Rodman Hall Art Centre
January 29 – May 1, 2016
A Field Guide to Nowhere
Art Gallery, Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts
March 8 – April 9, 2016
“My memory is tremulous, like water breathed on,” averred Elaine Risley in Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (a story I’ve come to appreciate with age). It’s a phrase to hold in your mind as you move among and within the works (or really, the one all-encompassing piece) that Amy Friend has installed in the side rooms at Rodman Hall, rooms that are less “bloodless,” off-white gallery spaces than “lived spaces” that were once a home.
Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life is is a pensive exhibition, curated by Marcie Bronson. The title is appropriate, given that the kernel of conception for the show was found within a box of objects inherited by Friend from a distant relative. These objects now hang on the wall above the fireplace in the larger of the two rooms. There is so much of everything that nothing is hidden quite nicely (2015) is its title and its assertion. Straight razors, a berthing ticket, eyeglasses, bracelets, and other detritus of a life hang within—and out of—reach. Like anything granted the legitimacy and designation of “art”, they take on a power that belies their banality. The objects on the wall were once used for specific purposes before ending up here. That some of the notes on the wall are turned so we can’t read them, daring us, inviting us to pry, makes this superficially haphazard display even more inviting. One such note, a heartfelt scrawl from a husband to a wife, full of regret and love, is about a voyeurism and secretiveness that all families possess. In conversation with Bronson and Friend, both have stated that visitors to the space often speak of their own familial anecdotes—both the official and secret ones. There’s an evocative quality here that elicits our own stories into the role of the didactic panel.
But this isn’t the work that dominates the space: Where the Land meets the Sea (2015), a voluminous, excessive black-blue silk swatch, fills one of the rooms, covering one of the massive windows and puddling on the floor (nearly spilling into the other room), and sits below a chandelier that is excessively domestic. The daylight shining through it illuminates the degraded, choppy image on the hanging swatch: a landscape, but more alluded-to than illustrated with fuzzy hints of trees, faint yellows, and blotches reminiscent of blistering, melting film. There are dusty, cloudy marks on the silk on the floor, like stains, or parts of the images rising out of a void. Stand closer to see only the wall of blue black behind you, or stand further to see the extravagant pseudo-Rococo architectural stylings as part of your “backdrop.”
Like the other, smaller images that line the walls, the source of the image is 8mm film, originally shot by Friend’s mother, then projected and rephotographed by the artist, losing and gaining detail and clarity in the process, playing upon the gentle lies and insistent narratives of family history. This play, this contradiction, exists literally in the space: you can move among Land, or you can walk the length of the room away from it, and see yourself and it reflected in a tall oblong of mirror. In Star Gazing (2015) child Amy peers back at her mother the photographer, and now us, the audience, while contemporary Friend is reflected in the upper corner. “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future,” T.S. Eliot declared, and we literally see that, here.
It’s hard not to bring these mercurial ideas of memory to the exhibition that Friend has curated in the VISA Gallery in the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts. A Field Guide to Nowhere comprises the work of four artists. Two define the space, partly due to formal considerations: Susan Dobson’s larger works are so sensual that all other works pale next to them. Her Century Studio Camera with reducing back, circa 1925 (2013) is a blue so bright and enticing that you are drawn across the room to see it first, as you enter. The subtle double black “frame” enhances the wavering slash of light reflected on the water. Seneca View Camera, circa 1940 (2013) isn’t as immediate, but the scene and textures (dirty light blue waves relentlessly, if slowly, approaching), as with Rochester Empire State View Camera with reducing back (2013) offer haunting vistas, sometimes with ghostly silhouettes with an element of magical realism. The latter contrasts small swimmers, far from us, minuscule before “blocks” hanging serenely, eternally, above the water. The titles allude to the artist’s process, “the use of ground glass from historical large format cameras.” All Dobson’s images invite us to project narratives and stories into them: not solely because her archaic photographic practices spur a personal response, but also because her images are almost cinematic.
The other three artists (Marja Pirilä from Finland, and Americans Byron Wolfe and Mary Ellen Bartley) only rarely pull you away: Bartley is the most successful, as her smaller pieces also have a playfulness that is rare in contemporary photography.
Bartley’s Shadow Sun (2012) (more like a monochromatic Rothko with its impenetrable black) or the vertical pair of Trapezoid and Square Light on Wave (2012 and 2013, respectively) don’t challenge Dobson for dominance of the gallery space but gently build on the atmosphere of her scenes. The soft grey waves and the fragments of light are textural: water and waves mimic clay, plaster or jelly. All of these are from the series Sea Change: re-creations and re-photography of images from Bartley’s daily walks by the ocean, to “create multiple altered versions of the same seascape.”
Friend’s curatorial voice meshes with her artistic one: “each photograph destabilizes meaning through processes…that mediate and extend the medium’s trajectory to create a drift between inherent presumptions tethered to photographic practices…[Nowhere] reveals the constant relooking the photographer assumes, externally and historically, to fold new meaning into the fixed surfaces before us.” That fragility and fluidity of memory and experience that I held in my mind amid the experiential history and indexical “memory” of Assorted Boxes of Ordinary Life is here, in A Field Guide to Nowhere. Perhaps these symbiotic exhibitions are variation of the oft cited warning of Sontag’s about how memory is now dependant on an external item: and those items can be bent and blown apart to reflect the inherent instability, and mutability, of memory itself.
Bart Gazzola has published with Canadian Art, BlackFlash (where he was Editorial Chair for three years), Magenta, PrairieSeen, Galleries West, FUSE, Hamilton Arts & Letters and was art critic at Planet S for over a decade. Also host & producer of The A Word, he currently lives in St. Catharines, Ontario, after nearly two decades on the Prairies.