LESLEY MCINALLY ceramics / SUSAN UKKOLA paintings and prints
April 28-May 31, 2015
The exhibition converging voicespairs two artists whose work is vastly different in media yet shares similar aesthetic concerns. Their differences complement each other in interesting ways – including how they each consider the effects of time an important factor in their processes.
Lesley McInally is a ceramic artist living near Cookstown, Ontario. Her recent work has been influenced by impressions of the landscape, seascape, weather and archaeological sites of Neolithic monuments found in the Orkney Islands of her native Scotland. Exposed to the elements over a great deal of time, the textured surfaces of these man-made stone structures tell stories of human influence throughout history.
She is interested in human connections pertaining to “the dialogue between the ancient and the contemporary”, best seen in the graffiti left on man-made stone structures. Ogham, Pictish, Norse and Victorian carvings in stone surfaces give the contemporary viewer a feeling of continuity and a connection to the ancient past.
Stone and ceramics have similarly hard surfaces. While raw clay is soft and easily pliable, responding to the touch of the maker’s hand and tools, through the extreme heat of a kiln it transforms into a material permanent as granite.
McInally constructs her forms methodically of clay slabs, pushing and pressing them together to create loose-walled vessel forms. Layers of thick clay (slip) brushed and dripped over the exterior surfaces are then marked with scratched lines, words, images and textures. Wisps or dots of coloured slips and glazes accentuate the pale exteriors, while the insides are often glazed with black to create a contrasting rich, dark abyss.
Though vessels are traditionally used for the containment of foodstuffs, McInally’s may be said to also contain imaginings of the past. They mimic the scrawlings of human history, the effects of rain and wind, the bleaching effect of sun and time. Her titles are contemplative reminders of quiet moments spent among ruins on an exposed clifftop in the Orkneys, or perhaps in a farmer’s field behind her Ontario home. In either case, they imbue “a humbling sensation to feel the presence of those who came before us.”
A sense of time also runs through the work of Dunrobin, Ontario painter and printmaker Susan Ukkola. This is evidenced in the layers of shapes, lines and textures that Ukkola fuses into an alchemy of hot beeswax and pigment on a white-primed wood surface. The technique is called encaustic, the oldest surviving examples of which date to Egyptian Fayum mummy portraits of 1st century BC.
Ukkola’s paintings are primarily abstract; her process guided by creative spontaneity. The quickly cooling wax imposes a limited window of time to manipulate it before hardening. For Ukkola, this opens up a space for reflection that allows her to “respond to the painting’s surface” as it develops, letting a vision of the piece unfold before her. By manipulating with heat, re-adding more material, collaging bits of printed paper, scratching through areas to reveal what’s beneath, scrawling gestural lines, bits of text or images, primitive patterns and swaths of contrasting colours, she expresses the idea of pentimento – the revealing of previous layers from a previous time. These built-up surfaces essentially capture a creative thought process, generated without hesitation and embedded now for the ages.
Working in series of perhaps dozens, Ukkola’s abstract compositions are titled to reflect some personal truths about life. With names like Cycle Series and Vanishing Line Series, she alludes to the belief that we are all continuously moving and responding to the elements; that there are no absolutes in life – we are all living ‘in the moment’ where emotions can be raw and tangible.
-Richard Skrobecki, with quotes from the artists
May 2015 interview with Susan Ukkola in the gallery: https://youtu.be/eWYltrQafZ0
from down under CYNTHIA O’BRIEN April 2-25, 2015
This work is based on an installation I created at the Tank Art Centre within the Flecker Botanical Gardens in Cairns, Australia. I spent a month being taught by nature to see plants from all angles, lights and moods. My hands learned to move the clay to bring out the strength and delicacy of each plant.
Australia has a very tough policy that nothing is brought in or taken from their fragile environment. I abided by these rules. What struck me later in February, as I sat in my cold Ottawa basement studio, is that I did collect a good deal of plants through the physical memory in my hands. Working again on these plants gave me great joy and I could feel the lightness and warmth of the lush foreign garden I learned so much from.
The flowers I created in Australia are gone, dissolved in water back to the natural state of clay. I cannot assume to replicate nature; the flowers I make now are a mix of reality and fiction. They all have many stories within the garden and in the minds of who view them. My story tells of beauty, sadness, adventure and new growth.
The flowers float around the space, creating a new garden – a space for reflection grounded only by the weathered fence boards. I invite the viewer to come and contemplate the simple beauty of the world around them.
–Cynthia O’Brien, March 2015
Frost-bitten Mosquito-slapping Trolley-tippers: Contemporary Art from Manitoba
September 2 – October 12, 2014
essay by Nancy Baele
When Winnipeg artists Diana Thorneycroft and Michael Boss stayed at the Rowboat Bed and Breakfast last summer, they connected instantly with Chandler Swain, the well known potter who ran the B and B with her husband, Michael Reynolds. “It was non-stop art talk and laughter,” Swain said, recalling the heady, stimulating conversations that resulted in an exhibition of 18 Manitoba artists that opened September 2nd at General Fine Craft, Art and Design, an Almonte gallery co-owned by Swain and potter Richard Skrobecki.
At first glance, the exhibition poster, Frost-bitten Mosquito-slapping Trolley Tippers-Contemporary Art From Manitoba, with its iconic image of a crowd rocking a trolley during Winnipeg’s 1919 General Strike, has little in common with the engraved portrait of Almonte’s namesake, Mexican General Juan Nepomucene Almonte, transferred onto the window above the gallery door. Yet, in a tenuous but substantive way, the two are emblematically linked. The trolley tippers, who wanted a better quality of life after WW1, and General Juan Almonte, who defended Mexico against U.S. imperialism, were as principled and determined to uphold their causes as Thorneycroft and Boss, Swain and Skrobecki are in upholding the making and showing of good art.
When space in an Almonte heritage building became available in the winter of 2013, Swain and Skrobecki asked themselves if they would commit to making their dream gallery a reality even if they never made a penny. The answer was yes. With the encouragement of a supportive landlord, they transformed the space into a bright, airy venue where a diversity of artistic visions co-exist harmoniously. When the gallery opened in April 2013, it showcased local and regional work. Because they had been instrumental in launching and maintaining an ongoing commitment to the annual 260 Fingers Ceramic Show, held every November at Ottawa’s Glebe Community Centre, they had a broad network to draw from. “We started by looking at the work of eighty artists,” Skrobecki said. “There was to be no mediocrity. We wanted art that was well made, art that was rooted in the tradition of fine craft, art that had a contemporary, unexpected edge, art that had the ability to delight the human soul.”
Despite being filled, floor to ceiling, with ceramics, glass, paintings, sculpture, hand-crafted furniture, textile art, the gallery does not feel crowded but rather like an ordered world with invitations at every turn to touch, admire, wonder, consider. I observed this sense of discovery and appreciation with visitors as well as with Swain and Skrobecki who expanded on their credo as they walked through the gallery, pausing to hold a crow sculpture by Mary Philpott or to point out a painting by Mary Pfaff. Artists set the price for their work and receive a very fair percentage if it sells. Every month, Swain and Skrobecki devote a third of the gallery space to exhibitions of individual artists or themed shows. Whether the work for these exhibitions is commercially viable is not a consideration. It must be worthy of attention, like the sculpture Uta Riccius made from the ubiquitous clear plastic containers used for take-out foods and supermarket packaging. It hung in the window, catching the light, engaging in a subtle dialogue in terms of times and materials with the stone masonry of the bank across the street. Swain and Skrobecki see themselves as working within and building on the tradition of galleries like Vicki Henry’s Ufundi Gallery, once located on Sussex Drive, Prime Gallery in Toronto, L.A. Pai Gallery on Murray Street.
When Thorneycroft and Boss saw the gallery, they immediately envisioned an exhibition by Manitoba artists that was “fairly funky and suited to a space that focuses on craft and design.” In curating the exhibition, they split their list between male and female artists, providing a welcome opportunity for one local/regional art scene to view another. They conceived of the exhibition as “a way of poking fun at the common perceptions of who we are, while celebrating the wealth of artistic talent in our province.” There is a faint echo of Winnipeg film maker Guy Maddin’s sensibility in the zeitgeist of the show, a blurring of dream and reality. It’s evident in every facet of the exhibition, whether it is the astute pairing of photos of Michael Boss’ cardboard motorcycles, (assemblages of duct and painting tape, fragments of plastic, remnants from cast-off
Nike shoe packaging), with Diana Thorneycroft’s plastic horses that, despite their abnormalities and physical defects, have an engaging vitality. Both serve as an entry point to a show that alludes to illustrious art history names– Morandi, Seurat, Miro, Magritte- as much as it does to the physical reality of Winnipeg and a collective but, highly idiosyncratic way of seeing the world.
So many perspectives are offered that visitors should be prepared to linger and muse. Consider Thorneycroft’s impetus in making her horses. After a visit to China, where she saw a severely deformed woman on a street, she began working with toy plastic horses, the kind manufactured by Breyer and Mattel. She heated them, altered their flesh, their feet, their backs. No longer are they icons of a noble animal with a free flowing mane, a symbol of power and grace, but objects with a startling, maimed and resilient, unorthodox appeal. She sees them akin to African ancestral sculptures with healing powers. Instead of the potions the Africans hide in their sculptures, she envisions the horses’ owners putting something personal, perhaps a note for a loved one, in the horse’s belly and sealing it with a detachable tongue.
Robert Archambeau’s vases, plate, jar, tea pot, counter the levity so apparent in the show. Morandi comes immediately to mind in the pure, classic forms of his vases and the beautiful copper lidded jar. His small green teapot with a wide handle and the imprint of his fingers, exemplifies a contemporary classic. Ceramics is well represented in the exhibition. Crystal Nykoluk makes unusual mugs, teacups, saucers and spoons, which beckon with their promise of drinking from a vessel attuned to geology, landforms. Erica Eyres makes strangely compelling deflated balloon shapes and a wig whose tressed form evokes the sea. Grace Nickel’s delicate porcelain work, a technical feat, was done with her husband, Michael Zajac in Jingdezhen, China. Humour is Jordan van Sewell’s signature. In his ceramic portraits of animals or his car sculptures, there is a feeling comic cartoonery has been raised a notch.
Much of the art provokes a smile, if not outright laughter. Whether it is Peter Graham’s silk screen depictions of a polar bear ambling across a snowy hill in front of a bus or Evin Collis’ portraits of a crazed motorcyclist, or Suzie Smith’s pile of hammers that bring to mind Magritte’s pipe because they look like hammers, but they have been fabricated from silk screen prints and have no weight. Then there are the painters – Seth Woodyard and Frank Livingston -whose works deservedly belong in a gallery that upholds the standards of the well wrought. Technically admirable, they have a distinctive perspective. Livingston’s are fresh, provocative. Grounded in pointillism, they go beyond that tradition. Woodyard makes paintings that have a weight, a “thingness.”
The needle plays a role in this exhibition. Takashi Iwasaki embroiders subjects that have a Miro abstract gaiety and weightlessness that is enticing. Dana Kletke uses needles as the armature for the beaded limbs of strange dolls, clothed in parkas, with stoic stone faces, except for one that cries, her tears falling from a thread. Heather Komus also embroiders with horse hair, discs made from pig intestines. They hang in the gallery window like translucent mobiles beside two stunning cast glass pieces, Winged Lung, 2004, and Mundus Adaptat. 2012, by Ione Thorkelsson. Paul Robles uses scissors to create sensually appealing images of peacocks in pinks and blacks.
As I left such a satisfying exhibition, I looked up at the ghostly portrait of General Juan Nepomucene Almonte, and thought about the role chance plays in a name or an art exhibition. Had the village of Waterford not been forced to change its name at the request of the Post Office in 1851, to avoid duplication with another Waterford town in Ontario, there would be no Almonte. The name, a curious anomaly for a mainly Scots and Irish community, was selected, according to a Harvard professor who wrote an article for the
Gazette in 1920, because Almonte, the son of a priest and an Amerindian woman, “was seen as a man of uncommon frankness and had plenty of courage, he stood up for the rights of his country in stalwart fashion and gave Uncle Sam enough vigorous back-chat to make things interesting. This quite naturally, gained him a good many admirers among Canadians who on general principles were distrustful of American motives during these antebellum days. The name of Almonte at any rate, figured prominently in the Canadian newspapers during these years….It was a good enough name in its way, relatively short, easy to pronounce, and with no local associations to excite neighborhood jealousy.”
Had it not been that their nephew’s wedding was in Almonte, and they had stayed at the Rowboat B and B, before Swain gave up the enterprise because of increasing gallery demands, there would be no exhibition organized by Thorneycroft and Boss. Had there not been two Waterfords in Ontario, there would be no portrait of General Almonte looking down on the show.
HOT-WORKED: new blown glass vessels and sculpture
by Mariel Waddell Hunter and Mischka Alexi Hunter
at General Fine Craft, Art & Design – Almonte ON May 6 – June 1, 2014
Glass is brought to life by light. Its colour, texture, pattern and nuances of form are enhanced when light penetrates it. Mariel Waddell and Alexi Hunter are masters of glasswork; they know how to control the molten glass and how to bring out its innate qualities.
Both Waddell and Hunter are graduates of Sheridan College School of Craft and Design in Mississauga ON where they studied under accomplished instructors. Both have followed up their formal training with workshops, apprenticeships and teaching. In 2006, they purchased a glass studio in downtown Kingston, Ontario. Kingston Glass Studio and Gallery has several glass furnaces and a gallery space showcasing their work as well as that of some 30 guest artists. Together they design and produce large commission projects, small items designed for retail and their individual signature pieces destined for collectors and gallery exhibitions. The signature pieces require them to challenge their technical skills to make their ideas real; this process is the essence of creativity for any studio artist.
Mariel Waddell Hunter is known for her blown and hot-worked vases, bowls and sculptural forms. They are large and complicated, involving hours of careful manipulation of molten glass to build textures (bit-work) that flows on and around the forms.
Raised in Trinidad, her roots are close to water and waves. These elements play a pivotal role in her vision and approach to working with glass. Both water and glass have similarities in their physical density and visual clarity. Light penetrates through them, illuminating details and pigments within.
Waddell’s bit-work resembles another element of the seas: coral reef motifs. Thickly applied in swirling growth patterns, it plays with the refraction of light and gives an overall softly gleeming effect. Colours dance throughout her pieces, changing as one circles them and as the light source alters.
In her Depths of Refraction, common indoor lighting makes the form appear very dark with areas of deep blues and greens. But look at the same piece with brilliant sunlight behind it and those colours come alive; brightly shimmering as the Caribbean Sea, temporal as the tides. The outside edges fade to clear, just as ocean surf washes up clear on a sandy beach.
The skills needed to achieve such effects are quite significant. Skill is the vehicle for her vision… everything about her work gives a sense of appreciation and understanding of the nature of water, the power of waves and tidal pull. Staring into one of her Ripple Wave Bowls, one can imagine taking a deep breathe of air just before diving into the cool, enveloping wetness.
Mischka Alexi Hunter was raised in Canada, Hawaii and Europe. He found a passion for glassblowing early in his studies at Sheridan College. His work has since developed into a distinct vocabulary of strong and elegant forms with interesting use of surface textures and interior patterning.
His Flava Vases have bulbous bottoms which narrow as they stretch upwards like a swan’s neck, ending at openings that are loose, generous and undulating. Hunter uses combinations of bold colours and frits to create patterns in the glass, stretched out or coaxed into rhythmic swirls during the making process. The exterior surfaces are often sandblasted, diffusing light and giving an overall soft effect to the bold forms. They have an beautifully strong but quiet presence, often accentuated by heights well over 24 inches. Such size requires tremendous physical strength and control during the glass blowing process.
Another avenue of creative exploration involves the contrast of glass and metal. Hunter has incorporated bits of steel, bolts and rusting bits of tools into some of his work. These are things which remind him of his youth spent on a family farm in eastern Ontario. Both glass and metal are hard materials but one is able to fracture the other with relative ease. This creates the perception of tension and unease.
His Zero Point Series refers to zero-point energy (quantum vacuum zero-point energy) which is “the lowest possible energy that a quantum mechanical physical system may have; it is the energy of its ground state… (never quite still) with fluctuations that are a consequence of their wave-like nature”. Hunter visualizes this concept into a beacon-like form with protruding spikes that seem to emit energy from the core. There is a sense of solidity to the core that is contrasted by the fragility of the wavy spikes and his use of colour or pattern. They appear to be mechanical creatures that lure you in, wondering what dangerous or profound secrets they may hold.
UTA RICCIUS: PLASTIK March 4-30, 2014 at General Fine Craft, Art & Design
Uta Riccius remembers how her Grandmother was an avid recycler of plastics and other man-made materials, well before it became common practice. This may have impressed upon her the need to be conscious of the environmental load humans are exerting on the Earth. An artist and art teacher for twenty years now, Uta’s work deeply considers this notion of environmental responsibility.
At her studio in an old stone farmhouse near Ashton, Riccius pulls a piece of plastic packaging from a pile, holds it above eye-level, considers its design and imagines it re-created into solid form.
Resting on a shelf below are some of these forms, cast in hydro-cal (gypsum cement). They are pure white and resemble the fossilized remains of once-living organisms. Her various two and three-dimensional pieces explore many interestingly layered themes. These are strange and wonderful creations which draw us into, as Uta states, a world of “specimens derived from the waste of our consumer-driven society”. She has indeed made wonder from waste.
Riccius’ process begins with used plastics – grocery store style prepared food packaging. She re-configures these containers to create molds from which she then casts in white gypsum cement (hydrocal), utilizing the inherent patterns and forms. Bright white in colour, the castings have a newness and purity contrasted by their resemblance to fossils, crustaceans, fungi or microscopic organisms. There is a playfulness to this technique and the resulting pieces have a sense of irony in that they originate from items created for mass-consumption, discarded by most people without any consideration.
Recycling is just one aspect of Uta’s work. She takes this idea further by making colourful drawings of how she imagines these ‘fossils’ would have looked had they been living things. Through photography, digital manipulation and printing techniques, she plays with methods of presentation by making composites images and assemblages. Now the ‘fossils’ appear to be biological evidence presented in science textbook form. Fossils inspire human fascination with the origins of life, ideas of evolution and the instinctual pursuit of scientific discovery.
The composite images engage another layer of ideas: they directly reference the work of 19th century German artist/scientist Ernst Haeckel. Haeckel created thousands of accurately detailed drawings of micro-organisms, plants and animals which were published in multiple editions. He gained huge popularity and played an important role is spreading public interest in natural science and Darwinism, of which he was a major proponent in Germany. As evidenced by Riccius’ work, his influence continues today. By replicating her work in the same manner as Haeckel, Riccius makes us question how scientific evidence is presented, by whom and how such evidence can be perceived.
Riccius’ sculptures and images easily stand on their own as interesting works of art. Because of how they are made, they remind us of the predominance of oil-based products in our daily lives. They address our responsibility to recycle household plastics and obligation to care for the planet. At the same time, they make us consider important advances in scientific and evolutionary thought through the centuries.
PLASTIK (German term for both the material and the qualities of plasticity) challenges us on many levels, allowing us to marvel at the uniquely human quality of artistic creativity through the observance of, and profound respect for, nature.
–Richard Skrobecki, with Uta Riccius
NORMAN TAKEUCHI: ON THE EDGES OF NOH
February 4 to March 2, 2014 at General Fine Craft, Art & Design, Almonte
For some artists, making art can be a deeply personal and challenging process – painful at times, riddled with self-doubt and taking years to achieve real creative satisfaction. But the results, over time and transitions, can be life-changing.
The development of Ottawa, Ontario artist Norman Takeuchi’s work can be described as a journey through cultural identification and aesthetic experimentation peppered with peer encouragement and, as Norman says, “lucky” opportunities.
The Takeuchi family was one of a handful of Japanese Canadians living in Westwold, a small farming community in the interior of British Columbia. They moved there from Vancouver, anticipating the implementation of the War Measures Act of 1941 which stripped the rights of twenty-two thousand Japanese Canadians as free human beings, labelled them “Enemy Aliens”, and restricted them from living anywhere within 100 miles of the B.C. coast line. The Act, motivated by fear, paranoia, racism and opportunistic politicians, devastated the lives of first and second generation Japanese-Canadians – honest, hard-working people not deserving of such upheaval and humiliation.
Norman Takeuchi was a child when all this was happening and, like any child, he went about the business of growing up, somewhat oblivious to the hardships his parents felt. After finishing high school and an obligatory year of working for his father (a landscape gardener), he enrolled at the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art and Design). His early interest in art had been heightened when first seeing “an actual painting” hanging in the home of one of his father’s clients. Art school was a delightfully eye-opening experience for Norman; a bold introduction to his new life as an artist.
Takeuchi studied painting and commercial art, taking a job with an advertising company after graduation. Nine months later, he received a scholarship to paint in London, England where he explored abstract expressionism, sharing a flat with two other young artists. This was 1962-63, when David Hockney’s Royal College of Art graduation show was shaking up the art establishment with its pop sensibilities. Norman’s eyes were again opened to the exciting evolution of movements in art and culture. Before he left, he was offered a solo exhibition at London’s Thames Gallery.
His London studio sojourn expired, Norman returned to Canada in need of a steady income. Friends directed him to Ottawa where he was hired as a junior exhibition designer for Montreal’s Expo 67. He worked with Tom Wood and Robin Bush on the Canadian Pavilion, an experience he found exciting, creatively rewarding and which would provide future career opportunities. By now married to Marion, he received a Canada Council grant for another year of studio work in London. His exhibition design career continued when in 1970 he and Marion lived in Osaka, Japan working on Expo 70 for 6 months. When they returned to Ottawa, Norman was hired as an exhibition and graphic designer with the Canadian Museum of Nature, where he remained for 25 years.
During this time he painted little, but life drawing sessions every Sunday at the Nepean Visual Arts Centre kept him engaged creatively. He moved into using chalk pastels and then acrylic paint on canvas and paper. Tom Wood encouraged him to take art-making more seriously so he began to explore working in series: first milkweed studies, then bone drawings, then abstracted imagery, leading to total abstraction. This process of series allowed him to explore ideas to their fullest.
By now, Norman and Marion were living on a hobby farm near Ashton (west of Ottawa) where they kept two horses. Always inspired by his love of nature, they lived on the farm for 19 years before moving back to the city.
Norman is keenly aware that his art career would not have progressed as it has if it wasn’t for the vital role Marion has played in providing support in countless ways: as organizer, archivist, bookkeeper, gentle critic; so much so that it is impossible to not view the two as a team.
Takeuchi’s Japanese heritage was becoming more important to him when, in 1995, he saw an exhibition of dyed and painted kimonos by Japanese master Itchiku Kubota. These triggered something in him and inspired him to start using the iconic imagery of Japan as the next theme in his work. With this, he began to “visually interpret” who he was, dealing with long-held emotions surrounding the internment years and his own cultural identity.
In 2005 he met Ottawa writer, lecturer and independent curator Maureen Korp who invited him to participate in an exhibition she was organizing at Karsh-Masson Gallery entitled Without A Passport. It explored a diverse group of artists’ cultural identity experiences and brought Norman some critical notice, leading to other successful shows, both group and solo, in Canada and abroad.
His iconic Kimono series was followed by a series that specifically looked into his struggles identifying as Japanese Canadian. This lead into the series entitled On The Edges of Noh, currently showing in Almonte at General Fine Craft, Art & Design. (Almonte-area residents may recall his 2003 solo show From The Ground Up at Philip K. Wood Gallery and 2012’s very memorable Hair Lines at the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum in which he presented larger-than-life exquisite conté drawings of fellow exhibiting artist Karen Jordon’s wrapped and twisted hair sculptures.)
On The Edges of Noh is an overview of his 2010-13 series using Noh mask imagery. Noh is an ancient traditional form of Japanese theatre incorporating drama, music and dance with actors as human and ghost characters wearing beautifully carved and painted wooden masks. In his work, Takeuchi isolates the mask for its iconic quality, then incorporates abstractly painted areas. The colourful mask imagery is purposely fragmented, emerging or disintegrating in and out of agitated abstraction and areas of pattern. The contrast of these two elements represents his unsettled feelings which have surfaced over many years of personal reflection.
Through creating these iconic series of paintings and pastel drawings, his painful family history and his own “uneasiness with shame and anger” have given way to reconciliation, healing and the ability to embrace his Japanese heritage. Indeed it is the dual experience of Japanese and Canadian heritage that he embraces here. Takeuchi’s approach to art-making is “a conscious attempt to find new ways of expressing these very things”. His next series of paintings (showing in March at Ottawa’s Cube Gallery) goes beyond the mask. He’s not sure what to make of it yet but, rest assured, it’s all part of “the natural progression of taking chances” that he thrives on.
–Richard Skrobecki, with Norman and Marion Takeuchi
A Portrait of Note: The Beekeeper by Katherine McNenly
Since I began to study art in a serious way, coming to art college from a technical art program in high school, the portrait has intrigued me. I loved life drawing and had a bit of facility with it. But getting the look of a person’s face with a drawing was the most difficult and with paint: forget it. The teeniest diversion from the proportions ruined the effect: the inability to pick up nuance on the angle of the chin, the length of the nose, the thickness of the lips, the slight curve of a brow….an endless series of interrelated elements that morph with subtlety from one part of the face to another. Done from a photograph, a portrait, unless interpreted by a very accomplished artist is very ordinary in its stilted, lifelessness…these are very common. The light never changes, the subject never moves or tires. The sitter’s mood is..well…there is no mood. It is just a representation of a face copied from a static image.
Then there is a portrait by an artist. An artist whose work makes you stop in your tracks. What is it about the artwork of a master that grabs you? This is such a compelling question and has driven collectors since humans attempted to communicate about the human form through visual means. We could look to the famous examples of the art. Works by Rembrandt let’s say…or Leonardo. Why is the Mona Lisa proclaimed such a treasure? What can we take from her smile? What do we gain from gazing at her gazing at us? Maybe it is that there is no concrete answer that keeps us speculating. Regardless, a beautifully rendered portrait is as compelling to us as the human face is to a newborn.
The more we know about how difficult it is to achieve the je ne sais quoi of a human face, rendered by someone wielding a small stick with animal hair bristles attached to it that hold the earth pigments of lead white, carmine, sienna, cobalt and the rest, suspended in oil, the more we are in awe.
Well, think of all this and the masters that have come before: Sargent, Gainsborough, ..good heavens the list goes on: and then look at the portrait now hanging at General Fine Craft Art and Design in Almonte by local painter Katherine McNenly. McNenly is considered one of finest portrait artists in Canada, and perhaps in the world. We can make this claim as her portrait received an award of honour at the American Portrait Society International Competition in 2012 http://www.
If she was a race horse owner, tennis player or a rock musician this would be BIG NEWS!
Well, cheekily I admit, I thought perhaps I would write about how big this news is for me: a newly minted gallery co-owner. I saw Kathy’s painting in the Kingston Portrait Prize show for 2007. I knew she had a piece in this show: Big News. This is THE show to be included in, in Canada. I went to see the exhibition when it was at the ROM in Toronto. There it was: a small, quiet, beautiful self portrait. Understated and sublime. I was delighted it had made the cut as it seemed one of the requisite attributes of the portraits on view was to be somehow outrageous and have troublesome mood, quirky composition and attitude. Kathy’s work was straightforward excellence in terms of an artist making a visual statement about a person. It was classic and traditional. It was an inspired addition to the show. These were the best portraits painted in Canada that year. Quite a coup.
Then last year in our Humm newspaper I saw the article telling of Kathy’s award in the big international show. They included a photo of the painting. Its has been on my studio wall ever since. And since we opened the gallery this spring, I knew there was art I wanted to show just for my own satisfaction. Art that would make people stop and pay attention. Included on this list was the Bee Keeper portrait from the US competition. I asked Kathy about it but it was being shown at another gallery. Rats. Foiled. We have had two other paintings by Kathy on display since we opened in April. A wonderful nude and a still life with white roses. Both exquisite. However I still wished we could get our hands on The Beekeeper. The subject of the painting is somehow familiar. A woman of a certain age with long silvered hair, braided, wise eyes and serene expression. She stands in a field with her hives in the distance. She is in her keeper’s gear. She cradles a large jar of new honey. It is a moment we understand. We can sense her stopping in this moment to look about her domain of green fields determining what comes next in her day. But it is the expression in her eyes that keeps us riveted. What is the thought, right now that consumes her? That stops her in her busy day. A bee keeper is calm and one with her hive and their world of flowers. Is this what we see on her face? Serenity. The expression of one in balance with her world. Perhaps this is what one longs for. Surely there is uncertainly in her world but she is in unfazed nonetheless. We are reassured.
Fast forward to a hot rainy day in the middle of July. I am in the gallery thinking about how much I would love an Equator Americano but its too late in the day….I should be tidying something…then all of a sudden Kathy comes through the door with a very interesting looking brown paper package of just the right size and shape. Could it be? It is! The very painting. All this to say, lucky Millstone readers: you heard it first here: a painting of international repute is hanging at our most humble gallery. I am delighted and call co-owner Richard Skrobecki to tell him the news trying to sound casual. I want all the credit for this. But as usual: we are who we are because of those who collaborate with us. And such is the gallery. A real team effort if there ever was one. So much risk! So many decisions. So much art.
But for now, having Kathy McNenly’s oil on linen portrait feels like our team is doing OK. We have created a place that does it justice. Right here in Almonte. By the way, Kathy has also just had a painting accepted into this year’s Kingston Portrait Exhibition. Congratulations to a superb painter. Thanks Kathy for letting us exhibit this world class painting.
– Chandler Swain
TEXT ME! an exhibition of letters and words in visual art
September 3-29, 2013 at General Fine Craft, Art & Design
From the illuminated texts of the Middle Ages in Europe to graffiti tagging in 21 century streets, from only the privileged few who were literate to writing for all to see, Words and Letters have great power. How are contemporary visual artists reckoning with this element in their work? General Fine Craft in Almonte has assembled over 25 artists who use text in their art in imaginative, challenging and unique ways.
We are inundated with words every day in emails, newspapers, books, tattoos, greeting cards, street signs and advertising. Words are ubiquitous. Some become iconic. Think of “SOS” or “I heart NY” or seeing your name in print: in the right or wrong place. It’s all information. Communication.
If visual art is a form of communication why use words or letters? How can their use in a piece of art elevate and not reduce it to something banal? This was my question when I looked around at what our makers were doing in the gallery and beyond. What makes the work relevant and interesting?
My fascination with this particular element in art likely started with seeing Joyce Weiland’s magnificent True Patriot Love show at Av Issac’s Gallery in Toronto when I was a student at the Ontario College of Art in the 70’s. One piece in the show called Reason Over Passion is a quilt with 3 dimensional stuffed letters attached to it. Weiland’s use of mixed media and text was for me revelatory and inspired me to pursue an artistic practice in the material arts…and it happens using text on my own ceramic art.
Another famous and inspiring text based piece is Robert Indiana’s huge 1970 steel sculpture of the letters L and O sitting on a V and E. The letters are painted bright red with an intense blue interior between the front and back of the sculpture. In your mind’s eye you will be able to conjure up a clear image of one version, which sits beside a New York City sidewalk and is over 15′ tall. The details of this iconic artwork are lodged in our memories as are the details of the Mona Lisa`s face or Tom Thompson’s Jack Pine…but it’s a word. If I simply Type LOVE here, it doesn`t have the same force as the word transformed by a visual artist into an object that stood for the time: a time when the groundswell to end the war in Vietnam was huge and John Lennon was in trouble with US government for singing Give Peace a Chance.
You could argue that words should be unnecessary in what we deem a piece of fine art or craft. The communication should be done with paint, clay, bronze, fibre, glass, colour or imagery….like for example, Picasso’s Guernica: the huge painting he did to address the horrors of the Spanish civil war. No words are necessary. We understand fully the dynamics and subject of this masterpiece of painting. I have no answer to the question of why text in visual art is OK…..or not…I am merely curious and attracted to text based art, especially beautiful, complex graffiti which seems almost an antidote to our current obsession of reducing communication using the typed word on a screen to 140 characters. Marks on electronic screen lack the emotion and nuance of a hand written letter, which is no longer a compulsory subject taught in school.
After mulling this subject over in preparation of our exhibition, I went to see Sakahan: Aboriginal Art from around the world at The National Gallery. A number of powerful works were text based and only increased my fascination with this dichotomy: text and art. Much of the work in Sakahan is mixed media based as well. The show, just over, was truly an inspiration and reenergized me for all that we was necessary to mount our September feature at General Fine Craft Art and Design. We are showing work in bronze, fibre, paint, clay and all manner of mixed media. We invite you to come and see what the artists in our exhibition have to offer this genre during the month of September.
Chandler Swain – September 5, 2013