Exhibition Review: Cate McGuire, “Putting Things Together,” June 19 – July 13, 2019, The Red Head Gallery

Cate McGuire, Closer, 2019, magazine paper collage cut and pasted to canvas, acrylic paint. Image source: http://www.redheadgallery.org/

Collages have always had a special place in my heart. I never stop feeling amazed when I see work where the artist has combined images from clearly very different sources, yet has done it so seamlessly that, for a moment, I believe that what I am looking at is the original image rather than something wholly new. McGuire’s work elicited the same sort of reaction from me when I looked at her work, except now there was an additional layer of fascination that I felt because of the form of each piece. McGuire’s collages reminded me of a combination of simple board games (think Snakes and Ladders) and Surrealism. Works that featured unfurling strips, such as Closer, the collage above, reminded me of zoetropes, one of the pre-film animation devices that looked like carousels of images. “Putting Things Together” therefore has an unpredictable quality to it. It is an exhibition that felt like it was conscious of its role in captivating and even entertaining the viewer with the illusionistic quality of the works. McGuire plays with our idea of home as a place and as a safe space for, upon closer inspection, the collaged sections reveal impossible angles and areas that feel closed off both visually and emotionally. What remains is a trail, at times quite literally, of building blocks in the form of the individual collaged sections on the canvas, which the viewer is left to piece together and make sense of independently in a kind of meditative game.

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Book Review: Sarah Henstra, Mad Miss Mimic (Razorbill, 2015)

I always feel a slight bit of distrust when a book promises to be cross genre, especially if it is historical fiction mixed in with something else, in this case a detective novel, or at least a mystery plot. Mad Miss Mimic started off well enough, but I quickly came to realize that the book’s main problem is that it’s trying to be so many things at the same time, all while keeping a sluggish pace. The result is 253 pages of content that left me scratching my head as to what exactly I just read. I didn’t enjoy the novel, but I only found parts of it infuriating and problematic, which is more difficult to neatly summarize than a straightforward love it-hate it verdict.

The Author’s Note at the end of the book would probably have done the reader a greater service by appearing at the beginning, so that it was clear from the beginning that Henstra’s novel is more fiction than it is fact. True, the atmosphere and some of the elements of the plot and characters is reflective of the time period, but they are generalizations that serve as a container for the main element: Leonora Somerville’s speech disorder. A few reviewers have already written that, when it comes to portraying/talking about disability, Mad Miss Mimic is a rather cringe-worthy way to go about it, but what I struggled with more than that was the way Henstra didn’t seem to follow her own rules for the fictional illness she created for Leo, as she admits in the Author’s Note at the end. Specifically, there were a couple instances when Leo goes against her recurring statement that she cannot conjure up voices at will since Mimic, her “alternate identity” that causes her to parrot people’s words in their voices, is beyond her control. Similarly, Henstra goes against this very premise as well by making Mimic parrot voices more so than actual words, suggesting that there are times when she is capable of speaking her own thoughts but in the voice of someone else.

There was something about the Leo/Mimic dual personality that made me uncomfortable and not only because Christabel, Leo’s older sister, coined the derogatory nickname to refer to her sister’s condition. It felt romanticized, especially at the end when Henstra describes Leo overcoming the condition as a kind of cracking and unblocking. Despite all these issues, Leo still remained the most likeable character in the whole novel, even if her naïveté and obsession with Thornfax was almost too much to handle at one point. I loathed Christa, as readers are undoubtedly expected to, but there was a petty bitterness to her that made her cruelty feel unwarranted. Yes, the failed romance that Leo recounted would’ve been difficult to process for someone, but Christa felt like a dramatic adolescent whose pettiness was her entire personality, like she existed simply as a plot device that furthered Leo’s suffering until the latter decides to assert her independence, in a sense.

Probably my biggest problem with the novel was all of the loose ends, for as much as I enjoy vagueness and cliff-hangers, Mad Miss Mimic creates pockets of ambiguity that are detrimental to the overall reading experience. Dr. Dewhurst’s spineless and problematic character, Christa’s drugged and spiteful state, Francis Thornfax’s whereabouts, all of these stick out because of how much attention Henstra spent working them into the novel during its first half. If these figures were mentioned more in passing then I wouldn’t have cared as much and would’ve brushed such a criticism off as irrelevant because “the story is about Leo, not any of the other characters.” Yet that is the problem with the novel, as I’ve mentioned earlier: Mad Miss Mimic tries to do a lot and be several things, the result of which is a failure to achieve the desired affect. The mystery isn’t really a mystery (beware incredibly attractive and wealthy men) while the resulting romance in the book felt vague yet simultaneously forced, especially at the end, when it felt like someone hovered over the author and said that there’s no way the book can end on such a down-note.

Mad Miss Mimic is a generalized and romanticized depiction of romance, mental health, and female independence, a combination that was even more difficult to stomach because of the book’s meandering writing style. If I had to sum up my issue with the novel with one example, it would be the fact that, at one point, Leo’s idea of an ideal solution is to appear quietly on the hand of a wealthy husband in society without ever having to say a word, for if there is one thing I am not on board with then it’s the continued equation of silence with comfort, especially for women.

Exhibition Review: Sondra Meszaros, “two blazing glare, for her pierce,” April 27 – June 30, 2019, Corkin Gallery

Sondra Meszaros, strange spot #31, 2018-2019, book page with oil pastel. Image source: http://www.corkingallery.com/exhibitions/sondra-meszaros2?view=slider#13.

Of all the explorations and meditations on the human body that I have seen, Meszaros’ collages/mixed media pieces have felt the most intimate. In part this is certainly due to the material and process itself — using erotica from the 1920s and 30s, Meszaros uses pastel and paint, among other things, to simultaneously physically cover up as well as visually reveal parts of the chosen images. Yet a part of the intimacy was created by format, especially when it comes to the smaller collages with red oil pastels, like the one above. Whereas the large images still retain some of the original voyeuristic connotations due to their scale, despite having the women’s faces covered up, the smaller works captured my attention because of the clearly visible page number on the bottom of each one, suggesting they came out of a book. A handheld medium that often requires engagement and contemplation on an individual level — one can then choose to go off and share the information, of course, but initial contact with it occurs between an individual and a book — the modified images retained some of the “peeping” quality to them but spun it in a different way. Instead of feeling like covered-up objects like the larger works did, where the anonymity created a different sense of dehumanization and objectification than the original images, the figures or even body parts that were visible in the smaller works felt like they were revealed deliberately, appearing from behind a red curtain of pastel to give the viewer a limited preview. It felt like, through Meszaros’ hand, the female subjects in these smaller collages acquired the kind of autonomy that the exhibition’s summary promises, whereas the larger works maintained their original function of existing for the viewer’s pleasure, only this time begging a more fetishistic spin.

Book Review: Julie Cameron Gray, Lady Crawford (Palimpsest Press, 2016)

Lady Crawford wasn’t exactly what I was expecting and felt like yet another example of a collection whose back-cover summary didn’t accurately reflect the poems within. The titular Lady Crawford section was, for me, the weakest one in the collection, with the first and third being much more captivating, although even then there wasn’t really a consistency in terms of quality and content. In the end it felt like Gray was riffing a bit on The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy, as there is a greater interest in telling alternative histories from the perspective of well-known women, like Georgia O’Keefe, Zelda Fitzgerald, Bess Houdini, and Minerva. Not to say that this is a negative, it simply felt like a more accurate way of describing “Lady Crawford” than to say that the collection “offers a rare glimpse of the inner-life of a woman who has married into a royal lineage”, as the back cover claims. Overall, I quite enjoyed Gray’s style – there is a lightness to it that’s very addictive and energizing, that put me into a very positive and excited state of mind. So, while I cannot say I loved “Lady Crawford” as a whole, I still really enjoyed it, as there was also a handful of very impressive gems laid out within its pages.

Exhibition Review: Shaun Peter Mallonga, “As a Cavetto,” January 18 – June 23, 2019, Harbourfront Centre

Shaun Peter Mallonga, As a Cavetto. Installation view. Photo courtesy of author.

Some of the most memorable art exhibitions I’ve encountered are those I come upon accidentally, even if I am there with the full intention of finding and looking at them. Mallonga’s As a Cavetto happens suddenly — taking up both walls in a hallway just as it curves into another, the work has a natural feeling to it, as if it has and will always be there. The same goes for the beautiful and intricate hybrid forms that occupy the space, at times recognizable — the shadow-like outlines of a grove and blades of grass and flowers, a melange of human and animal legs on a swamp-like being, depicted above — while at other times working to dispel the viewer’s understanding of boundaries.

Mallonga works against the familiar desire and comfort that comes with the ability to clearly identify and then strictly name and categorize something as being x, y, or z. Why are there bricks made of flowers seemingly hovering in midair? What are the two stalactite-like forms doing on opposite walls? Why are they, along with the delicate-looking flowers and fountain-like form in place of the creature’s face, tactile and three-dimensional when everything else is flat? How does the case figure into the piece as a whole? These are the questions that slowly begin to surface the longer one studies Mallonga’s piece, which are met with a comforting silence in response. Apart from exploring specific themes and elements, as outlined in the exhibition text — “prescriptive Catholic baptism, internalized heteronormativity, and the stigmatization of hysteria”, as well as the Cavetto itself — Mallonga’s work also encourages a certain degree of self-exploration.

As a Cavetto should be approached as a visual exercise in stripping away one’s preconceptions and expectations for a work of art and learn to trust in the artist. The blank spaces in Mallonga’s pictorial utopic safe space do not demand to be filled in by the viewer but exist as an invitation to trust in the artist and the forms he creates, resulting in an atmospheric and meditative experience that exists both internally within the viewer and in the chaotic harmony on the walls of the hallway.

Book Review: Emily Skaja, Brute (Graywolf Press, 2019)

Some poetry collections are difficult to form an opinion on not only because it feels like they push the boundary between the poet’s and the speaker’s life and experiences, but also because they focus on such universal themes that it’s difficult to engage with them in any way other than to filter the poetry through one’s own personal response and enjoyment of them. Brute is another new addition to this category and can probably best be summed up in a line from “Aubade with Boundaries”: “In an argument, it is better to be drunk than to be right” (p. 41). Skaja’s debut collection storms out of the gate with the first poem, “My History As”, with a cohesion and targeted attack that hits successfully with each successive line. However, this momentum isn’t carried consistently through the collection. In fact, the only other poem that captivated and moved me in a similar way was “No, I Do Not Want to Connect with You on LinkedIn”, the first poem in the final section of the collection. Skaja has a way with imagery – the emphasis on birds, flight, and eggs in the first half of Brute was especially memorable as Skaja reminds us that there truly is such a thing as “savage beauty”. But it became difficult to go beyond the individually intricate and clever lines and consider the poems individually in their entirety, to have any response other than to marvel at Skaja’s craft. Brute is therefore a rather strange beast, for Skaja really delivers a striking, often bittersweet, perspective on break-ups of complicated or unhealthy relationships. Yet the poems are often left licking their own wounds while leaving the reader to sit and look at them, wondering from which angle to approach them and if they should be approached at all.

Exhibition Review: T.M. Glass, “The Audible Language of Flowers,” May 8 – August 18, 2019, Onsite Gallery

T.M. Glass, Euphorbia in a Japanese Imari Vessel, from the Royal Lodge series, 2018, archival pigment print. Image source: https://scotiabankcontactphoto.com/exhibition/the-audible-language-of-flowers-2/.

In case you might be wondering — yes, this is yet another exhibition on flowers, but it isn’t what you might be expecting to encounter. “The Audible Language of Flowers” is main event to the parallel show at Galerie de Bellefeuille and includes not only an impressive portion of Glass’ work but also some 3D sculptures and the video “Plantasia.” And while the subject matter may seem straightforward at first glance, Glass’ work requires, even demands, a second glance, with a soothing quality to it that then makes one want to sit down and contemplate it for longer.

Presented in an expansive space, stepping into the gallery did, in some ways, feel like walking into a garden, offering the visitor a few possible starting points. In this regard, Onsite Gallery helped shape the work in a way that Galerie de Bellefeuille did not, creating the sense of an exhibition that has been contextualized and carefully organized without feeling like there is a definitive beginning and end to it. The room to the left, which house “Plantasia” as well as some of the real-life vases that appear in pieces from Glass’s Museum Series (2017), proved to be a good starting and ending point. Bob Ezrin’s “Duet with Pansy,” which accompanies the stunning slow-motion segments of flowers opening up and blooming, put me into a meditative state of mind while also spurring on my curiosity to find out how the photographs compare to it. The museum vases in the glass case next to it were especially helpful to come back to to close off the visit as they naturally raised the question of how the image compares to “the real thing,” introducing the question of perception and framework to the viewing experience.

Yet what I loved most about Glass’ work, apart from simply enjoying the exhibition, was the way she rewards the attentive viewer with an aspect to the work that changes one’s appreciation of it completely. It is a quality that I dubbed “the Van Gogh lines” because of how similar I found them to the painter’s characteristic brushstrokes. The technique is not present, or at least cannot be seen, in all of Glass’ pieces, but the one where it was most visible in was “Red Maple and Peony Seed Pods in a Historic Brass Cup” (2018), which was my one of my favourite pieces from the exhibition for this very reason. Glass’ hand-drawn texture reveals the hybrid nature of her work. It also is simply mesmerizing to look at, giving the familiar flowers a newfound, surreal quality.

Although it is unlikely that any additional visits to see the exhibition will reveal any additional aspects to Glass’ work, seeing it the first time was so enjoyable that I cannot help but want to go see “The Audible Language of Flowers” again. Yes, for those looking for a “deeper” meaning or some sort of philosophical lens or theoretical framework through which to look at it, Glass’ flowers might come across as simple and on the nose. Yet the exhibition is infused with enough historical and technical text in the five accompanying wall texts to keep things interesting without feeling overly academic. I would gladly defend these flowers any day, simply because, when assembled together, Glass’ work creates an escape within the busy urban setting.

Gallery Hopping, 04.05.19: Robert Mapplethorpe, Erika DeFreitas, Carrie Mae Weems

Robert Mapplethorpe, “The Outsiders”, May 2 – June 1, 2019, Olga Korper Gallery

Exhibition view. Image source Olga Korper, https://www.olgakorpergallery.com/exhibitions/view?id=115.

Despite hearing the name Olga Korper regularly dropped in conversations about art, it has taken for me to finish my undergraduate degree before I finally got around to setting my foot through the door of the space. There was a spaciousness, an inviting openness to the exhibition space that made for a fitting transition from first stepping into the gallery to examining the works themselves. An interest in space and shapes was the observation I ended up taking away from the show, captivated by the curves and angles that coexisted in Mapplethorpe’s images, whether in relation to the human figure, like in “Lisa Lyon (572)”, or plants, like in “Flower (563)” and “Flower (1304).” It is easy to see the discussion about gender, vulnerability, and the gaze weave itself through Mapplethorpe’s images, but what I loved even more was the validity of aesthetic appeal and the response of the viewer, whether one is drawn in or repulsed by what they see. There was a meditative quite to Mapplethorpe’s work that prevented it from coming across as sexual, as I was more preoccupied with connecting the works thematically and visually than I was with even considering the by now tired question of what role nudity continues to play in contemporary art.

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Erika DeFreitas, “It is now here that I have gathered and measured yes.,” May 4 – June 8, 2019, Gallery TPW

Part of “she may be moved and they multiplied most in exaggeration” piece (2018, digital prints). Image source Gallery TPW, http://gallerytpw.ca/exhibitions/erika-defreitas/.

It takes some contemplation and even patience to get into DeFreitas’ work, not because it isn’t engaging or difficult, but because, I would argue, that is the only way one can truly appreciate the ideas DeFreitas has attempted to capture in it. The pieces in “It is now here…” demonstrate an interest in tactility and the handmade, from the screen lying on the ground as a hand continues drawing hypnotic circles in the same endless motion to the 24 images that make one question whether they are photographs or possibly rubbings, DeFreitas brings the viewer in but goes beyond the familiar role of the spectator. Instead, looking at her work made me feel like I had become a secondary creator, that it was my hand drawing the circles or holding the cards. Similarly, there is an interest in time and sequence in the exhibition that requires the kind of close engagement mentioned earlier, as DeFreitas creates the feeling that one is missing something, especially in the large work spanning two of the gallery’s walls. Invoking not only interest in photography’s spiritual potential during the nineteenth century but also the experimental work of Eadweard Muybridge, there is a positive sense of distance in the work that serves more as an invitation than as a repulsion, inviting the viewer to contemplate how both the distance from the work as well as the depth of one’s emotional engagement with it determines how personal it ends up feeling.

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Spotlight Lecture by Carrie Mae Weems (part of the 2019 CONTACT Photography Festival) & Carrie Mae Weems’ “Heave,” May 4 – July 27, 2019, Justine M. Barnicke Gallery

Despite her astounding body of work and extensive exhibition and publication history, I will readily admit I hadn’t heard of Carrie Mae Weems prior to serendipitously stumbling upon the information page for the lecture, for which I, with an equivalent level of serendipity, was able to score tickets.

Weems’ talk was not only informal but also discursive, leaving it open for her audience both to ponder what she was saying as well as to respond to it through an internal, meditative thought process. Although Weems stated she will be discussing her creative process — which she did — the driving force of her talk was instead the question of appropriation. Approaching the issue from the familiar cultural context (ie. cultural appropriation) as well as the notion of “appropriation as plagiarism,” Weems made me consider my own engagement with cultural works, whether literary or artistic, as she stated that no artist is wholly formed and is always influenced by what came before, that everyone works in relation and that no work is truly “original.” What followed was a lengthy “aside” into a discourse about music, at which time Weems’ love for Aretha Franklin began to rub off on me, that then shifted into a discussion of cultural institutions before culminating in the most chilling thought of all: that today, “murder takes on a different permutation, but it’s murder all the same.”

Part of my instant love for Weems was also because of her incredible personality, her openness and humour — she stated she’s looking forward to spending time with her husband, “who luckily hasn’t put my shit on the curb yet” — along with her willingness to be vulnerable and emotional, something that I have been learning to think differently about for the last couple years. It was an experience that I felt privileged to be part of, and which I will probably bring up in the future as one of the formative events in my life that helped further shape me as a writer, artist, academic, and person.            

A reception was held following the talk at Justine M. Barnicke, and although one can only take in so much art in a crowded space where the adults are, arguably, more interested in socializing and grabbing some wine and nibbles, “Heave” left an equally positive impression on me. As moving and powerful as “A Class Ponders the Future” or the video pieces were, however, it was the titular installation “Heave” that captured my attention, mostly because it forced me to reconsider how I engage with a work of art and how I approach it. Where usually I would’ve right away begun thinking about form and content, the installation “Heave” has an atmospheric quality to it that made me more interested in considering my relation to and even within the work than to dive right into it from a critical and academic perspective. It made me feel like Weems’ work was welcoming me into it just as her words welcomed me into the discourse about creative practices and art’s place in contemporary society, making the often elitist and intimidating art world feel slightly more welcome in that moment.