In Search of Innocence

Title Screen

Back in June I came across a reference to an old NFB film about the West Coast art scene, “In Search of Innocence”. The film dates from the very early 1960s, when beatniks ruled the earth, and I felt compelled to check it out because I’ve long been interested in that period of local art history, and because I’m a fan of many of the painters chronicled therein. Unfortunately, it’s not on the NFB website, and no local library seems to have it, so my only recourse was to buy a copy. But there are worse things to do with your dollars than support the NFB.

I’d planned to do a bit of a review here, and so I will. But it won’t be as long as I’d originally thought because Claudia Cornwall did a great write up on her blog back in 2011, and not much would be gained by me repeating what she wrote.

The film was made by a Quebec filmmaker, Leonard Forest, as a tribute to the artists of the Canadian West Coast. Most if not all of the film takes place in and around the Lower Mainland. I’m guessing the segment with Margaret Peterson might have been filmed here on the Island, at her 1962 solo show at the AGGV. But she also had a show at UBC in 1961, so maybe it was there. Anyhow, there are a few glimpses of Vancouver, which was a very different city back then. And there are quite a few nature shots. The trees don’t seem to have changed all that much. But primarily the film is set in the galleries, artists’ studios and other smoke-filled hangouts of the era. The individual scenes are knit together by a rather portentous, self-consciously poetic voice-over, the effect of which is somewhat comic now.

A large part of my interest in “In Search of Innocence” has to do with how different the zeitgeist it reflects was from the one I experienced a couple of decades later. When I arrived in Vancouver back in the early 80s most of the artists who appeared in the film were still around and working. Al Neil was still performing and making art, Jack Shadbolt was still painting, Don Jarvis was still at Emily Carr, and Roy Kiyooka was teaching at UBC, where I was studying at the time. But even though it was only 20 years after the heyday of the beats, there was a huge gulf between the worldview of that era and that of the (then) present. The avante garde scene of the 1950s and early 60s, with its poetry, jazz, abstract expressionism, and mysticism, seemed worlds away from the conceptual, theory-driven worldview that had largely replaced it. Even the Neo-Expressionists seemed more fuelled by a pop-derived irony than the High Art seriousness of that earlier era. In fact, the title of the film reflects the divide: whatever the artists of the 80s and afterward were in search of, I’m pretty sure “innocence” wasn’t it.

So by the early 80s, in other words, the big names of the 50s and early 60s were still around, but increasingly consigned to the realm of history as far as their ideas and aesthetics went. It’s therefore quite fascinating to have a window onto an earlier time, to see some of those artists in their heyday, at the moment of their creative and cultural apex. A relic of a long-vanished past, and one that seems to have captured something of what it felt like to be there, in the smoky jazz clubs and studios, talking intently about Spontaneity and Time (whether it actually was like that, of course, isn’t something I would know).

Roy Kiyooka

Couple of things in the film had a personal resonance for me:

I took at least one painting class from Roy Kiyooka in the early 80s. He’d given up painting years before, but he was still a good teacher. I remember he would sometimes repeat your words back to you in such a way that you weren’t sure whether he was taking them seriously, or whether he thought they were the dumbest thing he’d ever heard (In my case, he would have been perfectly justified if it was the latter). It was a mannerism that’s hard to fully convey in words, and I’m glad to see that “In Search of Innocence” captured it for posterity.

The film ends with a shot of Jack Shadbolt working on a huge mural he did for the Edmonton International Airport in 1963. Titled “Bush Pilot in Northern Sky”, it presided over my many arrivals and departures back when I had family there and made regular trips to the city. Local wags said it looked like an exploding airplane, but to me, it looked like the land falling away as you rose up into the sky.

Edmonton Airport Mural

Torres-García at the MoMA

A year and 20 posts ago, I wrote about my ongoing, decades-long interest in the School of the South, aka the Taller Torres-García. The founder of the school, Joaquín Torres-García is currently the subject of a major retrospective exhibition at the MoMA, which runs until February 2016. Given that it’s his first major North American retrospective in 40 years I’d hoped to be able to make the pilgrimage, but it’s looking now like that probably won’t be possible.

In any case, great to see that he’s getting some favourable attention. Especially since the last time around he got two(!) highly unfavourable reviews from the critic John Canaday, who said that the work looked like it might have come out of a “progressive Kindergarten.” The review of the current show in the NYT was a lot more positive, not to mention perceptive. (Meaning that it echoes a number of the things I wrote a year ago 🙂 ).

Playing to an (almost) empty house

Theatre of Sarria [from Wikimedia Commons]

Theatre of Sarria [from Wikimedia Commons]

Every so often I take a look at Google Analytics, not so much to get a sense of who is looking at my site as to confirm whether anyone at all is looking at it. I get a lot of hits, but as near as I can tell most of them are bots, probably looking to send me tips on search engine optimization or else probing for unpatched WordPress vulnerabilities. When I filter out the bots I typically find a few sessions per month that look like legitimate traffic, a smaller fraction of which were interested enough in what they found to stick around and check out more than a couple of pages. Last month someone from Quebec looked at nine of them.

Or to go by another metric: in the three years I’ve been writing the blog I’ve had two legitimate comments (and 500 or so spam comments), and two or three legitimate messages sent via my contact form.

So one gets the sense that the course of world events would not be much altered if I decided to pack in the blog and do something more useful with my spare time like, say, watching old X-Files episodes on Netflix. But so far anyway I haven’t. Why is that?

It strikes me you could ask the same question about my painting, too. At this point in the game, the odds of me gaining any significant recognition as a painter are pretty close to zero. While one can console oneself with the thought that a number of one’s heroes also laboured in obscurity for most of their lives (cf. Cezanne, or Torres-Garcia), the sad truth is that the number of obscure painters whose works landed in the dumpster after they died far exceeds the number whose works now hang in the MoMA. If I was a betting man, I’d have to conclude the smart money would put me in the former group, not the latter. So why keep going?

The short answer, of course, is that I enjoy painting, and I enjoy thinking and writing about painting. While it would of course be great to have a bigger audience than I do, ultimately my enjoyment doesn’t depend on the number of other people who see my work. And to a certain extent, I suspect my enjoyment of both painting and writing is greater precisely because the stakes are so low. I’m not under any sort of pressure to produce. No deadlines for shows, no quotas to fill, apart from what I impose on myself.

Well okay, one might counter, but if it’s truly the case that my enjoyment doesn’t depend on public acclaim, why bother to make any of my work public at all? Why not leave the paintings in the garage, and the writings on the hard drive?

Truth be told, for a long time I mostly did just that. Like Emily Dickinson, I too believed that “Publication is not the business of poets.” But a few years ago I changed my mind. I came to believe I had it wrong; that showing your work is in fact a part of painting, as much a part of it as the preliminary sketch or the underpainting, except that it comes at the end, not the beginning. It represents the completion of the work: a painting isn’t finished until it has some sort of public existence.

I’m not entirely certain what triggered that shift in belief, but I think it might have been something I read on the blog of Stapleton Kearns, whose Advice to a Student included the following tip:

Start showing you art locally. If you were studying piano you would play recitals, if you are studying painting you should be showing your art. That is part of the process.

That was something I hadn’t really considered before; that showing your work might be intrinsic to the process of creating it, not something extrinsic that happens after the work is done. And not only intrinsic to painting, but also intrinsic to the process of becoming a better painter. It seems to me that even the possibility your work might be seen by another human is enough to invoke an extra layer of critical reflection, spurring one on to clarify and refine one’s statement and in so doing, clarify the thinking behind it.

Current events

Normally I don’t like to write about current events in this blog, preferring instead to focus on irrelevant stuff that happened 50 years ago. But I can’t resist giving a big thumbs up to today’s announcement that Alfred Pellan’s paintings Canada East and Canada West hang once more in the reception area of the Foreign Affairs building in Ottawa. Pellan’s colourful modernist landscapes had been there since 1973, but were removed in 2011 by the foreign affairs minister of the day. They were replaced with a remarkably dour painting of Queen Elizabeth, as if to say, “we’re a nation of joyless, antediluvian curmudgeons and we don’t care who knows it.”

Welcome back, Mr. Pellan!

Joseph Cornell, Wanderlust

Not surprisingly, I’m rather partial to the American artist Joseph Cornell, whose enigmatic, nostalgic, and deeply personal little constructions and collages have been casting their spell since he began making them back in the thirties.

Earlier this year the Royal Academy of Arts over in London held a big exhibition of Cornell’s works, entitled “Wanderlust“. Unfortunately I haven’t been to London in years so never got a chance to take it in, but I did get my hands on a copy of their catalogue.

Up to now the only volume on Cornell in the Durno art library was Dore Ashton’s “A Joseph Cornell Album”, which is an excellent introduction to his life, work and world view but rather lacking in the pictorial reproduction department. “Wanderlust” fills that gap rather well.

I don’t plan on doing a full-on review here – if you like Cornell you should check it out, if you don’t why are you reading this? – but rather I’m going to use this as an opportunity to get all self-referential and talk about how Cornell relates to a couple of earlier posts in the blog.

First up, it seems to me Joseph Cornell’s work nicely exemplifies the DIY quality that I think is a notable and valuable characteristic of the art of the early 20th century. His boxes are very much the product of a shy, middle-class dreamer, and look as though they could have been made “in someone’s garage” – although in Cornell’s case they were in fact made in his unfinished basement, after he got tired of trying to do it all on the kitchen table.

The other observation I’d like to make is that Cornell’s imagination was deeply rooted in the There and Then, not the Here and Now, and yet somehow he managed to make some pretty wonderful things. I can’t help wondering how valuable the “non-colonized sensibility” rule really is, given that rigorously applied it would seem to exclude Cornell’s works from serious consideration. Cornell’s was an almost totally colonized sensibility, deeply immersed in nostalgia for times (16th-19th century) and places (France and other parts of Western Europe) that were far removed from the daily reality of his life in 20th century New York.

When I was going to school back in the 80s and 90s, “Nostalgia” was a dirty word, sufficient unto itself to condemn works and artists. In this it had supplanted “Kitsch”, which had been used to similar effect by an earlier generation of critics but had fallen out of favour due to its associations with High Modernist dogma. Nostalgia, the impermissible emotion, had taken its place, largely one suspects due to a perceived conflict with progressive ideals.

Ultimately though, it seems to me nostalgia is very much a part of the human condition, and as such, is as a valid a thing for an artist to explore as anything else. In making my case for that I’ll offer Joseph Cornell’s constructions as Exhibit A.