ANNA OSTOYA, Slaying, 2016
KATHY GRIFFIN, Slayed, 2017
In 2016 I had the pleasure of viewing Anna Ostoya’s exhibition SLAYING at Bortolami Gallery in Chelsea, NYC. Here is a quote from the gallery’s press materials:
“Bortolami is pleased to announce Slaying, Anna Ostoya’s third exhibition at the gallery. In her new paintings and photomontages, the artist deploys Artemisia Gentileschi’s iconic work, Judith Slaying Holofernes, as an image of violence inherent in art and in life. The original painting depicts the story of Judith, a Jewish widow who saves her people besieged by the Assyrian army. With the help of her maidservant, she plies Holofernes, the army general, with alcohol and then beheads him in his drunken state.
In these new paintings, Ostoya inspects the crime scene, analyzing it through geometrical abstraction. She substitutes Judith for Holofernes, in Judith Slaying Judith, and Holofernes for Judith, in Holofernes Slaying Holofernes. Each figure attacks itself. These large canvases are accompanied by smaller ones where the artist further analyzes the scene.”
When, where, why is it appropriate to show a human being getting decapitated? Who gets to articulate, investigete, dramatize or commit such acts?
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.
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.
Some recent “requests for submissions” for art have come from institutions delivering services in health care and mental health care. One of the institutions, providing mental health care services, comprises a rather large campus that includes multiple buildings, walkways, green spaces and roads. The roads have various names, one of them being “White Squirrel Way”.
This is in reference to a white squirrel that has been seen on the grounds. As an artist my first impulse in responding to the request for submissions was to honour this unique rodent, to exaggerate, to render magnificent the animal’s stark difference. Thus my thoughts run to a large realistic glowing plastic squirrel sculpture. Twelve feet tall. Holding a nut. Offering contrast during the fall and summer. Glowing at night. Disappearing during wintry Canadian days. Other associations jump-started in my brain. White rabbits. What it means to be different. Pink elephants. Hiding difference. Godzilla. Celebrating difference. Animals as representation or reflections of the self. Stimuli that precipitate mental health crises.
As a landscape architect who has been involved in the design of therapeutic landscapes it has been made clear to me that design in such facilities must be “evidence based design” meaning that the design must be based upon research that demonstrate positive health outcomes in relation to environmental variables (e.g., faster healing times; reduced time in facility). Nature, as positive distraction seems like a no brainer in terms of providing mental health benefits. The canopy of trees, the colourful flowers, the breeze tousling grassy expanses. And what of art in the landscape? Art placed in a patient’s healing environment (sculpture, two-dimensional art), has to be “unambiguously positive” so as not to negatively affect people.
This means that some form of representation of nature (e.g., a waterfall or lake in a landscape) is not likely to cause problems. A three-dimensional depiction of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”, or a towering steel abstraction of the creature from “Aliens” – not such a good choice. The ambiguity of abstract art, has been suggested to be a problem, more specifically “clinically inappropriate”. So this image of a brain populated by squirrels is not appropriate.
So, nature is preferred over abstract art. In addition, harmless animals are deemed okay, but not cartoon-like images (see http://henrydomke.com/blog/2009/05/11/art-in-healthca-3/). Overall, artwork judged to be “emotionally inappropriate” is generally ambiguous, surreal or open to multiple interpretations. This “landscape” piece, hovering between abstraction and realism is currently on display at Bridgepoint Health, courtey of the Artist’s Network. More on this piece HERE.
The logic applies to sculpture as well. Most of the artwork studied in research is two-dimensional art hung on facility walls. The research also tends to dwell on viewer preference, and is not concretely linked to specific indicators of health improvement. And what of my proposed giant glowing white squirrel for a mental health facility? Harmless nature or fearsome scaled-up rodent? Does the scaling up contribute to its cartoonish quality and make interpretation ambiguous? Are changes in scale “abstraction”? What about a landscape with 30 life-sized glowing squirrels in an array on a lawn? You can read about some of my design work dealing with issues of scale HERE on page 17.
What about one single life-sized brass sculpture of a squirrel? What about the living squirrels that inhabit the same space as facility users?
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!
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:
In Ontario, Canada, the introduction of a new sexual education curriculum has caused considerable controversy. You can find recent news coverage regarding this issue HERE and HERE.
This installation intervenes by holding a mirror up to this controversy. On top of the desk sit “bivalves” on a silver serving tray. The bivalves, made of cast concrete, have shells cast from twinned jockstrap cups.
Inside the shadowed wood school desk interior but visible to the observer sits a shucking knife. The knife sits on top of overlapping “graffiti” – statements made by those who oppose the new sexual education curriculum.
You can read statements by those who oppose this new curriculum HERE.
The desk and its contents sit in dialogue with a large, offset rectangle on a nearby wall – a chalkboard.
This work will be exhibited at Roadside Attractions in the Fall of 2017 – from August 2 to September 13. You can get a quick overview about Roadside Attractions on their FaceBook page HERE or on the web HERE. You can also read a piece by BlogTO about this art venue, 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?