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 🙂 ).

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.

Jock Macdonald at the AGGV

There’s a truly excellent Jock Macdonald retrospective currently showing at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. It runs to September 7th and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should. They’ve put together an impressive collection of his work with highlights from all the way through his career, including a whole room full of the abstract expressionist works that constitute the last and most critically respected phase of his 30-plus years as a painter.

He began his career as a designer, and it was as Head of Design that he was hired by the Vancouver School of Decorative & Applied Art back in 1926, when he would have been in his late twenties. He took up painting with the encouragement of his colleague, Fred Varley, and his earliest works show quite a strong Varley influence. In addition to picking up Varley’s technique Macdonald also seemed to pick up a lot of Varley’s nature spiritualism. A concern for the spiritual realm, the world beyond the veil, would remain a constant in Macdonald’s work, even as the outward forms of his expression changed over the next 3 decades.

The exhibition is called “Evolving Form”, and maybe that’s apt, but I have some reservations which I’ll get to in a minute. Following his Varley period, you can see Macdonald picking up ideas from other painters like Emily Carr, and less fortunate influences like Lawren Harris. You can see where Harris, with his Theosophical interests, would appeal to Macdonald’s mystical side, but Macdonald’s Harris-inspired geometrical mandalas are to my eyes his weakest work, along with a couple of paintings that reflect the Harris’ mushy deco landscape style. But then I’ve never been a big fan of Harris (can you tell?).

Macdonald’s style changed again under the influence of a couple of British Surrealists, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff, whom the Telegraph once described as the eeriest couple in art, although I think “eerie” is perhaps a nice word for what they were. Macdonald met them in Vancouver where they had relocated during the war, and they inducted him into the surrealist practice of automatism, drawing without consciously thinking about what you’re doing. Initially the results of these exercises seemed pretty weak, but by the early 50s Macdonald was using a modified version of this approach to produce some really interesting watercolours. These are the works in the show I like best, which puts me at odds with the critical consensus regarding his late-period abstractions.

Not that there’s any question the large abstract works from the last 3 or 4 years of his life are by far the most accomplished works in the show. They’re fine paintings. But at the same time, at this remove it seems to me they’re a lot like what a lot of other painters, many of them Macdonald’s students, were doing in Toronto in the late 50s. In this they simply carry on a pattern evident from the rest of the show: Jock Macdonald was really good at picking up on whatever was going on around him and running with it. That kept him in the mainstream, but at a cost. I get the sense that he spent more time expressing other people’s pictorial ideas than he did expressing his own.

So I guess my question here is: did Macdonald’s approach truly evolve, as the show’s subtitle would have it, or did it just change as the fashions changed? Macdonald’s late-period abstractions are often touted as the culmination of a lifetime of artistic development, and perhaps they were. But I can’t help wondering how Macdonald would have handled the 1960s, if he had lived to see them (he was 63 when he died in 1960). Would he have spent his last years as an abstract expressionist even as that movement petered out, or would he have continued to follow the trends into, say, colour field abstraction, Op Art and minimalism? We’ll never know, of course, but based on the evidence in this exhibition I suspect his work would have continued to evolve, or simply change, along with the times.

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.