At the edge: Claude Monet & Stephen Shore 


Monet is an artist that everybody knows. Or think they know. Most have seen his work on posters, calendars and cups; and some have seen actual paintings in galleries and museums throughout the world. Referring to the title of the current exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery “Monet’s Secret Garden”, Marsha Lederman in the Globe & Mail describes Monet’s work as the “Western world’s poster garden for artistic achievement”. Many have made the pilgrimage to Monet’s iconic garden at Giverny, France. He is an artist that sometimes get dismissed because of his popularity and the ubiquity of his images in museum gift shops around the world. There are 38 of his paintings currently at the Vancouver Art Gallery until October 1. These are works  that are definitely worth spending time getting to know.

There are many remarkable aspects to Monet’s painting, in particular the artist’s desire to express the physical experience of the act of seeing and his willingness to forgo traditional representationHis wild gestural brushmarks are a predecessor to the work of Jackson Pollock and Joan Mitchell to name two of the artists who brought abstract expressionism to the forefront. One of the dilemmas facing abstract painters of the New York School in the 1950s and 60s was how to deal with the edges. If painting is no longer a “mirror of the world”, then should the artist acknowledge the rectangular surface they are working on? Should the work go past the edges as in Jackson Pollock who stretched the canvases around a stretcher frame after finishing the painting? Or should the painting be contained in within the edges as in Frank Stella who made striped paintings with the goal of emphasizing the shape of his surfaces? In taking a studied look at the paintings at the VAG, I was fascinated how Monet both ignored and emphasized the edges.
Monet would have be familiar with photography, and like Degas you could see how Monet used the “cropped” form as part of his composition, intentionally or unintentionallyreferencing photography. At the same time, there are deliberate marks that frame the edge in a self-conscious manner as if Monet wanted to draw attention to the act of painting more than to the subject matter being presented. You can see from the image above (Les Roses, 1925-26) how the flowers at the top forcefully end along the upper edge of the work, and then the bottom edge is left with raw canvas creating further emphasis to the edge. All these details make you aware of the paint as expression and that you are looking an an image within the confines of a rectangle. There is no desire to create illusion here.
Also at the VAG is an exhibition of Stephen Shore’s photographs of Giverny done during the period of 1977-1985. Shore, one of the first artists to bring coloured photography into the realm of contemporary art, was commissioned by the Metropolitain Museum of Art to photograph Monet’s garden. This is a wonderful curatorial juxtaposition as the photograph by its very nature has to take the rectangle into consideration. Shore is known for taking photographs of the everyday, making us pay attention to the ordinary. While Giverny can hardly be considered ordinary, Shore makes us look at it in quite a different way than presented by Monet. Where Monet is not concerned with botanical details, but rather a feeling of how light interacts with the surface of his subject, Shore in contrast, gives us more detail that our eyes could possible absorb. The fascination about these photographs is that even in the shadows or dark areas, intense details can be discerned. If you look at the photograph (see below article) even in the dark water below the bridge, you can see grasses, leaves and petals. And notice how the cropping is done in such as way that the horizontals and verticals in the images relate to the edges of the photograph’s rectangle. While extremely beautiful, these are not romantic photographs of the garden. Like Monet, Shore is making us see beyond the surface of the subject matter and look into the very essence of what we are seeing.
Both of these exhibitions close October 1. I highly recommend the trip across the pond to see these. It will will be well worth your time. For more info: Vancouver Art Gallery

Making art is time well spent

We are a culture obsessed by time. Time goes by too fast. We wonder where the day went, where the summer went, where the year went. We are forever trying to keep up with the pace of time. We have no control over the passing of time. Time moves forward no matter what we do. What we can do is choose how we spend our time. Making art is one of the most productive and meaningful ways to use time.
We can’t stop time but we can find ways to put to rest our relentless thoughts about time. The mere act of attempting to draw or paint takes you out of yourself and makes you live in the moment. You forget time when you are making art. And unlike passive activities such as surfing the net or watching television, with art, you create something resulting in evidence of time spent, whether it be a sketch, painting or photograph, you have a record of what you made.
The great thing about art is the more you do, the better you get. Skills develop with increased practice. Spending time making art becomes an investment in skills development. For every hour you devote to artmaking, that is an hour more progress that you will experience. Each hour adds on to the last one, making the journey an inevitable progression to getting better.
Making art slows down time. A large part of learning to draw or paint or photograph is to really look and notice what you see. The big “secret” to drawing well, is to stop and really pay attention to what you are seeing. The reason most of us can’t draw, or think we can’t draw, is because we don’t spend enough time just looking at what is front of us. We rush ahead of ourselves and draw what the brain thinks the object looks like. If you slow down and concentrate, you will be able to draw what you see in no time at all.
Making art allows you to forget time, live in the moment, make a record time spent, and use time productively to improve your skills. It is a meaningful way to navigate through the world because it allows to you really experience life in a direct manner.

Beautiful Paintings: Aliza Nisenbaum

“To pay attention to someone can be a political act,” Aliza Nisenbaum.
We had the pleasure of viewing Aliza Nisenbaum’s work as part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial last May. Her work was curated so it had a room off to itself giving the viewer the opportunity to be somewhat alone with this relatively quiet and contemplative work. “Quiet” might not be a word associated with these paintings, but compared to some of the large-scale bombastic installations in the exhibition, Nisenbaum’s work offered a meditative reprieve.
In an article in Vogue Magazine “Who Says Art Can’t Be Political?”, we learn that Nisenbaum does all her portraits from life. She goes to the subject’s home and paints them in their own surroundings. She often depicts undocumented immigrants who she met while teaching a course called “English Through Art History”. This is her subtle way to address immigration issues faced in America today. The people in Nisenbaum’s portraits look just like any documented immigrant or US citizen. Her casual approach to the pose, dress and placement of figures, create a sense of the everyday with these people and surroundings depicting the norm. Nisenbaum goes into more detail about the meaning in her work in her artist statement: “my work has repeatedly reflected on ideas of empathy or pathways for exchange between different people.”
Erin Yerby in the Brooklyn Rail writes about Mexican-born Nisenbaum’s relationship to mural painting: “Nisenbaum frees her figures from the mural’s social symbolism and instead confronts the singularity of the face. It is the social from a different vantage, the political drawn from the intimate. The monumentality of the modernist mural tradition is reduced to a more personal encounter with the displaced body, that of the immigrant.” The sensitve way Nisenbaum’s paints her people reveals a personal connection; they are not just standing in for more general figures such as “the artist’s model” or the “workers” often found in traditional mural paintings.
In a Phaidon interview, Nisenbaum discusses her close relationships with her subjects: “through teaching I got to know the families I now paint – in some cases we’ve developed relationships over several years. I’ve painted the same children, parents and siblings, seeing them grow, and we have come to share many experiences together. I get involved in their lives, learning about them over dinners shared together and through research. With their input I decide how the paintings will take shape.” This intimacy is further enhanced by the smaller scale of her work and the attention to fine details.
Another obvious concern of Nisenbaum as an artist is the desire for beauty. Her paintings are beautiful. Reminiscent of the lively patterned compositions of Matisse, her unabashed use of pattern and strong shapes give the work a striking and dynamic quality. Some 2015 work from the Mary Mary Gallery in Scotland can be seen here: Eliza Nisenbaum. These paintings of ordinary “Americans” have a strong underlying abstract design that immediately attracts your attention and draws you to look deeper and pay attention to the people in paintings.
Painting is a great way to get to know the world around you while at the same time forgetting about the worries of the world.

Drawing as immersion

In the shortest story of all time, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges describes cartographers who made maps to a 1:1 scale, the map being the same size as the area mapped: On Exactitude in Science. Such a map would of course be impossible, but the story makes one wonder what this map would look like and what kind of immersive experience would result.

Jim Holyoak and Matt Shane create collaborative drawings that are based on the scale of their bodies and the scale of environments they have visited. In their current project at Open Space, the two artists have created a drawing based on their experience of hiking the West Coast Trail: Forestrial Brain. These drawings contain a variety of scales from the macroscopic to the microscopic, as well as the use of a range of materials and techniques from a wide broom to a fine pen. The public is welcome to come to the gallery and watch the artists work on-site until August 26. A video of the artists talking about their work and process can be found here: Jim Holyoak and Matt Shane at Open Space. The image (above right) gives a sense of the monumental scale of the work: the walls of the gallery have been entirely covered with paper and the two have been drawing in the space since July 11. These artists are in their drawing just as they were in the forest.

Holyoak and Shane have been doing collaborative projects for the last twenty years, some of which can be seen on Holyoak’s website: Jim Holyoak. They also work independently of each other as can be seen on Shane’s website: Matt Shane. Holyoak did a 155 foot drawing as part of a project called Holocene. He describes the project as being a natural history diorama, with him as one of the specimens on display. Holocene is the geological epoch that marks the last 10,000 years to present. It is first epoch that marks the human invention and the project is a way to mark the extinction of species. He worked in a contained window gallery space at Concordia University (see image below) for thirty-three days.

Artists are drawn to drawing because it is direct and immediate. It is often said that drawing does not lie because it reveals all. There is nothing between the artists and the paper other than a pencil, pen, stick of charcoal, piece of pastel or brush with ink. Paintings are often created through layers of underpainting, washes and glazes;  the underlying surfaces become lost in the building of multiple surfaces. Because of the immediacy of drawing, all marks reveal themselves as part of the final surface as there is often no time or need to start covering up areas.  Drawing is also very accessible because at its very minimum, only  paper and pencil are required. Large drawings can easily be made by using drawing paper in a roll and taping it up on a wall. Some of my favourtie examples of contemporary artists whose drawings create immersive effects include: Russell Crotty,  Julie Mehretu and Ugo Rondinone. All of these artists can be found in a great drawing exhibition catalogue Drawing Now: Eight Propositions.

Jim Holyoak, Holocene (Concordia University)

Art as appreciation

Art as appreciation

There are many reasons to spend time making art. It gets you away from your own thoughts. It releases you from the hold your various technological devices have on you. It is relaxing and enjoyable. However one of the most compelling reasons to make art is: it gives you an appreciation for the world around us. Whether you are making representational or abstract work, art makes you take notice of your physical environment. It makes you look at things. It helps to stop time and let you be in the moment.

Everybody continually remarks on the fact that “life goes by so fast”.  Art is a way to slow down life and provide a marker for your time spent. Spend hours on the computer or smart phone and there is nothing to show at the end. Spend hours making a drawing, painting or sculpture and you have physical evidence (whether good or bad) of your time.

If you need more reasons on why it is good to spend time making art check out what Richard Serra has to say: Why Make Art?  Serra talks about how artist make you see the world in a different way. Seven artists talk about why they make art in the Greater Good Magazine. A 2016 write-up in the The Business Insider reveals 7 Reasons You Should Make Art Even if You Are Bad at It.