In: photography

Necropolis | Jon Lepp
May 18, 2022

Necropolis | Jon Lepp Necropolis | Jon Lepp, The Open for Business Series @deadendstories Photographs, [Virginia] Woolf claims, "are not an... Read More
Around the Red | Viktor Balaguar
April 14, 2022

Around the Red | Viktor Balaguar

Balaguer’s series Around the Red (which includes the image shared here) is perhaps my favourite of his series (a hard decision, though, as Teriberka or Street Photography for Xiaomi are enchanting, too). 

Often, his images of St. Petersburg and Moscow suggest a perpetual winter in Russia, but these are less so of that style. The vibrant reds – which never seem forced and hold your eye without overly dominating the scene – run through these works, which are captured moments of places and people. The title implicates historical factors, of course, as Russia and the world are still negotiating the rise and fall of the USSR, in contemporary Russia and beyond those borders (sometimes acknowledging what happened, sometimes not, as we dance ‘around the red’). There is no point when ‘then’ stops and ‘now’ begins in sites of contested narratives (like St. Petersburg or Moscow, Eastern Europe or even in a larger world history), and Balaguer’s Around the Red sometimes hints – and sometimes hammers – at that, visually.

I should add that I began writing this post prior to the most recent acts of war by Russia, but that simply adds more weight to the geo – political insinuations of Balaguer’s scenes….perhaps, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn warned us in his The Gulag Archipelago if you “dwell on the past…you’ll lose an eye. Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.” To be honest, I had mixed feelings about sharing this work, considering the current political climate, but will temper that with the recommendation of Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, from 2010…..

From here : French photographer, architect and interior designer Viktor Balaguer fell in love at first sight with the ‘Venice of the North’ where he has settled with his family. “Saint Petersburg is a romantic city where you can go from a narrow street to wide avenues, where you follow the sublime and immense Neva River that is completely frozen for part of the year,” he said, calling it “A city of strong contrasts, with a succession of magical palaces and imperial facades whose entrance gates you must cross and visit the dark backyards of the Soviet era. A city deeply melancholic by nature, immersed in a relaxing rhythm of life and permanently open to contemplation.”

In selecting this image, I had a difficult time, as any of the vignettes in Around the Red by Balaguer are worthy of consideration: you can see more of them here, and many of his other fine images at both his IG: @viktor_balaguer and his site

~ Bart Gazzola

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Great Criticism Series: Andy Warhol, 2001 | Wang Guangyi 王广义
April 7, 2022

Great Criticism Series: Andy Warhol, 2001 | Wang Guangyi 王广义

A few years ago I re-read George Orwell’s All Art Is Propaganda. Orwell is a hot topic these days, too often cited by those who haven’t read him and barely – or refuse to actually – understand the points he was making. Here in Niagara, a mayor responded to an appropriate censure – and consequences – for his dishonesty and religious gibberish by misquoting Orwell, and his smug ignorance was more akin to what Orwell opposed, and criticized, than what the author supported. 

Propaganda is perhaps most dangerous not when we can recognize it, but when it has become ubiquitous – and this is on my mind when encountering the works of Chinese artist Wang Guangyi (王广义), who (in that often sloppy way that art historians and critics try to slap a label on something, dismissing nuance and dissent) has been described as a Chinese Political Pop Artist.

There is much more at play here than that: “I came to realize that the essence of art is its ancestry, its history,” the artist has said. “When creating a work of art, one’s head is full of these historical considerations; an encounter with what has been and its entry into the process of rectification.”

“Great Criticism is Wang Guangyi’s most famous cycle of works. These works use propaganda images of the Cultural Revolution and contemporary logos from Western advertisements. Wang Guangyi began this cycle in 1990 and ended it in 2007 when he became convinced that its international success would compromise the original meaning of the works, namely that political and commercial propaganda are two forms of brainwashing.”

An interesting and subtle allusion to the vagaries of propaganda and control are in the ‘two repeating, randomly selected numbers [that] can be found stamped across the composition. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), two licenses were required for the production of any image for public consumption: one to produce the image, and another to distribute it. These numbers then reference the extreme restrictions on creative production during Wang’s formative years.” (from here)

Slavoj Žižek has asserted (or warned, edit as you will) that we can imagine the end of the world more easily than we can imagine the end of capitalism. Another intersecting trope – and why I chose this work, of his many fine pieces in this series, that lumps in the idea that is ‘Warhol’ with other capitalist monoliths like McDonalds, Disney or Pepsi – is the rise of the NFT in the larger art world, where money not only ‘creates’ taste, but invalidates any other dissenting concerns. Or, as Warhol warned us, Art is what you can get away with…just like propaganda.

Wang Guangyi (王广义)’s site is here

~ Bart Gazzola

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The Whisper | Cecilia Paredes, 2021
March 31, 2022

The Whisper | Cecilia Paredes, 2021

“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”
Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!”
(The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman)

Paredes’ self portraits are unsettling: in this one, she actually makes eye contact with us, making it harder to ignore, yet easier to ‘find’ her, within the composition. Though her work is a performative metaphor for our relationship with the environment, one can’t help but also see a statement about women and the still too frequent dismissal of female artists, in her artworks. The ‘wallpaper’ of The Whisper – in conversation with a friend – brought to mind the story I cited at the beginning of this piece, which was published in 1892, and touches upon many of the themes I’ve mentioned. This story can be read here: but I offer a brief taste of its haunting narrative below.

The narrator devotes many journal entries to describing the wallpaper in the room – its “sickly” color, its “yellow” smell, its bizarre and disturbing pattern like “an interminable string of toadstools, budding and sprouting in endless convolutions,” its missing patches, and the way it leaves yellow smears on the skin and clothing of anyone who touches it. She describes how the longer one stays in the bedroom, the more the wallpaper appears to mutate, especially in the moonlight. With no stimulus other than the wallpaper, the pattern and designs become increasingly intriguing to the narrator. She soon begins to see a figure in the design. Eventually, she comes to believe that a woman is creeping on all fours behind the pattern. Believing she must free the woman in the wallpaper, she begins to strip the remaining paper off the wall.

‘Cecilia Paredes creates self-portraits that play with disguise and metamorphosis. She is known for a series in which she appears to vanish into a graphic backdrop. These “photo performances,” as the artist calls them, often involve her painting herself with bright, intricate patterns before documenting her body against a wall of the same motifs. Influenced by nature, Paredes also transforms herself into animals in realistic, glamorous studio portraits….Paying tribute to the flora and fauna of her native Peru, Paredes creates layered statements of her own identity. Her works also speak to humans’ relationship with nature and our responsibility to threatened environments.’ (from here)

More of her work can be seen at her Instagram @ceciliaparedesarte and a longer article about this series can be enjoyed here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Cree Tylee – Femme Folks Fest Repost
March 17, 2022

Cree Tylee ``...now I am rampant with memory....`` The COVERT Collective is pleased to be participating in Femme Folks Fest 2022. Today... Read More
Laura Jones – A Life in Photography – Femme Folks Fest Special
March 16, 2022

Laura Jones A Life in Photography ~ Laura Jones The COVERT Collective is pleased to be participating in Femme Folks Fest 2022.... Read More
Amber Lee WIlliams – Femme Folks Fest Repost
March 16, 2022

The work of Amber Lee Williams, an artist from the Niagara Region of Southern Ontario, almost always concerns itself with motherhood and children, exploring the concepts of life within, the constancy of change, attachment and removal, and notions of femininity.

Femina Bulla Est (Woman is a Bubble), is a sequence of macro photographs of pink bubblegum. Amber deftly takes the binary state of man’s being, as depicted by the soap bubble in Dutch Renaissance Vanitas paintings (homo bulla est) and turns it on its ear… where man is either strong or broken, women have a strength and flexibility that allows them to persevere.

“I thought I would begin by simply blowing soap bubbles, photographing them, and seeing what happened. I asked (my daughter) if she wanted to help me blow bubbles and she thought I meant bubblegum bubbles. As soon as she mentioned the bubblegum it was a total lightbulb moment, and I have to give her credit for the idea.”

Femina Bulla Est #9 is incredibly organic, suggesting a beating heart, or the crepe-like tissue of placenta. Partially inflated, one gathers that there is life within, flush with blood and good health. One could also perceive the darker top section as a scab, protecting the soft tissue below as it heals from a trauma.

“The original bubble in Vanitas paintings suddenly pops and life ends, but in my version the bubble inflates and deflates again and again. The bubble is both fragile and resilient. Beyond the more obvious, and my personal connections to motherhood (carrying a child within my body, that body stretching…), I also think of the inflated and deflated, not just as physical states but also states of mind and related to mental health.”

You can seem more of Amber’s work at https://amberleeart.com, and on Instagram @amberlee.art. ~ Mark Walton

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Gabrielle de Montmollin | Weird Baby World – Femme Folks Fest Repost
March 14, 2022

Gabrielle de Montmollin’s installation Weird Baby World is both engaging and eerie, employing iconography that is evocative and somewhat unsettling. Bart Gazzola offers a response to this street level exhibition, on display at Niagara Artists Centre (NAC) in St. Catharines.

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Hélène Amouzou | Between the Wallpaper and the Wall, Belgium / Togo, 2004-2011
March 24, 2022

Hélène Amouzou | Between the Wallpaper and the Wall, Belgium / Togo, 2004-2011

Foreigners forget their place (having left it behind). Given time, they begin to think of themselves as our equals. It is an unavoidable hazard. (Salman Rushdie, Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain Consummate Their Relationship, Santa Fe, January, 1492, from his book East, West)

Rushdie’s characters are dripping with entitled sarcasm, in that story I cited. They could never imagine themselves as being foreign, or displaced, or not the gatekeepers – or the owners – of a place. Hélène Amouzou’s images from her series Between the Wallpaper and the Wall, Belgium/Togo, 2004-2011 originate from the opposite side of that conversation, and the ghostly, ephemeral nature of her self portraits speaks to a doubt, a dismissal, even, that is too often the immigrant experience. 

“They describe us,” the other whispered solemnly. “That’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct.” (Rushdie, again, from the chapter Ellowen Deeowen, of The Satanic Verses, entailing the suffering of immigrants in a manner that is both a casual brutality and magical realism, where words become reality. If you’re familiar with this text, the idea that someone might fade from sight, like dissipating mist if willfully ignored, fits right in….).

Inspired by the work of Francesca Woodman, Hélène Amouzou creates her own distinctive and haunting imagery, which speaks of the contemporary issue of the displacement of people and those in exile. Born in Togo, Amouzou now lives and work in Belgium. The photographs were taken during a two year period when Amouzou was seeking asylum there and waiting for her official residency visa. She captures herself or her belongings (often her clothes) in an empty room with peeling floral wallpaper. In many of the images she includes a suitcase as a recurrent symbol of her state of flux and transit. She works with film rather than digital media, preferring the effects of chance and serendipity and she exploits the use of long exposures, playing with the photographic medium to create ephemeral and ghostly self-portraits. “Self-portraiture is a way of writing without words,” Amouzou says. “My aim is to reveal the deepest parts of myself.”

These photographs reveal a constant questioning and search for the subject’s identity. Notions of freedom and legitimacy are explored in a world of bureaucracy and inequalities. Amouzou captures feelings of exclusion and the stigmatization by the lengthy official process. Those with permanent residency rights can only imagine the insecurity and daily worry of the possibility of being sent back to an unsafe place and the photographs reveal this sense of impermanence. Her ghostly images haunt each frame and hover in the no-man’s land between absence and presence. (from Juxtapoz)

More of Hélène Amouzou’s work can be seen here~ Bart Gazzola

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Jerusalem floor, 2012 | Larissa Sansour
March 22, 2022

Jerusalem floor, 2012 | Larissa Sansour

Jerusalem floor, 2012 | Larissa Sansour, C-print (23 3/5 × 47 1/5 in / 60 × 120 cm)

On the flight from London I sit opposite a rumble seat where the stewardess places herself during takeoff. The stewardess is an Asian woman with a faraway look. I ask how often she makes this flight. Once or twice a month. Does she enjoy Israel? Not much. She stays in a hotel in Tel Aviv. She goes to the beach. She flies back. What about Jerusalem? She has not been there. What is in Jerusalem?

The illustrated guidebook shows a medieval map of the world.  The map is round.  The sun has a beard of fire.  All the rivers of the world spew from the mouth of the moon.  At the center of the world is Jerusalem. (Robert Rodriguez, The God of the Desert, Harper’s Magazine) 

One can’t help but be thinking of the displaced, of refugees fleeing strife, with the situation in Eastern Europe right now; and let’s be frank – not all refugees are ‘equal’ with race and geopolitics rearing their ugly heads, as we see in both the history and present of Canada, and the wider world. I’m not often a fan of Ai Weiwei, but his work about Alan Kurdi touched a nerve that many of us may not have known – or my still deny – was exposed. 

In light of that unpleasant reality, the works of Larissa Sansour, a Palestinian born artist were on my mind this week, especially her series Nation Estate. Jerusalem is not a neutral place, or an unloaded term. It may be the best example in ‘Western’ nation states – though in the Middle East – of a place that is intensely contested, an apex of Salman Rushdie’s notion of an ‘imaginary homeland.’ 

Even that tepid taupe of Wikipedia offers this: Given the city’s central position in both Israeli nationalism and Palestinian nationalism, the selectivity required to summarize more than 6,000 years of inhabited history is often influenced by ideological bias or background (please see Historiography and nationalism).

“In her Nation Estate (2012) series, Sansour conceptualizes an immense high-rise as a new home for her people. In each digitally manipulated photograph in this series, she places herself on a different floor of the edifice. We see her travel from the main lobby, to the Dead Sea, to Gaza, all in the space of a single building.”

“….Nation Estate takes place…in a mammoth high-rise that houses the entirety of the Palestinian people in one easy-to-navigate complex. Blurring the lines between utopian and dystopian realities, she paints a seemingly peaceful, albeit unfathomably sterile future where walls cease to function as barriers to human interaction.

“In a way there’s something positive about ‘Nation Estate.’ There are no check points and people can visit one city from another just by the use of the elevators. It’s an easy life that questions progress in general. Certain things are becoming easier, yet this skyscraper environment is completely inorganic,” Sansour stated. “It’s actually really a mockery when you think about it — living in a skyscraper. So it’s completely dystopian in the end.” (from here)

Who is a ‘real’ refugee? Who has a ‘right’ to live in a space, and to claim that they ‘own’ the land? Sansour’s works have often addressed this; we live in a world where to be Palestinian is often dismissed as illegitimate, if even ‘legal’, whatever that might even mean. Perhaps, as alluded to in Sansour’s work, the idea of ownership and wealth not only preclude but define / deform what it means to be a citizen, or even to be human. 

In looking at this work, I also cannot help but consider the lament of Psalm 137: For how are we to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? 

You can see more of her work at her site, and her Instagram is @larissasansour.

~ Bart Gazzola

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