Category Archives: January 2017

Mystical Landscapes

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Living in the woods has a lot of advantages, like experiencing how the indifference of nature puts things in perspective.  I grew up thinking that this indifference was horrifying – something so many philosophers and poets have hung their hat on; that the natural world is full of death.  But what I realize now is that first, we are part of the natural world and secondly, our attempts at dominating it have failed so miserably that we are now in danger of our own extinction. So, you could say humans are all about death, and perhaps our culture is dystopian because of this switch. If you actually think human endeavour has any significance at all just watch a documentary about solar flares. In 1989 the entire province of Quebec lost power for nine hours due to one. And they’re getting worse.

I have been of late suffering from posting fatigue. I am deeply sympathetic with my American neighbours but one of the reasons I live where I do is so that I can turn things off and go skiing.  Like a church was to my ancestors, the woods are where I find meaning and where I feel free.  So the AGO exhibition Mystical Landscapes should really be in my wheel house however I had very little interest in what looked like a flake fest about the natural world.

I admit to being really turned off right away by a title like Mystical Landscapes since my artistic life is a Sisyphean journey; being a landscape painter marks you immediately as someone who is either an amateur, ancient or a flake. That the AGO, a gallery with a fairly sketchy reputation (awful block buster exhibitions mixed with overtly politically correct tones and generally not greatly organized so that you are always six deep with people in front of certain art works) has an exhibition with the word mystical in the title – well it makes me really, really wary. But, I saw that there were some cool paintings in it I have never seen before and we have a membership so… we went.

Nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelming emotional trip that Mystical Landscapes is. First off there is a ton of work in the exhibition you would never see unless you actually went to Stockholm or Norway or France. And some of the painting is divine. All of it landscape based. All of it wonderful, not a dud in the exhibition, well except for one or two silly pieces at the end regarding the cosmos but actually by the time I got there I found them charming. The strongest aspect of the exhibition is the curating. That is a line I almost never write.

Edvard Munch's The Sun in Mystical Landscapes - as much a hyper life giving force as it is an apocalyptic vision.
Edvard Munch’s The Sun in Mystical Landscapes – as much a hyper life giving force as it is an apocalyptic vision.

Organized by the AGO in partnership with the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, the exhibition’s intention is pretty clear and honestly still didn’t make me necessarily want to go: “The years between 1880 and 1930 were marked by rampant materialism and rapid urbanization. Disillusioned with traditional religious institutions, many European, Scandinavian and North American artists searched for an unmediated spiritual path through mystical experiences.” But this is exactly what the exhibition is about and the curators did very little to interfere with this very clear intent. Many of the artists in the exhibition may not have had straight forward mystical experiences (can you have a straight forward mystical experience?) but as in the case of Emily Carr who used gasoline to thin her oils, they may have had one unintentionally whether they were trying to or not.

I admit to feeling some nationalist pride at seeing the work of Canadian artists alongside titans of early twentieth century painting. But much more than that were the many ideas about landscape: urban dystopia, carnage of the land during war, depictions of sparkling cities with night skies, places of worship and work embedded in the ‘wilderness’, ominous and wondrous vistas, places of meaning, forests that are/were ineffable and sublime, and visions of the cosmos which until this period were only seen through telescopes by the naked eye.  Brought together, the famous and the not so famous work told an eschatological story without cliché.

One painting by Group of Seven painter Frederick Varley created during the last year of the First World War , Gas Chamber at Seaford I had seen before, perhaps at the War Museum. Here though it told a different story. As the men emerged from being gassed in a trench the surrounding hills and sky, seemingly untouched, competed directly for our attention. The split focus made you recognize that the earth is also a victim of our tragedies but also a resilient entity which we have no real power over. So timely was this piece that it had as many people surrounding it as both Van Goghs. One viewer, a war vet and artist told us that the thing about war is that you end up in these unfathomably beautiful places, in his case Afghanistan, and it creates a deep existential crisis. Three young women in head scarves listened in and nodded their heads.

These people, perhaps in another incarnation in their lives might have existed together in a war torn place, ravaged by a world gone mad. But here we all were, present in an art gallery together.  We were there to see how landscapes can be mystical and must be mystical if they are needed to be.

Mystical Landscapes has been extended to Feb. 12

Please read the Toronto Star Murray White’s excellent review as well.


Fakin’ it

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

“We look back at past ages and see how things people deeply believed in at the time were actually a rigid conformity that prevented them from seeing important changes that were happening elsewhere. And I sometimes wonder whether the very idea of self-expression might be the rigid conformity of our age. It might be preventing us from seeing really radical and different ideas that are sitting out on the margins—different ideas about what real freedom is, that have little to do with our present day fetishization of the self. The problem with today’s art is that far from revealing those new ideas to us, it may be actually stopping us from seeing them.”

Adam Curtis in conversation w Arspace Magazine

I have been a fairly devoted social media user for quite some time now. I have spent much time engaging with my local arts community on issues regarding fair payment for artists, maddening obfuscation by the Canada Council, wondering when any mainstream arts media was going to begin to discuss things like… how digital was taking over culture and how no one wants to pay for things anymore and also how using platforms like Instagram and Facebook were changing how we speak and relate to each other.

Social media has helped me connect and retool my profile and practice of being an artist. I had my own guidelines (always choose dignity, never share anything suspect, and never denigrate) and used Twitter et al to build a little world of interesting and thoughtful people who just wanted to make art or support art.

With the election of Donald Trump to the US Presidency I have now felt bereft of once believing I was building something positive for my career and mostly my life. His use of Twitter has turned my gentle turns of sharing and supporting into a gutter. Some would argue it already was but not for me. Being on social media was a positive, forward reaching endeavour that introduced me to a whole world of potential. Now I must contend with endless Facebook posts and Twitter feeds about Donald Trump and everything he touches. Why so many of my friends share news about him to the point of obsession is really bizarre. I’ve always been told be the change you want to see. Or, if you don’t like the way something is do something about it. Endless posting on Facebook isn’t going to change reality… or is it.

What if all the ranting against Trump and all the sharing about how awful he is has in fact led to him being in power? If you follow documentary film maker/art/philosopher Adam Curtis’ way of thinking, particularly in such works as Hypernormalisation, you would see a very strong line between heightened reality or ‘fake’ –ness being consumed and its manifestation in life. What I think he may mean (and I am still figuring this all out) is the more we share things we didn’t really make or didn’t really experience the more we create a world that isn’t really ours. The more we opt for replacing action with ‘media’ or ‘culture’ or even ‘art’ the more we allow this lack of reality to dominate our social and political space. Everyone calls for Trump to be honest, not lie and be transparent but that isn’t what he is; in fact he is exactly the chimera or mythological figure that we have summoned.

Courbet saw the Vendome Column as an expression of war, conquest & imperial dynasty. His destruction of it cost him his career.
Courbet saw the Vendome Column as an expression of war, conquest & imperial dynasty. His destruction of it cost him his career.

Unfortunately his presidency will have very real consequences for many people who are not buffeted by money or privilege. Not all Gods are going to dole out salvation; many of them can be vengeful and bring great havoc to the worshippers. Not that I think the president is a God but if you listen to some Americans they might as well be. The US is a deeply religious place.

As a Canadian I am luckily removed from the worst of this coming epoch. But as an artist and someone who works in the world of interpretation and illumination I feel somewhat involved. I make my living creating things, objects, but my work is also about the space, or relationship between my object and the viewer. I try my best to make that space a unique experience, an intimate voyage of emotional presence and context. However when Curtis makes the claim that perhaps self expression and the need for individualism in art has backfired in our culture, making our lives vulnerable to the machinations of dark money and inhumane power brokers and that we’ve kind of taken our hands off the wheel of civil society negating common good for celebrity status I have to admit to feeling a bit of shame.

I was raised Catholic so my go to feeling will always be shame. I feel shame when something I am eating tastes amazing, so, you know, it’s just how I am.

But then I think about Gustave Courbet and Dimitri Shostakovich. Both artists who lived and died in violent political eras. Both were subject to the whim of oppressive political forces, Courbet in 1870s France, specifically the Paris Commune and Shostakovich in Stalin’s Russia and both made their outstanding contributions regardless of what these forces were taking from them. Courbet’s life ruined by protest, Shostakovich’s ruined by obedience. But then, they didn’t have Facebook. If they did they might have given up their fight and gotten stuck on endless threads debating the very merits of what they were doing in the first place. Instead they took action, some of it effective, some of it not. At least they DID something. They seemed to know why they were artists and able to take such risks.

If we do now live in what Curtis calls Hypernormalisation, where there is no reality just ongoing facades that allude to it, then you would think artists might be the perfect people to hit the refresh button. But that would entail us grappling with the question of what we really want from our art careers. If we are to put our objects on display then what are we doing exactly? Do we want to change the world? If you do, sometimes it might make sense to leave the studio and go and do just that.

Image from Wikipedia