Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Way They Were at RCA Gallery

This is the third review of an art show at good ol' RCA I've done, and I'm happy to say, it may well be the last that I do for some time. It just hurts.

I just feel like I'm missing some really important piece of the puzzle. I mean, I'm just not getting something. Maybe I'm just not proud or patriotic enough. Maybe I'm an ignorant fuck. Maybe I'm just not Newfie enough. I don't know what it is, but upon seeing this show, I felt like how I imagine most regular people feel when they go into a contemporary art gallery: Like A Complete Outsider.

At first I was going to write about this show in relation to the Cabot 500 celebrations of 1997. How both events commemorate an important historical event or era, and how they both sort of ring very hollow. But the stumbling block was of course that everyone could relate to Cabot 500 in some way, while The Way They Were has appeal for only an incredibly tiny fragment of the population of St. John's.

Kent Barrett's work consists of a slew of sepia, black and white, and colour digital photographic prints with elements of collage thrown in for good measure. It just looks like the guy plays around with Photoshop way too much to the point where the work is completely over-designed. There are a lot of original photos scanned into the new work, in addition to the use of the original 35mm negatives. Some of the old photos are really nice looking.

But what, you may be wondering, are the photos of? Why, they're portraits of the people who were involved with the whole collective theatre movement of the 1970s in St. John's. A movement that had the LSPU Hall as its epicenter, and from which groups such as the Mummers' Troupe and CODCO (amongst others) eventually emerged.

Which is just fine and dandy, okay? I'm not knocking it. RCA has just turned thirty, and like all thirty year olds during that fabulously neurotic of years, the Hall is looking back over its life with an odd mix of nostalgia and insecurity. The fact remains, however that this art show is only enjoyable if you know personally the people in the photos. I don't, and therefore have no point of access into the work.

The most interesting thing for me (just like it was at the NIFCO 25th Anniversary screening at the Hall last summer) was which people were omitted from the show rather than the ones that were actually included.

So. If you know a bunch of the prominent St. John's theatre people from the 70s, you might want to pop down and check out Barrett's show. But, alas, if you're on the look-out for beautiful, provocative and heart-wrenching visual art, it remains an elusive animal at RCA Gallery.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

that's what i was waiting for craig

9:12 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why you expect the Hall to be any better. The place is a theatre. The theatre has had no problem with taking money away from RCAVisual in the past so why shouldn't it follow that any art there be in service of the theatre now?

Do you think that this show was proposed to the Hall's board or the gallery?

10:32 a.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

Just because something has been going on for a long time doesn't mean I have to be complacent about how fucked up it is.

The thing that drives me crazy about the Hall is that last year, at the AGM, the gallery announced that they raised something like 30 grand from ONE fundraiser. Where does this money go? Certainly not into gallery programming. Can anybody tell me how many years it's been since RCA Visual had someone show from outside of NL? Four? Five?

I mean, just think what could be done with that money in a contemporary gallery in St. John's that didn't have to subsidize the (comparitively speaking) outrageously expensive budgets of theatrical productions.

11:42 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

your making my point here Craig. The money from that fundraiser was taken by HallOps. The Hall board is full of theatre artists. The reason the gallery was shut down a few years ago was because gallery money was spent on other things not visual.

What I'm saying is that the gallery will never have a more prominant place within the Hall as long as the board treats it like shit.

The gallery has one rep on the board. If the vizarts community had more of a presence and maybe the presence of mind to take back the space then it might regain some of the moxie it had a few years ago when there were more national artists showing there.

I;m not saying that you should be, or are, complacent. I'm just suggesting that the Gallery is primarily the waiting area for shows and that until that is either recognized or challenged then questioning the programming decisions of whomever is working in the glow of the space heater in the closet that serves as storage/gallery coordinator's office is moot.

12:08 p.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

Point taken. Thanks.

12:27 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

no problem.
I think this opens up to a larger discussion of the place of visual culture vs oral culture in NF.

What does the decision to let the gallery die to save the stage say? Also, to tie it back to comments made here about conceptual art vs. dorey art. Dorey art tells a story (our story - George Storey?)and is more aligned to the oral tradition than the visual.

Again Craig, thanks for creating and maintaining this space.


12:44 p.m.  
Anonymous jpohl said...

I haven't had a chance to see the show.. but it's sounds interesting to me from a historical archive point of view. I guess it depends how interested in that history you are...

the same old debate continues... I was on the rcavisual board the year the entire board resigned when a show was taken down without the photographer's consent or awareness to accomodate a weekend fundraiser. We hashed it out, but I'm not sure visual artist's voices were ever heard. Give them credit. The theatre does keep the place running. I remember saying that we were trying to strive for excellence and a gallery that artist could feel confident in placing their work. I remember being told that they were more concerned with survival than excellence.

Having said that I will always love the hall for it's history and for being a creative home to so many, and for some of the wonderful people I met there. There are very few places for emerging artists to show in town. Is it still the only venue for a solo show?

btw. and slightly off topic, yay Brad Gushue and team Canada! (I still don't understand the rules of the game, but it's hard to not be proud anyway...)

p.s. there is nothing wrong with being an outsider.. the very best artist's often are. (Did you ever read "the insider as outsider"?) It's about time for me to break it out again.

1:59 p.m.  
Anonymous yep yep said...

so you want written explanatory texts?

10:18 p.m.  
Blogger Dreae said...

Hi Craig, I'm not a visual artist, so I don't know if this is a forum for me, but I thought I'd butt in anyway.

I've been to see The Way They Were twice now and have loved the content - I'll agree that the photoshoppiness is lame, but the archival importance is huge.

As members of this cultural community, these are the figures (archetypes?) who many of us are in the process of - or at risk of - becoming. These are the people I grew up surrounded by, parents of my friends, role models (questionable, perhaps) to those of us who where the children of that scene. In fact, this is the first time I've felt like an insider at a show in my own hometown in a long time.

So, yeah, I guess if you don't know the folks in the pictures, or if you don't identify with their vision of St. John's culture, then I can see that you might not get why it's so significant. But I found it very moving and am looking forward to the next installment.

Now - is the function of a gallery to feed people's pathological nostalgia? I don't know. I don't think so. A book of the photographs, hell, even a website might have had the same effect on me.

I take the show as a reminder that the people in Kent Barrett's photos felt about what *they* were doing the same things that *we* are feeling now (I use *we* here, sorry if that's presumptuous - I mean members of a St. John's-based pan-media arts community). They were young little twentysomething/thirtysomething pups like us, convinced that their voices and visions were something new and radical and that they were doing something that would change the way the arts were understood in this province. To some extent they were successful, and for some that success came at great personal cost. In the end, though, what *they* did then has allowed us to do what *we* do now - indeed, it has created the necessity for us to do what we do. And that, at least, should be recognised.

So I guess what I'm saying is that, while the rendering isn't fabulous, there is a place for this kind of content... and if not at the Hall, then I don't know where.

Maybe the photos would have a place as part of a larger intertextual installation of some kind, something to make it relevant to people who don't identify with the historical characters. Not necessarily written explanatory tests as yep yep suggests, but something to connect the young artist in 1980 to the young artist in 2006. I do think that's important.

9:43 a.m.  
Blogger Dreae said...

Uh... I mean "explanatory texts," not "explanatory tests." Although that might be fun... hee hee... sigh.

11:42 a.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

dreae: thanks for your comments and please feel free to come back anytime you want. you make some great points.

1:41 p.m.  
Blogger Dreae said...

Cheers, Craig! I hope I'll be able to get out and see more art when the weather is a little better, and hauling a two-year-old down the street gets a little easier.

Hope your talk went well the other night.

3:22 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi. This is the first time I have been here, I have heard a lot about it.

Two things:

1. I'd just like to point out that the Hall's theatre company and the gallery have their own seperate monies that they raise on their own...and if you think that the theatre budgets are outrageously high you are kidding yourselves!

Hall Ops raises its own money as well as takes some from the theatre co and the gallery, (not sure about NDW), in order to keep the lights and those space heaters on. By the by, everyone who works in the building has to share those heaters, everyone is froze to death while sharing a space with too many others.

It's not run perfectly but I truly believe they are doing the best they can on little, very little money. Would you consider getting on the board as a way to address these problems? They look for new people every year (partly because no one wants to stay on it that long and suffer the abuse and flack that comes from people who pop in from time to time and think they know how to run everything!).

Neighbourhood Dance Works is the best example of a community of artists making what they want to see happen really happen at the Hall. We should all take a page from their book.

Another thing to check out and constructively put your two cents in on is the new proposal for the renovations that are going to happen. This is one more way that you let the Hall know how they can best reflect the needs of the arts community.

2. I can't tell you how disappointed I am to hear you use the word "Newfie,"
(ie:"maybe I'm just not Newfie enough") especially in reference to a show that included the likes of Figgy Duff. These people have more of an effect on Newfoundlanders than any of us can say. They travelled around the island, met, formed lasting ties with and learned from the aging oral historians and musicians and SAVED that part of the island's culture. They took back Newfoundland music from the shamed place it had reached in the 50s and 60s and validated it to so many people. You can thank those people for recording Emile Benoit, for connecting the French Shore's music to the Cape Shore, for bringing that music around the world. Even if you don't like that type of music and storytelling, you at least have to respect what they accomplished.

If anything, I have always felt our generation's art inadequate in light if the meaningful work that was made in the 70s and 80s.

For example, CODCO's work to create a dialogue on sexual abuses in the Catholic Church affected more people than just a few folks from St.John's.

To use the word "Newfie", a word and a stereotype that they all battled against, is entirely inappropriate and you should know better.

(I am not even gonna get started on all of the gender and feminist based art that was developed then - that's a post for another time)

Anyway, I thought it was great to get a glimpse of what these artists were at, to see where they brainstormed, argued, created. I thought it was heart wrenching to see people I had never met but have read about and heard about for so long as young vibrant people and to see them now, still artists, a few colleagues lighter from death and burned bridges, still with so much to do and say.

I hope that we have a good laugh at all this in 30 years time at our retrospective at the Hall Gallery.

see ya.

6:42 p.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

Dear Anonymous: I've decided to tackle your numerous comments on a point by point basis as to make things easier.

1. Theatre budgets ARE outrageously expensive compared to how much it costs to mount an art show... particularly in the RCA space.

I know that the Hall, like all artist run organizations across the country, are broke. I also know that the staff at RCA is an incredibly talented, intelligent and hard-working bunch. I don't remember saying differently.

I don't know anything about how NDW runs.

This blog is my way of putting in my two cents worth.

2. I'm sorry if "Newfie" offends you, and the term does bring to mind some rather unfortunate stereotypes, but to think that this word is as offensive as the real hate speech that exists in the world today is an offense to all those visible minorities who have to deal with real racism and hatred everyday of their lives. Newfoundlanders have never been subjected to the sort of widespread negative propaganda that blacks, jews, asians, gays, women or muslims have. No NLer has ever been hunted down and killed or beaten simply because they were a Newfoundlander. So please, refrain from lecturing me on my usuage of the word, particularly given that it was said in jest. Newfoundlanders are supposed to be able to laugh at themselves, or at least that's what i keep hearing.

I don't recall having said anything negative about Figgy Duff or Codco or anything else that happened in the 70s. So I don't really know why you feel you have to educate me in what they all did.

As for your comments about our generation's art being inadequate in light of what came before... unfortunately I agree.

11:36 a.m.  
Anonymous jpohl said...

I really like dreae's idea of seeing this type of archive in website format. It would be wonderful for that history to reach a wider audience.

I'm curious, what renovations are planned?

light years ahead in terms of promotion? perhaps... but anything shown on a mainstage will be splashier. It just art of a different nature.The visual arts tend to work more quietly and on an individual basis, but many Newfoundland artists and dealers are and have been bringing their work to the rest of the world. I don't think too many of us expect to be rock stars. We only want to do good work, and the rest will follow.(-:

all the best, jp.

11:09 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I think one of the best descriptions I've heard of the way the Hall runs is "the grand experiment" of a democratic, artist-run centre. It doesn't always work, but we do try, and we try because we believe in it.

It does mean that people in the community have to participate. I've been working here for five years, and during that time, the Board has constantly struggled to get visual artists represented, but very few step forward, or stay on for very long. The gallery coordinator has a very meager committee to support her, if there's anyone around at all.

I think this is a great forum, Craig, but what would be better is for people who care about art in Newfoundland to actually get involved. Join the gallery committee, they need you. That's what being artist-run is all about.

See you at the Hall,
Erin Whitney
Operations Manager

1:47 p.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...


I really appreciate your comments.

As someone who has been involved with artist run galleries as a board member, employee and volunteer for the last seven years, I feel I have a good grasp of what it means to be "artist run" as you say.

But thanks for taking the time to respond.

3:52 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i would add that artist run means that artist voices are being heard and are given the right to decisions, and are not over ruled by a higher entity.
so if a whole board quits because artists are being treated unfairly in an artist run space...i don't understand how -"the grand experiment" of a democratic, artist-run centre- is a positive term.

and this is definitely not an attack on staff. we all know the struggles of human resources and funding in non-profit spaces and artist-run organizations

12:24 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is in response to a comment made about rock stars. I do EXPECT to be a rockstar. my quiet medium will rock your world.

2:57 p.m.  
Anonymous Kent Barrett said...

Imagine a time when the only theatre action in the province was the St. John's Players, when there were no theatre festivals anywhere, no bed and breakfasts, no grants, no recording facilities, no universal tv or even radio and no bars on George Street...

Well, some of us don't have to imagine it.

Figgy Duff, Sheilah's Brush, Codco, Breakwater Books, Gerry Squires... (for starters that's music, dance, theatre, publishing, painting and sculpture) the show contains figures from all the arts. And who were these people? No one special, just if you remove the people in this show from the equation and I doubt there'd be anything alive in the way of culture here today other than Canadian Idol regionals (which would be held in Halifax).

There was no jazz popular here until Ralph Walker started bringing his trio to the pubs. Figgy Duff? You have no idea what would be missing if Noel Dinn hadn't had the parts to show up in some village early on a Saturday morning and started knocking on people's doors "Good morning missus. Me name's Noel Dinn. Do ye got any tunes?"

I could go on, but if you don't know what it's like to move into a old yellow van with four other people and tour for four months, things like driving up to St. Anthony in November on an unpaved road to do a show for a bunch of people who'd sooner see you dead than dance I guess you can't. There was a ferocious dedication required to live and paint in a lighthouse for 14 years, or any of the things these folks did and called it fun.

Along the way I was able to get a few snapshots of these folks.

Don't know what you mean by photoshoppy. The modern portraits or the montages? The montages were used to try to lend something of a narrative element to the works (which I felt made them somewhat more accessible to people who did not know who the subjects were) and also simply to include more people. When you have 20,000 negatives, and space for only 45 pictures you have to do something. Of course people were left out. That's why this is The Way They Were, Vol I

Anyway I did what I could in the two weeks I had to produce the show. The reaction has been very favourable. I think it's good work and I'm proud of them. Sorry you didn't like them.

9:54 p.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

dear kent,

thanks so much for your intelligent and considered response. i'm glad you didn't take anything as a personal attack on you but just one guy's opinion. i'll definitely check out Volume 2.

10:13 p.m.  

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