Friday, July 4, 2008

REAL: The Elephant in the Abstraction Room*

The fundamental problem with viewpoints such as those in Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary My Kid Could Paint That is the entire negation of the painter’s path from process to product. The documentary, like so many byproducts and pop cultural jokes about the purported randomness of modernist abstraction, assumes that because it looks like a few drops of paint splashed and some unruly strokes of paint smeared, anybody or anything with limited motor skills can surely slap it together. Only, engaging in a conversation with their predecessors, the abstract expressionists were painters exhausted with the look, feel and temper of painting before them. They were also highly skilled painters formally and technically, obsessive with surpassing their own limitations and passionate in arguments with and amongst themselves. Preoccupied with the abilities of communicating within their medium, the movement of abstract expressionism resulted in soliciting the primal and the emotive—subjects that apparently remain plagued by those who seek its form and function.

Sixty years after the emergence of the abstract expressionist movement, its spectre has returned to become the predominant focus of REAL. Curated by Marcus Miller with the possible intention of linking abstract art back to the real lived-in world, the exhibition certainly provides samples of work that illustrate how the reality of the world can manifest into works of art. A sample of Maria Madacky’s latest meticulations—even if they are completely un-expressionist—are works pulled from a larger series contemplating the span of hands-on work over time as marked by the imperfect physical traces of rust and wear. Abstract in the technical sense, it is by the far the most interesting work in the exhibit.

The most contentious work (and, not so coincidentally, the most hyped) is the collaboration between unlearning painter Tim Rechner and Lucy, the captive painting elephant of the Valley Zoo. I cannot speculate on the thoughts and emotions running through Lucy, as I only know that she’s the only elephant remaining in the zoo and has been living in captivity since 1977 after falling into a gem mine as a two-year-old. I can, however, speculate with confidence that Lucy simply has no artistic intentions, but just enjoys the act of what we call painting as it supplies some of the little movement and stimulus afforded her. With their sad eyes and the not entirely disqualified rendering of heightened sensitivity in Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone, it is all too romantic to pair this melancholy creature with another and call their creative collaboration “art.”

The work is real, and the idea by itself is worth reconsidering, but within the group show featuring real artists, the worth of Lucy’s efforts comes off more like a backhand to her co-exhibitors and an all-too-brief excursion with this unwitting animal. The purpose of the exhibit seemingly implodes upon itself, playing up the skeptics’ sentiments that surely kids and animals could paint these nonsensical prints for purchase. The worst part is that I feel for Lucy in the same way I felt for the little girl who just liked to paint sometimes for fun. Exploited for its creativity by an overseeing product-driven mentality, the value of Lucy is the real elephant in the room.

Photo courtesy of The Art Gallery of Alberta

*First published in Vue Weekly, July 3 - July 9, 2008


nextfest said...
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If you are going to read meaning into the exhibit's title, you should probably at least read the didactic. Because this isn't what real is about at all. "Possible intention" indeed.


If you are going to read meaning into the exhibit's title, you should probably at least read the didactic. Because this isn't what real is about at all. "Possible intention" indeed.


If you are going to read meaning into the exhibit's title, you should probably at least read the didactic. Because this isn't what real is about at all. "Possible intention" indeed.

Dead Joe said...

Again, this writing is so poor, I can't fathom what you're trying to say here, Amy.

amy said...

adam, if you are going to piss, please at least aim. I was really hoping you would review this show, since you had such strong feelings about it, but still, I am unsure as to what those feelings or thoughts are all about.

Marcus Miller said...

I’m happy to see a critical point of view here – and one that gets to the heart of a question that’s been bugging me since I read an info item in the Globe and Mail years ago: the headline read “Baboon Funeral.” Apparently about 100 baboons had gathered around the spot where one of them had been killed by a car on the road - just standing there, silent. The item had no explanation, provided no context or back-up - just the headline suggesting the possibility that these animals were grieving - collectively. Culture?

The more famous examples of unemployed logging elephants retrained as musicians using custom-built drums (some like it, others don’t, some are good at keeping time with nuanced playing, others not-so-much …) sparked interest when Conceptual artists Komar & Melamid initiated the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project to support these domesticated animals by selling elephant paintings. Zoos around the world now typically raise funds by selling ‘artwork’ created by their higher functioning animals.

One curator’s statement I recently came across claimed that elephants are just now working their way through abstraction and will no doubt, she claimed, dabble in Impressionism, Realism, progressing through Minimalism, Pop, Conceptualism and beyond. Plug in “elephant” and “painting” on youtube and you get hundreds of videos showing elephants painting. Elephants, it seems, are one of the few animals with the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors - suggesting the possibility of self-portraits! And there are videos of elephants doing just that.

I don’t believe them – my prediction is that elephants will stick with abstraction as their preferred mode. If an elephant painting were publically exhibited 150 years ago, it would not be understood as painting. But then again Jackson Pollock would suffer the same fate. There was no aesthetic category for abstract painting 150 years ago (and no ‘eye’ would have had the necessary discernment to make any value judgment other than total rejection). It’s no different for Monet or Van Gogh – strip these Modern artists from their zeitgeist and they would simply fail to signify.

But Amy’s point has more to do with Lucy’s intent and awareness – does ‘she’ think she is making art? I think not. But that’s just one man’s opinion – actually I have no idea of what Lucy is aware of, but then again, I can’t claim to really know what anyone is aware of, is thinking, meaning or feeling… We have language and misunderstand. We fight with our brothers and sisters – in fact, the closer we appear to be, the more we seem to exaggerate our differences (cf the English and French, Jews and Arabs, staunchly ‘German’ Jews 70 years ago, Abstract painters and Conceptual artists…).

Maybe Lucy isn’t an artist. For me, the better question is whether she can get more from, grow or deepen her experience of painting (which she already does, and clearly enjoys, for whatever reason), by working with Tim Rechner. Tim says his work is enriched by working with Lucy – might her whateveritis be enriched by working with him?

2 shameless (but directly related) plugs:

“When REAL Meets ‘Art’”
Sunday, August 17, 2008, 4:30 PM
Accent European Lounge, 8223 104 Street
Talk-back session following the opening performance of ‘Art’ (Sunday, Aug 17, 2:15 PM, King Edward School). Panelists will launch from the play’s debates of abstract vs. concrete, modernist vs. meaningless and artifact vs. extravagance while expounding on the ‘real’ impulses behind abstract painting, the views of proponents and skeptics, and the desire to create a human connection with one’s audience. The panel will include director Kelly Reay, curator Marcus Miller, and REAL (human) artist Marianne Watchel. Eric Nyland will moderate.


REAL artists talk
Thursday, September 18, 7 – 8:30pm
FREE night at the AGA


(Assistant Curator + Manager Public Programs)