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