On Rupertsland Ruckus: A Conversation with Evin Collis by Stefan Nicoloff.

During 2013 the Winnipeg born Canadian artist Evin Collis (b. 1988) finished his most recent series of contemporary history paintings, Rupertsland Ruckus. It can be said that Evin’s work, spanning media such as painting, drawing, animation and sculpture, has always sought to create multifaceted representations of local histories in an allegorical mode, contesting the legacies of colonization, expansionism and industrialization. Collis is engaged in a kind of political historiography, he creates political messages while interrogating dominant historical narratives, often appropriating symbols from the institutions he attempts to subvert. Rupertsland Ruckus is the artist’s most successful series to date, the scale and ambition of these paintings, packed with layers of symbolism, are certainly representative of a pivotal turning point in his artistic practice.

Stefan Nicoloff: Painted with enticing colours Rupertsland Ruckus is a series of four complex large-scale paintings depicting characters and their gestures amongst vast natural and urban landscapes, the titles of which reference Greek mythology and Christian symbolism. How does the title of your series, Rupertsland Ruckus, set up the contextual parameters of this body of work, what are the specific histories you are trying to bring forward for us to bear witness to?

Evin Collis: It provides a regional historical context. Rupertsland was the name bestowed upon a large swath of North America that the Hudson’s Bay Company laid claim to from the 17th century till about 1870. I am interested in how history is qualified, quantified and represented in our culture. Also, how myth, perspective and prejudice influence and can obscure history. Within these paintings I am examining the enduring legacies wrought through colonization, expansionism and industrialization.

SN: It seems like you’re really trying to dig into the pervasive influence that political and economic models have on historiography, would you say a bit more about how you attempt to come to terms with the enduring legacy of colonialism and its relationship to Canadian history through your painting.

EC: I suppose I just want to expose it. The reasons why we are, is because of these colonial structures we follow and imitate, many of us unknowingly. Personally, I have been extensively researching my family’s history to better understand where I came from and where my ancestors were positioned throughout North American history. Things are often not how we imagine them. Canadian history is raw, difficult and complex and all of us need to recognize this in order to move forward together.

SN: In the majority of these paintings there are piles of what appears to be leftover material: slabs of wood, heads of sculptures, piping, tires and other bits of garbage. These assemblages seem to be making their way into your paintings from your drawings, Piles (c. 2012), that conflate Canadian and European geographies through a visual record generated from anecdotal evidence. The piles are not the main focal point in any of these paintings, but they certainly seem to have a strong influence, they almost predict the way you have reconfigured symbols of Canadian and European identity in order to give them new meaning; for instance in Red River Pieta, the pieta is sat atop a pile of detritus.

Evin Collis, Red River Pieta, oil on canvas, 96x132 inches, 2012 (Photo credit:  Jerry Grajewski)
Evin Collis, Red River Pieta, oil on canvas, 96×132 inches, 2012 (Photo credit: Jerry Grajewski)

EC: The piles of garbage represent in my view society’s consistent disregard of the natural environment. The urban rivers of Winnipeg are absolutely filthy and the subject of many local jokes. Since my time working as a porter on the trans-continental railroad, I have passed by a great lot of abandoned industrial debris and junk of all kinds that has melded into the landscape. Our waste leaves visceral traces and indicators of our society and culture.

SN: In Red River Pieta and Assiniboine Odyssey, you have appropriated two key moments in Western history, the moment when the Virgin Mary holds the body of the dead Christ, and, Homer’s epic poem recounting Odysseus’ return from the Trojan War. In the painting you re-contextualize these moments through a reconfiguration of the iconic symbols attached to them. In keeping the gestures of the Pieta and replacing the bodies of the Virgin and Christ, with a bison and Louis Riel, your use of allegory positions the gesture as a container for bodies to pass through; similar yet divergent from the usual notion of the body as a container for multiple meanings to pass through.

EC: It’s a regional subversion. Louis Riel is the father of Manitoba and was arguably martyred by the Canadian government. The Bison headed Virgin, is intended to symbolize the motherland, significantly the abundance of the bison, a time not so long ago before Canada and the United States dominated the prairies. They are seated upon an urban beaver lodge, constructed from driftwood and debris pulled from the river.

SN: Would you elaborate a little more about the significance in referencing Homer’s Odyssey in your painting Assiniboine Odyssey; particularly the importance of pairing the epic poem with the Assiniboine river, the ship and crew members, and finally how you have connected Assiniboine Odyssey and Red River Pieta through this aspect of Manitoban geography.

Evin Collis, Assiniboine Odyssey, oil and fur on canvas, 96x120 inches, 2012 (Photo credit:  Jerry Grajewski)
Evin Collis, Assiniboine Odyssey, oil and fur on canvas, 96×120 inches, 2012 (Photo credit: Jerry Grajewski)

EC: A long, turbulent voyage was what I was imagining. I was also thinking of the allegory of the Ship of Fools while painting it. The crew consists of a medley of outcasts and characters drifting in a York boat. (the boats the HBC primarily used for shipping freight from the Red River up to Hudson’s Bay). That epic journey, I can only imagine would have been an arduous odyssey. In many aspects they are post-apocalyptic paintings of Manitoba. In Assiniboine Odyssey, The Manitoba Legislature is in the background and the signature statue of the Golden-boy has been toppled and decapitated. The old cathedral of Saint Boniface is present in Red River Pieta, along with Riel House and a massive tipi portray the ethnic fusions and tensions. Winnipeg’s genesis is the rivers; they are meeting places, once an integral trading route. The convergence of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers is the heart of Winnipeg. The history and development of the Prairies can be traced using the old trading routes and later the railway lines and highways.

Evin Collis, Rail Yard Resurrection, 96x120 inches, 2013 (Photo credit:  Jerry Grajewski)
Evin Collis, Rail Yard Resurrection, 96×120 inches, 2013 (Photo credit: Jerry Grajewski)

SN: Rail Yard Resurrection depicts a rail yard, various trains, wrecking balls amongst the city, and in the foreground a group of three men, a dog, speaking and pointing at what appears to be a bison’s ghost. EC: The railyard depicted is an inner-city rail yard located in Winnipeg, a couple blocks from my studio. It is a very divisive rail yard that separates the city economically and racially. I intended it to be a white bison, which is sacred to many First Nations communities and can symbolize the end of an era or a new beginning in the Lakota white buffalo prophecy. Maybe it represents a chance for reconciliation between Canada and the First Nations. The ghost reference could work too; maybe as a restless spirit haunting its perpetrators in the appropriated lands.

Evin Collis, No Escape, oil on canvas, 96x120 inches, 2013 (Photo credit:  Jerry Grajewski)
Evin Collis, No Escape, oil on canvas, 96×120 inches, 2013 (Photo credit: Jerry Grajewski)

SN: Filled with arrows, the walrus in No Escape immediately stood out as a reference to the early Christian saint and martyr St. Sebastian. There seems to be a chain of references present, starting with the walrus, continuing with the severed hand, ending with the woman standing and protecting what appears to be a group of settlers.

EC: I am captivated by the popular composition of Saint Sebastian, so I wanted to do a version with an Arctic mammal. No Escape is a Northern Manitoban fantastical history painting in some ways. It’s set in Churchill, where there aren’t any walrus but it’s the end of the line for the railroad. Much of the grain from across the prairies is gathered and shipped up to the Port of Churchill, which I painted in the distance. The initial settlement was an HBC post, Fort Prince of Wales and the woman towering over and providing shelter for the desperate explorers and settlers is Thanadelthur. She was instrumental as an interpreter when brokering peace between the Dene and the Cree while assisting the HBC expand their empire. Currently a Master’s candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Evin Collis graduated in 2010 from the Ontario College of Art and Design. Rupertsland Ruckus will be on display in 2015, at TRUCK in Calgary, Alberta, and, at La Maison des artistes visuels in Saint Boniface, Manitoba as part of the exhibition Commerce, Prudence, Industry (the original motto for the city of Winnipeg).

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Exhibition Review: Disarming Beauty

Amanda Clyne meets Victorian era photography; Disarming Beauty at the Orillia Museum of Art and History.

Disarming Beauty, 2014 (installation view) Photo Credit: Samantha Vessios
Disarming Beauty, 2014 (installation view) Photo Credit: Samantha Vessios

The exhibition Disarming Beauty elucidates the relationships between a selection of Toronto artist Amanda Clyne’s paintings and erased photographs from 2010 to 2014, and, a selection of the Orillia Museum of Art and History (OMAH) Victorian photograph collection from 1850 to 1890. Split between two similar sized rooms curator Matt Macintosh intersperses Clyne’s work with primarily portrait photographs, teasing out the paradigmatic shifts that have occurred regarding the perception of photography and ornamentation.

Made widely available by the processes of industrialization, ornamentation was present in many photographs from the Victorian era. The presence of ornamentation represents a counterpoint to Victorian interests in unbiased accounts of the world, something the photograph was believed to offer. Presenting ornamentation and images as products of human hands and interests, Clyne proposes that the artificiality of both offers insight into the understanding of one’s self and others.

Clyne’s exploration of the relationship between artifice and ornament within the current social context is developed through an experimental material production that confronts the history of portraiture, couture, and painting through the mode of appropriation. Through her material explorations Clyne tackles the complex relationship between the image and the desiring self, forcing us to acknowledge the unbreakable link between our search for meaning through manifestations of our self-image and the inevitability of those images becoming sites for others’ projections.

Tarnished
Amanda Clyne, Tarnished, 48″ x 67.5″, 2010 Photo Courtesy of the artist

Tarnished is one of several paintings from a larger series exploring one fashion advertisement in Vogue magazine. Clyne’s critique of idealized representations of women is enacted through an attempt to reclaim their images as sources of revelation, pushing the classic feminist concerns of the female body’s objectification and consumption into a residual presence. Her use of silver pigment recalls both photographic development processes and the classical process of mirror making, reflecting the means of an elite social class. Tarnished references notions of reflection and unattainable idealizations of the body, connecting with the 20th century French philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s ideas surrounding the formation of identity. Lacan proposed that the moment we first recognize our own image is not a moment of unity, but a moment of misrecognition, of splitting, of objectification, and of alienation. Clyne proposes that a greater consciousness of the paradoxical nature of our interactions with images – making and looking, revealing and concealing – offer the potential for us to connect in new and more intimate ways through the image as mediator.

Excavating Artifice II, Photo Courtesy of the artist
Amanda Clyne, Excavating Artifice II, 67″ x 39″, oil on canvas, 2014 Photo Courtesy of the artist

A colourful mass of innumerable colours layered atop a blue background, creating a seemingly impossible amount of depth through successive glazes, depicts a dynamic figure somewhere between abstraction and representation. One of Clyne’s most recent paintings, Excavating Artifice II demonstrates the depth and translucency of the image – often thought of as opaque and one-dimensional. Unresolved images enable the viewer to see past surface embellishment, creating what Clyne believes to be a more honest, truthful or revealing, image. By emphasizing the multifaceted reality of the unresolved image Clyne counteracts our increasingly superficial commodity culture.

The contextual differences between Clyne’s contemporary production and that of the Victorian photographers’ are acute as they relate to the status of photography and the meaning of embellishment. Yet they share formal and methodological strategies. Curator Matt Macintosh notes that while the notion of photographic objectivity was ostensibly entrenched during the Victorian era there are a number of clues that signal the highly subjective nature of these photographs; ink and paint touch ups to enhance the image; evidence of complex lighting; an additive intent to compose. In the case of her “erased photographs” Clyne’s process is, on the other hand, subtractive.

Van Dyck (Henrietta Maria), Photo Courtesy of the artist
Amanda Clyne, Van Dyck (Henrietta Maria), 2014 Photo Courtesy of the artist

Van Dyck (Henrietta Maria), Erased the artist used a paintbrush to remove the ink from an image of the famous painting printed on chemically unstable paper. Once the ink’s removal is complete, the stained paper retains the residue of her painterly process. She scans the trace of the intervention and prints out the final image. While Clyne recalls the authority of historical portraiture through appropriation, she questions that authority by removing pictorial content and meaning. Using the means sought by Victorians to obtain objectivity (the photograph), Clyne examines artifice and embellishment as receptacles for meaning through photography’s ability to decontextualize objects and produce new fragmentary records. Appropriating art historical portraiture and producing a document of subjective experience Clyne’s work exposes the subjectivity of historical narratives by signalling the larger meta-narrative of historiography – the writing of history that produces both a foundation and meaning to our subjective experience of the world.

Disarming Beauty charts the development of Amanda Clyne’s interest in the complex relational possibilities between the image and the body. Macintosh connects Clyne’s aesthetic production to new underlying historical contexts and extends Clyne’s interest in the status of the image, photography and ornamentation into a broader historical narrative addressing the impact our values have on how and what we produce.

Bread, Beer, Cigarettes: Sara Lauzon’s exploration of working class culture

I first met Sara Lauzon when the 2013/2014 OCAD University Florence Off Campus Studies Program was visiting the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, Italy where I was interning.  Six or seven months later I stumbled across her work at the 2014 OCAD U Graduate Exhibition, intrigued and without any idea that I had met her already.

Sara Lauzon’s practice is drawn from her experiences in her hometown of Cochrane – a blue collar northern Ontario town.  By exposing the sources of entertainment, money making, and standards of living associated with the rural working class Lauzon aims to expose the cliches of working class culture constructed by Hollywood cinema.  She exposes these cliches through sharing her stories of the body pushed to extremes, of working for bread, beer and cigarettes, which characterizes the day-to-day activities in Cochrane.

Stretching the body to the limits (the more visceral and extreme aspects of the working class) is spoken about by Lauzon as a cathartic experience – a temporary relief from the mind through an emotional outlet.

Sara Lauzon

Place Settings, 2014 is a series of painted sculptures based off her surrounding environments in Cochrane, made from modelling clay and balsa wood, that share similarities with the series of notebook sketches made by the American artists Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen.  Oldenburg and Van Bruggen’s notebook sketches were the result of their shared belief that the culling of media images and subsequent deconstruction was necessary in order to understand the social milieu one was situated in.  Lauzon’s practice is similar; she fabricates objects in order to disrupt working class cliches constructed by Hollywood cinema, attempting to create a broader understanding and more honest representation of the social milieu she is situated in.  Her practice diverges from that of Oldenburg and Van Bruggen’s, not simply because they are objects but because she understands her social milieu and is attempting to bridge the gap between different classes by sharing her stories in sculptural forms that reference found objects.

The found object has been written about by the American artist Joseph Cornell as something that acts as a touchstone to transport one to a different time or place, as something that activates memory.  By choosing to represent found objects from her hometown Lauzon is attempting to create objects that might represent her memory, understanding, or stories of a specific place or culture, rather than trying to convince us that we could re-activate an experience we never had.  Through the re-fabrication of a found object she aims to share her understanding of her own social milieu in order to disrupt the problematic cliches that are in circulation.

Lauzon’s practice connects itself to broader notions of memory, place, and identity.

“Reconfigure”: Memory, Place and Identity, in the work of Andrew Hoang

Reconfigure, charcoal on paper, 30 x 20 cm, 2014

Andrew Hoang creates large-scale drawings from his photographs of Petrogylph Provincial Park and the University of Toronto Mississauga campus in order to subvert the idea of nature overpowering humanity.  By depicting the impact of human intervention on the landscape in his drawings Hoang aims to formulate his notion of a contemporary sublime.  This series of charcoal drawings make up the body of work Evolving Junctures.  Hoang’s Evolving Junctures documents the impact of human interventions on the landscape, constructing an archive that defines the contemporary sublime.

Reconfigure is a torn charcoal drawing based off of Hoang’s photographs of Petroglyph Provincial Park.  The rips in this drawing are there to reference a severed tie between nature and humanity; defined by the loss or lack of traces from prior landscapes in the manmade landscape.  The creation of a literally fragmented image quite strongly delivers the message of a disjointed experience that manmade landscapes create between humanity and nature.

In the translation of his photographs documenting specific sites into charcoal drawings Hoang creates a political critique, drawing on the relationships between memory, identity and place, through photography’s ability to strip meaning by the production of decontextualized fragments and creating meaning through the production of drawings and supplementary titles; embedding a social and political message by acknowledging the subjectivity inherent in the act of photographic capture.  In Reconfigure Hoang brings the viewer to bear on the impact that developing a manmade landscape has on communities; eliminating the physical and cultural links between the land and peoples who inhabit it.  This drawing of Petroglyph Provincial Park is connected to the Anishinaabe culture, a culture that values the psychic and spiritual reading of a land’s pure physical state.  What is at stake in these drawings is quite complex, as Hoang develops his notion of a contemporary sublime he not only communicates the overpowering influence of man over nature but brings out a political message that touches on how the elimination of cultural codes and forms of communication play a crucial role in shaping the Anishinaabe identity.  It is clear that humanity’s power to manipulate nature, or contemporary sublime, also has a profound impact on various cultural communities that interact with it, Hoang articulates this through a specific Canadian context that helps to explain how the exploitation and development of land can mean the destruction of fundamental cultural attributes that play a defining role in the shaping of that cultural identity.  The artist hopes that his telling of the relationship between the Anishinaabe and the changing land will provoke viewers to consider and reflect upon how their own environments have changed and will continue to change.

You can view more of Andrew Hoang’s work on his website:

http://andrewh.4ormat.com/

 

Establishing Archives/Empowering Communities: Faces and Phases, photographs by Zanele Muholi

Thirty-six medium sized black and white portraits of LGBTQ South Africans are on display; one in the entrance adjacent to the introductory text in the hallway; the others across the four walls of one of the Ryerson Image Centre’s three galleries.  This exhibition of South African artist Zanele Muholi’s photographs, Faces and Phases, is part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.  The exhibition is curated by Dr. Gaelle Morel (the first curator of the Ryerson Image Centre).

Muholi’s thirty-six photographs are part of a larger ongoing series that is comprised of over 240 portraits, the aim of which are to represent black lesbian and queer identity as empowered; giving them visibility through self-representation; in doing so constructing an archive and, therefore, allowing them to have a voice to combat the assault they continue to endure.  The artist achieves this through the appropriation of established documentary modes; enlisting photography’s documentary status, as witness to the event or moment, but also the camera’s capacity to reposition and control the meanings of bodies it represents through instantaneous capture; drawing specifically on the history of legal and taxonomic portraiture Muholi further develops notions of the documentary through a repetition of a singular frontal viewpoint, neutral background, and lack of emotional or dramatic states.  Muholi gives a voice to the voiceless LGBTQ South Africans through her sophisticated engagement with both the formal and theoretical aspects of documentary photography and the construction of an archive through her use of repetition.

As one of the several exhibitions at the Ryerson Image Centre, Faces and Phases is a small  but eloquent example of the power of photography, its relationship to the archive, and ultimately the social capital of works-of-art – those cultural objects that are usually deemed to sit outside our social, political, and economic contexts.  Without a doubt many people will be heading to the RIC for the Stan Douglas exhibition, as the winner of the Scotibank Photography Award it is no surprise, but visitors should give themselves extra time to visit Zanele Muholi’s exhibition as well.

Psychogeography and Painting: On Cody Smith’s VOIDS at Toronto’s Brockton Collective

Canadian artist Cody Smith exhibited his latest series of paintings – VOIDS – at Toronto’s Brockton Collective.  Smith studied drawing/painting at the Ontario College of Art & Design (now OCAD University).  His exhibition, VOIDS, is a collection of fourteen recent paintings, made during his return to the Niagara region.  Eleven of these paintings are displayed in the main space, three are in the front entrance.  Smith views VOIDS as “an exploration of his visual past, and its influence on the future.”; partly because the paintings embody visual memories that emerged without conscious effort, which were triggered by his return to the Niagara region.

Cody Smith, Country Roads,  2013, acrylic and oil on canvas, 75x95 inches
Cody Smith, Country Roads, 2013, acrylic and oil on canvas, 75×95 inches

Several trees and hydro towers almost blend into the dark, deep blue and star filled, sky; faintly discerned by their surrounding and slightly lighter blue halos.  Appearing as if illuminated from beneath, a field of tall green grass fills in the foreground and a strip of golden coloured field marks a part of the horizon.

Cody Smith’s Country Roads presents the viewer with a representation – the imaginary capture of a subject in an object – that combines the artist’s emerging visual memories with his observations into an almost seamless whole; a testament to the artist’s intuitive and idiosyncratic touch.  Therefore what Country Roads seems to embody are notions of the unconscious and memory in terms of their relationship to place.  The interrelationships between the unconscious, memory and place, are also present in the notion of psychogeography – developed in 1955 by the French Marxist theorist and founder of the Situationist International, Guy Debord – who defined psychogeography as the study of precise laws and effects on an individual’s emotions or behaviours, whether consciously organized or not, that were resultant from their immediate geographical environment.  It should be clear then that Smith’s conviction that the unconscious emergence of memories in his paintings were the direct result of his travelling is a direct connection to how immediate environments can alter an individual described by psychogeography.

Flowers and grass, covered in shadow, stretch across the immediate foreground.  Underneath a large cloud-filled sky is an open field, with one peaked roof house, with one tree that stretches past our frame of reference and simultaneously cleaves the canvas in half, with a small telephone pole – the cables of which are barely visible.

Cody Smith, Jim Lee Blues Pt. 1, 2013, acrylic and oil on canvas, 78x56 inches
Cody Smith, Jim Lee Blues Pt. 1, 2013, acrylic and oil on canvas, 78×56 inches

I have led myself to believe that the painting Jim Lee Blues Pt. 1 almost certainly makes an external reference to a person, musician or song, which could certainly be an interesting research path to follow, but one I have chosen not to pursue only for the sake of staying the course: psychogeography and painting.

Psychogeography and painting, the relationship between place, memory, and the unconscious.  The unconscious is usually thought of as something that must be repressed, the source of carnal desires and ill thoughts, yet Cody Smith’s paintings don’t seem to relate to any of this.  This is because there is another notion of the unconscious – the unconscious is structured like a language, it speaks through you – which was developed in a radical linguistic reading of Freud’s initial ideas by the French philosopher and psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.  This idea, that the unconscious is structured, complex, and not simply in need of repression, is certainly the one that connects with Smith’s practice but also with Debord’s concept of psychogeography – Lacan’s notion of a structured unconscious began its development in the early 1950s, since both Debord and Lacan were French there is a good chance Debord would have heard of, and therefore be drawing on, Lacan’s ground-breaking ideas.

VOIDS – “We question, explore, test, and long to fill them.”  It is certain that I have only just begun to uncover the first layer of historical contexts that Smith’s work is building a conversation with.  While his paintings and their relationship to memory, place and the unconscious, and their connection with Debord’s notion of psychogeography and Lacan’s concept of a structured unconscious are clear, the exhibition’s title, VOIDS, might also signal towards notions of lack and the insatiable nature of desire.

All images courtesy of the artist.

Cody Smith’s website:
http://www.codysmithartist.com/

Francis Bacon/Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty

Last night I attended, for the first time, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s First Thursdays; a night of cash bars, hors d’oeuvres, tables for making play-dough like sculptures, and of course an opportunity to view parts of the public collection and the special exhibition:  Francis Bacon/Henry Moore:  Terror and Beauty.

The exhibition aims to bring together works by the British artists Henry Moore and Francis Bacon, drawing parallels between the twisted, agonizing, and disfigured human forms in their sculptures and paintings, positioning their works during and after the Second World War as an aesthetic response – drawing on the notion that works-of-art are containers that hold both meaning and emotion to be imparted upon the viewer.

Almost as prevalent as the Moore and Bacon works, the photographs by German born British photographer Bill Brandt were an unexpected, but pleasant, surprise.  Yet, the comparison between Brandt’s documentary photographs, Moore’s sculptures, and Bacon’s paintings draws the conclusion that the three of them are engaged in a documentary practice (obvious in the case of Brandt, as he has always been inscribed as a documentary photographer).  But the notion of a documentary mode, its status during the Second World War, the problems which have arisen between the notion of the document and the power of the image, the relationship and possibilities of a documentary status assigned to sculpture and painting, are left untapped.

Unfortunately, I was a bit rushed through the exhibition, just slipping in at the last entrance (9 p.m.), and therefore was unable to get a proper experience of the performance in the second room.

Regardless of my criticisms, the Francis Bacon Henry Moore:  Terror and Beauty is still an exhibition one should attend.  There is a great selection of Bacon’s on display, including several of his screaming popes, and, some interesting documentary photographs by Brandt – an artist I discovered during this visit.