A more degraded — or more authentic, edit as preferred — manner in which memory is defined by external stimuli (as Susan Sontag has said photographs define our recollections more than any memory “itself”) might be Facebook’s “on this day” reminders. Just as I was learning that Permanent Vacation, an exhibition of recent graduates from Brock’s Visual Arts program was about to open in the VISA Gallery, FB, in its invasive wisdom was reminding me that it had been two years since I reviewed a similar alumni exhibition there (Shifting Practices). Practices was the premiere show in the VISA, coinciding with the grand opening of the MIWSFPA: that was curated by Emma German (now at Rodman Hall, where her curatorial / research contributions to Material Girls can be experienced right now) whereas Vacation has been curated by fellow Brock alumni Asta McCann.
It’s a straightforward installation. This isn’t criticism, but a comparison to the overwhelming effluvia of Material Girls, or even if Vacation is contrasted with Shifting Practices. The shiny, formal prefabricated installation Vase Phase, by Kate Mazi, is installed in the exact spot as Candace Couse’s Pressure was, two years ago. The soft colours of Vase, the polished gleam of the vessels (some are obviously banal vases, while others have more modernist whimsy, and seem to openly challenge their utilitarian essence), all arranged on a clothed long table, are what holds you first as you enter the space (just as Couse’s work did two years ago). The “tradition” of the readymade is nearly a century old, and still troublesome, and like the anniversary of WWI (you know, the “war to end all wars”) reminds us that “[t]he old order fell apart in Europe in August, 1914; and art fell apart with it.”
The statement: “[Permanent Vacation] will showcase a select group of recent Brock University Alumni: Katie Mazi, Jenn Judson, Matt Caldwell, Alex Muresan, Jessica Wright and Ben Mosher. As these emerging artists expand ideas and develop new work, they continue to recognize the value of the St. Catharines arts community and the impact it has on their practice…These artists will exhibit new and exciting work they have been producing as they navigate and emerge into the art communities locally and beyond the region.”
Mazi and Judson just presented Cooler Than Cool, in NAC’s Dennis Tourbin Gallery, some wonderfully bright and bawdy photos and the “costumes” of those performative images. In Vacation, Judson offers a work (Dreaming Of A Diagnosis) that has her sense of caprice and irreverence. A large, vibrantly coloured piece shows Kermit the Frog in front of a field of green with orange flowers and blue sky, cheerfully telling us to “GO 2 HELL.” As a fan of Statler & Waldorf (and, ahem, perhaps their heir), I endorse and appreciate this sentiment. It has the same “you can stare / I don’t care” of other works by Judson; there’s a Chaplinesque quality, here. Perhaps you remember her works in the group BFA graduating exhibition in Rodman Hall, where she displayed the masks she made, and images of people wearing them in day to day situations.
Matt Caldwell dominates one wall with three massive, abstract pieces (the titles are minimal, like More). The range and quality of mark making that attracted me to his work when I first saw it (again, in a show in NAC’s Tourbin space) is only stronger here. His palette has expanded: bold, striking “bits” of colour serve to accentuate the subtle scabbyscratchy coarseness of works like Screw. Sometimes these are almost liquid, fluid in the forms shaped by his brushwork, and other times architectural, but alluding more to erosion…
Caldwell hangs opposite Judson’s sassy muppet and Jessica Wright’s Flower Portrait Series 1 and 2 that seem as inspired by pop culture as LSD. Googly eyes and an almost wet gloss in Wright’s two pieces offer a balance, with their formal blistering intensity, to Caldwell’s triptych. Wright’s two women — or perhaps girls, as there’s a youthful exuberance to both the colours and a world weary exasperation to the “models” — are a bit clownish, a bit impish. One seems to recline her head at us while rolling her eyes, and her “sister” doesn’t even seem to consider us worthy of eye contact. No surprise: their rich formalism makes the viewer seem boring.
Vacation offers disparities and similarities, “talking” across the gallery space. As all the works here — even Mazi’s table, pushed up against one side — are wall works, the middle of the VISA space is empty. You can sit on the bench, considering how the pieces “speak” to each other, or influence each other, or underscore their formal differences.
Muresan’s Between Looking might be my favourite, for a very simple reason: the way the ‘curtain’ breaks the frame, and blends with the gallery wall with its (lack of) colour and softness, offers a variety of interpretations (whether that we’re seeing something we shouldn’t, with a hint of perversity, or that this might be a doorway to elsewhere). Its well installed, next to Mosher, as both artists have a reserved quality. The use of colour by both artists is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Wright or Caldwell (Muresan is monochromatic, barely there – arguably even concealing her work, with the curtain, and Mosher’s video Suspended builds form from colour at a slow ebb), but, as with their peers, this serves their work well.
On the whole, Permanent Vacation is superficially quiet, but on closer examination will trouble that feeling. Some (like Mosher) are initially very seductive, but also are opaque in their meaning (40 Combine Drawings have a playful vagary but lack the discipline, the craft, I’ve seen in previous works by Mosher. He was in Shifting Perspectives, too, and that work seemed more resolved). Even Judson’s wonderful bastardization (or realization) of Kermit which is like a slap loses a bit of ground when you consider the plethora of Kermit memes on social media (though the handmade quality here transcends that). Many of the works here in Permanent Vacation are initially alluring, but seem to lose conceptual ground on closer examination. But — and perhaps here my years of working with emerging artists asserts itself — this is an exhibition of emerging artists, freshly de institutionalized. That art school structure / pedagogy / pedanticism / poison (whoops, #sorrynotsorry) is often an enduring influence, even by an awareness of its absence. It can be felt, in many artists works, when they’re attempting to find their “feet.” There’s much to appreciate here in Permanent Vacation: not the least of which is that nearly all of these artists have exhibited around Niagara, from gallery spaces to In The Soil to other sites.
Permanent Vacation is in the VISA Gallery, at MIWSFPA, until the middle of December 2017. Your intrepid #artcriticfromhell suggests you listen to Songs for Drella, the album Lou Reed and John Cale wrote about Andy Warhol, as accompanying soundtrack.
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.