Sunday, 30 June 2013

In Praise of Ned

Ned Pratt, for once, on the other side of the camera.

Over the past 19 years, working with a diverse and ever-growing group of photographers has been one of my most interesting aspects of my career as a writer, curator and editor.  I know that regardless of how well researched or insightful my words are the photographs that accompany them are far more important.  The topics I write about are visual in nature– and let's be honest –books, magazines and newspapers live and die by their photographs.  That makes whoever is behind the camera a key player in my game.

Ned shot the artwork for this major catalogue of mine, not an easy task as a great deal of it was silver work.

Each year it seems there are new photographers working in the province.  I've gotten to know my share.  I'll admit some I wouldn't hire a second time, others produce good results but only if you baby sit them, while a few have huge pain-in-the-ass egos or can do only one kind of photography.  It's very rare to find a versatile talent who can masterfully handle documentary, figure, portrait and commercial photography.  Ned Pratt is the exception, a talented photographer who has the right combination of technical and expressive skills.  And he's genuinely interested in nearly everything you'd care to capture in an image.

Right now, Ned and I are getting ready to work on a test group for the tattoo project.  We've already had intense discussions about what we are trying to achieve.  When I asked Ned Pratt why he was interested in shooting the project, he said that he liked photographing the human figure but not in a gratuitous way.  This made me very happy because I wanted images that acknowledged the person as much as the tattoo.  Tattoo magazines are filled with images that are basically pin ups with ink or disembodied, technical shots.  I want something that admits the sensual nature of skin and ink with out being sexual.  You can begin to see why I needed a photographer who could work across subject matter and capture both character and the formal attributes of line, texture, colour and form.  It's very demanding, and I know from previous experience of working with Ned Pratt that he has the skills and patience to pull it off.  Typically, a session doesn't end until we are both satisfied.

I really liked the reciprocity between the torque in the shoulders and the smoothness of the tattoo.  And just a hint of breast.  This shot predates our upcoming project.

Pratt's practice runs the gamut from advertising to art photography.  He is constantly on the prowl for the next gripping image.  And I get the biggest kick out of our meetings in restaurants and cafés.  I know we will always be seated by the window and Ned will have a camera to his face while he says, "I'm listening to you."

This coming July 13th, an exhibition of Ned's photographs will be opening at 2 Rooms Contemporary Art, a new gallery operated by Catherine Beaudette in Duntara. The show includes sketches, prints and photographs in an attempt to take us into the creative process of Ned Pratt.  Here's the link to check it out: 
  (His commercial representation in St. John's is Christina Parker Gallery;

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Writing Life, Do Exhibition Reviews Matter?

This week was distributed across several projects, for example several days ago I was advised that C magazine was out on the stands and that the current issue contains my review of Phillipa Jones' show at The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery, MIRIAD.  That was a pretty fast turn around as the show review was finalized in April and is out in June.

That isn't always the case.  My review of BOXED IN, for Espace magazine, was due June 5th. It was not an easy show to review because of the large number of artists - 67 - deciding who gets left out is tricky business.  But I felt the show gave me a chance to speculate on current trends on sculpture practice in Canada as it contained work from every province and two territories. While I am happy to report that it was accepted for publication it will only run in December –for the artists waiting for feedback that feels like forever.  Receiving an informed opinion on new work is probably the single, strongest reason why an artist wants a review.  Yes, it builds a resume and a career but just having someone sit down and think about your work and share those reactions and insights is valuable and an antidote to being alone in your studio month after month.

Exhibition reviews come and go in favour.  It used to be that magazines ran reviews if galleries advertised on a regular basis with a publication.  Thankfully, we don't see much of that anymore.  And negative reviews have also gone out of favour.  I know in my case, if I feel negatively about a show I will not review it.  I will however meet with the artist and share my concerns and see what else I can learn about the work.  But I don't think it helps anyone to print negative commentary unless it is an opinion column or an editorial, in which case, it is issue based as opposed to an exhibition by a specific artist.  A magazine's pages are prime real estate and editors are very careful as to what they include.  A review is also usually the first step in getting an artist profile down the line.  They are a valuable introduction to an editor and an audience of readers.

One of my other projects this week was being one of three jurors for the Craft Gallery's Annual Member Exhibit.  I think it is relatively easy to pick out the most successful or appropriate pieces for an exhibition.  And I enjoy learning from my fellow jurors who inevitably have different perspectives as they bring different experience to the table.  What I find harder to determine is "what will sell?"  I often feel that the work I most enjoy is the least commercially viable.  In this financial climate, every sale is an important one for both artist and gallery.  So, the thorny issue is often not what is best but what will hit the right chord with collectors and buyers in general.  After all, having your work purchased may be the most valuable form of feedback.  It is encouragement or endorsement that keeps everyone producing.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

More Than Skin Deep

Why does someone make the commitment of using their body as a canvas?  How do they choose their imagery or designs?  How do the images reflect taste and society?  Where do the individuals - a growing number of them women- choose to put their tattoos?  Tattoos are both private and public and the narratives are endlessly engaging.  I've talked with young men who have brought their own drawings to ink masters and it appears that some are even doing their own inking in a version of the Do-It-Yourself movement.  I think I've stumbled into an area of contemporary craft with huge accessibility and the energy and edginess of street culture. 

Tattoos, as a combination of visual culture and deeply felt personal meaning, have fascinated me for years.  It has always struck me that in tattooing we had a world of visual meaning that did not have the commercial and ego laden baggage of the fine art world.  Make no mistake about it, a good tattoo takes time-tested skill.  And the labour is rewarded with a suitable price tag. To me that's the craft part.  Like working in a precious metal, working on human skin is not an area for the faint of heart and mistakes are not easily tolerated.

For several months now, I have taken great delight in talking to complete strangers on the streets and cafés about their ink. People have been consistently positive and generous in sharing their stories and passions.  The more time went on the more it became clear that I needed to do a tattoo themed exhibition and publication.  To my delight, photographer Ned Pratt stepped forward at a party and asked if he could get involved.  Ned Pratt is someone with whom I've done some of my best work and I welcome his partnership with enthusiasm.  This is a link to Ned's site:

Dave Munro the ink master and owner of TROUBLEBOUND STUDIO in St. John's has been a spokesman for the  professional tattooist and is widely respected in the field.
The majority of local tattoos that I have most admired have been produced by TROUBLEBOUND STUDIOS and the name I have come to recognize is Dave Munro's.  I am trained as a visual art critic and a scholar in the field of fine craft but the culture of tattooing is new to me.  I would be foolish not to try and find an expert to tell me when I've gone wrong in my theorizing.  This week I was profoundly fortunate to be granted an hour+ interview with Munro.  It was informative, intense and positive; my mind was going so fast I  left  feeling giddy.  I am at my happiest when I am learning something.  Hell ya, I am one happy camper.  Here's a link to TROUBLEBOUND'S site:

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Multiply and conquer

On the 7th, there was a notable buzz in the air at the Christina Parker Gallery as novelist Lisa Moore and (this time) poet Michael Crummey teamed up for a double launch of their latest titles.  Both uber-talented and celebrated and both delightfully humble, they were generous in acknowledging each other's accomplishments.  Lisa said she had approached Michael as she did not like "launching alone" and Michael differed saying he was "riding on her coat tails".  Either way, combining a launch of a novel with a collection of poetry by two of our best made good business sense, doubling their audience and avoiding cannabilizing each other's parties in a city where the choice of cultural things to do outweighs the city's audience size.

Our problem in St. John's is that we suffer from an embarrassment of cultural riches.  For example this afternoon, there is a great strings concert on the go with top caliber talent with the proceeds going to benefit Oxfam.  And this evening there is a fundraiser for Shakespeare By the Sea with traditional Newfoundland set dancing at The Rocket Room.  On the same evening of the double-book launch the Anna Templeton Centre was hosting a major event in the same time slot.  A few days prior Mary Dalton was launching her collection of poems Hooking at the LSPU Hall.  How many days a week do you want to go out?

Pairing up seems to be the best strategic bet in winning the war against limited resources of time and money.  It worked for our latest dynamite duo in the visual arts Peter Wilkins and Will Gill.  They were both there at the Friday launch still dizzy from their fresh success at the Venice Biennale.  Christina Parker was still glowing and shared that the elite corps (my words) of mainland curators all made it to Will and Peter's two man show and were suitably impressed for all the right reasons.  Rather like poetry and prose, this visual arts pair have styles and approaches that are completely different –complementary rather than competing.

Again similar but different, I noticed that when Kelly shifted her Britainnia Teas from a physical storefront to an on-line business she was next seen as a pop-up store feature at potter Alexis Templeton Studio Craft Day May event. 

In closing, I'll point out that Marlene Creates in her visual arts practice has evolved a very intriguing version of multidisciplinary pairings.  I am thinking of her Boreal Forest with its experiential focus on a complete sensory experience.  This July and August Marlene has invited a series of three different musicians to respond to the stimulus of natural environment.  At it's best, this kind of inspired pairing reminds of accounts I've read about when Picasso, Stein or Diaghliev would work together on projects.

Musicians in Concert with The Boreal Poetry Garden
3 walking and listening events in 2013

Join Marlene Creates as she leads a walk with readings of site-specific poems in The Boreal Poetry Garden — six acres of boreal forest where she lives in Portugal Cove — with musical responses to the site provided by 3 acoustic musicians. After the walk, we will gather around a bonfire with some refreshments.

The events this summer will focus on the audible. We will experience the boreal forest by listening to its soundscape –– and its silences. Come hear the resonance of words and wind, of wind instruments and woods, of percussion and ancient volcanic rock, of river rhythms and phrases, of vibrating strings and stars, of sparks from the bonfire and toasted marshmallows.

Wednesday July 17 at 7:30 pm
poetry by Marlene Creates with Rob Power, percussion 

Tuesday July 23 at 7:30 pm
poetry by Marlene Creates with Rozalind MacPhail, flute 

Sunday August 4 at 2:00 pm
poetry by Marlene Creates with Ilia Nicoll, violin and viola

Limited to 25 people. Advance registration required.
For directions and to register:
or phone 709.895.1020
$25 | $20 students & seniors

If you are determined to succeed, it seems your best bet is to find a kindred soul who can bring resources and goals to align with yours.  You've heard of divide and conquer?  Well, this seems a trend of multiply and conquer.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Behind the Scenes of the Strathbutler Award

Lithospermum weaving on Rococo Revival balloon-back side chair.
Giving out an award can be a little like being Santa Claus:  deciding on who's naughty or nice and then waiting until the big day to make the decision public. As the official announcement goes, "The Strathbutler recognizes excellence in any field of visual arts or fine craft by an artist who has made a substantial contribution to the province of New Brunswick. It is given biennially on the recommendation of an independent panel of visual art professionals. Established in 1991, the award has grown in value and prestige and is now valued at $25,000."

This year the worthy winner is Susan Judah, whose work in textiles we, the aforementioned "visual arts professionals", described as "exquisite visual poetry.” And our 3-person jury was unanimous and without hesitation in the decision. My two colleagues were:  Robin Metcalfe, Director of Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery and current President of the Atlantic Provinces Art Galleries Association, Dr. Elizabeth Finch, the Lunder Curator of American Art at the Colby College Museum of Art. The three of us worked seamlessly together and still found time for bilingual jokes and casual shop talk like, "and what do you make of Atlantic realism?"  This was also the first time I'd gotten to discuss business with Kathryn McCaroll, the Executive Director of the Sheila Hugh Mackay Foundation and I was impressed with her special blend of idealism, pragmatism and strategic thinking –like partnering with the Atlantic Provincial Art Galleries Association annual conference this June. 
Congratulations are in order for Susan Judah!

Susan Judah's solid nomination package was put together by Peter Laroque and Beth Powning, who lauded the significant contribution Judah has made to the vitality of visual arts in New Brunswick. Judah will be presented with the Strathbutler Award by His Honor, Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, Graydon Nicholas at a gala reception on June 21st during the SHMF sponsored event The Jack Weldon Humphrey Forum to be held at the New Brunswick Museum.

Consult for a full jury statement, complete juror biographies and details on the Strathbutler Gala Reception and Jack Weldon Humphrey Forum.

One of the things that I delight in with the Stratbutler is that visual art and fine craft are on an equal footing.  That way of thinking is also why Shary Boyle is representing Canada this year at the Venice Biennale.