Category Archives: The Daily

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.

The Initiation

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.

This collaboration on page51 is an expression of our desire to explore the nature of communication over great distances.  Over time, we will communicate to each other without a direct understanding about the nature of the subjects we are, in actuality, discussing.

It is our desire that you too would take this journey of exploration with us.

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 read my review of Glass Confetti, Ms. Piper’s latest book of poetry, here and you can purchase a copy of Glass Confetti here.

the mouth

The Voice of the Artist

Indulge me in a bit of a pondering. Much has been said about the literary and visual artist’s need of finding a voice. On the one hand, I understand that this is an attempt as stating that the artist must not be silent and, simultaneously, has a need to find something unique to say.  In that sense, the metaphor of finding a voice is explained. However, as important a notion as that may be, it is not this aspect of the metaphor that intrigues me.

This guiding metaphor of finding a voice interests me on different grounds. As a conceptual trope, it captures my thoughts because it employs an insinuation of language but gives primary emphasis to the sense of embodiment. The metaphor of finding a voice implies language but, more directly, it implies the very presence of the artist as a speaker. If we talk of visual images and images created with words as “giving voice” to the artist, we are, to some extent, giving thought to an advent of the artist being both present and speaking.

Why do we not talk about  artists as looking for a language? Undeniably, artists do develop a visual language and gather a particular use of written language that can be recognized as a verbal style. These aspects of their work are what is being referred to as their voice. Even in this elaboration, however, the question remains – why is this metaphor worded in this specific way? Even with this point in my mind, I am still left wondering why we persist in a metaphor for the artist’s work that stands at a bit of a distance from this notion of style. We are not speaking of their language? Why are we are speaking of their voice?

Having given a fair bit of my art practice and personal study to exploring the nature of visual semantics – specifically, the representational relationship of words and images – I have some considerations on this matter. However, I set this thoughtful gaze before you without offering any further elaboration of my thoughts. I do so mainly because I think that there is sometimes more useful to be found in laying out questions than in offering elaborations. I think this way because I assume that the former tends to open up our thoughts while the latter tends to close them in or shut them down. I also think this way because I assume that the process of analysis is often much more interesting and productive that the conclusions of it.

To be sure, what I am offering here does little in laying a firm foundation for concrete thought. However it does chart an area of thinking to explore. Therefore, I leave this with you.

Regardless, I am left wonder what voice you would give to this thought as an artist?

The Wolf of Wall Street

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorsese’s latest offering has energy almost to the point of being frenetic and exposes the humor in the absurdity of being wantonly self-indulgent. The Wolf of Wall Street is a surprising expression of artistic enthusiasm coming from a seasoned director who has a greater amount of his career behind him then ahead of him.

The film is outrageously virile and, if you did not know better, you would assume it was the product of a younger, enthusiastic, upstart director. It is visceral and vulgar, full of vibrato and chest beating (literally). It is, definitively, a manifestation of the type of masculinity embodied in a young man who has not been tempered by the type of self-reflection that fosters social responsibility.

Leonardo DiCaprio, a five-time collaborator with the New York-based director, presents the most captivating and unconstrained performance of his career. His presentation is so given to the characterization of Jordan Belfort, a New York broker, that you can only imagine it to be an expression of his trust in the director’s ability save him from the extremities of his own performance. There are scenes in which DiCaprio’s acting is so unrestrained that he moves his characterization from passion, through realm of fanaticism, into the territory of insanity. In particular, scenes in which DiCaprio performs Belfort’s inspirational speeches to the unfortunate brokers who have fallen under the spell of his tutelage are so given to zealotry that you are stunned at the actor’s bravery of performance.

The film is decadent. It is filled with highly-sexualized imagery and situations that are, almost entirely, sourced in the moral-numbing effects of substance abuse. The narrative voiceover of Jordan Belfort gives the film an air of unembarrassed advocacy for the cynicism of decadence and makes the story it tells an apologetic argument for the self-assured optimistic belief that this is the only kind of meaning and value that can be found in a material age.

The subject at hand is a familiar subject for the director – the power of money. In the hands of Scorsese, money is a metaphor for the human need for power as a form of meaning in a secular age. Unlike his previous presentations on the subject of money, Scorsese presents it here as almost a religious icon. The film has a spirit of ecstatic pentecostalism related to the subject of commercialist materialism and seems to offer this as an explanation as to why humanity cannot pull itself out of the orbit of avarice. Jordan Belfort’s inspirational speeches read as religious sermons and the responses of his minions comes across as religious fervor. Certainly, throughout this film, Scorsese is associating money with the power and seduction of the false sense of meaning found in sexuality and substance abuse. Everything is, after all, alluring and seductive to those caught in an ethos of moral despair.

This is not really, strictly speaking, a moral tale. The film is not really attempting to be preachy, medicinal or therapeutic on the subject at hand. It presents the views of the protagonist with little to no moral judgment. In the character of Jordan Belfort, vice is a virtue and that is merely a fact. If there is any judgment of that character, it comes strictly from the viewer. In the film, the nature of salesmanship is explored. Fundamentally, it successfully presents all forms of salesmanship as a method that exploits the greedy desires of others as a means of fulfilling or actualizing one’s own greed. In this sense, it makes the process of salesmanship to seem smarmy and this is as close as it gets to present a form of morality.

Scorsese’s unabashed, judgment-free presentation of the protagonist’s views facilitates an extreme to the point of absurdity and, therefore, the film sometimes renders as a comedy. You find yourself laughing at the embarrassing selfishness of the characters activities and situations. However, in my reading of this film, I would take Scorsese to be insinuating that our laughter – a product of our moral disdain for such flagrant self-service – is, potentially, merely a way of clouding our envy of their success.

street

Finding Transcendence in the Streets

In our society, New Year’s Day marks a conception of time that facilitates reflection.  Taking stock – considering and evaluating the importance and significance of the experiences we have had and the activities we enacted – is an important human exercise.  It is a process of refinement that helps us to distinguish mere distractions from significant visions and the banal from the meaningful.  Ultimately, these times of reflective concentration, intend to make better people of us.

In contemplating on my experiences in 2013, one work of art emerges as a profound viewing experience.  Hands down, my encounter with James Nares’ Street stands out the most arresting art experience of last year.  Indeed, I would even say that this chance encounter with this piece of work is one of the most arresting art experiences of my life.

Last spring, I took my youngest daughter to New York City as a right of passage commemorating her sixteenth birthday.  As with my oldest daughter, I brought her to city that I love in order to expose her to the complexity of a broader and bigger world.  This intentionality eventually brought us to the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Our visit to this grand institution happened well into our week-long trip and we were weary for it.  By the time we arrived at the doors of the Met, we had roamed the busy streets, crowded institutions, and innumerable stores of what is a demanding and complex city.  We had literally walked over hundreds of miles before we arrived at this point and little did we know that all these experiences would serve to lend meaning to a piece of visual art.

Street is a video installation by the British-born artist that is entirely given to depicting the seemingly unending street life of New York City.  The New York-based artist captured the footage that was used to comprise the installation over the course of a week in September 2011.  During that week, he collected footage of people on the streets of Manhattan from a moving vehicle using a high-definition camera that is typically used to record fast-moving subjects like hummingbirds.  He recorded innumerable six-second scenes – the minimum amount the resolution would allow for – till he had acquired an amazing sixteen hours of documentation.  In his final presentation, he slowed down his source material significantly and presented a one hour edited version.  His visual record was accompanied by a repetitive soundtrack of guitar music performed by Thurston Moore, a member of the band Sonic Youth and a friend of the artist.

When we came upon this work on the second floor of the Met, both my daughter and I were immediately mesmerized.  The dramatic and emotive music, combined with painfully slow-moving images of people on the streets of the city, produced a work that was both captivating and hypnotic.

By slowing down the moving images and eliminating the distracting and frenzied sounds associated with them, Nares transformed what would otherwise be chaos into order and he provided an object of meditative contemplation.  Within the room it was presented, there was a substantive crowd that, like us, was subsumed into the beauty and grace of the imagery.  With the lights out and the room silent, it felt more like you were in a theatre than an art gallery.  However, the collective human experience of watching Street gave such a collective sense of the profound that you felt you were more in a church than in a movie theatre.  Regardless, you definitely did feel that you were in anything other than an ordinary moment of time.

The technique of Nares’ presentation allowed for an extended and considered examination of the brief, six-second, snapshot moments he captured in his original stock.  This presentation allowed the viewer to observe details that could never be observed in “real time.”  The result was a convincing poetic and transcendent view of the human experience.  The installation allowed from a transfiguration of the ordinary that transformed banal moments of everyday life into seemingly eternal works of art.

In our encounter with Nares’ work, both my daughter and I left the museum changed.  Though, after we left the exhibition, we continued to see the busy and crowded streets, we now knew that grace and beauty saturated those complex moments.  This consciousness was so astute in us that we reconsidered all the experiences we had had before our encounter as well.  Nares’ presentation had truly reminded us that banality is really a façade that hides a more resident and transcendent meaning.

Given that we face another year on this pale rock of a planet, the work of James Nares reminds us all that we need to slow down our pace and increase our consideration of the moments that we find ourselves in.  His work reminds us to be more contemplative of the meaning infused in our own human experiences.  I think this might be a good resolution for us all.

 

You can see a cut from James Nares’ Street at the following link:  http://www.metmuseum.org/metmedia/video/collections/ph/street

 

Why Bowie Matters to Gaga?

I found myself in the Art Gallery of Ontario flabbergasted by the girth of the exhibition David Bowie is. The 300 objects from Bowie’s personal archive, along with the totally immersive multimedia show that explored it, delivered a whopping understanding of the groundbreaking artist’s magnitude and significance. This exhibition from the prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum of London explained his weighty and simultaneous presence in the fields of fashion, music, theatre, art and film.

The details of this exhibition more than adequately conveyed the British-born artist and performer’s profound search for, and engagement with, sources of inspiration. In this regard, the exhibition is best understood as an exploration of the relationship between sources of inspiration and the expressions it pulls from those who find it. In the case of Bowie, it conveyed two things. First, it stressed the importance of examining inspirations as a source of self-understanding. Second, it relayed that the depth of consideration of one’s inspirations, along with the understanding of the self it produces, is directly proportional to the depth of its expression and, thus, its social impact and significance.

However, what grabbed my attention was the exhibition’s focus on Bowie’s numerous personae. While exploring the sources of his inspiration, it essentially demonstrated that Bowie’s inspirations helped him assume identities and roles in terms of performance. The exhibition conveyed that his inspirations helped him present personifications that revealed him as an artist while concealing the actuality of his person in enigma. Ironically, by tracing the relationship between the artist and his inspirations, the exhibition revealed many things about him. Primary among them is the depth of insight and self-understanding that guided his performance from his youth.

Contained within this ambient exhibition were the costumes and videos of performances that conveyed the flamboyance, artistry, confidence, and the strangeness that permeated the performances that marked Bowie’s emergence into notoriety. Even a brief survey of Bowie’s performances on record in the exhibition – especially those on Saturday Night Live – convey a system of visual expression so committed to unabashed creativity that it can still register as an expression so enigmatic that it appears, well, strange.

This leads me to a comparison with Stefani Germanotta in her incarnation as Lady Gaga. I know that relating the emerging with the established can be a dangerous game. However, I take this risk only for the sake of contextualizing and explaining Ms. Germanotta as both an artist and a social phenomenon.

The superficial aesthetic connections between Germanotta and Bowie can be pretty easy to see. Her early signature lightening bolt on her face and her current smeared makeup harlequin face are both grounded in Bowie. The topical references to space travel and the very sound of Bowie is on tap in her current album ARTPOP.

However, I would posit that the deeper connections between these artists are established along the lines of persona. Germanotta, like Bowie, uses persona as a means to, simultaneously, express and protect the self. For her, Bowie presents the model of flamboyance, extravagance, and spectacle. Following her model, she uses these elements as a means to accomplish her objectives of simultaneously revealing and concealing herself.

The conceptual distance between Germanotta and Bowie emerges along the lines of the extent that conscious personification plays a part of her aesthetic practice. What she seems to be adding to the equation is her practice of pulling the theatrics from the stage and bringing them into the realm of everyday life.

Whereas Bowie often performed as Ziggy Stardust and other characterizations, Germanotta has created a more holistic portrayal- Lady Gaga. As a result, what is implicit in Bowie has been made explicit in Gaga. Though both artists stressed an emphasis on the valuation of individualism, Gaga does so with a significantly larger dose of playful audacity.

In her rendering of herself as “Mother Monster”, she presents herself as both model and protector. This particular element of the Gaga persona suggests the cultural reality that those who practice authentic individualism will, inevitably, experience a resultant alienation through of vilification. The Mother Monster motif adds an almost religious flavor to the model she is putting forth. This kind of nerve was not on display in Bowie.

Gaga’s audacity and its extravagances manifest in the areas beyond the stage that, typically, defines the realm of performance. Her public appearances in a meat dress or while being carried incased in an egg are just two examples of the many spectacles that have escaped the stage and entered into the public and sphere. These, and other practices like them, have won Gaga only limited applause and abundant alienation.

If freed to speculate, I would posit that these practices of aesthetic audacity are indicative of Gaga’s desire to enact an expression of magical realism. The motive of this expression seems to challenge the cultural sense that drives dry, cold, and stark conformist realism. Her practices of extreme and flagrant social extravagances assaults conformity and suggests an expression of an individualism that lies somewhere between society’s sense of reserved norms and the extremes of her own expressions. In her practice, she forges an imagination for new boundaries for what is socially possible and acceptable. Unlike Bowie, she seeks to model an individualism that extends beyond the protective realm of the stage – an area where such extravagances are expected and accepted by the general public.

I would also posit that this practice of social extravagance is indicative of a fundamental insecurity in Germanotta. She has, of course, confessed this. On several occasions, she has stated that, when feeling insecure, she wears such overdone paraphernalia for a sense of “protection.” This is, of course, verbosity as a protective preemptive strike. Again, a model of behavior is put forth.

While standing in the midst of David Bowie is in the heart of Toronto, a question of Bowie’s stability raised in my mind. I caught myself wondering what all this invention and reinvention meant in regard to self-understanding. I did catch myself wondering if this process reflected a complete absence of a centering self – even neurosis. However, it was clear from the exhibition that the longevity, breadth, and depth of Bowie’s work proved that this process of invention and reinvention was a legitimate expression of a conscious self-exploration for the purposes of deepening self-understanding. His career was, after all, the proof in the pudding.

Only time will tell if Germanotta’s expression will do the same thing. It is my hope that it would.