Hopefully you had the opportunity to see Vincenzo Pietropaolo’s exhibition in the VISA gallery, The Italian Immigrant Experience: this is the latest in a series of lens based exhibitions (organized by Amy Friend) that explore the power and problematics of image making. Alinka Echeverria and Alejandro Cartagena also offered variant bodies of photographic work, over the past year in this gallery, that explored how we see ourselves, or are seen by others. But under no circumstances should these fine shows at the VISA be taken as proof of the lies proffered by Brock University that the VISA could ever replace Rodman Hall Art Centre. A new solo show at RHAC brought to mind Pietropaolo’s work, and I was unsurprised, when I brought him up in conversation with Danny Custodio, that he and Pietropaolo are familiar with each other, and their respective aesthetics.
Danny Custodio’s images, in the Hansen Gallery at Rodman Hall, are vibrantly beautiful, their rich and almost shocking colours almost overwhelming you as you walk among the works. The Hansen Gallery is often the space that is occupied by Rodman’s curatorial initiatives focused upon local artists (often the excellent ‘soft’ curating of Marcie Bronson – a term I steal from a fellow artist, indicating a more collaborative approach, respectful of the artist’s intentions and siting in this unique space). Though smaller – in number of works, and in allotted space – than the other exhibition that just opened, More Light Than Heat, you have to pass by Floral Carpets / Tapetes Floridos to get to the other, and this doesn’t serve Light well, to be honest, as you may find yourself unwilling to leave Custodio’s ‘space’ (but I’ll offer a more critical and considered response to MLTH in a future issue of The Sound).
The accompanying statement is as follows: Danny Custodio uses photography to explore his familial histories and cultural traditions, reinterpreting them from his position as a second-generation Portuguese-Canadian. For this new body of work, Custodio made and photographed flower carpets like those found on the cobblestone streets of his parents’ birthplace. During annual religious festivals on São Miguel Island, Azores, each family adorns the section of street in front of their house, arranging regional plants and coloured wood chips in designs that are passed down through generations. Using flowers and foliage gathered across the Niagara region, including his suburban St. Catharines neighbourhood and the Walker Botanical Garden at Rodman Hall Art Centre, Custodio continues this custom in his studio, developing his own designs that incorporate his own family’s motifs and traditional Portuguese tile patterns.
Custodio’s lens affords an intimate view of these transient installations, drawing attention to the many individual elements of each flower carpet, and the careful and intensive labour their creation entails. The species in Custodio’s flower carpets are both native to Niagara and introduced, like the hydrangea, a flower emblematic of the Azores. For Custodio, at a remove from his parents’ homeland and Toronto’s Little Portugal, where he was raised, the process is a means of maintaining connection to his community while forging his own place within it.
There are many contradictions at play, in Custodio’s conceptual and formal framework: the most obvious being that the inspiration for this work (the floral carpets constructed by communities in the Azores) is what might be classified as a ‘work of art.’ In an art historical sense, this means these are less about being ‘precious’ or an ‘artwork’ set aside to be visited, then community oriented and like an altarpiece, are a locus point for people, and a repository for their beliefs, or a visual definition of ‘community.’ Custodio’s images are undoubtedly Art (note the capital) however: beautiful, well executed and both well made and meaningful objects, that in their (hoped) permanence far outlast the ‘carpets’, which will be destroyed and degraded when trod upon. However, Custodio spoke of how in some ways, this interaction, this trampling of the flowers, releases their aromas and this fills the space in a way even more pervasive (smell evokes memory in a manner far stronger than almost any other sense).
Further, these are images that reflect another intersection of contested narratives that is likely familiar to any of us Canadians who are either recent immigrants, or the children of the same. Custodio remakes – or re configures – the idea of Tapetes Floridos with regional ingredients, in a way that pays homage to the ‘original’ incarnations, but also makes it as much about Canada – or ‘here’ – as opposed to ‘there.’ In Salman Rushdie’s excellent book of essays, Imaginary Homelands, he talks about how when an immigrant comes to a new place, they carry with them an idea of ‘home’ that may never have existed, in a gilded manner, and that becomes less and less based on reality, but the glossing over of memory and nostalgia, than anything else. Amusingly, when Custodio and I spoke, we swamped some stories of his Portuguese and my Italian families, including how in coming to Canada, they literally – physically – make over their homes to resemble the places and houses they’ve ‘left behind.’ This inversion is seen in Custodio’s images in the Hansen Gallery, and one can see that in this sense, the ‘cultural mosaic’ that is often used to describe Canada is manifest in Custodio’s family, and thus in his work.
The titles are descriptive, listing the fauna Custodio employed: Yellow Maple, Euonymus Alatus, Oak, or Purple Maple, Blue Spruce, Rocket Cedar have names as evocative as the colours and textures, the fine and fascinating detail of petal and leaf, in the archival pigment prints (all works are 2019). Chrysanthemums is the longest work, and may be my favourite, for a number of reasons. The rich, almost bloody reds with the subtle, soft pinks flow along in a zig zag that stretches along one long gallery wall, the rich velvety ‘ground’ that the fauna lay upon making them stand out even more, with tones almost painterly, and a resolution that makes them look hyper real. Purple Maple, Blue Spruce, Rocket Cedar – like many works – is almost Modernist in the geometry, and here the rich brittle blacks and the thin, piney off white don’t so much fight as balance, offering order instead of opposition. Yellow Maple, Euonymous Alatus, Oak is like a flag, with its intense yellows that are almost flat (fracturing the ‘solidity’ of so many of the objects that Custodio has arranged and documented) in their brilliance. The reds (and lighter browns, like the background ‘canvas’) alternate from the yellow, in a rectangular pattern.
Perhaps the names can be so direct as the images themselves offer so much, whether the arresting ability of the colours to reel you in, or the impressive, almost overtly elaborate fauna that is rendered in a manner that makes any of the pieces worth contemplating and getting visually ‘lost’ within.
There has been a great deal of debate regarding immigration, even as we begin to bury the cadaver that was the 2019 Federal election. When speaking with Custodio, he talked about his parents visiting the show, and even commented in social media about his parents leaving their ‘home’ to give him a better life, and we found ourselves talking of our own experiences as the descendants of immigrants. An idea I return to, often, is that Art can be the most direct, and yet simultaneously, the most subtle, form of history. When it becomes autobiographical, as Custodio does here in Floral Carpets / Tapetes Floridos, or representative of a larger community, it can be both direct (as in its vibrant remaking of their inspirations, from another time and place) and delayed (as you think of how communities bring a piece of themselves here, with them, and reshape it here, and add it to the larger contested narrative that is Canada). Floral Carpets / Tapetes Floridos both seduces and gives you something to take away, to think about, before you visit it again.
Floral Carpets / Tapetes Floridos, a solo exhibition by Danny Custodio, curated by Marcie Bronson, is on display until March 22nd, 2020, at Rodman Hall Art Centre. All images (save the installation shot) are courtesy and copyright the artist, and the header image is Chrysanthemums, 2019.
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.