In one of my favourite novels, Christie Logan (the prognosticator of garbage from Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners) offers this advice: ‘When in doubt tell the truth, if you happen to think you know it.’ But it’s also good to keep in mind (to quote another excellent writer, Kathleen Dunn from Geek Love) that others use “truth” as a ‘favourite set of brass knuckles.’ But enough qualification: let us come to the point. Transformations, the latest iteration of the City of St. Catharines annual juried exhibition, is the best version of that show I’ve seen, in my four years here in Niagara. Curatorialy, it is effective in how the works have a dialogue with each other, sometimes augmenting (as with Jonathan Shaw and Bruce Thompson’s works, hung side by side) or sometimes arguing. Contested narratives are a natural consideration for a curatorial umbrella as wonderfully open as ‘transformation.’ The statement itself is excitingly pliable: “Transformations investigates the positive and negative transitions and transformations that shape human beings and the world.”
The show is all wall work, which is unsurprising, considering the constraints of the physical space. But this is a good sampling of contemporary artists primarily of St. Catharines, but also a bit wider in Niagara. There’s over a dozen artists here: some names – and their work – will hopefully be familiar to you, but others may be new (some of the names are new to me, as well).
As you enter the space (from the front entrance, not the James Street side), the first works you encounter are by Jon Shaw and Bruce Thompson (side by side) and then Arnie McBay and Renu D’Cunha (facing the aforementioned pair, on an opposing wall). Shaw’s This Way is part of his ongoing series of the demolition of the hospital downtown (you can see more of this work at NAC, in November), with vibrant colours and fine richly dark lines that define how these fragments of history resonate, and will echo more, even after all the physical ‘evidence’ is gone. Next to This Way, Thompson’s The Circle Experiment (both of these are 2019) is less intense, but offers fine, spidery traceries of muted and ‘wintery’ tones. Placing these to the left, immediately seen as you enter the hallway, indicates that this show is very much about ‘place’, in terms of St. Catharines or Niagara, but that it’s as much about a metaphor, or emotional sense of ‘place’, than just a ‘flat’ (as in opaqueness of meaning) image. These are vignettes of experience, that change and ‘transform’, from the experience of the artist to the rendering as an ‘image’ to how we engage with – and define them – for ourselves. The fluidity of the formal elements fit the fluidity of the meaning of these two ‘cityspaces.’
Conversely, McBay and D’Cunha proffer images that are richly stark in their monochromatic play: Wholeness #2 is part of McBay’s new series of ‘O’s that are as much about execution as the ‘final’ image, blending language and symbol, with accident and intent ‘flowing’ together. D’Cunha’s Standing Strong offers textural elements that belie the flat ground the ‘figure’ floats upon, becoming abstracted in its execution that is shaped by the mixed media used. A similar allowance of the paint to flow and form as it will is found in McBay’s work.
Moving further down the hall, the works become more varied, in tone and medium: I could write on all of them, as it’s a dense, visually sumptuous selection. There’s an affinity between Lauren Regier’s photographic work Aquatilium Vasculum and Janny Fraser’s sculpture Hive #3, too. Organic ‘roots’ or ‘tentacles’ and a palette that – in both Regier and Fraser’s artwork – is restrained, subtle but with dashes here and there of deeper tints, blend with ‘metallic’ hints yet they both seem to be something you might find in an abandoned garden, behind an empty house. Whereas Fraser is more ‘direct’ – it’s a wall work, but sculptural, and you’ll want to touch and handle the ‘apple’ or the ‘clock’ – Regier is softer, with the glycee print having soft tones and a more ‘portrait’ quality to her subject. But – as with Shaw and Thompson, or McBay and D’Cunha – the works ‘talk’ to each other, and offer points of connection and points of contestation. One might imagine the artists ‘started’ in similar places, before ‘transforming’ their respective personal experiences.
There’s one more ‘pairing’, at the far end of the hallway, on the way to the James Street exit, I’ll mention in a moment. But first, there’s numerous works that further define what ‘transformation’ might mean, to many or simply one person. I’m an admirer of many of Sandy Fairbairn’s urban photographs (in the interest of full disclosure, he’ll be exhibiting many of his images of – and about – Welland at the AIH gallery space in Welland in 2020, and I’m collaboratively curating that with him). His smaller image Storefront, St. Catharines is of a ‘store’ that’s familiar to me (both when I lived in Niagara in the 1980s / 90s and now). This is a fine example of his direct yet considered – even empathetic – ‘portraits’ of store fronts and business facades, many of which have fallen into ruin and act as symbolic ‘sites’ for the economic tenuousness that has informed this region since Free Trade / NAFTA.
Works will be on view until March 2020: this is appropriate, as (despite the slim hallway offering some restrictions regarding space) this is a dense exhibition. Emily Andrews’ offers one of her surreal, somewhat unsettling paintings in Self Portrait; Colleen McTigue’s Courage is part of her Doors series, recently displayed at NAC (Andrews also showed recently in that space), and both again offer metaphors for transformations, as it pertains to self and subjectivity, rendered in acrylic and oils. One conceals, or ‘performs’ in disguise, the other offers an ‘escape’, or a revelation, in their painted scenarios.
Further down is another pairing, a conceptual diptych of image and object, perhaps. Danny Custodio presents one of his colourfully detailed photographs (you’ll have the opportunity to see more of his images, at Rodman Hall Art Centre, in November, in his solo show Flower Carpets/Tapetes Floridos). Potions #1 (Earth Healing Potion; Restores Plants and Stuff) resembles a tondo (circular) portrait formally, but you’ll seen realize you’re looking downwards into a ‘pot’ (perhaps a cauldron bubble bubble boil and trouble) whose fine realism leaps out from the rich black void of the background. To the left of Custodio, with perhaps a touch of curatorial humour, is Kym Van Stygeran’s Untitled. This small shovel is enhanced with enamel and acrylic paints, even augmented with 23k gold leaf on metal. It’s protruding from the wall, like a fancy tool waiting to be used for important, not just mundane everyday, tasks. The simple painted forms in the scoop allow the tool to ‘shine’, so to speak, with an aesthetic gleam. Like many of the artists in this show, Van Stygeran has more of her practice on display in Niagara. She has an exhibition in NOTL, at Queenston Mile Vineyard, titled Portrait Compositions (that runs until January 3rd, 2020).
There’s a strong formal aesthetic throughout the entire exhibition of Transformations. Art Weaver’s Digital Transformation is both a landscape and an entrancing ‘close up’ (I’d offer that it’s a mushroom, but the organic detail needs no ‘official’ naming), and the tondo motif from Custodio is echoed in not just Van Stygeran’s ‘tool’ but in Janet Ingrao’s stained glass Nucleus, Cause and Effect (and in McBay’s aforementioned ‘O’ work, too). Despite Transformations being painting-heavy, Ingrao’s glass works are eye catching, with both an intensity of blue-blacks and then subtle ‘scratchings’ of white to give form and depth. That linear quality visually ‘forming’ an image is in Weaver’s digital work, and even reaches back (down the hallway, if you will) to Thompson’s greyish grainy marks. This ‘spiderweb’ (pun intended) of the formal aesthetics of the works is a balance, or a counter, to how Transformations is interpreted sometimes uniquely, sometimes personally, and sometimes in a manner that encompasses multiple positions and ideas. Yvonne Benyo’s Woman Unearthed can be seen as being akin to portraiture. But so can Jan Yates’ March (Walk 29), whose title implies this is an interpretation of Yates’ world, just as Thompson’s work records an activity of his own, too, and as Shaw documents a site that has meaning both historically but personally to many who may never even see this exhibition, but drive by the Hospital demolition.
Transformations – the concept, not this exhibition – can be positive and negative, and being an aspect of change are a constant. Gaiman’s Brief Lives offers this amusing anecdote on that: “Um, what’s the name of the word for things not being the same always? You know, I’m sure there is one. Isn’t there? There must be a word for it … the thing that lets you know time is happening. Is there a word?” “Change.”
I often suggest that you visit artworks repeatedly, as they change as we change, in our interpretations and understanding. The 2019 City of St. Catharines Annual Juried Art Exhibit is installed at City Hall in downtown St. Catharines until the Spring of 2020. Go see it often, and approach different works each time, and in different ways. I began this review at the one end of the hall, and it would say something different, perhaps, coming the ‘opposite’ way. That’s a testament to the strength of the works displayed and the curatorial vision – I hate that word, but it works, here.
Transformations: The 2019 City of St. Catharines Annual Juried Art Exhibit is installed on the third floor of City Hall, in downtown St. Catharines (50 Church Street), and is on view until March, 2020. All images are courtesy St. Catharines Culture and the respective artists, and the header image is of artist Danny Custodio with his work Potions #1 (Earth Healing Potion; Restores Plants and Stuff).
Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, New Art Gazette, Galleries West, PrairieSeen, Long Exposure and BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for 3 years). He is Assistant Editor at thesound.rocks and a frequent contributor to various cultural spaces in Niagara.