Archive for January, 2009

Photos through the windshield

January 28, 2009

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I have been chastised for taking photos through the windshield many times.  From a photographic point of view,  this activity comes with built-in hazards, especially since car washing is one of my least loved chores.

Taking photos through glass is already not cool, but glass with mud spots, insect splatters, rain and dust drops, et cetera, gives photos that may actually focus on windshield texture rather than your intended point of view. However, when travelling at thirty clicks on the highway with nowhere to pull over, it beats not getting the picture at all. The results are somewhat random. I throw many of them out (which is the blessing of digital photography).

Luck is in if you hit a red light with traffic backing up far enough that you don’t have to include the mechanical aspects of the intersection – wires, traffic lights, lamp standards, walk and don’t walk signs, and the like.

On my trip to Vancouver the other day, I managed to take full advantage of the zoom capacity on the camera to isolate some pictures from the industrialization of our byways.

Also, my friend and I went to a concert of Spanish flamenco music out here in the boonies. The venue is a very modern “farm” house built in the post and beam ‘Sixties style with a huge “family” room that is used to seat about eighty people. There are 30 acres of farm surrounding it.

The day was cold and crisp. After two days of low lying fog and this freezing weather, a beautiful coating of hoar frost covered every little twig and branch. Driving up to the entrance,  I could see a million opportunities for beautiful photos that I knew I would not get to take. My concert companion was driving and after the concert was in a hurry to go elsewhere. There would be no patience to let me click my way to heaven.

I must say that the scenery was of the “pretty picture” variety – grasses coated in rime, hoar frost on the branches,  traditional farm fencing, trees in the distance with a light coating of white, a pale blue wintery sky.

Parking at this place is limited so we got there a half hour early so that we could park close to the house, it being very cold out and neither I nor my companion wanted to risk the icy walk to the front door from any appreciable distance.

The concert and demonstration of flamenco dancing was awesome.  No wonder the lady who was dancing was svelte. Foot stomping with such determined and complicated rhythm must just pare you down in a hurry! She kept it up for an hour and a half with only little breaks in the program for a guitar solo and then, midway, for a costume change. The dancer was  Michelle Harding and Juan de Marias was the flamenco guitarist.

I took a few photos before the concert from inside the concert hall through double glazing – the small greenhouse and the plant pots.  When we left, I begged my companion to slow down so that I could take pictures through the windshield.

“There are cars coming behind us. I can’t just stop. I’m going as slowly as I can. Are you done yet? Can I go now?”  I was happy that some decrepit looking seniors got in front of the car and we had to progress at their walking speed.  Digital photography does not like fast movement.

Click, click, click. It was a prolonged moment of frustration as the camera insisted on showing me what I had taken before it would let me take another. I couldn’t reframe and refocus fast enough!

Despite all that I got a few very nice pictures, not photographically clean – a few mudspots in the way –  but I have something adequate that I can use as references for painting, which is the chief aim of my photographic endeavor.

Here they are, farm ones first and then the last few were on the highway:

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Kai Althoff

January 17, 2009

I’ve had computer problems for the last few days, so I haven’t even had a computer! I finally got it back today, repaired, and I’ve spent the whole day with it.

On Tuesday, I had to be in Vancouver waiting for my car to be fixed, so I spent my time at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The Feminist show was down and the main floor was in process of preparation for another show. The first and second floors were off bounds. On the Fourth Floor, however, I spent most of my time inspecting the Kai Althoff exhibition.

As I walked in the door at ten o’clock, just as it opened, I heard.

“Hey!” called out quite pleasantly, in a surprised tone of voice. I looked around to see who was calling whom and found it was me, the object of interest, and the person coming towards me, a member of my own outlying community in the Fraser Valley. She’s an administrator of one of the services in the Vancouver Art Gallery. I hadn’t expected to see her, either.

We greeted warmly and then she said, “Have you seen the Kai Althoff? I think you will really enjoy it. ” Her eyes were crinkled at the edges in a great big smile. She nodded, waiting to see if I connected.
I’d never heard of him before and said so, but was quite pleased to go have a look.

“When you are done, come back and tell me what you think. I’ll be in my office until eleven.”

That gave me an hour, or a little less, really, since she had to be gone by eleven. At quarter two, I came back down and sat with her for a few minutes. Between interruptions (she’s a very busy administrator) I told her what I had seen and what I thought.

‘I think they are quite wonderful. They are edgy – I don’t know if I could live with some of them, though,” I offered.

She smiled. “It’s exactly what I like about them. I’d love to have one. The edginess doesn’t bother me.”

“I see influences of Gustave Klimpt and Egon Shiele in his work – he sits somewhere in between.” I proposed. “They remind me of that exhibition of the drawings of the Weimar Republic.”

She didn’t quite see the Klimpt connection, but she was quite in agreement over the Weimar Republic connection – similarities to Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Max Beckmann, Rudolph Schlichter. There is a cynical quality to them.

I was meeting a friend for lunch, so that intervened.

I went back to see the Althoff exhibition after lunch and spent another good half-hour there inspecting his paintings closely. It was really worthwhile.
I remember saying to my friend that he seemed to be influenced by Klimpt and  Egon Shiele, but when I went back I was surprised at that reference, and finally found it in the showcase items  in the third room – the one with the sculptures that he set up for the Biennale. They were minor in influence, after all. The Weimar Republic was far more apt a connection.

“Liking” is perhaps not the right word for how I feel about his work, as a whole. I was fascinated. There were several images that I thought would be wonderful to have.
I was interested in his use of cut-outs to provide texture in some drawings. He seemed to add square pieces of heavy stock paper to his drawings and paintings, lacquering watercolour to board or marouflé-ing paper onto canvas and then using watercolour techniques.

This young man can really draw. He’s experimental and tries many things to accomplish his purposes, but he has the classic drawing skills under his belt. In one ceiling-to-floor painting, he has two entangled figures drawn flat colour – one the background and one for the figures, then all the remaining detail is provided by a fine coloured line. There is no hesitation in the line, no rubbing out, no covering over with paint to hide a change of mind. It has a meticulousness of craft that is simply marvelous.

He contrasts basic shapes and then provide minute detail for things like fabric stitching, buttons, etc in select areas. It gives an interesting play between the absolutely flat shapes and then the detail.
He seems to draw his figures from memory, that is, his work is not anatomically correct in shape. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. It creates a stronger feeling than if it were; and it sets up an uneasiness which is underscored by the leering quality that he achieves in his figures’ faces. Mouths, teeth and tongues are described in fine detail.
I was interested in some of the contrast of modern situations set in an ancient architecture, like the one where the two young men are face to face in some sort of dispute and the girl looks on, astride her bicycle. There is a Tudor style building with half-timbers infilled with white cementitious material behind them.
Althoff’s themes contain human emotional content of angst, anger, awkwardness and stressful social situations, mostly with men.
I like his restrained colour in the Impulse series. In fact, his palette is restrained in almost all of his work, and there is an austerity in his use of colour. These are both qualities that appeal to me.
There were several large paintings, two of which  – A Man Called Free-  and an Untitled one of a lady with a brief case –  seemed to be done with the same intent and same materials. The materials noted in the lady painting are indicated as Colour sprayed on silk, but I could not really see that. I thought these two paintings looked quite waxy. Their technical execution held mystery for me. I found the composition of Untitled (the lady) perfect for what was being described, although the image defies traditional conventions. So it was quite fascinating to try and figure why it was working .
I thought that the series “From Good Advice to Vice” was excellent – very fine drawings (and what a great title!).  It is unusual lately in contemporary work to honour art that is so illustrative. There were three from this series, very precise, meditated, carefully controlled and accurate in descriptive detail. Quite intentionally, I’m sure, these three drawings had an undercurrent of tension, of awkwardness, perhaps even of foreboding.
The weaving illustrations in the next room, set up with an interactive display where one could use the loom were superb. To work in line drawing on such a large scale – five foot by eight foot, I’m guessing –  is fabulous.
I only saw about 5 minutes of the video and it was good. It reminded me of some of the experimental dance theatre  that I saw in the ’70s in Europe. It has been programmed into a Fringe Festival-type of presentation. I saw quite a number of them in the South of France in Avignon in ’76. They were characterized by almost empty stage and the activities by the actor/dancers was barely connected. There was no narrative, or there were small cameo narratives with little association from one to the other.

In Kai Althoff’s video, the costumes are makeshift with wrapped fabrics; the action was similar to that described just previously and I didn’t find it particularly innovative. It had limited audience in the ’70s and still has a fairly limited audience. I didn’t linger to see the whole thing.

Althoff certainly has a great reputation, for an artist still so young. He was born in 1966 in Cologne, Germany and although he has exhibited internationally in major museums, he remains based in Cologne, according to Wikipedia.

He has an amazing body of work and it’s all good stuff. I have little to refer to in order to give you facts so the following is conjecture. His earlier work establishes his classical grounding in figurative work and then his work has become more experimental, abstract  and innovative (which is in the natural order of an artist taking mastery over his abilities). All of it is very consistent. He has a very strong sense of self oozing out of all his work whether early or late in his production. Certainly he is an artist to keep watching.

If you Google his name, Kai Althoff. There are several references. The Wikipedia one provides some biographical detail and a few pictures I don’t know if I will be allowed to post one of his images, but I’m going to ask, so check back later and hopefully I will be able to show something.

Bulldozer

January 10, 2009

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I’m on a roll, here. This is the second painting this week. I’ve struggled with this one all day, but I think it’s done.

Philosophers’ Café – What is art?

January 9, 2009

At ten to seven, Mrs. Stepford and I arrived at Blenz’s café where our local philosophers meet on a Thursday night. No one had arrived before us, so we got choice of tables right in the middle (the better to hear both ends of the conversation), hung our coats on the back of our chairs and got ourselves a coffee.

At seven, when things were supposed to start, there were about six of us – Nigel, Mark, Sandy, and Lee, and Mrs. Stepford and me. At ten after, the moderator still hadn’t shown up and someone asked if we didn’t remember that he had said he couldn’t come for this session and that Nigel should take on the leadership.

Of course, Nigel didn’t feel up to it. Doughty Mrs. Stepford must have been a Girl Guide in her youth. She came prepared.

At twenty after, she called the meeting to order. I happened to be talking to the person beside me and I hadn’t heard her. She whacked my hand (she was sitting on the other side of me) and when I looked at her in surprise, she locked on to my eyes very directly and said, “Shut up!”in a very peremptory manner. Everyone knows us as a dynamic duo, a pair of inseparable neighbourhood friends; and they chuckled at the street-theatre exchange we had provided.

That brought me to order, though; and being in company, I didn’t protest. I shut; and paid attention. There were about twenty of us, by the time we started.

Mrs. Stepford She pulled out her print-outs that she had extracted from the Internet on the subject “What is Art”.

Oh Lordy! There’s a topic to frizzle your hair!

She read Leo Tolstoy’s description and then someone else’s who I was not familiar with, and so promptly forgot. With the music still quite loud, I had difficulty in hearing so I bent my head forward, twisted my ear towards her just like a coyote listening for the tiniest sound of prey, and I closed my eyes, the better to concentrate.

The discussion afterward was quite lively. I didn’t note it all down, but I kept a few scribbles on the margins of a free daily paper. I noted the things that interested me as ideas still to be kicked around in my own mind later, and here they are:

I was surprised that one definition was that “art describes what cannot be described by speech.” That’s fine if you are talking about the visual arts and maybe even music; but I find that definition ignores the rich artistic discipline of performance art which depends on the spoken word, in principle – well, with the exception of mime.

Mark said that art described the ineffable; that is, art described that which cannot be described! Sounds like an oxymoron, perhaps, but I agree that lasting art reaches out to describe the essence of an idea and describe it by means other than the spoken word or the prosaic written one.

I specify “the prosaic” written one, because I consider non-documentary writing in the form of novels and poetry are arts.

At the beginning, we had all agreed that the subject was much too large to encompass in one two hour discussion we would need some parameters to work within.

Listening and trying to find my own experience within what was being said, I came up with “Art is an expression of ideas by metaphor.” It seems to me that no matter how representational one gets, there is always a translation that happens, a metamorphosis from the object of the art to the expression of it.

Now I’m thinking more in the visual arts than elsewhere because that’s what I do, but I think that would apply in theatre as well. Let me give an example: When I choose to paint a bulldozer realistically, then people who view the finished product will be able to see that it is a bulldozer. But no matter how good my skills, I will never be able to duplicate that object on the canvas. I filter it through my experience. I improve the composition by cropping the surroundings out, perhaps; I chose colours that represent the object as closely as possible; but given another person trying to do exactly the same image, there will be differences according to his eyes, his colour perception, his ability to mix pigments  and his skill with the brush.

I will be able to express the object on canvas – but not duplicate it.

Back to the group discussion – one definition insisted that, for an object to be art, it had to have individuality, clearness of expression and sincerity. This definition was formulated in the late 19th Century, so a world of art styles and inventions since may perhaps make the quotation seem a bit archaic.

This definition went on to say that if there was individualtiy and clearness of expression but that there was no sincerity, then it was not sufficient. It was not Art. And conversely, if there was clearness of expression and sincerity, but no individuality, then it still was not Art. If there was sincerity and individuality, it was not sufficient, either, to have be designated as art.

We quickly dismissed the red herring of talent. Were a chosen few people gifted in technical skills? Was that enough? A Mozart? A Picasso? A Salvador Dali? Did they have a head start because they had been handed talent others had not had the privilege to start out with? Without knowing about Dali, we concurred that both Mozart and Picasso had come from families where the parents were already practicing Art so that, from an early age, they were exposed to art and were fostered in it. Perhaps simply the repetition, the practice of art in early childhood combined with the saturation of their day-to-day lives in Art made the difference. That was the age old question of nature or nurture.

For myself, I know the answer. Often people dismiss my ability in the Fine Arts and descry their own lack of ability by stating. ” but you have talent.” My answer is, “No!” A resounding “No!”. I worked hard to gain what ability I have; and though I have developed a fair facility with paint and a fair understanding of the abstract concepts of art and picture making, it has been won by hard labour over a long period of time, by perserverence; by a will to continue.

Back in the philosophers’ discussion, someone was saying that art is a language of feelings that depend on shared concepts to be understood.

At eight, we stopped for a break, ordered second coffees; some went outside to assuage their cigarette addictions.  Upon our return, Cindy sitting beside me whistled through her teeth in one of those loud, piercing, attention-getting sounds that stop people short. Many of us were in absolute admiration of her capability and we talked about that for three minutes while everyone settled back in.

The tack of conversation veered to the concept of Quality. Could one say what was High Art or Fine Art as compared to Low Art? Was country and western music any better or worse, higher or lower, than opera?

There were those who lived by “I know what I like” and those who thought that quality is something that can be defined, albeit with difficulty. I’m of the latter camp.

In regard to quality, intent was cited as  an important indicator. Then, the devil’s advocate suggested that with all the best intentions in the world, an amateur could not achieve what he or she had intended to do. Intent, in that case, was not enough. The quality of the end product was not good; and would you call that Art?

Aimée piped up, “Longevity is the best indicator of quality! If we are still looking at something a thousand years later and saying it is good, it has endured; and then it must be good.”

A woman in a white cable stitched sweater rebutted that argument with “The number of votes you get, that is, whoever sells the best, is the best artist.” I don’t believe she was saying that tongue in cheek, which disturbed me.

How do you account for the wonderful artists that we see on the Internet who have never had a gallery; who are not commercially popular? Their work often looks wonderful to me; but if it is not selling then it’s no good? I have a lot of trouble with that concept, and said so.

Was Van Gogh’s painting bad because he couldn’t sell it; but when it became sellable, all of a sudden that art became “quality’? In the gallery owner’s opinion, perhaps that is so. But nothing has changed – how could it be bad before and good now, unless you took into consideration that the viewers had caught up with the artist. Avant garde artists were a bit like other explorers – scientists, for example, who lived on the edge of discovery and sometimes found things. It sometimes took decades before the common person caught up with the ideas that had generated that new discovery. And so it was with painters.

Another person spoke of Connection. There had to be a connection between Life and Art to make it worthwhile. If  life experience was not reflected in a work of art then it did not have meaning. It did not have quality. Someone cited Samuel Coleridge who awoke from a drugged sleep and wrote down “the Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. ‘He didn’t intend to write that poem,” he claimed, “and therefore there was no intent; and yet it is a work of Art.”

Nigel replied, “But he had been writing all his life; his intent was to write and his craft was ready, so when he tried to capture his idea on paper he had intent in that he wanted to capture his idea. Coleridge’s years of experience had served him well in capturing the germ idea and turning it into a piece of art.

We all went home at nine, thoroughly filled with conflicting ideas about Art. It’s such a messy subject. It encompasses everything from A to Z and one to ten and every conceivable variation of these. It’s almost impossible to define, but we had a good time trying; and people will be still thinking about it a millenium from now, if we haven’t blown our race and our planet to smithereens.

On that happy note,

Good night!

A new painting

January 6, 2009

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When I began Art Is Eternal as a blog, I had been away from painting for a long time. I needed a nudge – several nudges, really – to get me going. There was so much to do in my life that took me away from what I professed I wanted to do.

I’ve been through these barren patches before and I knew better than to bemoan my fate. So I’ve been waiting and preparing for the right time. I’ve puttered at things in watercolour which is a good way to spend an hour or two; but I wasn’t getting down to meaty things, things with meaning.

I must say that I haven’t gotten there yet, either, though I’ve taken a big step forward. I wrapped my drawing table in plastic tarp to keep it clean (it used to be my Mother’s teak dining table. It’s a grand size to work on. But I wouldn’t want to spoil it for it’s original purpose in getting irretrievable paint spots on it. And I put a big painter’s tarp on the floor – the white canvas type – to protect the carpet. I’ve transformed the dining room into my art room.

I am going to work in acrylics now, since I don’t have decent ventilation, especially in winter, and I have developed sensitivities to solvents. Even small amounts of them. I haven’t used acrylics since my college days – I don’t want to tell you how long ago.  I’m not used to working with the medium and one needs to before the medium will sing the song you are asking it to, as it should.

I had two sixteen by twenty blank canvases in storage downstairs and brought them up, placed them on my table easel. It wasn’t expensive – a made in China affair, very respectably made in solid oak, but it sure is handy.

I selected three new brushes suitable for use in acrylics, and began to paint.  It’s not good to use acrylic brushes for oil and vice versa. The image up above in this post is the result.

I’m fairly happy with it, even though it’s “just a landscape”. No messages here. Just a visually pleasing part of the landscape.

I’m hoping that I will continue in this vein though, as I’ve hundreds of reference photos recording some of the construction on the new Pitt River Bridge that’s being built in this area. That, for me, is meatier.

I like construction, the flag people in their brilliant fluorescent clothing. I like the industrial lacework that the old bridge imposes on the landsscape and am sorry that it will have to disappear when the new bridge comes, but of course it will have to go. It will be replaced with a sleek, lean suspension bridge, spare in details. Post-modern contemporary minimalism. Cost efficient. Altogether citified. The bucolic nature of our community is rapidly being exchanged for the density and rapidity of a major satellite city.

Talking with the Stepford’s next door, we envision moving when the pace gets too fast and the low-rise downtown of our municipality becomes high-rise. It’s beginning. We are in accord – a village feel is what we want to live with. A pox on sleek progress and developer’s greed!

But I digress. What fascinated me about the scene I painted before was how life had grown so delicately upon the construction sandpile, with second-growth alder and birch taking hold as the pile waited silently as the construction went on around it. The landscape it sits in has changed many times in the last three years. Once, it was forested with marshy trees; the original firs and cedars that grew there had long been removed by the pioneer generation for building materials, for the forest wood industry, and for firewood. A whole new marsh ecology had taken over.

When I came here two years ago, I thought that it was simply the original marsh ecosystem that came with the river flats. But one day, while walking on the dikes by the Alouette River, we stopped to ask some young workers what they were doing as they cut grasses and brambles away from some little blue netting tubes that protected newly planted cedars and firs.

It turned out that they had a mandate to return the area to its original ecosystem. They were re-introducing plants that had been taken out or had been overtaken by aggressive second growth plant material.

On the shores of this beautiful area, a park preserve has been designated and one can walk for about seventeen kilometers through farmlands, wetlands  and rural residential “development”.  Next to this is large stand of  alder (second growth) forest of several sections of land. Guessing, it’s maybe a kilometer square. Next to the alder forest is a large shopping centre with big box named conglomerate businesses – a warehouse concept food chain, two hardware chain stores, a home decor business, a super-store food market, two car dealerships, a kilometer square of parking asphalt, etc, etc.  I’m guessing that takes up two kilometers square. They are big businesses.

Since the construction of the bridge, the alder forest has been slashed. It is no more.

In it’s place, the riverside property has been loaded up with mega-loads of  sand to stabilize the soil conditions so that road building and bridge building can continue.  Trucks have been continuously taking loads sand to the construction site and moving it from one place to another . I don’t profess to understand the structural imperatives of this activity. I only know that in the places where the bedrock is down so far and that watery conditions are nearby, where the water table is so near the surface, this activity is necessary to minimize the possibility of buildings settling. It ensures that footings for bridges and roadways are solidly made.

I’m thoroughly sorry for the animals that must have made home in that little alder forest. Where have they gone? Have they had to fight with their own kind for territory as they are pushed further inland? Or will we just find them going upscale, raiding our back yards for nesting areas, or, like my raccoon last year, taking up residence in our houses?

In any case, lately, that whole area has been razed flat. The only thing that protrudes from the kilometer square where the alders once grew is this sand   pile. It has been there sufficiently long to have grown all these airy alder babes. Few have grown  large enough become a tree. It’s mostly just  scrub brush.

I liked the composition of this scene; I liked the variations of greys of the sand pile in light and in shadow, the slight reddish tinge that the alder branches infused to it where their growth fringes the crest like a haircut with attitude; the mossy yellow-green where grasses have taken hold. The sky is boldly blue. I’m still struggling with the acrylic paints to mix colours as I would like, so it doesn’t quite capture the delicate shift of blue somewhere between a French Ultramarine and a Magnesium blue, but its good enough to convery the feeling of a bright sunny day (which is refreshing in this last spate of snow that we’ve had that seems to be unending). Perhaps, a picture never can reproduce that awe that we feel over something we find very beautiful.

Who would have thought – a construction sand pile, as a thing of beauty?

One last thought: As kids, we play in the sandbox or at the beach. We love shifting sand from one place to another, making castles and roads and rivers and tunnels; or we make hamburger patties and cake that are disgusting to eat. We run our model trucks and Dinky toys through them and create stories and And then we grow up.

Some people never lose their love of messing with sand and dirt and building things. Isn’t it fortunate for them that adults invented a thing called construction? And architecture? And engineering? Now the trucks are real. So is the sandbox!