Friday, July 30, 2010

Landscape Lurve: Q&A with Dorothy Knowles out in today's National Post

A lot of people consider the Prairies (my, ahem, home region) to be the least scenic part of Canada -- something to be endured, rather than enjoyed, on a cross-country drive. But the art of Dorothy Knowles puts the lie to such notions. For six decades, Knowles has made stunning paintings of her native Saskatchewan. Her prolific career has also included stints at the famed Emma Lake workshops, where I think she was probably the only artist that Clement Greenberg encouraged not to pursue abstraction.

In any case, I really like Knowles' paintings in nostalgia-panging and other ways, and with them being showcased at the McMichael gallery, I got to chat with the 83-year-old artist on the phone this week. Our condensed exchange is out in today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q I grew up on the Prairies, and I appreciate your beautiful depictions of them. But many Canadians still think, "There's nothing to see there," don't they?

A I've heard that said about the Group of Seven -- that they didn't find Saskatchewan interesting. But if you grow up in it you see it with a different eye; you have an attachment to the hills or the sky or the space, to the edges of the roads with the flowers. Driving up to Emma Lake this year, there were wild lilies all along the roadsides. When you grow up in it, you look for things that interest you like that.

Q What do you think of as the Prairies' most beautiful feature?

A Oh, the sort of openness. And the skies are just wonderful; they're so changeable. I go visit [my husband and painter] Bill [Perehudoff] in the nursing home and he looks out and he says, "The clouds are beautiful today." He's still looking at those clouds, even though he's had a stroke.

So the sky is particularly beautiful here. And there's just so much of it.

A couple of other things I should note: this exhibition, "Land Marks," is created and circulated by the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery, and has had prior stops at the Esplanade Art Gallery in Medicine Hat and the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. One more fun fact: Knowles also had a lot to say about the supportive community of artists in Saskatchewan, and recounted the days when Saskatoon's main art centre was in the basement of the King George Hotel. That was before meatpacking empresario Fred Mendel came along to start an above-ground museum. Interesting stories there.

(Image of Dorothy Knowles' The River, 1967 provided via the McMichael Gallery and Mendel Collection)

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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Peppy Pedagogy: Curatorial Smackdown II at Gallery Lambton

Who can resist a title like "Curatorial Smackdown II"? Not I. Gallery Lambton in Sarnia is in the process of mounting its second curatorial competition. What I find interesting about the project is that its blog attempts to document the way curatorial decisions are made—and exhibitions built—in a relatively straightforward way: from wall preparation to selection of works to framing and beyond. While the blog can't rival UFC for smackdown sensations, it certainly is a handy learning tool. Take a look and keep an eye out for the second half of this round coming up August 3, 4 and 5.

Image of Curatorial Smackdown II contestants Lisa Daniels, Cameron Starr and Darryn Doull from the competition blog

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Worth Reading: Reasons to Fund the Arts in Times of Austerity

I tweeted on this article, "In an era of austerity, reasons to fund the arts," from the Art Newspaper a while back, but it's worth repeating, I think. Written by Robert Hewison, a London, UK, professor, it focuses on British case studies, but makes some very applicable general arguments too:

Culture creates social capital, expressed as trust generated by a shared understanding of the symbols that the arts generate, and a commitment to the values they represent. It sustains the legitimacy of social institutions by ensuring that they are accepted, not imposed. Societies with an equitable distribution of cultural assets will be more cohesive, and more creative. Wellbeing, which is the true end of economic activity, depends on the quality of life that culture sustains. The word “culture”, after all, means “growth”.

Social capital—like economic capital—requires both regulation and investment. That the educated and well-off have greater access to the arts is not an argument for abandoning intervention to secure a more equitable distribution of cultural experience. Rationally, the government should be putting more funding into the arts because of the social capital they generate. There is a sound economic argument that when the market fails to provide certain kinds of goods thought useful, then it is necessary to intervene—health and education are the usual examples. The economics of the arts are particularly prone to market failure, for it is not easy to make the advances in productivity that technology facilitates in manufacturing. A symphony played on a synthesiser is not an efficiency gain.

Of course, one my points of frustration with our cultural institutions has been is that even when they do get influxes of money from the government, they don't always pass that on to the public in terms of access. Last Friday I discovered that both the ROM and AGO's admission fees quietly increased on July 1st. It's now $24 for general admission to the ROM for adults and $19.50 for the AGO. Both institutions are chalking the increase up to the introduction of Ontario's Harmonized Sales Tax on July 1st. Interestingly, some Ontario institutions chose not to raise their admission fees with the HST, examples being the Gardiner Museum and (at least according to their website) the National Gallery of Canada.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

Not Par for the Course: Miruna Dragan's Golf-Art Q&A in today's National Post

I have never played a round of golf, but talking with Miruna Dragan, I decide I really want to. Dragan is a Romanian-American artist who's lived in various world cities and is now based in Calgary, where she teaches at ACAD. She makes various types of work, but one series, The Fertile Void, caught my attention—it involves creating art installations on golf courses, often turning ribbons, bread and sod into striking graphic patterns. I spoke with her on the phone this week about that series, part of which is showing at Truck in Calgary. The condensed Q&A out in today's National Post. Here's an excerpt:

Q Why did you start doing art installations on golf courses?

A Golf courses are interesting sites. I've always thought of them as spiritual places. When I was younger and we passed by courses in the car, I felt like I was looking into some kind of heaven or afterlife. And it's funny, when I started researching this topic, I found lots of books like Golf and the Bhagavad Gita or Golf and the Koran.

But golf courses are also political sites, places where elite political decisions are made. One of my first projects was on the Diplomat's Golf Club course in Bucharest. Before the revolution, the general public wasn't allowed to play on this course; it was reserved for diplomats. So I found it an interesting site on which to make social and political commentary.

Basically, golf has a rich history that's rife with metaphors. You're almost an archetypal figure when you play; those 18 holes are like a hero's stages of initiation.

Later in the interview, Dragan talks about her most recent installation in Drumheller, Alberta, where the golf course manager actually went to ACAD and was quite supportive of the project. You can see more images of the series on Dragan's website and (including some of the latest work) in the print edition of today's Post.

(Image of Miruna Dragan's The Fertile Void III: H2O Isocahedron, 2005 courtesy of the artist)

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Architectural Aspirations and Municipal Letdowns: Empire of Dreams Review out Today in NOW

In my last post, I talked about how Adaptation at the Power Plant is getting enough reviews in Toronto media and elsewhere to achieve the statistical critical mass required for a Rotten Tomatoes-style aggregate rating. Also potentially harvesting enough reviews for an actual Tomatometer stat this summer is Empire of Dreams at MOCCA. (Eye, the Globe, Akimbo and Art Fag City are just a few of the reviews that come to mind so far.) My review gets thrown into the mix too, as it's published today in NOW. An excerpt:

Empire’s best artworks play off the architecture of the museum itself. These lend physical immediacy and real-life cred to the show’s jargon-bleary tag line, “Phenomenology of the built environment.”

For instance, Dan Bergeron’s terrific trompe l’oeil storefronts on MOCCA’s exterior demonstrate how streetscape facades communicate power, hope or despair. (They work a lot better in this public context than in the indoor Lisgar show of a few years back, where the effect was more hipster Disneyland.)

Inside, on the gallery walls, Josh Thorpe sands through several years of paint layers, creating appealing abstractions from the space’s history. Jade Rude and Bruno Billio’s sculptures go from floor to ceiling, sometimes held in place by same. They make overlooked volumes of “empty” space feel very concrete.

Later on, I also talk about the disappointments of the show. You can read the complete review here.

Image of Dan Bergeron's Defunct Front from NOW (photo by the artist)

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Reviews: Adaptation, Combine and Craft at Harbourfront

The Harbourfront arts hub is a little less than aesthetically pleasing right now, with a huge area fenced off for redevelopment. While future results (greenery above, parking below) might be pretty, the current construction-zone motif is not. Fortunately, there's pleasing stuff to see indoors, including the Power Plant's summer blockbuster and York Quay's focus on Saskatchewan artists. I briefly reviewed these and another smaller show in this weekend's National Post. An excerpt:

231 Queens Quay W., to Sept. 12

It's a good thing Power Plant admission is free all summer, because it'll take multiple visits to digest the sprawling show Adaptation. It's the last exhibition curated by Helena Reckitt, who recently left the gallery, and of all the large themed group shows Reckitt produced (the ones on social change and emotional life were standouts) it has both the heft of a grand finale and the unfocused, scattershot quality of a last-tasks list. All the works (culled from 21 mostly international artists) deal in some way with interactions between humans and nature. Often there's a viral-video, YouTube-era feel, particularly in the front room that showcases John Bock's Fischli & Weiss-like collabo with a pet rabbit, Cory Arcangel's piano-playing-cat collage and Marcus Coates's Punk'd-worthy shaman shams. Elsewhere, there are more solemn, cryptic takes, such as Allora & Calzadilla's film of post-Katrina Louisiana and Robyn Cumming's admirable "nature-faced" portraits. It's partly this radical divergence in sensibility that makes Adaptation feel like a vast, unbounded (and sometimes uncertain) project. Ultimately, the one work that plays the middle of the field is also most worthwhile -- Javier Tellez's direct, funny and touching film A Letter on the Blind for Those Who See Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See. In it, six blind people encounter an elephant, but we end up seeing how many different kinds of human animal there are in the world. If you're only doing one drop-by, make sure you find Tellez's flick upstairs.

One of the reasons I post this review here is it's one of the few shows we may get a "Rotten Tomatoes" effect with this summer in Toronto. By that I mean several critics have weighed in on it so far, and I've been pleased to see that Tellez's artwork seems to be a highlight for a few of us. Can a Tomatometer for this one be far off?

Image from Javier Tellez's Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who See from Accessibleartny

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Friday, July 16, 2010

Lateral Thought of the Day: How Double Rainbow Video Reminds Me of Art Criticism

One of the things I managed to miss out on on vacation—being all disconnected from the interwebs and all, or at least trying to be—was the surge of popularity around the now-famous viral video Double Rainbow.

This video, embedded above, is hilarious on many levels, with much of its appeal already been summed up by Youtube comments like "Imagine how he would react to a Bag of Skittles," "Gimme some of whatever this guy is smoking," and "weed + too much time out west + camera = this video." (To be fair, many commenters have also acknowledged the emotional courage that could be needed to post a video of oneself crying over a rainbow. Oops, make that a "double complete"!)

Anyway, the video cracked me up for many of the same reasons it cracked millions of other viewers up.

Still, part of what is hilarious about this video is that it captures a phenomenon that can relate to art criticism—namely, a phenomenon where the author is seeing something that a lot of others just aren't seeing. Like, I love the parts of this video where Hungrybear9562 zooms in on the rainbow, as if to show us more clearly the hallucinations that he is experiencing. I think the something similar can sometimes happen in art criticism (albeit on a less intense level!) when a critic thinks a work is totally amazing and goes into more descriptive detail about it to convince the reader of same.

Writing all this down, it occurs to me that it sounds like I'm implying all rapturous art criticism must simply amount to hallucination. And that's not my position. But I certainly have read my share (and likely written my share) of reviews where the critic is literally saying that they are seeing infinity in a work, that the work has taken them to this "other place" beyond space and time. And (at least as a reader) I'm looking at reproductions of the work (or even the work itself) and going like "Dude, really? There's infinity in this painting? I don't think so." Or, more reasonably: "Dude, really? There's infinity in this painting? For everyone as a fact? Um, I don't know about that. I believe you had that experience, but I don't think it's always there for everybody."

In the end, I guess the point that's in common is that it's all about subjectivity. Where Hungrybear9562's experience of seeing infinity/god/the universe in a rainbow is no doubt drug-induced, I guess that what happens in criticism sometimes is that when we sit down with a work and engage with it, when it has certain psychological or visual cues that are meaningful to us—or hell, if we just happen to be on drugs that day—there's the potential to see infinity/god/the universe in that work too. But I guess the point is also that that what we see, and the intensity with which we see it, can come more from within us than from without us.

Anyway, dudes, I'm not going to overthink this one and say "WHOOOOOAAAAAA, IN THIS DOUBLE RAINBOW VIDEO I SAW THE BEST ANALOGY FOR ART CRITICISM OF ALL TIME!!!!! OH MY GOD!!!!! WHAT DOES IT MEAN???" (though I must say the repeated asking of "what does it mean????" also reminded me of reading and writing art criticism). I know to leave this well enough alone now. And know that I should never, ever, under any circumstances bring a video camera with me to the galleries.

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Artillery, mon Amour: Q&A with army-guy-turned-artist Scott Waters

Over the past few years, I've enjoyed taking in the work of Scott Waters at galleries around town. The paintings I'd seen that caught my eye were largely based on snapshots that Waters took as a member of the Canadian infantry back in the late 80s and early 90s. There's not too many contemporary artists with a history in the army—let alone ones who use it as a basis for intriguing work—so when I saw Waters had a show of new work coming up, I tried to snag him for an interview. He obliged, and the condensed results were published in today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q You were in the Canadian infantry from 1989 to 1992 and then became an artist. How did that unusual transition happen?

A When I graduated [from] high school, my two possibilities were the military, because I had an interest in it, and art school, because I had some ability. So I tried one and then tried the other. If I had gone to art school first, I probably would have hated it, dropped out and joined the army -- and maybe be a soldier to this day. I didn't respond well at the age of 19 to any kind of power structure; it was only in my mid-twenties that I started to settle down. Because the commitment was so much about timing, I can see that as an alternate universe.

Q Your previous shows looked at soldiers in training, but this show focuses on weapons. Why?

A A lot of my motivation for joining the forces was based on watching late-1980s Vietnam War movies when I was a teenager. Even though those movies were supposedly antiwar, they weren't anti-war for me! Anthony Swofford writes about that in Jarhead, too. So I wanted to look at these films and think about how they might've influenced others. The weapons are ones used in those movies; I focused on them hoping they could act as totems, icons that stand in for the idea of a heroic quest. Joseph Campbell talks about the mythic hero--be it Jesus or Luke Skywalker--finding themselves through trauma, an idea that comes through in the movies, too. It's appealing and flawed at the same time.

You can read on here about Waters' self-confessed love of painting weaponry, and his awareness of that practice's problems. More images from the show can be seen here.

Interestingly, I recently came across the work of another contemporary Canadian artist with a history in the military—Clint Neufeld, who is showing at Harbourfront Centre. His work is worth a look too, and also (like Waters' past work) touches on some ideas about masculinity, if not the military per se.

Image of Scott Waters' Willard from Le Gallery

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Monday, July 12, 2010

Catchup Q&A: Brendan Fernandes on Africa, Art and Awayness

So I'm back from vacation and playing catchup in many ways... not the least of which is posting about the Q&A I did with Sobey shortlister Brendan Fernandes, who is currently enjoying his first museum solo show at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. The interview came out last week in the National Post print edition, and an online version with some nice images remains. An excerpt:

Q: Why are African masks so important in your art?
A: When my family left Kenya, we started to buy African masks. These things had never existed in our home until we left. Then, in New York, I saw immigrants selling Kenyan Masai masks that seemed to function as symbols of all Africa. In some cases, they even functioned as souvenirs of New York! Researching the masks was a way of trying to identify my place in the city. I’ve also looked at masks in museums, where their tribe might be listed but not their use. I’m interested in how the utilitarian gets lost in migration. That extends to me, too — when I left Kenya, I spoke fluent Swahili, but now I can’t.

Q: How else did your childhood migration to Canada influence your work?
A: Kenya is diverse. My ancestors are from Goa, which was part of Portugal until 1961, but also Indian. So in Kenya we were “Goan.” But when I came to Canada, people were like, “You’re not Goan. You’re Kenyan.” Kids in school would ask, “Can you tan?” Actually, because of that, I once did a piece where I tanned and documented skin changes! They’d also ask, “Did you have elephants in your backyard? Did you live in a city?” I actually lived in Nairobi, so it was a culture shock moving to a small Canadian town. Also, people wouldn’t just ask, “What is Kenya like?” They’d ask, “What is Africa like?” But Africa is a very deep and complex continent. Dealing with that complexity, and the complexity of cultural identity in general, is important to me.

Image of Brendan Fernandes' Masks installation from the National Post

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