In Monet’s Secret Garden Part 1

He’s arguably the best known painter in the world. His scenes of nature and Parisian life grace calendars, purses, notebooks, umbrellas, teapots, and even socks (check the VAG gift shop).

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Of course I’m talking about Claude Monet (1840-1926), the French Impressionist painter who influenced the course of modern art with his unconventional techniques. He painted outside (which wasn’t done at the time), and his quick, loose brushwork aimed to capture an impression of something, not the thing itself (hence the label Impressionist, which was first used by critics in a derogatory sense).

The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently showing 38 of Monet’s works from the Musée Marmottan in Paris. In an interview with the CBC, the exhibition’s curator Marianne Matthieu says:

[Guests] have to visit this exhibition as if they were an invited guest of Monet. All the paintings have been selected personally by Monet [while he was alive] to describe his career, his life.

I visited the VAG last Tuesday evening (when admission is by donation) along with everyone else in Vancouver, so it seemed.

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The exhibit takes you chronologically through Monet’s work, beginning with some scenes with figures in them before the majority focuses all on nature.

I liked knowing Monet picked these works out himself. It made me wonder, Why this one? What did he like about it? What did he achieve with this one?

I enjoyed seeing paintings of his I had never come across in other galleries or books:

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Claude Monet, Le chatêau de Dolceacqua, 1884, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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Claude Monet, Vétheuil in the Fog, 1879, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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The picture does not do this piece justice.

Monet painted the same scene many times, in different seasons and different times of the day to study the effect of light on a subject. Light was his subject.

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Claude Monet, La Seine à Port-Villez, effet rose, 1894, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

The two below were the only figurative works included. You can see the loose Impressionist style best by looking at the undefined faces. And the little boy practically blends in with the flowers.

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Claude Monet, En promenade près d’Argenteuil, 1875, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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Claude Monet, Sur la plage de Trouville, 1870–71, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

The didactic panel for the image above talks about how sand was lodged in some of Monet’s canvasses because he painted these beach scenes outside. Talk about the nitty gritty.

I had assumed there would be more water lily paintings given the title is Secret Garden and Monet’s gardens in Giverny are synonymous with his grand, rectangular water lily paintings. This was the most “quintessential” one shown at the VAG, with the characteristic pastel blues, pinks, and purples:

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Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1903, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

There were also these two beautiful wisteria panels hung to mimic the oval rooms at Musée de L’Orangerie where Monet’s famous water lilies live.

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But there were other paintings that were darker and challenged what I thought I knew about the painter.

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Monet devoted the last two decades of his life to painting and cultivating his gardens in Giverny, a work of art in themselves. After touring the exhibition, I was surprised Monet chose so many of these works to depict his career  when he has hundreds of others to choose from. But perhaps these works came closest to communicating his artistic vision?

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Claude Monet, Le Pont japonais, 1918-24, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

In 1902, Monet was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes, and his works during his later years became increasingly abstract and darker. Notice also how much of the blank canvas he lets show through. The curator’s remarks accompanying this room below suggest the anguish and grief of WWI seeped into Monet’s canvasses, particularly his weeping willow series.

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Claude Monet, Saule pleureur, 1918-19, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

After all this heaviness and twisty contortions, Monet’s very last work closes the exhibition, returning to the light and soft palette that infused his earlier work (albeit looking unfinished). I thought it was a perfect farewell.

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Claude Monet, Les Roses, 1925-26, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

Seeing these works has only increased my anticipation of setting foot in Monet’s gardens this fall and immersing myself in his inspiration.

I highly recommend you take in this exhibit at the VAG before it closes October 1!

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At the Audain (Again)

The best art exhibit I’ve seen this summer is the current one at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler—Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery is located in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and I remember feeling a little disappointed when I realized it wasn’t going to work out make it there on my Maritimes trip in 2014. So when I heard that 75 paintings were travelling to Whistler for this temporary exhibit (I believe it was the only stop in BC), there was no way I was going to miss it. And it did not disappoint.

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The description of the exhibit reads:

Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery was initiated to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in 2009. The focus of the exhibition is the Gallery’s founder William Maxwell Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) and the artists he collected and cultivated, who in turn influenced the passion he had for collecting. 75 paintings are presented by world-renowned artists, such as Cranach, Copley, Delacroix, Gainsborough, Constable, Reynolds, Romney, Sargent, Sisley, Turner and Freud; and by prominent historical Canadian artists, such as Krieghoff, Morrice, Carr, Milne, Gagnon, and members of the Group of Seven. A highlight of the exhibition is Salvador Dali’s monumental painting Santiago El Grande.

I spent a lot of time in this exhibit. There were so many paintings in so many styles  (e.g. Realism, Impressionism, Romanticism, Surrealism) and from different time periods. There were also quite a lot of “stars” whose work I had never seen in person until now: Dalí, Gainsborough, Sargent, Delacroix—the list goes on.

Here are some highlights (and I apologize for my crappy camera phone):

This is one of the first works you see when you walk in. Lots of symbolism going on in this surrealist painting (the description is helpful at pointing out things I would have otherwise missed). The Catholic Church and nuclear physics were big influences on Dalí.

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Salvadaor Felipe Jacinto Dali, Santiago El Grande, 1957.

This is considered one of Gainsborough‘s most brilliant full-length portraits:

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Thomas Gainsborough, Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Nugent, 1764.

When I first saw this painting below, I thought, “Now there’s a woman you don’t want to mess with.” Helena Rubinstein apparently created one of the first worldwide beauty brands and was the world’s first female self-made millionaire. She looks the part. The description reads, Although she was only five feet tall, the cosmetic magnate is shown from a low viewpoint and with her left arm held to her hip, which serves to enhance her strong and dominant personality.

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Graham Vivian Sutherland, Helena Rubinstein, 1957.

I remember learning about Eugène Boudin in a French Impressionism art course in university. He was a precursor to the Impressionists and one was one of the first French landscape painters to paint en plein air (outside). He taught Monet.

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Eugène Boudin, Personnages sur la plage, before 1898.

The Impressionism works were my favourite. Alfred Sisley was a founding member of the Impressionist movement and, something new I learned from the description, he was the only Englishman among the French Impressionists. His seascape shows the rugged beauty of Wales:

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Alfred Sisley, La falaise de Penarth, le soir-temps orageux, 1897.

A painter of dramatic scenes, I learned Eugène Delacroix, a leader of French Romanticism, was often inspired by the writings of Dante, Goethe, and Shakespeare as subjects for his art.

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Eugène Delacrois, Lady Macbeth Sleep-Walking, 1850.

This next one stood out to me because the style was so different than anything else in the exhibit—almost cartoon-like characters, or as the description calls it, “matchstick figures go[ing] about their everyday life.” This is a scene in Northern England that highlights the sense of alienation that often accompanies urban life.

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Laurence Stephen Lowry, Industrial View, Lancashire, 1956

This large and dreamlike painting was done by William Turner, English Romantic landscape painter and forerunner to the Impressionists.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fountain of Indolence, 1834.

Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund Freud, worked in a hyper-realist style. I spent a while trying to figure out what was going on in this painting, the man in shadow, the woman somewhere else. Even though the title is “Hotel Bedroom,” I keep wanting to call it “Hospital Bedroom.”

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Lucian Freud, Hotel Bedroom, 1954.

The exhibit had several Group of Seven paintings depicting their signature Canadian landscapes, but I was more drawn to this inner city portrait that you don’t often see from them. Indeed, the description states: When [Harris] settled in Toronto in 1910, he turned his attention to making drawings and paintings of dilapidated old houses and working-class shacks in the city’s fringe area, a theme which is unique within the work of the Group of Seven.

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Lawren Stewart Harris, Morning, c. 1921.

And my favourite one in the whole show, hands down, is this one below. Those blues! Those golds! Those reflections of rocks in the water! The picture doesn’t do it nowhere near justice nor gives you a sense of the large panoramic size it actually is, but believe me, it is incredible. I always associate Sargent‘s name with portraiture (and apparently he was the highest paid portrait painter in the world for some time), but by 1907 he announced his intention to retire from portraiture as a business, which he referred to as a pimp’s profession, and devoted more of his time to landscape painting. I’m glad he did so the world has this:

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John Singer Sargent, San Vigilio, Lake Garda, 1913.

Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery is on until September 11. I highly recommend going to see it!

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The lovely “treehouse”space on the 2nd floor

The Whole Enchilada: A Conversation with Adam Back

Adam Back is a student in his last semester at Regent College, going out with a bang with a solo exhibition at the Lookout Gallery March 26-April 30. I sat down and chatted with him about enchiladas, flowers, and the art of slowing down.

Generation of Ash by Adam Back.

Generation of Ash | 15 x 20 inches, 2014, Acrylic.

CK: What’s the significance of The Whole Enchilada? It seems a bit of an odd name for an art exhibit.

AB: It is a bit of an odd name, and that’s pretty intentional. It’s a phrase I grew up hearing a lot in Texas. “Give me the whole enchilada,” which means you want it all—you want as much stuff crammed into that tortilla as possible. My show is also the culmination of my time at Regent College, where I am doing a dual concentration in Biblical Studies and Christianity & the Arts, which includes an IPIAT (Integrative Project in Art & Theology). For my IPIAT, I have to write a theological reflection on art alongside a series of paintings I’m making. So calling the show and presentation “the whole enchilada” is my tongue-and-cheek way of summarizing everything that’s gone on for me at Regent in the last five years.

CK: Can we expect to see enchiladas at the show?

AB: It would be a great sell if I could have enchiladas as appies at the opening reception, eh? But that’s the one sad thing about moving to Vancouver—there’s not a whole lot of great Mexican food.

CK: How about any paintings of enchiladas?

AB: Not yet, but I may add one in. After all, I do need to pay homage to my roots.

CK: You mentioned growing up in Texas. Tell me a bit more of your background.

AB: Well, I grew up in Houston and moved to East Texas to do a BFA in Painting. After that, I did an MA in Painting at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches. Once I graduated, I moved to Colorado to work with kids coming out of youth corrections and got to live the dream every other weekend going fly fishing, backpacking, or skiing. Then I ended up back in Texas a few years later and worked in construction management.

CK: So you weren’t doing art after graduating. Why now?

AB: I think a big part of it is my church & my pastor. I go to Immanuel Vancouver, a church that meets in the Rio Theatre on Commercial and Broadway. I was doing a pastoral internship at the time and one day, while hanging out with the pastor (Simon) at Starbucks, he asked me, “So tell me about your art—why did you stop making it?” I think it had been about six years since I put brush to canvas. I was so burned out after my MA and disillusioned with the rat race of the art world. And a lot of it too was space and time. Without space, it’s really hard to make art. Simon said, “What if we make some of your internship hours studio hours?” He then said he could probably get me space at the church office where I could work. And I said, “That’s a great idea!” We also wanted to try running an arts community group at the church, so those two things coalesced and took off really well.

CK: So if it weren’t for Simon, would you be making art in Vancouver?

AB: Probably not. I think it was a wise and gracious push from Simon that opened up so much life for me. There were a lot of things going on for me at that time, and his nudging me back to the arts gave me a shock to the system that I needed to start integrating all the theology I was learning with my paintings, the arts group, and my other relationships. It was really life giving and still is.

CK: Why is it important that theology and art integrate?

AB: There’s a really long philosophical tradition as to why those things have been separated. Historically, in the West, a human being has been understood simply as a thinking thing—a receptacle for information. Scripturally, that’s not true. There’s that great quote by Saint Irenaeus that says, “The glory of god is a human being fully alive.” What does it look like to be fully alive? That means our emotions, our physicality, and yes, our intellect, but I don’t think that means our intellect at the expense of loving to play Frisbee in the park with your girlfriend, or cooking enchiladas, or making a painting.

CK: Tell me more about how your faith informs your practice as an artist.

AB: Well the other big part of why I’m making art is because of my experience at Regent College. Regent has helped me see and understand where I fit into the story of what God is doing in the world. I am challenged to ask, “What does a human life look like lived in the world before a God who’s creative, who spoke in parables, who came to us as the word made flesh? The story we get in the Bible is of a good God making a good universe—a good creation. Within that universe, he places his images to steward and care for creation. We’ve done some really dark and evil things with that, but we’ve also done some really great things. I think God likes to be surprised in the sense of, “What are my images going to come up with?”

So when it comes to my own personal studio practices, this scriptural story opens up all kinds of possibilities because the stuff I make with is stuff that’s already been made. Most of my work is in mixed media/collage. For example, I’ll take trash found in the streets, old books, record albums, matchboxes, sheet music, and then I glue it all down, paint over top of it, scrape it all off, and glue it all back down again and draw on top of it.

CK: Sounds like an arduous process!

AB: It is, but I love it—I love the material stuff. I think we often get this idea that God doesn’t care about the physical world or our bodies, which plays out in this escapism that is so much a part of Western culture. Christianity feeds off that, and I think it’s a dangerous symbiosis. Look at Rembrandt’s work or the Sistine Chapel or Japanese watercolours—there are so many beautiful things people make. It seems strange that God could call the world he made very good in Genesis 1 and then destroy it. But if the story in Scripture is that he’s redeeming the world and I’m a part of this story, then that starts playing art through how I handle the materials.

CK: How does that scriptural story come across not just in how you paint, but what you paint?

AB: Well, if this is a story about the whole world, then I think ordinary things matter.

CK: So you paint ordinary things?

AB: Yes and no. At least in Western culture, we tend to go from excitement to excitement. I like exciting stuff, but I also like shucking peas or going for walks—the small, ordinary things of life that seemingly don’t matter. One of the paintings in the show is a stack of books. A lot of the other ones are flowers and I’ll leave some surprises for what else is in there. But these “ordinary,” small things that are easy to miss are important things too. Our culture is so fast-paced that we often can’t slow down to look at things and see things well. What I really love about making art is that I get to do it in the first place, and that my artistic practices in the studio force me to slow down and pay attention to what I’m doing. I know when I start rushing and not applying paint well that I’m going to foul everything up and have to start over. If I’m just trying to rush through and crank something out, then I have to question, “Do I really love this?” That question has been important to me because I want to love the things I make and share that with others.

Knowing, You Shall Not Know by Adam Back | 11 x 14 inches, 2014, mixed media on panel.

Knowing, You Shall Not Know | 11 x 14 inches, 2014, mixed media on panel.

CK: So when people come to your exhibit, what do you want them to pay attention to or take away from it?

AB: I throw all this stuff out there about form and attention to detail, but the irony is that it can come back to bite me if I’ve sloughed off. But it’s also a check and accountability for the level that I want to work at. Hopefully when people come to the show, they see that care and attention to detail. The little collage surprises I put in my paintings—like matchbooks or traces of text—what does that communicate? With our iPads, phones, and earbuds, we’re always connected. We can’t slow down and pay attention to one thing, and I think good art slows people down. The main thing I’d want to inspire in people would be for them to have at least one thing that they take time out for in their own lives. And of course if they wanted to take away a painting with them, they’re welcome to do that too.

CK: At a cost, right?

AB: Haha, yes! Please!

CK: Looking at your website, I notice there are a lot of images with flowers. Is there a particular reason you’re drawn to flowers—pardon the pun?

AB: I’m sure there are lots of reasons. I’m always astounded with Vancouver in the spring when the tulips and peonies begin to bloom. People cultivate their gardens really well, and you have these firecrackers of colour all over the city. As I’m walking to the bus stop in the morning, I’ll miss the bus because I’m stopping to look at somebody’s flowers in their front yard, and I think, how boring life would be without flowers! And by extension, how boring life would be without colour! Just think of all the various hues and tints of colours in just one petal of a rose. So yeah, I stop and smell the roses. At the same time, flowers are fragile things and only here for a while before they’re gone. There’s this ephemeral quality to their beauty, just as there is to life.

CK: So you’re essentially capturing something that’s impossible to capture.

AB: Exactly. There’s a beautiful tension between the material and the content.

CK: You mentioned earlier about leading an arts group at your church. What does that look like?

AB: At Immanuel, the demographic is extremely varied. We have folks from the downtown eastside and those that live in West Point Grey; people who work downtown in high-rises and homeless people who wander the streets; people in recovery from addictions and stay-at-home moms. And so I look at pulling together this group of people around art as a way of mentoring and engaging our imaginations. It opens up new avenues to explore where God is in the midst of our lives and our blended community. How do we learn to see God and each other? It’s such a fascinating group because some people have art degrees and then others have never picked up a paintbrush before.

CK: What is the attraction for the person who’s never picked up a paintbrush before?

AB: We advertise the group—if that’s the word—as a group for artists, those interested in the arts, and just the generally curious. Creativity and imagination are so important for what it means to be human, and I think there’s a really strong dignity that plays out in the act of making things, particularly the act of making things together. And so I think folks are interested in exploring their faith from a different angle. It ties in with what I said earlier about the Western conception of humans as just rational beings. We are far more than that, and art is a way of helping our faith take form and not just exist as propositions we agree with.

We meet twice a month to talk about art and then we do a project together that gets displayed at the front of the church for our whole community. I have some people who come just to be part of our discussions, and others who come just to do the art, and either or both is great.

CK: What is a past project you did together?

AB: We’ve done about four or five now, but the one that sticks out most for me is the one for last advent season. I titled it, “Framing Hope.” The previous two projects were on 12”x12” canvases, but I wanted to try something new this time. So I asked everybody to get a frame instead of a canvas. They couldn’t put anything within the frame, but the frame itself would be the piece of art and they could do anything to it. One woman glued hundreds of little flowers to it. Another person put a black light in his piece. Someone else wrote a bunch of prayers and glued them to the edges. And so the frame became a metaphor of waiting to be filled—of framing hope, or hoping for the frames to be filled, which is the expectation of advent. We’re waiting for the Christ child, for Immanuel (God with us) to come.

When I decide on a new project, I try and hit as many different facets as I can. We haven’t done any dancing or music yet, but I hope that’s on the horizon. I’d also love to run a cooking class at the church, because more than anything, I think cooking unites people, especially if it’s barbecue or enchiladas.

CK: And then you could serve good Mexican food in Vancouver.

AB: Exactly.

CK: So what’s next for you after your exhibit?

AB: I’ll be graduating from Regent, sticking around Vancouver, and getting married in May—very excited about that. And I’m starting to look for jobs here in the city.

CK: So last question. You’re a Texan living in Vancouver who loves fly-fishing, camping, and hiking, and you dress rather outdoorsy. Are people ever surprised when they find out you’re an artist?

AB: My fiancé was. She was also surprised I was from Texas when we first met. But I don’t feel the need to dress like an artist or make people know I’m an artist—it just seems like shameless self-promotion to do that. I’ve got my own story and I’d rather wear my cowboy boots.

Join Adam in all his cowboy boot glory at the opening reception March 26, 4:30-7:30pm at the Lookout Gallery in Regent College. Presentation to follow in the chapel. You can also see his work at adamback.com

A Starry Night

We’re less than a month away, folks! And nothing helps you get more in the Christmas spirit than doing some Christmas-y crafts (and baking, which is on the agenda for tomorrow!)

Like last year, I’m going to get a real tree for my apartment again. As I anxiously wait for Saturday to come which is when H&M Christmas Tree Farm opens for the season, I thought I would make a new ornament to add to my collection. Hence a trip to my favourite Vancouver art store I’ve mentioned before, Urban Source on Main Street.

I bought this wooden star for a few bucks and let my imagination take over.

IMG_0705I knew I wanted to decorate it with sheet music, so I traced the star on some old piano music of my mom’s that I’m not skilled enough to play, and cut out 2 pieces for 2 points of the star. I’m all about assymetry.

I definitely wanted to keep that red pencil crayon where a teacher had marked the decrescendo. It adds that much more character, don’t you think?

IMG_0707Before gluing the pieces down, I made the star pop with bright red paint.

IMG_0715Then I glued the pieces down and added a button in the middle, referencing my old-school hobby of sewing.

IMG_0720But I wasn’t completely satisfied. My star was missing something. Something to give it that extra sparkle. It needed some gold. So I asked the Artist, of course. He suggested using something called gold leaf instead of gold paint, which he just happened to have in his repertoire of art supplies. And so we had a Christmas crafting date.

IMG_0730If you’re wondering what gold leaf is, don’t worry, you’re not alone. I learned that it’s very thin paper that sticks like paint, but it’s not paint. You apply the glue (see photo above) with a paintbrush to the areas you want the gold leaf to stick, and then you let it dry for 10-15 minutes because you want it to be just sticky-enough for the paper to stick, but not overly wet that the paper gets soggy.

Here’s the best part: taking the tissue paper-thin leaf sheets out of the package, being careful not to blow, breathe, sneeze, or do anything that would risk creasing, tearing, or destroying it (and it doesn’t take much!) This is the most fragile material I’ve ever worked with. We placed the paper on top of the glue and used a paintbrush to seal it along the ridge.

IMG_0733Once the glue was all covered, we peeled away the excess paper, again using a paintbrush to sweep the remaining flecks & fragments away.

IMG_0738IMG_0735And voilà! It’s sealed on there like paint. The beauty (and frustration) with gold leaf is that it’s not neat & precise. It has that frayed-edge look, but I actually quite like it. And I think the gold gives it that extra something, wouldn’t you agree?

Now it just needs to a tree to hang from!

IMG_0749IMG_0746What are your favourite DIY Christmas crafts, ones you’ve done or ones you’d like to try?

Entertain Me?

I’ve heard art described as many things, but never as a game. Glenn Brown’s lecture at Emily Carr last Thursday night changed that.

Emily Carr University of Art & Design

He chooses titles that play games, that aren’t clear at first. The visual elements in his paintings play games too. He purposefully chooses colours that don’t match (like reds and greens) because “visual clashes animate a painting. They create an exciting game.”

Spearmint Rhino by Glenn Brown

When asked about his heavy use of religious symbols, he openly concedes his indebtedness to religion and how it has influenced the history of painting, but, in the end, “religion is just an interesting game played by society.”

Later in the talk, Brown said a good painting makes your eyes play ping pong, causing them to bounce from one corner of the canvas to another. You can see this in A Sailor’s Life, an upside-down and distorted version of Van Gogh’s Marguerite Gachet at the Piano. Brown’s version has a random black dot near the tip of the hands for no other reason than to draw the eye and deflect it.

A Sailor’s Life, like War in Peace and the majority of Brown’s paintings, have objects “lost in space and time–a state I like my paintings to be in,” he says.

War in Peace by Glenn Brown

Brown is a British painter who does reproductions, meaning he takes other people’s work and manipulates it in some way. I immediately thought of the quote about how good artists copy and great artists steal other people’s work, and he even mentioned it during his talk. “That statement is obviously something I’ve taken to heart.” The audience laughed.

After showing a bunch of paintings done in green, he said, “I once heard green paintings are the least popular to buy. So I started making a bunch of green paintings. I always wanted to do the opposite of what was popular.”

Star Dust by Glenn Brown

This desire to be different permeates Brown’s work. He’s also done sculpture, and what are you not supposed to make sculptures out of, he asks? “Paint. So what do I make my sculptures out of? Paint.”

Woman by Glenn Brown

This mindset explains why he paints old men instead of young female nudes, and why, when he began painting in the 1980s, he did the opposite of what was popular at the time, which was expressionism. His work hangs in the balance between figurative and non-figurative, female and male, beauty and the grotesque (but mostly grotesque).

Brown loves the idea of tension (the glorious and grotesque; beauty & decay; visual tension, clash of different centuries and sensibilities, etc) and I can’t help thinking about how his own work embodies it. Painting upon painting depicts his credit towards the art that’s come before him (much “high art” from his time working in the Tate Gallery in London, but also “low art” from sci fi illustrators), and so he says of his work, “This is my way of saying I can’t have an original thought. None of us are really individuals.” He brings this up in the context of poststructuralism. And yet he wants to do something different than other artists. He himself alluded to this tension during the question and answer period, and I appreciated his thoughtful reflections on why he does what he does.

There is often so much mystique about artists’ creative processes and what they want to say, but Brown was candid about how and why he creates. He manipulates images on Photoshop first before sketching them out and painting, and he even showed us some of these preliminary images. This honesty extended to his articulation of what he wants his work to do: to make people look at paintings; to make people interested in art (his approach to doing this is to make people feel a bit awkward and unsettled). His role as artist is to provide entertainment, which he says shouldn’t be such a dirty word in our society.

Zombies of the Stratosphere by Glenn Brown

His photorealistic surfaces and their ‘lost in time and space’ look are not that far from sci fi or fantasy novels, which also entertain us by helping us escape. And yet other paintings of his are very “this-worldly,” depicting everyday objects in a state of decay. He “just wanted to remind everybody of that,” he says when he showed us Burlesque. Although Brown is not concerned with beauty, he did let slip a couple times about objects being “beautiful in their decay.”

Burlesque by Glenn Brown

Although Brown’s paintings are interesting to look at, I’m not sure the idea of art as a game is ultimately that winsome for me. I think that would get old fast. I want art to do more than move my eyes in a visual game of ping pong. I want it to move me. Body, mind, and soul. To connect the visible with the invisible.

Brown wants to make people to look at art in whatever way they will notice it because “these paintings don’t exist until someone sees them.” This was a really fascinating comment. He’s not one of those painters who paint just for themselves and don’t care what anybody else thinks (if that’s even possible). He frequently discusses his ideas and sketches with others before launching full-speed into a project, and he credits his time at Goldsmith College in London for helping him see art as a collaborative process.

Art needs an audience. What will it say if it has no one to say it to? Even if the picture makes you escape, makes you cringe, makes you feel awkward or makes you feel death, Brown’s work has something to say about being human and being in tension. So . . . entertain me? Move me? Or both?

Backstage Truths

Last weekend, the long weekend, I was surrounded by people saying things like “frame,” “BTS,” “room tone,” “boom operator,” and many other film-related jargon that was completely foreign to me.

I was an extra in a short film called Souls that Balance. The title, taken from the first line of this poem, intrigued me from the start, and it was great fun to make my first foray into the acting world with such a great team of people and what seems like an incredibly creative script. To qualify that statement, I should hardly call what I did acting since all you can see is the back of my head, but still. I was on a film set!

A few brief observations from the weekend about acting and film-making:

  • Long days, early mornings
  • Details matter – like, every single detail in every single shot matters. I have so much more appreciation when I watch films now.
  • A lot of waiting around. I can see how people on a film set can get really close in a short amount of time, because you’re all waiting around together in the same space. The community part of it was the highlight.
  • I think there’s a tendency to glamourize actor’s lives and the work they do, but after this experience, I didn’t see any glamour—just a lot of work. Saying your line over and over again as if it was the first time. Or saying the line perfectly but having to redo it anyway because some detail was out of place, or the camera angle was slightly off. Requires a lot of patience and concentration.
  • It’s all about the light. One of the other extras who’s involved in the Vancouver acting community told me she immediately knew how serious the production was by the lighting equipment on set.

Seems like so many things/professions depend on the light. Photographers, painters, lovers. This film experience made me think of the Impressionists who made light their subject. Sure, they painted boats and people and gardens, but the subject of their paintings—what they were after—was how the light fell on the boats and people and gardens: how our perception of things depends on when and how we are seeing it.

Monet. Bathers at La Grenouillère (1869)

Take Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series for an example. Over thirty paintings in total, different seasons, different times of day. As the Wikipedia entry states, the cathedral provides an interesting juxtaposition between a solid, permanent structure and the evanescent quality of light.

When the light is right, you just know. I knew when I was in New York City and took this photo. This was my favourite picture from the whole trip, all because of the light. No touch-ups, no Photoshop, no nothing added to it. Just sun and sky and stone kissing at 1047 Amsterdam Ave in Morningside Heights.

Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, NYC. Charlene Kwiatkowski 2011.

On the subject of Impressionists, Degas’ ballerina paintings similarly convey the unglamorous work that goes on behind-the-scenes (BTS) of anyone who performs. While he also painted ballerinas performing on stage in front of 19th-century bourgeois Parisians, many of his pieces show ballerinas in rehearsal—training, stretching, and yes, waiting. In this way, Degas’ works give outsiders a view from the other side, behind the curtain where it’s all work, fatigue, and routine. And some critics didn’t like this “backstage pass” so to speak because it wasn’t pretty. But it’s true.

Degas. Monsieur Perrot’s Dance Class (1875)

Degas. The Dance Lesson (1872)

Degas. Waiting (1882)

Degas. The Mante Family (1880)

In response to the painting directly above, The Mante Family, critic J-K. Huysmans wrote:

What truth! What life! How all these figures hold the space, how exactly the light bathes the scene, how the expression of these physiognomies, the searching look of the mother whose hopes rise when her daughter’s body unbends, the indifference of comrades for well-known weariness, how these are etched out and noted with the perspicacity of an analyst at once cruel and subtle.

This makes Degas a realist, or a naturalist to use the artistic term.

Degas. Rehearsal (1879)

Rehearsal (1879) says it even more. I love the way Robert Herbert writes about it in his book Impressionism, my go-to guide for painters of this style:

Here [light] models the dancers in reverse, and stresses the artifice involved, that is, natural light is made to seem artificial in the fiction of the picture, as it is in actuality: it is the artist himself who took the colors of his palette and made up the dancers’ masks. ‘Light,’ that is, artists’ paint, reveals backstage truths, the hard work and ugly grimaces which cannot be seen by spectators at a performance. This is–again!–the work of a naturalist. ‘Oh! all the things in the world, as long as one sees them from behind!’ wrote the Goncourt brothers.”

What backstage truths have you encountered, whether it be in the performing arts or other industries?