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:
1. Get the Big Picture. One of my faves is a short publication by Canadian Art Magazine titled “Collecting Guide” which is concise and easy to read through. You can find the guide HERE.
2. Educate Yourself. Take a course on the “Art Market” or “Art Collecting” at an art college or university or museum/gallery in the evenings. For example, here in Toronto, you simply can’t go wrong by enrolling in a Hughene Acheson course in Continuing Studies at OCAD. Lively, stimulating and filled with incredible opportunities – guests and meetings with local art world luminaries and private collections – you’ll be thrilled at what you are exposed to. You can read what I have said about OCAD courses HERE.
You can also watch a video or two on “The Value of Art” By Sothebys. This collection of 10 short videos touches on topics such as authenticity, provenance, size and medium offers a robust perpsective from one of the world’s leading auction houses. You can find these videos HERE.
3. Think About Your Space and Budget. Best to do this before you end up in a gallery or at an art fair. What are the advantages to thinking about “Art As Area”? You can find out HERE. Have a tape measure and a blank wall handy!
4. Think Broadly About the Benefits of Art. I love the notion that looking for art is adaptive in an evolutionary sense – we’re essentially hunting and gathering! You can read about that, and chat about it at dinner parties later, HERE.
Keep in mind that art can also be therapeutic. You can read about the dangers of blank walls HERE.
How broad are the benefits of art? Check out this short article on how blue art can help cool, HERE.
5. Read About Art While Being Entertained. Books like “Seven Days In The Art World” by Sarah Thornton are wonderful exposure to the broader art art and how it may be contextualized. More HERE.
Equally as entertaining, Toronto based Don Thompson has written a realy stimulaitng book on “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark”, more HERE.
You can read more about the author Dan Nuttall and view his works of art HERE.
For just a brief moment my body, suspended mid-leap, is doubled, my reflection in the stream’s surface a fleeting portrait of a teenaged boy trapped between the blues of sky and water. I am fleet-footed at this age, able to bound from boulder to boulder, curious about the matted bundles of driftwood, the truncated forest edges, the suspended log pathways, the coursing water both hidden and in plain sight. I feel a part of nature, a creature sensing its way along a watercourse.
The stream connects me to life – a wren nest wedged where deadfall branches interlace, robust pungent moss pressed under my palms, smoothed stones, crunching sorted gravel and sand. As if a paintbrush has been flicked, a spatter of dark olive streaks dart to where my amphibious scuffing of rocks has dislodged algae. The small green cloud drifts, all pattern, change and sustenance.
Shoulder to shoulder bleached granite sentries create a jumbled causeway of exits and impasses. I am humbled by their smoothness, their completeness, the ease of their weighted, shouldering postures, so separate from the stuff of water and so inseparable from the idea of stream. The light is emanating around me, floating above the gravel beds, glancing back from every riffle, splashing back at the world in radiating rings, mixing with the dappled streambank shade. The world, in flux, hovers between abstract and real.
Years later, far from any stream, but not so far from the Hudson River, I am standing in the Whitney Museum in New York City looking at the delightful paintings of Charles Burchfield. The show, aptly titled “Heat Waves in a Swamp: The Paintings of Charles Burchfield” is mostly watercolours. Many of them have been painted as if elements within the painting are vibrating, and the overall effect of the brushstrokes is one of a charged atmosphere. Here are my “emanations”.
Charles Burchfield’s emanations captured sound, light and the ephemerality of nature. His watercolour painting “Autumnal Fantasy” (1916-44), seems to be alive with calls of nuthatches, while the pounding light of the sun passes in crescents through the woodland clearing and between the trees. Even the holes in tree trunks seem to emote. The very substance of nature hangs precariously on the page, waiting for entropy and the eye to force their way between the vestiges of substance. Guy Davenport, writing in “Charles Burchfield’s Seasons”, suggests that “The step from Van Gogh to Willem de Kooning is a short one… that Burchfield… took in his own way, into an idiomatic calligraphy of his own devising, a sign language for radiant light, for wind, for insect song, for emanations”. Expressionistic in his treatment of light, Burchfield’s works is often described as mystical and visionary. His paintings leave me with the feeling that he is able to see a nature more alive than nature. Though he has not received as much attention as many other American painters it is worth noting that Burchfield had the distinction of being the first person to receive a one-person exhibition at the newly opened Museum of Modern Art in New York City, in 1930.
Similarly, Emily Carr’s emanations are rooted in the mystical. While Burchfield’s emanations were more discrete and identifiable, Carr’s merged in large swooping streams of colour that radiate from nature or course through the air, becoming a vital plasm in which all things are immersed. In “Edge of the Forest” (1935), the central tree seems to be the source of an emanating aura which fills the sky. In “Juice of Life” (1939) and “Blue Sky” (1936) all of nature moves together, a synchronous coalescing flow within the universe. Carr’s exposure to Christianity, particularly her upbringing with Calvinism, her experimentation with theosophy, her later reading of The Sadhu written by B. H. Streeter (about a Christian mystic from Punjab named Sadhu Sunder Singh), ultimately become layered in her approach to painting – an approach that uses radiating or coursing illumination to depict an ecstatic source of enlightenment. In Carr’s representations of nature we find a form of reconciliation, a pronouncement of the world at peace, often with a sense of calm, harmony, or joy – akin to the experience of a soul in union with a higher power.
The emanations we perceive on the painted surface have their own language – waves, and crescents bordering on calligraphy, text, letters. What gets transmitted in a symbol? What gets lost? As the meanings behind symbols change how does this affect our interpretatio of what we perceive? Think about the #/number sign and its migration to #/hashtag or the changeful life of the “@” symbol.
The painting of emanations draws our attention to nature and then beyond nature, to the unknown and unseen. Life, as if subatomic, both light particle and wave, illustrating the engine, the power, the mystery that drives it all.
By dwelling on the ephemerality that Burchfield so boldly pronounced we are able to inhabit that “soft focus” moment of being dazzled and at peace with nature. However, unlike Carr’s mystical harmony these works present a pulling apart, a disassembly, through the use of a fractured and changeful whole. The viewer must work, engaging the parts and using energy to assemble the whole – an ecological act in itself.
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.
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.
Toronto has a burgeoning art scene and one of the great joys of this metropolis is attending both indoor and outdoor art shows. You can find a brief overview of some of Toronto’s art shows HERE (keep in mind this an overview of 2015 shows – check back for updates on BlogTO in a few months for 2017). In the mean time you can track whatever shows seem to appeal to you in terms of geography and timing. My personal faves are are: Art Toronto, the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition, and The Artist Project 2017 which is occurring February 23-26 at the Better Living Centre at Exhibition Place in Toronto.
Ever wondered what it takes to be a part of a juried art fair in Toronto? Well, last year was my first time ever at The Artist Project and I can tell you – it’s challenging!! What are the variables that an artist (ahem, businessperson) must consider?
Creating a check list. You’d be surprised at what I am taking on site – a blow dryer (for removing vinyl name lettering at end of show, a cordless drill, business cards, price list, e-mail sign up sheet, material for closing off booth at night, a tooth brush, a small desk, a chair, a step-ladder).
Reading and signing your contract (read carefully, are there any opportunities for refunds if you fall ill or there is some other interruption)? If you became ill could someone take over for you?
Determining how much space you need (10 x 10′, 10 x 15′, 5 x 10′) and whether a corner booth or being part of a row is to your advantage.Last year I was part of a row and I don’t think my booth received any “more” or “less” attention than those around me based solely on booth location.
Paying for space, electrical outlets, lighting, storage, liability insurance, parking pass, technology to process payments, materials for wrapping sold items, name signage, tools and supplies for hanging art, price lists, business cards, promotional materials, booth furniture (you have to sit at some point!).
Transporting your art to site and having someone to help you – this is a job for two!
Storing your art on site (if available).
Staffing your booth when you need a break.
Booth security (you’re not allowed to spend the night in your booth!)
Determining how purchases will be processed (think HST/technology/cost).
Solidifying and promoting your brand – and being consistent across social and traditional media (sign in book? gathering visitor’s business cards? handing out your own?).
Determining which works you will show and how this fits into your overall art career strategy. This is the ultimate challenge. What will sell? Will you fill each wall from floor to ceiling or undertake a more spartan approach? If a curator or gallery owner walks by what might they think?
Your personality. Can you stand for 8 or more hours and smile and be pleasant and entertain questions of all sorts and speak about your art if requested?
If you’re curious about what item 2, above, adds up to, drop by my booth in 2017 and I will be happy to discuss.
You’ll also have to determine who you might like to invite to an Opening Gala if there is one. In my case it was two ardent collectors who have supported my work over the years. If there are additional general admission tickets available you’ll have to decide who else might like to come – again in my case I have an e-mail list of people who have purchases in the past and who promote my work – they get first crack. You’ll also have some free tickets to give away during regular show hours – make sure you line these people up too!
I use my computer to lay out my space in both plan and exploded elevation. In plan I can place my lights, art, front desk and furniture for visitors. I also use this approach to lay out the sequence of images should one/some/any of them sell.
In my case I asked two knowledgeable individuals that I trust to “read me the riot act” – what stays, what goes, and what excites them? How do the pieces related to each other? What story can I tell about an “set” that occupies my walls? What role does chronology play? One of these individuals is an art administrator/programmer/consultant and the other is a well known artist/jurist/curator. Both are avid visitors to art happenings and shows. Thanks to both of them for their counsel – it’s hard for artists to look at their work from the outside and I can’t thank you enough!!!
Looking across all your work an overall theme or subset of themes may play an organizing role, as might colour or how linework complements or leads the eye. Content may be irrelevant at a distance. I am also going to have a diversity of price points including some slightly earlier pieces which are smaller and less costly so that I can accommodate all types of collectors. I remember being a student and wanting to support art!
Raven and Mirror
Raven and Window
Raven and Bell Jar
There’s no denying that blue is the world’s favourite colour and scenes of nature are therapeutic but that’s not stopping me from introducing some bold works that abstract, or address topics like extinction, my recently discovered aboriginal history, animal intelligence and machines of war.
If you decide to enter a fair or art show just keep in mind your budget, your long term art goals and your willpower. Keep your web site and social media up to date. You can see my web site HERE and my artist profile for The Artist Project 2016 HERE and a piece donated for fundraising which will be sold HERE.
And lastly, stay the course. Whenever I feel challenged in any moment my last battle cry is” ONWARD!