Governor General Awards NAC Artists!

Governor General Awards NAC Artists!

If you want to see the best visual and media artists in the nation, you need look no further than your down-home Artist-run Centre, NAC.

The Governor General’s Visual and Media Arts Awards were announced on 15 February. Of the eight individuals awarded, two were good friends of NAC and recent exhibitors at our centre. For the quantitatively inclined that’s an astonishing 25%, or one quarter, of this year’s winners connected to NAC!

Congratulations to Shelley Niro and Mike Hoolboom. Videos about these whip-smart artists and kind-as-peach-pie people are on the Canada Council’s website right here. Congratulations to both, it’s well-earned and high time!

Wish You Were Here / review by Bart Gazzola

Wish You Were Here: 23 Days at Sea
Review by Bart Gazzola for The Sound STC
December 2016

Many artworks employ an aesthetic of experience: intending to communicate the understanding of an event or occurrence that the artist has undergone / endured, or alternately that is worthy of recounting in a space of examination and consideration, like a collaborative act of remembrance. The current show at the Niagara Artists Centre, Chapter 1: Twenty-Three Days at Sea, is of that ilk.

The four artists that occupy the gallery space (Nour Bishouty, Christopher Boyne, Elisa Ferrari and Amaara Raheem) have a starting point that’s communal, but each brings their own understanding and history to this unique residency project. “Time stands still in travel” and thus we have slim vignettes of multiple intersecting experiences. Sometimes they overlap, and sometimes not.

Twenty-Three is a unique project. Its relevant not just for considering how a cultural space can continue to foster creativity amid the madness of late capitalist frenzies of Vancouver real estate. Access Gallery in that city is the genesis of not solely this exhibition, but several “chapters” to come.

It also disrupts assumptions about “place.” In the Canadian “narrative”, place taints everything conceptually. In the post colonial / post modernist / post factual world, it’s yet another means by which we de / construct experience…

The descriptor: “In December 2014, Access Gallery….issued a call for…a highly unconventional artist residency, offering selected emergent and experimental artists passage aboard cargo ships sailing from Vancouver to Shanghai. Crossing the Pacific Ocean takes approximately twenty-three days, during which time artists will be considered “in residence” aboard the vessel…two candidates [would] inaugurate this multi-year project by setting sail in late summer 2015. [What] we had initiated was not simply an artist residency, but a powerful framework through which to address the complexity of our contemporary condition. The cargo ship — sailing across a vast and “empty” space of the sea, nearly always invisible to those on shore and yet inextricably threaded through all our lives — seemed to offer a near bottomless container for the imagination, for narrative and for cultural critique.”

The gallery is divided foursquare with the artists’ respective works separated (almost like a map). Boyne’s delightful installation Geneva, immediately to your left as you enter the Showroom space, mirrors a far table of photographs (gloves are provided for your perusal of the stacks of  glossy, large prints) and objects, immersed in an overpowering, almost unpleasant audio fog, at the far end of the room, from Ferrari. Her works is Untitled (“To stay in the hold of the ship, despite my fantasies of flight”).

Boyne’s work has a guileless quality. Partly because his many “ships” and “nautical” objects, like a child’s field of toy soldiers, have a playful nature that invites handling. There’s a simplicity, a starkness, to Geneva (wood, paint, brass) that evokes a long trip across a vast expanse, the isolation and loneliness of this, the emptiness and the understandable joy when you recognize a fellow traveller, in another ship, that passes you on the waters. Some of the “ships” are delicate and detailed, others are rough facsimiles of “boat”, like with any act of travel or movement that is so vastly abstract that we need to incorporate it into our imagination to understand it. Colour is sparse here (blocks of orange, cones of dark blue) as most of the pieces are beige with a touch of detail, some easily fitting in your hand. Others are tiny and could be lost on the floor, like a drop in a wider ocean.

This minutiae, this construction of meaning through repetitions of small “pieces” (a visual diary) connects to the personal narratives of Amaara Raheem, from lists of items (titled Time, Body, Things) or her soft, watery video (titled submerged) that seems as self reflective as it is oddly ambiguous (is it swimming or drowning? Leaving or arriving, or simply in an interstitial space in between?).

The video projections of Nour Bishouty also engage in first person narratives, tales told. Her inkjet prints from the series Shifting Surfaces, however, are more immediately engaging: the monochromatic images are vague and abstracted, but lovely in their delicate white frames.
These are all “practices defined by a perceptible and sustained state of “seeking” bodies of work produced in response to their voyages, along with published reproductions of their logbooks kept while at sea.” These are interesting enough to peruse separate from the exhibition, or to skim before / after the gallery space.

The excessive, almost aurilly abusive pulse of noise in the back of the gallery, in Ferrari’s work, is an honest replication of her experience. It has the veracity of repeated violence: perhaps in that respect its most successful in small doses, and like much audio art, plays with pushing the comfort of the “listener,” but regrettably I’ve little desire to sift the images or handle the objects on the table while I also gain a headache.

Twenty-Three is an interesting response to an immediate reality: whether the displacement of cultural spaces in Vancouver, or a site that is often “outside” artistic consideration (Mandy Barber, a U.K. based artist once produced an entire series about “public spaces that are owned by no one”, and many of these were / are spaces of travelling). But as the first “chapter”, I look forward to future work produced through these residencies that evoke more interest and engagement.

<< This review first appeared in The Sound STC >>

EMERGENT ART / review by Barbara Bucknall

Review by Barbara Bucknall

When I look at the current show at NAC  by Justin  Pawson  and  Geoff   Farnsworth, the term “Emergent Art”,  which I found quite baffling when I first came across it, begins to make sense to me. These pictures seem to be emerging from the artists’ lower depths like improvised jazz pieces, without regard for standard categories such as “representational”, “abstract” or “surreal.” These categories are mixed.  The representational faces that look out at us from what seems like a rupture in an abstract surface, in Justin Pawson’s paintings, seem to belong to the world of fantasy and science fiction, and a very aggressive world at that. The titles are no particular help in identifying this world. Steve Remus compared them to the quite arbitrary titles attached to jazz pieces when I commented to him on this.

I think the picture by Justin Pawson I found most striking is “Babel” because the title is such an obvious non sequitur. When you hear the word “Babel” it is natural to think of the Tower of Babel, with the builders, stricken by God for attempting to reach the heavens, opening their mouths to offer incomprehensible fragments of speech, the languages having been divided. But the huge dark red face which dominates Justin’s painting is alone in quite a pleasant, appealing abstract area, with light, cheerful colors that in no way suggest Divine Retribution, while the mouth is tightly closed. It is such a severe face– my companion said it looked like Joseph Stalin–that it seems to be expressing condemnation rather than enduring it.

I said in my last Blog that Amber Lee Williams seemed to be engaging in soliloquy rather than inviting dialogue. Here we seem to be listening to two soliloquys harmonizing with each other. The comparison to jazz comes to mind again. Geoff’s paintings are less immediately self contradictory than Justin’s, but here too the line between abstract and representational is blurred, the two styles being broken into squiggly fragments, while the titles, such as “Amygdala Unit”, are equally disconcerting.

The one of Geoff’s I liked best was “Satori in Red and Blue”, which shows a male figure in a red coat and blue  boots standing in a snowy backyard.  The term “Satori”, which is applied to a sudden burst of consciousness after Zen meditation, seems appropriate, given the ordinariness of the scene.  “Before Enlightenment you chop wood and carry water.  After Enlightenment you chop wood and carry water.”  But for all I know, Geoff’s intention may be just to pull our legs.

But I now have another artist to mention. While I was viewing the above paintings at NAC  I was invited to step round the corner to Melanie MacDonald’s sale.  There I picked up the catalogue for her show “Scraps” at the Niagara Falls Art Museum, which I had unfortunately been unable to attend.  The introduction pointed out the sheer novelty of her completely unironic approach to the commercial art of an earlier time as it had been preserved in scrapbooks.  She really elaborates on that earlier vision on a very large scale.  This too can count as Emergent  Art because it is so surprising and unexpected, a completely new departure.

My final comment comes in the form of a poem I wrote some time ago about an experience of my own.


We come to the door and find it locked.

No answer to our call.

But picking the lock we think should present

No difficulty at all.

However if we with craft

And cunning machinery come

To pick the lock,

The intricate tool refuses,

The skilled electricity fuses

And we are forced to stop.

But then one day we are wandering,

Lost in a dream:

The door stands open wide.

Without volition

We find we have stepped inside

And gifts are in our hand.

The unknown glory lights unbidden

Our purpose and our land.

DISTANCE LENDS ENCHANTMENT, MAYBE / review by Barbara Bucknall

Review by Barbara Bucknall

As I consider  the recent Voix de Ville Extravagonzo and the present show at NAC by Amber Lee Williams, I am left with an impression of distancing.  The foreword by Steve Remus to the little brochure accompanying Extravagonzo talks of resisting attempts to possess and oppress us. In other words, the young people at NAC are Romantic rebels, committed to a work of liberation from prevailing accepted attitudes.

Part of this falls under the umbrella of atheism, which is what I cannot go along with.  When I was a student at Oxford in the1950s, obstructive, domineering authoritarianism was applied  by atheistic professors who disparaged and even persecuted the Christian creative thinkers J.R.R.Tolkien and C.S.Lewis. Consequently  I found the comedians in this show profoundly alienating.

I was not alienated, however, by most of this show, which I found fascinating and charming and above all surprising. I felt that I had somehow entered a stranger’s dream with all its bizarre twists and turns and sudden leaps of faith, without quite knowing how I got there or what prompted it.

The distancing in Amber  Lee  Williams’s show is rather different.  There is only our own movement, from one  part of her show to another, no sound and very little color.  We remain on the periphery of what Amber chooses to convey.

To begin with, she superimposes white scribbles on a series of commemorative photographs which explore identity by displacing it. Then we pass to a cluster of used tea bags. Then we are confronted with old children’s books which seem to be placed on a rustic base out in the country with twigs overhead. The pages have been  glued together and then perforated  to reveal photographs of the artist’s daughter and mother. This is followed by a solidified bag of baby socks and a series of photographs from a family album. Old and young, male and female, are pieced together and surrounded by a diaphanous watercolor haze.

Altogether we find ourselves listening to a soliloquy rather than being engaged in a  dialogue or swept along on a flood of eloquence. We may in fact be listening to a language spoken before we were born and to which we will return after death.  Amber’s show represents a challenge: a challenge to move out of our accustomed reality and cross a strange frontier.  This is very much in keeping with NAC principles.

The same challenge occurs, in a much more recognizable and welcoming way, in the puppet show in the NAC window, now in its third incarnation   Here we are presented with four tiers of puppets admiring a three ring circus, with a lion and his tamer on the middle level, acrobats above and merry and sad clowns below.  To me it came as a welcome return to my own highly peculiar brand of normality.

Voix de Ville Artist Spotlight

Voix de Ville Artist Spotlight
Lisa Renee McKenzie

NAC Member and textile artist Lisa Renee McKenzie is working with NACs creative team on the Voix de Ville extraordinary set, designed by visual artist Shary Boyle. Lisa answered a few questions about her favourite WTF moments and how she expects to get her mind blown this year!

  1. How many years have you been a part of NAC’s wearable art fiascos? And how have you contributed to the show in the past? 

I’ve been a part of NAC’s wearable art fiascos since…hmmmm, which was the one at the old bingo hall? I think it was six years ago? I did makeup for that one. And subsequent years following! And then, I think it was two years ago, I made the shows closer, the bride.

  1. Tell us a little bit about what you’re cooking up for this year’s extravagonzo.

I’m helping out with the stage treatment, so much colour and texture, I love the whole feel and vibe this year!

  1. As we evolve into Voix de Ville, what are you most looking forward to?

Very excited to see how the show plays out, see the differences from the runway show, I have a feeling this one is gonna BLOW OUR MINDS!!!

Also, BRUCE!!!!!!!

  1. Tell us your favourite WTF moment from STRUTT’s gone by.

THE DOUGH BOY. still one of my favourite pieces. And it was totally wtf.


Wearable Art by Lisa Renee McKenzie, 2013
Photo by Lauren Garbutt





Voix de Ville / Artist Spotlight / Justus Duntsch

Voix de Ville > Artist Spotlight
Justus Duntsch

We’re checking in with some of the artists leading up to the Voix de Ville Extravagonzo. First up, Justus Duntsch. Justus is working on a whale of a project, and he’s glad to say that no living thing was hurt or exploited in the production of his wearable art (except for maybe his fingers and sleep pattern). To see what Justus has been losing sleep over, check out the Voix de Ville Extravagonzo Friday 18 November & Saturday 19 November at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre!

  1. As we evolve into Voix de Ville, what are you most looking forward to?
    When I first heard about the evolution to Voix de Ville, I had to give my head a shake. I’ve always had a big place in my heart for circus arts, and my experiences in Europe with circus and variety shows revealed the gap that exists in this part of the world just waiting for an event like this to fill it. I welcome this evolution wholeheartedly; while the industrial space of STRUTT was beautiful, I think the Voix de Ville team has some tricks up their sleeve which will transform the Partridge Hall into a place of wonder. I can’t wait to see how the art works will come to life in this venue but I have no doubt it will be a spectacular meeting of the old and the new, fine and raw, dark and bright -definitely a one-of-a-kind show.
  1. Tell us your favourite WTF moment from STRUTT’s gone by.
    WTF is what most people probably think over and over again as soon as you entered the factory space home of STRUTT. The best kind of WTF of course! The surprise at who from your extended friendship circle shows up there, the laughs, head shaking, insight and confusion that are all natural reactions to the works. And not to mention how strangely warm you feel to have been a part of such an odd, almost dreamlike experience.



“Devolve” and “Scenes from Late Capitalism”/Review by Barbara Bucknall

“Devolve” is very impressive.  Everything in it is labeled untitled.  And yet these works do seem to convey a definite message in spite of the lack of words.  When I came into NAC and saw the array of huge flamboyant pictures, mainly in red, orange and yellow, by Wayne Corliss, it made me think of Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark, it was so suggestive of fire from heaven.  I would like to suggest that Wayne’s pictures be reproduced as illustrations to Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, they seem so much like poetry about Lucifer’s fall from heaven.  Light and fire and an awe-inspiring violence are all suggested in swirls of very definite downward movement.  And of course the massive size of these pictures also suggest something truly grandiose.

Each picture is different in spite of their basic similarity, like coming again and again to varied expressions of similar emotions in music or poetry.  The same theme is touched on in different but equally glorious ways.  As in the case of Milton’s poem, Lucifer, the fallen Light Bringer, is still a glorious angel in his fall.  However the final picture in this series seems to show the calm, peaceful radiance which filled heaven after the rebel angel’s departure.  I may be letting myself be carried away, but the two cubes poised on their corners which introduce and conclude this series and contain a lot of dark green and dark blue could represent Lucifer ruling in Hell after serving in Heaven.

The equally poetic works by Amber Lee Williams follow.  They are much smaller and to tend to run to shades of grey, beige and blue.  They are quite decorous although some are dark.  The poetry they evoke is private, personal and domestic, making me think of Emily Dickinson rather than John Milton.  Amber does say in her artist’s statement that she has drawn on her own life experiences in her art.  She works in beeswax, with a blow torch, and says that sometimes she the medium takes over, but to me it all looks very precise.  I noticed several pictures with small light coloured circles like portholes for the artist to look through.  These pictures seemed to be painted with the inner eye, giving the viewer entry into the artist’s mind.

The second show, “Scenes from Late Capitalism” by Nathan Heuer, is quite different from anything in “Devolve.”  It is drawn with a great many straight lines, in a reasoned, abstract, understated, somewhat satirical way.  There is a definition of a straight line as “the shortest distance between two points” and Nathan covers the shortest distance between constructing a motel or a factory and letting it fall down.  Nathan says that his object was to show utilitarian buildings set up and abandoned in the spirit of consumerism.  However in his drawings, they still appear intact.

The works by Wayne and Amber might be described as abstracts, for lack of a better word, but Nathan’s work, while strictly representational, is far more abstract from the emotional point of view.  The two shows are a study in contrasts.

bill bissett/Review by Barbara Bucknall

Although Bill Bissett is an important figure in modern Canadian literature, I had not heard of him until a couple of weeks ago.  This is probably because, although I got a thorough grounding in British literature, I am much more familiar, as a French teacher, with Canadian literature in French than in English.   I told Bill that when I met him.  He says he has French ancestry and also Micmac and American, so he is not only affiliated with Canadian English speakers.  In fact, although he did not bother to say so because it is such a well known fact, he makes reading his poetry as difficult as he can, since he groups his words into clusters of sounds spelled phonetically.

Reading his poetry takes quite an effort, but once you have made that effort, he reveals himself as very lyrical and spontaneous.  He was young in the sixties when he started writing and he seems never to have lost that youthful freshness and exuberance.  There is something so forthright and direct about his expression of his feelings that it seems quite childlike.  Jesus said that we had to become like little children and find the kingdom of heaven within us.  I do not know if Bill subscribes to any official religion and it did not occur to me to ask him, but he did tell me that he attaches great importance to practicing meditation.

There is no barrier to getting close to his painting.  It is very spontaneous and direct, full of strong, bright colours, especially red, yellow, blue and violet.  He even uses quite a lot of gold.  They are painted full on without any compromise, often in squiggly lines which look as if he just picks up his paintbrush and launches a direct attack on the canvas without stopping to think.  I asked him whether he paints without planning.  He said that he often meditates before painting, but without making any preliminary sketches, and if anything interrupts the flow he stops.  I felt very sympathetic to this approach.

People are portrayed in his show but there are very few depictions of human bodies.  Instead there are a great many faces in simplified, graphic outlines.  Some bodies under the faces are reduced to masses of squiggly lines in primary colours.  His pictures are quite large, allowing for the full sweep of the painter’s arm.  Some of the faces look straight at us and some are profiles looking at each other, but what he seems to prefer is to show one profile impinging on another, forming an egg shape.  Something about this makes me think of Pre-Columbian art in its directness.  He seems very concerned with communication in its most genuine form.

His use of colour is very strong, direct and emotional.   Besides faces, there are quite a few free hand circles enclosing circles in contrasting colours.  Although these circles do not contain geometric patterns but remain empty at the centre, I take them to be mandalas, which Bill does go in for.  They also make me think of the art of Zen.  But Zen art is freer, airier, less substantial and solid.

He also paints what one would be obliged to call abstracts, although they do not use geometric patterns but rather resemble thick tree branches.  However the colours are not naturalistic.

The paintings are what first catch one’s eye, but there are also a number of small black and white drawings composed of small, circular clumps attached together to form designs that lead one into fantasy.  He uses them to illustrate his poems.

I am very happy to have met Bill Bissett who, in spite of being famous, is so friendly, natural and unostentatious in his approach.  He seems like a special human being.

ARIADNI HARPER: 15 YEARS – PHOTOS IN PAINT/Review by Barbara Bucknall

Ariadni Harper’s large, representational images at NAC are solid and reassuring.  They carry a sense of strength, firmness and peace.  She seems to have special interest in nourishment, as witness her pictures of lobsters, both cooked and uncooked, roots and fish ready for cooking.  But she is also interested in living animals, whether goldfish darting about in a lily pond or a pug dog, and also children.

She is interested in depicting her images, which started out as photographs before being transferred to paint, from odd angles.  One example of this is “Birthday Dinner” in which the entire canvas is filled with cooked lobsters jutting into each other with no sign of any background.  Another is “Reflections” in which the artist has concentrated on reflections in the water from the bow of a boat, while showing very little of the rest of the boat at all.

A really disconcerting example of this approach is “My Squirrel” which shows the artist’s hands holding a very detailed depiction of a creature which doesn’t look very much like a squirrel at all but perhaps more like a magnification of a baby bird.  “My Squirrel” may be her pet name for it.  I was completely taken aback by the way she used representational detail in two completely different ways in the same picture so that the two things jolted you out of your expectation of a single coherent picture of recognizable reality.  She seems to have set out to overwhelm us with a realism whose ultimate effect is quite unrealistic and yet convincing.  She is not imitating Magritte at all and yet she makes me think of him.  She makes us doubt the evidence of our own eyes rather than her technical ability.  This must be the picture she is proudest of as she uses it to advertise her show.

In the midst of all her reassuring solidity she is very inventive and goes straight to the heart of what she is depicting.  For instance, her painting of root vegetables carries the very essence of roots so that it is not simply the expression of their appearance.  They might almost be the Platonic Ideas of root vegetables.  Whatever she paints, it is the essence of that thing.  She is also quite a colorist, as we see in the edible sherbet colours of “Cotton Candy Clouds”.  She makes me want to absorb her paintings into myself as part of the structure of my own body.

These paintings are the result of fifteen years of work and represent a surprisingly coherent  experience, given that they are stretched over such a lengthy time frame.  Solid as her pictures are, the artist seems solidly settled within herself.  Perhaps this explains why she has included architectural details along with her natural objects.  Her natural objects have their own architecture, so these different things blend together quite seamlessly.  Her eye organizes reality so that we can accept it without question.

                    AN APOLOGETIC POSTSCRIPT

I see I have tried to be too clever and subtle and have actually insulted this artist by what I intended as a compliment.  It has been pointed out to me that what the artist was holding in her hands in the painting “My Squirrel” is not a baby bird at all – indeed it doesn’t even look like a baby bird – but a handful of black walnuts.  She is calling herself a squirrel for collecting them.  That just shows how badly a critic can go wrong in bringing depth psychology to bear on what is simply representational and the artist is making no highfaluting claims to be anything but representational.  So please accept this apologetic postscript as a reminder that I am not infallible even if I am an academic.  In fact that turns out to be a drawback.


The show that is presently on at NAC is quite disconcerting.  It consists of a number of illustrations taken from a short, unpublished book which purports to be in progress.  The book is lying around for our perusal and was originally presented to the Queen, one of whose ladies-in-waiting politely declined it on her behalf.


Steve Remus felt I needed some help in writing a blog about this, so he told me that, in spite of the title, the book is a sendup of The War of 1812 and the author, who is using pseudonyms, is schizophrenic.  He invited me to ask the author questions about anything I hadn’t understood.  The chief question I asked him is whether he feels skeptical and sarcastic about the diagnosis of schizophrenia.  I do have the impression from reading his book the author is skeptical and sarcastic about the reality around him or what modern Canadians take to be that reality.  I once asked a psychologist to define schizophrenia for me, since it obviously does not consist, as so many people suppose, of having dual personalities, and he said that the split involved was a split from reality.  I told a close friend that, sand he said “Whose reality? What reality?” which is quite a question.


I think that we can take it that the mentally ill patient is told that his view of reality is basically mistaken and should be corrected.  Since all we have to go by in discerning reality is our own perceptions, this news is not welcome.  Some mental patients have what is commonly called “insight,” that is, they agree that their perceptions are mistaken and try to go along with having them corrected.  But since they are human beings and have egos and rely, as almost all human beings do, on telling themselves stories about themselves, even they put up a certain amount of resistance.  I have personal experience of this myself, so I know what I am talking about.


An extreme example of this resistance can be found in the satirical novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” by Ken Kesey.  I had not read it myself until I saw that the author of the work I am reviewing mentioned it, but it is so well known, if only from the movie based on it, that I hardly have to describe it.


Being cuckoo is such a common and derisive term for being crazy that the author I am reviewing has filled his story with cuckoo clocks that are crafted locally and have roused the inhabitants of New Amsterdam (New York) to such a pitch of fury by their total unreliability that they are descending in a body on Shipman’s Corner (St. Catharines) to destroy all the cuckoo clocks.  This I take to be the chief allusion to The War of 1812, particularly as a young lady called Laura goes trekking off to get soothing help from what perhaps should have been the British Invasion, but is actually a musical group sponsored by the American Ambassador.


Absolutely no one on either side is taken seriously by the author.  Laura Secord isn’t, Harriet Tubman isn’t, the “Injuns” who helped the Empire Loyalists aren’t, the Americans, who include Twain and Obama, aren’t.  The author is just having a good laugh all round as what we consider the reality of politics and history.  At the same time he refuses to take even the work in which he is doing this seriously.  It is certainly far less serious and convincing than “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”


Where the illustrations are concerned, I asked the author, who is also the illustrator, if he had made a special effort to keep the illustrations simple and childlike.  I think he did, to get a deadpan effect, but he hadn’t told me so.


I think that we can suppose that he is on the road to recovery because he is in control of the products of his imagination and reaching out to share them with other people instead of being controlled by them.  But perhaps he still has a way to go before reaching out in a way that is totally convincing.