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.


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.

More on Jock Macdonald

I’ve been giving some more thought to Jock Macdonald’s late abstract expressionist paintings. I may have been too quick to judgment in my previous post, so I’m going to take another run at them from a different angle.

My re-think was prompted by a comment made by Robert Amos in a review of the same exhibition in the weekend’s edition of the Times Colonist:

From a distance the paintings appear to be spontaneous gestures, but closer examination reveals the hand of the artist fussing over the edges and touching up the patterning of every image. [http://www.timescolonist.com/life/islander/robert-amos-museum-highlights-canadian-art-1.1997859]

I’d noticed that particular characteristic myself, but didn’t think it was important enough to mention in my review. The more I think about this group of paintings though, the more I think the deceptive appearance of spontaneity is probably their most interesting quality, and one that complicates my previous reading of them as well-made but basically derivative.

My new reading is at odds not only with my earlier take, but with Robert Amos’ take as well. Amos asks the rhetorical question “If they weren’t the spontaneous expression of his subconscious, what were they? It’s an excellent question, and I think trying to answer it might be a worthwhile exercise.

But first we need to situate these works in context. “Spontaneous expression” was a pretty big deal back in the late 50s. Thanks to the Surrealists, short-circuiting one’s conscious intentions had come to be seen as an act imbued with all kinds of significance. By mid-century, according to one of the dominant narratives, the technology-driven horrors of two world wars had wiped away any lingering confidence in Enlightenment values. In that context, the random spatters of a legion of Abstract Expressionists were seen to be frontal assaults against the bankrupt rationality of Western culture.

And yet from another point of view the same works were celebrated as an expression of the freedoms available in Western democracies, set against the conservative, rule-bound styles of painting prevalent in fascist and communist dictatorships of the day.

So gestural abstraction was beloved by yea-sayers and nay-sayers alike. But it was a consensus based on a contradiction, and it could not be sustained for long. Abstract Expressionism was still riding high in 1960 but would soon be eclipsed by a number of other styles, notably pop art but also post-painterly abstraction, op art, and the beginnings of conceptual art. All of these subsequent approaches returned at least some measure of conscious intention to the artmaking process. Conceptual art represented an almost complete about-face, from spontaneous gesture embedded in the physicality of paint, to the work of art as idea, whose physical embodiment was almost an afterthought.

Painted as they were in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, Macdonald’s works participate in the valorization of the spontaneous gesture. But Macdonald, for what I think were probably excellent but largely aesthetic reasons, was never completely committed to that approach. True, he did some purely automatist works under the guidance of Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, but as works of art they were pretty bad, and he must have been aware of that. He got far better results when in the mid-50s he used automatist techniques as a springboard for developing more consciously constructed watercolours.

It’s likely the same forces were in play when he turned from his watercolours to the large abstract canvasses. These paintings probably began with a spontaneous gesture or two, but such were Macdonald’s aesthetics that he couldn’t just leave them in their initial, unfinished state. So just as he did with his watercolours, he went back in and very consciously fine-tuned their colours and forms, preserving the appearance of spontaneity (unless you look really closely), but improving the composition, adding subtleties of colour and texture, and generally working them up into finished designs.

One could, of course, simply dismiss that approach as a failure of nerve, and anyone who bought into spontaneous expression as either critique or celebration would probably have done just that. But in retrospect we could position it rather as an anticipation of things to come, a recognition of the limits of the spontaneity. An acknowledgement that, for better or worse, we probably need to think about what we’re doing at least some of the time. In the artworld of the late 50s that would have been an interesting and somewhat controversial stand to take.

The Golden Ratio: Fast Company misses the point

Golden spiral in rectangles

Golden spiral in rectangles“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been meaning to do a post on this one since last month, when I followed the link from the Art Newspaper to the Fast Company article “The Golden Ratio: Design’s Biggest Myth.” It’s a great article but not for its insight into its topic, of which there is little. It’s great because it consolidates several common spurious arguments about the golden ratio in one place. Nice to have all of that together.

I’ve written about the Golden Ratio, aka the Golden Section here before, in a series of three posts I did back in 2013:

It’s not essential to (re)read them but you might want to as they do provide some context for this post, as well as an explanation of what the golden ratio actually is. This page (which isn’t one of mine) might be helpful too.

The Fast Company article’s first objection to the ‘science’ of the golden section is that “the golden ratio doesn’t come out to 1.6180. It comes out to 1.6180339887… And the decimal points go on forever.” It seems to me that’s only a problem in design if you think humans can sense or otherwise identify spatial relationships with an absurdly high level of precision, and that we will somehow be troubled by the fact that such relationships are only instantiated approximately. Personally, I think that’s a pretty silly objection. If we couldn’t identify approximate relationships, we’d never identify any relationships. It’s an imperfect world.

The next objection is that some of the claims that have historically been made about the Golden Ratio are preposterous, and the historical source material is of dubious provenance. These claims may be true as far as they go, but they don’t do much to discredit the utility of the Golden Ratio in design. True, Zeisling (who they identify as the premiere apologist for the ratio) does sound like a bit of a loon, seeing the Golden Ratio in places where it’s clearly just a projection on his part. But while the Golden Ratio isn’t quite as ubiquitous as its boosters said it was, it (and its close relation, the Fibonacci sequence) do crop up in some unexpected places, like growth patterns in cacti, sunflowers and pine cones. So perhaps some of the mysticism can be forgiven … but regardless, whether or not you get all mystical about the Golden Section doesn’t really matter either, from the standpoint of whether the Golden Section is a useful compositional framework.

And don’t get me started on the “nobody’s favourite rectangle” nonsense. To me, the fact that most people don’t seem to find golden rectangles more beautiful than other kinds of rectangles is about as meaningful as saying that major scales are useless for composing good music, because most people don’t find C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C to be the most beautiful thing they ever heard. And really, how would you locate any kind of beauty in a simple rectangle? Even Mondrian never went that far.

The argument that contemporary architects and designers tend not to use the Golden Ratio much doesn’t really tell us anything either. For starters, what’s the aesthetic worth of contemporary architecture? A lot of folks tend to think that traditional architecture, such as you’d find in say Venice or Paris, is far more beautiful than the contemporary stuff. Maybe our contemporaries should be using the Golden Section, but aren’t because it’s out of fashion these days. Or maybe they don’t really care about beauty, or if they do, they don’t seek it in harmonious proportions.

To be fair, the article does quote a couple of designers who acknowledge that the Golden Ratio is at least potentially valuable as one of the tools in the designer’s toolbox. And I have to say that approximates my own view as well: it’s not some kind of magic shortcut to effective composition, but used properly it can definitely help.

Interestingly, the article ends with an observation that in a different context could be used to justify the use of the Golden Ratio and other geometries as compositional frameworks: “We’re creatures who are genetically programmed to see patterns and to seek meaning.” True that, and I would go a bit further and argue we are creatures who take pleasure in finding patterns and creating meaning. To the extent that the Golden Ratio can help us to create patterns in our works for others to find, is the extent to which it can help us create works with depth, fascination and, perhaps, beauty.

Here and now

The jury is looking for works suggestive of a creative imagination authentically deriving from, and alluding to, a non-colonized sensibility embedded in its own time and culture, speaking directly to present-day realities.

When I saw the statement above on the application form for the “Art Victoria Now” juried exhibition, I’ll confess I wondered what it meant. So I gave it some thought. Maybe a little too much, I’ll admit: I have a tendency to over-think things. But here we go.

I wasn’t too familiar with the phrase “non-colonized sensibility”, so I had to look it up. Turns out Google isn’t all that familiar with it either: “non-colonized sensibility” (in quotes) gets zero hits, while “colonized sensibility” gets 196 hits initially, but when you’re about 3 pages in Google decides it really meant 24 hits.

But I think I get the gist: in fact the subsequent clause “embedded in its own time and culture” is in itself a kind of definition. I take it that a “colonized sensibility” would be one that has uncritically adopted another culture’s norms and ideas at the expense of its own. Historically, in Canada this has been generally taken to mean adopting an American (US) sensibility, due to the dominance of US media in the Canadian context. “The colonized sensibility is convinced of the inauthenticity of its own cultural messages,” according to one source I found. (The imaginary Canadian, Tony Wilden, Pulp Press 1980). So authenticity, which I take to mean truth to our lived experience, is heavily bound up with this as well.

Ultimately my perhaps over-simplified interpretation is that the jury is looking for works that are consciously of the here and now, ie of this time and place. And I agree that’s one of the most important things regionally based art can provide. In fact it’s what I was getting at when I wrote in my post on Karl Spreitz and the Limners a couple of years ago, “it’s great to have some persistence of regional culture in a time when so much of what we get is the opposite; the product of a globalized culture-making machine.” But I think it’s also important to take a nuanced view of what “of this time and place” means.

Elza Mayhew sculpture at Expo '67, source Library + Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons

Elza Mayhew sculpture at Expo ’67, source Library + Archives Canada via Wikimedia Commons

To illustrate why I think that, let’s take another look at the Limners, a group of artists who many would acknowledge to have been an important force in the cultural scene in Victoria back in the 70s & 80s, and whose influence continues to be felt even now.

Were the Limners of this place? Well, yes, in the sense that they lived and worked here, and many (but by no means all) of their works referred to local places and people. But they were also, many of them, from away. Some, like Herbert Siebner and Robin Skelton, were expats whose formative years were spent in other countries. Others, like Myfanwy Pavelic and Maxwell Bates, were born in Canada but were educated, lived and worked abroad for years. Even Elza Mayhew, who was born in Victoria and lived here most of her life (and whose sculpture is featured in the photo above), studied with Czech sculptor Jan Zach and got her MFA in Oregon. Consequently they brought with them wide ranging cultural influences that reflected those other places where they had lived and studied. So in addition to the local references, their work reflected stylistic approaches from all over. In fact, I recall hearing that for this reason some of their contemporaries dismissed them as “too European”, not Canadian enough.

Were the Limners of their time? Yes again, in the sense that their art reflected their lived experience and the ideas that were important to them. But not so much, if “of their time” means plugged into the approaches to art making that were fashionable in the 60s, 70s and 80s. All of them, in their various ways, reflected artistic sensibilities more grounded in the first half of the 20th century than the second. In fact, Maxwell Bates even wrote a nice little poem about it, “The Critic”, which both acknowledges the criticism and makes it evident he didn’t particularly respect it.

So if “of this time and place” is elastic enough to accommodate the Limners (as one example), then I’d agree it’s a useful criterion. Less so though if our idea of the here and now means sticking to a more circumscribed set of possibilities. Because of course, part of being Canadian in the present day is to be exposed to a wide range of ideas, both from here and now as well as from there and then. Ultimately, truth to our lived experience in fact requires the freedom to choose which of those ideas will become central to our work. It seems to me that the difference between a colonized sensibility and one that isn’t, lies less in the temporal and geographic origin of the ideas that it assimilates, and more in whether the sensibility took an active or passive role in assimilating them.