Friday 30 May 2014

Looking at Photographs

photo collage

In my role as a teacher of art techniques to adults, my beginner students often ask me why I object to their working from photographs, and my more advanced students ask me why I don’t let them begin a work from a photograph. My reasons are these:

If students are beginners, they do themselves terrible harm by learning from other people’s photographs. A photograph only appears to capture reality. In fact, it is the result of the photographer’s choices and not at all objective. The view of the subject will be one-directional from the photographer’s placement in space, not the artist’s, it will have a relationship to the ground and the horizon from the photographer’s height, not the artist’s, and it will capture the atmosphere from the photographer’s emotional response, not the artist’s. It will also be a record of the photographer’s technique, experience and knowledge of the subject, not the artist’s.
Given the photographer’s choices, many details can be lost in shadows, absent because of the perspective, unseen due to overlapping and hidden or distorted for a number of other reasons. Therefore, if students rely on photographs to ‘see’, they will be misinformed. Any expressiveness they render in their own version of the photograph’s image will be based on pre-determined choices, and any interpretation they attempt will be compromised. If, for instance, the student is painting a portrait and the face is in ¾ view in the photograph, the student who does not already know facial anatomy will flatten it, guaranteed.
If students are beginners, they do themselves equal harm by learning from photographs of other people’s works. Photographs of paintings rarely can show the exact hues in the original, they flatten its brushwork and they reduce its scale. Photographs of sculptures render a three-dimensional object flat, even if the object is well lit, defeating the purpose of the work At any rate, there is little benefit for a beginner to copy in this way because as well, the photograph is a photographer’s reaction to an artist’s work, what the students see is a translation of a translation which they then attempt to translate a third time. There is an object; an artist creates a painting of it; a photographer photographs the painting; the student paints from the photograph. Again, the learning will be compromised.
Of course artists must at times rely on photographs, and may choose to do so for stylistic reasons. A sculptor might use a series of them to hold on to a model’s pose beyond the model’s endurance, a landscape artist may use them to capture the exact moment of the day being depicted. As much as possible, in these instances, I urge students to take their own photographs. Even if the photographs are not ‘expert’ and especially if the student is not also a photographer, the photographs will record the student’s actual experience and act as a reminder of the subject not as the subject itself. The photograph is then only a memory aid while the student learns all the skills needed to transform what is depicted into a work of art.
 Sometimes it is impossible to take one’s own photograph. For instance, a realist working in Montreal might refer to stock photographs of an African lion found online to complete a painting. Or, an abstract painter might refer to stock images of a storm at sea to interpret nature’s fury.  In these cases, I encourage the students to use multiple photographs by a variety of photographers so that they might choose the details or elements that best express their own intent in composing their images. Importantly, this will also help students avoid accusations of plagiarism or appropriation of photographs not in the public domain.
In any case, I never teach beginners from photographs. Whether I teach them to draw, sculpt or paint, we always begin by working ‘from life’, be it a still life, a model, in situ for a landscape or any number of other subjects. In this way, I not only teach them the rendering techniques and about the materials, but also help them develop their visual memory and their understanding of three-dimensional space. I reserve the use of photographs for my more advanced students, to be used as reference and reminder once the work is underway.
My students pay me not only to teach then art techniques but also to develop their visual literacy, their creativity and as importantly, sustainable working habits. Problem solving from direct experience is the best way to achieve this, no matter what the level.

Monday 26 May 2014

Keeping Active

Shut Up! Sut Up!
photo collage

I was asked, “What is art for?” and “How many citizens would actually complain if towns didn’t provide services for it, or if services were cut back?” During a discussion, the question arose as to whether governments should spend money providing free art or culture-related services to their communities in dedicated facilities such as art galleries, music rooms, theatres or other performance spaces. This when there was no question that money should be spent on sports facilities. No one questioned that the latter could function free or ‘at a loss’ (ie, cost more than they could earn) but the arts were deemed ‘expensive’.
I thought about it. The suburb town in which my family has lived for nearly fifty years is a relatively well-off, mostly residential town. Until recently, the majority of dwellings were private homes with nice yards, many with at least two vehicles, though in recent years more and more apartment and condo buildings have gone up. There seemed to be little need to share space or for community-based activities since people could afford go to hear concerts and see performances in ‘the big city’. In fact, there seemed to be a perception that there was little need for ‘public’ here except for children, and except for sports
To this day, sports are the accepted, ‘leisure’ public service on which money can be spent. After all, while individual homes can have swimming pools, even the biggest can’t accommodate such things as soccer and football fields, arenas and tennis courts. Anyway, would they want to? For sports, everyone knows one needs ‘the community’ to create competitions and teams and “the public’ to have audiences for the games, whether the facilities are run by subsidized, member-only associations or by Town employees. The more varied the sports, the more players are given training by qualified people, the more levels of sports are played, and the more access ‘local’ players have to players from other towns, the healthier the community gets in terms of competition and achievement.
Sports are activities that everyone agrees build individual and team strength and character but only if there is public challenge and crowd support. They are activities that MUST be shared by the entire community to have any beneficial effect. Everyone accepts this; participation in sports events by teams and attendance by the public are encouraged by the Town simply because it provides the facilities despite costs related to maintenance, repairs, security, clean-up, and so on.
What seems to cause difficulty is the sharing of art activities and by extension, of cultural events. People can no more have concert halls, theatres, sculpture and painting studios or art galleries in their homes, yet unlike ‘minor’ sports facilities that are built and maintained year-round in every district of the town, by comparison there are two small art studios and one art gallery in the major civic complex that also houses three arenas and two swimming pools, some Olympic-sized, and a fitness and exercise facility.
Comparatively speaking, the uneven proportion of public sports versus public arts facilities provided creates a serious imbalance of access to the community, for cultural events cannot be provided at the same level, frequency or for the same sizes of audiences as sports events. There is an equivalence of importance between a hockey game and a play, between a soccer game and an art display, between a tennis game and a musical performance, yet theatre, art and music are treated like dispensable activities.
At a time in human culture when it is imperative that we share space in a peaceful, respectful and beneficially competitive way (as opposed to aggressively or for money), that we learn to balance self and community interests and to communicate effectively with each other regardless of our economic status, ethnicity, heritage or our ‘team’, the imbalance created between sports and arts in the community seems counterproductive. The arts – and by this I don’t mean just craft fairs and recreational art courses, I mean such things as plays, concerts, as well as art exhibits – are proven to help a community create a common culture.
As a person involved in both arts and sports, as both a volunteer and a professional, and as both citizen and employee of a Town, I would like to see this imbalance addressed in all communities. Each town that provides dedicated year-round public sports facilities can, and in my opinion, should provide equal numbers of dedicated public arts facilities. A balance can be maintained: Arena/Gallery, Swimming Pool/Theatre, Tennis Court/Painting Studio, Hockey Rink/Sculpture Studio, Skateboard Track/Music Rooms, Weight Room/Computer Room, Chalet/Dance studio and so on.  If the concern is usage, there must be access and activities must be provided there can be no hockey without smoothed ice, no swimming without contained, de-contaminated water, no tennis without asphalt and nets, just as there can be no art display without walls and lighting, no painting without sinks and ventilation, no dance without a sprung floor… and no learning in any of these activities without access and expertise.
If you build it so that all may have access, they will come, if you make them welcome, they will come back, if you help them do better, they will participate more, if you celebrate their participation by letting them share and connect on competitive as well as on creative levels, all will thrive. I’ve always believed that these are the goals of any community.

Thursday 22 May 2014

The Scam

photo collage

I fear someone – whoever is making education system and social network decisions for us  - is secretly but systematically stealing the third dimension from our lives. We are gradually, ever so imperceptibly, being deprived of sight, the perceptive kind, the kind that comes of having a simultaneously tactile and visual understanding of the world, the understanding of colour, form, depth, texture, structure and the relationship between our eyes, hands, body and the physical world.
The result is that people are losing multi-point perspective on the world; they are becoming flat-screened. As they become more virtual, they are being directed to think about life in the false three dimensions: me, myself and more.
Why? Creative, imaginative, visually analytical people who think dimensionally and can perceive multiple perspectives at once; they live proactively. They are expensive and complicated to keep satisfied. Art education and exposure encourage people who no longer think this way naturally to begin doing so again, to begin thinking symbolically, analogically, metaphorically, critically and to begin having ideas that may complicate manufacturing, politics, religion, economics…

Monday 12 May 2014

The Working District

Les trois graces
photo collage

Observations relative to the visual arts:

-      A creative person is not necessarily ‘an artist’: ‘creative’ addresses any approach in any field that functions from new ideas, original outlook, inventiveness and risk-taking curiosity. If Plato really feared the unruliness of art, he would have discouraged insight and flashes of genius in science as much as he discouraged the practice of the arts.

-        It is possible to be technically competent but not a creative or original artist. Technical competence can mask an insecure creativity or a poverty of ideas.

-        It is equally possible to ne highly creative and original but to have little understanding of or competence in medium, technique or structure. Works that are technically deficient don’t last; the media can degrade unnaturally.

-        Expressiveness is not in itself ‘art’. The natural world is infinitely expressive in its forms, movements and its rhythms. An elephant or monkey can be instinctively expressive and make marks that inspire the viewer incidentally. In this case, it is the viewer who is creative for being inspired and for ‘seeing’ meaning. Expressiveness in art requires the artist’s intent.

-        Selling art objects does not necessarily equal a professional practice: the professional’s first focus is not on sales but on a variety of goals based on imagery, technique and concept. Commercialism and professionalism are not one and the same.

-        The criticism that ‘anyone can do it’ is inane: if anyone could do it, everyone would do it. Only those who see value in it spend the time, money, and energy and risk the isolation to ‘do it’. If others don’t see the point, then no, they would, and therefore could never do it.

-        To every person who looks at art and claims that ‘my child can do it’, I say please, spend every cent you have in encouraging her/him to do so: it is not something to be disdained or squandered but must be celebrated and nurtured; it is not a put-down. If the person intends it as such, I pity his/her child.

-        Becoming an artist is no different than becoming an athlete. It takes as much specialized equipment and as many dedicated premises, as much financing, research, practice, focus, stamina and determination to sustain an artistic career as it does to sustain a sports career.

-        Municipalities that provide such things as public swimming pools, ice rinks, arenas and gyms, public-access tennis courts, football and soccer fields, skateboarding courses, even chalets (all things individual aren’t expected to have for themselves) yet that do not provide art making facilities, studios and galleries are not serving their citizens in a balanced, equable way.

-        Taking an art course in a medium at a beginner level does not mean the next course you take in that medium should be ‘intermediate’. To go from ‘beginner’ to ‘intermediate’ requires a couple of years of courses and of independent practice in that medium, even if you are ‘a genius’.

-        Usually, a beginner student focuses on materials and techniques; an intermediate student focuses on materials, technique, plus on meaning and intent; an advanced student on all of those plus on concept and impact.  An artist integrates all of those so deeply she/he can create a body of work independently, and attend to her/his professional goals simultaneously.

-        Artists do not always male art to ‘communicate’, and ‘concept’ does not always apply to social issues. Art that has a therapeutic effect should be brought home.

-        Your ‘critique’ of a finished (as in ‘exhibited’) work of art must be meaningful to or useful for you.

-        If you are using art to teach, that is, if you are teaching THROUGH art, for instance, using image making to make your students address social or environmental issues, you are NOT teaching art; you are directing it, or worse, you are being a propagandist, well–intentioned as you might be. An art teacher must teach the art student HOW not what to express.

Thursday 8 May 2014

Visiting Art Galleries

Loving Touch 
photo collage

I recently listened to CBC Radio 1’s Giian Gomechi interview Alain de Botton, the author of a book entitled Art as Therapy (Phaidon) that is co-credited to John Armstrong. In the interview, Mr. De Botton argued that Visual Art, which some perceive is losing audiences in today’s world, owes society a debt for the privileged position it has occupied. He basically wants it to ante up and deliver psychological benefit to the viewer, to act as therapy.
My first reaction on hearing this twist on Art’s ‘job’, and I assume it applies to my art since I am an artist, was “Hey, OK!” Psychologists and psychiatrists whose professions are among those that offer therapy make a lot of money, and they keep their patients long-term. They don’t expect ‘therapy’ to work instantly! Good news. Up to now, the average Art viewer may look at works hanging in a gallery or museum for what, three minutes (watch visitors at it, blink and they’ve moved on!). If they’re really attentive, maybe they look for five, ten; maybe fifteen if they are enraptured? How many actually return for multiple viewings? Less and less of them, obviously. But, if people accept art as therapy, viewers will have to come see each work of art again and again – psychotherapy takes FIVE years! Museums and galleries would have a captive, repeat audience, all they’d have to do is keep their collection off the Internet.
Art as therapy. Wait a minute. Therapy implies a progression of some kind, a cumulative psychological or psychiatric health benefit  to the person. If the Art is to act as therapy not for the artist, but for the audience, there would need to be some way to evaluate the art work’s effectiveness and the viewer’s progress. Would museum and gallery curators do that or would they have to hire professionals to follow visitors around to make sure the art was ‘therapy’ and not ‘provocation’ or ‘decoration’ or ‘entertainment’. Someone would have to be on hand to yank artwork off the wall that caused non-therapeutic effects.
I was trying to figure out what artists would get out of it all when it hit me: Fine Arts degrees wouldn’t be enough, we’d all be expected to go get additional degrees in psychiatry or psychoanalysis to be able to produce beneficial works for the mental health of viewers. And what if a work triggered a breakdown? Would we be legally liable?
I realized there was a bad aftertaste in my soul, I considered it. Art as therapy. I remembered de Botton said in the interview that he used this concept to curate an exhibition of works at the Art Gallery of Ontario from its collection. Why? Apparently to help with its declining visitor numbers. Really? The AGO, with its art historians and curators and all that expert staff? Surely it was a one-of, a thematic exhibition by an invited curator exploring a new way to present some of the gallery’s art to an audience already familiar with the collection? Surely it wasn’t meant as a new museological or curatorial attitude? But. What if it is?
I admit I began to feel a little panicky.
So, all joking aside, I joined the discussion on Gomechi’s Radio 1 forum and ended up posting this on April 30, 2014:
“Here we go again. Why is it that people who supposedly love the visual arts end up being such poor advocates for it? Now art has to be ‘therapy’ (however you tweak the definition of ‘therapy’). We went through the ‘beauty’ phase, the ‘anti-intellectual’ phase, the elitist phase, the ‘religious’ phase, the ‘democratizing’ phase, the ‘ecological’ phase, the ‘conceptual’ phase, the ‘political’ phase, that’s when people aren’t declaring that Art is dead… All are attempts to QUANTIFY something that has to do with QUALITY at tits most broad-based level.
“What about Guernica, is that therapy? El Greco’s work? All of Gaudy’s? Picasso’s?
“Must everything humans do be termed in easy, consumable terms? Is the population really that dumb? What’s wrong with letting art be what it is, Art, and letting each artist offer up his/her own vision of the world in the best, most honest way he/she can? And what’s wrong with letting the relationship between artist, artwork and viewer be INCLUSIVE, even when the image isn’t pretty?
“Viewing art is about engaging in experience at many, many levels, from sensory to emotional to associative to symbolic to conceptual to philosophical, to spiritual...  There is no limit. The experience can be enlightening as easily as it can be disturbing, it can bring joy as powerfully as it can cause discomfort. The image, its rendering, and the viewing experience are what should define what art is for each viewer, the museum’s and gallery’s job is to make the art physically accessible and the viewing experience as unpolluted as possible. Then maybe more people will feel welcome.”
I add here another comment: Maybe museums and galleries can combat their audience’s apparent ennui by mixing up the type of art they display. The tendency has been to constantly replace tactile approaches and intents in an effort to stay ‘contemporary’, and to appear to demean ‘traditional’ art (art that honours established, physical techniques and approaches) by focusing on more ‘conceptual’ art (art that is virtually innovative and coded more individually). Maybe it’ time to add, not subtract. After all, with such global, apparently limitless, easy, generous, virtual access to art  images– even to museum collections - on the Internet, if the purpose is to increase attendance, the challenge isn’t to pretend to cure people’s ills but to get them on their feet and out of their houses to engage in actual interaction with actual art for all its qualities, including the sensory and dimensional ones. 

Sunday 4 May 2014

Learning the Symbols

The Journey
photo collage

One of my favourite tasks as an artist who is also a curator of an art gallery is to visit artists’ studios. It’s complicated though, because it can also be the most difficult. I have to turn aside that part of my awareness where my own imagery and motivation lie to be able to receive what I see without distraction. An artist’s brain is like a Venus fly trap, it is always poised to catch at stimulation, always hungry for the things that will trigger the imagination and set an idea in motion. It’s instinctive before it’s intellectual and it doesn’t take much, everything is always a potential, everything is an inspiration.
So I stand outside the artist’s door and go through my little ritual, my little shift from ‘artist’ to ‘curator’. I have to be careful because I don’t want to shut down the very things about me, the artist, that make me, the curator, connect with other people’s work. The moment I cross the threshold I am stepping into the other’s world and seeing it with the other’s eyes; I don’t want to blind myself to any part of the experience. I am there, after all, to become familiar with the artist’s body of work and to ascertain whether I can exhibit it then or at a later date in the context of a not-for-profit, educational gallery in a municipal complex.
Sometimes the mesh of artist and gallery is obvious, and I can offer the artist an exhibition on the spot. At other times there are impediments, the artist isn’t financially ready to tackle a solo exhibition, for instance, or there isn’t enough of work. In that case I have to ask her/him to re-apply at a later date. It’s stressful when I have to refuse the work because it doesn’t live up to the submission, though it is rare that I conduct a studio visit if I have not already ascertained the work’s consistency and the artist’s level by examining the dossier. I know what all three scenarios feel like from the artist’s end, so I try to proceed as the best curators I have dealt with have proceeded with me.
However, while I am there to select artists and works for exhibition, my approach is of a fact-finding nature: Whether I offer them an exhibition or not, I seek to meet and become familiar with the artists whose progress I can then follow.
These days, it is rare for artists to be able to present their body of work directly, and to do so in their studios, amid their work in progress, the tools, materials, even the mess of their creative process and one-on-one with an attentive, informed viewer. Most of us aren’t used to it. When I arrive at their studios, therefore, most artists receive me warily, with some trepidation. They see me only as The Curator, that is, as someone who is there only to judge them and their work. After all they’ve invited me in hoping to get an exhibition out of it. They might compensate by adopting a kind of show-off attitude or a too-casual one. Some become self-deprecating, finding fault with their own work before I even have a chance to see it, others try to impress me with the sales they’ve had or their CVs as if these things will enhance the work’s value in my eyes.
You’d think that this would be true only of the beginner artists, the amateurs, or the ‘emerging’ ones who haven’t much experience with ‘the public’ and who meet a curator or dealer for the first time. It is not. I have dealt with some remarkable, renowned artists who have a solid body of work yet who have been as nervous as if they fear I will doubt the quality of their work.
Luckily the discomfort doesn’t usually last once we begin to talk, except with those artists who don’t care about anything but the ‘yes’ they want to hear, those who only want me to take their imagery, do all the work to show and market it, sell it for high prices and make them famous. There’s no possible dialogue with them: despite my explanation that my gallery is not-for-profit, educational, that I am not a dealer, and that anyway, today’s art market doesn’t work that way. The ‘it’s not that kind of gallery’ is a bitter disappointment to them, and I leave their studios feeling like the Wicked Witch of the West (The Wizard of Oz …)
The best studio visits are those that focus on the imagery itself, if artists view their work not as marketable commodities but as living entities, as denizens of their creative world. They, however, have a different anxiety about my visit. It’s not the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ they worry about but my pre-conceptions and expectations. Do I come to actually LOOK at their work or do I have my own blinders on, my own agenda? Curators, after all, often select artists who and work that will support their own aesthetic or academic premise: the work can be dismissed offhand, for instance because it is ‘too ‘narrative’ or because it does not incorporate electronic components or address social issues, or any other of the popular or current concerns.
On the other hand, and way too often, some people who are invited by artists to ‘look at my work” or who are asked for a ‘critique’ assume they are expected to praise or correct what they see, focusing on the technical or skill level, or on whether they ‘like’ the work. Comments often are preceded by such statements as, “You should…”., or “Why didn’t you…?” or “I’d have…”, or suggestions about how much better the work would work in another medium. Vague statements about images needing to have ‘meaning’ or to aim for ‘contemporary’ ideas communicate nothing at all.
I am clear about the gallery’s mandate, but I am also clear about my interest in the artist and the work, because I believe that fi art is meant to evoke emotion, provoke thought, provide therapy, give pleasure, inspire change, enlighten, create desire, refer to history, be inspiring or therapeutic, and serve all the other functions assigned to it by critics and historians (man, what responsibility!), it would be good it all artists, each and every one, were actually to see and know how people felt, what they thought, in what way they were enlightened by their work, and so on.
How many people actually ask questions about the visual art they see, and really probe the work they’re looking at, even within the profession? And how often do the artists get to know that someone has actually gone the distance with their work, even when it has been bought? From my conversations with artists over the years, I’d say not many and not often if they aren’t interviewed for catalogues or articles or the guests in programs or classrooms.
We artists do sometimes fear what people will see in our work, how they’ll interpret it, what terrible reviews or critiques will be written, and we suffer terrible agony wondering ‘why?” if it doesn’t get selected for exhibition, even when we are ‘famous’. As a result, many claim they don’t care to know the impact of their work. They say they dissociate from what they’ve made the minute they finish it, all they want then is to move on. To them, it apparently doesn’t matter what people ‘read’ in the work as long as they connect to it on their own level.
Perhaps, but I have yet to visit artists’ studios with whom dialogue is possible and been able to just look and leave. They want me to receive, to react to what I see, and they watch me closely as I do; they want me to make associations and to relate their work to art criticism and art history. They want me to perceive their technique, their style and their symbolism and to understand what they are sharing or communicating. They want me to share my insights, emotions, thoughts and reactions. If I can also exhibit their work, they receive the news as a bonus.
Happily, I can spend time in the artists’ studios. I can look at as much of their work that is available that they are willing to show me. We can visit past images, respond to current work, and imagine future directions. The artists can reveal the original triggers for their work, those experiences or people in their lives that inspired their imagery, drew them to their medium and shaped their artistic philosophies. We can look at how the artists use their media, their tools, how they set themselves up to work. We can find those things in the imagery that connect us as human beings. All these things help me become a better viewer and a better advocate for their work, no matter what the immediate outcome of the studio visit.