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The “Lure of the Local”

A regionalist focus for Up Close and In Motion’s current chapter

“Travel is the only context in which some people ever look around. If we spent half the energy looking at our own neighborhoods, we’d probably learn twice as much.” (Lucy Lippard)

I have a game I like to play, here in Niagara: I didn’t start it, but I’ve surely pushed it further.
At a reception nearly three (3!) years ago, NAC Minister of Energy, Minds and Resources Stephen Remus introduced me to several people as being “from Saskatchewan.” I didn’t correct him, but it circulated, and still does, that I was “sprung…up dirty and sad, spiky also, like grass beside the railroad tracks” (Duddy Kravitz) on the prairies. My time in the gulag archipelago of #YXE was nearly two decades, but I was neither born nor a child there (though I’d argue I was too often the only adult in the room).

Even more perverse: my curatorial background (what, you thought your intrepid #artcriticfromhell was one of those ilk who jabbers yet can’t do? Shush, it’s an understandable assumption, based on “my” brethren. But I digress) is very Saskatoon grassroots, as I’ve curated works from the University of Saskatchewan collection,The Photographers Gallery (TPG) Archive and Video Vérité (frequently  focused on the history / histrionics of collecting in Saskatoon, as I also worked at the College Gallery at #usask for some time, assisting in their first and widest inventory of their archive and artworks). Another curatorial venture was REGION which explored contemporary painting in Saskatchewan.

Amusingly, as I write this, the (please, Jesus, Mary and Joseph the carpenter, let it be the) final edits on my contribution to a book / anthology titled Art on the Margins: Visual Culture in Saskatchewan are flying back and forth in the dark email ether twilight zone. 

I torment my innocent readers with these anecdotes for two reasons, both shockingly positive.

My own focus in writing, curating and the sludge of Canadian art history has repeatedly been about immediate community, with the history written in the visual arts of a place, a very present “site of contested narratives.”

Secondly (and more relevant to you) is that the latest rendering of Up Close and In Motion (titled Phase 4 / 11) at Rodman Hall is very much a St. Catharines chapter: this is important both for how Ernest Harris, Jr., created a specific painting for 4 / 11, but also in that all the artists on display have a very strong presence in STC’s artistic history. I appreciate this latest evolution, curated by (former) Assistant Curator Emma German, as a means to learn more about my current community, which although no longer “new” to me, still offers exciting anecdotes and visual narratives of “here.”

Ernest Harris, Jr.’s Mel’s Brushes in the front part of the Hansen Gallery is responsive to the artworks German has selected for the back area (more details on them in a moment). His words: “I’m a fan of most of the artists featured during these upcoming months – a who’s who of regionalist all-stars – but I have the strongest connection to the phase 4 artists.”

Mel’s Brushes could also be seen as a gateway to appreciating the 4 / 11 selections, or conversely (yet complimentary), Harris’ painting might be seen as the final punctuation to MacDonald, Wren and Anderson’s works. Backward and forwards, just like an experience of memory which place and artworks can evoke. Read this visual or painted “sentence” as you see fit. Or do what I enjoy in exploring conjunctive interrelations between the artworks: treat them as puzzle pieces that fit together in different ways on different visits, with different orders, to offer unique, yet still contextually / conceptually interlinked, (his)stories.

This (I suspect) is what German would emphasize, with her ideas of Slow Art Day, and with her more creative and less “formal” exploration of the collection at Rodman Hall Art Centre.

Carolyn Wren’s Sheaf of Wheat (a linocut print) sits on the far wall, far opposite the window in the front room. Tobey C. Anderson’s Silken Twine #22, #27, #39 and #41 are to your right, if the window is to your back, and Melanie MacDonald’s Salt and Pepper Muskies sits above the fireplace. The installation is different than previous Up Close and In Motion “phases” in that the three collection pieces occupy the same room. On my initial visit I entered that room first, then went to Harris’ painting. But on subsequent visits, I spent more time with Mel’s Brushes, as its physical separation – and frankly its the most visually dominating of the four (with its rich black void and how it makes the banality of brushes in a tin monumental) – fosters this focused interaction.

 

Anderson’s work is interesting to me in a similar manner to Philia (by Brendan Fernandes, in an earlier UCIM) as these artworks resonates outside of the Hansen gallery and in a wider historical sense. Several friends from both Toronto and Montreal had asked after the CRAM International when I told them I was moving to St. Catharines, and Anderson specifically. It’s likely that I’ve encountered Anderson’s work elsewhere, but I disremember.  These four paintings are from a series that’s as much epithet as resistance, as much memento mori as a visual “diary” of someone who played a major role in the artistic / cultural melee of St. Catharines. They’re small, but dense and vibrant. The bright colours, the organic shapes and abstracted scenes are reminiscent of microscopic slides of disease or other variant biological samples, seen through intense magnification.

These are also self portraiture: perhaps in that Anderson was attempting to “control” his illness, rendering an aspect of his identity onto canvas. These are the remnants of him. I never met him, but his influence on this place has been cited many times to me, and in the quiet “contemplation” of Slow Art Day, of the ruminative interactions that German wants to – and has – evoked with the “up close” part of UCIM, I have met Tobey Anderson.

Art is, after all, the most direct yet most subversive form of history: as it is sometimes the most intimate, yet most symbolic, form of autobiography. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell likes to “speak in collage”, so I offer this, which Anderson’s work evoked from me: “Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” (Sontag, Illness as Metaphor)

Ernest’s words offer another point of entry (some of the same sentiments / facts came up in brief chat with German): “Carolyn Wren was my high school art teacher and …[s]he was teaching at a university level, something I only realized in my freshman year at Brock. Wren also introduced me to Kate Bush, Tom Waits and Laurie Anderson. Her impact on my young mind can not be overstated. I was still in high school when I was introduced to Tobey C. Anderson as the incoming director of Niagara Artists Centre. His paintings, particularly Idi Amin / Madonna / Mandela / Dada (1989), had a direct influence on me and my first real body of work, which in turn led to my first professional art show a few years later at [appropriately] NAC.”

 

There’s a simplicity to Wren’s work (lino encourages this, and in the right hands, this print medium can be expressive, graphic and emotionally moving) that, if you turn right from Mel’s Brushes can lure you from across the space. But, as Harris indicates, Wren is more important to him as a teacher, and more importantly, a teacher you encounter while malleable and receptive and without whom you can’t imagine being the artist you are now. (Amusing side point: Harris and I have both worked with Evergon, one of the most significant photo / lens based artists in Canadian Art history. Evergon is / was, in many ways, an influence on me like how Wren, or Anderson, were for Ernest.)

MacDonald’s Salt and Pepper Muskies is the only work that matches Harris for size: and both sit above mantles, in an amusing manner, as both seem too playful, too “banal” for the clichéd mantle space (many shows I’ve seen here, however, challenge the architectural “expectations” of the Hansen). MacDonald is the artist I’m most familiar with, of this quartet (the tendons of history and experience join Harris to the others, quite firmly, making this a four person show, in my eyes). Her excellent Florida Noir may be the best painting show I’ve experienced in Niagara; her use of paint, creating surfaces pearlescent and bright, and forms that suggest you might reach out and grab them made that exhibition one of my favourites ever in the Dennis Tourbin (another local artist of significance) gallery. In a fitting definition of “community”, Harris “gave Mel painting lessons” when she attended university (the formal attention to detail in Harris’ – or Mel’s Brushes was present in MacDonald’s Noir exhibition. But I also have to cite how a recent conversation with the founder / director of a community arts organisation emphasised the cyclical nature of supporting local artists so they might mentor and foster aspiring and emerging, so they might one day be mentors to the next upcoming group or generation…)

 

In past incarnations of Up Close and In Motion, artists from other communities whose artworks – and their own experiences and histories – have augmented Niagara and St. Catharines have been featured (Jones, Dagneault, Cadieux and Tang). I know that future instalments of UCIM will feature several regional artists, continuing this year long exploration of the history of Rodman Hall in a more active (hence “motion”) and more intense (“up close”) way.

4 / 11 has been personally enjoyable and enlightening. When I was first living on the prairies, I read  Lucy Lippard’s Lure of the Local,  and one of the contributors to that anthology made a comment that still lives in my head: “I’m not from here, I just live here.” Up Close and In Motion‘s latest “chapter” literally illustrates the importance of the history and community that Rodman Hall holds in its collection and reinforces the gallery, the centre and the collection’s importance (as so often manifest through the staff, of course), and the quality of visual arts, and artists, in this variant and intersecting “site.” And by “site” I mean not just St. Catharines, but the diverse ways RHAC has presence in Niagara, and beyond (from Harris to Fernandes, from Wren to Cadieux).

This incarnation of Up Close and In Motion (part of the ongoing project) curated by (former) Assistant Curator Emma German is on display until June 23rd. You can read more about it here and here. Different works by different artists from the RHAC collection will be in the Hansen, however, as part of the year long exploration of the collection, until January 2019. All images are courtesy / copyright of Rodman Hall and the artists.

Written by Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola (also known as #artcriticfromhell) is an arts writer/critic who has published with Magenta Magazine, Canadian Art, FUSE, 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.

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