Sunday 27 December 2015

I Want to Be An Artist

Empty Promises
photo collage c.ascher

How many parents have reacted with restrained horror upon hearing their child announce “I want to be an artist”? You, reader, might well be one of them. Perhaps you stood there, or maybe you will soon stand there, momentarily regretting having asked your son or daughter, “What do you want to  be when you grow up?”

How many children who answered “I want to be an artist,” when asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” had their self-determination crushed by parents (or teachers) who re-directed them into other lives? Maybe you were one of these children. How did your parents react?

Here are typical, self-identity destroying reactions to children's announcements that they “want to be an artist”:
1) No worries, you’ll grow out of it.
2) You’ll starve! You need a real profession.
3) Absolutely not. You must follow in MY footsteps!
4) Don’t be silly. You’ll need to be supporting us in our old age.
5) You are going to be a … (fill in the profession) and I will have no argument!
6) And become a selfish, arrogant human being?
7) And maybe become a gay or lesbian homeless drug addict? Is that what you want?
8) No child of mine will be a sissy! Hockey, now that’s a real profession!
9) What will the family and friends think?
10) Well dear, talent is something you’re born with.
11) You have to be rich to make it as an artist.
12) Not until you bring up your marks in all your other school subjects!
13) Only if you become an industrial designer or maybe a graphic artist. How about a game designer? An engineer! An architect! That pays well!
14) Happiness and fulfillment don’t put a roof over your head. Believe me, I know!
15) This life was good enough for me, it will be good enough for you!
16) Your teachers haven’t noted a special talent. Aptitude tests point you to … (fill in an employable job)
17) Oh dear. That doesn’t LOOK like a … (whatever the viewer thinks the artwork should portray)
18) Well then I won’t pay for your education.

What were you told? How did it affect you? Did you become an artist anyway? Do you regret following or not following your own ambition? 

Don’t tell me, As an artist, an art teacher and a gallery curator, I hear the longing, the regret, the self-doubt every time I meet someone who believed, accepted or lived by any one of these or similar assertions.

And the worst of it?  These parents (teachers) convince themselves they’re acting in the children’s best interest!

Sunday 18 October 2015

Artists and Rebellion

We're trying but...
photo collage

Ah, artists. Wonderful and strange folks.  I have been one of them for much of my life, but I’ve also dealt with them in my roles as educator and gallery curator.
Artists are wonderful because they (most of the good ones anyway) express truths as they experience and know them, often bravely, often going against the expected grain. They don’t like to be told what to do, they in fact often see themselves as exempt from the dictates of fashion, taste and expectation.They aim for insight, honesty, engagement (the good ones anyway).
Many artists see themselves as revolutionary: they see it as their duty to rebel against strictures, dogmas, and submission requirements. They expect others to meet them and their imagery head-on, with open arms. They aim to have AN EFFECT on those who gaze at their work, much like a bolt of lightning has, or a Grand Canyon has: big, life-changing, important but most of all recognized and appreciated. They expect to be respected.
This attitude is wonderful in their practice, when they are in their studios struggling or collaborating with their media. They then are alone in their universe, masters of their imagery and technique, free from influence and constraint to express, explore, experiment, create and please themselves in the process.
Problem is, many don’t quite get exactly what it means to be ‘revolutionary’. They don’t quite understand the role of ‘the rebel’.  Artists are strange because, for all their creativity and courage, they don’t get it at all when those against whom they rebel don’t appreciate their revolution. They expect respect, but they also crave indulgence  They are surprised, even hurt when their images succeed in provoking, when the reaction of those whose expectations are challenged is dismissive or even hostile rather than celebratory.
Rebellion is by definition provocative; revolution is in effect disturbing and confrontational. It’s counterproductive to expect permission to be rebellious or approval when one is revolutionary.
 When I teach artists or curate their exhibitions I tell them this: I’ve discovered in my life that my art evolves and grows when I strive to be rebellious and revolutionary in my practice, permission and approval be damned.  However, I’ve also learned that my profession stalls if I’m blindly so in my dealings outside my studio. I will get neither recognition nor appreciation if I all I achieve is to sabotage the efforts of those in the business who would otherwise work with me to our mutual benefit.
I hope artists get it.

Sunday 13 September 2015

More Thoughts About Process

Five Stories
photo collage C. Ascher

Art making isn’t just about sudden ideas, immediate visual stimulation or pop-up images. It’s a process: it’s a sequence of thoughts and a series of actions that explore the ways feelings, ideas or inspiration can be married to medium through gesture to go extract the deepest personal meaning they represent. The aim is expression, but it’s also connection, it’s showing, but it’s also sharing.
I recently invited member artists of a local association to create work for an exhibition in response to the theme ‘Fire’. Many of the participants went with the first image that came to their minds as they considered the theme.  They approached Fire as an object.  Among the works submitted were various versions of these images: cats contemplating a fireplace, people sitting around campfires, still-life images of objects illuminated by candlelight or lamplight.
Others, however, took the creation process further to consider other possibilities. One painter showed a dragon spewing fire, in another’s work a phoenix burst into flames, in a third, candles burned as if for a religious ritual. There were numerous forests being consumed by yellow and red flames (a propos given the forest fires that raged in western Canadian provinces this summer), and volcanoes erupting. They rendered Fire as a subject, broadening it
Then there were images that dug further still not just to describe Fire as an objector or as an action but to capture sensation or emotion. One painter rendered a flamenco dancer at the height of her passion. Another represented hot peppers as they waited on plates or in a shopping basket. A third captured the wisps of smoke from a dying – or igniting - oil lamp wick. A fourth pictured Johnny Cash’s ‘Ring of Fire”. Another showed the burning of a funeral pyre in India, a Sati (or Suttee, a banned practice where a widow burns with her deceased husband).
Some abstracted their Fire. They focused on the way that reds, yellows, blues and other colours interact as a fire burns, on the movement of the flames and on the transparency of the smoke. Neither on object nor subject, they rather focused on expressing the elements of fire through their medium, oil, watercolour or acrylic for instance, and through their usage. The painterly technique itself is what conveyed the image’s meaning.
During a critique of their exhibition, many of the artists revealed that they had little direct or current experience with fire. Candles and fireplaces or memories of long-ago campfires were about the limit of their contact. This led us to a discussion about the levels of thinking involved in the interpretation of an idea in art. As seen from the descriptions above, artists have many choices in considering how they will approach a subject: form the common (or popular), to literal (or descriptive), to representational (descriptive + subtly experiential) to interpretative (personally and expressively experiential) to conceptual (or philosophical and universal). Or all of them combined.
It’s important for artists to understand their relationship to their subjects, just as they understand their relationships to their tools, media, techniques and styles. There is a difference between the image, sensation or emotion that arises out of artists’ lived experiences (being burned by a match as a child, or causing a fire or falling in love before a fireplace for instance) to a subject suggested by observation, contemplation or a call-for-submissions (watching a cat laze before a fire or my imposing a fire theme on artists who have little current or personal experience with it). In other words, are artists approaching their images as an expression of personal truth or as a contemplation of a more objective truth, or both?
The most successful images long-term combine lived/felt experience with a broader, more profound understanding of what that image might convey beyond the obvious or the expected.

Sunday 30 August 2015

Of Memory and Photographs

The Landlord
photo collage C. Ascher

            It’s a funny thing about memory. There are different kinds. There is the pop-up memory that surprises us as we’re living in the now. There is the lingering memory, perhaps of something pleasant or someone for whom we cared, or the inescapable memory of a trauma or conflict. There are those just-on-the-tip-of-my-tongue teasers, or those deeply buried rotters that slowly poison our lives, those we sense are there but that we cannot, or will not access. There are those we’ve integrated so thoroughly into our skill or knowledge that they support – or sabotage -everything we do. Or there are memories that hook into us like fishing lures, their pull powered by the suction of our black holes, which we are constantly trying to escape.
Even funnier are those memories contained in photographs. There you are standing in a place or surrounded by people you don’t know. The photograph remembers them, it remembers you there, smiling, or mugging, or holding someone’s hand, but you look at it frowning, uncertain, surprised, with no memory of it at all. Perhaps you don’t even recognize yourself, perhaps other people have told you that baby is you there as they reminisce about how you were this or when you did that as you sit there skeptically, mistrustful, thinking they might be pulling your leg.
Well, that last is my experience of memory and of old photographs.
A friend recently told me he’d been looking at photographs of himself throughout his life. He remembers the places and the people clearly. The thing is, a man of sixty-seven, he has an amazing memory that stretches vividly back to when he was at least two. He remembers the houses and streets where he lived in another country, he remembers the names of people gone from his life for almost sixty years, he remembers objects he had and things he did and all manner of experiences as if he lives them anew with each remembering.
What amazes me is that he doesn’t need photographs to remember these things. All one has to do is encourage him with questions, one leading to another, and his past opens up to a listener like a movie being replayed. I sometimes envy him. There are too many things in my past that I only know about because of what other people remember. They are stories that make the photographs they show me seem vaguely familiar but that do little to trigger real memories of my own.
In another way, I consider myself the luckier one. When he talks about his past I hear in his voice such melancholy, such longing, such pain as he remembers I sometimes wish the photographs didn’t exist to confirm his experiences. It’s almost as if they help to transport him back physically:  there he is standing on a dock about to board a ship, an excited five-year old; now he’s standing and laughing beside a best friend; there he is throwing balls for his favourite dog to catch; or he’s staring proudly before the façade of the first house he bought.
That is the problem: when he relives the past he does so as the person he was then, as the child or the teen again; when he revisits it through photographs all he sees is himself, even when he’s not pictured.
For a while it worried me that he was becoming more and more consumed by these memories, that his random perusal of the photographs was causing a kind of emotional malfunction because it made him jump from event to portrait to place without regard for when he experienced them in his life. He’d forget that the child he saw smiling and holding a teddy bear was happily ignorant of what would happen a year later, or that the girl with whom he held hands in the picture would no longer love him shortly after the shutter released. He relived the ‘then’ but suppressed the ‘now’. He was unaware that his backward gaze as he ignored the present erased all his experiences in between, but also made him see colour where there was only black and white.
Now he’s taken to ordering his photographs in an effort to tame his memories, thinking that placing them chronologically will have a reassuring effect. He’s also taken the suggestion that, photo or no, he write his memories down with as much detail as he can remember, one a day. He must set the scene of each memory, describe the circumstances and the people and articulate the thoughts and emotions he remembers feeling at the time. This is makes him externalize them in a way that reverie, even when looking at the photographs, cannot.
So I tell him this: As you do this work, think like an artist. Don’t be sucked in by the emotion and don’t let the photograph help you disregard the present. As you sort the pictures, be the photographer, the one who holds the camera, not the unsuspecting subject in it being fixed in time. Imagine you, the today you, are taking each photograph, not just looking at it. And as you write, pay attention, let the memories inform you, note the hidden details or the things those pictured could not see coming, link one photograph to the next with the things the camera didn’t capture.
See the past with the knowledge you didn’t have then, for instance that your family was boarding a boat because it was being driven from its native country by a hostile new national government, that you would never see your friend again because he was left behind, that you had to abandon your dog. Flesh in the environment, the history, the politics, and the other external things you now know influenced the “then” in ways you could maybe neither avoid nor control.
The thing is, he needn’t be a victim of the emotions the memory triggers; he needn’t fear or wallow in them. He knows much more than he did then, he is much more than he was then. If he can let that knowledge lead him to new insights and discoveries about the person all those experiences made him today, good and bad, how much richer will the remembering make him!

Friday 21 August 2015

The Artist's Donation Conundrum

Time Out
photo collage C. Ascher

            Well. I have been invited yet again to donate one of my artworks for a fundraising event. I’m always told it’s a great honour I am being given, the opportunity to have my name beside tens of others’ associated with a good cause. I am reminded of said good cause, the implication being that I am to gain as I support, if only the satisfaction of knowing I’m not a self-interested, greedy person. However, I’m told the real pay-off is that I get to attend the event itself as a guest of honour, which lets me expand my network of contacts while also helping to promote and sell the art.
            I have donated to such events for well over thirty years. There have been exhibitions, auctions, special recognition gifts, and numerous other ways that I’ve supported good causes, from breast cancer research to under-funded, not-for-profit art centres. It did warm my heart to know that I could put my own interests aside to rise to the call. There is, after all, more and more desperate need for already heavily taxed individuals to help fund social programs and services once understood to be the governments’ responsibility in my country (don’t get me started!).
            Did I benefit by association? Satisfaction aside, not one whit. Few who bid on or buy the art at such events seem to be aware that there could be further contact with the artists. And many seem to believe that it is somehow unreasonable or distasteful for artists to expect to gain by their own work.
            Often, I didn’t even benefit from a tax receipt for my donation, a tax receipt for the sale price, not for the actual value of the work donated. See, while artists are again and again asked to donate, unless they are famous their work has no value until someone actually pays for it, at auction often way below the fair market value of the work, or in another kind of fundraiser only the percentage the artist gets after any commission or donation is deducted. That’s if the charity or organization has official status as a not-for-profit AND the right to issue tax receipts.
           Over the years, any pride or satisfaction I felt as a donor was undrmined by a nagging feeling that I was being used.  People usually go to auctions to underbid for works on which they’d have to pay commissions if they went to a gallery or for which they’d bargain if they dealt with the artist directly. They feel great about it because, while the artist loses the work and gets it undervalued, the buyer is still supporting a ‘good cause’. Many feel this is just because after all, artists donated work which they love doing, should be grateful to be encouraged to do it and happy for the opportunity to act in a highly moral way.
           For years, I still felt good about participating despite any doubts. True, my work didn’t always sell, but I was there: I leant my name to the event, I helped advertise, I sent out invitations, I was present to interact with guests, I encouraged any sales at any price, But.
           There’s an added twist this year to one of these fundraisers, an exhibition and sale. In previous years, I was automatically invited to the event for which I donated my work. This was usually a grand reception presented with much hoopla and attended by big crowds of artists and ticket-buying public. Buyers of works were often family, friends, students or collectors of the artists themselves. It was an ok event: where artists got 30% of the sold work.
           This year, however, to get a ticket for the grand opening of the event, we the donating artists have to either buy it for $40 like anyone else or waive our commissions if our work sells, no matter what the value or price. It’s not clear whether tax receipts for any amount will be issued. The idea is that we get to donate our work and help pay for the opening reception, wine, hors-d’oeuvres and all (even if these are also donated).
          To many, that offer may seem reasonable. Artists are given the canvases on which to create by a local sponsor so is it really all their donation? The event is after all for the venue’s or cause’s benefit, the organizers want a crowd of paying customers who’ll buy art, not a bunch of artists milling about drinking wine, eating hors d’oeuvres and hoping for attention. If I don’t want to be at the opening, well, they might not sell my work. No one will be out.
          To me, that’s not only unfair, it’s disrespectful.
          Do I or don’t I donate anyway? It’s a fundraiser for an art centre, a place that supports the visual arts. It has always been my policy to support such places in any way I can.
          Hmmm. No. I’m thinking it’s time I let others who might not feel insulted participate. As a practicing, professional artist, I am statistically among the lowest earning, least supported individuals in this society, no matter how much education and training I have, no matter how much work I do, and no matter how much I donate. I happen to be one who has many, many ways to contribute to my society in general and to the arts and artists in particular. Constantly being asked to donate my artwork should not be one of them.
          So, what are my thoughts when artists ask me in my teacher or curator role  if they should donate work? These:
-                 Don’t be tempted by possibilities
-                 Make sure the venue, event or cause is one you believe in and can honestly support.
-                 Expect to be present and visible, don’t abandon your claim to your work.
-                 Remember that exposure, contacts, recognition, established sales prices, fair commissions, and       tax receipts are reasonable things to expect.
-                 Most importantly, evaluate just how much respect you and your work will be accorded.
          You are NOT being indulged, favoured or privileged. YOU are doing the good deed.

Sunday 16 August 2015

Ten Steps to Help Save Our Culture

photo collage C. Ascher

          I was recently part of two exhibition events in the suburbs of Montreal, one for which I was the invited curator, and one where I helped an artist friend set up her booth. Each event involved many member artists of local associations and a large variety of compelling, affordable works. Both were meant primarily as sales events. In both cases, there were no gallery or other commissions. Despite all that, and as far as I know hardly any works sold out of both events, and neither event was heavily attended by the public despite beautiful locations, good parking, great weather, and good advertising and promotion campaigns by all involved.
What is wrong with the audience? It’s a question that has long bothered me.
We live in a city, Montreal, and in a province, Quebec, that tout themselves as cultural, even multi-cultural, but ‘the culture’ has in large part to be accessible free of charge. People will turn out to look and be entertained, but very few will support by buying. Summer festivals with their large, temporary crowds may include sidelines of visual arts displays, but the focus is on free outdoor performances and on massive ticket sales for indoor events. Art exhibitions, whether in established galleries, alternative spaces or art fairs, may draw viewers, but too few, and too few of those walk away with a work of art.
There are many excuses. As a gallery curator, I have heard them all, from works not matching people’s furniture to the uncertain economy They are all lame. People are still buying electronics, cars, going on expensive vacations, throwing or recycling tons of stuff, even indebting themselves to do so. They have been conditioned by ‘the marketplace’ to want, even to need mass-appeal or mass-produced things, which need to constantly be updated.
The fact is that people are not brought to understand, appreciate or really value visual languages; they are neither nurtured as practitioners nor encouraged as real consumers of the visual arts. This is not accidental. Education in the arts has been systematically eliminated from the public school system by government after government. The excuse there is that the born artists will find a way to learn and create, they will even manage to thrive if they are chameleons and can multitask naturally, or they can go earn a living in other countries. But the reality is that professionally, those who stay will have culturally undereducated, under-appreciative, entertainment-hungry audiences who blather on about ‘creativity’ and ‘culture’ but who are blinkered, intimidated or cheap when they actually encounter either without a huge crowd around them.
I have been observing this growing phenomenon for more than twenty-five years. I blame both provincial and federal governments, and all species of politicians. This is especially blatant with the current Conservative government that has taken the elimination of the arts and therefore the undermining of our culture to new heights.
 This Conservative engine runs on oil and other exploitable natural resources. It has meant the worship of money, and the conservation of the power status quo through fear mongering, gagging new attitudes, eliminating any threat of change, and now with bribing for votes. For this to be effective, there must be a population focused on self-preservation that is not too informed. People who know this are leaders in countries we consider ‘enemy’, but they also seem to be serving as models for our leader. This is clearly why artists, scientists, reporters, First Nations, and many other possibly dissenting people are being gagged, discredited or treated condescendingly.
This is why, without their realizing it, people’s ‘culture’ is becoming devoid of individuality, of personality, of a national identity and of real choice. It’s why people’s homes are being stuffed with the same quick-assembly, replaceable, increasingly imported stuff from coast to coast. The economy this supports is about making political parties through their supporters rich so the arts, especially if people live with them, are out because they encourage people to slow down, to think, to feel, to really plunge into an experience without needing to be ‘extreme’ about it, and to be fully engaged.
Politicians know you gotta get them young to stop real engagement from happening. Without culture through the arts, without art education, people become unimaginative, uncritical, superficially judgemental, indecisive and complacent, in the end not wanting to be bothered. They come to believe ethnicity is the sum total of culture and become defensive of theirs. They don’t share or exchange or respect. It’s just what the government ordered.
Some people may like this state of affairs. After all, governments in this country are elected. If others don’t like it, however, they might wonder if there is an immediate counter-measure. There are numerous ones. Here’s a ten-step one:
1.              Frequent a couple of galleries regularly alone, with friends or if you have one, with your family.
2.              Look at work you like and compare it with work you don’t like.
3.              Talk to the curators or to the artists if possible and ask questions – here are no ‘dumb’ questions but avoid assumptions. Good galleries or dealers will be happy to engage, it’s their job.
4.              Encourage kids, even if they're not yours, to do ask questions. LISTEN. Make sure they get some kind of answer.
5.              Voice and share your opinion, let the kids voice theirs so that there can be a conversation.
6.              Get to know the artists’ body of work.
7.              Identify those works that mean something to you or that make you feel (anything goes).
8.              Forget your décor and buy original art pieces by actual, living artists. Pay the money.
9.              Install the art you buy prominently in your home.
10.           Live consciously with it – tell yourself it’s not decoration.

People who follow these ten steps this will be amazed at the effect they will have, even short-term, even one person, one family at a time. Then they might well understand how they have been deprived, how generations are being limited. Maybe they’ll be inspired to do something about it.

Tuesday 11 August 2015

An Artist at a Crossroads

photo collage C. Ascher

I recently had a conversation with an artist who finds he is at a difficult crossroads. As if being an artist weren’t demanding enough, he is a sculptor, and one who works to human, not environmental scale. What’s more he is an immigrant. He is European trained within a strict classical tradition in which technical skill acquisition is the focus. He was taught that art making is an end in itself, a profession, and an essential expression of the national identity. Technique is taught and personal expression is left for artists to develop once they graduate.
He is also a full-time teacher in the Quebec educational system. Teaching has been his main source of income since his immigration, though he has continued creating his own work throughout that time. As a secondary art teacher, he has followed and taught his European artistic philosophy for twenty years. This has apparently put him at odds with others in his department who view art not as a viable career choice, but as a vehicle for individual expression and socializing their students. The fact that many who teach are not also practicing artists is a source of intense frustration for him.
With cuts to his teaching schedule pending, he is faced with having to replace the lost income. In Europe, it was possible for him to make a living from his art. However, the Quebec art public is generally a complacent art public, used to having access to art without having to buy it. In fact, the ‘average person’ is convinced that being an artist can’t possibly be profitable, and therefore believes that artists who aren’t commissioned or who don’t get grants don’t really work unless they have ‘real jobs’: he must be a teacher who paints, not a painter who teaches; a construction worker who sculpts, not a sculptor who also works in construction.
That is the reality for those artists who choose not to leave Quebec for places with a more complex art history and a population that respects the artist as a professional, who choose to participate in their society directly, ever hopeful that the quality of their art will result in the same success other professions enjoy.  This has been known to happen to others in time; by all rights, it should happen to him, in time, with some re-programming.

First: he will need to use the newly free-up time to minimize his ‘teacher’ thinking and give priority to his ‘artist’ thinking. This is difficult. Teacher thinking is out-side-in thinking. His priority when he teaches is the student, and he modifies his relationship to his own work in terms of demonstrating how he does ‘it’. He uses his own imagery, technique, style and ideas to draw the students’ out. The students’ achievement in terms of finished projects and marks are what determine their engagement with art, and his constant struggle to get them to think as artists distracts him from his own evolution as an artist.
Even though he maintained a personal practice as he taught, and even though it was already solidly established before he came to Quebec, it is reduced. The divided attention and the focus on finished product within a constrained time frame, if not the exhaustion that comes with teaching compromise his process in the studio. For an artist, less or limited teaching is better than more: part-time is better than full-time so a reduction in his teaching schedule should mean good things for his art production.
Second: he will have to at first avoid expecting his art to provide him his living. This is also difficult, especially if he keeps reminding himself that it would have been doable ‘back home’. As well, his responsibilities as a provider will be more difficult for him to meet. If he must replace the lost income a reduction in teaching time represents, he has many choices of compatible jobs, jobs that depend on superior skills with dimensional media and its equipment as well as a strong visual thinking ability. With his skills and flexibility there is no reason why he can’t find work in art-related or art-dependant fields despite ‘his age’. These, however, are still out-side-in activities, and replacing teaching with other jobs gains him no time for his sculpture.
Other second, or third: he will have to secure his family’s support. His children are at an age when they can begin contributing to their own needs, and his wife, a fellow artist, is established in her imagery and can be professionally independent. As well, perhaps a family council can find ways that members of can act as assistants or help handle on-line promotional activities and exhibition demands to market the art he produces internationally. Perhaps the family can pool its considerable creative talent and find ways to manage with a reduced collective income for a while.
However, by far the most important work he must do is in his studio. He is not the person he was during his artistic training. He has been changed by his life in Canada, and in Quebec. He must ask himself if his work reflects this change. Perhaps the requirements of teaching on his attention and the rushed nature of his practice have acted like a time capsule on his imagery, freezing it in the past. Familiarity with it may be what has allowed him to continue working part-time on his sculpture, but it may also be the thing that constrains it. If that is the case, he has catch-up work to do. He has to reconcile the disconnection between his European technique-based approach and the North American idea (or concept) based approach.
This artist must find a way to reconcile and merge these supposedly conflicting approaches without compromising his style or fundamental beliefs about his own sculpture. That takes time. And that time has to be dedicated, better now that it’s less part-time than it was. That will be his huge challenge.

Sunday 26 July 2015

Academics and Art

photo collage C. Ascher

“Academics are killing the arts!”
Most recently, I heard this complaint from an artist who is suddenly being refused admission to exhibitions in a gallery that up to now has eagerly represented her art. Why was she refused, she asked? She was told that her artist’s statement was too vague. “But I’m a painter,” she complained, “everything I have to say is in the painting!” This concept seemed to stymie the curator.
I read the exhibition requirements. The gallery’s request for submission documents seems to expect the artists to articulate the exhibition’s concept through their statements about their work. It’s as if the curators come up with impressive-sounding catch phrases for their exhibitions but then rely on the artists to flesh these out convincingly. I suspect more and more that many so-called curators can’t ‘read’ the art they see at all unless words decipher it for them.
I see this as a symptom of a widespread problem: in Quebec anyway, people who run galleries in the public sector compete for grants or status based on their curatorial concepts (or on their academic alliances). The concepts are so specialized that only the artists who’ve mastered the specific ‘art-speak’ being used are admitted, regardless of the qualities of their art.
So I say:
J’accuse! I accuse curators running grant-dependant exhibitions of dog paddling in the art waters, relying on fancy words to provide them with a life jacket.
J’accuse! I accuse granting agencies of reducing dependant galleries and their curators to circus performers, forcing them to greater and greater feats of word-based contortionism to continue operating. The ones that survive do so on a very narrow, conceptual tight rope.
J’accuse! I accuse art education post-secondary degrees of miring the image in words, as if images aren’t ‘conceptual’ by their very nature, and simultaneously creating a quagmire so extensive only those who can operate in the virtual realm can now venture in safely.
I say:
Of course there have to be standards, of course there has to be a high level of ‘discourse’ but tone the language down and open your eyes gallery people!  Be clear but flexible not fortified and defended. You run art galleries, not forts or universities.

Sunday 19 July 2015

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

photo collage C. Ascher

People often ask artists, people often ask me, “Where do you get your ideas?” which actually seems to mean, “Where do you get your strange ideas?”  It seems to stymie them how artists working expressively can keep generating image after image, many of them rendered in very unique, unexpected and yes, sometimes weird ways.
It’s one thing to look at a beautiful landscape or flower, even to see a group of pleasantly arranged objects or an attractive face and be moved to want to represent it realistically. That’s what I call ‘apparently direct inspiration’, the impulse comes from wanting to capture that exact image, and the focus is on gaining the technique to do so. Once the image is made, the usual reaction is for the viewer to experience the skill of rendering and thus be transported into the presence of the object or subject as if standing before it. The artist has fixed the image in time and place so that her/his experience of noting it, of being moved by it can be shared.
This ‘apparently direct inspiration’ creates the illusion that it is an outside-in process, a ‘pure’ response triggered by the sight of something that exists supposedly independent of the artist. This is the most expected way of receiving and rendering images, and most of us who are sighted can create in this way if we acquire the required mastery of the materials. Our success or ability can then be judged or measured in comparison to that of others who have chosen to render in this way no matter when, historically speaking, they did so. The image can be experienced directly; the artist’s interpretation (subtlety of brush or tool stroke, composition, lighting, the very moment or perspective chosen, etc.) must be invisible, subliminal, or at the very least discreet. This gives the impression that the artist doesn’t mediate the viewer’s experience.
To render in this way, people think ‘all’ the artist has t do it seems is to look around, see something and render it. Viewers accept this as obvious and relate to it quite readily.
It’s altogether another thing for an artist to render something by what I call ‘obviously filtered experience’. This inside-out approach shows the way a perceived image or an experienced event is processed, understood, integrated, altered and expressed by the artist. The artist in this case has to either align him/herself with a technique developed by others whose process is similar, their ‘style’ or their ‘ism’, or try to create her/his own.
While we’ve been exposed to the first rendering method for centuries, viewers often seem to have a hard time understanding the latter, more recently developed processes, hence the above question.
Since my art is largely the result of a mix of these former and latter processes, I sometimes answer the question by saying,
“Think that my head is like a food processor: images go into my eyes and sensations go in via my other senses; on the way from my heart to my mind they fall into my memory and get scrambled with the memory of other sights and experiences; my dreams, personality, culture(s), thoughts, conceptions (or misconceptions) get mixed in. The resulting concoction pours through my hands into my media and expresses itself as my work, coming out more like a pulpy, Expressive juice than a Realistic smoothie. Things are represented as they seem, or feel, or inspire, or provoke, not necessarily as they are. There are as many more variations, endless in fact, than there are objects or experiences my life.”
Then I ask hopefully, “Does that help answer your question?”

Sunday 12 July 2015

A Question of Degree?

This Introvert's Circus
photo collage C. Ascher

            Are you an Introvert or Extrovert?” That question came up out of nowhere in a doctor’s waiting room. The person was reading a magazine. I was going to ignore the question. I edged over a little, pretending I hadn’t heard. But I couldn’t help thinking about it. The person looked at me expectantly.
My answer finally: “I am an artist.” I thought that pretty much covered it.
“What does that mean?” was the response. I was stuck. I had to clarify.
‘I mean I guess I’m both,” I said.
“It says here you’re either or. There’s a questionnaire, see?”
My stomach clenched. “No questionnaire.”
“Well, what do you mean?”
I regretted engaging, but now there was no way out. “Well,” how to explain it? “When I’m thinking about, researching, planning, and making my art, I want to be alone, undisturbed. The presence of someone else in my art space is distracting. And,” I added pointedly, “unwelcome.”
“Even if it’s your family?”
“Even love and affection have nothing t do with it. I get irritable. All I want is for the person to go away so that I can get back to work. But then, when the work is finished and I take it out of my studio, I want to experience people’s reactions, get into profound conversations about it. I want people to connect with it.” I hoped that did it.
            “So you want privacy and acclaim.”
            “Not privacy. It’s not about privacy. It’s about being alone with my material, trying to discover. And then it’s not about acclaim, it’s about seeing the impact the finished work has independently of me.”
            “What’s the difference? Being private is an alone thing isn’t it?”
            “Big difference. Privacy is when you take a break from being ‘public’, as when you’re with family or friends or at work and want some time to yourself to think, finish some task, rest, clear your mind or re-focus. You want to go back to being with people after you’re done.”
“Yes, of course.”
“But being solitary is different. You need to be alone to focus on the ideas and thoughts so that something may come of them, hopefully something meaningful and important. A break from that can mean you lose the thread, you lose the momentum, the possibility can be irretrievably lost. That is more frustrating than being with people is pleasant. The public or social interaction is then a burden to be avoided at all costs.”
            “But you want acclaim.”
            “No. Once the thinking comes to fruition, I want response. For what I’ve achieved to have any meaning, it has to have a life beyond me. Acclaim is about me; the attention is on me, in the end it’s a superficial response that makes me basically exploit the achievement, or in which the achievement is secondary. That’s useless to me, because what distinguishes me is my realizing something that has meaning beyond me. It can live on, be social or public in my stead while I go focus on the next possibility.”
“Don’t you take a break?”
 “Well, sort of. Not really. It’s always going on in my head. It’s because my work isn’t based on tasks or independent units. It’s a continuum. Do you see?” Surely.
            “You don’t want to be admired or loved? Don’t you want fame and fortune? Isn’t that what artists want?”
            “Of course, but not like that, not like you mean it.”
“How I mean it?”
“Because of me, not as a result of my achievement.”
            “What’s the difference?”           
            My upper lip had begun twitching. This was torture … what was holding the doctor up?
            “What is the difference?” repeated as if I hadn’t heard.
            There was no out. “What I am is only partly genetic, only partly determined by biology. Who I am is a result of how I’ve tried to understand my life, what I’ve noticed about life. What I make of and with it is what defines me, not my notoriety or success. It’s a process, see, a life’s work.” Why did I open my mouth? The look I was getting was skeptical, like I was trying to pull one over, or like I was some kind of alien spouting strange sounds.
            There was a long pause. Then: “Well, you should try this questionnaire,” was the reaction.
OMG! I thought, and changed my mind about giving out an invitation to my exhibition.
            “The doctor will see you now,” called the receptionist, and I bounded out of my chair like a Jack-in-the-Box. “Goodbye!” I said. I was free!