Friday, December 30, 2016

Openings: A Memoir from the Women’s Art Movement, New York City 1970-1992, by Sabra Moore

“…navel-gazing is absent from this heartfelt memoir.”

Sabra Moore’s Openings: A Memoir from the Women’s Art Movement, New York City 1970-1992 (New Village Press, 2016) describes the Texas-born artist’s experiences in Manhattan and Brooklyn back when moving there didn’t break the bank—back when artists could rent a huge loft and make a living by cobbling together small contracts with plenty of time remaining for art-making and activism to boot.

Naysayers may doubt that activism was necessary beyond the surge of Second Wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. Drawing on journals written since 1964, Moore provides ample evidence of lasting sexism. For example, in the 1980s, Moore visited Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City and noticed that the only postcards for sale featured the works of Kalho’s husband, Diego Rivera. That same decade—in the wake of Ana Mendieta’s suspicious death after falling from the 34th window of the apartment she shared with her partner, Carl Andre—a male architect “jokingly offered to push me [Moore] out of a window when we disagreed.” (1) And, in the 1990s, a friend of Moore’s, Ora Lerman, was on an art-related academic panel in which the male panelists were paid honoraria but the female panelists weren’t compensated.

As accomplished as Moore is, navel-gazing is absent from this heartfelt memoir. Moore discusses her own mixed media work throughout, but with seeming sincerity, showing how it dovetailed with her personal life, from travel to family relations. For example, in a fabric calendar, Moore recounts her abortion while volunteering for the Peace Corps, using materials and techniques familiar to her because both of her grandmothers had been quiltmakers. Impressively, Moore includes people’s reactions to her work—both compliments and criticisms—and she reveals rejections as well as acceptances for exhibition submissions and grant proposals. This dose of realism is important for art students and emerging artists because it underscores the need to be steadfast. Signs of her success are tempered; for example, in a single paragraph, Moore recalls the good news that a curator offers unlimited funds for one of her artist books, but also the less-than-good news that the Social Science Research Council wants a book from the same edition at no cost. As the late Carrie Fisher remarked, “There is no point at which you can say, ‘Well, I’m successful now. I might as well take a nap.’” (2)

Moore’s inclusiveness of other Second Wave feminist artists is exemplary. She aims to expand the canon beyond a smattering of well-known female artists like Judy Chicago. As early as the 1970s, Moore realized, “If you are not named, you do not exist” (3). She doesn’t just mention her myriad colleagues by name; she describes their work, at minimum with a single sentence, but often with more. For example, she writes poetically of Hannah Wilke’s Brushstrokes No. 6 that preceded her death from cancer: “Rows of her shorn lockets [of hair] were framed like calligraphy, creating a text we could not decipher except for its bravery.” (4) The reader need not visualize the majority of the works referenced: a colour banner of images spans the bottom quarter of the page for the entire book, except when full-page images are included.

One perspective in the contemporary art world is that it is questionable for a curator to organize an exhibition that includes his or her own work, but Moore offers a compelling argument for organizers to double as participants. Basically, joining forces was the best strategy for making headway. She identifies as an activist artist, as a practitioner “who felt a call to action for our beliefs.” (5) That call manifested in various ways for feminists: organizing shows around themes like peace, founding artist-run galleries like Atlantic Gallery, and establishing artist-run periodicals like Heresies. Moore’s work was featured in all of these initiatives.

Moore does not gloss over the trials and tribulations of collective organizing. She cites challenges such as the horizontal structure of grassroots organizing delaying decision making; a revolving door of members hindering the ability to move beyond surface level concerns; poor institutional memory; lack of credit for behind-the-scenes work; a heavy reliance on unpaid labour; in-fighting; and financial mismanagement that could cripple a fledgling organization. Yet, in the end, collective action seems to have been worthwhile. Moore portrays it as an almost transcendental experience that fostered her creative practice, broke down institutional barriers, and facilitated lasting friendships with the likes of art critic Lucy Lippard (who has written an introduction for Openings along with poet Margaret Randall).

There is a wealth of valuable information within for researchers. Unfortunately, the presentation of information demands deduction. Artists are often referred to by their first name only; for example, in the second paragraph of the preface, Moore introduces three artists by first name only and by the end of the preface, just one of those three has had their last name specified. Especially for readers who don’t read cover to cover, a subject index would clarify an individual’s last name, plus it would enhance access overall. Also, the content is presented somewhat chronologically, but the sequence of events is often jumbled. For example, the first chapter is called, “Where I/We Came In (Starting in 1970),” but she actually begins in the 1960s (in order, 1966, 1969, 1963, 1970, 1982, 1972, 1973, 1984, 1983, and 1965). Jumping around from year to year is preferable to not knowing what year Moore is referencing. For instance, early in the book, Moore says she was married in the late 1980s. Much later, she notes the month and day of her wedding but not the year, and on the next page, an approximate date of 1989 is indicated by her reproduction of an exhibition card. However, in a later chapter, she reveals her wedding was 32 years after her sister’s in 1958, which would be 1990 and not the late 1980s. Another way the reader gets lost is through the absence (or rather, delay) of segues; for example, she mentions that a colleague of hers, Linda Peer, got married while placing her and her husband-to-be‘s hands on a book about the artist Giotto. Then she describes how she met Peer and she describes her personality. The next paragraph is about Moore’s trip to Europe, but only in the final sentence does she mention Giotto as the link to the previous paragraph. Also disorienting is the inclusion of dialogue without the identification of all speakers. For instance, Moore recounts her introduction of the artist Vivian Browne to the anthropologist Jonetta Cole. The three stand looking at Browne’s work. She then writes, “‘Does it make a difference that it’s women? It makes a difference!’” (6) The first question is assumed to have been asked by Cole, but is the response from Browne or from Moore, or is Cole answering her own question? Lastly, as a Canadian I would like to see more specificity with her reference to Reconstruction Project, an exhibition that traveled from Powerhouse Gallery (now La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse) in Montreal to Eye Level Gallery in Halifax in 1987. The caption for an installation view says merely, “Canadian installations” (the clarification of the gallery is only to be found in the illustration notes in the back of the book), and one quotation about artist-run centres is attributed generically to “the Canadians.” (7) Incidentally, no, I don’t know Bob from Calgary. (8)

No editor is listed in the book’s bibliographic information. Surely enlisting the help of one would have addressed the above issues. Marilyn Lanfear’s comment is pertinent, even though it is about Moore’s text-based art and not her writing: “You don’t make it easy to read your stories.” Moore’s retort was, “People have to want to read them.” (9) Personally, I enjoyed the memoir most when I read it quickly instead of searching for connections or clarity.

Reading the epilogue was like pulling a thread even though it’s obviously intended to tie up loose ends. In Moore’s updates about her colleagues’ current activities, I was surprised to see that Howardena Pindell is teaching art at SUNY Purchase, whose faculty I follow closely because it’s my former workplace. I am quite certain that it’s the Stony Brook campus she works at instead. A factual error like this casts doubt on the accuracy of all preceding content, so I recommend that researchers who consult Openings as a primary source document corroborate details with an additional source.

(1) p. 168
(2) “15 of Carrie Fisher's Best, Most Honest Feminist Quotes.“ The Cut. Dec. 27, 2016.
(3) p. 44
(4) p. 198
(5) p. 208
(6) p. 187
(7) p. 200
(8) “Bob from Calgary, We’d Like to Meet You.“ CBC News Calgary. Dec. 29, 2015. (9) p. 246

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hannah Black at the Toronto Art Book Fair

“...[p]eople should try to be more bothered by themselves” and to “be all about pleasure or self-critique,” rather than indulging in tokenism and feigning interest. ~ Hannah Black

This year, the Toronto Art Book Fair was introduced as part of Art Toronto (October 28-31). I attended the opening day strictly to hear Berlin-based artist and writer, Hannah Black, present as part of the PLATFORM lecture series co-hosted by Art Metropole and C Magazine.

In the image shown here, Black is speaking about astrology to a standing-room-only audience. She noted that she’s a Libra rising, and that the “Libra-Aries axis is kind of Self/Other.” This comment caught my attention because I happen to be an Aries. Although I don’t prescribe to astrology, I bought into this contrast immediately: Black’s mind operates at a rapid clip, evidenced by her swift movement between diverse topics like Canada’s birth chart, magic, robots, and Brexit; my mind operates at a glacial rate in comparison. C Magazine editor Amish Morrell observed at the end of Black’s whirlwind presentation that he was struck by her pace, which she revealed was due in part to a generous amount of caffeine.

Several minutes into the event, her pace became a contentious issue. An audience member in the front row asked if she could slow down. Without hesitation, Black clarified that the speed of her delivery was at her discretion. When the audience member persisted, she declined again. She continued her presentation only briefly before pausing, obviously affected; she then described the interruption as “[insert expletive] rude,” prompting applause from the majority of the audience. I could gloss over whether or not I joined in, but I think it’s more constructive to share that I did not, feeling as I did like a deer in headlights. Aware that inaction and complicity are comfortable bedfellows, I would like to take this opportunity to explore my ambivalence. This is in the spirit of Black stating during the Q&A in relation to identity politics, “[p]eople should try to be more bothered by themselves” and to “be all about pleasure or self-critique,” rather than indulging in tokenism and feigning interest. By analysing why I felt awkward, in no way do I mean to minimize the awkwardness or any number of emotions that Black may have felt from the interruption. At the heart of the matter for me is that the power dynamic between artist and audience in a lecture-performance—which is liberated from the power dynamic between a speaker and audience in a traditional lecture and which often embraces conflict (1)—intersected with the power dynamic of race relations.

Black, a self-described mixed black person raised by teachers, had just been speaking about the working class (she shared an anecdote about a white audience member asking about the relatability of her writing to the working class, during a talk at her alma mater, Goldsmith’s, University of London). As a result, my mind went to an article by Holly Baxter in The Independent (2) that had been circulating over social media earlier that week about respecting the way working class women speak, which underscored the gendered element of the situation in question. Simultaneously, I was reminded of Chelsea Bourget, a recent graduate from the art department in which I teach. A Francophone First Nations artist, she strikes me as a kindred spirit of Black’s—quick-witted, articulate, and known for a layering of complex ideas. What I thought of specifically was a film that Bourget showed in the BFA graduate exhibition, in which she chose to have a male speaker with an alluring low voice narrate her ideas at a noticeably slower pace than her own. The difference here is that the switch was self-motivated. In light of these considerations, I was cognizant that the request to speak a certain way, although seemingly innocuous, could be interpreted as a form of marginalization when made by a white person, as was the case at the Art Book Fair. The request could be seen as pressure to avoid what Black would later describe as “deviation from the white male mean.” Relatedly, during the Q&A, she shared that in Germany, where there are “a lot of politics around race,” she has been mistaken for a rapper simply because of her rhythmic way of speaking.

It was unclear whether the applause was an act of public shaming of the audience member, of solidarity with the speaker, or both. If this situation had occurred in a classroom, ideally the initial interruption would have evolved into a more nuanced teachable moment. One could argue that it’s not the speaker’s role or even the co-hosts’ role to take this on, but without that discussion, increased awareness is unlikely; as Baxter notes, “not everyone has been given the tools to educate themselves” (3). The complication is that Black’s delivery has a performative quality, which Black alluded to by saying that the talk wouldn’t be the same if she were to slow down. Thus, stopping for a nuanced discussion would have been ill-timed. Perhaps if the presentation had been billed as a lecture-performance rather than a lecture, the importance of artistic freedom would have been more apparent. Different social situations call for different codes of conduct. Clearly, it would be inappropriate to interrupt a theatrical performance to ask the actors to slow down. And when fast-talking, ad-libbing Robin Williams was a guest star on the show, Inside the Actor’s Studio, instead of asking the actor to pace himself, they let the camera roll for five hours and doubled the allotted airtime in what’s reportedly the most requested episode from all 21 seasons. To bring the discussion of artistic freedom back to visual art, the combination of art and lecturing has a history of disruption; pioneering artist-lecturer Joseph Beuys encountered volatile confrontation (not to say that’s desirable, but ‘radical’ and ‘provocative’ are hardly mutually exclusive traits). The term ‘lecture’ may have caused certain expectations, since the academic environment—the setting most associated with lectures—is now stretching to accommodate diverse learning styles (for example, students can request note-takers or audio recordings so content can be reviewed afterwards). So, a more fitting term for marketing purposes would have been ‘lecture-performance,’ in which lecturing takes on a central role in artistic practice and the artist may riff on and subvert the traditional lecture model (4). It would also be more fitting of Black’s work; her MFA was in Art Writing with “writing as a mode of art practice” (5).

Further thoughts on adjusting expectations follow. Admittedly, part of me hoped that Black would consider adjusting her pace, as I had hoped to write about the substance of her talk. I strained to keep up while trying to avoid being distracted by the murmuring sounds of approval from my seatmate that exemplify what de Vientri describes as a quality of “charismatic mesmerisation” seen in the lecture-performances of artists like Beuys (6). A loanword I learned a few days later warrants mention: the German term, ‘Sitzfleisch,’ came into use during the 19th Century to refer to an audience member’s intense concentration while sitting absolutely still at a musical performance for the purpose of earnest self-edification (7). Had I known this term, I would have sent Sitzfleisch vibes to my seatmate instead of half-smiling with my head occasionally turned sideways to give acknowledgement and withhold offense. Maybe I am envious of Black’s directness and am bothered by the fact that I do little to counteract stereotypes of Canadian politeness.

The fact that Black referred to her notes throughout likely enhanced her pace, energizing her performance, but it didn’t lend itself to note-taking by the audience. However, de Vientri observes that “…the lecture-performance can present shards, fragments, suggestions and contradictions; a bricolage of stories that incite collective thinking rather than passing knowledge from source to receptacle[,]” (8) and taking comprehensive notes would have made me a proverbial receptacle. Black, with her “little exhaustions of words together,” spoke in a manner that was almost stream of consciousness, akin to poetry. Even direct quotations that I managed to record, such as “I forgot that sex doesn’t need cutlery,” don’t lend themselves to being excerpted. They lose meaning when decontextualized, when taken from the original constellation of ideas. To the best of my recollection, this surreal comment about sex and cutlery related to dream-like thoughts, which causes me to wonder if it is unsuitable to pin down something ephemeral with Aries-like structure. It’s telling that Black professed, “Writing should be disposable” and admitted, “I hate posterity,” when recognizing the irony of being a book author. She also revealed that her manner of speaking is a protective strategy—effectively, if no one can quote you on something, no one can call you on it either. This seems to minimize the radical nature of her work (an example of a radical perspective is Black stating, “We must get rid of cops, prisons, husbands, and landlords”). Then again, in mid-October, Black tweeted, “protective mantra: im [sic] always only really talking to myself,” which adds another dimension to the comment.

Enough with delaying! I promised that I would hold myself to account by engaging in self-critique. Black noted that “…the periphery can only become real by divesting itself of its centre.” More powerful phrasing I cannot imagine, but what I can imagine is the centre participating in its own divestment (having spent a large part of the summer reading and rereading the writing of radical feminist Valerie Solanas, who implored men to play a role in their own demise). At any rate, the week after Black’s talk I decided to read Frances E. Kendall’s Understanding White Privilege (2013, Routledge). The author recommends identifying and reflecting on key moments in one’s life that have reinforced white privilege and racism, an exercise that reminded me of Black saying, “You cannot go around; you must go through.” Sharing with my husband my first memory of race relations brought about feelings of shame, but since I was around five years old at the time, my adult self could forgive my child self. The second memory is from the end of elementary school, when I should have known better. Coincidentally, it relates to the title of Black’s book, Dark Pool Party (Dominica & Arcadia Missa, 2016), so I’ll share it instead. A friend of a friend commented that she wouldn’t want to go swimming with the one student of colour in our class, because she thought he was dirty. Gobsmacked, I said nothing. Later, I raised the issue with my friend, who explained that the girl’s father’s beliefs were likely being reflected. Working through this exercise helped me to recognize a pattern: like the confrontation during Black’s presentation, once again, in the moment, I did nothing. I might derive some pleasure from the realization that I set out to gain perspective even at a young age, but ultimately, I let the friend of a friend off the hook. And why? Because she wasn’t my friend, so it wasn’t my place? Because she was repeating someone else’s racism? Racism is learned and everyone shares a responsibility to combat it, making non-response reprehensible. Kendall writes, “Allies expect to make some mistakes but do not use that as an excuse for inaction” (9). It’s a timely reminder: in the wake of the US election, the call to action in supporting vulnerable people is resounding on social media.

By its very nature, challenging oneself is never easy, whether it’s confronting white privilege or learning about the subtle difference between a lecture and a lecture-performance to allow for the exhilaration of the experience to be relished. If we think back to the origin of the art fair—and for the sake of argument let’s say it’s world fairs emerging in the mid-19th Century rather than the Salon exhibitions that preceded them, weren’t they all about encountering the unfamiliar with the goal of advancing society? And based on that comparison, shouldn’t we reframe discomfort as rewarding?

Photo courtesy of C Magazine.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Mary Sue Rankin (d. October 23), whose commitment to social justice will undoubtedly continue to be an inspiration to many.

(1) Gabrielle de Vietri, An Investigation of the Lecture in and as Art, Marash U., 2013.
(2) Holly Baxter, “If Labour Keeps Telling Working Class People They're Saying the Wrong Thing, They’ll Start Talking to Theresa May,” The Independent, October 6, 2016.
(3) Ibid
(4) de Vientri, p. 6
(5) Chris Randle, “I Feel Like Everything Shouldn’t Exist: An Interview with Hannah Black,” Hazlitt, August 23, 2016.
(6) de Vientri, p. 38
(7) Jason Tebbe, “Twenty-First Century Victorians,” Jacobin, October 31, 2016.
(8) de Vientri, p. 39
(9) p. 182.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

On the road again, with Christopher Pratt

“…the continuum between art and life…”

I can’t imagine a more suitable book for a Newfoundland road trip than Thoughts on Driving to Venus: Christopher Pratt’s Car Books (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2015), which I picked up earlier this month at The Rooms in St. John’s, where the author was born. In 1997, Pratt decided to record “a stream of consciousness series of words and one-liners responsive to the things flashing by” (1). He made these notes while traveling around the island with his second wife in search of source material for his art. I paced myself, reading a bit at a time between lecture preparations; as Pratt writes, “Working holiday! Aren’t they all?” (2). Heading north from the capital city to the Viking settlement in L’Anse aux Meadows over 1,000 kilometres away, then back south equally far to catch a ferry to Nova Scotia, I glimpsed stunning scenery through my peripheral vision—as in the photos shown here.

Just as much stands to be gained by the armchair traveler, for the “Great Newfoundlandscape” (3) is depicted through the eyes of an artist: a wet road reflecting purple and orange, clouds that transition from blue to purple, and the different greens in the sea versus the land. Pratt professes to avoid the picturesque in his paintings and prints, but his writing feels like a scenic postcard converted to text (fortunately with a matter-of-fact style creating balance). He writes that he feels like a visitor to the island, which may account for the vividness of his descriptions. On the flipside, he references his own work as shorthand for describing the look of a scene.

And now for a few more observations about reading this book in situ. When the hassles of traveling echoed those of a famous artist (needing gas, caffeine, a restroom, etc.), I kidded myself into seeing them as charmed. Mundane details suddenly seemed worthy of recording for the sake of posterity. For example, my inlaws, my husband, and I ramped up our efforts to watch for moose on a ‘moosey lookin’ night’ after I read that Pratt spotted 65 of them in a single day. I don’t typically share personal details in blog posts unless they relate directly to the subject matter at hand, but Pratt made me rethink this approach. Would it interest my blog readers to learn that I sometimes write posts from a hotel bathroom in the wee hours of the night to avoid waking my husband so he can be rested to take photos the next day? Maybe yes, maybe no. A writer must decide what to edit out, much like an artist, and I strive to be as economical in writing as I am in traveling. What Pratt does so well is reveal the continuum between art and life, making it all seem valuable.

As a result, I was surprised to read Pratt’s revelation that his wife feels nothing has meaning. In a sense, this perspective is reinforced by his lack of an intended audience (he wrote these entries for himself, so there is only occasional introspection); the absence of a narrative arc; and the fact that the entries are excerpted, by curator Tom Smart. Evidently, publishing the entirety of the journals would have been unrealistic, as Pratt writes, “…I have enough notes and ideas for several lifetimes…” (4). At the same time, the fact that he revisits areas, including Burgeo Road—where he started the first car book—creates a Vonnegutian Slaughterhouse-Five effect of the human condition consisting of a series of relived moments. This interpretation was probably spurred on by the fact that Pratt described himself as “King of the Curmudgeons” (5).

Pratt aficionados will appreciate that the artist addresses his work throughout the book, albeit briefly in each instance. He lists artistic influences, describes his technique, comments on the pressures of being a commercial artist, reveals insecurity about his talent, and expresses concern about his productivity in his senior years.

Here’s to many more trips around the sun for the artist.


Gros Morne (1st and 2nd images), Signal Hill, St. John's (3rd image)


(1) p. 103
(2) p. 68
(3) p. 27
(4) p. 112
(5) p. 146

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Artist’s Advisory: Sarah Oppenheimer at the Baltimore Museum of Art

“…the value of practice-led research…”

Kudos to the Baltimore Museum of Art and curator Kristen Hileman for highlighting the research process in a unique fashion. They have done so in relation to Sarah Oppenheimer’s permanent installation at the BMA.

As context, the New York-based artist worked directly with and in the museum’s architecture using materials associated with contemporary buildings, like reflective glass. My first impression of the commissioned works, W-120301 (2012) and P-010100 (2012), was that they seem to respond to qualities of mid-20th Century styles like hard edge painting and minimalist sculpture. I appreciated the museum’s use of the term ‘intervention’ to describe her work because W-120301 looked at home in a stealthy kind of way. For example, as I moved around the intervening work, the light shifted and cool blacks became warm blacks and vice versa, complementing Ad Reinhardt’s nearby, mostly black-on-black Abstract Painting No. 19 (1954).

Around the corner from W-120301—past an exhibition space that currently features a photo show called, On Paper: Picturing Painting—visitors can view Oppenheimer’s preparatory work, namely architectural drawings and models. Also in the room is an assortment of texts that informed her work. From a librarian’s perspective, it’s fantastic to see the research of texts being given equal attention as other preparatory work. The reason I say that is that convincing studio students of the value of practice-led research is an ongoing challenge. I tell students that taking the time to research ideas for studio projects can prevent redundancy (read: avoid the production of work similar to existing work), lead to more nuanced work, and give them a broader context for speaking about their practice. All in all, it’s a tough sell and a tough slog.

The BMA’s presentation of the texts in question is noteworthy. A sign inside a translucent stand reads, “It is almost impossible to identify what drives the work of a single artist. [paragraph break] Here you will find a selection of books that have influenced Sarah Oppenheimer’s thinking and other books related to ideas in her work.” Stools beneath the table holding the books encourage perusal of the texts, while stickers discourage the removal of the texts.

For those interested in Oppenheimer’s work but who aren’t in a position to visit the BMA in person, here is a modest bibliography that captures the full assortment. (To access full citations, please see a source like WorldCat).

• Bergson, Henri. Matter and Memory.
• Eisenman, Peter, Giuseppe Terragni, and Manfredo Tafuri. Giuseppe Terragni: Transformations, Decompositions, Critiques.
• Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space.
• Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City.
• Peltomäki, Kirsi. Situation Aesthetics: The Work of Michael Asher.
• Rossi, Aldo. The Architecture of the City.

Additionally, there is a portfolio of articles described on the cover as excerpts from the artist’s research into cognitive science. The articles within are:

• Radvansky, Gabriel A., Sabine A. Krawietz, and Andrea K. Tamplin. “Walking through Doorways Causes Forgetting: Further Explorations.” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 64.8 (2011): 1632-45.
• Sinai, Michael J., Teng Leng Ooi, and Zijiang J. He. “Terrain Influences: The Accurate Judgment of Distance.” Nature 395(6701) (1998): 497-500.
• Warren, William H. Jr., and Suzanne Whang. “Visual Guidance of Walking through Apertures: Body Scaled Information for Affordances.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance 13.3 (1987): 371-83.

Without spending much time with the texts, a visitor can gain a greater appreciation of Oppenheimer's work. For instance, by reading the titles alone, I can now add situationism to the mid-century movements that pertain to her work and see her work as purposefully jarring.

Next to the books and articles, there is a mobile device containing interviews, such as a Q&A with the artist. In it, she speaks about wanting to inject a quality of the unknown in her work. With ambiguous work, a text-based entry point is always appreciated, and the reading area functions in this way. The reading area, in other words, creates balance by hinting at the known.

A few years ago, I developed a project proposal for artist files to be collected and preserved along with a selection of books (one from each artist who contributed a file on his or her own work). The original title was to have been, “Artist’s Advisory” as a riff on the library term of reader’s advisory—effectively, ‘if you like author X, try reading author Y.’ Multiple entry points would enable the user to encounter new authors or new artists, meaning that each file or book would go from being an end in itself to a means to an end. This project tested the Derridean notion of the end of the book. It sided with dancer-choreographer Twyla Tharp, who writes in The Creative Habit that the person you will become in five years depends on two factors, "the people you meet and the books you read" (p. 110). And it also sided with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, who takes an even firmer stance by insisting that encounters with books can have a bigger impact than encounters with people (p. 202).

Though I was fortunate to partner with a gallery, I wasn’t fortunate enough to witness my project take flight. The BMA’s reading area, therefore, was like delayed gratification.


Obrist, Hans Ulrich, and April E. Lamm. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Curating but Were Afraid to Ask. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011.

Tharp, Twyla, and Mark Reiter. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life : a Practical Guide, 1st ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Robert Houle with Barry Ace at Carleton University Art Gallery

“I never knew why I was so angry.” ~ Robert Houle

On February 25, artist Robert Houle engaged in a powerful dialogue with his friend and sometimes collaborator, Barry Ace, at Carleton University Art Gallery on Algonquin territory. Together, they have faced such challenges as needing an alternate venue because their work was considered demonic (shout out to SAW Gallery, who stepped up).

Ace described Houle as “an incredible writer” and introduced each of his images with an excerpt of his writing. Houle, in turn, has found inspiration in texts. For example, a former girlfriend sent him thirteen poems while he was studying at McGill University, which spurred on a series of abstract paintings later exhibited at the Royal Ontario Museum. Also, the Anishinaabe Saulteaux artist decided to address the residential school system as a result of reading Ruth Teichroeb’s Flowers on My Grave: How an Ojibwa Boy’s Death Helped Break the Silence on Child Abuse (HarperCollins, 1997). The book is about the Sandy Bay residential school system, to which Houle himself was subjected for over a decade (fortunately, Houle was able to return home on week-ends, preserving his culture in the process). The author contextualized the suicide of 12-year-old Lester Desjarlais. Houle, who knew many of the people in the book, decided, “I wanted to express it. It [art] was the only way I could let it go.”

One such work, Sandy Bay (shown above), depicts the building where First Communion was given to students. It’s a curious sacrament to have been imposed on First Nations students, given that the Bible was off-limits, apparently because of the risk of misinterpretation. One nun did actually invite him to access it. He described another nun, a frustrated “mean old thing” who would whack Houle on the head at school when he didn’t eat the lumps in his oatmeal. Generally speaking, the memories of physical abuse faded, unlike the spiritual abuse that persisted. Houle revealed, “I never knew why I was so angry.” It wasn’t until he began making work about the residential school system that he “would feel fear on his spine” and begin sweating as he recalled the perpetrators and authorities involved. He said, “I hid them [the works] for two years.”

His family members are also survivors, with his father having been one of many First Nations children malnourished systematically. When he showed the works about the residential school system to his family, they were deeply affected, to the extent that the university where the works were being shown offered access to psychologists, but they explained that they took comfort in family.

Family has played an important role in his artmaking. When Houle was a young artist, his mother said, “Don’t paint anything you don’t know.” That advice continues to resonate with him.

Houle didn’t participate in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, because he feels that reconciliation is a “Christian ethos.” However, he did note that the commission is “part of our collective healing as Indigenous peoples in Canada.” History doesn’t always reveal pleasantries, but it helps him understand who he is, he says. And that sentiment can obviously be scaled to the nation.

Now, Houle says, “I’m not angry [anymore].” At the same time, he stressed the importance of understanding that the residential school system constituted “cultural genocide” and that it was a deliberate effort to eradicate First Nations culture. He has decided that his final exploration of the residential school system will be in the exhibition, Ritual and Ceremony, at the Art Gallery of Burlington this fall.

He also feels liberated. Houle explained that his whole life has been about being torn between what he is and isn’t allowed to do, and he relishes the freedom he experiences now. He says with pride, for example, “I am known as Blue Thunder,” evident in subtle queues like blue eyeglasses.

Back in 1981, Houle embraced liberty more overtly. He was the first Curator of Contemporary Indian Art at the Canadian Museum of Civilization, but he realized he “had to run away” because he disagreed with the museum’s approach to ‘artifacts.’ For example, he was disturbed by witnessing an ethnochemist open and examine a medicine bundle, which is “a living thing.” He realized it wasn’t the place for him. Off to Amsterdam he went, amid controversy. There, he studied Mondrian diligently and “flirted” with the Dutch artist’s style. Ultimately, he found Barnett Newman to be a better match for him, a connection that Ace described as organic. “Bingo!” Houle said. “I had found my spiritual god—small ‘g.’”

For all his accomplishments, such as being awarded a Canada Council for the Arts residency in Paris and receiving the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, Houle is notably modest. He clapped at the end, although he had done the heavy lifting for the evening, and he referred to a striking abstract red and black Parfleches work (which alludes to spiritual maps derived from buffalo hides) as “just a painting.” Also, he claimed his memory was fading with old age, yet he regaled the audience with a solid two hours of anecdotes.

Image: Sandy Bay, 1998-1999, oil, black and white photograph, colour photograph on canvas, Masonite; from,contemporary/54875

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Encouraging Literacy at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit

“Books belong to everyone.” ~ Debora Grace

On January 23, MOCAD hosted its latest Art as Social Force panel. The moderator, Detroit-based Kim Kozlowski, provided an overview of her goal to make the city the global capital of Little Free Libraries (LFLs). She was joined by five area artists whose LFLs are on display in the MOCAD’s Mike Kelley Mobile Homestead in Little Library Originals: A Collision of Art, Literacy and Community from January 15 to April 24. The panellists were Barbara Barefield, Kelly O’Hara, Ndubisi Okoye, Eno Laget, and Debora Grace. Also included in the exhibition are Loretta Bradfield, Mary Fortuna, Jesse Kassel, Rashaun Rucker, John Sauve, Mitchell Schorr, Pam Shapiro, and Fatima Sow. Each artist’s contribution is unique, but the freestanding micro libraries tend to be painted in cheerful colours that invite readers to take a book/leave a book.

After installing an LFL in front of her own home, Kozlowski found that it sparked conversations among passersby—not just about reading, but about their lives. Inspired by the degree of interaction, she established Detroit Little Libraries, sought crowdfunding on her birthday, enlisted the help of local artists, and arranged for stewards to oversee basic maintenance. 150 LFLs were placed in various locations around the city—outside faith-based organizations, health care centres, and schools (ranging from elementary to college), to name a few. Areas with limited access to reading materials continue to be a high priority as more LFLs are installed. Ideally, the current amount will double before long.

Impressively, the city’s first LFL was made using reclaimed materials from local abandoned houses. Detroit is now experiencing “a lot of hope,” in Kozlowski’s opinion, making this a suitable time for the project. “It’s a very joyful thing to be involved in,” Kozlowski says.

There are challenges, like volunteers bowing out, exposure to the elements, vandalism, and book supplies running out because people encounter LFLs spontaneously or they lack the means to leave a book. At the same time, the success stories clearly outweigh the challenges. The mayor, the city, and countless citizens are supporters of the project.

Barbara Barefield is no stranger to the rejuvenating potential of the arts, having brought a musical series to Palmer Woods with her partner. Although she hadn’t painted in quite a while, she applied her graphic design skills in promoting musical performances to her LFL. Her intention was to capture the magic of reading that she experienced as a child. She believes reading is how we foster language, creativity, and thinking.

Kelly O’Hara is working on a graphic novel, so the integration of image and text has been on her mind for some time. In keeping with her style, she painted a silhouetted cityscape against a golden sky on her LFL (pictured in the foreground of the image above), with uplifting images like a child seemingly leaping over rooftops with superhero-like power. She noted that the project was a great way to give back to the community. "I said yes in a heartbeat," she said.

Art director Ndubisi Okoye is similarly excited to be involved. “I was all for it," he said, particularly in light of the city’s low literacy rate. “As a society, we need to be supportive of literacy,” he advised. His early work in graffiti laid the foundation for his amazing energetic lines on the glass door of his LFL (shown above), which brings Keith Haring to mind. In the centre of the dizzying patterning is the grounded message, “keep dreaming,” a mantra from his personal life.

Eno Laget, referring to the city’s challenges, said, “We all know something’s wrong.” He shared that 47% of adults are functionally illiterate*. He hopes that LFLs can represent the “beginning of conversations to break down barriers.” When asked to participate, the street artist said, “I was all about it.” He pointed out that there is an extensive history of Detroit artists using found objects, which lends itself to the LFL project. In his case, he painted on a donated newspaper box, making for a coincidental tie-in to his background in the publishing industry.

Debora Grace said she “couldn't think of a better way Detroit back up” than creating a LFL. She read frequently to her children, and when she was a child, her mother joked that she ate books because she read voraciously. Reading is “like swallowing universes,” she says. People need to “learn to get cozy with books,” she believes, because they carve out a path for the future. To reinforce this connection, on her LFL, she depicted W.E.B. Dubois, the first African American PhD graduate from Harvard (incidentally, I love that Harvard College Library highlights facts like this). Grace believes that reading is a “major game-changer,” demonstrated by the fact that sources of inspiration like songs, films and religious texts all start with the written word. “Books belong to everyone,” she insists. Given her pursuit of education as a vocation, she is bound to inspire many a reader.

If you can’t make it to the exhibition, check out Kozlowski’s tour on YouTube.

*To learn more about literacy in Detroit, please see “Nearly Half of Detroit’s Adults are Functionally Illiterate, Report Finds,” Huffington Post, 5 July 2011.

To learn more about Little Free Libraries, please see my Artist in Transit post from November, 2012 ( or the Little Free Library website.

Images of O’Hara and Okoye’s LFLs are from