In: St. Catharines

Ron Boaks | Stairway To The Heavens V | 2017
October 20, 2023

Ron Boaks | Stairway To The Heavens V | 2017

There is a black which is old and a black which is fresh. Lustrous black and dull black, black in sunlight and black in shadow. 
(Ad Reinhardt, from Art-as-art: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt)

The dead cannot remember themselves; that’s why the living have to.
(Sarah Monette)

At the risk of getting too personal, too subjective, it’s often not a good experience to go to an art opening when you’re known in the community as an arts journalist. RM Vaughan has written about this, but there are – of course – exceptions to this rule, stepping outside the space where you have individuals attempting to bully and bleat or blow smoke up your ass, ahem.

When I was spending time in an exhibition of Ron Boaks’ painting a few years ago at a gallery in Niagara, an impromptu conversation with the artist became a high point of interaction and conversation about his work (and the larger milieu of artmaking, too).

At that time, Ron and I spoke about a body of work I colloquially refer to as the ‘Staircase’ series. These are (literally) darker works with an assortment of symbolic or metaphorical glyphs “scratched” and seemingly etched into and upon them : many of the pieces are defined by the recurring – but simple and perfect in execution – staircase. This offers an invitation to another site : not so much an ending as a transition to another place and sense of being.

Our conversation, at some point, touched upon how these were scenes Ron had created in response to the loss of loved ones : and I should clarify that they were dark in a formal sense but not in an experiential one. They had an element of hope, an injection of transcendence, perhaps, instead of a commentary on endings.

This painting that I’m featuring is from that exhibition and grouping of artworks : Boak’s Spirit Arise series.

Boaks’ words : “With this body of work, I am trying to capture “the lightness of being”, that essence of life, state of grace, of being alive right now. In 2013 two very dear people to me died. Awhile after their passing, I began to feel lighter in “spirit”, as, if they were now free, that it was OK for me to feel that too. This lightness is translated into these paintings as the energy or spirit entity, surrounded by rich colour. The paintings are grounded by the almost drafted line, measured, as it were, like distance markers on a map. X and Y coordinates are usually there, doubling as chromosomes. There are collaged bits, often as the pieces on each side edge that mark my boundaries. Balance and the interplay of opposites is as important as ever. Some of these paintings are serene and sublime while others are happy in their intensity or darkness. These are complex relationships made visible as simply as possible. These works need to be mulled over, absorbed and enjoyed.”

I would later visit Ron’s studio and we chatted about his work : I always love when artists trust me enough to invite me into their spaces, and I think that initial conversation had a role in that.

This is an image that offers a sense of what comes after death (and I say this as someone who is between an agnostic and an atheist, most days): but that which we leave behind us exists in a variety of forms, whether our experiences with others or the impressions we leave upon them, that inspire those whom remain to commemorate our passing.

Ronald Boaks’ career as an artist spans 30 + years. He has exhibited throughout Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. His artwork has been widely collected and can be found in many public, corporate and private collections nationally and internationally.

More about his work can be seen here (Boaks was a previously featured Artist You Need To Know from AIH Studios’ continuing series) and at his site.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Diane Beard | Walking from the Darkness to the Light
October 2, 2023

Diane Beard | Walking from the Darkness to the Light

“…life is brief and lovely, not long and foolish, that it is strange and beautiful, yeah as a dream, then so let it be, if it must be tears, if tears alone may serve…”
(Jack Kerouac)

Diane Beard is a photographer who takes pictures of her immediate community of Welland (usually while walking the streets of the city), often manipulating the images digitally to have a surreal or abstracted quality.

She was one of the featured artists in the Welland Creatives Network’ 13 on the 13th exhibition at the Welland Historical Museum in 2022. We became acquainted during COVID, when the artists’ group I facilitate – the 5 x 2 Visual Conversations – began to ‘meet’ online, and Beard was an enthusiastic and impressive participant.

Diane is the widow of artist Ross Beard (1953 – 2019) who was arguably the most significant visual artist in the history of the city of Welland. Frankly, I prefer to say ‘is’ as a recent exhibition of his work indicated that he lives on in his artwork and the joy many find within it.
His passing was – is – a fracture in her life, and part of her response has been the many images she’s produced and shared, both online and in the Niagara visual arts community.

From a recent exhibition – which was titled Walking from the Darkness to the Light – in St. Catharines : “Having been surrounded by Ross’s awe-inspiring art, sharing the same love of nature and appreciation for the Niagara area, driven by grief combined with a loss of identity after Ross’s passing, yet with no formal training, Diane began taking photographs as means to express her feelings and emotions. Diane’s sense of color and form transcends a simple mundane scene into something abstract and at times unrecognizable mimicking the profound change in her life.”

I’ve been lucky enough to talk with Diane often about her work. The contrast between a scene you recognize and something completely alien is one of the aspects of her work that’s alluring. Beard has an innate sense of colour, composition and a vibrancy in her scenes. This vivacity is an appropriate challenge to the fact that these images are, at their genesis, about loss and mourning and how to move through that….

Beard shares images regularly on social media, and is a prolific artist. I’ve only shared a small part of her body of work, and more can be enjoyed here and here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Liz Hayden | I dare you | 2022
September 24, 2023

Liz Hayden | I dare you | 2022

“…the City’s refusal to support a public art gallery makes it’s endorsement of a heritage award a travesty.”
(Elizabeth Chitty)

A decade or so ago, I curated an exhibition from the archives of the now defunct (having merged into paved arts) Photographers Gallery in Saskatoon. On the accompanying panel (with artists Patrick Close, Sandra Semchuck and Doug Townsend, whom all had played seminal roles with the gallery as well as organizations like CARFAC and the Saskatchewan Arts Board) I made the observation that communities will create images of themselves that more accurately reflect the reality of the place, often when confronted with depictions that are not just disconnected from lived experience but in direct opposition to reality.

Liz Hayden’s image has been in my mind since she first shared it on social media some time ago : Hayden has been a vocal ally during the travails here in calling out the lies and self aggrandizing ignorance that has defined Brock University’s ‘demolition through neglect’ (to quote a past Cultural Coordinator for the city of St. Catharines) and sale of Rodman Hall Arts Centre, and the City of St. Catharines’ weathervaning between apathy and self congratulatory dishonesty.

The latest chapter in the travesty that is the City of St. Catharines’ apathy and ignorance – which has, in that manner I should know better by now, become even more egregiously foolish – was  brought to my attention earlier this week. You can read more about that here. Essentially, the city council of St. Catharines – which I sometimes less than affectionately refer to as ‘North Welland’, to remind them that the delusion that STC is the ‘jewel’ of Niagara is a transparent lie to many of us in the cultural milieu – is seeking provincial heritage designation for the former gallery site, though it’s nothing more than a boutique hotel now, and all the things that made it an important site are now lost…

This is nothing more than STC Council giving an award to someone who has helped the local political cowards, miscreants, liars and ignorant incompetents NOT have to deal with the fact that the gallery may have been bulldozed and the subsequent critiques that would then expose their absence on the loss of the gallery and the harm this caused to the cultural community.

We used to have a nationally recognized and lauded art gallery, a centre for cultural and community oriented groups and now it’s just a ’boutique hotel’ and this merits recognition? This is an affront, especially considering the lackadaisical disinterest of the previous mayor and the inaction of many supposed ‘stakeholders.’

Did I mention that the city of St. Catharines has made some rumblings about wanting to have a ‘cultural renaissance’ in the city? Some things I cannot make up.

But now that I have set the stage with that intersecting rant, let us consider Liz Hayden’s artwork that speaks to these ideas. When we were speaking about it recently, she made the comment of ‘angry colours, wasted words.’

This work by Liz Hayden is titled I dare you : and I suspect that is a title that dares the viewer, but also those whom might be ‘offended’ by what the work states, to attempt to defend what has been allowed to happen, so their ignorance might be exposed. This is – like much of my writing and advocacy on the subject – perhps tilting at windmills : a recent ‘conversation’ on the Niagara History social media page was rife with people ‘excited’ at the new hotel, ignoring that access to the grounds would be limited, that a community focal point was gone, that citizens were irrelevant next to a few consumers and that this is a superficial facade that is a shoddy cover for what was an award winning artistic space that was deeply important to many.

These are some of the words that Hayden included to accompany another work in this series (which can be seen in the full post), but they are relevant here, as well :

Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are. (Alfred Austin)

He is the gardener.
There at daybreak, he tills and waters: nurturing the plants, the community. Open-handed, he shares hard-gained knowledge and his harvest. Here is a place to heal, to grow. Free, in the air, without fear.
He is the gardener.
He walks the park, picking up.
Greets the old ladies, and their dogs, by name
A smile, the weather.
The garden is his purpose.
He toils there and grows
Himself and all of us
In that earth

This is one of a series of garden portraits I completed in 2022 focusing on gardens and gardeners here in St. Catharines, the Garden City. This acrylic on canvas portrays Richard Pierpont park, (previously known as Centennial Gardens) and Ross Hayden who has gardened there since the inception of those public gardens approximately 10 years ago.

A garden is a fine metaphor for a community : and there are many who are as insulted by the council’s proposal in terms of the loss of the green space as much as the artistic space. I will admit that I am also reminded of Oscar Wilde’s story about The Selfish Giant, but that one, at least, has a happy ending : but the giant had some introspection and that cannot be said for St. Catharine’s political ‘leaders’, on this front….

~ Bart Gazzola

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Chris Alic | Transience & Memory
September 16, 2023

Chris Alic | Transience & Memory

One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted –
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing
Material Place –
(Emily Dickinson)

The history of one who came too late
To the rooms of broken babies and their toys
Is all they talk about around here
And rebuke, did you think you’d be left out?
(Peter Straub, from Houses without Doors)

Like Mark Walton – and it’s a defining tenet of curated, I think  – I also have a strong presence in my immediate and local visual arts community, with mine being Niagara : several of the artists I’ve featured here (Juliana D’Intino, for example, or Sandy Fairbairn) are ones that I’ve been lucky enough to include in a continuing curatorial project in downtown St. Catharines that began in Fall of 2022 and that is continuing indefinitely, with artists slated into late 2024.

Chris Alic is one of those artists, as her exhibition with Amber Lee Williams is currently on view at Mahtay Café & Lounge. That grew out of a 5 x 2 Visual Conversations evening (a relaxed sharing of art and ideas that I’ve facilitated for over five years, in St. Catharines and Welland). Like any good curator, I offered support to the two artists but primarily stayed out of the way, with some appropriate gentle nagging.

From that immediacy, let’s indulge some of my subjectivity that sparked my interest to consider these two pieces by Alic.

As the artist said when she spoke about the work, these are images from time she spent in Missouri in the United States – and, of late, I’ve fallen down another rabbit hole that centres upon the idea of the aesthetic of the Southern Gothic, whether that be in terms of crime or horror, but usually (and I own this) on the darker side. In light of this, the abandoned and lonely toys of Alic’s images take on a more ominous tone. Further clarification : I’ve been eschewing the ‘standard’ Southern Gothic horror of New Orleans, in my reading and research, but instead have been looking at other sites in the American South – like Charleston, or Alic’s Missouri – as these oft ignored sites have an unexplored richness in their stories that is more diverse than you might think. I also mention this – not just as another subjective indulgence – but because many of the stories I’m encountering in this enjoyable research are defined – or deformed – by the history of those sites (the institutional racism flows into the occult or supernatural horrors of the stories. There’s a story by Alan Moore about a television show that is shot on an old abandoned plantation where the filming somehow invokes the ghosts of the enslaved, and the actors ‘become’ their characters, with new manifestations of hate and racism being merged with old…all horror, they say, comes out of reality….or perhaps even the superficially banal, like Alic’s empty playground and abandoned tricycle….)

 

The words of the artist :

Memory is a huge part of what makes us human. Every interaction, every step, sight, sound, touch, smell – all these things create memory. But they are fragile. They are guided by perception, they are malleable, layered, are influenced by who we become, and who we become is in part made up of what we remember. Our memories continue to create us, and we create our memories. And we lose them. They fade, disintegrate, become suspect. They are subject to context, transformation and decay, and temporality, just like the spaces we inhabit and the things we use. They become the liminal space between an event and a feeling. Does emotion exist without memory?

I have been using a camera to secure my memories since I was a single-digit kid. I don’t remember ever not having a camera, or access to a camera. It was a part of my childhood, and everyone around me took photos and 8mm film of everyday life. My immediate and extended family were avid documentarians. I am continuing that tradition, but somewhere along the way I made the decision to “crop” those memories – to capture only small portions of context, little bits of an event, inexplicable to anyone but myself because each image is connected to an important moment, an emotion, a piece of who I became because of it. And then I edit. Adjust. Refine. Sometimes intentionally erase, fade, and transform them.

These seven images were made during a two-year period living in Columbia, Missouri. All were taken on a Yashica FX-70 Super 2000 film camera. I learned to use a darkroom and print my own photos with this film, and two of the images were only recently developed using caffenol-c. I had forgotten that I had taken the photos, I had forgotten the existence of the places until I saw them again.

The two person exhibition CHRIS ALIC & AMBER LEE WILLIAMS | TRANSIENCE OF MEMORY is on display at Mahtay Café & Lounge in downtown St. Catharines for the month of September, 2023.

~ Bart Gazzola

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Julianna D’Intino | Connecting Rods: A Survey of Industry in the Niagara Region, 2015 – 2022
September 22, 2022

Julianna D’Intino | Connecting Rods: A Survey of Industry in the Niagara Region, 2015 – 2022

To talk of the legacy of GM when you live in the city of St. Catharines is akin to how your tongue will always go to the gap in your teeth, seeking something that was there and now is not, leaving nothing behind but a perceptible absence you are unable to ignore.

Julianna D’Intino’s images, both moving and still – and I’ve been lucky enough to see several bodies of work she’s produced – often have a local focus, and in some ways she steps into that role of photographer as social historian. Often this involves her adjacent community in Niagara, exploring her own immediate heritage and circle. One such series can be seen here.

Connecting Rods: A Survey of Industry in the Niagara Region is a family story, as well as a local one. The ‘connection’ in the title of this series is not just a nod to an industrial interpretation, but also the families, communities and city that is part of a network that once had its epicenter in the abandoned wastelands D’Intino presents us with….and in her fine words about this series, D’Intino also draws connections to other areas with similar experience, such as with Atlas Steels or John Deere in Welland.

That potential for ‘nostalgia’ doesn’t mean what D’Intino is telling us is through rose – coloured glasses, nor does it gloss over the reality: her words about this work are as unflinching and honest – and engaging – as her photographs.

“This is but one personal case study in the myriad of lost industry of the Niagara Region. Would the return of the Niagara Region as a manufacturing hub provide a sustainable solution to the region’s economic woes? No, it would not. What is missing in the region is sufficient work at wages high enough to sustain a well-balanced life at the Niagara Region’s new inflated cost of living. The last time that such security was widespread was when manufacturing was a leading industry.”

The legacy of GM in St. Catharines is surely a contested narrative, with ground fertile for those from here – like D’Intino, or myself – to mine. It’s as rife as the industrial damage left behind at the site (an ongoing issue in civic politics here which has led to some grotesque and unsettling bedfellows), and there are differing opinions in play. Anna Szaflarski, for example, offers another perspective on this history here.

D’Intino’s site is here, and more images and D’Intino’s considered words about Connecting Rods can be found here.

~ Bart Gazzola

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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
War Map Dress Trilogy | Carolyn Wren, 2003-2004
June 30, 2022

Carolyn Wren | War Map Dress Trilogy, 2003-2004
(lino blocks, hand-printed on Dupont silk, thread, zippers, mannequins, model airplanes, black paint)

I encountered these towering figures during Wren’s retrospective exhibition Task At Hand at the now shuttered Rodman Hall Art Centre several years ago. Standing in the large back gallery space, the three female figures dominated the room, with the flow of their dresses spilling out from them, pooling around them on the gallery floor. 

Visiting this show numerous times, I found that different ideas came to the fore with different interactions, from initial wonder to later, more critical consideration. When an artist / writer friend, Anna Szaflarski, visiting Niagara, came with me on one occasion, she saw the works in a very different light than I had, initially. Unsurprising, really, as when Szaflarski and I first met, it was around her exhibition at NAC about the historical detritus – or lack thereof – of General Motors’ legacy in St. Catharines, and I believe we connected over an irreverent honesty about history, the region, and the intersecting if conflicting stories of the place we both grew up in….

My reading had been informed by Wren’s own words, which are as follows: The ingenuity of Christopher Clayton Hutton’s invention of silk maps for the British Royal Air Force during World War II enabled pilots to use lightweight and durable maps to help them reach safety in times of crisis, and inspired women to make dresses out of the silk maps as their men returned home. The maps used by Wren in the dresses were made in Europe by the Canadian government and shipped to Canada for families to follow the movements of their loved ones fighting in the war.  Alluding to multiple layers of symbolism of the landscape in relation to the body, and reflecting on war and the politics of Feminism (viewpoint, memory, and identity), The War Map Dress Trilogy is more about history, location, distances, than it is about terrain.

I talk a lot about ‘contested narratives’: but this story, this Curator’s Pick is very much about that. Szaflarski – a former student of Wren’s, as Caroline taught in Niagara for some time, and helped shape a few generations of artists and art appreciators – upon seeing the exhibition, and these ‘women’, spoke more in a manner reminiscent of Barbara Kruger’s famous – and still relevant – artwork that declares that YOUR BODY IS A BATTLEGROUND. These battlefield maps, on dresses hanging on mannequins without heads or hands, look more like spaces to be attacked, or acted upon, utterly passive and just victims…. (“Afterwards she could not walk for a week, her feet would not fit into her shoes, they were too swollen. It was the feet they’d do, for a first offence. They used steel cables, frayed at the ends. After that the hands. They didn’t care what they did to your feet and hands, even if it was permanent. Remember, said Aunt Lydia. For our purposes your feet and your hands are not essential.” Margaret Atwood, A Handmaid’s Tale).

More of Carolyn Wren’s work can be seen here. A recent curatorial project of mine, based upon the Rodman Hall Collection, and which included Wren’s work, can be seen here

Photographs are by Sandy Fairbairn and the author.

~ 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
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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Gabrielle de Montmollin | Weird Baby World
August 13, 2021

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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