The shore lines in this painting are derived from a line drawing I made of an abandoned polar bear exhibit located at Stanley Park, Vancouver, British Columbia.
For me this painting is a part of the cycle of imagining nature. Here, the polar bear’s in situ habitat, imagined as ex situ zoo exhibit, is re-imagined as a wild space, symbolically returning the polar bear to the wild.
The painting is informed by the work of Canada’s Group of Seven.
I love the indeterminacy of abstraction and the way the brain is forced to take a flat surface and force depth into some areas of the canvas while bringing other sections toward the viewer. The same area of the canvas can experience both phenomena. Must we always infuse dimensionality? Can we accept “flat”? Is the dimensionality the result of the mind’s action on the painting or the action of the painting on the mind (colour, stroke, contrast)? How does your mind make sense of the following images? What do you see?
“Although the art world reveres the unconventional, it is rife with conformity. Artists make work that “looks like art” and behave in ways that enhance stereotypes. Curators pander to the expectations of their peers and their museum boards. Collectors run in herds to buy work by a handful of fashionable painters. Critics stick their finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing so as to “get it right”. Originality is not always rewarded, but some people take real risks and innovate, which gives a raison d’être to the rest.”
― Sarah Thornton, Seven Days in the Art World
It’s always somewhat of a conundrum to attend an art show as an artist.
Established galleries continue to sell what has always sold. There’s a Rita Letendre and an Ivan Eyre, a Walter J.Philips, a Francis Bacon lithograph, a Mary Pratt, members of The Group of Seven. This is the art that has created a lasting correlation between cultural and economic value – the art that is part of a market that has displaced more traditional forms of investment. I love these artists and their work.
Then there are the galleries endorsing newer and often “unproven” artists. Rife with fresh ideas and holding new mirrors at strange angles, these galleries and their artists reflect our culture, our times, back to us. There is a criticality to the new galleries and their artists – one can see the production of “new” knowledge. Technology has its grip on modes of production and ways of seeing and interpreting.
I call some people “noticers”. These are the people who hear the calls of nightjars when everyone else on a rooftop in New York can only hear traffic. These are the people that find the trampled $100 dollar bill on Madison Avenue. These are the people that note the objects embedded in the asphalt in the middle of an intersection.
What is it with certain objects and their probability of turning up on a street? On the shoulder of a road?
Are these objects “missing”? “Lost”? Does noticing mean “found”? Once found what meaning gets ascribed to an object? Can the found or noticed object speak to other or larger losses?
In 2010 I had the pleasure of installing a site specific art installation at fieldwork, located near Perth Ontario. Now, five years later, I am going back to fieldwork to remove Bewilderness. In my art practice I try to use my forms of engagement as opportunities for reflection and to mine process for the coal of wisdom. I wanted to start this blog by looking at the “there and then” of Bewilderness as a way to approach the “here and now” – the deconstruction of an idea…
The Woods Are Dreary, Dark and Deep…
“…the woods are lovely, dark and deep…” Robert Frost, Stopping in Woods on A Snowy Evening
This is no place to wander. From the outside, looking in, for as far as my eye can see, interlocking branches preclude any kind of upright movement. Safety goggles are a must as every branch presents multiple opportunities for poking one’s eye out. My goal is to understand the site, so there’s only one choice. I drop to my knees and begin my journey. After crawling about for several minutes, I find a small clearing, and stand up. I am in the middle of a white pine plantation. Where the canopy allows, light sifts down to the still and silent floor. An ever-shifting patchwork of sunlit islands floats in the vast sea of shadow. The complexity I usually associate with a forest is absent here. I see only pine trees with thick and bare low-hanging branches that narrow as they ascend. The needles that have fallen from these branches have accumulated in a thick reddish mat on the plantation floor. The trees are all one species, all of the same age, the same form and diameter, and are planted in a grid pattern. Something about the endlessly repeating pattern disappearing into the shade induces a kind of dream state. Off I go again, on my hands and knees, to pop up in spaces where I can. Everything is looking the same. I begin to lose track of direction and my starting point. There is also something peaceful about this place and a gentle amnesia sets in as I thread my way through this house of mirrors. What lurks within this dream? And what has been forgotten in a place like this? Though I cannot see the sky above me, the weather must be shifting. Is that the creaking of branches against each other from some unfelt breeze? The islands of light suddenly disappear – a bottle of ink tipped into water. The plantation is steeped in a murky and somber darkness, the dreary woods of fairytales and fables. More creaking from a different direction. Thank goodness there is nothing alive in here. Or is there? The trees are suddenly looking different. I am without breadcrumbs. I get back on my hands and knees and crawl to the edge of the plantation.
Some of our deepest fears are ecological. As with other fears, humans often deny or resist becoming conscious of their ecological fears because they threaten the “self”. Moving into the darkness to confront our ecological fears may be a step on the path to sustainability. If it is true that our separation from nature is one of the contributors to our current state of un-sustainability then we must devise various and new means of annealing the rift. How do we not just get closer to nature but actually re-stitch human animal culture back into the larger fabric? Is it by considering all living entities as vital and
invaluable partners to work with as we secure our coincidental fates? What living entities are of merit? In our hierarchical world with its arrogant and lethargic attitude to the conferring of rights, how long will it take and how malleable is our capacity to recognize the value and necessity of both the “self” and “others”?. What is our greatest ecological fear? I think our biggest fear is that we’ve gone too far. That we are no longer able to control what we have created – the oil spills, forest fires, biodiversity loss, habitat loss, famine and suffering. The fearful thing we have created – the ecological crisis – is coming out of hiding and is beginning to read its book of revelations.
Recent work by landscape architects and artists is questioning the future of our planet, and our relationship to nature, using the tree as a focus. Do these works, as a group, suggest a “broadened” acknowledgment of what we might consider as “other”? Or are these works just further examples of our romantic and resourcist views of nature (see above)? Is each and every form of life some kind of barometer corresponding to a deeper ecological value or a meaning that we may not be able to sense or have yet to plumb? Is it appropriate for us to use simulacra to meet needs while displacing “originals” which might provide a broader suite ecological resources? What about
the social and cultural impacts of simulacra? Overall, the body of work expresses novel revelations that help diversify perceptions and create new connections within, across and between the political, economic, socio-cultural and ecological strands of our lives. Check out the fear and the love, and see both the trees and the forest, in the following works: • Claude Cormier, Landscape Architect – BLUE TREE, 2004, the surface of a denuded tree festooned with sky-blue Christmas balls, the whole acting as an environmental barometer; LIPSTICK FOREST, 1999-2002 bold use of color and form immerses passers-by in a hand-cast simulated forest in the Winter Garden of the Palais de Congres in Montreal, Quebec. Please see
http://www.claudecormier.com • Don Maynard, Artist – FRANKEN FOREST – at the Agnes Etherington Gallery at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, until August 8, 2010. Maynard asks us to examine the utility of simulacra in our lives while focusing, in part, on the tree. Please visit: http://www.don-maynard.com • Roxy Paine, Artist. Recent works such as ERRATIC, 2007, in Prospect Park, CONJOINED, 2007, in Madison Square Park, and MAELSTROM, 2009, on the roof of The Metropolitan Museum of Art – all in New York City – have underscored natural phenomena with “substitutes”, many of which are dendritic and made of stainless steel. Represented
by: http://www.jamescohan.com • Robert Hengeveld, Artist – FORGERY ISLAND, 2005 – Like Maynard, Hengeveld fakes us out to get real. Rich brown trees with pink felt linings make a sensuous foray into our consciousness and invite new forms of contact. You can see more work at: http://www.roberthengeveld.com • Juniper Perlis, Artist – Like Paine, Perlis goes hard to underscore things soft. A recent visit to SISTER TREE, 2008, in Socrates Sculpture Park, Long Island City, New York, showed spring-time robins happily engaging with the welded steel and vinyl needled evergreen, underscoring the fact that all creatures can be attracted to simulacra if life history needs are being met. Fake is real if it meets a need. For more information on Perli’s work please visit: http://www.socratessculpturepark.org • Chico McMurtrie/Amorphic Robot Works – A TREE FOR ANABLE BASIN, 2007 – a floating island with a stainless steel tree that can be mobilized and inserted into the shoreline, this site-specific installation references the ongoing dialogue between ecological and industrial dimensions of the New York City waterfront. See: http://www.amorphicrobotworks.org
…you’re sure of a big surprise. Cause today’s the today I received a call from Susie Osler, a member of the fieldwork Collective, to tell me that sometime during the night my raven installation has been attacked! Is this a political act I wonder? Or the work of a vandal? On the one hand, this could be a good sign. A lot of great art has been attacked over the years: The Mona Lisa; The Pieta in the Vatican; Chris Ofili’s “Holy Virgin Mary” (1996). Susie goes back to the scene of the crime and sends me an image of the disfigured raven, including a close-up showing a small patch of fur stuck in the tar surface of the raven’s back. Dark fur. Black fur. Hmmm… Black Bear? I now have to re-align my theory regarding this act of desecration: clearly the piece has been attacked due to its realism. This could be taken as another good sign. A seal of approval from nature herself? Or perhaps, in staging the unconscious human mind, I have tapped into a greater unconsciousness or id, where primal nature is exerting its forces. The bear has finally subdued the intelligent and mischievous raven that can no longer act as a guide or talisman. On the other hand, maybe the bear just didn’t like my work. I am on my way back to Brooke Valley to repair the damage. Somewhere out there is a bear with tar on its paw.
“I tend to create work and push it slowly into the darkness. Sometimes it is obliterated. The trick is to have it exist in both lights – accessible to all. Always close to salvation and tragedy.” Louise Bourgeois
Despite all my preparation, sketches and proposals I am only now just coming to terms with site context and the feasibility of my proposed work (see “Bewilderness” post below). There is much to consider including the logistics of implementing various ideas and the availability and cost of materials. There are other practical matters as well. How much can I lift? How far can I carry? Where is the electrical outlet in the plantation? How difficult will trail making be? How much time with the deer flies, black flies and mosquitoes can I stand? I decide that my first task is to understand where natural clearings occur in the plantation so that I can choose those that will best fit each installation. The natural light that occurs in each space will also affect what I do. I course back and forth through the plantation on my hands and knees, dragging fluorescent flagging tape with me as I go, in order to trace my path. I know that I want to stay away from the edge of the plantation, that I need to spot naturally occurring corridors of movement to reduce the amount of clearing I have to do, and that I need a loop to create a surreal dream sequence, with
installations fairly evenly spaced along the path. From some perspectives I can see how the trails of fluorescent tape relate to each other and to the clearings. Some of the clearings are elliptical while others are square and seem cathedral-like. I find a nave and apse in one clearing and one installation clicks into place. As I get a better idea of the plantation overall, I start connecting spaces and thinking about how sequence and progressive realization of installations will build narrative. At the same time I am finding that the use of local materials and resources integrates the rural and adds additional layers of meaning into my work. A number of cedar rails from split rail fences have been piled near the slopes of an abandoned gravel
pit; an old galvanized wash bucket sits behind the barn; wire mesh with pigeon feathers and excrement are sits as a soiled tense sheet atop scattered hay in an old animal stall. I begin integrating these found materials into my work. Knowing that I want to introduce trees and flesh into my project I take a series of color samples ranging from a bruised plum to bubble gum pink and tack them to a tree under what I feel could be average lighting conditions (see first blog entry below). By photographing these samples and examining them later I start to develop a color palette that I feel might work. Working with the colors of flesh can be challenging, though I have explored flesh in two-dimensional media before (see “The Meat of the Day”). I also have Louise Bourgeois’s quote, above, in mind. In the open, the colors I am working with look incongruous and bright – a carnival of pinks, red and blue. In the forest they look submerged. I think about how blood looks green/black when something bleeds deep in the ocean. The introduction of death in the installation acts as a harbinger for all of the trees; the absence of skin takes away any possibility of mediation or variable sensing; dismemberment expresses a nostalgia for the whole.