Reading the Talk
Rodman Hall Art Centre
St. Catharines, ON
May 21 – August 21, 2016
It wasn’t the first (nor last) installation of Reading the Talk, an exhibition facilitated by The Robert McLaughlin Gallery in collaboration with Museum London, Art Gallery of Peterborough and MacLaren Art Centre. The incarnation experienced at Rodman Hall Art Centre, however, had a unique character: concurrent exhibitions (inside and outdoors) bracketed and augmented Talk thematically. These were A Painters’ Country and Elizabeth Chitty’s The Grass Is Still Green. The first, an exhibition from the permanent collection spanning a century (obligatory Group of Sevens, Emily Carr, etc.) offered an historical “grounding,” perhaps, while the second, equally rigorous, is more about the future than the past. The Grass Is Still Green is an earthwork installation, by many hands, on Rodman’s front lawn, that the artist describes as “participation in place of co-creation,” citing the Two Belt Wampum Treaty of 1864, which hoped for parallel prosperity between the Haudenosaunee and settlers “as long as the grass is green, as long as the rivers flow downhill… as long as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west.”
Reading the Talk was curated by Lisa Myers and Rachelle Dickenson, but there’s a collaborative quality here. The artists conversed consistently through creation to presentation; and it’s been installed differently elsewhere, like a living, ongoing dialogue.
Considering the calibre of the artists (Michael Belmore, Hannah Claus, Patricia Deadman, Keesic Douglas and Melissa General), Reading the Talk was more like multiple voices acting in tandem than a hierarchical, “curated” aesthetic.
Curators Myers and Dickenson state that the show was “[i]nspired by the historical Dish with One Spoon Treaty… each artist [was invited] to consider the effects of this specific treaty as well as the function of wampum beads as mnemonic devices used by leaders to ‘read the talk’ of agreements between nations.”
Michael Belmore’s Investment (2011) glows warmly and richly, inviting viewers to gather around the “stones.” These somewhat commonplace rocks have been augmented with coverings of pure copper ore. This material is also “found”, coming from around Lake Superior. Belmore described this metallic luminosity as “the dried blood of thunderbirds, the fire in thunderstorms. Copper is intrinsic to electricity and lights and electric outlets and “keeps out the darkness” (Belmore, from the panel at Rodman Hall). Hannah Claus’ Our Minds Are One (2014) is a hanging half globe, or overturned dish made from many separate small circular vignettes, photo images of the greens of the grass, the dull translucent dirt and earth and the vivid blues of the sky curving above us. Claus encourages people to stand beneath/within the work, but the tiered space allows you to gaze down on it, or observe it across the wide room, with the glimmer of the almost architectural hanging lines. The shadow cast by our minds on the wall behind isn’t insignificant; like a physical part of Claus’ work, shifting, with a subtle, but animated, quality.
Vanessa Dion Fletcher’s Relationship or Transaction (2014) encapsulates succinctly and sharply many concepts raised by Reading the Talk. Installed in a lower alcove, the nature of the sculptural assemblage (screenprints, jute twine, but primarily five dollar notes, all blue and shiny and tempting) enticed. It’s a wide floor work: the imagery of the “belt” may elude you until you stand back, and see the “1764” and the two figures clasping hands defined by the blue-white pattern. This formal dichotomy enhances: many will be unable to see beyond the cash, and not see the whole “belt”, a commentary on the Covenant Chain wampum’s history, its successes and failures. The artist asserts that “[t]he paper currency also references treaty annuities still paid each year to members of treaty regions and highlights the exploitive values placed on treaty land.” (This allusion to commodity and ownership is simply the “logical progression” from the terra nullius in the “available”, abundant properties of A Painters’ Country, in the first gallery space encountered at the front of Rodman. The empty, enticing “Canada” of painters like A.Y. Jackson here, that invites purchase and development, or exploitation, functions as a “prologue” to Reading The Talk.)
Returning to the back gallery, the stones of Belmore and the shimmer of Claus positioned you between terra and sky; whereas the interplay between Belmore and Dion Fletcher is a dialogue between two wampum belts (Dion Fletcher’s Relationship or Transaction faces Belmore’s Bridge (2014), a belt of copper and aluminum using ASCII binary code, offering a message if you make the effort to decode it), alluding to their historical role as an indexical sign of an understanding.
In Jeremy Tanner’s The Sociology of Art, which cites various critical writers from Marx to Habermas, there is an implicit understanding that arguments “over aesthetic values in art criticism and history are pure ideology, veiling what are really quarrels over more substantial social and economic interests.” This debate – or fracture – could be seen in the argument between the “affirmed” Lawren Harris (amid other “traditional” Group of Seven works) in Country and Melissa General’s Satahónhsatat in Talk; that confrontation sharpens the implicit ideas of both exhibitions. But Belmore also indicated that an exhibition like Talk wouldn’t have happened in a public gallery ten years ago, and those dynamics are still pervasive.
After experiencing Talk, you could have visited The Grass is Still Green; the rowed garden was planted by Chitty and indigenous, old and new settler youth. It was installed briefly, but lay a comfortable walk down from Mary Anne Barkhouse’s Settlement. There’s an implicit hope in Grass, in the manner of its making: we’re invited to walk the row and remember that “we’re all treaty people.” But I must invoke Chitty’s observations about how in the colonial tradition—or the contemporary manifestation of neoliberal empire, its descendent—“what is usable is primarily [what is] saleable.” This, perhaps, answers Dion Fletcher’s rhetorical question that titles her installation (whether the current accord is one of a relationship or a transaction, and the experience of a less optimistic history that permeates Reading The Talk), contrasting the actions versus the talk, since 1764.
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.