Who wins the art awards?

Time allergy, Patrick Cruz

The winner of this year’s RBC Canadian Painting Competition, Patrick Cruz, was the source of much discussion during our recent VISA field trip to Vancouver. The question everyone was asking was “why this painting?”. Some people were in a state of disbelief to discover that a painting they didn’t like, could win this prestigious award with a cash value of $25,000. “How could this painting win out of 600 submissions?” was the constant refrain. I think people might confuse the award system, whether in visual art, literature, or even the iconic Academy Awards, as a definitive declaration of the “best” work in the designated field covered by the award. However we live in a time where the best in any field can rarely be found in a definitive singular work.

It is quite possible, and most likely probable, that the award-winning work, Time allergy, is not the “best” painting in Canada. Cruz’s somewhat modest painting is relatively small (seems about 18 x 24″) and appears at first glance to be simple and decorative. Cruz happened to be in attendance during our visit to the Contemporary Art Gallery (CAG), so we learned this was the third time that he applied for the RBC award. So the first answer to the question “who wins art awards?”: people who apply for them. Artists I know often complain about not getting their work exhibited, and yet their answer to the question, “have you applied for any exhibitions?”, is usually a resounding “no”.  The second answer to “why this work?” lies in the fact that the jury for the RBC competition is made up of nine jurors, three for each region (East, Central and West). Here is information from the RBC press release on how the selection was made: “After an elaborate discussion over the past two days, among 15 ambitious and wildly diverse paintings, the jury has selected Patrick Cruz as the winner of the competition based on his decidedly contemporary attitude towards painting. His brave approach, maximalist aesthetic, and wild graphic sensibility, sets a provocative tone for emerging art in Canada in 2015.”

The painting refers in part to Cruz’s Filipino heritage in terms of the decorative elements and colour (he moved from the Phillipines to Canada when he was 18), but he also spoke about his deliberate attempt to create patterns that cannot be located in a specific culture. We can look at the Cruz work and see influences as broad as Panamanian mola designs and Australian Aboriginal dot pantings, and graffiti artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, as well as historical artists such as Joseph Stella and Stuart Davis, and contemporary abstract painting influences such Mark Grotjahn and Laura Owens. So what might appear to be a quick “one-off”, actually has a rich heritage in craft, as well as historical and contemporary work.

During Cruz’s impromptu and heartfelt artist talk, he revealed that the piece wasn’t one he necessarily thought of as a great work of art; it was a canvas that he painted over many times as if trying to figure out what the painting on its surface should be. He spoke about about the work as if it was an “aside”; a work that was made in-between other things. Often in life our “asides” can suddenly become the main event, such as the casual friend who becomes a life partner; the volunteer stint that becomes a career or the thrown-together soup that becomes a gastronomic delight. As Laura Owens mentions in her video , success often comes when you are not trying to make good art. A problem  often arises when we are too earnestly focused on making “the best artwork ever’. Our best work sometimes happens when we stop trying so hard. So the next time you look at an art award winner and wonder why them?, remember they probably made many “asides”  as part of their practice with the goal of having a half a dozen successful works, and more importantly, they won because they applied.

Patrick Cruz,  Yin Yang Temple (Helen Pitt Gallery)

Art that is innovative and consistent

“I did not give my life to art; art gave me my life”.
Frank StellaFrank Stella has been making groundbreaking art since the 1950s, from his striped, shaped paintings to his current work which breaks the boundaries between painting, sculpture and installation. Roberta Smith writes about this trajectory in the New York Times. The full scope of Stella’s work can be seen in his retrospective now at the Whitney.In a recent article in The Guardian Stella mentions that he doesn’t like the word “reinvent” and prefers to think that he is always inventing. He makes something new with each fresh series. However, as with many artists, there is a consistent thread that carries through his career. This thread might be as simple and clear as how a line can function in space. In some ways his work is about drawing as much as it is about painting. And from the very first time Stella cut the corners of his minimalist canvas and forced the viewers to see the painting as an “object,” his art has always created a relationship to sculpture. His current “sculptural paintings” as he likes to refer to them) address the relationship to historical three-dimensional space in painting. This is an idea the artist explored in Working Space, a series of lectures about pictorial space in Baroque painting, particularly Carravaggio’s, as a point of departure for thinking of space in 20th-century art. Artist and writer, Robert Linsley, in an article about Stella’s baroque work, says that Working Space is one of the best books written by an artist.

Stella is that he is extremely engaging to listen to –he is smart, funny and very direct while always remaining gracious. Often, when giving artist talks, he requests to have a blackboard nearby. In a conversation at Toledo Museum of Art Stella drew diagram of a dog in a rectangle to explain the relationship of representational and abstract forms. He said that the three enemies of paintings are: representation, reproduction and recreation. At the New Orleans Museum of Art, he used the black board to draw diagrams that explained how all of his ideas relate back to Kandinsky: New Orleans Museum of Art. On stage at the Anderson Ranch Centre, Stella’s talk with curator Jeffrey Grove offered a good overview of Stella’s career, with an emphasis on the importance that art history plays in his understanding of his own work. And one of my artist interviews is Frank Stella on  CBC’s Wachtel on the Arts.

It is such a pleasure to listen to an artist who is so completely engaged in his practice, and to observe in his work, how a consistent thread of ideas and continuous innovations can go hand in hand.

Do politicians care about the arts?

So we have all survived 11 weeks of campaigning hearing all about tax cuts, jobs, economic surplus, economic deficit, and the ubiquitous “growing the economy” as if it were a plant or flower. There was hardly a mention of the importance of art and culture to our society. This sector has suffered devastating cuts during the Harper regime, particularly cuts to CBC and the Canada Council for the Arts. As artists we need to know how our politicians stand on these issues.

There was an excellent piece by Marsha Lederman in The Globe and Mail on Oct 2 called “Artists speak out politics, why don’t politicians speak about art .” Lederman ends her writing with a sentiment that echoes my own consternation over the lack of concern about arts funding: “Great civilizations aren’t remembered for their tax policies; they’re remembered for their art. The economy and the environment are essential issues, of course. But really, we are more.”

A few weeks before the election, our-soon-to-be new Prime Minister did go on record as saying he will increase funding for the arts and CBC. The Greens had a press release on Oct 2 announcing their support of the arts, and on Oct 5 the NDP announced their stand on arts funding (was it a coincidence that both the Greens and the NDP made their announcement after Lederman’s article was published in The Globe and Mail? Good to know our politicians are keeping up with their reading). All of these announcements were definitely made at the 11th hour, and considering the length of the campaign, this doesn’t seem acceptable. Even the Toronto Star, a paper not renown for its arts coverage, noted the lack of attention to the arts: How the arts were sidelined in the federal election. (Not surprisingly, the Conservatives said nothing about the arts before or during the campaign; some of us still remember when Harper said in 2008 that “the average person doesn’t care abut the arts”).

A recent article in Canadian Arts Magazine, “Canada’s Federal Election: Who Should Get the Arts Vote?“, reminds us past Liberal governments do not have the best records in terms of the arts. Back in 1993 after being newly elected, “Liberals went on to cut more than $400 million from the CBC–roughly 33% of their budget. Altogether, Chrétien slashed funding to heritage and cultural programs by more than 23% during his first four years in office –cuts that have had lasting repercussions.” Is it possible that Trudeau has a different outlook on the arts than his Liberal predecessors?

In a 2014 interview on CBC Q, Trudeau outlines his vision on arts and culture in Canada. So whatever we think of our current Prime Minister, I appreciate that he is the only federal politician I have heard speak at any length about his views on art and culture. Now we just have to hope that his words carry action.

Image above: Justin Trudeau announcing in Montreal that his party will increase arts funding.

Art galleries change cities

An art gallery can change a city. Anyone who has been to the Vancouver Art Gallery knows about the hub of activity that exists both inside and outside the building’s space. People use the gallery and environs not only to experience art, but also as a place to congregate, to protest, to busk, or to soak up some sun during the lunch hour. Because of its multi-faceted uses and ability to bring people of all kinds together, a municipal art gallery needs a monumental presence in a city’s downtown area. I am very enthusiastic about the recently revealed design concept for the new Vancouver Art Gallery by Herzog & de Meuron, to be located on a site very near Vancouver’s stellar example of civic architecture, Moshe Safdie’s library. These kind of buildings are so important because they are not just architectural structures, they are also places that create lively and interactive public spaces. Jacques Herzog is an architect who understands the dynamics of urban living, and realizes that a building consists of not only the structure itself, but also the surrounding environment. Like the late activist and journalist Jane Jacobs, Herzog sees the city is an ecosystem with street level activity being critical to any successful urban centre. Details of the conceptual design are shown in this recent article in the Georgia Straight.

You can get a sense of Herzog’s background and sensibilities in this talk at the Tate Modern: Art and Architecture. This firm has designed many other art galleries and museums including the Tate Modern in London and the de Young Museum in San Francisco. They see an art gallery as both a place to exhibit art as well as a community meeting place. Two members of the Herzog & de Meuron firm, Christine Binswanger and Simon Demeuse, speak about their work in context of designing a building specifically for Vancouver: Meet Herzog & de Meuron. This talk gives a great overview of how architectural projects are developed, and on the effect of the generalities and specificities of Vancouver on the design. For those of you familiar with Vancouver, the observations of Binswanger and Demeuse’s, will give you a new perspective on this coastal city. In a lecture at the Orpheum, last June (many months before the design concept was presented), Herzog gave Vancouver citizens a sense of why his firm was selected for the new Vancouver Art Gallery. His design process is further described on CBC The Current’s “By Design” series.

In a culture that seems to dismiss the importance of art, evidenced by everything from the lack of arts funding for schools; to comments by leaders such as Obama mocking the discipline of art history; to the ubiquitous online comments putting down art, artists and artistic practice on a continual basis, it is more important than ever to find a way to make art a part of everybody’s lives. And what better way to do this than with a monumental public building that is especially designed to showcase art? Our understanding of history is based on the arts of the time; when we think about the 19th century for example, the names of the richest banker or the most notorious industrialist aren’t the ones that immediately come to mind. Instead our thoughts are more likely to gravitate to van Gogh or Dickens. Art has a pivotal role in our understanding of who we are, and because of this, art deserves a fantastic building. Art galleries shouldn’t be quiet little buildings that you can easily walk by. They should speak loudly and make people not only pause and notice, they should also make people stop and interact with their exterior and interior spaces in many ways and and on many levels. An art gallery should be a living breathing building that connects to the streets and to the people walking them.

The design of the Herzog & Meuron building is a work of art in itself with the firm’s trademark simple boxes containing simple rectangles, and use of everyday materials (wood, in this case) in an elegant and understated manner. This modest low-rise design provides a dramatic contrast to the usual glass towers that proliferate city landscapes. Internationally renown Vancouver artist, Jeff Wall, commented on the design by saying “When was the last time anyone saw a wooden building go up in the centre of the City of Vancouver?’ This notion of bringing back something that has vanished, bringing back something that is inherent in the nature of this place – the forest – and the wooden construction that originally made the City of Vancouver, is already an artistic achievement.”

I look forward to the development this project, and while I understand many people are against using public money for an art gallery, I think it is important to emphasize that an art gallery is not just a building, it is a public space that has the ability to engage the community on many levels from an experience with art, to creating a dynamic urban environment in the surrounding courtyard, sidewalks and streets. I think the future location, in particular because of its relation to the library (which is also a fantastic public space), is a perfect place for this building, and kudos to the Vancouver Art Gallery’s staff and board of directors for having the vision and foresight to hire one of the world’s leading architectural firms to bring art the attention that it needs in our sometimes less-than-receptive culture.

Finding wonder in the world

Artists have been using found objects in their art ever since Picasso’s first collage, Still Life With Chair Caning (1912) in which real rope and chair caning wallpaper were an important part of the composition. The found object is now very commonplace in art and is often used in a lackadaisical manner with little consideration to form or meaning. Geoffrey Farmer brings its use to a new level in his recent retrospective How Do I Fit This Ghost in My Mouth? at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). Using the entire second floor of the gallery, the work fills viewers with wonder, delight and surprise as they are immersed in this labour-intensive imaginative world made from very ordinary everyday things. Farmer makes us think about our history, our contemporary culture and our relationship to the printed page in a digital age.

Included in this exhibition is Farmer’s first paper cut work, The Last Two Million Years (2007). Farmer walked around the streets near his studio in search of potential subject matter (following the legacy of Robert Rauschenberg who also collected items from the street for inspiration), and found a large tome with a faux marble cover called The Last Two Million Years. He took apart the book and cut out every individual image and then backed the cut-outs with a small paper support. The images range from large to super-tiny and are positioned single file or in groups on plinths of different heights and dimensions. One of the wonders of this piece is its simplicity in idea and material. Who knew you could create such a monumental piece with one book?

Another room contains an installation called The Surgeon and the Photographer filled with 365 figures made from cut outs from books and magazines of the 1950s, 60s and 70s that were bought at Vancouver’s most renowned secondhand bookstore: MacLeod’s. Farmer’s practice involves research in the form of collecting and a very process-oriented method of production. Each of the 365 figures (one made each day of the year) is constructed of cut out photographs and fabric mounted on a delicate stand. Farmer gives new meanings to found material by juxtaposing both congruous and incongruous images in a poetic and engaging way. Accompanying this exhibition is a thick paperback book comprised of fragments of found numbered texts corresponding to each of the numbers on the figures. Farmer uses found text in the same way he uses found objects, allowing viewers to create their own meaning for these multi-layered juxtapositions.
The VAG owns this piece so if you didn’t have the pleasure of seeing it this summer, you will have another opportunity to see it in the gallery space.  A catalog of Farmer’s work, called  The Surgeon and the Photographer will be available November 15.
What I really appreciate about Farmer’s work is that everything is extremely well-thought out and elegantly put together. With so many artists assembling found objects together without much consideration, his work stands out as being well-crafted and constructed with a sense of poetry and grace. The Catriona Jeffries Gallery in Vancouver, where Farmer exhibits on a regular basis, has a comprehensive collection of images of his work on their website.

In the meantime if you’d like to explore the idea of using materials that are at hand such as papers, fabrics, books or other found objects, I recommend you check out my course Collage: Investigation of Material that starts next week. There will be definitely be a Farmer-inspired project in this course!