Thursday, March 13, 2014

Shary Boyle at York University: Inspiring without re-traumatizing

“…an ‘urge to connect’”

Tuesday’s Goldfarb Lecture in Visual Arts at York University by Shary Boyle was standing room only, further to “tweets in the thousands,” as Professor Barbara McGill Balfour noted.

Refreshingly down-to-earth, the featured Canadian artist in the most recent Venice Biennale closed the door herself when noise filtered in from the hallway, paused when latecomers arrived so they wouldn’t feel awkward, and—revealing what Murray Write called her “goofy repartee” in Canadian Art magazine (1)asked at one point, “How ‘bout that cave art?”

Boyles presentation was structured around her multi-media installation at the Biennale, providing a stylistic roadmap of sorts of how she got there. She began by sharing a film from the installation called Silent Dedication, in which an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter signs a poetic tribute to “heroes of silence.” She cites Charlie Chaplin as an influence, calling his silent films “heartening and inspiring for keeping spirits up about humanity.” Characteristics of silent film and sign language dovetail with her art because she’s “always straining to tell a story…through gesture.” In fact, she revealed that if she weren’t an artist, she would like to be an interpreter (and has several years of training in ASL to boot).

She maximized the opportunity of exhibiting in Venice, using it as a platform to give voice to the silenced, from missing women to Pakistani activist, Malala Yousafzai. Sheila Heti, in describing an earlier work by Boyle, captured its essence: “…we are not merely looking at the woman here—we are the woman.” (2) Boyle explained, “I can’t speak on behalf of anybody but I can share.” 

Her approach in the Biennale installation, Music for Silence, can be traced to her tendency as a child of “finding solace in drawing” and recognizing loneliness as “exquisitely beautiful.” From a young age, she never wanted to be an artist for the sake of being an artist. She simply wants to make life more meaningful through communication. “Language is so fraught,” she observed. “Isn’t art a language?”

How does an artist transition from working out of her living room without assistants to being courted by Louis Vuitton and jet-setting to Venice to prepare an installation seen by 250,000 people? There are several answers. First, inertia. Boyle spoke of constantly pushing beyond her comfort zone and habits to “places that are mysterious.” As a primarily self-taught ceramicist, she finds enjoyment in “testing the limits of yourself and materials.” She collaborates in unconventional ways, like visiting the homes of grey-haired hobbyists to learn more about ceramics. “There’s no scene; it’s not cool,” she admits. Second, an openness to exploding the categories of art. She’s known for live drawing performances with projections of fantastical images and vivid colours complementing music of the likes of Feist and Peaches. These undertakings are driven by her admiration for the immediate impact music has on general audiences and from an “urge to connect” with practitioners of a form of expression sharing much in common with visual art. “There’s something about cross-disciplinary practice that is super-enlivening,” she says. Third, love your work, but not in an egotistical way. It would be fair to say that Boyle bonds with her work. When working with life-size sculpture, for example, she says, “You’re making a relationship,” akin to interacting with an actual person. She works from memory rather than photographs, with an appreciation for the “tenderness” that results from imperfections. She also aims to “belligerently ignore” the bias against craft because she “enjoys making things with my [her] hands.” Ultimately, in the face of trends and expectations, she says you have to think about how you want to spend your time as an artist.

As a feminist, she has made bold moves. For example, she has used unambiguous titles, like Intersex. She shared that gender has always been of interest to her. Rather than buy into the binary perspective of male-female, she asks, “Aren’t we all a combination?” Also, she “brought the taboo subject of rape into the museum” through a series of ceramics featuring mythological figures like Persephone, commissioned by the Art Gallery of Ontario.” Her work, while progressive and transgressive, is never too hard-hitting. “You don’t want to re-traumatize people,” she cautions.

This post is dedicated to Paul Kipps (1948-2014), an unforgettable professor. To borrow Boyle’s characterization of Chaplin, he was heartening and inspiring for keeping spirits up about humanity.

(1) White, Murray. “The Mermaid’s Cave: Shary Boyle’s Path to the Venice Biennale.”  Canadian Art (2013 Aug. 2).
(2) Heti, Sheila. “No Walls.” In Boyle, Shary. Otherworld Uprising. Toronto: conundrum press, 2008, p. 68.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Affects of Site: Conference on Site-Specific Art

“Affect is undeniable.”—David LaRiviere, PAVED Arts

This past week-end, Affects of Site took place on Nipissing Territory in North Bay, Ontario. Although I was unable to attend Clarke Mackey’s key note address on Friday night, I caught the panel discussions on Saturday featuring Susan Cahill, Sarah Cook, Serena Kataoka, Lieann Koivukoski, David LaRiviere, Steve Loft, Gil McElroy, Gram Schmalz, Laura Smith, Danielle Tremblay, and Dermot Wilson. For profiles, see!speakers/cfvg.

Coincidentally, I was reviewing notes from the conference in tandem with preparing a lecture on conceptual art for a class I’m teaching this semester. The parallels between today’s site-specific work and conceptual art a half-century earlier leapt off the page: the secondary status of the object, the active role of the spectator, the interest in semiotics, and the subversive tendency that is sometimes playful and other times utopian—all leading to questions about the relevance of the gallery system and the art market.

Site-specific art retains an element of dematerialization, often in spite of itself. For example, Sarah Cook recounted a work by Edouardo Kac she curated into a festival in Mexico City, consisting of a transgenic plant whose growth in a greenhouse was jeopardized by an earthquake. In a recent installation co-curated by Susan Cahill and Laura Peturson in North Bay, Jamie Latham’s water-filled jars featuring self-portraits were confiscated by police for chemical testing before anyone else saw them. One of Gil McElroy’s memory tables—angled picnic tables partially charred and inscribed with poetry—was only installed for an afternoon before it was stolen. Perhaps providing karmic balance is a visitor’s note scrawled on an LCBO bag pleading with passersby to not destroy a Toronto fort built over and over again with materials like rebar by Gram Schmalz and Laura Smith, dubbed the “end of the world crew” by locals (and known officially as the Physical Futures Initiative). Of course, some installations, like Ice Follies, are designed to be temporary. One morning, Dermot Wilson awoke with the vision that Lake Nipissing was like a blank canvas. Nine years later, the biennial on the frozen lake is in full swing. Lieann Koivukoski called it “North Bay’s best kept secret,” and visiting the installations between sessions made for the best conference break I’ve ever had, personally.

Image: Drowning and Drowned Out in situ, by Jaymie Lathem. Courtesy of Near North Arts

A question that resurfaced throughout the day was whom art is intended to affect. The democractic answer need not be stated, but it was interesting to see the nature of that democracy teased out. Site-specific art maximizes audience, connecting artists and curators to a public largely unexposed to art historical rhetoric, or as McElroy put it, people who haven’t lost their sense of adventure or been trained to avoid excitement. It’s a place to move beyond what performance artist Laurie Anderson calls ingrown situations, to stop preaching to the converted. Cahill envisions a shared communal space where spectators don’t feel like they have to know the answer, but they can have their perception change as they enter the site. The word ‘can’ is important: spectatorial agency means that individual response is unpredictable. Site-specific art tends to have unstructured moments, as Schmalz noted, and there’s a range of potential aesthetic-affective responses. There were many stories of children being delighted, but in an era where Pussy Riot members could be jailed for performing in a church, I, for one, appreciate that the conversation wasn’t restricted to affects of pleasure. Serena Kataoka, for example, recalled visiting a men’s shelter with musical performers called the Subatomic Monks and experiencing sexual harassment that morphed into a positive jamming experience. She also described a peaceful protest on Queen Street in Toronto called Free Parking Space, during which she wore a cardboard car while cycling; it lead to criminal charges, which were ultimately dropped. It’s no wonder she eschews documentation of collaborative interventions. Similarly, when the Near North Media Lab took its trailer to Huntsville during the G8 summit to make work, Koivukoski said the group was under constant surveillance and that she’d never been carded so much in her life. Wilson suggested that art’s purpose is to improve the health of society, but these examples demonstrate that there’s no way to know whether it will take or not.

An example of a site-specific festival that the community really took to is Nuit Blanche, Toronto’s all-night art extravaganza. Steve Loft commented that every city seems to want one, which reinforces Cook’s observation that there is a “privilege of play.” So what’s a small city to do? In Sudbury, La Galerie du Nouvel-Ontario hosts an alternative art fair every other year. Some 30,000 people have taken in their installations, many from the driver’s seat of a car. Danielle Tremblay recalled that when she co-founded GNO and became its general director, they didn’t have walls for work so they went out into the community and co-opted spaces like billboards. “We were like dogs marking our territory,” she said, laughing. David LaRiviere is also a proponent of billboards in his role as director at PAVED Arts, featuring such gems as Karen Elaine Spencer’s postcards to Stephen Harper in a collaborative project with AKA. He has also pushed against the “flat affect” of advertising by putting his own work in public in the form of movie posters installed at theatres. Smith pointed out that there is a place for intimate festivals even in a large city like Toronto. The Queen West Art Crawl and Art on the Danforth can be refreshing because they don’t tend to be congested or to be associated with partying. The trick with small festivals, Koivukoski said, is that they may have a huge impact on a small community but the figures can appear inconsequential to funders who are comparing the population to larger centres. Furthermore, Tremblay noted that it’s challenging to demonstrate quality over quantity in these situations. Fortunately, from the organizer’s perspective, as David LaRiviere said, “Affect is undeniable.”

On top of the seemingly endless cycle of applying for and reporting on project grants, curators must act as cultural ambassadors to convince governing bodies that it’s a good idea to put art where the masses can see it. Also on the topic of negotiations, audience member Duane Linklater stressed that there should be consideration of the use of Indigenous land for site-specific work. Thus, cultural producers would do well to follow Gil McElroy’s lead in remembering the Hippocratic Oath (first, do no harm, etc.) when approaching site-specific work. Sensitivity to the history of places is complicated by the fact that, as Cook noted, there are “cartels of curators” traveling the globe, without a connection to specific locations. They may not, in fact, be associated with a particular gallery at all, demonstrating a shift from the traditional definition of curator as custodian of a collection. This may be for the best, as Cahill suggested that galleries aren’t necessarily the most accessible space. Yet, as Tremblay said, they’re unlikely to disappear, so curators may as well be imaginative in their use of the white cube. Even the educational responsibilities of curators are shifting, evident in the comments of the Physical Futures Initiative: Schmalz enjoys having spectators teach each other and Smith says that she and Schmalz have “learned so much from the non-artists.” Perhaps, then, curators have become more facilitators of artistic exploration.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei

“…a natural raconteur…”—Barnaby Martin

In my recent SAMLA presentation about blogs functioning as extended artist statements, I briefly discussed renowned Chinese artist and political activist, Ai Weiwei, who used to blog up to eight hours a day. Leading up to the conference, I wanted to bone up on the details of his baffling detention, so I picked up Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei (Faber and Faber, Inc., 2013). It reiterates the basics reported by the media, namely that the government had kept a close eye on his activism, brought him in for questioning without revealing charges to the public, and released him 81 days later, citing tax fraud as the motivation. The book goes much deeper, showing that Weiwei is no stranger to controversy and that his interest in democracy and artistic freedom is well founded. For example, it describes the Stars group of which Weiwei was part. After their show of paintings outside the national gallery was declared illegal, Weiwei decided to move to New York in the early eighties, which he described as ‘another world’ (p. 161).

“Come and visit and we can talk about everything,” Weiwei said a few days after his release in July 2011 to Barnaby Martin, the journalist who wrote Hanging Man. Since Weiwei begrudgingly took an oath saying he wouldn’t talk to the media, this offer is really something. A British ex-pat who has been based in China for many years, Martin brings the perspective of an outsider, but one who also knows the culture intimately. The local colour (example: “pancakes filled with chopped lettuce and meat of unknown provenance” served from a bicycle with a hotplate attached—p. 151) may make you want to visit China…that is, if you aren’t worried about being stopped at the airport, being told your travel plans “may damage the state security” (p. 81) and being taken to a shabby hotel and later a military compound in a van, while hooded and struggling to breathe.

The book weaves in and out of the author’s face-time with the artist. It’s not actually until page 70 that Martin gets to his chat with Weiwei after his release. He is skilled at building anticipation, delaying the coverage of their union by giving a detailed account of how he hoped to approach the interview and recounting earlier interviews he had had with the artist. Martin describes Weiwei as “a natural raconteur with a colourful turn of phrase” (p. 78). This quality and his excellent memory are maximized in the interview.

You might say that Weiwei came by his situation honestly: early on in his incarceration, he was told he was being charged with subversion of the State, the same crime as his father, Ai Qing, one of the most famous Chinese poets, whose works were practically required reading for the Chinese Communist Party before he fell out of favour with Mao Zedong. Martin observes that the lives of Weiwei and Qing are “intertwined with the great people and events of modern Chinese history” (p. 12), and that perspective informs the structure of the book. The exposition of Chinese history in Hanging Man happens in fits and spurts, not necessarily in order. Surprisingly, the result is not disorienting; if anything, it maintains the reader’s interest, and prevents the urge to simply skip past a section on background. Historical content from the last century includes the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911; the 4 May movement of 1919; the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921; the Chinese civil war (1927-50); the anti-intellectualist purge of 1958 that coincided with the Great Leap Forward; the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution of 1965; the failed assassination attempt of Mao Zedong in 1971; the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989; and the Falung Gong demonstration of 1999. Events such as a the latter (where a silent protest led to individuals being abducted en masse and allegedly murdered, forced into hard labour, or institutionalized) read as harbingers, making Weiwei’s experience less baffling, though no less disturbing.

Martin does an equally good job of distilling complex political situations for the non-specialized reader (like the virtually non-legal status of the Chinese Communist Party) as he does deconstructing the meaning of Weiwei’s conceptual art pieces that encompass photography, sculpture, installation, architecture, and social media. This process subtly parallels Weiwei explaining modern art and democracy to his prison guards, with whom he developed a curious bond. It brings to mind yesterday’s news coverage following Nelson Mandela’s death, in which his prison warden-turned-friend recounted sneaking Mandela’s baby grandaughter past security cameras so he could meet her. Martin is intrigued by this relationship, arguing that Weiwei may be exhibiting Stockholme syndrome or that the guards received orders to treat him well, knowing the whole world was watching (since some of Weiwei’s colleagues have not come out unscathed as he did). Martin also acknowledges the sympathy that an author can develop from spending time with someone who has experienced injustice, and describes the conversations as emotionally exhausting. For the most part, he seems to have retained the burden, producing a measured account of Weiwei’s experience with the police.

Hanging Man is recommended for a general audience as well as academics with an interest in art, criminal justice, or Asian studies.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Blog as an Extended Artist Statement

“What, exactly, is a blog? This question is our contemporary moment’s shibboleth.”—Jonathan T.D. Neil, Sotheby’s, Los Angeles

Yesterday, I spoke on a panel at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association conference in Atlanta, Georgia, called Making Feminist Meanings Across Worlds: Print, Digital, and Networked Feminisms and Women’s Studies. The following is a shortened version of my paper, “The Blog as an Extended Artist Statement.”

Renowned art critic Jerry Saltz says, “You may think your work is about daffodils; I think it’s about scrambled eggs” (1). As a feminist artist, I don’t want to risk this type of misinterpretation, so I rely on language to supplement my art practice. Many artists feel that a one-page artist statement will suffice to explain their work, but to play it safe, I’ve written Artist In Transit, an 85,000-word blog.

Karen Evans writes that in the mid-90s, theorists were generally hopeful about the digital age. They perceived it as a place where traditional communities could be “superseded by open, democratic placeless cyberspaces in which equalities of wealth, class, gender and ethnicity had no purpose” (2). A few years later, blogs appeared, and took on this challenge.

In May 2009, the same month I started my blog, the power of social media to spur social activism was underscored when a blog by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was censored, removing three years’ worth of posts critiquing the government. He was later held in police custody for 81 days, arguably related to his activism. Going back to 2009, feminist art blogging was uneven: that year, Mira Schor lamented that the contributors lacked commitment, professionalism, and accountability (3). My goal was to be an exception, especially because I intended the blog to be a tool for tenure consideration as an academic art librarian. In my presentation, I spoke not from the perspective of a librarian but from the perspective of a feminist artist, touching on the capacity for blogs to promote art and art criticism, to spur new art ideas, and to encourage networking within the real and virtual art world. “An artist’s statement….gives you validation [and] visibility,” (4) and I feel that blogs can function in a similar way.

Before exploring these topics, I started with the basics: What is a blog? What is an artist statement? Jonathan T.D. Neil, Sotheby’s Director in Los Angeles, writes, “‘What, exactly, is a blog? This question is our contemporary moment’s shibboleth.” (5) Perhaps an easier definition to start with, then, is that of the artist statement. Definitions of the term ‘artist statement’ are plentiful and varied, but I particularly like this one by curator and art historian G. James Daichendt: “Usually a testimony of the interests, background and goals of the artist, this document explains, justifies, or contextualizes the work of the artist…The best artist statements prepare viewers to enter and engage the work.” (6) When I started my blog, I set out to capture elements that studio professor Deborah A. Rockman associates with artist statements, namely the sources of art ideas, ranging from favourite artists to influential books and articles (7).

Artist statements resemble blogs in several ways, making for a reasonable comparison: art critic Edward Sozanski notes that artist statements reveal the psychology and personality of the artist (8) and curator Lydia Yee feels that artist statements are “an opportunity to tell a story” (9). The story I planned to tell with my blog was how my art ideas developed. Initially, to borrow the phrasing that came out of a study at Rutgers University, I was more of a ‘meformer’ than an ‘informer’ (10). As the scope of the blog broadened to include art criticism of shows relating to my own work, it became something of a feminist soapbox.

The challenge in writing about gallery shows is that as artist Kate Britton says, “social media and networked culture has rendered everyone a critic” (11). Experts waver on whether a blog is a legitimate venue for art criticism and artistic expression. However, the two artists mentioned earlier are indicative of the credibility of blogs: in 2010, Mira Schor received a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant to develop a blog for a year about her art as a counterpart to her latest book, and in 2011, Ai Weiwei's translated posts were released as a book and endorsed by curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and by the directors of the Tate Modern (Chris Dercon) and Yale University Art Gallery (Jock Reynolds). My hope is that if I can write well-considered, thorough reviews, people will give my studio work a chance. Although personally, I find that blogging distracts me from creating art, I do believe there’s merit in the strategy undertaken by senior artist Denise Green; long before the 2.0 era, she began writing about art to establish credibility in an art world divided by gender (12).

The blog is a way to motivate myself to keep on top of what’s happening farther afield, but it’s also a way to let outsiders know what’s happening in North Bay’s small but vibrant arts community. I described some of the unanticipated connections I’ve made locally as a result of the blog. These experiences demonstrate the importance of keeping the ‘meformer’ impulse in check, and demonstrate what Hrag Vartanian, editor of the arts blogazine, Hyperallergic, says: “The online world is as much about giving back as it is getting. And if you think you’re going to put something out there because you want it back immediately, then you are not going to get it back. But if you help people online…you’re going to get it back tenfold” (13).


(1) Qtd. by Wojak, Angie and Miller, Stacy. Starting Your Career as an Artist. New York: Allworth Press, 2011, 18. Print.
(2) Evans, Karen. “Re-thinking Community in the Digital Age?” Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives. Eds. Kate Orton-Johnson and Nick Prior New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 79-89, 82. Print.
(3) Schor, Mira, A Decade of Negative Thinking. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Print.
(4) Wojak and Miller, 131.
(5) Neil, Jonathan T.D. “Can I get a Witness?” Art Review, Oct. 2011, 139. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(6) Daichendt, G. James. Artist Scholar: Reflections on Writing and Research. Bristol, UK: Intellect Ltd., 2012, chapter 4. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(7) Rockman, Deborah A. The Art of Teaching Art: A Guide for Teaching and Learning the Foundations of Drawing-based Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 131. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(8) Qtd. by Grant, Daniel. The Business of Being an Artist. 3rd ed. New York: Allworth Press, 2000. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(9) Nieves, Marysol, ed. Taking Aim! 1st ed. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2011. Print.
(10) Naaman, Mor, Boase, Jeffrey and Lai, Chih-Hui. “Is it really about me? Message content in social awareness streams.” CSCW ‘10. February 2010: 189-192. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(11) Britton, Kate. “Social Media in Contemporary Art.” Das Platforms Emerging & Contemporary Art, 21, 2011. Web. Aug. 17, 2013.
(12) Green, Denise. Denise Green: An Artist’s Odyssey. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.
(13) Nieves, 229.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Anita Steckel at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

“Not one to mince words…”

This week, Exposure: Anita Steckel’s Fight Against Censorship opened at the Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center within the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, DC). En route to a conference in Atlanta, I made a four-hour detour to visit this archival exhibition. Steckel (1930-2012) was a Second Wave feminist artist and educator. Her personal papers were donated to the NMWA, and excerpts are on display until May 9, 2014.

Steckel was an easy target for censorship, because of the directness and brazenness of her work. Consider the collaged piece from 1971 in the exhibition: a colour reproduction of the American $1 bill, it had ‘Legal Gender’ handwritten along the top and Washington’s face enclosed in the shaft of a sketched penis. Equally ‘to the point’ is a photograph with an altered New York skyline (click here for a similar image). Skyscrapers are extended by Steckel’s hand, their rooftops converted into phallic heads (each unique, not unlike the approach of her colleague, Hannah Wilke, to vulvic imagery). The writers of the TV show, How I Met Your Mother* would be pleased, as architect Hans Hollein—who also made a phallic architectural sketch—must have been.

At Steckel’s 1972 exhibition at Rockland Community College, “one of the less controversial works,” as The Journal News put it, was a Statue of Liberty postcard, on exhibit now at NMWA, containing a hand-drawn female symbol emerging form the fiery torch. The paper included an image of said work, but not the more contentious images featuring male and female genitalia. Legislator John Koman wanted to shut it down for its pornographic nature, but after a closed meeting of trustees and pushback from students, the artist was victorious. In an unsurprising move based on the show’s title, The Sexual Politics of Feminist Art, Steckel used the experience as a springboard for forming the Fight Censorship Group. Its members included Wilke, Louise Bourgeois, Joan Semmel, and others. In its ten years of activity, they did things like pressure curators not to follow Koman’s lead, and petitioned major New York museums to open Adult Galleries, where the fig leaf could be ripped off. Like the Guerilla Girls, they were angry about the disproportionate number of female nudes to male nudes in museums, appealing to the male gaze. Steckel writes in a statement for the FCG, “If the erect penis is not wholesome enough to go into museums—It should not be considered wholesome enough to go into women.” Not one to mince words, she wrote that artists must operate in absolute freedom from censorship, to protect the right to produce works like “the open-legged whores of Toulouse-Lautrec.” She writes of the “white-gloved hypocrisy—which pretends we [women] don’t even know what is meant by a ‘dirty joke.’ Don’t know—hell—we’re the entire subject matter of all those ‘jokes’ we’re not supposed to know the meaning of.”

Her 2006 journal indicates that her dedication to the cause never wavered. She wrote, “Don’t turn lemonade into a lemon” and “Risk Everything/ Be a Warrior.” Although she did not receive critical acclaim in her formative years as an artist, in 2006 she was mentioned in the catalogue for the high-profile exhibition, WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, even though she wasn’t included in the show itself. The NWMA wall text notes that this catalogue essay revived interest in her work. Indeed, in 2007, the New York Times described her as having been overlooked for too long (1). The wall text also credits the Fight Censorship Group with having created a more accepting atmosphere for women artists’ provocative works.” To Steckel et al., I say thank-you.

*in which the character Ted gets his big architectural break by pitching an alternative to a design that looks like a penis with its pink colour, apex, and bulbous forms at the base.


(1) March 2007. Museum and gallery listings.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Duane Linklater at Nipissing University

“There’s something about small towns in the north…”

Unpresupposing in light of winning the prestigious Sobey Award last month, Duane Linklater thanked the audience at his artist talk yesterday for coming out to campus first thing in the morning and said he hoped they wouldn’t mind if he shared some slides. He also expressed interest in “taking the air out” of the art historical trope of artist-as-hero. “I find it problematic, the idea of an artist having a special gift.”

The importance of the $50,000 prize was underscored when the North Bay artist revealed that he initially wanted to expand a work he showed at nearby White Water Gallery in 2011 to include four more components, but because he was working with pricey neon signs, its realization was delayed until this year. Tautology features five differently coloured birds, each appropriated from a painting by Anishnabe artist Norval Morrisseau selected by former Governor General Michaelle Jean for display in Rideau Hall, “where the Governor General does Governor General types of things.” By shifting the context, Linklater observed that “something funny and slippery happens.” Unconventional collaborations (with, for example, a deceased artist) and new contexts in the exploration of Aboriginality characterize his multi-media work.

An Omask√™ko Cree, Linklater says, “The moment that politicized me, as a teenager” was the Oka crisis of 1990. On his bedroom wall, he hung a picture of masked warrior, Richard Nicholas, standing on top of a squad car during the standoff over contested land. From that point on, he began independent research and took a Bachelor of Arts in Native studies. He also holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a Master of Fine Arts. Linklater says, “Art can…help you…it can…offer a reckoning or a process through tragedies [like Oka].” So often, tragedy offers up stories of hope and this one is particularly gripping: Linklater played a wax cylinder recording for the audience of Santu Toney, a half-Beothuck woman in her mid-seventies from Newfoundland who met an anthropologist in New England, rousing disbelief in the link to the extinct Beothuck tribe. Linklater provided cellist Peggy Lee with sheet music of Toney’s song transcribed by an ethnomusicologist, to be perfomed at his exhibition at Or Gallery (Vancouver). The show also included email correspondence with Joanna Malinowska, a Polish artist whose representations of Aboriginal concerns and Aboriginal artwork in the Whitney Biennial and in her practice in general were politically suspect, in Linklater’s view (the two artists had agreed that any of the text was fair game for future exhibition). “Collaboration brings so many things….It’s always going to change….You don’t know what…the outcomes will be [which is what’s]…super-exciting about art.” When he approaches collaborations, whether moose hunting with artist Brian Jungen, or working with a Bard College groundskeeper to plant 12 blueberry gardens for his MFA thesis, “It (the treaty concept)’s always floating around me.”

Linklater commented that it felt different presenting on his work in the city where he lives. Besides getting ready in the comfort of his own home, he alluded to the resonance of an image of his installation of raspberry bushes in a Chelsea, NY gallery when discussed in North Bay, where wild raspberries grow on his property. He also recounted walking into Ontario Northland and asking for information about the history of their logo, which he ultimately painted on the wall of Susan Hobbs Gallery in Toronto as a tribute to the now-cancelled train that acted as a vital connection between northern communities and southern Ontario. Without an appointment, he was able to meet for 45 minutes with a marketing representative, get a binder of photocopies the following day, and receive a “really friendly” letter. He noted that if he had walked into a train station in a larger city in Canada, he would probably have waited six months for that kind of progress. “There’s something about small towns in the north that allows you to do things like that,” he said. (This anecdote really captures the essence of North Bay; the day I moved back to the city, I ran four errands and every sales clerk or service person I encountered smiled and initiated a conversation with me. It’s a city where I’ve been offered a ride when carrying too many groceries and had a homeless person hold an umbrella over my head while I’ve rummaged for change.)

He ended with refreshing advice to the many young artists in the crowd. At the risk of misrepresentation through paraphrasing, his advice is:
*There is no set plan to become an artist, and everything you do—even the unenjoyable things—helps you develop as an artist.
*Don’t get caught up in the pressure to make work or feel like you have to have a studio. Do what you really want to do, and envision your practice in a more holistic way. (For instance, Linklater sees discussions as a major part of his work).
*Don’t get caught up in definitions. Is a film about collaborative moose hunting really art? Is working with a groundskeeper really collaboration? Does it matter?
*Be flexible when dealing with authority figures.
*Be true to your principles. If you’re offered a show and there’s something unethical about it, it’s not worth pursuing.
*Opportunity is always there. It’s just a matter of finding it.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Brass in Pocket at Booklyn Artists Alliance

“…feminist art is not an easy concept to digest for the majority of people.”—Maura Reilly

On the week-end, I visited Booklyn Artists Alliance in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in part to see if the copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves I donated earlier this year to Jen Kennedy and Liz Linden's Book Swap… had been swapped. It hadn’t.

I wish I could say that I loved the current exhibition, Brass in Pocket (September 13-October 27) because it combines art, feminism, bibliophilia, and self-publishing (it culminates in the production of a zine including external submissions). Alas, when I passed back under the funky archway of books in Booklyn’s office space, I left as perplexed as when I arrived by the online curatorial statement.

Seven female artists are included in the show but in the website’s list of exhibiting artists and in the curatorial statement, the roster is said to include not seven but six artists (Susan Fang, Liz Linden, Lynnette Miranda, Caroline Paquita, Catherine Stack, and Tamara Waite-Satibanez, all of whom are New York-based). As a fellow Canadian, I find the exclusion of Toronto-based Jen Kennedy concerning.

Curators Aimee Lusty and Kate Wadkins explain that their original intention was to showcase feminist artists (defined as artists who encounter sexism in their personal and professional lives, regardless of whether they create feminist work). In studio visits, unspecified feminist themes surfaced, but Lusty and Wadkins decided to emphasize transcendence of subject matter, experimentation within various media, and draftsmanship (ahem) instead, seeing feminist art as a narrow focus. The statement ends by aligning the spirit of the show with that of Book Swap… in saying that at the heart of Brass in Pocket is the viewer’s ability to engage with feminism on his or her own terms.

The fact that the artists face gender-based discrimination at home and work doesn’t make them feminists; it makes them women. Doing something about it would make them feminists. Based on their online presence, only three of the seven artists self-identify as feminists. If the others do indeed consider themselves to be feminists, it would be ideal for the artists to articulate it. In a world where role models like Susan Sarandon avoid the ‘f word,’ more allies are needed. (Kudos to artist Suzanne Lacy for addressing this issue head-on in her collaborative performance in Prospect Heights on Saturday). Laying bare the evolution of the curatorial approach, as Lusty and Wadkins have, has the unfortunate effect of casting the show as feminist lite at best and as a rejection of feminist art at worst. They may have been better off releasing a statement that addressed formalism but not feminism at all.

My knee-jerk reaction was likely exacerbated by the book I happened to be reading the day I learned of the show. In the opening chapter of Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience, Angela Dimitrakaki notes that on a global scale, women have less brass in pocket* than in the past, in addition to being sexual commodities, so it’s critical to maintain the connection to politics in feminist art history—a discipline that is market-driven through tourism-generating biennials and tuition-funded academia. Regrettably, at least according to Dimitrakaki’s line of reasoning, Brass in Pocket has no apparent politics. Its curation invokes a powerful concept but stops there. Because, as Maura Reilly says, “feminist art is not an easy concept to digest for the majority of people” (p. 35), what feminist intentions the curators had may become lost when people engage with the show on their own terms, without even wall labels to help them along.

*British slang for money; a reference to The Pretenders’ song, Brass in Pocket.


Connie Butler, Amelia Jones, and Maura Reilly (in dialogue). “Feminist Curating and the ‘Return’ of Feminist Art”. In The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, Ed. Amelia Jones. Routledge, 2010, pp. 31-44.

Angela Dimitrakaki, “Gendering the Multitude: Feminist Politics, Globalization and Art History”. In Women, the Arts and Globalization: Eccentric Experience, Eds. Marsha Meskimmon and Dorothy Rowe. Manchester University Press, 2013, pp. 15-25.