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?

Showing me the way with a brush and splashes of paint

None of these writing prompts prompt me lately. I don’t want to write about an onion, how I fight life, or what I would have said if I had landed first on the moon.

I want to write about the little boy in the art class I help teach who makes up the craziest interpretations of his work and reminds me what it’s like to be young and wonder-full. There are ninjas and dragons and oceans and astronauts where I see only splotches of blue and splatters of red. When he’s explaining it to me, I start to see his world. I start to love his world.

Maybe it’s like Donald Miller with jazz music:

I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked  jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

The five-year old boy I see once a week at the Surrey Art Gallery is the musician never opening his eyes. He gets immersed so easily, even if it’s not in the ‘sanctioned’ activity. He’d rather bob his sponge up and down in a container of water with the end of his brush than load it with paint and put it on canvas because he is, after all, a boy, and boys like to play.

“Take a look at this,” he calls me over in a eureka!-type voice. “The sponge is so heavy with water, but it still floats! This is amazing!” And I guess it is. Forget the paintbrushes and paint. Equipped with sponge and water, he is mesmerized the rest of the class.

The kids are painting self-portraits. Bright colours, Matisse style. Fauvism. Or Andy Warhol’s pop art.

Portrait of Madame Matisse (The Green Stripe) by Henri Matisse. 1905.

Portrait of L. N. Delekorskaya by Henri Matisse. 1947.

Silkscreen prints of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol. 1960s.

Or at least they’re supposed to paint bright colours. Green, orange, red, blue, yellow. They get a bit of white for lightening purposes, and black, to outline their features.

“There’s something wrong with these paintbrushes!” the boy quickly remarks in an alarming tone, beginning to outline the edges of his face.

“What’s wrong with them?” I ask.

“They look thin but they act fat!” He lets out the groan of an artist not happy with his work.

I laugh. Appearances can be deceiving, whether you’re five or forty-five.

Looking at the canvasses in the room, I don’t see many bright colours. Kids are so creative and yet when encouraged to be creative, they blend the colours like crazy until they find the most realistic skin tone. Maybe you have to be old to be avant-garde. No, that’s not true.

They were old enough to be frustrated.

“I’m beginning to regret something about my painting,” the same boy says with a deep sigh. I didn’t know a five-year old knew regret, let alone could use it in a sentence.

“What do you regret?” I ask, curious what’s on the other end of that line in a five-year old’s mind.

“I put so much white on my face, but I don’t think it will show up.”

It did show up. White as snow. This is the boy who stuck eight layers of glaze on his clay cupcake the week before to make sure it would come out of the kiln completely covered. It came out covered all right. More like caked.

Sometimes kids do things too completely. Lost in art, they don’t know when to stop. Of all the problems to have, I think this is a pretty good one. The saxophone player never opening his eyes, feeling his way through the music.

A good kind of lost.

Pictures of Women

See the similarity in these pictures?

Edouard Manet. A Bar at the Folies-Bergere. 1882.

Jeff Wall. Picture for Women. 1979.

Édouard Manet painted the one on the left in the 19th century; Jeff Wall photographed the one on the right in the 20th century.

I came across Jeff Wall while reading Vancouver: Representing the Postmodern City. He calls himself an artist-photographer because many of his photographs are staged in studio with elaborate costumes and a troupe of actors. This theatrical, staged side to his photographs puts the “artist” in “artist-photographer,” whereas the “photographer” title standing alone implies a natural, spontaneous, lifelike medium.

The Vancouver Sun recently had an article on him as the Vancouver Art Gallery just added this Wall photograph to its permanent collection:

Jeff Wall, Ivan Sayers, costume historian, lectures at the University Women’s Club, Vancouver, 7 December 2009.

Wall himself says he takes inspiration from painters like Édouard Manet. The article compares Wall’s and Manet’s pictures based on their similar architectural motifs and mirrors, but also on their depiction of the power dynamic between men and women.

While the woman in this photograph (Virginia Newton-Moss) exudes a strong presence with her solid stance and black garb, she is literally in costume and on display, showing off a British ensemble circa 1910. Ivan Sayers, a costume historian, holds the floor as he gives a lecture at the University Women’s Club. The male professor lectures; the female model is on display. The man teaches; the women listen. This reminds me of the whole idea of the active versus passive gaze dichotomy that often comes up when analyzing social relationships in paintings or photographs.

A great painter who depicted these complex gender interactions was Impressionist painter Édouard Manet. I like the intertextual relationship between Wall’s modern photograph Picture of Women from 1979 and Manet’s classic painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère from 1882. I find Manet’s picture more striking, which is why I’ll address my comments to this one.

Here are some notes I dug up about it from an Impressionist art course I took in university:

  • these café-concerts are less about the concert and more about the social interaction between strangers – notice the casualness. It hints more at separateness than at conviviality
  • waitress has immense dignity even though she’s confined
  • viewer is disconcerted with her matter-of-fact, cool glance that lacks expression
  • she’s a victim of commercialized leisure
  • waitresses typified the new Paris
  • many of them used their jobs as waitresses as a cover for prostitution, yet Manet gives waitresses dignity in his portrayal of them

I’ve always been intrigued by this painting and remember visiting the Courtauld Gallery in London where it hangs. I stood and stared at it for a long time. It was much bigger than I expected and even more striking in person.

It’s disturbing to view because the waitress looks directly at the viewer, and we do not know how to read her. Notice the image in the mirror. It’s faulty. In the reflective glass, she leans in to the male customer, but in the real image, she is standing perfectly straight. The man’s location is where the viewer would be standing, so what does this say about us? Are we the man, the villain of this leisure society that commodifies women? Is she on display for us? Do we consume her with our gaze? Some art critics think she’s not so much selling drinks as selling herself, as symbolized by the ripe oranges that are a motif for sexuality in many of Manet’s paintings.

Every time I look at this painting, I am still moved by the waitress’ aloof, ambiguous expression, while there seem a million different thoughts going through her head. I wonder if the interaction in the reflection is one of these scenarios she’s playing out in her mind of how the impending transaction will go with the new customer who’s just approached the counter. Perhaps the reflection is five seconds ahead of the reality, for when she faces us, she looks professional as she waits for him/us to come to her, yet when she turns to the man in the mirror, she looks yielding — yielding to his desire. It’s like she knows how the scene will play out even though she doesn’t want it to. Seeing that a mirror comprises the entire background of the painting, the themes of appearance versus reality, thoughts and actions, engagement and detachment seem entirely plausible.

“Art is in the air, and on the ground”

I frequently walk by a giant placard with the above message advertising the newest development to be built on the corner of Cook and Johnson streets in Victoria.

Having just defended my master’s essay on the relationship between architecture and literature, this advertising slogan resonates with me, as it essentially makes the same statement — that art and architecture are inextricably linked, having both material and immaterial, or physical and imaginative dimensions.

Do you know the painter who inspired this development?

Soon-to-come residential building in Victoria

Think clearly-defined straight lines. Think bold, primary colours. Think squares and rectangles. Think modern. If you came up with Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, you’re right. Here are some samples of his work:

Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow

de Hoog & Kierulf architects in Victoria describe the above building as “a playful composition of rectangular forms, coloured glass, and metal railing.”

I like seeing architects play with art and translate a vision of what was formerly two-dimensional into something new, three-dimensional, and inhabitable. Rather than replace or outdo its inspiration, the architect’s translation of Mondrian’s art provides another way to access the original.

In the past, when I’ve looked at Piet Mondrian’s paintings, I stare at them thinking I’m missing something (which, I should note, is often my reaction towards modern art). What is he trying to get at with this painting? It’s so simple, so geometric, so basic. Sometimes modern art seems like a trick question whose answer, if there is one, constantly eludes me.

But seeing Mondrian’s art literally constructed in the present context in the city I live, I appreciate its strong, simple lines, its clear shapes, and its bold colours. I appreciate its definition. I appreciate its order. Order is a difficult word in architecture as it can swing both ways, creating either tedium or pleasure (to borrow Alain de Botton’s phrasing). In this residential building soon to come in Victoria, we see the pleasure of order in its conciseness, recognizability, and readability.

The Pleasure of Order

This building also brings clarity to a section of a literary text I recently read –urban critic Jane Jacobs’ influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities, where she talks about the necessity of dynamic borders for a city’s public life. Railway tracks and streets adjoining two neighbourhoods shouldn’t be dead zones that act like barriers to divide the city and the people in it. Instead, they should be seams where one segment of life spills into the other, creating a vital and very much alive space.

Mondrian’s paintings portray this urban idea in art. The most exciting spaces of the canvas are at the edges, where our eyes are drawn and where we’re left hanging, wondering, and waiting for something to happen, something unexpected, something significant because we know the colours and the lines don’t stop just because our eyes can’t see any further. These edge spaces animate the canvas, and have the potential to do so on the urban one as well.

Composition 10

Apparently de Hoog & Kierulf architects haven’t been the only ones inspired by Piet Mondrian.

Mondrian dress

“Mondrian” day dress by Yves Saint Laurent

All things Mondrian