Category Archives: Engagement

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.

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.

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 

Cathy

Transfigured: Keeping the Body in Mind

This is the first of two articles on the work of the Moose Jaw-based artist Jennifer McRorie

Scars are a powerful metaphor for being profoundly impacted by a negative experience and surviving to tell about it.  However, when they are literal, they mark the place where concrete experience meets story.

Explaining how one’s scars came to be is likely one of the oldest motives for human narrative.  The common practice of soliciting and issuing a story around tragedy and triumph, exposes the fact that storytelling founds and perpetuates meaningful, social, human relationships.  It also betrays the fact that storytelling is central to the formation of personal and social identity.  In this way, scars can also be understood as a metaphor for the exact point at which fact meets fiction and fiction meets reality.  This is the way Jennifer McRorie is using scars in the body of work she entitled Transfigured.

 The Saskatchewan-based artist uses scars to allude to the fact that our historical, concrete experiences inevitably evoke interpretations.  And it is these interpretations that define and shape us, determining who we understand ourselves to be and, more importantly, determining what we will inevitably become.  As her work explores the complicated relationship between concrete human experiences and the stories and interpretations that surround them, she alludes to the role collective and individual choice plays in defining and determining who we are.  McRorie’s work embodies a form of social criticism that seeks to challenge, expand, and refine the circle of understanding that defines our identity as thoughtful individuals.  Put another way, McRorie’s work relates to good old-fashioned humanism.

For some time now, our society has been captivated by a series of stories that tell us our choices are not the salient factor in our human experience.  These stories suggest that what we do and say or how we think and act are actually the product of things beyond our control.  They suggest to us that our decisions and actions are directed by either the social realities that surround us, the sum total of the genetic factors within us, or our compulsion to either avoid what we fear and to enact what we think will bring us pleasure.  Whether these stories wrap themselves around sociology, genetics, or behaviorism, they share the desire to corral our thoughts toward the conclusion that any understanding of our self as a thinking, reasoning, choice-making individual is an illusion.  They attempt to argue that our “choices” are merely the product of determinisms that, in actuality, define us.  This suggests, of course, that our choices are not choices at all and that, ultimately, they can do very little to truly shape us.  This, to be sure, is not a very humanistic vision and is a transformation of the historical understanding of ourselves as Homo Sapiens – a term which was meant to shape our identity around our thoughts and a term which literally means “knowledgeable and wise human beings.”

GerardA previous era told us a very different story about humanity.  In it, we were oppressed by a zealous commitment to tradition and a very narrow vision of reality that insinuated itself into every interpretation of our existence.  In this story, humans were not expected to think, but to conform; not to deliberate, but obey.  In the dawn of the Reformation, Renaissance, and the Age of Reason, a flood of light washed all this darkness away and set us free to think, reason, and choose for ourselves.  This story birthed a very humanistic, democratic and optimistic vision that suggested each an every one of us possessed the flower of creation – a mind.  This story made us all peers with the heroic potential ability to use our active minds for the common good.

McRorie’s scars seek to capture many things.  Primarily, they suggest a moment in time where circumstance, in the form of calamity, befalls an individual and leaves its mark.  However, just as a scar denotes the passage of time and the evolution from trauma toward healing, her images allude to the process of thinking that follows all of our experiences.  They suggest the deliberation, consideration, and evaluation within our thinking that seeks to interpret the significance of the experiences that befall us.

The work that composed the exhibition Transfigured in the Art Gallery of Regina in 2009 was fraught with ambiguity, which is to say, it was marked by an aesthetic of paradox.  Every moment that considers this body of work, discovers a new and apparent contradiction.  The images are realist in nature and thus seem concrete and representational.  However, they are abstracted in the sense that the images provide no real locative context from which to interpret them.  The viewers of these works have no way of knowing where these scars are located on the body nor where that body containing the scars happens to be.  In this sense, we are left to wonder how big a deal these scars actually are or how significant the experience was which brought them forth.

These type of images in McRorie’s work suggest a narrative in that we know that scars are Marie IIthe product of some physical trauma.  However, we have no real details that fill in the specifics of that suggested narrative.  In this sense, we are left to wonder how much empathy and compassion the images are demanding of us. Their scale brings us into intimate proximity with the subject and provides us with excessive detail regarding one singular aspect of that person.  However, the decontextualization, combined with the very personal indication of tragedy and suffering, heightens a sense of objectification.  In this sense, we are left to wonder whether we are to be ponderous and abstract or engaged and sensual.  These are but a few of the resident ambiguities of the images that comprised this exhibition and the rest of the artist’s oeuvre.

It is this factor of McRorie’s work that is the true genius of it.  The paradoxical nature of these images is a gateway to recognizing the ultimate subject of them that I take to be open-ended thinking – the human mind pondering and not coming to rest.  The questions which McRorie’s dialectical images evoke relate strongly to the very real questions of meaning and significance which naturally arise from all concrete human experiences, especially those which emit from traumatic situations.

The dialectical nature of the images confounds the viewer and thus accurately captures the feeling or sensation of being in the throws of deciding, considering, questioning, and evaluating.  If there is any beauty in these images, it is found in the human mind thinking about them, trying to perceive an understanding that is presently eluding it.

It is, in this sense, that McRorie’s vision interfaces with the very kind of humanism that pervaded both the Reformation and the Renessaince, set the horizon for the Age of Reason, and laid the foundations of modern democratic thought.  Throughout all these eras, there was a captivation with the nature of the mind and a growing reverence for the significance of human self-consciousness, the ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts.  It was the human mind, these old worthies believed, that attached human beings to something beyond themselves and made humans something significantly more than mere bodies and ordinary beings.  In differing ways, they all suggested that the workings of the mind compelled individuals to rise above what their historical circumstances dictated to them and compelled them to create a significantly different vision of reality.  In other words, they believed that the mind was an agent of human and social transformation.

ChrisThrough her association with this kind of perspective, McRorie casts a subtle but critical eye on many of the contemporary stories that tell us that our choices and considerations are nothing more than manifestations of sociology, biology, or behaviorism.  These views, to be sure, minimize the human mind and make it nothing more than an extension of mere matter shaped by the views of other people, genes, or psychological impulses.

McRorie’s aesthetics of paradox reengages the viewer with the concept of the mind freed from dogma.  With this aesthetic, she reminds us that thought is a process leading not to certain conclusion but further, deepened, and more nuanced thought with the latter being closer to reality than the former.  In this, it is driven by the very humanist motive of emancipating us from the very confining interpretations of our recent past, interpretations that have scarred us to be sure.

Like that of her humanist forebears, McRorie’s body of work is best seen as an exploration that attempts to discover what is fundamentally human about us.  Her work seeks to convey the reality of what it means to be an actual person as opposed to a mere conceptual object or physical mass.  While doing so, it presents ambiguous images that give the opportunity for the very human response of wondering what it all might mean.

For more information about the work of Jennifer McRorie

The Dystopian Vision of Diane Lara

I don’t remember the first time I met Diane Lara, but I assure you that she is unforgettable.  She is, by nature, a warm person with a complicated mix of unrestrained whimsy, sharp wit, and thoughtful seriousness; think two parts Ellen Degeneres and one part Gloria Steinem and you will have some semblance of her personality.  Socially, she embodies the “life of the party.”  As she has often quipped herself, she “loves to perform” and will more than likely take center stage in a public forum when given a chance.  Her sharp mind, quick quips, and self-deprecating humor, mixed with her highly principled nature, determine the fact that she is worthy of that social positioning.

Given her demonstrative, expressive, and highly social nature, it is not surprising that Lara is an artist.  What is surprising, however, is that her corpus of work does not belie the most fun-loving and carefree aspects of her social personae.  Her work tends toward the contemplative and contains reference to the more serious and troubling aspects of her own biography.

Though her specific subject matter has varied throughout the years, her approach has always been that of biographical narrative and, despite the fact that her body of work acts as a visual diary of her own life, it has also managed to explore the universal human experience – the search for emancipation and meaning in the midst of the concrete situations that limit our human experience.

Dancing DreamThe most consistent element within her biography chronicled within her work has been her very human struggle with the limiting experiences of both illness and aging, along with the genetic factors implicit in them. Undoubtedly, illness has been a defining force in the biography of Lara.  Her grandmother suffered from dementia, her mother from ALS, and her father with lung cancer.  In all of these instances, the illness was prolonged and increasingly debilitating. Through these extended processes, Lara was a significant caregiver for these loved ones.  This gave her responsibilities that only accelerated over time, increasingly demanding more of her attention and determining more of her actions.  In each of these situations, the increased demand continued in her life without reprieve until she was eventually emancipated through the tragedy of their unfortunate demise.

While chronicling her experiences with illness, Lara’s has sometimes focused her eyes on herself.  Her bachelor’s degree culminated in a series of prints that explored her psychological reactions to her emerging awareness of her own infertility.  In Perseverance, Lara refers to a debilitating gall bladder problem she had while working on her graduate degree in North Dakota.  Most times, however, Lara has focused her attention on the impact of illness and aging on family members.  Her “Tangles” series, which has traveled significantly throughout the province of Saskatchewan, gives emphasis to the subject of dementia embodied in the life of her maternal grandmother and a close friend.

Lara’s work denotes the social limitations which illness and aging places on people.  Over all, it illustrates how these inevitable processes of life work to produce increasing immobility, dependence, and vulnerability in the lives of people afflicted by them.  By this, she also implies the vicarious limitation that aging and illness places on those who inhabit the social spaces around the afflicted.

dianedetailWhile being highly cathartic in nature, Lara’s work is neither despairing nor angry.  She avoids being morose and does not exhibit any works with overt senses of resentment regarding the devastation that illness has brought to her loved ones or regarding the subsequent control it took in her life.

For as long as I have known Lara, I have been intrigued as to what exactly motivates her in the making of this work.  Though, to be sure, Lara’s art making is therapeutic in nature, I have not found this to be a satisfying explanation for the impetus for her work.  I have long suspected that there were more intense motives for the creation of this corpus.

Frank Zappa is quoted as saying that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  I agree with the sentiments of this saying.  Making art is a visceral activity that is often more intuitive than cognitive.  Typically, the artist is bringing forth a body of work driven by often-mysterious, inner impulses to create.  Given this reality, it is a very precarious thing to write critically or analytically about art, much less to attempt to bring cognitive consideration regarding the fundamental nature of any body of work and its ultimate motives.  My intention in casting a thoughtful eye toward Lara’s work or its motives is not to be either conclusive or exhaustive in regard to critical analysis.  I simply want to open up vistas of dialogue that I hope will be filled with an increased appreciation that I think the work deserves.

In my view, Diane Lara’s work takes on a significant import when considered in dialogue with the historical constructs that fuel the contemporary and popular views of beauty.  Clearly, there are a variety of thoughts regarding the nature of beauty that could converse with Lara’s work.  However, I would posit that the strongest assumptions regarding beauty are those that have been with us the longest.  I would argue that it is the most ancient philosophical assumptions regarding anything that sink the farthest into our psyches and function most powerfully under the radar of our consciousness.  In regard to beauty, this would be the assumption of its association with both order and symmetry.

Aristotle, one of the intellectual pillars of the Western sensibility, stated, “the chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness.”  Augustine, another architect of Western consciousness, followed Aristotle’s lead and declared, “all bodily beauty consists in the proportion of the parts.”  In his seminal work Aesthetics from Classical Greece to the Present, Monroe Beardsley notes “the key concepts in Augustine’s theory of beauty are unity, number, equality, proportion, and order.”  In essence, this intellectual trajectory for beauty has determined it to be the positive emotional and cognitive response to the objects that most profoundly manifest order and balance.  Given this template, beauty has most often been associated with concepts such as health, happiness, vitality, and fertility.  Put another way, beauty has most often been association with a series of conceptions that resemble wholeness, unity, and totality.   This very general assumption regarding beauty has been the impetus for most of the aesthetic expressions in the Western world and, consequently, has determined much of the social perceptions of value.

You & Me VIIIBy implication, these assumptions about the essential nature of beauty determine an emotional distancing from that which is its antithesis – the chaotic or misshapen.  From this, it is apparent that a move toward the popular construct of beauty is a departure from that which is marred, miserable, weak, and sterile.  Consequently, this move toward transcendence regarding beauty is simultaneously a move away from the immanent reality of the ordinary, typical, banal and particular.

At the most fundamental levels, Lara’s work challenges these traditional assumptions of beauty, by focusing the viewer’s attention on the very dystopian experience of human illness and aging.  Where the tide of tradition has determined a mandate in which the artist is to avert human attention away from the imperfections in everyday life and toward the refined and universal ideals of order and balance, Lara’s work goes against the grain.  The traditions within her own aesthetic practices have determined a prolonged stare at the form of human suffering.  In so doing, this contemporary Moose Jaw artist leads us over the hill of predictable values and opens up a new horizon of axiological possibilities.

In form, Lara’s aesthetic presentations retain the traditional language of order and structure that has driven the Western dialogue about beauty.  Her collages epitomize a process of composition that suggest the restraint and control of exterior, organizing principles.  This concession to tradition provides the viewer with a familiar, comprehensible and palatable grammar that can be easily parsed, giving her work an air of domesticity. The fields of color, textures, and images that comprise her collages of information, are all warm and inviting, even docile.

The biographical nature of her work furthers its sense of conformist predictability.  The You & Me IXmeaning of the work seems to be the conveyance of historical information regarding the artist’s numerous and personal brushes with sickness.  However, like most people’s appreciation of beauty, this reading of her work seems hopelessly superficial.

I would contend that Lara’s work has, at its root, a subversive quality.  The palatable composition of her work, combined with the sense that it’s meaning is immediately comprehensible acts as a Trojan horse, allowing a deeper and more existential challenge to happen within the viewer.  This, in my understanding, is made consciously evident when one considers her work in the light of our traditional assumptions regarding beauty.

Traditional views of beauty would suggest a subject matter focusing on the symmetry of met expectations and the order of embodied ideals.  Practically, this would mean a visual emphasis on the endless potential, rapture, vivacity, and productivity that is exemplified in youth.  Lara’s work goes contra to this trend and, as a result, it challenges the historical, popular and contemporary constructs of beauty.  Where traditional and popular assumptions of beauty celebrate the ideals of health, happiness, vitality, and fertility, Lara’s work chronicles situations of imperfection that suggest the potential despair, lethargy, and aimlessness that is often found within the processes of both aging and illness. In this, I would suggest that she is exposing the practical weakness of this cognitive ideal to bring any lasting meaning to the concrete, physical existence of the individual.

Given Lara’s conscious feminism, it is not surprising that a substantial amount of   Lara’s work is predominantly focused on the subject of women.  Given the role that the popular philosophical constructs of beauty has played in dominating the social perception of women and how it has determined the choices placed before them, it is equally unsurprising that her work can be said to have a sublimated, critical dialogue with that subject.

02-Installation-MJMAG-2 To the greatest degree, Lara’s work has chosen women in very vulnerable situations in regard to the traditional values by which they have been given social worth.  The vast majority of women she memorializes are past their prime and thus no longer represent the ideals of vitality or fertility, meaning they can no longer be sexualized and found superficially attractive.  In addition, they are incapacitated either physically or mentally, meaning they can no longer be valued by their utility. This reaches an apex with the two women captured within the “Tangles” series.  They are well beyond the constructs of health, happiness, vitality, and fertility that comprise the dominating perception of beauty.

Her absence of aversion in regard to her infertility and the cryptic foreshadowing that is implicit within her bout with gallbladder trouble, serves to both personalize and intensify her dialogue with constructs of beauty and the questions of female (or human) social value which that dialogue emits.

To me, the overall grace in Lara’s work is that she manages to avoid a deconstructive cynicism in regard to beauty.  Avoiding the easy road of dismissing it altogether, Lara seems to be pursuing a more workable understanding of beauty that encompasses a greater sense of concrete reality.

As was stated earlier, moves toward the popular and traditional ideal of beauty are simultaneously departures from that which is broken.  This situation determines that attraction to the former breeds a sublimated contempt for the latter.  Within the context of a dialogue between Lara’s oeuvre and this tradition, her work sheds light on the ugly side of beauty.  Her continuous emphasis on the ordinary, plain, and marred realities of our concrete human experience, demonstrates the great gulf between that universal ideal and our particular everyday existence.

However, I would suggest that Lara is not seeking to deconstruct the nature of beauty as much as she is attempting to redirect the gaze of those pursuing it.  In dialogue with the popular constructs of this concept, her work seems to be saying that beauty is something that is found within our ordinary, human, everyday, flawed experience.  Her work implies that beauty is something intrinsic within our humanity that abides with us throughout our lives, giving us dignity and meaning.  In this sense, she is implying that beauty is not something external, superficial or extrinsic, attributing value from above like a patriarchal deity.  However, this emerging contemporary Moose Jaw artist seems to be saying something even more social and relational about beauty than this cognitive rendering of an article is stating.   What I am attempting to say is that the “beauty” of Lara’s work is seen in that, by giving unfettered emphasis to the tragic, it evokes pathos.  This, I would contend, is what her work means to say.

Diane Lara was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in 1956 and, in her later teens, she moved to Alberta.  After spending 17 years in the workforce, mostly as a legal secretary, she returned to the province of her birth.  Immediately on the heels of her return to Saskatchewan, Lara began taking classes at the University of Regina.  In 1995, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Printmaking and, three years later, received her Masters of Fine Art in the same discipline from the University of North Dakota.  Though she has spent most of her recent years in Moose Jaw, she has also served as an adjunct faculty at Bemidji State University and Medicine Hat College.  She continues her art practice in Moose Jaw.

 Since her graduation from the University of North Dakota, Lara has had four solo exhibitions and been involved in over 10 group exhibitions.  Her work is included in the collections of such diverse institutions as the Saskatchewan Arts Board, Hokkaido Museum (Japan), and the College of New Jersey. 

Summer Solstice

The Deceptive Nature of Chris Wikman

Don’t let Chris Wikman’s compelling landscapes fool you.  They are, primarily and foremost, a mere allusion of reality.

This self-taught artist’s earliest works were ambitious, highly-controlled, abstractions that were significantly closer to the aesthetic nature of Barnett Newman than Jackson Pollock.  These images consisted of large fields of unadulterated color that are engulfed in bold outlines.  They attempted to depict nothing other than a shape and color relationship.

The first decade of Wikman’s artistic development was marked by a slow drift from these controlled and formal abstractions toward his signature landscape work that is grounded in a strange hybrid of Abstract Expressionism, Fauvism, and Impressionism.  His more matured expressions, for which he is best known, manifests his aesthetic transformation from complete abstraction toward representative work.  A depiction of the landscape surrounding him has emerged within his corpus and he has moved from expressing himself in controlled, unadulterated color fields to a more wild, unrestrained, and verbose colorization.

webHowever, Wikman’s own explanations of his creative process suggests that viewers should be cautious about their understanding of the content being depicted by his signature style.  From his telling of it, this mature work is grounded in a specific kind of abstraction, giving it a strange relationship with the concept of representation.

In regard to depiction, Wikman works primarily from memory, creating specific images that emerge from his reflection on experiences grounded in various places he has been with his family and friends.   By the artist’s own confession, his landscapes remain abstraction in the sense that the images are not meant to be a concrete depiction of physical actuality in time and space.  He is not painting from photographs or from an actual placement in the landscape and is thus not painting in a this-is-that and this-is-that sort of depiction of reality.   Instead, he is attempting to paint merely a believable landscape that is only meant to be a rendition of what is contained within his memory.  This is to say that the subject at hand is not landscape but the nature of memory itself and its relationship to the perception of reality.

Wikman’s paintings draw on the vague memories of locations that haunt his mind and, as he attempts to commit these memories to the canvas, they also evoke the associated memories of his social experiences within that landscape.  The result is images that, in essence, capture Wikman’s existential experiences within the natural landscape.  In this sense, his images are attempting to offer the emotional landscape of his memory to the viewer to, in turn, provide them with a memory.

into the marshAnother factor guiding the content of Wikman’s work is his obsession with giving visual attention to parts of the landscape that typically goes unnoticed because of our prevailing assumptions about the important features of nature.  It is the artist’s goal to render a perception of nature through depictions of the transitional spaces between recognized natural landmarks.  As a result, Wikman gives his aesthetic attention to innocuous, uneventful elements in the landscape like farmer’s fields, sloughs, flooded ditches or bluffs of wild trees along the highway – places that we would otherwise disregard.

Wikman’s insistence on painting from memory and without the restraints of any objective source material, combined with his emphasis on the banal elements of the landscape, creates allowance for a third element within his work – visual exaggeration.  His perspective point, which is often close to the ground, fudges the viewer’s sense of scale within many of his images.  As a result, sloughs, ditches, and flooded fields are often taken to be lakes while mere bluffs are taken to be entire forests.

Beyond this element of perspective, the Indian Head-based artist also plays off various visual tropes and indicators from romantic renderings of nature.   The artist uses these types of tropes to exaggerate the true nature of the content.  For example, he uses the highly romanticized visual trope of sunsets or sunrises over lakes when he is, in actuality, merely presenting a flooded field or ditch.  These aesthetic assumptions cause the viewer to see a lake when they are, in actuality, seeing something substantively smaller and insignificant.

A superficial observation of Wikman’s work may suggest that these images are concerned with rendering nature.  However, a more considered engagement with his personal declarations about the work suggests that what is really being explored in these images is the veracity of human memory in relation to the actuality of the places and social events in which those memories are forged.

summer solsticeOver all, Wikman uses form, content and intent to allude to the fact that our memories tend to create emotional landscapes for our perceptions that, in turn, color our perceptions of the real world around us.  As a collective group of works, these images allude to the fact that, though memories can either romanticize or deprecate the places we have been and the experiences we have had, they always distort.  Collectively, these images seem to suggest that reality, whatever it may be, is at a level of remove from our perceptions of it.

For those who do not consider these elements of Wikman’s work, they are deluded into the dictum that seeing is believing.  For them, these paintings are merely landscapes.

To see more of Chris Wikman’s art

The Theological Vision of Martin Scorsese

My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else.”  – Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is an auteur.  In saying this, I am saying a very specific thing.

Auteur theory posits that the director of a film has such personal and artistic influence over a movie’s production that the filmmaker is regarded as the very “author” of the film (auteur is French for “author”).  This theory of the medium has its controversies.  Filmmaking is, after all, a collective enterprise that brings together a series of talented persons given to specific abilities that, as individuals, could never fully realize a film.  Actors, screenplay writers, producers, directors of photography, set designers, and other industry talents pool their resources in order to bring forth what turns out to be a tremendous creative (and sometimes even artistic) enterprise.  This very democratic, dialogical, and collaborative process of production lends to the surprise that any film has a semblance of coherence.   Contrary to this reality, the auteur theory gives a tremendous amount of value to one of these participating parties over all others.

When I state that Scorsese is an auteur, I am tipping my own theories of film aesthetics in the direction of this interpretive method.  In this, I am acknowledging my bias that the director’s perspective and abilities not only guide the activities of a film’s participating parties, but also determine the meaning of the outcome.  However, in regard to applying the term to this seasoned American director, I am attempting to indicate that specific biographical elements within his life do much to “write” the productions in which he participates.

Specifically, I am arguing that Scorsese’s youthful intention for the priesthood has dominated his interests and has done much to determine the projects that he engages and the images he presents.  One could argue, of course, that his movies are mostly rooted in the social codes of his own Italian-American heritage and, more specifically, that community’s manifestations in New York City.  This is clearly something to consider when seeing any specific film.  However, I would immediately argue that Catholicism and the priesthood, which are fundamental contributors to the Italian social codes, are more interesting and even more significant factors to consider when watching and interpreting his aesthetic practice.

At 14, Scorsese began consciously studying theology at Cathedral College.  As he matured within this highly coded religious world, however, he realized that his emerging sexual attraction to women and interest in popular culture precluded his departure from a form of study that centered on celibacy, holiness, and seclusion.  This eventually determined his decision to study film at New York University.

In his biography of this honored filmmaker, Vincent LoBrutto noted that Scorsese’s theological education centered on the most sacred component of Catholic life – the human soul.  Nuns taught him that this component of philosophical anthropology was the battleground for a war between God and the devil.  This battle took place, they taught him, with salvation or damnation and an eternal afterlife in heaven or hell hanging in the balance.  This philosophical theme from his spiritual past has saturated the narratives of his films.  The stories they tell are often populated by tormented figures torn between the corrupting social values that surround them and religious or moral codes that suggest a more transcendent and demanding perspective.  His films often juxtapose the highest orders of religion or moral goodness over and above the lower orders suggested in a life determined the values of the streets, government and human law.

David Roark acknowledges this when he points out that Scorsese’s first feature film, Who’s That Knocking at My Door (1968), explored morality through an Italian-American man’s confusion amid religious convictions and a liberating sexual experience.  Roark also acknowledges this theme is present in Mean Streets when he notes that it tale follows a gangster caught in the middle of two lives: one dominated by an obligation to work for a criminal uncle and one commitment to a form of Catholicism through which he can love his friends and family.  I would point out that this conflict is also obviously on tap in Scorsese’s interpretation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ.  This film, which is essentially a theological exploration of Christology, attaches this exploration of moral struggle to the most central figure of the director’s theological sensibility.   This quest for redemption and the presence of moral conflict also penetrates films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellows, Cape Fear, and The Aviator.

Though I would argue that there is an aesthetic which emerged from the theology of the soul that was handed down to Scorsese by the nuns which nurtured his burgeoning spiritual interest, I would also argue that there is even more nuance to his aesthetic.

In his biography, LoBrutto suggests that Scorsese’s authentic and genuine religious devotion was driven by his gravitation toward the aesthetics of pageantry, ritual, ceremony, and theatricality.   Amidst his theological training, LoButto points out, Scorsese became obsessed with the expression of these elements within the specific liturgy of Holy Week.  His obsessive focus on a liturgical practice that, inevitably, climaxed on the violent actions of the Passion of Christ focused both Scorsese’s theological and aesthetic attention.

Arturo Serrano, in his essay The Spectacle of Redemption: Guilt and Violence in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, provides some illumination when he states, “For a Catholic, the redemptive nature of violence is not only an obvious and daily experience, but above all a visual one.  Depictions of the Crucifixion are bloody spectacles to be witnessed by the masses and play an important role in teaching the pain Jesus endured for their sake.”  Regarding the relation of this Catholic aesthetic to film, Serrano states that cinema’s  “inherent visuality actually connects it to the longer tradition in Catholicism toward visual representations.  Historically speaking, for Catholics the crucifixion in particular and redemptive violence more generally is, above all, a visual event.”

Being raised and educated in a context where every day you are exposed (in your house, at school, in the church) to crucifixion imagary, it is unsurprising that a Catholic thinks of redemption visually. This general fact about Catholic “visuality,” combined with Scorsese’s attraction to the specific visuality of the Catholic liturgy’s theatrical aesthetic of pageantry, ritual, and ceremony, explains his essential attraction to film.  However, his specific focus on, and obsession with, the liturgy of Holy Week does much to illuminate the close relation between the themes of violence and redemption in his films.

The Catholic aesthetic of visual redemption, the whole Catholic salvation narrative, and the specific aspect of the Passion of Christ fuses the aspects of imagery, violence, redemption, and sinfulness into an aesthetic milieu.  I am positing here that this aesthetic milieu is intrinsic to Martin Scorsese’s artistic vision and is, ultimately, the primary authority in his filmography.

When Scorsese says, “My whole life has been movies and religion. That’s it. Nothing else,” I think this mileau is what he is referring to.  I would suggest that any reasoned study of his work demands that we keep this milieu in mind.

 

The Memory of Marion Piper

I first met Marion Piper at a Thematic Residency hosted by Artscape Gibraltar Point on the Toronto Islands. It was our mutual love for words and images in our artistic work that drew us into that residency and into the proximity of each other. In her, I found an expression of human being so affable and buoyant that it was an experience of pure pleasure just to have the honor of spending time with her. She carries herself with such an infectious air of adventure and fun that you can barely believe life could have even a moment of burden to it.

This is not to say she carries herself without the attributes of seriousness or reflection. It is to say, however, that she does not allow these attributes of her personality to make her austere. Glass Confetti, her latest collection of poems, was the book of poetry she was working on during that residency. And, as a body of work created by her hand, it entirely captures her complex temperament. The book is serious without being grim and light-hearted without being trite.

The magic of Glass Confetti conjures up a moving and tragic narrative intricately weaved through graceful and formal poetry. While doing so, it conveys a story of two sisters, separated by death. The main story it tells darts through the poetry, following the surviving and eldest sister, Jo, as she negotiates her world through the lens of her own memory. This lens is primarily focused on specific events in her youth that surround her younger sister. In her retrospection, Jo finds that these touch-point events of her memory often foreshadowed her sister’s impending death and, thus, were filled with a poignancy that had escaped her at the time they were actually happening. This narrative approach, which reveals the illuminating power of memory and its ability to enrich our past, also fills the book with an ethos of regret.

Glass Confetti is a manifestation of concrete poetry. This kind of poetic expression conveys meaning partly or wholly by visual means, using patterns of words or letters and other typographical devices. It is a formally driven practice in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of poetry like rhythm, rhyme and so on.

Do not let this impetus to the book’s content dissuade you. In Piper’s hands, this formal style is neither dry nor academic. Instead, her use of the style becomes a scalpel that slices open an ordinary moment and effectively reveals the inherent poetry of it. Throughout the book, form’s relationship to content is always in the service of it’s meaning. The emerging Australian writer not only avoids the potential of dry formalism, she also avoids becoming too enamored with her clever use of concrete poetry’s style. She never allows her formal tendencies to run away with her. In this book, the young writer’s discipline ensures that poetic form is always in the service of what turns out to be a beautiful and tragic story.

Her playful use of a visual interaction between the literal and metaphoric nature of words and sentences is very effectively used to mirror the youthful, mischievous, playfulness of the two main characters. Her wisdom as a writer is demonstrated in the fact that these same visual keys do not evade the heartfelt pathos of these innocent playful moments. That wisdom is also demonstrated in the fact that this same pathos never eclipses the wonder and innocence of the moment itself. Evading the morose, Piper’s work strikes a perfect balance between the innocence of the moment and the grief that retrospect finds there.

I started this review with Ms. Piper’s personality because her personal biography feeds the essence of the book. Years back, Piper discovered that she had a sister born into this world through her father. After a few years tying to track her down, her estranged sister’s mother found Piper through social media. They arranged to meet and, just days before the scheduled rendezvous, the poet found herself facing the horrific news of her estranged sister’s death in a car accident. The very day that Piper was to meet her sister for the first time ended up, ironically, being the day of her sister’s funeral.

The mood of this tragic event in Piper’s biography pervades Glass Confetti. The book is filled with a sense of angst, genuine self-reflection and frank emotional honesty. And, because of the author’s own process of self-awareness, it is also filled with a precise amount of joyful resolve that does not banish grief all together.

In the book, the actual details of Piper’s own narrative have been inter-mingled with a strange form of fiction. The content of this book is a continuation of the writer’s long-standing tradition of collecting, commemorating and appropriating the narratives of others who have confessed their own tales of loss to her. Glass Confetti extends the practice that has driven the greater part of her artistic work: the details and experiences of others are subsumed into the artistic service of the story it tells. In the end, this means that the content of the book is a skillful compilation and hybrid of numerous stories of grief, forging a believable, yet fictional, rendition of Piper’s own biography.

This method, though used by many writers, seems to be more profound in this context. In the environment of a book of poems so saturated in the act of remembering, the author seems to be making something nearing a statement. There does seem to be an implication that interpretations of the moments of our lives, and the memories we subsequently build from them, are an admixture of both fact and fiction. There also seems to be an implication that one of the profound aspects of memory is its desire to re-examine the veracity of the story it tells.

In the end, the point seems to be that believable things are not necessarily true and that fictional stories are not entirely false. Regardless, the whole enterprise of the book’s examination seems to give license to rewriting our past. This conveys the good news that our tragic and devastating memories can be rewritten into a redemptive story.

The central metaphor of a shattering windshield that is caught forever in the book’s poetic title, symbolizes the shattering grief that lies at the heart of this book. Ultimately, it chronicles the haunting nature of human memory. It reminds us that our memory can often be an ironic simultaneous advent of joyful celebration and reflective grief. Glass Confetti is also a reminder that memory is not only a means to regret, it is also a means to the redemption of healing.

If you are looking for something poetic to evoke your own experience of grief without burying you in it, I think this is a book for you. The author confesses that the book is dedicated to those who have lost someone too soon and who have a story that they do not know how to tell. If your life holds a pocket of grief, the words of this book are a kind of balm that could help you find a way to tell your story, helping you to remember that you have suffered loss and helping you to remember that you have survived.

Marion Piper is a writer, artist and gallery assistant based in Melbourne, Australia. Her art making practice examines the role of personal text and memory in the face of trauma. You can purchase a copy of Glass Confetti here.

Richard Serra: Manifestation of a Revolution

There has been a silent conceptual revolution in regard to sculpture for some time. This slow move of human understanding regarding this discipline has pulled sculpture from the podium, transforming it from an object we look at to a presence we experience. This fundamental change of understanding has become most fully realized in the work of Richard Serra.

Serra is, arguably, one of the most significant sculptures of the past 100 years. If he was not the conceptual leader in a significant transition in the understanding of sculpture, he remains the most significant example of that change. As a totality, his entire body of work can be understood as a move away from a distancing and objective stress on the visual toward an engulfing and subjective internalizing consciousness of a felt experience.

Nancy Spector, the Chief Curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, points out the fact that Serra envisions sculpture as the physical manifestation of transitive verbs. In the late 1960s, Serra compiled a list of infinitives like “to roll,” “to bend,” and “to scatter” and then set about creating sculpted works that embodied these verbs.

The New York-based artist now admits that his earliest artist expressions of these verbs were a failing of his deepest aesthetic intuitions. In the late 1960s he made works like Belts – a presentation of 9 tangled clusters of vulcanized rubber hanging on nails in a row on the wall. In retrospect, the artist saw this and others of his works as merely picturesque – sculptural renderings of notions emerging from painting.

His own critical glance at his work drove a change in his sculptural intentions. Following the primordial influences of his artistic forerunner, Carl Andre, Serra began to see that his true medium was physical space itself and that his sculptural materials merely helped him to give shape to that space. These types of notions transformed his understanding of sculpture’s ultimate intention. Essentially, they changed his understanding of art into something closer to that of an environment.

From all this consideration, he began to see sculpture as something other than an object you look at. This lead him to an aesthetic that was driven by the notion that sculpture, and maybe art in general, is something you encounter with your entire body (i.e. their entire being) in a specific sense of space rather than something you apprehend through a distancing visual cognitive gaze.

I would argue that it was this change in Serra’s intention that determined his work would inevitably become the larger, graceful, transcendent objects that he is now most known for – works like Inside Out (2013) or Torqued Ellipse IV (1998).

His increase in scale served to remove the ability of the viewer to be defined merely as a viewer because of the fact that he or she was now engulfed in the work. Thus the viewer was transformed into a participant who could no longer stand over or in front of an object as a detached, cognitive judge.

I would argue that this has made Serra’s ultimate medium the felt-experience of the viewer and served to reveal that truth, whatever it may be in art, is found in the transitions of human experiences into aspects of their consciousness. This means that the ultimate verbs determining his work seems to be “to feel,” “to experience,” “to encounter,” “to examine.”

There are profound implications found in Serra’s later work and matured artistic consciousness. I leave it to you to explore what those implications might be.

Abjectography

There is definitely something exciting, fresh, and inspiring about the work of an emerging artist. Emanuel Muntean’s Abjectography, which is a collection of photographic images, is an interesting and evocative series of work made by the fledgling, Moose Jaw-based artist.

This former film major has collected imagery dedicated to a broad series of transitioning objects caught in a web of decay. Almost every image contains a man-made object manifesting a losing battle with nature. Having outlived their usefulness or having been utterly forgotten, these objects are in a state of being that relates them to time but not utility or function. Typical images of this collection are intimate records of everything from rotting, frayed fabrics to dried, peeling paint and from discarded wood shavings to rusting metal. These are objects which, at the very core of their existence, are a manifestation of decay.

However, the emphasis of these photos is texture as much as it is time. For the greater part, these images capture a surface of reality that is rife with variance. This artist’s unbridled emphasis on texture evokes a strong curiosity about what that surface or object might actually feel like when touched. However, his emphasis on creating a “visual touch” is not without ambiguity. Almost the entire body of work Muntean has gathered into this series is a decontextualized surface or object that is given to a flamboyant emphasis on colors, details and or textures. If these images are anything, they are rich and lush. However, these images are, simultaneously, gritty and dirty. In effect, this creates an ambiguous relation between the viewer and the image. The overall result of his aesthetic is a push and pull of desire and repulsion. It is this fact that pervades the experience of seeing these images.

Since the artist provides these images without context, the viewer is challenged to find a measure of value for the details, textures, colors and nuances of these images. This need to find value is pushed by a specific aspect related to being decontextualized. The intense intimacy of the perspective point in these images – meaning their excess closeness to the object they present – provides a profound amount of information about the object and intensifies this problem for the viewer. The absence of context makes the viewer aware that they lack a paradigm by which to assess the abundance of information being presented. Together, the decontextualization of the image and the abundance of their information push for fundamental questions about the measure of their value.

The over-arching question asked by these images seems to be “What is the value of these objects?” Given that they have exceeded their usefulness and have fallen into neglect, Muntean seems to be specifically asking, “Is there no value for anything apart from its utility?” Clearly, his answer is yes.

Through this body of work, the promising artist is making an artistic commentary regarding his sense of something’s value. With the title, Abjectography, Muntean insinuates these objects to be abject. The means he assess them as being of very humble means and to be in a lowly state of hopelessness. In the act of photographing and displaying them, however, Muntean transforms them. In the act of photographing them, he changes them from objects of inattention to objects of consideration, from refuse to art, and from banal to important. By bring us into such close and imitate relation to these objects, the artist seems to be emphatically saying, “Look! Look closely! Aren’t they beautiful?” And, in this, he is suggesting the interesting and compelling notion that beauty can attract us to things that our obsession with utility blinds us to.

You can see Emanuel Muntean’s work on
Facebook under Objectography.