Twist that speaks of lives lived in ‘quiet desperation’ (Rousseau), in poverty and want. That sequence is built around the voyeuristic nature of a similar front window, and is something I’ve considered often, as privacy is not for the poor, even in many less literal ways. Hence, this place caught my attention and I include it here.

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.

Grey Day in Town, 1923
January Thaw, Edge of Town, 1921.

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.