Monday, April 19, 2021

On the Passage of a Few People...

I got word today that the 2017 edition of Mémento was now available on the Est-Nord-Est website. Understandably, the past few years have been demanding for the organization, with the construction of a new building, staff turnover, and a global pandemic, but now their documentation is up to date, and on a new website too. You can download a pdf of the publication by clicking on the cover image below. 

Mémento 2017

The publication covers the three residency periods that were held at Est-Nord-Est in 2017, and my essay describes the work of the artists in the Fall residency, for which I was the writer in residence. 

On the Passage of a Few People…

On my way from Ottawa to Est-Nord-Est in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, I was thinking about “infrastructures of resonance.” The phrase had just been introduced to me by a professor at Carleton University when I was giving a tour of an exhibition that I had curated about the punk rock scene in Ottawa in the 1980s. He had been teaching the concept with reference to Nato Thompson’s Seeing Power (2015), and he told his class that the punk rock zines in the exhibition were perfect examples. Thompson describes infrastructures of resonance as projects that form a network of affiliations, and you can certainly see this in a zine as it gets circulated and shared by fellow punks. A zine, like any work of art, not only makes ideas public but also creates a public through its reception.

Approaching Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, along the river. Photo: Michael Davidge

Through their programming, publications, and other activities, artist-run centres such as Est-Nord-Est could also be considered infrastructures of resonance. Operating in communities both big and small across Canada, they actively promote and support the production and exhibition of contemporary art and the exchange of ideas that offer an alternative, and often critical, point of view on mainstream culture. I was looking forward to meeting and conversing with the other artists in residence: Jennifer Belair, Sophie Madeleine Jaillet, Christoph Mügge, and Céline Struger. In advance of the residency, I had another phrase in mind: “On the passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time.” Many years ago, a friend of mine lent me an exhibition catalogue with that title, taken from a film made by Situationist theorist Guy Debord, and it has continued to resonate with me. I was thinking of it partly because of the connections between Situationism and punk rock, but also because of the generic yet poignant applicability of the phrase. I wondered what encounters or exchanges had influenced or inspired the other artists at Est-Nord-Est. I would try to find out over the course of the next month.

Céline Struger, Studio installation view (detail), 2017. Photo: Jean-Sébastien Veilleux.

The body of work that Céline Struger developed during her two-month stint at Est-Nord-Est was the most directly inspired by the environment surrounding the artists’ residence and studios. Struger is an Austrian artist from Vienna who works in installation as a counterpoint to virtual reality. She uses both found and fabricated materials to create an alternate reality that questions concepts of value. The prominence of the St. Lawrence River in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli was manifested in the forms of the pieces that Struger created for an installation in her studio, which were derived either from a sketch that she drew of the shore of the river and its fascinating rock formations or from the objects that she found strewn along the shore, such as plastic six-pack rings. The installation incorporated these objects, including a sizable piece of charred wood and a rusted-out piece of machinery, suggesting an equivalency among the forms. A number of the pieces were ceramics fired in the Est-Nord-Est studio kilns. All of the ceramics were treated with an Obvara glaze, introduced to Struger by Judith Dubord, a local artist. Est-Nord-Est encourages and facilitates such interactions between local and visiting artists. Obvara firing, which creates a surface pattern that is said to ward off the evil eye, appealed to Struger because of her interest in the power of materials, both literal and symbolic. Through her treatment, quotidian objects are transformed into alien life forms that invite a re-evaluation of what can be known about them.

Jennifer Belair, Studio installation view (detail), 2017. Photo: Jean-Sébastien Veilleux.

Because her practice is conceived as a kind of journaling, the work that Jennifer Belair produced at Est-Nord-Est also contained a strong connection to its location in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli. Belair is an American artist currently living in Detroit, Michigan. With a printmaking background, she generally works on paper and makes drawings that incorporate observations of her surroundings with snatches of overheard conversations or thoughts that reflect her mental state at the time of their composition. For a while now, she has been working in a vein that mines the romantic tradition of the landscape genre, and the environs of the Bas-Saint-Laurent region lent themselves easily to this tendency in her work. Languages other than English appear in her drawings as a way to reach different audiences and as a visual element that expresses otherness. Reflecting the context in which she found herself, French appears in the drawings she made in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli. A fan of country-and-western music, also because of its romanticism, Belair expanded her pantheon of musical heroes when she discovered French-Canadian country and western singer Willie Lamothe on the cover of a magazine in the local grocery store. She also ran a bookmaking workshop organized by Est-Nord-Est. By teaching a group of women at the Centre-Femmes La Jardilec to produce their own books that could be used as journals, she was a source of inspiration for Saint-Jean-Port-Joli as much as she drew inspiration from it.

Sophie Madeleine Jaillet, Studio installation view (detail), 2017. Photo: Jean-Sébastien Veilleux.

Although her work is very much about the environment, Sophie Madeleine Jaillet did not draw specifically from Saint-Jean-Port-Joli for the subject matter of the work produced during her residency. A French-Canadian artist who lives and works in Montreal, Jaillet makes art as a method of performing the Anthropocene, the current geological period in which human activity is the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Her work often appears to be a kind of science experiment that renders abstract thought tangible. While at Est-Nord-Est, she made a series of “drawings” on Mylar by melting blocks of ice with graphite frozen within them, producing a visual analogue for the process of glaciation. Jaillet was also working on a piece that included a small set of quartz Platonic solids that represent an obsolete paradigm for understanding the universe. These solids are to be eroded in a rock tumbler. Although she works in a broader way with the environment, while in residence Jaillet took advantage of the specific resources that Est-Nord-Est makes available to artists and worked closely with technician Richard Noury to create fine wooden boxes and display cases for the Platonic solids. Through her work, and through the interactions that she has with people about it, she raises concerns about the intangibility of science and strikes a cautionary note. By asking questions that aren’t typically posed (by asking scientists “Are you hopeful for the future?” for example), she fulfils an important artistic role.

Christoph Mügge, Studio installation view (detail), 2017. Photo: Jean-Sébastien Veilleux.

Although the work that Christoph Mügge produced during his residency seems the furthest removed from the context of Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, there is still an underlying connection with it. A German artist who lives and works in Malmö, Mügge created a series of woodcut prints that drew inspiration from the signs for bomb shelters, or skyddsrum, that are prevalent in Sweden. With a background in painting, Mügge has more recently turned to making large-scale installations with trash and recycled materials. In doing so, he comments on consumer society by revealing the excess of waste that is available for him to work with. At Est-Nord-Est, Mügge was able to use scraps from the wood shop to create his work. By the end of his residency, Mügge had finished a series of 36 editioned prints, each of them based on the design of the Swedish signs (featuring a blue triangle in an orange square) and incorporating cultural references related to bomb shelters. For example, in one of his prints the blue triangle resembles the shell of Bert the Turtle, the cartoon star of the “social guidance” film Duck and Cover produced in the United States during the height of the Cold War. With the heightening tensions among nuclear powers today, it is not surprising that Mügge would be focusing on this subject. However, it is also not that surprising that he produced a woodcarving of a turtle during his residency, given the rich history of woodcarving in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli.

As our residency drew to a close, the artistic director, Dominique Allard, asked all of the participants to give a list of five texts or references related to our research and production at Est-Nord-Est so that she can share them on the centre’s website. My list includes London Orbital (2002) by Iain Sinclair, which I managed to finish reading while I was there. From Sinclair’s book I gleaned an important distinction between the Greek philosophical concepts of chora and topos, which could be roughly translated as space and place, respectively. Est-Nord-Est is a kind of space that is oriented to being open to the acceptance of different ways of looking at things, and to different people who come from all over the world, if only for a brief moment in time. Although our list of references undoubtedly informed our production at Est-Nord-Est, I would say it was our encounter with the place where it is located and with the people who are there that had an even greater influence. As an infrastructure of resonance, the significance of the residency is further relayed through the projects that it supports and sends back out into the world.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Neeko Paluzzi at the Karsh-Masson Gallery, Ottawa City Hall

I wrote the exhibition essay for Neeko Paluzzi's The little prince, an exhibition at the Karsh-Masson Gallery at Ottawa City Hall from February 25, 2021 to April 11, 2021. In spite of the disruptions caused by the pandemic, it was a pleasure to be involved and to see the exhibition installed. The text of the essay was only available as a didactic on a wall in the gallery, so I am reproducing it here in full:


Neeko Paluzzi, Homunculus (detail), 2019, pigment ink on cotton rag 

It is always entertaining and illuminating to hear Neeko Paluzzi talk about his artwork. His technically rigorous approach to making art is matched by an intellectual curiosity that drives its production. He is usually either in the finishing stages of an ambitious project or embarking on a new one. The artist imbues each project with great significance through copious research and reference materials. At first, his work can appear abstract and seem to transmit minimal information. However, the work remains sufficiently open to interpretation for viewers to connect with it in their own way.

For example, when I met him to talk about the work displayed in his exhibition The little prince, he noticed that my notebook had a constellation of stars on its cover. It was a happy coincidence that this image should relate to the content of the exhibition, which explores outer spaces, both real and imagined. Later in our conversation, Paluzzi mentioned that he is from the small town of Turkey Point, Ontario. I remembered seeing old photographs of my Dad’s family spending their summer vacations there, years ago. Auspicious coincidences like these can accrue around a work of art and lend it a patina of significance. 

If such coincidences or associations are given any weight, they can form a constellation of ideas that provide a framework for interpreting an exhibition. With his exhibition at the Karsh-Masson Gallery, Paluzzi refers to the children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The book mourns the loss of imagination that often occurs when a child grows into adulthood. Tellingly, the book is dedicated not to the grown-up dedicatee but to the child from whom he grew. Viewers who have read the book will be able to bring their own recollections of it to bear on their visit to the gallery.

Neeko Paluzzi, The view from my bedroom (left) | The little prince, 2020 (right)

Even those unfamiliar with the book will surely notice the atmosphere of nostalgia and references to childhood that permeate the exhibition. One image shows the artist as a little kid, dreaming of becoming an astronaut, his face peeking out of a photo stand-in spacesuit. The body of work on view was actually inspired by a visit to Paluzzi’s childhood home. He describes the experience of sleeping in his old bedroom, represented by an enlarged photograph in the exhibition: “Once the feelings of nostalgia faded, thoughts entered my mind about failing to become who I wanted to be.” However, the work in the exhibition does not simply capture this notion of realizing your limitations as you age. It is also very much about addressing these limitations and overcoming them through imagination and art. Paluzzi may not have grown up to be an astronaut, but through his art he can project himself, and his audience, into outer space.

At the centre of the exhibition is a series of images directly inspired by the narrative of The Little Prince. Seven dioramic images of seven sculpted figures on seven little planets/asteroids roughly correspond to the characters in the book: the king, the flower, the snake, etc. (These images have also been prepared to be seen through a View-Master, another item that Paluzzi associates with his childhood.) It is not easily discernible that many of the figures in the images are actually 3D printed miniatures of Paluzzi’s body. With these images, Paluzzi exploits the characteristics of photography to lend a real existence to the subjects depicted. 3D printing also enables Paluzzi to underscore the sculptural qualities of photography. In this vein, the artist brings the lunar surface within reach by hanging, on the back wall of the gallery, a series of 3D etched wood sculptures that replicate photographic images taken of the Moon in 1968. 

Neeko Paluzzi, Moon, flattened 1968, 2019

It might appear that the strength of Paluzzi’s practice lies in the one-to-one relationship he sets up between his artworks and what they depict. However, the looser associations are what allow for greater communication. For example, in a related body of work Harmony of the spheres (2020), Paluzzi created a series of  tone photos based on Johannes Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi, published in 1619. This text actually notates the music of the spheres, an ancient concept according to which the planets move in harmony, and assigns musical scales to each of the six known planets, as well as the Moon. Following a method that he developed for previous projects, Paluzzi uses darkroom equipment to create photographic prints in which tones of gray are directly associated with musical tones. Each of the seven prints in the series has a different tone of gray. These seven tones correspond to the chords of Kepler’s planets, which Paluzzi  associates in number with the celestial bodies visited by the Little Prince. How far the viewer is willing to go along with the connections suggested by Paluzzi may depend on how deeply they accept the moral of Saint-Exupéry’s story: “It is only with the heart that one can truly see. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” 

Replete with well-known and obscure references, as well as suffused with a relatable personal history, Paluzzi’s exhibition gives the viewer multiple entry points. Correspondingly, Paluzzi has produced the image of his childhood bedroom so that the window by his bed is a blank screen upon which viewers can project. You can imagine looking out the window and daydreaming of what lies beyond, be it Turkey Point or some more distant realm. Though Paluzzi has focused on his failure to realize a childhood dream, he has also transcended limits with imagination.

Friday, October 30, 2020

SAW Prize for New Works in Critical Writing

I am delighted to announce and honored that I have been selected as one of the recipients of the SAW Prize for New Works. Along with 30 other artists and makers from Ottawa-Gatineau and the surrounding First Nations, I have been given a great opportunity to create a new work with financial and organizational support provided by Galerie SAW Gallery.

I have been awarded a SAW Prize for New Works in Critical Writing, and the focus of the new text that I am going to produce will be on contemporary artists in the Ottawa-Gatineau area. I am also very excited to see what my cohorts come up with for their new productions.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Moyra Davey at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

The Faithful, a survey exhibition of the decades-long career of Moyra Davey, brings together a body of work and weaves a dense web of references that warrants close readings. Working with text, video, and photography, the Canadian-born, New York-based artist examines her personal history and its connections to art, film, and literature to construct narratives that give meaning to her experience at the same time that they refrain from reaching any simple conclusions.

Moyra Davey, i confess (video still), 2019. HD video with sound (courtesy greengrassi, London, and Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York) © Moyra Davey (photo: courtesy the artist)

At the center of the exhibition is a recent video titled i confess, which bridges an appreciation of the American author James Baldwin with a reexamination of Pierre Vallières, the Quebec writer who compared the separatist movement with civil rights struggles in the US. On the 50th anniversary of the October Crisis, amid anti-Black racism protests, its presentation in Ottawa couldn’t be more timely. Like Davey’s other work, it also reveals personal details of her own life, delving into her father’s possible role in the invocation of the War Measures Act, and her ex-boyfriend’s relationship with Vallières. 

There is a recurring motif in a number of the videos in the exhibition, where Davey goes over to an open window in her apartment and blows the dust off the top of one of her books. It is a ritualistic gesture that suggests we must repeatedly reexamine the past, our own memories, and received ideas. The complete text of my review of the exhibition was published here on the October 14 Akimblog. 

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Neeko Paluzzi at Studio Sixty Six, Ottawa

Neeko Paluzzi's Harmony of the Spheres (from August 21 to Sept. 13) is one of the few exhibitions I got out to see at a gallery since everything went into lockdown in March at the start of the pandemic. For this exhibition, the artist has systematically produced seven photography-based works that represent the seven heavenly bodies (including the moon) that comprised the known planets when the astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote Harmonices Mundi in 1619. In his treatise, Kepler transcribed the tones attributed to the planets, which, according to the ancient concept of the Harmony of the Spheres, together made a sound that showed the harmonious perfection of Divine creation. Utilizing a method he developed in previous installations, including This place is a shelter (2018) and The goldberg variations (2019), Paluzzi worked in the darkroom to produce prints with unique tonalities of gray that correspond to the musical tones associated with each of the seven planets.

Neeko Paluzzi, Music of the moon, 2020, silver gelatin print and silver leaf embossed matte in custom frame

It was hard not to read the work in the context of the ongoing quarantine, where it took on overtones outside of the rigorous framework in which it was conceived. Indeed, especially due to the disruptions we are experiencing these days, one can find succor in impeccably realized creations embodying an outdated worldview that sees perfection in a pre-ordained order. On the other hand, it is important to note the element of subterfuge in these prints that underscores how most often phenomena are given their meaning by the way they are framed. The complete text of my review of the exhibition was published here on the September 3 Akimblog.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Àbadakone at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Àbadakone is the second in a series of international Indigenous art exhibitions that was inaugurated in 2013 with Sakahàn. With reference to the fact that the National Gallery of Canada resides in traditional Algonquin territory, both exhibitions have titles in Algonquin. As Sakahàn is a word that means “lighting a fire” in English, it is totally apt that Àbadakone should mean “the fire continues to burn,” or in the trilingual title of the exhibition: Continuous Fire

Joar Nango, Sámi Architectural Library, 2019, detail of installation (photo: Michael Davidge)

This exhibition further establishes the NGC as a centre for dialogues that contribute to the writing of international Indigenous art histories. It also makes it a place to see some extraordinary contemporary Indigenous art from around the world, with work by more than seventy artists from at least sixteen diverse countries including Benin, China, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, and South Africa. Significantly, these artists in total identify with approximately forty Indigenous nations, ethnicities, and tribal affiliations within and across the countries listed, traversing boundaries and shifting a visitor’s understanding of the global map.

In the complete text of my review, posted here on the November 28 Akimblog, I dwell on one work that is particularly emblematic of this shift in perspective: the Sámi Architectural Library by Joar Nango, a Sámi artist and architect from Sápmi (a cultural region that stretches over Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia). For Nango, the paramount goal is the transmission of Indigenous knowledge. His library offers a dynamic model for decolonization.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Sex Life at Galerie SAW Gallery, Ottawa

Galerie SAW Gallery is open again with a strengthened presence and a bracing new show. Curated by Jason St. Laurent, Sex Life: Homoeroticism in Drawing delivers on its promise not to shock or titillate (although the potential for that is abundant), but rather to foster an expanded view of human desire and sexual practices. 

Cindy Baker, Crash Pad, 2017, watercolour on paper

Artists in the show – and featured in a special issue of HB magazine that serves as an exhibition catalogue – include Cindy Baker, Panos Balomenos, Dave Cooper, G.B. Jones, Sholem Krishtalka, Zachari Logan, Kent Monkman, Diane Obomsawin, and Mia Sandhu. They are also joined by a host of even more artists in a series of vitrines that contain additional works – mainly publications such as graphic novels, bandes dessinées, manga, underground comix, and zines. The inclusion of these materials situates the work in the show within a global community. Sex Life imagines a community representing sexual freedom explicitly in contrast to the rise of right-wing conservatism worldwide. The complete text of my review of the exhibition was published here on the August 20 Akimblog.