art show reviews

L.A. Trip, Part One

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean Park #79

Some people have a bucket list of places to see and things to do before they die. I have a list of artists I want to see, not just one painting, but a decent retrospective, and I’m ready to travel to do this. I’ve gone to Palm Springs to see Wayne Thiebaud, and I went to Seattle to see the Leipzig painters. This month I crossed another artist off my list when I went to Los Angeles.

Richard Diebenkorn is an artist I’ve admired for a long time. I admire the way he moves between abstraction and representation, his subtle use of colour and most of all I admire his Ocean Park series. Plus, he was mentioned on Gilmour Girls, which used to be the peak of pop cultural acclaim around here.  I kept reading about planned Diebenkorn shows, but when this show finally materialized, I booked our flights to California.

The cheery woman at the front desk of our L.A. motel remarked that she had never heard of the Orange County Art Museum, and certainly the directions she gave us resulted in endless circles in an unpromising office park. When we finally found the museum, it was well-hidden in a business complex, but thanks to a Target-sponsored family day, admission was free and the place was packed. Can I say how happy it makes me to see a museum full of people of all ages enjoying good art? Can I also say how much I’m looking forward to Target finally coming to Canada, not only for the shopping, but since they seem to be big supporters of the arts?

On to the show, which features Diebenkorn’s Ocean Park paintings, as well as the prints and works on paper of the same period.  Diebenkorn’s studio was in nearby Santa Monica, and he was inspired by the intense light of Southern California. The Ocean Park paintings are huge at 8 or 9 feet tall, seeing them in books gives you no idea. And you can see the layers of paint, where Diebenkorn considered and then obliterated what went before, as contemplation was a big part of his process. He uses oil paint in a very flat, thinned way, creating opacity rather than the shiny impasto I usually associate with the medium. And his judicious use of bright colour with neutrals was beautiful.

Diebenkorn smoked cigars and used the box tops as another painting surface.

I was particularly fascinated by some tiny paintings done on cigar box lids, which were mainly personal gifts. He managed to make the composition of a 5” x 5” painting as perfect as something 20 times larger. I’m vowing to spend more time sweating out my compositions in the future. Seeing great art is simultaneously discouraging and inspiring, but I have yet to see a great artist who didn’t work his/her butt off to create, regardless of circumstances. If you can’t get to the show, here is video of the show when it was in Texas. 

So who’s next on the bucket list? There’s a Mark Rothko show in Portland I’ll be seeing next month. And I’d love to see Gerhardt Richter, Peter Doig, and Beatriz Milhazes, and I keep adding artists to my list. Does anyone know a good way to see what shows are coming up and where they’ll be? Because I’m very willing to travel to see art, and enjoying new cities are just a wonderful side effect.

Art as history

Everyone I talk to about this show has the same reaction. They say in a completely incredulous voice, “Goya! In Abbotsford?”  For those not in the Vancouver area, Abbotsford is about an hour out of downtown Vancouver, as long as it’s not rush hour, and is more famous for agriculture and an air show than art. However the Reach Gallery Museum must have a well-connected curator since they have already featured shows by Diane Thorneycroft and Betty Goodwin, two Canadian artists I greatly enjoy.

Or perhaps exhibitions are attracted by the wonderful space.  The Reach is in a beautiful new building, and it’s divided into several different galleries. There is a large main space for major exhibitions, another room which displays regional history, and two smaller spaces for local artists. This is a nice mix that allows large shows to draw an audience and gives emerging artists a great opportunity.

The current show is a display of two sets of Goya prints, Los Desastres de la Guerra and Los Caprichos, on loan from the National Gallery. Los Caprichos, a social satire, is displayed in its original book form, and can be explored via a screen copy. Each of the eighty prints of The Disasters of War has been separately framed and is displayed in the low light gallery. While Goya created the etching plates during the occupation of Spain by the Napoleonic troops, they were never printed in his lifetime.

I have been a fan of Goya ever since I saw extensive galleries of his paintings in Madrid. He is an artist who used both humour and horror in his work, and the paintings seem to spring from the great emotions which boil inside him.  Indeed as we can see from these prints, Goya lived in times of great tumult.

It’s difficult to review these prints from an artistic standpoint, since although Goya had a masterful use of line, composition and light, the subject matter is so compelling you just go from one print to the next, trying to find some reasonable explanation for the horrible deeds depicted. Clearly Goya’s sympathies were for his countrymen (as well as women and children) who suffered such degradations at the hands of the invading soldiers, that even 200 years later we are still shocked. And perhaps that is his genius, to be able to make you feel great emotion with only a few simple lines.

Sometimes sensitive artists question art-making, wondering if it’s worthwhile to paint when  so many “bigger” things are happening.  In Goya’s case, he painted society portraits and court paintings to earn a good living, but when he was called upon to return to his hometown of Zaragosa and record the invasion, he summoned all his skills and created a masterpiece that lives on forever. Surely a testament to the power  that art can have in our lives.

Consider the tea towel

With photos like this,  it's difficult to believe I have an artistic bone in my body.  

Recently I saw a great exhibition of….tea towels! Yes, leave it to the Japanese to find a way to make the most mundane objects an art form. Right now, the Nikkei National Museum does look a little like an exclusive linen store or even a ritzy clothesline, since it’s filled with tengui or printed cotton towels. It’s an interesting show for those who like design, craft or Japanese culture. There is even a video showing the long process of making the towels, the stencilling part was especially interesting to me since I use stencils in my art. Given the hard work that goes into every step of making tengui, I now feel guilty for using them to dry dishes.

Seeing the tea towels beautifully displayed reminded me how many items are treated as fine craft in Japan. When I lived there, I saw beautiful pottery, hand-crafted garden ornaments, painstakingly sculpted gardens and intricate foods. I learned that not only was the tea ceremony an art, but there were stores completely devoted to tea. Now we have dedicated tea stores in North America too, but at the time I was amazed at all the energy devoted to tea.

Relaxing with some things I love: green tea in a teacup by Cul de Sac, jar by Hey Day, painting by (blush) me, and cat head made by my  creative daughter.
However, when I consider the humble cup of tea or the simple tea towel, it makes me think that beauty and art can be a part of our everyday lives. If we take time to properly brew a cup of tea, and serve it in a cup handcrafted by a friend and artist, then that simple act becomes beautiful as well. And if we raise the mundane act of drying the dishes to art form as well, then a chore becomes a ritual and our lives are elevated.

One new note to add on my year of giving, while at the National Nikkei Museum, I dropped off a painting for Bloom, their silent art fundraiser which will be on Saturday, April 28th. Although I neglected to take a photo of the painting, it's an older one of mine canvas which I based on this beautiful scrap of Japanese fabric I've had for years:

Back to the sixties

I enjoy theme days, those days when I get to combine activities that are related. Like the summer day when my best friend came to visit from Toronto, and we spent the day in the Little India district here in Vancouver. We browsed jewelry stores, trying on armfuls of sparkly bracelets, and she bought a silky pashmina. I loved the fabric stores full of the bright, shimmering colours that haunt my paintings. We ate lunch at an Indian buffet restaurant and then went home and watched a Bollywood movie. A perfect theme day.

Honestly, I wasn't drinking when I took this tipsy photo.

Today was a theme day. We went to the Equinox Project Space, an outpost of the Equinox Gallery. It is hidden away in a former manufacturing space in East Van, and is spectacular in its size and setting. The current show is a huge selection of Fred Herzog photographs.

Fred Herzog is a Vancouver photographer who worked very diligently during the sixties, photographing regular life in Vancouver, the streets, the people, the buildings. He is attracted to colour and pattern in daily life, with photos showing the glamourous neon signs of downtown or a simple wall of posted signs. What becomes clear in seeing so many of his works together is that Herzog is a genius at waiting for that perfect moment when a subject will cast the interesting shadow, or somehow capturing intimate moments unnoticed. He beautifully juxtaposes the old and the new, the modern and the decrepit, all without judgement. His photos invite you to remember or to imagine how things used to be. When I first saw Herzog’s photographs five years ago, they were gathering crowds in the Vancouver Art Gallery, with people exclaiming happily at sights they remembered or recognized.  I think that the work is accessible on so many levels and art snobs or regular slobs can equally enjoy the photographs. The show continues until the end of March, and I would encourage everyone to see it. It is also viewable on line, but  of course seeing the large-scale photographs gives you a chance to revel in the details. Once you leave the show, you find yourself noticing all the little details of life, the people, the colours, everything you take for granted.

If I could buy one photograph in the show, it would be Kuo Kong Silk, which shows Chinese kids in Mountie hats. It reminds me of my own childhood, being a kid who looked Japanese, but felt 100% Canadian. In a way it encapsulates the whole cultural mosaic of Canadian immigration, the blending of new and old countries.

Ah, but what about the rest of theme day? For lunch, we went to Helen’s Grill at Main Street. I’ve always wanted to try it, since it looks completely retro from the outside and the inside looks original too. The décor is authentically orange and brown, there’s a long lunch counter and there are jukeboxes in the booths! It was as if we were transported back to the land of Fred Herzog’s photographs. 

Martin Creed doesn't like you very much

I have a great love for the Rennie Museum, I admire its laser focus:  a gorgeous architectural space, the spotlight on a single artist, small guided tours.  So far out of the two shows I’ve seen, I’ve fallen in love with the work of Richard Jackson, and been intellectually intrigued but emotionally distanced by the Mona Hatoum works. Naturally I was interested to attend the Martin Creed show. I already knew his illuminated text piece on the roof garden of the museum: EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT, and l liked it very much.

The show begins wonderfully. You have to swim through a pool of gigantic pink balloons, which is fun and childish and exciting. If you never got to experience a ballroom as a child, this may be as close as you get.  You emerge at the end where the tour guide beckons nervously, pushing balloons back while opening the door. Another delight is watching people emerge from the balloon room, their coiffed hair spiked with static and a look of pleasure or disgust on their faces.

Unfortunately for me, the great pleasures ended right there. Although I don’t dislike conceptual art, I do dislike art that needs to be explained to be properly appreciated. Instead I prefer conceptual art that causes you to ask questions or seek more information if it is not immediately understandable.  This exhibition is explanations followed by passive observation.  Strong threads run through Creed’s art, the most prominent being an idea of binaries or oppositions. The balloon room is calculated to be half the mass of the room’s volume. The next piece features gold and silver salt and pepper shakers, which are supposed to be art pieces, left in pubs and other places which apparently elucidates the idea of what art is. A film showing the shakers being used in a pub (to salt and pepper food, surprisingly enough!)   features an orchestral soundtrack, which the docent tried to talk over as he introduced the museum, the show, and the artist.  Sadly, at my age (and I was one of the younger people in my boomer tour group) I have trouble hearing over loud noises, so I found it tough to concentrate on the explanations.

Inadvertent distractions are what plagues the whole show for me. I can’t focus on the wall art since runners are doing laps of the gallery at the same time, or because the loud noises of many metronomes or piano lids crashing are bothering me.  I feel uncomfortable that people, like the anonymous runners and a girl whose only job is to rewind metronomes, are scattered around the gallery like robots who neither interact with me nor feel the credit of being appreciated as art. Also being used are the people throwing up on film to explore Creed’s ideas about painting. Besides some interesting vegetable prints and marker paintings, Creed also makes the kind of art that people who hate modern art love to reference: a crumpled piece of paper you can buy for only £165.   By the end, I felt that much of the show was a huge practical joke staged by an artist who didn’t like people very much.  Instead of exploring the gallery afterwards as I usually do, I left immediately.

Nardwuar and Martin Creed enjoying themselves greatly in coordinating outfits ( from

Still, in order to write this review, I felt I needed to research Creed a little more. I found to my delight he did an audio interview with Nardwuar the Human Serviette, a local musician and humourous character. This was the perfect meeting, since Nardwuar brings both naïveté and great research to his work. If Creed was a phony, Nardwuar would ferret that out.  In fact, Creed turned out to be an extremely pleasant man with a lilting Scottish accent, who lacked any pretention but also seemed quite at a loss to explain any of his artwork. It was as if the art dropped from the sky and landed in his studio.  (They talked more easily about Creed’s music and his band, and I am happy to report that unlike Michael Ignatieff, Creed does know that the correct signoff to any Nardwuar interview is “doot-doot!”) This interview got me thinking about what might be wrong with the Creed show at the Rennie.

I wrote earlier that the quality of the docents was significantly better at the Richard Jackson show than at the Mona Hatoum show, and I speculated that this was because Jackson had spent so much time installing his work at the gallery. Along with the time, he had generously shared his ideas about art and producing art.  Hearing Creed be so modest or even disingenuous about his art made me realize that once again, the viewer suffers because the docents are handcuffed.  I think that rather than art school interns who are overly impressed by the Emperor’s new artist, perhaps maybe the tour could become a performance with a different kind of docent: a mathematician to explain the binary progressions, a stand up comedian to riff on the humourous aspects, or a musician to link the music and art.  Or if Creed does not want to explain the art at all, maybe it would be better to have the viewer walk through and explore and then partake in a docent-led discussion at the end. 

One happy aside to the show, I found out that the fantastic Richard Jackson wall paintings had not been destroyed but instead a false wall was built in front of them. I hope to see them again sometime.

The Cats of Mirikitani

On the weekend, I went to the National Japanese Canadian Museum to see a double feature:  the film, The Cats of Mirikitani, and a display of the paintings featured in the film.

This movie is about an elderly man, Jimmy Mirikitani, living on the streets of New York who makes his meager living as an artist. He does different colour drawings, many of them about cats. A film maker living in the neighbourhood meets him and befriends him and begins filming his artmaking. Then a few months after they first meet, the Twin Towers are attacked, and a hazardous smoke fills the neighbourhood. Out of concern, the filmmaker, Linda Hattendorf, invites Jimmy to take shelter in her apartment. The film then traces the growing friendship between the two and unravels the life that brought Jimmy to the street.

Hattendorf makes several interesting points with her film. The main point seems to be about the rich histories of those we may walk right past on the street, and how their lives can be rehabilitated. In addition, she makes the important connection between the prejudice following September 11th, and the racism of the internment camps, just as Jimmy sketches the parallels between both the bombing of Hiroshima and the burning of the Twin Towers.

The show of paintings was organized around the film, and seems to show many of the paintings he created on camera. The work is bright and energetic and encompasses everything from political landscapes to cats. What is really interesting is how Jimmy Mirikitani worked on any materials he had handy: cardboard, thin paper, collaged scraps. Everything feeds into his art.

But what struck me most was the spirit that helped Jimmy live through all his hardships was the belief that he was an artist, a great artist and that was his path. He refused to join the Japanese navy, he tried to get a reprieve from the internment camps, he made a living on the street, all because he was an artist. The creativity and the creation of art seemed to keep him alive both in body and spirit through many trials. Many artists today look for confirmation through sales, gallery representations, show reviews and peer admiration. Clearly, being an artist is what we can decide ourselves. I am an artist because I make art. The continuous making of art is what distinguishes the true artistic souls.

The show continues all during March and you can see the film as well on Saturday, March 26th at 2pm. If you’re not in Vancouver, I would urge you to see the DVD, it’s both interesting and inspiring.

The colourful world of Richard Jackson

Since the field of art is so vast, I try to focus on the studio and studio practices.  However recently I went to an exhibition that gave the idea of studio practice a whole new dimension.

Richard Jackson is an American painter who originally trained as an engineer and is very interested in the process of painting and the temporary nature of the work.  His work is currently on exhibit at the Rennie Collection, which is Vancouver's first important private art museum. Bob Rennie is an art collector who decided to construct his own gallery to exhibit his collection of thought-provoking art.  During our tour we ran into Bob Rennie, who was enthusiastic and boyishly charming about his museum, and he told us that he hopes to have it open on Saturdays soon for those who can’t make the weekday tours.

But back to Richard Jackson, who has become one of my new favourite artists.  He is clearly an artist who shuns the artifice and preciousness around modern art to produce artwork that gives a definite middle finger to art establishment.

Jackson's work usually begins as a large sketch which is a cross between an architectural drawing and  miniature painting.  The sketches themselves displayed here are really interesting, they illustrate approximately what the finished project will look like.  Bob Rennie went to Jackson's studio, chose a sketch and then Jackson came to the museum to create the work on site. He turns the gallery into his studio.

Here the painting featured in the first floor of the gallery.  Jackson loads a canvas with acrylic paint, screws it to the wall with a hinge device and then twirls it like a giant Spin Art toy.  He then waits for it to dry and adds another layer on top, a process that takes weeks.

Early in my marriage, I suggested to my husband, Patrick, that we purchase a piece of art from one of his avant garde friends, let’s call him Mr. X.  Patrick declared, “It’s not like a painting you could hang on the wall, Mr. X would probably come and live in our basement for a month as a project.” Less than intrigued, I gave up on that idea but I can see that Jackson is a similar type. Once he undertakes a project, he comes to the gallery and stays for weeks, building new floors, gradually adding layers of paint to canvases, installing existing works. According to our docent, Jackson is very interested in doing most of the work himself in response to the manufactured work of the American minimalists.  

And speaking of docents, in an earlier post I complained about the quality of the docents at this same museum, but this time I have taken the tour twice and both time the docents were excellent.  I believe that the difference is that since Jackson was at the museum for so long, everyone got to know him and understand his art more fully. Plus Jackson is clearly an open and interesting man, who demystifies the art process and freely allows photographs in the gallery. What a boon for bloggers, since writing about art is so much better when I can illustrate it.

Here is another piece, Pump Pee Doo, which is a take off on the Pompidou Museum in Paris. When activated, the bears pee paint into urinals.  The piece reflects ideas of Duchamp, complementary colours, the process of painting and just plain fun.  

Here is a close up of another painting constructed on site. In this piece, Jackson used paint as the mortar to build an enormous wall of paintings, held together by only acrylic and a few strategic wires.

The piece goes up about twenty feet to the ceiling of the museum.  Like the swirling painting on the main floor it is ephemeral, and will be taken down at the end of the show.  I felt sad that these works would be destroyed eventually and also privileged that I got to see them. As I mentioned, I've already been to the show twice, and I intend to go once more before the show ends in September. Finding a new favourite artist that I did not know before is a great delight.