Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Pollution, Death and Responsibility

This image shows a bird with enough oil on it to have a lethal effect.

My mind has been a riot of ideas lately.  There has been a lot of stimulating art of all forms filling my days and nights.  As we inch toward the opening of the Wild, Pure Aesthetic Wonder show at the end of March, I have been working increasingly with the artists as they complete their works.  This show is a partnership project with the Gros Morne National Park and it is our hope that the show, which will be on view both in St. John's at the Craft Gallery and the Woody Point Discovery Centre, will give visitors to the Park a deeper appreciation for its splendors.  But part of that experience is an understanding of how fragile those natural beauties are.  It has pleased me no end that some of the artists are tackling this aspect.

One of them is Rosalind Ford, whom I know as Roz.  She is both a visual artist and a trained scientist–a bird biologist or ornithologist.  Not surprisingly, birds are often the subject matter of her art.  Roz chose to make a pair of male, life-sized Eider ducks that inhabit the Gros Morne area. They have been lovingly made of textile and every feather on them painstakingly embroidered.  When I met with Roz at Fixed CafĂ©, mutual friends stopped at our table to admire them.  And then I slapped the tabletop and said, "next we oil this baby!"   I was being deliberately provocative.  I wouldn't have blamed Roz if she began to hyperventilate.  Some of our friends looked like they might.  I was testing the waters.

This was part of Roz's artist proposal and so I was not out of bounds.  Her subject is about the impact of oil spills on the bird population. I wanted to acknowledge her inevitable anxiety at the implied violence of her act.  I had to find a way to get her past the feeling of destruction and inch her toward seeing it constructively.  Artists usually make things.  They don't usually destroy stuff, especially stuff they have lavished time and energy on.  But sometimes, in order to get across his or her desired message there are unavoidable painful parts of the process.  We seemed to agree that was what we were facing.

This devastating image is more typical of the shock-effect.

I don't want to steal Roz Ford's thunder so I will not tell you what the end result was in that process.  But I will tell you a little about the next step, which entailed mimicking the appearance of an oil-slicked bird.  She needed to make test dummies and experiment with the plastic liquid that produces the oily appearance.  I think the plastic dip cost more than the plummeting price of oil.  She dipped, she turkey basted, she photographed and we corresponded.  One of the questions that fascinated me was, "how much black goo was the right amount?"  I was curious about the factual, the science behind how much do you need to kill a bird?  And I was shocked when scientist Roz explained how little it took to have a lethal effect.  Apparently, it takes only a small percentage of a bird's body to have contact with oil for the bird's delicate ability to stay warm and dry to be irrevocably upset.  Like most viewers, I was accustomed to the dramatic fundraising images that showed birds completely coated.  All black.  It made me realize how sensationalistic those representations were in order to pull the heart and purse strings of the lay public.  It made me wonder if we were the ones completely saturated.  As usual, the decision making process involved with art was going to be a lot more complicated than I ever anticipated.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Are art critics parasites or cultural missionaries?

Curator Zach Pearl to my left and publisher Beth Follett to my right.
This was the discussion at Eastern Edge about Feminism and Art.
One thing I have never been called is a feminist. 

The very first reviews I ever wrote were not about visual arts.  My topic was music, then theatre and eventually visual art.  I switched from Journalism to Philosophy because I wanted an education rather than job training.  The only course I ever dropped in university was art history because it bored me.  And the only subject I ever failed in my entire academic history was grammar because I refused to memorize the rules.  So, you could be legitimately surprised that I turned into a professional writer who specializes in visual art.  In all honesty, it is the whole of culture that fascinates me and I will write about any topic that interests me.  When I am deciding which artists to cover I usually ask myself, "Is their art something I want to spend my time thinking about?  Is this something I want to let inside my head?"

I have often said that there are two conditions under which I am usually happy.  One is when I am learning something and the other is when I am being useful.  Writing enables me to do both and often at the same time.  When I pitch a story about an artist to a magazine it is genuinely because I feel they deserve the attention of a wider audience.  I guess that could make me something of a cultural missionary. 

I included this image, a genuine advertisement, out of pure mischief.

When my interests as a writer inform my choices as curator –not to mention critic, editor, nominator and juror– I can understand why some of my colleagues have teasingly referred to me as a "king-maker" or "puppet master".  More official variations of the same meaning are reflected in titles like "opinion maker" or "historian".  At the end of 2014 I found myself making a mental list of all the things I had been called in print.  My favourite remains my own playful version that has crept into print as "culture vulture".  I recognize that what I do is dependent upon the creative activity of others.  More than once I have heard artists snarl that curators, critics and art dealers are parasitic.  Frankly, I think they are right.  But that doesn't mean those jobs cannot be done with integrity and fairness.  A lack of communication usually underpins a feeling of compromise or victimization.  Rather than being a parasite, my goal is to be more like a midwife who assists or supports the creative role.  So, how do I decide whom to support?

Talent is not enough to dazzle or intrigue me.  Talent is relatively common.  Skill, determination, discipline and hunger for recognition are all important.  I look for "fire in the gut".  I am drawn to artists who have no choice but to create because they tend to be the ones who are in it for the long haul.  My time researching them is well invested.  They will improve and grow into genuinely interesting artists who have something to contribute to culture.  And I believe that to be true whether someone is a musician, actor or printmaker. 

This image comes from Wikipedia and shows San Juan natives.  In my chapter "Craft in a Consuming Society" I talk about how artists are typified as exotic but noble savages.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Does Originality Exist Today?

This image comes from dingtwist which has a site on originality and creativity.

One of the ideas that I have been struggling with over the past several months is the notion of originality.  I have had no less than four art teachers lament to me that their students either don't understand the concept at all or that they are "knocking off" the teachers' art once they graduate and establish independent practices.   These laments come to me from a variety of provinces within Canada and in one case the United States.

As long as our arts and culture in North America puts a premium on originality I think this lament will persist.  Students imitate teachers–full stop; it is a fact of life.  As a matter of fact, I used to be able to identify with whom an emerging artist studied with at a quick glance.  It is usually that obvious to a trained observer.  For a long time, it was also (I believe) the basis for regionalism.  There was a characteristic way of working with certain materials and a certain choice in subject matter that was identifiable.  Take ceramics: earthenware and majolica were associated with Walter Ostrom and consequently his graduates from the(n) Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.  That went on for decades. Let's go to the opposite end of the country to British Columbia.  When I met Sadashi Inuzuka in Toronto it was clear from his sculptural practice that he had studied or worked with Sally Michener, who was teaching at the Emily Carr Institute.  The mark of Jun Kaneko was also very clear in Inuzuka's taste for the large scale and geometric patterns.

 “Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.”
– Voltaire

Now, who owns something like a geometric pattern?  It is literally everywhere and every century that we humans are aware of has oodles of objects decorated or marked with a geometric pattern.  My mind jumps to this because when Inuzuka did a residency in Australia aboriginal potters asked him why he was imitating their pottery.  In fact, Inuzuka was originally exposed to geometric pattern while studying ancient Japanese art.  My own fascination with geometric pattern has lead me to study aboriginal art here in Canada and south of the border on various Navaho reservations.

Various techniques come and go out of fashion.  For a few years, encaustic was big and now drawing in ink is on the upswing.  An artist goes away to a residency or workshop, picks up a new technique and brings it back home.  He or she shows it off like a new toy and of course everyone wants to play with it. 

On the other end of the spectrum, an artist can labour away in isolation, problem solve, trouble shoot and perfect something they regard uniquely theirs only to discover another artist proudly showing art that is very similar.  The road of discovery was entirely theirs but the end result doesn't necessarily broadcast that.  Viewers are going to come at it with an entirely different context.  What should the artist do?

I regard technique or things like geometric pattern or a specific motif as a language.  It can be used in various ways with accents, inflections, a variety of contexts etc. The point to me is: are you saying the same thing as everyone else speaking that language?  Are you saying something different?  What are you contributing to the conversation?  I can think of several artists who use aprons as a raw material, a hand-full who use chain mail, dozens that work with dolls, etc.  You don't have to say something entirely new.  It can be enough to shed insight, point out the overlooked, or encourage me to think differently about something that has existed for a long while.  This is not exclusively about the novel.

 Nobody would want to speak a language that could not be used to communicate with others.  It needs recognizable elements that are shared.  If art is about expressing something, if it is a form of communication like a language it can't be entirely original.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Matchmaking is a Fine Art

Susan Lee Stephen's“Greedy” Seal in sterling silver, bronze, & copper.  
Photo-etched, pierced, riveted 980mm x 65mm x 23mm, 2013, photo: Eric Walsh
When you are self-employed it is very easy to slide into working 24/7, which is not the best thing for keeping the creative batteries charged.  So this holiday season I vowed to take some time off and that meant I worked only two days last week.  It was spent excavating my in-box of my e-mail.  This is what I found in no particular order: inquiries from Phd students who see me as an information resource, artists looking for letters of reference, artists hoping I might pitch them to a magazine, magazine editors casting their nets for suggestions for story ideas, craftspeople to profile, an editor's update on one of the books I'm involved with, and two rejection notices (one regarding a curatorial proposal and the other regarding a review I was pitching).

I decided that the editors would be on the top of the list.  When an editor asks me for a suggestion for their magazine I always try and give them a choice–a menu of ideas and makers.  For example, I recently suggested to editor Janice Hudson of East Coast Living magazine that she consider the work of metalsmith Susan Lee Stephen, printmaker and textile artist Janet Davis, and painter and book-artist Tara Bryan. This inevitably reflects my personal passions but at the same time it gives the editor room to navigate.

I have a deep respect for an editor's knowledge of their publication and their readership.  They know what else they are planning for that particular issue and future issues for that matter.  I recall dealing with the editor of EnRoute magazine on one occasion and when I suggested a St. John's based topic the response was "no, we have two other Newfoundland stories in the pipe".  In contrast, the review idea I was recently pitching met the response "we'd love to have something from Newfoundland is there anything else you'd like to write about".  So, I always need a variety of themes, approaches and people that I think are worthy of notice.  As a result, I spent the rest of the day stomping around Quidi Vidi Lake mentally reviewing what I had seen in the past couple of months that had positively impressed me.  The difficulty is getting the right artists at the right time in their career paths (no one produces great art all the time) and then having that align with the magazine's priorities.  Matchmaking is a fine art.

Jack, an artist-book by Tara Bryan.  This is a delightful creation
that riffs off of all the jacks you can imagine…