Is Advertising Art?

Michael Kors Spring 2017 ad featuring Romee Strijd and Taylor Hill

Ads use sophisticated design and clever campaigns to sway human behaviour. But does this cleverness and influence make them art? Legendary copywriter Bill Bernbach, the Bach of advertising, famously said: “Advertising is persuasion, and persuasion is not a science, but an art. Advertising is the art of persuasion.” If we call advertising art, does the designation lower our standards, and demean other forms of expression? Is the debate the same for every generation that grows up with ads or has our relationship with ads changed over time?

Consider the Michael Kors ad above. Buy this purse to go globe-trotting with your celebrity pals, while flunkies hold off the press. It’s an image of travel and adventure, friendship and freedom. The out of focus gate, left foreground, suggests these people live in another world, just out of reach of the paparazzi. It’s a fairy tale and yet it’s real–a news shot, a document of our times. But wait, it isn’t news, it’s a fabrication, all staged. These aren’t rich, famous celebrities, they’re models impersonating celebrities. However, as models, they’ve become rich and famous. Fiction imitates life imitates fiction. It’s all very meta … and isn’t that’s the point?

Matt Miller, president of the body that oversees the production of ads in the USA, defines art as “a reflection and expression of what is happening in society.” Society is too complex to understand at any given moment, but perhaps we can understand an ad.

The image below is from artist, Coco Capitán. Born in Seville, Spain, the London Royal College of Art graduate works in a variety of media, moving effortlessly between Fine Art and commercial assignments. Fashion giants Vogue and Gucci are regular clients. The 25-year-old artist likens the fashion house Gucci to the Medici family, famous patrons of Leonardo and Michelangelo in the Italian Renaissance. Her framed prayer is a tongue-in-cheek mission statement for the post-millennials (gen z).

Coco Capitán. Framed prayer, 2017

Commercialism is part of Western culture. Ads reflect this. This is what art does, only ads do it in a language that the average person can understand. This argument is countered by Mary Warlick, art historian and executive director of The One Club, a New York trade organization. “Art is visual imagery that is meant to elevate thinking in an aesthetic context. [In contrast] what advertising does is give a visual record of our cultural ambiance and history, our tastes, our trends, our wants, our needs, our buying. It is never meant to elevate us to that higher plane.” Ads may reflect popular currents, but that isn’t the purpose of art, Warlick argues. Art helps us become more self-aware. Art urges us to think more critically and to empathize more with other people. Advertising corrupts thinking and makes us selfish and short-sighted. It makes material things more important than relationships and always suggests there is a shortcut to happiness through the purchase of a product.

Calvin Klein ad featuring artwork by Andy Warhol, 2017. The campaign was called “American classics,” photo by Willy van der Perre

There is common ground in these two arguments. Artists like Andy Warhol, whose artwork appears in the ad above, are not so pure; advertisers are not so impure. To the question, “is advertising art,” author Jonathan Glancey answers: “is art advertising? The simple answer to these questions is that art feeds advertising and vice versa.” (The Independent, July 1995) Artists work on ads, ads feature artwork. Beyond this, there is an enormous gray area where ads and content overlap, such as a beautifully crafted music video that advertises a song. Film trailers are obviously ads, but they need to be clever, fun, exciting, provocative—they need to be artistic—or no one would watch them and share them.

Moncler ad, fall winter 2017, featuring the Chinese conceptual artist Liu Bolin, photo by Annie Leibovitz

The above ad for Moncler’s sporty outdoor wear features Chinese artist Liu Bolan. Bolan is famous for painting his body to match the scene in which he poses, producing an “invisible man” effect. He acts as ghost and silent witness to threatened landscapes and over-looked places–a strange frontman for a fashionable clothing line. What is Bolan’s appeal? He is international, mysterious, a performance artist whose “performance” is a mimicry of his surroundings. Wherever he goes, he fits in. He is a living and breathing work of art. He takes art out of the museum and onto the streets.

Western culture is moving in the direction where everyone is an artist, as Joseph Beuys predicted in the 1960s. Technology is key to these new citizen-artists. The trend began one hundred years ago when people purchased low-cost Brownie cameras to record their own lives. Cell phones and social media have taken this home recording to another level of speed and accessibility. Global news is increasingly captured by roving amateurs who capture the latest earthquake, protest, rock concert, tsunami or teenage stunt. We continually revise, update and share family pictures, and use images to carefully craft our own public personas, selectively posting selfies and snapshots that promote our most popular and adventurous selves. These are advertisements for ourselves.

This ad for Soth African newspaper, Cape Times, reimagines historic figures taking selfies. Lowe advertising agency, 2013.

The above ad campaign for the South African newspaper, Cape Times, alters famous historic images as if they were selfies rather than documentary photos. Here the reimagined image is of a sailor kissing a nurse during the victory celebration in Times square that marked the end of WW II, published on the cover of Life magazine in August 1945.

This state of citizen-artists continually talking and sharing with one another through media makes us all very art-smart, media-savvy. Ads reflect this desire to be as in-the-know, as mobile, as self-crafting of public image as possible. Everyone is an artist and all images are art because there is no alternative. There is no media innocence in the age of total connectivity.

All About Baths

Bathers: Degas and Boucher (study by Giovanni Civardi)

This week’s subject is bathtubs and baths and how artists treat and transform them. In the top right sketch, a study by Giovanni Civardi after François Boucher, we see two bathing goddesses looking ever so elegant even without clothes. Every limb tilts to form a triangle; the overlapping shapes create a fascinating rhythm. Top left, Degas captures a working-class woman bending awkwardly in a shallow basin. It’s an everyday ritual, the raw minutiae of life poured through the finest aesthetic filter.

In the novel, Ulysses by James Joyce, a middle-aged ad salesman daydreams about taking a bath in the middle of the day. These are his thoughts: “Enjoy a bath now: clean trough of water, cool enamel, the gentle tepid stream. This is my body.” The man sees the world in physical terms; he’s comfortable with his body, which he imagines in water: “He foresaw his pale body reclined in it at full, naked, in a womb of warmth, oiled by scented melting soap, softly laved. He saw his trunk and limbs riprippled over and sustained, buoyed lightly upward, lemonyellow: his navel, bud of flesh: and saw the dark tangled curls of his bush floating, floating hair of the stream around the limp father of thousands, a languid floating flower.” The character’s name is Leopold Bloom and, in this passage, he compares his penis to a floating flower.

Two artists picture Leopold Bloom in the bath. Right, looking down by Richard Hamilton. Left, cartoon of a tub in a lily pond by Robert E. Lee

The illustrations above show two artist’s rendition of this text. On the left, British Pop artist Richard Hamilton, most famous for designing the cover of The White Album by the Beatles, plays it surprisingly straight. It strikes me how Bloom, everyman hero of Ulysses, with his get-rich-quick schemes, curious mind, attraction to advertising and things of the moment, makes a fitting subject for Pop Art. Here is Hamilton’s definition in 1957 (five years before Andy Warhol’s soup cans): “Pop Art is popular, transient, expendable, low-cost, mass-produced, young, witty, sexy, gimmicky, glamorous and Big Business.” In Robert E. Lee’s delightful cartoon, right, the flowers in and around Bloom’s tub are waterlilies, with one strategically placed between the bathing man’s legs. The flower that hides private parts recalls the well-placed fig leaf in Renaissance paintings.

Two Baptisms: Piero della Francesca, Baptism of Christ, 1448, and  The Bible, miniseries, 2013. Produced by Roma Downey and Mark Burnett. John the Baptist (Daniel Percival) lowers Jesus (Diogo Morgaldo) in the waters of the River Jordan.

During the Renaissance, the bathing theme merged with Christian subject matter. In images depicting the Baptism of Christ, water takes on transformative properties. The baptism represents a new beginning, spiritual life. I like how, in this modern Biblical epic, the witnesses are in the water, in the thick of the action. An interesting aside, The Bible miniseries was produced by Mark Burnett. Burnett is one of the inventors of Reality TV with hit shows The Survivor, 2000, The Apprentice, 2004 (featuring Donald Trump) and Shark Tank, 2009.

Pierre Puvis de Chavannes. The River, 1864

Bathing can have a spiritual or otherworldly aspect. Mythological scenes often represent bathing nymphs or goddesses and their attendants–a pretext for painting beautiful naked bodies. In Puvis de Chavannes’ dream-like image, the scene recalls a golden age in the distant past, when harmony with nature was the norm. Puvis was much admired by the surrealists of the 1920s.

Georges Seurat. Bathers at Asnières, 1884

In contrast, George Seurat painted bathers not as idealized ethereal types but as contemporary working-class people getting away from the inner city of Paris (note the belching smokestacks in the distance) for a moment’s leisure in outlying parks. There are faint hints here of Seurat’s later experiments with light and colour.

Tramps and Cowboys: Charlie Chaplin and Clint Eastwood in the bath.

Baths can have a civilizing effect. In many cowboy movies, there’s a scene where a dusty traveller comes in from the frontier and must acclimatize to town life, which starts with a bath and a shave. Iconic film stars Charlie Chaplin (Pay Day, 1922) and Clint Eastwood (High Plains Drifter, 1973), have their moments in the suds. I sense this tramp and cowboy are irredeemable, free spirits to the core–no scrubbing off their inner wild. Baths are sublime but open to kidding. See Jessi Klein’s humorous polemic on the over-ratedness of baths. (The New Yorker, May 2016)

Photographer Lee Miller in Adolf Hitler’s bathtub, Munich, 1945

The photographer and collaborator with Paris surrealists, Lee Miller, travelled with the American troops who fought their way into Germany toward the end of World War II. Here Miller saucily and sardonically photographs herself  in Hitler’s private bath. She frames herself between a photograph of Hitler and a classical nude statue. Miller’s discarded army boots suggest the wartime setting and give a hint that she has worked hard for this moment–it’s the revolution of ordinary citizens invading the palace.

Death and Dreams: David, Death of Marat, 1793. Left: Frida Kahlo. What the Water Gave Me, 1938

Speaking of revolutions, in 1793, French artist Jacques-Louis David painted a touching tribute to slain revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat. Marat was murdered in his bath, where he worked most days because of his debilitating skin disease. This was a real life tragedy. In Alfred Hitchcock’s fictional film, Psycho (1960), a woman on the run is killed in a motel shower. Both painting and film feature violations of private moments when people are unsuspecting and vulnerable. The artist David, who had a skill for surviving violent political upheavals (he was simply too useful a propagandist for tyrants to kill) would go on to paint stirring portraits of the great anti-revolutionary leader Napoleon.

Frida Kahlo imagines her bath water harbouring private and collective memories. For most of her adult life, Kahlo suffered terribly from leg and lower body injuries incurred in a bus accident when she was 18-years-old. Her pain and sense of isolation is represented by the bleeding right foot. The skyscraper emerging from a volcano, besides the obvious sexual connotations, captures the duality of living briefly in New York but coming from Mexico where land and nature captured her imagination. Kahlo makes reference to her dual European and Mexican ancestry, heterosexual and lesbian encounters, and traditional and modern ways. The waters suggests the unconscious material from which artists like Frida draw their inspiration.

Gods and nymphs, salesmen, tramps and cowboys, surrealist photographers, revolutionaries, wounded artists and daydreamers–what do they all have in common? They all take baths, make fun of baths, use baths for seduction, paint baths, glorify baths, daydream of baths or die in them. Warm waters stir human imagination even in small-sized tubs.

 

 

Life Drawing Class

Life Class. Sketch by Doug Pope

Recently a friend invited me to join him for an informal life drawing session held in the back room of a used furniture store in Halifax. The store doubles as a prop warehouse for movie companies so the background comprised a jumble of miscellaneous items. Because the room was small the dozen aspiring artists sat close to one another and almost on top of the unfortunate model, who remained remarkably poised and professional throughout.

It’s a humbling exercise. You want to draw well, you want your drawing to have a spark of personality, but you also want some semblance of reality, some faint hint of proportion. No pressure. There’s a naked person in front of you, you know a digital timer will buzz at any second, while everyone in the room scribbles away as fast as possible.

Salvador Dali. Drawing, 1936

I came home and had the following thought experiment. Imagine the young artists in the room were Picasso, Dali, Magritte, Matisse, Klimt, Schiele, Frida Kahlo, Tom Wesselmann and a few others. Dali does an impeccable drawing, neat, detailed, beautifully shaded and full of showy surrealist touches. Magritte draws with complete indifference to his subject and surroundings. He proceeds like an artist in a courtroom. His drawing is accurate and perfunctory and yet, despite himself, there is a undeniable element of poetry to the figure. Frida is the only artist in the room to capture any sense of the model as a personality. The face is lovely, though it suggests suffering and endurance and bears a striking resemblance to Frida herself.

Frida Kahlo, Self-portrait, 1937, Tom Wesselmann, Nude with Mirrow, 1990 and Egon Schiele, Torso, 1914

Arriving with no drawing materials, Picasso borrows pencils and pad from his neighbour. The room is stifling hot and Picasso is the first to strip off. Others follow and soon discarded clothes are piled on every available surface. Picasso draws with lightning speed. He finishes well before the buzzer sounds and steps out into the corridor to join Schiele for a smoke. Schiele is a nervous wreck. Painstakingly slow, he barely draws a single line before the buzzer sounds. When Matisse arrives, he sits so close to the model that he blocks the view of those behind him. Music plays in the background and Matisse hums along. The others in the room pretend not to hear this. Soon Picasso is singing out loud. Loudly. The room joins in.

Matisse tells funny stories to the model. She laughs, her position shifts and objects sail through the air in Matisse’s direction. Picasso dances with Frida, oblivious of the fact that she can barely stand. Dali takes advantage of this opportunity to cut one of Picasso’s drawings from his sketchbook. Picasso, of course, signs everything. Dali will take the drawing home, draw on top of it, sign it himself and claim it as a collaboration with his close friend and fellow Spaniard. Magritte alters some of the paintings on the wall. Klimt is busy selling one of his drawings to a fellow student. The drawing has an erotic allure and the buyer feels thrilled and embarrassed at the same time.

Loui Jover. Reclining nude after klimt, 2009

Posted in Art

Fashion and Art

Natalie Goncharova. Costume designs: Liturgie, 1915; Spanish woman with a fan, 1920

Natalie Goncharova. Costume designs: Liturgie, 1915; Spanish woman with a fan, 1920

What can we learn about art from fashion? At their worst, fashion and art are regarded as superficial, driven by money, vanity and social pressures. Both are elitist, excessive and subject to continual change. On the other hand, both can be fun and creative, adding pleasure and meaning to everyday things.

Fashion may be easier to define than art. Fashion has a practical side and a psychological side. People wear clothes appropriate to changing seasons, weather, social rituals and other conditions. People also wear clothes for show. If you want to attract attention, imagination counts. Clothes are not fixed items. They express personality, social conformity, daring, and individuality. Clothes can be appropriate or inappropriate for the time and place in which they appear. Make a mistake and you might appear ridiculous. Or inspired.

From Mondrian to Michael Jackson, designers take inspiration from art, pop culture changes the meaning of military wear

From Mondrian to Rihanna, designers take inspiration from abstract art, pop culture changes the meaning of military wear

Clothes that stand still too long can make those who wear them seem hopelessly dated, out of touch with the changing times. Clothes are subject to trends, as are people. There can be no question about this: clothes get people talking. People are judged, fairly or not, on what they wear and how they wear it.

Woman with Jackson Pollock Painting

A model poses before a Jackson Pollock painting for a 1951 Vogue story.

Fashion is all about context and so is art. Jackson Pollock’s paintings made marvellous backdrops for models in the 1950s. The model above looks like she’s entered the dream world of the painting. Today’s art is all about immersion and altering environments.

Artist James Turrell uses colour to transform our experience of space. 'Virtuality squared' 2014

Artist James Turrell uses colour to transform experience. ‘Virtuality squared’ 2014

We connect clothes with concepts of style, taste and coolness. These are things we admire and want to emulate. Being comfortable in your own skin. Feeling at home wherever you go, operating easily with the world around you, knowing what you can get away with.

Evening Wear, study for a painting by Ed McKean

Evening Wear, study for a painting by Ed McKean

I draw and paint pictures to relieve tension, to amuse myself, to try to make sense of the world. The tension around clothes and social events can be disconcerting at times. My wife and I discuss wardrobes for an upcoming wedding. Should we spend hundreds of dollars on a suit or dress that will only be worn once? I dig out old clothes, try on new clothes, send pants to the tailor for adjustments. Then I paint a picture of Kathleen and myself in evening wear, bodies fused together, glamorous mannequins, more than a little absurd.

Fashion demands consensus, as does art. Some styles are too outrageous or too impractical for mainstream tastes. Street fashions fight back with unpredictable results.

The one thing artists cannot control is what people will connect with, talk about and share with others. Through art and clothes we participate in a world of change and, by participating, we influence the direction of that change.

Fashion by Alexander McQueen; sculpture by Antony Gormley

Fashion by Alexander McQueen; sculpture by Antony Gormley

 

If you’re interested in theories of fashion, the site “love to know” offers a nice overview.

Alexander McQueen: Fashion Rebel

Model Natalia Vodianova in the Oyster dress from Alexander McQueen's 2003 Spring:Summer collection 'Irere.' Photo by Peter Lindbergh

Model Natalia Vodianova poses in the Oyster dress from Alexander McQueen’s 2003 Spring:Summer collection ‘Irere.’ Photo by Peter Lindbergh

I recently came across the excellent bio, Alexander McQueen: The Life and Legacy by Judith Watt, Harper 2012. McQueen (1969-2010) was a fashion god who jettisoned clothing into an age of everyday spectacle and jarring culture clash. McQueen’s runway shows were multi-media extravaganzas that dumbfounded critics and electrified the fashion world. Watt’s biography succinctly overviews the designer’s various collections, interspersed with memories from colleagues and friends. I was struck by the range of McQueen’s inspirations, from punk rock to science fiction, from London’s gay club culture to Scottish history, from the popular mythology of Jack the Ripper to the heroics of Joan of Arc, from the horror films of Kubrick to the romantic films of Hitchcock, from installation art to the paintings of Goya, Bosch and Van Eyck, from modern materials to the natural forms and patterns of birds, butterflies, flowers, snakes, seaweed, moss and ice.

Plastic and LED. On the left, plastic and mud dress from Nihilism show, Spring/ Summer 1994. On the right: LED cyborg look, AW 1999-2000.

Low tech, high tech. On the left, plastic and mud dress from Nihilism show, Spring/ Summer 1994. On the right: LED cyborg look, AW 1999-2000.

In his early shows, when McQueen had little money for materials, he cut clothes out of clear plastic bags, sewing the pieces in layers and placing red mud and water between the layers to give a look of splattered blood and flesh. While the plastic revealed the models’ bodies, the mud obscured areas, adding a sense of trauma and mysterious inner life. In his rebellion from the norm, McQueen combined ripped clothes and tailored suits, elongated the torso and created strange cocoon-shaped silhouettes. He experimented with unusual materials such as cigarette butts in place of sequins, and had princess dresses splattered on stage with robotic paint machines. Later works featured stuffed birds in head-dresses, parachute capes billowing behind models in elevated wind tunnels, plaster-coated corsets, body armour and Armadillo shoes. Even the Alexander McQueen label attached to clothes was unusual, featuring a lock of hair encased in plastic.

Model Kate Moss strikes a dramatic pose in the glassed-in runway for the VOSS collection, Spring Summer 2001

Model Kate Moss strikes a dramatic pose in the glassed-in runway for the VOSS collection, Spring Summer 2001

His collections often had a narrative element. He turned runways into winter landscapes, dance marathons and glassed-in mental asylums. “Irene,” Spring/ Summer 2003, started with a film clip of a shipwrecked woman. She washes ashore in a spectacular oyster dress, setting off encounters with natives of South America, models adorned with red and white face paint, gold-seeking Spanish conquistadors in tight fitting leather body suits, and clothes saturated with the colours of the Amazon rain forest. “Plato’s Atlantis” imagines the aftermath of global warming, with humans evolving into semi-aquatic creatures to adopt to a new water-based world.

Jellyfish and fairy-tale. On the left, McQueen's "jellyfish dress" from Plato's Atlantis, S/S 2010. On the right, Daphne Guiness wearing a red silk coat pleated at the cuff from :The Girl who Lived in the Tree" collection, F/ W, 2008-09, photo by Michael Roberts for Vanity Fair.

Jellyfish and fairy-tale. On the left, McQueen’s “jellyfish dress” from Plato’s Atlantis, S/S 2010. On the right, Daphne Guiness wears a red silk coat pleated at the cuff from “The Girl who Lived in the Tree” collection, F/ W, 2008-09, photo by Michael Roberts for Vanity Fair.

 

The site AnOther posts an interview with Andrew Bolton, curator of “Savage Beauty” at the Met, 2011. Bolton explains the title of his McQueen retrospective: “Originally the idea came from a book called The Savage Mind by Claude Levi-Strauss, in which he describes two different types of people: ‘the bricoleur’ who is a jack-of-all-trades and ‘the engineer’ who is an artist. I thought both identities tally with McQueen. He looked everywhere for his inspirations and in that sense he was a bricoleur; but he was also a wonderful artist who had a great sense of virtuosity and incredible conceptual complexity, which was shown through his runway presentations. McQueen merged those two identities and that is where the title comes from. Also, in most of McQueen’s collections there were these dichotomies, whether it was to do with beauty and terror, lightness and darkness or life and death. The title is also a play on these contrasts.”

I also recommend the film McQueen and I. Though it’s a rather sad story of the friendship between McQueen and fashion editor Isabella Blow, the documentary offers insights from collaborators and features clips of several shows that hint at McQueen’s unique vision and compelling sense of theatre.

Collar and color. On the left: funnel necked dress, "Bellmer la Poupée," SS 1997. On the right: detail, silk chiffon rainbow dress, "Irere," SS 2003

Collar and color. On the left: funnel necked dress, “Bellmer la Poupée,” SS 1997. On the right: detail, silk chiffon rainbow dress, “Irere,” SS 2003

Fountains

Bernini. Fountain of the Four Rivers, Rome, 1651

We often encounter fountains in public places. Baroque structures with elaborate river gods and assorted monsters, placed in the heart of a city, attract attention and wonder. In his blog Quadralectic Architecture, Marten Kuilman comments: “The fountain is the messenger of the universe. Water acts as a mirror with an endless reflection and its movement prevents any type of stagnant contemplation.”

Kuilman describes four kinds of fountains: 1) the Arcadian, use of a water feature in garden design to inspire a spirit of tranquility and holiness, 2) monumental: grandiose structures that mark a place of community, as well as referencing gods and other figures of power and influence, 3) practical, many fountains served to provide drinking water for town dwellers, 4) playful, the fountain as a place to stimulate and refresh, disrupting the usual business-oriented attitude of many city dwellers. In Fellini’s film, La Dolce Vita, Sylvia played by Anita Edberg is a mesmerizing enchantress, wild for spontaneous adventure and full of unquenchable energy that the adoring and world-weary Marcello is dumbfounded by, even as she leads him into the waters of the Trevi Fountain, a moment of great romantic possibility and absurd deviance that ends in frustration and exhaustion.

Streams by Athena TachaThe playfulness of fountains could have a disruptive quality, as when in 1917 Marcel Duchamp submitted a urinal for inclusion in an art exhibition under the title, “Fountain.” Duchamp’s work was famously rejected; sparking a controversy with lingering questions about originality and context in the world of art. In her work Streams, 1975, contemporary Greek artist Athena Tacha, noted for her environmental sculpture, creates a delightful sense of cascading water simply by placing boulders at irregular points on a steep incline of public stairs in Oberlin, Ohio. A similar set of dancing stairs, without the rocks, and arranged as an amphitheatre, was designed by Tacha for the Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville, KY in 2008.

Flipbook Fun

Here’s a great resource for teachers or anyone interested in making quick animations. Flip book! The short animations you make on this site can be saved as GIF files. Many successful gifs are designed so that the end returns to the beginning, making the sequence appear to run in a continuous loop.

Smile

Double Solitude: Animals in the Art of Alex Colville

AlexColville.TragicLandscape,1946

Alex Colville. Tragic Landscape, 1946

Slow and meticulous, almost clinical in his approach to art, Alex Colville is not thought of as a spontaneous reporter embedded in the thick of action. Yet this is precisely how he started his career, going directly from art school to the battlefields of WW II. His deployment as war artist in 1944 took the budding Canadian artitst overseas for 18 months. Colville’s book, Diary of a War Artist, testifies to the formative nature of this experience. One of the lessons Colville learned was that a detached point-of-view that eschews overt emotion paradoxically adds to the viewer’s emotional experience of the work. Colville also sensed that in wartime mundane actions take on an inordinate importance for soldiers involved in dangerous and uncertain missions. These lessons were unexpectedly confirmed after the war when Colville found time to visit the major art galleries of Holland. Here he encountered Dutch Baroque art and recognized in deHooch and Vermeer two kindred spirits. Colville saw how these artists turned away from the exoticism, violence and supernatural elements of Biblical stories, replacing this external drama with an internal drama that recognizes in daily life its own mystery and significance.

alex_colville_1978_Dog_and_Priest

Alex Colville. Dog and Priest, 1978

Art critic Tom Smart has defined one of Colville’s most important themes: the need for order in a world that threatens to disintegrate into chaos at any moment. Many commentators use the words “anxiety” and “alienation” when describing Colville’s work. Yet it is hard to say just where or how this anxiety arises. The faces of figures are often hidden or obscured, creating a mask-like effect that adds mystery and intrigue to the image. While the action depicted in the image is often frozen, the composition is so precisely worked out that there is an unconscious feeling that if anything moves the delicate balance will be marred or revoked.

Alex Colville. Hound, 1955

Alex Colville. Hound, 1955

In his exhibition catalogue Alex Colville: Return (Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 2003), Tom Smart notes how animals in Colville’s work function as surrogates for the artist. There is undeniably a close  relationship of people and animals in these images. To the point that Colville portrays domestic animals with a seriousness, sensitivity and rapport rarely seen in the history of Western art. What makes the artist’s rapport with animals so unique is the way he suggests that animals sense the world differently than people do. In many cases, animal senses may be more acute and perceptive than human senses and faculties of recognition.

One of my own life goals is to increase my appreciation of the world I inhabit, to cultivate a finer awareness of the things around me. Colville suggests that animals have an extraordinary awareness of the world around them. They are curious and alert seekers. People  empathize with animals and are able to share their experiences as co-adventurers. Colville uses animals to suggest the expansion of consciousness through empathy with another creature. But at the same time humans are clearly separate from animals and the recognition of this separation is a reminder of the inherent limitation of our consciousness.

Alex Colville. Cyclist and Crow, 1981

Alex Colville. Cyclist and Crow, 1981

“Colville has said: ‘I am inclined to think that people can only be close when there is some kind of separateness.’ When he says this, Colville does not mean the egotism of ‘having one’s own space,’ but rather the responsibility of caring for the individuality of the other.” (Burnett 1983: 108). In his essay, Alex Colville: Doing Justice to Reality, anthropology professor David Howes  concludes:  “the Canadian soul is never at one with itself: its “integration” is contingent upon being juxtaposed to some double, as in Colville’s couples [or human/ animal pairs]. In Canada, the minimal conceptual unit is a pair as opposed to a one.”

It is this double solitude, empathy combined with an acceptance and respect for difference, that underlies most of Colville’s paintings featuring animals and people. Colville uses animals as agents helping us increase our awareness of the world, as well as teaching us to tolerate difference and appreciate aspects of the world that are beyond our understanding.

Words and Pictures: Joanne Light

Joanne Light. Mariposa Rosa and Her Cat, 1976

Joanne Light. Mariposa Rosa and Her Cat, 1976

A long overdue post about Nova Scotian artist and poet Joanne Light  whose exhibition of images and texts was recently held in Halifax at the Unitarian Church Hall. The series of brightly-coloured paintings emerged from the memory of a childhood struggle with the concepts of good and evil. These concepts were introduced in terrifying hell-fire sermons that both mesmerized and bewildered Joanne as a child. In her exhibition, Joanne draws in the style of her younger self as she tries to exorcise demons from the past. The exercise is filled with humour, as allusions to pop culture and invented characters spring up along the way. Accompanying each image are texts in poetry and prose. For the opening of the exhibition, the artist skillfully blended words and images in a performance accompanied by slide projections.

Joanne Light has worked as a teacher and writer in various parts of Canada, including several years in Northern communities. Her interest in landscape and geography is apparent in both her poetry and her visual imagery.

Joanne Light. Clone Goods Do a Bad Disguise as Mother Nature

Joanne Light. Clone Goods Do a Bad Disguise as Mother Nature

 

Posted in Art