Sunday, June 17, 2012

What Happened to the Idea of the Artist as Visionary?

 "Quiet"   30x30"  Oil, cold wax on panel  ©2012 Janice Mason Steeves

As well as teaching painting in my workshops,  I encourage students to think beyond themselves in their work and consider the idea of the artist as visionary.   I talk about the possibility of art as being more than a reflection of current society.  When I googled 'artist as visionary', Wikipedia and many other sites, translate my phrase as Visionary Art.  "Visionary Art  is art  that purports to transcend the physical world and portray a wider vision of awareness including spiritual or mystical themes, or is based in such experiences."  Another link was to The American Visionary Art Museum, which defines Visionary art as " produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself." 

But I'm not speaking of art that is done by artists who have no training. I'm also not talking about artists painting angels or goddesses reaching for the light.   What happened to the idea of art as being visionary?

In one workshop, I read a passage from  Jeanette Winterson's  book, Art Objects:
"Art is visionary; it sees beyond the view from the window, even though the window is it's frame….As things stand now, too much criticism of the arts concerns itself with attacking any suggestion of art as Other, as a bringer of realities beyond the commonplace.  Dimly, we know we need those other realities and we think we can get them by ransacking different cultures and rhapsodizing work by foreign writers simply because they are foreign writers.  We are still back with art as the mirror of life, only it is a more exotic or less democratic life than our own.  No doubt this has its interests but if we are honest, they are documentary.  Art is not documentary.  It may incidentally serve that function in its own way but its true effort is to open to us dimensions of the spirit and of the self that normally lie smothered under the weight of living."

In 2000, Adrienne Clarkson, then the Governor-General of Canada gave a speech at the first Governor-General's Awards for Visual and Media Arts.  In that speech, she said, "All art is magical activity, because even though its subject matter can be representational or abstract, it is mean to propel us to a level of consciousness that's not purely intellectual.  In this context, I am reminded of what the philosopher R.G. Collingwood said 60 years ago: 'Magical activity such as art, is a kind of dynamo supplying the mechanism of practical life with the emotional current that drives it.  So art is a necessity for every sort and condition of man and is actually found in every healthy society.  A society which thinks, as our own does, that it has outlived this need is wrong, or else it is a dying society, perishing for lack of interest in its own maintenance.' "

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Exhibition of 60 Painters

I saw the exhibition 60 Painters last week at Humber College Art and Media Studio in Etobicoke, just the day before the exhibition closed.  The show was described as " the most ambitious overview of contemporary Canadian painting in recent memory. The artists are a mixture of emerging artists and very well established artists. Some of the artists are within the first few years of their practice while others are in their third or fourth decade of exhibiting." 

The exhibition was organized by Scott Sawtell, an instructor at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto and at Brock University in St. Catharine's.

The show was spread over 12,000 sq feet of space at Humber College's art and Media Studios, winding in and out of classrooms, hallways, theatres and film studios.

The statement on the wall at the entrance to the exhibition read, in part:
"We now live in an age where information and imagery operate with unrivalled speed and vastness.  It is because of these advances that our world is changing like never before.  Technology's evolution is accelerating faster and faster, intellectual property is replacing physical labour in first world economies, and scientists are documenting considerable differences in the cognitive development of 'plugged in' teenagers.  What role does painting have in a society where people are more informed than ever, but also more detached?  What role does painting have in a society where the shiny, the quick and the 'Now' is all that matters?  What does painting offer with its physicality and scruffiness, connection to history as one of humanity's oldest art-forms, and its darned nuanced deliberations?"
"In this time  defined by technical innovation, scientific discovery and social upheaval, painters are doing what they have always done: make works that are reflective, reactionary, poetic, questioning and magnificent."

I love the idea of such a large exhibition focusing on the work of contemporary Canadian painters. I'm happy that so many young artists are still involved with painting and find it to be a still relevant means of expression.  I also liked the fact that the work of established artists was exhibited alongside the work of emerging artists so there was no hierarchy of presentation.

I think my overall sense of the exhibition was that if this work reflects the society that we live in today, then we are in big trouble.  I found so much of the work to be about chaos--conflating disparate elements and ideas.  So many of the pieces had so much going on in them that my eyes ached from the work of looking.

You could say I am old and out of touch.  And that could well be the case.
Or perhaps this work truly is reflecting the world we live in, with it's technical innovations, social upheaval, environmental disasters, wars and detachment.  You can see the individual works on the 60 Painters website.
I include photos of the work that I really liked in this exhibition.

John Brown   Stupid #1 Oil on panel

Andy Patton -A Cottage at Year's End  Oil on panel

Matt Bahen -Beneath the Night's Pale Globe -Oil on panel

Nicole Collins-Black Flag for Painting-wax pigment and rope on canvas on board

Monday, June 4, 2012

Decisions, Decisions

24x24" oil on panel © 2012 Janice Mason Steeves

I'm in the process of making a lot of decisions.  I am making reservations to go to Cill Rialaig, my artist's residency in Ireland in October.  Afterwards,  I'll travel on to Scotland to visit my relatives who live near Aberdeen.  Then I'll go to the island of Iona for Quiet Week,  a program which will involve meditation, sharing and contemplative prayer.  I have many, many small decisions to make about flights, places to stay, where to leave my big suitcase full of art supplies so I don't have to lug it around Scotland. Those sorts of things.  I am thinking today about the process of decision-making in life and in art.

This reminds me of a story my daughter once told me.  She was working at a camp in western Canada. She and her friend had gone into town for groceries.  As she was nearing the checkout, she was hesitating to decide which checkout had the shortest line....back and forth she went, intent on finding the shortest line.  Her friend saw her doing this, and from across the grocery store he shouted out, "Pick a line and stand in it!".  This wisdom has become our mantra.  Whenever we have problems making a decision, we remember what Murphy said that day in the grocery store:  "Pick a line and stand in it."

I watched the film, Gerhard Richter Painting at my local independent cinema last week.  It was fascinating to watch Richter in the process of painting, with all of the  decisions he had to make. He felt intimidated by the camera and at one point, said that this was not going to work (his painting while the camera was rolling).  Painting is a secret process he said, meaning-as  I understood it-that it is done alone, not in public, and the decisions are made privately.  The product at the end is seen by the public, but the process is private. However, he persisted. The camera kept rolling.  He allowed us to see him working and to observe the mistakes and the happy accidents. He let us witness this vulnerability.

I met a friend, Lila Lewis Irving yesterday at the opening of an art show in Aurora, ON where we were both exhibiting our work. The exhibition was called The Ontario Society of Artists, Celebrates 140 Years.  Lila is an Abstract Expressionist painter who is known for her large exuberant acrylics.
A stunningly beautiful book of her work was published for her recent exhibition at the Art Gallery of Mississauga.  She said to me, "I have never been afraid to make mistakes."

In getting back into the studio after a long hiatus, I am encouraged by these painters who pick a line and stand in it.

“I am glad that I paid so little attention to good advice; had I abided by it I might have been saved from some of my most valuable mistakes.” 
― Edna St. Vincent Millay

"Sir, What is the secret of your success?" a reporter asked a bank president.
"Two words."
"And sir, what are they?"
"Good decisions."
"And how do you make good decisions?"
"One word."
"And how do you get Experience?"
"Two words."
"And sir, what are they?"
"Bad decisions."                   

Unknown Author