Photo by Sandy Fairbairn

Bart Gazzola

Bart Gazzola is an arts writer, curator and photographer based in Niagara. He’s published with New Art Examiner, Canadian Art, BlackFlash Magazine (where he was editorial chair for three years), Magenta Magazine and Galleries West, and was the art critic at Planet S in Saskatoon for nearly decade. His most recent curatorial project was Welland: Times Present Times Past (2020) at AIH Studios in Welland. He’s currently assistant editor at The Sound: Niagara’s Arts and Culture Magazine, where his ongoing series on Brock University and Rodman Hall Art Centre earned him a St. Catharines Arts Award nomination (2020).

bartgazzola.com | @bartgazzola

Posts by Bart

The AIDS Project

The AIDS Project, General Idea, 1989

I’ve been having several conversations lately with people who have significant libraries of art and art related books. Most of these conversations have pertained to where they might reside, when these friends pass, or decide to divest themselves of these collections. There’s a shocking, willful poverty of places to donate these texts, and a disinterest in the history they contain, and manifest. My latest pick for From My Library is something that speaks to that, but also, in its subject matter, illuminates the forgetful vagaries of some Canadian cultural discourse, too. I’m reminded of Slavoj Žižek’s assertion that we are too often like the character in the film Memento, with lives defined by events we barely understand, can not remember nor truly desire to remember, yet are inscribed upon us in an undeniable manner. Too often, how HIV / AIDS devastated the Canadian and international cultural communities is one of those ‘forgotten’ landmarks, and is an idea I explored previously here

In 1989, General Idea produced a limited edition publication titled The AIDS Project. It was one of many of the trio’s works about HIV / AIDS. The slim, offset printed colour booklet furthers General Idea’s appropriation / realization of Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE images into AIDS, and has an accompanying text by Allan Schwartzman. This was produced as a project of the Gershon Iskowitz Foundation: and the colours and vibrancy of the images are just as striking now as over three decades ago, when it was published. What was once perhaps audacious in redefining Indiana’s LOVE is more iconic, more mature and significant, than the naive pop art which General Idea sampled. Finding this in my friend’s library was a reminder, and as she gifted it to me, is an encapsulation of memories and the past that perhaps at some point I’ll pass on too, to keep the stories and remembrance alive. ~ Bart Gazzola

Saskatchewan: Uncommon Views

Saskatchewan: Uncommon Views, John Conway, 2005

Full disclosure: I know John Conway, as our tenures in ‘next year’s country’ of Saskatchewan overlapped, and I obtained a copy of Uncommon Views when it first came out. Saskatchewan visual culture is rife with stereotypical landscapes, but Conway offered something different, whether it be the vibrant variety of colours or the almost irreverently morose tone. Conway would leave Saskatchewan for B.C. not long after this book was published, and I would depart ten years later, so in some ways Uncommon Views is a memento, or perhaps a memento mori. John’s words resonate with me: ‘Collectively, the photographs tell something of the story of this place that was my home for much of my adult life. Themes from this story of Saskatchewan are: Promise, Survival, Sentimentality, New Jerusalem, Quirky, and Quietus.’

Accompanying texts from Sharon Butala, David Carpenter and Helen Marzolf all offer a considered response to Conway’s images, by writers who understand that “the plain is a metaphysical landscape…where there is almost nothing to see, there [one] sees the most.” (Wright Morris)

Originally published by the University of Alberta Press (a prophet is without honour in their own country, ahem, as ironically the year of publication was Saskatchewan’s centennial year), Uncommon Views is now out of print, but copies can be purchased from the artist. ~ Bart Gazzola

John Bellany, National Galleries of Scotland, 2012

John Bellany, National Galleries of Scotland, 2012

John Bellany’s (1942 – 2013) work melds the recognizable with a vision that is unique, sometimes uncomfortable (as with his many self portraits) but also very engaging, with a play of the absurd and the immediate. Bellany’s figures and scenes  are marked by a “vigorous—at times rather tormented—Expressionist style. He was born and brought up in a fishing village near Edinburgh, and the imagery of his work is often derived from the sea, although it is transformed into a kind of personal mythology.” John Bellany (National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2012) was published to coincide with Bellany’s 70th birthday and accompanied the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of his work since the National Galleries of Scotland organised the retrospective in 1986.

This book contains over 80 illustrations of Bellant’s finest works including paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints from all the key periods of the artist’s career. It’s not hyperbole to state that Bellany changed the course of painting in Scotland. From the book: “His intensely felt paintings of fisherfolk and their precarious life at sea were a direct challenge to the much diluted Scottish colourist tradition and its landscapes and still lifes. The sheer size and raw emotion of Bellany’s canvases, their depictions of a way of life that the artist knew from growing up in a Port Seton fishing family – and their elevation of that life onto a symbolic level – were at odds with the decorative, drawing-room pictures of much contemporary Scottish painting in the 1960s.”

You can see more from this lovely publication here, where you can also order a copy. I encourage you to also see more of his imaginary – yet very honest – painted narratives of his life and community here, and here. ~ Bart Gazzola

An Indian Act Shooting the Indian Act, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptin

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptin’s An Indian Act Shooting the Indian Act, Healey Estate, Northumberland, September 14th, 1997

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptin’s An Indian Act Shooting the Indian Act, Healey Estate, Northumberland, September 14th, 1997 is a provocative object; it’s one of those works of art that is symbolic, and resonates to a larger history. Perhaps that’s because I first experienced it – and Yuxweluptin’s accompanying artist talk – in 1999 when he had a solo exhibition at the now defunct Mendel Art Gallery, in Saskatoon. At the time, Saskatoon was finally dealing with the reality of Starlight Tours (the dumping of Indigenous men on the outskirts of the Siberian city of Saskatoon, by the police, as a standard and apparently condoned practice), and the emergence of the Reform Party (before it ate the old Progressive Conservative party alive, like a malevolent cancer). In his talk, Yuxweluptin referred to the latter as ‘hate’ dressed up in more palatable terms, but still clear to anyone who had been paying attention to the history of Indigenous – Settler relations, and the contemporary discourse of the same. 

Now in the National Gallery in Ottawa, they offer the following descriptor: ‘The decorated rifle, empty bullet casings and shredded Indian Act are the remains of a live performance at Healey Estate, Northumberland, United Kingdom. In 1997, on three occasions in two different locations in the UK, Yuxweluptun shot up paper copies of Canada’s Indian Act legislation – one of the oldest and most notorious acts in Canadian history. The Indian Act, passed in 1876, remains in effect today and has made “Canada’s Indians” perhaps the most legislated peoples in North America.’ 

There’s a quiet rage here, that makes this work ‘worthy’ as art, despite the uncomfortable titters of many I heard then (as the Mendel was a City of Saskatoon institution, often making politicians of various levels uncomfortable with artists uninterested in sanitized, or approved ‘histories’ of the Prairies…but this was not unique to the political sphere, as many visual arts institutions there – the University’s art school, or several artist run centres, as well – were taken aback by the blunt truths of Yuxweluptin’s art, preferring lip service to reconciliation and change). ~ Bart Gazzola

Pink Flamingos, from Melanie MacDonald’s series Florida Noir, 2017

Pink Flamingos, Melanie MacDonald, from the Florida Noir series, 2017

Melanie MacDonald’s Florida Noir series is comprised of many exquisitely painted works that evoke a multiplicity of responses, such as Pink Flamingos. When we spoke about these paintings, literary references peppered our conversation. MacDonald cited Douglas Coupland (who sometimes fancies himself an artist, and some fancy as a cultural prognosticator): “Florida isn’t so much a place where one goes to reinvent oneself, as it is a place where one goes if one no longer wished to be found.” I found myself ‘speaking’ that ‘Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste’, channeling Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. MacDonald paints trinkets of the utopian dream too often projected onto Florida (as in the desperate film noir Midnight Cowboy: “It’s not, not bad, huh? There’s no heat here, but you know, by the time winter comes, I’ll be in Florida.”). In her Florida Noir series, the kitschy, almost disposable trinkets so often dismissed as touristy ‘trash’ become interesting and contested motifs for memory, or even how ‘landscape’ (with all the history and myths in that genre, real or imagined) can be encapsulated in an oft – dismissed gauche ‘souvenir’ or mundane bit of porcelain. You can see more of her work here, and read more about her practice here. ~ Bart Gazzola

Rebecca from Alec Soth’s series Niagara, 2005

Alec Soth, Rebecca, from the series Niagara, 2005

Soth’s images from his Niagara series are contradictions, and though he employs Niagara, N.Y., it might as well be Niagara Falls, ON, as I see the latter, familiar to me both as a child and adult, as well. There’s the obligatory tourist shots of the Falls, but these seem like fanciful ideals when contrasted with the motel facades and the people he captures, which are grittier. This is the real Niagara I know: a site that seems darker than the postcards, or a honeymoon long since gone stale. These are scenes that have much in common with films like Disappearance at Clifton Hill (2019), Niagara Falls (1953)  or Falling Angels (2003) – in that last, it looms in the subtext, only seen near the end, but a site of death, perhaps accidental, perhaps intentional. Soth’s people and places might be illustrations for Cataract City (2013), a tale of desperation also about a place that has a thin shiny veneer, already worn and flaking before we even scratch at it further. 

A final note: a contemporary photographer in Niagara is offering what might be considered an update on Soth’s vision. Jon Lepp’s The Official Open for Business Series is like checking in, on Soth’s Niagara, and the irony of the title is appropriately bleak, like the world of Soth’s Rebecca, that her child also now inhabits.~ Bart Gazzola

Il silenzio dell’Innocenzo, 2011

Guiseppe Veneziano, Il silenzio dell’Innocenzo, 2011

To call Guiseppe Veneziano a controversial artist is an understatement. His more challenging works have garnered him fame and censorship, but often his pieces about Koons or Hitler are more stylish provocation than substance, like a child learning a new profanity. But the work I’m sharing today by Veneziano builds upon past artists whose portraits, centuries or decades later, still unsettle us. That this image is less trite and exists more so in the space where art, or art history, can be both subversive and yet direct, is why I consider it worthwhile. 𝘐𝘭 𝘴𝘪𝘭𝘦𝘯𝘻𝘪𝘰 𝘥𝘦𝘭𝘭’𝘐𝘯𝘯𝘰𝘤𝘤𝘦𝘯𝘻𝘰 (2011) appropriates Spanish painter Diego Velázquez Portrait of Pope Innocent X (c.1650), but with the addition of the ‘mouthguard’, so well known to us from Hannibal Lecter. 𝘐𝘭 𝘴𝘪𝘭𝘦𝘯𝘻𝘪𝘰 𝘥𝘦𝘭𝘭’𝘐𝘯𝘯𝘰𝘤𝘤𝘦𝘯𝘻𝘰 has more in common, perhaps, with the painting Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1953) by Francis Bacon. My own history brings to mind Metis artist Michel Boutin’s amusing and disturbing painting from his Great King Rabbit series: one of his ‘rabbits’ is in papal drag, looking feral, with large teeth, the better to eat you with, my dear (like the skulls of the victims that adorn his throne, with a paw richly adorned in rings, another gripping a stack of cash). 

Click HERE for more.

The Glamour Crew, 1993

Attila Richard Lukacs, The Glamour Crew, 1993

Atilla Richard Lukacs, for a time, was among the first rank of painters in Canada, if not the world, in his blend of figurative and narrative tropes, appropriating and fracturing art historical references. This work is from his E Werk series, and seeing this monumental (approximately four metres by six metres) painting in person (which I was lucky enough to do, in London, although dwarfed by the figures in his scenes) offers what painting can, and should, be. If you’ve read Timothy Findley’s book Headhunter, it’s understandable to think that his character Julian Slade is based upon Lukacs. At an opening of new paintings, by Slade, in the book, the fictional artist offers the following terse and confrontational statement: “You will see here…savage acts which have been done too long in darkness. It is my belief they should be done in the light. And to that end – these paintings.” Many more of Lukacs’ evocative, if unsettling, painted works can be seen here~ Bart Gazzola

Dark and Dystopian Post – Mortem Fairy Tales

Mothmeister, Dark and Dystopian Post – Mortem Fairy Tales, 2021

The Belgian artistic duo known as Mothmeister have just released their second book of images entitled ‘Dark and Dystopian Post – Mortem Fairy Tales’, which are a continuation of their beautifully morbid and dark tableaux that they’ve described as Wounderland. These are images that might be described as inappropriately beautiful, with a meticulousness in staging and shooting that might seem in opposition to the subject matter, but are really just a contemporary version of the rich history of memento mori, whether in painting or photography. Their words: In this luxurious coffee table book we pay tribute to the many muses that incited our unsettling and eccentric dreamworld. These range from artists around the globe, legendary figures and myths and a quirky taxidermy collection to desolate places where our most grotesque and often melancholic characters were born, such as the macabre Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, the abandoned unearthly town of Pyramiden in Spitsbergen and the site of the Chernobyl disaster.” Follow them on Instagram, and you can buy the book here ~ Bart Gazzola

Metro Station Crowd 1, City of Shadows, 1992

Alexey Titarenko, Vasileostrovoskaya Metro Station Crowd 1, from City of Shadows, 1992

I was twenty two when Titarenko captured this image, a freshly posthumous portrait of the USSR – and that was nearly forty years ago. The Cold War, as we knew it, was over, but the uncertainty, both for the bustling passengers of the once and future St. Petersburg, after its decades as Leningrad, and the rest of the world, is encapsulated in this image. Titarenko is an acclaimed photographer, not least for how after “the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 he produced several series of photographs about the human condition of the Russian people during this time and the suffering they endured throughout the twentieth century. To illustrate links between the present and the past, he created powerful metaphors by introducing long exposure and intentional camera movement into street photography. The most well known series of this period is City of Shadows.” More of Titarenko’s work can be seen here. 

~ Bart Gazzola