|In 2006, sculptures of mine were selected as the inaugural “Sculpture by Invitation” exhibit outside the Shaw Conference Centre. My exhibition, titled “Will and Representation,” (named after the book by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer) featured 4 sculptures inspired by Indian art, each depicting the elephant-headed figure of Ganesha.In late 2007, after many months on public display, a local religious group gathered some 700 signatures from members of their organization, and delivered the petition to then-Mayor Stephen Mandel, demanding the works be immediately removed from display, claiming to be “offended” by the works. Mayor Mandel capitulated instantly, and unilaterally ordered the works to be removed.This act of religiously motivated censorship made international headlines at the time.On the right, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente decried the incident as an example of “caving in to illiberalism.”“The mayor, of course, was quite wrong. Mr. McCourtâ€™s sculptures did not insult the Hindu community. They insulted a small but vocal conservative religious group that is about as representative of Hindus as Hassidic Jews are of Jews.”[http://nesw.ca/2007/09/29/why-are-we-so-afraid-to-offend/]On the left, the Edmonton Journal’s Paula Simons too explained that the work, in point of fact, “shows no sign of sacrilege.”“In his haste to appease a few protesters, the mayor, usually a champion of the arts, made a serious error in judgment.”[http://nesw.ca/2007/09/22/mayor-makes-serious-error-in-judgment-simons/]Although the Mayor never made any effort to reach out to me to discuss the issue, or apologize, I had thought at the time that it was very clear to everyone involved that this act of censorship was an obvious violation of my Charter rights. I did not pursue the matter in the courts, as I did not think there was anything to be gained at that point. I had assumed that, in the future, such a breach of Constitutional rights would be carefully, scrupulously avoided by the City of Edmonton.|
Fast forward to 2013.
My parents, who also live in Edmonton, decided that they would like to donate a sculpture of mine, entitled “Destroyer of Obstacles,” to the City of Edmonton’s civic art collection. They assembled a gift donation package with photos of the work, background information, and an independent gallery appraisal of it’s $20,000 value, and submitted this to the Edmonton Arts Council. After much delay, my parents were informed that, in order to make their decision on whether the City would accept the gift, they would first need to see pictures of the sculpture “under the kilt.“Previously, those petitioning to have my sculptures removed had specifically complained that two of the sculptures showed Ganesha nude (genitals exposed). “Destroyer of Obstacles,” however, is depicted fully clothed. So, the EAC was demanding to see whether this Ganesha was secretly nude underneath its clothes.My parents obliged, sending the arts council the additional photograph showing the sculpted genitals underneath the clothes of the figure. Months later, in 2014, my parents were finally informed that the gift was being declined, though no specific reason was given.Now, in 2015,
I decided on a whim to file a FOIP request with the City of Edmonton, and last week, I received a package of documents. Of particular interest are two emails from the Edmonton Arts Council, the first a ‘confidential’ message to Mayor Don Iveson from EAC executive Director Paul Moulton; the second a “communiquÃ©” from the EAC’s communications director to all of the Edmonton City Councillors, both of which I have attached.
|From these emails, it seems evident that Mayor Mandel’s knee-jerk censorship of my work in 2007 has now somehow evolved into the Edmonton Art’s Council’s de facto arts policy, applied ad hoc to my work, seemingly based on my alleged reputation as a ‘trouble-maker.’ My parents proposed donation was deemed unacceptable by the EAC based on their exclusive consultations with the very same religious group who petitioned to have my work banned back in 2007.In 2007, I had met with some of these critics, who privately informed me that if I would just cover up the nudity, they would be cheering my work rather than protesting it, but it seems that with the precedent set by Mandel’s act, now even covered up “nudity” has been deemed taboo by a small group of religious conservatives, and the EAC will enforce this taboo in violation of my rights to free expression and freedom from discrimination.Often, when governments censor artists, the artist can turn to their arts community, and arts advocacy organizations, for support. Frustratingly for me, that is not an option in my case, as my arts community itself appears to be moving in lockstep with my censors.|
A Definition of Art?
The visual arts have become the refuse bin for all the other arts. What in a theatre would be a bad play or a bad film, in an art gallery become ‘performance art’ and ‘new media’. When we hear a bad song, and say “That’s not music!”, or see an awful movie and say “You call that a film?”, we of course know perfectly well that no matter how bad the piece is, it IS music, it IS film.
People usually don’t have to ask whether something is ‘music’ or not, perhaps because, on the whole, musicians have better understood that the purpose of music is to give aesthetic experience (ie. be enjoyed), and that if people don’t enjoy it, they likely won’t go to the concert or buy the album. Musicians who choose to ignore the aesthetic requirement still exist though… we just call them ‘sound installation artists” and play their noise in an art gallery instead of a concert hall.
The term ‘art’ has too many connotations to come up with one universal definition. When we speak of “the art of motorcycle maintenance, the art of wok cookery, etc” and when we speak of “con-artists” and “sandwich-artists”, we’re talking about doing something, any thing, to a high standard. When we speak of “the arts”, we mean literature, dance, music, film, sculpture, etc. Yet, often that little three-letter word, “art”, is taken to mean visual art. But when we speak of “the arts”, visual or otherwise, what we mean is “that stuff that is supposed to give us the ART feeling” Shakespeare’s plays give it, Vermeer’s paintings give it, a really good meal gives it too.
That art feeling is called aesthetic experience. I don’t care if Shakespeare had a thesaurus, if Vermeer had a camera, or if the chef made my meal from a can. The experience is what counts. Intention doesn’t affect my experience.
That being said, the only definition for ‘art’ that can stand, as was illustrated so famously by silly ol’ M. Duchamp, is “art is what we choose to consider as art”, which, as Greenberg has suggested, only shows us how un-honorific the title of ‘art’ has been all this time.
Intention and hard work are undoubtedly useful in art production, but if we are speaking of ‘art’ as the experience of a thing, as opposed to the thing or art object itself, then these become irrelevant, because one cannot know in all cases with certainty what the intention or work ethic of the art-object-maker is/was, or whether or not there was a maker at all, for that matter. If I enjoy a sunset or a tree aesthetically (ie. as art), intention and hard-work don’t enter into the equation on any level. If I enjoy Donald Judd’s Untitled, but I hate his Untitled, and really hate his other Untitled, and really really hate all the other Untitleds, I obviously do not assume that he worked any harder on, or had better intentions for, the one I do like.
In this way, we can certainly not only eliminate intention and hard-work as sufficient criteria for ‘good art’, but indeed eliminate them as necessary criteria at all, at least theoretically. Of course, that being said, I still intend to make good art, and work hard at it, because I’ve learned through experience that my work is better when I do.
The Intentional Fallacy
The intentional fallacy, in literary criticism, is the assumption that the meaning intended by the author of a literary work is of primary importance. By characterizing this assumption as a “fallacy,” a critic suggests that the author’s intention is not particularly important. The term is an important principle of New Criticism and was first used by W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley in their essay “The Intentional Fallacy” (1946 rev. 1954): “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.”
Or a work of visual art, for that matter. In a post last month, I averred that in the context of experiencing (ie. judging the success of) art, the “intention and hard work” of the artist are “irrelevant, because one cannot know in all cases with certainty what the intention or work ethic of the art-object-maker is/was, or whether or not there was a maker at all, for that matter.” I should have added, like Wimsatt and Beardsley, that even if such knowledge were forthcoming, it would not be desirable for the project at hand.
Further, it’s clear to common sense that this fallacy extends beyond the arts; philosophers of logic would be justified in calling it an “informal fallacy”(although it may be considered a particular version of the Red Herring fallacy). If one wanted to, say, judge the result of the current US war on Iraq, one might be tempted to consider the good intentions of Bush&Co. to disarm the country of its fearsome WMD’s (or, if you don’t buy that, the REAL intentions, whatever they might be). Of course, a focus on intent displaces a focus on actual results, some of which, in this case, include billions of dollars and thousands of lives lost. Another, perhaps simpler example is that of “manslaughter”: the accidental killing of another person. While consideration of intent is useful in determining moral responsibility or criminal liability, it does nothing to affect the fact of the victim’s death. Even though the person responsible “didn’t mean to do it”, or meant to do something else, the result is objectively verifiable by the corpse.
“Intention”, when we speak of the arts, deals not with what a work IS, but what someone (the artist) WANTS it to be. As Harry G. Frankfurt, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Princeton University, puts it in his essay Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,
“The concept designated by the verb “to want” is extraordinarily elusive. A statement of the form “A wants to X” – taken by itself, apart from a context that serves to amplify or to specify its meaning – conveys remarkably little information. Such a statement may be consistent, for example, with each of the following statements: (a) the prospect of doing X elicits no sensation or introspectible emotional response in A; (b) A is unaware that he wants to X; (c) A believes that he does not want to X; (d) A wants to refrain from X-ing; (e) A wants to Y and he believes it is impossible for him both to Y and to X; (f) A does not “really” want to X; (g) A would rather die than X; and so on.”
This problem is compounded when one considers that what one believes about someone else’s “wants” may be often and easily mistaken.
Order and Chaos
Edmund Hillary said, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.”
Jon McCourt conquered Roche Miette, and other mountains, on numerous previous expeditions. On this occasion, the mountain (or more precisely, a series of inexpertly chosen paths) nearly conquered many of these determined, albeit inexperienced, hikers.
Jon was along for the ride, but unable to guide any of us, as he was tucked safely in his wife’s backpack, in his new streamlined, ashen form. The only advice he had for us was an old scribbled note describing the hike: “No problem“. He was always the quiet, confident type.
Tenzing Norgay said, “To travel, to experience and to learn – that is to live.”
Roche Miette is a kind of natural ‘sculpture’, commonly recognized to represent an ‘Indian’ head (the image to the right has been rotated 90 degrees to make the human-like profile more obvious). What might appear deliberate from this distant perspective dissolves into randomness upon closer inspection. The same could be said of many things, including the day’s hiking plans. Ne’ertheless, five of us (six, including Jon) did make it to the summit (somewhere around Pocahontas‘ nose), and many more made it safely back down to the bottom without the assistance of a rescue helicopter.
Jon stayed behind, part of the mountain now, and always.
“It’s better to live one day as a lion than a lifetime as a lamb.”
Jon Michael McCourt, 1973-2005
A M[ODE]ST Proposal
Always hungry for more interaction with diverse groups within the artistic community, I thought it might be a good idea to expand my my own creative horizons. With that in mind, I recently applied to participate in M:ST4, the Mountain Standard Time Performative Arts Festival, held biennially in a number of participating venues in Calgary, Alberta. Although the above link states “Applicants should expect to hear the results of our selections process by February of 2007”, I was fortunate enough to have already received a form notice from M:ST that they
“received an overwhelming response to our call for submissions and the Selections Committee spent months of deliberation to make their final selections. Regretfully we are unable to program your work for this particular festival.”
But, rather than allow my fans to be entirely deprived of this piece, I figured the next best thing was to turn it into a conceptual work, and post my proposal here, so that the performance can exist in your imaginations… Enjoy!
Venue Preference: The venue context best suited to the nature and content of this performance would undoubtedly be the Alberta College of Art & Design’s Illingworth Kerr Gallery. The Canadian Encyclopedia, in its article “Modernist Art On The Prairies” states,
“In Calgary, despite pioneering work in a post-impressionist vein by Maxwell Bates, Illingworth Kerr and W. L. Stevenson in the 1950s, abstraction never really caught on… By the mid 70s, the focus of modernism on the prairies had shifted to Saskatoon and Edmonton, nurtured by the Emma Lake Workshops in the former and the Edmonton Art Gallery in the latter.”
Even today, while many leading artists in Edmonton and Saskatoon are often thought of as ‘formalist hold-outs’, southern Alberta’s, especially Calgary’s, artistic community have largely given modernism a pass as if in order to more zealously embrace, emulate, and evince novel contemporary forms (such as performance art) in keeping with the international artistic style conceived commonly as ‘post-modernism’. But despite these purported established artistic leanings, seemingly paradoxical modern and postmodern contemporary ideas can be seen to casually swing, pendulum-like, back and forth at the Kerr.
- In 1990, the Alberta College of Art Gallery was renamed in honor of former college head Illingworth Kerr, a seminal western Canadian modernist painter.
- In 2006, the directorial and curatorial reins of the gallery were handed to Wayne Baerwaldt, a celebrated western Canadian postmodernist curator.
- On the Illingworth Kerr Gallery website, Director/curator Baerwaldt’s listing on the staff page [was] accompanied by an image of recent work by Katie Ohe, an ACAD alumna and established Calgary sculptor, notably championed by the preeminent modernist art critic Clement Greenberg. [Edit: Yesterday, Ohe retired after many years as an instructor at ACAD].
- Exhibitions at the Kerr consistently showcase works by young and old, modernists and postmodernists alike, both historical and contemporary.
Thus, the Illingworth Kerr Gallery is understandably seen as fertile ground for a dialogue (and even perhaps as a sort of theoretical ‘no-man’s-land’), between the oppositional modern and postmodern viewpoints within our contemporary artistic discourse in general, and in Alberta’s visual art community specifically. While the primary (dual) effect of my performance piece is to directly offer straight information (and indirectly pose questions) to the broad viewing public, these messages (and this sub-textual dialogue) are most relevant (and meaningful) when squarely aimed at (and engaged by) artists currently immersed in Alberta’s contemporary art ‘academy’: both faculty members and student body. Viewers are encouraged to use the experience as a springboard into deeper thinking about the notion of authority in art appreciation and criticism, as well as art education and history. Such thinking is vital to the success of a living, growing contemporary art academy and the development of the individual artist. There is literally no better venue in this province today than ACAD, with its concentration of student and professional artists and scholars dedicated to thinking seriously about art; and the Illingworth Kerr Gallery, with its inherent contextual richness; in which to explore these issues, within the greater context of the M:ST festival.
Proposal: The performance, entitled “ACAD-EMIC”, consists in the following basic formal elements:
- Marc Country, a white male, maybe in his late 20’s, early 30’s, is present, sitting in a dark gallery, at a table or desk, with a single light illuminating his immediate surroundings. He is dressed casually, wearing a t-shirt bearing (upon closer inspection) some humorous and/or political message. He appears otherwise unremarkable: an average ACAD student or instructor, perhaps.
- On the table are a glass and pitcher of water, and a book bag with the [former] ACAD logo on it and several books inside, some spilling out onto the table. Marc pulls a book from the bag, and reads selected passages aloud, occasionally replacing the book in his hand with a new one from which the performer continues to recite.
- Books to be used include “The Collected Essays and Criticism“, Vols. 1-4, by Clement Greenberg (edited by John o’ Brian); “Homemade Esthetics“, by Clement Greenberg (compiled by Janice Van Horne Greenberg), and “Late Writings“, by Clement Greenberg (edited by Robert C. Morgan); as well as “Clement Greenberg Between the Lines“, by Thierry de Duve.
The ideal maximal performance set-up uses the desk within the gallery at which the gallery attendant normally sits. The gallery itself would be devoid of other artworks, and would be in darkness, save for one light with the performer (from which to read by) and one gallery spotlight on a point on the rearmost wall, furthest from the performer. A minimal performance set-up would be situated directly outside the main doors of the gallery, and would consist in a chair, table, light, water glass and pitcher. The performer will supply all other materials, including wardrobe, book bag, and books. The duration of the performance could be as often as daily, throughout normal gallery hours, during the entire run of the festival, or could run on a more limited performance schedule, if more convenient for festival or gallery requirements.
Artist’s Statement: Working as a sculptor, I communicate personal aesthetic experience through visual, three-dimensional form. My process is one of free experimentation within my chosen medium, allowing the various forms of found objects (mainly reclaimed steel from former industrial uses) to suggest directions for my work, reacting improvisationally to the sculptural object as it progresses. As I employ both abstract and representational means, the layers of subject matter in the works tend towards an ambiguous, multi-referential nature. This performance piece is formed outside of my core sculptural practice, and thus requires a separate statement. Since 1998, “Marc Country” has been my anagrammatic pseudonym under which I have published certain items of cultural criticism. “ACAD-EMIC” is a site specific performance piece that provokes thoughts questioning the ground-rules underlying our contemporary academic artistic dialogue by presenting modernist conceptual content via a postmodern performative context. Depending on the viewers’ unique point of view, the piece may be seen as art, or as activism; as performance, or as protest; as entertainment, or as education, or any imaginable combination of these (or something else altogether?). “ACAD-EMIC”, is an acronym for “Alberta College of Art and Design – Extended Meditations In Criticism”. While the title of the work, in its full length, suggests a benign intellectual, educational enterprise, this shortened, hyphenated form might conversely bring to mind more worrisome concepts such as epidemics, pandemics, etc. and the undesirable associations they entail. Taken as a word in itself, the adjective “academic” has a suitably paradoxical nature as well. While not pejorative in its strictest sense, referring uncritically, according to one dictionary, to all things “of, relating to, or associated with an academy or school especially of higher learning”; in the mid-nineteenth century, (not coincidentally, the beginning days of modernism), ‘academic’ became synonymous with ‘old-fashioned’, and for the next hundred years, in the mouths of the avant-garde, became little more than a slur. It was Clement Greenberg; in perhaps his most famous essay “Avant-garde and Kitsch”, who notoriously identified modernism with the former, and academicism with the latter. But while lip service is duly paid in the art history seminars of today’s academy to the ‘power’ of Greenberg’s ‘influence’, those lips are customarily curled in hardly-hidden sneers. In today’s mainstream academic visual arts discourse, it is now Greenberg (despite widespread acknowledgement by both his supporters and detractors as the most important art critic of the 20th century), whose aesthetic viewpoint is most oftentimes derisively discounted as old-fashioned and, consequently, “academic”. Of course, such a specific epithet as ‘academic’ begs the question of what ‘academies’, if any, promote a Greenbergian viewpoint today. For in reality, the success of his detractors is such that Greenberg’s writings have been all but banished from contemporary art education, the target of a concerted character assassination the likes of which would make Karl Rove hard (metaphorically, of course). Even in the fine arts department of Edmonton’s University of Alberta, often characterized as a ‘hotbed of formalism’, art history and aesthetic philosophy seminars invariably give Greenberg’s writing only cursory attention, rarely delving beyond (generally sophomoric mis-) readings of essays “Avant Garde and Kitsch” or “Modernist Painting”, satisfied instead with the quick glance, followed by a wink and a hurried asssurance that such ‘Formalist’ ideas are not talked about anymore. “ACAD-EMIC” potentially raises many questions in its viewers’ minds, such as:
- In our current ‘academic’ environment will viewers, students and faculty particularly, receive this apparent ‘lecture’ as an educational opportunity, or as confrontation? Would such pedagogic performance attract, or repel?
- What would the presumed intention of such a performance be, by students, faculty and other viewers of the work, at ACAD? Would it be perceived as cynical parody, or earnest elucidation?
- How is an artist trained in an arguably ‘modernist’, object-based sculpture tradition, received by his peers when presenting a piece in an arguably ‘postmodernist’, performance-based art festival? Does one previous body of work somehow negate the other, or vice versa? Do studies of modernist critical theory negate explorations in postmodern expression, or vice versa?
- How does the appearance of the performer affect the viewers’ perception of the experience?
- Can a postmodernist art format deliver a modernist theoretical content?
- Will ‘postmodernists’ automatically reject such content? Will ‘modernists’ automatically reject the context?
- If so, would such rejection be on aesthetic, conceptual, moral, or other grounds?
- Will viewers react to the content with derision, mirroring the response Greenberg’s writing receives in current art discourse? Or will they keep an ‘open’ mind, as due a work of experimental performance art?
- Will the performer himself be derided for perhaps being seen to espouse “formalist” or even ‘academic’ views? What would this say about claims of respect for ‘diversity’ and ‘pluralism’ in the contemporary art academy?
- Will viewers welcome the content of the performance as an in-depth look at a body of critical work they may arguably know little about, and are indeed perhaps discouraged from considering, either intentionally or unintentionally?
- Will such a performance be ignored, aggressively countered, or taken at face value? Will the performer’s motives be questioned, and if so, by whom?
- Are there unspoken taboos around such topics in contemporary arts dialogue?
Budget: Costs involved with presenting this unique performance at M:ST may include:
- Return travel Edmonton-Calgary at festival’s standard gas mileage rate (approx. 600km?).
- Accommodation expenses during run of performance.
- CARFAC performance fee, standard rates apply.
An Embarrassing Scene
(I swear, you just can’t make this shit up…)
On October 14, at 2 pm, the AGA presents “THE SCENE – the place where something happens…”, a penal, er, I mean, panel discussion with “prominent members from artistic communities across Canada” (Read: five postmodernist/feminist curators from Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax) who consider:”the social, economic and cultural conditions that underwrite the emergence of new and influential artistic phenomena in different places. Panelists will reflect on the origins, viability and prospects of their respective milieus, and speak to broader themes including sub-cultural trends, national, regional, cultural particularism and the leveling effects of the art market (and its discursive/promotional machinery).“I don’t know why the Art Gallery of Alberta is so stubbornly convinced that nothing or no one important could originate in Alberta (or anywhere between Vancouver and Winnipeg, for that matter, least of all, Edmonton…) One thing is clear though: Their mission (should you choose to accept it) is to convince you of the same…
Ten dollars, please! (Eight for members/students).
This has got to be my favorite: one of the questions(?) the panel will purportedly address is:
“Is celebrity culture a necessary evil, an inevitable consequence of, or an essential precondition?”Ah, yes. “Is it necessary, inevitable, or just essential?” That’s “critical thinking”, AGA style, for you.
If any of you feel that our contemporary cult of celebrity is perhaps unnecessary, avoidable, or unessential to an understanding of actual visual art, then you, my friend, are JUST NOT WITH IT!
… “It”, being the ever-important “scene”, of course…
Unsurprisingly, this pseudo-intellectualized wank-fest is merely academic window-dressing for the real SCENE… THE PARTY (9pm – 1am… another ten dollars, please!).
Again, I wish I was making this up… from the AGA site:”Obviously, this will be an extremely happening place…With foreign glitterati, art performances, music and dancing, this intoxicating affair promises to reinforce the AGA’s reputation as the place to think just as critically as the Art Bar was the place to drink.”Indeed… and what a reputation it is! I’m not usually one for internet shorthand, but all I can say is… LOL!
Will and [Mis]Representation
(E-mail interview with Agnieszka Matejko, “Visual Arts” writer for “Vue Weekly”, December 4-5, 2006)
Agnieszka Matejko: Hi Ryan, I am considering writing something about your sculpture on Jasper Ave in the context of the Hindu sources of inspiration. I was wondering if you would be willing to answer some questions on this topic for potential publication.
Why did you choose Hinduism as inspiration for your work?
Ryan McCourt: I don’t think I actually “choose” what I’m inspired by, and it’s impossible for me to say for sure why I might be so inspired (or even that it’s Hinduism, per se, that is the effective inspiration). There are many factors that influence the directions of my work, and all may be active, consciously or unconsciously, at the same time; however, I can say that I try to take advantage of whatever inspiration comes my way, regardless of the source of the influence.
A.M: Which figures from Hinduism did you select and why?
R.M: All the sculptures I’ve made in this series of works have focused on Ganesha. On the one hand, I’m particularly interested in the philosophical concepts integral to Ganesha’s mythology, and on the other, I appreciate the possibilities for sculptural expression inherent in the traditional elements of his physical form, as translated through my medium and my process.
A.M: Do you have any personal connections to Hinduism or the culture?
R.M: Certainly. I’ve always been interested in different systems of religious and philosophical thought. My intellectual appreciation of the concepts of Hinduism stems mainly from recent study of the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, whose own work draws inspiration from Hindu thought.
As I’ve studied and made art, and travelled to various parts of the world, viewing art in different countries and collections, I’ve developed an appreciation for a breadth of artworks produced by a diversity of cultures, irrespective of their distance across time or space, from my own, necessarily limited, personal experience. As a sculptor, one can’t help but admire the work of the Indian master sculptors of the Middle Ages: artworks which, for me, rank among the great sculptural achievements of human culture.
A.M: How did you research the imagery?
R.M: Among the most influential collections of Hindu sculpture that I’ve seen have been the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection in New York, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, and, closer to home, the excellent Bumper Development Corp. collection on view at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. For my own interest, I’ve also read a fewbooks on Ganesha specifically, in addition to reading a number of articles and viewing images on the internet.
The imagery of my sculptures use these traditional sculptural forms and allegorical readings as a conceptual starting point, but the final form of each new work evolves improvisationally, usually over a period of many months of labour and critical consideration in the studio, and hence bears no direct relation to any single pre-existing ‘prototype’ within Hindu sculpture.
A.M: How (or if) have you deviated from traditional representation of the deities?
R.M: There’s a great deal of variety within traditional depictions of Ganesha; however, a few details are common to most. He is depicted as an amalgam of four animals. He appears as a pot-bellied man (or boy) with an elephant head, accompanied by his bandicoot (or rat) mount, and a snake entwined around his mid-section like a belt.
Although the items in Ganesha’s hands may vary somewhat in traditional works, my sculptures mainly employ the same four elements: an elephant goad (or a similar weapon), a noose (or lariat), a broken tusk (Ganesha’ own), and a sweet dessert or plate of treats. The only work that deviates in any major way from other depictions of Ganesha is my sculpture entitled “The Reawakening of Ganesha”. It shows Ganesha before his elephantine head has been transplanted to his resurrected body (an episode from his traditional creation mythology without visual precedent in traditional Hindu iconography, I believe).
Of course, traditionally, sculptures of Ganesha have not been made from cast-off industrial materials either, or constructed by means of assemblage, or employed the elements of cubist abstraction that some of these works do, so those are deviations of sorts as well, I suppose. Ganesha himself began life as a sculpture, moulded from the dirt and oils of his mother’s bath-water, so one can see a certain poetic parallel.
A.M: Do you view these sculptures in a religious context that is personally meaningful to you, or are you using the symbols in a secular manner as visually intriguing objects?
R.M: I’m a devout atheist, so I wouldn’t use the word ‘religious’ to describe my experience of the sculptures; nevertheless, understanding the symbolic meaning of the iconography does lend a secondary level of interest to the works, supplementing their primary effect as works of art. For me, both the primary and secondary effects are of tremendous personal meaning.
If other viewers find the works visually interesting, I would invite them to do their own research into Ganesha, so as to be able to meditate on the philosophical significance, as well as the aesthetic pleasure, of the sculptures.
A.M: Are you concerned about issues of cultural appropriation?
R.M: For centuries, Hindu tradition has transcended boundaries and influenced philosophical ideas around the globe. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called Hindu scriptures “the consolation of my life” and in them, found precedent for much of his thinking. Speaking on “the openness of taste”, the art critic Clement Greenberg (like Arthur Schopenhauer, a philosophical follower of Immanuel Kant), affirmed “that you look at Hindu sculpture, say, in the same way, by and large, as you look at contemporary art or the art of the old masters or any other kind of art”.
Alongside the fine collection at the Glenbow, there is a “Message from the Collector”, Robert Borden, which reads (in part):
“The gallery you are entering contains an exhibit of objects that are works of art, not just cultural artifacts. For those of you who wish to view it as an ethnological exhibit or as a religious experience, information is provided alongside each object and you may seek to extend your knowledge through further study. However, in the eyes of this collector, the exhibit is first and foremost, one of art.”
As a human being, there is nothing within human culture that is alien. To refuse to appreciate and learn from diverse sources of human experience is to be wilfully ignorant. As a sculptor, the whole of human history’s artistic production; indeed, all the physical objects; real and imagined; are all part of my visual ‘culture’. The Greeks are my culture, as surely as are the Africans, as much as the Indians… at least as much as the Albertans.
Looking at the question from another viewpoint, as Ganesha is the patron of the Fine arts, isn’t every artist, no matter place or time, part of Ganesha’s ‘culture’?
A.M: Have you had any responses to your work from the Hindu community?
R.M: All of the individual responses I’ve received personally have been positive, but I have not received any responses from representatives of the Hindu community, specifically. I’d would love to hear what anyone thinks of the works, though.
I hope these answers are thorough enough for your needs. I’ve also previously written a few of my thoughts on this series of work here. Feel free to quote from any of the text there as well (I tried not to repeat myself much in the responses above).
If you need anything else from me, don’t hesitate to e-mail. I look forward to reading the piece.
(My e-mail response to the published article by Agnieszka Matejko, “Visual Arts” writer for “Vue Weekly”, December 27, 2006)
I plan on writing something about your written work in VUE WEEKLY and the notion of “cultural appropriation”. I was hoping you’d be willing to return the favour, and answer some of my questions on this topic for publication, and my own curiosity.
In your article “Transcendental Meditations” (Vue Weekly, September, 2003), on “THE BEGINNING PROCESS” (works by Tessa Nunn) you write
“Nunn’s paintings are also spiritual fables that draw on the religious traditions from around the world -traditions that came to life for her during her stay in New York… In her paintings, the mythical figures and religious icons she saw all over New York came down from the walls of the temples, straight into the midst of contemporary New York life.”
Despite this, you make no mention of “cultural appropriation”. If, as you write in last week’s piece, the “appropriation of sacred imagery for secular purposes is inevitably hurtful and contentious”, why did you fail to mention this in the context of her work?
In the more recent piece, you write
“Due to the complexity of the symbolism, the apparent faithfulness in detail… and the clearly Hindu inspiration, I decided to get some feedback on these works from the richest source of information. I contacted the Bhartiya Cultural Society of Alberta…”
I offered (what I felt to be) quite thorough responses to your e-mailed questions, yet you chose not to quote even a single full sentence of my own words. Why?
Did you contact the Hindu community to get their views when writing “Transcendental Meditations”? If you did not contact the Hindu community for your 2003 piece, why not? Was Tessa Nunn’s work somehow lacking in ‘complexity of symbolism’, ‘apparent faithfulness in detail’, or ‘clear Hindu inspiration’?
In your more recent piece concerning my work, you write that the issues you attempt to discuss are “confoundingly difficult”, yet, the quotes I supplied from Robert Borden and Clement Greenberg speak directly, expertly, and eloquently to the (rather elementary) aesthetic premise of viewing artworks as artworks, as opposed to “cultural artifacts”. Why did you choose to omit those statements, leaving your readers lost in your own fog of sleep-deprived bewilderment?
Mr. Agnihotri is quoted as speaking with disapproval of the seated Ganesha (“Guardian of the Golden Gate”), but the other 3 works are standing poses. What were his responses to these other works, and why did you omit them from your article? The large work (“Destroyer of Obstacles”) could be considered “fully clothed”. Was this work perhaps considered more acceptable by him?
Traditionally, Ganesha is not shown in his “decapitated” state, as represented in one of my pieces. Did the priest have a negative reaction to this ‘discrepancy’ as well, or is it only the exposure of Ganesha’s sexual organ that he found troubling?
Hindu art is replete with nudity and physical sensuality, especially regarding the female form, and often depicts gods engaged in sexual intercourse (as you note in the 2003 piece, “Two life-sized Hindu deities, father/mother figures, are copulating with alacrity, their union guarded by four goddesses. Their act is stripped of all romantic niceties, but this potentially brutal image is far from pornography…”). Did you inquire with Mr. Agnihotri as to why this apparent ‘double standard’ exists? If you did not, why not?
You also write in the recent piece,
“But in this instance, a number of details have been altered as well. For instance the seated posture of Ganesha is always devout, with legs crossed, while in the steel work the deity is seated on a stool with his legs spread.”
In fact, Ganesha is often shown in a ‘spread-legged’ seated pose in more ‘traditional’ eastern works (a Google image search makes this quite clear). Did you make any effort at all in researching the accuracy of that statement?
You also allude, in the above statement, to a “number of other details” that have been altered, but fail to explain what those details might be. What were these ‘numerous’ discrepancies that you (or Mr. Agnihotri) think you have found?
Why was I not invited to view and discuss the works alongside you and Mr. Agnihotri?
Thanks. I look forward to receiving your responses.
Many Faces, Many Paths
To some, the ongoing focus on Hindu iconography in my sculpture may seem strange, coming, as it does, from a white atheist prairie boy like myself.
Although I do appreciate some of the spiritual ideas of Hindu thought (especially those ideas which carry over into the western philosophical tradition, as through the work of Arthur Schopenhauer), it never occured to me that making sculpture which arguably fits within this idiom might be, in some way, “off-limits” to me, as an non-Indian and/or a non-Hindu.
The great thing about great art (like great philosophy, or great science) is its transcendence across such arbitrary boundaries of race or nation. I do not choose what to be moved by; none of us do. I’ve seen many parts of the world (four continents so far), studied various philosophies and religions, looked at artworks from a variety of cultures in and out of some of the world’s great museums and… here I am, living in Edmonton, welding bits of scrap together to look like a pot-bellied man with an elephant head?
Is there any easy explanation?
The Glenbow Museum in nearby Calgary is, perhaps surprisingly, home to an extraordinary collection of Asian art. According to their website, the Many Faces, Many Paths collection “comprises over 80 world-class religious sculptures from Asia, some of which are on loan from Bumper Development Corporation Ltd. of Calgary; some have already been gifted by the corporation.”
Alongside the artworks, there hangs this brilliant statement from Robert Borden: “A Message from the Collector”:
“The gallery you are entering contains an exhibit of objects that are works of art, not just cultural artifacts. For those of you who wish to view it as an ethnological exhibit or as a religious experience, information is provided alongside each object and you may seek to extend your knowledge through further study. However, in the eyes of this collector, the exhibit is first and foremost, one of art. These beautiful objects demonstrate and create an awareness of line and form that would satisfy any art lover. Here you will find shapes, masses, colours, designs, shadows, grace, and beauty as magnificent as that of any art ever produced by human beings of any culture. And it is only when we understand and appreciate the creative ability of artists of many cultures that we can fully appreciate the art of our own culture.
Enjoy the exhibit at your leisure. Enjoy the art. Enjoy the peace. Enjoy the thoughts of artists as they captured and expressed the joys of life. Come back often and stay awhile.”
This sums up the attitude of the true aesthete. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Question: “Where does Artistic Freedom End…?”
Answer: In a democracy like ours, basically, it doesn’t.
According to Canada’s Human Rights Program…
“The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms… is founded on the rule of law and entrenches in the Constitution of Canada the rights and freedoms Canadians believe are necessary in a free and democratic society. It recognizes primary fundamental freedoms (e.g. freedom of expression and of association), democratic rights (e.g. the right to vote), mobility rights (e.g. the right to live anywhere in Canada), legal rights (e.g. the right to life, liberty and security of the person) and equality rights, and recognizes the multicultural heritage of Canadians. It also protects official language and minority language education rights. In addition, the provisions of section 25 guarantee the rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.“
U.S. readers will see an analogue to these “Charter Rights” in their own U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment. In both countries, a “Bill of Rights” protects artistic expression, just as it protects one’s right to protest someone else’s expression, just as it protects the “Freedom of the Press”. It is always ironic when citizens (sometimes even newspaper writers) seek to limit the freedom of expression of others, without realizing that they are attacking the very freedom that they themselves enjoy (luckily, I quite enjoy irony).
For all humanity, in fact, these rights are enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN’s General Assembly back in 1948. As the Wikipedia article notes, “When the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany became apparent after the Second World War, there was a general consensus within the world community that the United Nations Charter did not sufficiently clarify rights it protected. Rather, a universal declaration that articulated and codified the rights of individuals was necessary.” The Article itself is very straightforward, simply stating
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.“
Ain’t freedom grand?
The aerosol cans that these pieces are constructed from can be imagined narratively as the peripheral artifacts of creation, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a traditional painter’s flattened, empty metallic tubes of oil paint. Viewing the sculptures literally, this conception expands to represent the peripheral artifacts of life itself: cans of brake fluid, oven cleaner, insect repellent, spray paint, et cetera. In the context of the Art Gallery of Alberta’s “flat” exhibition, these crushed spray paint give a nod, and a wink, in homage to Jules Olitski’s spray paintings, also on view.
These crushed can pieces are all shown one-sided, literally flat on the wall, and thus can be perceived as pictures. Yet, their images are identical with their material supports, not applied as a surface design; therefore, the works remain in the world of physical objects, and are more accurately described as polychrome bas-relief sculptures.
The question as to where such sculptures belong within our contemporary artistic landscape is a pleasing puzzle. Formally, these works might bring to mind the shaped canvases, riotous colours, and metallic reflections of some of Olitski’s (and notably, Clement Greenberg’s) artistic followers, like Edmonton’s Graham Peacock and his fellow ‘New New Painters’; or, the well-known crushed metal sculptures of John Chamberlain. Conversely, some of the works, with more overt references to consumer products, encourage a Pop or Fluxxus-inspired interpretation since, unlike modernist paintings, these pieces are what a Duchampiste would call “objets trouvé.”
Each of these individual works are indeed found objects; conscientiously selected, rather than intentionally created, as artworks. Through a simple change in perspective, detritus is transformed into an aesthetic object. Although a Duchampian reading could lead some to interpret these works as a rejection of Greenbergian sensibilities, that would be a mistake. Greenberg often wrote and spoke appreciatively of Duchamp’s better readdymades. Indeed, these crushed can artworks represent a celebration of the true breadth and inclusiveness of Clement Greenberg’s allegedly unfriendly “formalist” aesthetic: anything that can be appreciated aesthetically can be appreciated as art.
Not with a Bang…
“The wrecking ball is coming and we want to go out with an aesthetic bang“
… reads the AGA’s latest call to enter. It continues…
“The Art Gallery of Alberta invites you to exhibit at one of Canada’s most important venues for Contemporary art.
Free for All celebrates the creative vitality of our community, and rejoices in the mix. If you bring in your art we’ll put it up; whether you are a professional artist, amateur artist, emerging artist, has-been artist, nascent artist, Sunday artist, an artists’ mother or anyone in between. Prizes will be awarded at the closing reception.”
In other words, in a last ditch effort to program something (anything) in the old Arthur Blow Condell Memorial Building (formerly EAG, AKA AGA) before “the wrecking ball” comes, they are leaving it up to you, dear citizen, to do it for them. They’ve given up with the whole thinking and choosing thing. And, presumably, the paying artist fees thing. They’d like us to do ’em a favour. As Mary Christa O’Keefe points out in an interview with AGA matriarch Catherine Crowston, “Her unspoken wish, perhaps, is that Free For All not only demonstrate the AGA’s commitment to the community, but the community’s commitment to the gallery.” Unfortunately, what’s missing, and indeed what has been missing for so long at the AGA, is a convincing demonstration of a commitment to art.
Rather than viewing this as an opportunity to haul my best work down to the gallery to offer them as free programming out of the goodness of my heart, instead, if anything, it seems like a rare chance for me to register my dissent. To that end, I, Marc Country, will be submitting a piece entitled “Arthur Blow Condell, Rest In Peace”, comprised of six magnetic coloured plastic letters (as illustrated). Artistically, although this work is of negligible aesthetic merit, I am confident it will fit right in with the other works in this exhibition. Conceptually, my intent is for viewers to stop for a moment and consider Arthur Blow Condell, a young Edmonton boy who died in childhood, and perhaps think of his mother, Mrs. Abigail Edith Condell who, in 1962, bequeathed funds for Edmonton’s new art gallery in the name of her son; and ultimately, to consider the larger question of both the finite existence of men, and of philanthropic memorials themselves.
Plus, I can, at long last, say I’ve officially shown in the AGA! Alas, if only that meant something…
Five “Cultural Capital” Investments
A “Cultural Capital”, to be worthy of the moniker, must have certain cultural amenities. These five visual arts-related projects below are necessary (not to say sufficient) ingredients for any city that takes itself (and wishes others to take it) seriously as a ‘cultural capital’. The question is not if Edmonton should take these projects on board: we have already decided that Edmonton is to be a leader in the arts. The question then remains, when will we begin these projects, and earnestly continue our journey towards becoming a true cultural capital city?
1. Fine Art School of Edmonton (FASE):
A cultural capital needs a specialized school of higher learning dedicated to the education of potential visual artists and other future visual arts professionals.
It goes without saying that the world’s indisputable ‘cultural capital’ cities, such as New York, London, Paris, etc., have numerous visual art schools, academies, and colleges. But if one thinks of visual art education in Canada, only a few institutions immediately spring to mind: Emily Carr, NSCAD, OCAD, and ACAD. As a result, the cities in which these schools are located all can make credible claims to being Canadian ‘cultural capitals’.
The University of Alberta has done a commendable job, these past thirty-odd years, in training a generation of dedicated artists and arts professionals. With the continual growth of the University, the art and design department is bursting at the seams, in some cases even having to turn students away; nevertheless, the art program is squeezed from the outside by the demands of other departments and faculties, and the differing priorities of the University as a whole. Instead of witnessing the program crumbling under such pressures, with a bolder vision, the U of A’s department of art and design could cut its U of A-pron strings, and grow to become the Fine Art School of Edmonton.
Splitting off the art and design department physically from the U of A, onto its own ‘satellite campus’, a more autonomous FASE could have several benefits. The department already centralizes most classes and studios for art and design undergraduate and graduate students. Their move off-campus would free up valuable on-campus space for other university departments and faculties, and afford an opportunity to acquire larger, more appropriate studio and related classroom facilities.
As with the U of A’s recent purchase of the downtown Bay Building (which would have made a great art school campus, incidentally), underused historic spaces should be considered as sites for a Fine Art School of Edmonton. For example, the Federal Building on 107th street is roughly the same size as ACAD’s building in Calgary. An endangered Edmonton landmark, it would benefit from the rehabilitation that could occur through transformation into artists’ studios (a use which only requires a ‘rough’ space, anyway). This example has the benefit of convenient LRT access, but many others may have ideas as to an even better location, and all good ideas should be considered.
If the U of A was unwilling to show leadership in the creation of a new FASE, a competitor could seize the opportunity instead. Grant MacEwan, or some other group, could offer centralized, focused art and design instruction under the branding of an independent school, and capitalize on this cultural market opportunity. ACAD could open a North campus here, and surely have Edmonton’s art students lining up for enrolment. Whoever jumps on offering a FASE first will be drawing from the same highly trained and talented local pool of fine art and design practitioners for their professors and instructors (wooing them from competing schools, if need be), and the same pool of potential students interested in pursuing quality higher education in art and design.
2. Contemporary Art Gallery of Edmonton (CAGE):
A cultural capital needs an art gallery that showcases the best work of its local contemporary artists. While the Art Gallery of Alberta’s exhibition mandate (not to mention construction budget) may have greatly expanded, the actual exhibition space and gallery staff will unfortunately not do the same in the new building. As the AGA turns towards historical, provincial, and international exhibitions, a Contemporary Art Gallery of Edmonton can take up the home-town torch, and focus on showing and promoting the best works from local professional artists right here in Edmonton.
A CAGE could also avoid the pitfalls involved in the construction of an expensive new facility and instead, work smarter; keeping the larger needs of the city in mind and utilize underused downtown space. As an example, somewhere like the old Army and Navy Building on 97th street (currently occupied by the “Red Strap Market“), with a focused renovation, could make a lovely city gallery, and would also work towards pulling the vitality of the ‘Arts District’ east of the Square. The proximity to the AGA and SNAP gallery would encourage patrons of one gallery to see the others, boosting the attendance for all.
Another ideal option would be to locate a CAGE in the former-retail space on the ground floor of the McLeod Building on 100th street. An Edmonton-centric art gallery here would be a great fit with the historical character of the building, and would be firmly located within the heart of the existing ‘Arts District’. With its residential tenants above, and tourists at the nearby hotels, a CAGE in the highly visible main floor space of the McLeod would be a magnet for visual curiosity, while promoting the work of the visual artists of Edmonton to fellow citizens and visitors alike.
3. Edmonton Sculpture Park (ESP):
A cultural capital needs to recognize the strength of its own local artistic resources, and show confidence through their proud promotion. Within Alberta’s art community, Edmonton has become known for a school of sculpture rooted in the cubist tradition. In the recent words of past EAG director and art critic Terry Fenton, “I wish there was a way that the rest of Canada could find out about the sculpture scene in Edmonton. It’s one of the best kept secrets in Canada”. An Edmonton Sculpture Park would capitalize on this legacy, and make a brilliant visual arts attraction for our city.
Sculpture parks are popular artistic attractions for locals and tourists alike, and can be found in many cities; especially, in and around centres for sculpture. Recently, the Seattle Art Museum opened their new Olympic Sculpture Park to much fanfare. But while Seattle’s new 9-acre sculpture park cost some $85 million to create, an ESP could be much less expensive. Outdoor sculptures here typically require little maintenance, and generally need little more than a concrete pad on which to erect them. Sculptures could be purchased (or even donated) for permanent display in the park, or borrowed from artists or other collecting institutions, like the AGA or the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, for temporary exhibition.
Edmonton has an abundance of land or existing park-space that would be suitable for use as a sculpture park. One suggestion is to site the ESP around the grounds of the Muttart Conservatory, enhancing the sculptural shape of their iconic glass pyramids, and supplementing the few large-scale sculptures already on display there. Of course, there are many park spaces that would also be perfect for renovation into an ESP, as virtually any park would be enhanced with the addition of sculpture. The ultimate location for the ESP should be the subject of serious public debate.
4. Arts Habitat – Affordable Artist Live/Work Spaces (ArtsHab):
A cultural capital needs to offer places for artists to live and work that they can afford. As artists generally aren’t paid for the hours they spend in the studio, many talented people unavoidably have great difficulty making a financially viable career as full-time artists. At the same time, in Edmonton, underdeveloped areas and those in need of gentrification and improvement could benefit from the needs of studio artists for suitable accommodation and workspace. The Arts Habitat Association’s downtown live/work pilot project, despite ubiquitous glitches along the way, remains a vital, and vitally necessary, artist live/work success story. The practical knowledge gained through the ArtsHab pilot project model needs to be put into use.
Toronto’s recent redevelopment of its Distillery District shows what an ambitious, visionary ‘arts village’ revitalization could be; locally, something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, could happen with our own ‘Jasper East Village’. The area north and east of Jasper and 97th could become a pedestrian-oriented cultural live/work zone, with main floor storefront studio spaces and apartments upstairs. A variety of building layouts, and availability of both rental and purchasable condo ArtsHabs, could accommodate the various needs of many artists, from students to established professionals, across a range of disciplines, inside and out of visual art. And importantly, the area could be transformed: from pawnshops and peep shows, to arts markets and alternative galleries.
5. International Artist Residency Program:
A cultural capital needs to bring in artists from around the world; to share our resources with the broader artistic community, so we can recognize each other as equals: fellow colleagues in the global cultural marketplace. There is hardly any clearer way to say to the world, “This is an ambitious place where art is made”, than to simply bring ambitious artists here from other cities, give them access to our facilities and materials, and let them make some art here for a while, to see for themselves.
In Omaha, the Bemis Centre turned a few old brick warehouses into art studio and gallery spaces, and began an international residency program, bringing artists from around the world to the middle of Nebraska for up to three months, allowing them to make work, and to experience for themselves Omaha’s unexpectedly vibrant local cultural scene. Ideally, artist in residence programs offer the guest artist accommodation and suitable studio space, a duration of stay long enough to complete new work, and an exhibition venue for the artist’s work. Such artist residency or exchange programs here could run in conjunction with a Fine Art School of Edmonton, a Contemporary Art Gallery of Edmonton, an Edmonton Sculpture Park, and/or an Arts Habitat.
Letter to Steven Pinker
I don’t wish to take too much of your time. I saw you on the Colbert Report, and saw “The Blank Slate” recommended on the Dawkins website, so I bought it, with expectations towards liking it. As an artist with an empirical mindset, and a passionate contempt for empty-yet-fashionable postmodernist academic obscurantism, I figured your book would be more back-up (like Dawkins’ own wonderful review of the Sokal/Bricmont book) for the marginalized “derriere-guard” of the art-world, those of us who cling to and defend the notions of a common human aesthetic faculty and the objectivity of the art experience (as opposed to subjectivity based on cultural specificity). On a philosophical level, I figure we’re all on the same side, here.
In reading Chapter 20, “The Arts”, there is much to be found that’s of value, to be sure. Your explanation of, and opposition to, postmodernist posturing is eloquent and blameless. The only problem (but sadly, whoa, it’s a doozy) is your, frankly, shocking and quite inexplicable conflation of Postmodernism with Modernism. It is the very heart of Modernism, as it is best described by the great 20th c. critic and famed Modernist champion, Clement Greenberg, that Modernism embraces the common human aesthetic, the intuitive response, art and beauty for their own sakes. Because of this, your unfortunate misapprehension of Modernism at its most fundamental level, the sharp insights which would otherwise no doubt have been offered by you here have been dulled enormously, and seem to beg for your remedial consideration.
Since the book has been out for some time, I Googled “Steven Pinker” + Art
… to see if there were any similar reactions to mine out there. One of the returns was a review of your book by Daniel Green, which expressed the same, almost dumbfounded reaction to “The Arts”, a rather disappointing chapter in an otherwise excellent book. A few of the other returned pages from the Google search brought back interviews with you in which, aside from again lumping together Modernism with Postmodernism, your characterizations of art, as made to shock instead of delight, sound as if they could have come straight from Greenberg himself. Despite what perhaps may be your own personal taste for art from the period of the Impressionists and previous (which you are certainly not alone in feeling, and undoubtedly entitled to feel), you are nonetheless expressing what is essentially a Modernist position. You’re on our side, but you don’t seem to know it yet. Please don’t leave us behind with the postmodernists, Dr. Pinker… we need people like you.
In one of these interviews (with Steve Sailer for UPI), you say:
“My quarrel isn’t with Modernism itself, but with the dogmatic versions that came to dominate the elite arts and bred the even more extreme doctrines of postmodernism. These movements were based on a militant denial of human nature, especially the idea that people are born with a capacity to experience aesthetic pleasure. Beauty in art, narrative in fiction, melody in music, meter and rhyme in poetry, ornament and green space in architecture, were considered bourgeois and lightweight, or products of mass-marketing. Instead, modernist and postmodernist art was intended to raise our consciousnesses, illustrate a theory, or shock us out of our middle-class stupor.”
You nail it here in the first sentence, but you slip back into the mud with the last. Yes, I’ll agree that, despite almost being a polar opposite, Postmodernism is best understood as an off-shoot of Modernism, like a mutated appendage on an otherwise healthy body. Just as Modernism represents a focus by artists on the inherent characteristics of their chosen media, Postmodernists took this self-referentialism a (misguided) step outside of physical sensory (i.e.. aesthetic) experience, and focused on certain social, institutional, or linguistic constructs, as if they were the ‘meta’-medium of the category of entirely socially-dependent things called “art” (which, when put that way, sounds awfully pomo, itself, and I’m just describing it… ick).
This is the point where I am glad you are a scientist: if you see the evidence, you’ll happily agree. Upon looking in the index to “The Blank Slate”, the source of the problem becomes clearer still. There, I note the names of Theodor Adorno, Roland Barthes, Arthur Danto, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, et al, ad nauseum, which certainly shows you’ve got the bases of Postmodernism covered. But, to reach back to 1913 and Clive Bell for the definitive quote on Modernism is simply wrongheaded and a little weird: if there is one definitive voice on Modernism, it would surely be Clement Greenberg: Postmodernism’s Public Enemy No. 1. His one book, Homemade Esthetics (with Chapters like “Can Taste Be Objective” and “Intuition and the Esthetic Experience“), refutes your misconception of Modernism, and could do wonders to clear out the cobwebs in your conceptions of art, like a fresh and welcome breeze. I recommend it to you whole-heartedly, and wish you all the best.
Edmonton Sculpture Park… but Where?
A while back, I wrote a post entitled Five “Cultural Capital” Investments, and one of those ‘investments’, was a Sculpture Park. The other day, I was talking to a couple of fellow sculptors about the idea of a sculpture park in town, and the question we asked ourselves was, “What would be the best location for a sculpture park in Edmonton?”
Although virtually any underused park or underperforming public space in the city could serve in a pinch as a site for a sculpture park, we generally agreed that a central river valley location would be ideal, and a few particular locations stand out for various reasons as particularly well suited as potential ESP locations:
1.Queen Elizabeth Park: Bisected by 105th st., the park and pool areas could be transformed into a sculpture park, nestled in the trees of the riverbank, on the road between Whyte Ave and Downtown. As noted recently in the Journal “Queen Elizabeth Pool, closed since 2003, has an uncertain future after one bid to rebuild it came in at nearly double the $4.1-million budget…. General manager Linda Cochrane told city council her department is looking at other options for Queen E.” Fill the pool with concrete, on the other hand, and the building and back patio could serve as additional indoor gallery and intimate courtyard space (as they have at Grounds for Sculpture, in NJ), or possibly a workshop space for a sculptor in residence, or…?
2.Muttart Conservatory Grounds: My originally proposed location for the ESP, this location would likely be the easiest and cheapest. The site is flat and open, and already is home to a number of sculptures from a symposium held here in the ’80’s. Riding my bike through there the other day, I even noticed what appeared to be another freshly poured concrete sculpture pad (I have no idea what is intended to go on it, though). On the sign to the conservatory, they even advertise a sculpture show, on now inside one of the pavillions.
3.Government House Park: Located on the North side of the river, beneath the RAM up on the bank above, the site has vehicle access from Groat Road, and pedestrian access from the river valley trails, and paths leading up to residential neighborhoods, from St. Georges Crescent, to McKinnon ravine, into the west end. Local talk, for a while now, has suggested connecting the Museum to the valley below in some way would be good… Here’s a great way to do it (and cheap!) The sculpture park below could integrate beautifully with the RAM’s on-site outdoor sculpture collection.
Biking though the area today, I struck up a conversation with a lovely and pleasant woman walking a cute, bicyclophobic little dog. I asked her what she’d think about this particular park trail having a few sculptures discretely placed along the path. Her first reaction was to tell me that, a while ago, there was talk afoot to turn the park trail into a major traffic throughfare, and the surrounding residents fought, and stopped it… she figured a sculpture park would meet similar resistance. She said she understood that other cities do develop their waterfront areas, much to the delight of their citizenry, but that, to her mind, Edmonton is different, and she likes it that way.
Fair enough, but… It seems to me that people are so protective of this “Ribbon of Green” that they will poo-poo ANY development at all, out of an irrational, knee-jerk fear of the “slippery slope”.
More Like “View Weakly”: a Letter to the Editor of Vue Weekly
I commend Amy Fung on the courage it obviously takes to write a bi-weekly column, and weblog, on a subject on which she is clearly far from an expert. As an artist, it is always interesting, though frequently aggravating, to read how people think about art. Recently I attended a round-table discussion about the “Alberta Biennial” show on now at the AGA, which inexplicably featured Fung as a panelist, who again showed her remarkable willingness to speak publicly on a topic she is mostly ignorant about. So, bravo.
I should point out, “a handful of previews per month” was NEVER “sufficient or even remotely satisfactory”, and the addition of “Prairie Artsters”, in digital or paper format, does little to rectify this situation. It seems with art in Edmonton, the old saying could be updated: those who can, do, those who can’t, teach, and those who don’t have a clue one way or another, write about it. So it goes…
Fung is right about a few things, though. “There is a real and diverse visual arts community here, but you would never know it from just absorbing media.”
Over the years, I have tried to engage several of the art writers in town (and some of their editors), at one time or another, in a dialogue on their ‘craft’ which, as an artist, I take very seriously as public commentary on my profession. Unfortunately I have yet to meet the art writer, in this town, anyway, who takes it as seriously as I do. They may protest to the contrary, of course (although I doubt they would care to), but the proof is in their ‘writing’.
What can one make of Fung’s complaint that rag-writers like her “are often bound to covering the “legitimate” shows up in commercial and artist-run galleries” other than to simply, loudly, call “BULLSHIT”? Clearly, the weeklies have never felt “bound” to cover so-called “legitimate” venues, and have always found column-inches to spare for the latest café/hair salon show (especially if the artist is in their own inbred “scenester” clique). Besides: there are at least 27 public, private, and artists-run galleries in the Edmonton area? Have Edmonton’s “art writers” really exhaustively covered these professional venues to such an extent that they must look to the naïve, amateurish offerings regularly found on, say, the walls of the Sugarbowl? Please…
Fung writes, “There are of course exceptions, like the installation-driven curation behind “The Apartment Show” that occurred in the spring and the do-it-yourself graffiti posters of the “Make It Not Suck” projects along Jasper Avenue—both of which received plenty of media attention, with the latter spurning a lot of discussion.”
I’m sure she meant to write “spurring”, but “spurning” is, sadly, more accurate. Rather than added dialogue, the poseur graffiti (which, ironically, DOES suck, quite a bit) on Jasper contributes virtually nothing to an informed discussion of art, rather, merely presents the annoying noise of bewildered, whining whelps. Fung may be right in observing that such things will increase our art community’s “notoriety”, although she doesn’t make clear why on earth she thinks being “notorious” is a good thing. Somebody, for god’s sake, please, buy her a dictionary…
When it comes to art, there are more things in Edmonton, Alberta than are dreamt of in Fung’s philosophy, and fortunately, there are OTHER people thinking and writing clearly about art, more than just the Fung-and-Friends handful you read in these tawdry pages.
Studiosavant, a quality-oriented artblog based in Edmonton, has been publishing on art and cultural issues since February 2006, and can be found at http://www.nesw.ca (click the “S” on the compass). There is intelligent discussion of art to be had in Edmonton… you just have to know where to look. Elsewhere.
“THINK SMALL!” read the subject line, and so it should.
The latest call for submissions from the AGA arrived in my inbox this past week, with the text shaped curiously into the form of an exclamation point. I guess this is intended either “to indicate an especially forceful utterance or strong feeling”; or as an “indication of major significance, interest, or contrast”, although neither seem borne out in the text itself. Maybe it’s supposed to remind us of something else.
Under the (ironically?) large-type word “small“, the call gives the standard info on where to send your cv, slides, SASE, etc. with this text forming a sort of flaccid shaft.
The knob dangling below, darker in colour, is made up of a much denser (both visually, and intellectually) material. This dim bulb reads as follows:
“Aside from the obvious advances in communication technologies, it might be argued that mechanical reproduction, photographic imaging and digital technique have also contributed to a profoundly altered sense of scale in the world. ‘Nano’ is the buzz-word of the day. After the giganticism and spectacle of projected display and immersive installation over past decades, how do artists represent our evolving sense of balance, proportion and scale today?”
Trying to make real sense of this text is difficult. The first sentence offers a questionable claim, one the AGA themselves aren’t quite ready to back up with anything stronger than a passive “might be argued”.
In the next sentence, they’ve gathered up enough confidence to state, wrongly, but nevertheless unequivocally, that “‘Nano’ is the buzz-word of the day“. Of course, ‘nano’ is no such thing (it’s not even a word; rather, it’s an example of what’s called a ‘combining form‘, something like an ‘affix’, but definitely not a ‘word’). Nit-picking, I know… Regardless of its true linguistic classification, as a so called “buzz-word“, it is generally irrelevant to a discussion of art. Artists do not go around buzzing about nano-this, or nano-that. So, this buzz-word bullshit is, well, just that. It sounds as if the gallery is being run by advertising executives, or something.
Yet another malaprop, perhaps worthy of a Shakespearean fool, turns up in the next sentence: Giganticism! Although also strictly not an actual word, I understand what they mean, as it must refer to large artworks, I suppose. Clearly, what is being set up in this text is an opposition of extremes: Nano (sic) v. Giganticism (sic). Two sic(k) combatants, toe to toe.
Puzzling then, that this call concludes,
“… how do artists represent our evolving sense of balance, proportion and scale today?“
What is all that talk at the beginning, about these extremes of large and small, then? Artists are always representing their evolving sense of balance, proportion, and scale, whether in large works, tiny pieces, or indeed, whatever size of artwork in between. So, why does it seem, although they make a show of asking the question of artists, the AGA has already decided how artists work, and according to the gallery, we work in response to “buzz-words”, of course, and by god, we therefore work small!
So, naturally…. I email Marcus Miller, AGA Assistant Curator, for a clarification:
“Marcus,I’m unclear on this recent call you sent. Do you want artwork that “represents our evolving sense of balance, proportion, and scale”, or do you want small things? The interestingly-shaped statement suggests the former, but the title of the show that you’ve pre-chosen makes me think you’ve already decided that the works to be selected will reference ‘smallness’.Please clarify, so I can pass this on,Thanks”
His clarification is as follows: “I deliberately left it unspecified. I just got a message from someone asking what the maximum size is. ? I’m not nearly as ideological as my calls sound, and I think I left lots of room for play. In the end, I’ll go with my gut, and try to put together the most interesting and beautiful show I can. You tell me.”
Relieved, I sent this reply: “Why on earth didn’t you just say that in the first place?I’d much rather submit work to a gallery where the curator says he will “try to put together the most interesting and beautiful show” they can, rather than jump through some nonsensical, arbitrary hoop based on “buzz-words” like “Nano” (or, indeed, non-words like “giganticism”).Why does the gallery put out calls written like this, if they don’t accurately reflect the ideology of the curators, anyway? It makes for a bad public image, to my mind.”
Alas, Marcus replied to this with “you of all people should recognize the productive value of a little friendly provocation – no? I’m off for the weekend – catch up with you next week.” Maybe next week, I’ll get a proper answer to my question; though, the chances, I think, are small.
Letter to Gordon Kent, Edmonton Journal
So, I heard that a group of people don’t like my sculptures at the Shaw. Doesn’t really seem like much to write a story about. Nudity seems like a rather quaint thing to get one’s knickers in a bunch over, in the 21st century. Besides, there’s lots of art that I don’t like. I don’t go around gathering signatures of people who agree with me, and try to force the art to come down. That would be truly offensive, especially in a democracy like Canada.
“The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms… is founded on the rule of law and entrenches in the Constitution of Canada the rights and freedoms Canadians believe are necessary in a free and democratic society. It recognizes primary fundamental freedoms (e.g. freedom of expression and of association), democratic rights (e.g. the right to vote), mobility rights (e.g. the right to live anywhere in Canada), legal rights (e.g. the right to life, liberty and security of the person) and equality rights, and recognizes the multicultural heritage of Canadians.
It also protects official language and minority language education rights. In addition, the provisions of section 25 guarantee the rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada.”
This supreme law protects artistic expression, just as it protects one’s right to protest someone else’s expression, just as it protects the “Freedom of the Press”. It is always ironic when citizens (heck, sometimes even newspaper writers) seek to limit the freedom of expression of others, without realizing that they are attacking the very freedom that they themselves enjoy (luckily, I quite enjoy irony).
Is Art Objective?
It seems to me we have the same, or similar, problems when we talk about the objectivity or subjectivity of morality. “Thou shalt not kill” is “right” or “true” or “good” in a way, but not in the same way as “2+2=4″… it’s a truth that seems closer to the truth that Rembrandt was good with a paintbrush. The judgment is individually decided, but consensually confirmed.
Let’s delve further in to nerdery, and use a computer metaphor. As far as any of us know, morality and aesthetics are both human-based value programming languages: they only run on, and are compatible with, Homo Sapien wetware. Both morality and aesthetics developed during our evolution as a species, and so it comes as no surprise that they would both be “common senses”, shared across humanity.
But that means that both are internal languages: they don’t exist outside of us, even though they detect and describe things that we perceive around us. Even though there will still be murder, and still be sunsets, without humans there is no human morality, and no human aesthetics, which is the same as saying, no morality, and no art, at all.
I Believe the Children are Our Future…
… and so, with the strains of Whitney Houston’s immortal song in my head, I gave a presentation on my art to approximately 180 assembled students at Harry Ainlay High School on Thursday. The audience was comprised of grade 11 and 12 art students, and grade 12 International Baccalaureate students, as part of their Theory of Knowledge course curriculum on the arts.
I had been invited by one of the school’s art teachers, Theron Lund, who requested me particularly “because of the controversy over your Ganesh sculptures, but I am not interested in any of the legal controversy. I feel that your Ganesh series speaks very positively about the cultural exchange of ideas and about cultural relativism in our society today. But beyond that, I am also interested in my students learning about your approach to artmaking; the issues of space and form in your work, where you get your ideas from, etc.“
So, my talk basically consisted in a tour of my last ten years of life as a sculptor, from my MFA thesis work, to my present occupations.
The students were a great audience: sitting in quiet interest through the slide lecture, warmly applauding at the end (it’s not every day I get applause, but I can see why performers like that kind of thing), and best of all, lots of interested, wide-ranging questions at the end. Most of the audience stayed on after the dismissal bell, and even after the teacher dispersed the crowd, a few came up on stage to speak with me, including one student who plans on writing her term paper on my work (and the issues surrounding it). I’m looking forward to giving her a tour of the pieces at our new studio, and hope I get to read the paper when she’s done.
Also, I loaned the school “Ganesha, Patron of the Arts“, pictured here, for their enjoyment, and possible inspiration for Mr. Lund’s art students‘ next sculpture project. I’m interested to see what they come up with, too.
The recent controversy over my Ganesha sculptures has been featured in a muddled little article in the latest issue of Canadian Brushstroke Magazine, a national, bi-monthly visual arts magazine published out of Leduc AB. According to their webpage, CBM, a “professionally designed magazine has articles pertaining to all aspects of the Canadian art industry and is distributed to those in or interested in the art industry at no cost”, via PDF.
It’s a strangely written piece. Some of the thoughts and assertions attributed to me, are actually those of the interviewer/writer. When she asked me why I thought the Mayor ordered the work removed, and I suggested that maybe the immanent municipal election influenced him in some way, I would not have imagined that my offhand remark would be the headline. Honestly, I have no idea why Mandel thought censorship was the right move. Since Mandel refused to respond to the magazine, perhaps we’ll never know for sure why he made the big gaffe.
And no, I didn’t particularly think that the media would be more interested in ammunition than decadent cakes, or nudity. The writer did though, as she suggested this to me when she interviewed me. For some unknown reason, she chose to give me credit for the notion, though. Who am I to fuss over details like these, though… I’m pleased for the coverage, good, bad, or otherwise.
Alberta Views magazine also features my work in their November issue. They don’t tackle the controversy in print, but do reproduce an image of “The Reawakening of Ganesha” in their Eye On Alberta section. Also, “Om Sri Ganja” will be featured in a slideshow at the Parkland Institute‘s fall conference, “along with the headline from the Edmonton Journal indicating what happened with the mayor“.
Thanks again to my Mayor and my Hindu petitioners, for all they’ve done to promote my sculptures to an ever broadening audience.
Much contemporary writing about art gives little emphasis to well-thought out ideas on aesthetics. Indeed, the simplest explanation for this is that many visual art academics, curators, writers, etc. quite clearly have very little understanding of aesthetics in the first place. This is disappointing, sure, but not entirely surprising.
In the last century, Clement Greenberg, writing from an art historical and art critical viewpoint, covers aesthetics as well as anyone ever has, if not better. Of course, Greenberg’s insights have been tossed out by our current crop of art-worlders, like the proverbial baby with the bathwater, so many of these ‘professionals’ know precious little of their supposed subject, robotically rejecting the views of this preeminent expert, as they so often do, virtually sight unseen.
It is heartening, then, to find that science has stepped in to take up the slack, and blow away the postmodernist fog that obscures the topic. V.S. Ramachandran is one such scientist who looks at the subject of aesthetics with objectivity: dispassionately, critically… scientifically. As 2003 Reith Lecturer, his talk on ‘The Artful Brain’ (audio) gives a very compelling view of the neurological nature of aesthetic experience (‘Rama’ is also a featured speaker in the recent Beyond Belief conference on the Enlightenment). Meanwhile, other scientists, like psychologist Dan Gilbert (video), delve into the mental causes and conditions for happiness itself.
If only our art worlders could get a grasp on these issues, they might reach relevance, rather than remaining resolutely ridiculous.
“Autograph” Exhibition Text
What is an autograph? In the parlance of common pop culture, an autograph is the signature of a person; particularly, someone famous. More generally, the word autograph refers to “something written or made with one’s own hand,” such as an original manuscript or a work of art. Conceived in this broader sense, the assembled sculptures and drawings in this exhibition are all authentic autographs of their maker.
An autograph defies common conventions as much as it adheres to them, and in so doing, becomes a vehicle for the expression of individuality. Despite writing in a common language, one man’s John Hancock looks unlike another’s. So too, a depersonalizing media like steel sculpture or blind contour drawing are made thoroughly personal through the unique touch of the artist. And just as our signatures begin in childhood at the level of conscious writing, ultimately becoming the unconscious, instinctual marks of our adulthood, Rob Willms’ autographs are extensions of his maturing artist-self. These artworks are the highly evolved records of significant physical gestures and aesthetic perceptions.
The blind-contour-style drawings are felt on paper, both in the sense of their medium (fine- and fat-tipped felt-markers, mostly black, some coloured, on white paper) and in terms of their execution: like the needle of a seismograph, registering every tremor of ground motion felt by its inputs, the hand inscribing these autographs records the motion of the artist’s eyes as they feel their way across the scene observed.
Similarly, the large and small abstract sculptures are idiosyncratic, three-dimensional autographs, too. Like the drawings, a sparing use of colour and an emphasis on edges, contrasting thin with thickness, characterize these sculptures. Perhaps, this overarching focus on dynamic profiles drawn in tensed, humming lines, and on the subtly attuned scale variations of these edges, are the hand-written hallmarks that best define the current artistic signature of Rob Willms.
“Real” Exhibition Proposal
Of all the visual arts, sculpture could be considered the most “real”. Rather than depict an illusory window to another world, or a two-dimensional ‘image’ of a thing, sculpture presents a thing in itself. A sculpture exists in the real world, and takes up real 3D space, just as we, and all the things around us in our daily lives, do.
My own sculptures are made from welded steel, the “reality” of which is abundantly palpable in their attendant attributes of solidity, weight, and resilience. The finished sculptures tend to retain these characteristics from the industrial implements with which they are made: the reality of their construction (individual parts, welded seams, tool marks) remains an integral part of the ultimate sculptural effect.
Over more than ten years of making sculpture using this material, the general trend of my work has moved from abstraction to figuration, now including a number of recent portrait busts that could be fairly described as ‘realist’ in their degree of representation. These sculptures are the product of a process of free exploration, not the result of direct assignment, paid commission, or other concocted notion. They are the real, unexpected and resultantly authentic, fruits of an individual artist’s studio practice.
I would be pleased to present any, indeed all, of my recent figurative works. If only one piece could be displayed, I would suggest Customs Agent (The Constable) as one of the most recent pieces, and as it is a sculpture that exemplifies the aforementioned qualities of this particular series of figurative works.
Seeing [Clearly] Through [To] Modernism
So, I checked out “Seeing Through Modernism: The University of Alberta” at the FAB Gallery today: what can I say? All in all, a nice little exhibition. To my eyes, the best-in-show prizes go to Peter Hide’s Gothic Height (from the AGA’s collection), and Jack Bush’s Spread From Left (the first work collected by the UofA’s Purchase and Placement Committee in ’69). Upon walking down the gallery ramp, seeing these two beauties together gave me that happy-yet-expletive-producing “prick” that you get from good art.
Gothic Height, a work I don’t recall ever having seen before, struck me immediately as something of an attenuated and unpenetrated version of Hide’s Oddball; an impression later reinforced by reading, from Terry Fenton’s catalogue essay from a 1986 Hide EAG retrospective, that both sculptures were among the first of Hide’s Canadian works:
“Gothic Height (Winter 1977/78), was larger than Oddball and had a more emphatically upright configuration, nor did it rely on cavities to penetrate its interior after the manner of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Its title suggests origins in the elaborate draperies of Gothic sculpture, as well as the more abstracted draperies of a midsize cast of Rodin’s Balzac in The Edmonton Art Gallery’s collection, which Hide admired enormously. These heavily draped figures demonstrated that sculptural presence isn’t the exclusive property of the nude.
Gothic Height gives the impression of having been assembled from the inside out. Its surface isn’t a bland, enfolding envelope like the skin of a balloon. It’s interrupted by vertical bars interspersed with vertical faceting. The bars penetrate to the sculpture’s interior and suggest a kind of internal structure made visible — as Hide put it, “bones, but abstract bones” — while the faceting is a kind of metal skin. The facets and bars are joined by long, welded seams, a method of construction unlike Caro’s and essentially unlike anything in previous steel sculpture. There’s a hint of it in Steiner’s Corten sculptures and Hide may well have discovered it there, but Steiner’s long welded seams are part of a fabricating process and meant to be concealed. Hide’s sculpture seldom has a fabricated air, depending, instead, on a certain rough immediacy. The appearance of fabrication through excessive finishing can be fatal to it.”
Of course, this show was ‘curated’ by Anne Whitelaw, not Fenton, so the wall texts in this exhibition aren’t quite as intuitively perceptive (or should that be perceptively intuitive?) as one might wish; indeed, none of the works themselves (except the Bush, Molinari, and Tanabe, briefly) are even noted in the text. But, in a pleasant surprise, neither do the texts delve into patently absurd conspiracy innuendo, or another painfully uninhibited display of fundamental artistic ignorance.
Perhaps feeling chastened both by her very public dressing-down during Karen Wilkin’s lecture (which Whitlaw sat through silently, offering up no defense) and the equally-public critical roasting she received from the audience of modernist artists and scholars at her own lecture (which Whitelaw stood through, offering up the indefensible), or perhaps for some other reason altogether, the curator stuck to “just the facts, Ma’am” this go around, with brief synopses of the hiring, exhibiting, and collecting history of the UofA and its art department. This dry history lesson is fleshed out, so to speak, in a rather desultory fashion with the requisite vitrine of ephemera, something of a cliché for these sort of academically organized period-shows.
Well, as dull, and at times muddled, as the didactic writing is (“The study of the visual arts in Edmonton began in 1945…”? Does she mean to write “The POST-SECONDARY study of the visual arts…”?), the work itself is left to stand or fall on its own merits. At least we can all be happy that the occluding fog of the previous exhibition’s paranoid thesis has lifted, and we can happily refocus on seeing this modernist art with open eyes, and an open mind.
Letter to the Editors, Edmonton Journal
I read your creepy endorsement of Harper with no small measure of disgust and disappointment.
Harper’s attack on the artist-citizens of Canada is not simply a “rhetorical blunder”, as you sympathetically suggest, but a cynically considered gambit to disempower a demographic that generally rejects the extremist stance of the Reform-cum-Conservative party.
Worse still is your nonsensical notion that associating “Harper with the discredited and oblivion-bound Bush-Republican crowd… is not fair”. Journal, please.
This is the same sucker, Stephen Harper, that happily recited a ‘bomb-bomb-Iraq’ speech that sounded very much like it had been mailed to him (and Australian PM Howard, and who knows who else?) by his bumbling buddy in the White House.
This is the same Stephen Harper that allows a Canadian citizen (an abducted minor who has been abused his whole life, no less), to languish in Gitmo, the US’s widely condemned illegal torture-prison. The ONLY leader of a Commonwealth country to abandon its citizens to such a fate. So please, spare us any more hypocritical, self-serving lectures on ‘fairness’. Please.
This is the same Stephen Harper who approved of Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of Lebanon, ghoulishly calling their murder of countless innocent civilians in revenge for the capture of a single soldier “a measured response”.
Please forgive us all if we citizens feel like vomiting in terror at the thought of Harper’s “hand on the tiller” of our country for a minute more.
At this time of worldwide economic crisis, do we want a leader like Harper, whose so-called conservatives cook their own election finance books under their “in-and-out” scheme, then try to cover up their shady dealings by calling a snap election, contrary to their own promised fixed election date, ahem, “law”?
Thanks, but no thanks.
Anything But Conservative!
Once Upon a Time in China
Reading that the terracotta warriors of Emperor Qin are coming to Canada (from Washington D.C., to Toronto ON), I was reminded of the first time I saw them, back in 1989, at the site of their discovery, in Xi’an, China. Despite the signs in English forbidding photography, I ‘accidentally’ snapped off this flash-shot with my snappy new camera with the digital date-stamp feature. Happy April Fools, terracotta bitches!
I didn’t make any notes on my travels, but I took many pictures (on real 35mm film- only the date stamp was digital), which I thought I’d go through, and scan some of the shots I took of some of the numerous sculptures and monuments I saw on my trip.
This one, the Statue of Five Goats, is a famous local landmark in Guangzhou. “Legend has it that 5 celestial beings brought 5 goats into Guangzhou. The goats were all carrying rice, which symbolized that they would make sure that the area would always be free of famine. Guangzhou has paid tribute to these benevolent goats by making them the symbol of the city. There are many goat statues in the “Goat City” and the Statue of the Five Goats is the most impressive.”
Sculptural menageries of mundane and fantastical creatures are a common artistic theme, with these leonine beasts serving the typical symbolic ‘guardian’ role, placed at important entrances within the Forbidden City in Beijing.
A varied assortment of other exotic beasts, such as the golden elephant the younger me sits next to, line the pathways. [Yes, thank you, I realize I look very dorky to 21st century eyes. Actually, this look was very cool in 1989.]
Tiananmen Square; an overwhelmingly huge paved open space, home to the columnar ‘Monument to the People’s Heroes’, and the figurative monument at Mao’s Mausoleum seen here; was eerily empty and peaceful when I was there, considering, in hindsight, the events of just a few weeks later.
Postmodern bafflegab is a constant source of amusement. You may already know about the Postmodernism Generator, which produces a new Sokal-esque text on every page load.
Now there’s a page out there just for “visual” artists. Here’s an example of the Instant Artist Statement, courtesy the Arty Bollocks Generator:
My work explores the relationship between the body and emotional memories.
With influences as diverse as Wittgenstein and Roy Lichtenstein, new combinations are crafted from both simple and complex layers.
Ever since I was a student I have been fascinated by the ephemeral nature of the mind. What starts out as hope soon becomes corrupted into a hegemony of lust, leaving only a sense of chaos and the prospect of a new understanding.
As temporal phenomena become transformed through emergent and diverse practice, the viewer is left with a statement of the possibilities of our future.
They all follow a clear ‘mad-lib’ type pattern, but sometimes they’re pretty good:
My work explores the relationship between new class identities and life as perfomance.
With influences as diverse as Kierkegaard and Andy Warhol, new combinations are generated from both simple and complex layers.
Ever since I was a student I have been fascinated by the traditional understanding of the mind. What starts out as vision soon becomes corroded into a hegemony of power, leaving only a sense of nihilism and the inevitability of a new beginning.
As shifting impressions become transformed through emergent and personal practice, the viewer is left with a glimpse of the limits of our world.
Unrepentant war criminal Dick Cheney is scheduled to be in Vancouver today, and it seems that some people, even in the Canadian Government, are willing to assist this known felon in evading arrest and prosecution.
CBC News had an article yesterday on Human Rights Watch’s call for Cheney’s arrest, but their reporters screwed up the story. For starters they erroneously refer to waterboarding as “a form of simulated drowning involving water being poured into the mouth of a subdued person”.
This bizarre claim has been made before, by other news outlets, and by CBC, but it is most assuredly false.
Waterboarding is actual drowning, not “simulated” drowning. Waterboarding is a technique of suffocating people using water. That is precisely what “drowning” is: suffocation by water. There is no “simulation” involved in the process. The suffocation is real, not simulated. The water is real, not simulated. Sometimes, the victim literally needs to be resuscitated after being waterboarded. Deaths, when they have occured, have been real, not simulated.
Nevertheless, CBC News relates the charges presented by Human Rights Watch, and notes Cheney’s indifference to those charges. But, instead of the limited “He said, she said” recounting, why does the CBC not also report what the incontrovertible facts of the matter are?
Instead of merely writing that Human Rights Watch says this, and Dick Cheney says that, why not tell readers, in addition to the opposing allegations and defenses, what the facts are?
Does the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention against Torture provide for jurisdiction over an individual for torture and other crimes, even for offences committed outside of Canada?
The answer is yes, Canada is obligated to prosecute torturers.
Did Dick Cheney authorize the torture, including waterboarding, of detainees?
Yes, he has said so himself, and justified his illegal actions by saying it was necessary. He is, of course, welcome to make that case before a judge and prosecution at his trial.
Are the two cases of the torture of Canadian citizens, Maher Arar and Omar Khadr, so-called “allegations”, actually been documented in the public record as facts?
Yes, these cases of abused detainees has been well documented.
Was Cheney instrumental in creating U.S. detainee policy and was he a member of the government committee that approved interrogation policies?
Yes, again, he has bragged about his role in this regard, and his signature is on all the paperwork.
These are objective questions with objective answers, and they are the absolute heart and substance of this issue. Objective journalism should be able to address these questions head-on in a straightforward manner.
So, why doesn’t the CBC? Why does our Canadian media fail at this simple task, indeed, the only task they have: informing the public about what is true? The problem is not just that they fail… it’s that, evidently, they don’t even try.
Thoughts on Palestine
I’m honestly baffled by the hysteria concerning Palestine’s upcoming bid for enhanced UN recognition and full statehood.
I’ve seen all the psycho-racist arguments against giving these people their rights, but I’ve been looking for an actually REASONED argument against their statehood, rather than just more brazen denials of their right to exist.
So far, the best I could find come from an article I read in the VOA (Voice of America), and they are shockingly disappointing.
The article gives the viewpoints of three individuals knowledgeable on the issue:
Guy Goodwin-Gill, Oxford University professor of public international law, argues the Palestinian Authority should not pursue its bid for U.N. membership because:
1. The bid could rob Palestinian refugees of legal representation at the U.N. because they would no longer be represented by the PLO.
Um, duh, they would be represented by a Palestinian State, not a PLO. Argument fail #1.
2. U.N. admission would not change the Palestinian Authority’s limited legislative and executive competence.
So what? Since when is “legislative and executive competence” a requirement? George W. Bush, anyone? Sarah Palin, anyone? Ok, so much for
Guy Goodwin-Gill. Fail #2.
Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Taskforce on Palestine, worries that:
1. The costs would be American and Israeli retaliation.
Threats? Seriously? They shouldn’t get their own state, because ILLEGAL Israel and US retaliation would increase? Honestly, I can’t believe that anyone would suggest THAT as a credible reason not to give Palestinians their LEGAL rights, but, there you go… Argument fail, again. Bad luck, Mr. Ibish, Fail #3.
David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process, argues:
1. “Palestinians, through an upgraded status at the U.N., would try to haul Israel before international bodies like the International Court of Justice and that would be a form of warfare”
Ah, yes, of course… legal recourse = “warfare”… oh, brother!
These are literally the best arguments they can come up with? It appears so. Any other article I’ve read on the subject repeats these same howlers, or else spouts something even dumber…
Fail, fail, fail. Total fail. What a world!
“BALLS”: a Letter to David Staples
Reading David Staples’ article today in the Edmonton Journal regarding his rectally-derived opinions on “Talus Dome”, the $600,000 bauble at the side of Quesnel Bridge, I was compelled to respond to his nonsense.
From: Ryan McCourt
Date: November 16, 2011 5:45:22 AM MST
Subject: Are you the Journal’s new art critic?
I just read your article about the rabbit turds, and wondered why the Journal is publishing your entirely naive and unqualified opinions as if they amount to credible art criticism.
As someone with an advanced degree in the field, I am dismayed that my profession should be treated with such disrespect, that it should be commented on in the press by someone with no apparent qualifications, and the hubris to think that their inexperience doesn’t matter. Sports writers would have to know about the field they cover, so why aren’t the Journal’s art writers like yourself held to any standard likewise? Would someone as ignorant of hockey as you are about art be covering the Oilers? I think not.
I am very much in favour of art, and the public funding of art. I’ve studied and made abstract sculpture for years, and I can tell you that, from a professional artistic standpoint, this is an absurdly poor architectural piece, at an absurd expense. It is an embarrassment to our citizens, a symbol of the Edmonton Arts Council’s continued bungling of their portfolio, and an unforgivable waste of public funds.
You refer to the Talus Dome piece as “Edmonton’s most expensive, most exposed and best piece of public art”. These three points are stated not as opinion, but as if they are facts. But, while it may be the most expensive, how is it “the most exposed”, exactly? The most drive-bys at high speed?
And, most crucially, how do you judge it to be “the best”? Twice this is claimed, but not backed up with anything but your dubious assertion. I don’t believe for a minute you are even AWARE of all the sculptures in Edmonton, much less that you’ve assessed the merits of each, so your claim is patent nonsense, when Edmonton obviously has many better sculptures made by many better (read: actual) artists. Your chummy, credulous chat with the LA architects of the work, as reported, doesn’t do much to help your credibility.
Much of the widespread criticism of the piece consists of what a BAD SITE it is for the artwork, and how it does indeed appear to be PLOPPED DOWN (the architects themselves call it a PILE, for pete’s sake! EARTH TO STAPLES!!!) at the side of a busy road like construction materials (or x-mas ornaments, maybe), but your article attempts to counter this all by mere contradiction. No it doesn’t, you say. Well, um, sorry, but, yes, it does, and your wishing doesn’t just simply counter reality and magically make the art or the site work any better.
“Another issue is that drivers fear it might be too distracting because it’s so visually stunning.” Come on, Dave! Get serious… that’s not the reason, and you know it! Otherwise, drivers would be distracted by commercial message flower beds, and roadside memorials… because they are SO VISUALLY STUNNING!!! Or, they could just be visually un-stunning, but eyesores nonetheless… that’s the reality.
So, is this just more of the Journal’s usual browbeating boosterism, bullying people into going along with the next boondoggle? Because, honestly, it just comes off as bullshit, in the precise Frankfurtian sense of the word.
You are welcome to be thrilled by the work. Indeed, I wish I could be, but for myself, and others who have an education in the history and production of sculpture, it is a head-shaking, mind-boggling disappointment: a sad waste of money and opportunity, and another embarrassment for our city.
Foreign architects will continue to muscle real local studio artists out of public art commissions for many reasons (forgive me, but it’s not the purpose of this letter to educate you on these issues). The last thing we need is for generalist journalists to muscle the real art critics out of the media, too.
I look forward to the Journal giving equal space to informed, dissenting opinion on this issue, to correct your careless, ill-considered misinformation.
What is Wrong With These (Anonymous) People?
I had not intended on blogging further on this subject, but the events of this morning compel me.
As you know, I had dropped off my own wry submission, unbidden, to the “National Portrait Gallery” show at Latitude 53 under cover of a rainy Saturday morning, where it was soon discovered, and later included in the show. When I learned the news, I went to the opening to see for myself. Both the framed picture and the forged letter hung on the wall, and although the letter was signed “Harper” and the picture was signed “Mutt”, the gallery hung only the word “Anonymous” along side. Since my gambit had succeeded, I though it was fair time to reveal the name of the piece, and the artist, so I sent that information to the official National Portrait Gallery email address, and posted the same on the blog here [dutifully copying Lat53’s own label format conventions].
Then, a few days later (June 15, 2010 3:12:59 AM MDT, to be exact), I received an email, and then another, from the person most usually billed as the “curator” of the exhibition, Fish Gr-something or other.
I hear you’re claiming the anonymously-dropped and thus-hung Harper.
This, we can discuss.
Of course, I naturally suspected that I could never hope to have a work of mine selected for a Latitude 53 show under my own name, which is why the work had to be submitted anonymously. But this was the first hint I had of how open they were about such bias: this was the beginning of the hastily-built case for why it can only be hung if it is anonymous, that it somehow doesn’t ‘work’ anymore if a name (any name, mind you, of course, not just mine, don’t you know…) were attached to it. It would be a travesty, I tell you, for the artist to get credit for this work, lest they take away from the magic of anonymity, or the possibility it was, um, really sent by Harper… No, no, they couldn’t possibly be so shameless as that, I thought.
780-xxx-2287 (edited for privacy)
The last being the body of an email with the subject line, “You need to call me“. I myself felt no such “need” at all, and he didn’t bother to explain why I might. Perhaps sensing this himself, he added more messages minutes later:
Your motivations regarding the project.
Receiving these messages at a little after 8 am, I responded to this last clear request.
“Shits and giggles, Fish.
What else do you need to know?”
His reply was terse.
Your phone number.
Ooh. A little too terse for that early in the morning, I thought. I replied,
Well, it’s early still, and I have a newborn, so I’m not giving you my home number. Is that alright with you?
Again, what would you like to know?
I’m happy to talk via email…
Indeed, our replies were speeding back and forth within minutes of each other, all while allowing me to attend to other things. It seemed like this would be a great way for a writer such as Fish and myself to communicate. Fish, it seemed, felt otherwise.
I’d rather talk on the phone, if that’s all okay with you.
Again, I was puzzled by his reply, which seemed to be entirely ignoring what I had said previously, and for no clearly stated reason, with the only clearly unstated reason being that he did not want any record of his words as he would like to speak them, so would have to work at being more careful in writing. But, it was he that seemed to want something, so it was not up to him. My reply:
Fish did not take this defeat happily.
Well, just to be clear: communications regarding the project go through me and, again, I’m at 780-xxx-2287.
It seemed to me he got that information across just fine in the email, and he offered nothing else, so with that, I would have been happy to let it rest with this reply.
Great, Fish. Thanks.
I sent the label info to your firstname.lastname@example.org address. I trust I can use that line of communication in the future as well.
This seemed like a rather uncontroversial closing, as that does seem to be the only email address listed on the NPG’s own website. Surely accommodating my preference for communication via email isn’t some sort of deal-breaker, I thought. Evidently, it aroused exclamation from Fish, judging by the punctuation of his quick reply.
The phone number I sent you is the line of communication I’d kindly ask you to use. 780-xxx-2287. Thank you!
He was insistent that I call him at his number if I wanted to talk to him, seemingly forgetting all the while that I DIDN’T want to talk to him, he wanted to talk to me, which I told him would be fine, if he would kindly do so via email. Alas, this was beginning to become an Abbot and Costello routine, and it’s no fun being the straight man. Rather than point out his blunder, I replied:
As you wish, Fish.
p.s. come on down to Common Sense this Sat. afternoon. We’re opening a landscape show, with a nice variety of work, so I’m sure you’ll see something that appeals to you, being a landscape artist yourself.
Perhaps I’ll see you then,
I noticed his photos from the show, and sincerely thought, as someone with artistic ambitions, he might genuinely like to see the show. He replied,
Heard about it, sounds cool. I know SEE is doing a preview of the show – when is it up until? I’m out of town thsi weekend …
I don’t think he ever did make it to see the exhibit while it was up, but he may have been busy indeed, I’m sure, with his diverse dabblings. Suddenly, it seemed Fish had a change of heart, and sent this lengthy reply of a different sort altogether:
Subject: In the meantime
Let me just say that we really appreciated the piece, particularly in the context of it being left at the door anonymously, a porch baby to nurture. What I mainly want to discuss with you in a more face-to-face manner is how affixing a name – any artist’s name – to this specific work weakens its power considerably. What was really engaging, as one example, was hearing questions about whether the document was legitimately from the PMO. Or considering its ambiguous political intention. Put a “mine” on that and it’s demystified. The show is weakened at a random juncture after the fact, which is a concern.
Now as an artist, I understand how one would normally want to get credit for work, and ways to ensure this are by putting one’s name on the back and coming and checking on the hanging and label before the show opens, as examples. Or having any prior contact whatsoever would also do in a pinch.
But there is a specific context in which it was left on the gallery’s door, which is to say anonymously. With an incumbent story. A good one, too.
This is fundamental, mandatory, to the piece’s central strength, the intimation the prime minister himself could have arranged for its unseen disposal. This is more important than the artwork itself – that which the art creates, including the myth. To come at it after the fact and claim ownership is, I hope you don’t mind me saying, a great disservice to the original spirit of the work that got it up on the wall in the first place. A spiritual hijacking. I’d have to ask, honestly, how does the art community – as if correcting a gallery mistake – benefit by having the portrait suddenly owned by an individual? It seriously cheapens the effect.
I’d really rather discuss this subject with you on the phone, especially to assure you that having said what I said about ownership claims, we don’t mind anyone claiming to have done it, or promote it, or throw it on their CV, etc., as a clever bit of gonzo subterfuge. Tactically, I believe this would be more endearingly and succesfully done after the show’s run, but this is my opinion.
But within the context of the gallery, I’d much prefer it stay as it sits – an exciting and comical mystery to fresh eyes.
I also understand you blog – if you were going to quote this, I would ask you do so in this email’s entirety. Thanks, Ryan.
thanks for taking the time to let me know your thoughts, for the record. I too have thought quite a bit about the piece, as you might imagine. The anonymous drop-off was, and remains, a time-based event for a particular audience, intentionally limited to those involved with the organization of the show. The fact is, it was indeed found anonymously-submitted, and it was enjoyed by you, and others no doubt, for that reason. That’s great It lead to the questions you raise about its origins. That was the idea. You decided to include it in the show. That was totally unexpected (normally, things left on doorsteps don’t make it into exhibits at most galleries!), but great, too. I’ve never been in a show at L53 before!
Now that you know where it came from, it changes that original context, but that too is the intention of my piece. Now, that original audience of the anonymous submission have a NEW series of questions raised. This was part of my intention for the piece.
Knowing the fact that I am the artist of the piece does not fundamentally change the supposed “mystery” of whether it came from the PMO (obviously, we all knew it didn’t, but that is the fiction inherent in the letter from “Stephen”, which remains signed by him).
Of course Harper didn’t paint it himself (of course, nobody “painted” it, because it’s obviously a photographic print of a photoshopped Ingres), but, if he WAS behind it all, of course he would have hired a Canadian artist to do the commission.. so, why not me? I’m a Canadian artist! It would seem, in hindsight, that I’d be the natural choice, considering I’m the one who actually did make it, after all.
You’ll notice, in the bottom left corner of the image, the piece is signed “Mutt R.” This, as you no doubt are aware, is an homage to Marcel Duchamp, himself an art-prankster of sorts. He submitted works under the name “R. Mutt”, but, I believe the labels still usually bear Duchamp’s name, not the fictional pseudonym.
In short, I disagree with you that having it labelled “anonymous” is “fundamental to the central strength” of the work itself, otherwise, the work itself would be irrelevant, and literally anything dropped off anonymously would be acceptable for inclusion in your show, which I doubt is the case. The anonymous drop-off had its effect, but that moment has passed. I’m sure you can see that most of the merit of the piece itself lies in the image and the letter, which are both obviously fictions… so, what you’re suggesting is, works of fiction are destroyed if people know they are not really true. As I say, I disagree strongly.
I have no doubt this much is true; that, if the work arrived bearing my name, it would not be included in the show. Perhaps that might give you some indication of the main, central, fundamental reason my name was not included originally.
But, it is your show, of course. Perhaps you’d prefer the label to say “Mutt R.”, since that is in fact how the piece is signed on its front. Perhaps you’d like to add the title that I’ve given the work, which enhances the piece somewhat, in my opinion. But, who am I to say, hey?
Perhaps you’ll leave it as it is.
Sights To See at Common Sense runs until July 19.
Absolutely appreciate pranks, and, yes, we did catch Duchamp. Obviously I’m not saying works of fiction are destroyed by revelations. But they can certainly be lessened. Let me be clear. I’m not alone in prefering the work as originally submitted.
Wish I had more time to get into this today – know this, though. A number of casual spectators were concinced letter was real.
Something else you can consider is I almost immediately guessed who was behind this and we ran it nonetheless.
Under the name, you know, Anonymous.
The idea that it might have REALLY come from the PMO is more hilarious than I could have hoped…. I figured most folks would have the sort of suspicions you claim, and bust me right away.
And yes, I’m sure many people besides yourself would prefer it if I never claimed responsibility. Folks I know think it’s a pretty funny gag, either way.
Of course, I don’t mean to spoil all the fun we’ve shared. That’s why I figured I’d wait until after the opening (I attended, and signed the guestbook “Anonymous”) to send you the full label info, and let you all in on the joke. Then, I made my rather low-key announcement on my blog (gotta serve my readers!) on the weekend. I’m not planning any other blogging on the subject, despite this interesting dialogue.
Do what ever you want, Fish. I did not expect the piece to end up in the show (hanging in Todd’s office, maybe…), but now that it is, I thought you’d all be big enough to accept the prank as pulled, and (grudgingly) give credit where it’s due.
Perhaps you’ll have to answer this question (more questions raised! What an issue-exploring jackpot!) for yourselves: what’s more important, the artist’s intentions, or the curators’?
Fish did not respond to this last message, but added:
A number of casual spectators were concinced letter was real.
Pardon the spelling error – “convinced,” of course …
Anyway, gotta run! Talk soon, I expect.
Defying those expectations, we did not talk soon. I haven’t heard from Fish again. The show went on, the curator and the gallery refused to put up the correct title information of the work, or any of the other usual information the other works had with them, never mind any credit naming the true author of the work. Against my expressed wishes, it remained on display anonymously. I visited the show a few more times during its run, and even ran into Todd there, but he didn’t mention wanting to talk to me about anything, and neither he nor anyone else from Latitude 53 ever contacted me about the show again. The exhibit’s run came to an end, but that weekend I went to Vancouver for a little over a week. Upon returning, I had half-expected to have a message of some sort from the gallery or the curator telling me to pick up my work, or asking to include it in a future run of the show somewhere else, but there was no message. So, this morning I drove down to the gallery to pick up the work. As I entered, I saw the gallery was in the disarray indicative of being between shows. The receptionist was on the phone, on a personal call, it seemed, and was in no hurry to get off. I didn’t enter the spaces, as I thought that might be rude, since the gallery didn’t appear open for viewing as such.
Eventually, the young woman got off the phone, and I told her I was here to pick up my work, which was in the portrait show. “Which work”, she asked. “The supposedly ‘Anonymous’ one”, I said.
“Oh, you’re Ryan.” She did not seem like, let alone say, she was in any way pleased to meet me. She didn’t offer her own name. She then went on to assert that, although Todd would “probably” give me my work, she was “not prepared to do so”, as Todd wanted to speak with me about the work. Strange, but, ok, I thought. Todd can bring me my work, I suppose, and we can speak about whatever he likes. But, she then said, Todd was not in.
“Well,” I said, “I’ll take the work now, since that’s what I’m here for, and Todd can talk to me later.” That seemed simple enough to me. Clearly, they knew without a doubt, via my lengthy correspondence with the curator Fish, that I had made the work, as her immediate ejaculation of the name “Ryan” attested to, although I had never met this person. But she insisted that she would not “allow me” to have it. This, along with repeating irrelevant claims of “not being prepared” to give me my own work, alerted me to this person’s mistaken sense of her own place in the matter before her: she failed to appreciate that I neither required her “preparedness” or her consent to claim my own property. At that moment I thought I saw it from a distance, in its small golden frame, lying in the gallery a few steps away. “I suppose I don’t need you to be ‘prepared’ to give it to me, whatever that means, if it is sitting right there, I could just take it now, and Todd can call me about whatever he wants,” I offered. “That’s not it,” she replied, “That’s work for a different show”, and as I looked again, I now realized that this was a different frame, more black than the gold one bearing my work.
I asked her if she thought I should call the police to intercede. She said yes, and offered the use of her telephone. I was dumbfounded: how can this person be this stupid? “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said. “You’re seriously not going to give me my work, which you know is mine?” I pulled out my driver’s license. “There, see? RYAN MCCOURT. You know that’s who made it, right? That’s me.”
“I’m not getting into who made it. It was left here anonymously, and Todd will probably give it back, and I’m not prepared to hand it over to you, ” she replied.
“Then call Todd,” I said, wearily, the red mist descending…
She trudged off for a tele-council with the Todd. I waited in the reception area, amazed at the hints that perhaps the work might not be returned at all, that it was somehow up to their whim. Although my opinion of these people was already so low, it seems they still plumb further, searching greedily for the nadir of oblivious unscrupulousness.
She returned. Somehow, through the guiding words of Todd, she managed to make the unknowable mental preparations necessary for her to stop being a bloody nuisance and give me my fucking shit already.
“It’s been a real pleasure, Ryan”, she said, handing me my work. She somehow refrained from spitting in my face, but she could not hold back a cartoonishly overwrought sarcasm with each word she uttered.
“Gosh,” I said, “It’s lucky I can’t recognize sarcasm”. But, I didn’t really mean it. I meant the opposite, or something like that. She said nothing in reply. For a moment, I could do nothing but gape at this person, who went from swollen-testicled defiance to shutting the fuck up in far too great a hurry for her own liking. “Is there something else?”, she demanded snidely. Half in jest, and half in lamentation for her lack of wits, I asked, “No apology, hey?”
“I hope you have a LOVELY day”, she replied, no more sweetly, with bitterness twisting her face.
“I won’t wish you the same”, I said as I left. I meant it. “Whoever you are…”
Manifold Paths: My Ways of Art
My artwork has evolved freely in a number of directions through experiment, improvisation, and intuitive aesthetic response to my chosen media, in both sculptural and pictorial contexts.
Abstract sculptures in steel are my touchstone, with an emphasis on elegance of expression. My early works are reminiscent of musical instruments, furniture, architecture, or other such man-made objects of ergonomic appeal, while more recent sculptures have tended towards a looser, increasingly non-representational assemblages.
Free experimentation with reclaimed scrap steel materials soon began to suggest figurative directions as well. There was little precedent for such work among my fellow modernist peers and influences, many of whom were staunch abstractionist. I have explored my unorthodox representational interests in steel portrait heads and busts, figures and even equestrian forms, with subject matter ranging from universal archetypes and ancient myths to personal themes and private symbols.
Extending my experimentation to the scrapyard, the usual source of my steel, a serendipitous trip there one day led to an idiosyncratic series of works composed of crushed aerosol cans. This body of work stands apart from the rest of my constructed sculptural oeuvre. Impersonally stamped out of a mechanical compression apparatus by the heapload for efficient recycling, a few of these one-of-a-kind creations, like lovely seashells abandoned by an oblivious creator, were saved by me for their pure [and purely inadvertent] aesthetic value.
Clement Greenberg once famously suggested to Anthony Caro that “if you want to change your art, change your habits.” Or, maybe he said “change your methods.” Clem’s exact wording may be lost to us, but the practical implication for Caro was a change of materials. For me, the introduction of soldered brass, as a replacement for welded steel, into my sculptural practice brought with it a new vocabulary of forms to my repertoire, allowing for refreshed expressive possibilities. International residencies too have opened up opportunities to further expand my vocabulary of forms, by allowing me to source found brass materials particular to different geographic locales.
Many of my works in brass are decidedly abstract, although some present enough recognizable imagery to veer off into surrealist realms. My brass helmets together represent a cohesive series of such works. Like my figurative steel sculptures, these works similarly explore themes of archetype, myth, and personal narrative.
Ancillary to my work as a sculptor, I explore my diverse conceptual and pictorial interests mainly through the media of photography, vexillography, and ‘ambiguous’ digital illustration. My inclination is toward ‘straight’ photographs of existing scenes that catch the eye, open to any subject matter, but generally devoid of human figures. My flag design sense is likewise straightforward, aiming towards historical standard (pun intended) with sincerity. My illustrative work includes ambigrammatic typographical designs and ambiguous imagery which, though two-dimensional, can be viewed from multiple viewpoints to reveal alternate readings.
For twenty years, I have rejected the dogmatism that has characterized much of the artworld. My intuition directs my practice along manifold paths, as I feel my way along with my eyes.