Art Appreciation Marathon: Part 2 of 2 – Toronto, North Adams, New York City, Beacon

Our first art event upon returning from Europe (see Part 1 of 2) was to attend the play Helen Lawrence at Canadian Stage in Toronto. Stan Douglas, a photo-artist, and Chris Haddock, a TV writer and producer, collaborated in creating a visually and intellectually engaging stage and film hybrid set in post-WWII Vancouver.

The audience is challenged to absorb the live action of the actors, the concurrent film of their performance projected on a see-through screen in front of the stage and the distraction of the camera operators, who are also on stage recording the play as it unfolds. The production is a remarkable sleight of hand. I easily got into the story and had no problem changing my focus from the live to the projected action. The only slight distraction for me was that I would pause every now and then to marvel at how the actors’ movements on stage matched so seamlessly the projected scenery. Helen Lawrence is a wonderful piece of theatre.

Scene from Helen Lawrence by Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock

Scene from Helen Lawrence by Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock

Near the end of October we set off with friends on an art-tour road trip, travelling first to North Adams to visit the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). This is our second visit to MASS MoCA and we were again impressed by size of this art facility. Over 140,000 square feet of exhibition space fashioned out of a series of stunningly renovated 19th century factories – all this, set in a town of 14,000 people in the midst of the Berkshire Mountains.

A major magnet at MASS MoCA is the three floors of galleries featuring Sol Lewitt: A Wall Drawing Retrospective which opened in 2008 and will remain up until 2033.

Sol LeWitt, L: Wall Drawing 901, 1999 and R: Wall Drawing 1081, 2003

Sol LeWitt, L: Wall Drawing 901, 1999 and R: Wall Drawing 1081, 2003

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The more than 100 wall drawings on display span four decades of Lewitt’s work. This is an exhibition not to be missed as you will likely never again have the opportunity to see such a large and varied example of his genius. He is recognized as a major driving force of minimalism and conceptualism and is most famous for separating the act of conceiving a work of art from the act of executing it.

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 146A, 2000

Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing 146A, 2000

Lewitt created a schematic outline of instructions for each piece and his view is that these instructions constitute the work of art.  For him, it is the idea and not its physical representation that is his art.  For example, an illustrated index of the combinations of marks, their repetitions and placement upon the grid are provided as shown below for Wall Drawing 146A, 2000.

Wall Drawing 146A, 2000 schematic

Wall Drawing 146A, 2000 schematic

Of the 13 other artists being exhibited, the most compelling was Darren Waterston’s installation Filthy Lucre, 2013-14 which was part of his exhibition Uncertain Beauty. The creative reference for the installation was an 1876-77 work by James McNeill Whistler entitled Harmony in Blue and Gold: The Peacock Room. Waterston riffs off the tension that existed between Whistler and his patron – a disagreement over the fee and the resulting changes made by the artist to the original plan for a room in the patron’s home. Waterston presents us with a room in decay and ruin, a distorted replica of the original, providing an imaginary representation of the underside of beauty with the lustre gone from the material trappings of conspicuous wealth.

Darren Waterston, Filthy Lucre 2013-14

Darren Waterston, Filthy Lucre 2013-14

Our first stop in New York City was to visit the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine and Xu Bing’s Phoenix, 2008-10. Using discarded construction materials Xu Bing has created two 150 foot long phoenixes weighing in excess of 20 tons and has suspended them from the cathedral’s ceiling about 15 feet above the ground.

Xu Bing, Phoenix 2008-10, Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, NYC

Xu Bing, Phoenix 2008-10, Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, NYC

Xu Bing, a contemporary of Ai Weiwei (see Ai Weiwei: Art and Politics in China, March, 2012), is currently the head of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Similar to Ai Weiwei his work often speaks to contemporary social and political issues in China. Both artists have expressed concerns with how China, Beijing in particular, is changing at the expense of its history and architecture. The old is being replaced with the new with little regard for neighbourhoods and communities.

Originally commissioned to create the centerpiece of a new commercial complex in Beijing, Xu Bing lost the contract when the developers realized that the raw material for the piece was being drawn from construction waste at the complex site. Using discarded materials (feathers fashioned from shovels, crowns made of hard hats and heads formed from jackhammers) Xu Bing created an intricate and elaborate depiction of a male (Feng) and female (Huang) phoenix in flight. It is a remarkable work that tells a multitude of stories and you cannot help but be impressed with the imagination and creative skill that lie behind this installation.

Xu Bing, Phoenix detail, MASS MoCA

Xu Bing, Phoenix detail, MASS MoCA

I first saw the Phoenixes last year at MASS MoCA. I thought that its presentation there was far more powerful as the detail of the construction, the sense of flight and its crude beauty was on full display. There were no other distractions, just two massive creatures flying above your head. The Gothic structure, the pillars and the stained-glass windows of the Cathedral seem to be in competition with Xu Bing’s work and distract from it.

Xu Bing, Phoenix 2008-10, MASS MoCA

Xu Bing, Phoenix 2008-10, MASS MoCA

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art we visited the Leonard A. Lauder Collection: Cubism consisting of eighty pieces by the four stars of the movement: George Braque, Juan Gris, Fernand Leger, and Pablo Picasso. The works on display highlight the influence of Picasso and Braque in the period 1909-14 and you are able to see how each played off the other, sometimes not being able to tell the difference between them. It was interesting to learn from the gallery notes that two significant sources of inspiration for Picasso and Braque, as they moved towards their cubist style, were the fractured planes and perspectives of Paul Cezanne and the raw simple forms of wooden West African masks. The exhibition was a unique crash course in cubism and an impressive representative survey of the movement’s stars.

Georges Braque, Violin: Mozart Kubelick, 1912

Georges Braque, Violin: Mozart Kubelick, 1912

Pablo Picasso, The Scallop Shell: Notre Avenir est dans l'Air, 1912

Pablo Picasso, The Scallop Shell: Notre Avenir est dans l’Air, 1912

Art Appreciation Marathon: Part 2 will be continued.

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Art Appreciation Marathon: Part 1 of 2 – Toronto, London, Paris – Sept./Oct. 2014

September and October were busy months on our personal art circuit.  It all started in Toronto with our friend Kathleen Ritter’s show, Camoufleurs, opening at G Gallery. Ritter, a well-known and respected curator, is now focusing full time on her art while living in Paris. The new work, shown at the Toronto exhibition, “…explores forms of encoded communication, camouflage and subterfuge.”

Next, we were at the Power Plant where our long-time friend, Shelagh Keeley, presented her commissioned wall-drawing installation, Notes on Obsolescence.  Keeley is a conceptual artist whose drawings, often large scale, have been exhibited widely both in Canada and internationally.  Her work is found in the collections of major art institutions in Canada, the USA and Europe.

Notes on Obsolescence (2014), Shelagh Keeley

Notes on Obsolescence (2014), Shelagh Keeley

In late September we headed to Europe, first to London and then to Paris.  Our primary objective was to attend the opening of my cousin Ciara Phillips’ exhibition, Things Shared, at Tate Britain.  Phillips is one of the four nominees for the 2014 Turner Prize (see my post Ciara Phillips: 2014 Turner Prize Nominee).

Ciara is with her father on the left and the Director of the Showroom, London on the right.

Ciara is with her father on the left and the Director of the Showroom, London on the right.

Also showing at Tate Britain was a collection of more than 150 paintings by JMW (William) Turner entitled Late Turner – Painting Set Free.  These works were created in the last 15 years of his life, beginning in 1835 when he turned sixty.  Many art critics identify these late works by Turner as the precursors to impressionism and abstraction. Given his attention to the representation of light, he is often credited with being a major influence on 20th century colour field painters such as Mark Rothko.

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835), JMW Turner

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835), JMW Turner

Turner’s inventiveness, even as he aged, is on full display. The sheer beauty of the paintings and the mesmerizing power of his swirling strokes of color knock you out. His themes cover everything from classical history and mythology to Biblical references.  He loses me when he gets into mythology but that is a small price to pay to be able to see such masterpieces.

The Angel Standing in the Sun, 1846, JMW Turner

The Angel Standing in the Sun, 1846, JMW Turner

While in London we took the opportunity to visit the Saatchi Gallery to see the featured exhibition, Pangaea, which focused on the work of 16 contemporary artists from Africa and Latin America. The hype surrounding this collection was reminiscent of the Saatchi launch in 1992 of the Young British Artists. It didn’t work for me as I thought the works on display were uneven – some artists were very strong, others not so much.

At the Royal Academy of Art we took in a retrospective of German artist Anselm Kiefer who ranks among the best-known post-World War II European artists.  Over his 50-year career his obsession has been to focus on Germany’s past. “Mythology, war, poetry, death – Kiefer makes big art with big themes.”  His art isn’t for the faint of heart as his paintings and sculptures, mostly large scale and intimidating, are dark in theme and in the materials used – straw, sand and ash mixed in his paint, lead and acid washes.  While it is helpful to know the context of his work (that present-day Germany must not forget the atrocities of the past), it is still quite a challenge to unravel all the nuances of a piece.

Margarethe (1981), Anselm Kiefer

Margarethe (1981), Anselm Kiefer

Winterlandschaft (Winter Landscape) 1970, Anselm Kiefer

Winterlandschaft (Winter Landscape) 1970, Anselm Kiefer

Our visit to Tate Modern was a chance to be reintroduced to the work of Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935).  His colourful, geometric, abstract forms (1913-1917) first captured my imagination over ten years ago. To be able to visit such a comprehensive survey spanning his artistic career was a real learning experience. The movement he created, Suprematism, sought to reduce painting to nothing but shape and color.  Such a radical concept developed by an artist who was isolated from the main artistic streams of the time and living under the iron fist of Stalin is truly remarkable.  Even more so when you consider that his contemporaries were still turning out the traditional, representational images of the Russian people and their culture.

Supremus No. 55, 1916, Kazimir Malevich

Supremus No. 55, 1916, Kazimir Malevich

Dynamic Suprematism/Supremus 1916-17, Kazimir Malevich

Dynamic Suprematism/Supremus 1916-17, Kazimir Malevich

Our stay in Paris, for the most part, involved getting reconnected to a city that I have visited many times over the past 30 years. We went back to our favourite, off-the-beaten-track, small museum, the Marmottan Monet, where you will find over 65 of Claude Monet’s works, all of which were painted at his Normandy home at Giverny.  On display was a special exhibition built around Monet’s Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), 140 years after it first appeared in 1874.  This is the painting that gave the Impressionist movement its name.

Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise) 1874, Claude Monet

Impression, Soleil Levant (Impression, Sunrise) 1874, Claude Monet

In between taking in the sights we visited the Rodin Museum and Sainte-Chapelle and were able to get tickets for the Niki de Saint Phalle retrospective at the Grand Palais.  Born Catherine Marie-Agnes Fal de Saint Phalle in 1930, she shed her upper-class and overly-disciplined upbringing to begin painting in the early 1950s.  The focus of her art was to create an awareness of the central role of women in society.  Her views preceded the feminist movement and were most strikingly represented in the sculpture-like creations, begun in the 1960s, of her take on the proverbial everywoman.  She named her creations Nanas, a term roughly translated from the French slang as “chicks ”.

Nanas, Niki de Saint Phalle

Nanas, Niki de Saint Phalle

 

Nanas, Niki de Saint Phalle

Nanas, Niki de Saint Phalle

Art Appreciation Marathon to be continued……

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Ciara Phillips: 2014 Turner Prize Nominee

 

Tate Britain.

Tate Britain.

I was excited to learn of my cousin Ciara Phillips’ nomination for the 2014 Turner Prize.  It was even more exciting to attend the September 29 opening at Tate Britain of the exhibition of the four finalists. I have followed Ciara’s career from afar and witnessed the evolution of her art over the years.  So, it was a very special occasion to see her work in real time and to be part of the celebration. Ciara is the first Canadian-born artist nominated for the Turner Prize.  She lives and works in Glasgow.

Ciara is with her father on the left and the Director of the Showroom, London, on the right

Ciara is with her father on the left and the Director of the Showroom, London, on the right

In the announcement of the nominees for this year’s award, the British press has been commenting on the range of media employed by the finalists including video, found film footage and photographs, screen print and textile, and the spoken word.  Quite an eclectic mix of stimuli and materials greet the viewer as one passes from one exhibition to another.

Working on her own, or in collaboration with others, and often with a strong focus on social activism, Ciara draws on her skills as a screen-print maker (on paper, photographs, textiles), photographer and designer.  One of this year’s judges was quoted as saying that what was constant in Phillips’ work was “…an incredibly strong graphic sensibility, a really vibrant use of colour and a sense of humour.”

View upon entering the exhibition, Evening Standard, London.

View upon entering the exhibition, Evening Standard, London.

What stands out about Ciara is her interest in approaching art as a social engagement. She collaborates with other artists and at times with individuals or groups active in addressing social issues. Ciara’s Turner Prize nomination was based on her solo exhibition at the Showroom, London, were she created a print studio [Workshop (2010-ongoing) 2013] and invited other artists and designers as well as members of an advocacy group, Justice for Domestic Workers (J4DW), to be part of the creative process.  J4DW is an organization of immigrant domestic workers in Britain.  One outcome of the workshop was the creation of a number of banners one of which was used later in the day at a rally of domestic workers and is still being used by the organization.

Banner created at Workshop (2010-ongoing) 2013, Showroom, London.

Banner created at Workshop (2010-ongoing) 2013, Showroom, London.

The exhibition limitations at Tate Britain did not allow Ciara to replicate an activist-centred environment that she is best known for. She opted instead to provide a demonstration of her artistic practice with elements of previous work in a highly  charged landscape of color.  Her print making takes center stage with hundreds of handmade prints on paper that cover the gallery walls – floor to ceiling.  This full-on treatment of multi-colored prints and the resulting abstract patterns that are created further showcase her strong design and color skills.

Looking towards the entrance to the exhibition.

Looking towards the entrance to the exhibition.

I enjoy Ciara’s sense of humour and the way she challenges us with her minimalist approach to communication. In her work she will often use the single letters K, N, O and place them individually in a field of vivid color hues, often displayed in a group of two. Once you have enjoyed the visual effect you are left to determine if a message was intended.

View of exhibition back wall.

View of exhibition back wall.

With her nomination Ciara joins an internationally recognized group of artists who over the years (1984 to the present) have fascinated the art world through various media and not without some controversy.  Among previous nominees of particular interest to me are: Gilbert and George, Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing, Chris Ofili, Mike Nelson, and, Jake and Dinos Chapman.

I share the opinion reproduced below, expressed by one gallery-goer and left on the comment board provided by Tate Britain.

Note on the comment board, Tate Britain.

Note on the comment board, Tate Britain.

To be given public recognition and honoured in mid-career for your life’s passion is a remarkable accomplishment. No matter which of the four nominees receives the award they each will be able to take pride in the fact that their work is receiving the attention of the international art world.

The exhibition of Turner Prize finalists will continue at Tate Britain until January 4, 2015.  The prize will be awarded on December 1, 2014.

 

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Douglas Coupland: Author/Conceptual Artist

 

The recent feature exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG), a Douglas Coupland retrospective, provided an opportunity to explore another dimension of an artist known by many as a prolific writer.

Coupland was born in 1961 at the Royal Canadian Airforce base in West Germany and later moved with his family to Vancouver in 1965.  He is a graduate (1984) of the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design and his many creative talents (in addition to writing) have included installation, painting, photography, print making, quilt design, as well as public art commissions.

As you proceed through the various galleries you come to appreciate the skill and imagination of the artist as he manipulates everyday articles, modifying some, over-sizing others to create images or structures that raise questions regarding, among other things, what it is to be Canadian; consumerism and the omnipresence of technology; and, the use of language in an age of social media.  One of the contributors to the show’s extensive catalogue suggests that Coupland is a skilled “assemblagist” creating material essays as he reflects on the foibles and the challenges of living in the 21st century.

Before entering the first gallery of the exhibition you encounter The Brick Wall (2004/2014), an entire wall of shelves filled with hundreds of small objects.  As you examine the “wall” you begin to recognize the myriad objects (toy building materials) randomly placed on the shelves, noting their shapes and then their color (all primary colors).  You begin to identify the pieces and likely have a memory flash-back to when you used such pieces to create objects or games on your own.  This seems to be the leitmotif of Coupland’s style – you can create anything from everything.

The Brick Wall (2004-2014)

The Brick Wall (2004-2014)

 

The Brick Wall (2004-2014) - detail

The Brick Wall (2004-2014) – detail

 

I particularly liked the installation Secret Handshake, 2014 as it continues a theme of Coupland’s – to document things Canadian. He started this theme in his early books Souvenir of Canada (2002) and Souvenir of Canada 2 (2004).  He moved from the literary to the conceptual with this creation which incorporates and expands an earlier site specific installation entitled Canada House (2003).  He likes to joke that if you are not a Canadian you won’t understand the components of Secret Handshake.

Secret Handshake, 2014 - entrance view

Secret Handshake, 2014 – entrance view

Coupland expects us to get up close and personal with his installations as each requires a macro-view and then a much more detailed micro-perspective.  For me the more I consider the various components of an installation the more of a context emerges.

For example in the Secret Handshake installation one of the two sofas (Reservation Sofa) speaks to the marginalization of the aboriginal population by representing the larger non-aboriginal portion with the cushion covering in McIntosh tartan and the smaller section of the sofa in knitting reminiscent of a Cowichan First Nations sweater.

Secret Handshake 2014 - the sofas

Secret Handshake 2014 – the sofas

For the second sofa (Two Solitudes), Coupland fashioned a mid-19th century sitting arrangement allowing two people to sit “together” but not face one another in conversation.  As noted in the catalogue, this piece offers “…a tangible metaphor of the strain of official Canadian biculturalism”.

In creating the installation 345 Modern Houses, 2014 Coupland has some fun at the expense of 1960 city planner’s utopian vision of an ideal subdivision.   He has created a mind-numbing grid of 100 identical homes based on the number 345 Lego kit – a 1970 reproduction of a Copenhagen bungalow and the only Lego kit Coupland purchased as a child.

345 Modern Houses, 2014

345 Modern Houses, 2014

345 Modern Houses, 2014 - detail

345 Modern Houses, 2014 – detail

 

Another installation that I particularly liked was The World, 2013-2014.

The World, 2013-2014

The World, 2013-2014

Coupland’s take on the urban condition is fashioned from toys, architectural models, globes and corporate logos/signs suggesting the density and compactness of living and working in close proximity to one another and to the sources of our support systems – housing, offices, transportation, electricity and oil.  The price of this urban model is over-crowding, pollution (represented by the defaced globes), changes to our environment (note the pile of dead bees) and the ever-present surveillance camera (scattered through out the installation).

The World, 2013-2014  - detail

The World, 2013-2014 – detail

 

The World, 2013-2014 - detail

The World, 2013-2014 – detail

 

Douglas Coupland is an artist who speaks to contemporary issues in a style that is both accessible and engaging.  In place of his pen he has gone conceptual, adapting familiar objects in colourful and quirky ways in order to comment on the world around us.

The exhibition will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in January 2015.

 

 

 

 

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Matthew Barney: River of Fundament

Matthew Barney: River of Fundament

 Matthew+Barney+River+Fundament+World+Premiere+S9n8LefZDfjl

Mathew Barney (born in 1967 in San Francisco) is a multi-dimensional artist whose work encompasses all media – drawings, photography, sculpture, performance and cinematography.  I first encountered Barney’s unique style with the release in 2002 of his CREMASTER Cycle (1994-2002), a five-film project.

For the uninitiated it will be difficult to hang on for the full six hours of his latest film, River of Fundament, a three-act, many-layered, opera-cum-stage-play, without a heavy dose of faith in his artistic skill and an open mind.  The film was shown in Toronto on June 6-8, as part of the Luminato Festival.

The film deals with a convoluted story-line heavily imbued with ancient Egyptian mythology, a beyond avant-garde operatic sound track and over-the-top vulgarity. The film loosely follows Norman Mailer’s 1983 book, Ancient Evenings, which has been described as a bewildering and scatological extreme tale “…that chronicles the ancient Egyptian belief in the seven stages of the human soul as it passes from death to rebirth.”  In Barney’s hands the protagonist is Mailer whose spirit seeks reincarnation, by traversing a river of sewage, in an attempt to be reborn and achieve greater literary success than he did in real life.  The shadow of Ernest Hemingway is ever present in the film alluding to Mailer’s envy of Hemingway’s success.

Matthew Barney has been quoted as saying that he is “…not particularly interested in the control of traditional film making.”  NO KIDDING!

In my opinion the best thumbnail outline of the film can be found in the review published in The Hollywood Reporter: “…While a wake is being held for Norman Mailer in his Brooklyn home, the author’s spirit is struggling to be reborn, hoping to climb the ladder of literary greatness in successive incarnations. Three versions of his soul emerge in succession from a River of Feces… They spy on the wake’s guests, interact with Egyptians both mortal and divine, and try, but fail to reach their destination.  In between are (more) cryptic sequences, partly staged at real-world art happenings, in which three different cars are destroyed, transformed and treated as if they hold strange supernatural powers we cannot fathom.”

While trying to appreciate Barney’s creative skill it is never a good idea to attempt to match every scene with logic or relevance to the unfolding action but the synopsis in the program is a huge help.  Without at least this minimal outline of Egyptian mysticism (who is Hathfertiti?) and the broad strokes of each of the three acts a person might feel overwhelmed and simply give up.

 

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This movie, seven years in the making (2006-2013), in my opinion moves Barney’s cinematic, set design and production skills beyond the earlier Cremaster Cycle.  Even though I did survive that five-part film, when I saw it in 2002, I was not ready for the opening act of the River of Fundament – the extreme crudeness of some of the images and the gratingly disconnected sound track almost drove me from the theatre. I’m glad I persisted and saw all three acts.  For me, Acts II and III were more decipherable and less jarring from a sound and crassness perspective.  Full disclosure: I separated my viewing into two parts – Acts I and II were viewed the first night and Act III the second night.

No matter how this film is received, I think it is a remarkable example of Barney’s artistic creativity. He demonstrates this creativity through his skill in weaving any number of narrative, acoustic and visual threads through a series of quite spectacular sets.  Whether the scene takes place in a replica of Mailer’s Brooklyn home (floating down the East River) or is staged outdoors in the cities of Los Angeles, Detroit and New York City, you can’t help but be impressed.  I remain to be convinced, however, as to why he needs to continually immerse the viewer in the least attractive bodily functions and excretions.  I am thankful that the state of movie-making does not yet include an olfactory experience.

 

river-of-fundament-review-01

 

The automobile and its symbolism (power and waste), the city’s arteries (waterways and highways), the decay of our cities, repeated reference to Egyptian mysticism and a diverse cast of characters make for a convoluted but nevertheless compelling piece of theatre. While you have to suffer quite a few distractions you are rewarded by brilliant visuals, in particular: the wake at Mailer’s residence; the documentation of the decay of Detroit and scenes shot along the Detroit River; the night scene with 25 tons of melting iron flowing out of five towers; and, finally, the vistas of the Idaho Sawtooth Mountain Range, near Hemingway’s cabin closing out Act III.

 

matthew-barney-river-of-fundament-luminato-620x399

 

I can’t think of the work of another artist that is as complex and multi-layered and that has held my attention for so long after witnessing it.  Even two weeks since the completion of my viewing experience I was still replaying scenes in my head, remembering small symbols or gestures and playing a mug’s game of trying to decipher the meaning of it all.

 

 

EXHIBITIONS ON MY TO SEE LIST

Darren Waterston: Uncertain Beauty

MASS MoCA, North Adams, MA – March 8, 2014 to February 1, 2015

www.massmoca.org

 

Douglas Coupland: everything is anywhere is anything is everything

Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, British Columbia – May 31 to September 1, 2014

www.vanartgallery.bc.ca

 

Charles Edenshaw

McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario – June 28 to September 21, 2014

www.mcmichael.com

 

Shelagh Keeley

The Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto – September 20, 2014 to May 17, 2015

www.thepowerplant.org

 

Ciara Phillips: Turner Prize Exhibition of Nominees

Tate Britain, London, England – September 30, 2014 to January 4, 2015

www.tate.org.uk

 

 

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Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo: The Odd Couple

For any number of reasons most North Americans have heard of Mexican artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, either as individuals or as a couple. Whether it is because of the uniqueness of their art or their larger-than-life personalities these two are firmly fixed in the folklore of contemporary art.

Frida and Diego

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo are a study in contrasts. Diego was forty-three and Frida was twenty-two when they married in 1929. He was frumpy and overweight; she was slight and took great care in her appearance. He was an established artist by 1929 and she was just beginning to paint. He was an opportunistic socialist while she became a fervent and engaged communist. They were both frequently and very publicly unfaithful to one another (one affair Diego had was with Frida’s sister and one of her most notorious infidelity was with house guest, Leon Trotsky). Diego was famous for his large-scale, historically-referenced murals and Frida for her anguished self-portraits.

The curators of the recent Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition, Frida and Diego: Passion, Politics and Painting, may have taken on more than they could handle. When you consider the sheer volume and scale of Rivera’s work you had to come away disappointed at how limited in presentation and scale was the display of his most famous works (murals). It might have been more transparent if the show would have been simply billed “Frida and Diego: the Museo Dolores Olmedo Collection”.  As the majority of pieces on view came from this collection it would explain the limited range of Rivera’s works on exhibit. For example, there are too many less than significant pieces of Rivera’s early European period (1907–1921) in the show. For the museum not to include Rivera’s seminal work, The Old Ones, 1912, boggles the mind.

The Old Ones, 1912, Museo Dolores Olmedo

The Old Ones, 1912, Museo Dolores Olmedo

Frida, on the other hand, received much better coverage of the range of her work from the Olmedo holdings but that collection lacks examples of her most anxiety-ridden and religious-themed work. The works I refer to and that are often seen in major shows include the ones that make a less than subtle allusion to her pain and suffering being on the same plane as that of Christ (her inclusion of the crown of thorns), e.g. Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940.

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, 1940

My interest in the Mexican muralists, and later in Frida Kahlo, was stimulated and supported by a friend who grew up in Coyoacan, Mexico (the birth place of Kahlo). Over the course of six visits to Mexico City I came to learn about and appreciate the work of Rivera and Kahlo. My exposure included Rivera’s murals in Mexico City, Frida’s family home (Casa Azul, Coyoacan), their adjoining studio-houses in San Angel and the Museo Dolores Olmedo.

The sheer size and power, and the compelling stories are what hooked me on Rivera after seeing his murals on the walls of the three floors of the interior courtyard of the Ministry of Education in Mexico City. Starting in 1923, he spent four years completing 128 panels (separate murals) covering a total of about 17,000 square feet. The murals, representing a pictorial history of Mexico, begin with scenes from the 1810 revolution and the liberation of Mexico from Spain and conclude with an idealized vision of the workers and peasants marching to paradise under communism.

What is remarkable about Rivera is that 25 years later he returned to the mural format and created Dream of Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, 1947-48. Most critics agree that this monumental creation is a masterpiece.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, 1947-48. Museo Mural Diego Rivera, Mexico City

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, 1947-48. Museo Mural Diego Rivera, Mexico City

It is interesting how the artist places himself, as a small boy, in a middle of this lively panorama of Mexican history. He has a small frog in his pocket (an allusion to his hometown, Guanajuato – “hill of frogs”) and is holding the hand of an image of death with Frida Kahlo as a grown woman behind him (a mother figure perhaps). This is a wonderfully lively and beautifully colored work and, while it tackles controversial political and religious subjects, it has escaped the revolutionary rhetoric of his earlier murals. This work embraces heroes and villains equally. It is a piece I have returned to several times and have discovered new enjoyment each time.

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, 1947-48. Detail

Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, 1947-48. Detail

It was only as a result of visiting the Museo Dolores Olmedo (not far from Mexico City), that I became aware of the classical training Rivera received in the early 1900s and his skill as an easel painter. Before working on the murals and meeting Kahlo, Rivera had travelled and lived in Europe for fourteen years. While in Europe he clung to his classical roots even as he was exposed to, and absorbed the influence of, Georges Seurat’s pointillism, Paul Cezanne’s impressionism, the emerging practice of Pablo Picasso and George Braque’s cubism and the strong colors and geometric shapes of Robert Delaunay. Many writers claim that by 1912 Rivera was beginning to expand his color tones and to shed the rigidity of his academic training, as evidenced in The Old Ones 1912.

It seems to me that a critical context for the appreciation of Frida Kahlo’s art is awareness of the excruciating and debilitating physical pain she endured throughout her life. She was stricken with polio at the age of six and in 1925, at the age of 18, suffered a horrific, life-altering accident in a street car crash causing major damage to her body that haunted her for the rest of her life. Coupled with the physical challenges she faced with 35 major operations over her life time she seemed emotionally addicted to Rivera and suffered greatly from his repeated indiscretions. There are varying accounts of when Frida met Diego – the version I am working with has them meeting in 1928, the year Rivera returned from a trip to the Soviet Union and was finishing the Ministry of Education murals. Whatever version is accepted, Frida was on Diego’s radar as he was finishing the third floor murals. The female figure in the middle of Distributing Arms (see image below) is Frida.

Distributing Arms, 1928. Court of Labor, Ministry of Education, Mexico City

Distributing Arms, 1928. Court of Labor, Ministry of Education, Mexico City

I have written previously on how important it is for me to know a bit about the context in which an artist worked. I have visited Casa Azul, Frida’s parents’ home, and later the house where she and Diego lived for a time, and where she lived on her own to the end of her life. There were several aspects of the residences that resonated with me and have helped in appreciating her art. One such element is the “ex-votos” pieces that Frida and Diego collected and which lined the walls of a two-story interior stairwell.

Ex-Votos in Kahlo's Collection

Ex-Votos in Kahlo’s Collection

It has been explained to me that these Catholic-based, folk-art pieces, usually painted on tin, were popular in Mexico in the 19th century. They are always signed and dated by an individual, telling a very personal story. The influence of the ex-voto style is evident in several of Frida’s smaller paintings where she depicts her physical and/or emotional trauma using written texts and scrolls to document the action.

Henry Ford Hospital, 1932.  Museo Dolores Olmedo

Henry Ford Hospital, 1932. Museo Dolores Olmedo

A Few Small Nips, 1935.  Museo Dolores Olmedo

A Few Small Nips, 1935. Museo Dolores Olmedo

The pain endured by Kahlo was evident in many of her works. Of particular note was the 1944 piece, The Broken Column. While the physical deformities and resulting pain are evident you have to wonder if the multiple nail-piercings are an allusion to the emotional pain inflicted by Rivera. It is important to note as well her appropriation of the symbolism of the Madonna of Sorrows through the trademark tears glistening on her cheeks.

The Broken Column, 1944.  Museo Delores Olmedo

The Broken Column, 1944. Museo Dolores Olmedo

In my opinion, the best Kahlo self-portrait in the AGO exhibition is the only painting she did in 1948, Self-Portrait, 1948. This work was created late in her career (she died in 1954). It demonstrates a high level of skill as a painter in the delicate detail of the costume. The picture presents a beautiful and tranquil persona and yet provides unusually subtle messages – an admission of her submission to Rivera’s emotional control (the straight-jacket impression of the traditional Tehuana headdress – a favourite style of his) and an indication of her pain through the use of the stylized tears of the Madonna of Sorrows.

Self- Portrait, 1948.  Museo Delores Olmeda

Self- Portrait, 1948. Museo Dolores Olmedo

For me the most striking Rivera painting in the show is Calla Lily Vendor, 1943. This large easel work demonstrates the skilled image-making of a master muralist (reminding us of images he created in the 1920s), the compositional skill of a story teller and the subject matter reflects his affection for the indigenous people of Mexico and the beauty of the simple tasks of everyday life.

Calla Lily Vendor, 1943. Museo Delores Olmeda

Calla Lily Vendor, 1943. Museo Dolores Olmedo

No matter which of the two artists you prefer, they were each unique, and I am a huge fan of both. Viva Diego and Frida!

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Gordon Smith: “One hundred painters deep”

Gordon Smith: “One hundred painters deep”

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(Photograph by Ward Perrin, Vancouver Sun, October 20/12)

Gordon Smith is one of my favourite artists. The first time I met him I was struck by his gentleness, the inquisitive twinkle in his eyes and his interest in just about everything except talking about himself. The extra few seconds he takes before releasing your handshake seems to be his way of bonding with you.  To be a guest in his home or to visit his studio, in an exceptional West Vancouver setting, provides a powerful context for his art.

He lives surrounded by nature in a home that is one of the first designed by his friend and colleague Arthur Erickson, nestled in the trees overlooking Howe Sound. The interior walls of this modernist glass home display a varied collection of art acquired from his travels and from his many friends as well as a choice selection of his own works.

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Gordon Smith is the consummate artist, educator and art patron.  He actively supports local visual art iniatives, he still mentors younger artists, but most of his time and energy are focused on being in the studio. His body of work executed in many different media encompasses a diverse range of interests including: his displacement to Canada from England during his youth; his experiences of participating in World War II; the natural beauty and power of the British Columbia landscape; and, the tension between abstraction and representation.  When he describes himself as “One hundred painters deep” (interview with Ian Thom in 1995) he is acknowledging the myriad of artistic influences that have stimulated his creative thinking.  To illustrate this point Robert Enright has observed that: “Good painters never forget what they know; they simply find new ways to make that knowledge work” [catalogue essay Gordon Smith, ENTANGLEMENTS, Equinox Gallery, September/October 2012].

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Smith’s artistic journey may have kicked into high gear as a result of his 1939 bus trip from Winnipeg to San Francisco to attend the Golden Gate International Exposition.  It was here that he was able to see firsthand the then-radical works by Picasso, Cezanne, Matisse, as well as other modernist European and American painters.

While Enright suggests in his catalogue essay that there is no systematic chronology to Smith’s work, I think that with a bit of interpretive flexibility one can trace distinct periods of a 60-plus year career that loops back and forth but always returns to longstanding interests. From the highly skilled, technical drawings of the Eaton’s catalogues in the late 1930s and his realistic sketches during WW II, one can follow his development as a painter from the soft grids inscribed in his landscapes in the 1950s and the hard edge compositions of the 60s, to his expressive explosions of colour in the 70s and 80s, followed by his brooding abstractions of the 90s including the powerful “Black Paintings”, to the magical evocations of his “Snow Paintings” in the early 2000s, and now his return to a more minimal yet equally expressive abstraction in several series started in 2011.

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Untitled (Barrack Box and Kit Bag, 1944)

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Burrard Bridge, 1953

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City Under Snow, 1960

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Cumberland Basin, Nova Scotia Series, C.B. # 8 1980

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Juno II 1990

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North Shore Pond 2011

Gordon Smith’s work is widely collected and he is represented in major public and private collections in Canada and internationally.  He first came to public attention in 1955 by winning the purchase prize at the First Biennial of Canadian Painting at the National Gallery of Canada with his piece Structure with Red Sun.

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Structure with Red Sun, 1955

Since 1955 he has earned a Governor General’s Award for Visual and Media Arts in 2009 and more than 16 other major Canadian and international awards, honourary degrees and/or commissions.

When I am viewing an artist’s exhibition I will often notice something that might remind me of the work of another artist.  I don’t mean that one is replicating the other; it is just an interesting connection that two artists would have been exploring similar issues yet be separated in time and place.  For example, in 2003 at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, I saw a retrospective of Nicolas de Stael (1914 – 1955). He was born in Russia but lived and painted in France.  I had never seen de Stael’s work before and I was drawn to the breadth of works in the exhibition that demonstrated his transitions from early figuration through to brightly coloured abstractions on to represntational landscapes, then nudes and finally still lifes.

My light-bulb moment came when I saw de Stael’s 1953-55 Agrigente series of paintings (see figures below) and I marveled at how he was able to construct space through the sheer use of colour just as Smith did in a series of paintings in the 60s (see City Under Snow, 1960 above).

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Agrigente, 1954

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Montage Sainte Victoire, 1954

Gordon Smith retired from his teaching position at the University of British Columbia in 1982 but his daily painting regimen hasn’t let up and the mystery, depth and beauty of his creations continue to draw rave reviews.  In 2012, he celebrated the month of his 93rd birthday by completing a major commission entitled Cypress, West Vancouver 2, 20012 (diptych).  This breathtaking work is large (60″ x 180″) and immediately draws you into the winter scene where you can almost feel the sensation of ducking and twisting to avoid the entanglement of branches as the snow crust crackles and breaks under your feet.

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Cypress, West Vancouver 2, 2012

For me Gordon Smith is a true Canadian treasure.  His remarkable artistic achievements will be his legacy to future generations.  As a great admirer of his work, it was especially exciting to be in his company for the opening of Antoni Muntadas’ exhibition in Madrid last November that revealed Gordon Smith’s continued keen interest in visiting international museums to look at contemporary and modern art firsthand (refer to my posting Muntadas: Entre/Between).

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I give the last words to Gordon Smith as quoted by Marci Lipman in a 1979 publication Twenty Painters/Twenty Paintings:

“I have lived and worked by the ocean most of my life – each day throughout the year I look out over the Straits of Georgia – I see the sea and the sky with all their changing moods.  I do not set out to reproduce what I see but to recreate how I feel about the subject, and in the process of painting, subject and technique become inseparable – for me painting in this way tends towards a complete interlocking of image and paint…”

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