School may be out for yet another summer, but the exhibitions on offer at the McMaster Museum of Art conjure memories of my years as a young student in Hamilton. Like many local artists of my generation, I studied painting with Katherine MacDonald at the Dundas Valley School of Art and was therefore well prepared to relearn the lessons of observation and patience afforded by her traditionalist practice.
Katherine MacDonald, Christie and Freud, 2007, oil on canvas (courtesy of the artist)
Walking through the thoughtful selection of oil paintings and charcoal drawings feels something like travelling back in time save for the visual cues that place her clothed sitters firmly in the contemporary era, from women’s chunky Mary Janes to a gentleman in Birkenstocks. Situated in spaces filled with studio clichés – folding screens and model stands, old chairs and drapery – the visible lapse in time and style gives added significance to the prolonged intimacy of the painter-model relationship. This investment of time – and more vitally, of stillness – is seldom seen in contemporary art but is rewarded in the lively quality of brushstrokes animating each carefully observed contour.
George Wallace, The Benevolent Angel, 1963, welded steel, painted (collection of Dr. Jane Irwin; courtesy Art Gallery of Hamilton)
In the adjoining gallery, another renowned teacher of Hamilton-based artists is surveyed in George Wallace: as I was saying, which documents the recently-deceased Irish-born Canadian artist’s correspondence with the museum of the university at which he taught for twenty-five years until his retirement in 1985. After a striking confrontation with The Benevolent Angel stretching out through the gallery’s threshold, the viewer encounters a dialogue between Wallace and the McMaster Museum of Art’s permanent collection, including historical German prints that Wallace himself donated to the Museum.
George Wallace, Self Portrait with Dark Glasses, 1995, eight etchings
This narrative is best illustrated by a sequencing of Wallace’s welded-steel Daedalus poised to look up at Paul Fournier’s Dead Crow #1, accompanied by further prints and an excerpt of Wallace’s letters elucidating the 18th Century Picturesque movement as its qualities apply to Fournier. The weighty academia that seems to bear down upon Daedalus’ steel wings is leavened by the playfulness of Wallace’s practice, from that not-so-benevolent angel to a series of etching proofs in which the artist’s eyeglasses are gradually perforated by the reflected shape of a television screen revealing a dispassionately kissing couple.
George Wallace, Educational Experiement: A tale in five fragments, 2010, welded steel (courtesy of You Me Gallery)
In contrast to this sensitive stewardship, Wallace’s Educational Experiment, formerly standing twenty-four feet tall at Mohawk College, was dismantled and put in storage ten years ago. Partially exhumed and displayed as five fragments at You Me Gallery, these remnants bravely present the opposite side of Wallace’s legacy and a timely statement on the neglect that can befall an artist’s work. Curator and long-standing local arts advocate Bryce Kanbara has signaled that this installation is the first step in an effort to see Educational Experiment rightfully restored, but in its present form the rough-edged sculptural fragments of allegorical figures take on their own poignancy as a lament to the artist’s passing in 2009.
Robert Mason, The Floating Gardens, 1993, latex balloons - outdoor installation in Serbia, also installed at Royal Botanical Gardens, Cootes Paradise, Hamilton (courtesy the Estate of Robert Mason)
Hamilton lost another prolific artist five years ago with the death of Robert Mason, who is receiving his own fitting tribute in an expansive retrospective at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. His diverse practice, encompassing painting, installation, and sculpture, was unified by a concern for land and the balance of its occupation and use between human and animal kingdoms. Primordial horizon lines repeat themselves through large, richly layered canvases that strike a haunting chord in concert with the documentation of land art projects that set caribou or spheres floating through waterways in Hamilton and beyond.
Fiona Kinsella, (cake) cutting (tooth), Royal Icing, baby spoon, lock of hair, teething, upper left sixth, boy, silver and rhinestones, glass, wood, fondant icing. London, Hamilton, Burlington, ?, 2007, mixed media
Among all this timelessness and death, Cake: Fiona Kinsella finds its own fitting niche with a subdued showing of the artist’s recent cake sculptures and equally scrumptious oil paintings. The surface pleasures of her decorative iced cakes are complicated by the repulsion brought on by discreet human relics: a nest of hair or a single tooth nesting in an antique spoon. This balance of beauty and horror in Kinsella’s work reinforces the sacred references at play among objects that rest like reliquaries in their glass cases, seemingly preserved against human consumption or rot.
Brendan Fernandes, Neo-Primitivism II, 2007, deer decoy, plastic African masks, vinyl (courtesy Diaz Contemporary; photo: Mike Lalich)
This excavation of histories reaches its peak with Sobey Art Prize nominee Brendan Fernandes’ until we fearless, which fuses the visual referents of African tribal masks and spear motifs with Canadian deer decoys as guardians of a far more subtle intervention between worlds understood largely through their cultural artifacts. This passage is negotiated through rhythm and song, from the African-Dadaist sound poetry in Voo Doo You Doo Speak (produced in collaboration with Jeremy Greenspan of Hamilton’s Junior Boys) to the pathetically straining vocals of love songs in Love Kill. The latter in particular highlights Fernandes’ deft touch through arresting animations that pulsate gently rather than disrupt the drawn tableau of predator clutching prey in his teeth: the life evident in those intimate, shuddering breaths fulfilling a timeless lesson on the art of looking carefully.
Stephanie Vegh is a Hamilton-based artist and writer whose criticism has appeared in Scotland’s Map Magazine and various British and Canadian publications. She currently lives in Hamilton and serves on the Boards of Directors for Hamilton Artists Inc. and The Print Studio.
McMaster Museum of Art: http://www.mcmaster.ca/museum/
Katherine MacDonald & George Wallace continue until August 28.
Art Gallery of Hamilton: http://www.artgalleryofhamilton.com/
Fiona Kinsella & Brendan Fernandes continue until October 3.
Robert Mason continues until August 15.
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