Friday, 26 October 2012

A Racetrack, a Pale Horse, and the Hotel Albert

The Racetrack, oil, 1890s, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Cleveland Museum of Art

May 14th, 1888

As a reporter, one of his skills was to eavesdrop. Alone and listening in on the conversation between the scruffy recluse and the waiter, eating his meal quietly while feigning to read the paper, no one would suspect anything. If they glanced over they would probably take him for a travelling salesman, not a reporter baiting the hook. The long bearded guy had to be the artist who often dined alone, an eccentric according to art dealers and the few patrons, that helped prep him ... for what? An article about a slob who already, in his estimation, was an incurable romantic, a reputed mystic; one whose paintings looked like they were created using as much tobacco juice as he did oil paint.  He really didn't know. All he knew was that he seemed to be going backwards into a romantic pool of... of... What kind of headline could he use?

literature Inspires Painting 

How boring could that be, like Shakespeare, who he disdained  - too old fashioned. he wanted to write about today - like this modernist thing he was interested in and everyone had an opinion on, something tilting on the edge of an experimental convulsion. New York, his New York, was about to take the painting mantle from Europe. He could feel it in his bones. So why Ryder? And oh, why now?

So, as he listened to the conversation between the painter and the fidgety waiter, while dining at  the Hotel Albert, East 11th Street, he wondered who else would want an assignment like this. Someone he could pass it off to. Rumour had it the guys place was a pig sty. Could hardly even get around his apartment, debris piled high bracketing a well worn path leading to two places - the bedroom and the easel. But still they talked about him with a sort of child like reverence. Almost like he was a simpleton genius. But for now, he was wary, noting that there were others like this Ryder guy in his past, not so simple in the end really. He would reserve judgement for now. Too much ground to cover yet. He didn't like messes, and wished if he had to meet him, well, maybe he could meet this pack rat on neutral ground - perhaps at this very hotel, over a nice meal like he was enjoying now. But today wasn't the time - he just wanted to listen and observe the American romantic. Get the painter's brother William, the manager, to arrange it. That's what he would do.

 But then that tingle thing happened... that sensation that starts around the back of the neck and migrates up the head to the top of the scalp. Something about a race, Hanover being a sure thing, and so much was on the line. Five Hundred bucks to be exact, a lot for a waiter. Hmm...  Oh, he was a betting man himself and always pondered his options in terms of luck and prophesy, not logic - that bane of all bets gone awry. But this time his bet was on a story, not a race. He would arrange to meet Ryder. Of that he was now sure. But first, the Brooklyn Handicap and the Dwyer brothers and Mr. Cassat's pride and pet.

May 15th, 1888

He read the article in the paper the next day, May 15th, 1888. The Bard, recovered from a life threatening illness was favoured,  but most thought Hanover a strong competitor especially owing to a "heavy and cuppy track", an inelegant term for a slow track with no rain to make it sloppy. The New York Times predicted as follows:

  1st The Bard, 2nd Oriflamme, and 3rd Hanover.

May 16th, 1888
The next morning he sipped his tea and queried about that fidgety waiter. He was told he should be in but has not shown up for his shift yet. The excuse wasn't convincing so he lingered to... well maybe in the hopes of interviewing the poor sot. Aware now that Hanover came in second, and happy he only put down a meagre bet himself, he wanted to see what a man really looked like who just lost five hundred bucks, and waited on tables for a living. The poor dupe. That's when the Concierge was approached by a detective who informed him of what? A suicide? In the hotel... no someone from the hotel. Someone working at this hotel. Someone who was a waiter at this hotel. Someone who was fidgety.

Ryder dropped by to see his friend the waiter too. Maybe to console him or maybe because the outcome of the race impressed him enough to return to the hotel. It was death by gun shot the evening before, so he heard Ryder mutter to himself as he passed by him, and out the door on route to East 11th Street.

The Armory Show, 1913

 Fifteen years later, the excitement he felt at the Armory show was palpable. His prophesy regarding modernism was manifest. His editor leading him toward assignments he could identify with. He never did interview Ryder, preferring to not initiate an article owing to a pang of conscience - perhaps because of the waiter's suicide, but also to just leave the recluse to his pile of debris, sagging/sliding paintings (owing to the use of candle wax as a medium), and encrusted unfinished works. Besides, why initiate a potential pilgrimage of worshippers to the recluse's garret. It really wasn't fair to the old codger, who as he was set straight by Earnest Lawson, really did believe the artist needed to be left in simplicity and peace.

However, the Armory catalogue did not lie to him. There it was, gallery P - Albert Pinkham Ryder, American. So, he went over to see the mostly moonlit jewels, witnessed by several people more in a state of rapt meditation, than the impatience that sometimes is experienced when  viewing paintings in a crowd. One person stood out though. He wore a well tailored brown suit and told him his name was A.T. Sanden - what the initials stood for he never discovered. He did find out with some seasoned prying that the man was a collector, that he currently owned a painting of Ryder's he had never heard of. "What's it called?" he said.  A.T. Sanden said the title was The Racetrack but he preferred to call it Death on a Pale Horse. "Can I see it some time?"

The Hotel Albert

He's much older now. Modernism has seen the likes of Duchamp, Picasso and Matisse. But as time works on the best of his memory, he still returns vividly to that day when Sanden showed him the visionary results of Ryder's cloud that he could not throw off. Later, he remembered chatting with a Cottier Gallery employee who observed some notes by the artist on the painting so haunting to him now as he sat in the Hotel Albert. "The presiding genius in it all is Death, Death to the finer instincts. Death wins the race, always." 

He stirred his tea and thought about the painting, how the Horse and Death are galloping in a direction counter to traditional American horse racing. He thought about the waiter and his self inflicted and countered change of fortune. Thought about the day of the race and how the weather was cold and grey. He wondered why he could not come to determine whether the painting depicted day or night. Or, if in the end this really mattered to Ryder at all. Since he never interviewed him, he would never find out.

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS.  


Sunday, 21 October 2012

Painting Place

Our Canadian pioneer of modernism, David Milne, had the idea, and actually did a painting of one of his favorite places with his painting gear in the fore ground. It is a theme that has been continued and appreciated especially for those artists where 'place' resonates with both aesthetic and social meaning.

Buoys on the Edge of Burnt Point, oil on canvas, 38"x 50", Steven Rhude

Although this painting excludes my painting gear, and introduces the buoys instead (a figurative object I have come to strongly identify with), it is none the less a painting place I hope to return to more than once or twice in the future. It is a great spot to go and be suspended in time, and find union with the ocean, tides, horizon and of course - the sky.

Steven Rhude Wolfville, NS

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Day of the Jackal

On a summers day in late July of 1983, long before people logged on to read the news, many Canadians flipped through the Saturday Globe and Mail with their morning coffee at their side. In the entertainment section, an article heading was sure to catch the eye of most readers familiar with the name of Alex Colville.

Target Pistol and Man, 1980

         Colville's importance exaggerated

It was a blunt message to not only Canadians who identified, or at least respected the popular artist, but also to a wing of the art establishment in Canada that supported contemporary realist practices. It came from the Globe's then art critic in residence John Bentley Mays, who, not by chance was also an establishment player respected for positing the importance of postmodern art to Canadians. In art critic parlance this type of article is known as an hit and run review, usually gauged to quickly dismiss the work and relevance of an artist, execution style and then escape the scene of the crime. As reviews go it is extremely short (a half page and two and a half columns) with the first column devoted to achievements - a reviewer's way of metaphorically setting up the subject for the kill. However, this one was different in that it also held in its cross hairs the shows curator David Burnett, and catalogue contributor Marilyn Schiff.

'The exhibition of paintings, drawings, and prints is travelling not merely coast to coast in Canada, but will be displayed as well in two German museums. All of which adds up to a drastic miscalculation on behalf of the fabricators of this exhibition.' [1]

I suspect Mays deliberately used the term 'fabricators' to suggest some level of deception on behalf of the curator and indeed the entire scope of the exhibition. For years I have followed the work of John Bentley Mays and usually his writing is well researched and articulate, with an understanding of artistic movements and how their various practitioners earmarked for review, fit within the history of their respective field of expression. So, as I read his review twenty nine years ago, I wondered at the barely suppressed caustic disdain Mays exemplified for a type of painting so obviously engaging to the general viewer, and reflective of not only regionalism, but like it or not - the modernist narrative.

Today, I realize what Mays didn't do for the reader, was provide his own understanding of Realism, especially within the Canadian context, and then go on to explain why Colville's importance is exaggerated.

'Whatever interesting things can be said of the eccentric, garrulous artist himself, the art he has made is of virtually no creative consequence within the history of Canadian painting and graphic design. Except, perhaps, as a foot note to the paragraph of the magazine-illustration style of the 1930s'.

No mention of the relationship of Realism to Canadian painting. The reader is supposed to understand it exists and Colville does not qualify for the club. We are to take Mays at his word. No framework to assess how graphics fit into Canadian Realism, or as an alternative to the practice of painting. Just a terse reminder of 1930s magazine illustration and style. When Mays does get to the Realist tradition he cites four names.

'Nor is it even of much importance within its own tradition of modern illustrative realism, a tradition which has been continued and variously enriched by such painters as Alex Katz, Phillip Pearlstien, David Hockney, and Christopher Pratt'. 

Aside from Pratt, the other examples are American and British. No mention of other Canadians such as  Christine Pflug or Jack Chambers thereby attempting to reference a Canadian approach to the urban and regional Realist tradition - and so justifying through comparison his claim that Colville's work is of no importance. The question might be why, but nevertheless here is where I believe Mays starts to squeeze the regional trigger.

'Its widespread potential as a crowd-pleaser apart, Colville's art is worthy of a small, didactic group show of realists from Canada's Atlantic region; nothing more.' 

The tower of Canadian art, at the time Mays wrote this statement, was Toronto centered. Much of the resurgence of painting revolved around Neo-ExpressionismSoon the Art Gallery of Ontario would show Toronto Painting 84 and showcase a return to easel painting and the figure (did it ever leave?) with painters such as Rae Johnson and Brian Burnett leading the charge. In other shows, the rawness of the German Neo Expressionist painter George Basalitz  graced the walls of the AGO corroborating the movements international base for the Toronto art establishment. All was well in Toronto and Atlantic Realism was a distant memory.

Little wonder Mays' article suggest little respect for the small town painter from Wolfville, NS, who as he said, could be taken for the 'village lawyer perhaps, or the doctor'. Many of Toronto's Neo-Expressionists lived and painted in downtown industrial lofts, consumed lots of beer, and wore paint spattered clothes.
 Colville's life style was far removed from the Bohemia of Toronto loft living. Also, his calculating and precisionist methodology held little interest for Mays and so the bullet was released.

'A big house of interpretation can be built on the sand of Colville's paintings, as David Burnett has done. The slight puzzles built into these pictures invite many fantasies and prohibit none, so art historical fantasies become as plausible as any other sort.'

Does Mays here fall prey to the formalist criticisms still lingering on from the 1960s. A baseball is not a baseball; it is a sphere, nothing more or less. Contrary to this, Colville's paintings do not eschew narrative. As part of the realist tradition they invite it and are linked to the existentialist component of modernism. Hardly a historic fantasy. The rest of the review defaces aspects of Colville's symbolism, composition, the use of the nude, and the nature of painterly craft with the vigor of an  iconoclast.

'A few paintings of something more than momentary interest, and hundreds of thousands of meticulous brushstrokes adding up to not much, certainly not enough to justify the attention being lavished on the art of Alex Colville by the Art Gallery of Ontario.'

 In an biographical article based on a one on one interview with Colville in the same 1983 Globe edition, Mays states:

'How then has it happened until this summer Alex Colville has been denied the comprehensive critical attention routinely lavished on artists far younger and more obscure?'

Surely a question Mays and the critical Canadian establishment should have been asking themselves. But given the interests of the Canadian postmodernist camp, there was little desire to augment their perspective with Realism. Back then painting was just getting off life support and Realism was considered a step back by many a curator. Hence the general desire to exclude realist painting from its discourse. The question was moot, even back in 1983.

Strange though how things sometimes work out. It would be safe to say, given the benefit of hindsight, that Colville dodged the Jackal's bullet, the dissident wing of the post modern establishment, and that infamous review of 1983. Like his art or not, Colville has secured his place in the pantheon of Canadian painting. There are as many critical supporters of his work today, as there are detractors of what Mays disparagingly coined Modern Illustrative Realism. Hopefully Colville's chapter is something artists and critics alike can learn from, as regionalism takes on a more critical role in the variety of artistic outcomes inherent in Canadian expression.

[1] Review - Colville's importance exagerated, John Bentley Mays, Globe and Mail, Entertainment section, July 23, 1983

Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS





Wednesday, 3 October 2012


For an uncertain period of time, we humans walk through life in a suit of skin.  However, our existance is also comprised of an inner life as well. Much time and thought has been spent determining just what that is. The form of expression called Realism allows for me an elastic means to explore this equation.

Whatever this inner life is to us, the ability to transcribe it outwardly through representational painting, has preoccupied western man within a spiritual, psychological, social, political, and aesthetic framework. The mature principles of Realism have endured and expanded over the last five hundred years because the artists practicing them have been able to find the necessary metaphors through which the world - externally, could be made comprehensible; resulting in a personal vision of a constantly changing global culture and society, of which we are all influenced greatly.

In my opinion, post modernism, through numerous mutations, has lost the ability to do this effectively. This may also account for a sustaining interest in Realism today.

The following works are on display at the Chase Exhibition Room, Public Archives Halifax, NS

Steven Rhude Wolfville, NS

The Beekeper, oil on canvas, 62"x 40", Steven Rhude

Study for Beekeeper, graphite on paper, 14"x13", Steven Rhude

The Museum Today, oil on canvas, 36"x 60", Steven Rhude

Rescue, Hound of the Cavale, oil on canvas, 40"x 90", Steven Rhude

1992 - Night Before a Hurricane, oil on board, 22"x 38", Steven Rhude

Portrait of Lucy Publicover, graphite on paper, 9.75" x 14", Steven rhude

Boy and Hay Bale - Learning to Leave, oil on canvas, 27"x 37", Steven Rhude

Falling Boat, oil on canvas, 54"x  14", Steven Rhude

Soup, graphite on paper, 14"x 21", Steven Rhude

The Huguenot, graphite on paper, 10.5"x 14", Steven Rhude

Boy with Buoy, oil on canvas, 44"x 40", Steven Rhude

Pig, - The Civilizer, graphite on paper, 7"x 10.5", Steven Rhude

Devil's Island Light in the Rothko Chapel, oil on canvas, 24"x  30", Steven Rhude