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.
For the most part I tend towards abstraction. To me this means that there there are no immediate and obvious visual references that come to mind. Right away I feel a kind of freedom. Abstraction doesn’t tell you what to do – however – it doesn’t mean you’re NOT being manipulated or influenced by what is on the canvas. What do you see in the un-named image above? Take a moment or two. Spoiler alert, the paintings get named below.
The “lack” of easily understood visual references doesn’t mean that that there is “nothing” there or the work lacks intellectual content. Every piece has some sort of genesis, some sort of impulse, some idea suspended in a moment or across millions of moments that blend together, braiding the stream that carries the artist’s work over the falls. Staying afloat/engaged/ immersed is the hard part. Picture a month at sea on a raft made of a single thought. Reaching a shore with a painting is the goal.
Naming an abstract piece as “Untitled” or with a simple descriptor (e.g., “Abstract In Cool Blue 1”) helps maintain the “openness” or sense of freedom in accessing the work. It’s still wide-open to interpretation. Naming a work is a sort of nucleus, the grain of sand in the thought-oyster. Ideas coalesce around it.
When I named the diptych “West Coast (Killer Whale)” it’s because the stream of consciousness wetting my pigments involved a cascade of thoughts about my life on the West Coast of Canada, my time around killer whales, my love of the woods and wood and water, the errant tangy salt and brightness that stung my eyes, the cooling reprieve of depth – deep green-blues – the smell of cedar, sleek black skin steaming at the surface, the gentle push of wet spilling over flanks.
As an artist I also like how abstract work escapes comparison to some version of perfection (“That’s a terrible painting of a sunset”). And yet, when we look at wildlife art the urge to depict accurately and realistically images of the things we see – is rote. Of course there is no perfection and the “errors” are perhaps where things begin to get interesting.
For me, I am always wondering about the animal perspective and so the eye, the face, and body language play roles in establishing how the animal is relating, in that moment, to the world. The artist, in a sense, becomes a manipulator of the animal and questions of responsibility entail. I like my birds proud, and magical, a bit mysterious, any realism directed toward capturing and holding the eye of the beholder to induce respect and appreciation, and to allow wonder in the forms of questions: How do such creatures exist? What are their fates to be? Look these animals in the eye and tell me what you see.
As many of you know I am participating in an art show this spring and will be showing my work “Shore Lines” and “Mimesis 1, 2 and 3” which deal with notions of habitat and the ultimate and twinned fate of both human and non-human animals. I must state for the record that I am not per se “anti-zoo” but rather “pro” asserting the type of work that human animals need to do to consider the long term questions about the twinned fate of human and non-human animals – who will get to survive? how much space will be allotted? is domestication the only answer? what losses of culture can be sustained? when the chains become broken how long are the strands and what are their functions?
Coincidentally, the art show I mentioned above has an art competition with the theme “Road Trip”. As an artist and someone interested in non-human animals and issues of space and competition I have decided to approach this topic in terms of seeing the road as something that might “trip” up someone or something – like a non-human animal. In essence I will painting something to do with roadkill. At least that’s the intention now – no paint has been smeared just yet.
Some of you have written to me asking for more background and greater depth about my blog piece and my animal-centric art pieces so:
1. You can read my blog article concerning ways of thinking about space/habitat as a dwindling resource and how the same questions we apply to zoo exhibits may be applied to conservation spaces. More may be found HERE.
2. Coincidentally, I have just been contacted by an organization that I would recommend you check out – called “Wildsight” and more about their work may be found HERE. You can also read about Wildsight on FB HERE.
While my Masters and Doctoral work dealt with the “design of optimal environments for displaced species” and the “sustainable integration of human and non-human animal communities”, Wildsight’s Denise Boehler gets right to the heart of the matter – Ecopsychology and notions of coexistence – completely aligned with my previous academic work AND the art I am doing. As I have often said: “Good design solves multiple challenges simultaneously”. How we design our world can reduce roadkill, conserve habitat, and see art as a vehicle that carries all of us safely down that road.
Please share, like, comment or invite friends to explore both Wildsight and dandoesdesign.
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.
Though the process of submitting my proposal to fieldwork and arriving at the rural site to begin installation, waves of revision have been shifting the landscape of concept and what is possible. Cost is an issue. Availability of supplies is an issue. Time is an issue. Mosquitoes are in issue – we are, after all, in rural Ontario and it’s spring. This is an iterative process – my ideas are being informed by place and my ideas are informing place. During my first few days I do small projects to get my hands dirty and to meditate on what might be. I harvest spurs from a Hawthorn and create a small plantation. I sketch trees. I explore the pine plantation and farm where I will be working. And finally…
In fairy tales and folklore the deep dark forest is a forbidding place where witches and wolves wait to prey. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s psychoanalysts believed that the forest represented the unconscious mind and contained things that we fear or aspects of ourselves that had been rejected or neglected. They also believed that something good could come from going into the forest and confronting the darkness – an opportunity to
confront our fears and anxieties and to triumph. This installation seeks correspondences between human life and nature via the psyche and imagination, primarily by cultivating a sense of bewilderment in regard to trees. Bewilderness evokes the familiar and the new, prompting wonder and imaginative recognition, eliciting new relationships. By providing the double presence of tree and flesh we are challenged to reconsider how we relate to trees, and by extension, to other beings and nature.
‘Life is found in animals and plants; but while in animals it is clearly manifest, in plants it is hidden and not evident. For before we can assert the presence of life in plants, a long inquiry must be held as to whether plants possess a soul and a distinguishing capacity for pleasure and pain.’ -Aristotle, On Plants.
My time in Brooke Valley Ontario has been preceded by a considerable amount of time in New York City. So while my initial experiences in the pine plantation are still resonating with me, other experiences are also affecting my perceptions of the plantation. In New York City my feelings of separation from nature, and my work in landscape architecture has underscored the importance of trees. Trees in New York City seem to fall into two primary categories; street trees and trees in city parks. Nearby Prospect Park, with its gently rolling landscape designed by Vaux & Olmsted, is a haven for me. In a city like most, where non-human forms of life seem under-represented, the massive park trees that we take for granted come into sharpest focus when they die. Recent spring storms have left Prospect Park littered with immense fallen trees that were quickly moved off roads and paths and cut into pieces over several weeks. A walk through the Park during this time reveals a scene of scaled up truths – trees lie like beached and dismembered leviathans.
Where the trunk has been sawn in cross-section, expansive pale wounds glow with rawness while adjacent sections of trunks and limbs seem to tell the story of a giant creature felled mid-stride. The life-full-ness of these dismemberments seem to exist in paradox to the lives they lived. Not full of muscle, sinew, blood vessels or a spinal cord, they did not flail, bleed, twitch or scream. They fell and were severed into sections silently – no quivering and steam in the cool spring air. And if they could? If the removal of bark revealed glistening pink flesh? If there was a gentle shuddering as one last breath was exhaled? How would this have changed our world? Can we kill things just because we cannot assess their sentience? How far, ultimately can we extend our notions of “other”? Of the living? Of life?
“…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.
To learn more about Bewilderness on this Blog you can start at the most recent blog and work your way back in time HERE.