Saturday, April 23, 2011

Serious Humour: Designated Driver

Designated Driver - acrylic - 22" x 22" - 2010

When I spotted the bulldog behind the wheel of the red pick-up I burst out laughing. I was returning to my car in the parking lot of a neighbourhood supermarket. I grabbed my camera from the car and hurried back to the pick-up, hoping that the dog wouldn't move and that its owner wouldn't return before I'd snapped a couple of photos.

A dog in the front seat of a vehicle is a common enough sight, but this was unusual because of the dog's size. It looked as large as a human driver, and was taking its responsibilities so seriously that the title "Designated Driver" suggested itself to me right away. If the boss had come back to his truck the worse for wear, the dog looked perfectly capable of driving home safely.

Sometimes what I think will be the hardest part of a painting turns out to be easy, and vice versa. I assumed that painting the dog's portrait would be extremely challenging, but in fact it came together without much effort. The vehicles, on the other hand, were horribly difficult to get right, especially the vents of the pick-up's radiator grille. I often seem to struggle with perspective issues. Some artists seem to manage perfectly well with wonky lines and tipsy buildings. Others go to extremes of mathematical plotting to ensure accuracy. Personally I don't much care whether it's exactly "right", but in a painting that's otherwise realistic it seems to me that the scene should look convincing and the buildings stand solidly on their foundations. I don't even like those new-fangled real sky-scrapers that twist and lurch and project outwards: they make me feel a bit seasick. So I work away at the perspective in my paintings until things feel stable and grounded.

When working on a painting I inevitably spend a lot of time thinking about my subject. In the case of "Designated Driver" I put myself in the place of the bulldog, and soon I didn't find its situation so funny. Dogs are animals that live to a great extent ruled by the instincts of the wolves from which they are descended. What must it feel like to be left all alone in a completely artificial and inorganic capsule in the barren wastes of a car park? Does the dog regard the vehicle as a sort of extension of the pack's den, which it is obliged to defend on behalf of its human boss? What can it be thinking about as it sits there waiting, surrounded by the incomprehensible nonsense of human strangers coming and going, entering and leaving their metal boxes, creating ghastly noises and fumes as they drive away? With questions like these running through my mind, my amusement at my subject gave way to sympathy and admiration for the dog's patience and tolerance. Living in our mechanized urban world is frustrating enough at times for us humans who invented it. How must it feel to have to live in it without having a clue why it's the way it is, or what's the point of it all?

One thing I really enjoy about showing my work is that sometimes it reminds people of stories or experiences that they share with me. I heard several dog-in-car stories at the 2010 Eastside Culture Crawl, but my favourite was one about a big, fierce-looking dog whose owner didn't bother to take the keys out of the ignition or lock the car, confident that no one would try to break into such a well guarded vehicle. No one did . . . but on more than one occasion the owner got locked out, by his dog! Presumably the dog heaved himself around in the seat and pressed down the lever that locked the car from the inside. Or did he perhaps have a mischievous sense of humour?

Next time (around May 1): Spot the Difference: "Through a Curtain" as it was and as it is

Through a Curtain -  refinished 
Through a Curtain - as first painted
If you can figure out why I changed it you have very sharp eyes . . . or maybe a strange way of seeing things!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spotlight on Gastropods: "Van Huysum's Snails"

Van Huysum's Snail I - acrylic - 2007 - 16" x 20"
Van Huysum's Snail II - acrylic - 2007 - 16" x 20"

I have always been a fan of still life painting, and some of my favourite artists are practitioners of the genre--Cezanne's apples, Morandi's dusty old bottles, Jim Dine's tools, and Wayne Thiebaud's cakes come immediately to mind. But I had never been very excited by the big floral arrangements painted by some of the famous Dutch painters until I learned to look for the creepy-crawlies that lurk in the corners and chomp their way through the leaves.

Dutch realism was a Calvinist reaction against the religious iconography of pre-Reformation art and its continuation in the Catholic countries during the Counter-Reformation. The Dutch painters depicted the real people, places and objects of their world, not saints, angels and cherubs swirling around the heavens. Nevertheless, theology is still implicit in their 17th century art, even in a painting of a vase of flowers. At first glance the viewer sees something beautiful--a floral arrangement at the peak of perfection--but needs to be reminded that in this material world everything passes, fades and dies, and only the spiritual world endures. Apparent perfection is mere vanity, unreliable and transitory, subject to being destroyed or consumed. Some painters included elements such as clocks and skulls to jolt the viewer back to reality. Others were more subtle: they implied the passing of time and the vanity of this world by slipping flies and beetles into their compositions, along with bits of dead leaf and fallen petals.

Detail of Hollyhocks etc. painting by Jan van Huysum

Jan van Huysum lived from1682 to1749, so by the time he painted his floral compositions he probably included his animal elements more for decorative than moral purposes, but he still followed the convention of his predecessors. Leafing through one of my art books one day I paused to have a closer look at a painting by van Huysum called "Hollyhocks and Other Flowers in a Vase." Towards the bottom of the composition, as a sort of visual footnote, there are two snails, a small one crawling up a hollyhock leaf, and a larger, very perky one, advancing purposefully along the shelf. The idea came to me of blowing up two small sections of van Huysum's painting and placing each snail centre-stage.

When an original painting has been photographed and reproduced in print there's no way of telling how accurate the colour is. I may have seen the Hollyhocks painting in the National Gallery at some time, but if so I don't really remember it. Judging by an Internet image I found recently:  the colours are more vibrant than the ones in my book. For my purposes it didn't matter; I just stayed as close as I could to the book illustration. (Dutch Painting by Christopher Brown, Phaidon, 1993, p. 125.)

Singling out the snails to star in the show is another way of honouring the humble and easily overlooked, a theme that recurs in my work. To a gardener slugs and snails are the animal equivalent of nasty weeds--things that need to be eliminated because they threaten the more desirable plants. But any true depiction of nature acknowledges that everything has its season and eventually dies, and that every living thing has to eat at the expense of something else. Flowers, especially cut ones, may be seen as a metaphor for human youth and beauty, and the snails as a symbol of time, which relentlessly gnaws away at our lifespan. Snails are also often seen as the epitome of ugliness, as expressed in the disparaging nursery rhyme:

Slugs and snails and puppy dogs' tails,
That's what little boys are made of.

Yet a snail's shell is a beautiful object, no less so than the mollusc shells that children of all ages like to pick up on the beach. It seems to me that van Huysum loved his snails. His treatment of the larger one in "Hollyhocks," with its eyes and antennae tips highlighted, shows a marked degree of respect for the despised creature. So perhaps he would understand why someone painting 400 years later might want to present a close-up view of the hungry little crawlers.

Next time (around April 24): Serious Humour: "Designated Driver"

Designated Driver - acrylic - 2010 - 22" x 22"

Sunday, April 10, 2011

All the Same, All Different: Pets, Pancakes, Persimmons, and other Projects

I have my children to thank for bringing to my attention a principle which underlies some of my art projects and continues to suggest new directions--the principle of "the same only different." When they reached the mid-childhood stage of clamouring for little creatures in cages, my son and daughter had a reluctant and unreceptive mother who had no desire to share her home with smelly creatures that would eat and breed prodigiously and always need cleaning. My objections, however, were overruled, and over the years we accommodated hamsters, gerbils, budgies, guinea pigs, and a deformed fish which we babysat, and which its rightful owners (very sensibly) never got around to reclaiming. I was not a total neophyte when it came to pets. I'd lived with various cats, and was well aware of each one's individuality, and accepted that dogs too had unique personalities; but the idiosyncrasies demonstrated by all the diminutive fauna (even the fish, which once jumped out of its tank and was later rescued, still alive, from the dust bunnies under the bed)) came as a complete surprise to me. The gerbils, particularly, covered a whole range of personality traits, from the bold one who teased the cat through the bars of its cage until it got its face ripped off, to the dogged perseverer who learned to run in the exercise wheel in spite of having no front feet. These mouse-sized rodents were as different from each other as you are from me.

The first time this principle cropped up in an art project was during an intensive summer course in paper-making. We made batches of pulp and were then expected to create something with it. I don't think I had any idea what I was going to do, but I started to produce, at an increasingly frenetic pace, two kinds of object. I twisted strips of nylon stockings and dipped them in the pulp, hanging them up to dry in the sun; and I slapped handfuls of the pulp on to inflated balloons, producing leaf-shaped objects. I had never worked so obsessively in my life. And what fascinated me was that I kept doing the same thing, yet the results were all different. I continued dipping and moulding until time ran short, and then I assembled my whole inventory on a frame. I remember thinking that the pieces were metaphors for human beings--all the same, all different.

Pancake 2 - white china marker - 19" x 21"
In January 2005, while casting around for a theme for my last-but-one term at Emily Carr, I happened to cook up a batch of thin pancakes (crepes.) Watching them  solidify and change colour in the pan, I was once again struck by how each one, though made in the same way, was unique. For the next two months I cooked, drew, photographed, and occasionally even ate pancakes. I began with a series of detailed drawings of the flat discs, showing their ridges, grooves and craters as accurately as possible.

Fish nor Fowl - oil sticks - 15" x 29"

Out of the Frying Pan - oil sticks - 21" x 29"
Next I concentrated on segments and edges, and as I enlarged the markings, concentrating on rendering them accurately, whimsical life forms emerged, as in the examples on the left.

After that I let some of the crepes dry out for a week or so, and documented the distorted shapes that they made as they curled up. These I did not eat. To my surprise they turned into bizarre skull- and mask-like forms.
Crepe-Mask 1 - conte crayon - 30" x 23"

Crepe-World - oil sticks on canvas on board - 36" x 42"
The last step in the Pancake Project was Crepe-World, a large drawing on canvas.

Did you guess what the images I included last week represented? I've found in the past that people's suggestions have ranged from the microscopic to the cosmic--single cells to heavenly bodies!

In 2006 I had a commission to paint something for a newly renovated kitchen. The clients wanted something about 24" x 36" and they liked some of the oversized still life subjects I'd worked on. Since the wife said she was particularly fond of persimmons, I suggested that instead of one painting I should do six small ones, 10" x 10" square, each one of a different persimmon. I discovered, as with the hamsters and gerbils, that each one was unique, with its own rosette of leaves. I also learned how to enjoy eating persimmons, avoiding the astringent fibres that come with some varieties. 

Six Persimmons - acrylic on panels, each 10" x 10"

Jan. 1
Feb. 1
I have same-only-different projects in progress now, as well. As with the paper-making enterprise, I'm assembling things without knowing what I'll do with them all. For example, a new ritual for this year is taking the same photo every morning as soon as I get up. I'm not rigid about the timing, or about exactly how much of the scene I include, and there will be times when I'm away and there will be gaps in my record; but by the end of the year I should have three hundred and something versions of the view from my living-room window. I point my camera towards the spot where on a clear day I can glimpse Mt. Baker, the 10,000 ft. volcano just over the border in Washington State. I include a bit of the magnolia tree just outside, which is just, belatedly, coming into bloom. The sun, clouds, weather and tree are all variables which ensure that I never get exactly the same picture twice. All the same, all different.

April 10


Next time (around April 17): Spotlight on Gastropods: "Van Huysum's Snails 1 and 2"

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Thoughts about Readers' Comments

This week I am responding to some comments from readers that raise questions in my mind, and which you too may have wondered about. I am including images of some drawings that I plan to write about next time--but I'm not giving titles or telling you what they are. See if you can guess! (If you already know, please don't let on!) 
The enthusiastic comments about Easel Talk that I have received indicate that many people, from widely differing backgrounds, enjoy reading the stories about my paintings. ( I realize, of course, that unfavourable sentiments are less likely to reach me, if only because people who don't like my stuff will have long since stopped reading it!) Compliments are lovely, and most encouraging, but just as welcome are comments that raise thought-provoking questions, such as this one from a reader who had just read the entry on "Foreign Hotel" (Feb. 14, 2011):  "I found that I wished that I had looked at your painting more carefully before reading the blog, because once you had described the various interpretations I was no longer sure what my impressions would have been."  

The reader had opened my email notifications in the wrong order. I had in fact included a preview of "Foreign Hotel" the week before. Nevertheless, she raised some valid questions:  to what extent do I as the artist want to influence how people react to my work, and to what extent do viewers want to be influenced? Should art stand alone and speak for itself, allowing viewers to form their own impressions? Might a person feel cheated of a spontaneous reaction by having the artist spell it all out? Or does learning about the context of the work and the artist's feelings about it enhance and enrich the viewing experience? Personally, I've always found that some background knowledge made the work more interesting, and enough readers of Easel Talk, including several who describe themselves as not particularly visual, have told me that they appreciate the added dimension--and even compared me to art exponents in museums and on TV!--that I feel justified in continuing. Still, it is important to have an unmediated response first, so please take advantage of the previews. I also invite your opinions on what constitutes the right kind and amount of information.

Related to this issue is the question of titles. I've always enjoyed naming things--as a small child I named vast families of children I dreamed of having when I grew up--and I like choosing titles for paintings. I'm in the process of reviewing the titles I've come up with so far, trying to decide why I settled on each one, and whether it works. The topic arose out of an exchange of emails following my post on "On the Ferry" (March 6, 2011). Knowing that my correspondent had spent vacations in the Cancun area, I remarked that she had probably travelled on the ferry in the painting, to which she replied, "Couldn't it be any ferry?"
Well yes, it could--at least until I identified its location in my blog--and that's why I didn't call it "On the Cancun ferry." I debated whether it was more likely to sell if I left it vague--it might appeal to someone with fond memories of a ferry in Asia or the Mediterranean region--or whether the specific reference would give it a better chance with people who had spent time in Mexico. I've yet to find out! I think my titles are an attempt to pinpoint what is most important to me about the subject. Usually, I have something in mind which is implicit in the painting, but may or may not be perceived by someone else. For example, in the small painting that I called "Quintet", I was thinking of the perky little percussion instruments called high-hats.
Quintet - acrylic - 2010 - 12" x 12"
Titles are especially perplexing when it comes to non-representational painting. Personally I feel let down when I read "Composition" or "Abstraction"on the label, even though that is exactly what the painting is. I like titles, and for me a good one is a kind of mini-poem that enhances the visual aspect. It's not always easy to choose something that feels right, though. Below is an abstract painting that was produced quickly and intuitively, without any preconceived ideas about subject matter. The result seemed to me to have architectural elements, a mystery, and a ghostly presence. I've tried several titles, but none of them really satisfies me. I started with "Haunted House", switched to "Who's in There?" and most recently, "Anyone Home?" Maybe I should just call it "Mystery"?

To be renamed? - acrylic on paper - 2002 - 23" x 30"
I think I did better with "Winter," another intuitive abstract. When painting it I was thinking only of the mark-making, and of economical use of means and colour. It turned out being so suggestive of winter in a cold climate that one woman who saw it remarked, "I'm from Saskatchewan, and it looks just like that!"

Winter - acrylic on paper - 2002 - 23" x 30"

Enough for this week. I have more issues to discuss that have been raised by readers' comments, but will come back to them at a future date.

Next time (around April 9): All the Same, All Different: The Mystery Drawings!