Narrator: Fly [the dog] decided to speak very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that sheep were stupid and no one would ever persuade her otherwise.
Fly: [struggling] Please. Please, would you be…so kind as to tell me what happened?
Fly: Please. Tell me what happened this morning.
Narrator: The sheep spoke very slowly, for it was a cold fact of nature that wolves [dogs] were ignorant and nothing would convince them otherwise.
. . . . .
The fear’s too much for a duck. It—it eats away at the soul! There must be kinder dispositions in far-off, gentler lands.
. . . . .
And Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
It’s a very unusual piece: Dinner and a Show at Rodman Hall Art Centre, one of the works installed as part of Imagined Urban Gardens. Initially, it reads as comedic, even irreverent. Two older gentlemen in a field, playing their saxophone and stand up bass, to an audience of chickens and roosters (and several foxes, even) that seem alternately amused or annoyed, if even minding the interlopers at all. I’ll admit that in my first interaction with the painting by Darrell Neufeld I didn’t initially notice the foxes, either.
Considering that the artist has spoken (in this video here) about how, as regards climate change, many are wilfully ignoring or ignorant, this is relevant.
The chickens and roosters dominate the foreground, staring out at us. To be honest, they look less odd in this composition than the musicians. You’re left wondering if the band were playing and the fowl showed up, or if the musicians saw a potential audience and decided to serenade. A fun question, perhaps a bit silly, until you expand it to the idea of who’s field it actually is, and whether that can be interpreted as who ‘owns’ the expanse of nature, and ‘belongs’ there.
Again, the architecture and unique interior of Rodman Hall enhance the presentation and the artwork’s impact: this large work hangs within a sculpted alcove, just slightly higher than normal, as though it has more in common with an historical mural or narrative, educational display. It’s height allows it to look down upon us, indicating it’s importance – or perhaps as we look down upon the environment, as a possession, to be used, like a terra nullius (‘a Latin expression meaning “nobody’s land”, and was a principle sometimes used in international law to justify claims that territory may be acquired by a state’s occupation of it.’ It’s a common argument used in colonial, empirical and rapacious acts, as with the Catholic church’s ‘doctrine of discovery’. You can read more here).
Before I engage in more tangential hyperbole, here’s the brief didactic for the show:
Responding to the explorations of urban architecture and its materials in Teresa Carlesimo and Michael DiRisio: more light than heat (on exhibition at the Rodman Hall Art Centre), Imagined Urban Gardens also reflects on today’s global warming and how we could live in the future. We dream of green spaces and pleasantly warm cities. Students in Visual Arts and Studies in Arts and Culture envision in text and image what could be in a livable world.
There’s several other visual engaging works here: some, such as Erica Greshuk’s 57 Hours or her piece 34 Pounds, are more interesting than the work in more light than heat that inspired them. James Kershaw has a landscape above the mantel that is one of the more delicate and painterly works of his I’ve ever encountered. But my attention kept returning to Neufeld’s Dinner and a Show, as it served as a Venn diagram for many intersecting ideas regarding the environment, climate change and our own – and others’ – attitudes to that larger situation. Small details are more telling than the whole, even: a fox – surreally large, in comparison to the rest of the composition – waits atop a hen house in the background, awaiting its spoils, while the musicians play, unaware, and the fowl frolic in the foreground. If you remember the Flexhaug Levine exhibition, which offered repetitive, almost identical, images of a natural eden, often unsullied by humanity, this painting offers a more disturbing sequel to those perhaps idealistic, perhaps contrived, works.
In conversation with several people in the exhibit, children’s movies or books about animals were a recurring idea. This is seen in my citation of Babe, at the beginning of this article, a fine film with an edged subtext (‘animals with no use have the most important use of all’, as food). But a fine artist I know was speaking of Watership Down, as well, when we were interacting with Dinner and a Show, and that is a novel with ideas both simple and stark. Looking at the green field, where the musicians play, the chickens and roosters dance or ignore, and the foxes skulk and hunt, I’ll quote the words of Fiver, from Richard Adams’ book: That warren’s nothing but a death hole! Yes, let’s help ourselves to a roof of bones!
Imagined Urban Gardens is on display at Rodman Hall Art Centre until the end of February, and I’ve only offered a very subjective taste of what is on display. This exhibition is another example of how Brock University depends upon RHAC and their staff to make their programs more effective, professional and relevant, and further enrages any who hear the lies coming out of Brock about how they ‘support’ the space. This latest iteration of a student exhibition that raises the tenor of the program happened with a skeletal staff, but is significant and darkly amusing, at times. Go visit it.
All images are courtesy Rodman Hall Art Centre, and copyright of the artists.
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.