The current exhibition at the Niagara Pumphouse Art Centre is a contrasting collection of works, though there are definitive conceptual and formal lines that can be drawn between the twenty five artists on display. Before I offer some impressions and responses to the diverse works, here’s the framework: In celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre, we present the Walker Industries Art Competition. This competition was open to emerging and established artists anywhere in Canada. Twenty-five finalists were selected by a jury of six renowned experts in the Canadian art field. An exhibition of the finalists’ work will be on display from July 4 – August 4 at the Niagara Pumphouse Arts Centre. During that month, visitors to the Pumphouse will have an opportunity to vote for the People’s Choice Award.
There are names here that I hope you’re familiar with, as they’re among some of the finer artists whose work I’ve experienced in Niagara. On the whole, this exhibition is – to paraphrase a number of visitors from the opening evening reception – two thirds very good work, and a remaining third that is less impressive. Goff Farnsworth has a small portrait work in the show, and there’s several other portraiture works that display the malleability of that ‘medium.’ Lorena Ziraldo‘s Youth is in the first of the two rooms that encompass this show, and her use of oil paint is both expressive yet minimal (the bust portrait is not so much illustrated as alluded to, in her brushstrokes, and the monochromatic tones of the subject are only accentuated by the vibrant green textured background), as is Emily Andrews‘ Nathanial. The latter is more ‘realist’ than Ziraldo, but the scene (Nathanial seems caught mid movement, his detailed shadow nearly in the centre of the composition) is almost cinematic. Nestled between these works is the aforementioned Farnsworth, one of his smaller paintings, an excerpt from his ongoing portraits. As Ziraldo’s Youth looks at us, and Nathianal dodges, Farnsworth’s figure (a portrait of Wayne Corliss) looks to the side: three excellent paintings that in themselves, before you even step into the second room of the show, exhibit the potential of portraiture in the ‘hands’ of a good artist.
Painting is, unsurprisingly, more the rule than the exception here: but Julia Hepburn‘s Even Children Grow Older…. is an eerie yet entertaining diorama: positioned in a corner, it seems to stand alone, though the room it’s in is quite full with works by Erna da Vries, Sandy Middleton, Janny Fraser and Sam Paonessa. Hepburn – like several of the artists here – can be found online here and I encourage you to visit her site. Her work is playful but (as someone who’s a fan of The Brothers Quay) also occupies that space that automata or toys – or dolls – so often skirt, of being slightly disturbing, or like a fairy tale (‘what big teeth you have, grandma’) has a darker edge to it. Her words: In my work, I attempt to reclaim the innocence and curiosity of childhood. Each compartmentalized piece displays a single scene with virtually no context. Viewers are encouraged to use their imaginations in order to develop a narrative explaining the scene. The use of small, doll-sized scenes, not only draws people in physically, but also makes the darker imagery less threatening, permitting the viewer to assign a wide range of moods to the work depending on their personal interpretation.
In the ‘field’ Hepburn presents, in a small box, a figure is upside down, ‘her’ (making an assumption, perhaps, but ‘she’ seems to be wearing a skirt – but that’s pooled around ‘her’ hips, with bare legs matching the legs of the chair that ‘she’ sits upon, if you can say that when its all ‘ass over teakettle’, ahem) head is ensconced in the ground. ‘Her’ hand repeatedly, industriously ‘scoops’ dirt as though consuming it (you can see this sculpture in motion here). Although there’s many works in the show that brought me back to them, the night of the opening reception, to look more rigorously (Middleton’s Twilight Series #1 has the hazy, haunted tonality common to many of her works, and the layering of the image makes it even more ghostly. As Hepburn’s work alludes to ‘fairy tales’, perhaps the unedited Brothers Grimm all bloody and fatal, so does Middleton’s Twilight suggest haunted forests, scenes that are superficially tranquil like a Caspar David Friedrich, but that are as ominous as they are ‘silent’), Hepburn was the highlight, for me. Visit her site, especially if you’re a fan of Tim Burton’s wondrous Nightmare Before Christmas or Graeme Patterson’s Woodrow works.
Several artists I cited earlier interrelate in interesting ways: Fraser offers a sculptural piece that has some affinity with Kristina Kirkwood‘s sculptural assemblage (working with birch-bark), and they occupy diagonal corners across from each other. In some ways, this show was interesting to me, to expose me to new artists, and then to further explore their practices with their sites and social media: Erna de Vries is another finalist, here, whose industrially themed images, with a restrained colour palette, merits attention. Wax, reclaimed copper, photo transfer all are tools in her creation of an image that is aesthetically pleasing, not just for those of us whom have a fancy for the #rustbeltwonderland that is part of Niagara. More of her works can be seen at here but her work in the show – installed near Hepburn – also employs a visual lure to offer a more disturbing ‘scene.’
This employment of landscape as a teaser to narrative, to offer the elements so the viewer might create a story, both from their own experiences but formed around the artists’ works, is something seen in Middleton, Hepburn, and de Vries. Even in the very straightforward winter scene by Paonessa, the rendering of the snow with a multitudes of hues, pulls your eye into the forest (and reminds me of a Thomson I saw recently, where the snow is all blue and dirt and twilight), as de Vries’ rust, sky and sea transported me back to my youth in Windsor, along the polluted Detroit River….
The Walker Industries Art Competition, at the Niagara Pumphouse Art Centre in Niagara-on-the-Lake (247 Ricardo Street) is on display until the 4th of August. Their hours are Tuesday to Sunday, 11 AM to 4 PM: it is an uneven show, and that will be clear when you go and see it, as many of the works I mention here merit ‘slow art day’ attention, but others make me wonder about their inclusion, and to paraphrase Ad Reinhardt, the better works ask hard questions of the lesser ones, regarding their inclusion.
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.