In: the covert collective
The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death Under Soviet Rule | Igort, 2016September 1, 2022
The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death Under Soviet Rule | Igort, 2016
All has been looted, betrayed, sold; black death’s wing flashed ahead.
Of late, I’ve been exploring more graphic novels in my reading (this was partly inspired by Virgil Hammock’s feature on Jon Claytor’s Take The Long Way Home). I cut my artistic teeth on comics, as a teenager, and it’s been good to see them garnering the respect they merit in North American cultural discourse.
Sometimes I’ll pick things up at random. That’s how I encountered Putain de Guerre! (Goddamn This War!), by Jacques Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney, translated into English by Helge Dascher. That graphic novel came to mind as I was reading – also having picked it up on a whim – The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death Under Soviet Rule, by Cuadernos de Igort (who creates his work under the name Igort) with Jamie Richards as translator.
Both are horrific. Putain de Guerre! is perhaps less shockingly immediately visceral, as we can pretend it’s more remote, more ‘done’ and ‘in the past.’ But Igort’s Notebooks have a contemporary resonance, with what’s happening in the Ukraine right now. It scalds, in an immediate manner, and you’ll carry the personal stories of the people in it with you, long after you’ve put it down. It horrifies, and the personal narratives splash onto, and into, you, if you even have the barest sense of empathy. In this sense, it’s like Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, where myself – and everyone I know who’s read it – found they had to repeatedly check the endnotes, as the sheer numbers of slaughter and death seemed unreal. A friend from Poland told me she could only read it in parts, as it was simply too much.
The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death Under Soviet Rule are equally harrowing, as brilliant in a minimalist artistic execution as they are grotesquely overwhelming in the tales being related.
“After spending two years in Ukraine and Russia, collecting the stories of the survivors and witnesses to Soviet rule, masterful Italian graphic novelist Igort was compelled to illuminate two shadowy moments in recent history: the Ukraine famine and the assassination of a Russian journalist. Now he brings those stories to new life with in-depth reporting and deep compassion.
In The Russian Notebooks, Igort investigates the murder of award-winning journalist and human rights activist Anna Politkoyskaya. Anna spoke out frequently against the Second Chechen War, criticizing Vladimir Putin. For her work, she was detained, poisoned, and ultimately murdered. Igort follows in her tracks, detailing Anna’s assassination and the stories of abuse, murder, abduction, and torture that Russia was so desperate to censor. In The Ukrainian Notebooks, Igort reaches further back in history and illustrates the events of the 1932 Holodomor. Little known outside of the Ukraine, the Holodomor was a government-sanctioned famine, a peacetime atrocity during Stalin’s rule that killed anywhere from 1.8 to twelve million ethnic Ukrainians. Told through interviews with the people who lived through it, Igort paints a harrowing picture of hunger and cruelty under Soviet rule.”
“With elegant brush strokes and a stark color palette, Igort has transcribed the words and emotions of his subjects, revealing their intelligence, humanity, and honesty—and exposing the secret world of the former USSR.” (This quote, and the previous one, are from here).
If – after all that – you’re still interested to seek out a copy of Igort’s recording of the stories of Serafima Andreyevana, Nikolay Vasilievich, Maria Ivanovna and so many others, I suggest visiting the artist’s site, though my local library has an impressive collection of graphic novels and their ilk, and that’s a fine place to begin, as well.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Wisconsin Death Trip | Michael Lesy, 1973August 11, 2022
Wisconsin Death Trip | Michael Lesy, 1973 (reprinted in 1991 by Anchor Books, and University of New Mexico Press in 2000)
Pause now. Draw back from it. There will be time again to experience and remember. For a minute, wait, and then set your mind to consider a different set of circumstances: consider those scholars and social philosophers who never knew that Anna Myinek had burned her employer’s barn or that Ada Arlington had shot her lover, but who nevertheless understood that something strange and extraordinary was happening in the middle of the continent at nearly the same instant that they sat in their studies, surrounded by their books. Such men did their best to understand what it meant, and in the process they tried to predict that future in which we are now enmeshed.
The only problem is how to change a portrait back into a person and how to change a sentence back into an event….The thing to worry about is meanings, not appearances.
I first became aware of Wisconsin Death Trip – the book by Michael Lesy and the James Marsh film it inspired, which I’m less impressed with – while reading Stephen King’s novella 1922, as King has mentioned it as inspiration. It’s one of those King stories that could be interpreted as flirting with the supernatural, but may, in fact, simply be everyday horror. 1922 tells the tale of an ignorant, greedy man on a failing, hardscrabble farm, who murders his wife and thus brings about the death of his beloved son (the ‘ghost’ of his wife returns, Banquo – like, to tell of this before his child’s body is even found). He survives only to suffer and regret, losing all he owned – and his hand, to infection – and is haunted, for years, by the rats that consumed his murdered wife’s body, that only he can hear, and suffers their chittering call and bites in the long dark nights until he takes his own life to escape….
Read more of Gazzola’s thoughts about Wisconsin Death Trip here.Read More
Philip Monk | Is Toronto Burning?: Three Years in the Making (and Unmaking) of the Toronto Art CommunityJuly 7, 2022
Philip Monk, Is Toronto Burning?: Three Years in the Making (and Unmaking) of the Toronto Art Scene, London: Black Dog Publishing, 2016.
Jack Pollock, Dear M: Letters from a Gentleman of Excess, McClelland & Stewart, 1989
“Each day I write. I’m not sure what it’s all about, but most days I write about art and the constant raping of its values by pseudo intellectual acrobats.” (Jack Pollock, Dear M: Letters from a Gentleman of Excess)
Nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind. (Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook)
“Culture has replaced brutality as a means of maintaining the status quo.” (Philip Monk, Is Toronto Burning? Three Years in the Making (and Unmaking) of the Toronto Art Scene)
A spate of old issues of FILE magazine came into my hands over the past year (it’s worth noting that they were a gift from Elizabeth Chitty, who also gave me the copy of Monk’s book that spurred this essay). They’re a bit ragged, but that seems appropriate, as they’re like flashbacks (the magazine began publishing in 1972 and ran for 17 years, with 26 issues) that don’t resonate with many, more nostalgia than substance.
They seem very dated, at times very juvenile, and more of an exercise in artistic onanism than anything else. This is, of course, a generalization, and it’s broken in certain points quite clearly. The issue that is almost entirely colour images of the three poodles, one of the many symbolic personas of General Idea, engaged in various tumbling and enthusiastic sex acts is one to keep (as I was impressed when I saw one of the large paintings from this series on a trip to the Art Gallery of Hamilton, installed amidst other notable Canadian works from Graham Coughtry to Attila Lukacs).
But many of the other copies of FILE are easily dismissed, even by someone like myself who has made a career of excavating in spaces that are too often ignored as pertains to Canadian Art history. The odd flash of brilliance, or the appropriation of mainstream media narratives and iconography, the sampling of authors from Burroughs to Acker, are the exception, not the rule.
Perhaps, this many decades later, our expectations of how artists engage in appropriation is more sophisticated – or more jaded. Edit as you will.
But all this reminded me of my long overdue response to Philip Monk’s book Is Toronto Burning? Three Years in the Making (and Unmaking) of the Toronto Art Scene), published several years ago, and that is focused upon the same era. I found the book uneven, and some players and characters in this story seem somewhat incongruous to their later roles or personas (true or assigned, in that vague way of art history and cultural narratives). But Monk’s own words lead to this: “In a sense, what follows is a story, a story with a cast of characters. These characters are pictured in video, photography, and print – not necessarily as portraits but rather as performers.” (from the chapter 1977). But in finally offering my impression of Monk’s narrative (considering personal and public factors and all the sites where those contested narratives collude and collide), I’ll begin with the following assertion: “All narrators are unreliable. Especially when they are characters within their own story.”
Read more here.Read More
The Death of the Artist | William Deresiewicz, 2020June 3, 2022
The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech | William Deresiewicz, 2020
I cannot think of another field in which people feel guilty about being paid for their work—and even guiltier for wanting to be.
This is – bluntly – a difficult book. It was necessary for me to read it in installments, and I know that many of my friends who are artists had to do the same. Perhaps it was like a series of inoculations against a disease, spaced out to have maximum curative effect. It motivated me to revisit Robert Hughes’ essay Art and Money, from his book Nothing If Not Critical, and simultaneously I was reading Blockchain and the Law: The Rule of Code by Primavera De Filippi and Aaron Wright (as part of my ongoing attempt to understand the phenomenon of NFTs better). Three decades separate those two books, and they make an interesting extended bibliography to The Death of the Artist. Sometimes there’s concurrences, more often disagreement, and a feeling that more time must have passed between their publication, as the gulf is so wide that Doris Lessing’s idea that ‘nothing seems more improbable than what people believed when this belief has gone with the wind’ floated in the air, as I read.
For anyone who’s worked in culture, or has attended art school or various other educational institutions focused upon producing ‘creators’, there are numerous assertions made in William Deresiewicz’ book that will ring true, in a rueful manner that many of us may have denied (or sadly, will continue to do so, unto the pauper’s grave). Some of the stories from the artists – of various stripes – that Deresiewicz spoke with, that inform this book, will be very familiar. My own experience in public galleries or artist run centres, and attempting to negotiate being a cultural worker in other spheres, match the stories here.
This book might offend you, but it will offend you in all the correct ways, and perhaps offend all the appropriate people.
If art is work, then artists are workers. No one likes to hear this. Nonartists don’t, because it shatters their romantic ideas about the creative life. Artists don’t either, as people who have tried to organize them as workers have told me. They also buy into the myths; they also want to think they’re special. To be a worker is to be like everybody else. Yet to accept that art is work—in the specific sense that it deserves remuneration—can be a crucial act of self-empowerment, as well as self-definition.
A tangent, not unrelated, if I may, that aligns with Deresiewicz’ research: a friend is an artist, exhibiting widely, and has been teaching as a sessional for several years. She is me, twenty years ago: she has less protection, security and opportunity than I did, despite both of us doing ‘all the right things.’ We are – like many workers – in a steady decline, that seems not only unstoppable, but unrecognized. Another gem from Deresiewicz’ book: The writer and visual artist Molly Crabapple, another exemplary leftist, puts it like this in her essay “Filthy Lucre”: “Not talking about money is a tool of class war.”
Art is hard. It never just comes to you. The idea of effortless inspiration is another romantic myth. For amateurs, making art may be a form of recreation, but no one, amateur or professional, who has tried to do it with any degree of seriousness is under the illusion that it’s easy. “A writer,” said Thomas Mann, “is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” More difficult, because there is more for you to do, more that you know how to do, and because you hold yourself to higher standards.
If I ever dared to revisit academic or educational spaces – or if I was let back in – this text would be required reading, not just for those wanting to become artists, but especially for those who would go on to be gallerists, cultural workers and even players within the political sphere, as in some ways this book is a warning. But there’s a large dollop of Cassandra in cultural spaces, especially in Canada (several years ago, I was pilloried for shaming an artist run centre for not paying emerging artists, but the abuse was worth it as they – eventually – did the right thing). Deresiewicz’ research, and the testimonials in this book, can help break that complacency….
The Death of the Artist: How Creators Are Struggling to Survive in the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech is not so much a warning, as a reality. It is a severe, but indispensable, book.
All quotes in italics are from Deresiewicz’ book. As usual, I suggest visiting a local bookstore (such as Someday Books) to pick up this text.
~ Bart GazzolaRead More
Walker Evans – James R. MellowMay 19, 2022
James R. Mellow
Basic Books; Revised ed. edition (Oct. 11 2001)
Walker Evans is one of the most famous American documentary photographers of the past 100 years and his images will stand for another hundred at least. While every serious photographer is familiar with his work (the best known of which was shot during the 1930’s for the U.S. Farm Security Administration as per the examples below), there have been relatively few books that discuss Evans as a man. James R. Mellow captures his complexities in this eminently readable biography, published in 2001.
What makes particularly interesting reading is Evan’s evolution as an artist, from failed student in the Mid-West US, to failed writer in Paris, to acclaimed photographer on his return to New York in the late 20’s and early 30’s. The book quotes extensively from his letters and other writings. One can almost hear him speaking… I imagine his voice to be a low pitched, slow drawl; a mix of Henry Fonda, Peter Coyote and Alan Rickman (minus the accent).
Evans comes across as dour and fatalistic, yet strangely still likeable. Much of his writing describes his unhappiness with things as they are, whether it be his annoyance with his mother, his dissatisfaction with the quality of the prints made from his negatives or his despondence about his romantic relationships. Many of his friendships with other famous artists are discussed, including Ben Shahn, Steven Crane and Hanns Skolle.
The book offers details about the trips Evans made to do his photography and specifically the trips he made with author James Agee as they worked on the seminal Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Evans plays the role of aesthete opposite Agee’s sensualist, the collision of which resulted in a book acclaimed for its intimacy and realism… a strong documentary account of the lives of sharecroppers and their families in the American South during the Great Depression.
It is sad but somehow inevitable that Evans ends his days as somewhat of an alcoholic / academic recluse. Mellow’s reliance on Evans’ own words leave you feeling as if you really knew him, that you cared about him, but weren’t overly close to the actual man behind the photographs, because of his determination to keep people at bay.
Walker Evans by James R. Mellow is available from numerous online retailers.
~ Mark WaltonRead More
Bob Bickford | Dear Ghost, 2022April 27, 2022
Bob Bickford | Dear Ghost, 2022
M: When I was little and we used to move all the time, I’d write these notes and I would fold them up really small. And I would hide them.
C: What’d they say?
M: They’re just things I wanted to remember so that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.1
Sometimes I wonder if phantoms wander the place, laughing and crying. Our memories, the echoes of us little, more vivid than we were in life. (Bob Bickford)
Bob Bickford’s novella Dear Ghost (subtitled Fragments and Letters) is a series of small gems of memory and mythology, filled with an honesty and erudite use of language that seduces you, with moments of sadness and joy that leave you wanting more. The chapters – or letters, more exactly – can be read in order, or out of sequence. They tell a story that is both intensely personal but also resonates with your own experiences. There is nostalgia, here, perhaps, but it’s not cloying or maudlin: “I am not sentimental about anything. But I have sentiment about many things. That’s an English-language difference that is very useful. Not to have sentiment is to be almost dead.”2
There are so many ‘fragments’ that I found myself noting, writing down for later use (as primarily an arts writer, I have often pilfered better writers than I to respond to visual arts), that seem to speak directly to you, and that in their simplicity cut right to your being.
Alluding to the autobiographical but not confined to it, Bickford’s letters are as much about feeling as ‘factual’ memory. His use of ‘ghost’ is about those things we know to be real, not requiring any substantiation beyond our own certainty. His final missive in the book asserts this: “Dear Ghost, They say no such thing as ghosts. I say it too, just to make you laugh… There are no endings, and everything that matters is invisible, or nearly so.”
Read the full review here.Read More
Xiaojing YanFebruary 1, 2022
Stepping into an exhibition by artist Barry Ace is a transformative experience. The bold colour palette, the textural combination of materials, and the meticulous attention to detail quickly captivates you. The entanglements of these elements reveal unique narratives that change the lens through which we see others. Suzanne Luke offers some thoughts on the art an ideas of Barry Ace in this article.Read More
Louis Riel | Chester Brown, 1999 – 2003February 23, 2022
Louis Riel | Chester Brown, 1999 – 2003
Drawn & Quarterly, 2003
It seems an appropriate time to revisit Chester Brown’s excellent graphic novel Louis Riel (A Comic – Strip Biography), with Louis Riel Day having recently passed. I also say this not just due to recent domestic terrorism in Ottawa, but also as when I was living in Saskatoon, with a statue of Riel’s ally Gabriel Dumont prominently installed near the South Saskatchewan River, the reality of contested narratives about history was necessary to consider. An ongoing debate in Niagara, about a statue of a soldier glorifying the North-West Rebellion being removed from St. Catharines city hall, indicates this isn’t solely a regional concern.
More to this point: an exhibition at the now defunct Mendel Art Gallery a few years ago, on the work of James Henderson, displayed a full scale portrait of the judge who presided over Riel’s ‘trial’, where his execution was a foregone conclusion, and this fact was – still – not particularly welcomed when imparted to various tours and visitors.
“Chester Brown reinvents the comic-book medium to create the critically acclaimed historical biography Louis Riel, winning the Harvey Awards for best writing and best graphic novel for his compelling, meticulous, and dispassionate retelling of the charismatic, and perhaps insane, nineteenth-century Métis leader. Brown coolly documents with dramatic subtlety the violent rebellion on the Canadian prairie led by Riel, who some regard a martyr who died in the name of freedom, while others consider him a treacherous murderer.” (from here)
One of many fine publications from Drawn & Quarterly, this is one of a number of Brown’s excellent comics, and has been cited, along with Jeff Lemire (with his anthology Essex County) as an example of how ‘comics’ in Canada are engaging with historical narratives that are very relevant today.
Minimalist in format, this text fills in gaps that many of us were left with, studying history in school. Several years ago, in conversation with people from various parts of Canada, it was telling that Riel had been demonized in some historical accounts, completely ignored in others and given a more honest treatment in others. It’s an overused quote, but seems apt here : My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back. (Riel, as cited in The Defiant Imagination : Why Culture Matters (2004) by Max Wyman)
Louis Riel was the first comic book to receive a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts and has won three Harvey Awards.Read More
The Museum of Everything: Volume #4 – You’re Not Only HumanJanuary 24, 2022
The Museum of Everything: Volume #4 – You’re Not Only Human
Everything Ltd/The Museum of Everything
The Museum of Everything
I have collected a lot of catalogues over the years. Some for shows I’ve visited in person, and some for shows I simply wish I had visited. In 2013, I visited the Venice Biennale. It was pure serendipity that the inspiration (and title) for the 2012 iteration, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, was The Encyclopedic Palace: the concept first patented in 1955 by self-taught artist, Marino Auriti, of an imaginary museum “meant to house all worldly knowledge, bringing together the greatest discoveries of the human race, from the wheel to the satellite.”
Having focused a great deal on ‘outsider art’ during my Masters degree, I was bonkers thrilled to be able to see an exhibition carrying this much weight on the international level, blurring the lines between self taught and academic artists. Aside from the spectacle that was the main exhibition, one of the greatest finds for me was a tiny little pavilion set up outside by The Museum of Everything. Wandering through their set up of reproductions of work by Carlo Zinelli, mounted on pillars, I ended up at their bookstore/gift shop and found one of my most prized possessions to this day.
The Museum of Everything was launched by James Brett in Britain in 2010, and has quickly grown into an institution celebrating who they refer to as, “untrained, unintentional, undiscovered and unclassifiable artists of modern times”. This particular catalogue documents their fourth exhibition, which was presented at Selfridges, London from September 1 – October 25, 2011. The exhibition presented over 500 artists, including the first UK retrospective of Judith Scott – a personal heroine of art-making. The catalogue includes 225 pages of full colour works, organized into categories of studios. Prior to this catalogue, I had been aware of some of the more well known studios/organizations/institutions, like Creative Growth, Gugging and Creativity Explored, but the index provided me with a blueprint for places I would grow to research more, to study, to acquire works from, and to include in exhibitions I dreamt up. Each section includes reproductions of works, alongside statements by the studios they were created in, and cursory descriptions of the artists’ general oeuvre. The catalogue almost becomes a collection of manifestos of support for those creating outside of the academic tradition.
Included in the boxed set is The Appendix of Everything, featuring interviews with heavy hitters like Cindy Sherman, Massimiliano Gioni, David Byrne, and revered director of White Columns, Matthew Higgs. The collection of conversations is informal, accessible, and honest. Many quotes have stuck with me to this day. One in particular, was Higgs’ description of what he felt when he first encountered Creative Growth. “Art was being made for reasons that remained out of reach”. For me, this is the art I’ve developed a tidal wave of emotional reaction to. I look through this catalogue regularly, finding patterns, similarities, moments of clarity, and moments of joy.
You can acquire this catalogue by visiting the Museum of Everything’s website. Also note that there are now 7 catalogues for exhibitions curated by the Museum. ~ Lisa KehlerRead More