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.


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.

Painting and (not) teaching

Like most people who paint, I’ve drawn and painted as far back as I can remember. I suppose this isn’t unusual: most kids draw and paint when they’re little. But somewhere along the line most of them put down the pencils and paints. I never did. It seemed that whatever other interests I had, drawing worked its way into them somehow.

Part of it has to do with how I understand things: I don’t really feel I fully understand something until I can visualize it. But partly it was likely just the outcome of a virtuous cycle: I got positive feedback on my drawings, which made me want to draw more, which made me better at it, which garnered more positive feedback, and so on.

But even then the transition from being a kid who liked to draw to an adult more seriously engaged with painting wasn’t a given. I think it was a combination of factors: people I knew, books I read, lingering counter-culturalisms still hanging in the air when I was growing up.

For starters, somewhere in my teens I became aware that a career as a painter, or at least as someone who taught painting, was a possibility. I’d known, vaguely, that at some unspecified time in the past there had been painters, because we had a couple of coffee table art books kicking around the house when I was growing up. But if I thought about it at all, I probably assumed that being a painter was one of those careers that wasn’t available anymore, like being an elevator operator.

Around the same time I became aware that there were people who taught painting at university (the University of Alberta, in this case) because a friend of mine was studying there, and the father of one of the kids at my school taught there. So I began to think that might be a direction I could pursue.

Finally, I think my early ambitions were also shaped by a few watered down counter-cultural memes that were still hanging in the air back then — you know, the ones about not wanting to spend your life in a grey flannel suit making widgets for The Man. My feelings have changed a bit over the years (what’s wrong with grey flannel? Looks better than tie-dye), but at the time I took those ideas seriously. Sometime also during my high school years I read Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”. I remember his portrait of Robert and Gennie DeWeese, artists in Bozeman, Montana, made a real impression on me. I thought it would be pretty cool to be like that, living a kind of artsy, bohemian existence out in the boonies somewhere. But not too bohemian, because you’d still be getting a regular paycheck, teaching art at a regional college or university.

So that’s what’s prompted me to pursue art studies after high school. What had started out as a love of painting and drawing became more about how I was going to make a living. But eventually, many years and a couple of degrees later, it swung back the other way. How that happened is probably the subject for another time, but in retrospect I have to say that for me it was the best possible outcome. Solving the Painting Problem (What should I paint? How should I paint it? Should I even make paintings at all?) is hard enough on its own. Solving the Painting Problem and the Money Problem together is near impossible, and I have boundless respect for the painters who have managed it successfully.

The end of the end of painting, part two

Back in 2013 when I started this blog I led off with a post that concluded that painting had not died, as many art pundits thought it would. Rather it was the “death of painting” as an idea whose time had come and gone.

Turns out I wasn’t the first one to make that observation. Recently I came across an article from Canadian Art back in 2008 that covers much the same ground, but goes into a bit more detail than I did about what it was like being a painter in Vancouver back in the 80s and early 90s, when being a painter meant you really weren’t Serious. Back then, if you weren’t showing very big photographs and reading a lot of Critical Theory, you might as well resign yourself to obscurity, or worse.

“For artists who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, painting had not only been knocked from its centuries old pedestal but had become a very nearly leprous form, replaced by conceptual and—particularly in Vancouver—photo-based art.”

Yeah, I can attest that was pretty much how it was. A “leprous form” indeed. And I suspect we lost most of a generation of painters because of the generally low esteem in which painting was held. It was rough on many of the older generation too. The kind of disrepect they had to endure is pretty toxic, day after day. So I have to say that it was balm to my spirit when the author described Douglas Crimp’s “End of Painting” article as “wrong-headed,” and quotes Neil Campbell as saying that the younger crowd doesn’t see much excitement in photoconceptualism, and “It’s a very conservative gesture for a young person to latch on to that train at this point.” Ha! Take that, you old photoconceptual fogies! How do you like being passé?

And yet … There’s a thought that troubles me. I imagine a young art student who has just discovered photoconceptualism for the first time, and is all fired up with enthusiasm, the same kind of enthusiasm I felt when I first saw the paintings of, say, Horacio Torres. Sure, the student is a bit late to the party, but this is the kind of work she loves, and this is the kind of work she wants to make. And so she heads off to art school, where she’s told over and over that photoconceptualism just isn’t done any more, that it’s over, it’s old hat and other variations on the same theme. And eventually she gets discouraged, gives it up, and goes off and does something else with her life. And somehow that strikes me as wrong.

I think it’s time we stopped paying so much lip service to fashionable media and schools of thought and paid more attention to individual works instead. Maybe we could even learn from history for once, how over and over we’ve seen that how fashionable something is has very little bearing on whether ultimately it’s any good. And while we’re at it, perhaps we could acknowledge that, just because we happen to like a particular thing, doesn’t mean it’s wrong for other people to like something else.

There’s another aspect to that article I’d like to discuss, having to do with the relentless identification of painting with the more affective sides of human experience, and conceptual art with the rigorously intellectual. That identification seems to hold true for boosters and detractors on both sides, but I can’t say that I agree with it. Probably a topic for a follow-up post.