We are all so tired of this wretched pandemic and pulling on a miserable mask to line up at No Frills. To hell with cooking every night and working out on a mat in front of You Tube with Coach Kel. To hell with the variants, the restrictions, Zoom meetings, vaccine hesitancy, Netflix and the poisonous political ideologies drifting northward from the USA. We want to be in a crowded bar listening to live music! We want to go to a packed opening! We want to linger over an overpriced coffee at the MOCA cafe! We want to push our way onto an overflowing streetcar!
Eventually, spring will come and eventually we will all be vaccinated. In the meantime, museums and galleries are shut down and virtual art experiences are hard to find online.
It is not the right time to restart my blog, except that I did stumble across some artwork that’s fun to look at and think about.
The endless stream of generally bland visual content (ideas for renovating my bathroom, for instance) that I once associated with Pinterest, suddenly become bold and declarative statements, found on the fascinating boards and pinsof participating artists.
I admire the way the Pinterest infrastructure is efficiently used to create fresh content and how the artworks adopt the vitality and relentless novelty of the form, leading the viewer down labyrinthine paths of visual and intellectual stimulation.
As opposed to working in the pure art realm the featured artists combine commercial design, typography and photography and easily dissolve the boundaries between fine art and commercial practice.
Puzzleman Leung, who is a photographer in Taipei, created a mysterious narrative for his Pinterest project.
Looking at Puzzleman Leung’s boards is the opposite of doomscrolling. It is a joyful affirmation of the ocean of images at our fingertips! Elon Musk has been promising for a while now that Neuralink will connect the internet directly to our brains. Happily, there are still a few hurdles to overcome before it is as simple as Lasik surgery to have “the implant.”
Berlin designer Louise Borinski interpreted Leung’s photographs in a series of cryptic posters. She uses the site “as a platform to fall into deep inspiration scroll holes.” I like that!
Abu-Dhabi based graphic artist Shamma Buhazza concludes we need to decolonize design. Decolonizing has lately been a powerful sentiment in North America. It makes sense that would be true in the Middle East too. Shamma Buhazza’s Pinterest boards attempt to disrupt the flow of visuals to create pauses for reflection and the raising of generally unheard voices.
Covid-19 needs to get wrapped up soon. I feel like I lost the few social skills I ever possessed. Who knows if they will come back?
In Toronto and elsewhere, the lack of distracting activities like movies, concerts and sports is contributing to profound events. The real world is changing so fast, as people get focused and rise up. Meanwhile, in the cultural domain, time and place, and, openings and closings, don’t really matter. Many cultural products have become digital and are therefore on demand, untethered by time constraints. Time itself can be compressed to almost nothing or drawn out and made to last.
2020 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival
Ho Tam at Paul Petro Contemporary Art
For example, the 2020 Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, which normally takes place throughout the city in the month of May, was largely postponed, except for the bits and pieces of it which can still be seen, either online or, in a few instances, as outdoor public installations (in the real world.)
In a 25-year-old video by Ho Tam, which was exhibited at Paul Petro Contemporary Art as part of CONTACT, Godzilla is the opening act. The video, titled “The Yellow Pages”, has a lightness and playfulness that belies its serious content.
Silent and less than eight minutes long, Ho Tam’s video is an illustrated alphabet of racial cliches and assumptions. A is for “Asian Crimes,” B is “Butterfly”, C is “Chinatown,” D is “Dogmeat.” The artist has a very graceful way of layering one cliche upon another. E is for “Enter the Dragon” but instead of Bruce Lee we are treated to a clip of a painfully decrepit Mao Zedong meeting (possibly) Soviet dignitaries sometime in the early 70s. Everything feels so weighted with meaning. Maybe that’s why the piece is so delightful to watch. The cliches are off, and, therefore unsettling.
Uniformly bathed in sepia, the images diverge wildly: “Head Tax” is a ghastly heap of skulls documenting the reign of the Khmer Rouge, “Ninja Turtles” refers to a group of elderly Tai Chi practitioners, and the “Asian Crimes” section — the first letter — introduces the endearing yet ruinous antics of Godzilla. I’m not sure if Godzilla is punishing “Asian Crimes,” or maybe Godzilla himself is the crime, unleashed upon the world.
According to social theorists, since the first Japanese movie featuring Godzilla debuted in 1954, the giant lizard has effectively tapped into our fears and preoccupations. He embodies nuclear weapons, catastrophic bio-hazard, global environmental degradation, cross-species virus transmission and whatever comes next. That’s why we love him!
Dawit L. Petros at Power Plant
On the CONTACT Festival website I was advised there was a public installation currently On View at The Power Plant. I rode my bike down to Queen’s Quay to have a look. The Power Plant was closed. But, I did get to see the giant, outdoor banner, art piece by Dawit L. Petros, erected as part of the 2020 CONTACT festival.
Reading the accompanying text makes clear that this is a scene of current and historic misery. A man is holding a large photograph, which conceals his identity. The man is named Moktar. He is described as one of the millions of migrants who have embarked on dangerous journeys all over the world. Coming from Eritrea, Moktar traveled through Sudan, Egypt, Libya, and across the Mediterranean to a new life in Italy. He was photographed at an unspecified location.
The photograph Moktar is holding is “a reproduction of an etching by Georgina Smith, an eyewitness to the sinking of the transatlantic steamship SS Utopia. In a tragic accident on March 17, 1891, the SS Utopia—used frequently to transport European immigrants to the United States—collided with a battleship off the shores of Gibraltar and sank quickly, killing over 500 passengers, many of whom were poor southern Italians seeking better lives across the Atlantic Ocean.”
Looking closely at the photograph of the etching, the detailed image of the terrible event can be seen.
The migrant experience, quickly forgotten by subsequent generations, is perilous today, as it was in 1891.
The view southward from the art installation appears serene. Queen’s Quay, normally thronged with tourists during the summer months, is deserted. The lake is very calm in the sudden summer heat.
Museum of ContemporaryArt
MOCA closed on March 14th, right in the middle of a exciting moment in the Museum’s brief history. Exhibits by four celebrated artists —Shelagh Keeley, Megan Rooney, Carlos Bunga and Sarah Sze — at various points in their respective career — made the building feel suddenly packed with bold endeavour. What a letdown when the pandemic wrapped things up way too soon!
Since that time, MOCA, like so many other cultural institutions, has tried to figure out ways to retain their audience and foster engagement.
During the lockdown, each week the Museum presents a new time-based work, frequently in collaboration with another local cultural organization. This week you can watch an experimental play, which is particularly relevant to the Black Lives Matter events of the moment. It is titled On Trial: The Long Doorway, by Deanna Bowen, and it can be seen on MOCA’s Shift Key platform.
Meanwhile, the real exhibits, which were scheduled to run to mid-May, languish in the silent halls of the Museum. Hesitancy and confusion about when shows start and end constitute more pandemic fallout. (So many changes in the world right now: I really like the fact that Grind Culture is taking a hit during this global episode! Slow the hell down!)
Guided virtual tours, by MOCA curators, are provided in connection to some of the works inside, including a tour of An Embodied Haptic Space which is the title of Shelagh Keeley’s exhibition of site specific wall drawings and photographs. Tarp paintings from 1986 and a fascinating video are also in the exhibition.
The washed out greens and purples in the drawings multiply the feeling of decay and putrescence seen in the photographs, themselves part of the visual wall, which the artist took, when the site at 158 Sterling Road was still unrenovated.
The sense of intuitive confidence, so evident in the beautiful drawings, was also at work in the video part of the exhibition. The text accompanying the video, titled The Colonial Garden, explains that this place, now largely shuttered and in disrepair, was part of the 1940 Portuguese World Exhibition, where it functioned as a kind of human zoo, exhibiting native people from Portugal’s colonies. Shelagh Keeley’s video, creates a growing sense of the sinister, as it takes the viewer on a slow tour of the shambolic garden.
An online video beautifully documents the construction of the mysterious “Hissing Folly.” (A “folly,” in architecture, by the way, is defined as “a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose.”) Cole Swanson’s folly, built within the gallery space, is made of phragmites thatched over a wooden frame.
Phragmites are an invasive species. They came to Ontario from somewhere in Europe in the 1920s. They are huge plants, over five meters tall, which form dense thickets of vegetation, crowding out native species such as wild rice, cattails, and native wetland orchids. Cole Swanson partnered with Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority to collect and remove the phragmites from the Thickson’s Woods Land Trust of Durham Region in an operation involving chain saws.
The video, which shows the harvesting of the towering reeds, features a lovely sighing, rustling sound which emanates from the phragmites as the breeze whistles through them. That same hissing sound is reproduced on speakers within the installation.
The completed folly, pictured below, has a serene simplicity and attests to the long history of thatched structures. They go back 5000 years.
Phragmites are a disaster for Ontario’s wetlands and Cole Swanson seems to find this a fitting metaphor for the whole shit show of colonialism as he gamely wades into a “dense thicket” of ideologies. I really like this artist’s confidence! He does not pretend to have a solution to problems caused by invasive species in Ontario’s wetlands or by “the colonial, consumer, and cultural systems” which conveyed them here. He spends his energy collaborating with various stakeholders in the region and stirring things up to create this thought provoking art piece.
I happened to see another art piece by Cole Swanson, at Hamilton Artists Inc., last year. The Devil’s Colony is described by the artist as a “cross-disciplinary exhibition that examines the sociocultural, material, and scientific relationships between humans and an often-reviled colonial species, double-crested cormorants.”
Prior to being enlightened by Cole Swanson’s art piece I was totally down for reviling these appalling birds. For example, on a sultry summer afternoon last August we rented a kayak and paddled down the Humber river. At one point, we entered gang territory, and by this I mean we were surrounded by thousands of cormorants, perched on dead trees — trees they killed! — on either side of the river. They literally growled, in menacing unity, as we rushed by.
What is with these birds?
In his show in Hamilton, Cole Swanson replicated a bird blind. He also showed films of the huge numbers of double-crested cormorants nesting in Tommy Thompson park, on Leslie spit. For this exhibition he worked with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and under the mentorship of an environmental biologist from York University. I really like the way this artist works with scientists to explore the way various plant and animal species, including humans, continually alter the natural world. Cole Swanson seems to be able to do this without judgement or didactic scolding.
The cormorants make bulky nests full of sticks and other materials, like rope, deflated balloons, fishnets, plastic debris, parts of dead birds (yes). Cormorants love the colour blue (like me) and Cole Swanson documented the blue festooned nests of the Devil birds, as part of his exhibition in Hamilton.
Cormorant populations suffered greatly from exposure to DDT in the 20th century and their numbers were decimated. Over the last few decades the birds have made a comeback. So much so that they are now viewed as destructive to sport fishing stocks. Some scientists, however, insist the birds actually protect native fish stocks, since they feed on invasive fish species whose presence is harmful to human interest. People loath these creatures, so much so, that they are now threatened by massive culling efforts.
The show in Hamilton included photos, video and a life-size sculptural representation of a bizarre creature formed from non-biodegradable materials gathered by the cormorants.
What is it about this sculpture that makes me uneasy? Oh yeah…
Is the global pandemic a good time to restart this blog?
Random wandering through art galleries and museums in real-life is only a memory now, since Covid-19 brought down the hammer. Previously– before the global pandemic –I had not bothered with the digital realm as a primary source for looking at art. I saw it as a secondary, less interesting, impoverished facsimile of the real thing, and, as a vast back-up archive for research, speculation, discussion and documentation. And now? Digital art is ascendant, the only game in town, so I’m looking at it.
Artists, galleries and art institutions are all trying to come up with ways to maintain their audience, offer up a virtual version of themselves for consumption, and survive. What seems to work, in the digital sphere, not surprisingly, is work that is originally made using the right tools: digital tools.
Conversely, trying to contort a real-life exhibition into a digital show, is often disappointing. For example, the various stake-holders in the highly anticipated (all Judd, all the time) show of Donald Judd’s work, which opened on March 11 at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and is scheduled to run through this summer in New York, are trying to come up with some way of realizing their labor. The Judd exhibition involved 12 years of planning and negotiations and was to occur not just at MOMA, but also at the Judd Foundation, the DIA Foundation and several of the biggest galleries in the city. There was a lot of excitement about seeing so many extraordinary objects by Donald Judd together, for once!
Now, with the galleries closed, the MOMA website invites visitors to view photos of the work, listen to talks about the work, see a video of the curator of the show as she walks us through it, hear interviews with Judd’s children, and, so on and so forth. But none of that is particularly interesting, compared to what it would have been like to see the show.
Online Exhibition of Brad Necyk’s Beyond Here Lies Nothing
ARTsPLACE is a gallery and arts center, operated by the Annapolis Region Community Arts Council. It is located in Annapolis Royal, in Nova Scotia, a town with a current population of 491. The town was originally founded (as Port Royal) in 1605, by Samuel de Champlain, and it has had a turbulent history, fraught with assaults, sieges and expulsions.
The artist, Brad Necyk, is from Alberta. He looks just like any guy you might see loading up his SUV with groceries in the Costco parking lot; kids in the back seat, wife scrolling through her phone. A few minutes into a conversation with Brad Necyk, however, would probably dispel those first impression notions of suburban normalcy. This is a man with very dark preoccupations, a precarious grip on his own mental health, and a past of endured pain, illness and trauma that is truly shocking.
The first video I watched was Alberta #3.
Details about his multiple surgeries, recollections of a madness experience “coarse and twisted,” references to the genetic matter nested within him and to his awareness of genetic strands stretching across a geologic time scale, reflections on illness as a “very ancient space we all inhabit”, yearnings for a connection to grandparents and great grandparents as a way to understand himself and his children, fears around his bi-polar diagnosis and the statistical probability that he will suicide, painful scenes from his marriage, and many other intense topics, are recounted with a flat, perfunctory Alberta delivery.
I found this work quite riveting, fearless and very original, and I spent some time watching this video and others in the exhibition.
The early work of Brad Necyk — like Alberta #3 — is so raw and autobiographical that it was a relief to watch something very recent and completely different. I had the feeling that Brad Necyk could not take working with all that intensity. He needed a respite and so he moved into meditation. I really like looking at his waterfall pieces. They are just as powerful and mesmerizing as the earlier work but in a different way.
There are so many fascinating ideas in this show. The idea of genetic lineage, for example, really got to me and seemed to dovetail into an event that occurred a few months ago. I happened to chat with someone at an event whose favourite pastime is ancestry tracing. I gave her a few facts about my Manitoba family and the next day she sent me the photo below. The little girl in the center is apparently my grandmother, Flora Taylor. She stands beside her father, John “Johnny Boy” Taylor and the rest of the family is arrayed around her. Is it just me or does “Johnny Boy” look more than a little bit like Freddy Mercury…?
Cluster XI Digital Edition
The 11th Cluster New Music and Arts Festival, usually held in Winnipeg in late February/early March, was cancelled shortly after the pandemic struck. But then, the organizers saw the writing on the wall, pulled themselves together and decided to push on. This year’s Cluster was resurrected and opened on May 1st as the Cluster XI Digital Edition.
(Full disclosure: I participated in Cluster X and my nephew, Eliot Britton, is one of the curators. Also, I love the vibe of being in Winnipeg in February; it is extreme in so many ways.)
Although I do miss the reality of Winnipeg and actually being there, I think this Cluster digital edition is definitely a success. Cluster excels at getting the mix of art works exactly right, in real-life and digitally. It is never too slick , there is a feeling of newness, experimentation and “becoming”and there are always at least a few stunning events.
The piece called Quigital, for example, put together by a collective of artists known as Made by Mandate, is so weird that it took me a while to realize it was not an advertisement for an unlikely Cluster sponsor.
The Quigital call tree, just one component of this sprawling art work, is really masterful. That familiar feeling that we are endlessly mined for our thoughts and opinions by corporate interests with an earnest offer of “points”, goes off-the-rails absurdist in the call tree. (Somehow, hearing the news today about the cancellation of the Sidewalk Labs project, which involved creating a futuristic data-gathering city on the Toronto Waterfront, relates to the Quigital call tree. Data mining hits a wall! )
I spent nearly an hour listening to “The Joy Channel”, a collaboration between sound artists Emmanuel Madan and Anna Friz. The whole Mad Max-y type narrative is a little bit cliched at this point, as per below:
In the year 2146, after nearly 150 years of business as usual (government corruption and privatization, toxic resource extraction and industrial practices, bad weather, civil uprising, earthquakes and pandemic), approximately 40 million people remain in New North America.
Anna Friz describing the “Joy Channel”
But the sound is great. Particularly when it becomes entirely abstract, the dialogue fades out and the listener is left with sheets of ambient, shimmery sound, switching and clicks and soft hisses to get lost in.
There are some straight-up musical groups like Slow Spirit in the Cluster mix. “Sound baths”, “High-rising melodic arcs”, “frolicking” and “defiant” are some of the words and phrases on the Cluster site used to describe the gorgeous Slow Spirit sound. On their Facebook page the band members list their influences: Joni Mitchell, Land Of Talk, Dirty Projectors, Radiohead, Feist, Parquet Courts, Sufjan Stevens, Sam Amidon, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Wilco, Patrick Watson, Deerhunter, Lhasa, Big Thief, Neko Case, Aidan Knight, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Plants and Animals, Elliott Smith, Stevie Wonder.
The manipulated wildlife sounds by Brendon Ehinger are based on a banged-up cassette tape found in Riding Mountain park, South Asian hip hop by Shamik is a joyful escape from the dreary pandemic world; Bad Wave achieves emotional depth in a cross-country duet of piano and voice, and there is much more to peruse in the Cluster XI Digital Edition, during its run until the 31st of May, including images by Luke Nickel, which through Machine Learning software, compress ten years of pictures from Cluster Festivals past.
On the eve of the Israeli election, where the polls are projecting “King Bibi”, it seems like a good idea to check out Israeli artist Nevet Yitzhak and her exhibition, titled WarCraft, at the Koffler Gallery.
When I arrive, Nevet Yitzhak is speaking about her work to a rapt audience of a few dozen. The gallery lights are off, the only illumination of the event comes from the huge, animated digital projections on three sides of the space.
The projections look like very large rugs. They are flat, patterned expanses, with light coloured strips of fringe running down both vertical ends. The projections share the flattened, stylized look of traditional rugs from the Middle East. And they have the same warm palette of reds, ochers and yellows. But traditional subject matter, that of animals, plants and various domestic scenes, has been replaced with something new. In fact they are “war rugs,” – reminiscent of those that emerged during the Afghani conflicts – displaying the implements of contemporary warfare, like choppers, tanks and AK-47s.
And the rugs move. In a rather slow, desultory manner, bombers cruise here and there, missiles are dispatched and explode, helicopters meet dramatic ends and fires continually burn. The slowness and repetition gives the scene a routine, humdrum feel.
Meanwhile in the gallery, the artist is describing her family background, which is Yemeni, Kurdish Iraqi and Syrian. She tells the audience about the Arabic Jewish communities within Israel and their attempts to maintain their cultural identities, and, about her sense of self as an Arabic Jew growing up in a state of continual conflict, where Arabs are the enemy. She tells the audience that she has no hope, her generation has no hope, and, that this artwork is not a metaphor. This artwork reflects reality.
She also talks about Afghani war rugs and how they inspired her. But in this respect Nevet Yitzhak emphasizes the fact that, unlike the Afghani rug producers, she is a citizen of the aggressor state, and, her audience is mainly an Israeli audience.
Q & A Period arrives: Someone in the audience suggested that the artist’s work celebrates war. “It is the opposite of Picasso’s Guernica, ” the person complains, “It does not show suffering.”
Nevet Yitzhak responds to the question as follows: She repeats she is an Israeli citizen. She can not show the victims of Israeli aggression, because that is not who she is.
In an aside, the artist mentions that textiles are always political. I never really thought about that before, but, yes, remember the Pussy Hat? It is now a cultural artifact, frequently disparaged.
Exhibiting concurrently with Nevet Yitzhak’s show is a work by Shaista Latif. Shaista Latif’s video work, called “Learning the Language of my Enemies” (I have to go back and see it!) was created as “an intervention and an attempt at empathetic critique” of the work in the main gallery.
Shaista Latif has a very charming, bubbly personality and she jumps into the rather tense Q & A session with a declaration of herself as working class, Afghani-Canadian and Queer. She somehow gets the assembled group to agree with her that when you are in Toronto it is very important that you identify where you are coming from, what your point of view is and who you are speaking for.
Nevet Yitzhak’s English is a little shaky and in fact, she has a translator with her. Someone in the audience asks her if her work is political. She talks to the interpreter for a few seconds, and then she replies: “Everything in Israel is political.”
“Film Path / Camera Path with under-titles” by Daniel Young & Christian Giroux
The multi-media sculpture, by Daniel Young and Christian Giroux, on display at InterAccess is a dazzling feat of mechanical production wrapped around an idea. A film loop whips rapidly through a complex roller-coaster-like construction, in the center of which a giant, antique film projector is fed. The machine projects the depiction of the path the film takes through the sculpture. It’s a dizzying, hectic journey, and, watching the film – the ultimate, self-absorbed travelogue – is weirdly tension inducing and hypnotic at the same time.
The piece, shown in the darkened gallery at InterAccess, is composed of big tangled loops of tubular steel. The loops, which create a kind of knot, are lined with brackets to hold the moving film. Even though the steel structure is still, there is a lot of intense movement going on as the film zooms around. In fact, the racket of the whirling film is so frenetic the whole thing feels like it could fly apart at any moment.
Below the screen, sits a electronic text box slowly revealing rather opaque phrases. The script is displayed in a tingly blue LED, which casts the room in a dreamy light.
And what about the text box?
I was told that the artists invited thirteen individuals to contribute “under-titles” for the piece. A pamphlet containing all thirteen texts is available in the gallery. I knew of a few of the writers, but not many.
The writings tend to be poetic and/or philosophical. Here is a particularly lovely piece written by Erin Moure:
It was a harsh and brutal climb across the wastelands and we were unprotected from ideas that lashed us left and right each day till tears streamed down our girlish faces. The air crackled. Ice pans heaved up in the river and we had to cross in wet shoes over the abyss of orange contradiction that grabbed us by the throat until we could no longer utter human sound. Language left us. Sound left us. There was a human track across the ditch full of coarse reeds and small animals trembling where the ice dissolved into such torrents we could not cross O vertigo…tanto queremos vivir neste mundo di frio… incorruptas nas ondas onde non haixustia nin palabrina ni corpo
I googled a few of the contributors to see if there might be some common denominator. What turned up was lots of impressive accomplishments and associations with prestigious institutions. It’s harder to find out much, if anything, about some of the contributors, particularly the poets.
What better time to follow the lead of those in the Art & Science Salon and opt to “reflect on the condition of co-habitation and co-existence of human and non-humans in this world (and beyond?) and pose questions about transformation; forced or elective mutation and survival; agency and decision making; conservation and intervention.”
The exhibition is on a relatively modest scale. For example, the flourishing colonies of microbial life displayed by Nicole Clouston, in her piece called “Mud (Lake Ontario)” fit into a few feet of eye-level vitrine. The contained ideas, however, are big, highly original and delightful to observe.
“My work with mud arose out of a desire to engage with microbial life,”
is how Nicole Clouston describes the origins of her project, which involves harvesting mud from the lake bed and nourishing it with sunlight and nutrients until the living colonies are visible. Looking through Nicole Clouston’s on-line book, Lake Ontario Portrait, gave me an optimistic sense of the irrepressible life-force all around us.
No subject is too large for the trans-disciplinary crowd. Jenifer Wightman, for example, addresses our prevailing creation myth — including the tree, the snake, the apple, and, Adam and Eve — in her piece, Addendum (to the Gutenberg Bible).
The piece consists of a single page letterpress broadside, which updates the story of Genesis, using contemporary scientific images and references.
In 2014 this artist pulled 180 editions of the print (shown above) in the style and dimensions of the 42-line Gutenberg bible. That same year, she began hand-delivering editions of the “Addendum” to the 49 libraries and institutions of the world which hold these priceless artifacts, i.e. the world’s last remaining Gutenberg bibles.
One of the shimmering, ethereal “multi-species portraits” by Gunes-Helene Isitan is on display in the exhibition. Gunes-Helene Isitan refers to these portraits, which include the microorganisms from her subjects faces, as “Hybridities.”
The artist regards the notion that a human is a “unified and autonomous entity” as stemming from “a modernist conception of ‘human exceptionalism.'” In fact, she points out, we are all made up of 50% microbial cells!
And microbial cells can be beautiful. When I googled “microbial” I was surprised to be shown this page from Zazzle (which is a global shopping platform) and given the opportunity to buy DNA MICROBIAL MISCROSCOPIC CELL STRAND LEGGINGS. 92.00 CAD
Suzanne Anker showed several small black sculptures. They have the appearance of some obscure, minute insect life, or maybe they reference Rorschach blot tests. Were they made with a 3D printer? They have an appealing weighty, mysterious quality.
On her website Suzanne Anker’s creative interests are described as follows: “Concerned with genetics, climate change, species extinction and toxic degradation, she calls attention to the beauty of life and the “necessity for enlightened thinking about nature’s ‘tangled bank’.”
Possibly the artists in this exhibition represent the vanguard of change in how humans think about the biological world; the “tangled bank” not simply as a resource to master and exploit, but as a sentient partner and ally.
Back in 1991, it was not that way. “Biospherics” – the study of closed systems that recreate Earth’s environment – found some deep pocketed adherents and Biosphere 2 was built, in the Arizona desert, near a town called Oracle. I am trying to imagine the hubris of deciding to build a closed system replicating all the complexity of Biosphere 1.
Elaine Whitaker filled a vitrine with vaguely organic shapes entangled with human by-products.
The piece, called “Intertwined” seems to suggest that organic life forms are responding rapidly to human intervention. Or maybe not rapidly enough.
Marta de Menezes included a video in the exhibition. In this video, the artist and her partner, Luis, undergo skin grafts from one another. The grafts are summarily rejected as anti-bodies are created. How does the body identify itself and it’s non-self?
Despite the rather shocking gore – the bloody operation is witnessed in the tape – the artwork is charged with philosophical suggestions that will take some time to unravel.
My attitude toward our southern neighbour swings wildly, from: “That hell hole,” to “We have so much to learn from the USA!” The work of Mickalene Thomas, and her show at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) titledFemmes Noires, makes me truly appreciate the USA and the driving, pure, singular force of innovation that springs up fairly frequently in that turbulent and mesmerizing country.
“Visibility, empowerment, celebration.” That is a quote from Mickalene Thomas, talking about what she wants people to take away from her AGO show. She succeeds. It is an exultant display, uplifting to visit. So many images of queenly, glittering, sumptuous women. I guess it takes a gay, black woman to shrug off deference to a male art world and let glitter and sequins reign.
The paintings shown in the Femmes Noires exhibition – collages of oil paint, photographs, and other materials – often refer to revered works by male artists from the past, like Picasso, Manet or Ingres. The women that emerge in these paintings have a deep sense of themselves: Their gaze is frank, self-contained, self-knowing and profoundly calm in the center of riotous color and pattern.
The painting titled “Shinique: Now I Know” references the Neo-classical touchstone “Une Odalisque.” This painting, by Ingres, above, was widely reviled when it was first shown. Critics pointed to the elongated curved creature in the painting as anatomically impossible. And yet this picture has endured, sits in the Louvre to this day, and is included in every Art History survey around the world. Apparently, it had more than anatomical correctness going on.
People respond deeply to Ingres’ painting. What is it that makes people decide to redo it, or use it in provocative sloganeering, as per the Gorilla Girls famous poster above. Maybe there is something essentially irritating about “Une Odalisque” itself, that paradigm of “Orientalism.”
The Femmes Noires show is big! There are two massive galleries where the visitor can lounge in a living room environment — with potted plants, comfortable chairs and cushions — browse novels or other works about the black experience, and watch media (some random snippets are included below:)
It seemed like there was a bit of a disconnect from the present. We see Whitney, Eartha, Pam, Diana and so many other fabulous black women icons from the past but where are today’s powerful black women? In fact Mickalene Thomas has collaborated with Solange, Beyonce (The Queen!!!) and other contemporary black superstars but that work just doesn’t happen to be included in this exhibition.
I was feeling pretty good about my former homeland by the time I left the Mickalene Thomas exhibition at the AGO. What an exciting place of invention and possibility! All the fraught recriminations and anger that characterize this contentious era in the USA don’t really come up at Femmes Noires. It’s like an invitation to a new world.
To be a loner today is to raise suspicions. We know now that Alek Minassian, Adam Lanza, Dylan Klebold, Elliot Roger, and many others, stayed in their rooms, alone, until rage and frustration drove them out, in a frenzy, to commit mayhem.
Loner Culture, the exhibition currently on display at Inter/Access is about something else. It’s about trying to connect. It’s social. And weirdly, to be social, is to exclude one group in favour of another. That’s the human way! Sometimes the exclusion piece means solitary confinement in a pink bedroom. But it’s temporary — a brief, high-drama interlude, an emotional eddy on the river towards self-actualization.
The exhibition re-creates vestiges of the long lost bedrooms where the tender, new self was honed and tested.
Above: Installation at Loner Culture
I chatted with one of the artist’s in the show, Suzanne Kite, through her live link on the Discord Platform. She described how in her late teens and early twenties she traveled hours on connecting buses to make the scene. In her case, the scene was an all ages DNB Happy Core Trance House DJ event in some off-the-beaten track warehouse in a remote corner of sprawling LA. That is dedication! That is really wanting to be there! Needing to get it absolutely right and knowing that the others at this event are just like you!
By the way, if you do not know — like me– the difference between DNB (Drums and Base) and Happy Core you can watch a tutorial above:
Suzanne Kite identifies herself as a Oglala Lakota performance artist. When the movie Pocahontas came out in 1995 Suzanne Kite’s parents bought her absolutely every conceivable Pocahontas tie-in item.
Payless! Obviously Indigenous youngsters, especially girls, were starved for dolls, toys and anything else Mattel and Payless could come up with that somehow related to them. Suzanne Kite has carefully saved these items. They are displayed on the walls of the gallery overlaid with projections of posters from her youthfully intrepid music life.
Detail of installation by Suzanne Kite titled “Better Off Alone”
Installation view of Suzanne Kite artwork “Better Off Alone”
Typing on the keyboard filled the large space at Inter/Access with Suzanne Kite’s favourite music from that era:
Video of interactive installation by Suzanne Kite
With all the memorializing of the past bedrooms of origin it is hard to keep the decades straight. Patti Smith, Michael Jackson, Lydia Lunch and B52s must mean late seventies or early eighties. But no, nostalgia has already kicked in. This is a moment in the early 2000s where icons from twenty years prior are revered.
Above: Installation detail from Loner Culture exhibition, re-creating a bedroom from the 2000s.
In Fallon Simard’s piece the utterly bland dresser, standing alone in the rather cavernous, grey space, has a bleak feeling. It is free of knickknacks and/or personal items of any kind, something that might indicate an era or anchor a sensibility. Instead there is a cold sense of isolation and detachment. The monitor displays anti-homophobic/transphobic internet memes with vague, delicate, pastel backgrounds.
Art work by Fallon Simard
A camera is clipped to top of the monitor in the Fallon Simard piece. Are we observing or being observed?
Installation by Thirza Jean Cuthand
Thirza Jean Cuthand provides a heap of cushions and head phones to kick back and watch videos. The tapes by Thirza Cuthand have a graceful poetic sensibility throughout. The artist is fearless: sex, insecurity, fear, sex, mental illness, rage, grief, sex, youth, race, sex. All the topics that are endlessly pondered in bedrooms around the world are covered here in an inventive and original voice.
For me, there is a true sense of luxury in slipping into a museum for a short visit. The edifice – in this case the AGO – becomes like my local library. It’s no big deal. I’m merely popping in. Two wonderful shows were just waiting for me…
Jack and the Jack Paintings: Jack Goldstein and Ron Terada
The paintings are fascinating. They contain so much: cringe worthy emotionalism, insight and aspiration, the personal/political dichotomy, and, most importantly, they are powerful objects, flickering between realms of subjective and objective meaning.
Photograph of Jack Goldstein
CalArts was the so-called “sister” school of NSCAD. Maybe Jack Goldstein was a visiting artist? I remember the name but… Was he dating a friend of mine in the eighties?
The viewer can’t escape the texts, which constitute the paintings. (I tried looking at them as white marks on black ground but I have not reached that level of enlightenment, yet.) And these texts are so dense with 80’s art world gossip – all the references to Robert, Cindy and Helene! All the resentment, whining and profound sadness. It’s all too much. Finally, the whole idea of the art world becomes something absurd, tainted and shameful.
Jack by Ron Terada
Included in the show is one of Jack Goldstein’s paintings. It is large, about 8 feet long, and solemn. It adds a lot to the exhibition: it is a calming force, dark and silent, judgement free, and, pain free.
Painting by Jack Goldstein
On the AGO’s main floor, at the end of trek through the Ken Thompson knickknacks, is a small room filled with many drawing, and, two sculptures. These are early works (late 50s and early 60s) by Joseph Beuys; prior to the global fame precipitated by iconoclastic performance artworks such as I Like America And America Likes Me or How To Explain Pictures To A Dead Hare.
How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare – photograph of performance by Joseph Beuys
The exhibition notes state that the works on paper “revolve around the theme of death.” Renderings of the body: truncated, naked and anguished are displayed, images of sunken graves, darkness. They appear to be made hastily/compulsively, on cardboard, newsprint, office forms, file folders. Some of the drawings are partially obliterated with opaque black or terra cotta coloured paint, or decorated with the ubiquitous silver or fat substances that Joseph Beuys frequently employed.
To Saturn by Joseph Beuys
The lights are dim in the exhibition and the delicate, fragile works are framed with excruciating care. But despite the best attempts by museum preservationists there is a sense that they will not last. But maybe that’s as it should be, as per the quote from Joseph Beuys below:
That is why the nature of my sculpture is not fixed and finished. Processes continue in most of them: chemical reactions, fermentations, color changes, decay, drying up. Everything is in a state of change.
Two Women by Joseph Beuys
The sculptures – one: broken and shambolic, the other: mysterious intertwined totems – are displayed in large vitrines.
Hasengrab (Hare’s Grave) by Joseph Beuys
Sculpture by Joseph Beuys
During his life Joseph Beuys created the role of Shaman for himself; a figure of healing for modern society. He engaged in social, political and environmental matters and explored the trauma of his WWII plane crash, and subsequent rescue by nomadic Tartars. I was grateful to look at this work and to spend some time thinking about how Joseph Beuys might respond to our current social upheaval and environmental crisis.