As an art critic who’s also an art historian, I enjoy how terms can sometimes take on new meanings, evolving over time. I’ve often commented that with some art historical analysis, too often there’s an attempt to fit a square peg of art into the round hole of a term, or an ‘ism’, that degrades both. Some of you have probably also suffered through lectures or such that attempt to pigeonhole artists into one specific interpretation, which makes them flat and doesn’t acknowledge that there’s no point where one period ends and another begins. This is especially true in terms of visual art, where subtlety and metaphor can speak backwards and forwards, historically.
Words and terms can be more limiting than inclusive: when wandering around the works on display at the Gallery at 13th Street Winery, the idea of ‘public art’ versus ‘art in the public sphere’, or ‘outdoor art’ versus ‘public art’, were rattling around in my head. If you’ve experienced any of the exhibitions in the gallery space there (which I affectionately call the ‘art barn’), you’re familiar with how the term ‘modernism’ is often cited, but it is anything but a static or settled term. This is in play with the many outdoor artworks scattered among the grounds of 13th Street Winery, as some pieces are more engaging and show how that terminology, or idea, is a means to an end, and not inert or settled. Others, however, are more reminiscent of what a curator I know termed the ‘fallow ground’ of ‘modernism’, with works that are less interesting, and that are more karaoke than innovative (the plethora of Doug Benthams suffer from this, as you’ll be forgiven if you pass them by to enjoy Henry Saxe‘s more playful and successful works).
I’d also add that as we’re negotiating how to socialize and such, with COVID, this is a wonderful space to visit, to get a good bit of exercise and visit the numerous pieces. You can then visit the gallery proper (for air conditioning, hah) or be distancing and mindful when you pick up some wine (or the butter tarts, which several of my friends have admitted is the true reason they ‘visit the art’). The gallery has an excellent teaser for their outdoor works (appropriately titled The Isolation Project, which you can see here).
There are several works that stand out, and when an artwork is outside, the rules of engagement change, and the criteria of what’s successful does, too. Works take on a different life in the open air than when they ‘live’ in a white gallery space. No better example of this is in the works of Henry Saxe: this isn’t just due to their delightful installation outside, but that several of these have previously been in the gallery, as part of the Modern Masters exhibition earlier this year. Spheres as much about negative space as the linear components that construct their forms, they’re also arranged in a circle, seeming to take on the history of standing stones or other neolithic markers to be found around the world. On the day I last visited, the bright sunshine and the rich vibrant greens of the grass augmented, with a deep rich ‘ground’ for the gleaming art.
One of the things that make visiting this site so enjoyable is the open, outdoor space: so, while I was standing atop the hill where Karoly Veress‘ Opening is positioned, high above the rest, you’re able to look outwards and see the arrangement – almost an earth work – of Saxe’s ‘spheres’, and even beyond to Floyd Elzinga‘s Hey Baal or Prairie Seed. I’ve commented before that some exhibitions of artworks, if installed thoughtfully and with a mind to the dialogue between artworks, becomes a larger artwork in itself, fostering conversations between pieces due to proximity which might collaborate or challenge. This is very much the case with the outdoor works at 13th Street, where you find yourself in a landscape populated by works where you relate to them, they relate to each other and you stand between and betwixt their interactions.
Taking the gallery’s words about Saxe’s works: “Henry Saxe’s Sphere sculptures reflect a tension between the enclosure of the whole structure and the relative freedom of motion of the individual components. This aluminum work is a multi-positional piece, its configuration and shape are limitless.”
In conversation with several people at the gallery, we spoke of how much Saxe’s pieces change from inside to outside. When in the Modern Masters show, the aluminum material and bare, minimal space of the gallery spoke more of industrial wastelands, and appealed to my memories of Detroit, Windsor or my frequent visits to the rust belt wonderland of Welland. I mention the latter as while in Welland, I’ve often visited Rod Dowling‘s tubular pieces that ‘speak’ to the industrial legacy of Welland, whether Atlas Steels or John Deere. They would say something else in a gallery, as Saxe’s works did, in Modern Masters. Outside, in the grass, Saxe’s artworks make me think of airplane graveyards, or Atlas Steels, in a different manner: on recent visits there, the earth is reclaiming the manufactured remnants, and even beavers were foraging among the ruins. This is a sentiment that also is very present in Elzinga’s Hey Baal, with one of the works rusted and seemingly mashed together into a hay bale form, bringing to mind ‘cubed’ cars and trashed, obsolete machinery. The rust and oxidization would make this Hey Baal a beautiful ‘found’ work if ‘left’ along the train tracks near Atlas Steels, like a perplexing if evocative leavings of a lost civilization. Elzinga’s Hey Baal “is a tribute to consumer production. Made entirely from scrap metal; this piece refers to a processed steel coil in premonition of the shape it will become. Elzinga has made a career out of highlighting and glorifying nature’s rotten stumps, broken branches, pine cones and other dysfunctional objects.”
One of the other artists I just mentioned is hopefully familiar to you: Karoly Veress’ work can also be found in the downtown of St. Catharines, and the aforementioned work Opening is a good example of his aesthetic. At the page for The Isolation Project, the following guidance is offered: “This sculpture is about the strength we gather from the small place where we are together…Veress believes that sculpture should not merely be a translation of the human experience into form, but should also explore the aspect of the human psyche that is detached from everyday life.” Veress’s works are an enticing contradiction: on the one hand, they’re often large, solid and sturdy, almost monolithic. But the manner in which they bend and knot and entwine suggests a flow more like plasticine or rubber. This dissimilarity of material and movement makes them active, not as lifeless or stale as some heavy ‘plop sculptures.’ That’s a term often applied, in a derogatory manner, to much #karaokemodernist art, that has no relation to the space it is ‘dropped’ within – the opposite of Saxe’s ‘circle’ here, or Elzinga’s ‘agricultural’ works. I’d heard it applied often to the rusted detritus of ‘prairie modernism’ out West, and specifically Doug Bentham’s works, which are generously littered around the 13th Street grounds….
Having advanced that dismissal of Bentham’s works, I will counter with the following, however: the excess of his works tends to neuter them. In front of the gallery building, Bentham’s The Hardingham Series might be more impressive if installed like Elzinga or Veress or Saxe, with space and distance for the works to ‘stand’ more solemnly. As a larger cluster of works they geld each other. I’d add that having lived on the Prairies, I’ve been subjected to numerous pieces by Bentham, and they also are somewhat repetitive (not in a positive manner, as with Saxe’s circular installation). An amusing side note, as regards public art / art in the public sphere: several years ago, Sans façon, a collective that covers public art works in white vinyl, was commissioned by the city of Saskatoon to do so, as a temporary project. Several works that were ‘covered’ were by Bentham. This was done when Saskatoon was snowy and icy, and the smooth white forms took on a haunting, morbid sense, that when the coverings were removed, with the browns and reddish rusts, rough and raw edges and corrosion, almost made the works ‘new’. He was quite angry about this, dismissing the temporary shift in public artworks and the perceptions therein. But Bentham’s sculptures are often derivative of Richard Serra, and Serra also often dismissed critics of his works as philistines, too. When Serra’s Tilted Arc was ‘exiled’ from its original location, he raged and also chose to blame the vagaries of the public, assured of his own relevance.
Along those same lines, you can see several works by Elzinga around the grounds, and while his Grapevine is an enjoyable work, it doesn’t have the same power, and ability to command your attention as the previously cited Hay Baal or the very industrial, but also very airy, Prayer Seed. Seed is – again – a fine contrast in form and shape: the ‘seed’ is solid, shiny, and clearly appropriated or re purposed industrial components, assembled in a manner that echoes the points and protrusions of dandelions ‘gone to seed.’ The ‘tail’ in back loops up and over, expanding outwards like the reverse of a blooming skeleton of a flower. Being able to walk around, duck under and lean in to touch and examine the details only makes it more effective: and then to walk away and look backwards, and not be so seduced by texture and immediacy but to ‘see’ it as an industrial ‘seed’, like a cyborg or android simulacra of nature, allows you to fully appreciate the robust vigour of it.
But to be fair: Bentham’s Sentinel, towering over the visitor, standing somewhat alone, or Palmyra Gate, which rises from dirt and mud, dusty and forlorn, both have an appealing apocalyptic quality. Let’s return to the earlier idea of the ‘fallow ground’ of ‘modernism.’ This is appropriate to cite,while speaking of artworks among the grass, surrounded by vineyards: ‘fallow ground is an agricultural term….used a lot amongst the farming community and harvesters. Fallow ground is ground that was once ploughed, fertile and ready for harvesting, but that was left untended and becomes hard and dry and wasteful.’
Consider Bentham’s Sentinel or Palmyra Gate while thinking of gates of Hell emblazoned with the text ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here.’ Modernism has failed like a bad crop – as most appeals to a universal utopia will – but can instead act as warnings that a utopia for some is a dystopia for others. Curator, Lisa Baldissera (from whom I’m cribbing the idea of ‘fallowness’ here), when I asked how she’d define ‘modernism’, years ago, in Saskatoon (Bentham is from Rosetown, Saskatchewan, and is one of the names of “prairie modernism”), cited nuclear energy as an example. We’ve gone from post WWII optimism and hope, marvelling at our own progress, to Fukushima and the hazards of too much faith and not enough self criticality.
One can stand in front of Sentinel and even consider Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘sentinel’ from his 2001: A Space Odyssey series: progress is not neutral, is not progress for all, and is often a Pandora’s box, if you will. Where there was green grass is now scorched earth. Sentinel might make an interesting layered critical statement if installed at Uranium City in Bentham’s Saskatchewan, as a warning….
The formal rawness of Bentham, or Elzinga is also enjoyable: to reference back to minimalism, an artistic movement sometimes seen as intersecting with modernism, or opposing it, or a child of it, edit as you will, there’s an idea from the sculptor Carl Andre worth considering. Andre postulated, in his sculptures / simple installations of metal, marble, and other materials that the ‘artist’s hand’ was perhaps overrated. His words: ‘I realized the wood was better before I cut it, than after. I did not improve it in any way [by carving it].‘ (from a conversation with Anna Moszynska, in Abstract Art) The materiality of Bentham or Elzinga, unsullied by any ‘change’ – or the tension between manipulation and the original materials, Saxe – all ask questions that should be considered, with contemporary sculpture, and especially when dealing with the vagaries and legacies of ‘modernism’, however we define that contested term.
This might seem overly subjective: but when considering public art, it’s good to keep in mind that, as opposed to works in a gallery, the public interacts with them ‘on their ground.’ This is why ‘plop art’ can be a failure, as it sometimes lacks formal or conceptual elements to engage people, but other times people who wouldn’t enter a gallery at the point of a gun (being tired of being lectured or dismissed for ‘inappropriate’ or ‘wrong’ interpretations) find aspects of the art that speaks to them, and their own experiences can find a space within the work. This multiplicity of interpretations is a strength, not a failure.
I’ve offered just a taste of what you can experience among the outdoor artworks at 13th Street Winery. Some are more ‘hidden’ among the foliage. Several are intense in their colour, if you go on a sunny day (Veress’ Necklace is a different work than his usual oeuvre, with intense colours that reference his heritage). Safe At Home VII by Ronald Boaks (who will be in the next gallery show, with Floyd Elzinga and Kimberly Danielson) is an intense white, architectural, that has a uniqueness among the sculptures that will attract you from across the fields at the winery. More can be experienced here: and when the next exhibition of works in the Gallery space opens on June 27th, it is an excellent time of year to either arrive early, or stay later, to walk among the works and contemplate them, visiting them and seeing how they converse with you, and each other.
The Gallery at 13th Street Winery is located at 1776 Fourth Avenue, in St. Catharines, ON, and it has resumed regular gallery hours (Tuesday to Saturday, 10 AM to 5 PM). The exhibition Evolving Legacies: Bahen, Chapman, Clements is still on display in the gallery proper until June 20th, 2020. Their next exhibition, featuring Ronald Boaks, Floyd Elzinga and Kimberly Danielson will have an opening reception June 27th. The many outdoor artworks at 13th Street are on permanent display indefinitely, and more information can be found about them here. All images in this article were taken by the writer, and the header image is Opening, by Karoly Veress.
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.