Chapter 4: Who cares? Why bother? The existential issue of writing about art in a small community (or how the Emperor has no clothes)

CAVEAT

When I told people I was leaving Saskatoon in the Summer of 2015 after nearly two decades in that cultural sphere, a colleague and friend, Professor Mona Holmlund, approached me again with the request to contribute a chapter to her anthology about “Visual Culture” in Saskatchewan. This was something she was doing, initially through the University of Saskatchewan, but she wanted more voices with greater variety and diversity, both in terms of class and race. She also wanted the viewpoint of someone like myself who had a foot in the non academic world, and also – as she pointed out to me – had published more than anyone, for longer, about that place’s visual culture (as well as with my nearly decade long radio show where I interviewed so many local and national artists or curators as they passed through Saskatoon).

I had declined when initially approached, as there was no money, and I am – still – not so interested to have my legitimacy exploited by academics and institutions.

But, since I was leaving Saskatoon, likely for good, and with mixed feelings, I agreed.

Over approximately the next two years, we went back and forth with many revisions. When it went to its ‘academic’ editors (if it’s happening it will be in partnership with McGill University Press. No small thing, I suppose), one of the two wanted my chapter removed. I’m “Chapter Four” in this anthology, which is a good position, in light of some of the other writers’ positions; early enough to help shape a reader’s understanding, and yet not offering a tone of authority or any homogeneous assertion, as a first or last might.

Mona told me about this, and I became even more tired and frustrated, as I was asked to be part of this due to the validity of my – often ‘outsider’ – voice in #YXE, and I told her I was toying with pulling the chapter. We talked, I left it hanging, and we’ve not been in touch since, but she has my tacit permission to include it. I made it clear I am exhausted, and frankly, in terms of Saskatoon, would prefer to ‘leave the dead to bury the dead.’

BUT I have often flirted with the idea of putting it online, at my site, and sharing it from there. As there’s no contract between Mona and I, no money, no remuneration, this is my right, entirely, and Mona had said she was fine with that, even if / when the book comes out.

It is somewhat dated, as it was ‘finished’ some time ago: but I offer it here, with only one proviso, that some things have changed in terms of my opinion of some of the people cited here. Unsurprisingly, that has been that some people I mention here, that I praise, I have now seen another side of them – or a side I was unwilling to ‘see’ – and considered revising the chapter to reflect that. However, I felt it was more important to preserve this as a moment, and to the integrity of the book chapter when / if it sees publication.

I often joke that as an arts critic / writer, I am responsive in the moment, but reserve the right to change my mind, or opinion, based on time and experience. Some of these opinions are the same: some are not.

Who cares? Why bother? The existential issue of writing about art in a small community (or how the Emperor has no clothes) begins below.

Feedback is welcome: as always, I will respond in kind, regarding respect or lack thereof.

B. Gazzola, July 2019

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The remnants of the Victoria Bridge in Saskatoon (July 2015).

I sometimes look back on #YXEArts with the affection of a lover that you hoped would improve themselves and be worthy of your affections and attentions: but like karaoke modernism, it was never as good as “you” thought … forgive me. Nostalgia makes my hyperbole self indulgent, and we forget our place when we leave it behind.

B. Gazzola, A Confluence of Geographies

I’m not from here / I just live here / grew up somewhere far away / come here thinking I’d never stay long / I’d be going back soon someday / I’m not from here / but people tell me it’s not like it used to be / they say I should have been here / back about ten year / before it got ruined by folks like me

James McMurtry

There’s a kind of bookending, in starting this chapter with those two quotes. The first is from a long piece published nearly a year following, but still fresh from, my departure from Saskatoon; and James McMurtry’s lyrics still have an unexpected resonance to me, even now, decades after I first read them. They bracket this eulogy together with my own words at the opposite end of my chronicle of a nearly two decade relationship with Saskatoon’s visual arts community.

I originally encountered McMurtry’s words in 1998 during my MFA at the University of Saskatchewan, and the line “I’m not from here / I just live here” became increasingly relevant as the sometimes xenophobic nature of art in Saskatoon became clearer to me. From 1997 to 2015 it was my home: yet I was never part of it, if I am honest about my own positioning and that of others related to me. Though I can safely say that no one else has ever published as much about that city’s art scene as I have done (and continue to do), I was always “outside.” It was an insult sometimes hurled at me, and like most painful assertions, the truth is what hurt. My dismissal of what I saw as “karaoke modernism”i or my expectations of that place only fostered this distance: now that it’s literal, and I’ve left, I see it more clearly.

There is a line from a book of poems by Allen Ginsberg (given to me by a friend who moved to Saskatoon before me and helped facilitate my own relocation there, before she escaped the Prairies): “i’m going to try speaking some reckless words, and i want u to try to listen recklessly!” Sometimes I felt that was my role, whether incidental or intentional, in that site, too: and that informs why I am no longer “there”. The last exhibition of my own work in Saskatoon was very consciously titled the Prophet Series: for “a prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”

After I had completed both a BFA and BA in Art History at the University of Windsor, I moved to Saskatoon to pursue an MFA (primarily in digital imagery) at the University of Saskatchewan because the program there had a strong emphasis on teaching. I arrived in Saskatoon having worked at Artcite and the Art Gallery Windsor: the former in a gallery / communications capacity, and the latter as part of a research team. From the time I earned my MFA until 2010 I taught in the department of Art and Art History at the University of Saskatchewan, while also working at AKA Artist Run Centre (as Artistic Coordinator), the University’s Kenderdine Art Gallery (as gallery assistant, but primarily in the documentation / organization of the University’s art collection), and a number of other cultural spaces, over that dozen years. I served on the board of AKA Artist Run centre, The Photographers Gallery and Video Verite (the two merged to become PAVED Arts, of which I was a founding member), and I was editorial chair of Blackflash magazine for nearly five years. In this latter role, I helped reorganize and professionalize aspects of the magazine, and fostered an editorial committee and board that was less academic, less “safe,” and more engaged.

And I continued my art practice, including two exhibitions at PAVED Arts: The Performative Lens, with Evergon, and the aforementioned Prophet works.

My curatorial projects have been both historical and contemporary and often about place.

Currently, I’m collaborating with a colleague in London, U.K., over producing an exhibition tentatively titled TPG UK / SK, which would sample from the collections of The Photographers Gallery in Saskatoon (now in the collection of the Remai Modern) and Photographers Gallery London, as both organizations share historical markers of importance, despite their apparent distance.

However, over the past dozen years, the focus of my energies has been on my writing, primarily about visual arts. My critical writings have appeared in national publications, but, germane to the current discussion, I was the art critic with Planet S Magazine in Saskatoon for over a decade (2002 -2015). From 2006 to 2015, I hosted / produced a radio show / podcast in Saskatoon titled The A Word on CFCR 90.5 FM,ii which encompassed reviews and interviews with guests that were both regional and national.

In 2011 I was named a “Civic Art Star” by the Saskatoon StarPhoenix (rather touching, as I often criticized both the quantity and quality of their own visual arts coverage, and our ideologies were rarely in agreement in the partisan Prairie landscape). However, in 2013, AKA Artist Run and I parted ways, in a manner that reflects the ongoing concerns of unprofessionalism and abuses of power that have degraded too many artist run centres, and have often led to the closure of such potentially important sites due to cronyism. Art critic RM Vaughn notes “Canadian artists and intellectuals are feverishly devoted to the concept of free speech — the concept, but not the actual practice. Every time I have written something about art that people decided not to agree with, there has followed a campaign by artists and their pet writers to have me denounced, fired and then flayed alive with a butter knife.”iii I mention this as it colours my opinion of the site I’m discussing, as much as my commitment to emerging artists was / is defined by my years of teaching. The manner in which AKA’s board chose to break our relationship made the fissures that would stress further and deeper, and eventually break my relationship with Saskatoon / YXEArts.

In the summer of 2015 I returned to Ontario, and currently reside in St. Catharines, ON (my previously cited “A Confluence of Geographies”, from Hamilton Arts & Letters,iv offers an erudite summation of that departure and arrival). Since my arrival I’ve continued to publish writings on visual arts: as well, at CFBU 103.7 / cfbu.ca, I helped develop and facilitate a contemporary news show, Niagara Voices and Views, exploring issues both cultural and social, and promoting voices not always heard – or listened to – in the Niagara Region.

So, now you “know” your unreliable narrator. Despite what I’ve just pretentiously posited as my resumé to the task, it’s a daunting and arguably futile endeavour to write about what it was like to be the primary art critic / arts writer in Saskatoon for nearly two decades. When I describe myself as such, I say this without (much) arrogance, but due to the sheer volume of words I published, and that I produced and hosted a radio show about visual arts for such an extended period.

I was involved with various organizations in the cultural sphere in many ways, as I enumerated above. But the position I occupied primarily was a critic and writer in the community, with one foot in both the world of the visual arts but firmly grounded outside of it. My articles with Planet S Magazine, which was more a music magazine with variant articles from a predominantly left wing, social justice narrative, ensured I never forgot that the pieces I published were read by those who wouldn’t enter an art gallery at the point of a gun.

To many, “galleries are frightening places, places of evaluation, of judgement”:v this applies to what’s in them, including the people who step into those spaces. Not all are welcome, and many are all but prohibited, whether by class or race or gender (I often return to this conversation – or contention – when I speak about the telling distinction of “public art” or “art in the public sphere”…)

But just as my community at that time was multifaceted – or perhaps contradictory – so was I.

Though I taught at the U of S, in the Art department, for 12 years, my attitudes about art schools, and the “education” therein, is similar to how I speak about Art: as a critic. This all played a role in how my voice matured in my time in Saskatoon. My early optimism for that department was eroded when an “external review” in the early 2000s became more about the long past (and arguably irrelevant, to contemporary students) mythology of Emma Lake (“I will not go to Emma Lake as an artist. I might go to Emma Lake as an arsonist,” the artist and writer Lee Henderson caustically averred).vi It is now not only unsurprising, but could be seen as inevitable, that my own experience would lead to me questioning that department in the voice I found myself possessing, whether in Planet S or in Canadian Art. I often prodded them, as here, in an article for the Planet listing upcoming exhibitions of note:

It’s been more than a decade since the last faculty show by the U of S Art Department, and according to them, “the opportunity to mount an exhibition of new work by the studio faculty of the University of Saskatchewan fills a gap in our history and reveals the diversity of art produced in the department at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” In fine academic fashion, some of the work is not new (or diverse), but if nothing else, this is an opportunity to see work by Mary Longman and Alison Norlen from their amazing solo shows of the past year or so — and perhaps this will begin a new tradition of an annual exhibition. Overall, I mention this show not so much because of quality, but because who knows when a department head will try to herd these cats again?vii

While a sessional lecturer at the U of S and in an effort to offer the best class I could I pushed involvement outside the academic spaces, pointing out the necessity of seeking out a community and opportunities elsewhere if the University of Saskatchewan would not provide them. It is at this time that I was a founding board member of PAVED Arts, offering digital media classes and equipment in a variety of forms, stepping into a space the University, “my university”, had chosen to ignore.

This sentiment of making change, forcing change, creating dialogue for change, perhaps had its impetus here, for me. This would be mirrored in a piece I wrote for Planet S when Steeling the Gaze was at the Mendel Art Gallery: how could one speak honestly about the institutional racism implicit, but being deconstructed, at the National Gallery of Canada by co-curators Steve Loft and Andrea Kunard while ignoring the concurrent complaints about the University of Saskatchewan?

In Saskatoon, we live in a city where the Department of Art and Art History has been accused of being less than rigorous investigating accusations of systematic racism, and that until a few years ago had no tenured aboriginal faculty. If we head to City Hall, we hear rumours of a hushed plan to cancel the Urban Aboriginal Grant, something that PAVED (with artist / curator Aleyna Mae) used to facilitate aboriginal youth creating amazing work, in image and music. No, nothing to see here, move along please. Conversely, the Mendel deserves props for hosting Gaze at the same time our Prime Minister warrants contempt for trying to reduce our history to the War of 1812 and hockey. But as Howard Zinn said, “The memory of oppressed people… cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface.”viii

My naiveté fell away, and I saw more clearly, and found myself needing to speak about these fractures between what is said / what is done. To return to now, standing outside and far away from there, I can see how my departure would be inevitable, and that a small community clings to its self-serving mythologies as fiercely as any other “larger” space might. I didn’t follow party lines but got “distracted” by unpleasant realities.

My old voice would have simply reiterated what the visual arts community said, but louder and wider; now I see a larger sphere, a larger theatre, with more to engage, and more to argue…with different loyalties and different responsibilities. Or, to paraphrase a Doris Lessing character, the party would have had to have me shot to preserve unity if I kept that up. As I handed off the responsibilities of covering visual arts on CFCR 90.5 FM to two new people, whom would shape it into what they saw fit, I heard the words of the Program Director. He was reminding them that you owe nothing to any gallery, or organization, that you cover, but solely your listeners.

Perhaps it’s because I now am no longer “there” that I think it possible to give some shape to my experience. Just as I look for illumination about artworks in literature, I look for an identifiable narrative there, too, to graft onto my time as a critic in Saskatoon. Salman Rushdie, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, proffers that “the only people who see the whole picture…are the ones who step out of the frame.” ix

I’d argue that’s the role of the critic, in a visual arts community; and it only becomes stronger, more crisply defined from a distance, now, as I consider my time there, what I accomplished and where I succeeded. And especially where I failed. Repeatedly. As I may be continuing to do, here, with this. In the words of Doris Lessing, “I don’t know why I still find it so hard to accept that words are faulty and their very nature inaccurate.”x

In the winter of 2012, I was invited to speak to a postgraduate class at the University of Saskatchewan about the role I had “carved out”, to quote their instructor, in the community, with my words. My position, as the sole instructor in any new media area had been eliminated in the latest / ongoing rounds of austerity the year before; I had repeatedly pointed out, on air and in print, that you could now get more education in digital imagery / editing / web design at Aden Bowman high school in Saskatoon, and any respect for the humanities as “practiced” at that university had been eroded. I suspected several MFA students had asked for me to visit partly to see what might happen, and what I might say: I was expected to “speak recklessly”, I imagine.

The teacher was Joan Borsa, a writer / curator / teacher whom I respect greatly, and who very much facilitated her class incorporating diverse, and potentially dangerous people (considering my repeated criticisms of the University). Sometimes I have hope for higher education, due to individuals like her.

Borsa wanted me to speak about what I did, why I did it, and anything that would inform both the MFA students and foster a worthwhile discussion. This wasn’t the first time I was faced with speaking about why I chose to begin writing about art, and the larger issues that defined it in that community, but it was in many ways a crucial one. I had attempted to articulate it before, but in a less critical manner than I felt the students deserved.

At my website, for example, I offered the following: that I began writing about shows that merited attention (positive or negative) and weren’t getting it elsewhere. Intelligent discourse about art is a rarity, and in some places has atrophied, as it has been so long since it thrived or was encouraged.

In speaking to these students – some of whom were younger, some of whom were my age – it was a rare and wonderful opportunity to speak honestly and directly about why it’s important to talk about art, and why it’s important to have voices that disagree, challenge and antagonize, even. I also hoped – and I found it to be true – that I might bring some healthy skepticism – some criticism, if you will – to my own position in that community, and in being honest to these students, hope that they might offer some engaged truths to me, too. I might speak about how I saw my role: and perhaps they might be comfortable enough to tell me how they saw me. There is a certain doubt I bring to art writing, I admitted to these MFAs. It was a cynical time, after all, as they were being confronted with the unjust fact that now they might need a PhD to even hope for the tenured dream. (An art education panel at AKA that I spoke at, in 2008, was almost comical when an art professor, safely ensconced in tenure at the University of Regina, wistfully commented that the PhD was “interesting.” When I asked if they and their cohorts would be told to get one, or see their positions lost to those who did, they seemed confused, like most with privilege react, to the affront that they might lose it.)

I began by stating to that class how it is extremely trendy (and safely transgressive) to talk about how more Art is not necessarily a good thing, or a necessary thing. Even that bastion of consumerism, Canadian Art, which styles itself as “Canada’s most widely read art magazine”, and is (arguably) considered the flagship of art periodicals in this country, mentioned this in a past issue, without a trace of irony. There is undoubtedly quantity, but quality is a question. Even the vitriolic current debate about the use of the personal voice, the individual narrative, in criticism, is less of an issue for me than that the quality of writing be better, and that the points made are not so much subjective / objective as well expressed, and relevant to the conversation (I thank Earl Miller, an excellent curator / critic, for this illuminating dissection). After all, any historian with even the roughest understanding of feminism will understand that in many instances the pejorative labelling of “subjectivity” simply means it is not an “official” or “approved” position.

Because writing about art, and art criticism, has multiplied exponentially in tandem with art making, in these heady times I explored then, with those students, and revisit now, a few ideas that have been circulating in my mind about this “activity”, on both a personal and a larger basis. Some of these ideas illustrate the failure of art writing: others explore its necessity. Some of them had their genesis in spaces where I was solely a witness, not a participating voice.

One such moment occurred at a panel at AKA artist run to accompany Heather Passmore’s solo exhibition, where the speakers were verbose in evaluating notions of “gatekeepers” (The show was titled this). Passmore’s work was an almost breathtakingly massive archive of rejection letters from galleries, artist run centres and universities, but also larger “rejection letters” she’d drawn and “doodled” upon, now poster-sized ironic works of art.

This panel was narcoleptic and unsatisfying, until it was broken by an interjection by the then-associate curator at the Mendel Art Gallery (which was at the time Saskatoon’s premiere public gallery and the pre-cursor to the new Remai Modern). Curator and arts administrator Jen Budney’s blunt assertion was that visual arts communities are hypocrites. They may say they crave “criticality” but will respond with affront, rage and (as demonstrated at that moment by some present) belligerent ignorance at any suggestion of something they don’t condone. I stifled my pleased laughter as I left the room, but was thinking of Theodor Adorno’s idea that when confronted with something genuinely different, truly pushing boundaries, “most fall back on the shamelessly modern assertion that they simply don’t understand.”xi

A brief aside, that enlarges this anecdote: the loose title of this confession (“Who cares? Why bother?”) comes courtesy of the late critic Chester Pelkey, who in many ways acted as a mentor to me. He was a rough one at times, an approach I suspect I merited – I was often subject to a dissection of my writings prefaced with that same challenging phrase. This was a common interrogation he shot at “artists”, and his position as one of the significant critics of photo-based art in Canada lent weight to that salvo. He was often the only reason to read Border Crossings, perhaps the “second best” art magazine in Canada, after Canadian Art.

I also cite Pelkey’s “rudeness” to indicate how often the role of the critic is to cut through the fog of art: the often arrogant assertions by “artists” that what they do is incredibly ground-breaking, when it doesn’t appear so, from where others stand. His bluntness is echoed in art critic Boris Groys’ warning regarding the “avant garde” and the true role it plays in the social capital narrative. Groys’ words, from The Total Art of Stalinism: “These questions undoubtedly arise out of a rather naive and “rosy” notion of art that gradually gained currency in twentieth- century aesthetics. According to this view, art is an activity that is independent of power and seeks to assert the autonomy of the individual and the attendant virtues of individual freedom. Historically, however, art that is universally regarded as good has frequently served to embellish and glorify power.”xii

So I’ll admit further arrogance: to me, the purpose of writing about art is often to act as “interpreter”, to add nuance, but also acting as one who points out that the emperor may be naked.

Nearly everyone is familiar with this Hans Christian Anderson story. The king promenades in an old set of clothes while declaring them wonderfully new. All parrot agreement, until a small child speaks the unpleasant truth, and the spell is broken (nobody says what happened to the child, but we’ve already covered the “reward” for insightful dissent…). But it’s amusing to consider an earlier version. The king is sold a suit of fine clothing by con men whom claim that only men who aren’t the sons of the men they presume to be their fathers are unable to see the finery…the serendipitous parallels regarding patrimony, or providence and the notion of propriety in the Art world are almost too amusing to resist.

A distinction between art critics and art historians (as I occupy both worlds) is that art historians rarely originate an idea, but rely on what has come before them, and thus are more children in an intellectual discourse always differing or depending upon their elders…and sometimes display similar “difficulties” in determining if something is there, or simply what you’re pretending to see.

With such a wide-ranging industry invested in greater production of art, and expanded frameworks built up around it, we must remember that critical looking, and critical enquiry, is needed to ensure we don’t become masturbatory and self-seeking. Let me speak recklessly and ask that you listen openly, here. Not all opinions are valid: informed opinions are necessary. Let’s be even more heretical, shall we, now that we’ve crossed a line? Informed rarely means academic. Informed can mean educated, but often times in “teaching spaces”, more critical thoughts are prohibited than permitted. In his A B C’s of Reading, Ezra Pound ventures, “ANY general statement is like a cheque drawn on a bank. Its value depends on what is there to meet it. If Mr. Rockefeller draws a cheque for a million dollars it is good. If I draw one for a million it is a joke, a hoax, it has no value. If it is taken seriously, the writing of it becomes a criminal act. The same applies with cheques against knowledge. If Marconi says something about ultra-short waves it MEANS something. Its meaning can only be properly estimated by someone who KNOWS.exiii

Again, I think, I expose my enjoyment of the role of “maverick” that I was given once and still find comfortable.  Curator / writer Elizabeth Matheson christened me such, when she recruited me to be part of the Strandline Curatorial Collective. Founded in 2016, “Strandline is a group of professional independent curators who research, organize and present contemporary visual art events in Saskatchewan, including gallery exhibitions, symposia, and art fairs.”xiv I warned her that I don’t play well in collectives, and she assured me that my “maverick style” was what they wanted in terms of my participation. This was a positive, if brief, experience, as Strandline seemed to have more in common with early artist run centers, bringing together individuals with different skills and interests to foster specific events, with more of an atmosphere of collaborative non-hierarchical actions and dialogue.

Returning to the Gatekeepers panel, I was silent on why I believe there’s so little interest in writing about art outside the academic / artistic field for “other” audiences, or, in conjunction with this, why there is so little interest in those wide audiences in the insular art “communities”, or why they dismiss them so out of hand. One of the members of the audience asked at one point why I, as the person in the room who had published the most of anyone about art, was not on the panel. I simply smiled and refilled the coffee maker, and got more cookies for those in attendance. Part of the reason for my silence then, considering my obvious willingness to be so forthright elsewhere, was that I was protesting the composition of the panel, which seemed more about easy politics than genuine debate, and it was easy to be silent there without any regret, or fear of repercussions.

As my aforementioned (perhaps inevitable) parting from AKA came about at the hands of an AKAboard member (one of whom openly admitted their motivation to “punish” me for a review they disliked from years before), this also serves as fine punctuation of Budney’s incisive points about welcome and unwelcome – and thus punished – voices. But perhaps even more distressing with that panel, and what may truly have fed my apathy is that it was the same safe “conversation” with the safe same “points” among the usual “groupthink.”

Indeed, at a roundtable years later at the Mendel Art Gallery, specifically talking about art writing within the university / academic / art magazine sphere, a glorified custodian of a university gallery asserted that he wouldn’t “dumb down” his incomprehensible gallery curatorial statements I responded that his assumptions of superiority were essentially flawed, if he was unable to eschew jargon for better communication. This smug willingness to have fewer people engage with the art – other than the usual suspects, whom would be there anyway – than abandon the “approved” language of the ivory tower reminds me that, “The whirlwind is in the thorn trees, and it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks”xv…or, as a past editor of Canadian Art told me, “Can’t you just write a review just like the ones in the magazine already?”

This echoes, appropriately, how much of contemporary art is so self-referential that any iconic signifiers, or any possibility for an interaction with the viewer (as in cultural critic Jeanne Randolph’s amenable object where the viewer posits more of the meaning of the work than the creator of the same) isn’t just impossible, but actively refuted. One must ask who is “gatekeeping”, and who is on each side of the “gate”, or if anyone is trying to “get in”, at all…

Alice Gregory’s review of Basquiat: The Unknown Notebooks offers an elaboration of this abyss between the worlds of the “artists” or the “artistic community” and those of us whom are by choice or by circumstance external from it and speaking from the outside in. Gregory, in reviewing the sketchbooks and such of Basquiat, now long since martyred and sainted by the art world, wears the robe of the writer in privileging words over image in attempting to decode for the reader the importance of Basquiat. I’m unsure if she does that, but she uses this as an example of what so many find amiss with contemporary art: “…contemporary art, which for the past century has often been the product of speech acts. I am an artist because I say I am an artist. This is art because I say it is.”xvi

That incisive fragment is of value for two reasons: the opacity of the “art object” and the insular, personal narrative behind it / around it that’s unclear to any lacking the personal relationship and intimacy of the same, being first. The other implied point is that the jargon, the language of art, will define the piece, and it is as impenetrable and smug as it is refuting of any criticism of the entire milieu. The indictment regarding dissent, as articulated at the Gatekeepers panel, is in play here, too. All interlocked.

This may expose another bias of mine, in my favouring of “populist” spaces that ask the difficult, perhaps even rude, question, that you’ll never hear in an MFA Art Criticism program. But “populist” isn’t my term for them. I appropriated it from an “academic” who intended it as an insult, I believe, in response to one of my reviews, regarding the heated debate in Saskatoon then over what she’d call “public art” and what I call “art in the public sphere.”xvii

My insistence on privileging the public(s) in this framework, and the dismissal of them by the artist with whom I spoke, illustrates effectively our positions regarding “populism.” In my experience, these “populist” spaces (manifest for me in Planet S, and in CFCR) were often liberating and rewarding. The audience was wide, deep and genuinely diverse, as those who’ve stepped into the unregulated waters of various media can understand. There’s no preset canon: this possibility, this often pugnacious and combative space for an exchange of ideas and thoughts was the best classroom I ever had, for writing. That I published in nearly every issue over my decade plus run with the Planet, whose priority under four editors was never visual arts, is a testament to a hunger for ideas and considered expressions of the same, as well as a receptiveness to rigorous looking, learning and even – especially – disagreement.

In seizing the opportunity I’d been given to foster that quality of dialogue amongst those graduate students in 2012, I selected three past articles of mine for them to review, before we met. Among these, I intentionally chose a piece I’d written about an exhibition by a faculty member in their department, whose work was roundly praised by the university and roundly criticised by the larger visual arts community. I intentionally chose this as it would offer points of contention and criticism for how artists position themselves, how the community responds to that, and how communities should respond to it.

I begin here, as I did then, with“Prom Qualms,”xviii which was my review of Becoming, an exhibition by a tenured University of Saskatchewan faculty member; an article that earned me praise and punishment. But it also helped change the conversation about art in Saskatoon. Thus it acts as a starting point, and is formative to the later articles that are its companion signposts in this chapter, and for my time, in Saskatoon. These are: my unexpected praise of Joni Mitchell’s Green Flag Songxix while situating it within a larger and needed debate about public spaces and stakeholders, and my unwelcome positioning of Ruth Cuthand’s Back Talkin spaces outside of the bloodless gallery walls, invoking and exposing institutional racism, for Canadian Art.xx

I originally attended the artist’ talk for Becoming secure in the knowledge I’d not be writing about the show, as I was unimpressed with the work. Becoming was this artist’s latest foray into portraiture, with past images exploring the performative aspect of “dressing up”, whether in costume or more historical dress. This exhibition focused upon “the enduring cultural tradition” of the prom. There were a number of large colour photographs of various teenage girls in prom dresses, sometimes looking very adult, other times clowning with their girlfriends in mimicry of a “best friends forever” yearbook image. One wall also depicted “before” photos, of the girls not “in costume”. There were also a several small video monitors, simply looping photographing of the girls, and was edited so as to incorporate images of the girls in their everyday garb. Shot in front of school lockers, the only audio is the ambient talk between the artist and her subjects. The only works that offered an interesting fracture to the overall narrative of Becoming were four images of discarded prom dresses, shot from above, puddled on the floor. These were almost separate, along the back wall.

The response by many attendees in the ensuing discussion post artist’s talk made very clear why writing about it was necessary (Lee Henderson, who was also in attendance, approached me after the raucous conversation, and asked if I had changed my mind about writing on the show, and encouraged me to do so, as the debate had been affecting). Prom Qualms is, in many ways, a fine example of how critical writing is very valid– if it’s done honestly, openly, and with a consideration for the multiplicity of audience seeking a conversation that may transcend the object and truly become, itself, “art in the public realm”. Conversely, if a review of Becomingwas an assignment for a class in the pedantic spaces of the contemporary art school, the multiplicity / intersectionality of feminism may be denied by a “teacher”… or the politics of queer, class and race may be dismissed, as well. If this work had been presented in a classroom environment, with all its ideological apparatus and encumbrances, would anyone have been able to ask, as someone did, “Where are all the fat girls?”

That quote opened my review. Furthermore,

the artist talk became one of the more lively exchanges of recent memory, as my opening salvo indicated. A number of individuals emphasized some other relevant points that this work speaks to, such as elitism, class, and whether [the artist] is saying to the girls that “this is the hoop you already know, from pop culture. Jump through it for me.” Becoming confronts us with the question as to whether this depiction of “prom” or “grad” is just the overlaying of prefabricated consumer forms under the guise of “individuality” and “self – definition”, leading to no dissonance, and a snug, constricting fit within pre – existing paradigms of performative, artificial femininity.xxi

Other comments about the absence of high school “losers”, the impoverished or less than confidently photogenic, were succinctly stated (and I, like any good critic, stole this for my piece – with appropriate credits, of course). Whether these were simply the “alpha girls” – and some other very incisive points regarding the exclusionary “default” nature of high school social strata – were made by queer performance artist Cindy Baker. The comment about the presentation of another social hoop simply exacerbating pre-existing social pressures on teenage girls was raised by Joan Borsa. The late art educator Peter Purdue injected amusement that this might be “affirming” as he remembered when refuting constricting “feminine” clothing was an auger of independence, and a staunchly feminist artist was making work just next door in AKA that was deconstructing the idea of “dress” of all its stricture and structures.

I often joked that a “group” wrote this review (Truly, I really just stitched it together from the outrage and anger of those in attendance at the talk.) In highlighting the fractures between how the artist and the rest of us saw the work, my review compared Becoming to its more successful predecessor in the PAVED gallery space, 21:

The previous exhibition at PAVED, Elwood Jimmy’s 21, also spoke about myths that are imposed upon one group of people by another: but that show offered some genuine raw voices, that may disconcert and insult us but that have an uncomfortable legitimacy. Becoming is too much like a photo spread in Teen Cosmo. There’s no real answers [or questions] presented here, and the nostalgia is a little too sentimental and sweet and cloying … I am unsure Becoming has anything of genuine critical value to offer, or if it’s simply another manifestation of “prom” mythology. Perhaps that is the point.xxii

Sometimes you speak with the wider communities, in their concerns: and sometimes you speak, not so much against them, as trying to offer a considered widening of the conversation. So, when Joni Mitchell (arguably one of her generation’s finest songwriters, an icon of music both in Canada and internationally; unlike many of her “boomer” contemporaries, she’s continued to write, perform and win praise for it) was granted a second solo exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery in 2009, many in the community were contemptuous, amused or angry. Many dismissed it as a publicity stunt, another mercenary means to an end. Understandably: her first show Voices (at the Mendel in 2000) was atrocious. Her self-portrait as Van Gogh was representative: delusions of grandeur mixed with an amateur quality only rivalled by her sense of entitlement. But, as I said to then Mendel CEO / Director Gilles Hébert, who bears the brunt of responsibility for that show, the publicity it garnered could not have been obtained otherwise short of a deal with the Devil…and to his credit, he laughed quite loudly at my audacity.

And, as I touched upon repeatedly in the article in FUSE, there are multiple publics that deserve to be engaged, and compromise is the touchstone of public – and shared – spaces. Perhaps Voices served to placate the politicians (both in city council or elsewhere) when the Mendel turned around and co presented TRIBE’s solo exhibition of Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptin’s An Indian Act: An Indian Shooting the Indian Act. This exhibition presented several of the accomplished artist’s large format paintings, but pride of place was given to a rifle, mounted and framed, and a video of Yuxweluptin using said rifle to shoot a copy of the Indian Act – repeatedly. The perforated pages were also mounted on the wall, like a carcass hanging on the wall. His artist’s talk was notable for the declaration that he had no time for “hate politics” disguised as “reform.” His words were as accurate as his rifle shots, and just as intentional.

My article on Green Flag Song was published in the now defunct FUSE Magazine, which fancied itself a bastion of social justice as well as art.  I was always amused at their disinterest in colonial issues in Canada, but their obsession with the contested site of Palestine / Israel…I couldn’t help but feel that this was how they manifested an “academic” approach to these issues in art, as Palestine allowed for a posturing, a pulpit, without the possibility – or pressure – to enact meaningful, local change. Results, as they say about academia, were not required or possible in choosing to “stand” there. I mention this here not just to be critical, but to also reflect back on the pragmatism that was at play in my review of Green Flag Song.

As I stated in that article, I was prepared to savage the show, the gallery, and the curatorial offender who propagated this abuse of “Art” in the cause of celebrity:

Assertions that … giving her a solo show [at] the Mendel is pandering to “philistines” at city hall or in government (who hold the purse strings) and that this exhibition bastardizes the Mendel’s vision, were made before the show as even mounted, and continue now, by some who haven’t seen the work yet. I don’t excuse or spare myself here. I was waiting, knives out, to savage this show. But after seeing the work … I have come to begrudgingly admit that the work is far better than I expected. I have come to understand that the exhibition in the gallery is only the focus for a number of issues that brought it there. These also continue to influence how this community sees it.xxiii

In seeing the work, in talking to then Mendel CEO / Director Vince Varga and Chief Curator Dan Ring (now retired Emeritus), a more considered, and less easily delineated, conversation took place. Who “owns” a public space, who merits representation – and who doesn’t – and what are our own ideological frameworks that define our reaction to the same were all considered.

Some of these are so ingrained as to be invisible (Mitchell was attacked by some whom seemed to momentarily forgot their commitment to feminism, or even their academic rhetoric of “inclusiveness” – or perhaps the façade slipped, and the emperor was again nude, for a rich moment…).

In FUSE, I dared to ask why Mitchell was a misuse of the space: the Mendel (among many sites, both in Saskatoon and elsewhere) has had curators just as shuttered by abhorrent nepotism that sees personal relationships too often taint professional ones. The same side gallery that Mitchell occupied had seen a parade of exhibitions by artists of varying quality that seemed unfinished and unresolved, and were far poorer in execution and concept than Mitchell’s socially conscious and controversial observations on the (second) Iraq war. Further: an abstract painter in Saskatoon lamented to me for a full two hours about how the Remai Modern should have hired Director A instead of Director B as she knew she’d get various shows with Director B. This was not presented as opinion – or cronyism – so much as an egregious slight of the “artistic community”. Is this any less / more obscene than Mitchell’s “name recognition”?

As I asked in my review of Flag:

Does one describe a pop star who paints as a “tourist,” but not tenured faculty who use the space to drop an unresolved and unengaging work? Is it “touristing” to re write Yeats [as Mitchell did], but not “touristing” to treat a solo show here – a much coveted opportunity, for many – as one’s right to drop a work that is unfinished and irrelevant, and then smugly invoke that magic postmodern word “process” as an escape hatch? Is it “touristing” to pretend to be an activist with one’s practice, citing all the appropriate names, and yet deny one’s privilege and power? xxiv

Or am I to be censured, for speaking this? Perhaps, as Budney asserted at the Gatekeepers panel, this is undesired and prohibited criticality.

I regret that I am not at ground zero (with the soon to be opened Remai Modern) to further explore this very Canadian difficulty, the dichotomy between the regional and the international. As Tanner noted in The Sociology of Art: “The success of particular artists and art movements was attributed not to the aesthetic properties and resonances of the works of art but to the economic and political power of prominent gatekeepers in the art world, able to confer or withhold the honorific label of art and impose hierarchies of values which were shaped by economic rather than aesthetic interests.” xxv 

Even though it’s now closed, in anticipation and preparation for the Remai Modern, the politicized space that was the Mendel still casts a shadow. Perhaps it exists more strongly now in the minds of many as it has no physical space, or exhibitions on display, to interfere with memories and affections. It was, to myself and many others, one of Western Canada’s finest galleries. Their programming was often visionary: in writing about the exhibition Modern Visions, marking a half century of the Mendel, I stated that

this confrontational inclusiveness in Visions is impressive, and a smart snapshot of the gallery’s history — and by extension, Saskatoon’s history. The Mendel has changed significantly over its half-century, defying the political pressures that many civic galleries are often beholden to. Arthur Miller said that, “an era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted,” but that can be a positive thing, and speak more about a rich possibility replacing a dogmatic orthodoxy. Modern Visions acts more as a step forward than a nostalgic look backwards.xxvi

Which brings me to my third and final excerpted review. I alluded to this ‘step forward’, when speaking of Ruth Cuthand’s work there, in her retrospective Back Talk; I liked to quip that her work offended all the people it should, in all the appropriate ways. Cuthand is an artist and educator whose work stretches over several decades and various media, often chosen to augment her ideas. Her most recent works are all about the crisis of access to clean water in places like Attawapiskat but also her own reserve (Little Pine), and bluntly all across the continent. Her work has often depicted how “there is a third world in every first world, and vice versa”.xxvii Her practice is diverse: rough drawings, photo collage, video and delicate beaded works on velvet. The latter are, in many ways, the apex of Cuthand’s practice: rendering diseases that decimated Indigenous populations, a biological “gift” of colonialism, in round and colourful microscopic cross sections of diphtheria or smallpox.

In highlighting Cuthand’s paintings in a group show, I began with the acerbic assertion that “it could also be that much art — and many artists — are irrelevant to larger society. (Calm down — it’s a hard truth, but a truth nonetheless).” xxviii Her retrospective sampled multiple bodies of work (eight, in fact) that illustrated the necessity of art to engage with its communities:

Back Talk filled several of the Mendel Art Gallery’s spaces, but the series Misuse is Abuse (1990) stood out. The title is taken from the governmental stamp on school supplies “magnanimously” distributed to residential-school students; that genteel veneer is dispelled by the words and actions of the so-called educators in Cuthand’s drawings. Several have long nails and maws that suggest the children are to be eaten, not just assimilated. One figure admonishes an Indian doll in a dunce cap with: “Bad bad Indian, Commandment No. 1: Never disappoint a white liberal.” Many of the large, crudely rendered pencil drawings incorporate vulgar cliches; “All they need is discipline” and “Nobody likes an Uppity Indian” are brutal. In response to complaints about her work [when this was shown as part of her MFA exhibition], Cuthand borrowed titles from the Group of Seven. The “uppity Indian” has a new, supposedly inoffensive title: “January Thaw, Edge of Town.” (Saskatoon has a notorious history of dumping “uppity Indians” at the “edge of town” in winter.)xxix

Amusingly, Canadian Art’s fact checker asked for proof of the notorious “Starlight Tours”, which I refer to in the “dumping” of that last line: forwarding the Saskatchewan Government’s report on it was dismissed as unacceptable (the comment “You’ve cited one example. Are there others?” indicated that the report was most likely unread), and so I decided to simply overwhelm them with multiple references, from links to books to links to articles in papers that they’d be familiar with (“legitimate” ones, perhaps), such as the Globe and Mail. Years later, when I’d write on an exhibition that was about the experiences of residential school survivors, I’d refer to this revealing “doubt”, this moment of ideological state apparatus at play:

I’ve been reading Boris Groys’ excellent book The Art of Stalinism lately. It’s fascinating, not just for its unvarnished look at a much-misunderstood period in the history of art, but also for some of the asides (often barbed) he makes about “Western” art history. One of these is the idea that “real art” is somehow separate from economy, class or the other strictures and structures of society. The writing you’ll see in Canadian Art magazine is a good example of this — but ignoring class just makes it very clear that the higher the position you hold, the more you can’t ignore those “below” you.xxx

My departure from AKA, whose board circumvented their director (and chair) at the urging of several board members with strong ties to the art department, coincided with another issue I raised regarding Indigenous / non Indigenous relations in the visual arts community, and again touched upon Cuthand:

So: back to the aforementioned hypocrisy, as another work of note here is Nicole Paul’s Unwanted Children of the Indian Residential Schools. Paul samples text from artist Cathy Busby, specifically Busby’s appropriation of the PM’s apology for residential schools. Some of you may remember Busby’s Budget Cuts billboard that was on 20th St. several years ago, which has become a touchstone (for me and many others) about how politicians are gleeful liars. Budget Cuts listed all the aboriginal-focused programs eliminated by the Harper government since the “apology.” Talk is cheap when the actions that follow are the same, or worse. This raises another point: it’s odd the Art Department is engaged in this project. If you’ve seen the TransformUS report that came out of that area, you’ll note that section 5.1, BFA honours program states, “Faculty Member awarded SAB Lieutenant Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award.” That’s obviously Ruth Cuthand, who last taught there in 2005 — as a sessional, not faculty. Cuthand also expressed exasperation to me about when she did apply for a tenure position at the U of S. There’s no finer definition of institutional racism than passing off the work of others as your own, while keeping those same individuals away from genuine power.xxxi

Several weeks later I was no longer employed at AKA “artist run”: two years later I’d leave Saskatoon. Allow me to quote my preamble to a review of Mary Longman’s impressive billboard project, Warrior Woman, that overlooked the gentrified (or displacing, edit as you will) site of Riversdale, in Saskatoon:

I was chatting recently with a fellow cultural worker (anonymously: organisations that cite “critical dialogue” in their mandate, like an art department or artist run centre, can be exceptionally Stalinist and reactionary to dissent). We were bemoaning the disparity in many artistic organisations between a genuine engagement with a site, and fluctuating narratives of a place that directly challenge comfortable, current ones, and the half assed political glad-handing we usually see in these spaces.xxxii

I was once accused of being an art writer who doesn’t write about art but politics: I embraced the comment as an unintended compliment.

There is no ‘crisis’ in criticism. Rather, the traditional mandates of art criticism are obsolete”.xxxiii

So, what’s the point of critical writing, in a small community? I’m not so arrogant to presume I speak for others: nor do I want that responsibility. My time in cultural spaces, like universities, has shown me that no one makes a better oppressor of thought than a former revolutionary thinker…and that old joke about putting one’s hand in bucket of water, pulling it out and the hole that is left is how much you’ll be missed, is indisputable. Personally so, I now know. Perhaps that is the aspect of “failure” as manifest here, in this piece…At its best, it’s an offer of dialogue, sometimes respectful, sometimes affirming, and other times very challenging – of the artwork itself, or the ideological framework that the artist espouses; a contribution to a contested and exciting dialogue.

I like to think that I had a long-standing relationship with the multifaceted “arts” community of Saskatoon, and built on our shared history, and refreshed and rejuvenated old conversations with new ones. Or, as demonstrated by my continuing, if reluctant, involvement in YXE Arts issues, and larger, communities there, I still feel the need to “again, widen the debate.”xxxiv

It’s been said that many artists simply make the same piece over and over again, refining and honing it to perfection. There is a similar theme in my writing, and I’ll end on the idea that all my articles are about history, site and place, and how history is often a collaborative delusion, but that art is one of the things that can cut through that, to speak “truth to power”. That phrase is ragged and abused, but still valid. And other times, art helps obscure, and then it’s the role of the critic to do the “cutting”. I am deeply intrigued by sites of contested narratives, and the conversations and arguments that are intrinsic to that.

As to my time in Saskatoon, I might make a small joke in light of the above thoughts about “pacing the cage”, from the last article I wrote for Planet S, two week before I departed the prairies:

It’s synchronicity that my final Planet S review, before my departure from Saskatoon, is about the play of memory / fantasy, place / displace, remembrance and sadness.

It’s been my privilege to write about art here for more than a decade with Planet S, and perhaps this visual arts community, with its courage and cowardice, its integrity and ignorance, has appreciated having a critic in residence. Or not. Best not to look back — look at what happened to Lot’s wife. I love you with all my heart, Saskatoon, and I hate you with an intensity that frightens. Oh, did you really think I would begin to lie to you now, when I’m leaving? Not bloody likely. Kinana’skomitina’wa’w, ki’htwa’m, ka-wa’p(a)mit(i)na’n, Saskatoon.xxxv

Selected Bibliography

All of the articles I cite in this piece are available online, either in html or PDF format, and I recommend that they be read in tandem with this piece. There is a selected bibliography below, as well. Some links to facilitate this are as follows:

http://www.magentafoundation.org/magazine/tag/saskatoon/
http://www.gallerieswest.ca/topics/bart-gazzola/

2016

“A Confluence of Geographies”, Hamilton Arts & Letters (focused on Finding City 2015, specifically Monique Motut-Firth’s residency in Saskatoon and Elizabeth Chitty’s Confluence Field Trips in St.Catharines, 2015 – 2016)

2015

Ave Atque Vale: Hail Tribe, Farewell Mendel, Hamilton Arts & Letters

“Last Picture Show: Amalie Atkins”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“The Fifth World: Tribe”, Magenta Magazine, Toronto

“Perfect Goodbye: Modern Visions at the Mendel”, Planet S Magazine

“Modern Visions”, Magenta Magazine, Toronto

“Tammi Campbell & Kara Uzelmen ‘concerning certain events’”, Galleries West Magazine

“In The Making”, Magenta Magazine, Toronto

“New Voices in a New Place”, Ominocity, Saskatoon

“Sympathetic Magic”, Magenta Magazine, Toronto

“Stronger Than Stone: some thoughts and ideas”, CARFAC SK Newsletter

“Faith, Fraud & Formalism: ReWilding Modernity at the Mendel”, Hamilton Arts & Letters

2014

“Modern Women: Who’s Afraid of Orange, Purple and Green?”, Magenta Magazine

“Patrick Traer: A Survey”, Galleries West Magazine

“Public Perusal: Mary Longman”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Looking Back, Moving Forward”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

2013

“Rebellion and Revolution: Les Automatistes & Shaping SK”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Lost in Translation: Susan Shantz”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Beautiful Mercy: Eli Bornstein”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Digital History: Buffy Sainte-Marie”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Come Home”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Ladies in the Lead”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“‘Perfect’ People: Janet Werner”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Resistance is not Futile”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Dark Coffee: Barbara Reimer”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

2012

“Every Prophet in Their House: Beneath a Petroliferous Moon”, Hamilton Arts &

Letters

“History Repeating”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“Suitable for Framing”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

“The Real World: StreetGraphix”, Planet S Magazine, Saskatoon

2011

“Ruth Cuthand: BackTalk”, Canadian Art Magazine, Toronto

“Habitaptation: Future Shocks”, Canadian Art Magazine, Toronto

“Modern Sprawl: Formerly Exit Five”, BlackFlash Magazine, Saskatoon

“Ten Cautionary Tales: Joseph Anderson”, Hamilton Arts & Letters

2010

“Grid Roads and Genocide: The World is not Flat”, FUSE Magazine, Toronto

“How I learned to stop worry…”(catalogue essay), Shifts, University of Saskatchewan

2009       

“Culture, Community and Audience: Joni Mitchell’s Green Flag Song”, FUSE Magazine, Toronto

i I invite those intrigued by my term “karaoke modernism” to read my piece “Faith, Fraud & Formalism: ReWilding Modernity at the Mendel,” Hamilton Arts & Letters, 2014-15.

ii cfcr.ca (some past episodes are available online at bartgazzola.com)

iii Vaughan, “Never read the comments: notes from 25 years of art criticism,” CBC, March 31, 2016

iv Gazzola, “A Confluence of Geographies,” Hamilton Arts & Letters, 2015/16

v Atwood, Cat’s Eye, 46

vi Henderson, A Regional Declaration of Evangelical Criticality, 2008

vii Gazzola, “Fall Arts Guide: Bart Gazzola’s Top Five Most Anticipated Fall Art Exhibits”, Planet S, September 21, 2011

viii Gazzola, “Resistance is not Futile,” Planet S Magazine, February 7, 2013

ix Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, 43

x Lessing. The Golden Notebook, 1394

xi Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damage Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott, 213

xii Groys, The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant- Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship and Beyond, 7

xiii Pound, ABC of Reading, 35

xiv Matheson, Strandline Curatorial Collective, “Overview”

xv Johnny Cash, “The Man Comes Around,” 2002

xvi Alice Gregory, “New Art,” Harper’s Magazine, August 2015

xvii This is an idea taken from Dr. Cameron Cartiere, from the Street Meet Public Art Festival Panel, 2015. She graciously encouraged my theft and usage of the term.

xviii Gazzola, “Prom Qualms,” Planet S Magazine, 2007

xix Gazzola, “Culture, Community and Audience: Joni Mitchell’s Green Flag Song,” FUSE Magazine, July 1, 2009

xx Gazzola, “Review: Ruth Cuthand, “BackTalk,’” Canadian Art Magazine, September 15, 2011

xxi Gazzola, “Prom Qualms,” Planet S Magazine, 2007

xxii Ibid.

xxiii Gazzola, “Culture, Community and Audience”, FUSE Magazine, July 1, 2009

xxiv Ibid.

xxv Tanner, “Sociology, Aesthetic Form and the Specificity of Art,” 207

xxvi Gazzola, “Modern Visions,” Magenta Magazine, 2015

xxvii Trinh, “Of Other Peoples: Beyond the Salvage Paradigm,”140-42

xxviii Gazzola. “Time for Talk,” Planet S Magazine, May 5, 2011

xxix Gazzola, “Review: Ruth Cuthand, “BackTalk’”

xxx Gazzola, “Looking Back, Moving Forward,” Planet S Magazine, February 20, 2013

xxxi Ibid.

xxxii Gazzola, “Public Discourse,” Planet S Magazine, September 4, 2014

xxxiii Sofia Leiby and Jason Lazarus, in “Speculations on Digital Arts Media’s Future(s),” by Susanna Schouweiler, May 25, 2015

xxxiv From my recent online comments to Mitch Speed’s “Does the Right Hand Cover for the Left?: The Case of the Remai Modern and Its Errant Board,” MOMUS, 2016.

xxxv Bart Gazzola, “Last Picture Show: Amalie Atkins,” Planet S Magazine, July 23, 2015

Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damage Life. Translated by E.F.N. Jephcott. New York: Verso 1951

Atwood, Margaret. Cat’s Eye. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart 1988

Gazzola, Bart. “Time for Talk.” Planet S Magazine, May 5, 2011. http://old.planetsmag.com/story.php?id=443

— “Review: Ruth Cuthand,BackTalk’.” Canadian Art Magazine, September 15, 2011. http://canadianart.ca/reviews/ruth-cuthand-mendel/.

— “Looking Back, Moving Forward.” Planet S Magazine, February 20, 2013. http://old.planetsmag.com/story.php?id=1501

— “Public Discourse.” Planet S Magazine, September 4, 2014. http://old.planetsmag.com/story.php?id=1680

— “A Confluence of Geographies. Hamilton Arts & Letters, 2015-16, http://samizdatpress.typepad.com/hal_magazine_issue_eight2/a-confluence-of-geographies-by-bart-gazzola-1.html

— “Faith, Fraud & Formalism: ReWilding Modernity at the Mendel.” Hamilton Arts & Letters, 2014-15. http://samizdatpress.typepad.com/halmagazine-issue-seven-2/faith-fraud-and-formalism-rewilding-modernity-by-bart-gazzola-1.html

— “Fall Arts Guide: Bart Gazzola’s Top Five Most Anticipated Fall Art Exhibits.” Planet S, September 21, 2011. http://old.planetsmag.com/story.php?id=199

— “Prom Qualms”. Originally published in Planet S Magazine, 2007. Will be available on the author’s website, http://bartgazzola.com/

— “Resistance is not Futile.” Planet S Magazine, February 7, 2013. http://old.planetsmag.com/story.php?id=1104

— “Culture, Community and Audience: Joni Mitchell’s Green Flag Song.” FUSE Magazine, July 1, 2009. http://fusemagazine.org/2009/06/fuse-summer-2009

— “Review: Ruth Cuthand,BackTalk.’” Canadian Art Magazine, September 15, 2011. http://canadianart.ca/reviews/ruth-cuthand-mendel/

— “Last Picture Show: Amalie Atkins.” Planet S Magazine, July 23, 2015. http://old.planetsmag.com/story.php?id=1960.

Cash, Johnny, vocal performance of “The Man Comes Around,” by Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around, American Records/Universal, 2002

Gregory, Alice. “New Art.” Harper’s Magazine, August 2015. http://harpers.org/archive/2015/08/new-art-2/

Groys, Boris. The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant- Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship and Beyond. Translated by Charles Rougle. New York: Verso 2011

Henderson, Lee. A Regional Declaration of Evangelical Criticality, 2008. http://booster.blogspot.ca/2008/06/regional-declaration-of-evangelical.html

Lessing, Doris. The Golden Notebook, Toronto: Harper Perennial Classics 2008

Matheson, Elizabeth. “Overview”, Strandline Curatorial Collective Inc. https://www.facebook.com/pg/Strandline-Curatorial-Collective-Inc-112293048837522/about/?ref=page_internal

Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading. New York: New Directions Publishing 2010

Rushdie, Salman. The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf 1999

Schouweiler, Susannah.“Speculations on Digital Arts Media’s Future(s).” Mn Artists. May 25, 2015. http://www.mnartists.org/article/speculations-digital-arts-medias-futures?page=1

Tanner, Jeremy. “Sociology, Aesthetic Form and the Specificity of Art.” In Sociology of Art: A Reader, edited by Jeremy Tanner, 207-215. New York: Routledge, 2003

Trinh, T. Minh-Ha. “Of Other Peoples: Beyond the Salvage Paradigm.” In Discussions in Contemporary Culture, edited by Hal Foster, 121-141. Washington: Bay Press 1987

Vaughan, R.M. “Never read the comments: notes from 25 years of art criticism,” CBC, March 31, 2016. http://www.cbc.ca/arts/never-read-the-comments-notes-from-25- years-of-art-criticism-1.3514616

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.

BABELTECH™ and the power of language at NAC

And then one day he realised that of course he was always staring at his hand when he wrote, was always watching the pen as it moved along, gripped by his fingers, his fingers floating there in front of his eyes just above the words, above that single white sheet, just above these words i’m writing now, his fingers between him and all that, like another person, a third person, when all along you thot it was just the two of you talking and he suddenly realized it was the three of them, handling it on from one to the other, his hand translating itself, his words slipping thru his fingers into the written world. You. – bpNichol

Language is a virus. Laurie Anderson warned us. We weren’t listening. Like most warnings from the mid to late twentieth century made by artisitic prognosticators, she’s been ignored. (I can’t help but inject that other female contemporaries like Jenny Holzer, or Barbara Kruger, have seen their formal aesthetics appropriated, while the ideas that so challenged their – and our – worlds were not quite so popular…).

Now, Anderson is cited ad nauseum, but this is a dissapointing facile failure. Its repeated, but misunderstood. We don’t fear language like a virus as we should, like a drug resistant TB that might sweep across our city, leaving us without breathe to communicate.

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I’ll admit that these dark thoughts came to me while standing in front of two of the works in Eric Schmaltz’ exhibition BABELTECH INDUSTRIES™ presents…
THE ASSEMBLY LINE OF BABEL at Niagara Artists Centre: FUTURE and NOTHING, respectively, hung on the back wall as an apocryphal pairing, separated from the majority of works presented in the space which run along one wall.

Formally, they all employ a common template, with recurring sections and words: Assembly Instructions / Components / Tools Required / Product Detail all are contained in grey institutional boxes that move down the right side. Pride of space is given to a larger square captioned Exploded View. Like any good guide / map / instructional display, trademarks and disclaimers and warnings proliferate.

There’s something about their construction that references the impenetrable hopelessness of an IKEA catalogue but also the generic and overtly genuine and eager public health warnings (how to use that anti bacterial wash to avoid spreading the flu that will weaken our immune systems for future pestilences, perhaps).

Each image bears the disclaimer running along the bottom of the image, in its own thin grey box: USE PRODUCT AT OWN RISK. BABELTECH™ IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY BREAKDOWN IN COMMUNICATION OR MALFUNCTION: after all, tools – like language – can be dangerous in the wrong hands, and just as everything looks like a hammer to a nail, language has NEVER been a clear medium through which meaning travels from one to the other without some form of corruption, correction, critique…or code, perhaps.

Perhaps the “Old Stock Canadians” reading this will nod in agreement….or our once and future king, Stephen Harper, will enlighten us at a later date. The King’s speech, or the King’s English, if you will.

Schmaltz is described as a “language artist, writer, & researcher” and that first term is the one that my enjoyment of this show hinges upon, as it can incorporate so much, and so many incongruous threads….BABELTECH™ are both works in words but also in image, and this offers a multiplicities of readings and ways in which to interact with the pieces. How might these works be spoken? In describing them, I find this to be a liberation, not a challenge….its is appropriate here to the reference of “Babel”, but I’ll evoke a number of those later, too, as they are multiple, and can mean many things to many people.

This is a good point to admit that I’m a fan of the late bpNichol, whose works were self described as borderblur, whether his graphic Selected Organs: Part of an Autobiography or more challenging Martyrology Books. I encountered his works when I was 13 (ABC: The Aleph Beth Book, which is usually listed under his “visual” works), and since then my expectations of poetry have never dropped. Kaie Kellough’s performance, the same evening as Schmaltz’s exhibition, is worthy of mention in this lineage, but more on that in a moment….boundaries are there to be broken, not to constrain, like a living, growing map that’s more about the intangibles than about the clear, hard edged marks. Was bpNichol drawing or writing? Visual or literary? Speaking or sketching?

Let’s delve into some art theory (sorry, only time this review I’ll do this to you) for a moment, and consider the notions of signs. Some are indexical, that provide physical evidence of an object, such as a shoe print, or referential, like others that are made to look like what they resemble (the simple drawing of a tree, or the gender symbols on washrooms).

But what matters here is the more abstracted sign, that has no clear, immediate or obvious relation to that which it “represents” and we’ve simply – as a society, a community, or within even more intimate spaces of communication – agreed that “this” means “that.”

Amusingly, Letraset (I’ve had numerous moments of nostalgia for the 90s since my return to Southern Ontario, and this is / is not one of them) is ideal for this. It’s all components, parts and assemblages, literally breaking apart words and symbols to make new ones, literally cutting and sticking components together to make something new, newish or disturbingly familiar…

For example, on one level the seven pieces could be a fragment word poem. Read them as a sentence, traditionally Western, from left to right: CAPITAL INTELLIGENCE DESIRE AUTOMATION SINGULARITY DATA TECHNOMICS ENNUI LANGUAGE MACHINE SIMULATION THANATROPIC SUBJECTIVATION FUTURE NOTHING. They could be switched around to form different relations to the word that proceeds or follows them, sentences or associations that build or destroy, like blocks or bricks of language.

I’d be curious to have had someone track my interaction the first time I saw them: to track my viewing, or the viewing of others…CAPITAL to DESIRE back to CAPITAL…FUTURE NOTHING FUTURE NOTHING THANATROPIC MACHINE MACHINE…our veiwing constructs the “sentence” and our attentions defines what is the verb and what is the noun. THANATROPIC DESIRE THANATROPIC DESIRE…or perhaps if I was in more of a Marxist mood, CAPITAL DESIRE AUTOMATION ENNUI ENNUI CAPITAL DESIRE and repeat as compelled…

But each work / each word in itself is an individual poem, a unique work of art: whether deconstructed in Components down to its “bones”, or reconfigured in a new way in Product Detail (which may, or may not, be seen as having a relation to the “word” itself, like any “finished product” image in a set of assembly instructions) that are simple images that could stand on their own aesthetics. THANATROPIC’s is almost like a mystic sigil, with an eye, perhaps. SUBJECTIVATION alternately resembles a plant, or foraging locust. FUTURE is more architectural, suggesting an arch or monument. NOTHING resembles a weathervane, a compass gone awry. ENNUI seems to hang in space, a hook with no loop…while DATA is dense and solid and pointing, with a purpose. LANGUAGE combines loops and points, both rounded and pointed, contradictory…

I could look for “definitions” of THANATROPIC or SUBJECTIVATION: or I could accept the ones provided by Schmaltz that don’t presume or preclude other interpretations, or the nuance of communications (though no responsibility is taken for miscommunication or malfunction…deliberate critically at your own risk. No slavery to preset meanings here, and no “freedom” in submission to someone else’s definitions).

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But let’s return to Babel as the titled point of reference: the story of the ill fated Tower is from Genesis 10 – 11, after the Flood, in which humanity, speaking a single language came together to construct this architectural wonder (I was often told as a child that the premise was to build it “to heaven”, an act of unbelievable hubris) but “God confounded their speech so that they could no longer understand each other and scattered them around the world.”

A typical “Sunday school” story to “explain” different languages, with a vengeful, prideful God “punishing” humanity with a multiplicity of language .

Ironic, when you think about the Judeo – Christian focus on the Ten Commandments and “so it shall be written, so it shall be done” mantra of the film of the same mythology…(my art historian is more of a fan of the Golden Legends that incorporate the flowering of Joseph’s staff, or the eroticizing of the ear of the Virgin Mary as the site of the Angel’s announcement of her impregnatoin).

But if we’re going to step into that realm, I’d rather mention Borges The Library of Babel, with its books that are alternately infinite and limited (read it. My description shall but pale in comparison). Or the babel fish of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or the notions of memetics and (mis) communication from Richard Dawkins might also be worthy of consideration here. William S. Burroughs The Ticket That Exploded may be of use in choosing a place to stand and which word you might wish to assemble. All of these are relevant when considering the BABELTECH™.

Less theoretically, BABELTECH™ is an ode to the formal possibilities of Letraset: I say that without irony or smugness, but considering the “prefab” nature of the words and language therein, they can again be seen as either constricting or liberating, and what Schmaltz has done here is entertaining and unique. While depending on the medium of Letraset, he also transcends it, and makes it so much more than it usually is…

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My affinity for concrete poetry was something that made me appreciate Kaie Kellough’s reading, especially the initial performance of RAIL that was as much musical as visceral. Kellough worked the components of spoken language in a way that reminded me of early painted abstraction. It was dangerous and honest in breaking language down to noise / sound / speech, like how past Modernist painters broke their practice down to geometrics, “pure” colours, monochromes and a refusal to tolerate any pretty pretense of “picture box space.”

rr rll rail ll rr rll rr r rail became an intoxicating chant. This in itself was hypnotic and seductive and reminded me of what good spoken word concrete poetics can be.

And then things went to another level. But first let me say it was an excellent pairing at NAC as this fluidity of speaking, this breaking down of the Components, this irreverence of Assembly, and an exposure of the banality of the usual use of language by Kai Kellough only enhanced your experience of BABELTECH™ on the walls when Kellough was done. His voice filled the room and interacted with the works, especially FUTURE or DESIRE or CAPITAL.

That other level: from an exercise that could be deemed formal, Kellough moved to a piece about the current immigration crisis that was able to cut through the calcified cynicism of the media narratives, election rhetoric, posturing and the essential egotism of the debate here in the first world. I offer nothing more in terms of description than my high praise, my appreciative amazement at his ability to move everyone in the room, and that if the opportunity presents itself to hear this artist speak, you must take it.

BABELTECH INDUSTRIES™ presents…THE ASSEMBLY LINE OF BABEL, an exhibit by Eric Schmaltz at Niagara Artists Centre, was regrettably only on display for a week. Perhaps, like language, its just fleeting…

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