Thursday, November 5, 2020

A Collins Decameron - Saint John Arts Center December 2020

We live in a dark time. Not perhaps as dark as that of the 14th century plagues that beset Europe from Florence to London but enough of a dark time to make it more difficult to apprehend painting and the output of art with the same uplifting joy to which we are normally accustomed. It is ,in fact, an almost death defying act for an artist to show work these days, death defying in the sense of ignoring the inevitability of our mortality , looking at death and treating it with familiarity and contempt. 

In considering the works included in this impromptu exhibition by Gerard Collins I couldn’t help thinking about Giovanni Bocaccio’s Decameron, stories written in a villa outside Florence shortly after the plague had shaken Florence from its confidence as a center of culture and commerce. I didn’t even need to make references to Goya’s dark images of Napoleonic war or the vast library of images of death as a normal part of daily life in the myriad of images from the dark ages by printmakers all over Europe. But the Decameron appears closer to home here because it includes the idea of Pandemic as a backdrop and tells stories that are about love, about life, and about innocence. Art defies death. It is the only thing that can.

The skeletons you see here have a double meaning for Collins, and don’t be fooled, with Collins you are dealing with an experienced artist that is as sophisticated in his meanings as any 14th century artist. These ‘portraits of the dead’ if you will, have their source in a series of paintings of “Women in hats” exhibited in Halifax in 1979. Collins took the series and presents it anew here except the women are now skeletons, better dressed skeletons, better painted skeletons, with eccentric dresses and hats worthy of a kind of painterly couture that take your mind and your view away from the idea of death. The pictures function as Vanitas, a painterly form, that has been a part of the Collins encyclopedic paint box from the beginning. A Vanitas painting is a still life picture in which a skull often appears as well as other symbolic objects that underline the transience of life and the inevitability of our mortality. But Collins ever deceiving lusciousness of painting and desire to be in discord with the seriousness of death and therefore with the seriousness of art itself allows you to fulfill the promise of art, to apprehend the joy of life, the joy promised by art. 

So as in the Decameron, Collins doesn’t linger on the idea of death and takes you through the skeletons and the vanitas back to painting and through painting to the depth of his understanding of painting to the still-lifes and landscapes we are accustomed to seeing from him as though saying , yes we are in dark times, but life goes on. Art goes on. So apprehend, if you will, Joy of life, a recent work by Collins, completed in time for this show, that embodies painting at its most expressive, at its most meaningful , a seeming wall of graffiti, by Matisse, by Basquiat and too many other artists that Collins knows about who have now passed to immortality. It’s still life, on top of a landscape, on top of a Vanitas. As Collins himself has put it, ; “Every time I start to paint I have 5000 artists in my head.” It’s more like he has 5000 ideas and thoughts, some conscious, some unconscious, but they all come together on a canvas helping him to put some order in his own chaos, in our chaos, writing his own Decameron.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

08/20 Gerard Collins

(Studio Interior with Cats, 2020)

I just started a major piece of writing on Canadian artist Gerard Collins. I attended the Nova Scotia College of Art with Gerard between 1978 and 1979. We shared a painting studio there and his work has continued to be a source of fascination. This past summer he contacted me to see if I was still interested in writing a major monograph (book) on his work (after a few aborted attempts) and with a commitment of support from other sources we have begun the project in earnest. We now spend hours on the phone talking about his work, and about the millions of things that go into the making of his paintings. In this time of enforced isolation, having a project like this is, well... the cat's meow. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

07/20 Note from the Palazzo #5 A Byzantine Thought.

Motel cabines au Fleuve d'Argent 
I always think of the town of Rivière du Loup , the last town you encounter in Quebec before you turn into the dark forest of New Brunswick, as a kind of Istanbul, a dividing city between East and West. If you think of my world, like me, in Byzantine terms, then you understand how I can think of Montreal as my Venice, my city of light. Even as a younger man living in the Maritimes, I always felt a sense of emerging when I reached the St-Lawrence. Tell me that memory is not genetic. But I understand that my world is the one I live in, the one I come from geographically, and that the only way I have found to enlarge my horizon was to enlarge it with metaphors, notwithstanding the travels I might have undertaken. There's another dimension to Rivière du Loup that you might not know about, one my sisters and I talk about. This is where the Kerouac family came from before moving to Lowell, Massachusetts. Rivière du Loup is a small town. But I have always felt comfortable there. It's a place that feels like the eye of a needle. You can go anywhere from there. East, West or you can cross the Bosphorus (The St-Lawrence River) on a ferry and find yourself in the Fjords. What do you call those places, that give you the feeling you can see the whole world from there? Rio Lobos. Wolf River. 

07/20 Note from the Palazzo # 4 - Venice

I was up early this morning so I turned on the computer to a YouTube video by Andrew Graham Dixon on the origins of Venice and Venetian Palazzos. When I started making reference  to my large flat in Montreal I was obviously making a reference to Venice. But it had more to do with my sense of living well in a large space and feeling like a wealthy man whether this was true or not. My flat has a rather bohemian feeling to it which many Palazzos have retained or possibly gained over the centuries.  I don't have have canals but my windows, and I have window on all four sides, overlook a neighbourhood of Montreal with narrow streets and many back alleys. Those are my canals. But my dining area has a large window and is decorate in mostly orientalist tones and it's where I started thinking of my space as my Palazzo. But to get back to Graham Dixon he explained how the lagoon of Venice had become a hiding place for refugees from Rome and the Northern tribes who sacked it. I'll be politically correct and point out that those so called Barbarians, Celts mostly, had seen their own lands plundered by Rome for centuries. Yeah right, Rome was bringing the civilized world to the savages. Manifest destiny. Anyway the Palazzos of Venice were refuges too. The canals protected them from having to build thick defensive walls, were built with a sense of aesthetics rather than with defensive concerns. My Palazzo, my large flat in Montreal, is where I have evolved, and continue to evolve my sense of living aesthetically but also my refuge from what I perceive to be the growing impossibility of living anywhere else smaller than Montreal. 

Sunday, July 19, 2020

07/20 Notes from the Palazzo

I'm thinking of changing the name of this blog to 'Notes from the Palazzo'. Or maybe Notes from the Palazzo is just my way of delineating my current photographic work.But before anyone goes running off thinking this is somekind of Covid 19 isolation project, allow me to establish that this body of work started sometime in 2016.  I had more or less stopped making reflections shortly after Anne died and everything I did from then on, with very few exceptions, was done here, or originated here, in my flat on Oxford Street in Montreal. It's a huge flat and as I started filling it with furniture and objects that stimulated my imagination, made it my own place, I started calling it my Pallazo, as far back as 2017 I think. Perhaps the solution is for "Notes" to have it's own site, it's own blog. (to be cont'd)

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

06/20 An Argument for "Slow" Photography

As photographers, especially those of us who have studied art or have even painted, we are insecure about our medium and we go running back to the idea of painting as the benchmark of art as children run to their mother's skirt. The argument that has been most often been posited for this is that painting enjoys a rich history that goes back centuries while photography is still comparatively in its infant stages and has not attained a sufficient maturity and authority to stand up against painting as an art. As I was once again, in a moment of weakness, about to set up an easel to find out what it was about painting that so muddled my thinking as a photographer, that so blocked my path like a religious admonition, I was interrupted by a phone call that sent me to my computer. As I spoke to my interlocutor I began browsing some images in a 2014 folder I had made on a trip to Toronto. I came across an image that reminded me of the images made by European photographers in the 20's and 30's as they broke away, much like painting,  from the domination of a content base approach to a more abstract way of composing images.

It struck me that the speed at which photography had evolved from the early experiments of Louis Daguerre, Nicephore Niecpe, and Henry Fox Talbot to the images made of Mars, to the constant stream of images generated by digital media had perhaps now levelled off these perceived timelines to an equal level of evolution.

In some way the painting of Lucien Freud seemed like a conscious slowing down in time to find meaning in painting. It struck me that perhaps what photographers now need to do is to just slow down in a similar way. It struck me that perhaps it was time to just put down my phone and to pick up my camera again, and most importantly, to just start thinking a little more slowly about the images I was making when I did. In a curious metaphor, to start painting again. And to start believing that this was my/the best way to show, with some authenticity, what I saw and understood of my time of this planet.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

06/20 Instagram Collages #1 (Hockney Blue - 1982)

Instagram Collage # 2 , Amanda's Green Chairs, 2020

06/20 Blue Car Pink Dress

Blue Car, 2020
People have been making Corona Virus period pieces and others recording their experiences while under lockdown, social distancing or whatever. I'm not a journalist or a social commentator and I wasn't going to make pictures of empty streets. The irony now, of course, is that the streets are sure as hell not empty anymore anyway. But my experience of this pandemic as an artist is no more worth noting than anyone else's experience. But being in this democratic social media environment, it seems to be the main drive for many artists I suppose.

If anything has characterized this time for me, it has been the heightened social isolation that has been imposed on me because I live alone to begin with. But I'm not suffering. I have food. I live comfortably in a safe neighbourhood and I'm in no danger whatsoever. I'm one of the lucky ones. If anything, the relative luxury I live in has been underscored by the events of the past few months. My large Montreal apartment and the furniture in it has been staring me down with accusations of privilege. It's quiet here. It's peaceful. The mice have moved in and stroll around the apartment like there's no one here. I've evicted at least one so far. But it has not, in any way, shaped how I go about making art. My creative process is an on-going process. It doesn't need to be fed by current events. In fact I question whether any of these Covid-19 portfolios are art at all. The precedent, I suppose, is the work of American photographers during the American dustbowl, or perhaps more recently the on-going work of Sebastiao Selgado.

So in looking for a project to do I was consciously steering around the entire Corona Virus issue. I was not entitled to any comment on it it seemed. It was not the kind of thing I do. I began by making photographs of the empty apartment, emphasizing the social isolation it was feeling. I covered furniture with white sheets like abandoned chateaux or English manors. Even that seemed to be a poorly constructed metaphor of self indulgence. "Poor me" in my corona isolation. I had time on my hands and I just wanted to be productive.

I was also at an impasse since it seemed that my "Reflections" series was at a standstill if not at an end. I was looking for a new project, a new idea. I started playing with some images on my computer screen, making collages the way I used to make collages years ago. I sometimes gave myself a 4X5 format to work with as a means of staying within a restricted photographic paradigm. I also told myself I could make a 1:1 series for my Instagram platform. These images were just the first few I made. But it gives me a focus for using my telephone to make images that might serve as parts rather than whole images.

Pink Dress, 2020

Sunday, June 7, 2020

06/20 A Portrait Gallery

My father in law, Gerald Swann, and my mother in law. Marie Sixsmith Swann were both artists, Gerald having studied at the Académie de Bruxelles and Marie having studied at Central St-Martins in London. I met the Swanns in 1980 and married Anne, their daughter, in 1982. Gerald was an academic painter and always worked in a 19th century idiom, making portraits for the upper classes in Europe, an occupation which disappeared after WW11, and had him turn his hand to advertising. But a portraitist he was and “pictures” of the family filled their flat in Montreal. When the estate passed to Raphael, their son, and Gerald now 94, went to live in a home, the portraits were stored.

In 2018, Raphael occupied a large house in the country not far from where the family lived in the Eastern Townships, South-East of Montreal. When I visited recently, I found a stairwell running up from the large dining area to the upper level. I reminded Raphael of those large English Manors with their stairwell portrait galleries and suggested he do the same with some of the family portraits.

This past weekend, with the assistance of his Lordship I hung a number of the pictures on two walls of the stairwell and created a miniature riff on those large stately homes. Raphael still has many of the “mannerisms” of his European upbringing and the stairwell will contribute nicely to his swagger. For me, it was a chance to reference my knowledge of European art and architectural traditions that I learned in part from Gerald over the years, and that are often lost here in North America, which in both art and architecture evolves from a more modernist departure point, except perhaps for some of the disappearing Victorian homes of Montreal and Toronto.

I've included two particularly strong portraits (besides his self-portrait above). The first is of Raphael as a boy in a very "Constable" pose and finally a picture of Anne which he gave us as a wedding gift and which hung in our own home for a long time. I've since passed it on to Raphael in an effort to keep the "family portraits" together as a collection.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

05/20 Stephen Scott - Recent Works

Swim, 2018 -2019

I ‘d really like to talk to you about Stephen Scott and his current figure painting, and about his wife as a model, but in the way I might talk about Rembrandt, if I had known Rembrandt, and his wife Saskia. I’d like to talk to you about Stephen Scott’s painting while thinking about the work of the late Lucien Freud and how his models played a role in his work. But first I have to take you to Atlantic Canada for a moment…

Stephen Scott, as an artist, is situated both physically and aesthetically in what we call the Atlantic Canada realist tradition, having studied art at Mont Allison in Sackville, New Brunswick and having evolved in the shadows of Alex Colville So while my art observations is informed by knowledge of a broader understanding of art, as a writer I often feel pulled back to talking about his work within the bounds of this more localized tradition that somehow seems to narrow the view of the complex issues that arises in his work. We somehow view regional artists differently than internationally known artists. But let’s just say it. This has more to do with the artist’s audience than it has to do with his or her work.

Northern Summer, 2018
Wandering through the recent Alex Colville retrospective at the AGO in Toronto, I overheard someone say ; “I don’t want to look at Alex Colville’s naked wife.” I was not sure if the viewer meant he was repulsed by what he saw or that it made him uncomfortable, knowing this was the artist’s wife and not a professional model, feeling a bit like a voyeur faced with this shared intimacy, one he was not prepared to receive in Alex Colville’s work. It struck me that this gallery visitor, sidetracked by a regional familiarity, was not looking at the art. He was looking at the narrative depicted in it. The discomfort felt at this narrative was driven by a perception of Colville as a regional artist, and a social anxiety similar to that of encountering Colville’s wife at the grocery store kicked in. We seem to need some distance between content, at least when it comes to the nude, and form to appreciate art.

More recently a gossip book on Newfoundland painter Christopher Pratt, spilled all about his relationship with his wife and with his model, and once again we were made uncomfortable with maybe, too much information. We just didn’t care. We didn’t want to intrude. The only thing that mattered to us was the paintings themselves. We want to appreciate the quality of the artistic gaze separately from the information about the private life of the artist. So one of the challenges a regional artist faces is to create sufficient distance between his content and his aesthetic handling as to create a more universal experience.

British painter Lucien Freud, (1922-2011) arguably the best painter of nudes in recent times, also painted nudes, of models, Baroque in scale. We know through extensive documentation of both his life and his methods of working that some of his subjects were people with whom he had close relationships, others less so. He painted nudes of women. He painted nudes of men. And because of Freud’s stature as an artist, we do know in excruciating art historical detail how all these models figured in his life and his work. But in the end, here too, it is only the quality and authenticity of his painting that contains the information we want, that persuades us that we are apprehending, dare I say it … beauty. And yes, we have a similar experience when looking at the nude ‘Danae’ by Rembrandt, even if she is purportedly Saskia, his wife. We see Rembrandt at work, we see his art, not his wife.

The dilemma all these artists face, whether regional or international, all being naturalistic painters, is that regardless of who sat to them as models, it is the work and how they make it that is ultimately intended for public consumption and not the details of their private life. The artistic intention is the only one we must decipher in our appreciation of the work, but being the nosy, paparazzi minds that we are, we want the gossip we are accustomed to and somehow we think that because the artist presents the work publicly that we are somehow also entitled to enter their private lives. This is particularly so when it comes to highly naturalistic figure paintings, whether it is in the form of portraits or nudes. The narrative sometimes supersedes a full appreciation of the formal or aesthetic qualities of the work. This is especially true of naturalistic or realist painting today where artists go no further than their immediate not to say domestic environment for subject matter. Gone are the days of representations of the gods cavorting on Mount Olympus or holy figures in religious ecstasy. In order to appreciate the work of contemporary artists then, we must consciously suspend our analysis of content as symbolic in favor of more gestural signifiers.

Self Portrait Study, 2019 

Well said, I suppose, unless, of course, we are actually privy to their personal lives. Then what? If you are a friend, and a fellow artist sharing experiences on a regular basis, nourishing each other, questioning each other, then everything matters once again. It becomes difficult to remain objective. Looking at art under those circumstances becomes a subjective experience. The packaging comes with that extra disk with behind the scenes interviews. So whenever I am asked to write something about his work, this time about his recent figure work, it quickly became personal, difficult for me to separate the personal from the public. And because I am also an artist, struggling with content and form, even as a photographer, looking at Stephen Scott’s work is often like looking in a mirror. Because of our exchanges, I feel that somehow I am part of it. It is certainly a part of me. So with all this baggage, where do I begin to tell you about my Rembrandt, my Saskia? How do I convince you that there is a painter in Fredericton, New Brunswick whose work is worth looking at in a much broader way than through the filter of Maritime realism? So I let go and thought I would try to forget about objectivity and tell you about his work through my own experience.

I’ve known Stephen Scott since about 2005. I met him in Fredericton while working at the New Brunswick Arts Board. My first encounter with his work was at Gallery 78. It was mid- winter, an exhibition touted as an erotic art show for Valentine’s day. I had quickly became bored of the unending string of romantic nudes. Disappointingly, no whips, no chains, no leather, no rubber or latex to be seen. You must understand that I had been in San Francisco during the summer of 1978. I was a nascent artistic photographer, and for me Robert Mapplethorpe had been a revelation, an emerging artistic force to contend with. Aids had yet to take its perverse toll on the population. Even as a heterosexual man I had appreciated the 70’s leather scene. There was an outward honesty about the homo-erotic gaze that seemed to exceed the merits of the so call sexual revolution of the 60’s. More importantly, it seemed to have more to do with aesthetics, with beauty, than the current canon of street photography that placed Robert Frank at its altar. But back to Fredericton. I turned a corner and saw Scott’s life-sized full frontal naked “Self-Portrait in Leather Thong”. It didn’t strike me as homo-erotic or as gay art. It just struck me as honest, the way northern renaissance painters like Van -Eyck, or Albrecht Durer made self-portraits, looking in the mirror, looking at time racing by, looking at one’s…well.. shortcomings. I have always been interested, in both my writing and in my photography, in how we code or decode our own ways of looking at ourselves, directly or indirectly, through the art we make. We are all in one way or another writing our own ‘Autobiography of Alice B Toklas’. Through that process we investigate our own worthiness, our own insecurities, our own arrogance at making art, that we expect should have some value or meaning to the viewer. “Self Portrait in a Leather Thong” seemed to contain all of it. It was a beautiful painting.

I told myself that I needed to get to know this artist. I contacted him a few days later and invited him to sit on a jury I was composing at the time. I then. waited for the jury to be over and invited him for drinks in a bar and we talked about art until closing time. It was the beginning of a conversation about the state of art, about painting, yes, about beauty, about being an artist, that we have continued since. In 2010 this conversation resulted in a first book on his work I called Surface Reflections. It was a survey of his work to that time that identified some of his motives but that also underlined some things about his work that nourished me, both as a writer and as a photographer.

And now as I move forward in my appreciation of Stephen’s more recent work and how it continues to feed me as a writer on art and as photographer, it was time to take a deeper look at some of the machinations that underlay these latest “surface reflections” . When I wrote the book I was still able to step back a little, to look at his work more objectively, in the context of a canon of painting we label Maritime realism. But as we moved forward my conversations with Stephen took on a different kind of importance. The questions became larger, more universal. I found commonalities in our work and in our lives. We started to compare notes. I was beginning to look for myself through the work of another artist.

It begins with where must I place my feet in evaluating this work. How do I write about figure studies by Stephen Scott, nudes as it were, torn between my subjective appreciation of his figure work, and the objective knowledge I possess about other issues in contemporary art. How do I compare his nudes to the work of say, Dayna Danger, an aboriginal, feminist artist from Winnipeg whose art I admire, whose art I get? Can I simply remove Stephen’s work from the comparison by saying well…it’s just a different kind of art? In my manual, there is only one canon of art. And it is not measured by subjective arguments, it is measured by historical consensus. Does authoritative quality in the pursuit of beauty have the power to trump politics? Or in Freud’s case, does the power of money and celebrity just shut everyone up? Well the answer is simpler. I can only measure Stephen Scott’s progress against his earlier work to date.

In an effort to push content to a less symbolic function, Scott’s figures have become more expressionistic lately, more formal, or as one my own models expressed, more abstract. There appears to exist furthermore, and apart from anything else, multiple series or themes in his female figures now, creating a conceptual strength than in turn reduces the content to formal element as opposed to literal narrative.

Shallows, 2019 
The first of these series is the on-going one, the swimmers or bathers now having morphed to “northern” swimmers to indicate it’s inclusion in a preoccupation with “northern” light. Scott has been doing these for years but lately the series has become seemingly more gestural, more expressionistic than ever. Looser if you will. I used to think of this work as a dark repository of Stephen’s inner psychological world. But the more recent figures seem more active and outwardly physical. There seems to be a confidence or a psychological resolution, a lightness of being, that brings this body of work forward and leads him to make, of late, looser oil studies. Something has emerged from the water. Something has emerged in the painted surface. In ‘shallows’ the water has become almost imperceptible as the figure lifts from the water. If I was of a more psychoanalytical nature, or more academic, I would venture that “here we see Sophie lifting Stephen from the darkness.” Nice bloody line if I say so myself.

Northern Swimmer, 2019
In 2018, I took three days to make a the trip from Montreal to Halifax stopping at a favorite haunt in Rivière du Loup. The second day I drove from RDL to Fredericton and visited Stephen. He had now finished the new studio and was working in it. He was hard at work on some figure studies. With this new studio that included an entire roof section in corrugated plastic that diffused natural light it was an opportunity to look at painting being made directly from the model under natural lighting. It was like watching a painter working in a turn of the century Paris studio. The studio was creating a transitory space, an observatory, and I could sense a transition. Stephen was making a series of sketches of Sophie, “model in a swing”, using generic titles as a means to, once again, distance the private from the public I saw in this series of transitory sketches as a second theme onto themselves. Stephen was developing a heightened gestural confidence, working more from the elbow than from the wrist. It reminded me of Freud now, throwing excess paint at a nearby wall.

I was taken by these quick oil sketches. One element in both painting and photography that is not often talked about is the sense of urgency of execution when working with a model. When you hire a model, there is an urgency to get as much done as possible in your allotted time. It's no different in making art as it is when making commercial fashion shoots. You are on a bell. Working with a loved one is also sometimes tricky because you are dealing with someone's generosity of time as opposed to a professional transaction. Both situations have an impact on your work. I wondered whether the expressive quick lines Stephen was making in the studio was in part because of that. As a photographer I have to plan my shoots. I often make sketches to show models what is expected. "What, you make drawings for your shoots?" is often the reaction I get. Once an art director always an art director. In advertising you most often give your sketches to the photographer and he looks like a genius in front of the model while the truth is elsewhere. Sitting in the studio with Stephen that day was an oasis for me. I had been widowed only two years. The lightness of his sketches reminded me that art has the power to separate you from the day to day of living. Stephen lifted Bob from the darkness.

Nude Study, 2018
This new confidence in brushstroke has allowed Scott to turn to more intimate subject matter such as the figures he now makes with Sophie, his partner, forming a distinct and seemingly third theme, underscoring Scott’s evolution as a painter as he makes a concentrated and more focused return to the figure as a central theme of his work, through his personal life. His handling of brushstroke, color, control of light and surface removes us at first from what is signified by the content and takes us in his painterly voyage of expression, and having lifted us through an aesthetic experience now drops us gingerly back into a kind of appreciation of how his personal life can be a source of strength in his work. No longer are we distracted by the politics of making nudes but simply through his quality of execution back to an aesthetic experience and ultimately to a shared experience of beauty.

Woman Asleep, 2019
As painters and photographers our primary medium is light. Light is the language of emotions in making pictures. In that sense all of Scott’s work is preoccupied with light and how light as an emotional palette is as important as the paint on the surface to reflect the emotional response of the artist to his subject. In that sense Scott now seeks more in common with painters of the Northern Renaissance in Europe than he does with painters from the Atlantic, or any other, realist tradition. This has been supported by his numerous trips to Germany and Scandinavia, or closer to home, Newfoundland, where he has worked consciously to distill “Northern” light into his method of painting. Put together with the language of portraiture and what you end up with is a self-portrait of Scott with Sophie that owes as much to Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait as Grant Wood’s American Gothic, as obvious as this last compositional rapprochement may be. In Northern Gothic Scott sets up a code in paint and in light using darker tones than usual making a clear statement that he is moving from a naturalism based on drawing toward an expressionism that uses light as its fundamental formal strategy. The symbolic content is rendered more theatrical as a clue that the content is a composed drawing or arrangement rather than a witnessed event. It works like a still life where the subject may be naturalistic but we understand that the subject is a formal structure based on objective references from art, reducing the artist’s personal life to secondary importance. Back to Rembrandt:

In 'Rembrandt’s Eyes', Simon Schama says, "Rembrandt cannot and does not seek to share the kingdom of high art with the base nature of physical life…, …However, Rembrandt was able not only to continuously cross the line between art and everyday life, but also to make a delightfully rich storyline from this 'wandering'."

Northern Gothic, 2019
Whenever I have coached other artists about how to write about their work I always pointed out that being a professional artist is a bit like being a politician; you are engaging in a public life. You have to separate the concerns of your private life from the concerns you have as an artist. Many occupations demand this sacrifice, but with art it is often confused since the private life becomes, especially in naturalistic work, the subject of your art making. It is in this sense that I mean that visual art can be rendered literary if not literal. You begin to create a mythology about your own life and one needs to be careful about how much intrusion you are willing to allow before it gets in the way of the work.

Head Study, 2019
Stephen Scott’s nudes may not be politically up to date to sophisticated art audiences, but they contain a language of painting that transcends the myopic view of art that restricts you to looking at it only in the context of current contemporary criticism. It does not ignore the current issues. It embraces them and comes back again and again with an argument, that we may be losing more than we gain by restricting our gaze to neutral, safe, territory. It is an assumption that men make nudes from a point of objectification at all times. It is now often made with perilous consciousness, intense self-introspection and study. It is made, perhaps more importantly in defense of a concept that makes us uncomfortable…beauty.

The artists I know and largely write about are artists who function within was is perceived as a more antiquated view of art, a non-political environment in which aesthetics and beauty still dominate over political issues. But I found myself, in writing about Stephen Scott, to be in that pre post-modernist mindset in order to write an appreciation of his work. Here again I find myself in an in-between situation, between what I perceive as beautiful and what I know to be the current thinking in art. The two have seemingly no point of reconciliation. In writing about Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky (Manufactured Landscapes) I found myself screaming from the rooftops that one could not template values of aesthetics and beauty on top of contemporary environmental issues, that you cannot have it both ways. For me Burtynsky’s work screams of male paternalistic values louder than someone making nudes of women. But somehow this doesn’t seem to resonate so I despair at the hypocrisy of contemporary art more than that of male romantic perceptions of beauty. Convenient argument rules.

I have always had a special interest in the relationship of painting to photography and vice versa. I initially studied art, learned to draw and paint, but through a series of opportunities found myself working with photography. This is a common scenario in post-modernist visual art as opportunities for painting have been restricted comparatively to the 19th century. In short, except for a few collectors, nobody cares. I still paint and draw from time to time and both these activities have consistently sent me running back to my camera with solutions to photographic problems. After some time and a series of epiphanies, I finally conceded, surrendered, as difficult as it is to think of myself as a mere photographer as opposed to an artist. But art and painting in particular still has that elusive power of being the medium that defines you as an artist. Ask filmmakers Peter Greenaway, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch. In every interview, as successful as they are, they make a point of exclaiming that they started out as painters. So painting remains a reference for me in my photography as well. I have often argued that photography and painting actually live in a symbiotic relationship to each other in contemporary art. They don’t exist as polar opposites. They feed off each other. And in Stephen Scott’s recent figure work I have found somewhat of a mirror reflection.

I now own numerous of those oil sketches by Stephen and they serve me well in maintaining a safe distance between the literal and enlightenment. If you can find that in art, I would risk saying that you are looking at good art, regardless of its subject matter.

To learn more about Stephen Scott, you can go to

Thursday, May 21, 2020

05/20 Fuji Instax - Just about a year ago today.

Simon, May 2019
One of the things that this Covid 19 did was cut off my supply of square format Instax film. I had been using it quite a bit as a kind of analog antidote to shooting digital all the time, shooting a box of the stuff every time I made pictures. I did find, however, that if I tried to shoot multiple boxes, I would often find a defective pack or the camera would overcharge and discharge a static shock. The technology doesn't really stand up to sustained professional use. Where's Andy Warhol when I need him or maybe David Hockney. I'd like to compare notes. I've put aside the camera for now but I'd like to go back to it.

05/20 Making Photographs (part three -artistic photography)

The third type of photographer, the artistic photographer, functions outside the strict bounds of commercial photography or art. It is a wide playing field where rules are sometimes very subjective. But it is subjective work where the photographer is not constrained by an expected result but instead relies on a canon or history of the genre of photography he or she is making. The most familiar genre might be “street” photography with a history that begins the moment photographers began to leave their studios in the 19th century much as painters did. But this type of photography is not limited to street photography. It can include any genre where the expected outcome is to produce photographs of high technical or formal quality while addressing issues both aesthetic and technical related to the canon of photography. The portraits I make of sitters where I have asked them to sit to me so that I may explore photographic portraiture is an example of this. I am not, in this case, trying to make art, or making a commercial product. I am referring to the history of photography. My references can include art references, fashion references or references outside art and photography altogether. I am a an artistic photographer, not a commercial photographer, not an art photographer. Many of these photographers often work commercially, or teach,  as well as pursuing a career making subjective personal work.

Phylactère as the Countess of Castiglioni

05/20 Making Photographs (part two - art photography or photography as art)

Contemporary art photography or art-based photography functions within the context of art with a big A. It functions in a discussion based on the history of both photography as art and art itself, especially ideas in art. If it’s not likely to make or even engage either of those histories, it is likely not art. An example of art photography might be the recent output of Chuck Close that I riffed on most recently. The early “joiners” by David Hockey, or more recently the frescoes of Canadian artist Jeff Wall to name three very different types of Art Photography. The intention of the artist in making the photograph is to make art. My favorite piece of art photography is a photograph made my French artist Yves Klein as he leaped out a window. It was based on the conceptual premise that if a man kept jumping from a window he would eventually learn to fly.
In hindsight, I don’t do very much of this kind of photography, but as I said before I know when I’m making art and I know when I’m not. With my recent Chuck Close piece, as random as it was, it certainly wasn’t commercial photography nor was I trying to make “a good photograph.” The gesture was instinctual, referential. I was making art. It wasn’t my first “self portrait as” piece. It might be something I should keep working on. But given how little of this kind of photography I do, I seem to fit more into a third category, the one that Cartier-Bresson fits in. The one that Robert Frank fits in. the category of the subjective "artistic photographers." That makes me a writer and a photographer, not much of an artist. Art is where I get my ideas.

05/20 Making Photographs (part one - commercial photography)

In the same spirit that I created this blog in order to establish a chronology of where I’ve been in the last few years I’m writing this piece with a view to getting a clearer picture of what exactly I’ve been doing in the last few years as I make photographs.

So let’s break it down. All photography is not art. We know that. Just as all writing is not literature. Like writing, photography is a language. It can be an objective communication tool as well as a creative medium. So just because you make a photograph, it doesn’t make you are a de-facto artist. There are differences in intention as well as in application.

I wear many hats as a photographer. Sometimes I’m a commercial photographer, sometimes I make photographs as an artist, therefore as an art photographer, then I make photographs in a third category, and this is often the most problematic one; I make photographs as an “artistic” photographer. For the sake of clarification I will use portraiture to illustrate what I mean. Let’s begin with:

Headshots, Suzy Arioli, 1985, Montreal 

 Commercial Photography

A common characteristic of commercial photography might be that there is a client or a communication objective at the end of the equation. I include journalistic and editorial photography within commercial photography since they too have a precise audience and a precise function. When you get paid for commercial photography, you get paid for the value of its application, not for its value as a cultural artifact or for its value as art as interesting as it may be. The portraits I make of other artists for their use belongs in this category. I make the product for the benefit of the sitter. Record jacket covers are also what I mean by commercial or editorial photography. They can be exciting products but their value is commercial. The cover of the Beatles Abbey Road is an example of commercial portrait photography. The work that Annie Leibowitz does is commercial photography, even if in America it might earn her an exhibition ins some of the finest museums.

Note: I'd like to include journalism here but where does documentary end and street begin. Is the dividing line between working for an agency or independently? The object is to publish a reportage?
I don't do either of this but it opens up a discussion between content and form .

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

05/20 Found Photos / à bout de souffle

Simon Davies / Found Photo
Simon Davies is a sculptor who works with found objects. It’s logical that that he would send me found photos. This month he mailed out 35 found photos to artists and friends. Yesterday he shared with me that he was a bit disappointed at the lack of response to his mail art piece. I offered that what excites us as artists doesn’t necessarily excite the rest of the population. I was already in the process of writing a blog entry on found photos. And, to a certain degree, on un-found photos.

We all know the story of the nanny of Chicago, Vivian Maier, and the incredible portfolio of her street work found in a garage sale, as well as its attendant lesson in copyright law. But never mind. My story to Simon was about helping someone empty a house where a couple had lived for 50 years and NOT finding any photos to illustrate that they had lived there. Never mind whether they had shared any intimacy. I was looking for any images he might have made of her. Or vice versa. Nothing. It left me empty, like it had been a life un-lived. For me finding photos is an anthropological experience, like finding cave art. I want to know everything about these people. Photography has a voyeur power on a larger humankind scale.

I loved the picture he sent me. I couldn't decide if the girl on the right reminded me of Amelia Earhart or a Kennedy. The house, of course, is straight out of an Edward Hopper fantasy.

Simon sent me another picture as well. This one had taken him aback a bit. An old girlfriend from high school looked him up and sent him a picture taken of them as a couple over 50 years ago. I loved the picture. It had the feeling of the time. It could have been a still from a film by Godard. It left me à bout de souffle indeed.

Simon Davies, Found Photo

Monday, May 18, 2020

05/20 Isolation self-portrait as a Chuck Close Painting

Self-portraits. Even with an IPhone, it's as close as I can come to thinking I'm actually making art. In making self portraits I can include all my thinking, all my references, and all my skills to create pieces that also force me to bare myself and my thoughts to the world. It stakes a territory in what matters to me as art. It extends to other portraits I make, and there again, I seem to be evolving my portraits from being objective products of what the sitter wants to my just not caring about that and doing what I want. "Pour le reste", I seem to be making what I call literary photo essays, making pictures just to have something to write about. The reflections appear to me as simply the way an artist makes street photography. Lost in your thoughts you look for the abstract rather than the literal, and sketch instinctually.

03/20 Corona Reflection

I undertook this blog project mostly as an aid to remind me of what happened when. A kind of resumé. I could have made a notebook. I could just print out this entire blog. But it allows me to hand out a business card with a link to something. It has become an expectation, so this functions as a kind of art resume. For the people in the art community, it gives them an idea of who I am and what I can do, since some of the work I seek is writing for other artists. That work is a piece of a much larger pie that makes up my income, what I call my pie chart strategy, from advertising gigs, to writing art pieces, to making headshots.

IPhone photo, March 2020, Montreal. 
But I've come to a kind of pause in my photographic work. I'm mostly writing these days. I haven't done a window reflection since last spring, almost a year now. The use of Iphone is a large part of that. With social media platforms, there doesn't seem to be any discernment about what we put out there. And with Instagram it feels like I'm just being social as opposed to making art. It's fun to be sure but I'm not certain how it fits into a serious artistic practice. So I'm in kind of an impasse with social media. How do you distinguish yourself from the millions of other non-professionals who use this platform. Art is not a democracy as John Updike once said. But I don't want to be cranky either.

I make a lot of images with my phone. It's an instinctual thing. I've always argued that the camera is the modern equivalent of the stick the cavewoman used to make those beautiful animals on the walls of her house. The phone is the natural evolution of that process. It's as anthropological as it is about art. Maybe art is democratic after all. This virus is certainly taking a good whack at the issue.
In the meantime I continue to write about art. I have some good projects on my table. In some ways this pause is allowing me time for inventory, time for new strategies. I've been busier than I have ever been. See you soon. -RB

Saturday, May 16, 2020

08/19 Dean Brousseau / Street

Halifax-based photographer Dean Brousseau is planning a show and asked me to draft a short essay. It seems harder when it's someone you know. There's so much you want to say, about their passion, about the stuff they went through to get to where they are. But then I can usually tap into my inner Hunter Thompson and get to the nut of it.

Story: I got to know Dean when I moved to Halifax in 2006. He had attended NSCAD at the same time I had and we knew a lot of people in common. When I say people I mean women mostly. But like Linda Rutenberg here in Montreal, we knew of each other through mutual acquaintances but only met later in life. In Dean's case, I was showing him a contact sheet and he said. "Hey, I've seen these. I processed this film." A girlfriend had said to me way back then; "Hey I have a friend who processes film. Give them to me. I'll get him to do. it."

On Street: Dean Brousseau STREET

Street, or street photography, is to photography what Impressionism is to painting. It is the moment at which the artist abandons the confines of a studio, where compositions are pre-established academic structures or paid assignments to a state where the artist can observe, objectively and subjectively, the world around and produces images. It is when instinctual gesture and emotional response come together, in what Henri Cartier-Bresson might have called the decisive moment. It is where knowledge, instinct, and feeling come together. It is where the photographer abandons the work of necessity and becomes an artist, where he defines his own time and place.

NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design)

Photographer Jean-Loup Sieff once said that when he joined Magnum agency, that he was doing no less than “taking the holy orders of photography”. In some ways studying art or photography at NSCAD in the seventies was not much different. There were multiple canons or schools of photography, an entire history by this time, but it was clear who the current Gods were when it came to street photography, from Eugene Atget and Cartier-Bresson, to Robert Frank and Gary Winogrand. But art history was moving at a rapid pace by then, propelled by the art magazines of the time. New and exciting bodies of work were being presented to students all the time. Visiting artists at NSCAD exposed students to a global art environment, even before Internet. It was more like rock&roll than art. You learned the licks of all the artists you heard around you and did your best to play them your own way. The seventies also presented aspiring photographers with an additional set of rules. Conceptual art had almost usurped photography as art for its own purposes with artists who did not necessarily see themselves as photographers but as visual artists in their own right. NSCAD was a school that attempted to bridge the gap by making students of photography aware of both canons of thought. This broad view of the history of photography is always present in Brousseau’s work, more than say, the work of a photojournalist. Making art is at the core of these images from the outset.


The images in this small exhibition underline Brousseau’s intention as an artist in two ways, firstly by making subtle reference to the Cartier-Bresson-like “purity’ of un-cropped street photography and secondly by placing value in the traditional craft and process of photography by producing high quality prints in a chemical darkroom rather than by scanning his images and producing digital prints. These photos, it seems important to underline, were made using film-based technology. It made sense for Brousseau to frame this body of work using the practices that accompanied it. In some images Brousseau allows the black frame around the negative to appear, a reference to Cartier- Bresson’s teachings and other American photographers such as Gary Winogrand (1928-1984) who used the technique to show that there was no cropping or manipulation of the image, that it remained honest to the artist’s vision. There was something almost religious about this particular canon that has remained a repeating motif in many street photographers since. It is also a strong formal element that helps one consider the image in formal terms rather than for its content alone. Brousseau also pays attention to the quality of the print as an important component in bringing the image to its final form, and here Brousseau’s own words takes us to his darkroom; in the correspondence leading to this essay, Brousseau wrote:

 “ I printed on Adox variable contrast fiber glossy double weight (Adox - MCC110 8X10/100-FB-VC-GLOSSY) and I made the prints using multiple contrast filters, first using a #5 (high contrast filter) then a #0 (low contrast filter). A test strip has to be made for each contrast filter exposure then of course a combined print has to be made using both filters. It's a fairly fussy procedure so I won't bore you with any more details… this was a departure from the technique I had used in former years. If I had only known about it I would or may have been more adept and it may not have taken me nearly a year to produce the prints.”

The images are from a relatively wide period in today’s terms. They cover from 1974 to 1984, a lifetime in rock and roll terms. But they cover a period of time that frame quite nicely Brousseau’s evolution as a photographer, from the time he lived and studied in Nova Scotia through his evolution as a photographer in Toronto to his return to Nova Scotia where he continued to work both as a photographer and as a director of photography on numerous film and video productions. His subjects are varied and take us from his early years growing up in a military family and takes us to base Cornwallis where ‘sea cadets’ were trained every year, a memory for those of us who grew up in post WW11 Atlantic Canada. He then takes us to Toronto, Canada’s metropolis, where he makes images of the changing faces of Canada in the seventies. Faces appear often in fact, and often eliciting a return gaze from his subjects. Brousseau is not a spy. He does not need to hide from his subject matter. It is an exchange, an embrace of his subject and this situates Brousseau as an artist for us. These images contain empathy for his subjects. So when we are presented with more “removed” images, those where the subject is not aware of the photographer’s presence, we nevertheless feel that the camera cares in some way, that it is watching over rather than just watching or stalking its prey or its subject matter. Brousseau tells us that he empathizes with his subject matter and that he is not merely composing for himself. It gives reason or artistic intention for him to be on the street making photographs in the first place. Dean Brousseau is an important voice from a school of photography that is more than just the walls of NSCAD. It is an eloquent local extension of a global movement in art and photography that shaped photography into the seventies, and continues to shape photography now.

08/19 The View out the Window

It's the view out my window and it reminds me of those early photographs by Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot. When one is experimenting with a new process, a new camera, or just seeing if the damn thing works, you go to the nearest window and press click. In my case it's the view out my kitchen door onto the neighbouring buildings and the view keeps cropping up in all my folders. It even showed up when a painter friend came to sat with me during the summer of 2018. But that poetic image of looking out the window is a reminder of experimentation itself; that one has to keep experimenting, trying new things, failing, in order to move forward.

06/19 NDG Profiles

Amanda at Rudston-Brown
It might have been just an excuse to take pictures of the interesting business women in the neighbourhood who greet me everyday with genuine kindness. I was playing with the phone camera again and exploring triptychs and collages.

Jocelyn at Épicerie Moderne
For me that all started with David Hockney's joiners. I had seen his first show of them in '82 in Paris when all the photographers were screaming it wasn't photography like people screaming at Bob Dylan he had sold out. The thing about art is that you can do what you want. But it still has to have a connection to something. Dylan never did anything that didn't come from somewhere else first. Nothing good ever does. It has to speak some language.

Corrine at Presque9

03/19 New Portraits

I'm liking the direction my portraiture is going. It seems to have a lot more confidence in terms of telling my sitter to trust me, that I know what I'm doing. "Trust me" I found myself telling Rachel when she wanted a headshot. I'm still not completely crazy about portraiture. I'm not about to hang a shingle as they say but I still do them from time to time. They exist as kind of a grounding that allows me to be more adventurous in everything else I do. They have that "hey he's a serious photographer feel". It seems that year after year I still do a few I'm happy about.\