“Once we had words” : Colin Nun at NAC

Once we had words.
Ox and Falcon. Plow.
There was clarity.
Savage as horns uncurved.
(Stan Rice)

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”
(Alice: Through The Looking Glass)

Let me impart a secret to you: I distrust and generally consider words inherently dangerous. Perhaps this is familiarity breeding contempt: language is a tool I’ve used, and employ often, and it’s something that can and does turn, like a sharp tool that cuts or a snake in your hands (no offence to snakes).

It’s appropriate I’m sharing this observation now, almost two years after I strongly alluded to this impiety on my part, in writing about a show at NAC in 2015. This was Eric Schmaltz’ The Assembly Line of Babel. Perhaps you saw the collaborative work he helped produce at In the Soil, in 2017, where his exploration of the viral nature of language took on an even more corporeal form. The video projection looked like a close up of the antibodies and blood cells at play in our own systems….not exactly what Anderson meant, but surely its mutated, like any disease, since then.

Colin Nun‘s exhibition at the Dennis Tourbin Gallery at NAC furthers this conversation. Before I subject you to more of my words, here are his own about his “text-based paintings. His work consists of carefully constructed typographic motifs deeply rooted in graphic design…Nun’s primary objective is to paint words that convey their meaning – simply put, to use words as imagery. He challenges how ‘normal’ letters and words are represented and questions what letterforms can become if pushed to their limits…[creating] tension between the letterforms, an optical effect he calls “visual vibration”. With influences seeded in pop culture, cinema, advertising graphics and ephemera, Nun experiments how language is depicted and how the viewer perceives language.”

Nun is a Welland based artist, but also studied at the Niagara College of Applied Arts and NSCAD in Halifax (the latter is notable for the proliferation of text based, or text challenging – such as Cathy Busby or Gerald Ferguson – or text challenged – whose work might most optimistically be described as manure for other more worthwhile – artists, whom have defined NSCAD’s mixed legacy).

The works in NAC (and this has been a very good season for exhibitions in the Dennis Tourbin Space in the downtown of STC, with some excellent artists that are both new and more familiar) are varied. Some are clearly recognisable as words (Good Luck (Gold) shines forth in gold on black, reminiscent of The Price is Right or other garish, forcefully loud design) while others, if not placed in the context of the larger “sentences” would function as linear abstractions that are more drawerly and “post painterly” than text. Union, from 2017, looks like a maze or labyrinth, a snake filling a condensed space, more than writing. Other wordworks (my term for his letterforms) straddle this: Fuse, in white on blue is all chunky letters jammed down together visually mimicking a wall socket, while Void, like Union, is stretched and distended so that the variant subtleties of the image suggest a gap the viewer might step into, or be swallowed within.

Some of the wordworks / letterforms are immediate in their interpretation. Beast in white muscular letters on bright arterial red suggests something organic with its rounded corners, but still has the “loudness” of an animal’s roar, or the redblood eyes of a stalking predator. Crux and Deluxe are more complicated and play with the canvas as a picture plane, more “creative” in their typesetting arrangement. The letters in Deluxe all are held within, or contained within, a larger “D” and seem to recede from us. They’re also like part of a puzzle where we need to locate and arrange the components. Here Nun perhaps alludes to word games, where the pieces are given to us and how we assemble them creates them, or defines them, but in the end that says more about our ability to see the words, or what words we “see” than any objective “sign” (It is a theory that…It is the theory that…The language you speak determines how you think. Yes, it affects how you see everything…”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Others are more direct (Deadringer, even “repeating” itself, so to speak), others are more obtuse, some are quite blunt and others are more bellicose, offering more of a struggle (Gemini). Silence is almost illegible, from the manner in which the word raises off the canvas in an edged serration that barely separates it from the mottled grey. This might work better as braille, if the rigid gallery space allowed us to break custom and “read” Nun’s painting tactilely, with our knowing fingers. Like glyphs carved in, or glyphs carved out, language is a marker, saying “we were here.”

Even better – this may be my favourite work at NAC – the word(s) loop. Perhaps this painting is meant as a snapshot of a reel that rolls by us, so that Silence – we see the top half of the word below the “main” rendering of it, a lower half above – is reiterated like a rolling Tibetan Prayer Wheel, worshipping without voice. Or maybe it’s that old riddle: what do you break the moment you mention it?

Although this exhibition isn’t as visually entrancing as shows that preceded it in the Dennis Tourbin Space (Adam Vollick’s landscapes capture colour like it’s a living thing, or Sheldon Rooney’s amusing scenes that suggest an Agatha Christie like mystery with complications and confabulations), the work “speaks” literally to a universal space: words, how we use them, and how they use us, with their implicit baggage that they carry, which we are sometimes aware of, and other times ignore.

We live in an age of excessive and often ignorant rhetoric: Colin Nun’s exhibition at NAC is a playful reminder of the power of words, and might be urging us to be mindful of their power and place in the larger sphere (Language is the foundation of civilization. It is the glue that holds a people together. It is the first weapon drawn in a conflict).

Colin Nun’s solo exhibition is on display at Niagara Artist Centre, at 254 St. Paul Street, in Downtown St. Catharines, until August 25th, 2017.

All images are copyright of the artist, and the uncited words in italics are from the 2016 film Arrival, based on Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang. Seek them both out before / after / during your visit to Colin Nun’s exhibition or his site

 

Discarded Beauty: Steve deBruyn

There are some unexpected contradictions in the “installation of painted wooden sculptures” currently at NAC. Or, if I defer to his description of Pile On, the singular work, as Steve deBruyn intends the free standing and precariously balanced “pillars”, along with the wall works partly inspired by Kurt Schwitters’ assemblages, as a singular whole; an inclusive installation that envelops the visitor.

Many of the components were fashioned by deBruyn, with NAC volunteers, in the week leading up to the show opening, which adds to this interpretation. A singular artist, perhaps, but many hands in the making of the installation.

Many of the pieces have a ragged quality, a roughness, and may give you a splinter if you handle them (deBruyn wasn’t precious, at the reception, and both handled the works himself and encouraged visitors to do the same). But then you’ll notice delicate and exacting evidence of the artist’s hand (the colours and patterns and textures that unite all the components, subtle yet significant, or the cleanliness and perfection of some edges and lines, harshly contrasted to the ramshackle detritus within the same piece. One set of sculptures, flowing and bending with wainscoting, making them look like escaped, “wilder” house works, on the right side of the gallery, are delightful in this lively, almost jolly, manner. The repetition of the pink purple blue black crisscross pattern pieces in the wall works, the random – perhaps added after, perhaps already a part of the slat or chunk added to the works – splotches of paint that further make the pieces connect across and around the room).

The works presented here are very much “worker’s” art (like George Sawchuck): the materials from which they’re constructed, how they’re installed and the recognizable components (pressboard), have a proletarian – almost plebian, or common –  aspect. Its funny how some artworks inspire you to leave any heavier theory at the door, while other works invoke the same (often remote, often academic or irrelevant) ideas into a real, and lived space. It’s impossible for me to separate these works from my conversation with Steve in which he talked about working “at a lumber yard—and busy constructing a backyard deck when called to discuss his upcoming exhibit—deBruyn’s work responds to the common discarded construction materials he refuses to build his sculptures, echoes of the skateboard culture he was once very much a part of, and his own sensibilities about the narrowness of our perceptions of what is beautiful in our living spaces and built surroundings.”

There’s an interesting contradiction, if you’re familiar with Kurt Schwitters’ Construction for Noble Ladies (1919) and the almost overtly masculine (yet not as the pillars tilt and the pressboard looks cheap like an overtly macho poser) pieces from deBruyn. He pointed out how some of the works, with mouldings and finishing you’d expect in any good suburban bathroom had gouges and breaks in their making, a hand less concerned with making a “perfect” object than exposing the ludicrous nature of it all (like Schwitters’ mocking of “noble ladies”….)

The back gallery at NAC is installed in a manner that spaces the wall works out at regular intervals – all are relatively similar in size, and all share not just colours, but also are constructed from shared pieces of wood (evidence of repurposing) that further unify them, as a perimeter around the room, defining the space. Fragments are arranged in an orderly manner to form the whole: whether this is “modernist” or more about crafting a seamless suburban renovation is debatable. All property is theft, comrade, and maybe I’m talking about the wealthy, ignorant suburbanites or how I hope that some of the source materials were “liberated and secured” for these alternately bright, or blighted, wall works.

The pillars lean in a way that suggest they’ll be coming down soon, and you might not want to be under them when that happens. They’re painted in the same colours that unite many of the works – there’s the small painting card sample, near the comment book: Peach Brick, Lotus Petal, Copper Trail, Green Grey Mist and Northern Landscape (I still wish I’d somehow gotten a job naming paints, but I’m sure I would have lost it, in the beige, impotent spaces. I’d go slowly crazy, calling things Arterial Spray Red or Leprosy Grey or Gangrene Green…this might seem like an indulgent tangent, but deBruyn and I also talked about work and trying to do what you want while having to pay for what you need…). All of these scream inoffensive interior design, and all – on their own, if you painted a room and not a work of art made from cast offs and crap that sat in your backyard for months – would suit any bourgeois bathroom.

The six columns are generally one solid paint chip colour, whereas the wall pieces have flat shapes in variable samples from this selection, often arching up from the bottom of the “plane”, in geometric shapes (trapezoids and pyramids – once again, a reference to building or construction, perhaps?).

To return to the statement for the show: “[H]is objective is only to have audiences reconsider the environments that we spend our lives in and possibilities for greater aesthetic pleasure from them.” In that respect, deBruyn succeeds: these pieces are fragments, discarded or torn, it seems, from the houses and rooms that we build – or have others build – for “us.” With current debates regarding houses, whether the cost or who gets to own, and who never will, I see these as something that my generation and those after us might consider as future (or current) housing.

Its not coincidental that as I wrote about this work, I spoke with a friend who does street photography and he mentioned a squat under one of the bridges that had been burned out in the past week. There is a stronger conceptual connection between that now discarded, abandoned space and deBruyn’s backyard, where some of the elements of these works in Pile On were subjected to the elements, than the suburban spaces the colours and finer details allude to, obliquely. 

 Steve deBruyn’s exhibition Pile On is on display until Saturday 22 July. 

Wish You Were Here: 23 Days at Sea

Many artworks employ an aesthetic of experience: intending to communicate the understanding of an event or occurrence that the artist has undergone / endured, or alternately that is worthy of recounting in a space of examination and consideration, like a collaborative act of remembrance. The current show at the Niagara Artists Centre, Chapter 1: Twenty-Three Days at Sea, is of that ilk.

The four artists that occupy the gallery space (Nour Bishouty, Christopher Boyne, Elisa Ferrari and Amaara Raheem) have a starting point that’s communal, but each brings their own understanding and history to this unique residency project. “Time stands still in travel” and thus we have slim vignettes of multiple intersecting experiences. Sometimes they overlap, and sometimes not.

Twenty-Three is a unique project. Its relevant not just for considering how a cultural space can continue to foster creativity amid the madness of late capitalist frenzies of Vancouver real estate. Access Gallery in that city is the genesis of not solely this exhibition, but several “chapters” to come.

It also disrupts assumptions about “place.” In the Canadian “narrative”, place taints everything conceptually. In the post colonial / post modernist / post factual world, it’s yet another means by which we de / construct experience…

The descriptor: “In December 2014, Access Gallery….issued a call for…a highly unconventional artist residency, offering selected emergent and experimental artists passage aboard cargo ships sailing from Vancouver to Shanghai. Crossing the Pacific Ocean takes approximately twenty-three days, during which time artists will be considered “in residence” aboard the vessel…two candidates [would] inaugurate this multi-year project by setting sail in late summer 2015. [What] we had initiated was not simply an artist residency, but a powerful framework through which to address the complexity of our contemporary condition. The cargo ship — sailing across a vast and “empty” space of the sea, nearly always invisible to those on shore and yet inextricably threaded through all our lives — seemed to offer a near bottomless container for the imagination, for narrative and for cultural critique.”

The gallery is divided foursquare with the artists’ respective works separated (almost like a map). Boyne’s delightful installation Geneva, immediately to your left as you enter the Showroom space, mirrors a far table of photographs (gloves are provided for your perusal of the stacks of  glossy, large prints) and objects, immersed in an overpowering, almost unpleasant audio fog, at the far end of the room, from Ferrari. Her work is Untitled (“To stay in the hold of the ship, despite my fantasies of flight”).

Boyne’s work has a guileless quality. Partly because his many “ships” and “nautical” objects, like a child’s field of toy soldiers, have a playful nature that invites handling. There’s a simplicity, a starkness, to Geneva (wood, paint, brass) that evokes a long trip across a vast expanse, the isolation and loneliness of this, the emptiness and the understandable joy when you recognize a fellow traveller, in another ship, that passes you on the waters. Some of the “ships” are delicate and detailed, others are rough facsimiles of “boat”, like with any act of travel or movement that is so vastly abstract that we need to incorporate it into our imagination to understand it. Colour is sparse here (blocks of orange, cones of dark blue) as most of the pieces are beige with a touch of detail, some easily fitting in your hand. Others are tiny and could be lost on the floor, like a drop in a wider ocean.

This minutiae, this construction of meaning through repetitions of small “pieces” (a visual diary) connects to the personal narratives of Amaara Raheem, from lists of items (titled Time, Body, Things) or her soft, watery video (titled submerged) that seems as self reflective as it is oddly ambiguous (is it swimming or drowning? Leaving or arriving, or simply in an interstitial space in between?).

The video projections of Nour Bishouty also engage in first person narratives, tales told. Her inkjet prints from the series Shifting Surfaces, however, are more immediately engaging: the monochromatic images are vague and abstracted, but lovely in their delicate white frames.
These are all “practices defined by a perceptible and sustained state of “seeking” bodies of work produced in response to their voyages, along with published reproductions of their logbooks kept while at sea.” These are interesting enough to peruse separate from the exhibition, or to skim before / after the gallery space.

The excessive, almost aurilly abusive pulse of noise in the back of the gallery, in Ferrari’s work, is an honest replication of her experience. It has the veracity of repeated violence: perhaps in that respect its most successful in small doses, and like much audio art, plays with pushing the comfort of the “listener,” but regrettably I’ve little desire to sift the images or handle the objects on the table while I also gain a headache.

Twenty-Three is an interesting response to an immediate reality: whether the displacement of cultural spaces in Vancouver, or a site that is often “outside” artistic consideration (Mandy Barber, a U.K. based artist once produced an entire series about “public spaces that are owned by no one”, and many of these were / are spaces of travelling). But as the first “chapter”, I look forward to future work produced through these residencies that evoke more interest and engagement.

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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