While developers and city council are running away from our past – trying to demolish every last piece of distinctive local character – hundreds of artists are rushing to it; trying to capture something that they can no longer find in Toronto – authenticity.
The social and aesthetic diversity of Hamilton’s different communities is providing a feeding ground to today’s emerging and mid-career artists. A few are using the physical landscape to inform and shape their art. I believe the authenticity of their work comes not only from the unique physical features of the local landscape but our ability to associate personal experiences with particular places.
In the paintings of Christina Sealey, the city is almost like family – always present, always hovering over your shoulder; demanding your attention, questioning the process of creation even before you have started. You wonder how fast you can run downstairs to the studio but you know sooner or later footsteps will follow. In Self-Portrait, Bold Street (2002) the buildings are jostling for space outside the window. Their window eyes are peering into Sealey’s workspace demanding to know what she is doing. Other times the world seems indifferent to the blackness of mood and is full of lightness and energy as in Underpass (2003).
Self-Portrait, Bold Street (2002)
Sealey’s world is full of unique places and unique individuals. The urban landscape reveals itself as we experience it, one person at a time; one perspective at a time. In Self-Portrait-Hamilton (2002), the car journey may cross the entire city but we only see that landscape that is immediately outside the car window.
Paul Elia, on the other hand, breaks down this tyranny of perspective and reveals the city that our mind constructs. Instead of the city block moving beyond our perspective, we see the street as we know it, as whole. You can see this with his pieces entitled Wellington Street North (2009) or Cannon Street (2009).
Wellington Street North (2009)
If you spend any time in the core of the city then you will quickly develop this mental image of your surroundings. For example, a few years ago we lived in an 1859 stone townhouse on Bold Street. In the summers, we would sit on the front porch and listen and watch the city turn from day into night. We didn’t experience the street as one or two buildings but as several entire blocks – running from the new condos at 135 James Street South to the ancient 1853 Central Public School. Using photography and a digital paint program, Elia re-constructs this is kind of experience using white, gray and black tones.
A recent series of pastel works by Clarence Porter explores the opposite effect to Elia, the individual feature of a building or object that captures our experience of place. Porter, who lives in the Ottawa Street North area, depicts a number of local business signs from angles that you might see if you stood on the sidewalk and looked straight up. While revealing only a portion of a sign or object, the visitor who is familiar with the street would immediately recognize the building or location. Since many of these signs are from times long past, his work also captures memory as place.
Avon Floor and Wall Décor (2010)
Porter’s Avon Floor and Wall Décor (2010) or the Argyle Ave-Ottawa Street North (2010) works are good examples. As a little kid, I still have vivid memories of driving home with my parents. I lay stretched out on the back seat of my father’s Ford Mustang convertible. The top was down, it was early spring and the sky was a brilliant blue. I remember the Avon sign passing by to the sound of my parents arguing over the ending to 2001-A Space Odyssey. These small landmarks capture not only a place but a time as well.
While Sealey, Elia, and Porter explore different themes, they each share a common desire to reference real places with real identities. This focus on landscape allows the viewer to enter the work of art and associate personal memories and histories to a particular place. The result is their art gains a meaning that is authentic. This is something that you can’t create when the world is filled with glass boxes and generic landscapes like much of corporate Toronto. In the global village, there is only one Hamilton.
Christina Sealey and Clarence Porter are represented by the Nathaniel Hughson Art Gallery on John Street.
Article was originally published in Raise the Hammer.