My initial interaction with Malcolm Gear’s work was in the Grimsby Bi Annual exhibition, with his seemingly (but not) off balance Stripped Jar. I described it, when I wrote about that excellent exhibition at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery, as having “a simplicity but also a bit of silliness with its strong diagonal, straddling art / art object, as you could use this fine craft piece or just appropriately declare it art and display it.” The GPAG is another regional gallery, in Niagara, that is deserving of being on your regular list of spaces to visit (one might argue that “we” don’t need a massive “new” Art Gallery of Niagara in downtown St. Catharines so much as infrastructure that connects the existing, relevant spaces around the Niagara region. But you can’t put your name on that…).
I was able to spend more time with Gear’s artworks — and varied works, that illustrated the diversity of his practice — when he exhibited “recent analog photography and charcoal and graphite drawings” at the Mahtay Cafe in downtown St. Catharines this fall. This led to a number of conversations and a studio visit to his combined gallery / studio space in Welland (malcolmgearstudio.com).
The work in the Grimsby Public Art Gallery was more of his fine art / craft works: functional objects, such as dishes, bowls, etc., that often balance utilitarianism with an artistic flair. This is also what you’ll find in the front area of his space: stoneware, iron stains or glazes, in cups and bowls and other “kitchen” objects, richly coloured in deep blues and rich greens. A favourite is a bowl that has two delicate holes that allow for the chopsticks to be stored firmly, pleasing aesthetically and sensibly stored. Other bowls have small utensils that fit snugly into side “handles.” These are delightful objects, whose formal success is not diminished by their functionality. Some of the decorations on them are just the rough, natural textures of the material, others have flowing, amorphic shapes and his works like Stripped Jar play with stripes / lines in rich colours, further playing with horizontal / vertical / diagonal lines.
“I like to cross over lines”, Gear said, when I visited his Welland studio / gallery (we also passed by a few other sites of what could be described as rough pop up gallery spaces, including the evocatively titled artishell.com). His works are often process based and then incorporate a questioning and challenging that interfaces with the material process, leading to experimentation, and a more artistically purposeful hybrid: Gear often describes his practice as a conversation or a creative dance. This is very clear in his photographic works: his “colour photographs are captured on fibre based photographic paper [as] Lumen prints… photographic paper exposed over long periods time to ultra-violet light sometimes as long as two or three days of continuous exposure. [Other photographs are] comprised of medical x-rays laid over the photographic paper with broken glass filtering and blocking out light leaving a distorted abstract image. The paper was also exposed to various mild acids like lemon juice and light reflected through other materials like fiberglass. [These may] remind the viewer of Memento Mori.” Gear’s photographic works are some of his more radical, as he’s building his own pinhole cameras, and he likes to describe it as wanting to“shoot through garbage I find”, as with motor oil or bubble wrap. Some of these textures are recognizable in his images, and other times they simply add a unique quality, in the textures that are both detailed and more abstracted. This DIY (do it yourself) aesthetic, with the uniqueness of his cameras, is matched in how he mixes his own clay, from the local clay, for his pottery works. Its worthwhile to remember that photography is only a century or so old, and that once a photographer had to build their own equipment: whether we’ve lost or gained in the uniformity of tools, perhaps leading to a uniformity of concept, is debatable. Its unsurprising that Gear (whom has an Associate Diploma from OCA – now OCAD) is in the third year of an undergraduate degree at Brock, and he mentioned a photography class with Amy Friend, whose own lens based practice incorporates current and archival technology.
Many of the photos at the Mahtay had a rusted, liquid quality: more a record of process / experience than a devoted reproduction of an image. They’re more about texture, the play of light and dark, the subtle splashes and washes of colour: this fuzzy quality was the opposite of the drawings he displayed simultaneously, titled The Real Transformers series. Clean, linear and hard edged, these are industrial wasteland images, metallic and impressive ‘trash’ that is rendered in a monumental style that speaks of the solidity of the subject matter.
Gear’s artwork straddles various media, but always marked by an exploration of the process that is a hallmark of this artist. In some ways, this is more reflective of his time at OCA, when art schools were more experimental sites, embracing the potential of difference and failure in a way that’s uncommon now. His work is worth a trip to Welland. [S]
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.