In: curators pick

Lowell Shaver | Process
April 12, 2024

Dave Green | Self portrait in the window of the Greenwood Cemetery chapel, Owen Sound, 2024

‘Time is nothing. We have our memory. In memory there is no time. I will hold you in my memory.
And you, maybe you will remember me too.’
(J.M. Coetzee, The Pole)

There is a Salvatore DiFalco quality to Dave Green’s photographs. It’s not just the scenes he presents us, but also the deep almost oily blacks and the grain of the film in many of his photographs. There is a physicality to these scenes, even when seen online : unsurprising, as he’s a photographer who is all about the photographic print and not just within the digital milieu of the present day, that has both its advantages and failings….

DiFalco is a writer and literary critic : I first encountered his fiction in a Canadian literary magazine in the early 2000s and this inspired me to seek out his book of short stories Black Rabbit & Other Stories.

These are urban stories, gritty snapshots of people who are frequently flawed and even, perhaps, a bit repellent. They take place in Toronto or Hamilton or even my own territory of the rust belt wonderland of Niagara, and several memorable ones that are situated in the latter two sites are as engaging as they are grotesque. The characters that inhabit DiFalco’s Black Rabbit (from Stories or Outside or Rocco or Alicia) could also populate some of the scenes that Green presents to us. Green’s work is not quite so dire or dour, nor quite as nihilistic, but his photographs do intersect with DiFalco’s world, whether literally (in his choice of places or his on the cuff captures of his immediate world) or through implication, with the unembellished frankness of Green’s photographs.

Death is also close in DiFalco’s stories : and the image that spurred this response to Green’s work – Self portrait in the window of the Greenwood Cemetery chapel, Owen Sound, 2024 – also speaks to an affinity, if not a comfort, with stark endings and perhaps remembrance, perhaps not.

 

[gallery link="file" size="medium" ids="5984,5985,5986"]

From the artist’s site : Dave Green was born in Toronto (1963), Ontario and grew up in the small Southern Ontario city of Owen Sound. In the early 1980s he moved back to Toronto to study photography at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Toronto Metropolitan University). He has worked as a house painter, a fibreglass worker, a photography technician and as an educator. He served as an instructor of photography at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education and has taught photography to youth affected by violence. He has travelled extensively throughout Canada, the United States and Europe, always with a camera.

The words of LP Farrell, from the introduction to Green’s book Personal (Dumagrad Books, 2017):

Looking at some of these photographs now, the prescience startles and the storefront facade windows, the tired barren highways, the sombre diners seem less a lament or nostalgic yearning for a different time, which is what I thought back then, than a crystal ball, sometimes literally reflecting, but often revealing a life marked by deep solitude. It is as though Dave saw, understood and then showed us what would happen to us all before life hit. Dave Green has photographed a world already disappearing like a picture not quite fixed, time remorseless and unrelenting. Time doing its thing.

———————————————————

This is a book of contrasts, the tension in the dialogue a whisper. Look here: youthful lust and yearning, women and lovers juxtaposed with landscapes busted and stripped down. Lust is a counterpoint to dilapidation. The tang of tungsten light in cavernous bars and then a street lamp, suddenly a votive light in a night sky over lovers like some crazy benediction. As if there was hope…

You can see more of Green’s work at his site here and his IG is here. Green is also represented by the MF Gallery.

If there is a reckoning, it is on the road. The photographer/passenger, the night and a beautiful woman at the wheel; a motorcyclist with a life garbage-bagged and strapped to the saddle of his BSA, maybe in flight. A bleak stretch of road ahead, road the arbiter. Love goes but the road always stays. Road, the redeemer.
LP Farrell, from the introduction to Green’s book Personal (2017)

They drove in silence, the landscape a work in charcoals and flaked quartz.

———–

What the fuck did he just do? He stopped running. He was out of breath.
He looked around him. He was standing nowhere.
(Salvatore DiFalco, from the short story Pink, from Black Rabbit & Other Stories)

I’ll end with how I feel an affinity for Green’s images of the rust belt wonderland : I could be looking at the streets I haunt in St. Catharines or Welland, and even the older images from the 1980s offer a run down weariness, a punky nostalgia, that I also remember from my youth in Niagara. I see echoes of Chris Killip or Tish Murtha, in the images of Dave Green as much as I see my own city, too.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Dave Green | Self portrait in the window of the Greenwood Cemetery chapel, Owen Sound, 2024
April 12, 2024

Dave Green | Self portrait in the window of the Greenwood Cemetery chapel, Owen Sound, 2024

‘Time is nothing. We have our memory. In memory there is no time. I will hold you in my memory.
And you, maybe you will remember me too.’
(J.M. Coetzee, The Pole)

There is a Salvatore DiFalco quality to Dave Green’s photographs. It’s not just the scenes he presents us, but also the deep almost oily blacks and the grain of the film in many of his photographs. There is a physicality to these scenes, even when seen online : unsurprising, as he’s a photographer who is all about the photographic print and not just within the digital milieu of the present day, that has both its advantages and failings….

DiFalco is a writer and literary critic : I first encountered his fiction in a Canadian literary magazine in the early 2000s and this inspired me to seek out his book of short stories Black Rabbit & Other Stories.

These are urban stories, gritty snapshots of people who are frequently flawed and even, perhaps, a bit repellent. They take place in Toronto or Hamilton or even my own territory of the rust belt wonderland of Niagara, and several memorable ones that are situated in the latter two sites are as engaging as they are grotesque. The characters that inhabit DiFalco’s Black Rabbit (from Stories or Outside or Rocco or Alicia) could also populate some of the scenes that Green presents to us. Green’s work is not quite so dire or dour, nor quite as nihilistic, but his photographs do intersect with DiFalco’s world, whether literally (in his choice of places or his on the cuff captures of his immediate world) or through implication, with the unembellished frankness of Green’s photographs.

Death is also close in DiFalco’s stories : and the image that spurred this response to Green’s work – Self portrait in the window of the Greenwood Cemetery chapel, Owen Sound, 2024 – also speaks to an affinity, if not a comfort, with stark endings and perhaps remembrance, perhaps not.

 

[gallery link="file" size="medium" ids="5984,5985,5986"]

From the artist’s site : Dave Green was born in Toronto (1963), Ontario and grew up in the small Southern Ontario city of Owen Sound. In the early 1980s he moved back to Toronto to study photography at Ryerson Polytechnical Institute (now Toronto Metropolitan University). He has worked as a house painter, a fibreglass worker, a photography technician and as an educator. He served as an instructor of photography at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education and has taught photography to youth affected by violence. He has travelled extensively throughout Canada, the United States and Europe, always with a camera.

The words of LP Farrell, from the introduction to Green’s book Personal (Dumagrad Books, 2017):

Looking at some of these photographs now, the prescience startles and the storefront facade windows, the tired barren highways, the sombre diners seem less a lament or nostalgic yearning for a different time, which is what I thought back then, than a crystal ball, sometimes literally reflecting, but often revealing a life marked by deep solitude. It is as though Dave saw, understood and then showed us what would happen to us all before life hit. Dave Green has photographed a world already disappearing like a picture not quite fixed, time remorseless and unrelenting. Time doing its thing.

———————————————————

This is a book of contrasts, the tension in the dialogue a whisper. Look here: youthful lust and yearning, women and lovers juxtaposed with landscapes busted and stripped down. Lust is a counterpoint to dilapidation. The tang of tungsten light in cavernous bars and then a street lamp, suddenly a votive light in a night sky over lovers like some crazy benediction. As if there was hope…

You can see more of Green’s work at his site here and his IG is here. Green is also represented by the MF Gallery.

If there is a reckoning, it is on the road. The photographer/passenger, the night and a beautiful woman at the wheel; a motorcyclist with a life garbage-bagged and strapped to the saddle of his BSA, maybe in flight. A bleak stretch of road ahead, road the arbiter. Love goes but the road always stays. Road, the redeemer.
LP Farrell, from the introduction to Green’s book Personal (2017)

They drove in silence, the landscape a work in charcoals and flaked quartz.

———–

What the fuck did he just do? He stopped running. He was out of breath.
He looked around him. He was standing nowhere.
(Salvatore DiFalco, from the short story Pink, from Black Rabbit & Other Stories)

I’ll end with how I feel an affinity for Green’s images of the rust belt wonderland : I could be looking at the streets I haunt in St. Catharines or Welland, and even the older images from the 1980s offer a run down weariness, a punky nostalgia, that I also remember from my youth in Niagara. I see echoes of Chris Killip or Tish Murtha, in the images of Dave Green as much as I see my own city, too.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Clarence John Laughlin | Southern Gothic
March 12, 2024

Clarence John Laughlin (1905 – 1985) | Southern Gothic

Laughlin was a New Orleans photographer : he’s best known for his black and white, sometimes uncanny and disquieting images of the Southern United States. Considering the ethereal and dream like quality of many of his scenes, he’s sometimes spoken of as the father of American Surrealism. In considering his photographs, the ‘original’ definition of Surrealism from André Breton was to “resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, a super-reality.” Less pretentiously (Frida Kahlo did refer to Breton as being among the ‘art bitches’ of Paris, whom she disdained, ahem), in the work of Laughlin, one can see that he was attempting to both re interpret and define his own memories and experiences of a site, while also employing the place and people within it, that is rife with contested narratives.

I tried to create a mythology from our contemporary world. This mythology — instead of having gods and goddesses — has the personifications of our fears and frustrations, our desires and dilemmas.
(Clarence John Laughlin)

For those unfamiliar : ‘Southern Gothic is an artistic subgenre…heavily influenced by Gothic elements and the American South. Common themes of Southern Gothic include storytelling of deeply flawed, disturbing, or eccentric characters who may be involved in hoodoo [or the large sphere of the occult], decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.’ (from here)

As darkness set in, the mist drifted off the deep acreage of sugarcane that flattened back to the surrounding slough and mire. Blooming loblolly bushes, palmettos, and thick fields sprouting a type of flower he’d never seen before filled the evening air with an assertive but sweet fragrance.

The Nail family lived in an antediluvian mansion that had been built long before the separation of states. He saw where it had been rebuilt after Civil War strife and he could feel the dense and bloody history in the depths of the house. He glanced up at a row of large windows on the second floor and saw six lovely pale women staring down at him.

————————

A tremendously wide stairway opened to a landing where colonnades rose on either side abutting the ceiling. He could see the six sisters huddled together at the banister curving down from the second floor, all of them watching him, their hair sprawled over the railing. He waved, but only one of them responded, lifting her hand and daintily flexing her fingers.
(Tom Piccirilli, Emerald Hell)

The book I quote above takes place primarily in Louisiana – where the artist who’s the focus of this essay was born, and a place, whether in terms of New Orleans (his birthplace) or the greater Southern Reach (a term I borrow from another author), that defined his aesthetic. In that book, there are many dark characters that are pervasive within Southern Gothic horror that’s a wide genre, one which I’ve been quite interested in of late. The aforementioned Nail family’s daughters suffer under a ‘curse’ where they cannot speak, and seem to move about the massive manse like apparitions, veiled and almost insubstantial, like a breeze accentuated by their long dresses and hair (like so many lamenting female ghosts of the South, and elsewhere).

Another player in Emerald Hell is known only as ‘the walking darkness’ or ‘Brother Jester’ : a former evangelical preacher who, after surviving an attempt made on his life, wanders the highways and byways of the state, leaving human wreckage in his wake. A later day incarnation of Robert Mitchum’s ‘man of god’ in the film Night of the Hunter (1955), perhaps. I am also reminded of some of the desolate – but drenched in histories and stories, almost like a stain on the ground – landscapes from the first season of True Detective, which is another iteration of the essence of the Southern Gothic.

One could imagine Laughlin’s images as characters and tableaux for such a chronicle. In this sense, Laughlin is a storyteller, an historian, just like Michael Lesy, who took us on a Wisconsin Death Trip

Ghosts exist for a purpose. Unfinished business, delayed revenge, or to carry a message. Sometimes the dead can go to a lot of trouble to bring a desperate warning of some terrible thing that’s coming.

Whatever the reason, don’t blame the messenger for the message.
(Simon R. Green, Voices from Beyond)

I attempt, through much of my work, to animate all things—even so-called ‘inanimate’ objects–with the spirit of man….the creative photographer sets free the human contents of objects; and imparts humanity to the inhuman world around him.
(Clarence John Laughlin)

Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Laughlin had a difficult childhood, and this – in tandem with his ‘southern heritage’ and literary interests – are touchstones for his work.  The family moved to New Orleans in 1910 after further economic hardship, with his father working in a factory in the city. A quiet, introverted child, Laughlin had a close relationship with his father whose encouragement – especially in terms of Laughlin’s interest in literature – was important to his development as an artist. His father’s death in 1918 affected him greatly : the dark, funerary, epitaphic nature of much of his work, perhaps, echoes this loss.

Laughlin never completed high school, but was a “highly literate man. His large vocabulary and love of language are evident in the elaborate captions he later wrote to accompany his photographs.

Laughlin discovered photography when he was 25 and taught himself how to use a simple 2½ by 2¼ view camera. He began working as a freelance architectural photographer and was subsequently employed by agencies as varied as Vogue Magazine and the US government. Disliking the constraints of government work, Laughlin eventually left Vogue after a conflict with then-editor Edward Steichen. Thereafter, he worked almost exclusively on personal projects utilizing a wide range of photographic styles and techniques, from simple geometric abstractions of architectural features to elaborately staged allegories utilizing models, costumes, and props.” (from here)

From the High Museum of Art in Georgia (the accompanying text for a retrospective of Laughlin’s work) : “Known primarily for his atmospheric depictions of decaying antebellum architecture that proliferated his hometown of New Orleans, Laughlin approached photography with a romantic, experimental eye that diverged heavily from his peers who championed realism and social documentary.”

More about his work and life can be enjoyed here and here : and perhaps, while perusing these images, consider listening to another Southerner – Johnny Cash – and his song The Wanderer, that also offers (ironically, considering the title) a place to stand, intertwined with histories both personal and more public, when considering the photographs of Clarence John Laughlin.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Curtis Doherty | Who Knit Ya? | 2024
February 25, 2024

Curtis Doherty | Who Knit Ya? | 2024
February 20th to March 9th 2024 at Westland Gallery, London, Ontario

Out of these you make what you can, knowing that one thing leads to another. Sometime, someone will forget himself and say too much or else the corner of a picture will reveal the whole.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

I am alive in everything I touch. Touch these pages and you have me in your fingertips. We survive in one another. Everything lives forever. Believe it. Nothing dies.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

As the past moves under your fingertips, part of it crumbles. Other parts, you know you’ll never find. This is what you have.

(Timothy Findley, The Wars)

Mining family history in terms of artmaking is both a rich and a dangerous field. On this front, Amy Friends’ exhibition Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life is a touchstone for me. In her exhibition, the assemblage – the editing, as to what might be revealed –  of inherited objects that had significance that might be discerned by a visitor (others of which were opaque to an outsider) and the works that they inspired had a universal appeal. I say this as someone who has been exploring their ancestry in Niagara and found out some things that are also problematic (United Empire Loyalists as ancestors did not please me, ahem. I was comfortable with dissidents and criminals). Perhaps more of the ruminations of Timothy Findley is apropos here : “The occupants of memory have to be protected from strangers.”

In that same manner, Doherty presents a personal story that resonates with many of us, on many levels. Due to the locale – the sites he’s revisiting in paint being referential to Newfoundland, and the diaspora that has often been an experience of the people there, seeking work and economic stability far from home – the works of the late David Blackwood also come to mind, as an expansion of the conversation. One might see Blackwood’s works as one chapter of a story about Newfoundland, and Doherty’s as an addendum, decades later, but of the same ‘families.’

The artist statement :

“In 1930 a one-legged woman gathered all she had into a raggedy old chest and left Newfoundland for Quebec with her 6 year old son. Armfuls of photos, documents, and objects [lay] there for a century. What you are about to see is all of this brought to light [and] brought to life.
Witness the reality of the boy and his one-legged mother navigate the harsh landscape and time, the abandonment from the father, and the beauty of The Rock. The tangible and the intangible collide with areas of flat colour [so you must look] under the ribs of the wooden chest, to see the heart that lay under the ribs of the living chests.

“Who Knit Ya?” is a common Newfoundland term that asks who one’s parents are – a question this young boy asked his whole life. It begs to ask who we really are, and what legacy will we leave? It would be beyond folklore for anyone depicted here to imagine themselves captured in artworks a century later, and [moreso] what their toil paid forward. So as you view this work, be inspired to acknowledge the fact that we are just the tip of a larger iceberg, in a larger historical story. Ask yourself with introspection: WHO KNIT YA?”

I spoke to Doherty about his paintings (this new chapter added to family lore) after the reception for the exhibition, when conversations about the works led to wider considerations about the series. The words of the artist in conversation :

“It is a family story of mine…the small boy in the paintings is my grandfather, whose mother was the one legged woman, and whose father abandoned them.
There is also depictions of the mother’s parents (The Seal Hunter being her father- my great great grandfather). Through receiving this old trunk from my grandmother and all it’s neglected artifacts from 1880-1930, I’ve been able to piece together some family history, tell their story, and bring it to life from everything I found within that trunk. That was the trunk they moved to Quebec from Newfoundland with in 1929 / 30.

There are a few themes I’m touching on…stories of broken families, reconciliation of that brokenness, and lack of privilege and opportunity my grandfather had and [yet] still overcame it…And also just paying homage to hard working people of the past and the [amazing] thought [that] they could have never imagined they’d be depicted [and celebrated] in the future.”

In engaging with Doherty’s paintings, I’ve found myself looking through the lens of (appropriately) Canadian authors like Timothy Findley or Margaret Laurence whose characters are trying to make sense or discern a larger pattern of both their experiences or events that have defined their lives. This mirrors Doherty’s impetus for his paintings, and how sometimes the fragments are pushed together in a way that might not match the ‘reality’ but speak a contemporary truth to the descendants and inheritors of these objects and memories….

Now I am rampant with memory laments Hagar Shipley (from Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel) as in the declining days of her long existence she looks back on her life, in flashes both more intense and ‘real’ than her current state and often suffused with emotions both joyful and despairing. In some ways, she’s trying to reconcile conflicting and contested elements of a difficult story, just as we see in Doherty’s paintings, with his own family.

Doherty’s exhibition Who Knit Ya? – which the artist has subtitled ‘a vibrant exploration through a forgotten “new found land”‘ – is on view until March 9th, 2024 at Westland Gallery, London, Ontario. It’s presented in tandem with another exhibition titled Tales from the Rock (a group show of artists inspired by Newfoundland). I’ve relied heavily on literary references here in speaking to Doherty’s exhibition – and why not? It’s the stories we tell ourselves, or modify, as seen in Doherty’s paintings that define us. This is true even in the title of the show being a question that asks for similar stories from the viewers themselves : consider your lineage, and the people who defined and deformed you. Perhaps you see yourself as the latest link in a chain, or a break, instead.

Thus I am also comfortable to suggest you seek out David French’s play Leaving Home. It was one of the first stories I consumed, as a young man, about Newfoundland (though it takes place in Ontario – another parallel to Doherty’s paintings) that was not pure sentimentality but real and unflinching and difficult.

Although I have approached Doherty’s work while standing in the sphere of literature, I would indicate that when you look at his painting, that visual art has a significant advantage when exploring familial spaces with the inherent entanglements and contradictions: the multiplicity of interpretation, the possibility for injecting your own experiences into the works, is more rampant and possible. There is a vagueness – a subjectivity – to visual narratives that aligns with the vagaries of family history. The manner in which figures overlap and are constructed by other characters in the story acts as a visual depiction of how they are ‘knit’ from their ancestors. Some figures are just shadows in the background : and painting is the creation of a moment moreso than how photography is capturing one, and that is instrumental in what is presented here, which is perhaps dependent on facts but is also more demonstrative of feelings.

From his site : “Curtis Doherty is a Canadian painter who works primarily in oil who currently resides in Ontario. His work explores themes of history and the modern world through the complex relationship of the tangible and the intangible. He has studied at Sheridan College of Art & Design and abroad, as well as teaching at all levels.”

More of his work can be seen here.

The header image for this essay is titled Shule from the Scut : the images shared here are just a few selections from this series and were all created between 2019 and 2024. The full body of work can be enjoyed here.

Who Knit Ya? is on view at Westland Gallery (in London, Ontario) until the 9th of March 2024.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Katerina Belkina | The Dinner, 2016
February 15, 2024

Katerina Belkina | The Dinner, 2016 (from the series Repast) 
(Photography, Digital Painting)

“God sendeth and giveth both mouth and the meat.”
(Thomas Tusser, 1524 – 1580)

I will admit that there are certain fascinations (or perhaps less charitably or more directly classified) obsessions that ‘feed’ my interests in terms of artworks.

Meat – and how many artists employ flesh as inspiration or subject – is one of them. I offered a previous essay (centered on the fine paintings of Scott Conary) that explored this, but when I was making artworks prior to my exile or migration to Niagara (edit as you will) I often worked with fat, meat, bones and other organic matter, to make works that I described as ‘inappropriately beautiful.’

Sometimes, amidst the cacophony – or idiot choir – of ‘art criticism’ these days, with references pedantic and claiming to be ‘philosophical’ it is good to return to simply a notion of beauty. One of my best teachers, Patrick Traer – a fine artist whose work dealt with these contested, perhaps conflicting, narratives – spoke of this to me years ago, when I was still on the Prairies.

Belkina’s artwork that I share here is gripping, and perhaps inappropriately (to some weaker constitutions) beautiful. She offers some interesting ideas about her motivation and ideas that sometimes intersect with my own subjectivity, but this is an image that is striking and that, frankly, is enough.

Her religious connections are not of particular interest to me : but I must admit that my own religious upbringing (or indoctrination) have sometimes directed my interests, too – and there is a fecundity of potential interpretations that contest or converge that make her work worthy of consideration, whatever your pre existing assumptions (and I include myself in this statement).

From her site :

“Repast is an allegory of life cycles. Cyclicity perfectly characterizes humanity and our perception of time.

The Morning (childhood) means acquisition and accumulation. At the beginning of life we receive a certain foundation and potency both from our family and from the society in which we live. We learn to recognize the beauty around us and to feel it — we use all this for the rest of our lives. Even if “breakfast” is sparse in physical reality, it is often filled to the brim with intangible treasures such as love, fantasy, discoveries, strong impressions and first disappointments. In “breakfast” the abundance of dairy products is symbolic. The milk is associated with purity and virginity. The memories of breast milk are still fresh. The fullness you see is an exaggeration. The yellow of orange juice symbolizes concentrated emotions, the taste of life, sincere joy, and the energy of children. A lemon or an orange signifies the unquenchable thirst for action, knowledge, and discovery.

The Day (youth, adulthood) — creation, destruction, giving and taking. The flesh (the fruit) and the colour red are symbols of life and sacrifice. Youth is a period of expending — some build, others destroy. “Time to throw stones and gather stones” — there is a balance in this. We all make sacrifices and give everything at this point in our lives. More or less.

The Evening (age, completion) — contemplation, silence. A meditative part. Scarcity of dinner does not mean scarcity of life, or poverty. The table is set for one person. We come alone to the end of our lives, and yet we merge face to face with the divine in this world. It is a time of transition where all matter fades and loses all meaning. I believe our spirit reaches its peak here and we either accept or reject this transition completely. The set of elements depicted is simple: the fish is the symbol of Christ, the potato (the second bread) — the body losing the spirit (steam), the black tea — the drink of the gods and sages, not for simple thirst quenching, but for contemplation. The position of the hands in the triptych refers to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”, in which the master emphasized the hands. Here they recede into the background and invite the viewer into this or that phase of life — past or future.”

Katerina Belkina was born in Samara in the southeast of European Russia : her mother was also a visual artist. Belkina attended the school for Photography of Michael Musorin in Samara and she’s exhibited her work in Moscow and Paris. In 2007 Katerina Belkina was nominated for the prestigious Kandinsky Prize (comparable to the British Turner Prize) in Moscow, and she has also been awarded the Hasselblad Masters Prize. She lives and works in Werder (Havel) near Berlin.

More of her work can be enjoyed here and here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Sandy Fairbairn | ART, Road Closed | Welland, April 5 2014
January 19, 2024

Sandy Fairbairn | ART, Road Closed | Welland, April 5 2014

Four years ago, just as Covid – 19 was beginning to move across the world, an exhibition of Sandy Fairbain‘s artworks that I curated at AIH Studios in Welland opened. These selections from the photographer’s extensive archive were focused upon the city of Welland and were collectively titled Welland : Times Present Times Past. Originally planned to run from February 15th to March 15th 2020, lockdowns and access became an issue, but I take joy in a local writer describing it as one of the most important exhibitions in that city, of the decade. There were also works that acknowledged the major role that Welland played in the history of labour rights in Canada, that were more sculptural, but that’s a story for another time (or seek out the book Union Power : Struggle and Solidarity in Niagara that is a fine history of the space, before we acquiesced to the ‘dogma’ of ‘trickle down economics’ and the liars Mulroney, Thatcher and Reagan, ahem).

This image was one of the more unique ones in that show, differing formally from Fairbairn’s usual straight on shots of buildings and edifices, reminiscent of ‘mug shot architecture’, if you will. But perhaps it might be better described as ‘morgue’ photos, as when we hung the show there were many captures of the same space, from decade to decade, and many times the sites were now demolished and empty….

I must add that as COVID took hold, I was in Welland for a longer time than I had planned to be there, with Fairbairn’s exhibition, and with the vagaries of lockdown I got to know the city late at night or early in the morning, a sense of itself that is not the ‘official’ kind.

Conceptually, this image offers both amusement and cynicism simultaneously. As someone who is soon to mark a decade of being part of the cultural community of Niagara, I could also add that it has resonance in terms of endeavours both planned and aborted, envisioned and stuttered, that have defined [and deformed] the cultural landscape of not just the city of Welland, but the larger Niagara Region.

So like any fine artwork, my interpretation of it changes depending upon when I see it, and the experiences I bring to it, and thus it shifts just as I do (perhaps in tandem, perhaps in opposition). To flip back to a more literal meaning from a conceptual one, my own attitudes about art initiatives within the space of Niagara have also changed, and spurred my decision to feature this work.

One hopes and works to foster artistic and cultural initiatives but finds the road closed, if you will. There are a variety of talks about ‘cultural revitalization plans’ in Niagara, but as this is the space that let a nationally recognized public art gallery go, with barely a whimper and now ignorant celebration of the ’boutique hotel’ that has taken it’s place, I shall reserve my enthusiasm…..but, to offer a positive point as we end, the push to have an Art Gallery of Welland is also moving forward, slowly but surely, and that effort is not without reward. As Sandy Fairbairn grew up in Welland (oh, the stories he’s shared with me, that I enjoy and enlivened some of his images from the aforementioned AIH exhibition), that is a space that might, soon, host more of his photographs like this one.

Not all roads are closed forever.

More of Sandy Fairbairn’s work can be seen here and here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Jeff Brouws | Night Window, Los Angeles, California, 2000
December 29, 2023

Jeff Brouws | Night Window, Los Angeles, California, 2000

In the Far West, where Brigham Young ended up and I started from, they tell stories about hoop snakes.
When a hoop snake wants to get somewhere—whether because the hoop snake is after something, or because something is after the hoop snake—it takes its tail (which may or may not have rattles on it) into its mouth, thus forming itself into a hoop, and rolls.
Jehovah enjoined snakes to crawl on their belly in the dust, but Jehovah was an Easterner. Rolling along, bowling along, is a lot quicker and more satisfying than crawling. But, for the hoop snakes with rattles, there is a drawback. They are venomous snakes, and when they bite their own tail they die, in awful agony, of snakebite. All progress has these hitches. I don’t know what the moral is. It may be in the end safest to lie perfectly still without even crawling. Indeed it’s certain that we shall all do so in the end, which has nothing else after it. But then no tracks are left in the dust, no lines drawn; the dark and stormy nights are all one with the sweet bright days, this moment of June—and you might as well never have lived at all.
(Ursula K. Le Guin, from her essay It was a dark and stormy nigh ; or, why are we huddling about the campfire?, 1979)

A number of the images that I share in the main page for this post are also from Brouws’ American West series (1990 – 1993) and the Highway | Approaching Nowhere series. Many of Brouws’ series seem to bleed into each other, or one body of work grows into the next in a manner that does not so much interrupt his ideas as expand them.

I have a certain affinity for abandoned and derelict spaces. I do live in the rust belt wonderland of Niagara, and before that a similar zone in Windsor and Detroit (hence my appreciation of Dave Jordano‘s fine photographs), and my time on the Canadian prairies (with ghost towns in ‘next year’s country’, as captured eerily and evocatively by Danny Singer, for example) fed that interest in an overlapping manner. Brouws’ aesthetic is akin to some past Curator’s Picks I’ve featured : The Great Texas Road Story perhaps being the most immediately similar. But Brouws’ works are less despairing, with the frequency of the neon inviting glow amidst the wastelands, but like many other artists whose work I’ve featured, historical and social themes and concerns are informed by, and informing, his scenes.

“Feelings of isolation colour my photographs – that’s what you’re sensing. It’s fascinating: what’s in your mind, heart and soul gets telegraphed onto the film plane and embedded in the photograph. It can’t be avoided.”

From the Robert Koch Gallery :

“Jeff Brouws photographically explores the American cultural landscape in its myriad of facets. A self-described “visual anthropologist” with a camera, Jeff Brouws utilizes a constructed narrative and typological approach in the making of his work. Over a span of thirty plus years, Brouws has employed a diversity of themes in his work: the American highway, the franchised landscape, deindustrialized inner city zones, as well as riffing on and re-examining bodies of work by luminary artists such as Ed Ruscha, and Bernd and Hilla Becher. Brouws captures the unique cultural experience of Americana and its iconography, visually documenting a vibrant travelogue through the half-experienced, half-remembered landscape of America’s fading culture. Directing his lens toward these temporary obsolete and abandoned sites of American consciousness, he powerfully transforms images of history and dereliction into contemplative and at times humorous commentary on the collective and expressive experience of the American landscape.”

An insightful conversation with the artist can be enjoyed here. When I first encountered Brouws’ work – the primary image in this essay Night Window, Los Angeles, California, 2000 – the quote from Le Guin that opens this meditation on his work came immediately to mind. It’s all about telling stories, some of which are quieter than others, some of which are on the verge of being forgotten and some that we may never have considered. The term ‘into the west’ has connotations both positive and negative, but that is just life, and history, and Brouws’ images encapsulate all these contradictions with an eye for beauty in what might be banal, but definitely resonates with the viewer on multiple levels.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Adrianna Ault & Raymond Meeks | Ohio Farm Auction
December 11, 2023

Adrianna Ault & Raymond Meeks | Ohio Farm Auction

The crops we grew last summer weren’t enough to pay the loans
Couldn’t buy the seed to plant this spring and the Farmers’ Bank foreclosed
Called my old friend Schepman up, to auction off the land
He said, “John it’s just my job and I hope you understand”
Hey, calling it your job ol’ hoss, sure don’t make it right
But if you want me to I’ll say a prayer for your soul tonight
(John Mellencamp, Rain on the Scarecrow)

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. (Ecclesiastes 1:4, KJV)

There’s a memento mori quality to the scenes from the Ohio Farm Auction series. This may be an interpretation informed by several of the other bodies of work by Adrianna Ault (such as her series Levee which led me to the collaborative Ohio Farm Auction series), that are permeated by a sense of mortality and remembrance, as expressed in her writings about those images.

Though these images are not completely empty of people, the more striking and – unsurprisingly – starker moments that stay with you have no figures within them, though their absence and implication is powerful. The line I quote above, in response to this work came to mind immediately upon seeing the Township photos. Mellencamp’s album was a series of laments for a way of life lost (perhaps taken away or relinquished), as the world moves on (this last being closest, I feel, to the artists’ position here, with a gentle consideration of family history and generational change. Township reads more about releasing than resistance..)

The biblical quote came to me in a more indirect manner. Having recently read George Stewart’s post apocalyptic book Earth Abides (from 1949, so it ages poorly, in many ways – or this is perhaps a corolary to the ‘change’ implicit in the story presented in Ohio Farm Auction, of a time to gather and a time to discard), the ideas, again, of what is lost and our – humanity’s – place in the larger narrative of the earth was a further consideration when I engaged with these photographs…

The words of Adrianna Ault, speaking of this collaboration with Meeks (one of a number they’ve done) :

“These photographs were taken one February day in a rural township in Ohio. My partner, Raymond Meeks, and I photographed and watched as all the possessions of my family’s farm was auctioned to the highest bidder. Photographing served as a testimony to the life and work of over one hundred years of farming in my family. This work was published as a collaboration with Tim Carpenter and Brad Zellar in the book Township published by TIS books and later nominated for the 2018 Kassel Fotobookfestival Award.”

That collection of words and photographs has been described as a “careful deliberation on transience and the ultimate meaning of a way of life in the Midwest.”

More of Ault’s work can be seen here and more of Meek’s work can be seen here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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The Brothers Quay | Street of Crocodiles | 1986
November 27, 2023

The Brothers Quay | Street of Crocodiles | 1986

The Street of Crocodiles was a concession of our city to modernity and metropolitan corruption. The misfortune of that area is that nothing ever succeeds there, nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion. Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better than a cardboard imitation, a photo montage cut out from last year’s mouldering newspapers. Obviously, we were unable to afford anything better.
(Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles, also known as The Cinnamon Shops, 1934)

Inspired by the short story by Bruno Schulz (The Street of Crocodiles) from a book of collected stories, Timothy and Stephen Quay – well known as The Brothers Quay or The Quay Brothers – decided that ‘rather than literally representing the childhood memoirs of Schulz, the animators [would use] the story’s mood and psychological undertones as inspiration for their own creation.’

It’s a relatively short film (approximately twenty minutes) but its brevity doesn’t prevent this work by The Brothers Quay from having a haunting impact on the viewer. There’s something about stop action animation that is unsettling, in itself (perhaps that these are ‘dolls’ that ‘pervert’ our sense of ourselves, in the manner of Hans Bellmer, dark dreams given corporeal forms) and the dark scenes (like degraded wastelands populated by equally damaged characters) where the brothers’ adaptation – or reimagination – of Schulz’ story plays out only augments this unease. Schulz’ words echo in the space : In that city of cheap human material, no instincts can flourish, no dark and unusual passions can be aroused.

Schulz (1892 – 1942) was a Jewish Polish writer, fine artist, literary critic and art teacher, considered among the great Polish – language prose stylists of the 20th century. Many of his works were ‘lost’ – as in destroyed by the nazis, the ones from the previous century – during the Holocaust, and Schulz died when shot by one of those butchers while walking home with a loaf of bread…..

I was unaware of this history when I first saw the short decades ago, but rewatching it with this knowledge only adds more dark nuance to the tableaux that the brothers have ‘built’ on the words and worlds of Schulz. The accompanying music by Leszek Jankowski is alternately jarring and mournful.

A somewhat simplistic synopsis of this work – or perhaps a banal lure to the unwary (from here) : Inside a box full of curio, a puppet who is recently freed from his strings explores a dusty and forlorn commercial area. The explorer becomes ensnared into miniature tailor shop by baby-faced dolls.

Several excerpts of Street of Crocodiles can be enjoyed here and here.

More information about the Brothers Quay – including links to many of their works – can be seen here. If you remember the film Frida (2002), you may be familiar with how the Brothers Quay are responsible for the fleeting and frightening “sequence in the film depicting the initial stages of Kahlo’s recovery at the hospital after the accident [which] are inspired by the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead.”  I mention this one as the ‘doctors’ are of the same genus, perhaps, as the dolls in Street of Crocodiles

A final word from Bruno Schulz, to end :

Our language has no definitions which would weigh, so to speak, the grade of reality, or define its suppleness. Let us say it bluntly: the misfortune of that area is that nothing ever succeeds there, nothing can ever reach a definite conclusion.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Sibylle Bergemann | The Monument | 1975 – 1986
November 6, 2023

Sibylle Bergemann | The Monument | 1975 – 1986

Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind. (Doris Lessing)

I am old enough to remember when the Berlin Wall fell and the end of the Cold War. In a fine inversion – and something that speaks to how history is often a collaborative delusion and how, at its best, art history can be the most direct and yet most subversive form of history – I would be teaching a decade or so later and have to explain to students what both of those events were, and why they still mattered. That was also a time when I reread Doris Lessing (I recommend her award winning – and divisive, to many readers and critics – book The Good Terrorist) : I had disdain for her books when I read them in my early twenties, and was surprised at how much more sense they made to me, as I had matured and gained experiences that resonated with her words, when I was older.  At that time, I was able to appreciate her words – and especially the sentiment behind them – that I quote at the start of this essay a little better….

Critic Jane Rogers (in The Guardian) described The Good Terrorist as “witty and … angry at human stupidity and destructiveness.” I must inject (as one can’t look at these images by Sibylle Bergemann and not consider the contested legacy of Marx and Engels, communism and the GDR) how I like to antagonize my christian and communist friends (not the same people, to be clear) by citing Mordecai Richler from his seminal book Solomon Gursky Was Here. In the voice of the aforementioned Gurksy, Richler avers that the system (whether the Sermon on the Mount or the Communist Manifesto) is inspired but it is humanity that is vile…

Enough tangential commentary, let’s have some facts : “From 1975 until 1986 Sibylle Bergemann accompanied the making of the huge bronze of Marx and Engels in Gummlin / Usedom from the first sketches to the installation. The work, which was created by the sculptor Ludwig Engelhardt, is still located near the Alexanderplatz in Berlin-Mitte.” There has been controversy about this monument, as Germany struggles with its past as defined in the present, whether it be the theoretical space of Marxism or that the GDR was one of the most repressive states in the 20th century. Monuments, after all, occupy both physical space and conceptual ground in any national imaginary.

In tandem with this, I’d suggest watching the ‘tragicomedy’ film Goodbye, Lenin : “the story follows a family in East Germany (GDR); the mother is dedicated to the socialist cause and falls into a coma in October 1989, shortly before the November revolution. When she awakens eight months later in June 1990, her son attempts to protect her from a fatal shock by concealing the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism in East Germany.” A majority of that film was shot where this sculpture is located, at the Marx – Engels Forum.

First as tragedy, then as farce, ahem, someone (okay, Engels, ahem) said….

Bergemann’s words about her art and aesthetic : “I am interested in the edges of the world, not the center. The incompatible is crucial material for me. When something isn’t right about faces or landscapes that doesn’t quite fit…”

As of this writing, I am also working on an Artist You Need To Know post about the Mexican photographer Lola Álvarez Bravo (1903 – 1993). Bravo’s words also apply to Bergemann’s Monument series : “If anything is useful about my photography, it will be the sense of being a chronicle of my country.”

But I don’t approach this without bias : my stance can be seen in the primary image I’ve chosen, where the figures are ‘missing’ their heads, like a reversal of Shelley’s Ozymandius, where only the legs remain of his forgotten ‘king’….

More about this project can be seen here and more of Bergemann’s photographs can be enjoyed here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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