Seen from the sky, the rectangular shape of Central Park in New York City looks like one big nature painting. Central Park functions like a nature painting too. Or, more accurately, both the park and the nature painting borrow from the same body of research. This research has demonstrated, over and over again, that people are restored by experiences of nature – whether real or virtual.
So here is an invitation. Today when you go home, take a tour with a question in mind: How do the walls that surround me affect me? And if I can’t get to the park, is there any kind of facsimile role for depictions of nature?
The research on this subject is expansive and, quite frankly, breathtaking in its implications. Nature can dampen road rage, nature can boost the spirits, nature can improve attention capacity.
Have a crabby friend? Get them out of doors AND get them art that they can escape into. A 2002 study lead by Andrea Taylor and her team found that people with “greener views”scored higher on tests of concentration, inhibited impulsivity, and ability to delay gratification. Want a more peaceful domestic life? Think green, think scene. Think park visits, think art that depicts nature.
There is likely another rectangular painting-like entity in your life that competes for your attention, the television. Generally, it doesn’t compare, unless you’re looking at scenes of nature and looking at such scenes produces an intermediary result – somewhere between a blank wall and a view out of a window. The medium is the message. Research indicates that when views are NOT of nature the television actually prevents you from engaging in reflection – something the world is sorely in need of these days. Art can fix that! By the way people who have a television in their bedroom have 50% less sex than those that don’t!
So, let’s recap! No blank walls. Get Art!
If you can’t get outdoors, Get Art.
If you get art, art that depicts nature is a good decision.
The exhibition “The Idea of North”, which focuses on the artwork of Group of Seven member Lawren Harris, is currently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
Canada’s leading arts magazine, Canadian Art, has criticized the show for its “…erasure of Indigenous perspectives…” and the “…glaring omission of indigenous art”. As someone who has only recently discovered himself to be of indigenous descent, I often catch myself wondering about the parts of our culture and the parts of our “selves” that have been erased or lay dormant. How do we deal with the thing we knew existed but has been erased? How do we integrate new aspects of self that suddenly pop into view, disrupting the calm and composed surface of the self? Who am I now that I know I am someone else?
Acknowledgement is critical.
As I toured the exhibition I pondered additional absences. In most of Harris’s early paintings there are very few people, and in later iconic works absolutely no people. So too with animals – a few horses in earlier work, none in later iconic works. How can these paintings stand for “nature”? For “the North”? For a vision of a multi-cultural country? On the other hand: do all paintings have to include all things in order to represent an idea? Can the study of a single facet of a diamond play a role in understanding the diamond as a whole?
I have always had a quote running around in my brain which I cannot attribute to anyone and can only paraphrase at the moment: “Without animals there is no forest”. Some things, by definition, have to “include” in order to “be”.
My painting below was created in response to the exhibition “The Idea of North”, currently showing at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
As Toronto heads into its first heat wave of the summer we are all thinking of ways to stay cool.
When looking at art, particularly larger scale mostly monochromatic art, viewers often dismiss the simplicity of the work and regard the large expanses of colour as meaningless. Think of the work of Rothko or Newman and the often uttered comment that “I could do that at home”. But what are we missing? When we take the time to look at Rothko’s or Newman’s larger bodies of work, and we consider the fact that colour fields and colour combinations affect us psychologically and physiologically, a more nuanced interpretation of the works can emerge.
The role of colour is often thought of in psychological terms meaning colour is interpreted symbolically through learning. For example, green is considered lucky for some cultures while in others it signifies royalty . Red signals attention and alarm or excitement. While psychological interpretation varies from culture to culture, actual physiological responses occur and may tend to be more universal in humans – though there is still considerable variability. How do we begin to examine the relationship between colour and physiological response? In physiological terms the eye transmits electrical impulses to the hypothalamus in the brain which in turn governs our hormones and our endocrine system. More specifically, the hypothalamus governs:
sleeping and behavioural patterns
sexual and reproductive functions
Think about the powerful role that colour plays in non-human animals, particularly in relation to mating rituals and the signalling of reproductive readiness. We humans, animals all of us, are also affected by colour. Have you ever wondered about the effect that colour might have on your physiology? Can blue really cool?
In California, bubble gum pink is used to calm children at a detention centre. In neonatal wards blue light is used as a treatment for premature babies born with jaundice. Color can change the perceived taste of food. Color affects blood pressure, pulses and respiration rates and brain activity and biorhythms.
Blue is the world’s favourite colour, so a work of art with a preponderance of blue has a better chance of being liked that one of yellow. Green is a close second. The blues and greens of water and vegetation begin to explain some of the popularity of landscape paintings. Research indicates that when people feel hot they prefer looking at blues and greens. Additional research on the physiology of colour effects indicates that blue helps people heal by soothing them – a greater portion of the energy directed towards day to day activities can be re-directed towards healing when a person is calm. Finally, “Through associations with the sky, the ocean and water, most people associate blue with openness, peace and tranquility,” says Zhu, who conducted the research with UBC PhD candidate Ravi Mehta. “The benign cues make people feel safe about being creative and exploratory. Not surprisingly it is people’s favourite colour.”
It’s a heat wave Toronto – so stay calm while enjoying the benefits of blue!
Dan Nuttall A DUCK AND A HUNTER WALK INTO A CLEARING…
acrylic on archival paper, diptych
22 x 30″ each
I love a sense of humour. In this piece I didn’t necessarily want to tell a joke. But start one? That sounded like a good idea.
Hunting stories are often full of woodsy humour, adventure and friendship. They are also often about animals. So I decided that a hunting theme might be interesting – a very visual way to play out a well known joke format.
In ecological theory the principle of “competitive exclusion” states that “two species competing for the same resource cannot coexist at constant population values, if other ecological factors remain constant” (Wikipedia, 2016).
Here on earth we compete against every other living species. Garbage, for example, is a form of competition – an ecologically useless manifestation that consumes, space, resources and time. Ecology’s “garbage” is camouflaged as things human are cultured to “need”.
The broader the wash of competition (forms, rates of encounter) the narrower the stream that the rest of life lives in. Outside of direct competition with humans, competition between animals steadily increases within collapsing rivulets.
In this painting, “Competitive Exclusion”, two planes of action compete for the eye’s attention. The primary colours create a forest of distraction while nature exists behind it, subdued in the background. The colours bring visions of corner store plastic bread bags and forced gaiety. The choice of primary versus secondary colours integrates culture and hierarchy (oppression). The almost complete absence of complementary colours is also linked to my thinking, of late, about the life and painting style of Vincent Van Gogh, who heightened contrast and visual interest through his use of complementary colours. Focussing on primary colours provided a unique challenge – I tend to want to be unrestricted in my impulses with paint. Perhaps the self-imposed restraint is one of the lessons.
Ultimately the eye fatigues and chooses the garbage candy of primary colours and nature fades into the background. Those that can find and keep their eye on nature are our salvation.
Dan Nuttall, COMPETITIVE EXCLUSION, acrylic on plywood, triptych, 16 x 20” each
You can find more of my blog articles on ecological art here:
One of the characteristics of ecological art, as distinct from environmental art, is the inclusion of a moral imperative.
Three birds approach an empty nest. The composition seems to infer that the three birds will arrive at the same place at the same time, suggesting some kind of intersection. Their coincidental arrival also suggests the possibility of competition.
Offset from the triad of birds sits an empty nest.
In this work the quadriptych configuration creates its own set of “branches” in the form of spaces between the four scenes. A second reference to “branches” is found in the association between the “actors” – the birds and the nest. The overall composition introduces the viewer to an ecological drama.
People often want to know how a piece of art comes into being. For me, there are often some very disparate threads that seem to get tangled (not woven), resulting in intersections, real or virtual places where things meet/collide/bind/interface. Here, for example, are some threads:
Bacon’s “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion” 1944 has always galvanized me. Notice how the title refers to “a” crucifixion and not “the” crucifixion. While our attention is directed to the three figures the focus (the crucifixion) is off-stage. You can see this triptych HERE , scroll down to second image.
Note the gaping maw in the panel to the far right. Bacon was intrigued by the mouth, its colours, textures and diseases. He often painted a mouth frozen in a silent scream. Bacon felt the perfect scream could be found in the Odessa Steps scene in the movie “The Battleship Potemkin” by Eisenstein. I was always intrigued by the fact that Bacon’s mouths were open at almost 90 degrees. I used that hinge point not to articulate a mouth but the entire head.
In some of his work, Branco, from Portugal, contemplates “The Silence of Animals”. I just saw some of his work in Paris. The works I saw in Paris, depicted baboons in domestic interiors such as libraries and dining halls. The baboon I recall most clearly was looking to the viewers left and the head was framed in isolation, the gaze offscreen. You can see his work HERE.
The Netherlands and Van Gogh
I spent some time at the Van Gogh Museum when I was in The Netherlands a month ago. Van Gogh’s colours seem implausible at moments, and the brush strokes completely identifiable, and yet the whole subsumes you. His biography “Vincent Van Gogh: The Life” is almost traumatizing in effect – his life a continual state of unrest and bitterness, one long, slow descent into mental illness. Reading the biography made Van Gogh newly foreign to me. His life seemed one long scream, or cry for a form of help he couldn’t identify. He too was always looking off-stage, seeking a goal that no one else could see, living a life of black and white, using colour only at the end. I picture a snowstorm of colour falling gently around his stark life while he screams at the sky with only one eye open.
An open call for an art show
Propeller gallery has recently invited artists to participate in “Through the Looking Glass: In Search for Identity” a juried exhibition presented as part of 2016 Nuit Rose festival in Toronto. You can read more about Propeller HERE, and Nuit Rose HERE. The following is part of Propeller’s call for artists:
“The main theme for Nuit Rose 2016 is NIGHT SHIFT, as such the exhibition at Propeller will explore themes surrounding Alice in Wonderland as a metaphor of shift, transformation and search for identity. Tim Burton recently described Wonderland as a place where “everything is slightly off, even the good people.” Alice is not just trying to figure out Wonderland, but also attempting to determine who she is and what constitutes her identity in a world that actively challenges her perspective and sense of self. She rightly understands that her self perception cannot remain fixed in a world that has drastically different rules from her own. Since Wonderland is a by-product of her own imagination, it becomes clear that it is Alice’s identity and not Wonderland itself that is being called into question. Her quest to understand Wonderland becomes a quest to understand the forces and feelings that comprise her identity.”
What are The Odds?
This triptych uses a confection of colour and form to draw people in. Intentionally strange, initial assumptions related to portraiture begin to falter. The identities of these beings is unclear, and thus the potential to see our selves or others in the work is challenged. At the same time we attempt to build a narrative. There is similarity in form, composition and the direction and intensity of the gaze. These beings appear to be occupying the same place at the same time – however unrecognizable their world is. What are the rules in this strange place? How might entering this strange “other-world” shape our self-identities? Much like the tangled threads in a work of art, as we assemble meaning in this strange new world, do we re-assemble our selves?
How one ends up at a particular intersection in a piece of work always fascinates me. Have you ever completed a piece, left it for some time, come back and seen something unexpected but recognizable? Or seen a collision of past moments?
These works, Benthic Creatures were, ostensibly, created as art for children. They’re about 10 years old. They were my imaginings of creatures sitting on the ocean floor (the benthos) in perpetual night, waiting for a sound or a pulse of bioluminescent glow, a constant snow of fine debris from above, silent. I wanted something a bit magical to activate the imagination. I wanted the mind to stretch, to imagine the furthest reaches and to think that life could exist there. They were images for a bed-time story.
Today, I see some obvious things like my time in marine biology and my job at The Vancouver Aquarium. But I also see a bit of Francis Bacon in the twisted calcareous coral of one image and the lines in all three that seem to demarcate corners or the intersections of walls and floors. I see that the settings are somehow domestic, that these creatures are surviving against the odds, hidden or isolated in the deep blue. They are both soft and pulsing and hard and sharp.
I also see the edges of a larger, untold scene – a fourth creature – sensing his way in the dark, hoping that one day someone could imagine him.
How many times have I stood by a stream, lost in its juicy wetness, lulled by the blue-green sheen, hypnotized by the wash of gravity and flow of endlessly unique frames?
Perhaps Heraclitus was wrong.
Standing here, on a rainy and cold day in March of 2016 at the Metropolitan Museum, I am gazing at a stilled moment from someone else’s life. An artist’s life. A man who looked at irises in a pitcher one day. Well, not really just one day, but the day before he left the asylum at Saint-Rémy. It was 1890. The artist was Vincent Van Gogh.
I slip from the bank of my own moment and Walt Whitman (b. 1819-1892) pulls Vincent (b. 1853-1890) and I under:
“ And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.”(1855).
Van Gogh and Whitman. Stilled selves, stalled in art and poems, thinking of others, thinking of us. I wonder if Van Gogh ever read Whitman? Or if Whitman ever saw “Van Gogh’s Irises”? Van Gogh’s lifespan is submerged within Whitman’s. Whitman’s died two years after “Irises” was painted, the same year that Van Gogh died. I doubt if he ever saw them. The river they stepped in, the moments they stilled, is the same river we stand in. We are in dialogue across all these years.
And what to make of my own stilled self, in this tiny painting “Cascade”? Why this moment? It was a river that someone sat in front of before they were lost to addiction. I can still see their outline and the coursing abstraction around them. It is a floor tile, a mosaicos, from a lost house in Mexico. It is a whisper from a Group of Canadian painters and their graphic lives.
Art allows us to stand in the same river as earlier artists, to know something of their lives, if stilled for only a moment. Heraclitus was wrong.
As part of my work in NYC as a landscape architect I had to spend considerable time in Coney Island, working on a project that never came to fruition. Knowing some of the history of the place and experiencing it as part of my work has never left me (neither has Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem For A Dream” but I digress…). Today I got up early and rode the Q train to the Coney Island-Stillwell Station and walked via the beach back to the Brighton Beach Station.
Some lovely sights met my eyes – a woman of perhaps 60, speaking Russian, clad in her swimsuit, who unflinchingly walked into the water (it’s COLD) and began her swimming workout; the men unabashed in their brightly coloured speedos; my real and imagined memories of the carny atmosphere. Was there really a midget village? Diving horses? A freak show?
As part of preparing for more formal (paid) design work I often sketch to “loosen up” my mind (sigh, unpaid work). Once achieved, my “Coney Island state of mind” loosed a torrent of work from freakish to childish, inane to historically accurate. Below: Coney island 1, 2, 3 and 4. And no, I can’t explain them.
Though much debated, the version of “how Coney Island got its name” that I always cling to, is the one that suggests that it is derived from the Dutch words “Konijn Eiland” meaning “Rabbit island”, after the rabbits that populated the area.
My Coney Island state of mind led to some quite light-hearted sketches, below, which depict “Alba” (a rabbit modified to glow in the dark, intended to reference a contemporary “freak”) as a new immigrant (not yet landed on the shore) and with reference to both the Dutch via the waterside statue “The Little Mermaid” found in Copenhagen, Denmark and my own country, Canada, which has a “version” called “Girl in a Wetsuit” by Elek Imredy. That same week I also sketched some diving horses.
Below: (L) Alba, Coney Island, 1 and (R) Alba, Coney Island 2.
Such “simple” things, these sketches, laden with memory and meaning, the real and unreal, the kind and the cruel.
*Though the term “midgets” is inappropriate in our current society it was an uncontested term during the time of Coney Island’s heyday – more info HERE.