If you ever have the chance to read the Barlow Report, you’ll notice an amazing fact. Brock University (at the time of said report, and I suspect it’s still true) relies on Rodman Hall as a teaching component in 100 classes currently offered. The final evening of the Rodman Hall consultations was (theoretically) focused on students at Brock, and many recent graduates and current students asserted how important Rodman Hall was/is to their education and experience.
One of the ways in which this manifests is with the current exhibition Abstract/Abstracted: ‘This is not a tree’ which is “presented by Brock University Students enrolled in Intermediate Painting & Interpretive and Critical Writing in the Arts” under the hands of Professors Catherine Parayre and Shawn Serfas. The title might be citing René Magritte’s infamous Surrealist painting The Treachery of Images with the text of “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (“This is not a pipe” en français) under the image of a pipe, or how much early groundbreaking abstraction used nature as a means to an end (Monet’s numerous lilies) or that too many people still think that if you can’t tell what it is, it can’t possibly be good. Oh, look, another damn Group of Seven; you scream, I scream, we all scream at the calendar banality of [expensive Lawren Harris] landscapes. Friends, Treaty People, Settlers, I come not to praise Tom Thompson, but to bury him. The evil he did lives after him, the good drowned in Northern Ontario with him. No body was ever found, so landscape is without a habeas corpus, you might say.
Sorry. Sometimes my art historian and art critic are like murderous conjoined twins. Let us move on.
Here’s the blurb: “Reflecting on the exhibition A Painter’s Country: Canadian Landscape Paintings Selected from the Permanent Collection presented at Rodman Hall during the summer of 2016, Abstract/Abstracted: ‘This is not a tree’ presents works by Karel Appel, Frederick S. Coburn, Hans Hartung, Kazuo Nakamura, Carl Schaeffer, and Tony Tascona. Put together, these artworks, also from Rodman Hall’s permanent collection, explore a different problematic. How much abstraction is there in representation? In turn, to what extent is an abstract work abstract?
Abstract/Abstracted highlights, but also questions the contrasts between abstract and figurative art.
Brock University students in “Intermediate Painting” respond with selected artworks, while students in “Interpretive and Critical Writing in the Arts” provide critical texts that explore these questions.”
The side event room isn’t overly crowded, and this allows for the works and words to breathe; pieces alternate, between student works (I don’t use that term pejoratively) and selections from the collection. Stephanie Rogers’ Unconcluded and Adam Ross’ Standout impress me more than the Nakamura or the Schaeffer pieces. Rogers’ mixed media work is about subtleties and allusions, as its predominantly off-white with fine lines that meander across the surface, with forms in the foreground that suggest machinery or mechanics. A fringe of drips and runnells line the top of the piece in a darker tone. Standout offers a quartet of rich raw crimson slashes that fracture and yet somehow also unite the rough landscape presented by Ross: a somewhat banal dark landscape that’s more formless than representational (the boiling white at the bottom might be bubbling waters, the dots in the back lights on a bridge, and an earthy umber fortress looms in front) suggests layers and time, and then four swift strikes in red.
Several students offer words instead of images in response to the challenge posed by their instructors. Notable examples are how Defne Inceoglu considers Tascona’s Horizontals (“If the sky is red in the morning, there will be turbulence at sea, says an old rhyme. If at night, then all will be calm. Horizontals is both a sunrise and a sunset, a forest and a desert. It is a fire and it is a body of water. It is calm and it is constantly moving. It lives on a planet we can see through the glass of the frame or observe through the window that hovers over the water. Landscape painting is just this, an interpretation”) and Mohamed Osman reflects on Appel’s Dans la tempete (“creative madness and a storm” or “abstract intensity of vision sparks imagination and creates visual pleasure (or displeasure) for the viewer”.)
Unlike last year’s incarnation of this exhibition, the students here are writing full paragraphs, not prose or poetry. That’s much more difficult, as the form is stricter (Yes, that’s my bias: but try reading recent issues of Canadian Art or MOMUS, and you’ll understand why the debate is not about subjectivity / non subjectivity in art writing, but its clarity, succinctness and relevance — and if if it’s provocative to readers. I’d suggest the writings of Ad Reinhardt — his Art as art texts are worthwhile, especially when you consider his knowledge of traditions of abstraction from the Islamic and Asian spheres. Abstraction has a too often ignored yet rich and enriching world history).
Other notable aspects of Abstract/Abstracted: a sculpture by Amber Lee Williams (Peripheries offers a literal interpretation of a splitting of thought) and the aforementioned Tascona (Inceoglu cites some of his history / experience, which highlighted certain qualities of the gouache on paper piece, new ideas for an older work).
This exhibition runs until February, and this is a show where the works and texts interrelate, and the viewer might consider how they intersect or even disagree, as there’s not one “answer” to the questions posed here regarding abstraction.
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.