Archive for March, 2008

Installation Art

March 31, 2008

There’s a thoughtful conversation going on at about environmental art. It’s worth a read, complete with some very good comments. I left one myself, and the text that follows here is partially an (edited) excerpt plus a digression. I’ve just used it as a jumping off spot to expand the idea and to reminisce a bit:

The conversation centered around Andy Goldsworthy’s Conceptual Art that uses natural elements. Some call it Environmental Art. Some reject it as art. It made me think of being in that period of time when the shift from Expressionism to Conceptual Art occurred in the art educational world.

I had most of my art schooling in the late ‘Sixties when Expressionism was in vogue. It was still considered acceptable to make rectangular works of art on canvas or paper. This is considered horribly passé in the Fine Art Educational Institutes of today.

For some long time, art schools have had a much greater emphasis on Installation Art. It’s usually a three dimensional work where objects are placed in a setting which could be either indoors or out, and common objects are arranged in a way that creates a large sculptural grouping that makes the objects into something different. Sometimes it’s all about the relationship of objects to the space it occupies. Sometimes there is a greater message included in the work. Try looking up Wikipedia’s definition of Installation Art at

By the time I’d taught high school art for some years, I felt the kids could draw better than I could. Some of them came with an innate ability to draw in a draftsman-like manner and I was very envious.
When I had the opportunity, I went back to school.
I had wanted to go to Art School when I started my post secondary education, but my parents wouldn’t allow that and I was young and acquiesced. They were afraid that the bohemian lifestyle would spoil me. They weren’t prepared for the Hippie lifestyle which I embraced and which I discovered at University. I attended the Education Faculty to get some hands on, practical art courses.

Looking back, hindsight being 20/20, it was a toss up. If you go looking for experiences, you find them.

So it was at the age of 30 that I headed off to an Art School in Rheims, France.
In my third year there, the Direction of the school changed radically. The old Director retired and a young-blood Art Educator took his place; he decided to turn the school into one that promoted Conceptual art and soon, the students were being asked to take the stools they normally used for sitting upon, to design installations within the school boundaries and to record their natural movement afterwards around th school as people picked them up and used them elsewhere. Then they were to write about this and draw some artistic conclusions. Drawing and painting were relegated to the back seat.

Previously, art had some generally accepted parameters. There were paintings and scultures. Photagraphs were barely acceptable and photographers were fighting to gain a place in the “Art, capital A” definition. It’s true that limitations in these areas were being broken down. It was no longer necessary to depict something representational.

More and more, the adventurous and experimental ideas in art had to be accompanied by written explanations; the more obscure and esoteric the artspeak, the better the likelihood of publication in a major art magazine or a museum picking up the work for exhibition.

Since this movement to Conceptual Art training invaded the art schools across the Western world, Art has not been the same. There are seemingly no borders as to what is Art and what it is not. The students from the ‘Eighties and ‘Nineties have become the curators of our Art Institutions and they are determined to ensure the last 40 years of leading edge art is exposed to the masses.
It’s the equivalent revolution of the Classicists in the Nineteenth Century to the Impressionist. It’s misunderstood and even hated by the general public, and hailed as the new guiding star by the initiated.

It’s the way of the world. Remember how, in the ‘Fifties, Rock and Roll was considered raucus and definitely not music, by the elderly. When you listen to it now, it sounds sweet and gentle compared to Heavy Metal, Hip Hop and Rap. I wonder if these latter “schools” of music will ever be considered tame, fifty years hence.
Those “ugly” paintings of van Gogh now sell for mega millions. He couldn’t sell them while he was living. Troubled Vincent may still be the number one star of the auction houses.

I had quite a bit of difficulty with Installation Art when if first came into prominence in the ‘Seventies. It was rather rare that this kind of art would be shown in galleries, but there were a few intrepid leaders of the way and we got treated to some very funky exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The work was shocking if a person was used to rectangular painted surfaces as the standard for “Art, capital A”. Few of the many observers knew what it meant. However, the Hippie generation was out to shock, to make statements in novel ways, to think up improbable ideas and then to make them materialize in some way, shape or form. Now this same kind of installation art has become mainstream. Major galleries have embraced the genre and often are willing to mount shows of this type of art.

I think it takes time to understand. Whether I like something or not, I try to leave the door open so that I can learn, if learning is there to be had. I admire craft as part of a work of art and can accept some works on their level of craft even if I don’t like th concept or the final image.

I view experimentation in art as similar to a scientist doing research. There is a goal that is set forth at the beginning of the exploration for discovery. What is found along the way may pertain or not. Quite often while searching for one thing, something completely different is discovered. Quite often, what is discovered and published (or exhibited) is difficult to explain. Especially, the path to get there is quite often impossible to define. The power and impact of the experimental work is often not accepted until some long period of time afterwards.

In art, sometimes it’s the critics who coin a name for the global idea, not the scientist (or the artist). Those of us with lesser understanding of the basics take longer to “get it”, to understand what is happening and thence to appreciate the work that has led to discovery.

In scientific discovery, often the purpose is to cure something – to close a gap of understanding; to find a new cure that will stop a disease. The commercial benefit that was waited upon may not happen. However, offshoots that arise from the unexpected discoveries eventually find unexpected commercial application.

It’s a funny thing. We never have the final answer. There’s always a new thing to discover; as in Art, there is always a new way of working or a new way of expressing oneself to discover.

A century from now, the whole jig may have changed. The unknown artist may be discovered and brought to the fore. The expensive above-couch paintings may be  assigned to thrift stores. Who knows what will be considered eternally, essentially worthy and lasting? Or fashionable? Its a moving target and only time will tell.


The Rule of Thirds – another compositional concept

March 9, 2008


Late in the nineteen nineties I visited my photographer friend and her husband in Montreal. I made a special trip because she was suffering with Multiple Sclerosis and she had a real need of friendship and company.

Her husband, also a photographer earning his living at the trade, took us on a weekend jaunt up to the Baie St. Paul and Quebec City. We were only gone for three days total but we packed a lot of looking into those three days. It was great for me because I got to see some of the countryside. It was great for Maureen because she rarely got out, had to be carried almost everywhere or be in a wheelchair she could no longer operate by herself. The trip was a good antidote for the cabin fever feelings that she had from being at home alone all day.

For me our trip was like visiting another country. First of all, it’s French speaking everywhere. Then, compared to Vancouver which has a history of European settlement that goes back about one hundred fifty years, Quebec’s European settlement has been ongoing since the 16oo’s . There’s a lot more history to be seen.

Add to that, rural Quebec is quite rustic and the landscape is beautiful.

Since her husband Michel was also a photographer, he was quite understanding if I wanted to stop and photograph something. He had his own favorite stops along the way. There were a number of folklorique displays of word working on people’s lawns. Once upon a time, whirly-gigs and weather vanes were popular house ornaments, and now they were collectible by some. The old barns were interesting and the early settlers’ stonework equally held charm. We went clicking away at our visual finds and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

We stopped for poutine – French fries and cheese curds covered with gravy; we stopped to see some maple sugar “farms”, and we stayed overnight in a resort area where there were lots of quaint stores with great Quebec handcrafts. Weaving was the one that interested me most.

At some time in all of this traveling and photographic madness, he said to me that he always used the Rule of Thirds. In all my visual training and in my own readings, I had not come across this rule.

It’s not a complicated one. Basically, it consists of drawing imaginary lines through the picture plane dividing it both horizontally and vertically in equal thirds giving you four basic intersection points. When you frame up your image, you place important elements of your composition where the lines intersect.
I suggest that you refer to the Silverlight site which explains it with diagrams and an example. It is much better than I could.

Ever since that trip to Quebec, I’ve kept that concept in my back pocket just in case it might be useful to me. From time to time, as I frame up an image, I think of this rule and make use of it; but it’s just one of many to be played with as we go about creating or recording images in two dimensional work and I use it loosely, ensuring that each parallel of thirds has interest or contrast to the other two thirds.


It’s really good for seascapes where the horizon is a straight line across. If the horizon is midway instead, the composition becomes quite boring. Go figure why it’s more pleasing to do it in thirds, but it is. Our perceptions are made that way.


Unfortunately, all the photos I took in Quebec were with an SLR and I have photos buried somewhere on my shelving units. I have nothing digitally from that trip. So the examples I give you here loosely apply the Thirds Rule.

It’s quite a formal rule despite its simplicity. If you referred to the web site I mentioned, it’s actually formal and measured. Geometric. When you feel comfortable with the concept, then rules can be used loosely to get the effects you want. You never want to get slavishly attached and overly obedient to a rule.

I thought of introducing this concept because one of the major compositional concepts used geometry and the Golden Rectangle but it’s more complicated. The Rule of Thirds is an easy one to start on.

I’ll have to do some research to get a good diagram or make one myself to scan before I’ll tackle talking about the Geometric rules. The geometric composition using the Golden Rectangle came into dominance during the Renaissance when geometry was rediscovered in a big way; it was at it’s heyday in the 19th Century. The Impressionists rebelled against the rigid teaching of their era and they rebelled against slavishly following the Golden Rectangle/geometric rule. In the Twentieth Century, artists ended by trying to chuck out all rules entirely.

But that discussion is for another day. So make of it what you will. It’s good to know about.

post scriptum:

I went looking at the thousands of Google entries there are on the Rule of Thirds and found this one which is excellently presented. Check it out. You’ll love the photos too!

Art Auctions

March 8, 2008

OK. I’m hot under the collar on this issue and this letter that I just received for a cause that I thought was legit just made me boil.

I had promised to send some work to an art auction that promised to give exposure to the artists and provide them with some compensation to take care of their framing costs and a small amount for the art work. The event was juried and subsequently, the organizers wrote to advise that two works had been accepted for the auction event. They requested by return mail that the minimum amount for the artist’s costs should be kept very low since the goal was to raise funds for the arts. The minimum amount would be the starting bid and would be given to the artist if the piece sold successfully. Anything more than that received on the final bit would go into the event coffers.

This seemed like a plausible arrangement until…..

The letter that requested details of each work and a maximum of three line biographical note to promote the artist and introduce the auction item.

At the bottom of the letter and form was this final comment.

With room for only 100 guests at the (venue) who will be bidding on auction items it is with great regret that we cannot extend an invitation to participating artists. Hopefully next year the (Event) will grow to be a bigger event and we will be able to involve you in the celebration.”

I was offended. The artists are the affair. It could not go on without them.
I had planned to attend the affair and frankly was prepared to pay the ticket price which included a few hors d’oeuvres. I felt the benefit to me as an artist was to meet the other artists and to network with both artists and purchasers.

I understood that the fund raising was meant to promote the arts, not to perpetuate the festival. But when I looked on the web site for this event, not one artist was mentioned; only the fund raisers were noted.

Artists should rebel against this type of fund raising. We don’t need to perpetuate the auction mentality that asks the artist, the lowest paid group workers in the Canadian economy, to donate their work for the least possible amount of money or for free so that purchasers can buy art at a discounted rate. The net result is that these auctions depress the value of all artists’ work.

In reply to the organizers, I said:

Please count me out. I regret that the donating artists have been sidelined in this affair. I note that on the web site, there is not one mention of the people who have been asked to provide the art work. I no longer am willing to contribute to a glamorous scheme that glorifies the restaurant and the festival organizers by taking from artists who make the affair viable and then tells them to stay away. I note that on the web site, there is not one mention of the people who have been asked to provide the art work. It leads me to believe this is more about self promotion, not promotion of the arts.

Here’s how art auctions do disservice to artists:

There are so many events where artists are asked to give up a piece of what they do for their livelihood in exchange for recognition or advertising of their work.

If an artist wants people to acknowledge their work, then they should send their best work. If an artist choses a less successful work than his or her best, then the advertising benefit is that the buyers get to know the artist as a mediocre one.

1. An artist needs to ask him/herself, how much publicity is really being provided? If there is a web site for the event and your name is not on it, you are not getting publicity. If the only publicity you are getting is the night of a noshing event, your work is vying with maybe twenty to one hundred other works. Ask yourself, how much attention is your work really getting? If you can believe gallery statistics, the average time anyone looks at a work of art in a gallery is three seconds. If you are in the company of some better known artists, all the major attention and publicity will be placed on those individuals. Second question to ask yourself: Who is getting the publicity?
Third question: How much of the proceeds are going to running the auction, that is, the administration costs? How much is actually being given to charity? While I had been led to believe in the beginning that this auction was being held to promote education in the arts, a later e-mail says “Please remember this is an auction to raise funds for our festival.” The charity proposal seems to have disappeared! This auction is about raising funds to do another festival, not to give to charity nor to art education!

2. Art auctions depress the value of artists’ work. It’s a question of supply and demand. There seem to be endless opportunities to contribute to art auctions. People who “win” the bids most often get the artwork at bargain prices. The bid winner now goes home with a piece of art, hangs it on the wall and no longer needs to go out and buy a piece of art at regular price! The artist has just reduced the possible art market by one. Add up all the artists in all the art auctions around you and that makes for a large quantity of art merchandise. The walls are filling up in the buyers’ homes.

The buyer has learned that one can purchase art at bargain prices at auction. Now they expect to wait for another art auction to do their art buying at a discount price.

The only person who loses out continually on this scheme of things is the artist.

It’s no wonder that the stats for the average Canadian Artists’ income is $18,000. This average includes those few that make a living at it, so just ask yourself: What is my real income from my art work? For the vast majority, it will be well under $18,000. That is why most artists have to have day jobs, a patron of the arts, or a private income before they can go full time.

3. It’s not a level playing field. At a recent Art Conference, a very well known Canadian artist said that when a print run is made of a new art reproduction of his work that he is provided with a certain percentage of free works that he is expected to use for auctions and other fund raisers. It’s part of the publishing company’s advertising campaign – but in this case it’s not the artist who is donating but the publishing company.

In all, it creates a dilemma for the artist. To donate or not to donate? That is the question.

If you are going to donate, at least you should be aware of the issues involved and check out whether or not there is a cause that you are willing to support. You need to know if you are going to get a tax receipt for your donation since you are giving up the opportunity to sell the piece yourself. You need to know if you will get sufficient “press” or advertising that will satisfy your goal of promoting your own art work.

What do you think?

I think I’ll just wait for the next art auction and buy myself some bargain priced art!