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 >>

konkreet vizual pome : bill bissett / Review by Bart Gazzola

konkreet vizual pome : bill bissett
Review by Bart Gazzola

There’s a dearth of self-congratulatory rhetoric in cultural communities about being uniquely “different”: but I favour Theodor Adorno, whom acerbically observed that when confronted with something genuinely groundbreaking, most people fall back on the shameless assertion that they “don’t understand”. Look at the accolades filmmaker Bruce LaBruce is garnering, internationally, and the silence he endures, in his native Canada, to see this illustrated.

I suspect this attitude – a virulent discourse in Canada, where academic groupthink is more subtle, and quieter, but insidiously pervasive – is why bill bissett is not widely proclaimed as an odd, difficult genius, though he clearly is one. His collections of poetry include Th influenza uv logik, Loving without being vulnrabul, Scars on th seehors, narrativ enigma, and northern wild roses. Many cultural historians are obsessed with labeling and compartmentalizing artists: bissett breaks and defies that sloth.   

bissett treats language and speech as a mutable, protean thing, writing phonetically / frankly. The idea (or certainty) that language is surely a virus (perhaps you saw Eric Schmaltz’s Babeltech Industries™ presents The Assembly Line of Babel last year at NAC that explored this “disease” beautifully), a form that confines more than it communicates, and must be treated with creative skepticism, is a stream in bissett’s work.

First, praise to Greg Betts, the Director of the Festival of Readers here in St. Catharines, whom had a major role in mounting bill’s exhibition. We chatted at the opening reception for lunarian life (at NAC) amid “paintings n drawings in konkreet vizual pomes.”

NAC’s Dennis Tourbin Gallery space is filled with bissett’s works: they’re grouped together loosely by formal distinctions, but these aren’t excluding. The hand of the artist, in the free and focused marks made in the paintings, are echoed in the smaller black and white drawings, and even in pieces where the “typewriter” text builds layers letter on letter like architecture or blended voices that fight and focus and reform into something else. A square work, black text amassed and a mess on white is nearly illegible in rich dark typeset; a line at the bottom clearly says if we find ourselvs missing weul find each othr aftr all.

The larger paintings are bright in flat rich colour (yellow dominates) with simplicity of form and mark: figures gaze out of at us, and the circular “sun” motif repeats. I associate the latter with Barbelith from The Invisibles (“the name of the “placenta” for humanity…a supernatural moon seeming both intelligent and benign..it connects the hologram of our subjective reality to the realm outside of our space-time, the domain of the magic mirror, and helps humans to realize their true nature beyond the subjective concept of ‘self’…”)

This isn’t overtly projective on my part. bill’s words: “bill bissett originalee from lunaria ovr 300 yeers ago in lunarian timesent by shuttul thru halifax nova scotia originalee wantid 2b dansr n figur skatr became a poet n paintr in my longings after 12 operaysyuns reelee preventid me from following thinishul direksyuns – bill bissett garnered international attention in the 1960s as a preeminent figure of the counterculture movement in Canada and the United Kingdom.”

There’s a more symbolic than “realistic”quality here. bissett influenced one of my favourite poets, bpnichol (author of The Martyrology, so perhaps bill’s the patron saint of concrete poetry? nichol’s ABC: The Aleph Beth Book impressed me greatly, as a teenager). bissett explores the same fluid interactions between letter and shape, word and form.

The smaller black and white drawings are a separate body of work, and the textual pieces, that seem to be the detritus (or evidence) of a typewriter gone mad, aroused and angry in its repeated “striking” of the “keyboard keys”,  could be described as a third. The monochromatic drawings have a playful quality, and sometimes seem like growths, as though bodies have sprouted new and different organs, and other times the same figures that look out, or embrace, or kiss or otherwise entangle with each other, reappear.

Let’s step away from the artworks and return to bissett, who in “1964…founded blewointment press, which published the works of bpNichol and Steve McCaffery, among others. bissett’s charged readings, which never fail to amaze his audiences, incorporate sound poetry, chanting and singing, the verve of which is only matched by his prolific writing career-more than seventy books of bissett’s poetry have been published. A pioneer of sound, visual and performance poetry – eschewing the artificial hierarchies of meaning and the privileging of things (“proper” nouns) over actions imposed on language by capital letters; the metric limitations imposed on the possibilities of expression by punctuation; and the illusion of formal transparency imposed on the written word by standard (rather than phonetic) spelling-bissett composes his poems as scripts for pure performance and has consistently worked to extend the boundaries of language and visual image, honing a synthesis of the two in the medium of concrete poetry…exercising his native tongue dissent, bissett continues to dance upon upon the cutting edge of poetics and performance works.”

This exhibition closes Saturday, October 15th, and bissett will be performing the last evening of the show.

I want to make one final point, using bissett as a means to an end, here: in the 1970s, bissett was maligned and slandered by several politicians, whom targeted the funding he and his publications received. This was the same ignorant mantra we saw with Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, and in other examples I’m too tired to cite (does this happen once a decade, like a recurrence of herpes?). I won’t name the deservedly forgotten politicians that abused bissett. I will echo what I said to someone recently about Voice of Fire: its value has only skyrocketed, financially and artistically, since some overpaid, ignorant and hideously expensive (with their salaries and gold plated pensions) politicians failed to make political hay of what “offended” them. The ardent queerness (as in gay) of bissett’s work surely offended many: and as lunarian life at NAC demonstrates, he continues to contribute to the larger cultural dialogue, pushing boundaries and causing (appropriate) trouble.

Living in Scenes of Late Capitalism / Review by Bart Gazzola

Living in Scenes of Late Capitalism
Review by Bart Gazzola

The Show Room Gallery at NAC is spacious and stark: a sliding garage door and a red EXIT sign are along the back wall, and this compliments Nathan Heuer’s aesthetic. The sterility of the “white cube” of the room argues with that door’s ridges, the concrete floor and other industrial markers: but contested elements are at the core of the work in Scenes from Late Capitalism.

The works are large and minimalist: framed in white, the large sheets of paper are affixed by multiple small round magnets (unpainted. Their gleam catches the lights, but they don’t detract). There’s almost an element of camouflage in how the paper, frames and walls all seem to share the same tonality. Scenes emerge outward from the walls.  

It’s smart, engaging work: I spoke with Heuer at the opening, and his commentary was invaluable. We picked up this conversation recently:

Your exhibition is titled “Scenes of Late Capitalism.” That’s a popular phrase currently; but there’s also an insinuation of an “ending” (late as in deceased) and a funerary quality to the works at NAC.

I’d agree with you that criticism of capitalism is in resurgence. Too often, however, that criticism is directed at easy targets – banks, Wall Street, etc. These entities are loud, visible, and easy to blame for the problems associated with capitalism. Doing so, however, is a simplification of complex socio-economic forces that ignores influential choices that we make on a daily basis.  Consider the drawing This Year’s Remodel, which depicts a chain hotel that was demolished after only a decade of operation. Structurally there was nothing wrong with the hotel. Aesthetically it had become outdated, and consumers quietly made the choice – an act akin to natural selection – to go elsewhere. The hotel chain had to respond to what we might call a selection pressure by constructing a new building. Most of my drawings are designed to illuminate such subtle instances of our complicity in a wasteful system.

For me it’s sobering to recognize the elusiveness of this problem. As the Western brand of consumerism spreads globally, it seems that little can be done to curb the sheer wastefulness of such an outlook. It also seems futile to ask consumers to make choices whose benefits are not obvious for them in the short term. I hope that the drawings will provoke questions from the viewer about the long-term consequences of everyday decisions. If not, then the works will indeed have a funerary quality.

Several “Scenes” are real places, with real stories behind them: others have a universal quality that connects with places like STC, with its own economic history. Tell us about some of the individual places you’ve depicted, and how important is that to your ideas / artwork?

I’ll discuss two drawings. The New Rural Economy depicts an abandoned Ohio farm. While there’s a stark Andrew Wyeth-like beauty in such a scene, the striking feature of this site was the barn’s repurposing as a billboard announcing “GUNS! EXIT 215”. I was immediately struck by the potential to portray two intersecting narratives: the death of the family farm and the rising popularity of firearms, especially military-style firearms, in rural America. Local farms are particularly threatened by capitalism and globalism. Consumers desire a variety of crops year round, which is unrealistic in places like Ohio. While small changes were made for compositional purposes, the scene that was the inspiration for this drawing required little adjustment. This was true of some of the simplest details, such as the font used for the advertisement. It seems, in my observation, that most advertisements for firearms require exclamation marks and bold fonts like Impact (the visual equivalent of yelling).

The drawing Signs required a dramatically different approach. Also set in Ohio, it depicts the demise of a town built around a freeway stop, again due to shifts in consumer preference. In Signs, I wondered how I could reduce the story of a town’s collapse to a singular image without losing the significance of the event. In the end, I used defunct freeway signs as a symbol of former prosperity. The shapes of the signs, whose lettering is long gone, remind the viewer that they have been heavily branded by familiar franchises. The actual site that inspired this drawing is quite different from what’s depicted. The signs are much farther apart, and far less variable in height. In the finished drawing, all of the elements are compressed together, so that the viewer may take in the totality

of the town’s demise quickly. A large chunk of empty space was added to the right, creating a sense of movement. In this way the viewer becomes an indifferent observer, simply passing by in a vehicle.

Your process (graphite / watercolour) is traditional, and very disciplined. There’s a photo realist quality here. How does your work fit into the history of these sites, and how do you see your work fitting into the larger dialogue about small towns, industry and the economy? I’m thinking of the book Methland, for example, and what that says about the rural economy and how communities cope (positively, negatively) with the economic decline?

Filmmakers and psychologists often discuss the phenomena of transportation, a term that describes how immersed the viewer has become in the narrative. For me, working realistically is the most logical means to aid the viewer in entering the depicted spaces. All of the drawings are in some way inspired by a real place, even if they are carefully rearranged to most effectively tell the narrative. They’re the kinds of places that result from the shortsighted consumer decisions that I mentioned earlier.  

In the end I’m closely connected with communities that have experienced economic decline. I grew up in Michigan, a state that’s struggled to redefine itself in the post-industrial, Late Capitalist era. My home state embodies many of the issues that I am addressing in my work.  It is, for example, defined by massive contrasts between urban and rural areas. What has been clear, however, is that that there’s an intrinsic relationship between urban and rural areas, and when one area is struggling, so is the other. For me, this is indicative of the trickle down of globalization.

Nate Heuer’s Scenes From Late Capitalism is on display until September 30th, 2016.

The TCO Terrace: Music + Madness by Bart Gazzola

The TCO Terrace: Music + Madness 
by Bart Gazzola

One of my favourite memories of the summer of 2015 was being on the Craig Oliver Terrace at NAC listening to – or being immersed in – an environment of audio / noise / performance and film / video projections. The musicians / performers created an audio experience that wafted over the rooftops and the architecture of the nearby buildings – like the church tower – seemed to be part of the environment and cinematic scenes illuminating the terrace. 

Summer is nearly back: and this Saturday, Simply Saucer, TV Freaks and the lesser known (for now) but definitely unique Rocking Horses will be taking to the Terrace, with what’s alternately been described as “spastic punk” (TV Freaks – punk is not so much dead as angrier and more nihilistic, a failed steeltown rage) or calmer Syd Barrett infused tones (Saucer) that bring to mind how many people I know here and other parts of the Ontario Rust Belt listened to “Welcome to the Machine” by Floyd while staring out at the wastelands….This will be a CD release event for Simply Saucer, as they mark more than forty years of their unique music.
In talking about the The Rocking Horses, I’ll paraphrase one of the members: he plays the coconuts and doesn’t need a microphone. And I’ll even put out the warning that though many performance audio interventions can be painful to endure, any group that presents interpretations of commercial jingles intermixed and creatively combined is guaranteed to be entertaining. (I may actually appreciate the “Pizza Nova” ear worm radio ad, and my lord, my mother used to shop at “Fabricland”, so the Horses’ are another version of local histories through insistent familiar “songs”). The set will only be twenty minutes (this is apparently a singular rule of performance), but the singular nature of the instruments used (one of the group may be employing a “bucket of oats”) should ensure that you don’t want to miss it.

Past instruments have also included cereal boxes filled with beans, and the randomness of the tools is echoed in the randomness of past actions by The Rocking Horses: some of you may have experienced their impromptu liveliness / interventions / audio acts in Montebello Park.
An interesting phrase that came up was grooveyhooves: I like to use it as one word, like a compliment. It brings me back to the aforementioned performance where the back projection mixed flaming apocalyptic landscapes with a reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica, with its white horse looking gigantic…couldn’t tell you who was playing, but those images and that aural assault is etched in my head. The best thing about performance art interventionist noise music events is that they are indescribable but often unforgettable. Simply Saucer has been hailed internationally as being in the ouvre of Nico / Warhol era Velvet Underground, whereas TV Freaks are fellow denizens of the industrial wastes, hailing from Hamilton; The Rocking Horses add a bit of odd local flavour, an unpredictable player in this not quite summer Saturday night mix.
It all starts at 8 PM: tickets at NAC or Mindbomb records, $20 (+HST) ahead of time, and $22 (+HST) at the door.

NAC’s Member of the Moment: Bart Gazzola

In our NAC Member of the Moment series, we ask Niagara Artists Centre members about art in Niagara and the number one reason to join the NAC. In this interview, Bart Gazzola talks about recent exhibits at the NAC, his visual arts radio show on CFBU and why signing up for a NAC membership was one of the first things he did when he moved here from Saskatchewan.

Sign up for your very own NAC membership online or stop by NAC at 354 St. Paul Street in St. Catharines during gallery hours to get your membership in person.

Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, FUSE, Galleries West, PrairieSeenHamilton Arts & Letters, BlackFlash and Magenta Magazine. Past curatorial projects include REGION (Contemporary Saskatchewan Painting) and Personal Geographies (an overview of The Photographers Gallery collection). Currently he’s collaborating on his first international exchange exhibition.

Bart hosted and produced The A Word on CFCR 90.5 FM in Saskatoon for nine years, with guests as diverse as Steve Loft and David Thauberger. This was just relaunched / reconfigured here as A Word Niagara, and he recently chatted with Elizabeth Chitty and Stuart Reid. These will air on CFBU 103.7 FM, but are also at his blog right now.

His work has been shown at the Mendel Art Gallery, Platform, Kenderdine, Alternator, paved, Forest City Gallery, Gallery 44 and other spaces across Canada.

For three years, Bart was Editorial Chair of BlackFlash Magazine, and for twelve years he was the visual arts critic for Planet S Magazine. For more than a decade, he taught at the University of Saskatchewan, specifically digital media. He is a founding member of paved, and he has served on boards and worked at galleries in Saskatoon (aka, Kenderdine, Mendel, Video Verite) and Windsor (artcite, AGW).

After nearly two decades on the prairies (in 2011, the Saskatoon Star Phoenix called Bart a “Civic Art Star”), Bart is excited to return to St. Catharines, especially at a time when so much seems to be happening. He is pleased to be part of such a dynamic community.

Currently, Bart contributes to The Sound, and you can see some of his reviews of art and artists there.

When did you become a NAC member and why?
I’d been back in St. Catharines less than 24 hours, after moving here from the Prairies, when I got a NAC membership. I’ve been involved with lots of cultural spaces (in Windsor and Saskatoon), and in researching my move to St. Catharines, I knew that NAC would be one of my first stops, as a focal point of this community’s arts / culture scene. So I showed up right away and got a membership and made it clear I wanted to be part of that. Its been an excellent portal to the visual arts community here.

Are you an artist, an art appreciator or both?
Both: I’ve shown at Gallery 44, Alternator, Mendel, Platform and most recently was in a two person show at paved.

But these days I’m primarily an arts writer for a variety of publications, sometime curator, and a few other things, which you can see in my bio.

What’s the best thing about being an artist in Niagara?
This is a site that has its own identity, but also has the advantage of being situated very close to a number of exciting centres (whether Hamilton, Buffalo or Toronto). This makes it a place that has a variety of influences and ideas that permeate and mix together in new ways, with a diversity of ideas and forms.

Name a Niagara artist whose work knocks your socks off.
I can’t answer this right now, as I’m too new. I’m still researching and finding my feet here…but I should say that one of the things I’m doing here is a visual arts radio show that has launched on CFBU (I’ve already chatted with Elizabeth Chitty, whose Confluence project was a great point of entry to STC, as issues of history and communities both privileged and ignored are all part of her work. I’ve also chatted with Rodman Hall’s Director Stuart Reid in recent show), so I’ll reverse this question and say I want to hear / see / get emails and information from any artist who’s showing and doing here in St. Catharines and beyond in Niagara.

But the recent exhibition of Babeltech IndustriesTM presents…The Assembly Line of Babel by Eric Schmaltz really impressed me, and by the time you read this I will already have written down some thoughts about it at my blog. Excellent show. Language IS a virus.

Tell us about a memorable NAC experience.
Seeing Dave Gordon’s works in Excelsior! that referenced former Ontario Premier Mike Harris – who was premier here when I left Ontario for the Prairies – was a very nice bit of synchronicity. And it was creepy, too, as I left here when it was a Neo Con government that was unfriendly to arts and culture, and now have left Saskatchewan as it’s in the grip of a Neo Con regime that all but destroyed the film industry and seems to be facilitating the Saskatchewan Arts Board toward closure….

What’s the number one reason to become a NAC member?
If you saw Kaie Kellough perform at NAC, the same evening that Babel opened, and were blown away by his peformance both in terms of concrete poetry but also in speaking of contemporary issues with an empathy and intelligence that is rare, then you know you must support a space that facilitates that quality of work. NAC often presents works that are engaged and engaging with the larger STC community, in terms of visual arts but also with readings and other events: this is a form of fostering change, and change is a good and necessary thing that can be supported by your membership.