Tuesday, 23 January 2018

How Art Sugar Coats the Pill

A mixed media extravaganza by Tracey Robinson, which I purchased in 2016.

I am currently reading Jodi Picoult's The Tenth Circle, which has at its centre a teenage rape.  I have been looking and thinking about visual art that deals with the uncomfortable truths of colonialism and racism.  And even the last piece of art that I purchased was about something distressing– the death of the artist's sister.  All of this, plus the daily news headlines, have provoked my wondering about the best way for art to deal with difficult topics.

Clearly, artists feel a need to respond to the ugly facts of life and not just the decorative ones.  Art is basically about communication but it is not enough to simply share pain.  I believe that art of that order may need to be made but it does not need to be put on display.  I'd like to think that is the difference between art and art therapy, which is a kind of exorcism.  If you want me to get in the trenches with you please keep in mind that we also need a way to get out of that dark place.

Humans, unlike animals, are attracted to what we are afraid of–the things that threaten our sense of control.  Art is one way we have of taming the wild forces that we are subject to.  I think that is part of the appeal of pattern, which is based on rhythm and repetition.  I suspect that much of so-called primitive art is about taming natural events like lightening, drought or fire.  The flash of lightening becomes the diagonal slash of a v-pattern on a ceramic vessel.  It is akin to sympathetic magic.  We turn the unruly path of nature into the rows of a garden.

Stranger danger and Hansel & Gretel.

Storytelling has magical abilities too.  It is an empowering ritual, a way of making the unsafe safe.  Perhaps that is what is behind the power of Grimm's fairy tales.  It was a way of taking the frightening and the cruel and putting it in a way that was safe for childhood consumption.  This was history's alternative to bubble-wrapping your kid.  Cautionary tales whether they are about climate change or hungry crones are essentially lessons that we don't want to learn.  Suspense and the possibility of heroism, however, lure us on.  Narrative is as seductive as the come-hither charms of formalism.

Humour is a potent method for deflating demons or diverting us long enough to hold on until better times.  Gallows humour allows us to laugh at trying or dire events.  It shows us that even in our darkest moments there is a possibility of light. 

Pattern, narrative and humour are tools at the artist's hand that attract us and hold our attention long enough to consider the unsavoury and hopefully allow us to tap into some much needed resourcefulness. 

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Top 5 of 2017 in the world of Craft & Design

The conclusion of one year and the start of another is the time of year for "best of" lists and awards.  The world of craft is no different and 2017 was something of a bumper crop for publications across Canada.  Galleries West, an Alberta-based digital art publication, which started as a print magazine in 2002 and went digital in 2016, put out their list of publications to check out.

If you are not familiar with Galleries West, here is their link: http://www.gallerieswest.ca/

I was very happy to see the Canadian Craft Biennial publication make it onto the list but I was gob-smacked to see my essay, which was one of nine by some of my most esteemed colleagues, recognized:

In a broader context, the best observation comes from independent curator and writer Gloria Hickey, who considers craft’s deep engagement with object making. She argues that conceptualism in the visual arts in the 1960s and 1970s “created a vacuum where material-based practices (i.e., studio craft) could flourish.” And thrive, I might add, because nothing beats relating to something tactile.

This title also made the list. MacPherson's creatures
 have long fascinated me.

It is gratifying to see that Galleries West understood that exhibition catalogues, which often weigh in at over a 100 pages, can compete with books and take a comparable amount of money and human resources to produce.  My hat goes off to Denis Longchamps and Emma Quin for finding the resources and passion to make the publication that accompanied the Canadian Craft Biennial exhibit and symposium happen–and in French and English!

All of the titles on the Galleries West list are definitely worth considering and are on now on my "to read" list for 2018.  Check it out for yourself:http://www.gallerieswest.ca/art-reviews/books/craft-and-design-five-to-check-out/

Monday, 8 January 2018

Falling Down the Rabbit Hole of Indigeneity

One of my projects this past week has been writing a review of Logan MacDonald's Lay of the Land for C magazine.  It would be unprofessional for me to share what is in that article of a 1,000 words before publication but I would like to share some thoughts about the reviewing process in general and Indigenous Art in specific.

In terms of a review, timing is crucial.  Publications have schedules that must be maintained whether they are a daily newspaper, a monthly magazine or a quarterly journal.  So, the first hurdle to clear is whether a show dovetails with the publishing cycle.  After that, it helps if someone–other than the artist and their mother– is interested.  Personally, I gravitate towards shows that have themes that I want to think about, something for me to sink my teeth into, as a writer.  I check out any number of shows but recommend a small handful to publications for review.  As a rule of thumb, if there is the potential for a negative review I usually decline but offer to talk with the artist face to face.  This way we hopefully both learn something.

And then there is the issue of whether I am qualified to offer a useful commentary on the show.  I have written about Indigenous Art since the early nineties but have stepped away from the topic for several years.  The reason was that I wanted to encourage indigenous writers and curators to fill that role.  There has been a huge ground swell in scholarship on the topic and the issue of indigenous identity is highly contested.  I have stayed abreast of the production of Indigenous Art but I cannot claim to be fluent in the lingo and its subtle nuances.  I am dating myself (deliberately) when I say that I can remember when the term First Peoples was introduced to art history.  All I can do is to promise to keep learning.

One of the terms that intrigued me in Logan MacDonald's lexicon was that he identifies as a queer visual artist with settler/Mi'kmaq ancestry.  What I've seen in the community is the evolution from European ancestry to settler ancestry.  Given the politics of colonialism, more neutral terms are falling away.

Novelist Joseph Boyden

Terms are also getting more precise.  The novelist Joseph Boyden made Maclean's, the Globe & Mail and CBC not for his excellent writing but for the charge that he was misrepresenting his indigenous ancestry. "While the majority of my blood comes from Europe and the Celtic region," Boyden said in a statement to APTN, "there is Nipmuc ancestry on my father's side, and Ojibwe ancestry on my mother's [sic]."  But that wasn't enough to satisfy his critics. Boyden apologized to the Métis of Red River because he had supposedly referred to himself as Métis.  Even in recent memory, Métis was an acceptable term to convey someone of settler and indigenous ancestry.  But it seems that is like confusing sparkling wine for Champagne. http://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-wednesday-edition-1.3914159/joseph-boyden-must-take-responsibility-for-misrepresenting-heritage-says-indigenous-writer-1.3907253
APTN has gone so far as to call Joseph Boyden a shapeshifter.  All I'm qualified to say is that Boyden writes good fiction and I am grateful to MacDonald's art for introducing me to it.