Years ago, in a conversation with someone whom also has that rare affliction of being both an arts writer / critic and having obtained a degree (and published in the field) of art history, we decided to enumerate the differences between art critics and art historians. Our (perhaps inebriated) comments were incisive, if caustic (offensive doesn’t preclude veracity).
Despite that jocular irreverence, several ideas proved enduring. For example: art historians are more “official” and reluctant to change positions. In fact, one of the best teachers I ever had, who turned me onto the living and dangerous nature of art history, insisted “your opinion is irrelevant, as you’re nobody”. Look to the canon and genuflect footnote cite endnote and quote, forever and ever, amen.
Yet, when I was taking Early Italian Renaissance Art from him and cited Paglia’s Sexual Personae and Rosenberg’s The Sexuality of Christ in Early Renaissance and Modern Oblivion, or a scintilla of Foucault, he verified my sources and then embarrassed me in class, using me as a response to students’ complaints re: his pedantism.
Oh, sometimes I miss the university. Then I remember being mocked for daring to cite, in a paper about the art of the French Revolution – with sardonic contempt, for sure – Mao’s assertion that it hasn’t been long enough to decide if it was a good or a bad thing.
But what’s this tangent have to do with Dennis Tourbin’s La ville dort (translated as The city sleeps)? La ville dort is currently dominating one wall in the Hansen Gallery at Rodman Hall facing John Moffat’s massive psychedelia of Rechatin Miscalculated? (Regrettably, I shan’t be discussing Moffat here, but he has works in the MIWSFPS. Go. See them. #artcriticfromhell insists.)
The point: Tourbin does many things in La ville that I usually disdain (i.e. excessive text and iridescent, almost violent hues). Yet Tourbin presents an enamouring work I’ve visited repeatedly when I should’ve been reviewing (as promised) other pieces. But I had to go take one more look, basking in its burnished glow and evocative words.
The vertical work, to the right of the fireplace, has flat green “water” and golden land with text fragments “written on the earth.” Many of Tourbin’s contemporaries from this era (early 1970s – John Boyle or Greg Curnoe, both in the last instalment of curator Emma German’s Up Close and In Motion) employed similar fonts with cleanliness and ease. Some of the text is “cut off” by the topography, the map shape, and the words alternate in hue from reds to blues to yellows to blacks and more. Although the gold and greens visually seized my eyes and pulled my body over, the poetic words are what held me. This, especially: When I leave St. Catharines now, I only take enough memories to do me for the year. That’s what St. Catharines means to me.
Tourbin died in 1998. The front gallery space at NAC bears his name (it’s a space often focused on emerging / local artists, continuing his legacy). The didactic panel cites his major role and influence here in St. Catharines, along with Boyle, Moffat, Tobey C. Anderson. Ernest Harris, Jr.’s painting is still on display in the adjunct space in Hansen, and in conversation with German the idea of the interconnectivity, the suffusing environment that many artists live within, like fish in water, was mentioned. These recent manifestations of Up Close are regionally aware: it’s worth noting the role that St. Catharines based artists and activists have played in the history of Canadian Art, as German is showing us in most recent iterations of her examination of RHAC’s collection. This echoes history cited in The History of Painting in Canada: Toward a People’s Art (published several years after Tourbin’s piece was made) or by Robert McKaskell in his Making it New! (the big sixties show).
In 2012, Rodman presented, in collaboration with CRAM International and NAC (curated by the inestimable Marcie Bronson) Dennis Tourbin: The Language of Visual Poetry, described as a “city-wide celebration of the St. Catharines-born artist’s life and work.” Observing how Up Close is / has been structured, German seems with the last few iterations to be using Ernest Harris, Jr.’s painting (which still rests above the mantle in Hansen) as a base: a contemporary artist in STC whose work is not only about another contemporary STC artist (in being titled Mel’s Brushes, as in painter Melanie MacDonald, who had a work in a past Up Close) but that acts as an endpoint for an historical line from “then” (Tourbin, or previously Anderson, or Boyle) to “now” with Ernest’s painting (a portrait in painting tools – brushes – rendered in a painterly manner. The lines intersect in multiple ways).
To bring it to contemporary times, I also can’t look at this piece with its title La ville dort / The city sleeps and not think of the large number of individuals who are part of A Better Niagara and that have put their hats into the ring for positions on regional council and to (paraphrase Laura Ip) “reset the region”, perhaps to wake it up.
This version of Up Close will shift soon: I could tease you with who’ll be showing next, but instead I’ll just remind you to go see it, go often, and spend time in this considered selection from RH’s collection. Frankly, looking at how Brock University is underfunding, understaffing and generally neglecting Rodman Hall (and how many tenured faculty at the MIWSFPS are complicity silent on the issue), your time may be limited.
Up Close And In Motion will be on display, in different ways and forms, until January 2019.
Image credit: Danny Custodio, of Dennis Tourbin, “La ville dort”, 1973, acrylic on canvas, Gift of Nadia Laham, 2012, collection of Rodman Hall Art Centre/Brock University. .