This post continues the exploration of the philosophical currents that shape current art practices, in particular, painting.
A previous post, More on Painting, touched on the issue of identity, discussed in terms of “self-differing” or the self as a collection of “innumerable configurations of personality and emotion” as opposed to an “all-at-oneness”. This is a more esoteric aspects of identity than what has become known as “identity politics” in which various groups who define themselves by gender, sexual orientation, or level of ability demand greater recognition, respect and a share in social benefits.
While these demands warrant attention & positive action, the issue of identity and its implications for art has become a confusing areas for artists and critics in the post-modern era. At the same time the issue has ballooned into something out of all proportion to its importance in the human search for meaning. While in its original form, the exploration of identity presented some interesting philosophical questions, it has now become an ideology with all the attendant dangers of wildly popular but poorly understood ideas.
The first victim in the art world, especially with regard to painting, has been an understanding of self. As I understand it, the idea of self-differing that is in common use is a re-stating of the relativist philosophy that Socrates opposed. The Sophists believed that “you can never step into the same river twice” as every moment is different and there are no constants. They extrapolated from this that, because there are no constants, there can be no right or wrong, so every person should act in their own interests. Today’s neo-liberals are the modern version of this thinking. Socrates countered this with a belief in ethical virtue as something that should be aspired to and is immutable, permanent and unchanging. As such he was the father of absolutism and today’s religious traditions and others with unswerving beliefs in moral absolutes.
A definition of the self as a collection of “innumerable configurations of personality and emotion” is a pillar of post-modernism and revives the sophistry that Socrates opposed. A widely accepted modern version of sophistry has facilitated imposition of the neo-liberal agenda accompanied by the rise of “identity politics”. While having no wish to detract from the justified demands for equality made by disempowered groups, the unfocused relativism may be largely responsible for low voting numbers and a general lack of participation in organized political groups, especially among younger voters (or non-voters).
The relation between identity politics and relativism is delightfully described by writer Ian McEwan in his novel, Nutshell. He describes the young as “…on the march, angry at times , but mostly needful of authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities. …I may need advance warning if upsetting books or ideas threaten my very being by coming to close...I’ll feel, therefore I’ll be. Let poverty go begging and climate change braise in hell. Social justice can drown in ink. I’ll be an activist of the emotions….My identity will be my precious, my only true possession, my access to the only truth.” This nicely captures the obsessive naïveté of identity politics and suggests why it has been nurtured and embraced by neo-liberals.
In the visual art world more so than most, the primacy of identity has had a schizophrenic effect. On one side, artists who create large, grand or durable artworks are suspected of egotism. This potent potential charge has encouraged a generation of artists to ensure that their works are small and self-effacing, or if not small, constructed of recycled waste products. In this view large paintings are a throwback to the modernist era when gigantic artistic egos created giant canvases.
The flip side of the current obsession with identity in the visual arts is the unprecedented importance placed on the personality of the artist rather than the artworks themselves. Artists are brands marketed on the strength of name recognition rather than artistic excellence. Who can judge excellence in a world without right or wrong, good or bad? The last absolutist critic to have any influence, Clement Greenberg, based his judgements of excellence on his own good taste, rather than any more fulsome philosophical rationale. Having been discredited in accordance with the current relativist world view, along with the modernist artists he championed, the market has become the final arbiter.
That we have become a culture of change, rather than a changing culture also lends itself to neo-liberal agenda. Where the only constant is change, it has become the only absolute and almost a religion. The most damning accusation that can be leveled against those who oppose any change is that they are “afraid of change”. Thus changes, no matter how harmful or ill-advised, are protected from critiques and in every election, all parties claim, “it’s time for a change!” as though it were an ethical virtue.
A self-reflexive culture, where art is all about itself rather than a mastery of the medium and its aesthetic potential, results in stunted artistic products. While these products can be whimsical, clever and highly original, they lack commitment. They are unconnected to the artist’s soul because they express ideas solely from the mind. Even expressions of the emotions are an expression of an outdated modernist sensibility.
In a rather startling development, what could in previous years have been described as a general lack of interest in the arts appears to be blossoming into antipathy towards the arts in general & painting in particular. One of the reasons for this is the sheer impossibility for art to capture the scale of the disaster the planet faces as the anthropocene age progresses through mass species extinction, climate change, rising sea levels and so on. Painting is especially helpless in this regard as it cannot compete with installations designed to shock viewers into recognition of the crisis we are part of or photography that can record the disasters in relentless detail.
All artists are faced with the dilemma that the works we create are entirely unlikely to make a difference to the onslaught of late-capitalist destruction.This dilemma is nicely described by the writer, Rick Bass:
“What story, what painting, does one offer to refute Bosnia, Somalia, the Holocaust, Chechnya, China, Afghanistan or Washington DC? What story or painting does one offer up or create to counterbalance the ever-increasing sum of our destructions?”
But then he goes on to say, “Paint me a picture or tell me a story as beautiful as other things in the world today are terrible. If such stories and paintings are out there, I’m not seeing them.”
He is referring to the fact that, instead of acting as a counterbalance to the misery humans are creating, intellectual discussions on the role of art promote the idea that creating beautiful paintings, and indeed beauty itself, is part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Bass suggests that , “Rampant beauty will return”, but in the meantime “activism is becoming the shell, the husk or where art once was….The activist is for a real and physical thing, as the artist was once for the metaphorical; the activist, or brittle husk-of-artist, is for life, for sensations, for senses deeply touched…The activist is the artist’s ashes”. Is this true or are artist/activists arising, Phoenix-like from these ashes imbued with creativity and meaning?
Art & Gentrification
An ambivalent view of arts and activism is bolstered not only because artists themselves are rejecting the creation of art but because urban activists have focused on artists and galleries as the enemy – the thin of gentrification’s edge. Artist-driven urban renewal typically leads to artists being priced out of the neighborhoods they have helped to revive. This is sometimes referred to as “the SoHo effect.” Artists are complicit in the gentrification process, which has an impact not only on the artists themselves, but on other residents of neighborhoods that are being gentrified. This process is called “artwashing”—a term for adding a cultural sheen to a developing neighborhood.
Artists find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being inadvertently complicit in driving gentrification, even as they are being victimized by the trend.
The term appears to have first been used in mainstream media in 2014 by Feargus O’Sullivan of The Atlantic, in an article about a tower in once-destitute East London that had been redeveloped for high-paying tenants. They were being enticed, in part, by suggestions that they wouldn’t be gentrifiers but, rather, original members of a new artistic community. “The artist community’s short-term occupancy is being used for a classic profit-driven regeneration maneuver,” O’Sullivan wrote. He labeled the process “artwashing.” Years leter, the conflict is escalating and omeone shot a potato gun at the attendees of an art show, and someone spray-painted “Fuck white art” on the walls of several galleries.
As explained in the online journal Artspace, artwashing takes place “when artists and galleries move into what is branded as a “newly established art community,” they generally don’t think of themselves as gentrifiers so much as they think of themselves as pioneers of a “new community,” (as opposed to new members of the pre-existing, already culturally-rich community).
Activists in cities with the highest levels of gentrification and displacement of longstanding residents such as LA and New York disrupt exhibitions and readings in new galleries. “It’s not that they don’t like art; rather their efforts proactively address the historically damaging effects that art spaces can have on a community’s deep-rooted residents. When developers see a neighborhood flourishing with art galleries and bougie cafes, they see a potential for exorbitant profit. art galleries are part of a broader effort by planners and politicians and developers who want to artwash gentrification.”
In the past year, across North America, artist/activists are voicing their discontent with developer-driven artwashing and displacement. The Chinatown Art Brigade, an anti-gentrification group of artists and activists in New York, protested an exhibition by a Berlin-based artist. Their banner read “RACISM DISGUISED AS ART” as the installation included a room replete with objects indicating a sparsely merchandised Chinatown business that visitors walked through in order to view an artwork screening in the back of the gallery.
In Vancouver, a member of the Chinatown Action Group likened the artwashing taking place in New York’s Chinatown to developers and new businesses in Vancouver that employ stereotypically Chinese imagery or aesthetics to gain authenticity, pay a misguided homage, or clumsily conceal an exclusionary agenda.
Though the movement is called Anti-Art, some powerful art is being created by these activists, such as the art washing hands image shown earlier, the above image and the following by an unidentified artist on the Defend Boyle Heights Facebook page:
Another compelling image emerged from Vancouver activists protesting developer Westbank’s arrogant use of art washing discussed in the blog Anti Art. This is a beautiful piece of activism art using the highly recognizable format of Westbank’s advertising blitz and capturing its hypocrisy and contempt for neighbourhoods in a single phrase.
The activists oppose artists and galleries that act as vehicles for gentrification & displacement but ironically, the images arising from that struggle are some of the most evocative being produced today. Perhaps that is because these images are coming from strong feeling and beliefs as opposed to what tends to be coldly intellectual and soul-less art promoted by the arts establishment.
Role of Arts Establishment
In addition to galleries, the arts establishment contributes to gentrification & displacement in cities under pressure from development interests. A good example of this is Artscape, an arts and culture non-profit with a multi-million dollar budget used to “revitalize” neighborhoods and promote mixed use developments.
Artscape’s method is to purchase or lease underused properties, more often than not in low-income neighbourhoods. The spaces are then rented out to professional artists and registered not-for-profits at below-market rates. In the case of BC Artscape, the project was also helped with $900,000 – from the City of Vancouver, the credit union, VanCity and the J.W. McConnell Foundation: a match made in real estate heaven. Over the past decade Artscape has become a very attractive partner for developers because developers can build bigger condos if they provide “community benefits” such as arts studios.
The New Avant-Guard
Many established artists and the arts establishment continue to be guided by the pursuit of such non-issues as whether an artist should ” move away from …the imagistic and textual and toward a probing of the real and historical” as discussed in a recent work of art criticism. But the artworks that are promoted by what the arts establishment would term, “progressive debate” have done little to counterbalance “Bosnia, Somalia, the Holocaust, Chechnya, China, Afghanistan or Washington DC”. And as we have seen, the arts have been complicit in the localized class wars also called gentrification.
However, the work of the artist/activists explored in this blog are pointing the way forward and that direction is one of meaningful (as opposed to theoretical) day-to-day involvement in the ongoing struggle to protect common ecological, social and economic values from the ravages of greed and opportunism .
An article in the online journal colouringinculture.org suggests that, “The radical avant-garde today can therefore be seen to exist in the cracks of neoliberalism as re-politicised acts of resistance against the totality of capitalism, grounded in collectivism and ‘nonaesthetic reason…in keeping with the radical avant-garde, disobedience and dissent, non-compliance and non-conformity, are what make us human and make us creative.” It is an interesting and somehow reassuring idea that anti-art activists are art’s newest avant-guard.
Since the 1970’s, painting has been declared dead, defunct and irrelevant. This blog explores the reasons for antipathy to art with a focus on distrust of and distaste for painting and in particular, for painterly aesthetics.
In an attempt to re-establish painting as relevant, in 2017 the Vancouver Art Gallery mounted an exhibition called Entangled: Two Views on Contemporary Canadian Painting. One review enthused that “Entangled shows contemporary Canadian painting is alive and well” and the reviewer felt the painters shown “found ingenious and sometimes revisionist ways of revitalizing the object and justifying their medium”. But on the whole, the paintings, such as the following, rejected the notion that beauty has any role to play in art. If this show represents the cutting edge of contemporary painting, why is it so clearly adverse to aesthetics?
While the above review agrees that painting is considered a dead art form he describes the painters of Entangled as not entirely convinced of its demise. “Human beings, after all, had been applying pigment to receptive surfaces for tens of thousands of years.”
Why do painters continue to paint if the medium has been declared “dead, defunct, or worse, irrelevant”? One good reason was given by Gamlin, the maker of oil paints who described painting as the most complicated, all-encompassing, and rewarding experience “because painting requires us to see, think, feel, and perform complicated physical tasks all at the same time, striving for something meaningful, striving to make order out of the very raw material that is oil colors” and because painting makes the painter “feel so good to be so alive.”
Clearly other art forms offer the same experience which is why artists persist despite a general lack of pecuniary benefits and worldly disinterest. In his book, The Blue Guitar, John Banville’s goal is not narrative but “linguistic beauty …pursued as an end in itself “. In one passage, he describes what happens to the painter protagonist as he “…sank steadily deeper into the depths of the painted surface, the world’s prattle would retreat like an ebbing tide, leaving me at the centre of a great hollow stillness…In it I would seem suspended at once entranced and quick with awareness, alive to the faintest nuance, the subtlest play of pigment, line and form”. Banville hints that in much of writing or painting this state of hyper-awareness eludes us. “How treacherous language is, more slippery even than paint.”
So why was there so little attention to the visual beauty …pursued as an end in itself, in the Entangled show? No artist wants their work to be irrelevant, so the works shown were largely concerned with challenging modernist ideas of aesthetics rather than breaking new painterly ground ,with the possible exception of a few works such as this one:
The primary goal of most of the exhibition’s painters appeared to be to challenge the idea of paintings as objects of beauty, value or egotism. While clever and in some cases original, many, if not most, paid no attention to visual beauty …pursued as an end in itself.
Some, like the piece above (attribution to follow) are a replay of ideas that have been done many times over the last half-century. Such works reflect the dominant art paradigm in which emotions or any feelings other than amused irony are part of an outdated modernist sensibility and strictly renounced.
So why has visual beauty, pursued as an end in itself, become an unacceptable pursuit for a self-respecting contemporary artist? And is the Anti-Art movement a logical culmination of the antipathy to aesthetics? The following investigates a number of very good reasons why aesthetics and art itself have become suspect.
Six Arguments Against Painterly Aesthetics and the Arts
1) Looks Good Over the Couch
The most obvious reason for disavowing aesthetics in painting is its use as decoration. Paintings are generally chosen not for their technical skill or visual discoveries but because they complement the decor. Painters at the beginning of their careers often strive for stereotypically beautiful paintings of landscapes, bunches of flowers, nubile nudes etc.
Those who persevere realize that beauty is a snare and a delusion – the more a painter strives for beauty in a familiar form that has been portrayed by other artists and recognized as such, the farther s/he gets from it. Those who make a profession of creating “beautiful” paintings that look good over the couch never set out on the life-long journey to scale painting’s insurmountable cliffs, at the top of which is another insurmountable cliff and so on.
2) Real Estate and Artworks
The second most obvious reason is that paintings exemplify the commodification of art. As in this article in the Huffington Post the wealthy looking for safe investments are advised to buy real estate and artworks, especially paintings.
“The art market rebounded quickly after the last recession, faster than traditional investments. High net worth individuals (HNWI) with a portfolio diversified into art assets were not as greatly affected. Additionally, rather than investing in stocks or bonds, art provides investors with an alternative, tangible opportunity.”
They are not, of course, buying paintings they like, but works attached to a highly valued brand (aka artist). Artists have always had to deal with the philistinism of the market, but there has likely never been a period in history when the art market, with its focus solely on profit, has so dominated artistic production and public understanding of the value of art.
3) Art & Big Egos
In the contemporary visual art world there is the belief is that artists who create large, grand or durable artworks are egotists. To avoid this damning charge, a generation of artists has been careful to ensure that their works are small, self-effacing, unserious and/or constructed of waste products.
Large paintings are viewed as a throwback to the modernist era when gigantic artistic egos created giant canvases.
In an attempt to democratize art, especially painting, the post-modernists discarded distinctions between “high” and “low” art. Into this aesthetic vacuum stepped the phenomenon of the artist as personality and the unprecedented importance placed by the market on the personality of the artist rather than the artworks themselves.
Artists such as Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami, whose work is opening at the Vancouver Art Gallery are not so much artists as brands marketed on the strength of name recognition.
An offshoot of identity politics has been a revival of the relativist philosophy that Socrates opposed. Socrates believed that virtue was something that should be aspired to and is immutable, permanent and unchanging – a moral absolute.
His antagonists, the Sophists, did “not offer true knowledge, but only an opinion of things” and held a relativistic view on cognition and knowledge. In a relativist universe where there is no right and wrong or standards of excellence, every person can only act in their own interests and neo-liberalism is the modern version of this thinking.
The implication of relativism for the arts has been that, since Clement Greenberg, no one feels they can say whether an artwork is good or bad, or even if an object can rightly be called art. Who can judge excellence in a world without right or wrong, good or bad? So for contemporary artists it is safer not produce something that clearly strives for excellence but to produce works that abjure technical skill and aesthetics .
5) Truth is Beauty & Beauty Truth
Our culture and its tools have changed more in the past 30 years than in the previous 1900 so that it is no longer a changing culture but a culture of change. It is a culture where change has attained a god-like status of inevitability and determinism.
In this philosophical climate, if there is no potential for art to reveal truths as there can be no absolutes, what is the point of art? If painting is not metaphysical or about making money or beautiful objects to please the bourgeoisie, it can only be an in-your-face repudiation of all pretentious, presumptuous, egotistical aims and a reminder of all that is wrong with society. Thus contemporary artists produce works that eschew aesthetics.
6) Art & Gentrification
A new argument against aesthetics, art & culture has surfaced that goes a long way toward explaining the hostility to art and the rise of an anti-art sensibility. This argument appeared in an article by Dorothy Woodend in the online journal The Tyee.
The article states, “Beauty doesn’t need any help. How about we fight for ugly?” This statement is odd because, after 30 years of exploitative, poorly planned, free-for-all growth, beauty in Vancouver has been effectively expunged. However, Woodend was referring to a PR campaign by one of the more neighbourhood-unfriendly developers in the city. They are running a marketing bonanza under the guise of an art exhibition featuring giant pink billboards, transit ads, posters and pink cars emblazoned with the words “Fight for Beauty” that are currently everywhere.
This PR campaign highlights a debate about art & culture that is gaining momentum in all cities where housing is an international commodity, locals are displaced and artists who remain are forced to scramble for studio space and affordable housing. The displacement is a result of gentrification where local governments allow the demolition of affordable dwellings and their replacement with unaffordable condos. In the cities where this is taking place, activists rightly term it class war as the less wealthy are replaced by higher-income earners.
One of the tools local governments and developers use to create acceptance of this process has been termed art washing. The Vancouver Mural Festival amply demonstrated this approach. In the same way that condominium marketing campaigns re-purpose words like “community” and “regeneration” to sell boxes of air, art is used to divert attention away from the gentrification and displacement taking place. As Woodend says, “..it is difficult not to lose respect for the very idea of art itself”.
All those pretty murals, full of blandishments like “The Present is a Gift” were a quick way for the city to run with a branding scheme for neighbourhoods in a way that ultimately served the interests of developers, realtors, and property owners – stakeholders the ruling municipal party, Vision Vancouver is beholden to more than working class residents who live in these areas.
Ironically, given Vancouver Mural Festival’s message of improving neighbourhoods and communities, their flagship mural, titled “The Present is a Gift,” adorns The Belvedere and its painting was the catalyst that began the renoviction process of the dozens of artists who lived in the building some for over the last 30 years.
The reasons above provide convincing arguments for contemporary painters to eschew painterly aesthetics . And the connection between art & gentrification overshadows all other concerns about the arts as it is a scourge in every major city in the world. This issue warrants further exploration and research.
However, the nagging question remains – why art? The commercialized consumer culture touches every aspect of contemporary society from food to games, so why have visual artists felt their disciplines must not search for visual beauty, “pursued as an end in itself “? Clearly this question deserves further study outside the received wisdom of the art establishment.
These posts are an effort to understand how painting has become a suspect art form, freighted with assumptions of its strong & irredeemable connection to everything that was wrong with art before the post-modern revolution. These posts are also an attempt to come to term with my own passionate attachment to what in current “discourse” is referred to in a derogatory way as modernist painting.
Modernist painting (and less so sculpture) has been singled out as encompassing the cultural sins of the current epoch and its repudiation an expiation. However, despite the cleansing fire of post-modernist ire (and irony) the cultural sins continue to grow from strength to strength.What are these sins? Let me count the ways.
The Market Monster
The first is, of course, that the standard for gauging excellence in art is the marketplace. The post , On Theories of Art ended with the comment, “Perhaps the assumption of objectivity in art is clearly unattainable because art is about feelings rather than reason, but feels the need to be justified by some form of reason other than marketability. it’s a quandry.” As in all aspects of life in a capitalist oligarchy, the market has poisoned relations between artists and their work and artists and viewers.
Though written in 1975, Rosenberg’s Art on the Edge, many of his ideas remain highly relevant. cannot be overemphasized. Rosenberg calls the influence of the marketplace on the direction of contemporary art a “…a process of transformation whose end is not in sight” (1) and over 40 years later, this transformation continues to mutate. For an artist, alternatives to the market are either art-as-criticism, (parody, irony, subversion) or making art for oneself. The irony is that the mode of ironic, subversive, parodies of art has been absorbed by the state so that institutions of contemporary culture sponsor shows that that will make them seem opposed to themselves. “To create the illusion of an adversary force, everything that has been overthrown must be overthrown again and again”. (2)
This relates to a discussion in the previous post describing the current epoch as not a changing culture but a culture of change. The ideology of constant change has, like the end of history, eliminated real change. It’s Groundhog Day.
Perhaps the lesson here is that it is not going to be possible to get art out from under the market’s poisonous influences through constant renunciation of perceived artistic sins that went before. It seems naive to believe that one art form or another can have any effect on a powerful and pervasive economic system that manipulates every aspect of human life. Mondrian’s, belief that his work was a “plastic vision” that would help to set up ” …a new type of society composed of balanced relationships” is like a poignant glimmer of a previous culture’s optimism about the human imagination.
Art on the Edge: Creators and Situations, Harold Rosenberg,1975, p. 8
Richard Powers book, Three Farmers on their Way to a Dance includes an interesting section about progress and technology. Powers suggests that, as culture and its tools changed more in 30 years than in the previous 1900, the curve of progress reached a critical moment when it was “no longer a changing culture but a culture of change”. Now that change is the constant, he says, nothing has changed since that point. And when progress of a system becomes so accelerated, “it thrusts an awareness of itself onto itself and reaches the terminal velocity of self-reflection”. This produced a species capable of understanding its own biological evolution. In terms of its psychology the species has become aware of its defense mechanisms, so that the self can never again defend itself in the old ways. And “Art that was once a product of psychological mechanisms is now about those mechanisms and – the ultimate trigger point- about being about them.” (p. 81) “Art takes itself as both subject and content; post-modernism about painting…” and other disciplines about themselves.(p. 83)
The self-reflexive aspect Powers refers to is clearly evident in, for instance, a film recently shown at the Vancouver International Film Festival called Faces, Places. A quintessentially post-modern piece, the film, feature 2 film-makers who travel around the French countryside taking photographs of ordinary folks, blowing them up to monumental size and pasting them on buildings. It is a film about making a film of 2 film-makers who travel around the French countryside taking photographs, etc.
It was a charming film and very well done. But it was as insubstantial as the photographs that would be washed away by the first storm. Other than being a delightful portrait of the 2 artists and their working relationship, it made no attempt to touch on anything outside that frame.
In contrast, an Egyptian film, The Nile Hilton Incident, was a riveting political allegory. Set in Cairo on the edge of revolution, this film explored the corruption that is endemic to tyranny and the near-impossibility for any of us to remain uncorrupted in a culture of greed and violence. While from a post-modern perspective, the film broke all the rules about narrative and morality, this was a piece of great art. It is impossible for the viewer not to be changed by the powerful experience of seeing the film, so in that way it was transformative.
This is a good example of how art can be transformative, despite the widely held belief, that this is no longer possible in the jaded 21st Century. This view holds that, as self-reflexive beings, art can no longer charm us into believing in a reality that isn’t there or make us suspend our disbelief. The Nile Hilton Incident showed us that whether or not we can fully participate in the experience is not a problem because art can explore powerful ideas and reveal truths outside itself.
In his essay, Doubt, Richard Shiff explores modernist and postmodern criticism. Though the nomenclature differs, the self-reflexive issue arises when he discusses the issue of identity which looms large in postmodern discourses. He also refers to the present as in a constant state of change which, to him, precludes absolutes. He then goes on to relate this lack of absolutes to the individual sense of self. if there are no absolutes & everything is relative, there can be no fixed self but a series of selves that appear according to the situation.
Shiff calls these “innumerable configurations of personality and emotion” self-differing. He contrasts the self-differing self to the idea of a phantasmatic “all-at-oneness” that suspends the temporal dimension. Shiff discounts this idea by stating that the self always self-differs and never integrates, so that self-difference becomes its identity and that to differentiate the immediate from the temporal is pointless. He claims that all modern & postmodern art explores “orders of difference and temporalized plays of memory” then describes how some artists have have attempted to resist self-differing: “the gap between reason & emotion, mind & body, identity by name & identity by feeling”. He suggests that this is impossible based on the aforementioned constant state of change, lack of absolutes and the irreconcilable divide between belief & doubt.
The point of his argument is to critique the style of art criticism that entails a consciously subjective approach, where the critic simply relates a personal response to the artwork. A good example of this is John Berger’s most recent book, Portraits in which he provides a wholly subjective review of mostly male artists.
So though this may be very true of art criticism, an appreciation of the irreconcilable divide between belief & doubt does not lend itself to understanding art. Shiff’s convoluted academic thinking about art is based on faulty reasoning about the nature of the self and art as an expression of self. The integration of the self has little to do with the dichotomy between belief and doubt as these are simply mental states. The self is not a mental state but a being of which mental states are but a part. Integration of the self does not entail reconciling belief & doubt but is a process whereby body, mind and emotions become one with the self rather than conflicting and disintegrating states.
Then there is the integration of the self with consciousness itself – that “phantasmatic all-at-oneness” that is dismissed in this relativistic view. But by dismissing this possibility – the potential for transcendence, this view also dismisses the potential for art to reveal truths, to transcend “orders of difference and temporalized plays of memory”.
Been reading the third in a series out of the Routledge & University College Cork, called Doubt, by Richard Shiff. Though it’s a critique of critics, it has interesting ideas for me as an artist. Referring primarily to painting, Shiff suggests that interpretation has replaced an understanding of the painting itself – what he call the “materiality” of the artwork.
But the focus of his discussion is the perceived conflict between absolutism and relativism, though he does not frame it in these terms. He begins with the concept of identity – something that many contemporary artists find of interest, which has always puzzled me. But Shiff explains that this concept is more than what is commonly referred to as “identity politics” and encompasses a wider philosophical issue.
This wider definition of identity has to do with an understanding of the self. Is the self a constant, or is it situational, differing according to outside stimuli? This difference is described as one between the “temporalized” self and “all-at-onceness”. He believes this is the crux of the post-modern approach to criticism and goes on the describe the lengths critics go to avoid the extremes of absolutism and relativism by, for instance, providing criticism as a subjective exercise describing the critics personal views.
He also attempts to address how this dichotomy has influenced the post-modern approach to art-making. For instance, an artist such as Robert Irwin refused to have photographic representations of his work made as they would set up a duality by “explaining one thing in terms of another”. This duality or “self-difference” (where the self differs from itself) is what Shiff assumes post-modern artists have struggled to avoid. The goal is to “resist the gap between reason & emotion, mind & body, identity by name & identity by feeling”.
Some would argue that self-differing is an aspect of the human condition, and that it is impossible to attain any “all-at-onceness” that suspends the temporal dimension. And they would agree that religion is not the remedy. To post-modernists, for whom there are no absolutes and everything is relative, religion is the remedy that worked in the ,middle ages but is irrelevant to materialistic contemporary society.
So it is left to artists and critics to re-invent the wheel that will explain how to overcome “self-differing” or the condition where there is no integration between mind & body, body and self and self and consciousness. The results are the elegant but tortured logical arguments that result when academic thinkers try to work out for themselves what humans have known and understood for millennia. The Greeks called this hubris.
This is not to say that there is no role for art criticism and Rosenberg makes a good case for it. He argues that someone needs to be working toward over-arching theories as to what constitutes art and differentiates good from bad. Otherwise, it will be left to the market to decide.
I don’t know of another field where there is the degree of uncertainty about the legitimacy of developing theories that there is in the field of art criticism. In other fields, it is accepted that the critic avoids accusations of subjectivity, absolutism or relativism by stating values, assumptions and objectives at the outset, then gets on with it. Perhaps the assumption of objectivity in art is clearly unattainable because art is about feelings rather than reason, but feels the need to be justified by some form of reason other than marketability. it’s a quandry.
At first I was put off by Harold Rosenberg’s early 1970’s book on art criticsm Art on the Edge (1) by his use of terms like “the artist is a man who…” and almost quit reading. But I came to overlook his gender insensitivity as I read on. Rosenberg’s primary concern is that art, and he is primarily concerned with painting, is in danger of going over the edge that separates it from crafts, commercial design and the mass media.
What’s interesting about his views, is that, though he is deeply immersed in the art world, he is not aware of the term or the fact of post-modernism. He is writing at the time of a huge change in attitudes toward art and he is documenting this change as it is taking place. Thus he is able to report on the transition between the philosophical endorsement of modernism that was widely accepted by the art establishment and the shattering of this consensus through emerging artwork critiquing that philosophy.
In many ways, his writing was prescient as it can be said that art has since gone over the edge he described. But this jump was a conscious choice by the artists involved and made out of a sense of necessity. That felt necessity was to rebel against the commodification of art and the modernist illusion that the art object could meaningfully convey a response to a world that was capable of creating two devastating world wars and weapons of mass destruction. The jump was also motivated by photography that could record life much better that painting and had replaced it in many ways.
Instead of making irrelevant art for money, artists such as Duchamp were make art as criticism through parody, irony or subversion.
Rosenberg’s insensitivity to gender issues reflects his lack of attention to the other important issue that created the post-modern revolution. Though he touches on the fact that taste in art, especially modernist painting, was set by an elite made up of white, middle & upper class males. They in turn found they most admired the work of white, middle-class male artists, so that women & visible minorities were excluded from exhibitions & sales.
There were many other artists who did not accept that there were insurmountable problems with making artworks such as painting. For instance, Rosenberg suggests that “…if Miro had a “problem” it was how to reach a state of creation unhindered by problems”. And as Rosenbery says, many artists saw the only other alternative to be making art for oneself.”For Newman, painting was a way of practicing the sublime, not communicating it.”
Others such as Mondrian, believed that it was possible to “…conceive of a grand vision such as the salvation of the human race..” that could be expressed in paint. He believed his work was a “plastic vision” that would help to set up ” …a new type of society composed of balance relationships”.
Mondrian was aware that his work could not speak for itself without a “new phase in human development” so he wrote statements and manifestos explaining his ideas.
The irony, for Rosenberg, is that in contemporary art the meaning of artworks is not in themselves, but in the personality of the artist, “…his ideas, his role, his pathos.” He saw with clarity that what would become post-modernism would replace ideas in art altogether.
Modernist painters wrestled with the issue of content and the reaction against using recognizable images. Rosenberg refers to “pre-formlist abstraction” as that which has an unmistakable subject but “…projects a content that is implicit in but not restricted to the marks on the canvas”.
In this approach, a painting “…comes into being through unanticipated responses to what is taking place on the canvas”, as Rosenberg describes the work of Joan Mitchell. Whatever has gone on before provides the clue & the motivation for the next move.
The “meaning and emotional intensity [of Mitchell’s pictures] are produced structurally, as it were, by a whole series of oppositions: dense versus transparent strokes; gridded structure versus more chaotic, ad hoc construction; weight on the bottom of the canvas versus weight at the top; light versus dark; choppy versus continuous strokes; harmonious and clashing juxtapositions of hue – all are potent signs of meaning and feeling.”(5)
Rosenberg describes these as pre-formalist modernist painters as differentiated from the formalists who conceived abstract art in terms of “…a grammar of dimensions, edges, and color relations”.(2) Formalism also focused on eliminating metaphorical references, perhaps in reaction to what had become a cloying use of metaphors by some artists in earlier periods.
But the ultimate destination of this formalist direction were paintings that eliminated not only metaphor, but dimensions, edges, and color relations as well, to become a flat plane of one colour. Where’s the fun in that compared to Mitchells’ aim and method: to express delight at having been taken by surprise?(4)
This triumph of an oh-so-serious approach to art is another interesting aspect of post-modernism that will be explored in another post.
1. Art on the Edge: Creators and Situations, Harold Rosenberg,1975
2. ibid p. 83
3. ibid p. 73
4. ibid p. 83
5) Nochlin, Linda (2002). “Joan Mitchell: A Rage to Paint”. In Livingston, Jane. The Paintings of Joan Mitchell. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art. p. 55. ISBN0520235703.
My recent paintings are inspired by the conceptual world of Quantum Physics and explore how these theories can be explored through paintings. Quantum physics suggests that objects exist not so much as objects but as mists of possibilities of being that are here, there and everywhere at the same time. Then someone looks and the possibilities suddenly collapse into definite locations. That is contrary to our everyday experience where objects exist at one place at one time. We know something is either here, or not here, and that does not depend on whether we look at it. (1)
I have been working with the idea of the “mist of possibilities” in a series of oil paintings I am calling, what else? Possibilities. The first group of paintings in the series used the human figure as a vehicle for imagining the world “out there” arranging and re-arranging itself then collapsing into possible locations in the presence of the viewer.
in his blog, Paul Levy says, “quantum physics…activates the psyche, inspires the imagination and synchronistically dissolves the boundary between mind and matter”.
He suggests that, “Quantum theory demands a radical re-visioning of the role that consciousness plays in the unfolding of reality. Quantum physics is pointing out, in unequivocal terms, that the study of the universe and the study of consciousness are inseparably linked, and that ultimate progress in the one will be impossible without progress in the other.”
He goes on to say, “Quantum physics obliterated the classical notion of an independently existing world forever and has destroyed the concept of the world as ‘sitting out there.’ The universe will never afterwards be the same…According to quantum theory, the idea of a world independent of our observation has conventional meaning, but ultimately speaking, is incorrect. Our perception of the universe is a part of the universe happening through us that has an instantaneous effect on the universe we are observing. It makes no sense to think of ourselves as a self-enclosed, encapsulated, independent agent existing separate from the universe. Quantum theory has opened up the door to a profoundly new vision of the cosmos, where the observer, the observed and the act of observation are inseparably united…”
These ideas are compelling not least because of their impact on our ideas about objectivity and the ability for experts to make value neutral judgements.
In quantum physics, we are no longer passive witnesses of the universe, but rather, we unavoidably find ourselves in the new role of active participants who in-form, give shape to and in some mysterious sense “create” the very universe we are interacting with. As Levy says, “Quantum physics is itself the greatest threat to the underlying metaphysical assumptions of “scientific materialism,” a perspective which assumes that there is an independently existing, objective material world that is separate from the observer.” Then he ramps the discussion up to the next stage where it is believed by some that, “…quantum physics heralds the advent of an altogether new stage of human psycho-spiritual evolution. What seems to be an independent universe is in actuality a play of appearances…”
The next in the Possibilities series of paintings looked at this “play of appearances” using botanical images to explore the illusion of reality in our perceptions.
It is a richly visual concept with enormous painterly potential but I felt that a stepped gradation from disorganized to organized image seemed too orderly to address the idea that that there is no independently existing, objective material world that is separate from the observer.
So I began to allow a greater disorder into the work to capture the spirit of this greatest threat to the assumptions of scientific materialism again but continuing to use botanical images as the essence of the world “out there”.
Levy describes multi-faceted quantum reality as giving us “a greater resolution and capacity to see what no single vantage point can reveal. This confined, unfamiliar quantum animal is like a dream figure that exists within ourselves.”
This idea of the dream figure relates to the next paintings in the Possibilities series that returned to using the human figure as an image in an unconstrained way. These works give expression to the permeable barrier that exists between humans and the “outside world” from a quantum perspective.
Levy goes on to outline the moral/ethical/spiritual potential of this new paradigm: ” In re-visioning our idea of the world we live in, we change our perception of the possibilities available in our world, thus opening up previously unimagined pathways of creative and effective action…The apparent world “out there” has its roots in a field of sentience that is inextricably interwoven with the physical world while at the same time being shaped by the world of innumerable observers.”
This is the area of Quantum Physics that aligns itself with thousands of years of philisophical and mystical traditions. These traditions have been telling us for millenia that humans are connected to everything else and that what goes on “in here” affects what happens “out there”. For instance the ultimate goal of Yoga, according to my limited understanding, is to awaken individual consciousness to awareness that it is part of a universal consciousness.
I like his explanation for why the objective world “out there” appears to have an independent reality. He suggests that “…because of the quantum, dreamlike (i.e., consciousness-based) nature of reality, once we view the universe “as if” it independently, objectively exists, it will manifest in a way which simply confirms our viewpoint. Nature seems to respond in accordance with the theory and beliefs by which it is approached.”
It’s a fascinating theory that makes all of us creators because we are participating in creating our experience of the universe. Levy takes his blog to that most interesting and exciting aspect of quantum world where we are “bringing about that which appears to be happening as well as creating our experience of ourselves…Being a form of insight, physics is a form of art; as such, quantum physics is reflecting back to us the part of ourselves that is a creator of experience”.
Who knew that science was an art form? Or that life itself is an art form? So Joseph Beuys was right after all, everyone is an artist.
(1) The New York Times (web version), Science, July 11,2000
The art historian/critic James Elkins made an interesting statement in his 2005 book on Modernisms & Postmodernisms, Master Narratives and their Discontents (1). The focus of the book is the role of painting in Modernist & Postmodernist theories and the core question of whether painting is irrelevant to contemporary visual arts.
If our understanding of contemporary visual arts is based on the assumption that there is a clear trajectory of progress in art-making where the avant guard reject the outdated, unconscious approach of the past and present and lead us forward into the future through new ways of presenting images, then the Postmodernist rejection of painting is justified. Postmodernism and painting are mutually exclusive because painting is a creature of Modernist theory and Modernist theories rest on belief in the ability of art, specifically painting, to transcend the human condition.
Postmodern theories suggest that the Modernisms belief that art can transcend entanglement with the political, moral and social failings of the time in which it is created are at the core of paintings irrelevance. From this perspective, the whole history of Modernist painting is its coming painfully to an understanding of its place in the disenchantment of the world.Criticism of Modernism is essential based on the uselessness of the received rules of painting and the hopelessness of proceeding as if painting could be the place where the world is “reenchanted” (2).
In response to modernism and painting’s association with hopeless efforts to re-enchant the world and using useless rules, contemporary art schools and postmodern critics reject painting and favour of other visual art media, such as video and other new media. And those who do dare to paint are careful to avoid using received rules. Elkins touches on the problems with this approach:
“It is certainly much easier to make an acceptable piece of video art than it is to make an acceptable painting, and…the reason for the relative ease of video art is that painting has a longer history: more strictures, more limitations, fewer possibilities, a much denser lexicon of critical terms. Therefore…the ease of video is a reason to keep considering painting, especially when it’s a place where things seem to keep going wrong, or where the artists are deliberately misbehaving themselves, piling kitch on camp on kitch without end”(3). He uses the example of Jeff Koons, whose “…place in the history of twentieth century art is assured in part because of his apparently deeply sincere endorsement of kitch ideas and kitch media”(4) .
The Torment of the Artist
The painful understanding of the disenchantment of the world is captured in a few evocative sentences by my current favourite author, Richard Powers. In his 2009 story, Generosity, he describes the torment of the artist reluctant to contribute to the meaningless torrent of artistic works flooding the world at any given moment. In the face of ecological, social and economic megadisasters an artist can only tell,”…the odds against ever feeling at home in the world again. About huge movements of capital that render self-realization quaint at best. About the catastrophe of collective wisdom getting what we want, at last.”(5) This is the quandry that postmodernism has met with illogic and irrationality.
Powers outlines the decline of modernism through the disenchantment of a budding art historian who “…nurtured the belief that the deepest satisfaction lay in those cultural works that survive the test of Long Time. But a collision with postcolonialism….shook her faith in masterpieces.A course in Marxist interpretation of the Italian Renaissance left her furious. For a little while longer she soldiered on, fighting the good fight for artistic transcendence until she realized that all the commanding officers had already negotiated safe passage away from the rout.” (6)
Elkins describes Postmodernism as not the name of a period with a definable approach such as postimpressionism but “…a condition of resistance that can arise wherever modernist ideas are in place. Postmodernism works like a dormant illness in the body of modernism: when modernism falters and fails, postmodernism flourishes.” (7)
Elkins’ & Power’s complementary works agree that the assumption that art can transcend the human condition is core value of modernism that the postmodern critique rejects. So how can artists, especially painters, step off the one-dimensional plane of here and now and create works that are timeless, universal and make transcendence viable?
The return of Myth
In his blog, [Re]construction: Metamodern ‘Transcendence’ and the Return of Myth, Brendan Dempsey, a graduate student at Yale University, courageously enters the fray. He suggests that “metamodern mythopoeia reasserts a form of ‘transcendence’ without forfeiting postmodern immanence as it reconstructs artificial paradigmatic models for the twenty-first century. He includes the work of several young artist who he feels are involved in is artistic mythmaking that oscillates between the poles of discredited modernist myths and postmodern superficiality.
This work by Adam Miler is an example of a painting that Dempsey believes “reconstructs artificial paradigmatic models for the twenty-first century” and “oscillates between the poles of discredited modernist myths and postmodern superficiality”. The artist is clearly well-meaning and may feel he is delivering an impassioned critique late-capitalist decay by depicting a fauness vanquished by the violent spirit of development.
But his high-mindedness has not saved Miller from the same pitfalls that have ensnared artists of earlier epochs. The egregiously voluptuous fauness dooms the work to the level of soft-core porn, despite its censoriousness. And its relentless realism ignores a century of modernism’s struggles to define the role of painting when photography can reproduce reality so much better.
Perhaps myths are not something that can be conjured out of thin air by modern men steeped in a myth-denying culture. Myths are stories that live in our DNA and make sense to us because they are part of the fabric of ourselves as human beings. As Joseph Campbell would say (8), true myths are our ties to the past that help us to understand the world and ourselves.The myths that have come down to us through thousands of years of oral and written history are precious strands of our true selves and attempting to discredit them is like trying to discredit the seasons. This is clearly not a direction that will “reassert a form of transcendence”.
It could perhaps be said that much of Post-modernist theories of have been developed in reaction against Clement Greenburg’s definition of what good painting is and is not. Greenburg simply defined good painting as something that someone with good taste, such as himself, could see was a good painting. His point of view is at once highly offensive and rather appealing. It is offensive because, because as a Modernist, he was not yet aware of Post-Modernism greatest contribution to criticism in all genres – the awareness of bias.
Scientific research on perception showed that the mere act of observation affects the thing observed. This has led to a general understanding that it is impossible to be objective – that the observer sees based on a set of values and assumptions that influence what is seen. This understanding has led to a cultural revolution in all areas including the arts.
No longer were dead white men automatically considered the “greats” of literature, drama, music and the visual arts. It was no longer intellectually acceptable to assume that women and minorities were grossly under-represented among the “greats” because they were simply incapable of creating masterpieces. Once using the “greats” as a yardstick for excellence was gone, the very concept of excellence came under attack and anything that its creator called art was accepted as such.
But the postmodernist critique, while entirely justified and rationale, has been taken to its extremes, until, as Elkins says, we have been subjected to exhibitions “piling kitch on camp on kitch without end”. So it is worthwhile to revisit Greengerg’s worldview to retrace our steps.
Greenberg never seemed to be interested in examining his assumption that, because he was a person with good taste, what he saw as a good painting was a good painting and he needed to provide no further evidence of this. But the reason his attitude is still appealing is because he is right in saying that the point of art is to abandon oneself to the pleasure of viewing. It is not an intellectual activity that requires several wall-feet of text to understand. Art, is a visual, visceral, sensuous experience that bypasses the busy brain and transcends mundane day-to-day life.
Jackson Pollack was Greenberg’s most famous protégé and is a good example of a painter whose work as a visual experience is not narrative, not conceptual and certainly not banal. It is a pleasure to lose oneself in this artist’s ability to weave a surface of textures and pattens with all the complexity of nature but the intentionality of a human sensibility.
Other painters that Greenberg loved, such as Larry Poons also confirmed his good taste.
Not all of the painters Greenberg admired are immediately recognizable as a visual, visceral, sensuous experience. Perhaps, as he said, you had to stand in front of them. But the point he was making is that a great painting can transcend entanglement with the political, moral and social failings of the time in which it is created. Paintings is not and never can be irrelevant because we only have to look at a great painting like those above to know that they can create a place where the world is “reenchanted”.
Elkins, James, Master Narratives and Their Discontents, New York ; London : Routledge, 2005.
Ibid, pp. 52-55
Ibid p. 164
Ibid p. 70
Powers, Richard, Generosity 2009, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 152
6) Ibid p. 61
Op Cit, Elkins p. 89.
Joseph Campbell, The Power Of Myth, Doubleday, 1988
Clement Greenberg, Late Writings, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 2003
Last year, I spent 3 weeks in Florence Italy, with day trips to Siena & Lucca. It was a heavenly immersion in Italian Renaissance art, with a generous helping of my favourite motif – wingéd human/animal creatures. In Renaissance Florence, these creatures were called “Grotesques” and embellished everything from ceilings to ceramics and are anything but grotesque. Beautifully painted with technical panache, they are a light-hearted treatment of otherworldly beings.
Though the styles are very similar in all the ceiling “grotesques” the artists let their imaginations run wild in ceramic “grotesques”. For instance, the figures below appear to be hermaphrodites.
And these creatures appear to be involved in aerial copulation.
The artists must have had such fun with these images that embellished surfaces everywhere. It makes our sterile interiors see lifeless in comparison.
As described in earlier posts, images conflating animals & humans have fascinated me to over 30 years so it was very exciting to explore a cultural period that clearly found much pleasure in these images.
The first painting that sprang from the Florence experience is called Wingéd Seraphim II. In company with artists for many millennia, I am fascinated by the idea of flying humans. These are sometimes depicted as angels and sometimes as devils. In my version, they are simply plump beings plying the heavens in their own interests and oblivious to anything going on below.
According to Wikepedia, the word seraph/seraphim appears three times in the Torah and four times in the Book of Isaiah. In Isaiah the term is used to describe a type of celestial being or angel. “Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.”
The Bible contains the words of Ezekiel as he described his vision of “…four living creatures. In appearance their form was human,but each of them had four faces and four wings.Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze.Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings,and the wings of one touched the wings of another.Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a human being, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle.Such were their faces. They each had two wings spreading out upward, each wing touching that of the creature on either side. Four living creatures. In appearance their form was human,but each of them had four faces and four wings.Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze.Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. All four of them had faces and wings,and the wings of one touched the wings of another. “
Before now, I felt uncomfortable about a visual exploration of mythical creatures in the context of the Abrahamic religions. I was concerned that melded human/animal figures would be anathema to that tradition, based as it is on the idea of humans as made in God’s image. I feared that depicting animal/human creatures, especially in the context of classical Christian imagery, would be offensive to some, and I have no wish to offend anyone’s spiritual beliefs. So it was liberating to see human/animal creatures used lavishly in the palaces of those who would consider themselves devout.
The big surprise was to discover that references to “winged seraphim” in the Bible also refers to serpents. When I worked on my painting Wingéd Seraphim, I assumed that the images would be a challenge to Christian orthodoxy, not realizing that flying serpents were a part of the tradition. Naturally, it would have been assumed by Biblical writers & scholars that all these creatures would be male, as the tradition is deeply patriarchal. So the painting does challenge the unacknowledged assumptions in the Abrahamic tradition, that all the important players are male.
Having assured myself that animal/human beings are part of, rather than offensive to, the Abrahmic traditions, I have resurrected some paintings I started many years ago but never finished. These are part of the “Grotesque” series because they use the animal/human motif, but they are re-workings of famous classical art, some to do with Christian imagery, some to do with classical mythology. The first of these is also called “WIngéd Seraphim”. This painting explores the concept of humans as made in the image of God and the only creatures with a soul.
This painting is based on a classical painting that likely refers to the Biblical reference, John 1:51. Jesus tells Nathanael that he will “see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man“. Unfortunately, I am unable to locate the original painting, but will keep trying. The angels Jesus refers to are usually depicted as in the following image – as Anglo-Saxon humans in long white Grecian-type robes.
I can’t seem to find an attribution for the above image and it is widely used on Christian sites. But according to explorefaith.org, “Occasionally, an angel takes the form of an animal. According to standard Christian, Jewish, and Muslim belief, an angel can take any form it wishes…”. The argument is that, in order to communicate with humans, angels take on human form. So again, an idea that I was concerned may be offensive to Christians is again, acceptable tot eh doctrine.
The second painting in this series, called “Elegy” is again an exploration of the idea that God only cares about human animals as they are the only beings with souls. So God sent Jesus to help humans perfect their souls, but instead, we murdered Him. This painting investigates the possibility that God cares about all creature here below, even and possibly especially, frogs. I chose frogs because they are an endangered species due to climate change & the thinning of the ozone layer. They are beautiful creatures created by God, but we are murdering them. Through their demise, like Jesus, they are messengers that we are destroying what is most precious.
I happened to come across the original painting in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and here it is.
But there appear to be 2 versions of this painting. Here is the other one.
In the “Grotesque” series, I also explore human conceptions of beauty. Naturally, humans seek physical attractiveness in other humans, but our anthropocentric world view means that we tend not to see the grace & of beauty of other species. To question this view, I used the one of the most famous images from classical mythology and art – the three graces. Called, “The Three Graces”, this painting features 3 female figures with melded human/Great Blue Heron bodies.
This work was based on the famous 14th C painting of the same name.
I have also described this area of inquiry in Blog Post #10: On Women which goes further into the inspiration for this piece.
Currently I am working on a series of paintings that strives to capture in oils my understanding that life is a continual state of flux in which formless takes on form then returns to formlessness. Many philosophical traditions suggest that the only way to live within this flux is to focus on the present moment. This series depicts the momentary nature of existence as that which has become form is in the process of becoming something else as we observe it. It is a celebration of the beauty and wonder of this constant creation/destruction using as a visual metaphor the vegetable kingdom in which tiny seeds become edible plants then return to the earth in the inevitable seasonal cycle of growth & decay.
The series portrays this continual state of change by showing the fruits of my gardening labours emerging then subsiding into background particles of energy. The computer digitization process is a perfect analogy for this process as all digital information exists as one of two digits, either 0 or 1. Digital images are made up of patterns of 1’s & 0’s.
These 18” x 24” (45cm x 60cm) oil paintings on canvas are the result of a multi-stage process. First I grow the subject fruits & vegetables in my garden,
then photograph them,
then manipulate the digital images in Photoshop and finally transpose these images into paint in my studio.
Lately growing vegetables has become an increasingly important part of my life, often warring with time in the studio. So it has been particularly satisfying to be able to connect two things I love doing in this series of paintings.
This series has also provided an opportunity to work with photographs & exercise my Photoshop skills. I’ve been taking photographs since 1972 when I borrowed the art school camera and learned to develop my own negatives & prints. Since then I have mostly used photography to document my artwork and/or play with creating interesting juxtapositions of sculptures in still-lifes or landscapes such as the” eggs” and “female torsos” series described in blog #14: On Love.
The paintings expand on a painting & drawing technique that has always fascinated me – where dots or lines are used to represent light as in traditional cross-hatch techniques. This technique was the backbone of my illustration career (see pages Drawing, Black & White and Illustration.
They also pick up on a style of painting that I was experimenting with in the late 1990’s & early 2000’s.
So what might appear to be a checkered body of work to some is to me a seamless tapestry of ideas & themes that appear & re-appear.
In some ways it has taken a lot of nerve to paint flowers & plants. Like painting nude women, a subject investigated in an earlier Blog, #10: On Women, painting botanicals is fraught with danger. As in paintings of women, such as Venus & Cupid by Lely shown below,
Venus & Cupid; circa 1640; Sir Peter Lely; oil on canvas
languid nudes have become such a stereotype that it is almost impossible to use an image of a nude woman in art without it being trite – a cliche´
Similarly, paintings of flowers & plants have been done to death.
Since Van Gogh’s masterly use of the subject, every beginning painter does flowers and every beginning collector buys them.
They look so nice over the sofa.
A quick Google image search of paintings of flowers reveals the extent of this genre and some of the more obvious painterly pitfalls therein.
So it has been necessary to overcome serious trepidation about exploring this over-blown subject.
But the truth is, I am enjoying working on this series so it’s time to throw caution to the wind, and create the work that wants to emerge, even if it’s the risky field of botanicals.
The following paintings are from a series called Ephemera. This series works through a number of ideas for sculptures in clear sheet acrylic that I may or may not have intended to be developed in three dimensions at some time in the future. The palette tried to conform to the colours available in sheet acrylic. For instance, Winter Song was a study for a hanging transparent sheet acrylic sculpture in three primary colours in a winter landscape.
The series uses an unrestricted palette which may have been a reaction against the preceding ten years of primarily black and white illustrations.This series was created during a fairly heady period of my life when I was doing a lot of abstract thinking and grappling with weighty philosophical questions.
Antediluvian Celestial Geometry plays with the idea that, if an idea, such as that of a shape, can exist in the mind, it must exist in the real world and if an idea for a shape exists now, it must have existed forever. The cloudy, spatial theme is suggestive of star clusters, the birth of creation, creativity.
Though actual fabrication will necessitate adherence to the laws of physics, this series ignores rules regarding the play of lights and shadows, perspective and representation of forms.
What Time it Really Is, is another next world scenario where large explosive physical forms are moving at light speed through various dimensions while interacting with smaller, more one-dimensional forms. The questions in mind at the time were: “is this going on all around us? Does anybody really know? Are we merely conditioned to accept visual rules?”
These paintings are “what-ifs”. What if a clear acrylic form could move through space? What if it could kinetically change its form?
Every day, our bodies go through transformations between states of energy and states of matter. As we age, the matter begins to break down until finally we are ready to become an energy field or spirit. But if we concentrate on the needs of self, rather than persona, we do not exhibit expected behaviours and our behaviour becomes increasingly unbecoming.
As a subtext, the series explores the life of the mind, body and spirit. For instance, “Debate with Descarte”, is a visual argument with the 17th Century philosopher who formalized the mind/body dichotomy and championed the superiority of mental over physical processes. It contrasts cloudy, wavering thoughts and hard physical forms. Humans have always conceived of mind as emanating from above; as descending from the clouds and therefore superior to the earthly forms below. Several centuries after Descarte, we do well to question the superiority of the human mind over the works of creation.
Both Sides of Life, asks “what if life could be summed up as a clear, transparent, colourless shape?” Is this more or less what is left over after our carbon-based physical form oxidizes?” Our physical form makes it difficult to see the rich flow of colour and energy going on around, through, in front of and behind us. We can act a lens through which ideas and energy flow or a lens cap.
The series also included studies for sculptures combining hardware such as metal rods, chains & sheet metal with transparent clear sheet acrylic. I was especially interested in the images of chains that suggest supporting, bonding & connecting as well as binding & enslaving.
The series departed from studies for what could theoretically be fabricated in sheet acrylic and also simply explored visual ideas the vocabulary of forms that had evolved.
Passions in Passing, below, was influenced by the loss of my dear aunt, the painter Ione McIntyre. She was an artistic inspiration as well as a goad, demanding to know why I was studying the history of art in university instead of making art, which she knew was what I really wanted. I was with her when she died and it was my first experience of death. Witnessing the death of a loved one is a transformative experience underscoring the ephemeral and transitory nature of life. It makes one aware that we all go around in a state of oblivion, ignoring the fundamental fact that our days are numbered and livingour lives as though we have an eternity to wallow in self-delusions.
Passions was the clearest reference to this paradox and raises the issue of humans as the only life form with a spirit. My aunt would certainly not have thought so and would have fully expected to see her dear cats on the other side.
Celebration captures the manic, joyous energy that painting imparts. It is a celebration of life energy zooming toward a known end point. The fact that there is an end point gives life its beauty and richness.
Coming Through, is another expression of the need to continually re-invent oneself as an artist. There is no form that can define without getting in the way, so there is a need to break down rigid self-images and break through to new awareness of self.
I used to claim that, “I make art because I have to” as the daily pursuit of the elusive goal of expressing ideas visually gave my life focus and direction in the same way that religion or a strong philosophical framework might provide this for others. Now I make art because I love to. The process of creation is is like meditation in that it is centering, calming and builds self-awareness. Joy comes from overriding the over-busy mind and being present in the moment of creation. And to be in the moment, all other worries, problems, desires and ambitions must be put aside to be tuned into what the work needs as it comes into being.
The 2D/3D series built on earlier work in the Ephemera series. It explores the dualities of male & female, vertical and horizontal, soft and hard, open and closed, active & passive.
oil on canvas
40” x 30”
These paintings built on the previous series by focusing more on the transition between an idea and its realization and between an idea realized in one dimension then translated into a third. A background interest was the concept that the observer not only influences what is observed but can direct that influence in a positive or negative way. Often called the uncertainty principle, it is a fascinating discovery in that it affects all concepts of and understanding about creativity. It is described in Wikipedia as follows:
“This (the uncertainty principle) ascribes the uncertainty in the measurable quantities to the jolt-like disturbance triggered by the act of observation. Though widely repeated in textbooks, this physical argument is now known to be fundamentally misleading. While the act of measurement does lead to uncertainty, the loss of precision is less than that predicted by Heisenberg’s argument; the formal mathematical result remains valid, however. Historically, the uncertainty principle has been confused with a somewhat similar effect in physics, called the observer effect, which notes that measurements of certain systems cannot be made without affecting the systems. Heisenberg offered such an observer effect at the quantum level (see below) as a physical “explanation” of quantum uncertainty. It has since become clear, however, that the uncertainty principle is inherent in the properties of all wave-like systems, and that it arises in quantum mechanics simply due to the matter wave nature of all quantum objects. Thus, the uncertainty principle actually states a fundamental property of quantum systems, and is not a statement about the observational success of current technology.[9″
These works are intentionally lush to re-create on canvas the intensity of the process and to communicate that experience. This assumes that imagination and creativity are human attributes that offer the greatest potential for harmony. It also assumes that art can and should act as a counter-weight to the overwhelmingly empty or negative images with which we are continually barraged rather than underline them.
I wrestle with being a modernist painter in a post-modern era. While I recognize and accept the post-modern critique that has forced artists to examine their assumptions for socially enforced dysfunctional paradigms, I believe artists should move beyond a critical stance to a more pro-active role. While cynicism and irony have been important tools for creating distance from unrealistic optimism, I am interested in rejuvenating art’s role as an avenue for exploring spiritual aspects of human experience. In an increasingly crowded globe with divisive religious differences, art can help to focus on what is worthwhile. Humbly aware of my own shortcomings, I am working in that direction.
oil on canvas
36” x 48”
oil on canvas
30” x 40”
These paintings were developed during the summer I lived in a small cabin in an organic orchard in Winfield on the outskirts of Kelowna while working on a sculpture commission for that city. After a long day onsite in the hot city I would return to the cabin in the evenings and draw. It was almost a retreat experience as I barely had electricity and no phone, fax, computer or all the distracting paraphernalia of modern life.
I bought a sheaf of drawing papers, a bundle of oil pastels and lost myself in the joy of form, colour, line and texture. In my nightly drawing sessions I was searching for an uninhibited flow of ideas from my unconscious to the paper via my oil sticks.
oil on canvas
36” x 48”
Working in euphoric bursts of energy, I had great satisfaction in having nothing to do with the rational mind. I produced about 20 drawings in that time (see drawings page)
oil on canvas
18” x 24”
The Winfield cabin drawings were experiments in using colour, line & form and back in my Vancouver studio, they were translated into the more rigorous medium of oil paint on canvas. These drawing and paintings were then used as research for developing 3D ideas for concrete sculptures. Working through drawings and paintings is an effective way to understand and refine concepts to develop in 3D .
oil on canvas
24” x 18”
Spell to Balance
oil on canvas
48” x 36”
It was 1974 and I was pregnant with my daughter Anna-Lea. I was suffused with a peace & contentment that I suspect is God’s way of ensuring women are willing to undergo what follows. I was in my final year of art school and joyfully producing a plethora of pregnant forms. My work was as round, expansive and shiny as my belly. I was fascinated with eggy shapes and anything to do with eggs.
Marion-Lea Jamieson; Broken Yolk, 1974; Sheet Acrylic, 36”h x 48” w x 30”d
I had just discovered how to take photos & had borrowed a camera from the Art School. The Egg Boxes were photographed in a number of configurations and locations.
Unfortunately, I had not yet learned to ensure that the lens was clean.
I also choreographed & performed a couple of dance pieces during this period. The first was called Egg-Hanger, a dance piece for 6 dancers that was performed at SFU as part of the dance student show. Though I don’t have a visual record of the piece being performed, I have images of the sculpture around which the dance was performed:
The New Era Social Club was an artists’ studio on Powell Street. Other artists working there at the time included Glen Lewis, Dave Rimmer, Taki Bluesinger & Chris Dahl.
I spray-painted everything silver at that time. Still do.
I also performed a solo when I was about 7 months pregnant in the dance space of the Western Front Artists’ Collective in Vancouver as part of an evening’s performance by Linda Rubin with whom I was studying at the time.
Called “Amnion” the dance piece began with me inside a large clear polyester sac that I had made with a large zipper that allowed entry & exit. The piece ended with my emergence from the sac clad in flesh coloured leotard & tights
During the pregnancy I continued to create images of the fecund female body with an interest in exploring the, to me, interesting paradox that the female body is universally celebrated for it’s sexuality while its amazing reproductive capability is almost an embarrassment. My theory was that reproduction is an instinctual process that unequivocally links humans to their mammalian natures and belies our assumptions of species separateness & superiority.
So in 1974 a series was developed made of vacuum-formed sheet acrylic in shape of a heart using the Vancouver School of Art’s fabulous Thermoplastics studio. This studio was amazing as it had a giant oven capable of hanging a 6′ x 8′ sheet of acrylic that could then be formed. For this there was a giant vacuum-form press where the heated acrylic heated could be either sucked onto a mold through the vacuum function or the direction of the airflow could be reversed so that the hot acrylic could be blown through a cut-out blue heart in this performance was made. Sadly, the enire Thermoplastics studio was not moved the the Schools new campus on Granville Island.
Here are some other photos of the big blown acrylic hearts. A big heart shape was cut out of 3/4″ plywood and clamped over a sheet of hot acrylic. Then the air was blown through the cut out & the heart shape bubbled into life.
I also played around with vacuum-formed female torsos in the form of heart-shaped boxes. As a pregnant woman I was interested in the concept of vessels – of things within things. These heart-shaped torso boxes were filled with various items and photographed in a number of locations & juxtapositions.
As part of the heart-shaped container series, I also made a series of heart-shaped boxes. LIke the torsos, these were photographed filled with various objects;
During this period I also made a heart shaped drop leaf table that was part of a series of red-painted wooden sculptures. These included Egg-Hanger, shown above and a piece called Brass Stand at right. Though Brass Stand was not strictly speaking a part of the pregnancy-inspired “hearts & eggs” series, it is included as it was part of the red-paint that seemed to be an important aspect of my work at the time.
Brass Stand was part of a project grant received from the Vancouver School of Art that allowed the recipient to explore beyond the capabilities of the Art School. Recipients were encouraged to pay outside trades to create all or part of the artwork. I choose to explore the potential for spun brass, and created a wooden mold to be used to form the brass. I then approached a metalwork shop and asked them to recreate the wooden forms in brass. The guys in this metalwork shop couldn’t figure out what I was doing there and why I was asking them for such outlandish work. A couple of them figured I was there because I was looking to get laid, (I wasn’t pregnant at the time) and became so unpleasant that I was afraid to go back and pick up the remaining work. I was shy & unsure of myself at that stage and like most women of that time, blamed myself for creating the unwanted attention.
So my baby, Anna-Lea, was born soon after I graduated from art school and the shock of no longer being an irresponsible, fun-loving artist set in. The birth was traumatic, and I cam home to an empty ground floor apartment with no money, no help and a husband who was away on a road trip. I collected welfare & wandered around this dank apartment carrying Anna-Lea with both of us weeping for the first three months. I hadn’t really understood that as a penniless female artist, I would not have the leisure or resources to create artworks once I had a baby. The isolation was also a shock as former friends came by, saw what a miserable state I was in and never returned. They couldn’t understand why I had done this to myself.
During this period, I did manage to do a couple of paintings that were exhibited in a gallery in Chinatown specially set up to show the work of artists on welfare (those were the days).
The first three months were the hardest and the above paintings were the only works created. I realized that there was no possibility of producing visual art with a new baby & no resources. So when my sister Karen suggested starting a dance company that would accommodate babies, (she was pregnant at the time with her first) it seemed like a good idea. But that is a story for another blog.
Six years later, I had a second baby, my son James, even though my marriage was shaky and we were no better off financially. My son just celebrated his 33rd birthday and I often say that having my two children was the smartest move I ever made. Along with my second husband Colin, my children and grandchildren and his children & grandchildren are the great blessings of my life and I thank the Great Creator for having given me the wisdom to choose love over good sense.
I’ve had a few requests for more information on how I worked on the polystyrene armature for The Singer, so rather give an individual response, I thought I would post a bit more detail on the process on this blog.
The writer wanted me to provide a list of processes to go through; for instance, did I start with the back, front or sides? The first thing I have to make clear is that I do not have a clear & simple formula for cutting a polystyrene armature. I can just describe what I did. If there are any more specific questions I can try to answer them.
As outlined in previous posts, I started with a maquette and my goal was to reproduce the maquette in a piece of polystyrene at a scale of 1″ = 4.5″. I began by drawing the x & y axis onto the base of the maquette with 1/2″ numbered intervals. I then create a vertical z axis measure as shown in an earlier post. Then as shown in that post, I marked off the x & y axis on the wooden base of the polystyrene piece at 2.25″ intervals and numbered them the same as on the maquette. Then I created a vertical Z axis measure with the same numbered intervals for the large scale. This was the easy part.
The hard part was actually transcribing the measurements form the maquette to the final work. This system is more designed for an additive process like clay, when the artist can build the clay up to the point indicated by the measuring devices. With a reductive process like carving, the problem is that the point you want to get to is inside the block of material and figuring out how much & where to cut in order to reach that point is very difficult. I managed to cut away too much and had to glue more polystyrene back on. If you look carefully at the images in the same post you can see lots of yellow repair sites .(Speaking of glue, the best glue is that Expanding Spray Foam Sealant. It expands to fill the space so you don’t have to cut the amended piece exactly to size. Actual styrofoam glues form hard lumps that are too hard to run a hot wire through & are a huge pain.)
In order to record the location of reference points (such as the top of shoulder, bottom of elbow, top of knee, frontmost point of shin etc. ) I would measure it on the maquette and write down its numbers on the x,y & z axes. I started with the front and worked from the top to the bottom, then did the back. I would find a reference point on the polystyrene, mark it with a pen, connect the dots, and draw the outline. Then using the hot-wire, I cut off large swathes of polystyrene to create the very rough general shapes of the back & front. Then I did the same thing with the sides. As shown in another earlier post by that point I had the general squarish contours of the shape.
Here is where miscalculations caused later problems. The hot wire heats & stretches, creating a curve so that you are cutting not a flat plane but a concave surface. So my advice is to err on the side of caution when doing the initial big cuts. The process from there was one of going back & forth from the maquette to the polystyrene, measuring & marking points on the x,y & z axes and gradually whittling down this large squarish shape into a more rounded shape and carving in the more detailed forms. It was not easy and took considerable time, labour, concentration & organization.
I made jigs to hold measuring devices (squares, triangles, rulers) and a level together to make sure I was measuring accurately. As the reduction of the block progressed, I found the hot-wire was too broad to use and it can’t do indentations. So as I also discussed in that post I used a sawsall and a disk grinder to do more detailed work and a hand-held keyhole saw to do the fiddly bits. Here is the armature for The Singer as of now. I will complete it when I have a home for the final work. This will entail reducing the form so that it is 3″ smaller than the desired final size to serve as an armature for concrete or plaster added to the surface.
The whole process was very labour intensive and I would love to have had the money to be able to just send my maquette to one of the CNC shops and have them scale it up to full size for me. But as this was my own experiment for my own interest and no one was paying me, I had to do it the hard way.
Cutting polystyrene is hard, unpleasant work, especially when I got down near the floor and had to work with the sawsall in a crouch. Wearing a mask against dust & ear protection against noise is tiresome, so for a break I have been working on other projects.
As a pleasant and easy task, I am making molds and casting the plaster maquette of the singer.
I began by creating a polyurethane rubber mold, using Smooth-On’s Brush-on 40 product. They have a great video on their site explaining the process, though I wish they would choose a more challenging shape than a human head. Here is the rubber mold:
Then I made a mother mold out of plaster, instead of using Smooth-On’s recommended product, Plasti-Paste because I happened to have an old bag of lumpy Plaster of Paris in the studio. Big Mistake!! The plaster had been sitting absorbing water in my unheated studio for a couple of years & did not work! My advice – always go out & buy fresh plaster. Old damp plaster is clapped out & no longer reacts with water so the result is a crumbly mess. So a brand-new bag of P of P later, the mother mold took proper shape.
Once the mother mold hardened, both molds were removed, re-assembled without the original and placed upside down in a bucket for casting. I cast a few copies in hydrostone & a few in concrete, with varying results. Hydrostone is tricky to work with as it remains liquid for a long time while mixing then suddenly sets up leaving almost no time to pour. You have to pour before it starts to thicken or you’re done for.
To be honest, I had to patch up a few holes & sand them smooth again.
A friend sent me a link to a New York Times article about Hilton Kramer, who died recently at age 84. As the NY Times states:
“Mr. Kramer made it his mission to uphold the high standards of Modernism. In often withering prose, he made life miserable for curators and museum directors who, in his opinion, let down the side by exhibiting trendy or fashionably political art.
The Whitney Museum of American Art, in particular, felt the full force of his scorn every time it raised the curtain on a new biennial, whose roster generally favored installation, video and performance art, usually with a political message and an emphasis on gender and ethnic identity.
Mr. Kramer would have none of it. “The Whitney curatorial staff has amply demonstrated its weakness for funky, kinky, kitschy claptrap in recent years,” he wrote in a review of the 1975 Biennial, “and there is the inevitable abundance of this rubbish in the current show.”
Two years later, he threw his hands up in despair. The biennials, he wrote, “seem to be governed by a positive hostility toward — a really visceral distaste for — anything that might conceivably engage the eye in a significant or pleasurable visual experience.”
Mr. Kramer was impassioned in his praise when art met his high expectations. “He was a high Modernist, but he embraced a rather diverse lot that ran the gamut from Richard Pousette-Dart
to Jackson Pollock
to the Russian constructivists,” Mr. Kimball said.
He could surprise. Julian Schnabel, precisely the sort of artist one would have expected him to eviscerate, won qualified praise,
and the work of the highly eccentric Norwegian figurative painter Odd Nerdrum.”
I replied to my friend that I too consider myself a Modernist and an advocate for mastering technique in an era of novelty art, video and installations. However, where I differ from Kramer is in scorning art with a political message. Indeed, I’ve argued that art SHOULD be political. By this I mean art should come from an internal source of values, assumptions and beliefs that serve as a moral rudder. This doesn’t mean it can be kitchy or amateurish. For arguments supporting the role of politics in art, see my last blog on abstract art.
But where Kramer & others are misled is in characterizing the current worship of “funky, kinky, kitschy claptrap” as “political” rather than the result of a profound philosophical shift in thinking over the past half-century. This shift has been described under the catch-all phrase “postmodernism”, but in fact, the values, beliefs & assumptions of this perspective have been around for millennia. In previous centuries, this philosophical approach has been called “Relativism”.
Wikipedia defines Relativism as the concept that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration. The term often refers to truth relativism, which is the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, i.e., that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture . Wikipedia describes the Sophists as the founding fathers of relativism in the 5th century BC. The thinking of the Sophists is mainly known through their opponents, Plato and Socrates. In a well known paraphrased dialogue with Socrates, Protagoras said: “What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me.”
Sophistry has been around for 2500 years and its current incarnation, called Postmodernism, extends the idea of truth to any assumption of expertise. In the arts, this has meant the end of the “artist as seer” or the popular perception of the artist as an individual somehow uniquely blessed with talent. In the Postmodern world, it is the idea rather than the execution that is important and everyone can have ideas even if they are not able to express them with technical expertise and a highly developed sense of aesthetics.
Postmodernism has instigated its own cultural revolution and like revolutionaries everywhere, the targets of revenge are images that represent the ancien régime. As the Christians did to statues of ancient Greek gods; as the Protestants did to Catholic religious icons; and as the Chinese Cultural Revolutionaries and later the Taliban did to Statues of Buddha; adherents of Postmodernism have metaphorically smashed the noses off earlier artistic and aesthetic values. And just as the former experts in every field were vilified & made to wear dunce caps s during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, so the experts in every field int he West have been discredited by the Postmodern Cultural Revolution.
Just as in China there may have been a perceived need to tear down the established order, so in the West there was a perceived need to destroy an art establishment rife with race, class, gender & sexual biases. A quick net surf reveals the following snippets that indicate the continuing existence of an art establishment that defends against outsiders.For instance, Wikipedia includes an artical of writer Jennifer Weiner who has been a vocal critic of the male bias in the publishing industry and the media, alleging that books by male authors are better received than those written by women, that is, reviewed more often and more highly praised by critics.
In addition to the exclusionary tendency inherent in Modernism, Modernism, had its basis in Enlightenment beliefs in the power of human beings to create, improve, and reshape their environment, with the aid of scientific knowledge, technology and practical experimentation. At the core of the Enlightenment was a faith in human progress toward a higher level of civilization . For instance Spinoza, felt that through the application of Enlightenment thinking, human society could achieve “democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state”.
After two world wars, economic depression, the rise of fascism, totalitarian regimes and the eclipse of democracy by capitalist oligarchies the optimistic views of Modernism were abandoned. Wikipedia describes Modern Art as the institutionalized purview of an established elite so that modernism lost its appeal to progressive thinkers. In the 1960s the anti-modernist movements began to take shape and pave the way for the emergence of postmodernism. Thus Postmodernism evolved as an antidote to an established elite and institutionalized bias against those of the wrong gender, race, class or sexual orientation. Has this been achieved?
I ran across this quote in the Nov. 2011 issue of The Walrus magazine. interviewer Daniel Baird quotes Adam Gopnik, a bestselling New York writer, as saying,
“My work at this point is about the longing for modernity in a postmodern world.”
Baird says he is moving on to the larger, humanist, even spiritual themes and that much of his recent writing is driven by a need to find meaning and purpose within a radically secular world, to find powerful and grounding symbols of order. His current writing is about “finding a sense of home and rootedness and meaning in a fragmented postmodern world.” Hear, hear.
To me the main issue with postmodernism is the lack of any point of view, moral or otherwise, or even the belief that an artist should have a point of view. This is, I believe, what has led us in the West to the current sense of ethical & intellectual fragmentation
I have always had a conflicted relationship with abstract art. On the one hand, I love the freedom of simply creating a visual language of form, color and line to create a composition independent of the “real” world.
On the other hand, I wonder whether it isn’t just a safe way to create artwork that won’t alienate anyone by saying anything about the “real” world.
Some suggest that the preference of the arts establishment for abstract rather than representational art sprang from the uproar associated with a mural done by Diego Rivera. A program called The Rockefellersshown on PBS’s “American Experience” describes Rivera’s confrontation with the American oligarchy and its sad implications for freedom of visual expression.
Rivera was an artist with strong political convictions that were not satisfied by abstract art. Drawn by the social movements unleashed by the Mexican Revolution, Rivera returned to his homeland in 1921 where he developed a unique style that combined the influences of European art and Mexico’s distinctive pre-Columbian iconography. In his populist murals, he used vibrant colors and simple scenes to illustrate his Marxist ideals and the plight of the working class throughout Mexican history. In 1922 his revolutionary convictions led him to join the Communist Party.
In 1932 Rivera traveled to the US where the culmination of the trip was to be a large mural for the centerpiece of the most talked about architectural project in the country —- the new Rockefeller Center. Rivera’s visit to the U.S. unfolded against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the intense social and political forces it had unleashed. Rivera’s mural Man at the Crossroads, begun in 1933, would feature two opposing views of society, with capitalism on one side and socialism on the other. While still in process, a furor erupted over a portrait of Vladimir Lenin included in the mural. As an outspoken leftist, the Mexican painter had tapped into the ruling elite’s growing concerns over the upsurge of Radicalism and growth of the Communist Party. The mural was removed, hammered off the walls and all evidence of it destroyed. As a result of the negative publicity, a further commission was canceled to for Rivera to paint a mural for an exhibition at the Chicago World’s Fair.
The Tim Robbins film The Cradle Will Rock(1999) is a true story of politics and art in the 1930s USA, centered around a leftist musical drama and attempts to stop its production. Written & directed by Tim Robbin, it includes a dramatization of the confrontation between Rivera and New York’s elites set in the context of a general repression of the arts during the mid-1930’s using anti-communism as a rationale. The film suggested that this was the turning point in the history of modern art in which the political, media, financial & industrial ruling class made a conscious decision to actively promote abstraction as a politically neutral, non-threatening art form. Abstract art is safe art in that no contentious political issues are raised such that anyone could notice. Not that tempests-in-teacups haven’t raged over abstract art. I remember the kerfuffle that took place in Canada in the ’60’s when the National Gallery paid a million dollars or so for a giant blue canvas with a yellow stripe. But this is the kind of issue that politicians love – where the public attacks some small vulnerable minority like artists, rather than questioning the governing party’s self-serving policies. So though it is fun to play with forms, colours, lines & ideas in abstract ways, I wrestle with the frivolity of it. This, of course, drags forth the whole question of the meaning and purpose of art.
For many years I worked on the Running Man theme, described in an earlier blog, as a vehicle for expressing a strongly-felt philosophical perspective using a representational image that was abstracted so as to be widely applicable. When Running Man had run his course, I experimented with the purely visual universality of abstract painting while remaining wary of the empty pitfalls of decorative art. Below are a few examples of works from a series called Ephemera. These were studies for future sculptures in sheet acrylic and were depicted as though constructed from highly coloured transparent sheets of two-dimensional plastic.
Later works have carried the investigation into the possibility of creating these forms in three dimensions and in the more durable medium of concrete. Drawings and paintings in this series suggest the use of pigments in the resulting sculptures to investigate the potential for using colour to create a painterly surface.
These later works were done during the symposium where I created the steel & resin Running Man piece and was intrigued by the many excellent abstract sculptures being produced. I was living in a cabin beside an organic orchard just outside Kelowna BC and when not working on my commissioned piece, I cranked up Glenn Gould and played with oil pastels & coloured paper. The result was a series of drawings that were an adventure in line & colour.
My compass was my own inner sense of direction and a sense of excitement in the work. I used an unrestricted palette and exuberant scribbles in these drawings, eschewing precision in favour of freedom.
When exhibiting these drawings and the later paintings that grew out of them, I rationalized that I was exploring such metaphysical ideas as the relationship between the mind and body; time and space; the physical and the spiritual, because the real world demands an explanation. But really I was just having fun. I used these drawings as a basis for a series of oil paintings I called 2D/3D.
Again the motivation behind these drawings and paintings was play as opposed to consciously working toward the expression of some profound meaning. Having said that, the very act of drawing & painting has it’s own profundity. The daily pursuit of the elusive goal of expressing ideas visually provides direction in the same way that a religious discipline or philosophical framework provides meaning.
This is not a far-fetched analogy because the creation of visual art demands in-the-moment presence that is otherwise sought in meditation and other disciplines associated with religious practice. The act of drawing & painting can produce a sense of joy in the same way that meditation does in the devoted practitioner. That joy comes from overriding the over-busy mind and being present in the moment. And to be in the moment, all other worries, problems, desires and ambitions are put aside to listen to the artwork speak (or not) and be tuned to what needs to be done in order to bring it to life.More on this topic later in this post.
As with most of my paintings, I keep re-working them as long as they are available so Cross Purpose #1 (shown above right) was re-painted. In order to move away from the work as a painting and make it more of a sculpture study, Cross Purpose #2 was born as shown below.
There is a tension between paining qua painting and painting as a study for something else. Sculpture has to exist in 3 dimensions – to withstand gravity and all the slings & arrows that sculpture is heir to, so a sculpture study has to make sense as though it existed in the real world. The freedom to allow surfaces to appear & disappear without explanation is lost.
In the Fall of 2002, I began creating abstract sculptures in concrete based on the vocabulary of forms developed through the foregoing drawings & paintings. If pressed to explain the series , I would say it was an experiment in combining feminine and masculine energies, hard and soft lines, curves and angles, balance and imbalance, lightness and weight. To wax even more wordy, I would say they explore paradoxical states of being, the resolution of differences and the melding of opposites.
Below are a few examples:
The piece to the left, Conundrum, is one of the few sculptures for which I documented the process. The following images show the piece in progress.
First as shown on the right, an armature was carved out of found scrap high density polystyrene using a hot wire and saws. More about hot wire cutting is discussed in an earlier blog and more in another earlier blog. What isn’t shown is the next stage where this polystyrene armature was entirely covered with expandable wire mesh (stucco wire) which provides a surface for the concrete to grab onto. Also not shown was the rebar that was attached with this wire to strengthen the top arch.
Then the concrete was added as shown below.
The concrete used is a mix of 1:3 cement/ sand with liquid added to make it just wet enough to stick. The water is a 1:3 glue/water mixture to add strength. Later I added fibers for more strength. With the gravity-defying surfaces that need to be covered in a sculpture (ie overhangs etc.) the concrete can’t be heavy. It is hand applied, built up in layers, with each layer kept moist to allow the next layer to adhere. I would mix small amounts of concrete at a time (maybe 4-5 litres max) so that the concrete wouldn’t dry out but would last for 3-4 hours of work. It’s slow, careful work, not like pouring a pad all in one go.
The last few layers of concrete incorporated iron oxide pigments, as shown in the final image. Apparently this pigment is not good for you, so I wear thicker gloves for this portion of the work. Normally, I wear thin latex gloves to have maximum manual control.
I intensely pigmented small amounts of concrete then added them somewhat randomly to create a marbled effect. I really enjoyed the serendipidous patterns that were created – like painting with concrete in 3D. The inspiration for this approach were ancient stones in the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan peninsula. They effects of time on the stones had created beautiful patterns and colours.
I haven’t returned to purely abstract forms since 2005. After that I created abstracted representational forms as discussed in blogs 1-5. But the pull of simply working with pure form, colour & line is always there and I am currently working on a series of purely abstract paintings with no recognizable images to be seen. The debate in my head continues however, the main points of which are outlines in the next section.
Abstract Expressionism: Fashion and Art
The other night I went to see the play Red at the Vancouver Playhouse Theater. What a delight to see such great acting, dialogue, direction, & sets. Classical theater such as this is somewhat scarce these days in Vancouver as performance space is increasingly devoted to “multi-media performance”. Directors & choreographers feel obliged to throw in video, photography, sound (as opposed to music), and as much new media as possible in order to appear contemporary & relevant to the Tweet generation. Not that Red didn’t use video & stills, but they were used in such a way that they didn’t clutter up the play unnecessarily.
The play, taking place about 1968, foreshadows artist Mark Rothko’s suicide in 1970. The visual metaphor is that of the colour black, symbolizing death & destruction, gradually engulfs the colour red, symbolizing life in all its beauty & horror.
The play suggests that much of Rothko’s mental anguish was caused by his feeling of growing irrelevance as the art fashion of the day moved to Pop Art as defined by such artists as Roy Lichtenstein
Artists who follow their inner direction and volition with luck can find themselves on the crest of the latest fashion in art. Then when the tide turns and brings the next wave of young artists influenced by a new set of circumstances the formerly fashionable artists are left high & dry. As the critic Harold Rosenberg said, Rothko and his contemporaries tore down “…unlimited formal experimentation and parody and fragments of radical ideas” only to have their own ideas derided as egotistical and outdated by the next generation of artists.
The following is a quote that I wrote down without noting the source.” The rhetoric of isms and counter-isms has vexed the art world since the Second World War with new stylistic trends set up every few years to oppose whatever has become fashionable (postmodern succeeding modern, deconstruction succeeding that, and so on). The superficial theoretical pretensions of the various after-modern “schools” use cheap pronouncements cribbed from works of philosophy or literary theory. Art enjoys an oedipal energy in which creation is always destruction, usually of one’s most intimate influences.”
This Oedipal energy may not be as integral to art as it is to the culture of consumption. We are constantly reminded that we must have the newest, best and most cutting-edge of everything from electronics to hairdos to art. God forefend that we should have last-year’s version of anything. More profoundly, this is a belief that we are moving ever-forward on a trajectory of constant improvement. In this view, we are ever-striving onward & upward toward social & individual perfectability in which all wrong thinking & wrong acting will be eradicated. So the clunky cars of the 50,s, the horrendous politics of the 40’s, the economic errors of the ’20’s the stultifying social mores of the 1900’s and all the ignorance and pestilence that went before is being left ever-further behind us. And the more recent & contemporary the art movement, the more likely it is to be closer to the goal of full understanding and intelligence. It’s a view solidly ensnared in a belief that time’s arrow moves in only one direction -forward into the future.
Recent thinking is that time moves not only forward but also sideways (backwards is disputed). We are programmed (no doubt for our own sanity) to only perceive the forward motion of time, but it’s sideways mobility accounts for the frequently reported non-linear temporal events. This has implications for our attitude toward not only art but all human creative activities throughout time.
Abstract Expressionism: Meaning & Art
An excellent website called Art History Unstuffed provides a meaty discussion of Abstract Expressionism. In the section called How Abstract Expressionism Re-Defined Painting and Art: Abstract Expressionism and Meaning, the author Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette states that “The Abstract Expressionist artists translated “meaning” from subject matter to the broader and deeper intent of the word. For these artists, “meaning” had to be profound and transcendent so that art could rise above the rather minor role it played during the Thirties as handmaiden to politics.” She sums up her section of this discussion on Abstract Expressionism by saying:
“With Abstract Expression the primary moral act is the decision to paint, followed by the question of what to paint at the time of the end of painting. In a world that has experienced an all engulfing war and a horrifying holocaust and a brilliant blast of annihilating light, painting becomes a moral activity, one of the last possible ethical gestures. Abstract Expressionism was an art of pure idea, considered to be sublime, even transcendent and thus reconnected with the early Romantic tradition of landscape painting in America. Nineteenth century American painting had sough God in Nature, but in a universe that had be denaturalized and had been scourged of God, the only transcendence or saving grace was art itself, the last refuge of godliness.”
On the one hand, this assumption appears to be the epitome of hubris – the idea that we can attain spiritual transcendence by playing with colour & form is surely a delusion. And it surely betrays arrogance and massive ego to assume that the arduous discipline necessary to find God, as taught by the world’s major religions over thousands of years, can be cheerfully circumvented by picking up a paintbrush and going at it.
On the other hand, as Barnett Newman said, “The artist expresses in a work of art an aesthetic idea which is innovate and eternal.” This idea captures the essence of abstraction as the artist seeks to remove all vestiges of identification with a particular place & time and creates a work that is universal. In this there is definitely an element of spiritual transcendence and in this way, art (whether Romantic landscape or Abstract Expressionist) can act as a bridge between the spiritual and the worldly.
But to imagine that one artistic approach, such as Abstract Expressionism, can replace the search for spiritual enlightenment is highly suspect, especially since some of its most famous practitioners found more solace in the bottle than in their work. And to imagine that we can replace God with Art is like assuming we can replace food with a cookbook.
Art, like yoga, prayer and other disciplines can lead toward spirituality, but surely the guidance of tried & true religious practices is needed. Art alone is too amorphous.
After having explored the Running Man theme for many years, it was time to explore my inner woman in sculptural form. So as a counterpoint to the Running Man series, I developed a Dancing Woman series. The first piece in the series was a maquette called the Three Graces.
This piece was a further effort to explore the problem of depicting women in art without succumbing to stereotyping about Beauty, the Eternal Woman and the rest of it. I discuss this in another blog that includes a lino print & oil painting version of the Three Graces but will touch on on this issue later in this blog.
Images of The Three Graces goes back to antiquity. Wikipedia says in Greek mythology, the Graces ordinarily numbered three, from youngest to oldest: “Splendor”, “Mirth” and “Good Cheer”.
In 1482 Sandro Botticelli included Three graces in his painting Primavera
Then there is the famous oil painting by Italian painter, Raphael, who in turn was inspired by a ruined Roman marble statue in Siena shown below.
More recent sculptors have also used the Three Graces as a subject. Below is Antonio Canova’s (1757 – 1822) version. He was an Italian sculptor who became famous for his marble sculptures that delicately rendered nude flesh. The epitome of the neoclassical style, his work marked a return to classical refinement.
Now, my version of The Three Graces is the very opposite of delicately rendered nude flesh for reasons I have expanded on elsewhere. Don’t misunderstand me – I am breathless with admiration for the technical ability of those sculptors who were able to take stone and turn it into a timeless work of art. But that was then and this is now. The problem for contemporary artists is that the female form has been used so often that it has become a cultural icon used to convey shallow, sentimental ideas about women that are conventional and formulaic. This is why my version of the graceful trio is made from flat planes to create monumental, powerful angular figures. This seems closer to the original conception of the Graces as goddesses of “Splendor”, “Mirth” and “Good Cheer.
I would very much like an opportunity to create my version of The Three Graces in full scale at some point. The final size should be at least 2 m x 2m x 2m. As it would be a large and expensive sculpture to make for exhibition and sale on spec, I’ve shelved it until an opportunity presents itself.
Speaking of nude women in art, I was reminded of work done in this area by the Guerilla Girls. In 1989, this artists’ collective was asked to design a billboard for the Public Art Fund (PAF) in New York. They conducted a “weenie count” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, comparing the number of nude males to nude females in the artworks on display. The results were very “revealing” and were used in the design they submitted shown below.
The PAF said the design wasn’t clear enough (????) and rejected it. The Guerilla Girls rented advertising space on NYC buses and ran it themselves, until the bus company canceled their lease, saying that the image, based on Ingres’ famous Odalisque, was too suggestive and that the figure appeared to have more than a fan in her hand.
The concept behind this poster was explored in the early 1970’s in a collection of essays, later televised, called Ways of Seeing, edited by John Berger. The essays raise questions about hidden ideologies in visual images. One essay focuses particularly on the female nude as a subject for art which depicts women as a subject of male idealisation or desire rather than as herself . An example is Venus & Cupid by Lely shown below.
This portrait of his mistress was commissioned by Charles the Second. It shows her passively looking at the spectator staring at her naked. Berger calls her expression “…a sign of her submission to the owner’s feelings or demands.”
Berger contrasts this Western tradition of painting languid nudes to non-european traditions, such as Indian, African & Pre-Columbian art where “…nakedness is never supine in this way.”
The question posed on the Guerilla Girl’s website is: DO YOU THINK THINGS HAVE GOTTEN BETTER SINCE OUR FIRST COUNT IN 1989? As a sculptor, I am naturally interested in how often women are successful in sculpture & public art competitions or how well they are represented in exhibitions and galleries. So to answer the Guerrilla Girls’ question, I checked “sculpture” on Wikipedia and did a back-of-envelope gender analysis of the sculptors represented there. Only about 5% of the artists mentioned are women in what should be a progressive source of information on sculpture. An apologist might say that women don’t want to be sculptors because it’s too difficult for them, or they are not strong enough or something along those lines. For instance, when I was at a sculpture symposium in China, I asked why there were virtually no Chinese women sculptors among the 60 or so male sculptors participating. The response I got from male sculptors was that sculpture is dirty work & women don’t want to do it. A more likely scenario is that China, like most of the world, discriminates against female sculptors in terms of acceptance for sculpture training and granting of commissions. If in fact there are fewer female than male sculptors per capita in the West, it would be my suspicion that women chose another field because sculpture has remained a macho preserve. And if there are as many female sculptors as male, there is clearly a strong gender bias at work in terms of getting work & recognition.
Though the Guerilla Girls are still very much the “conscience of the art world” I hadn’t seen any sign of them in my town of Vancouver for decades. I was reminded about their artwork by an exhibition of feminist art at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris that featured them. Another of their brilliant and biting pieces is the following:
I just love their work and wish I could see more of it. The Vancouver art scene tends toward works that are careful not to actually take a stance on any identifiable issues or real-world problems. An artist may allude to an issue, preferably taking an obscure approach that could not be said to be presenting a point of view, but using art to clearly present an opinion is not really considered to be in very good taste. That’s why re-visiting the Guerrilla Girls is such a breath of fresh air.
To continue my exploration of the female form, I developed another image into a maquette that has been realized in steel, called Anima shown below.
This maquette was an homage to Picasso’s wonderful painting, Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922).
I loved the monumental qualities of the women, their strength, freedom of movement and obvious joy. It was fun to try to capture these qualities in intersecting flat planes.
In collaboration with my partner, Colin Race, the 13″ high maquette was translated into a 68″ high sculpture (5+ times as big) shown below. To scale the model up, I outlined each part & used a pantograph to increase the scale. Due to the limits of my cheap pantograph and workspace, I seem to remember I had to increase the scale by 2.5 then increase those drawings again by 2.5. I drew each part on cardboard then attached all the pieces together as a rough model to see if they would fit. To construct it in steel, we built the skirt first which created a stable base for attaching the upper body & legs. Due to small cutting errors, the dimensions of the original carboard templates had to be modified as the sculpture progressed. Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to me to photo-document the process at the time. The finished sculpture was exhibited in the Lake Oswego “Gallery Without Walls” sculpture exhibition in Oregon from 2009-2011.
This experiment was quite successful, except that I wanted to leave the surface in polished mild steel with a clear finish as shown above. I spent hours researching a finish that would prevent rust & not yellow, or peel off. I found all kinds of extravagant claims for aliphatic urethane coatings that were alleged to prevent mild steel from rusting and last forever. So we used oiled & pickled mild steel, polished the picking off and clear coated Anima I with Aliphatic Urethane. But the steel started to rust underneath the clear coat within a few months of the rainy season. The clear coat was lasting well, but rust is almost impossible to eradicate, and it showed through the clear coat. We ended up having the urethane media blasted off and re-finished the sculpture with a silver powder coat.
The finish is not as silvery as I had hoped (though above photo taken on a rainy day), but it still looks great and is a lasting finish. The only way to get a really silver finish is by using stainless steel, and I can’t afford it for spec sculptures.
The Anima I design presented fabrication challenges as all the intersections were ground smooth which took a lot of difficult, labour intensive work. So the design for Anima II was made up of cubes, rather than intersecting planes. It was also away to test our fabrication capability for the eventual construction of my design for The Three Graces at the beginning of this blog. I submitted the drawing of Anima II shown below to a call for public art in Bremerton Washington and the drawing was accepted for a commission.
I used the same skirt design as Anima I, which again provided a stable base for constructing the legs and upper body. I didn’t make a cardboard model, but just waded in, using the cardboard templates from Anima I as a guide. But they were soon useless so I ended up using big sheets of tracing paper to create a pattern for each piece of steel. It was sort of like designing pattern pieces for making a dress.
As you can see from the caption, at the time of this submission I still wasn’t aware that no clear coat can be made to adhere well to bare steel, There just isn’t enough body for it to work. So I hadn’t factored into the budget getting the piece powder-coated.
Because the sculpture would be in a seaside location, I was advised to use a zinc-rich primer which is a very dark grey. The silver colour coat was not opaque enough to completely cover the primer, so the finish is less silvery than I had wished. Live & learn. If I were to do another piece like this in future, I would get it media blasted and spray-painted as you can keep adding layers of paint until satisfied. With powder coating, you can only add 2-3 coats max (primer, colour & clearcoat).
Not having worked in Washington before, I was also not aware that there would be sales taxes. And at about this time, the US border suddenly tightened up and we could no longer talk our way through without paying a brokerage fee and getting our Ford Ranger Pick-up registered as a Standard Carrier with the National Motor Freight Traffic Association. If it wasn’t such a waste of time, it would be funny to see us in our little red pick-up with some odd sculpture in the bed lined up for hours with rows of giant semis. Then there are more fees to actually get across the border.
The paperwork alone takes so much time away from doing any actual artwork that we now avoid bringing any sculptures into the US. We used to exhibit in many of the shows just across the border and really enjoyed meeting all the sculptors & sculpture-philes to the south. Just one small illustration of the many ways in which the new Security State is strangling the culture.
The commission price was quite small so with all of these additional costs and the fact that Anima II took a lot more work that I had optimistically estimated, we pretty well paid Bremerton to let us install the sculpture in their downtown Entertainment District.
To add insult to injury, the reception from the man-on-the-street during installation was lukewarm. Apparently there were differences of opinion in the community as to whether or not the City should be cluttering up the streets with public art.
Comments in the local newspaper’s online Letters to the Editor were another bummer.
Here’s a sampling of the 62 mostly negative comments posted at the Kitsap Sun in response to the piece:
“Ugly, not necessary and from a Canadian artist. What a joke.”
“Can someone please explain to me why 1% of the money for the city is going to such frivolous things as this when we cannot even afford to keep the city pool open unless the YMCA steps up and operates it.? I find it absurd that we are spending even the smallest amount of money on these eye sores while important things in the community are going down the drain! This is a perfect example, in my opinion, of money being spent poorly and why the city cannot become financially stable.”
“This thing looks like a collection of re-folded cardboard boxes all glued together…..Another example of “artsy-fartsy” that would tempt any red-blooded garbage collector to pick up and haul away if not for its weight. A few more of these downtown abominations and acid-heads from all over will be coming to visit.”
“What’s next for ‘art’ in Bremerton? Is some sculptor going to weld together some rusty cogwheels and old corset stays and then try to tell us it’s a greater piece of art than Michelangelo’s ‘David’? Let’s try to have someone design some art for Bremerton and obtain approval from our city officials to purchase it during times when it’s not ‘happy hour’.”
“I am thinking about putting my old side by side washer & dryer with an old pc monitor on top & call it the “Seeing Wash & Dry Creature”,it will be FREE & I can deliver right there on a corner side-walk.I think this could contribute to the Artsy Town.”
“Ok–I know what will be more appropriate & will fit the Arts–let me keep this “clean” so it does not get removed & PLEASE NOTE this is NOT my idea as I am a devout man of religious manipulation.-Ok–Here goes–without being too vulgar——A GIANT Phallus/Shaft next to the B.u.t.t. Hole—I ask God to Forgive me as my thought could be sinful & be frowned on by the community & religious clans–HA-!!!”
On top of all that, the local community began to drape the sculpture in clothes. The local Arts Council felt it was positive interaction and even the Mayor checked in with me as to whether or not I was offended by this. I said that
once a sculpture is out in the community, I no longer feel wedded to the original concept and if this is the way the community chooses to take ownership of the piece, so be it.
Having said that, I am not comfortable with this trend, and I have seen great sculptures in Seattle that people drape in clothes. Maybe this is community involvement or maybe this is a fundamental disrespect for art.
We traveled to Bremerton one last time to maintain the sculpture and removed not only the accessories shown here, but a sandwich-board advertising local fundraising activities. The sculpture had graduated from mannequin to kiosk. While we were cleaning the sculpture, people were waiting in a car for us to leave so they could replace their advertising.
In addition to its advertising function, the sculpture was serving as part of a skateboard obstacle course and there were rubber skid marks up the skirt. We tried everything to remove them and finally hit on toothpaste! for future reference, Crest with Flouride does the trick.
Like all of my experiments in art, Bremerton was a learning experience – mostly on how to combine artistic sensitivity with a rhinoceros-like hide.
The biggest irony about its reception is the fact that the Anima theme was meant to convey a positive message. As quoted in the Kitsap Sun:
“It’s a strong piece about optimism,” Jamieson said. “I hope people will get a feeling of optimism and hope. We’re going into the future with our heads held high and a bright outlook.”
Well, I didn’t exactly say that but that was the gist of it.
Anima is about the unconscious or true inner self of an individual, as opposed to the persona or outer aspect of the personality. The sculpture is a celebration of the female principle, depicted using flat planes in a cubist/constructivist style to express strength. Anima also refers to the joy and momentum that I was seeking to express in steel.
As I said the series of female figures was designed as a counterweight to the earlier Running Man series. That series was a social critique and I have come to realize that in any walk of life it is easier to critique than to propose an alternative. Many artists believe their artwork should hold a mirror up to the public showing people the way things really are and shocking them out of their complacency. The question is what we should be reflecting. If we believe life is a valley of tears and the world is heading for hell in a hand-basket, this is what we will tend to reflect. If we believe that most people are basically good and that humans have the innate capability to snatch civilization from the jaws of savagery, this is what we will reflect in our art. Now the moral question: does the artist have any obligation to present one view rather than the other?
I just finished reading Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s brilliant novel about a future distopia – a purely predatory world that consumes itself. “In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.” He wraps up the novel by saying:
“If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world…if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass.”
The Personal is the Political
The other day I received this comment about my blog :
“The following time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I imply, I know it was my choice to learn, but I actually thought youd have something attention-grabbing to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about one thing that you can repair in case you werent too busy in search of attention”.
My first response was, “Hey Crankypants! If you want to hear about how great everything is, just read the corporate media.”
My second response was to take this comment as yet another interesting piece of input on this blog. For me, blogging is just another vehicle for making art, and in this case, the artwork entails organizing and presenting the work of the last 40 years as themes and seeing how they weave together, sort of like a graphic autobiography. In truth, I could take each segment & present it in a completely different way, depending on how I feel about the subject.
For instance, as an artist, I can interpret my work from an objective or deeply personal perspective; I can think of it in terms of the forms created, the idea that motivated it or the ideas that evolved as the work progressed & I realized what it was really about. Artists’ explanations for what they are doing will of necessity only be part of the story as artists edit their explanations to suit the target audience. Is the audience looking for artspeak or words spoken from the heart? Are they sophisticated artophiles or philistines? A penny-pinching municipal government or deep-pocketed collector?
Since I have no idea who is reading this blog or why, I have absolute freedom to present my work according to whim. I could and may re-write all the blogs and re-arrange the images to present some other theme in the future. It’s an interesting vehicle, the net.
Last night I saw the film,Surviving Progress. Though many of the film’s points were ones I am aware of, its most important message was that debt is the driving force behind the world’s current economic, social & ecological crises. As apostate Wall Street bankers and IMF bureaucrats explained, debt is the force behind: destruction of the world’s most crucial ecosystems; poverty and social upheaval in developing countries; and the likely end of civilization as we know it.
In pre-capitalist societies, debt was owed to the state rather than private individuals, so when the burden of debt for most of its citizens became unreasonable, in the interests of avoiding revolution the rulers would forgive all debt, ride out the consequences & start afresh. With capitalism, however, debt has concentrated in the hands of 10% of the world’s private individuals, the financial oligarchy, and they do not have any interest in the health or even continuation of society as a whole. As a class they would rather destroy the planet than give up their self-interest.
Though the financial oligarchy has a great deal of power, those of us with surviving democracies do have the means to fight back through the political process. As Michael Moore says, “we’re a democracy – we can pass any laws we want!” Surviving Progress clearly advocates that we elect rulers willing to cancel debt in order to save civilization rather than the financial oligarchy.
The film reminded me of some drawings I did about 12 years ago on this theme. The drawings were in the form of bills for an organization called Artmoney, an international art project presenting a global, alternative currency: “Artmoney”. Artmoney is made of original art, by artists around the world. My contribution was in the form of drawings of 3 bills showing the evolution of a running man into corporate man – or the man who runs things.
The motto on each bill “This is the way the world will end” is an embarrassing misquote from the poem The Hollow Men by T. S. Eliot. The final stanza may be the most quoted of all of Eliot’s poetry;
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
I also used this motto carved around the base of a piece called Special Cases in 1999. As described in more detail in my blog #6: On Corporate Power, this sculpture is about Running Man in his bureaucratic context – ensuring that the dominant paradigm – that economic demands must always take precedence over over social or ecological needs – prevails. This was the second version of the piece.
There was only one aspect of Surviving Progress that was weak and that was the comments on Economics. David Suzuki called Economics “a form of brain damage”, which is just silly.
It got a laugh and I can understand the temptation to ridicule a discipline that has been distorted and misused to serve the cult of consumerism. When arguably one of the worst Canadian Prime Ministers in history is an Economist, it besmirches the field. Yes, I would argue that Stephen Harper is even more deluded than MacKenzie-King, that other nasty Conservative who, when he wasn’t sending European Jews back to certain death, was communing with the spirit of his dear departed Mother.
But Economics is an intellectual discipline like any other, and the fact that it has been misused to serve nefarious ends does not negate it as a field of study. Every discipline can be applied to foul purposes or fair as evinced by the use of Physics to develop the atomic bomb, or Biology to develop GMO foods. As in all disciplines, it is the assumptions behind the thinking that result in a progressive or regressive outcome. When people refer disparagingly to Economics as the source of our current financial, social & ecological crises, they are referring to a more recent and highly influential Economic philosophy that is characterized as The Chicago School. As described in Wikipedia, Chicago macroeconomic theory rejected Keynesianism in favor of monetarism until the mid 1970s, when it turned to new classical macroeconomics heavily based on the concept of rational expectations. The Chicago School, which advocates for unfettered free markets and little government intervention , came under attack in the wake of the financial crisis of 2007–2010. The school has been blamed for growing income inequality in the United States.An alternative economic perspectivesuggests that the Chicago School economists are “the product of a Dark Age of macroeconomics in which hard-won knowledge has been forgotten.”
My father, the late Dr. Stuart Jamieson, was a an economist who applied his hard-won , on-the -ground knowledge to improving the lives of working people. As a Keynesian and Labour Economist, he supported the rights of workers to organize and improve their negotiating position with the owners of the means of production.
Like many progressives, Stuart Jamieson’s faith in the union movement was shaken by events in the early 1980’s in British Columbia. A draconian far-right Social Credit government, bent on removing the social safety net for everyone except those who didn’t need it, had managed to galvanize the many opposing factions into a unified force. But on the eve of a threatened general strike, union leader Jack Munroe struck a deal with the government that protected workers and left the poor, sick, disabled & otherwise disadvantaged to fight for themselves.
Disillusioned with the union movement and the potential for Economics to solve real-world problems, Jamieson turned to direct action. He joined the movement to save the old-growth forests in Clayquot Sound on Vancouver Island from timber harvesting and was arrested for blocking access to logging trucks. In his late eighties, he was fitted with an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet and placed under house arrest at his home on Bowen Island.
Proto-Economist Karl Marx is described as one of the most influential figures in human history and in a 1999 BBC poll was voted the “thinker of the millennium” by people from around the world. He argued that accumulation of capital shapes the social system and that social change was about conflict between opposing interests driven, in the background, by economic forces. He theorized that human history began with free, productive and creative work that was over time coerced and de-humanised, a trend most apparent under capitalism. Marx criticised utopian socialists, arguing that small scale socialistic communities would be bound to marginalisation and poverty, and that only a large scale change in the economic system can bring about real change.
Clearly the discipline of Economics began as a tool for far-sighted, socially conscious thinkers but has been hijacked by regressive hacks who have provided a rationale for rule by the current financial oligarchy. So to characterize the study of how wealth is distributed as “brain damage” is to condemn a useful analytical tool because it has been misapplied. David Suzuki tries to amend his gaffe in the December issue of the local free magazine Common Ground. Their December issue responds to many of the issues raised in Surviving Progress and is one of their recent best.
In his article Suzuki suggests that Economics can address the narrow focus of the dominant economic model by putting a value on natural capital such as wetlands and forests. He reinforces this suggestion by noting that “These economic benefits have even received the attention of the World Bank, which plans to assist countries in tracking natural capital assets and including them in development plans, in the same way we track other wealth using the GDP index”. Yikes Dave! I bet they are tracking natural assets the better to turn them into wealth for transnational corporations.
As someone said, this is the idea of using capitalism to fix capitalism. It’s the preferred path for the faint of heart who want to tinker with the edges of the system but leave the system itself intact.
Other ideas in this ish of Common Ground are more practical. The article by by John Restakis, Beyond the Camps: Occupation and the Co-op Connection, provides a more practical approach to change that can be activated by ordinary people right now. John Restakis is executive director of the BC Co-operative Association and author of Humanizing the Economy – Co-operatives in the Age of Capital. He advocates participation in the co-operative movement which has a long history in Canada. As he says, “we have the experience of 170 years of co-operation to see that the tenets of democracy can be applied to economics just as in politics and that they work. It is this heritage of economic democracy that is invaluable to the movement that so ardently seeks an alternative to the status quo”.
As examples he points to the survival rate of co-ops which is double that of conventional businesses. He highlights how credit unions, by responding to the actual needs of their members, didn’t engage in the fraudulent financial speculations that bankrupted the economy and had no need of massive public bailouts. He suggests that shifting our money from banks to credit unions is something concrete everyone can do. Co-ops reduce inequality on a global level because fair trade, based on the return of profits to small producers through their co-ops, isn’t based on the extraction of profit by exploiting the weak. And at a time of global economic recession, the experience of the recovered factory co-ops of Argentina, Uruguay and elsewhere shows how workers and the communities in which they live can take back control of shuttered factories and provide a living for workers and their families.
Forerunner to the current left of center BC political party, the NDP was the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation or CCF. Founded in 1932 in it was an aggregation of socialist, farm, co-operative and labour groups,with a number of goals, including: public ownership of key industries; universal pensions; universal health care; children’s allowances; unemployment insurance; workers compensation. It also stated that “No CCF Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Co-operative Commonwealth.” In 1939 and again in 1941, my grandmother, Laura Jamieson, was the first CCF MLA elected west of Main Street in Vancouver Center. In 1944, the CCF formed the first socialist government in North America in Saskatchewan but during the Cold War, it was accused of having communist leanings. The party moved to address these accusations in 1956, by replacing its original goals with more moderate ones and paving the way to become the NDP.
The point is that BC has roots in the cooperative movement and this philosophy can provide an alternative to the capitalist system.
I have been carving away on my hunk of recycled Styrofoam (polystyrene) and The Singer is beginning to emerge. Here is its present state of completion.
It has been very interesting creating this blog recording progress on this piece and previous works. I have had many comments on my blogs, many of them appreciative of the information provided. Some commentators have requested that I provide more detailed information about the process but I have to clarify that I am a working artist and my priority is my artwork. I am not in the business of writing how-to manuals. That said, if anyone has a specific question, I am happy to do my best to answer it. I’m just not willing to provide a detailed account of my fabrication process without knowing what specific information will be useful to others.
Speaking of my blog, I have to admit to being a little dumfounded by many of the comments I have received. Some of them are simply incomprehensible and I can only assume that they are scripts generated by a robot & sent out to every website for some obscure purpose. Here are samples of comments that arrived today & yesterday ostensibly about my blog “Musings-Maquettes-on-Frogs:
1) from ghd straighteners australia:
“it is wise to keep your garden tools in low humidity area to counteract them from getting rusty”
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Undaunted, I return to the topic of this blog – progress on The Singer. In earlier blogs on this topic musings-maquet…-back-to-birds ; more-on-birds and on birds, I described the methods I was using to cut the polystyrene and remove dust. I neglected to mention the way I scaled up the original 20″ (50.8 cm) plaster maquette to create the 90″ (228.6 cm) polystyrene armature. First I marked off the x horizontal axis on the wooden base of the maquette at 1/2″ intervals and gave each interval a number from 1-26. Then I marked off the y horizontal axis on the wooden base of the maquette at 1/2″ intervals and gave each interval a letter from a-z. Then my partner built a measuring frame for the maquette to show the vertical z axis, I marked it off at 1/2 ” intervals and gave each interval a roman numeral from i – XL.
To carve the final work at a scale of 1:4.5, I marked off the x horizontal axis on the wooden base of the styrofoam piece at 2.25″ intervals and gave each interval a number from 1-26. Then I marked off the y horizontal axis on the wooden base of the styrofoam piece at 2.25″ intervals and gave each interval a letter from a-z. Below shows a corner of the base with the intervals.
Then my partner built a measuring frame for the styrofoam piece to show the vertical z axis, and I marked it off at 2.25″ intervals and gave each interval a roman numeral from i – XL. The image below shows the top corner of the measuring large frame. On the cross bar I added the same intervals as on the base to assist in measuring a straight line from top to bottom. Intervals have both letters of the alphabet and numbers so that the vertical measure can be used on both the x & y axis. The vertical measure closely fits the base of the piece and is supported on a two pieces of 1/2″ x 8″ wood.
Using this system I could constantly refer to measurements on the maquette in order to make cuts to scale on the final work.
Though this system has worked well, it is cumbersome as I am constantly moving the vertical measure around. The classical way of scaling up a sculpture is to use the point system, where a number of points are placed on the maquette and the location of these points are reproduced to scale on the final work. Perhaps with more carving experience I will be able to visualize where points on my maquette should be on my final work. But at present I am astounded by how far off the actual measure I am when I eyeball it.
If anyone out there has come up with a more elegant system for scaling up sculptures from maqutte to final size, (not including sending the work out to a pricey CNC shop) I’d love to hear about it.
In earlier blogs I also talked about dust control and our ugly but effective extraction system. I am also including a photo of myself in full styro-dust protection gear. I bought a painters’ paper overall for the elasticized wrist, ankles & hood as the small particles end up glued to every inch of me. I put on this full get-up for using the sander for finer work. But the paper overalls rip so I just wear a regular cloth overall & put elastic bands around my wrists & ankles to keep particles out of the overall and wear a shower cap to keep styro dust out of my hair.
This photo may offer a clue as to why there are so few female sculptors.
Usually I just wear an overall, plastic cap & googles but put on the full gear for using the sander. Who knows what inhaling these fine particles will do to you.
This sculpture is progressing slowly because I can only do a few hours of work a day before I start to make mistakes. There is no rush however as I still don’t have a home for the final product. I will most likely use the large styrofoam piece as an armature and coat the surface with 2-3″ of concrete which will probably be tinted with integral pigments. It would weigh a ton and be difficult to move, so if possible I would like to apply the concrete coating where the sculpture is to be installed. It could be a fun public participation piece where from day to day people could watch the armature turn into a concrete sculpture and talk to me about the process. This type of interaction is a great way for people to learn about & appreciate the art of sculpture.
Conversely, if a bigger budget could be found, I would finish the surface in plaster and have it cast in bronze. I’ve applied for a couple of commissions and not been successful, but I’ll finish the armature and keep looking. If anyone out there knows of someone looking for an 8 foot (250 cm) singing bird-person, let me know.
Marion-Lea Jamieson is an artist and sculptor from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada