Monday, 20 March 2017

This Place the Way I See It, Ilse Hughes at Red Ochre Gallery

Ilse Hughes with one her paintings.

On Wednesday, March 15th, 2017 the Red Ochre Gallery was a buzz with visitors who had turned out to see Ilse Hughes' latest paintings.  It was a vibrant vernissage.

My first impression was how the colour mauve linked many of the landscape paintings, so I asked Ilse about her apparent love affair with lilac (I am a sucker for alliteration).  She explained that it began in the rocks and that it had grabbed her attention in a certain light.  The particular shade of mauve that Hughes uses can express mystery, moodiness, or serenity and positivity.

In response, Hughes elaborated, "I have been experimenting with strong colour for years now. In my last two exhibitions (2012, 2009) red was a dominant feature. The theme of the earlier exhibition was trees in the winter landscape and I used red to show their vitality and strength. In 2012, the theme was the fishing stores in the outport communities which are predominantly painted in red ochre. Interestingly, even then I often used lilac as a counterbalance in other parts of the paintings.… You are right, purple expresses a moodiness, a cool serenity."

Many of the viewers commented that Hughes' depiction of water reminded them of Monet's paintings of Giverny.  This is high praise for any painter but it is particularly relevant, as Ilse Hughes has spent time painting in France. This is how she responded, "It is true that I spend part of the year in France and no doubt I am influenced by both the French landscape and the art galleries that I visit. France is a warm and soft country. Newfoundland stands out in strong contrast. There is a strength and a severity in our environment which strongly influences my colour choice. There is no room for soft, gentle shades."
Little Harbour East

What I suspect the viewers were responding to was Hughes' skillful way of rendering reflections.  For example, the undulating curves of a mountain range were captured in their liquid, reflected magic with loose but controlled gestures in paint.  It is clear that as much as the artist is attracted to certain scenes, she is in love with paint.  Every stroke matters and there is a characteristic intimacy and freedom to Ilse's compositions.  These are paintings that would be very easy to live with.

Ilse confirmed my observation but lead back to the importance of colour.  She said, "You are right that I am in love with paint. I used to think that it was the brushstroke that mattered most to me but now I realize that it is colour that fascinates me and the way in which it can be used to bring a painting alive."

In addition to the landscapes, there was an earlier floral work and at least one small portrait, recalling for me, Ilse Hughes' earlier portrayals of musicians swept up in the active rhythms of the symphony. Chagall use to listen to music while he painted and his wife also read to him.  I wondered if there is anything in particular that Ilse enjoys while  she paints…it turns out it is CBC radio rather than music.  She calls it her "beloved companion" but when she is concentrating Ilse admits she doesn't hear what is said.

This Place the Way I See It is up until April 4, 2017.
View from Skerwink

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Marc Chagall: Colour and Music, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

It had been far too long since I'd had up my nose against a real Chagall painting, so I decided that a transfusion of his brand of colour and music would be the perfect cure for a long Newfoundland winter.  I was not disappointed.

Self-portrait with seven fingers (detail) oil on canvas 1912.
This is a mega show of 340 works that span decades of Chagall's long and prolific career and it sprawls through several galleries in the new wing of MMFA.  Chagall was born in the Russian Village of Vitebsk in 1887 and lived until 1985, dying in Saint-Paul, France (which is why he is often described as a Russian-French artist).  In between, he lived in NYC, Israel and Mexico.  Above all else, I think of Marc Chagall as a Jewish artist.  He was a dreamy and romantic man but he was determined.  His parents were not thrilled when he decided to become an artist and the Russian Empire was hostile to Jews.  Still, he continued. Chagall was born to a Hassidic family and he paid homage to that heritage throughout his career–his image of the green-faced Klezmer fiddler is an icon.

During my visit, there was a screening of a documentary that featured an interview with Chagall in French, with his wife as a translator; the setting was in the family's French garden.  Being able to hear the artist discuss his work and career, in his own words, is what persuaded me to spend a precious 180 minutes of an afternoon visit.  The closest I could get to an answer for why was the fiddler's face green (many of his figures have green faces) is Chagall's simple explanation, "I paint things the way I see them."

The exhibit held many surprises for me.  Many of the paintings were done on paper or cardboard and later backed by canvas, I imagine for conservation purposes.  The large-scale works were items like the seven panels from the Theatre of Jewish Art from Moscow or the ceiling work from the Paris Opera House.  These galleries are awash in curated music that combined with the visual elements to steep you in a complete experience.  Chagall often listened to music while he worked and with the help of colleagues still alive, these composers and selections were featured.  Special programming follows these preferences; if I couldn't have made it in to the assigned-seat screening of the documentary, I would have chosen a live concert of the Bach Cantatas.  The MMFA has its own superb concert venue, The Bourgie Hall that I can vouch for from previous experience. 

Chagall was a multi-disciplinary artist, who worked in printmaking, as well as painting, stained glass, ceramic murals, book illustration, costume design (for ballet and opera), and scenery both in paint and in tapestry.  It was rewarding to see studies, drypoint and gouache grouped together to illustrate the artist's creative process around a central theme or image.  The extensive collection of costumes is a highlight as they capture the magic and whimsy of Chagall's artistic vision.  The animals, with their near-human faces migrate seamlessly to costumes and masks
costume study by Chagall

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Practicing Spontaneity–Canadian Improv Games

We have come together
In the spirit of loving competition,
To celebrate the Canadian Improv Games.
We promise to uphold the ideals of improvisation,
To co-operate with one another,
To learn from each other,
To commit ourselves to the moment,
And above all…
To Have A Good Time!

This weekend I was in dire need of a good, therapeutic laugh.  If Trump speeches and a bad back weren't enough, two days of snow storms had made a mess of my work schedule and for those of us who are self employed, or like my friends in the food and service industry, if you don't work you don't get paid.  So, it was clear I was going to head into the LSPU Hall to catch the Newfoundland regionals of The Canadian Improv Games.

For years I have been saying I would do this and somehow managed to miss it.  This year was particularly enticing as the veteran improv crowd would be performing at a special Alumni Show.  I am one of those people who will be probably cracking jokes on her deathbed.  It is simply in my DNA and one of my cherished survival tools.  What so appeals to me about improvisational comedy is its innate resourcefulness.  It requires little preparatory time because you cannot rehearse it.  Granted, there are plenty of warm up exercises and there are always some structural things to push against.  For example, a time limit of 3 minutes per scene and each of the events has a category like theme, life event or character.  But there are delightful wild cards where the audience madly screams out suggestions for these categories such as "style", which can be anything from Disney musical to Shakespeare or a cheesy horror film.  This is a really shrewd way of knitting together the audience and performers through interaction.

These performances are staged as competitive games.  That means that instead of a master of ceremonies you have a madcap referee.  Sometimes, there are as many as three stooges acting as whistle blowing referees whipping up the audience into a hilarious frenzy and trying to contain the antics of competing teams of players.  When you think about it, the Improv Games is a winning mix of the unpredictable and favourite, recognizable elements–like "what's in the box?".  This will be a series of gag prizes raffled off for fundraising tickets that are sold in pairs, arm's length, etc right up to "mummified".  Then there is the oath with which every session starts and all audience members rise to recite with their right hand on their hearts. Believe me, as per the referee's instructions  you never know who will reach out with their left hand for your "G-rated body part". 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Putting the Love Back into Valentine's Day

I have always been struck by the commercialism of holidays such as Christmas, Easter, Halloween and of course Valentine's Day.  A few years back, I decided to try and subvert this by practicing a more conscious approach to celebrating them.  First, I started out making gifts by hand, then it grew into volunteering on these days –like when I went to The Gathering Place to socialize with the homeless or as one savvy nun put it "our guests".  On other occasions, it was supporting Trouble Bound Studio's $100 tattoo days to memorialize loved ones lost to cancer.  This past weekend they raised over $6,000 for Daffodil Place!
I've also supported refugee efforts here in St. John's.  At present, my kitchen floor looks like a warehouse as I am gathering household goods and personal care products for the St. John's Social Justice Network (as a comic book enthusiast, I am always tempted to call it the St. John's Social Justice League).

While I was waiting to go to a concert last week I was approached by a young musician who said, "you must come and hear me tomorrow!"  When I went to the ticket window I decided to buy extra tickets and pass them on to those music lovers behind me as a random act of kindness.  On Friday evening at The Yellow Belly I ended up with a drink that I had not ordered, which I passed on to a grateful student couple at the next table.

I know I will never have enough money to be a philanthropist and some days energy itself seems a scarce resource.  But these small acts seem to be a wise investment in positivity and community. And St. John's being the small city it is, where everybody seems to know everybody, I wasn't surprised to have two acquaintances chirp up in congratulations before I made it out of the restaurant.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Learning from Dinuk Wijeratne

My big indulgence last week was the New Found Music Festival XIV, which was held at the Memorial University School of Music here in St. John's February 1-3, 2017.  I find it always worth my time to listen to composers and musicians speak about their creations and feel lucky when they illustrate their points by playing snippets of music.  It is a whole lot more satisfying than looking at slides of visual art.  Anyhow, it is a peek behind the scenes or inside the creative brain.

Dinuk Wijerante
From 12:30 to 5 p.m. on Thursday I was in sessions that ranged from performances of Meng Jian to an interactive Deep Listening event.  There is no better way of learning than by doing.  And even lowly, little old me can be persuaded to sing in public. It was all rewarding but the cherry on top was Dinuk Wijeratne's Keynote Address that was really a rehearsal of Polyphonic Lively with the MUN Chamber Orchestra. 

It made me smile when Dinuk told the audience that the inspiration for the piece was a painting by Paul Klee.  He said that he couldn't remember what the painting looked like or the title of the book where Wijeratne discovered the image.  It was the title that struck him.  And Dinuk likes to use the symphony as a metaphor for a community based on diversity.

Wijeratne's music has always held my attention in part because it is a fusion of east and west.  He was born in Sri Lanka and grew up in Dubai but lives and works in Canada, when he's not playing in places like Carnegie Hall.  I was surprised to learn that he had been raised on western music and that his artistic vision was largely formed in New York City and the global music scene.  Back in the dark ages when I was a teenager, I developed a taste for Ravi Shankar and classical Indian music.  Zakir Hussain was my favourite tabla player.  I was thrilled to learn that Wijeratne had had the opportunity to play with Hussain and he shared this little story with the audience.

Tabla compositions usually end on a light treble stroke (nah) but when Hussain played the piece they were rehearsing, he would end the piece on a heavy base stroke (dah).  Wijeratne noticed the sheet music still said nah.  Finally, someone in the group screwed up the courage to ask maestro Hussain about it.  Hussain studied the sheet music and then pronounced, "Well there is tradition and then there's show business".  Clearly, the emphatic dah ending was an audience-satisfying flourish.  Now, that's a lesson you can take to the bank.
One of my favourite instruments the tabla.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Curatorial 101: Kent Jones retrospective

Baldy and Nipper by Kent Jones, acrylic and mixed media on canvas.

Earlier this month I had the great pleasure to open a 45-retrospective exhibition about the career of Kent Jones.  He is a very modest guy but enormously talented and works in prints, paintings, drawing and film.  As part of my duties as a curator I took the opportunity of giving a presentation in the gallery about curatorial practice.  I figured why make people look at photographic representations of the work when they have the real thing.

One of my big challenges in putting together an exhibition is not only selecting the work but deciding about the context for the work.  Next, I need to create a visual experience that supports that context.  The Kent Jones show was going up at the Grenfell Campus Art Gallery that is home to Memorial University's Visual Arts Program.  Charlotte Jones and her staff were a dream to work with and agreed to all my presentation concepts.  For example,  a room was built out of temporary walls just to house the print section of the show that was organized chronologically. 

A special pedestal was devoted to an art book of poetry illustrated by Kent.  Each day a new page would be displayed to encourage visitation.  This is ideal with a gallery in a building filled with students and faculty who are frequently in the building.

There is a dedicated room with seating and earphones so that visitors can experience Kent Jones' work in video.

A pair of paintings are strategically placed to greet viewers, one with a air-streamed locomotive and the other with a pair of farm workhorses, named Baldy and Nipper, are in fact dedicated to Kent's parents.

When I was lecturing about my curatorial practice I realize that three key ideas were operating.  One, was my subject:  Kent Jones; two, was the concept of drawing, which Kent always maintained was the seminal artistic activity; and three, was the idea of the retrospective–as a curator I needed to express the scope of this impressive artist both in terms of themes and technique.
Wyoming For My Mother by Kent Jones

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

He just made wonderful stuff - Akio Takamori

I just got the sad news that we have lost Akio Takamori, whom I consider one of the most original talents in contemporary ceramics.  For my friends in ceramics and those who follow it, I am excerpting a moving, longer article that NCECA has just published:

Remembering Akio Takamori (1950-2017)

The field of ceramic art lost an indelible, creative, and generous spirit when sculptor, teacher, mentor, and friend Akio Takamori succumbed to cancer on Wednesday, January 11. His wife Vicky wrote, “ ... his last day was spent working in his studio and loading a small kiln. He left his studio for the last time in preparation to return the next day. 

The work for his upcoming exhibition at James Harris Gallery in Seattle this February was completed. Despite his cancer and increasing limitations, he was moving forward gathering ideas for his next group of work. He told me once, he had so many ideas for new pieces that it kept him awake at night in anticipation of what to make next.”
Contributing to NCECA’s remembrance are lines from Richard Notkin’s message to NCECA President Chris Staley about their dear friend Akio. Born in 1950, Akio Takamori spent his childhood in Nobeoka, Miyazaki, Japan. His father was a physician whose library of medical and art texts fascinated young Takamori throughout his childhood. Takamori has also shared that his father’s dermatology practice, located near a tenderloin district, drew a wide range of people and influences into his sphere at a young age.

Akio’s passing is a terrible loss for everyone, especially those of us who knew him. A fantastic individual, wonderful spirit, the most creative and inspiring artist I have ever met. Akio made art of everything he touched, from deep within himself, as we all know. For me, he was the epitome of what true artists embody. He just made wonderful stuff. It was never about his ego, just about making art. He will always be an inspiration to me, and, I am sure, to all of us.

Akio's fascination with art and culture further developed as he grew older. Following graduation from Tokyo University, he became apprenticed to a master folk potter in Koishiwara Kyushu. Takamori was impressed by a traveling exhibition of new ceramics from Canada, the United States and Latin America, whose anti-authoritarian posture made a strong impact on his thinking about art. Also around this time, legendary Kansas City Art Institute educator and potter, Ken Ferguson met the young Takamori while visiting the pottery. The two soon developed a rapport, and in 1974, Takamori travelled to Kansas City to study at the school. Ferguson's unique approach to teaching and making had a profound influence on Takamori's shift to his focus to more expressive and personal explorations of content and reinventions inspired by ceramic traditions. After earning his BFA (1976), Takamori went on to earn his MFA from Alfred University (1978). In the 1980s, he moved on to a residency at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana. In 1993, Takamori accepted a faculty position at the University of Washington Seattle where he was named Professor Emeritus.

It will be sad to live in a world without Akio, especially in our Puget Sound neighborhood. He was truly loved by all. But he leaves much behind that is so positive, so beautiful, and, above all, that touches so many people in truly profound ways. Both his art and his wonderful life and spirit. All we have while we are on this planet is our time, and Akio used his time as well as anyone I have ever known. We were all blessed to know him.