My family and I took a quick break in New York City in the first week of 2018 and arrived just in time for a major snowstorm, after driving through hours of snow squalls on our way from Ottawa. (And we didn’t know it then, but we would also drive the eight hours home through yet more snow squalls.)
We had never visited the Whitney Museum of American Art so it provided an ideal activity for a day when the weather was miserable. The collection is housed over several floors in a new building with plenty of space for taking in the work, especially for larger-scale pieces in the ‘mid-career’ survey of work by Laura Owens (born Ohio, 1970). Owens’ work can appear deceptively simple but I found it helpful to view all of her exhibit before making too many judgements. Her paintings and installations do indeed contain simple elements, but they are often layered with text and texture, digitally-manipulated photographs and even other paintings to create more complex and sometimes humorous work.
I left this exhibit with a sense of quiet enjoyment of light, and life and colour.
If Owens’ work showed flashes of humour, “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World” contained a strong mix of humour, satire and the absurd. Durham (born USA, 1940) worked as a political organizer for the American Indian Movement in the 1970s and his commitments are present throughout his work. He consistently draws attention to the impacts of the colonisation of the USA but probably manages to do it without alienating the people who most need to hear his message. To my mind, Durham use of humour and satire to communicate serious messages make him a trickster of sorts (although some contend that his claims to be Cherokee are false and that he is taking the trickster role too far). Cherokee or not, he draws on found objects to create works that draw on traditions of North American Indigenous art but clearly show their postmodernist and technological origins.
One of the advantages of living in Canada’s National Capital Region is proximity to the National Gallery of Canada. I had the chance to visit the Gallery yesterday to see the 2017 Canadian Biennial, an exhibit showcasing new additions to the permanent collection. According to the Gallery website,
“The fourth edition of the Canadian Biennial brings together a comprehensive selection of works acquired since 2014 by the Gallery’s departments of Contemporary Art, Indigenous Art, and the Canadian Photography Institute, and is the first to date to feature artists working both in Canada and internationally. The exhibition reveals the dynamic ways in which artists engage with the increasingly globalized world of contemporary art through a wide range of media including painting, sculpture, photography, drawing, printmaking, video and installation-based practices. Migration, the impact and interpretation of history and belief systems on contemporary art and culture, stereotypes of identity and nationhood, and the emancipatory potential of the imagination and creativity, are some of the themes and subjects addressed in the Biennial that reflects the Gallery’s pursuits in building an outstanding and pertinent collection of art today.”
The exhibit, then, is broad in scope and resists the kind of thematic treatment that is possible when the works of a single artist or school is displayed. Nevertheless, some common elements could be seen at work across many of the pieces: issues of identity (national, ethnic, sexual, socio-economic), the place of technology in society, and the place of ‘place.’ And, except for some of the examples of ‘straight’ photography, the pieces frequently show a large amount of crossover between media and artistic disciplines.
I’m planning to see some of these pieces again so that I can spend more time with them. I find the exhibit stimulating and many of the works freeing in the way that they encourage experimentation and expression.
On November 5 I visited three new photography exhibits at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. In one way or another, all three were tied to the Canadian landscape whether in the past or currently.
For Canadians who were old enough to read books in 1976, the exhibit Between Friends is a reminder of a book of the same name published as a gift from Canada to the U.S. on the occasion of that country’s bicentennial. For this exhibit, photographer Andreas Rutkauskas revisited many of the locations along the 8,891 km border between the two countries. While much of the geography has not changed, the exhibit contains reminders that crossing the border has become more difficult and formal in recent years because of the rise of protectionism and isolationism in the U.S., and the new geopolitical reality throughout the world. The pictures are subtle and often beautiful and the boundary they point to can seem an artificial and arbitrary one. Why should the living situation of people leaving a couple of hundred metres apart be so different?
A similar theme is evoked in Frontera, a drone’s-eye view of the U.S.’s southern border with Mexico. These pictures, however, do not contain the open spaces and lightly-patrolled woodlands seen in Between Friends. The Mexican border is lined by a steel scar that runs across the landscape for many hundreds of miles through inhospitable wild places, sometimes broken by poor settlements on one side and wealthier communities on the other. More often, though, it is difficult—if not impossible—to tell which side of the frontier is which: the land is the same and it is a political negotiation that has traced a line through it. Looking at many of the pictures by Mexicans Pablo López Luz and Alejandro Cartagena, Canadians Mark Ruwedel and Geoffrey James, Swiss Adrien Missika, American Kirsten Luce and German Daniel Schwarz, it is easy to imagine that one day the land will absorb the border and all human traces will be forgotten.
The third exhibit, Gold and Silver: Images and Illusions of the Gold Rush, provides a photographic record of the stampede for California and Yukon gold in the late 19th century. While we cannot help but wonder at the bravery and greed that drove men and women to seek their fortunes in unforgiving locations, it is impossible to miss the impact on the environment that was the result of unchecked exploitation. Many of the worst cases—deforestation, slag heaps and diverted watercourses—are still there to be seen. The collection is a fascinating set of posters, daguerrotypes and tiny, vintage contact prints but, while image-making technology has moved on, it seems our care for the land has not evolved at the same pace.
A quick plug for Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon.
I bought this book on someone's recommendation, without giving it much thought. It was so small and cartoonish when it arrived, however, that I assumed I had made a mistake. As it turned out, I enjoyed it. I found it simple but not simplistic. If your goal is to create, the brief lessons in the book could help you to jump-start your creative juices and get moving on actually making something. Or you could find a longer book that you will never finish and be happy to have an excuse not to make a start.
What could I say about the Musée du Louvre that hasn't been said often and better by others? The scale of the collection is staggering and it is impossible to take everything in in a single visit. I soon found myself trying to move through rooms too quickly, aware of how much more there was to see. After a short while I realized that I was doing the gallery a disservice by rushing and decided to slow down again. Better to see fewer things well than to consume the art of the centuries like fast food. For the remainder of the four hours of my visit I wandered at a comfortable pace.
And I found that not all the sights were on the gallery walls: I also found it fascinating to keep an eye on my fellow visitors who were there in their thousands. You can learn a lot about human nature from the way people act in crowds—some of it touching, some of it puzzling, some of it comical.
I would have to place people's behaviour around the Mona Lisa in the 'puzzling' category. By the time I had followed the signs to the gallery where da Vinci's famous piece hangs behind protective glass, it was obvious that I was going to visit a celebrity. Few works in the museum have their own signposts so that you can find them from several galleries away. I could have waited my turn in the long line to see the painting from a couple of metres away, but it seemed to me that the crowd itself had become the story. I could not believe how many people, having queued up to see the painting, immediately turned their backs on it so that they could take a selfie.
I understand that people want to document their experiences, but many of them spent no time at all contemplating one of the world’s most famous pieces of art. They were oblivious to the object in front of them, which seemed to have little or no significance of its own. Instead the work was there to validate their importance or experience. It didn't point to anything grander, more beautiful, nobler, more challenging or universal than… me.