Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Elgy of Emptyness - The Boat

Elgy of Emptiness - "I grant to you a soldier who has no heart. One who will not falter in the darkness. This soldier who has no heart is your twin image. A shell of yourself who you will shed when your song commands it."

                       - Igos du Incana (The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask)

                             Falling Boat, oil on canvas, 16"x54", Argyle Fine Art 

I recall years ago, I think it was in 1991, going to a reading of Alistar Macleod's The Boat in Canso Nova Scotia. The reading was by Robbie O'Neill, from the Mulgrave Road Theatre Company. It took place in a contemporary prefab fire hall (with a corrugated metal roof ) which the community used for fundraisers, or town meetings among other things.

The crowd was sparse. Canso had just lost their fish plant so I think being further depressed by a story lamenting the loss of a son's father to the sea, or the conflict of losing their fishing tradition to the value of post secondary education, probably accounted for the paltry thirty or so people who turned out for this literary dirge.

The evening was about turning tragedy into art; about participating in an historical elgyizing of sombre events. Events which have plagued coastal communities for longer than I wish to define. Readers of Alistar Macleod's work will be familiar with the abiding qualities of lament or elgy for a traditional way of life in his now universal stories. I know I was rivited to my seat as the boat unfolded for a a group of people with truer insights into the gradual decline and loss of their values, than I as a new comer, could fathom at the time.

 But, through O'Neill's reading, and a slow and gradual build up of rain outside on the aluminium roof which intensified as the story evolved, there was produced a sense of engagement with the collective process a good story and reader elicits. I would think it highly unlikely that anyone from that community left that night without privately examining their fundamental sense of self - it was that poetic and strong an experience.

                   Red Boat on a Coastal Road, oil on canvas, 32"x54", Roberts Gallery 

The collective need to work through deep generational feelings of loss can haunt the emotions of a community (or an individual for that matter) for years to come and are characteristic of the maritime ethos. The urban cry to abandon support for rural mills and fish plants in favour of the innovative economy will produce the spectre of more decline to come for the regional identity. More than anything this will test the resiliance of small communities in the tewnty first century.

 Memorializing loss through art or public ritual, is one way to explore discord in a community that is subject to the external pressures of changing economies, geography, and regional disparity common to most contemporary coastal regions in Nova Scotia.

However, as humans we all witness it and face it; just like in the boat, where isolation threatens to reduce community hope to an existential and uniform conclusion which is meaningless, yet one through process we are compelled to explore.

Steven Rhude, January 15th, 2012

Thursday, 12 January 2012

A Regionalist with an Issue

-Chambers unabashed regionalism "is an issue" in appreciating the artist.-

    Dennis Reid former art historian/ chief curator Art Gallery of Ontario

What motivates a historian when the artist in question worked with that old fashioned instrument called a paint brush and local subject matter among other things. You can sense an edge in Reid's obsevation of the late Jack Chambers, [Ontario painter, film maker and regionalist], intended to help assess the nature of his complex and creative equasion. However, with a historian the devil is always in the details. The Globe and Mail article link does not expand on why Chamber's regionalism was an "issue", or why erasing certain particularities struck a chord with millions, as in the prescribed example of Chagall - also a regionalist. But I think it would be easy to surmise. Museums and curators moved toward the trophy exhibit. The latest ism in 1960's came at an ever increasing rate - musems exhibited as though art was more a knee jerk reaction to life and creativity, rather than focusing on a profound response to the moment which was Chambers' objective in painting - realist painting.

 I would think though, for Chambers the realist, forging an identity during the heyday of Canadian modernism, when he was guided by realist and mystical principles was no easy feat. But Chambers had what is refered to as "resonnance" at the time. Now why is that?

Well, the same resonnance was also occuring at the same time in the Atlantic region through the Mount Allison School of Realism, so Jack really was not as alone as we may be lead to believe.

 E.J. Hughs was doing his thing on the west coast and regionalism was alive and well with practitioners such as Eric Freifeld and Christine Pflug in Ontario also. There were still critics and curators out there interested in regionalism and its place in the modernist pantheon, but they could not compete with the broader spectacle we now refer to as the blockbuster.

So why did Chambers' reputation  "dissapate like the mist" as Sarah Milroy claims? The answer lies not in why did Chambers' reputation dissapate? It is more likely: Why did regionalism in general dissapate and lose its place in our museum's consciousness - swallowed up in the wake of the ocean liner of modernism?

 Chambers' work speaks for individuals, and Canadians alike even if there is an "issue" to his particular brand of unabashed regionalism. Consider the moment, where ever you are, who ever you are, and you will see why realism was his partner in a search dependent on the local to express the universal. It was all he needed.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Wheel of Fortune - Fisherman's Winter

He hated winter,

Cut off from purpose, his images of spring and the lobster season were a long way off.

To far.

For someone who lived by the minute, on a surface of liquid lead, winter held no risks.
All he could do was sit in silence and tolerate the Wheel of Fortune.

         Steven Rhude,Wooden Buoy on a Road, oil on panel, 18"x24" Roberts Gallery

More like Wheel of Torture.

He knew his wife loved the show. He also knew it was an escape for her. But still, he hated guessing at vowels. The crowd cheering as the wheel spinned. The thumping sound of the rubber against the pegs.

February, and he was already prepared for the new season. The boat, gear, traps, and his art; his only art.

The buoy.

He would trapse across the snow ladden yard to the shed.

Warm and moist from the wood heat, he stared at the piece of wood waiting to be carved ... what was it that Michelangeo said 'there was no concept the stone did not contain'.

Something like that. He wouldn't tell. How could he, education only taught his kind to leave.

But still he would carve.  Every time -  a new shape or a new combination of colours.

 He knew they were not really buoys.

They were figures. He was a sucker for metaphor. Even read Herbert Read's Meaning of Art once. His wife wrinkled her nose at him when she caught him with the book.

Most of his mates switched over to styrofoam buoys a long while back. Cheaper and easier to justify, they came with horrid flourescent colours and combined with metal traps, erased the concept from Michelangelo's stone.  To him they were fakes.

Erased the connection he felt with the sea - his coffin.

So he believed.

He even looked up the definition of a buoy once on his son's computer.


... flotational device; rise by reason of lightness. He liked that.

He also liked the colours and how his were modern. He liked colour field painting. He liked Barnett Newman and Anna's Light. The title reminded him of a lighthouse even though the painting was probably not about something literal. He remembered the cafe in New Ross where he first read about some senator complaining about the purchase of a big  expensive painting for that gallery in Ottawa. What was it called?

They laughed - can't hear much fire in those stripes.

The guys from the fisherman's association were all there yucking it up, happy to be free of the pressures of work. The Chronicle Herald had it on the front page.

National Gallery purchases Newman's Voice of Fire for a million dollars.

"Looks like a colour swatch from Bill's hardware store" said Maynard.

He said nothing, just sat there in silence and turned his head to the window to watch the snow fall.

 Sip his coffee and recall the time he went to Toronto to visit his nephew, and saw blocks of shape and colour throughout the city.

 On buildings and in playgrounds.

 Once he saw a blue and a red butted up against each other on a large advertisement in a mall window. He thought it would make a good combination for a buoy. There was a blurr down the centre of the two colours creating a different effect.

Mauve or some kind of brownish purple? He wasn't sure. Didn't matter cause they couldn't see it. They couldn't see how they were all different with their buoys. How it connected them to their place. Some were yellow and black.

Just like their dad's were in Whitehead.

Clyde Mackenzie's was unique. All red with a casual white dot in the middle. Just like Clyde to break with tradition.

He never wore shoes if he didn't half to.

Still, he knew he was a modernist before they were. He had the evidence; it was all around him.

Had been for hudreds of years. He would go to Ottawa one day and see those abstract paintings for himself. Bring his wife just for fun.

No...not a chance. He needed to walk his dog.

Steven Rhude, January 7th, 2012


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The End of Art?

The End of Art? Surely a gross generalization. Everything comes to an end, of this we know; but in this case for what or whom?  The artist - the muse - the patron - the institution - society?

                                                           Steven Rhude
Paintbrush - oil, hog bristle, metal and wood (collection of the artist)

Sweeping generalizations such as this have been common in the past. Back in the ninteen seventies the battle cry to put an end to painting at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design was heard throughout the hallways - throw away your brushes, painting is dead still echos to this day. I always tended to laugh at such absurdities. But when Donald Kuspit, Distinguished Professor of Art History and Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, proclaimed the end of art, I considered it with a fresh view. His book The End of Art was published in 2004 and brings to light the notion of post art and the search for a contemporary aesthetic.

Kuspit has written extensively on the malaise of post modern art, the art institutions which have developed a relationship with post modern charachteristics, and what Kuspit refers to as "exhibition value". He often cites American artist Jeff Koons as an example of capitalist art strictly about Capitalism. By putting a familiar object like a vacum cleaner "... in a vitrine and exhibiting it as art he [Koons] gives it this exhibition value, which is the only art value now. What he is doing is highlighting something that is meant to be exhibited, initially, to get you to buy it - and then it has a certain use value."

                                                       Steven Rhude
Shoes of the artist - paint, synthetics, leather (collection of the artist)

Indeed, Koons, the archpriest of de-skilling (out sourcing  artistic labour)  has very little to do with the actual creation of the work which he leaves up to technicans to execute. Once an institution procurs a work by Koons it is then deemed also to have what is refered to as public use. It becomes an institutional commodity. From there the work assumes a personality with charachteristics that mock the past and the history of art which has been bequethed to us. It elevates the banal (ie. urinal) to the status of the enigmatic (ie. anti-art), and the profane to the status of sacred. As Kuspit believes, post modern art has a predisposition for the poverty of mind shrouded by much conceptual expression.

An interesting example of this was the exhibition For the Love of God, by Damien Hirst which took place in 2008 at the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam. Kuspit reflects on the show: "... they had Damien Hirst's diamond skull on display. Not only did they have the diamond skull, but also at the beginning of every room - and it's no exageration - they had a little plaque that said something like "if you keep on going you will get to the Damien Hirst skull." I didn't ever see anything that read "if you keep on going you will get to Rembrandt's Night Watch." So then you got to a room that was roped off like a movie marquee with a velvet rope which you stand behind. This is not the end of it. The signs lead through a circuit because there was part of the museum that was cut off. There was one last room where they had arranged a nice selection of master works, relatively small, with a little text explaining provenance etc. discreetly next to each. Above each of these works and in bigger lettering and in a different colouring  (I think it was pink) was a commentary by Hirst on each of these works. The most insipid banal crap I have ever heard as comments: so he gets the voice over these old master art and then people read it. When you exited following the circuit, you noticed on the side there was this big black Damien Hirst tent and if you liked you go in there to purchase catalogs or write your comments."

Apparently there was a new director who wanted to bring in more people.

"But that's what it is about. He told me Hirst had a contract - something like a hundred page contract - that everything had to be done just so. The assumption is that the museum got a lot of money for this, and they just followed the contract to the letter allowing the artist to control. The artist took control just like he did with the auction. What are we interested in here? We are interested in the demonstration of power. We are interested in the spectacle and what he has done is degrade the other art with his insipid comments. It is not historical interpretation of any kind or critical consciousness. There is a skull with diamonds in it worth twenty million dollars; everybody is looking at the money."

One has to wonder if this kind of spectacle has accelerated the end of art. Perhaps it can have the reverse effect and inspire more emphasis on local content and the return of skill and emotional aestethics still being practiced by artists with an appreciation for painting and art history. Leah Sandal's recent article in Canadian Art Magazine reveals some interesting observations for todays institutional gallery patron.

Essentially the Art Gallery of Ontario has rededicated itself to the regional portion of it's mandate. Recently offering large marquee spaces to such realist artists like Canadians Jack Chambers and David Blackwood. If, as Kuspit suggests, we are witnessing the end of art, regional shows like this may be offering a new beginning.

With the reframing of our Canadian art institutions, pressure to reduce or eliminate addmission fees, and budget cut backs, what will this mean for local content and regionalism in general? Will the public see more dedication to Canadian art from its institutions? Will we see a renewed interest in substance and technique? Or, will we see a return to the same old reliance on the post modern spectacle which has lost its lustre?  

Steven Rhude