Saturday, June 27, 2015

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit

“…a power couple in which they both wore the pants, so to speak.”

Visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts last week-end for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit was enjoyable, save for witnessing a backwater reaction to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940). In this painting, Kahlo, then recently divorced from Rivera (whom she later remarried), wears a men’s suit and sports cropped hair, with strands of her long locks hacked off by the scissors she wields. With derision, a woman said, “Transgender” and her male companion scoffed loudly. I made eye contact with the man, who was closer to me, and exaggerated a look of disdain. Kahlo never felt entirely comfortable when she was based in Detroit during the period that Rivera toiled away on a modernist mural in the DIA for 11 months; posthumously, it would seem that she is denied full acceptance as well.

Curated by Mark Rosenthal, the exhibition runs from March 15 to July 12. It contains almost 70 works, primarily from their time in Detroit. Some, like the aforementioned self-portrait, may seem peripheral but they indicate what their Detroit work anticipated. When the Mexican couple arrived in Motor City, Rivera’s reputation preceded him, but Kahlo was relatively unknown, as demonstrated by archival material in the show. Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals (1932-33) attracted as many as 10,000 visitors in a single day to the DIA, not without controversy, due to its socialist subject matter. Kahlo’s work during her time in Detroit is considered uneven, but she gained artistic direction there. If Rivera’s focus was external (i.e., a rumination on society), hers was internal. Over the course of the 11 months, she lost a baby and received word that her mother was dying in Mexico. Pain transformed into paintings that have ultimately captured the hearts of audiences as much as Rivera’s work has.

The accompanying catalogue is an asset, but it’s still worthwhile to see the show. Otherwise, the viewer would be bereft of many details. For example, the texture would be missed in Kahlo’s scarf in her wedding portrait, Frida and Diego Rivera (1931), as would the clotting effect of red paint that mimics blood in A Few Small Nips (1935), a work about domestic homicide.

Preparatory drawings are another highlight. Seeing one for Henry Ford Hospital (1932) beside the final work memorializing Kahlo’s abortion/miscarriage (1), one senses how isolated she felt in the city; the sketch has no background but the painting has the River Rouge Plant—Rivera’s focus for the mural—in the background. Given the difference in scale of Kahlo and Rivera's work (the smallest work by Kahlo is a self-portrait that resembles a cameo, measuring 1 9/16 by 1 3/16 inches), the show really gains momentum when Rivera’s mural cartoons are encountered. Their overwhelming scale can’t be captured in reproductions; you simply have to be in the room with them to feel the pulse of the life-size factory workers and scientists. Amazingly, they were forgotten in storage for decades. The show also contains film clips, such as Diego working on the mural; at the end of that particular clip, a black and white shot of a completed portion morphs into its colour version, reminiscent of the 'freeze frame' technique used by Julie Taymor in the film, Frida (2002), to effectively bring Kahlo’s paintings to life.

My only criticism is that the lighting was dim in some places. As a result, it was difficult to see Kahlo’s collaborative ‘exquisite corpse’ drawings. Kahlo may have insisted she wasn’t a surrealist, but she engaged in their practice of having one person draw part of a picture and fold it almost at the edge so the next person who draws continues without knowing most of the visual information. (Personal aside: It’s also a favourite game of mine to play with my nieces and nephews).

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit is a fascinating slice of the artists’ careers and lives. The signage throughout the show emphasized both artists’ experiences in tandem, giving a sense of Rivera and Kahlo as a power couple in which they both wore the pants, so to speak. At the end of the exhibition, the viewer is pointed to Rivera Court, where his mural (shown above) is located, arguably giving him the final word. Then again, since Kahlo’s work had never been shown at the DIA, the mounting of this exhibition (with 26 of her works) is a huge step forward.

(1) Grimberg argues that Kahlo's loss of the baby, previously considered a miscarriage, was induced by Kahlo. Grimberg, Salomon, "The Lost Desire: Frida Kahlo in Detroit", 148. In Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo in Detroit. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 2015, 144-163.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Just Dream!

Dream Big conference (May 27-30)

Since the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I have been finding it difficult to feel optimistic about social justice, in both a general sense and in terms of racism in particular. It is perhaps fortuitous that I am behind schedule in writing about the keynote speakers for the Dream Big conference (May 27-30) in North Bay, because much of the discussion focused on advocacy for marginalized groups.

Yesterday in Detroit, I spotted the following mural with a helpful message by Father Greg Boyle: “At some point, we forgot that we all belong to each other.”
The text and mother-child image caused me to think back to the keynotes and how they all addressed their youth. charles c. smith, a “poet, organizer, change agent,…iconoclast” who teaches at the University of Toronto, recalled being “very aware” that he was the only black kid in his class. Lee Maracle of the Sto:Loh nation, who is an instructor at the University of Toronto and a recent recipient of the Ontario Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, did not learn to read until age 9 and as a result of the residential school system, she visited the hospital often for malnutrition. Kent Monkman, an internationally exhibiting queer artist who is also known as Miss Chief (his “very glamorous” alter ego), recounted what it was like to grow up in Winnipeg, where “the harsher reality of First Nations people coming out of the colonialism process” was apparent. Multidisciplinary artist Paul Walty was a child of the postwar boom and as a result, grew up an “optimist of sorts.” He didn’t grow up marginalized, but he embraced diversity as an adult by learning French and immersing himself in the Francophone community, including a current term as president of the arts organization BRAVO. He feels that monolingualism limits tolerance.

The location of the conference in a city of 53,651 that I’m proud to call home, gave a geographic focus to the theme of dreaming big. Walty addressed this most directly, stressing that artists should not see cities as the only sites for creativity; he sees cities as lodestones and is nourished by the hinterlands, he said. Maracle emphasized that the arts are a source of economic vitality for cultural centres, with an excellent return on investments. Value can’t be assessed in economic terms alone, though, evident in her example of the healing value of art for social change, with singing in canoes reducing alcoholism. She explained that in “difficult circumstances…you come to love it [art] more than the world the way it is.” She added that the job market is in flux, making creativity vital. Monkman spoke similarly about the need for adaptability. He said that First Nations culture was “never static” and dreaming big was how it survived. smith spoke of the importance of redressing “historically entrenched inequities,” broadening the “narrow Eurocentric view,” and seeking reparations for injustice.

The need to dream big is easy to see, but it’s less easy to implement.

smith shared that jazz and science fiction opened doorways into a “very hostile white world,” but helped him understand himself. In black aesthetics, he explained, a “radically different view of ourselves” is postulated. The disparity between the view from within and without is underscored in an example he gave of a recent study by Wolf Brown, which revealed that the funding black people receive is out of proportion with their active involvement in the arts.

Walty realized that he wasn’t suited to his vocation of archaeology, so he turned to drawing, finding a way to retain elements of his background such as the grid. He was told by gallerists that drawings lack presence, so he made his black and white figurative drawings large enough to fill galleries floor to ceiling so their presence could not be denied. He didn’t depend solely on galleries; he had shows in people’s apartments and houses and hired buses to transport guests there.

Monkman wanted to make “the language of painting something that belongs to a Cree person.” Ultimately, he phased out the Cree text and expanded his goal to empower two-spirited people. He created large paintings of romantic landscapes, subverting tradition by including Miss Chief throughout. They function as an alternative to Eurocentric art with its “very one-sided point of view of the history of North America.” His work became censored at the Royal Ontario in the First People’s Gallery of all places, where it was intended to be in dialogue with Paul Kane’s work. It was “too hot a topic, too hot a button,” he said.

Photo: Kent Monkman, courtesy of Liz Lott Photography

Maracle wrote her autobiography and was told by a publisher, “Indians can’t read.” She took to the streets to ask Aboriginal people if they would read the book if she taught them to read. After gathering signatures from 3,500 people—which would constitute a best-seller—she approached Frontier College to provide literacy tutoring and got a book deal for Bobbie Lee, Indian Rebel from Women’s Press in Toronto.

So, how should we dream? Maracle said that when people ask her, she says, “Just dream!” She notes that dreaming big costs money but many artists are impoverished. It doesn’t take a lot to encourage creativity and care for burgeoning artists. She recalled visiting a bindery in Vancouver regularly with her children to gather discarded paper for projects; a Portuguese baker on the same block would offer them doughnuts. There’s a misconception, she says, that starving artists spurs their creativity, so we need to urge “Canada to dream big with us and put some money where our mouths are.”

smith called for a more united front, with more gatherings like Dream Big. That requires access to resources, he pointed out, which is something to be conscious of as the Canada Council restructures its funding model. We need to support artist-run centres, like White Water Gallery, which organized Dream Big. Monkman stated that artist-run centres were where his work gained traction, and this support was “very important” to him. Walty spoke of the creative spark he has experienced in group residencies organized by Galerie du Nouvel Ontario, an artist-run centre in Sudbury, including Art en movement, which I blogged about in 2012. He considers ARCs to be “the research and development arm of art.” If these types of institutions lose funding, he commented, “we are [effectively] saying the past isn’t worth anything.” Defunding them would be unwise and destroy the community, he said.

As I was wrapping up this post, CBC Radio was on, with Carol Off quoting Senator John Matthew's tweet, “Removing #ConfederateFlag w/out changing hearts and minds will not get rid of racism” (1). It made me think back to something Maracle said: “We make very quiet revolutions, artists, revolutions of the heart.” She elaborated that she has seen revolutions turn violent, and what we need is to change hearts. The Dream Big conference reminded me that art has the power to do just that.

(1) June 19, 2015. @caroloffcbc

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Winnie Truong at Line Gallery

“…a labour of love…”

At the end of Winnie Truong’s artist talk at Line Gallery (North Bay, ON) on May 16, I asked how far back her interest in hair—her dominant subject—went. She shared that as a child, she drew princesses and girls playing tennis, and they invariably had long, flowing hair. Somehow, she got sidetracked from drawing, even though she filled many a sketchbook and “grew up on Edward Gorey.” At OCADU, where she earned her BFA in 2010, she majored in drawing and painting, with her thesis in painting. She felt “forced into…the tradition of oil painting,” which may account for her assessment of her thesis as being “really contrived.” When professor Luke Painter challenged her to transform a black and white sketchbook drawing into colour and on a grand scale, she bristled. Ultimately, though, she felt liberated and “completely abandoned painting.” Today, she works in pencil crayon, “a juvenile tool we’ve all used. It’s not [used to create] painting or sculpture, which were historically revered.” She gets a kick out of contributing to drawing’s status as an “elevated medium,” whether through the international exhibition of her drawings, or through high-profile commissions for publications like The New York Times, both of which have allowed her to work full-time in her Toronto studio.

When her work is installed, she imagines the figures as representing a “tête à tête à tête” through imagined dialogue with one other. “The figure is almost secondary,” she says. Hair has been a constant focus, as her traditional portraits with a twist (like bearded ladies) morphed into dual-face portraits and recently, skulls. She sees hair as personal expression and also as a universal concern. She favours a palette of cotton-candy-like pinks and blues, and notes that these colours used to seem fantastical but are now commonplace; in fact, after the talk, I walked along the boardwalk and spotted a young woman whose hair transitioned from purple to pink. The unnatural quality of these colours prevents her from referencing a particular race or culture, Truong explains. Consequently, they have an “alien” quality and present “as their own species or genus.” Generally speaking, she likes her drawings to reveal “biological possibilities.” Their ambiguity stems from her self-conscience as much as it does from hair and fashion magazines, giving her work a purposefully surreal quality. Situated in a “vacuum of white space,” the figures appear “excised from reality.”

Her tendency to use the colours associated with boys and girls is of particular interest to me because of my own practice. Even though she acknowledged that her work touches on gender, I can’t help but indulge a more involved gendered reading. To me, these luscious images evoke the sexual power of hair that goes back to Biblical times and the female tradition of brushing one’s hair 100 times a day from the pre-Victorian era. She reveals that the figures are meant to be ambivalent—they are simultaneously beautiful and ugly. When hair is coiffed, Truong says, it is attractive, but a wig in the gutter in the club district is “menacing” and “disgusting.” She activates this tension in her work. By way of example, she describes a drawing in which a “woman [is] completely wrapped in this duvet of hair,” giving the effect of comfort and constraint in equal measure.

She describes her “crazy line work” as “really obsessive.” She says, “It’s such a labour of love…I still find it very exciting.” The process of making pastel colour studies; determining optical mixing with her old iPhone; applying hair after hair as marks on the page; and using an electric eraser to create highlights has become more repetitive over time and also more meditative. Drawing is “an exercise in relaxation.” At the same time, Truong revels in its tension, recalling her embrace of ambivalent subject matter. For instance, she notes that drawing is vulnerable to damage with something as simple as a kink, reminding me of artist Dana Schutz describing drawing in Roger White’s The Contemporaries (Bloomsbury, 2015) as, “You’re going along, and then you make a move and the whole thing is destroyed” (p. 122).

Truong’s exhibition, Comfort Objects and Other Attractions, was on show at Line Gallery from April 11 to May 15.

Images courtesy of Line Gallery. 2nd image: Winnie Truong, Counter Countance, 2013, pencil crayon on paper, 19 x 15"

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Party of Five: Kegan McFadden reflects on 1990s Canadian art publishing

“…let’s make it happen again!”

Curator Kegan McFadden gave me a tour recently of Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, a Brick is a Tool) at Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art (Winnipeg). We caught up afterwards for a Q & A, which has been condensed for clarity.

H-In this exhibition about artist-produced magazines in Canada during the 1990s, you’ve examined Texts (Calgary, 1989-93); Flower (Toronto, 1992-96); Boo (Vancouver, 1994-98), The Harold (Winnipeg, 1995-97), and Cube (Montreal, 1996-98). You mentioned that The Harold was your personal gateway to contemporary art. Given that and the fact that the show is at Plug In, its publisher, was The Harold your starting point for research?

K-Yes. In many ways The Harold started it all. I was 15 when I first went to Plug In and The Harold was something I picked up on the way out. This was a time when alternative papers would litter the doorways of public buildings–or at least buildings of a certain kind: cafés, galleries, theatres, you know. I was transfixed by it. Even though I’d been regularly picking up alternative weeklies who mainly focused on music, The Harold was the first art zine I got my hands on…I didn’t really know anything about contemporary art; I certainly didn’t think I’d ever be a curator at that point, or really even know the word. Upon subsequent visits to Plug In, I’d always pick up the latest Harold. It was their in-house magazine, but it started as an artist-project by the late Jean LeMaitre.

I think that everything is research. So, holding on to my cache of Harold magazines, and the others that came after, was in a way a long-term commitment to curatorial research, I just didn’t know it at the time.

H-That’s a lovely perspective; it’s such a great contrast to the tendency to conduct last-minute research that is seen all too often in the present day.

Was the content primarily regional, Canadian, or international, or is it not possible to generalize?

K-We have to remember, these magazines represent a pre-Internet moment. So there was a network in place, but it was analogue. It amounted to which editors knew which contributors, and where everyone was based/how far their experiences went. So, for instance, CUBE magazine published “reports” from various cities: Toronto, Chicago, and Seoul. In a way it was the most international of the five I’ve chosen to focus on. But then there’s Texts, which found a lot of its material from the proximity to Banff and all the artists in residence there. Boo out of Vancouver had contributions by writers from San Francisco, etc. More precise than ‘regional,’ I believe these publishing projects represent communities. Flower, for instance, is a calling card for a certain generation of artists in the Queen West scene of Toronto.

H-Speaking of pre-Internet, you noted that hesitation about digital media was expressed in the pages of these publications. It strikes me that 1990s art represented a point of transition, being pre-digital but also being made after the freshness of postmodernism had diminished, arguably. How would you characterize 1990s art?

K-It seems there is something in the air. There is a huge show touring the States right now–Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s, curated by Alexandra Schwartz. It’s getting rave reviews as being the first museum show to historicize the decade. Many of the critics are discussing the representation of identity politics at play in so much of the work in the show. The ‘90s really ushered in a postmodern approach to discussing, and addressing, the marginalization attached to class, gender, sexuality, and race.

If I take Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow as a springboard for that idea, we see work by queer artists in the exhibition. There are also moments regarding the representation of Indigenous peoples, of women, and even of class struggle. In an editorial for Cube, Pierre Beaudoin writes about how, at the time, he was the Director of an artist-run centre in Montreal, and on the way home he buys a quart of milk and thinks to himself whether or not the clerk is making a better living than he. So, I’d characterize the art of the ‘90s, as seen in my show, as intersectional.

H-That makes me think of when I was an ARC director (post-‘90s) and I’d pick up groceries for receptions in a suitcase and a backpack, with a baguette poking out of the backpack! No glamour there.

In your opinion, is there a quality to printed matter that can’t translate into digital? I don’t think it’s just the vitrine displays that make the publications feel precious.

K-Yes, for sure! That’s why we’re still printing things everyday. That’s why the biggest thing to come about in the art world lately is Art Book Fairs. People love to hold things, to flip trough things, to touch and smell things. The fact that I enclosed the 60 issues of magazines within vitrines was purely pragmatic; we couldn’t have folks handling the material, the chance of damage was too great, and some of the magazines are on loan from institutions/collections. I also didn’t want the show to feel like a reading room. So I worked with this amazing designer, Susan Chafe, and we figured out a way of turning the content of all the magazines into wallpaper (shown below), effectively making it so the visitor to the gallery could feel like they’re inside the pages.

H-Why did you want to show the history of the magazine “warts and all,” as you put it?

K-I think that’s because I’ve met too many people lately who are afraid to try things. They’re afraid to fail, or to look like an idiot, or maybe they’re lazy. I wanted to show that here are five magazines that had various outputs throughout a decade. Some were made in people’s kitchens while others were printed more professionally. They’re all equal; they’re all contributing something…so let’s make it happen again!

H-Is there a disarming quality about the looseness—to borrow the term you used to describe the networks—of these publications? I was struck by the fact that a 90-year old was touring the show as you were sharing an anecdote about François Morelli, a Cube contributor collaborating with his 11-year old son, Didier. And when I reflect on the tone, it often veered towards the casual with writing often in the first person, reminiscent of Sassy, a personal favourite from my own youth that was a gateway to so much in terms of culture.

K-As part of that intersectional descriptor I threw out earlier, I think intergenerational approaches also play a role. It dovetails with the reality that we are now in a moment of the hyper-professionalized artist, but the ‘90s weren’t like that. You could have a collaboration with your 11-year-old son be published, or a book review by the teenage babysitter might take up as much space as a prose poem by A.S.A. Harrison. I like that thinking a lot; it is disarming in the best sense.

H-You observed that Texts was the most invested in art criticism, and that throughout all the magazines, many well-known artists are represented who were then emerging artists. Were up-and-coming curators and critics also cutting their teeth on printed matter?

K-Well, I can say that there were contributors to these publications 25 years ago that are still very much in the mix now, if not in more institutional roles. For example, Barbara Fischer and Kitty Scott both contributed to Texts, as did Bruce Grenville. Jeanne Randolph was interviewed for Cube, and so was Scott Watson for Boo. These are all names of a certain generation, but all playing major roles across the country and internationally to this day.

H-You mentioned that Flower ceased publication because of funding. Was that the reason for the other four magazines folding as well?

K-The reality is that no one is getting rich or even making a living doing these sorts of projects. They were labours of love. So I believe that was the reason each of them ceased.

H-Is there a reason you looked at publications that both began and ended in the 1990s rather than looking at publications that had a life into the next century?

K-The end of the ‘90s is really the cutting off point for so much. There were amazing magazines that crept over that millennium line, like Lola (Toronto), or Tart (Winnipeg). For me access to the technology in 1989 versus 1998 is one thing, but extending beyond 2000, it was so radically different and practically unrecognizable. Also, distribution of these periodicals differs vastly into the Millennium. One editor I spoke with remembered a concern over making their magazine digital had they continued beyond the ‘90s. That seemed like something less interesting to them at the time.

H-Editors for four of the publications provided brief descriptions that are included as didactics in your show, but François Dion and Pierre Beaudoin chose instead to stage a photo called “Draft for Cube 6” with them in front of wallpaper comprised of past issues. You seemed quite taken by this photo. Can you comment on what it means for you?

K-It was a Call and Response situation. I wanted to offer room for the voices of those editors who produced the material. I didn’t want to exclude them by only allowing for my voice. And when I approached each of the editors of the five magazines I did so in the same spirit they would’ve 20 plus years ago. I asked for a recollection, and was clear I wouldn’t limit them in any way. I said it could be as long or as short as they wanted; it could be a text, or a visual. The team from Montreal were the only ones who took me to task, and so I was very pleased to show their performance photo as didactic material.

H-There have been a number of special events planned in association with Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, a Brick is a Tool). How has this programming shed light on the show?

K-I really have to acknowledge Jenifer Papararo, the Director of Artistic Programs at Plug In ICA for all the work she did in organizing what’s been referred to as a “raft of programming.” Jenifer was recently appointed to the position with Plug In, and this was the first show she inherited. I had the idea of inviting a few artists and writers for presentations, but she spun it and pulled more out of me, and together we were able to offer nearly a dozen related events. When a show is on for four months, the gallery really needs to be activated in various ways. I’ve been so thrilled at the huge amount of interest for these events. Each one seems busier than the last. We’re hosting Angie Keefer this coming week, and she’ll be speaking about her project The Serving Library. We’ve also had writers who were contributors to these magazines come and offer lectures or readings. That’s been amazing to invigorate the space with the voice of these thinkers. They’ve all been really fun and inspiring, too.

H-As we wrapped up the tour, you referred to the pairing of original artworks with related content from the magazines as creating sightlines. Do you have a favourite sightline in the show?

K-There are some very powerful moments in the show for me. One of them is in Gallery 4, a small salon type room that includes work by Denis Lessard comprised of slides, black and white photographs, and lecture notes. This is the ephemera from his 1991 performance, Banff**. The piece first existed as a performance at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and then was reprised in the pages of Texts. Walking down the corridor at Plug In there is wallpaper of Texts pages featuring that work of Denis’ and just as you round the corner, you see the same piece in the flesh. There’s a bit of an ‘uh-huh’ moment. I also really adore Gallery 2, the space we’ve been using for all the activity accompanying the show. In that room I’ve collaged a wall with numerous photocopied pages from all of the magazines to act as a backdrop. There’s also the huge reproduction of the cover from Boo 11 that features an image from Brian Jungen’s Anonymous Drawings series. Two walls of that room are all windows facing Memorial Blvd. and Portage Ave. I’ve also translated a number of artists’ graphics from the magazines into vinyl decals and put them into the windows to blur the inside/outside gallery/street potential of the show. These vinyls include works by Carl Skelton, Annie Martin, and Christine Freidman. That room is full of great sightlines.

H-Do you have any advice for aspiring arts critics or publishers?

K-Stop waiting and get started. While researching this material I had many conversations with Ann Dean about how she started Flower in ‘93 with David Buchan and her husband, the artist, Tom Dean. She said time and again that I really needed to make a zine as part of this show. And so I’m working with a team here in Winnipeg and together we’re launching a new magazine to close the show next week. It’s called Group Text, and it will be printed and circulated in unconventional ways as tribute to those who have inspired us. So, if someone is reading this and thinking they want to write criticism…then start writing! What’s holding you back?!

H-Best of luck with Group Text and thank-you, Kegan!

Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, a Brick is a Tool) closes May 24, 2015 and will tour to Artexte (Montreal) this fall.

Kegan McFadden is an independent curator and artist/publisher whose projects often explore the intersection of visual and literary arts. Numerous periodicals as well as artist-run centres and public galleries throughout Canada have published his critical texts engaging and reimagining contemporary art practices. Over the last two years McFadden has conducted research concerning magazines produced by artists in Canada during the 1990s. This research has led to residencies with The New Gallery (Calgary) and Artexte (Montreal), resulting in the exhibition Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, A Brick is a Tool), which premiered at Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art (Winnipeg, 2015). McFadden will be taking part in the upcoming conference, This is Paradise: Art and Artists in Toronto at the University of Toronto from May 28th to 31st, where he’ll be presenting his research on Flower magazine as a case study for a larger understanding of artist publishers in Canada.

Images, top to bottom:

The Harold
Gallery 1 installation view
Denis Lessard, Banff**, 1991, black and white photographs, with lecture artifacts (slides and note cards). Collection of the artist.
All images courtesy Plug In ICA.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Alex Landon Richardson at Nipissing University

“…you can have it all with painting.”—Alex Landon Richardson

The newest member of our faculty, Alex Landon Richardson, gave an artist talk on March 6 at Nipissing University.

Image: Juggernaut, 2013, oil and sticker on canvas

The Vancouver-born, Toronto-based artist observed that the art world has become increasingly global. Richardson is a case in point: she holds a BFA from London, Ontario (from the University of Western Ontario, now Western University) and an MFA from London, UK (from Goldsmiths, University of London). And she just returned from a residency in South Africa. Generous with the extent of advice and encouragement she offered to the many students in the crowd, Richardson described the path from undergraduate studies to working as a professional artist as being “gnarly and curvy…very DIY.” For her, the path pointed west (she worked at vineyards across western Canada while painting) and then it pointed back east (where she joined an open studio in Caledon, Ontario).

Visitors’ feedback at the open studio allowed her working process to encompass impromptu collaboration. She recalled, for instance, a visitor sharing a John Updike poem that contextualized the series she was making at the time for her first solo show at The Rivoli in Toronto. The show featured photo-based works such as Beth & Marj and Cadmium Blossoms (2010)*, a portrait of her mother’s friends who were among the first women working in the financial district of Toronto. Here, they are shown relaxing at the cottage. The figures are sketched in paint, revealing the underlying primed wood surface, while the cottage surroundings are rendered in detail and in colour. The right-hand figure’s strapless jumpsuit dates the source image (my mother used to wear strapless jumpsuits and she just turned 70). Through this body of work, she developed an interest in middle class leisure as subject matter.

Eventually, the challenge and security of commissions she gained in the open studio setting lost their sheen and she decided to relocate to Britain for graduate studies. Although she described London as a difficult city to live in, she acknowledged its incredible history and networking potential. Goldsmiths’ regular visiting artists as well as large enrolment and faculty fostered a culture of frequent feedback, but rarely from the same person twice. Thus, there was no risk of altering one’s style to suit an advisor’s tastes. What did affect her style was the city itself. She explained that it no longer made sense to paint with vibrant colour and plasticity as she had in Canada, once she had settled into a city with grit and darkened pub interiors. She became enthralled by the latter for their contrived aesthetic. Thrift store finds were cobbled together into a pastiche that was passed off as if it had accumulated over time. Paintings in pubs struck her as “alive [with] illusion and trickery,” which is curious because as she noted, painting and illusion were comfortable bedfellows for much of art history.

When she began her MFA, “[i]t was not popular to paint at Goldsmiths.” That’s unsurprising, given that the institution is known for alumni like Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas, who work in mixed media. People questioned why she didn’t simply make a film or take a photograph of a pub, rather than toiling over a huge canvas of the same subject matter. She commented that photography and film have barriers such as contending with light, but that “you can have it all with painting.” Cognizant that trends like anti-painting can be “fashionable,” “flawed,” and “superficial,” she remained committed to painting. She did, however, take measures for her large painting of a pub to not “feel static” on the wall and to “be aware of its environment;” she coated the floor with beer and put French fries in the room in advance to create a pub-like odour that would have made Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti proud for making art a multisensory experience that could border on irritating. Exasperatingly, in her second year, painting made a comeback and her classmates took up the medium with great fanfare.

Richardson’s work is often compared to that of Peter Doig, which is fitting because he also spent time in the UK and that experience impacted his landscapes of Canada (where he spent much of his youth). A summer visit back home between Richardson’s two years of study caused her to reflect on her Canadian identity, especially in the context of outdoor leisure. Landscape has shifted from something to conquer for survival to something to conquer for fun. She pointed out that it has also become a backdrop to leisure, as if a theatre set. She had long been interested in the Canadian habit of staying at a cottage, but her “whole world changed” when she took a spontaneous floatplane ride above a lake in the Kawarthas. She realized that “the machine you are in mediates your experience.” Upon returning to Goldsmiths, she painted objects like powerboats, chairlifts, and helicopters, all in majestic settings that feel somewhat magical with intense colours and twinkling lights. She identifies a gaze unique to the modern/postmodern/post-post-modern era: “The machine is made to be looked at” and “it’s aware of its being-looked-at-ness.” On the surface of these works, she has affixed decals to assert the “unique identity” of the machines. They double as reminders of the flatness of the canvas, emphasizing the materiality of the work. To return to the concept of the gaze, these decals remind me of accessories like necklaces or headscarves in 19th Century Orientalist images that reinforce the romanticism of the setting and draw attention to the figures’ nudity or partial nudity. She coated the edges of each work with fluorescent paint and tilted them on gallery walls to catch the overhead lighting and appear electronically lit. If there’s an afterlife, Piet Mondrian—who was obsessed with electric lighting and mimicking it with paint—must be smiling in response. As was the audience.

*For image, please click here

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

On Kawara at the Guggenheim

“...a creature of habit.”

I must admit that I was so excited to see On Kawara – Silence (February 6 – May 3) at the Guggenheim in New York that leading up to visiting, I was singing ‘On Kawara’ in my head to the tune of My Sharona’s chorus.

Curator Jeffrey Weiss has capitalized on Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture for this posthumous retrospective of the Japanese artist’s work. The spiral formation of the rotunda is complementary to his endurance and his tendency towards repetition because the wall space keeps going and going, with minimal interruption.

Kawara is renowned for his ‘date paintings,’ which are officially called Today (1966-2013). Spending that long on a series and attempting to contribute to it every day is phenomenal. Daily, he set out to make a painting (or possibly two) with a solid ground of blue, red, grey, or black. He mixed the acrylic paint by hand and kept swatches, resulting in canvases that are unified but not assembly-line-like. After experimenting with Letraset in earlier work, in Today, he painted the date of the day he made the painting in equally precise white block letters. He used the language of the country from which he was working, and if the country did not use the Western convention for writing dates, he used the universal alternative of Esperanto. The paintings are typically small enough to hold with hands shoulder-width apart, but on days that commanded more attention, like the day Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, a bigger painting might have been generated. If he didn’t manage to finish a painting by midnight, he would destroy it, tying him to the trend of dematerialization that Lucy Lippard associated with conceptual art. Whereas artists like John Baldessari relished destruction, cremating paintings and baking the ashes into cookies, Kawara seems to have been more about the act of creation, as noted by Ben Kinmont (1).

The tension between creation and destruction always brings me back to the cubists, and this association is helpful for contextualizing Kawara’s work. Georges Braque introduced stenciled letters and numbers to the paintings and papier collés he and Pablo Picasso made in lockstep, to jolt the viewer. His rationale was that type was flat and couldn’t exist in space in the same way that an object would, so it could help the viewer to parse out the image spatially. With Kawara’s work, there are no objects projecting into illusionistic space; the painting becomes an art-object, modern in its flatness. Picasso and Braque referred to these additions as ‘certainties (2),’ which links nicely to Kawara's work. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we can be almost certain that there will be a tomorrow. Braque, along with Picasso, also elevated the status of newspaper to be an appropriate material for art, which I mention because it was a mainstay for Kawara. Many of his date paintings were stored in, and are displayed at the Guggenheim with, a cardboard box constructed by the artist and often lined with a newspaper clipping from that day. As an information professional, I was pleased as punch to see that he recorded the date and publication on most of the clippings, minimizing the kind of extensive research to track newspaper sources for the likes of photomontage artist, Hannah Höch.


The first painting from Today, shown above, is sheltered by a vitrine on the main floor. Throughout the rotunda, others from the series are grouped. For example, there is a wall of paintings featuring Sundays. Today inspired other series like I Went (1968-79), a volume of artist books containing maps showing where the artist traveled that day, and I Got Up (1968-79), a series of postcards, which he rubber stamped to announce the time he awoke that day to recipients like Lippard. Inconsistent wake-up times, like 3:59 am and 5:06 pm, suggest that Kawara was not a creature of habit. Paradoxically, the ritual of making this series indicates that he was indeed a creature of habit.

Rather than showcasing his entire output, Silence features selections and integrates series, highlighting the web of connections in his oeuvre and preventing the viewer’s energy from fading. It worked: the only person I saw who wanted to opt out was a cranky toddler. Overall, visitors seemed to pay careful attention and take their time. Surprisingly, for art that might seem impersonal in its objectivity, visitors evidently connected with the work. For example, I overheard a visitor excitedly discovering the language she spoke used in one of his date paintings, and another keeping track of which of her family members’ birthdays she had observed in the series. I found myself most invested in the series, I Am Still Alive in which he sent telegrams starting in 1970, confirming for recipients that he was still alive. I took note of a pen stroke that an anonymous clerk had made under the ‘ill’ of ‘Still,’ compared ‘i am still alive’ to ‘I AM STILL ALIVE,’ and wondered about the emoticon potential of symbols that surrounded this text. The title and concept are heavy with meaning less than a year after the artist’s death and that was something I felt like pushing out of my mind just then, preferring distraction in the details.

Silence emphasizes that our experience of information has changed dramatically. A demonstrative example is one of his clippings from a Today box, which contains an advertisement about fighting polio encouraging readers to “write for our pamphlet.” The cubists used newspapers in cafe scenes as potent political symbols; it’s how people who couldn't afford newspapers could catch up on global events. When Kawara began his date paintings, the print medium continued to be essential and just as relevant politically. Rubén Gallo observes that Kawara’s clippings from Mexico City outlining the deteriorating relations between the government and students leading up to the Tlateloco Massacre on October 2, 1968 were censored from libraries and archives (3), making his inclusions vital sources for historical research in addition to representing the dissemination of information at the time of publication.

I find I am often fighting an uphill battle of convincing students of the merits of research using books, and on the car ride home, I felt I was rewarded for going old school with my background reading about Kawara. I glimpsed the date slip in the back of a catalogue of his work, shown here, and noticed that while my own borrowing via the postal system is traceless (read: silent), at least for now, there is a link to the past. This slip of paper shares the following features with Kawara’s work: dates in various but similar sizes, rubber stamping in a limited number of colours, and more than one language. Modest and outdated, it struck me as the perfect tribute to this enigmatic artist, even better than the selfies gallery visitors tried desperately to take before security guards intervened.


(1) Watkins, J. and Denizot, R. On Kawara. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2002, p. 26.

(2) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cubism: The Leonard A. Lauder Collection. Accessed February 17, 2015, at

(3) Watkins, J. and Denizot, R. On Kawara. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2002, p. 24.

Images, in order of appearance:

Watkins, J. and Denizot, R. On Kawara. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2002, p. 70.

Watkins, J. and Denizot, R. On Kawara. New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2002, p. 160.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Shelley Niro at OCADU

"We need to remind ourselves of history." ~ Shelley Niro

My wish list for the art section of our library has a new addition: Blue Medium Press is publishing a series of monographs about Canadian artists, because as co-publisher Julian Jason Haladyn explained, "We don't see enough of what they're producing." The first volume, Shelley Niro: Seeing through Memory (2014) by Madeline Lennon, was launched last night at OCAD University, in concert with an artist talk by Niro.

Lennon noted that when she received her PhD in art history in 1980 from the University of Toronto, she had not been exposed to even one female artist in her classes. She acknowledged that times have changed but that the need for further recognition is unabated. (That point was underscored before Lennon was invited up to the front, when Niro was introduced without the usual mention of accolades and when her graduation from OCADU was later misremembered).

Niro began by highlighting the connection between the ongoing disregard for missing and murdered native women and problematic visual culture, such as the book cover of a provocative-looking Pocahontas, which she described as disturbing. In a gently sarcastic tone, she imagined Pocahontas saying to the explorer John Smith, "You're free to help yourself to whatever" (even though she would have been a child when they met and she saved his life). Her snappy use of language translates seamlessly into artwork. Take the film, The Shirt (2003). In it, which she summarizes in text on t-shirts worn by a friend the atrocities committed against the native community, culminating in, "and all's I get is this shirt."

"We need to remind ourselves of history," she said, and be aware of biased versions of history. She cites Queenston Heights, in which native warriors helped defend the Americans in the War of 1812, as an example. In response, at Rodman Hall Art Centre in St. Catharines in Resting with Warriors (2001)*, she installed sculptures of female warriors outside because she thought, "Where are they [in common accounts]?"

She often blends the personal with the political. The first work she shared, Waitress (1986), for example, is set in a Chinese restaurant in Brantford, where she is based. In this self-portrait, she serves a customer, who looks characteristically uncomfortable upon realizing that she does not speak Chinese and is Mohawk. Brian and Mila Mulroney dance merrily in the background of the painting, surrounded by burning False Faces Masks, with beadwork patterns underfoot. It was made around the time that the Prime Minister met with First Nations leaders and behaved in a dismissive manner.

Some works like Waitress are darkly humorous and others are celebratory. Some are a combination, like the film, Mars Thunderchild Gets a Calling (2005), in which the optimistic and exuberant main character, Mars Thunderbird, speculates, "Maybe there's still racism." Niro shared that humour and celebration are critical strategies for "self-preservation...[otherwise these situations] can hurt you. In my mind, I try to switch it around....once that mind shift happens, it's so much easier for me [to continue working]. When something is so heavy, you can only understand it to a certain degree."

Ease of comprehension is key to her practice; in reference to several works, she emphasized the importance of not needing to translate the work conceptually. Based on the Q& A that followed, the audience clearly connected with her work, demonstrating its universality.

Niro observed, "Without spirit, nothing would be made." Her prolific career is evidence of abundant spirit. Niro has exhibited at the Venice Biennale; her work is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada; she was the first recipient of the Ontario Arts Council's Arts Award; and she holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Western Ontario.

*This image is a woodcut print made from sculptural installation of the same name at Rodman Hall