All posts by Ross Melanson

Ross Melanson

About Ross Melanson

He is a poet, visual artist, and independent scholar living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He is the Founding Editor of page51 – a website dedicated to exploring the relationship between art, culture, and philosophy. Read more →, or

Fundamental Truths Running in Circles

Diane Lara’s new body of work, Ensō, which is on exhibition at the Mosaic Gallery in the Moose Jaw Cultural Centre until October 10, is a bit of a wonder.

Whereas much of her previous work was driven by a meticulous focus on detail and demonstrated the effect of controlled and considered actions in the process of printmaking, this new body of work lays its entire emphasis on immediacy.  The work, which consists of a series of rubbings, is considerably more visceral, gestural, and expressive than previous works.  Though it extends the artist’s demonstration of her command over the elements of art, it more richly and obviously demonstrates her love of process and materials.  Though deep and personal passion has driven all of this Moose Jaw-based artist’s work, her work has always emerged from the motives of production that, typically, become the guiding subject of it.

IMG_1541Clearly, there is a bit of a rebirth going on in this work.  The source material from which Ensō emerges, comes from a deconstruction of a previously exhibited work of prints entitled Tangled.  From it, she extracted the weaving: a signature motif or symbol in her body of work.  This “caning”, was a product of the artist’s meticulous weaving of thinly sliced paper that was embedded in many of her prints.  She also deconstructed previously exhibited “genetic spheres” (another significant symbol within her previous works) from her exhibition Predisposed.  In addition, she deconstructed a weaved copper sculpture which was contained within that same exhibition.   After its extraction from completed (now destroyed) works, the woven paper was pulled slightly apart and formed into a near-circular shape.  This reconstruction of her previous symbols into that circular shape became the source of the fundamental image that is repeated endlessly throughout this new work.

E002-Enso II-SAM_0575-mLara’s previous works have dealt with the subjects of narrative and genetics as tropes that give emphasis to how the building elements of our social and physical construction give shape to our present and future lives.  In those works, the emphasis of production was driven by the chemical and mechanical processes of printmaking’s production.  This merged medium and message, suggesting the deep connections between foundational elements of construction and the ultimate complexities they build.

In contrast, the production of Ensō has an intense emphasis on a more organic, personal and intimate engagement with both materials and subject.  The methods used here eliminate the distancing chemical and mechanical elements that tend to dominate printmaking in order to present the subject.  Continuing her practice of linking medium and message, Lara now gives precedence to the tactile and direct aspects of art making in order to express her new, more refined and essential expressions of consideration and conviction.  In so doing, the move in her method of production recedes to a more primal and basic element to printmaking – rubbing.  The bright and compelling red ochre pigment, present in most images, was a powdered substance directly applied by the artist’s hand rubbing over the surface of the paper.  This aspect of more direct contact was restated when the artist created the central symbol of a circle by placing a formed shape of woven paper from previous prints behind the paper and capturing its image by rubbing oil pastels along the paper’s surface.  The emphasis here is clearly on a significant reduction of the mediating elements of production in art in order to make her most profound statement.

Pulling from the Zen Bhuddist tradition, Lara makes the ensō (a term meaning circle) her central symbol within this series.  In that tradition, the circle is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create.  Zen aesthetic expressions are rooted in the refined practices of Chinese poetry, painting, and calligraphy.  From this tradition, emerged The Toa of Painting: a canonical work from 500 C.E. that saw art as a spiritual path.  The Zen arts reached maturation between the 10th and 13th centuries with the emergence of painter-priests that broke with all forms of religious and secular art.  They presented work that was neither representational nor iconographical and which was not meant to inspire faith or facilitate liturgy or contemplation.  Instead, as John Daido Loori states in The Zen Art Book: The Art of Enlightenment, their works “suggested a new way of seeing and a new way of being that cut to the core of what it meant to be human and fully alive.”  Their aesthetic expressions were entirely given to the ineffable – that which eludes human expression – while desiring to transform the human way of seeing the self in the world.  Primarily, their images sought to speak to the transcendence of a moment unencumbered by interpretation,

IMG_3951Lara’s work has always been intimate in the sense that it has always been personal.  The subject of her oeuvre has always embedded the general in the specific.  When discussing how the physical and social elements of human construction give shape to our present and future lives, for example, she has always used her own biography as the venue of expression.  Her own specific genetic and social history has been the focus of her work up until now.

Ensō, however, intensifies the intimacy of her expressions and speaks of her deepest convictions about the essential, but elusive nature, of her own artistic expressions.  In it, Lara moves her artistic gaze away from the physical and social constructions of her biography and gives attention to a part of herself which may, indeed, transcend her origins and speak to something more fundamental to her being.  In so doing, she seems to be looking beyond the surface and subjects of her previous works in order to find its more essential qualities.

Her self-curated and accomplished installation of ensō immediately issues a sense of the transcendent and provides a sense of the power of the ephemeral moment of experience.  She places the viewer in a moment of encounter, freeing their mind from analysis while emerging them in a sense of the profound.  On this level alone, the work is a success.  From her own confessions regarding ensō, Lara is seeking merely to express the creative moment freed from any subject but aesthetics itself.  In that, her work is speaking of the profound, immediate and inner experience of beauty as the most fundamental element of human being.  This is not only glorious, it is enriching.  The over all effect is profoundly humanizing.  On that level, the work transcends the banal intension of measuring it as a success or failure in relation to a given cognitive subject.

uncoded world

A GENERAL DESCRIPTION OF THE CURRICULUM FOR AN UNCODED WORLD

AN UNCODED WORLD: EXPLORING PLACES BEYOND CULTURAL GEOGRAPHY is a directed, collaborative and dialogical residency that will have a workshop format.

Typically, the residents of this workshop will meet for late morning and/or early afternoon sessions. In addition, there will be plenty of free time for the residents to work on their own studio practices and meditate on the implications of the sessions.

All the sessions are designed to facilitate individual and collective poetic experiences specifically planned to evoke the human imagination and to stimulate new ways to explore and render human experiences in art. Though some guided conversations will take place during the residency, the sessions are primarily intended to provide a series of hands-on exercises designed to heighten participants’ awareness of their physical and mental experience in the present moment. Their ultimate intention is to provide new ways to perceive and experience the environment.

Some of the exercises will be in the form of individual and collective derives (unplanned journeys through a landscape) that will guide participants to be directed by the subtle aesthetic contours of the landscape. For example, participants will be asked to walk through the environment guided by senses other than sight (i.e. sound of smell). Other exercises will be in the form of ritualized activities that will include the sharing of personal narrative while sharing food or making a piece of art together. There will be collective poetry readings in a selected area of the environment and while walking through it. Other activities will be working collaboratively on a piece of art while walking through the environment. These are just a few of the activies.

Participants will share their art practices through artist talks. In addition, participants will be encouraged to provide workshops and create sessions that will enhance the overall intention of the residency if they so desire.

By Nature of Our Being

In her latest body of work, Glancing Blows, the artist Belinda Harrow achieves a level of accomplishment that indicates her capacity to evolve and to deliver on the promises of her earlier work. Within it, she continues various themes and content from previous work with an exciting expansion of expression and a deepening of her previous considerations.

These images, which are on exhibition at the Slate Fine Art Gallery in Regina from August 21 to September 27, extends the theme and content of Romantic Traffic, her 2005 MFA submission at the University of Canterbury while providing an opportunity for the artist to develop her skills and expressions as a painter. The successful result is a series of geometrically-oriented and colour conscious works that are simple, pleasant and straightforward and that achieve her declared goal to produce compelling images that can be immediately recognized and understand.

Cool-LightThe Regina-based artist’s earnest experiments in artistic method thematically juxtaposes birds with the material expressions of human presence. Through this, she presents a wide variety of birds ranging from Purple Martens to Snow Geese and Meadowlarks to Burrowing Owls. Though the human structures are sometimes modified and highly interpreted, all the images of the birds remain fundamentally true to the specific aspects and details of the species being depicted.

Despite the focussed attention on the elements of art and the details of the fauna presented within these works, their total effect leans heavily toward the sublime, evoking a sense of beauty and wonderful that suggests they transcend mere documentary and mechanical motives.

Custard-PerchThe immediacy of understanding that these images provide and their tendency toward the sublime does not, however, suggest that there is nothing of import to consider conceptually. Whereas Harrow’s previous works made associations between animal and human behavior through metaphor and symbol, this new body of work provides an opportunity to more thoroughly consider the exact nature of the human relationship to the environment.

On one level, these images draw attention to the presence of animals within the urban world that our human intentions have made for us. In this way, they attempt to communicate that our interfaces with animals, in the context of our civilization, can become so common that we fail to consider their reality, significance, and wonder. The events of foxes and skunks eating dog food on our doorsteps or birds landing on telephone lines tracing from our houses to the poles around them can become so common to our everyday experience that they become virtually invisible to us. In this sense, these images seek to remind us that, despite our domestic and civilized environments, nature remains a persistent part of our human experience.

Lavander-CautionOn another level, these images raise environmental questions regarding the impact of human civilization on the practices of animals. They depict birds interfacing within the human presence adaptively with electrical wires replacing branches as makeshift perches and lampposts replacing trees as vertical structures within their environment. In these images, birds and human objects stand in as metaphors: a smaller part representing a greater whole. The adaptive aspects of nature represented in the birds’ activities raise a broader question as to what the ultimate impact of this adaptation might be. The primary question being, of course, what impact will modern civilization have on nature as a whole.

Visually, this specific line of questioning is depicted within the paintings by fusing some of the animals with the human apparatus they are engaging with. Careful attention, for example, reveals that the lines depicting the legs of small birds are directly attached to wires and poles through the elimination of their ”feet.” Beyond this, the line of visual relationship between the birds and manmade objects is often flattened and giving another appearance of physical attachment or the feeling of an impending or potential collision between the birds and objects. This effective subtly within these paintings alludes to the question at hand.

Lime-PerchHarrow’s effect of drawing our attention to various expressions of nature in our midst and of raising questions about the ultimate impact of the human collective presence on nature are significant points to ponder. However, these images also allude to a more foundational point.

The human relationship with nature has been troubled for some time. Nature is, after all, a threat to our very existence. Everything from storms to droughts and plagues to diseases threaten us all. The advent of human civilization is our way of buffering ourselves from the effects of nature’s crueler side. Our propensity to research, technological development and other refinements of our understanding has served us well in regard to preserving our well-being in an environment that threatens.

Beyond seeing nature in this adversarial way, it has also been our tendency to see it through a utilitarian lense. This exploitive approach to our environment has caused us to see trees as lumber, lakes as drinking water, and nearly everything else as a series of resources for our intentions. For better or worse, this very approach has provided us with the physical infrastructure that has composed the civilization that protects and nurtures us.

In the 1940s, the American psychologist Abraham Maslow presented the notion that human motivations journey through a hierarchy of needs, moving from base elements like safety and belonging toward higher elements like self-actualization and self-transcendence. His notion was that, once our most fundamental needs were met, we were freed from our brute anxieties about mere survival and were then able to go on to consider higher and more significant things about ourselves and our place in the world. I grab at this bit of thinking because it reveals what I consider to be the richest nuance within Glancing Blows.

In all her images, Harrow draws our human attention upward. She pulls our gaze away from the most brutish and material surroundings of our civilization and toward some of the most haunting, delicate, graceful and wonderful spectacles of nature – birds. This very poetic visual metaphor alludes to our need to ponder something of greater significance now that our civilization has provided more security, possessions and convenience than we could ever have hoped for. In this sense, her images allude to the fact that now is the time to reconsider ourselves, our place in nature, and nature itself.

Antique-FlapFrom the vantage of our physical security, these paintings suggest, we can now set our eyes on higher notions and reconfigure our understanding of nature, seeing it as an object of beauty and grace rather than merely an object of fear and utility. Relatedly, these images suggest a search for higher notions of self-understanding that go beyond our brute abilities to survive or acquire. The very paintings that Harrow has made, testify to the human capacity to create images and admire them for their beauty. In doing so, they identify a fundamental aspect of human being that distinguishes us from nature and the other animals within it. Though birds do, indeed, create beautiful things like nests and songs, they do not do so with the same intentionality as humans. Uniquely, humans have to capacity to make and admire things solely because of their beauty. Art, Harrow reminds us, is the very manifestation of the highest human capacities. In this, she taunts us toward a self-understanding that is more gracefully and less vulgar.

Despite the deeper cognitive and conceptual allusions within these works, Harrow succeeds by presenting them poetically rather than didactically. Her absorbing and immediate images successfully and directly appeal to our innate hunger for meaningfully, delightful, and emotionally engaging moments that remind us of all the beauty that surrounds us. The immediacy of these images brings to us a direct moment of transcendence that reminds us that we are more than the things we make, accomplish or acquire. This, ultimately, is the success of the images Harrow has delivered in Glancing Blows. Through it, she makes her deepest point in the most direct way.

For more information about the artist, click here.

To inquire about purchasing her work, inquire here.

Marilynne Robinson

A Truth too Great for Us

Ross Melanson
Modern Language Association 2008 Annual Convention
1 September 2008

Due to the limitations of this format, footnotes have been removed from this essay.  The entire paper, with footnotes, is available upon request.

The accomplished American author, Marilynne Robinson, has confessed that she holds to “a religious belief in intellectual openness” and that it is the essence of her fictional practice, the basis for the style and substance of her two novels, and the motive behind her nonfiction. In stating this, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author is admitting to a driving, common thread amidst the diversity of her work. In addition, she is suggesting that clarity regarding the motive and substance of this theology of openness would provide a powerful lens through which to see her work.

Robinson has argued that all major theologies have arisen in polemic contexts and “written as a challenge to prevalent theologies.” She has also suggested that all “theology is written as retrieval – written trying to reach back to a more authentic Christianity”. Her body of work, which is more theological than anything else, is guided by these attributes. Therefore, her theology of openness is, simultaneously, a polemic against modern American thought as an attempt at retrieving its earlier grandeur.

Her biography and corpus chronicle an increasing awareness that she is an inheritor of a particular theological tradition stemming from John Calvin. Proportional to this emerging awareness is an increasingly adverse reaction to various aspects of modern thought. Robinson’s emerging Calvinist identity, combined with her simultaneous repudiation of many modernist assumptions, work their way to maturity throughout her written work, producing a religious spirituality of openness that has, by her own admission, “fed her soul and given shape to every piece of work [she] has put [her] hands to”.

As the term “intellectual openness” insinuates, there is a particular theory of knowledge that pervades Robinson’s thinking and relates to her theology of openness. This theory, which gives emphasis to the evolutionary and social nature of human understanding, explores the relationship of historic knowledge to both present and future knowledge. This view insists that human comprehension, along with the civilization that represents it, advances because of the assumption that it must and it will be modified, even if undone and abandoned, by an intellectual journey. This intellectual journey, she points out, is driven by curiosity regarding what is currently mysterious and unknown. Her emphasis on the evolutionary nature of knowledge exposes the problematic reality that the most profound advancements of a civilization are typically accomplished by a radical undoing of the very intellectual borders that currently define it. In this, she associates the essence of knowledge’s advancement with both courage and revolution, making the extent of the social upheaval it causes directly proportional to fears manifest in the resistance to it.

The bulk of Robinson’s work concerns itself with the breakdown in the communication of knowledge from a past generation to a future one. While exploring the nature of this breakdown, her work gives emphasis to the dangerous role that a disposition of severe certitude about beliefs plays. Specifically, her work gives attention to the role it plays in blocking the advancement of knowledge, in denying the processes of its development, and in transforming the fundamental understanding about the very nature of the knowing process itself. Specifically, her work is a response to a perceived breakdown of communication between the 19th and the 21st centuries. Though her work concerns itself with the role modernist thinking has played in hindering this communication, it gives special emphasis to the role that 20th century American thought has played in interrupting the translation of culture, civilization, and knowledge.

From the beginning of her education, Robinson was becoming disenfranchised with the intellectual and social tone of her era. During her studies, she found a galvanized tonality that was adamantly predisposed against metaphysical thought and given to an economic model of society. Increasingly, she found herself skeptical about a culture enraptured with what she calls “petty determinisms” – views that saw the world as a closed system. In her estimation, these views serve to deprecate the human mind, jettison contemplative thought, and thwart the advancement of humanism. Eventually, she reasoned that contemporary American thinking itself had become “closed,” meaning it had its conclusions so thoroughly built into its assumptions that it intimidated any consideration of exploration and demanded a “blind loyalty to certain fixed beliefs.” It is her reaction to this intellectual fundamentalism, her concern about its role in interrupting the conversation of thought within the 20th century, and her emerging Calvinist sensibilities that developed a need for what would become her “open theology.”

It was Robinson’s encounter with the text of a 19th century American Calvinist, an assigned text for a class on American philosophy, that marked her first exposure to Calvinist thought. This text, from Jonathon Edwards’, The Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, was her first conscious encounter with thoughts genuinely contrarian to those prevalent within her modernist schooling. The metaphysical assumptions of the text challenged her thinking and opened her understanding to new possibilities of thought. It presented her with the seminal, cosmological assumptions that would become more fully understood by her later studies. This exposure made her aware of the existence of another era of time that was saturated with thoughts significantly more broad and invigorated than the stale thinking of her own time. Regarding the impact of this text on her thinking, she writes, “it was my first, best introduction to epistemology and ontology, and my escape – and what a rescue it was – from the contending tedious determinisms that seemed to be all that was on offer to me then.” Amidst her immediate reactions to this text, Robinson experienced what could be called a “conversion,” provided one interprets the term as she does – an overwhelming, “visionary experience” that befalls an individual and which is, essentially, an “alteration of consciousness.” Within her own biographical narrative, she sees her encounter with this text as a memorable day in her interior life and she admits to walking away from the text thinking differently than before she encountered it.

Though this seminal experience created new categories for Robinson’s thinking, it was her relationship to her literary heritage that filled in those categories. Throughout her education and career, she had long sought to reconcile herself to the legacy of the 19th Century American literary canon. Her love for writers such as Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman eventually plunged her contemplation into the rich pool of 19th century thought and practice. While she was preparing to teach a seminar on Moby Dick, a deeply theological text by her favorite author, Robinson made the fate-filled decision to study the religious works that she thought Herman Melville’s writing would most likely be responding to. As a result, she read John Calvin’s seminal work, Institutes of Christian Religion. What she had initially encountered in Edwards’ text, she found fully explained in Calvin’s. Her reading of Calvin’s cornerstone text not only illuminated her understanding of Melville, it profoundly advanced her understanding of all his contemporaries. It gave her what she had previously lacked – an understanding “of the intellectual culture that surrounded what they did.” From this study, she came to understand the very weighty cosmological inheritance that Melville and other early American writers had received from their Calvinist forebears. She also came to understand that many of the core emphases of their texts, and many of the aesthetic elements that constituted their work, were all deeply rooted in Calvinist thought. In this regard, she concludes, “Behind the aesthetics and the metaphysics of classical American literature, again and again we find the Calvinist soul, universal in it singularity, and full of Calvinist wonder.” Given the fundamental role that the 19th Century American literary canon played in forming a truly American sensibility, it is not surprising that Robinson came to the conclusion that, if America was the cradle of democracy, Calvinism was the cradle of American thought and aesthetics

Further explorations of Calvin’s work caused her to understand much more about the religious culture that she had, up to then, only passively received. In this sense, it matured her identity, making her consciousness of the fact that cultural elements had been at work in her life at the social level. From this point on, she became an active participant in the development of her own American understanding.

Studying the Calvinist foundations of 19th century thought, brought her to the conclusion that there had been a rupture in the dialogue of American culture and that all sorts of things that were brought up in America’s early conversation were eventually dropped without being resolved. She observed that 19th Century American thought was constituted by large-scale thinking, propelled by complex, nuanced metaphysical sensibilities. She concluded that it was this robust “intellectual culture that was yielding use of language and use of perception at very high levels of sophistication.” Her work records her convictions that the conversation of American culture had strayed from such lofty philosophical contemplations and social ambitions and turned it into idle chatter surrounding a mode of thinking “closer to sociology than to metaphysics.”

By her own admission, many years of Robinson’s life was spent “trying to restore the larger context” that made these 19th Century writers begin the American dialogue as they did. As she grappled with the nuances of Calvinist thought, her affiliations with them grew and she understood their introductory comments in the American dialogue more fully. Her eventual understanding of their metaphysical assumptions, their convictions about social development, and their epistemology of perception did much to develop her theology of openness.

Robinson declares Calvin’s “metaphysics of encounter” to be one of the greatest gifts she has received from his legacy. It was this theology of experience as a source of religious understanding that was the most real dissent of the Reformation. This radical doctrine denied the Platonic and Aristotelian motifs that placed God at a cognitive removal from all elements of being. In the process, she argues, it erased the static view of the world that tended to see its constituent elements as mere objects of contemplation – as mere means to a greater, rational truth hidden within or beyond them. In its place, it developed a dynamic cosmology that proved significantly more relational. Robinson’s theology of openness shares Calvin’s disposition in this matter.

At the foundation of Calvin’s theology, she notes, was the radical belief that God’s power was the very essence at the heart of all Being. It was the great universal of creation and the very substance that carried all elements of existence from one moment to the next. Effectively, this made all Being a continuous act of recreation that, in turn, continually re-expressed the Being of God. In this view, she notes, the historic understanding of the absolute divisions between the spiritual and physical were transformed. This theology caused God to be seen as so utterly present to creation, and active within it, that it broke down the “persistent distinction between the sacred and the secular.” It was this radical perspective, Robinson notes, that made all being (nature) understood as a sacrament – a means to encounter God and a means through which God encounters humanity.

As a consequence of all this, spirituality was no longer equated with other-worldliness, but with the physical and the phenomenal. Personal experience and everyday life became understood as the means to spirituality itself and, therefore, every moment demanded careful attention. The assumption was that all experiences issuing from any encounter with being (nature) was saturated with meaning, given that God’s working presence was assumed to be in it. This made both conscious observance and conscious reflection a means to a revelatory experience and made the human mind the locus of it.

The radical nature of this perspective cannot be over-stated. It gave the everyday and the natural a sacramental quality and it emancipated the concepts of sacramentalism and spirituality from institutionalism. It gave both concepts independence from a priesthood ordained by the Church and empowered the individual as the ultimate locus of spirituality. In effect, this view displaced authority from a centralized conception hovering dictatorially over society, diffused authority into everything surrounding the individual, and then refocused it in the mind of a person consciously contemplating the significance of their own very individual experiences. In this, Robinson notes, Calvin and his followers centered spirituality on an individual’s knowing and perceiving, rather than their acceptance of and submission to prescriptions. 
 In this, lies the assumption that the legitimacy of knowledge lies in the metaphysics of encounter from which it emerges and not in the knowledge itself. Throughout the writing of Calvin, the 19th century writers, and Robinson’s work there is an emphasis on the validity of experience itself and a suspicion regarding everything that follows that. In all their work, there is the validation of concrete reality at the heart of an experience of encounter followed by experience, itself. Everything subsequent to that is viewed with suspicion because it can distract attention for the authenticity of it.

Robinson’s convictions regarding this reflect the general tone of her predecessors. Her belief is that initial, authentic, and legitimate human experiences eventually give way to systems of belief. Her contention is that these systems tend to “warp, contract, and harden” the authentic convictions emerging from these experiences, transforming their legitimacy and making subsequent adherents disingenuous, meaning significantly removed from the actual origins of their own beliefs. Her conclusion is that this process removes authority from actual, individual, immediate experience and encounter,  placing it in the hands of those who mediate the measure of authenticity to the constituents through their own visions or interpretations of the legitimate historical experience. These interpretations, in Robinson’s estimation, effectively move all adherents away from the foundational reverence, awe, and wonder systemic in the initial experience toward a formulated conception and practice that carries an air of the familiar, rather than the unique or sacred. She also assumes that these interpretations are an effective move away from mystery toward certainty, and from the developmental toward the conclusive, meaning she assumes that these interpretations and their adherents tend to atrophy a grander vision into something significantly smaller. In effect, her concern is that these interpretations compress the complicated nuance of an initial, open-ended, and yet defining experience into to a simplified rendition that, ultimately, confuses practice with essence and ideological structure with substance.

While systems of belief threatened to efface the significance of a metaphysics of encounter, they also threatened to eliminate the evolutionary nature of knowledge. Robinson points out that the engineers of the 19th century literary canon did not see understanding as a destination to which one arrives and saw it more as ambience through which one would journey. This view, she notes, insisted that people were “being led through the experience of life in order to have a profounder understanding” and that they learned by “continuous encounter and new knowledge.” It also equated proper behavior with seeking the new and unknown elements hidden within and lying beyond what was currently seen or perceived as the “true” or the “real.” In this way, the thinking of the 19th century associated understanding with a process that was continuously expanding, always opening, continually moving toward an invigorating complexity that challenged the understanding of the individual and demanded their sustained attention and stewardship. In this way, it disassociated understanding from confident adherence to a set of doctrines or as synonymous with practicing or protecting a set of ethical standards and equated it more with a disposition, or an approach to knowing, itself.

In terms of motive, Robinson’s theology of openness seeks to redress the warping, hardening, and contracting of systems of belief systemic within her own era and she is motivated by the desire to revitalize the authenticity of the initial impetus for them. It also seeks to question the sense of conclusion in much of modern American thought. This desire to evoke the awe and wonder of initial discovery and to restart the adventure of experimentation in thinking gives a reformationist flavor to Robinson’s body of work and explains much regarding both its motives and content. As with all reformationist approaches, Robinson’s rests on the conviction that there is an earlier, preferable, glorious state from which the current circumstance has fallen. The implication of this presentation; of course, is that she sees it having strayed from the initial experiences represented in the authors within the 19th century American literary canon.

The Calvinists to whom Robinson gives regard, hold to the complex and heavily nuanced notion of “perception.” This concept, she notes, has captivated her attention and has been her “greatest interest and pleasure in life.” In essence, perception refers to the ability within a person to take notice of an encounter between the radically individual and particular concreteness of their own being and the particularity hidden by the surface of any other “thing.” Perception is thus the ability to “see” that which lies beyond the elements that strikes the eye and is the ability to “see” that which is reaching out toward us from behind those elements. Robinson suggests that this concept in Calvin’s writing refers to the potential for experiencing the “sacred.” Here, the “sacred” refers to a perception of the absolute otherness of that which is observed. Essentially, the “sacred” refers to the most essential quality of an object apart from a sense of its usefulness in relation to objectives. It is an absolutely aesthetic experience that gives valuation to an observed object as an existence in its own right.

In the Calvinist perspective, the viewer was encouraged to look onto the world in such a way as to efface the self – to look onto the world stripped of their social economy of valuation. This encouragement to see the world as true and absolute from the perspective of an individual without any social baggage of valuation was to be done in order to have “pure perception.” This was a way of “seeing” (understanding) the world “without anything accidental being of more interest or more importance than perception itself.” For Robinson, such a perspective was “not a report on reality but [was] the primary locus of reality itself.” In essence, this form of Calvinism was attempting to see the world as a pure aesthetic experience – a world saturated in the beauty of pure Being and absolute reality. It was an attempt to see the world stripped of humanity’s arrogant interpretation or valuation. Put another way, it was an attempt to see the world merely as an expression of God.

The appeal of this type of viewing to Robinson and her 19th century influences is its emancipation from utilitarian moorings. The desire to see objects “purely” deals with more narrowing views of pragmatism that chauvinistically looks at objects through the lens of predetermined ends; hence, judging and object’s value by its usefulness in regard to achieving those ends. This allows the viewed object to speak of its own value, not as an object of use, but as an object of God’s use.

Robinson’s developing disposition of openness has determined much in regard to the essence of her work. It can be observed, for example, as giving shape to the style and substance of her fictional practice. Because of this, an examination of these factors would illuminate the essence of what Robinson might mean by “openness”

Robinson’s novels are heavily layered with nuance. Her thin plots carry rich characterization through prose that are weighed down with a staggering number of references and allusions to sources that are complicated in themselves. Her practice thickens nuance by weaving an ever-complicating understanding of her characters through an intricate web of metaphors. As her minimal plots advance, these metaphors get more extended and inter-related. The over-all effect of this approach to writing gives it a sense of mysterious complication.

As they advance through her narratives, readers are asked to carry so many inter-related concepts, details, experiences, and sensibilities that they become daunted by what is being asked of them. This fills readers with an awareness that they are dealing with an object that is beyond immediate understanding and likely beyond the grasp of a certain, encapsulating interpretation. This is furthered by the fact that Robinson’s approach seems to be guided by exploration of these ideas, rather than conclusions about them. In the absence of a discernible didactic meaning from the author, the readers can only follow her example. In this, they are left to ruminate, grapple, and consider what the meaning of this complexity might be to their own experience.

Gilead, more overtly than Housekeeping, gives emphasis to the evolutionary and social nature of human understanding as it explores the passing of information from the past, through the present, toward the future. In Gilead, the confounding numbers of ways it can be discerned embodies the complication within this process.

In writing his “begats,” John Ames relays the religious and social heritage that has been passed from his grandfather, through his father, to him – the essence of which he now seeks to leave as a heritage for his son. Ames’ narrative conveys the complications that ensue when subsequent generations seek to refine, expand, rework, and reinterpret a legacy in the presence of those in the process of leaving it. The many disagreements of interpretation and the broken or fractured relationships that emerge from them leave the reader wondering what essential quality of Christianity is legitimately surviving the gauntlet of this human frailty. In the end, it is not surprising to find that it is a disposition of active reflection rather than a certain adherence to a set of doctrines and ethical practices that falls from the Ames’ family tree.

Ames’ very personal attempt at writing a legacy for his son takes place at a very interesting point in America’s collective history. While recording his account of his family’s past, Ames’ narrative records the transition of American sensibilities during and after the civil war. At the point of Ames’ writing, during the 1950s, America stood on the edge of an era that was to be marked by emancipation for a variety of marginalized groups. This saturates the book in an awareness of past and potential revolution, insinuating the role that eras of transitions play in either continuing or blocking it.

Another layer of transition is apparent when one considers Robinson’s social ideas. Within her essays, she has been overt about her opinion that a glorious religious understanding has been lost in American life. She has suggested that the religious sensibilities of the American Midwest in the 19th century determined an era of great intellectual and moral courage. It allowed them to see the error of the culture around them, caused them to have social practices that seem advanced, even by today’s standards, determined their role in the war. Gilead takes place at a point in history where what was started in the Civil War was about to become more fully realized in the civil rights movement. Implicit in this, of course, is that there was a lapse of conviction through which the spirit of revolution had been lost, a period in which the conversation of emancipation had been dropped.

These layers of transition allow Robinson to explore the nature of knowledge’s transition from generation to generation. While doing so, it alerts the reader to this issue as well. In effect, it causes the reader to have consciousness of the relationship between the past, present and future in regard to both understanding and practice.

Within Robinson’s novels, the phenomenal world plays an important, if not central, role. The elements, phenomena, and effects of nature often steal away from the text’s focus and attempt to captivate the reader amidst the distraction. Scattered throughout Gilead, there are several moments in which natural phenomena are regarded with wonder and awe, apart from any consideration of their use. Throughout the book there are moments taken to consider the beauty of bubbles floating upward, a sun-drenched young couple dancing in a sprinkler, two grease-covered mechanics smoking and laughing at each other’s jokes, or a cat lying in the sun. These moments cause the reader to reflect upon the beauty of these moments as “moments of beauty.” These types of considerations relate to, and exemplify, the philosophy of perception that shapes Robinson’s theology of openness.

In actuality, however, many of these same moments are extended metaphors. As such, they try to convey the very Calvinist conception that ordinary moments of life are being used as means of conveying import, significance, as well as meaning. In the use of metaphor, she is attempting to say that there is something of great significance hovering behind the surface of all seemingly ordinary things and events. This quality within objects and events seeks to convey something to us about the intrinsic, inexpressible, mystery we call Being. In using metaphor, Robinson is attempting to alert us to a view of the world that is substantially less mechanistic and utilitarian. It is her attempt to open up our imagination to see a world not as an object of consideration, but as an ambient knowledge through which we should journey with conscious reflection and consideration. We should live, she suggests, as if the world is addressed to us and that it is speaking about the beauty of an unfathomable mystery. In this sense, her use of metaphor is not a mere affectation of literature – it is a way of seeing the world.

It seems apparent that Robinson’s growing discomfort with modern American thought and her attraction to its more glorious roots has related dialectically within her thinking and has produced her disposition of religious belief in intellectual openness. This disposition represented her choice to identify herself with an earlier American sensibility that saw society as on ongoing, open-ended experiment in democratic self-understanding. It has also caused her to shape her thinking around complex, highly-nuanced metaphysical sensibilities which anticipate, demand and respect the engaged workings of an individuated mind. From this, a body of work has emerged that is as aesthetically deep as it is intellectually wide. Without doubt, she leaves behind a legacy that will transcend the limitations of our time and become a witness to beauty for generations to come.

 

Lara Home

The Collectors Series: Diane and Carlos Lara

Diane and Carlos Lara have a substantial art collection.  The Saskatchewan-based artist and her husband have been amassing this collection since the 1980s.  It includes many works by artists with a Saskatchewan connection.  This includes works by established artists like Anne Meggitt, James Henderson, Gus Froese, Zach Dietrich, Wendy Parsons, Jack Sures,  and Anne Heeney.  It also includes works by emerging artists like Jody Greenman-Barber, Jennifer McRorie, Brandan Doty, Chris Wikman and Ross Melanson. 

Their collection also houses historical works by artists like Joan Rankin, an abstract painter who was associated with Clement Greenberg and members of the Regina Five while building an international reputation for her work, and the renowned artist Robert Motherwell.  Their collection also includes works by nationally-exhibiting artists like Susan Rankin, Brad Copping, and Erica Grimm-Vance and includes works by American artists like printmakers, Ron Schaefer and Jackie McElroy, and ceramicist, Butch Holden.

 Recently, I interviewed Diane Lara about her collection, its history, its mandate and her views about collecting art and art, itself.

When did you first realize that you were interested in art?

I think I was always interested in art; I was always curious about it and I always liked making it.  My Mom and art teachers at school encouraged me.  I was good at it and enjoyed it and it just felt right.  But I wasn’t encouraged to think of art as a serious career.  I’m from a blue-collar working family in the 50s and the best career a girl should think of having, other than being a housewife, was being a secretary, teacher, or nurse.  We never had the opportunity to go to museums or galleries; I received my visual influences from books in the doctors’ offices, my art teachers, the odd school museum trip, and then more books.

Thomas Law
“Chris at the Window” by Thomas K. Law, 1986, 116/200. The first Lara acquisition.

What was the first piece of art that you ever acquired?

If I remember correctly, the first piece of original art I acquired was back in the late 80s, when I came across this beautiful lithograph in a gift shop in Calgary, where I lived.  It was a large drawing, limited edition litho; although, at the time, I didn’t know the difference between a reproduction and an original print.   I’ve always been attracted to mark-making and the lines in this drawing were calling to me.  I actually still have it up on a wall, in the same matting and frame I made at one of those U-frame It places!

How did you build your collection?

I didn’t feel I could afford to purchase any other art back then, so that print was my one and only “real” art piece I acquired until I went to university.  I returned to school in the 90s to do what I always felt I was meant to do, which was learning all about art and making art!  This is when I became surrounded by beautiful, original art every day.  I wish I had taken a more pro-active approach to collecting back then and traded more works with my fellow students, but most of my works were assigned projects and so were my colleagues’.  It was during my graduate degree that I actively traded art with my colleagues and, though I can’t remember which was first or even last trade, I acquired many beautiful pieces at that time.  All those art works I acquired have memories and a story attached to them.  Some of my undergraduate and graduate colleagues are now doing quite well though!

Lara Home
Work by Chris Wikman, Susan Rankin, and Rob Froese (top to bottom).

There’s just so much wonderful art out there and you can’t have it all!  I love all kinds of art, even that which can’t be categorized.  However, there is one necessary criterion:  there needs to be an immediate connection between the work and me.  Everything else becomes secondary, but builds upon this first aspect of connection.  After that “love at first sight” hits, I ask myself the whys and how comes, etc.

I try to support artists from my community and the surrounding region.  Artists I know and have spent some time with have made many of the works in my collection, but there are also works by artists I’ve admired from afar.

By the way, I also have many utilitarian art objects in my home that I can touch and use every day; things like mugs, serving dishes, plates and teapots.  I think “Why buy some machine-made object when you can purchase a beautiful, one-of-a-kind, handmade object by a friend and fellow artist just down the road?”  You’re also supporting your community when you buy these things and it will mean so much more to you as you use them and look at them.  Art and life seem inseparable to me now; if only I could’ve acknowledged that earlier.

Do you concern yourself with the investment aspects of art at all? Are you buying art as an investment?

That is definitely one of the secondary factors I am consciously thinking about when I fall in love with a work.  Investment falls under the research period when I’m thinking seriously of acquiring a piece.  Typically, I look into the artist and their practice before I acquire a piece.  However, sometimes love just trumps all.

What type of advice would you give a collector starting out right now?

Hmmm, I think the most important thing to remember is get to know your community and its artists and if you don’t care for or like the art you see, don’t buy it. I think it’s just consumption if you are buying for the sake of buying? If you buy only for the sake of buying, you just have “stuff” surrounding you, not beautiful original works that mean so much to you and brings so much joy (and memories) to you. Usually I know immediately when I love a work. Be true to yourself and don’t try to please the expectations of anyone else’s view of art.  Buy from your own “connectivity” – there’s a certain humanity in that I think.

But if I was giving advice to someone wanting to collect, I would say try looking within your own community, your region or the part of the world you live in.  The works by these artists will likely mean more to you than someone’s work in a land or place you’ve never visited; I know I wouldn’t be able to relate to it.

JGB
“In the Presence of Absence” by Jody Greenman-Barber

What was your most recent purchase and why did you buy it?

My most recent purchase was this amazing ceramic sculpture by Jody Greenman Barber. I’ve watched her progress from making cylinders to making these “dancing sculptures” with clay. Though these later works don’t actually dance, their form insinuates movement, albeit in a static shape.  I think she’s innovative and energetic in her way of handling the medium and isn’t afraid of experimenting with creation and working through the challenges associated with clay (which are many).

When I bought this piece, I was able to pay her small payments until I paid for the full price. If you really want something, artists are generally quite compensating in finding a way for payment that’s good for both of you.  I’m sure I’ll be drawn to more enticing work by Jody in the future.

Which pieces of work in your own collection have you been thinking about lately and why?

Lara Home
Joan Rankin’s painting, “victory” is on the right. Also in this picture are works by Erica Grimm-Vance, Jennifer McRorie, Susan Rankin, Ross Melanson, Anita Rocamora and Jack Sures

Well, I’m always looking at and contemplating various works, but lately it’s more about memories centered around a number of works I have that were made by an old friend of mine that recently passed away, Joan Rankin. I know it is now too late for any more questions about the works and there will be no more stories about art, artists, or what it was like for a female artist creating those works in the 60s. I am only too happy I had the opportunity to really get to know this artist and I will always be able to enjoy her strong presence through her art.

Who is not in your collection and you would like them to be? Who is in your line of fire these days?

Oh my god, I admire so many artists and their works and would love to have their work on display in my home! I have to admit I’m always looking and right now there’s a couple artists that stick in my mind – maybe it’s bad luck to say my thoughts out loud, but one is having a show soon in Regina. Logically; however, “my line of fire”, prioritized, might be some works by my professors from U of R – I have a couple, but that’s it. And then continue looking at local and regional works I’m attracted to. I’m no longer working, so it will just take longer to acquire works now, so patience is a must.

I have a more general question about art, Who is your favourite or most inspiring artist and why?

Oh, Ross, you ask too many difficult questions!  I don’t think I really have a favourite artist – it evolves through time. Historically, I was obsessed with Kathe Kollwitz and then Vija Celmens and the conceptualist, Eva Hesse. Closer to me in time and place, and more accessible, continues to be our local ceramic artists, Wendy Parsons and Zach Dietrich. They never cease to amaze me with their new ideas and projects – from shapes and forms of utilitarian objects to assemblages and sculptures!

Getting back to collecting, I have one final question.  Why, in your view, is it important to have original art in your house?

There’s consumption and then there’s collecting.  Original art means a lot to me, especially when someone I know and/or admire makes it. What better way can you acknowledge their talent, and show your support of the arts, than to share it with others that visit you in your home? I hope I’ll always be able to continue with collecting art!

This image includes works by Zach Dietrich, Rob Froese, Anne Meggitt, and Jody Greenman-Barber
This image includes works by Zach Dietrich, Rob Froese, Anne Meggitt, and Jody Greenman-Barber
Sheri-D Wilson in performance

Drawing from Sheri-D Wilson

Ross Melanson Festival 1
Ross Melanson drawing

In the summer of 2013, I had the pleasure of collaborating with the poet Sheri-D Wilson at the Saskatchewan Festival of Words.  This artist, who has been dubbed the “Mama of Dada,” is a wonder.  Part poet, part sage and full goddess, Wilson is a combination of nurturing warmth, searing insight, and disquieting independence.

The Calgary-based poet is thoroughly entrenched in the spoken word genre and finds her roots in the practices of the beat poets.  Her chosen form of expression is a move of poetry back toward its roots in orality, mysticism, and prophecy.  Its centering conviction is the very presence of the poet unmediated by the page and in direct communication with the audience.  In its practice, this form extols words as spoken expressions and audible extensions of a human intention.  The stress here is on the immediate and circumstantial.

One of my longest-running art practices has been my one-line drawings.  These extemporaneous works follow the trajectories of Pablo Picasso’s cubism and Keith Haring’s pop art.  Despite these modern influences, they remain grounded in my tendency to draw from primordial religious, contemplative and aesthetic sensibilities from eras long before our modern times.  The conceptual origins of my drawings harken back to an era in which language was more closely associated with images and, thus, they possess a primitive appearance that merges the aesthetic impulses behind hieroglyphics, petroglyphs, Aztec drawings, and labyrinths.

These drawings are performance-based and are typically implemented in a public space.  In terms of their production, these works emerge from one continuous line that is used to express whatever thought comes to my mind during their execution.  These thoughts typically emerge directly from the circumstances that surround me at the time they are made.   In the end, they contain a combination of words and images that represent a circumstantial experience more than anything else.

Ross Melanson Festival 2
Ross Melanson drawing

In the case of my collaboration with Sheri-D, they were executed during all her public appearances at the Saskatchewan Festival of Words and thus they reflect the content of her performances and practices, along with my reactions to them.  Each drawing began from the moment the performance-based poet began any of her public discourses and ended with her concluding statements.  These events included her teaching workshop and all of her performances and dialogues during the festival.

With the exception of the workshop, where I sat directly beside Ms. Wilson, I always sat opposite her.  Typically, I was across the expanse of the room in which she performed or spoke.  With the audience filling the distance between us, I was typically in the direct line of her vision recording some aspect of her performance.

In the midst of our collaboration, I imagined her to be the inspired oracle and me to be her faithful scribe.  Both my drawings and Wilson’s practice give emphasis to the immediacy, actuality and significance of a given moment as an embodied encounter.  The content of my work and the intent of her poetry are bound up in the very moment of inspired human expression.  It is this aspect was at the very heart of our aesthetic collaboration.

The development of written text and then the printing press is a miracle of human invention.  The effect that it has had on our self-understanding cannot really be overstated.  Peter Arthur, the Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of British Columbia, notes that the contributions of the printing press are numerous.   He states that the mass printing served to systemize the grammar of language, emancipating it from the idiosyncrasies of both regions and teachers.  This broadened the capacity of the written form of language to communicate.  He also explains that the press served to increase literacy by making texts available to the general public quickly and cheaply.  This, he notes, allowed for radical social changes and transformations like the Reformation by facilitating the dissemination of revolutionary political and religious views.

Written language’s transition from its pictographic origins, through its phonetic evolution, and toward the printing press has done much to shape our modern consciousness.  For example, this transition has impacted our perceptions of how information, understanding, and even wisdom are acquired.  Long before the printing press and long before language was captured in written texts, the acquisition of understanding and wisdom was wrapped up in a specific social situation that relied on the very presence of a sage, oracle, elder or teacher.  In these primordial situations, the greater aspects of learning took place when the instructor and students were present together.

Though these technologies of human genius did not utterly destroy this social aspect of learning, it did facilitate a broadening gulf between authorizes and their students.  The written and then printed text allowed for students to be exposed to the thinking and teachings of individuals without having to actually be in their very presence.  With written language and the printing press, teachers became transformed into authors and learning became associated with reading as much as hearing and lectures.  With this, the printed media made room for a higher individuation in the student and an increased autonomy in the learning process, forging something of a conceptual and social divide between the author and the reader.

As I stated earlier, the function and intention of contemporary spoken word poets seeks to challenge the tendency to give emphasize and importance to the written and published aspects of poetry.  Like the pop artists who sought to emancipate art from the highly conceptual and academic nature that had driven much of modern art, spoken word artists break down the divide that has developed between the poet and the general public.  They seek to break poetry from it academic nature and the mediation of high-culture sensibilities in order to relate it more fully to everyday life.

Sheri-D Wilson in performance in front of Ross Melanson's painting.
Sheri-D Wilson in performance in front of Ross Melanson’s painting.

The spoken word sensibility funnels highly personal experiences through a poetic narrative, creating a highly individual platform that, typically, defines experiences and viewpoints apart from the social conventions and decorum that typically drives high-minded aesthetic prescriptions for poetry.  The tendency within this format toward narrative, frankness, bluntness, and even vulgarity serve to separate the practice from the more “refined” and dignified aesthetic conventions typically associated with “serious” poetry.  All this is not to say, however, that the genre has no concern with aesthetic refinement or the development of craft.  My time with Sheri-D Wilson in her workshop convinced me of the deep dedication of these poets to their craft.  It is, however, to say that this genre is concerned with the moments in which poetic and aesthetic conventions get in the way of the very sincerity and integrity of the thought being expressed.  Put in other terms, this genre seeks to save poetry from the potential of academic and the smug pretenses of importance that remove it from the actuality of everyday life and everyday people.

In the hands of the spoken word and slam poets, poetry is returned to a social experience.  Amidst their practice, poetry becomes an event for truth and readers are transformed back into present hearers.  In the midst of this practice, poetry becomes restored to an embodied experience of encounter that is constituted by an oracle and an audience. Garnered wisdom, depth of insight, realization, and honest reflection permeate the practice, making it sermon emerging from a shared interest in folk wisdom.  In all this, there is a situation that is somewhat akin to the honesty, direction, authority and nature of a prophetic utterance emerging from an inspired moment.

In my drawings of Sheri-D Wilson’s activity at the festival, I was attempting an ironic return of her words and expressions to the page.  However, I was not attempting to record the actual content of her activities.  Instead, I was attempting to record my experience of it and to record the fact that something profound, at some moment, and in some place, had actually happened.   Beyond this, I have no understanding of what these images might mean.

As part of the National Reading Campaign, Ross Melanson will be executing one line drawings in response to poetry readings by Robert Currie, the former Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan.  To find out more information, click here.

For more information about Sheri-D, click here.

For more information about the Saskatchewan Festival of Words, click here.

The images are used with permission of the Saskatchewan Festival of Words.

studio

The Benefits of Studio Visits

For some time now, it has been my practice to initiate studio visits.  Over my career, I have invited artists and curators into my studio and I have asked other artists if I could come to their studio.  I have found this to be an enriching experience for various reasons and, because of that, I highly recommend this practice.

There are many reasons why you might consider visiting someone else’s studio or inviting someone into yours.  Here are some:

You can become inspired.  Being alone in your studio can be terribly isolating and can create an atmosphere that can be terribly dissuasive.  Getting out of your studio or inviting other people into it can be a way of accessing an infusion of stimulation.  Seeing the creative spaces of other artists is always interesting, informative and motivational.  Artists are notorious collectors of books, objects and images that inspire them in some way.  Seeing them will also be an inspiration to you.  When other people come into your workspace, you may see it anew through their eyes.  In addition, visiting artists may see connections between your books and other inspirational items and your art.  This kind of insight can only help to inspire you.

Your thoughts about your work can become clearer.  Talking about art orders your thoughts and directs your attention.  The very nature of studio visits requires that you explain your work.  When you or other artists are asked to explain or articulate the intentions and ideas being expressed in a body of work, it exposes both the strength and weakness of those ideas.  This is very important in the refining process.

Your creative impulse can grow.  Examining the work of others helps you to place your creative process into an entirely new context.  Your creativity is like a muscle – it is made strongest through exercise.  When you are in dialogue with another artist, you often find yourself placing your own creativity in the context of other people’s work and thinking.  This means that you find yourself facing new situations, new thoughts, and new practices that you may have never considered.  This can only help you to grow as an artist.

You can become encouraged. Studio visits are, more often than not, encouraging.  Typically, artists see their works through a jaded lens.  Other people can see your work without the hindrances you may have.  Bringing a new and fresh set of eyes to your work can help you to see it unencumbered by your assumptions and can help you to see it in new ways. Sometimes, all you really need is to hear other people focusing on the strengths of your work not its weaknesses.

You can discover what is important in your work.  Artists can often tell artists what’s important in their work.  Bringing a new set of eyes to your work can help you to see things within it that you may be blinded to.  It can be the case that you are focusing your attention on the wrong element in your work or are blinded to the strongest elements of intuition that is driving it.  Seeing it through new eyes can redirect your understanding of the work you are making.

Your imagination can be stimulated.  Studio visits can bring new imagination to your work.  When artists look at your work, they will often express ways in which they would execute elements within it.  This can be very useful.  Often, during my practice of studio visits, artists have suggested ways in which I could redirect my work or apply it in new ways.  At the very least, I have found this interesting.  Many times, however, I have been surprised at how obvious and amazing these ideas are.

You can develop your studio space.  Seeing how other people work and the tools they use can be very informative for your own practice.  The physical context in which a body of work is created is a useful element in understanding the work you see.  Aspects like the lighting, location, and size of a studio can be determining factors within a body of work.  Visiting others’ studios may alert you to what factors in your workspace are effecting your work in a negative way.

If you are interested in having a studio visit with Ross Melanson, you can contact him at this link.

Gibraltar Point

Benefits of a Residency

In December of 2012, I had the pleasure of participating in the Thematic Residency Program at Artscape Gibraltor Point on the Toronto Islands.  My experience in this inspiring environment changed my perspective of nearly everything.  In the end, I walked away from this residency better off for having attended.

I cannot stress to  you enough how beneficial an art residency can be to your practice.  Here is a list of a few reasons a residency could benefit you.

It allows you an opportunity to concentrate.   Residencies allow you to retreat from the conventions of your life.  It provides a period of time in which the production of art becomes the primary (and only) feature of what you are doing.  This rich atmosphere of concentration can help entrench the significance of understanding yourself as an artist.

It provides time to think.  Often, the demands of our circumstances give shape to our lives.  Typically, a residency provides plenty of time for contemplation and self-reflection. This time helps you to reflect on your life, your priorities and your work.  This will only serve to enrich both your life and your work.

It broadens your mind.  Residencies attract a diversity of participants.  They bring together artists, curators, critics and other members of the arts community with a variety of perspectives, practices, thoughts and concerns.  In so doing, it facilitates a dialogue and interchange that can open up new ways of viewing, practicing, and thinking about both art and the world.  Mind-expanding experiences like that cannot help but develop you and the work that you make.

It enriches your practice.  A thematic residency brings together members of the arts community whose practices are associated around a given topic.  Being around others who have given themselves to the same issues of concern as you can provide a form of collegiality and fellowship that affirms what you are doing as it deepens your understanding of it.

It brings you into new geographic spaces.  Typically, residencies are located in highly picturesque and secluded areas of the country and world.  This change in geography will provide an element to your experience that will inspire and nurture your soul.  This will provide a good atmosphere for the work that you produce there.

It affirms you.  Being selected for a residency program of any type is a significant accomplishment.  Most programs have an adjudication process for application.  If you are selected to participate in a residency, it means that members of the art community recognize the validity, importance, and significance of the work that you are making and your art practice in general.  For some people, this is a crucial factor in developing their identity as a “legitimate” artist.  For others, this further entrenches their established identity as an artist.  Regardless of all this, being selected for a residency is a form of professional endorsement.

It will take you in new directions.  Being around other artists in the residency exposes you to other art practices.  This will spark your imagination about new mediums, new practices, and new perceptions that may take your art in interesting directions.  Some residencies will have workshops that demand your engagement with things you would never have actually considered.  All this will aid you in your art practice.

It focuses your attention.  Starting with the adjudicating process and throughout the residency, you are being asked to explain your work and your process to others.  Having to articulate yourself in this way gives structure and order to your understanding of your work and can help to give it a sharper and more distinct focus.

Ross Melanson will be leading a Thematic Residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point on the Toronto Islands in November of 2014.  You can find more information about that residency here.

Ross Melanson received a Travel Grant from the Saskatchewan Arts Board to attend his residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point.  You can find out more information about the Saskatchewan Arts Board here.

An Uncoded World: Exploring Places Beyond Cultural Geography

an uncoded world 2

LOCATION:                                   Artscape Gibraltar Point, Toronto Islands Program
DATES:                                          November 3 -15, 2014
APPLICATION DEADLINE:       September 30, 2014
PRICE:                                           $850 + HST

We are very pleased to announce that Ross Melanson, the Founding Editor and Creative Director of page51, will be facilitating a Thematic Residency at Artscape Gibraltor Point on the Toronto Islands in November of 2014.  Generally, the residency is designed to provide experiences that will stimulate the participant’s imagination in regard to their experience of nature and will help them explore new ways to express that experience in their work.

The formal description of the residency is as follows:

Marshall McLuhan has stated that the ways in which we conceptualize space often determines the nature of the art we make. He has suggested that we are directed by a long history of art making with an almost singular and undue emphasis on the visual. This emphasis fails to acknowledge that, in the human project of knowing, we are not detached and objective observers but active participants. How do we see nature and create works that are not entirely directed from this long and coded history of art making? How do we make art that acknowledges the broader reality of the entire human sensorium? How do we engage with a reality that often lies beyond all our assumptions of it? AN UNCODED WORLD: EXPLORING PLACES BEYOND CULTURAL GEOGRAPHY is a directed, collaborative and dialogical residency that will facilitate common and poetic experiences to provoke the imagination and stimulate explorations of new ways to render human experiences in art. It will achieve this goal by using artist talks, thought experiments, workshops, poetry walks, group discussions, and a diversity of other experiences. An abundance of time will be provided for either studio practice or contemplation.

If you have specific questions regarding this residency and its content, please feel free to contact Ross Melanson.

You can find information about this residency, the application process, and  Artscape Gibraltor Point here.

You can find a brief description of some of the residency curriculum here.

Jen McRorie’s Passion

It was in the winter of 2011, during a studio visit with the artist Jennifer McRorie, that I first laid eyes on the painting Carcass (Deer).  It evoked such a deep, immediate and visceral reaction that I have been haunted ever since.

This painting is one of a handful of images that McRorie made in response to the beauty she saw in her encounter with a carcass hung in a garage.  In the end, however, this well-executed painting is a manifestation of a grand artistic vision that reaches into aesthetic and philosophical history in order to imagine the possibility of a new vision for self-understanding.  It is a poetic call to reformation and renaissance that accesses the rich cultural ethos of Dutch history in order to express an aesthetic intuition regarding the very nature of human knowing.

deer carcasCarcass (Deer) replicates the general practice of the memento mori and vanitas tradition.  This aesthetic practice, which was fueled in the Netherlands by a Calvinist impetus, presented still life as emblematic objects symbolizing human mortality.  Human skulls, burning candles, decaying flowers and soap bubbles stood in as symbols for the transience and impermanence of the material world and as a representation of human temporality.  This tradition presented images that intended to be a reminder of the need to live life with more of a spiritual and eternal perspective.  The images of this tradition manifested a moral lesson that emphasized the limits of temporality and living a life driven by immediacy and moral decadence.  The point was to promote the virtues of the eternal as the supreme, ultimate, and legitimate object of human concern and devotion.  Put in other terms, the images of the memento mori and vanitas tradition suggested the need for transcendence.

McRorie’s meticulous and skilled depictions of a deer carcass are a paradox of attraction and revulsion.  The artist deliberately blurs the aesthetic line that draws harsh distinction between the beautiful and the grotesque.  Her conscious deliberate application of chiaroscuro (the distribution of light and shade in a painting) is reminiscent of the Dutch master Rembrandt and echoes the aesthetic of transcendent sublimity that pervaded 17th century Dutch Calvinist humanism.  This aesthetic quality serves to attract the viewer to the image.  However, the irony of its application to an image of a deer carcass hanging in a garage over-whelms the viewer with the felt experience of contradiction between this historical style and the blunt, harsh, violence, and matter-of-factness of 21st century modernist secular materialism.

Carcass (Deer) does not come to bring peace but a sword.  The genius of the painting is manifest in its initial offense.  Those that cannot get past the surface of the painting’s subject are pushed from its presence by revulsion, leaving behind only those with the humble hope that there is more substance to the image than what lies on its surface.  This means that the image serves to identify those who suspect that there is about something more to it than its initial effect.  It is those that remain present to the image that hope to find something beyond its initial impact and who see it as a legitimate, potential means to profound understanding.

deer carcas detail 2Given the work’s origins in the aesthetic ethos of Dutch Calvinism, one cannot entirely dissociate the image and its aesthetic from religion.  And, from my vantage point of training in historical theology, I cannot help but relate the hanging deer carcass to the Passion of Christ. Though I do not mean to suggest that the image itself intends to be Christian, I would dare to suggest that it is a Christian allusion.  And, even if this notion were disregarded or dismissed as reading into the image, I would still contend that the image is enhanced by a view from historical theology. By this, I mean to say that the issues and considerations evoked by Carcass (Deer) are strongly associated with long-standing problems in ancient and modern religious thoughts.

Ancient religious history was shrouded with assumptions regarding the relation of matter to the highest levels of proper knowing.  The ancient world was Manichean and Gnostic in nature, assuming an inherent evil regarding matter and an essential goodness regarding the realm beyond it.  In this perception, aspects such as divinity, spirituality, and proper ways of knowing were accessed by the deprecation of physicality, making the abandonment of our carnality the very means of spirituality or wisdom.

In stark contrast to these assumptions of cosmology, the Jewish theology of a God actively creating and engaging with the very matter of nature was profoundly out of place.  Judaism’s philosophy of a God who made the physical world and which associated that creation with goodness (i.e. and the Lord saw that it was good) was unthinkable in the context of its surrounding philosophical climate.   A creation narrative in which a Divine Being formed and shaped earth and then intimately breathed into it to in order to initiate human experience also evoked theological confusion for those with Manichean and Gnostic thinking.

The cultural distinction of Judaism’s creation narrative was only intensified by the Christian theology of incarnation.  This strange notion placed the expression and being of divinity literally within the carnal world.  Even amidst the early Christians, the very idea of incarnation was a conceptual conundrum that caused intense debate and consideration.  This debate rotated around the central desire to understand the exact nature of Jesus as both a human and divine being. Like the Jewish creation narrative, the Christian conception of manifest divinity in the physical and human person of Jesus profoundly challenged the conventional wisdom of the time.

deer carcas detail 3Whereas Manichean and Gnostic thought held the physical and spiritual in stark conceptual contrast, the Jewish creation narrative and Christian theology of incarnation brought them into a profound proximity.  The Christian theology of the incarnation, however, also fused salvation and transformation to the physical.

The most iconic Christian imagery related to the incarnation of Christ is the Passion (i.e. crucifixion imagery).  As an archetypal image, the Passion presents a similitude that is saturated with a highly nuanced complexity.  In this single image, a simultaneously divine and human figure is suspended between earth and sky as an expression of both the horror and the beauty to be found at the precise moment in which justice meets love and judgment meets forgiveness.  In this sense, Passion images are the ultimate nexus of the spiritual and the physical – the sinful and the good.

I present all this history because I think that it is present, in some way, to McRorie’s work.  Her image Carcass (Deer) echoes the general aesthetic qualities of the Passion.  As in the Passion, there is a sacrificed figure suspended between earth and sky.  Like all Passion imagery, her rendition of the carcass expresses beauty and horror simultaneously.  And, like Passion imagery, it suggests a complex relation between representation, contemplation, and human “salvation” and transformation.

McRorie’s brilliant use of the aesthetics of the Dutch Calvinists lends a strong religious flavor to her work, lending a symbolic or iconic nature to it.  Like religious imagery, this painting attempts to present an object for contemplation with the intension to either evoke or further a change and transformation in regard to perception and values.

In McRorie’s version of the Passion, “Christ” is stripped of human representation and is rendered as “pure meat.”  She presents an unblinking stare at a harsh physicality void of both person and life.  I would argue that one could see this is an artistic hyperbole – an aesthetic over-statement to make the strongest of points.  From this vantage, I would suggest that her view is focused on attacking the very notion of our historical tendency toward dichotomy.  In this way, she is siding with the Jewish and Christian trajectories of thinking that attempt to resist, challenge or moderate such a dichotomy.  In so doing, she sides herself with elements within this trajectory which call for modalities of thought which fuse the physical to the spiritual or which make the physical the very means of understanding the spiritual.  I would definitely contend that some point like this is being made in the work.

Given this image’s origins in the rich aesthetic ethos of Dutch history, it seems clear that it is attempting to make some commentary on materiality and the spirituality of human contemplation.  And, like the Dutch masters, it would appear that McRorie is attempting to set our thinking on a path that would enrich us by drawing out attention to ultimate and transcendent things and away from things that would distract.  By presenting a blunt depiction of “pure meat,” this image seems to be alluding to a very specific point regarding her understanding of the relationship of the body and all material to the knowing process. By nature of the bluntness of this image, it would seem that this Moose Jaw-based artist is denying the special presence of a higher truth above it or of a hidden truth behind it, suggesting a form of truth that is somehow in it.

It is not my desire to banish the mystery of the point McRorie is making.  It is complex, heavily-nuanced, and highly-charged.  However, it is my desire to suggest that a dismissal of the image because of its initial repugnance is a denial of the very kind of salvation the image attempts to bring.

You can see more of Jennifer McRorie’s work here.

In December of 2011, the Art Gallery of Regina included Carcass (Deer) in the exhibition AfterLife