24 January 2018

A rainy day at the museum. 4 exhibitions.

I think there is an art to visiting a museum or an exhibition. It takes a bit of work but it is a lot more fun and rewarding when one's visit involves an active research and an open mind -one in tune with our gut feeling as well as the background of the art. The best kind of research one can do might actually be to ignore the curator's agenda altogether,  the accepted story, the "reasons" and "message" explicitly stated with bold decals on the walls of the museum. These days, curators are eager to sound enlightened with regards to imperialism, cultural appropriation, feminism, ecology, capitalist excess, eurocentrism...and that is just the lobby. Nothing wrong with that but on occasion it pays to not be dictated about what to think and take other opinions into account including your very own one,  educated or not.

At the Vancouver Art Gallery, a couple of shows I visited on (yet another)  rainy day: One was about artists painting  themselves.  Portrait of the Artist: An Exhibition of the Royal Collecction. I assume The Vancouver Art Gallery has limited means so it often brings shows with a single source. In this case all paintings came from the collection of Queen Elizabeth II. That alone creates a bias. Comprehensive as the Queen's collection might be, a large portion of it is bound to have a British slant.  There are some gems there, from Correggio's and Ruben's drawings of themselves to some gorgeous Dutch masterpieces,  Here is a Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1824) caricature of an artist trying to deal with family life, chamber pot and all.

Reading the captions on all the paintings, I think the curators did a good job at stating factual information. Calling Joshua Reynolds a self-promoter is probably  accurate, Saying that Hockney embraces new technology by using his iPad to paint is may be a stretch but not false.  I was quite taken by Jan Steens' "Interior of a Tavern, with Cardplayers and Violin Player" c. 1665 . It was lively and charming. Very different from what I usually gravitate to. One can feel the eagerness to tell a "story", to look at humanity with humor and a keen eye. The painter himself is in the depicted group and merrily laughing. There are some perspective problems and Jan Steen is quite known for adding ,somewhat incongruously, objects in the foreground in order to create a sense of space. I don't think that's to the painting's advantage, this filling up of every nook and cranny. Think of Vermeer who was Steen's contemporary and how incredibly different his genre scenes were, cool, glistening, collected. Vermeer was undoubtedly the better painter but Steen was brilliant in his own way.

A detail of Jean Steen. "Violin player in a tabern"

Carol Sawyer, The Natalie Brettschneider Archives.  This was a show about bored people in British Columbia during the fifties. I really don't even know what all the fuss was about but, alas, my favorite painting overall was in it. Orville Fishers's "False Creek"  is a masterpiece of valiant brushwork and light effects. The photo does no justice to the subtle pinks and greys of this city view. Today, I actually work somewhere around there but of course it is much changed. Is it progress? 

Orville Fisher. "False Creek" 1947-8

False Creek, today

Gordon Smith, The Black Paintings. Gordon Smith is darling of the Vancouver Art gallery. He is a West Vancouver resident and has been active for a long time. These paintings are a departure for him. The 6 min long video by the curator explains that much.  Gordon Smith (b, 1919 -)  participated in Operation Husky during the Second World War. He also got badly injured then. A lot of the paintings have titles that relate to this episode. The video explains that Gordon Smith likes to manipulate paint - a tenet of his love for abstraction. In this case, we are talking about mostly black paint with the odd color splatter and drip.  He also likes to add objects to his art including old pajamas, army tarpaulins and  autobiographical fragments of sorts. These paintings  do not explain themselves beyond their thick surface. Fair enough. They are solemn and beautiful.

But let's go beyond the curatorial agenda:

The title "Black Paintings" brings the image of other famous 'black" paintings, those of Goya. I dare to say these are a lot less powerful. By staying elusive, formal  and cool, the viewer has only paint to look at. In other words, it's fine if Smith wants to mention  war time memories in an oblique way but why should the viewer care IF the goal is not to open up about those memories, keep them a private affair. The Spanish painter Tapies created similar pieces without the need of autobiographical  muddying.

I found it interesting that Gordon Smith has been creating these pieces inspired by events that happened so many decades ago.

I also found it strange that nowhere was it mentioned that the western cultural association of 'black' with Death might apply here to some degree. Is it too obvious? Gordon Smith is very very old. They guy paints from a wheelchair. Couldn't these pieces bee a contemplation into the dark goodnight? A good night postponed from the time of his WWII injuries?

I thought the paintings were also timid. Too "proper". The fragments of fabric or added objects are tastefully placed. Nothing like the Rauschenbergs that Smith claims to admire.  I sense a terrible fear to step outside the canon of 'abstraction', to not do something beyond what we expect of him. A testament to  the durability of abstraction almost a hundred years after it was proposed by the Blue Reiter group.  At the same time, why change or try to rock the boat now.

True Nordic. how Scandinavia Influenced Design in Canada:  
This was a great exhibit.  More than the history of Scandinavian design ideas brought about by numerous immigrants and craftsmen from those countries and more than the pieces themselves, I was inspired by the spirit of craftmanship they brought with them. The exhibit was split in two: the original pieces made in Canada by immigrants and people of actual Scandinavian birth  and the modern Canadian designs inspired by them.

Scandinavian design was embraced  in the Northamerican continent  by an elite of people keen of gracious and streamlined living. Besides the cultural significance, the design itself with its soft lines, woodsy finishes and nature-inspired forms has a cheery bold lightness an optimism. It married industrial production with craftsmanship  in such a happy meeting that it is easy to forget it was born right after WWII.

Noteworthy  in the show was a very stiff and eerie video explaining the story of the Bostlund family and their lovely lamps.   . It really brings home the idea that craftsmanship can be a very transformative endeavor in the hands of people with artistic goals as well as a mastery of their medium. I don't think I would have been unhappy creating fabric patterns or functional furniture. Creativity, even limited by functional and industrial constraints is not diminished  here but instead blossoms into beautiful livable objects. To live surrounded by them induces a positive state of mind.

The goal of the exhibit is to show how Canadians took these ideas and ran with them. I don't think it was completely successful in this regard when looking at the modern results. However, my take away was the aforementioned respect for good thoughtful hand made designs. i will be forever jealous of those whose hands can produce useful beautiful things.

Aspect of the show. Molded plastics. A tea cozy to die for.

Aspect of the show. elegant cabinetry.

Some of the current designers do not reach that level of charm. We live in a more gobal world, we know this.  But so what. Here is a design by one Liz Eewes (b 1985). She created a design in her computer in Toronto and  sent it digitally to India to be woven with New Zealand wool. Aren't you impressed?
Me neither. The design is inspired in the Swedish tapestry rugs called  rollakans. But it is kind of a lame design in itself.  It is actually a bit too complicated  with dull use of color in isolated spots imho. Ikea has better designs.

This is a nice hanger though, Reminds one of skies piled up at the entrance or a deftly chopped tree,

More examples of current "scandinavian" Canadian design. The roll of felt is a nice touch (an cats would go bonkers for that). But the green chair, pretty as it is, conceals too much of its structure. It is not a bad design but there is very little organic or bold about it. The red chair behind it is too nostalgic and folksy. I bet it is also uncomfortable.

One piece stood out though. These chairs that form a forest by Rob Southcott. I actually think this is far from the intent of Scandinavian design even when  taking some clues from it. Cute, yes. But functional, comfortable, streamlined?  Not one bit. The whimsical nature of these chairs is lovely but it seems to be a departure, no, a rupture, with  the spirit of its progenitors. The antlers are so obvious and so useless, the seats themselves seem unusable. Art piece may be, design, no.