I have recently finished reading Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Quartet” – which I thought was brilliant. As I progressed through the four novel set, which makes for a great summer read, I continually felt that I was experiencing the streets, the open windows, the smells of food, days at the beach, cramped apartments, gatherings and other interactions between the characters. Taking a step back I was intrigued at how something as simple as “text” – strings of symbols, concatenated or spaced – could conjure a fully fleshed out albeit imaginary world. The act of reading Ferrante created a flow; text became images, a fabric of sorts was sewn and stretched across my imagination. I was delighted to find out that the Latin for “fabric” is textum. Texts can create paintings.
The opposite, of course, can occur. We can look at a painting or work of art and “read” it, creating a “text” of sorts. Symbols, signs, colour, forms and other stimuli create associations and messages that reach out to confront our gaze. Sometimes the story is robust and coherent and other times it is a rough assemblage of ideas, sometimes more like sentences, often just a few words or a notion. Sometimes art presents us with a blank page and it remains unwritten, unread.
The National Gallery in London breaks down the process of reading paintings as follows:
“Reading a painting is similar to reading a book:
The reader decodes symbols to establish meaning
The reader uses inference and deduction (e.g. body language) to deepen understanding
A reader’s previous knowledge and experience affects their personal response”
Memory of course plays a role, intimately tied to experience, and our reading of a painting’s text ends up being diagnostic – speaking about who we are, what some of our experiences have been, what our “world views” may be.
My first solo show at Lee Contemporary Art, in Orillia, this summer, is a retrospective of sorts, a chance to look back in time and allow viewers to read multiple texts at the same time. Or, in other words, to glance at a group of paintings or texts and ask : Is there an overarching or meta-narrative? What are the common themes?
Of course, telling someone abut a book or a painting is often both a dull and corrupting process. And yet people who visit galleries often want to know “What does this picture mean?”, “What was the artist thinking or trying to achieve?”. So, to accompany this exhibition I thought perhaps a balanced approach might work – I would say something minimal about these works – perhaps just words even, and allow the reader and/or viewer to assemble the text. These words are beneath each of the paintings above, and are intended to provide points of reflection, threads form which larger stories may be woven. These paintings, and others, will be included in “Landscapes : Reading and Memory”.
These paintings serve as a gathering of texts. From such gatherings a library of sorts arises, an edifice that is created by both the artist and those that gaze upon art. A place where both can dwell.
Please feel free to comment or to get in touch with me regarding this post. My exhibition information is as follows:
I often tell people that being an artist is like being a more primitive human – we tend to live in caves more commonly referred to as studios. Periodically, we step out into the world, art in tow, to bask in the light of the collective gaze.
Though few primitive humans actually lived as cave dwellers, over ninety percent of human history has been spent hunting and gathering. As hunters and gatherers the ongoing goal of the human animal has been survival and adaptation. Over evolutionary time frames the success of our species has been predicated on our ability to detect and then locate the resources that allow us to survive. Such detection has relied heavily upon our sense of vision. In terms of space allocated to the senses vision is the clear forerunner – 30% of the neurons in the brain’s cortex are dedicated to vision while touch (8%) and hearing (2%) are a distant second and third. The human animal is a species that has evolved to search. The human animal is a species that has evolved to look.
And what are we adapted to look for and thus at? Things that sustain us.
As the human animal has evolved the idea of what sustains us has broadened in direction association with our broadening culture. While “hunter and gatherer” humans travelled great distances to secure the things that sustained them, the transition to a more sedentary agrarian society meant a consolidation or concentrating of necessary resources. Think about your reaction when visiting a market – all those resources gathered in one place – and the pleasure of looking nearly synonymous with the reward of having. The invention of agriculture ensured that variables such as proximity, diversity and ease of selection became critical criteria in determining how we live. Further, it makes sense that we tend towards modes of efficiency when securing valuable resources. It seems then that we humans have a foundation built upon hunting and gathering, with a veneer of newfound appreciation for the efficiency of the marketplace.
Most animals have “search images” meaning they have evolved to have forms of visual shorthand that help them locate the things they need to survive. In a world that may seem visually confusing to us, the process of evolution has produced animals adept at spotting exactly what they require to ensure their survival. Thus for human animals a glance at the confusing tawny stubble of a fall field yields little to look at while the scanning eye of a hawk has evolved to identify the exact information required to pounce and secure prey. Animals survive by developing images of the things that will help them survive.
Enter the art fair, where hunting, gathering, and the search for images and survival collide.
But is a visit to an art fair somehow adaptive? If it is, what are we searching for? And how might it be adaptive? Do people who collect art or live in the presence of art leave behind more genes? Is there something about collecting art that connects us to our more primitive selves? What does a visit to the museum or art fair or the collecting of art or exposure to art do for the modern human being?
A visit to an art fair keeps our “sensual selves” intact, meaning that we “live in the realm of the senses” when we look at art. Such looking engages and hones our senses, particularly vision, as we move about, like our primitive selves, in search for things that sustain us. Is the act of looking at art at an art fair become a metaphor for survival? Instead of seeking the actual resources are we instead seeking representations or scenes where our basic primitive needs can be met, scenes that we are “hard wired” to appreciate? And are there other benefits at play that are also adaptive?
When we think of how humans evolved the theory of “prospect-refuge”, proposed by Jay Appleton, in “The Experience of Landcsape” (1975), proves particularly useful. This theory suggests that humans were essentially an “edge” species that inhabited the boundary where the forest met the grassland. There, our species could seek safety (refuge) in the forest while being able to seek opportunity (prospect) while looking out over open spaces. More specifically:
“1The theory thus predicts that humans are attracted to art and circumstances that have:
It further predicted that we should like spaces when:
we are at the edge, such that our back is protected (rather than the middle where we are most exposed)
we are covered, rather than open to the sky
In short, we should like everything that is optimal for survival and reproduction in the savannah. The theory says that we respond to such things in art subconsciously, and that individuals attracted to such circumstances would have stood a better chance of survival by choosing to spend time in such places. Art that puts the viewer in between prospect-dominant and refuge-dominant areas will be most appealing.”
Prospect-refuge theory seems to predict not only the kinds of spaces we might actually enjoy but also the kinds of spaces that we might like to have represented. Indeed, prospect–refuge theory seems entirely consistent with some of the most popular genres of painting, namely “landscape” and “nature” paintings. The theory is also consistent with the kinds of landscapes that are designed to be “therapeutic” for human beings. You can read more about therapeutic landscapes HERE.
Such gazing at nature and landscapes, if it enhances our chances for survival, should place us at ease, at peace with the open space, the greenswards, the falling water and plants, the animals, and the abundance of resources at hand. This sense of ease is supported by research that indicates that being in the presence of actual or virtual landscape-nature resources can prove relaxing. You can read about how landscape and nature art reduces stress HERE.
But back to evolution and adaptation and leaving more genes than your competitors: do people that experience the relaxing and therapeutic aspects of art leave behind more progeny?
One could argue that relaxation is a key variable for survival in our modern lives and one does not have to look very far in the literature to find concrete evidence that stress reduces lifespan, sex drive and quality of life.
So it seems that when we engage our senses in the act of visiting an art fair we are doing more than merely wandering amidst a deluge of images and occupying time. Instead, we are searching for images that connect us to our primal needs and simultaneously serve as resources for our contemporary selves. In our modern lives the resources we call “art” engage us in ways that are adaptive, in ways that help to relieve stress and to sustain us. Thus art and the art fair are essential to the self in both cultural and evolutionary senses.
I like to think that when modern humans, Homo sapiens, occupied caves, one of the benefits of being bi-pedal, dextrous, and a tool maker and user, was the ability to place art on their walls, through drawing. Today’s art fairs have come a long way. There are now a myriad of ways to put art on your walls, and the act of hunting and gathering art may be more essential to your survival than you know.
For some time now I have been interested in the “level” playing field created through the use of the terms “human-animal” and “non-human animal”. Here, the level playing field is the consistent use of the term animal.
Related to this is another idea, that of hierarchy in relation to dimensions of sustainability (e.g., political, economic, social, cultural, ecological), specifically the fact that the ecological dimension or “ecology” trumps the economical dimension or “economy”. Example: you can have ecology without economy but you can’t have economy without ecology. Ecology trumps economy. Taken together the above two ideas can be combined as follows: in a finite world with ever shrinking resources allanimals will ultimately be subjected to ecological constraints, however those constraints arise.
As an artist and ecologist I see competition for space, the attributes and qualities of space, and the inputs and outputs of space as critical aspects of the global discussion about which animals and what kinds of spaces will survive. Such questions are independent of the debate about whether or not animals should be kept in captivity as, ultimately, ALL animals will face shrinking spaces, lower quality inputs (tainted food, water, air, vegetation), increased competition, and decreased access to mates (habitat fragmentation, forest destruction). The questions of “zoo” are also the questions of “planet”.
Which leads me to displaced animals in compressed life history volumes such as zoo exhibits. In a previous post on this blog, titled “The Mind Is A Zoo“, which addressed the painting shown above, I stated that the “…oneiric state of the painting provides an overarching serenity linking both the familiar and the strange. One wonders what animals dream when they are born in captivity and exposed solely to a single environment. Is there still something deep and rudimentary that can arise from a genetic or shared consciousness? Some archetypical memory?”
In other words, can a bear dream of a forest if it has never seen one? If the dreams can only be comprised of things the bear has seen and experienced in its own lifetime does that mean the bear dreams only of the exhibit space and anything it may see from it? Does containment matter if one is born into it? Or, is it possible that the collective unconscious of the bear includes the hard wired dream of a leaping salmon and outstretched paw? And if the bears disappear who will keep this dream? Where can it be stored? And if the dream disappears can it ever be dreamed again?
Links to other posts in this blog on the subject of ecological art, non-human animals, otherness, animal sensing and animals and space HERE and HERE and HERE.
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.
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.
The landscape in this painting was created through the reconfiguration of an abandoned bear exhibit found in a zoo. Originally opened in 1962 the bear exhibit expresses the era’s design thinking – nature simplified, abstracted into modern geometries that keep the animal contained and on view while accommodating the display of some behavior patterns. If the exhibit’s role in animal containment can be set aside the bear exhibit is actually quite a beautiful assemblage of shapes and spaces, a giant concrete sculpture squatting in a bowl, a sunken hollowed-out Guggenheim. The composition has clean lines and hard edges with nature abstracted as tunnel, bridge, pond, cliff face, edge, promontory and plain. The eye can discern different paths for movement and the minimal slopes that accommodate both the need for maintenance and animal safety.
Mimesis is defined as imitation. Mimicry, for example is a form of mimesis in which, over evolutionary time frames, one group of organisms evolves to share the characteristics of another group – often as a form of conferred protection. The role of mimesis extends to the act of painting itself – artists try to imitate things. To what end the serialized imitations of nature found in art?
Initially, the bear occupied an in situ habitat which was re-imagined as an ex situ zoo exhibit. Using the ex situ exhibit as a starting point the painting reorganizes the exhibits design language and, this time, imagines a novel “wild space”, transforming the exhibit into another habitat, a new wild. This new wild, metaphorically speaking, “returns” both the bear and the viewer to the wild. Further iterations are possible. In the painting the repetition of lines and shapes creates repeated spaces. The repetition allows the eye to make comparisons and to begin to sense pattern and discrepancy – akin to an animal surveying its surroundings. The repetition of form, with its genesis in nature should seem familiar to us – the observer is a sensing animal after all – and introduces a kind of déjà vu – a recollected story told through the repeated use of known words or phrases. What we know, as human animals, is coming back to us, inverted and flipped, playing with our perception and yet familiar.
The oneiric state of the painting provides an overarching serenity linking both the familiar and the strange. One wonders what animals dream when they are born in captivity and exposed solely to a single environment. Is there still something deep and rudimentary that can arise from a genetic or shared consciousness? Some archetypical memory? As one gazes, the familiarity of lines and compositions is upended by the congruency of the synthetic whole and the desire to make sense of it. The water in the lower right hand corner of Shore Lines places the observer in the water, looking at the shore, as if in a boat, possibly adrift. There, at the edge, notions of distance, containment, barriers to movement and isolation come to the fore. Animal movement is naturally limited. Islands, mountain ranges, rivers, oceans. Is this the ultimate conundrum, coming to terms with the kinds of spaces animals will inhabit? How big should they be? Who should control inputs and outputs? Which species get to survive? Is domestication going to be the ultimate destiny for anything we allow to survive? Does it matter whether bars are visible or invisible? Does it matter that our dreams are merely stage sets designed by those who construct and narrate our realities? What thoughts should we be having about the fate of non-human animals? You can dwell on that HERE.
These paintings will be on display at my first solo art exhibition, at Lee Contemporary Art in Orillia, Ojtario, August 10 – September 2, 2017. More about Lee Contemporary Art HERE.
You can see all the paintings in the above show HERE.