Archive for October, 2009

A lesson in leaves

October 29, 2009

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I spent the afternoon out looking at leaves. Well, really, I was raking the magnolia’s gamboge dress that that she left strewn all over the floor. She’s going to be mighty cold without clothes on this winter.

The cedar trees that dried out severely during our summer drought went dancing to the Aolian harp this week along with the dogwood and the hazlenut tree. It shook a might layer of dried “needles” out from underneath its boughs. It made a beautiful burnt sienna carpet on the ground; but unfortunately it has a growth inhibitor that prevents other things growing and if the debris is left, it seeps into the soil and kills all the other struggling plant forms.

So I was sweeping up and containing all that stuff into green garbage bags to go to the yard waste dump and all the while I was looking, looking, looking. Those cedar bits are so-o-o-o-o beautiful – really graceful forms; and the magnolia leaves were turning from their pure yellow of only a few days ago. Burnt sienna was seeping out from the veins. Grey dots were forming. Some had been underneath the others for a while and had turned solidly brown or, the ones I pulled out from under the cedar hedge, were black. These black ones must have survived a winter and a summer, hidden rather deeply under the hedge. All these colours in all the variety was a real pleasure to look at.

When I came in, I spent some time sorting photographs. With digital cameras, we aren’t so discreet about what we take. After all, we don’t have to print them all, so we, or should I own up here and say “I”,  take several where I might only have taken two in the past.I have thousands of photos now and my computer is clogging up with them all. I need to get some off the computer.

I came across this lesson I gave to one of my students recently about positive and negative shapes. So I”m going to do one of my little ten minute lectures here on elementary positive-negative shape considerations.  It is inextricably linked to concepts of composition.

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This page is a series of thumbnail sketches for illustration purposes.

See the little rectangle in black with the white P in the center. The white is the positive shape, a circle. Everything that is left is deemed the negative shape.  It’s a rather boring composition, really. If you’ve read my other blogs on composition, you will know that this gives a single figure in a rectangle which makes it difficult for the eye to go anywhere else in the picture and so it becomes tedious to look at the one spot and the viewer will quickly tire of looking at the work.

In the next thumbnail just above it, there is a shape that represents a head and shoulders plus background. This is a small improvement over the first example. At least the black figure touches the outer edge and so the eye can easily work from left to right, right around the figure and out the picture on the other side. It begs the question: will the viewer take the time to stay and look at any detail in the picture, or has the artists simply given the viewer permission to quickly enter stage left and exit hurriedly on stage right with out much attention in between. The negative space in this image is the white background.

The bigger sketch of the figure with shoulders drawn down to the bottom line, with a space between the arms and the outer edges, a familiar portrait style,  just illustrates that by doing so there is still only one negative (background) shape. One can vary the shoulder tilt or add a hat with an angle to avoid a too-symmetrical effect.

Many portrait artists through the ages have used this simple bust-plus-head model of composition.  If you have ever gone through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, you will know what I mean. After a short while going through the portraits, you stop looking and speed up your tour through, looking for something a little more engaging (and of course, there is,) in other galleries of the museum.

In  the thumbnail with two figures, it illustrates that you can use a shadow of the original shape to make the background more interesting. It’s been a while since I did these notations, so I had to think about it a bit. It’s not obvious that it represents a figure and a shadow. So I would add, if you put in two figures and ensure that they are at different heights or wearing different colours, or vary the composition in some other way, you can make your positive-negative balance more interesting.

Talk about forgetfulness, I’m reminded of Robert Browning, the 19th Century  poet,  who was asked what something meant in one of his poems.

He replied, “At one time, only God and I knew. Now only God knows.”

I’m trying to figure out the remaining thumbnail sketch. It looks somewhat like a dog.  But with a V neck.  I know what P stands for in this lesson, but what does S stand for? Why would a dog be wearing a V-neck pullover? And is that a necklace, the wavy stuff? With this inability to explain myself, I ought to stop right here! But being verbose me, I have a few more relevant things to say and one more picture to show.

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I asked my student to draw a branch being particular to notice the direction that the leaf grew off of it and noticing the spaces between the leaves as an integral part of the composition. When she was done, I took a few pictures of the drawing to show how cropping a drawing can improve the overall disposition of objects in a composition.

As an aside, note the overlapping leaves. It’s one of the principal ways to indicate perspective. It may sound obvious to those of you have been painting for a long time, but people struggling with representation often need to have this pointed out.

As an outcome of this lesson, I thought that my new student did a great job of finding a good composition and a variety of negative shapes.

Now back up to the top drawing, the one that opened up this blog.  I quickly sketched these three leaves and enclosed them with a line denoting the picture plane.  The leaves do not touch the edges.  The point is, though, that there is an implied entry to the drawing via the left hand side and an implied exit on the right hand side (after some looking about the various shapes and spaces). If you get an image close to the edge, it acts as if it is touching the edge. A pointy shape will work better than a round one in making the eye take a synaptic leap across the vacant space.

In this drawing I also illustrated how shading can accomplish some of the interest in the “negative” shapes and can heighten the positive shape by doing so. I liked this drawing well enough that I think I may paint it, but in colour!


A game plan and some heart work

October 28, 2009

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I have been grouching about my painter’s block – my inability to get going on something free and meaningful (to me at least).

Yesterday I began with two drawings in chalk pastel on good paper. The advantage is that not much is lost if it doesn’t work out – the materials are expensive alright, but relatively, a way less than the commitment of materials in oil or watercolour.

Yesterday I accomplished these two drawings. The game plan? Use up some bits and pieces of chalks that were too small to use for a big project, and; work as freely as possible to obtain fresh original mark making.
I have a continuing theme of hearts in my art work. I’ve done them when I have been out of sorts and when I am elated. Each one is intended to convey some state of emotional spirit.

Of course, I don’t do this without other aesthetic considerations operating in the background. I’m sensitive to finding colours that go together and finding movement in the work that will engage a viewer who is interested in the drawing process.

The first that I produced is up above and the second is here:

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By the time I had finished the drawing yesterday, I felt the work was without substance. The colours went together alright, but they were a bit saccharine and the image too explicit. In the morning when I looked at it again, I thought it was still too pretty, too sweet, and the drawing lacked any depth of colour or tone. It wasn’t worth keeping, as is, so I thought I would just continue on – writing Far too calm, Far too pretty on it. That was my critical feeling about it, so it was fair game to continue on with some text over the insufficient image.

My internal jury is still out on this piece.

Then I went about cleaning up my little tray of  chalk pastels. It must have been sitting in the sun during the summer. Two cough candies had melted in one section and the whole thing needed cleaning out.  I set aside the pieces of chalk that were viable for a bigger project and took the ends and crumbles to work with.

I started on a different kind of paper. The first was Ingres paper and the second was a bit of Canson’s Mi-teint.  On the half sheet, I took some larger crumbs of red and put them under my thumb, moving them around freely, not trying to obtain a shape. I did this with about three different hues.

Just by the rotational movement there were some marks that could be pulled into heart shape, but I didn’t want to impose that shape. It defeats the purpose of working freely and seeing what comes. Along the way, I was unsatisfied with the lack of tonal contrast and I wanted to cover over any obvious shapes, so I chose a light tone – a pink – to draw wider, more gestural strokes. The result helped give tonal contrast and an added benefit that the marks resulted in a figure-like form that appears to be dancing. Had I tried to draw a dancing figure, it would have been stilted and awkward.  This figure carries a feeling of joy with it and the freedom of the marks gives the drawing a lot of movement.

So for all that verbiage, here’s the image:

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On the full size sheet, I started by the same process, using crumbs under my thumb.  It was a large format and demanded more attention to where the marks were going.  I’m afraid this one came out too sweetly too. It’s lacking some rigor, but I thought it good enough to leave as is until I can decide whether or not to add or subtract or cover over.  Unlike the green one which was pallid at this stage, this one has some stand-alone quality. I’m not ready to do anything to it yet.

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I think I’m not fully happy with it because I’m repeating myself with mark making that I’ve done many times before and the hope of this exercise was to get me out of rut. I distrust work that is too facile.

Then I cleaned out the tray, washed it up and saved the powders and crumbs, whatever colours they were, for another drawing. It turned out to serve me well for three drawings, actually. They are very similar.  I like the mark making in this one. I used all five fingers of both hands to move the crumbs around.

There are parts that are crisp and sharp, others that are smooth and blended. Whatever was left over from the first image was placed onto the next sheet of paper and I recommenced. And so, the same for the third piece.

They aren’t strong enough in themselves but there is a lovely fresh quality to these three; and although I did nothing to control the colours I would get, there are some interesting colour passages. I’m only sorry that I didn’t take the time to go downstairs but instead grabbed the closest paper at hand, some Pacan paper which is like cartidge paper and is not strong, nor it  likely to be acid free. I could find no information on this paper on the Internet.  It’s a great paper for student work and for rough drawings.

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So that’s it. That’s the fruits of my experimenting. I like this last one the best. Now will I be able to reproduce a feeling like this of freedom in another drawing, what ever the subject may be. I must try it with different colours. The pinks are still just a bit too sweet.

Line and a new painting

October 22, 2009

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In August, I took on a new student. She has an adventurous spirit and her goal was to work abstractly. Before we got there, we had to have a common understanding of the elements we were working with so I embarked on survey of various things – composition, line, positive and negative shapes, texture and pattern, etc.

She was eager to start painting and we’ve chosen acrylics because painting can be engaged in without the problem of paint fumes off-gassing in a small apartment where she will continue on her work at home.

She was eager to leap in, both feet first, so I decided on an exercise that would combine several things together. We would start with a line drawing being sensitive to capturing the shapes and mindful of carrying the eye about the picture plane with the three principal objects.

Notice how she has weighted her line so that where there is a dark edge which might indicate a shadow behind it, she has a thick line, but where the transition in the flower from light to shade is delicate, she has used a fine line that trails away (see the veining on the flower and where the petal curls under on the lower lily).

On the painted version, she no longer was working in charcoal but with a brush. You can achieve these same gradations of line sensitivity with the paint brush; but it’s good to know that if you get a line too thick, you can adjust this when you get around to working on the “coloring or painting in” of both the petal and the background.

Then she would block in the painting giving a ground colour to work on so that no unintended blaring white bits showed through in the later stages of the painting. We chose yellow ochre as the ground colour.

So here is the first stage of the painting with ochre ground and the figurative work sketched in with brush and a dark colour.

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Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures in the next stages, but I couldn’t resist sharing her lovely drawing with you. It’s supple and appears freely drawn although I know this took some concentrated looking to be able to produce.

One’s eye travels around the composition easily with the placement of the three flowers in a triangular composition. The addition of a few leaves or changing background colours in the final stages will assist with bringing the entire picture plane into the visual flow.

She’s done quite a bit of work on it now so I will get another photo of it for the record and add it in when I can/

Intentions and game plans

October 15, 2009

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During an afternoon at Shuswap, armed only with a graphite stick and paper, I felt compelled to draw. I didn’t want to be drawing the beach bodies roasting in the sun nor the parched landscape of the hills behind us.
Further down the beach, there were rocks that might have been interesting, but I was feeling particularly frustrated and obstreperous about my relations with mankind in general for no better reason than a pulled tendon that was preventing me from doing active things. I was bored.

The others were away – Heather and her husband were out canoeing and Lizbet was swimming.

Just using the side of my graphite stick, I tried to make the stick speak for itself, using pressure to achieve tonal variations. By moving in one direction, I could get a wide mark of equal width. I suppose that sounds obvious. But if I turned it or backtracked on what I had already done, I got overlaps that were visually very interesting.

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This method of working is conducive to finding new imagery.  Most times, the images don’t resemble anything – they are non-representational. Sometimes (like we do with clouds, occasionally) they ended up with a form that resembled some recognizable thing. They didn’t start that way, but in the end, I could say, ‘This one looks like a torso” or “this one looks like a mother and child”.

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An acquaintance to whom I showed these drawings asked me, “What were your intentions when you did these?”

I feebly answered that I was experimenting with materials, I think. Afterward, when I reviewed my conversation in my mind, I couldn’t remember what I said at all.  I only felt this berated emotion since I couldn’t explain in words what it was I was doing.

New directions in art are not made through copying work that has come before. They come from explorations where one thinks they may get this result or that, but in fact, one may or may not get it. Something beyond original expectations may occur that had not be consciously thought about at all; something not better nor worse, but different. That difference acts like a new set of building blocks to construct new styles of imagery.

Sometimes we call these happy accidents, but if one were not out actively exploring with the materials, the “accident” would not happen. Once an “accident” has produced some favorable result, then if the artist can repeat it and use it as part of future imagery, then a new direction may grow from it.

It goes then without saying that of all the experimental drawings that I produced, I did not end up liking them all. Some seem too simple or trite. Some seem overworked. There is a core of ones I’m very pleased with. The trick will be to see what I can do with them whether in more graphite drawings or perhaps translating that technique to another medium.

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Working like this has given me some new mark-making images that I hope to be able to use.

What was essential, to start the process, was to choose a support to work on (the paper) and then a mark making tool to draw with. Sound simple? On vacation, it was. I only had two books of drawing papers, each with a different surface – one with smooth paper, the other with paper more suited to charcoal. But there are many different papers to choose from, all of which will affect the outcome differently – smooth, toothed, machine-rolled, hand made and therefore randomly surfaced,  plate, YUPO.

One quickly comes to a conclusion on the graphite. If it’s not soft enough, not enough contrast in tone can be achieved. For this type of drawing, a 4B is needed, at a minimum. I prefer the 6B; and the graphite must be the rectangular sticks, not the round ones so that there is an edge to work with.

So my game plan was this:

1) to make marks using the full width of the graphite stick on its edge, and

2)  to make marks with it without lifting it from the paper, and

3) to make variations whether by change of direction or by changes in pressure weight along one side or the other of the graphite.

In a far more complicated way, successful artists do this Game Plan method of working. They become interested in a theme and carry it through with variations, one after another until they have a series, a body or work that hangs together with common purpose.  And that game-planning occurs sometimes quite consciously and sometimes not.

It may start with an interest in aviation, for example, and what follows is one airplane after another until there are thirty paintings with just airplanes in them. When the artist’s interest begins to wane in the subject, there may be something added to the game plan – like: now I will add a few figures on the ground and a context appropriate to the era of that particular plane.

It may start with an interest in hiking and a fascination with the movement of water. What follows may be a concentration on photography of waterfalls and the movement of water around rocks. The body of work accumulates. The first ones may not be so wonderful, but as the artist photographer continues to work in that vein, he or she begins to eliminate the facile work and replaces with the exceptional.

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In familiar art history, you can relate this to Gaugin with his Tahitian women, or van Gogh with his sunflowers or Georgia O’keefe with her flower close-ups and her desert skulls. They have followed a fascination with a particular subject matter, all the while tightening their technical skills until they work in their particular style without consciously having to do so.

Picasso was a brilliant draftsman in his early years, precociously so. It didn’t take long in his art career for him to become bored with that manner of working. He began inventing his own game plans which resulted, at first, in rather tame variations from the norm – his Blue Period and his Pink Period – but that wasn’t enough for his fertile explorations. The rest is history. He began exploring ideas that resulted in a large body of work now called  Cubism and he never stopped exploring in his long art life.

Picasso freed all artists from having to do the same thing, to reproduce endlessly the landscapes and bouquets of tradition. The explosion of ideas in the Twentieth Century is legendary. One almost wonders if there is still something new to be done or to be  said.

But of course there is! And the only way to get there is to go out exploring with open ended expectations.

Sonja Kobrehel – an artist and a game plan

October 12, 2009

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Lately, time has been flying by. With all good intentions, I took several pictures of Sonja Kobrehel’s work at the University Women’s Club, Vancouver at Hycroft way back in February or March.  The pictures have sat in my picture files since and every time I look at them, I am reminded that I wanted to say a few words in support of her exhibition. The exhibition is over, so I’m too late for that.

It’s never too late, though, to bring that attention of a good artist to my readership. Kobrehel’s work is so colourful and light.

As I was minutely looking at her work during the exhibition, one of my friends came by and said, “I don’t really understand what one sees in this kind of art,” which stunned me. It really shocked me, I think, because I was feeling such  joyousness from looking at it. It reinforced for me a)  that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and b) my art education has been so profound and lifelong  that I see things differently from other people. Sometimes the abstract is unreadable by the uninitiated.

“Why is this work important?” my friend continued. I promised to explain it one day, and perhaps that is what I am trying to do here today.

What attracts me to them is her use of colour and symbols. I went back to her web site:

That daunted me a bit. I read the accolades and explanations that she already has garnered and I realized that I couldn’t speak to her work on that basis. At least, what had already been written there was more eloquently written than I could, not knowing about her Eastern European background and the iconography, the symbols with which she creates her images. So I encourage you to go there and read about it.

I’m going to shift gear here, so bear with me.

I often have discussions with Mrs. Stepford next door. She is also an artist and she has a fine analytical mind about contemporary art. She was trying to pin down why she likes my dabblings and why she appreciates what I do as an artist.  I just do it, and have the hardest time coming up with a spiel about it that makes it intelligible to other.

She said something like this – that I devise my own game plan and then go about making endless variations on the elements that I have chosen to work with. That I come up with so many variations that sometimes don’t seem to be cohesively connected and then become visible when a whole body of work is seen together amazes her.

So, back to Kobrehel:

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On an imagery level, what I like is that she uses a set of icons, visual elements, that she plays with from painting to painting, arranging them in various compositions, changing their sizes and therefore their importance in one setting as compared to the next in which it might have a much diminished importance, but another takes on a greater power. In other words, she plays with them in unending variation.

The ability to work in series with similar icons or images is an important attribute. It shows that the artist is not randomly daubing paint to canvas but has a purpose, a message that bears working with.

The next reason that I find her work fascinating is that  she is working with images that are not familiar to me and at the same time, there is some archetypal pull, some feeling that in the human experience, the symbols belong to Everyman. There are circles and egg shapes, a fool’s hat, a cross and hook, half-moons, hearts, birds, teapots, ladders. Some are commonly understood, some are esoteric, and according to the web-site, Egyptian or Eastern religious symbols. They are used out of context. That is, the egg is not in a usual egg situation. Ditto for the moon, the hearts, the teapots and the ladders.

What this accomplishes is an image with mysteriousness. Why are these symbols placed one against the other? Do they have a significance? Or, do they add up in a symbiotic whole to a feeling, a sentiment of nostalgia or of well-being, gladness, wistfulness or comfort? It is the ambiguity that draws me in, trying to come to an inner sense for me, of the work that I am looking at.  Ambiguity, for me is a strong attribute of paintings.

I don’t want to be told everything. It’s why I am most often uncomfortable with Realism. Everything is spelled out. It only takes a minute or two to “get the picture”.  The technique of copying nature onto a canvas may be admirable, but it’s just one element in the artists arsenal of weapons.  With Kobrehel’s work, I don’t immediately “get the picture” (and may never ultimately do so) and so it’s interesting to figure out why my initial reaction was to love it. It engages me. It makes me think, not just rationally, but emotionally too.

And when the emotional and rational evaluation of the image is done, I see that, on a technical plane, Kobrehel’s work is also fascinating.

She seems to compose chiefly on the “spatial relationship” method of composition, although the other methods are working too. It’s one of my favourites of all the compositional methods  and by far the most abstract of compositional ideas. The icons are placed about the picture plane to draw the eye around. In one, for instance, there are three objects in the colour red on a largely beige coloured canvas. They act as an implied triangle that leads one’s eye around. Then there are three other objects in a different colour, also acting as a triangle, pulling one’s eyes away from the first, so that the eye travels around and around within the entire image, comfortably being able to stop at this icon or that for closer inspection.

Where large rectangular blocks of colour make up the background of a painting, she understands the visual weight of each and adjusts the size of the shapes accordingly so that the  shapes are in balance.

For an artist (me)  who is familiar with these principles of colour weights, the manipulation of shapes to create balance or imbalance, compositional considerations, these paintings are full of richness underneath the apparent imagery. It’s as if Kobrehel is more concerned with these than the actual icons.

The last thing I am going to mention is technical quality of paint handling.

Kobrehel paints with a build-up of layers with each layer contributing to the final surface quality. It provides a richness of colour, a depth, even if the   colour on initial view looks, for instance, red. That red may have yellows and oranges and cream colours underneath that alter the final quality of the block of redness. It’s not flat.

The colours are fresh and lively. This may seem simple, but it’s not. Too often, colours are overmixed and become as a result rather muddy-looking. Kobrehel’s are clean and light. It’s that quality of colour mixing that keeps these images fresh and happy. Kobrehel also knows her colour mixing so well that one colour never jars against another.  It’s so easy for an amateur to put a lime green against a red, but it will clash and blare like a ill tuned trumpet. When Kobrehel does this, though, the colours sit together like sensitive lovers. They are individual and opposite, but they marry comfortably and easily. This is no mean feat.

The quality of the drawing is also fresh. There seems no hesitation in the markings, but that does not make them simple. The forms, the fool’s hat, for instance, is lightly rounded on the edges giving it a three-dimensional quality. The shadows lurking behind these objects serve to lift them off the page in an optical illusion. The icons live. They pop off the surface and tempt you to touch the canvas just ot make sure they aren’t really trying to escape.

Kobrehel is an adult who has been able to recapture that childlike ability to create her own symbols and express them as a private language. I find her work fascinating to look at.

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I hope this will explain to my skeptic friend and give her something to think about when next she comes in view of a work of art that is more difficult to perceive on first view.

So thank you, Sonja Kobrehel, for making my day – not just in February when I  saw the real thing, but today, as I look at it all again and am delighted by what I see.

Michael Levin – Evidence

October 2, 2009

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Code, Michael Levin, ultrachrome photographic print on aluminum

There’s a new exhibit at the Elliott Louis Gallery in Vancouver showing the work of Michael Levin.  It runs until October 20th.

If you like simplicity, spareness, austerity, meditation and silence, you will like this work. It’s photography, all in gray scale. There’s not the slightest bit of colour.

There is a stillness in each of the images. All of them are ultra chrome prints flush mounted onto plates of aluminum which is a beautiful contemporary way to present photos. They stand out from the stark white wall by an inch or so, thereby creating a shadow, the only framing that they have.

One might be forgiven if they found the images simple. They are, in fact simplified by his photographic process which, by long exposure, somehow eliminates the unnecessary, the transitory,  leaving a minimalist feel to all his works. But these works need time to absorb.  A work like “Code” appears to be low flat rafts covered by tarps.  There are two long ones and two shorter ones. Given the title, they seem to allude to bar coding, or perhaps refer only to the mysteriousness they create, lying separate and isolated from all other imagery on a fog-flattened sea. The horizon is just barely visible half way up the picture plane.

Of course, that begs the question. How much can be attributed to the artist’s intent and how much to the viewer’s own experience? Once an artist lets his work go, that is, exhibits it, then he becomes subject to the viewers interpretations as much as he subjects the viewer to his own visual statement, largely unexplained by words.

If you can’t get to see the show, there are a number of images to be seen at this site:

Michael Leving Biwako-1

Biwako, Michael Levin, ultrachrome photographic print on aluminum

Though the compositions are widely varied, each is a study in balance and equilibrium. Each image is selected with designed elegance to serve the vision of this young artist.

He has already won prestigious awards for his work – Fine Art Photographer of the Year both in 2007 and 2009 Prix de Photographie in Paris. He also came first in the Fine Art and Professional Fine Art categories at the International Photography Awards in New York.

The only thing I haven’t figured, from looking at this good sized exhibition, is how he links the title of the exhibition with the work.

If you are in Vancouver and have a chance to drop by the gallery which is on East 1st Avenue a block east of Main and one block north of Great Northern Way, you will also get to see some of the other emerging artists and mid-career gallery artists. – Lourdes Lara with her poetically titled imaginary landscapes; Mark Tulio with his high realism portraits and still life works; and Dimitri Papatheodorou with his minimalist abstracts done meticulously in oil on panel, to name just a few. It makes for an excellent show.