Sunday, 19 February 2017

Practicing Spontaneity–Canadian Improv Games

We have come together
In the spirit of loving competition,
To celebrate the Canadian Improv Games.
We promise to uphold the ideals of improvisation,
To co-operate with one another,
To learn from each other,
To commit ourselves to the moment,
And above all…
To Have A Good Time!

This weekend I was in dire need of a good, therapeutic laugh.  If Trump speeches and a bad back weren't enough, two days of snow storms had made a mess of my work schedule and for those of us who are self employed, or like my friends in the food and service industry, if you don't work you don't get paid.  So, it was clear I was going to head into the LSPU Hall to catch the Newfoundland regionals of The Canadian Improv Games.

For years I have been saying I would do this and somehow managed to miss it.  This year was particularly enticing as the veteran improv crowd would be performing at a special Alumni Show.  I am one of those people who will be probably cracking jokes on her deathbed.  It is simply in my DNA and one of my cherished survival tools.  What so appeals to me about improvisational comedy is its innate resourcefulness.  It requires little preparatory time because you cannot rehearse it.  Granted, there are plenty of warm up exercises and there are always some structural things to push against.  For example, a time limit of 3 minutes per scene and each of the events has a category like theme, life event or character.  But there are delightful wild cards where the audience madly screams out suggestions for these categories such as "style", which can be anything from Disney musical to Shakespeare or a cheesy horror film.  This is a really shrewd way of knitting together the audience and performers through interaction.

These performances are staged as competitive games.  That means that instead of a master of ceremonies you have a madcap referee.  Sometimes, there are as many as three stooges acting as whistle blowing referees whipping up the audience into a hilarious frenzy and trying to contain the antics of competing teams of players.  When you think about it, the Improv Games is a winning mix of the unpredictable and favourite, recognizable elements–like "what's in the box?".  This will be a series of gag prizes raffled off for fundraising tickets that are sold in pairs, arm's length, etc right up to "mummified".  Then there is the oath with which every session starts and all audience members rise to recite with their right hand on their hearts. Believe me, as per the referee's instructions  you never know who will reach out with their left hand for your "G-rated body part". 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Putting the Love Back into Valentine's Day

I have always been struck by the commercialism of holidays such as Christmas, Easter, Halloween and of course Valentine's Day.  A few years back, I decided to try and subvert this by practicing a more conscious approach to celebrating them.  First, I started out making gifts by hand, then it grew into volunteering on these days –like when I went to The Gathering Place to socialize with the homeless or as one savvy nun put it "our guests".  On other occasions, it was supporting Trouble Bound Studio's $100 tattoo days to memorialize loved ones lost to cancer.  This past weekend they raised over $6,000 for Daffodil Place!
I've also supported refugee efforts here in St. John's.  At present, my kitchen floor looks like a warehouse as I am gathering household goods and personal care products for the St. John's Social Justice Network (as a comic book enthusiast, I am always tempted to call it the St. John's Social Justice League).

While I was waiting to go to a concert last week I was approached by a young musician who said, "you must come and hear me tomorrow!"  When I went to the ticket window I decided to buy extra tickets and pass them on to those music lovers behind me as a random act of kindness.  On Friday evening at The Yellow Belly I ended up with a drink that I had not ordered, which I passed on to a grateful student couple at the next table.

I know I will never have enough money to be a philanthropist and some days energy itself seems a scarce resource.  But these small acts seem to be a wise investment in positivity and community. And St. John's being the small city it is, where everybody seems to know everybody, I wasn't surprised to have two acquaintances chirp up in congratulations before I made it out of the restaurant.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Learning from Dinuk Wijeratne

My big indulgence last week was the New Found Music Festival XIV, which was held at the Memorial University School of Music here in St. John's February 1-3, 2017.  I find it always worth my time to listen to composers and musicians speak about their creations and feel lucky when they illustrate their points by playing snippets of music.  It is a whole lot more satisfying than looking at slides of visual art.  Anyhow, it is a peek behind the scenes or inside the creative brain.

Dinuk Wijerante
From 12:30 to 5 p.m. on Thursday I was in sessions that ranged from performances of Meng Jian to an interactive Deep Listening event.  There is no better way of learning than by doing.  And even lowly, little old me can be persuaded to sing in public. It was all rewarding but the cherry on top was Dinuk Wijeratne's Keynote Address that was really a rehearsal of Polyphonic Lively with the MUN Chamber Orchestra. 

It made me smile when Dinuk told the audience that the inspiration for the piece was a painting by Paul Klee.  He said that he couldn't remember what the painting looked like or the title of the book where Wijeratne discovered the image.  It was the title that struck him.  And Dinuk likes to use the symphony as a metaphor for a community based on diversity.

Wijeratne's music has always held my attention in part because it is a fusion of east and west.  He was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Dubai but lives and works in Canada, when he's not playing in places like Carnegie Hall.  I was surprised to learn that he had been raised on western music and that his artistic vision was largely formed in New York City and the global music scene.  Back in the dark ages when I was a teenager, I developed a taste for Ravi Shankar and classical Indian music.  Zakir Hussain was my favourite tabla player.  I was thrilled to learn that Wijeratne had had the opportunity to play with Hussain and he shared this little story with the audience.

Tabla compositions usually end on a light treble stroke (nah) but when Hussain played the piece they were rehearsing, he would end the piece on a heavy base stroke (dah).  Wijeratne noticed the sheet music still said nah.  Finally, someone in the group screwed up the courage to ask maestro Hussain about it.  Hussain studied the sheet music and then pronounced, "Well there is tradition and then there's show business".  Clearly, the emphatic dah ending was an audience-satisfying flourish.  Now, that's a lesson you can take to the bank.
One of my favourite instruments the tabla.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Curatorial 101: Kent Jones retrospective

Baldy and Nipper by Kent Jones, acrylic and mixed media on canvas.

Earlier this month I had the great pleasure to open a 45-retrospective exhibition about the career of Kent Jones.  He is a very modest guy but enormously talented and works in prints, paintings, drawing and film.  As part of my duties as a curator I took the opportunity of giving a presentation in the gallery about curatorial practice.  I figured why make people look at photographic representations of the work when they have the real thing.

One of my big challenges in putting together an exhibition is not only selecting the work but deciding about the context for the work.  Next, I need to create a visual experience that supports that context.  The Kent Jones show was going up at the Grenfell Campus Art Gallery that is home to Memorial University's Visual Arts Program.  Charlotte Jones and her staff were a dream to work with and agreed to all my presentation concepts.  For example,  a room was built out of temporary walls just to house the print section of the show that was organized chronologically. 

A special pedestal was devoted to an art book of poetry illustrated by Kent.  Each day a new page would be displayed to encourage visitation.  This is ideal with a gallery in a building filled with students and faculty who are frequently in the building.

There is a dedicated room with seating and earphones so that visitors can experience Kent Jones' work in video.

A pair of paintings are strategically placed to greet viewers, one with a air-streamed locomotive and the other with a pair of farm workhorses, named Baldy and Nipper, are in fact dedicated to Kent's parents.

When I was lecturing about my curatorial practice I realize that three key ideas were operating.  One, was my subject:  Kent Jones; two, was the concept of drawing, which Kent always maintained was the seminal artistic activity; and three, was the idea of the retrospective–as a curator I needed to express the scope of this impressive artist both in terms of themes and technique.
Wyoming For My Mother by Kent Jones

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

He just made wonderful stuff - Akio Takamori

I just got the sad news that we have lost Akio Takamori, whom I consider one of the most original talents in contemporary ceramics.  For my friends in ceramics and those who follow it, I am excerpting a moving, longer article that NCECA has just published:

Remembering Akio Takamori (1950-2017)

The field of ceramic art lost an indelible, creative, and generous spirit when sculptor, teacher, mentor, and friend Akio Takamori succumbed to cancer on Wednesday, January 11. His wife Vicky wrote, “ ... his last day was spent working in his studio and loading a small kiln. He left his studio for the last time in preparation to return the next day. 

The work for his upcoming exhibition at James Harris Gallery in Seattle this February was completed. Despite his cancer and increasing limitations, he was moving forward gathering ideas for his next group of work. He told me once, he had so many ideas for new pieces that it kept him awake at night in anticipation of what to make next.”
Contributing to NCECA’s remembrance are lines from Richard Notkin’s message to NCECA President Chris Staley about their dear friend Akio. Born in 1950, Akio Takamori spent his childhood in Nobeoka, Miyazaki, Japan. His father was a physician whose library of medical and art texts fascinated young Takamori throughout his childhood. Takamori has also shared that his father’s dermatology practice, located near a tenderloin district, drew a wide range of people and influences into his sphere at a young age.

Akio’s passing is a terrible loss for everyone, especially those of us who knew him. A fantastic individual, wonderful spirit, the most creative and inspiring artist I have ever met. Akio made art of everything he touched, from deep within himself, as we all know. For me, he was the epitome of what true artists embody. He just made wonderful stuff. It was never about his ego, just about making art. He will always be an inspiration to me, and, I am sure, to all of us.

Akio's fascination with art and culture further developed as he grew older. Following graduation from Tokyo University, he became apprenticed to a master folk potter in Koishiwara Kyushu. Takamori was impressed by a traveling exhibition of new ceramics from Canada, the United States and Latin America, whose anti-authoritarian posture made a strong impact on his thinking about art. Also around this time, legendary Kansas City Art Institute educator and potter, Ken Ferguson met the young Takamori while visiting the pottery. The two soon developed a rapport, and in 1974, Takamori travelled to Kansas City to study at the school. Ferguson's unique approach to teaching and making had a profound influence on Takamori's shift to his focus to more expressive and personal explorations of content and reinventions inspired by ceramic traditions. After earning his BFA (1976), Takamori went on to earn his MFA from Alfred University (1978). In the 1980s, he moved on to a residency at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana. In 1993, Takamori accepted a faculty position at the University of Washington Seattle where he was named Professor Emeritus.

It will be sad to live in a world without Akio, especially in our Puget Sound neighborhood. He was truly loved by all. But he leaves much behind that is so positive, so beautiful, and, above all, that touches so many people in truly profound ways. Both his art and his wonderful life and spirit. All we have while we are on this planet is our time, and Akio used his time as well as anyone I have ever known. We were all blessed to know him.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Fresh, witty and wicked- pop up events at The Headquarters at 57

With titles like Landscape Goat and Bad Santa, you know The Headquarters at 57 Gower Street is going to be the place to go for a creative time with lots of attitude.  It is almost a cliché to say but it is true that St. John's has more talent than venues for showing and discussing art–commercial or public.  That's one reason why we need pop-up places like The Headquarters at 57.

Originally the brainchild of visual artist Anne Pickard Vaandering, she discovered that her studio space was attracting many like-minded souls.  A signature Headquarter pop-up event has several characteristics that you can count on even though the events range widely.  Humour, social conscience, a little bit of daring and interactive elements are regular features.  Readings and performance art punctuate openings.

Landscape Goat was organized by curator and artist Shane Dwyer and featured the work of 16 artists, most of whom knew each other from the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design.  And if it proved one thing, it was that there was no one, correct way to paint landscape.  From romantic to political, paper to panel, savage to sassy this show had it all.  The only common denominators were quality and the landscape.  How the catchy title came into being was when Dwyer noticed that they all carried the same brand of sketchbook at school, which featured a Robert Bateman likeness of–you guessed it–a goat. Ever since the The Group of Seven, landscape has been something of a sacred cow in the cannon of Canadian art history.  It was refreshing to have a new look at this old favourite.

 Bad Santa offered visitors the opportunity to interact with an assortment of real-life Santas that definitely came from the naughty list.  There was a paint spattered one–let's call him the Jackson Pollock Santa, another fine fellow sported a sequined jacket and a guitar as if he could be The Santa of Good times, a cool Santa had sunglasses and one chap with a terrific scowl seemed to be channeling The Grinch.  Artist photographer Rhonda Pelley captured these interactions and each visitor got a photo to take home while another was put on display in an adjoining room.  There were crafts to make from recycled newspaper and donations were collected to make up a gift basket for someone in need.

To be in the know when the next pop up event will be taking place "Like" The Headquarters at 57's Facebook page.
The Bad Santa event subversively upended the tradition of photos with Santa.  Various naughty adults and Santas hammed it up for the camera.  Background painted by Frank Barry, photography by Rhonda Pelley.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

A Break-through Solo Show for Mike Gough

Here Was Their Beginning
acrylic, pastel and graphite on cradled panel
48" × 108" (diptych)

This December 2 - 23, Mike Gough unveiled a new body of work in his solo show how we get there at the Christina Parker Gallery in St. John's.  This is an excerpt from our animated conversation:
• GH: My first reaction upon walking into your new solo show of paintings was, "Wow, who turned on the lights?  Your pink palette is very arresting–in the best way.  What happened?"
MG:  With each series of works in the past I have let the palette develop naturally – from painting to painting.  I gave a lot of consideration to light and darkness and how to describe time with colour.  Although many of the paintings were night narratives I tried to bring light from the darkness in the form of snow, city lights and the moon.  The pink represented a familiar evening light and it allowed me to bring warmth to the series.  I have really vivid memories of cold winter evenings when the sun started to descend and a ribbon of pink would appear on the horizon.
I also introduced gold and gold leaf to areas of the paintings. The reflection on the metallic added a layer of depth.  I like the associations with the colour, a sense of preciousness which is something I felt about the memory narratives I was painting.
Over the past few years, I’ve made it a priority to see parts of the island that I’ve never had an opportunity to explore.  Many of these places were rugged and barren where you’re confronted with elemental forces throughout the landscape.  The work began to emerge from these experiences.
In July, during an artist residency at 2 Rooms Contemporary Art Projects on the Bonavista Peninsula, I spent time exploring the area alone.  Driving hours and hours across roads and highways, hiking through the woods and spending time considering the landscape gave new breadth to my work.  The moments of solitude made me think about the elements and how they connect and define us.  The environment holds such power in shaping who we are. These considerations lead me to develop many images from my childhood, all of which relate to the elements. 

•GH:  Overall, there is a sense of optimism and openness…I think that comes from both from the palette and the composition. 
MG:  The optimism and openness was a result of embracing the influence the landscape has had on my practice and my life.  It’s a body of work I’ve wanted to make for a while, but I was intimidated by the open space in the paintings.  The work in the past carried more abstracted content whereas this exhibition is a little more direct.  I’ve always struggled with making ‘literal’ paintings out of fear they would not resonate.  With abstraction I found a mental loop hole where if the work wasn’t completely understood – it’s okay.  
By embracing the environment I began to see things from a new point of view – one rooted in provincial pride.  While I once felt isolated living on an island, I now feel protected. 
The painting process conjured early memories of my childhood on the west coast of the island.  Many of these memories celebrated the love in our family and our journeys throughout the province which I’m sure also contributed to the optimism you experience in the work.

Tent at Night
acrylic, paste, graphite and gold leaf on cradled panel
30" × 30"

  •GH:  I was also really struck by your under-painting, which gives you all kinds of interesting results.  The brown of the earth or ground has richness to it and the pink in the snow makes it feel warm.  Can you tell me a little about the process and decisions here?
MG:  I felt it was important to layer the paint in many of the works that featured vast skies or land because of the simplicity of the compositions. I wanted them to have depth and richness.  In some instants I used acrylic on top of spray paint and let the paint repeel to create texture.  I liked seeing the under-painting come through because it stepped away from the overall graphic quality of the image.  I tried to find a balance between the hard edges and the more ethereal gradients.
•GH:  One of your consistent elements in your paintings has been the cursive incident.  You've still got that but it is more relaxed.  Actually, there seems to be less of a fight with the surface compared to your earlier work.
MG:  I recently moved my studio into my new home and expanded my work area.  This meant I was able to sit with the work over the course of many months.  There was no pressure to add marks or drastic changes. The work had the opportunity to evolve gradually and the result was less tension in the mark making.
Once I finished the first few paintings for the exhibition I had a sense of what I wanted to present.  The paintings developed into solitary and quiet images, which made the painting process more meditative.
•GH:  I think you are adding to your range of mark making; this drawn circular line around a pool of colour intrigues me, be it a pond or an arch.  There is a welcoming irregularity that contrasts with the other more precise elements. 
MG:  I hadn’t consciously identified these marks until you mentioned them and they are in most, if not all the paintings.  What I love most about drawing/ mark making is how intimate an act it is.  I think these hand-drawn outlines was my way of creating that intimate moment.  To view a painting and follow an artist's line is something I’ve always appreciated.  Again, I think I was trying to balance out the graphic nature of the taped line and solid horizons with evidence of my hand. 
•GH:  One of the other big changes that I noticed was the inclusion of the human figure.  In the earlier work, the viewer was held more at arm's length by very well resolved design of more abstract elements.  The human figure gives the viewer an access point. 
MG:  The figure definitely acts as an access point.  They appear back to the viewer so the viewer is encouraged to imagine themselves in position – seeing what the figure is seeing.  I began smudging the graphite outlining the figures as ways of introducing the presence of the artist's hand against dominate graphic landscapes.  With some of the paintings the figure was also crucial to give a sense of the vastness in the landscape.  In The Nightfall III the snow and sky almost engulfs the walking figure.
For me the duality of the title, ‘how we get there’ speaks to both a physical expedition as well as a mental journey.  It considers the choices we make and the paths we take that lead us to this moment.  At the same time, the literal notion of ‘getting somewhere’ is implied and we consider how we navigate through the landscape.  The figure played a key role in developing these ideas.  I think without it they would be strictly landscape paintings rather than narrative works.
•GH:  I think the smudging of the graphite is really important.  The image of walking under the stars on a snowy night risks being cliché but your use of the smudge keeps it from being literal.  Bravo!

Nightfall III
acrylic, pastel and graphite on cradled panel
30" × 30"