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Stephanie Vegh
Hamilton
October 18, 2010

Before the visual arts entered Hamilton’s public consciousness via the recent popularity of the James North Art Crawl, this city’s personality was largely informed by music, from cutting-edge punk acts of the 1970s to Sonic Unyon today. As a strategy uniting this legacy of song with the city’s familiar working-class narrative, The New Worker’s Songbook combines the archive with living research and creation to find a future expression of Hamilton’s people.



Tor Lukasik-Foss, Mobile Workers SongCart, 2010, installation view

The Workers Arts & Heritage Centre serves as a laboratory for statistical research with interactive data mapping exercises designed by Caitlin Sutherland in collaboration with DodoLab. At the centre of this space, Tor Lukasik-Foss’s Mobile Workers SongCart signals the project’s life outside the gallery: a precarious platform for gathering and performing new songs that stretch beyond the archival unionist protest songbooks towards the Hamilton worker’s contemporary reality, which promises to be more elusive and diverse than simple steel.



Gasoline Gathers Hands, Gathers Friends performing at opening reception of New Harbours: An Exhibition of Work at Hamilton Artists Inc.

While also speaking to Hamilton’s musical strengths, Hamilton Artists Inc.’s installation of ephemera and video from the New Harbours Music Series strikes a disappointingly hollow chord. The exhibition quite literally writes too much hyperbole into its scattershot visual materials, treating a two-year work in progress with excessive historical significance. Conversely, there isn’t reverence enough for the unique silkscreen posters advertising past performances, which are beautiful in their own right but pinned carelessly in a cramped row alongside photocopied flyers providing unnecessary filler in an erratic installation.



Dany Leriche, Lakshmi, 1992, cibachrome photograph (courtesy: Art Gallery of Hamilton, gift of Dr. Francisco Lazaro-Lopez)

For lessons in smart but simple curatorial strategies, one is better advised to look to the Art Gallery of Hamilton and Conversations, a collaborative curatorial experiment between Melissa Bennett and Tobi Bruce that connects objects from the permanent collection based on their inherent visual correspondences rather than any external thematic starting point. This approach has resulted in an elegant installation of works ranging from 17th Century still life to contemporary sculpture with many unexpected formal possibilities reverberating not only in each room’s grouping, but echoing from one gallery to the next.



Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Valise Biographique (Hannah Hoch), 1992, suitcase, comb, toothbrush, mirror, colour Xeroxes (courtesy Art Gallery of Hamilton, gift of Ann and Marshall Webb)

The AGH’s Level One galleries, meanwhile, contain a dominant sweep of exhibitions highlighting works by women artists, from Forging a Path: Quebec Women Artists 1900-1965 to And She Was from the permanent collection. While these shows collectively emphasize painting and drawing, a third exhibition, Valise Biographique, highlights contemporary practices in sculpture and installation starting from the Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster suitcase of the same name. Like that red case with its intimate stock of personal articles, the majority of works reinforce the interiority of domestic lives. But the exhibition is most successful when playing on the slippery surface of their subjects, from the honeycombed garments of Aganetha Dyck’s wedding guests to Catherine Heard’s darkly delicate embroideries on the fabric flesh of dolls.




Andrew McPhail, all my little failures, 2009-2010, mixed media and Band-Aids

In the context of all these women-driven show, the AGH runs the risk of unduly feminizing Andrew McPhail’s evolving dialogue with his gay identity and HIV status, but all my little failures holds its own solemn weight apart from those wider surveys. The cloak of Band-Aids that both conceals its wearer and extends his reach provides an apt metaphor that forces the viewer to step cautiously around the edges of the starburst pattern of adhesive dressings covering the floor, while the presence of a live performer in place of a mannequin at the opening reception reinforced the tremulous vulnerability of the work’s subject-inhabitant.



Andrew McPhail, Craig, 2010, oil on canvas

The serious stakes of all my little failures complicate any simple reading of McPhail’s paintings, which are on display further west at Transit Gallery. With a sideways nod to Facebook-era visibility and vanity, Hamilton’s art community has been documented in digital photographs, reduced to anonymous pixels and returned to portraiture via paintings that preserve uncanny resemblances through sharply observed variations of colour and light. Rather than segregating disease and difference from the herd, this series unites all within a common ballpark.



Stephen Altena, Cardinal, 2010, oil on wood

Painting alone connects this body of work to Stephen Altena’s own solo presentation at Transit, in which the decorative motifs of an outdated middle class farmhouse are treated on an intimate scale in keeping with a private autobiographical approach. A refreshingly rough sketchiness scrambles beneath the surface and revives these ailing floral wallpaper patterns, but the overlaying birds are too monochromatic and suffer by comparison to their lively moorings, returning once more to a tired flatness.



Shelagh Keeley, Steel Notebook, New Delhi, India, 2004, oil stick on rusted steel

At the McMaster Museum of Art, Shelagh Keeley’s gutsy drawings and book works are featured in a retrospective that traces her New York prominence in the early 1980s to recent works responding to sites as far afield as New Delhi and Shanghai. The persistence of Keeley’s vibrant biomorphic forms across multiple geographies and time speaks to an admirably individual stubbornness in her work, as well as her ability to see what is essential in peoples and cultures: their needs, darknesses and potencies made visible in drawings that are analogous to language at its most universal.


Stephanie Vegh is a Hamilton-based artist and writer whose criticism has appeared in Scotland’s Map Magazine, Canadian Art, C Magazine, and various British and Canadian publications as well as her own eponymous visual arts blog. She serves on the Board of Directors for The Print Studio and the Visual Arts Committee for Hamilton’s annual Supercrawl, and has exhibited her drawings in group and solo exhibitions in Canada and the United Kingdom. She is Akimblog’s Hamilton correspondent.


Workers Arts & Heritage Centre: http://www.wahc-museum.ca/maingallery.php
The New Workers Songbook continues until December 18.

Hamilton Artists Inc.: http://www.hamiltonartistsinc.on.ca/
New Harbours continues until November 13.

Art Gallery of Hamilton: http://www.artgalleryofhamilton.com/
Conversations continues until April 17.
Forging a Path continues until January 2.
And She Was continues until January 2.
Andrew McPhail: all my little failures continues until January 23.

Transit Gallery: http://www.transitgallery.ca/
Andrew McPhail/Stephen Altena continue until October 31.

McMaster Museum of Art: http://www.mcmaster.ca/museum/
Shelagh Keeley continues until October 30.

 

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