Monday, 26 June 2017

I Heard the Birch Tree Whisper in the Night –a Gerald Squires Documentary by Kenneth C. Harvey

The highlight of the 17th Nickel Film Festival was I Heard the Birch Tree Whisper in the Night–Kenneth Harvey's first feature length film.  I was so determined to see this documentary about the late painter Gerry Squires that I bought a ticket a month in advance and it was a good thing because the screening quickly sold old, as did the one the following day.  I returned on the second day in order to catch the Q&A session with Kenneth Harvey.

Based on the strength of the two-minute trailer, CBC bought rights to the film.  (The duration of the film consequently is what is called a CBC hour, i.e. 45 minutes.)  The trailer shows Gerry Squires in his studio sitting before a pair of huge blank canvases, which is also the opening of the film.  It is a poignant moment, a trembling Squires recalls for the camera the moment he realizes he is deathly ill.  Contemplating a shivering birch tree in the failing evening light of spring, Squires– porous with receptivity– comes to accept his dire situation.  Fortunately, Harvey resisted the conventional wisdom of documentary making and the filmmaker did not go for the close-up.  Instead, he turned off the camera and hugged his friend and subject, something Harvey says happened more than once during the two years of filming and twenty hours of interviewing Squires.

Harvey walks a fine line with this film and the viewer benefits from the respectful distance that Harvey adopts.  Originally, Harvey explained, this project was supposed to be a short film about the painting of a woman's portrait.  It would document that near supernatural process of putting oil paint on canvas to capture a person's essence.  As a photographer, who had also made a portrait of the same woman, Harvey was interested in the shifting perception of the artist and the subject's likeness.  However, the nature of the documentary took a radical change when Gerry Squires' health declined.  The act of Squires painting would remain and it is in Harvey's words "the spine of the film". The viewer gets to see Squires create an expansive landscape and fill those two blank canvases all the while talking about the intimate process.


As a novelist, Harvey brings seasoned narrative skills to the documentary.  The film traces Squires career but also fills it with a cast of colourful characters from his life.  During the Q&A, he referred to artists Clifford George as "the comedian", Stuart Montgomery as "the wild card" and curator Caroline Stone as "the academic".  Inspired editing, juxtaposes Gerry Squires' romantic accounts of how it was necessary to his artistic process to live in the lighthouse with practical wife Gail Squires' version pointing out the perils of living, near penniless, with small children perched on an ocean side cliff.  The hints of humour and outright belly laughs, combined with the universal themes of life, death and the differences between men and women are what will give the documentary appeal to audiences beyond the province and country.


Thursday, 15 June 2017

A Warm Narcotic American Night with Bill Rose


The Paul and Danny Show, ink pad print by Bill Rose
On June 10th, I joined artist Bill Rose for a tour of his show, A Warm Narcotic American Night at the Emma Butler Gallery.  What follows is an excerpt of our conversation.

• GH: I think when I first came across your art I would have described you as a social critic and now I'd definitely add mischief-maker.  How would you describe your role or character?

Bill Rose:  It is very difficult to be a social critic without being a bit of a mischief-maker.   Sometimes you have to make something that is disturbing or funny or both, to get your point across.  Maybe, having been the youngest in my family has set me up as a clown or entertainer, in an effort to get attention.  At the end of the day, I like to think of myself as the tall boy at the back of the class who is shooting spitballs at the blackboard.  But of course I am also interested in making "beautiful" objects; just writing text on a canvas doesn't really cut it for me.  Maybe the social commentary in my work is just a way of assuaging my guilt at having spent most of my life making luxury items.

•GH:  Your method of working is incredibly labour intensive– was that part of the reason to include some earlier work in this show?  I found it a welcome departure for a show in a commercial gallery.

Bill Rose: I often get bored just looking at painting after painting when I visit other people's solo exhibitions.  So when I am assembling a show I think about the person who is going to be viewing the work.  I feel a need to entertain.  I like to think of the exhibit as a variety show.  In some ways, I think my recent show at The Emma Butler Gallery looks like a 6 person show instead of a solo show. I had over 60 works to choose from.  I made a list of about 30 and gallery director Alison Butler made a list of 30.  By combining both lists we came up with the final list.  The earlier pieces that we used all seemed to fit well with the show's title. i.e. You Have a Spot on Your Dress, Louise, Hit Parade, There's a Crack in Everything.

•GH:  One of the reasons why I enjoyed it was that it contextualized the most recent work.

Bill Rose: You know the characters may change and the specifics may change but at the end of the day I think my whole body of work can be more or less characterized by the van Gogh quote which I used on one of my first text paintings back in 1989..."There'll never be an end to human misery".  As a teenager I considered being a journalist.  I went to university and got a BA in English.  I was very much taken by the journalist's credo:  To comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable" I try to bring layers to the work by using text, juxtaposition, humour, irony…Even though beauty in art seems to be suspect these days, I also am interested in making beautiful  objects. 

•GH:  I was intrigued by the different methods represented, such as stamp pad prints, collages, oil painting, mixed media with inkjet transfers...They were united by a consistent aesthetic.  Do you see it that way?

Bill Rose: When I started doing text back in the late 1980s I found that this was a way for me to be more political in my work.  Before that time I was basically teaching myself how to paint in a photorealistic way.  Once I figured out a way to make photoreal paintings (by way of the grid), photorealism was no longer that important for me.  Photorealism had become a trick...a sleight of hand.  The painting needed something else to anchor it.  However the photorealism does serve the purpose of getting the work noticed.  Our culture puts a great deal of importance in images that are realistically rendered.  The finely rendered image is the bait that attracts the quarry.
The Meek Shall Inherit, oil by Bill Rose

•GH:  Let's explore the relationship between the text over the image.  I've heard you refer to it as a veil.  That brings to mind seduction and a welcome tension.  It's also an access point for the viewer.  Can you elaborate?

Bill Rose: The text over the image tends to make the image recede.  It creates a feeling of visual depth.  It also acts like a veil.  It partially blocks the image or impedes the viewer from having an unobstructed view.  Its a kind of tease...Text also reminds the viewer that this is a painting; as in Magritte's painting of a pipe...C'est ne pas un pipe.

•GH:  I also found it interesting in at least one instance, you've gone back and changed the text.  Can you tell us about that experience?

Bill Rose: I began to feel that the original text on the large Niagara Falls painting was too obvious.  The text was a quote from Oscar Wilde:" Niagara Falls is only the 2nd largest Disappointment in a New Bride's Life".  I had the painting hung in my living room and every time I looked at it, I knew it had to be changed.  Eventually I came across the present text by J. Paul Getty which I immediately knew was the right choice.  The text, "The meek shall inherit the earth but not the mineral rights" was perfect.  It was a clever play on words, ironic and darkly true.  I purposely didn't totally obliterate the original text.  If you look closely you can see the remnants of the Wilde quote ... a kind of scar.

Happy Meal, mixed media by Bill Rose

•GH:  I have to ask you about the two images that integrated the baby blocks.  This felt playful but in an ironic way because they were also very serious.  Is this a path you'll take again?

Bill Rose: I had these blocks around the house for a long time just waiting for something to arise where I could use them.  The painting of the hen was a little piece that I hoped would say something about vegetarianism and the food industry's treatment of animals.  The piece was around for at least 6 months and I couldn't come up with anything.  Also with it being such a small painting, I could only use a word or two.  For some reason the word CLUCK came to mind.  It made me laugh.  And then I thought of the blocks.  As soon as I laid the blocks across the bottom of the canvas, I knew it was finished.  At the time I also had the painting of a refugee just sitting in the corner, still not fully resolved.  I don't know where ideas come from but out of the blue I thought HAPPY MEAL.  It was perfect. In a world where people are starving, we here in the west have to make food fun before our children will eat it. 

The use of the blocks is such a specific solution; I may not use them again.  I don't want to be known as the guy who uses children's blocks on his paintings.  I don't want it to be the easy way out.  But if the blocks will serve the piece, I will definitely use them again.


Sunday, 28 May 2017

Portraits by Ray Fennelly with Startling Intimacy


Ray Fennelly
2 large portraits
1 small exhibit
May 14-26, 2017
The Arts & Culture Centre, St. John's

This exhibit of Giga Pixel photography by Ray Fennelly was regrettably short.  I considered myself lucky to spend an hour engrossed in these two images that spanned 48" x 96" and I might have missed it altogether if it were not that Fennelly had kindly flagged me at the opening of the epic Gerry Squires retrospective exhibition at The Rooms, Provincial Art Gallery.  These two images, taken in 2008, are both portraits of Gerry–one in the studio and one on his beloved Barrens.

They go hand in glove, yin and yang.  Quite literally, they are inside and outside and capture two aspects of the artist with startling intimacy.  The studio portrait is bathed in an almost golden light that comes off the warmth of the wood paneled walls and easel, and an adjacent unfinished painting.  The image is neither staged nor posed.  No holding of brushes or palette as props, a plastic bag of supplies sits unruly on a supplies cart.  This is a room where things happen and we have walked in.  Gerry does not smile, his gaze is level and it seems as if he is appraising us as much as we are him.  This portrait records an act of engagement between the subject and the viewer.

The second image is of the artist crouching beside an immense erratic boulder on the Barrens.  This big geological beast that has been carried on to the Barrens by some distant glacier dwarfs Gerry Squires.  It is easy to imagine Squires as some big game hunter beside his prize.


I have maintained that Squires painted the Newfoundland landscape like a self-portrait and Fennelly's photograph communicates that intimate relationship.  Gerry's beard and the scruff of grass seem to be in harmony.  The mottled lichen on the boulder could be the age spot on a tanned hand.  Each crevice tells a story like a wrinkle of experience.  Gerry wears a wide brimmed hat with a pin above the band.  The brooch is a likeness of the map of Newfoundland and if it had been worn on the lapel of a jacket it might have seemed like a decoration.  Instead I am reminded of the medieval custom of pilgrim's who would wear pins on their hats to mark the holy sites visited on pilgrimage.  I wondered if that made the Barrens our Stonehenge or nature's cathedral.


Fennelly explains that the Giga Pixel technology "is a large format amalgam" or " a hybrid of new technology with old school methodology".  His interest started about ten years ago when he began to play with the possibilities of extending the resolution and playing with image overlays.  With an image like Gerald Squires on the Barrens the effect is nearly panoramic with intense textures and sharp details– muted only by the rich black shadows cast by the erratic and carried through in Gerry's jacket.  This small exhibit delivered big on satisfaction.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

KRISTINA SØBSTAD – May 5—May 27, 2017 Christina Parker Gallery

Dreamland II, oil and chalk pastel on canvas, 60" × 80", 2016
Well Kristina, you are the new kid on the block, relatively speaking.  The first question anybody asks me about you is whether you are Canadian or Norwegian?  You were born in Halifax, right?

Yes, I was born in Halifax to Norwegian parents and very quickly relocated back to Norway. Having led a fairly transient life, hopping back and forth between Norway and Canada, among other places, I very much identify with my Norwegian heritage but attribute much of my disposition and lifestyle to Canadian influences. 

Your paintings seem to be landscape-inspired but not about landscape in a specific or literal way.  Are you painting about our relationship with the landscape?

My paintings are in many ways a self-portrait, or an abstract narrative. Taking the idea of painting our relationship with the landscape one step further to the point that we are reminded of our ecological selves and in a way become our natural environment, no separation.  I recall reading a beautiful article describing this very idea and that it's the almost physical disappearing delineation of self. This resonated with me so much so that I titled 2 paintings after this idea. I would describe this as a defining moment of clarity where we can witness a transference from an intellectual to a visceral understanding of ourselves.

Transient
oil and chalk pastel on canvas,48" × 60", 2016
Often, viewers are anxious to identify place or a location in a painting but you resist that temptation.  Can you tell me a little about your titles–like Transient?  I gather Dreamland is a series of paintings.

I resist the urge to identify any particular place in a painting because it's not what I'm after. My goal is to make manifest an/my experience which will hopefully translate to the viewer, in turn, conjuring a similar experience. My titles relate directly to where in my life I am at the time, serving as much as a time identifier as a date.  My painting Transient was created in transience in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, a landscape which at the time served as an anchor in some ways. Dreamland is a series inspired by the otherworldly Icelandic landscape and my experience there. 

One gentleman during the opening fixed on Haerra and asked me about the goddess.  I replied that goddesses were often affiliated with mountains but I thought he was thinking of Hera, the Greek mythic figure.  And my Icelandic mythology is rusty. Can you clarify this?

Hærra is Icelandic for higher, in Norwegian: høyere, which refers to the 'heightened' state of awareness when we are completely connected with our natural environments. On a personal note I'll add that I am very much a good 1/3 Icelandic as well...which is one of the reasons I went there and use Icelandic in titles from time to time.

You've made some very interesting choices with this new body of work.  I was impressed that you carried the large-scale off so well.  Your paintings never look inflated; these are big paintings with big ideas. 

Thank you, I prefer to make larger work, it allows me to really step inside the idea when it's complete. 

That leads me to your sense of composition that is quite distinctive.  Simplest Thing stands out–I thought that was very brave of you to leave such a large portion open at the top.  The spare painting here really evokes a wind scrubbed sky.

Yes, a wind scrubbed sky!  I like that phrase.
Simplest thing, oil and chalk pastel on canvas, 36" × 60"
2017

The way you layer your materials is very satisfying.  Could you say something about the visual relationship between the oil and chalk pastel and of course the acrylic?  It seems almost energetic to me.

My practice is very intuitive, spontaneous,  and physical, and I find the relationship between these materials allows me to mirror my approach. Also, I find there is an interesting dynamic between the oil and chalk, a tension that gives way to peaceful spaces if that makes sense, a dynamic that very much reflects our natural environments....even our not so natural environments. 

Do you have any aesthetic goals that you feel haven't come up in this conversation…anything you'd like to add?

Aesthetically in my practice, I would like to keep evolving and taking risks, exploring new materials perhaps, increasing the scale. 

Sounds like you might have some exciting plans to share…

As far as exciting news, I will be beginning a Masters this September through Athabasca University. I'm also planning a residency in Chile with the Museum of Modern Art in Chiloe in 2017, as well as a local residency not too far from St. Johns.


Monday, 8 May 2017

Aaron Draplin at Tall Tales & Thick Lines or when design can earn you a death threat



It is not unusual to have a renowned figure make a speech at a graduation ceremony.  This event did showcase the artwork of the students involved with the graphic and communication arts at the College of the North Atlantic but the similarity to a spring convocation ended as soon as Draplin lumbered on stage.

Aaron Draplin is a wooly mammoth of a man.  He has a bigger than life personality, a shaggy demeanor, talent dripping out of his fingertips and enough attitude to fill Club One wall to wall.  That venue's capacity is listed at 600 and it was sold out– not to proud mums and dads, not even to those professionals affiliated with the graphic arts in the city – although the event was an intriguing hybrid masterminded by a group calling themselves thedesigners (all one word).  Draplin has become something of an inspirational speaker, with slogans like "do good work for good people" as his professional advice.

In the flesh, Draplin swears a blue streak.  Club One's prominent windows facing the street were decorated with a photo of him that was several feet high.  Draplin shuffles on to the stage and says to the audience, "I don't think my face was meant to be 30 feet high.  Look at this stage!  See what happens when you have friends that are designers.  You get props and succulents and shit!"  It was true.  Proper designer table, artfully displayed plants and Aaron with a mass of hair and beard, stretch denim and a baseball cap.  The nurse sitting beside me gasped, "Oh, I saw him outside and I thought 'there's a person who needs a shower'".  Aaron looked liked he'd just gotten off a tractor or left his flatbed truck in the lobby.  "I was expecting a hipster," she continued.  "That's what hipsters look like these days," was my response.


Draplin has designed a staggering number of logos.  He showed us a wide range of them at fast pace accompanied by pounding rock music.  Draplin observed that for some the only payment he received was a burrito and others $30,000.  He is the incarnation of the adage of "find out what makes you passionate and do it".  He comes across as being a completely authentic human being and that is genuinely impressive­ and probably the reason why Draplin got to design for the Obama administration and earn himself a death threat in the process.  

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Maudie The Film, The Love Story

The real-life Maud Lewis in her home in Digby.

The image of Maud Lewis the folk art artist gnarled over one of her trademark paintings has a recognition factor that few in Canadian art can compare with.  What is most memorable is that trait that Lewis shared with her paintings.  She suffered a crippling rheumatic arthritis but undaunted, she bears a beaming smile and twinkling eyes.  The paintings she created, often as many as two a day, are radiantly colourful and full of life even though they are of a simple country life.  Both creator and art were radiant and without apology.

The romantic drama Maudie was released at The Toronto International Film Festival in 2016 and is now rolling out in cinemas across Canada's bigger city centres.  It was released in St. John's this past Friday and I would encourage viewers not to wait because it will likely be pushed off the marquees by higher power big box fare.  The film is deftly directed by Irishwoman Aisling Walsh, and it has star power in the form of leading man Ethan Hawke, who it turns out has a summer home in Nova Scotia.  Maudie and her surly fisher monger husband lived in a tiny one-room house in rural N.S. but the film was shot on locations in Newfoundland – the Goulds,  Brigus and most noticeably Keels.  This is in part due to the financial support of the Newfoundland and Labrador Film Development Corporation, the fact that one of the three producers is none other than townie Mary Sexton and the screenplay is written by Sherry White, originally from Stephenville.

Many viewers will be drawn to the film hoping to better understand Maud Lewis the artist.  Maud Lewis was the very definition of an isolated, outsider artist.  Not only was she self-taught and lived in a rural community (1903-1970) but Maud was largely shunned by her own family for her nonconformist ways.  Although deformed by juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, she refused to be shut away as an invalid.  She bore a child that was born out of wedlock and taken away from her and sold without her knowledge.  And Maud Lewis became a painter that never asked to be understood but could not be denied.  The art world beat a path to her doorway that had a simple sign outside of it saying, "Paintings for sale".  Even Vice President Nixon had to pay in advance when he ordered a painting.  Imagine all the plot possibilities!

Screenwriter Sherry White says that she carried the story of Maud Lewis around in her head for more than ten years and resolved to write a script about the love story between Everett Lewis and Maud.  Sally Hawkins plays Maud, convincingly inhabiting the complex character in a role that stretches over years.  What makes the movie a success is its lack of romantic sugar coating or moralizing.  Characters from the art world are fictionalized into the figure of Sandra, whose discerning attention is snagged by Maud's depiction of a robust, russet hen on the wall.  We know that hen was last night's supper.

     

Monday, 17 April 2017

Timing is everything–Books, Film, Magazines & Music

The Integral Quartet: (l-r) Peter Cho, Maria Cherwick, Peter Ko and Daniel Fuchs.

The month of April is proving to be one of those months where I keep trying to finish projects without much success.  It has to do with the various stages of publishing and the different kind of venues I work with.  For example, three years ago I wrote a book chapter about curatorial strategies.  The editor accepted it with minor revisions collected the other authors' submissions and went hunting for a publisher in a timely fashion.  However, it is only recently gotten to the stage of authors' proofs.  Books are like movies: oodles of research, generating creative ideas, figuring how to sell them, whom to sell them to, and the large cast of professionals that will carrying out a staggering variety of tasks.

By contrast when I am a guest writer for an arts festival, be it the Tuckamore Chamber Festival, The Festival of New Dance, The Sound Symposium or one of our film festivals, I am expected to attend a performance one night and be able to have copy on the festival's blog site the next day–the earlier the better.  Writing for a newspaper has a similar rhythm.  One of the reasons why I'd like to clear my desk of older projects is because festival season will soon be upon us in Newfoundland.  Our short seasons of fair weather seem to make this more acute.

I became aware of this earlier in April, when Christopher Reid Flock was a guest artist here in St. John's.  His plane managed to thread its way through the storms to arrive here and he gave a stellar workshop complete with demonstrations, artist talk and a very memorable Powerpoint presentation.  Alexis Templeton Studio hosted the event and even served up some tasty moose borscht for an authentic Newfoundland experience.  Jason Holley worked on the logistics of equipment and I am sure many others I wasn't aware of contributed to the success of the weekend.  But that's when Mother Nature got cranky.  Reid was storm stayed for two days beyond his scheduled departure.  He took it with good nature and we all did our bit to entertain him but I am sure it threw his work schedule back in Ontario into a tizzy.


Back in March I submitted copy to a new magazine that had approached me:  Billie magazine.  I was very happy to learn that the Atlantic region had a new, glossy publication dedicated to the visual arts.  Like my other projects this one has been winding its way through copy edits, images, layout and final production.  This article is about women tattoo artists and the tattoos women choose to wear.  I'll share more about that soon. 

And all this doesn't touch the show openings I've been to, concerts or new artists I've gotten to meet.  Last week, The Integral Quartet played its final concert as a group as they will disband to pursue their education far apart from each other.  The concert was held as a fundraising event for the Young Artist Program of the Tuckamore, where they all originally met.  It was held downtown at The Fifth Ticket, where patrons could not only soak up the satisfying music but chow down on a great burger and chocolate cake or raise a toast with "The Tuckamore" the Festival's new signature cocktail invented by the creative souls behind the bar and the watchful eyes of bar manager, Andrew Daw.
 To see the Integral in action use this link: