Monday, June 18, 2007

Trust: India In Sight

Having known Ryan Davis and Jason Sellars since they returned from their travels in India (amongst other places) roughly two years ago, I eagerly anticipated the opening of Trust at the old Timemasters location adjacent to the War Memorial in downtown St. John's.

I have noted previously on this blog the ease with which individuals can apply for funding from the NLAC, and have suggested more stringent guidelines (or guidelines of any kind, for that matter) be put in place to limit the number of applicants to those with a demonstrable, long-term commitment to an art practice, or showing in peer-reviewed galleries. I've heard too many stories about first time grant recipients failing to complete their proposed projects, realizing too late that this art thing we're all talking about actually requires a lot of hard work, dedication, intelligence and consideration, and isn't just something you can slap together in a weekend.

As both Davis and Sellars lack formal art training, and have limited exhibition experience, not to mention they're both friends of mine, the June 15th opening for Trust brought a great deal of anxiety for both professional and personal reasons. Happily, my worries were almost completely misplaced.

Davis' colour photographs juxtapose the many ironies of contemporary India: a giant Real Estate billboard proclaiming a new house as the way to impress your future wife dominates the street corner under which dozens of filthy beggars congregate. In another, an old woman huddles beneath the word "TRUST" painted on the wall over her head. A third shows an ice cream man sleeping atop his ice cream cart on a deserted, wind-swept beach.

Davis obviously has those two vital skills necessary to being a good photographer: compositional sense and wonderful timing. The photos wouldn't look out of place in some slick, high-end travel magazine, or on someone's living room wall.

Sellars' suitcase installations are more poetic in their manifestation of the artist's experience of India. Using drawings and text from the actual journals he kept while traveling, in addition to sound recordings of trains, snatched conversations and a multitude of other ambient noises, Sellars presents a kind of mythic journey through a haunting, magical and frightening jungle whose ancient secrets can never be known.

But as I walked around the jam-packed opening (the two collaborators know how to throw a party), I found myself wondering about the people in those photographs, and whose voices I heard on the tape recordings, and couldn't shake thinking about the capital (cultural and otherwise) Davis and Sellars had accumulated as a result of this project. Could it be considered exploitative for two Western artists to use the poverty-stricken masses of India in the creation of a cultural product to be consumed by a mostly white, educated, middle-class audience? I thought of Martha Rosler's Bowery photos.

True, the artists did have a box at the door where you could donate some money for one of the schools where Davis and Sellars taught while overseas, but as I watched the crowds of people heading off to the bars, or to their clean quiet homes after the festivities were drawing to a close, I wondered if the subjects of the show would have considered it enough.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Gordon Laurin at the RCA Gallery

One of the best things to have ever happened to the St. John's visual art community was having Gordon Laurin get hired as the Director of the Art Gallery at the Rooms back in the day. One of the things that must have made that corporate body nervous was Laurin's open door policy when it came to proposals from the community. I remember there being a real sense of excitement about Laurin's willingness to try anything anywhere in that behemoth of a building, with any little cubbyhole or unused storage space being open to projects from whatever artist, musician, dancer or whatever that had the gumption to pitch something.

As we all know, it didn't last, but ironically, the arts community here in town has almost been better served by Laurin since his abrupt dismissal a couple years ago. Not only in terms of his work with Eastern Edge, RCAV, Neighbourhood Dance Works and a host of other groups, but with his stubborn decision to dedicate himself to his art practice here in the province. A lot of other people would have fled this place as soon as the ax had dropped on them.

Laurin's Recent Work at RCA Gallery is the continuation of the artist's exploration of abstracted landscape through decidedly toxic material components: crushed mica, pigments, and resin (amongst numerous other things) are used in a kind of mad scientist's experiment played out on 1' x 1' panels. That Laurin has removed his own hand and intention from these works is vital to how they operate as explorations of landscape: the remnants of the chemical reaction we see on the picture plane is a metaphor for the chaotic indifference of the universe to humankind's own wishes or desires.

Furthermore, Laurin's openness of approach is reflected in the viewer's relationship with the work, as it's ambiguous what feature of the landscape one is actually viewing. There is a tension between the macro and microscopic that suggests what we are observing could be the blistering aftermath of a supernova, or the tiniest workings of an atom, and everything in between.

That the materials themselves are toxic shouldn't be lost on the viewer, since it suggests a quintessentially Canadian take on how we interact with the natural world. That is (and Margaret Atwood and Northrope Frye would tend to agree), that the landscape, perhaps even the universe, is by its nature seen to be harmful to us, rather than as something to be conquered and defeated a la an American Magisterial Gaze. This idea is further complicated by the fact that when one stands in front of a panel, the viewer's own murky silhouette is reflected back at them in the resin, implicating them in the toxicity and potential destruction being presented in the images themselves.
My only complaint is the presentation of the works, which, in a line around the gallery space, and given their small size, are considerably less dramatic than how they'd look in a grid format, or for that matter, in any kind of larger scale.

Otherwise, the RCAV has chosen to shut its doors for the Hall's much anticipated renovations on something of a high note with this show. Go see it.

Also: Good on the RCAVisual crew for getting their website updated and with images. Nice job.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Portraiture Talk Podcast

Click on this link to have a listen to Michael Crummey, Mary Pratt, myself and Peter Wilkins talk about portraiture. Shauna McCabe moderates. 

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The EVA Awards deadline for nominations: April 30

It's that time of year again, kids. Nominate early, nominate often, nominate yourself. Let's help make the EVAs even bigger and better than last year.

Nominations: EVA Awards

Nomination Regulations


1. The Long Haul Award recognizes a substantial contribution to the visual culture of Newfoundland and Labrador by a senior artist.

Award: $1,000.00

2. The Large Year Award* celebrates a visual artist who has enjoyed an exceptional year with much artistic growth, at least one exhibition and critical recognition.

Award: $1,000.00

3. The Kippy Goins Award -- so named for the small pieces of wood one throws on a fire to "keep it going" -- thanks an individual or organization whose efforts have helped to sustain and build the visual arts sector.

Award: original artwork

Nominating Rules

1. The deadline for nominations is: April30, 2007 at 5 p.m.

  1. Anyone can nominate for any or all of the awards listed.
  2. An individual can only nominate one name per award.
  3. A single nomination is enough for an artist to be considered.
  4. Artists may submit their own names for The Large Year Award*.
  5. All nominations must be accompanied by relevant support materials:

· a 1 page letter stating the reasons for the nomination

· the artist’s CV

· 10-20 images in JPEG format only (no slides or photographs will be accepted), OR 10-20 minutes of video on VHS tape or DVD for video art and real-time art documentation (1 minute of video equals 1 still image/JPEG). Original artwork will not be accepted.

Note: you may choose to include no more than three additional pieces of support material (press clippings, reviews, critical writing, catalogues, etc.).

  1. Winners will be selected by an awards jury comprised of three visual arts professions representing the provincial and the national perspectives. A shortlist of finalists will be announced in advance, and the winners will be announced at an awards gala in May 30, 2007 at The Rooms.

Send nominations to:

EVA Awards

Visual Artists Newfoundland and Labrador (VANL-CARFAC)

Devon House

59 Duckworth Street, 3rd Floor

St. John's, NL, Canada A1C 1E6


Nominations will be open to all permanent residents of Newfoundland and Labrador who have resided in the province for at least 12 months previous. Visual artists must be professionals as defined by the International Association of Art and adopted by the Canadian Artists’ Representation (CARFAC). Note: VANL Board members are not eligible for nominations.

*For The Large Year Award, the jury will be considering a Newfoundland & Labrador artist’s activities for the preceding calendar year, from January 1 to December 31.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Please Join Michael Crummey, Jane Urquhart, Peter Wilkins and myself for a panel discussion at the Rooms.

Saturday April 21st 2007.


The topic: Portraiture.

Admission: FREE, with regular admission ($5) to the Rooms, or VANL membership.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Michelle Stamp's Portraits at RCA

Newfoundland celebrities are like herpes. Always there. No cure. I’ve always thought the incredible number of them was due to a kind of nationalism that exists here; that we feel the need to produce stars in this province to rival what goes on in Canada and America. Call it a cultural inferiority complex.

Once upon a time, I’d never heard of Joel Hynes. I’d never heard of the Novaks. Who the hell was Ed Kavanaugh? The name Paddy Daly had absolutely no meaning for me. I had a fuzzy recollection of Gerald Squires, who, for some reason, lived in a lighthouse for a while.

Even the CODCO crowd were a dimly lit pantheon who I vaguely remembered my parents finding outrageously entertaining.

Halifax has its own constellation of locals who, for various reasons, garner a kind of celebrity of their own: Joel Plaskett, Buck 65, the Trailer Park Boys, and others. In the six years I spent there in art school and bartending, I cannot think of a single time when any of the numerous local luminaries were featured in any way in a visual art exhibition.

Six years, people.

Six years and not once in all that time did any of the local galleries have a show entitled anything close to Portraits of a Bunch of People I Know Whom You Also Know Because, Hey, They’re Celebs, At Least Around Here, That Is.

But it’s a curious thing that in the last year in St. John’s there have been no fewer than four exhibitions based solely on the allure of the ­local celebrity. Kent Barrett, Cathia Finkel, Eastern Edge gallery’s Click! fundraiser, and now Michele Stamp’s graphite drawings at the Resource Centre for the Arts gallery.

I sometimes wonder if—like in a conceptual piece—local artists and audiences wouldn’t be better served by simply having celebrities’ names printed out and framed instead of having the artist go through the trouble of composing the image. That way, you could just read Paddy Daly’s name and then picture him with your mind’s eye, hosting his television show or whatever, chatting away in that most charming, downhome, Newfoundland accent of his.


Stamp’s show features 32 portraits of different people, some well-known, others less so. They are all delicately rendered, verging on preciousness sometimes. They are of similar size and all in staid black rectangular frames. The line quality is the type that my drawing instructors would have had serious problems with. That is, they would have had her work on a much larger scale, with charcoal or pen and ink, and ordered her to really attack the page. This generally imbues a given work with a lot more life and vibrancy.

As it is, some of the works feel cramped, others lifeless. You get the impression that Stamp was holding back, or that she was afraid to make a mistake. Dynamic drawings are those that have a full range of tonal values, with areas of intense darkness and light playing off the medium tones to produce an engaging interpretation of how light reflects off a given surface. A lot of this work is too preoccupied with the medium tones for my liking.

That being said, Stamp definitely has a gift for rendering, as the subjects do indeed look like themselves. My favourite was of Glen Tilley, noted CBC Radio producer, who gets more handsome with each passing day and possesses the most charmingly cowboy moustache I’ve ever seen. Meow! You’re a lucky woman, Mrs. Tilley.

This show ranks near the top of exhibitions in the relatively tiny canon of art about Newfoundland celebrities, if you go in for such things. However, when you’re there, you may begin to ask yourself, as I did, why the dominant areas of focus for Newfoundland visual artists tend to be limited to landscape painting and local celebrity portraiture.

As a visiting friend from Winnipeg recently demonstrated with her question, Who the hell are these people?—shows such as these have an extremely limited appeal. You’ve gotta be from here to get it. And considering that the province’s acclaimed writers and theatre artists rarely make their work explicitly about real live local celebrities, you’ve got to wonder what is wrong with visual artists for them to be so caught up with the local celebs they know.

I mean, who cares already?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Lectures at RCAV

I encourage everyone to get down to the Hall tonight to catch Gerard Curtis, Jennifer Dyer and Bruce Johnson give talks at 7pm.

Kathy Browning and Susan Jamieson at RCA

I was at the opening of this show back in January and have been conflicted about what, if anything, I should write about the experience since.

I was tempted, and had even decided, that I'd just ignore the whole thing and hope it would go away (which almost worked, as this show comes down on February 25th), but something kept gnawing at me. It was this: if I were willing to just let it go, to ignore the show, how was I, as self-appointed critic and visual arts supporter, any different than the numerous artists in Newfoundland whose perceived slights and grievances cause them to trash-talk one another at the drop of a hat?

So, fuck it, here goes:

The work in Shift is simply not of professional calibre.

Jamieson's paintings are pseudo-Impressionist/pseudo-Expressionist renderings of stormy seas, big waves, and so on, that we've all seen a million times already, with the difference being they aren't very well done. They date from 1979 all the way up to 2007, and there doesn't really appear to be much progression or change in terms of her practice, such as it is. For what it's worth, I liked the oldest one the most of any of them.

Browning, it seems, has taken a crack at the digital image game, presenting a series of photos of icebergs emblazoned with other images of trees, rock faces and other facets of the landscape not usually found on the surface of icebergs. If the best art is read in terms of a poetic fusion of form and content, then this work might be seen as a commentary on how the digital age has resulted in a confusion between what's an iceberg and what's a line of trees. Or something.

The images also don't do well in terms of their size, as they look as though they were printed on a home computer, and don't stray much beyond the 81/2" by 11" paper size.

Anyway, I guess we can always hope that Shift lives up to its name, and marks the beginning of a sea-change in what RCAV has decided to show. Time will tell.