Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Material World - Art and the Glorification of the Banal

Ten Pennies, whereabouts unknown, Steven Rhude

"If he is to turn his notoriety into immortality, he needs the backing of public institutions and the praise of serious critics."

  Sarah Thornton, Is nothing sacred - 
The Tate Modern Stamp of Approval - Damien Hirst Retrospective

 I have come to believe there is a great deal of subjectivity that comprises much of what we call a public permanent collection, and how that collection can be programmed to edify or usher gallery patrons into the fold of post modern ideology. Changing directions in contemporary art practise is one thing, but branding that change is the point where the public (dare I say consumer) comes in. Sure, I'm an artist - but I'm also Joe Public and I like to see what the Public Art Gallery is up to.  However, even the best programs can crash with the constant blurring of artistic intent.

Ironically, and perhaps to the detriment of the contemporary museum, public permanent collections can marginalise a segment of the population. Reasons for this are complex and possibly insurmountable. As I heard a man on the CBC radio say: Jobs are hard to come by. I'm well educated with a family and working as a janitor cleaning toilets - why would I want to go to a public gallery to see one on display.

 Flaherty's Legacy, Chalk drawing, whereabouts unknown, Steven Rhude  

Commercialism and consumer culture play a big part in contemporary art. Consumerism is at once applauded or derided depending on the individual, their work background, ideology or political views. We seem to believe creativity still counts, yet consumerism is an easy target for artists influenced by the brand of pop culture initiated decades ago by Warhol and his Brillo Box. I'll never understand why some institutional artists consider the purchase of a work of art from a commercial gallery a guilty pleasure, when public art galleries (consisting of a  directors, boards and curators) are not only unabashed consumers of contemporary art  - but secular monuments to the consumption they exhibit. Conversely, they are also an osmotic repository of culture, establishing directly or indirectly a cosy comfort zone; an arm chair enclave reenacting something we are all exposed to - the effects of goods or services for popular consumption on society as a whole. It is usually a mixed celebration when most exhibits with the theme of consumerism reveal our cultural habits and the allusions to the god of capitalism. It also presents many aesthetic questions as post modernism comes to the crossroads of artistic identity - and Nova Scotia is not immune to the Damien Hirst effect.

Material World
 But lately, provincial museums are having to do more with less in what seems like an endless era of government fiscal restraint. The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has on display among other things, an important exhibition called Material World curated by David Diviney - also a remarkable artist in his own right. The artists in the show do not just draw upon common materials (that is undoing those materials and altering them back into art), but directly or indirectly address consumer culture and our relationship with it. I took the opportunity to view this show recently and came away with some mixed emotions and thoughts about public art and the entropic nature of post modernism. See link below for images from the show.

 Faced with having to explore the vaults of our permanent collection more frequently, we can expect to see shows that are cobbled together at minimal expense and reveal art that has sometimes been mothballed owing to lack of floor or wall space in the gallery. Part of the reason for this, is the massive expansion of the AGNS's permanent collection during the years of Jeffery Spalding. The collection approximately doubled to 14,000 works during his time as director. Art works in the permanent collection must meet the criteria of public use so the gallery is generally responsible for the work in perpetuity. Many of these shows travel to other museums - sometimes for several years. All must be stored or maintained with high standards of conservation.

 However, what are shows like Material World really showcasing? Well, material for starters. The stuff of art. Nothing unusual about that. Artists working in sculpture generally need materials to convey their cognitive process or expressive impulses. So everything from the found object to the humble penny cover the curator's expectations for the field of sculpture. This show may be seen as an approach to the contemporary art practise of sculpture imbued with a long tradition, for the use of the ready made or found object has been around since Duchamp was a cowboy. So here's your chance to see how far it has come.

 Brian Jungen's Beer Cooler 2002, stands out with a tongue and cheek this Bud's for you kind of satire. A contemporary cedar box of the potlatch offering, with the residue of colonialism's cheap trick ills, you get the sense that he is reversing the offering of alcohol back on you the viewer. The top is also eerily carved with a liniar pattern of skulls and spider webs - something my son and I found fascinating. But if you're a sucker for the art of turning garbage into gold then have a look at the work of Kristan Horton. It is interesting that the work of a visual artist (sorry, are video monitors really now called sculpture?) has been included in a show ostensibly about sculpture but in this case the connection makes sense to me.

Horton's video Cig2Coke2Tin2Coff2Milk, 2006, is an agitated look at the way objects in consumable culture accumulate and transform ie; a package of du maurier cigarettes into a can of Coke. Horton conveys the observation that we express our nervousness through what we may have on hand, objects banal but possibly important. Certainly for Horton not ignorable. In fact there is a direct sense that he can lure the viewer through an anatomy lesson of the familiar into something more serious than the expected quotidian result we have come to associate with objects of mass consumption. Horton is a magician, and here magic is art.

In Material World one can also notice the familiar NSCAD heroes whose names arise from years of interconnectedness and personal allegiances, contributing to a rather obvious preferential agenda - (probably Nova Scotia's worst kept secret in the arts). For those viewers looking for more plurality in programming from the AGNS, that is outside their enduring marriage with NSCAD, forget it. It looks like this is how the breadth and depth of art in our region or province will continue to be explored. Which leads us to the signature work in the show.

In the middle of the gallery, Gerald Ferguson's one million pennies (sounds grander than ten thousand dollars worth of pennies) are piled up in an abstract mound of coppery glitter. Keep in mind that Ferguson's conceptual idea, One Million Pennies  takes on a recent change in irony. Sarah Millroy stated in the Globe and Mail: "The work... exists only as an idea, awaiting fresh withdrawal from the bank every time it is staged, literally incarnating the notion of the value of art." (This changed in 2004 when the gift of the artist was made possible by Scotia Bank) Try conserving that!

"All ideas need not be made physical."
 Sol LeWitt
 With the fazing out of the penny by the Federal Government, allusions to the "value of art" or Ferguson's hoax, conjures up new possibilities.  Limited edition - One Million Pennies? Worthless pennies? A penny for your thoughts? You be the judge. Personally I find this form of conceptualism pretentious, but back when the work was conceived (1979) provocation was the name of the game and museums lapped it up.  Heck, they still do when they think no one is looking. However, the exhibition catalogue contains a stellar essay by Sandra Alfoldy (Professor of Craft history, NSCAD), refuting the reductive proclamations made by Craft theorist Glenn Adamson. Here's a dandy from him: Modern craft is a story that is ending, replaced by post or trans-disciplinarity where we no longer need to identify ourselves, we simply 'make things' and do what 'we like' with out becoming moored in a specific identity.
There you go, just make things and leave tradition behind. Is there a factory out there mass producing this kind of deskilling rhetoric?

Immortality through Art 
 When it comes to the business of art, one of the most critical individuals of western contemporary expression, and certainly one who no longer cares for the agenda of the establishment; therefore expressing his dismay with so called institutional best practises, would be the Australian born Robert Hughes, art critic and historian.

Robert Hughes has spent a lifetime pondering and writing about the relevance of art and its influence on the mind and materialism of western man for Time magazine.  His superb effort The Shock of the Newportrays our historic and artistic march to a modernist Utopian vision in the twentieth century with unflinching accuracy. He is no stranger to the curatorial world, or that of the questionable relationship between museum exhibitions, the club curatorial, and the marketplace. The following five minute video (see link) portrays Hughes the old curmudgeon, adroitly stripping the husk of pretention away and revealing the hubris of the immortally driven collector, expecting a showcase of museum proportions owing to an all consuming ascension to pop nirvana - a collection of 800 Warhols to astound us with.

Exploring the nature and use of materials - transforming them into art has an enduring and engaging history all of its own. That's why so many of the exhibitors in Material World also convey through their sculpture/craft or craft/sculpture, theoretical trends in the appreciation of materials which are cross disciplinary and driven by issues popularised by today's consumer culture. But lingering in my mind as I left the show, was a sense that consumer objects like money, cigarettes, diamonds, shopping carts, beer coolers, party balloons, cars, and so on will always claim a place in the pantheon of contemporary artistic expression. Think of them as a hybrid to the seven deadly sins in the lexicon of artistic expression, hoping to be transformed into something they can't be - immortal.

Materialism, consumerism and culture in society do not bring about immortality. For that matter neither does art or the museum blockbuster. You don't need a marketing department, focus group or pollster, to draw that conclusion. But a show like this does do one thing; it reveals how driven we can be as a society to prove otherwise.

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Absentee Landlord

Fish Fluke, oil on canvas, 40"x72", Steven Rhude

He had a love/hate relationship with the radio.

The background noise leading into the six o'clock news always sounded melodramatic and contrived to him. All messengers bringing evil reports. Universal screams or fighter jets, protesters chanting slogans indecipherable; it really didn't matter anymore. The tape could have been recording a high school basketball game in Des Moines, Iowa.

 His black Lab eating supper made more sense to him.

Reporting had become an exercise in satire. He should know, so did his art.

Who could really take it seriously anymore, like when a newscast was about to end there was always one absurd or quasi sad, or conversely lighthearted story for consumption.

So he only caught the tail end of it. What did it matter - dust to dust and all that biblical stuff. It's only bricks and mortar; actually wood and mortar in this case - an isolated place called Fish Fluke Point on the eastern side of Grand Harbour.

So where the hell was that?

The year was 1999. Lighthouse Digest declared it the most endangered lighthouse in North America.

So... where the hell was that?

What did it matter? That a catoptric light could be seen for eleven miles on a sunny day. Well that's where the hell it was.

The keepers dwelling was attached. physically and politically. Trumped up charges and the same time honoured smear tactics took their toll. Keeper Daggett noted the person who filed the complaint was in fact under a charge of felony.

Water is always discoloured by politics.

The guy from New York purchased Ross Island from a Maine lumber company in 1984 - sight unseen. Might as well have been sight who cares.

They raised ten thousand; "I'll match your ten and raise you..."

Didn't happen. All touch and no contact.

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, Nova Scotia

In memory of: Keepers Henry Mclaughlin (1879-1883), Mark Daggett (1883-1900), Sidney Guptill (1900- 1904), Loyd Dakin (1904-1912), Fredrick Martin (1912-1914), Harry Mcdowell (1914-1948), Howard Ingalls (1948-1954), Percy Harvey (1954-1963)

Friday, 20 April 2012

Road from West Berlin

Road From West Berlin, oil on panel, 18"x24", Steven Rhude, Argyle Fine Art

Part 2
This is a poor state, the opposition always screamed. But the Boss said: "There is a passel of pore folks living in it and no mistake, but the state isn't poor. It is just a question of who has got his front feet in the trough when slopping time comes. And I aim to do me some shoving and thump me some snouts." And he leaned forward to the crowd with the shagged - down forelock and the bulging eyes, and he had lifted his right arm to demand of them and of the hot sky, "Are you with me? Are you with me?" And the roar had come.
                                                        Robert Penn Warren - All the King's Men

Huey Long made a splash in Louisiana politics as a member of the Louisiana Railroad Commission fighting corporate monopolies and reducing utility rates. By age 30 he was a major force in state politics and ran for governor in 1924, finally achieving that office in 1928. Long created the Share our Wealth program in 1934 with the motto, "Every Man a King", proposing new wealth redistribution measures in the form of a net asset tax on corporations and individuals to curb the poverty and homelessness endemic nationwide during the Great Depression. Long was accused by his opponents of dictatorial tendencies for his near - total control of state government. A leftist populist who fought the rich people, he was preparing to challenge FDR's reelection in 1936 in alliance with radio's influential Catholic priest Charles Coughlin, or run for president in 1940 when Franklin Roosevelt was expected to retire. However, Long was assassinated in 1935; his national movement faded while his state organisation continued in Louisiana.

The political machine Long established was weakened by his death, but it remained a powerful force in state politics until the election of 1960. Pockets of it persisted into the 21st century. The Long platform of social programs and populist rhetoric created the state's main political division. In every state election until 1960, the main factions were organised along the pro - Long and anti - Long lines. For several decades after his death, Long's personal political style inspired imitation among Louisiana politicians who borrowed his colourful speaking style, vicious verbal attacks on opponents and promises of social programs. His brother Earl Kemp - Long later inherited Long's political machine. Using his platform and rhetorical style, Earl Long became governor in 1939 following the resignation of Richard Leche and was elected to subsequent terms in 1948 and 1956. [1]

Increasingly in Nova Scotia, coastal roads, buildings, closed schools and businesses, and out migration to urban centres, bear witness to the long standing challenge to reconcile the old with the new. Living vicariously through the promises and incentives of politicians (town, municipal, or provincial), one can observe years of disappointment and struggle - a cultural patina imbued on our coastal communities as much by regional disparity as by external forces. It's more than just weather or an image picturesque for the do-ers and dreamers who visit during the summertime. Not a lot has changed though. If you listen closely you can hear the fiery populist rhetoric in the wind, from Sidney to Halifax, and on to Lunenburg then Yarmouth, every time an election approaches. Promises, promises....

1 references, Wikipedia, All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren  

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS.    


Thursday, 19 April 2012

Road to West Berlin

Road to West Berlin, oil on panel, 18"x24", Steven Rhude, Argyle Fine Art

Part 1
To get there you follow the 103 southwest and then break off. You like Halifax but you want more. And it's not a highway that comes at you; rather it's a highway that goes to you, into you, and through you. Sharp bends and turns are much too loud to lull you into sleep like you may find in other parts, where the road is long and straight. Nope, no seduction... no mirage. Just coastal capillaries seemingly unconnected. Cherry Hill, East Port Medway, Port Medway, East Berlin, West Berlin, Eagle Head, Beach Meadows, and Brooklyn. Comforting names unless your thinking about Huey Pierce Long (the Kingfish)... and why Nova Scotia isn't all that much different.  

"Then I closed the door and went down the hall.
That had been the night of the fourth of April. I was almost sorry, the next day as I looked out the high window at the mass of people filling the streets and the wide sweep of lawn beyond the statues in front of the capitol, that I knew what I knew. If I hadn't known, I could have stood there in full excitement of the possibilities of the moment. But I knew how the play would come out. This was like a dress rehearsal after the show has closed down. I stood there and felt like God - Almighty brooding on history.

Which must be a dull business for God - Almighty, Who knows how it is going to come out. Who knew in fact, how it was going to come out even before He knew there was going to be any history. Which is complete nonsense, for that involves Time, and He is out of Time. For God is the fullness of Being and in Him the End is the Beginning. Which is what you can read in the little tracts written and handed out on the street corners by the fat, grubby, dandruff - sprinkled old man, with the metal - rimmed spectacles, who used to be the scholarly attorney and who married  the girl with the gold braids and the clear, famished - looking cheeks, up in Arkansas. But those tracts he wrote back then  were crazy, I thought back then.  I thought God cannot be fullness of being. For Life is Motion.

(I use the capital letters as the old man did in the tracts, I had sat across the table from him, with the foul unwashed dishes on one end of it and the papers and books piled on the other end, in the room across the railroad tracks, and he had talked and I had heard the capital letters in his voice. He had said "God is the Fullness of Being."  And I had said, "You've got the wrong end of the stick. For life is Motion. For --"  

Robert Penn Warren - All the King's Men

Well, we know as well that roads are also motion; harbingers of transit in a world arrested by images of stasis, images of assassination and the beatification of state. Driving  is as close as we can come to unconsciously moving from A to B without concerning ourselves with the return journey.

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS. 


Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Burning the Light

Burning the Light, oil on canvas, 36"x40", Steven Rhude, Gallery 78 

The question for a lot of painters is, why can't we just make a painting? So many artists past and present have gone down this road towards a goal of pure painting. Routes like abstraction, hard edge, formalism, minimalism... and so on. For some, it is unnecessary to have a narrative - a divergent path is chosen in light of the lengthy history involved with image making in the west. So the narrative is eschewed in favour of alternative processes. I've tried this myself in the past, only to find the powers of the external world are to extensive to ignore - for everything could be other than it is. We are sometimes seduced into thinking that ordinariness is a moment in time when nothing of significance occurs. The problem is, there are no moments when nothing occurs.

The lighthouse has been withdrawn from the world of human habitation. No one stands in the light and looks down on the sea from the lantern. There are no ships to coordinate - no temperatures to record. In the painting Burning the Light, the light has been graphically stolen and relocated, spirited away by tales of government funeral pyres - to a nondescript highway; a contemporary table top evoking the history and tradition of memento mori - part of the artists' symbolic lexicon dealing with the nature of absence and presence in the tangible world. However, there is no desire to just show or illustrate the emptiness or despair in such an event; just the opposite. You show the wish for it to be full.

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Robert Penn Warren's Prescription

Dory and Museum, oil on canvas, 40"x60", Steven Rhude, Gallery 78

Beauty is the fume - track of necessity. This thought is therapeutic. If after several applications you do not find relief, consult your family physician. 
                                                                                                Robert Penn Warren  

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

The Mulgrave Road

Shed on a Truck, oil on canvas, 36"x48", Steven Rhude, private collection

If they stay they stay, if they go they go;
On the Mulgrave Road it's the choice you make.
There's an axe in the stump and a fork in the row,
Or a bag to pack and a train to take.

Charles Bruce 

Saturday, 7 April 2012

The Huguenot

The Huguenot, graphite on paper, 11"x15", Steven Rhude

Some people think portraits are about people or maybe an individual. Well they're not. They're about landscape and place, about emotion and experience - about perception and history. Our history is not written in our palms; it's written in our faces.

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, Nova Scotia

Friday, 6 April 2012

Sunday Morning -Mother and Child

Sunday Morning - Mother and Child, Steven Rhude

"A thimble full of red is redder than a bucketful."
Henri Matisse 

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Emily Carr and Natalie - The Museum

From the children's book Natalie's Glasses, Steven Rhude

"I think that one's art is a growth inside one. I do not think one can explain growth. It is silent and subtle. One does not keep digging up a plant to see how it grows."

                                                                                                   Emily Carr

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Love it or List It - House of the Keeper

House of  the Keeper, oil on canvas, 24"x36", Argyle Fine Art

 Real Estate Agent: Where are you, you should be back here by now - got more to do here than just hear about some god forsaken rotted out old building; probably rats and mice chomping on leftover bits of seagull droppings. You lost your mind or something? Told ya you would never get me out there. You wanna buy this -  do it without me. Stink'in salt infested wasteland. I can't even get a decent breakdown on the listing - just that it's declared surplus and the Feds wanna dump the stink'in thing. You ever tried negotiating with the Feds? Too much red tape; forget it! Probably laced with lead paint and  a party house for locals for all you know. Did you even go inside? Speak up I can't here you - the connections breaking up - Come back and we'll buy an industrial park in Calgary or something.

The Client: Okay, okay. I'll be home soon, but first I need to check something out... it's strange, don't laugh; it's like the place can speak or something.

Real Estate Agent: You idiot...  

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, Nova Scotia


Road Paintings

Buoy and Manhole, oil on board, 20"x24", Gallery 78

The use of the road as a motif in contemporary painting should by now, stand out as a universal symbol of movement and transition. In fact, roads are by chance imbued with some of the most salient traits of modernist painting we have come to know vicariously through the hard edge works of twentieth century practitioners like America's Barnett Newman or Quebec's Guido Molinari. We could even conjure up the  godfather of modernism - Piet Mondrian and his omnipresent grid. The very linear bands of yellow used to control visual placement and movement of cars and the graphic flatness of asphalt, suggest paintings in themselves - canvases without end.

Buoy and Broken Line, oil on board, 20"x24", Gallery 78

The placement and incongruity of objects in a road that is normally used for the transit of humans or goods, arrests the attention of the viewer through experiential means. Suggestions of avoidance (think of swerving to miss a squirrel or deer in the road) to those who drive, are part of the baggage we bring to the stasis of the road image.

   Ten Buoys on a Road, oil on board, Steven Rhude

The addition of the buoy, which happens to be a sculptural object imbued with generations of regional culture, intersects with the contemporary paved road - a universal concern today connecting communities, towns, cities, and countries.

Buoy on a Road, oil on board, 18"x24", Roberts Gallery

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, Nova Scotia