Tag Archives: gallery

Get a job

Victoria Ward
Victoria Ward

Years ago in Ontario we ushered in a new conservative provincial government who brought with them something called the “Common Sense” revolution. As I was young and lived a fairly unstable lifestyle I noticed this government’s action’s consequences over time – the most damaging of which have never been resolved. Almost half my friends in my art community quit or took teaching jobs. The rest of us struggled on. Some moved away from a city like I did. Some left the country.

In the years following many of us tried to figure out how best to live our lives under a new paradigm where we all had to become art-terpreneurs, use small business as a winning example of how to be an artist (“you make product don’t you?” I was told) and be shoved through the degrading vortex of Richard Florida’s “creative cluster” zeitgeist. We were held up as an example of how to gentrify our city’s neighbourhoods and told over and over and over how much money the arts contributed to the overall economy. We were an economic engine! Oh goody, I even used the phrase myself.

Our recent exhibition in Toronto. Here is where we engage with what I am going to start calling ‘defiant beauty’.

Meanwhile in my universe incomes plummeted. And lots of peers scrambled back into academia where the thought was that at least there would be steady income. Now the art world runs on academic fumes; art galleries have given over to DJs & nightclubs, and the contemporary work being made seems to be about tech or a sociological context in which talk, consensus, convergence, conversation, and more talk seems to loom larger than anything hanging on a wall or sitting in the middle of a gallery. Language and ideas reign in the new contemporary field. For the rest of us not welcome in this new world order – we just tried to hang onto our studios and hoped for the best.

What we should have all been doing is safeguarding our art worlds against the tyranny of ideologues. We should have been shoring up public support and public money (not grant and council money but actual private sector money in the form of people purchasing art). We should have spent our time not aggressively making our supporters test themselves against a changing world – we should have spent our time reassuring them about art and its importance. We should have spent our time creating more art supporters not more artists.

Ahh but I learned in therapy not to ‘should’ people. As a community the arts in Canada has always worked in an uneasy balance between socialized ideals and nurturing millionaire art stars. I think however things began to get a bit lopsided when the Chair of the Canada Council started calling themselves a CEO. Remember when being a CEO was cool and now it’s public enemy #1? That didn’t take long.

But where to go from here? In Ontario we are now on the verge of a new “common sense” revolution in the form of a new conservative government, although their motto now is “Poor? Get a job.” Their transparent love of hate seems to be a selling point. Yes, and that is where we are in civilization, being run to a certain extent by people who think compassion, justice, fairness is all part of some liberal conspiracy to make everyone gay. And there are Nazis again now too.

Art now for who or what? I guess most of us have just reconciled ourselves with the fact that we will not be saved. We must survive. What gives me hope is the fact that many of my peers who have just steadily continued to work at what they do have gotten very, very good. This may be an epoch of ‘defiant beauty’ – I can only speak for painting at this point. All this “the world is ending, the world is ending” isn’t really having a negative impact on the work. And it never did.

I think the artists who just enjoy their work, make it regularly and do their best to get it out there for people to see are real leaders in this cultural climate. The hope is in the art – it always has been, it always will be.

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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.