The Averted Eye

I’m pleased to report that some of my work is on display in the Legacy Gallery in downtown Victoria. The term “work” is chosen advisedly – it’s not my painting that’s on display. Over the past year and a half I’ve been leading a project to restore some computer graphics created by local artist Glenn Howarth back in the early 1980s. The project wrapped up over the summer, and since then  the results have been on display as part of a mini-retrospective of Howarth’s work. The exhibition started out in the lower level of the McPherson Library at UVic and then moved to the downtown location back in October, where it will run until early January. It was an honour and privilege to have the opportunity to help revive what I believe to be artworks of real historic significance: very early examples of digital art made with 100% Canadian technology. If you can’t make the show there’s a website with a small selection of computer graphics for your viewing pleasure.

But you should definitely see the show if you can. The guy had an amazing talent. All of it – paintings, drawings and digital art – are well worth seeing in person.

Bad form

It’s been almost 25 years since I first heard the quote “The sonnet is a fascist form” which, if memory serves, was mistakenly attributed to Walter Benjamin in one of my MFA seminar classes. In fact it’s usually credited to William Carlos Williams although it seems there’s some doubt around that attribution too.256px-Die_Gartenlaube_(1856)_b_173

But regardless of who said it first, the phrase is generally used to castigate art that is deemed to be too aesthetically conservative. It basically equates  use of traditional forms with regressive/conservative political tendencies and aesthetic experimentation with progressive politics. Herbert Read’s comment “In back of every Dictator there is a bloody Doric Column” kind of points in the same direction.

On the surface, this appears to make some kind of sense. It’s not unreasonable to think that an artist whose work is aesthetically conservative might also be politically conservative. And of course official Nazi art and architecture were conservative in the extreme, so there is some historical justification for the judgment as well.

The problem of course is that when you look a bit closer at the historical record the equation “conservative aesthetics = conservative politics” falls apart fairly quickly. Ezra Pound’s poetry was highly inventive, formally, while Pound himself was an actual fascist, making propaganda broadcasts for Mussolini during WWII. The Futurists provide a number of other examples of extreme right wing views linked to aesthetic inventiveness. Meanwhile, Edna St. Vincent Millay, a left-wing feminist activist, won the 1933 Pulitzer prize for her sonnets.

So, historically, there’s really no strong linkage between politically progressive art and formal innovation. But maybe there’s another kind of connection?

I think there is, and that connection is metaphorical. The sonnet is a highly structured form, with not much room for variation. If you read formal order as social order, the constrained, traditional, rule-bound sonnet becomes a metaphor for an authoritarian society, and “free verse” as a metaphor for the other kind (it has the word “free” right in the name, after all).

My belief is that the metaphorical connection is, simply, a mistake. There is no particular reason why aesthetic forms need to be thought of as metaphors for social ones. A poet who chooses to structure words in the form of a sonnet is  not the same as a dictator who forces other humans into a rigid social order. Anyone who can’t tell the difference really needs to give the matter some more thought.


Amateurs in Eden

I meant to review “Amateurs in Eden”, Joanna Hodgkin’s biography of her mother Nancy Meyers, when it was first published back in 2013 or thereabouts. But I couldn’t quite get a handle on it, so the review languished half-written. Like many reviewers, my reaction was generally favourable but ultimately I couldn’t quite see why we needed a whole book about someone whose greatest claims to fame were that she was married for a time to the author Lawrence Durrell, and Henry Miller liked one of her paintings (which, like practically everything else she ever painted, has since been destroyed). I recently had occasion to re-read the book though and I think I have a better sense of why it’s more important than I thought at first. But before I get into that, a little background might not hurt.

I first read Lawrence Durrell’s classic Alexandria Quartet back when I was somewhat younger and more impressionable than I am now. And was fascinated by it, like so many others ever since the four novels in the tetralogy were first published back in the late 50s & early 60s. Not everyone likes the books, mind you – the lush romanticism and highly wrought (shading into over-wrought) prose leave some readers cold. But for me it was a window onto a wider, far more exotic world, a much needed counterpoint to the rather safe, suburban, Canadian existence that was (and remains, thankfully) my day to day reality. For a time, I wanted to live in Durrell’s Aexandria.

But since that world no longer existed (and in fact never existed outside of Durrell’s imagination), I settled for the next best thing: reading as much as I could by and about Durrell and his life and times and the world (the real, historical one) that informed his writing. And as it turned out there was no shortage of material.

One of the conceits of Durrell’s fictional world is that it is full of writers. There is the narrator of the first and last volumes, Darley, an aspiring novelist. And lurking in the background there is the older and more established novelist Pursewarden, offering up his cynical, world-weary aphorisms. There is also Balthazar, the titular character of the second novel who is by profession a doctor, but who writes a novel-length ‘interlinear’ commenting on and correcting the manuscript of the first book, Justine. And speaking of Justine, it turns out an earlier phase of her life was documented in another book by a writer named Arnauti, who never makes an on-stage appearance. And I think there are a couple more writers, like the poet John Keats (no, not that John Keats) but I’ve kind of lost track.

Anyhow, here’s the thing: while it might seem a little strange to have so many writers circling around the same set of characters and events, describing and re-describing them in different ways, in fact this aspect of the Quartet has curious parallels with Durrell’s own life. Or at least an early and significant part of it, specifically the time he spent with Nancy Meyers in Corfu and Paris in the latter half of the 1930s.

The first writer to chronicle the adventures of Lawrence and Nancy was probably Anais Nin in her copious diaries, but her version was one of the later ones to see print as the diaries didn’t find a publisher until the mid-60s. In Nin’s version, Nancy in notable only for her “eloquent silences.” The first published account, in 1941, was Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi, describing Miller’s trip to Greece shortly before the advent of WWII. Lawrence and Nancy have a couple of  walk-on parts in that one. Next up was Durrell’s own Prospero’s Cell, a nostalgic and not strictly factual recollection of pre-war life on Corfu. Published in 1945 and written after Lawrence and Nancy had split up, she appears only as “N”, painting “lazy pleasant paintings”  (whatever those are), diving for cherries, and buying sailboats. And of course the least literary and by far the best known recounting was My Family and Other Animals, written by Lawrence’s brother Gerald, first published in 1956. Gerald paints a wonderful comedic portrait of Lawrence as a pompous ass, while Nancy has been written out entirely. (According to Hodgkins, Gerald’s version was by far Nancy’s favourite.)

So in all these recountings of the Durrell mythology, when she appears at all Nancy is barely there, a ghostly figure, vaguely drawn. You could say this is because she’s a supporting character, but in fact these books are full of memorable  supporting characters, from the shy naturalist Theodore Stephanides to the jocular Spiros Americanos. So what’s up with Nancy?

Hodgkin’s biography sets out to answer that question, and in the process she writes Nancy back into the story. It’s a sad story in many respects, and doesn’t reflect well at all on Lawrence, who comes across as controlling, jealous, and just plain nasty, using his considerable force of personality to keep Nancy out of the limelight, away from his milieu of writers and artists. And this despite the fact she was blowing through a small inheritance bankrolling their whole bohemian idyll. I think ultimately that’s where I’d locate the significance of Hodgkin’s book: like Balthazar’s interlinear, it corrects some basic misconceptions set forth in previous volumes, and opens up another dimension in an already multidimensional story. Nancy really deserves to have her say, even if it is a bit late in the game.

As a bit of an aside, I have to say I also enjoyed the descriptions of Nancy’s art student life in the 1930s, in all its tawdry glamour and desperation. The forms of art may be in constant flux, but there’s something oddly reassuring about the continuities of the art student existence down through the ages.





A different geometry

One of the challenges of the kind of painting I do is avoiding arbitrary decisions, or at least minimizing them. Representational painters don’t have that problem to the same degree, because the need to maintain a likeness puts some constraints on the sorts of liberties they can take. (Which is not to minimize the problems of representational painters, by the way, just to say they don’t experience this particular problem as much.)

Not that I feel a need to have a fully articulated rationale for every element of my compositions. Sometimes “it just feels right” is acceptable. But too much of that and my paintings could easily devolve into sheer caprice, so I’m always pleased when I can draw what I hope is an interesting composition out of the geometry of the rectangle.

I’ve written about geometry several times before in this blog, with a heavy emphasis on the Golden Section, a ratio beloved of early modern painters. However that’s not to say there aren’t other compositional geometries, and in fact a quick perusal of Bouleau’s The Painter’s Secret Geometry reveals that the Golden Section occupies a minority position in the history of the discipline. All of which serves to provide some context for the topic of this post, wherein I draw back the curtain and reveal the geometric underpinnings for one of my latest paintings, which represents something of a departure from my usual approach.

As I’ve noted before, my paintings typically begin with a thumbnail sketch, usually executed with a black fountain pen. Sometimes they go through several versions, other times they get translated into paintings right away. Geometry usually gets applied in the intermediate stage, while the sketch is being transferred to the canvas. I’ve described that whole process in a previous post, so I won’t go into any more detail here. What was different this time is that the geometry and the composition kind of arose organically as the sketch was evolving, rather than being applied after the sketch was done. And as I’ve already implied, the Golden Section wasn’t the framework I used this time.

Instead the fundamental lines of the composition were derived from another well known compositional strategy, which Bouleau calls ‘rabatment’, creating  a square within the larger rectangle by mapping the short side onto the long side. The strategy is so well known that Wikipedia has it covered if you need a better description.

When you’ve got a composition as simple as this one, the main challenge is to keep it from being boring. One of the best ways to add interest is to avoid putting everything on the midline. But then you run into a different problem: once you leave behind the obvious central placement of objects where do you put them? The options are literally infinite.


The diagonals of the larger rectangle and the internal square provided the solution. Their intersection with each other provides the off-centre centre point of the circle that is the focal point of the composition, and their intersection with the rabatment line provides the basis for the framing rectangle. I was particularly pleased that I could also use the centre point of the larger rectangle to derive one of the points on the circle’s circumference, and the diagonal of the larger rectangle could be used to derive the bottom of the internal frame.

You couldn’t do this with just any rectangle, of course. If you used a square everything would be back at the midline, and if the rectangle was too long you’d get other kinds of distortions. Interestingly, the size that seemed to work best was in the 16″x20″ ballpark, an aspect ratio I use quite frequently.

Of course, once the composition had been worked out I still had to paint the thing. There were a couple of considerations there. Compositionally the main issue was painting it in such a way that diagonal balance was maintained even though the compositional weight skewed a bit to the left. I leave it to you to determine how well that was achieved.

The other consideration was that I was determined to make it work with cerulean blue, a colour I love but have had problems working with in the past. Hey, as noted above, I don’t need to have a fully worked-out rationale for everything.


I’m back

The site has been offline for a couple of months, but as of today it’s up and running again.

Back in December I decided to switch web hosting companies. That turned out to be a little more complicated than I’d thought it would be, and then I got tied up with some other projects and had to put the site on the back burner for a while. So I likely wouldn’t have been blogging much but regardless, it’s good to be back.

Despite my other commitments I did manage to get some painting in during that time. One of my recent works will be in the upcoming CACGV Look show in the Bay Centre. It opens March 19th and runs until April 10th.