MacDonald’s Menagerie at NAC

We author places, as much as remember them. Its an idea from the writings of Peter Straub, and considering how often literary references came up in my conversation with Melanie MacDonald (as it did, too, with Clelia Scala), this seems a good “place” to begin to talk about the paintings she has on display at NAC. Her exhibition Florida Noir opened on October 28 and is hopefully still there, as you read this. If not, her site merits your perusal. She continues to exhibit in Niagara, and beyond. Her recent solo show at the Niagara Falls Art Gallery was excellent. The monumental, yet also very playful paintings filled the gallery and offered multiple points of entry for the viewers; including both her meticulous style and her evocative imagery.

Before entering the Dennis Tourbin space, perhaps you’ve encountered her lichen works downtown, with their obsessive attention to detail, making the potentially banal quite entrancing.

MacDonald’s site offers many examples of her work, as well as concise thoughts on her practice. Her words: “By painting mass-produced, cheapened objects of the not-so-distant past, my work brings to mind the hand or touch of a brush of the original sculptor and painter. By re-framing them as large-scale paintings the viewer is given the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with these lost or forgotten domestic objects.”

What is on display at NAC offers a bit of a different narrative, perhaps because its more specific to a place (“…Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste” is a favourite line from American Gods). In conversation, MacDonald cited Douglas Coupland (who sometimes fancies himself an artist, and some fancy as a cultural prognosticator): “Florida isn’t so much a place where one goes to reinvent oneself, as it is a place where one goes if one no longer wished to be found.”

As always with her work, the objects are rendered in a manner that is both precious and empowers them as iconic signifiers: perhaps even harbingers that are more warnings, or more apocalyptic, than you might normally consider a cute little cockatoo or a darling pink flamingo to encapsulate. Gator – Florida Souvenir or Pink Flamingo – Florida Souvenir transcend their knick knack triviality (while in her studio, MacDonald showed me two of the kitschy objects that inspired this work — I disremember if they were salt and pepper shakers or not — but they were both made in Japan, which implied an artisan quality and preciousness in the same way that seeing “Made in China” makes one assume shoddiness, whether fairly or not).

 

 

 

 

 

 

The manner in which MacDonald has captured the texture and the shine of the various animals of the “menagerie” — a glistening swan, a pearly pelican, a cockatoo that shines in reds, yellows and porcelain whites — takes the original objects, which she photographs repeatedly, as part of her process, to impressive levels. The “animals” themselves dominate the paintings. They fill the frame, like portraiture. The backgrounds are designed to serve this, in a banal humid light, often derived from “paint by numbers” images and other stereotypical renderings of sunsets that suggest the tourism (like “Snowbirds” fleeing winter) or the utopian dream too often projected onto Florida (the desperate film noir Midnight Cowboy: “It’s not, not bad, huh? There’s no heat here, but you know, by the time winter comes, I’ll be in Florida.”). Stephen King’s Duma Key, to return to literary tools to more deeply enjoy Florida Noir, offers both a heaven and a hell in “the Sunshine State.” Pieces like Sea Horse or Dolphin are nostalgic souvenirs, with a childlike preciousness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

These were found by MacDonald in various Florida locals, almost like foraging for mementos. MacDonald has talked about future paintings that will show these pieces broken, in shards, and if Florida Noir is a visual essay about place and space, memory and projection, it’s not hard to see what those future pieces are implying, as these objects break and fail (like Florida, like America, perhaps in Mar – A – Lago on a golf course…)

Florida Noir will be in the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC (354 St. Paul) until November 10th. Her Lichen paintings are at Garden City Essentials (35 James Street). Check out both spaces in downtown STC. All images are courtesy the artist’s web site, and are respectively Pink Flamingos, Dark Swan, Shark and Cockatoo.)

Cooler Than Cool: worthless and priceless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


All images are copyright of the artists.

∞ Lightness by Adam CK Vollick

One of my favourite books about art is Camille Paglia’s Glittering Images: this is not solely for how her knowledge of art history surpasses that of most arts writers / critics, but also due to the format. She selected a variety of works from antiquity to present day, writing succinctly and yet very accessibly about why they are important to her, and were – are – relevant to many.

This exclusive focus is something I’ve imitated, as a form of flattery: and oftentimes when confronted with exhibitions that encompass several artists, or when you’re engaging with a show like ∞ Lightness by Adam CK Vollick, which is, of this writing, in the Dennis Tourbin Members Gallery at Niagara Artists Centre. 

He offers “four different interconnected bodies of work.” What held my attention on my visits to the space were the “Spacetime Paintings [which Vollick describes as ] impressionistic photographs [which are] made in the camera [and all are] Niagara specific landscapes from our beautiful region.” The book that was on display during the reception had names for the works (the ones on the wall are without labels) that sometimes revealed their specific site of origins, and offered titles. These aren’t crucial, but do offer nuance. A flower might be fire, or we might see that the local is more mysterious than we assumed. But specific place names aren’t crucial, as the landscapes have an evocative nature (no pun intended) that we can imagine ourselves being within…

In the gallery they’re mounted in shiny silver frames, and the twenty one pieces are small but have a vibrancy that invites closer examination; alternately, across the room they become bright exclamation points of colour that seize your eye and reel you in.

There are several larger pieces (three) above these and two larger ones on the other side of the gallery. Returning to the long wall in NAC there’s also three black and white images sitting below the main “line” of “landscapes.” The larger images, in an ironic manner, are less powerful than the smaller images (the colour and depth of quality is absent, almost diluted in their power compared to the works below them). 

Conversely, the three monochromatic pieces are wonderful in their subtle detail considering the limited palette at play, and merit crouching on the ground to experience ‘face to face.’ As they’re shot with infrared film they’re reversed: so the delicate lines of trees in one are fine white lines on a rich black background, seeming to oscillate forward and back. These three images are almost more windows than flat images: the one on the left depicts what might be mist, or similar atmospheric events (my prairie asserts itself, and I see borealis), and the middle one, the least “active” of the compositions, stretches on endlessly with quiet details here and there as your eye moves deeper into the landscape.

The long cinematic line (if you’re familiar with Vollick’s practice, you’ll understand how his practices influence each other, and how movement can be alluded to as effectively as it can be depicted directly) of colour images above these three, however, is the strength of the exhibition. Whether close up to works that are painterly in their detail (Vollick joked about making “blurry pictures” but the segments where his colours blur and meld are matched by a cleanliness that emphasises how these are captured moments of “space” and “time”) or across the room so a blotch of red, or yellow or blue / green shouts at you, these are the anchors of the space.

Before you consider I’m dismissing everything else in the space, I’ll cite a conversation I had with a fine local painter, who described the large drawn piece opposite the small space/time works as being reminiscent of Magritte in its form and symbols. I saw its sparseness and scratchy sketchy quality as being what the surrealist artist would scrawl when he wakes up in the night and wants to remember his dream to paint it in a more elaborate manner later. (This isn’t Balzarian projection: the piece is titled the dreamer.)

But it’s a more remote, still image: the Spacetime Paintings are alive, are moving, and suggest a memory, a lived experience that like many experiences might be a bit frayed at the edges, or like some memories may be a bit soft around the edges when we “recall” it. Memories are (perhaps) like breathe on water; there’s also that idea that photographs define memory more than a memory does. Vollick’s Spacetime Paintings suggest that universality, as well as the more personal invitation to interpret these sites he presents for us. 

All images are copyright of the artist, and many more of his images, as well as works in other media, can be seen at Vollick’s site

William Griffiths: a history in texture and time / lovely ruins

The people who knew me when I coined the term “karaoke modernism” would be alternately confused or elated at how often I speak, these days in Niagara, about the quality of the painting I’m encountering.

The next issue of The Sound, Niagara’s magazine of arts and culture that suffers me to write about Art, in all its shabby glory (Art, not The Sound) will include an artist profile on Matt Caldwell, whose work caught my eye from the first time I saw it at NAC.

I want to mention grote, and linoleum, and other industrial pastes and chunky filler you would use for holes and gaps in walls (Matt mentioned the current exhibition at the Albright Knox, of Clyfford Styll and Mark Bradford, which I highly recommend). Caldwell’s subtle ridges and marks are more engaging to me than the current fad, Agnes Martin, and speak more about the necessary rigour of looking. After all, in one of the streams of Western painting, where narrative has been deemed unneeded, the best painters were / are exploring what painting can be, especially in delicate ways (gradations of greys, variations of white, subtleties of colour as gradated as a computer graphics program. The image below is Seal, by Caldwell, from 2015).

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So, if you eschew narrative, give me something beautiful, or engaging, to admire. If you’re going to abandon a larger social narrative, then work your aesthetic. There is nothing “wrong” with art that foregrounds aesthetics: the problem more so happens when individuals presume they’re making lovely work, but aren’t, and have no concept to fall back upon, for validity. However, the work I’ll be focusing on here melds both of these…

William Griffiths’ exhibition DIG, at the Niagara Artist Centre, is a show I’ve been looking forward to seeing since I encountered several of his works, specifically in the What About Rodman Hall? Exhibition but also online.  There is a quality to Griffiths’ work that is immediately engaging: perhaps that’s because many of the works, like the one in the Rodman show, are smaller and thus invite consideration of their texture and the almost sculptural nature of the application of paint. Also acknowledging my own obsession with industrial wastelands, the rust and metal flake landscapes of the GTA and Niagara (or my time in the mercury laden vistas of Windsor), there are aspects of his work that appeal to me personally.

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His statement: “My art straddles two worlds: photography and painting. My inspiration, consciously or subconsciously, comes from the environment, and the allure found within. I am intrigued by the beauty in the natural world (landscapes, trees, rocks), as well as the beauty in man’s manufactured masses (metal, deteriorating structures, forgotten dwellings). I photograph overlooked objects, and use them as inspiration for abstract work. I strive to recreate the moment, and express what I see.”

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There is a uniformity here, in terms of size, and framing (mostly being square) that fosters a base for the diversity of the works:  various objects are “embedded”, sometimes acting as focal points, other times being submerged in the paint, as though they’re submerged, or obscured, fighting to the surface.

In conversation with Will, we never used the trendy term “palimpsest”, but it factors into his works in a number of ways. DIG in the Dennis Tourbin space at NAC spans nearly a decade, and the seed for the majority of these works occurs in his photographic practice (sometimes in his interest in naturalism, other times in documenting – though that’s too formal a word, I think, denying the immediacy and whimsy at play – this area). A line from our conversation: “history is a treasure hunt.” I like that, as it also suggests “concealed” stories, awaiting a “discoverer.”

The names of several of the works will allude to this, if you’re familiar with “here”, or they’ll act as a “map”: Epworth Circle, Grand Trunk, Michigan Central, Chrysler and Queen, McCleary and Pyramid.

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Pyramid is on the wall “bend”, as I like to designate it, book ending the display of works: I don’t believe it’s the largest work, but it alludes to such, not just because the picture plane is dominated by a degraded and disintegrating pyramid, parts seeming to flake and break, but also in that (in that subjective critic voice I employ) it’s a work I saw two days after visiting Niagara Falls, and seeing the triumvirate of decline that is the Skylon Tower, the Casino and the pyramid shaped IMAX theatre. In some ways, Griffiths’ Pyramid is a portrait of that site: less about minutiae in reproduction as encapsulating the sentiment and sensibility of the sites he “remembers” and paints.

Even the historical – artistically, or otherwise – signifiers that any “pyramid” evokes are: Pyramid is a disturbing portrait of the Falls. This work – and several others in the show, with their insinuations (by title, or by imagery / object) to the industrial history / contemporary wasteland of this region are almost rebuttals – or acidic “corrections” – to the idealist, Marxist murals of Diego Rivera you’ll still see in Detroit, about a “workers’ paradise.” (May I extend my hyperbole and say that the infamous story of Rockefeller having the Rivera mural destroyed / covered up as he found it politically / ideologically “suspect” reminds me of the caustic, if knowing, voice of Anna Szaflarski in her historical meditation on GM and St. Catharines, in A Man’s Job, or the knowing, regretful drunkenness from Stephen Remus’s accompanying text to that installation…).

Everything is defined by place, and where you stand, and what you “see” from there. And “memory….is an internal rumour”, Santayana (yes, the same one who talks about repeating what we haven’t learned) warns us…

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Pyramid strikes me as a singular work: just as Vacant Lot, near the front of the gallery, is also unique, with its slab of black rubber hanging down over the face of the painting. The flat, discarded matte quality makes it as much of a “found” object as other fragments that are part of Griffiths’ painted assemblages (more paint than assemblage). McCleary’s flat blues are broken by a red grey “valve”, somewhat off centre.

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Other works employ geometric, abstract shapes: flat blues, light and dark, and a range of browns to yellows encompassing many flavours of rust and ruin. Three delicate circles of orange punctuate a work (In Time…almost like seconds or hesitation points). Others offer rectangles and angular forms within the picture plane, mimicking the black frames of the work: sometimes richly textured, like a paste, other times seeming to be a ripped or torn scrap (North St.), as though Griffiths is literally covering / revealing a narrative in these works.

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His process begins in photography, and in roaming through areas in Niagara, and taking pictures that may be more “landscape” or may be more so when a small piece, an object or a texture, catches his eye. Thus, when I talk about these works – especially the wall with the “quieter” work that is “based” upon St. Peter’s Cemetery in Thorold – I talk about them as depictions of St. Catharines, and sometimes Niagara, as much as any “landscape” artist. In depictions, we capture, and come to know – or define, perhaps being more about our sentiments – a site. And places exist most truthfully in our mind’s eye, or in the stories we “tell” about them.

More of his statement: “I use unorthodox materials, and experiment with different mediums to emulate the surfaces I see. I am constantly challenging myself, and inventing new ways to relate what I see. I search for methods outside the norm to express myself. I take the medium into unfamiliar practices, and push it to create a new language for itself. Colour, texture and depth are the tools I use to bridge unconventional and traditional acts of painting. By merging abstract and representational methods, I work to create mood and beauty through transformation, similar to nature’s regeneration and structural decay. Leaving myself open to chance and mistakes gives way to new ideas, and this creative process is most important to me, regardless of the work’s final outcome.”

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These are works that function well individually, but stronger as a group, like a painted essay of place. Will and I were talking, as well, about various commercial galleries in STC and beyond, and during this conversation, the works at the TAG gallery, that focus on historical prints of Niagara came up, when discussing audiences and agendas. TAG has an annual show (and a side gallery, year round) devoted to these historic depictions of place. Will Griffiths’ exhibition DIG would be an exciting contrast to that “history”, as it is also grounded “here”, and is perhaps simply a later chapter (in a different language: an abstracted synthesis of found objects with rich textured paint) of Niagara.

DIG runs at NAC until July 2nd, but you can see more of Will Griffiths’ works at the Jordan Art Gallery.