Sunday, March 26, 2017

Alex Janvier at the National Gallery

Lubicon, Alex Janvier, 1988

Earlier this month our text'art group went on a road trip to Ottawa's National Gallery. An inspired choice, Colleen!

We toured the Alex Janvier exhibit, which runs until April 17. This large show is very comprehensive. We see some of his student efforts, and observe how he developed a singular style that resonates with Dene visual imagery. We also see how in later years he continued to explore new approaches to painting. His entire oeuvre is on display, and represents a lifetime of serious artistic pursuit.

Janvier's association with the "Indian Group of Seven" is noted, and their individual paths to painting and printmaking can be compared.

Many of Janvier's paintings deal with issues such as the tragedy of the residential schools, and the conflicts over land use and treaty violations. The curator's notes and photos inform the viewers of the political significance of these themes. For example, the large painting pictured above was completed with Janvier's typical white background. As an act of protest over Lubicon land use issues, Janvier re-painted the background in a brilliant red.

With increasing coverage of native art and culture in the national media, Canadians will no doubt develop a greater appreciation of the range and talent of First Nations artists like Alex Janvier.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Free on-line painting class begins today!

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Green on Blue), 1968

Thank you, Dianne, for putting me onto this exciting opportunity.

MOMA has designed an on-line class offered through, titled In the Studio: Post-War Abstract Painting. It includes art history and theory as well as hands-on painting assignments. It is available at reasonable cost and, for free if you don't care abut getting the certificate. Financial aid is also available.

Here is a description:
About this course: Want to know how some of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists made abstract paintings? This course offers an in-depth, hands-on look at the materials, techniques, and thinking of seven New York School artists, including Willem de Kooning, Yayoi Kusama, Agnes Martin, Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock, Ad Reinhardt, and Mark Rothko. Through studio demonstrations and gallery walkthroughs, you’ll form a deeper understanding of what a studio practice means and how ideas develop from close looking, and you’ll gain a sensitivity to the physical qualities of paint. Readings and other resources will round out your understanding, providing broader cultural, intellectual, and historical context about the decades after World War II, when these artists were active. The works of art you will explore in this course may also serve as points of departure to make your own abstract paintings. You may choose to participate in the studio exercises, for which you are invited to post images of your own paintings to the discussion boards, or you may choose to complete the course through its quizzes and written assessments only. Learners who wish to participate in the optional studio exercises may need to purchase art supplies. A list of suggested materials is included in the first module.
For more information, please visit the website. The class begins today!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

FIFA - 35th edition

Will you be in Montreal at the end of this month? You might find the Festival International du Film sur l'Art of interest. Running from March 23 to April 2, FIFA's 35th edition will screen films about visual art, music, dance, literature, architecture and design, photography and counter-culture.

Venues include Concordia University and UQAM, the Grande Bibliothèque, the Museum of Fine Art, the Canadian Centre for Architecture and others.

Over 900 international films were submitted to the jury, and about 170 were selected. Most of the films are in French, but many are in English, or have English subtitles.

One of the films that interests me is Beauty and Ruin, a Canadian film about the economic collapse of Detroit, and the fight over "de-accessioning" (selling off) some of its many art treasures to raise money for the city. Screening March 25 at Concordia.
"Detroit, a once prosperous city, is going bankrupt and the appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, is plundering the city’s assets in search of cash to pay off Detroit’s creditors. One of the most valuable assets in the city is the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), which houses one of the country’s richest collections, including masterpieces by Van Gogh, Titian and Brueghel. Canadian director Marc de Guerre chronicles the story of the bankruptcy and the fight over the artwork as Detroit goes into receivership. What will be the consequences? How will this affect its citizens, its art, culture and health care? This documentary artfully explores the story of the once powerful American city now on the verge of financial ruin."


Another screening of interest is the French series Les Aventuriers de l'Art Moderne. These six films (in French) describe the development of modern art in France, and were originally made as an award-winning TV series.
"Adapted from Dan Franck's literary trilogy Bohemian Paris, Libertad!, Midnight - The documentary series made up of six episodes plunges us into Parisian life in the beginning of the twentieth century, a hotbed of artistic creation with the blossoming of Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism, and surrealism. Through illustrations, animation and original archives, the film will trace the highs and lows, scandals and celebrations, tragedies and the triumphs that shaped the phenomenal period of Modern Art from the basement of the "Bateau-lavoir" in 1900 to the last shudders of World War II. The main characters are called Picasso, Max Jacob, Stein, Apollinaire, Hemingway, Matisse, Cocteau, Kiki - artists, art dealers, muses who came to France from all over Europe and left an indelible mark on the 20th century. These glorious subversives were adventurers before becoming heroes."

A download of the program is available on the website.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Five years of blogging!

Wow! Last week marked the fifth anniversary of this blog. It has been rewarding to have conversations with my readers, often in person. Writing these posts helps to clarify my thinking, set goals, and share news of resources and art events, near and far.  And, of course, to share my own work and inspiration.

Almost without fail, I have been in the habit of posting twice a week. (This is post # 539. Can you believe it?) I may cut back on that a bit to allow more time for, um, making art.

Meanwhile, thank you for reading. And here is a little treat that will, I hope, brighten the day of any art-lover. Thank you, Jane, for passing this on.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

There is a crack in everything....

It has been almost four weeks since I posted here. Among other things, I have been working on my entry to a group show, the theme for which is the Leonard Cohen lyric for Anthem:

"Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in."

When the group met a few days ago, it was clear that everyone had their own take on the meaning of the song. I have chosen to make a mixed media painting that references the international refugee crisis, an issue that is re-shaping the political dynamic all over the world.

The refugees have been forced from their homes and undertaken arduous journeys in the hope of finding safe harbour in an alien land. Will our door be opened to them? Will we build walls to keep them out?  Do we want to live in a society that welcomes newcomers? What is our responsibility to them?

Here are some photos to show the process I used to create this piece. I began with a 20" x 20" birch panel, and covered it with black gesso, front and sides.

I dug into my collection of antique papers. Over the years I have gathered lots of collage material: paper napkins, printed tissue, pages from old books and magazines, etc.

Soon I had covered the front and sides of the panel with text and images, glued on with matte gel medium. I had to be careful to eliminate bubbles and wrinkles, and to get a smooth finish at the edges and corners. Once the papers were dry, I used an x-acto knife to slice off the extra bits.

Next, I clipped some relevant headlines from the daily newspaper, and arranged them randomly, fixing them with more acrylic medium. Then I applied a dilute coat of matte medium to the entire surface. This served to protect the newsprint collage, because I knew I was going to be applying paint and also lifting paint off, calibrating the lights and darks. That extra coat of medium gave me more flexibility to adjust the paint coverage without damaging the underlayer of collage.

I used a small brayer to add patchy glazes of Yellow Ochre, Payne's Gray and Raw Umber, lightened with Titanium White. The paint was mixed with Glazing Medium to create some transparency. This formed the background, partially obscuring the text. I intended that the drawing of the eye would be the focal point, and kept it lighter than the other areas. I used stencils and stamps to add texture and interest in a cruciform shape, radiating out from the eye.

Darker paint was added to enhance the cruciform shape, further obscuring the printed background. Lighter textures reinforced the lighter "spokes" of the cruciform.

At this point the headlines were barely visible. I went back in with some alcohol and lifted some of the paint off them.

The lightened strips of headlines were now too prominent, and they were fighting with the "eye" for attention. So it was time to knock them back, by adding more transparent layers of dark paint. At the same time, more textural detail in Naples Yellow and Gold emphasized the cruciform structure.

Finally, a balance was achieved between the legibility and obscurity of the headlines. The eye is dominant and the lights and darks support the structure of the composition. And, up close, some of the headlines are legible.

Some detail shots are below:

I may make further adjustments to the piece before putting on a final coat of matte medium, which will serve to protect the surface. 

The group will be getting together in April to give progress reports and to talk about possible venues for our show.  I look forward to listening as each artist talks about their process. It will be exciting to see the range of technique and the various responses to the theme.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Yikes! Another deadline approaches

A few months ago I agreed to participate in a group project to honour Montrealer Leonard Cohen. The chosen theme is the lyric from his song Anthem:

"Ring the bells that still can ring 
Forget your perfect offering 
There is a crack in everything 
That's how the light gets in. "

While no deadline was set, it was agreed that we would have photos of our works ready by March in order to search for suitable venues for a group show. I was reminded of this a couple of days ago. Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind. So...

... I had another look at a little group of collages I made last year, as part of an on-line class with Jane Davies. I actually made six in this set, each measuring 6 x 6.

Jazz Fest 2016

I think this kind of composition will be a starting point for my contribution to the project. Perhaps if I work larger, at least 20 x 20, say, and begin with a dark background....

The project will be my focus for the next while and I may not be posting here until I have something to show you. Stay tuned....

Meanwhile, if you'd like to read a thoughtful analysis of Anthem's lyrics, please have a look at this. Having just re-read George Orwell's 1984, I found it illuminating. 

Notably, the Musée d'Art Contemporain in Montreal will stage a multi-disciplinary show this fall, inspired by the work of Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen: Une brèche en toute chose / A Crack in Everything will be part of Montreal's 375th anniversary celebration.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Love, Love, Love: a series

It's Valentine's Day as I write this, and I am reminded of a series I made some eight years ago.

Love, Love, Love #2
The text in the upper left corner is a quote from Helen Keller:
"The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched.
They must be felt within the heart."

I named the series after a classic song by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, released in 1967, titled Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things). Scroll to the end for a link to the song itself.

This series was an opportunity to play with paint on fabric, collaged tissue paper, image transfer, beads, buttons, ribbon, metallic paper, sheer organza and stitch. I made several full-sized, framed pieces in the series, and also perhaps forty 4" x 6" postcards, which I framed. A few of them are shown below. I found the small format a good way to experiment with composition and technique.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Met Opens Its Photo Archives

Last week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its bank of over 375,000 high-res images to the public.  All images of public-domain artworks in the Museum's collection are now available for free and unrestricted use. You can read the press release here.

Quilt, Split Bars Pattern, Amish maker, c. 1930

Along with the images are detailed texts explaining the provenance of the piece and its significance. For the quilt above, the accompanying text reads, in part,

"In the 1971 Whitney Museum exhibition "Abstract Design in American Quilts," boldly graphic quilts like these were compared to American modern abstract paintings. This exhibition set off a rush of Amish quilt collecting; the Museum acquired its first Amish quilts in 1973. In the early days of collecting, the outside world knew little about the traditions of the Amish communities. For this reason, and because most elaborately quilted mainstream American quilts were made in the nineteenth century, there was a tendency to date many of the Amish quilts to the latter part of the nineteenth century. As scholarship progressed, however, it became clear that the vast majority of the Amish quilts seen today in collections and publications were made in the first four decades of the twentieth century. The Amish came to the practice of quilt-making about fifty years after the height of its popularity in the outside world, and employed both quilting motifs and some patterns well after the peak of their use among other quilt makers."

While you're on the Met's website, you can check out other on-line features, like the full six seasons of The Artist Project.
"The Artist Project asks artists to reflect on what art is and what inspires them from across 5,000 years of art. Their unique and passionate ways of seeing and experiencing art reveal the power of a museum and encourage all visitors to look in a personal way."
For example, I clicked on Vik Muniz, a favourite artist, and watched a short clip showing him exploring the  Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art. Muniz explained that the Center is more like a storage facility. He likes its "transgressive" quality: no single item is spotlighted as being worth his time. No curator filters what the viewer can or should see.

Another section of the website, 82nd and 5th,

"asks 100 curators to talk about 100 works of art that changed the way they see the world. One curator, one work of art, two minutes at a time. This series demonstrates that the voice of authority, up close, is inspirational."
This feature is available as an iPad app, in English and ten other languages.

These initiatives, part of the Met's educational mission, are a great find!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Looking at Art

The plan for today's text'art meeting is a visit to the Celebration show at Galérie Beaux-Arts des Amériques, 5432 St.-Laurent in Montreal. This show features thirty paintings, all measuring 20" x 20", prompted by the gallery's tenth anniversary. My entry made it into the show, chosen by three jurors from almost sixty entries.

Photo taken on a quiet day, before the official opening

On a weekday morning, the space should allow for us to look closely at the works.

Here is a guideline that I found on the blog of Margaret Cooter, an English artist acquaintance of mine who posts almost daily about her everyday life, her work, her walks around London, as well as the London gallery and museum scene.  Occasionally she throws in a little poetry.

The next time you visit an art show, you too may find this guideline helpful. I hope it produces a lively discussion at today's outing.

Fingers crossed that today's weather forecast doesn't mean another cancelled excursion!

Sunday, February 5, 2017

"The Painted Word", by Tom Wolfe

The Connoisseur, Norman Rockwell, 1962

"If you have ever stared uncomprehendingly at an abstract painting that admired critics have said you ought to dig, take heart. Tom on your side. [The Painted Word] may enrage you. It may confirm your darkest suspicions about Modern Art. In any case, it will amuse you."  - The New York Sunday News
"The Painted Word may well be Tom Wolfe's most successful piece of social criticism to date.   - The New York Times
"The Painted Word is a masterpiece. No one in the art world... could fail to recognize its essential truth. I read it four times, each of them with mounting envy for Wolfe's eye, ear, and surgical skill."  -The Washington Post
One of my favourite books of all time is Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) so when this book was recommended to me, it was hard to resist. Published in 1975, it was written just a year after I graduated in Fine Arts. Forty-two years ago. (sigh) It speaks to the state of art at that time, and helps me better understand some of the confusion and conflicts I experienced as a young art graduate.

The focus of The Painted Word is the New York art scene, familiar territory for the author, but his analysis holds for the entire network of North American / European art hubs. Wolfe begins by explaining how the art of the early 1900's was a reaction to "literary art". Think of the iconic paintings of the 19th century, for example, so many of which allow the viewer to read them as a story.

The Raft of the Medusa, Géricault, 1819

The Hay Wain, Constable, 1821

The Stone Breakers, Gustave Courbet, 1849
(Realist School)

Luncheon of the Boating Party, Renoir, 1881

With the beginning of the Modern movement, around 1900, Wolfe explains,
"Literary became a code word for all that seemed hopelessly retrograde about realistic art.... The idea was that half the power of a realistic painting comes not from the artist but from the sentiments the viewer hauls along to it, like so much mental baggage."
What was the opposite of literary painting?
"Why, l'art pour l'art, form for the sake of form, colour for the sake of colour. In Europe before 1914, artists invented Modern styles with fanatic energy – Fauvism, Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism, Orphism, Suprematism, Vorticism – but everybody shared the same premise: henceforth, one doesn't paint 'about anything, my dear aunt,' to borrow a line from a famous Punch cartoon. One just paints. Art should no longer be a mirror held up to man or nature. A painting should compel the viewer to see it for what it is: a certain arrangement of colours and forms on a canvas."
Allow for a decade or two for the culturati to adopt and champion abstraction. Watch how their tastes evolve in an endless search to distinguish themselves from the bourgeoisie. Factor in a decade or so of strongly leftist politics, which resulted in the 1930's era of Social Realism in art, and make allowances for two world wars. Add in the influence of art theorists like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg and observe the dance between them, the bohemian artists and le monde.

Lavender Mist, Jackson Pollack, 1950

What do you get? Abstract Expressionism. Whereas with the realistic art of earlier eras, it was a case of "seeing is believing", the new experience is one of "believing is seeing". Viewers of art could only hope to understand abstract expressionism by having it explained to them by art theory, the theory of "the integral plane", of "flatness". And few were buying it. Writes Wolfe,
"First you do everything possible to make sure your world is antibourgeois, that it defies bourgeois tastes, that it mystifies the mob, the public, that it outdistances the insensible middle-class multitudes by light years of subtlety and intellect – and then, having succeeded admirably, you ask with a sense of See-what-I-mean? outrage: look, they don't even buy our products!"
So what direction could the art scene possibly take after Abstract Expressionism? Pop Art was the next Big Thing, rejuvenating the New York art scene. The flatness that was so sought after in abstract expressionism came naturally to the flags of Jasper Johns, the comic strips of Roy Lichtenstein, and the silkscreen posters of Andy Warhol. The art theorists agreed that these were not literary, that they were symbols; not representations, but "sign systems".

Flag, Jasper Johns, 1955
(Pop Art)

In the Car, Roy Lichtenstein, 1963
(Pop Art)

Campbell's Soup Cans, Andy Warhol, 1962
(Pop Art)

The culturati quickly cycled through Op Art, Colour Field, Minimalism, and Conceptualism.
"How religiously we've cut away the fat! In the beginning we got rid of nineteenth-century storybook realism. Then we got rid of representational objects. Then we got rid of the third dimension altogether and got really flat (Abstract Expressionism). Then we got rid of airiness, brushstrokes, most of the paint, and the last viruses of drawing and complicated designs (Hard Edge, Colour Field, Washington School).
"Enough? Hardly, said the Minimalists, who began to come into their own about 1965."
Further reductions ensued. Frames? Canvas? The wall? The gallery or museum? The idea of a permanent work of art? Even a visible work of art?
"So it was that in April of 1970 an artist named Lawrence Weiner typed up a work of art that appeared in Arts Magazine – as a work of art – with no visual experience before or after whatsoever, and to wit:
1. The artist may construct the piece
2. The piece may be fabricated
3. The piece need not be built
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership."
And here Tom Wolfe sums up the whole business in his inimitable style:
"And there, at last, it was! No more realism, no more representational objects, no more lines, colours, forms, and contours, no more pigments, no more brushstrokes, no more evocations, no more frames, walls, galleries, museums, no more gnawing at the tortured face of the god Flatness, no more audience required, just a "receiver" that may or may not be a person or may or may not be there at all, no more ego projected, just "the artist", in the third person, who may be anyone or no one at all, for nothing is demanded of him, nothing at all, not even existence, for that got lost in the subjunctive mode – and in that moment of absolutely dispassionate abdication, of insouciant withering away, Art made its final flight, climbed higher and higher in an ever-decreasing tighter-turning spiral until, with one last erg of freedom, one last dendritic synapse, it disappeared up its own fundamental aperture... and came out the other side as Art Theory!... Art Theory pure and simple, words on a page, literature undefiled by vision, flat, flatter, Flattest, a vision invisible, even ineffable, as ineffable as the Angels and the Universal Souls." 

Telephone Booths, Richard Estes, 1968

In the book's epilogue, Wolfe discusses the return to realism, including Photo-Realism, which became a hot seller in the 70's as a reaction to all that had preceded it. (The art-buying class must have its meat.) Photo-Realism gives me vertigo.

Orange and Yellow, Mark Rothko, 1956
(Colour Field)

As for me, I'm an old-fashioned sort. Colour and form do it for me. Give me a brushy Rothko or the push-and-pull of a Hans Hofmann any day.

Yellow Burst, Hans Hofmann, 1956
(Abstract Expressionism)

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Chagall: Colour and Music

The Blue Circus

This past weekend was my first visit to the newly-opened exhibition Chagall: Colour and Music at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It will not be my last.

Close to 400 works of art are included: paintings, sketches, prints, costumes, sculpture, stained glass and tapestry cover almost the entire third floor of the Jean-Noël Desmarais pavilion. The range of media is a testament to Chagall's lifelong commitment to his artistic vision.

The theme of the exhibition is how music informed Chagall's work, and music plays in every alternate room of the display. Growing up in a Jewish community in White Russia (now known as Belarus), where violins were found in every household, Chagall frequently included the image of the violin and the fiddler in his work. Even fans of the artist may not realize that he created the costumes and backdrops for three ballets and one opera, Mozart's The Magic Flute

One of the highlights of the show is an enormous projected photo of the ceiling of the Paris Opera House. Visitors are encouraged to sit in beanbag chairs so they can lean back and experience the high-resolution photo. Explains John Pohl of the Montreal Gazette
"The ceiling was photographed in close-up detail by the Google Institute and is shown as a high-resolution projection, in the form of a spotlight moving across the ceiling. The paintings pay homage to composers whose works were produced at the Paris Opera; as each composer enters the spotlight, excerpts from their repertoire are played."
The Triumph of Music

I was a little disappointed to see so few of the very large Chagall paintings, like the impressive, monumental works at the Chagall Museum in Nice. Another quibble is that some of the explanatory text is printed in red ink on red walls, making it all but illegible.

Chagall: Colour and Music is the biggest Canadian exhibition ever devoted to the work of Marc Chagall (1887-1985). Running until June 11, 2017, it is bound to be a popular success. Its only other staging will be in Los Angeles, later this year.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Nicholas Wilton's on-line video tutorials

A painter working out of Sausalito, California, Nicholas Wilton generously shares his wisdom about art essentials in a free, on-line series of video tutorials. Topics include Design, Value and Colour. When offered 8 months ago, more than 6000 people signed up for the series.

Though Wilton uses examples from his own abstract imagery, the principles apply equally to representational painting, sculpture, and fibre.

Click on this link to subscribe.