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!

Friday 10 July 2015

Virtual vs Actual

photo collage C. Ascher

I’m thinking that in this world of ‘selfies’ and minutiae, the focus seems to have shifted from our actual accomplishments to our texts and photos about our daily activities, our fantasies and to our ‘brand’. The ease and speed of recording, and the sheer volume of postings makes it imperative that we keep a ‘presence’ on the web, even if that presence is illusory, banal and in the end, only as noticeable as the number of hits it can amass.
Recording anything that moves, sharing, liking, linking, re-posting, hash-tagging, Blogging and other fun, easy, quick activities take up our attention, energy and give us the impression that we’re being creative and communicative without demanding undue effort on anybody's part. After all, it’s gotta be quick, it’s gotta be catchy and it’s gotta be accessible to millions!
It’s addictive; technology has allowed us to feel like magicians who can conjure up popularity, fame and hopefully fortune from the comfort of our electronic devices. At the very least we can amass ‘friends’ the world over without ever having to really deal with them as flesh and blood. We were primed for it by television, by all those weekly series and talking heads; and, just as we could change the channel at will, we can befriend and un-friend with a tap of a finger. If that isn’t magic…
Other than cautioning us to be careful and consider our choices, perhaps their actual aim, movies like Blade Runner, The Matrix and Artificial Intelligence have shown us an attainable goal. “I can do that!” cry the technophiles and inventors who are no longer under the calming, humanizing influence of Mr. Spock and the Star Trek world. All they see are the nifty gadgets created for the movies, the neat special effects, and in true nuts and bolts fashion, they set out to figure out how to realize them, how to outdo them, how to beat each other to the stock market rush.
Now we’re entering a new phase of technological ingenuity. Inventors are having paroxysms of pleasure figuring out how to make ‘smart’ devices. It’s not enough that we’re monitored on every street corner and that it’s open season on our every public act, we are now being scrutinized by our personal, effort-saving appliances. From our cars to our watches, from our coffee machines to our beds, our very bathroom mirrors, we are being watched, recorded, analyzed, computed, data about us is being amassed and broadcast to... whom? All this so that more devices can be created to target us, enhancing our belief that we are important: to those selling the devices we willingly offered up our privacy as sacrifice for that illusion.
Pretty soon, we won’t know we’re alive unless a gadget tells us so.
So was The Matrix really all that shocking? Living life in a womb-like pod, free of those annoying bodily functions, our every physical need provided via an umbilical-like tube while we live ‘in the cloud’ – hey, forget the mystery, we’ve created Heaven!  It must sound very appealing to those inventors. That is, unless they plan to keep themselves ‘off-line’ so that they can continue inventing and improving our lives?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for keeping those inventive hands and heads busy, and I do thank them that I get to ‘delete’ instead fussing with whiteout. By my very compliance, I share in the optimism created by the technology. But I also don’t want to get rid of my SLR camera, recycle my books, put my typewriter in a museum, just look longingly at my vinyl records, explain to kids what a postage stamp is (soon what a handshake is), give up the steering wheel when I drive, be plugged in and online at every second of the day, as if these things really are ‘ecological’ and ‘planet-saving’ in a world with billions of humans and more coming.
I don’t want to replace everything I worked hard to get for everything I’m supposed to want.
It’s not the inventors anyway, not their fault that everything still useful and appreciated is thrown out with the bathwater. It’s the industrialists. I just wish that when manufacturing gets a hold of new inventions, they don’t re-purpose every single factory and re-program every single assembly line and get rid of most of their human hands and minds except for the product marketers. But they are prey to or slaves of ‘the economy’ or ‘the marketplace’ or even ‘the stock market’, which get their grubby, greedy hands on everything.
I wish they didn’t eliminate every invention that came before, or make it so marginal that I have to be rich to indulge my ‘caprice’. I know how to use a pencil and paper, I don’t NEED a stylus and a screen, or a bank of public-access images. But how long will it be before some genius behind a sales counter in an ‘art store’ will look at me like I’m some kind of archeologist looking for an artifact if I ask for paint in tubes or bags of clay?
 I just wish that, with my privacy, I didn’t also have to give up my choice. I don’t want to be driven underground or be pushed aside because I don’t want ever new machines to ‘facilitate’ (or direct) all aspects of my life. As the movies warn, androids or mega-machines will perhaps inherit the earth; I just isn we didn't make it so speedily easy for them to do so. Not all of us want virtual lives; some of us LIKE actual living.