Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mutlu Yillar; The Tabula Rasa

As New Year’s bells ring out across the globe and firecrackers disguised as rockets scatter their pyrotechnic blaze of colour into the night sky in announcement of the passing time, people everywhere will contemplate the past and look to the future with anticipation. It is only another moment in life, yet it signifies more than a mark on the calendar; when the clock strikes midnight and the world enters 2012 people will turn the page to write a new chapter filled with hope, or wipe the slate clean in attempt to paint a healthier, more honest vision of our changing reality on the blank canvas that is tomorrow.

We proceed into the future with joy in our hearts and the expectation that somehow humanity, with all its flaws and failings can create a more promising opportunity for the present from the lessons of yesterday. I welcome this New Year as a present waiting to be opened; a personal opportunity to initiate plans for new projects with happiness as the measure of success and an imminent future that holds promise for the revelation of truth.

If truth is indisputable fact, there is no one truth that encompasses all culture and time; history has become a relative position. Human beings in certain places through different ages must determine an agreed set of understandings that can be operated within to form an ordered universe of expectations, what we generally call the rules of socialisation, the paradigm of the age. We create matrices of worlds within the spheres of politics and emotion, spirituality and economy and our use of language and all the aspects of interaction that we term the public, and then look to the creative community to share this notional concept of thought through the finest art, as an authentic experience of the contemporary culture of each civilisation.

Not all painting or sculpture or music or poetry or any of the skills and talents we associate with ‘the arts’ is truly art, for art, though it can often entertain and amuse, is of the highest calibre and most likely to pass the test of time when it reveals, enlightens, informs and teaches us about ourselves in any given period of history. History, and even time itself, is a fluid concept and perspective determines the importance of events in the past.

Artists in previous centuries seeking a return to the natural revived the primitivism of the art of Cro-Magnon cave dwellers with its ochre and red dyes and two-dimensional portrayal of animals, while by contrast early Christian icons, although using colour and gild with regularity, can appear static and unnaturally posed. However, each style communicates intent and was created for a reason.

Renaissance painters excelled at capturing deep, rich tones and shades in fabric accentuated with detailed folds in garments and dimension of matter so that there is a perfection of realism in presentation, however many of these fine works are filled with symbolism and the juxtaposition of context of bizarre objects that are entirely unreal in the situation of the subject; parrots and pears swirl in the air with scrolls and orbs.

Islamic artists in the latter centuries of the first millennium utilised magnificently complex calligraphic techniques to portray various elements of the natural world whereas 20th century cubists attempted to capture the inner person through a reordering of the human form in geometric shapes. More recently the abstract expressionists, pop art lithograph creators, urban primitivism and stencilled graffiti has captured the imagination of the world. All these methods can have equal value in the eye of an audience seeking revelation and/or awareness of the social environment through visual experience.

In the past couple weeks a few of the most widely-known American artists of the late 20th century passed away into the annals of art history, and only time will tell whether the work they leave behind continues to be valued as the generations shift toward new methods and techniques and an evolved understanding of what it is to be human in the age to come.

John Chamberlain, the ‘son of a saloon-keeper’, began turning scrap metal into sculpture back in the 50s. He was a native of Indiana who served in WW2 and using his grant became a hairdresser initially, then after becoming inspired by DeKooning, Giacometti and Van Gogh attended university in Illinois. He dropped out of the Art Institute of Chicago after 18 months but continued at college in North Carolina and went on to have work exhibited all over the world. Aluminum foil, Plexiglas and foam rubber as well as metal torn from wrecked cars were among the common materials he worked with to create his pieces, which consisted of joining together existing forms to reference historical sculpture in contemporary terms. His monolithic twisted designs with their kinetic energy exuding modernist theories of non-linear literature quickly attracted attention from avant-garde galleries and he represented the US at the Venice Biennale in 1964. A retrospective of his work will be on display from February at New York's Guggenheim Museum, where his first retrospective was held in 1971.

Helen Frankenthaler, though highly considered in certain circles, and reviewed with much praise in the media over the past week, leaves me cold. As an abstract expressionist known for splashing colour thinly and randomly onto untreated canvas her art says very little, although that is merely my subjective aesthetic opinion. Her work has been compared to Jackson Pollack, though I really don’t see the similarity other than they both painted on the floor. Pollack’s work, though appearing to the untrained eye as dribbles and splashes of paint reveals something more, as beneath the patterns and swirls we see form and substance, the contours of dancers and revellers, the staged procession of life, whereas Frankenthaler’s work appears as blotches of faded dye seemingly purposeless on a landscape of nothing, commonly referred to as ‘color-field painting’. As the daughter of a New York supreme court justice her background allowed easy access to those in a position to encourage progress into the art world; as she attended only the ‘best schools’ it was perhaps inevitable people would pay attention. However, maybe this helps explain why her work is bland, without intent or connection to a state of mind that requires realisation of deeper connotation.

James Rizzi is by contrast a 3-dimensional painter of jumbled and seemingly chaotic scenes of a style that was been termed ‘urban primitivism’ by Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads fame after he completed the cover for the first album of her offshoot band The Tom-Tom Club. His paintings are filled with images of people and buildings surrounded by stars and palm trees and radiant suns all bursting with activity and colour to create mesmerising panoplies of gratuitous excitement. His unique approach includes raising a number of the figures in each painting away from the canvas by gluing identical copies of the component onto the surface using wire, producing an interesting caricature effect of depth. In 1996, he became the first official artist for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta and the following year the Montreux Jazz Festival. In 1998, he made the official posters for the Football World Cup in France. I had the opportunity to purchase one of his fabulously energetic paintings in the late 80s, although at the time it was already out of my financial reach and I can only suppose that they will now extend far beyond my modest budget – however, I look forward to the coming retrospectives.

So, when the New Year rolls around again, when the midnight chimes wake you to the reality of the blank canvas of life, that tabula rasa that awaits a brushstroke in the form of paint or pencil, spatula or fingertip, remember that what you portray is a reflection of the sweat or tears or blood or laughter and love you represent as an individual. We are all the canvas that is filled with images and memories of the emotions and actions of existence, and every day is an opportunity to shine the light of truth across the empty space of tomorrow.

We are merely travellers through the pages of a book that has many characters and plots. This grand story of life that fills our world with dreams and hopes, sadness and mirth, pain and ecstasy, is neither pre-determined nor exclusive, but it does follow a narrative. The story is our perception of the knowledge we gain on the trip, though those events may not adhere to traditional chronological rules. There are hints of the levels of realities that we inhabit in every organism and molecule of life and light that surround us and it is up to us to reach out to touch the esoteric form, to connect with the human situation, allowing faith in the fragmentation of shape and structure to redefine us as we continually imagine new ways to create the future in hope and dreams and the art we bring into being that informs the journey. Make the memories and dreams you create worth the trouble of the adventure and activity.

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Seasonal Greetings: Of Quaaludes, Quinine, the Quad and Quixotic Quests

“I’m a sinner,” he shouted tossing the Black Beauty into the back of his throat while letting the Quaalude dissolve under his tongue in a bubbling swirl of lager. She was feeding him lust in chemical form and he ate hungrily, a wolf at Red Riding Hood’s door. With enough speed in his system to keep him going all night the ‘lude would settle him nicely into that dreamy tantric state where music becomes soft as clouds.
“We’re all sinners, honey,” she idly offered swigging a caramel coloured soft drink.
Qui dormit non peccat,” he slurred.
She looked up at him through pupils the size of roses under eyelids drooping as dew-laden petals and said, “You’re mocking me?”
“No, no, it’s Latin for ‘the sleeper does no sin,’” he replied, sensing his misplaced authority. “Basically one of those sentimental medieval phrases designed to hold people in place through inactivity”
“Uh huh, well baby, this here is Latin too,” she drawled, turning back to the foil containing thousands of tiny granules of the finest bean Colombia exported.

Alright, alright, that’s just a ploy, a ruse, a pointless piece of misdirection and inane dialogue as a segue to discuss freedom of speech .. Yeah baby! Freedom of speech .. and, well, growing up in confined spaces ..

Not long ago I received the following message on Facebook: It's National Book Week. The rules: Grab the closest book to you. Go to page 56. Copy the 5th sentence as your status:

Here is the line from the book I opened: “She’s already passed around Quaaludes, offering one to every person but me.” It is from the book A Visit from the Goon Squad (winner of the Book Critics Circle Award 2011) by Jennifer Egan, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2011. In it she openly discusses the so-called recreational substances her characters encounter throughout the decades without allowing that to become the focus of the characters’ motivations.

This past summer I read the best- selling novel ‘Stories We Could Tell’ (2006) by Tony Parsons (he of NME fame and author of ‘Man and Boy’) for the second time, and was not surprised by the drug taking behaviour of its 70s protagonists. I’ve read many an SF novel and seen enough films to be frequently confronted with the characters altering their reality with mind expanding chemicals, from Valley of the Dolls to the Matrix (an entire reality built on the blue pill or the red pill). Whether the reckless endangerment of Trainspotting, the soul searching of Man With the Golden Arm or the groovy self-discovery of Easy Rider, a culture of exploration and experimentation has been prevalent in entertainment for several generations.

The psychedelic music of the sixties, the speed and ‘ludes of the self-indulgent seventies, the cocaine fuelled rise of the yuppie in the 80s are only indicators of the common experience of the times. Unfortunately, in our current age we seem to be going through a period of alcohol depressed apathy that disguises itself as morality and the ordinariness of convention.

Not long ago I watched Jonathon Ross interviewing the actor Jeff Bridges about his drug preferences. Bridges was on the show to talk about his film ‘Men Who Stare at Goats’ which is concerned with the military’s use of LSD as a tool for creating specialist soldiers who can kill using mind control. Bridges discussed his own regular use of LSD for recreation and an aid to improved meditation, and asked Ross what he thought about it. Ross claimed in ‘hey I still work for the BBC’ mode, much to the chagrin of Bridges, that he’d never tried it.

Which brings me to the reason for this little rant; censorship of art in the media. Particularly that which a few simpletons might find offensive. A little while ago I posted a comment on a friend's art Blog, mentioning the beauty and serenity of a photographed scene in four sections as being trance inducing, soft and fuzzy - using a reference to Quaaludes. Although she appreciated the comment, she was unsure about having a ‘controlled drug’ mentioned on her Blog, and asked me to resubmit deleting the analogy. Just so you get it, here’s the comment in its entirety:

These are stunning photographs (name omitted) .. I like the way you’ve placed the sky at the top and the sea at the bottom creating a vertical panorama .. the sunset is as brilliant and powerful as you mentioned. When I first looked at the central photo collage I thought of a phrase around the idea of a quadrant and the connection between the other pics, however on ensuring myself of its meaning I came across the word ‘Quaalude’ which is a pharmaceutical, a hypnotic sedative, the trade name is derived from the words ‘quiet interlude’ .. so in an odd way I thought that was more appropriate for these photos of your tranquil and yet illuminating walk along the beach .. nice work. KW

Obviously I was asserting that the beach walk was like a ‘quiet interlude’ and that I had come across the definition while looking up the word ‘quadrant’ in relation to the layout of the photos. Now, of course it’s her choice to publish or not, each person is free to censor their own Blog as suits them – but personally, I think most people in this day and age are mature enough to understand this pharmaceutical reference in context, especially with the provided explanation.

Every day a significant proportion of the population is prescribed tranquillisers, sedatives, anti-depressants, inhibitors, uppers and downers and all around the towners. I think almost everyone is aware of the difference between over the counter remedies, prescription medication, illegal narcotics and shady street deals.

Not so many years back the British Council, and your mother’s doctor, recommended a glass of Quinine a day to keep malaria at bay, as well as other tropical illnesses, upset tummies and low sex drive. Now, Quinine is available in most countries, including the UK, as a drink mixer, yet it’s still a controlled substance in the United States. And who can forget that Coca Cola originally contained the ‘pep me up’ additive, cocaine?

Damien Hirst famously printed pictures of tablets, capsules and medications of various colours and shapes onto Plexiglas light boxes to illuminate the fascination we have with curatives in this age of addiction, and completed a series of pharmaceutical-style advertising posters for such foodstuffs as baked beans and sausages. So, let’s not avoid the reality we live with daily and that we can and should approach wide eyed.

Maybe I’m wrong, but surely artists need to be open to experience, open to life, open to the truth – however you want to define it. If we hide from the realities of life, the hidden aspects as well as the brighter moments- we give strength to those who would draw us into an age of darkness where speech is monitored and suppressed to maintain control over our thoughts, and visual art becomes a propagandist tool to sway public opinion.

Language is the way we define ourselves, whether that is spoken or visual there are inherent meanings and interpretations in linguistic structure and expression that allow freedom to grow and spread, responsibly and without restriction, for real people are capable of filtering their own experience.

However, just this week it happened again on the Ross show (now moved to ITV due to his anger at being censored and suspended by the BBC for making an on-air lewd phone call to an elderly actor) as the witty and intelligent Tim Minchin was edited out of his Friday 23rd December show for singing a song that might be offensive to the feeble-minded community of fundamentalists (or just mental, I’m not sure). I’ve posted the song in this Blog as it was to appear so you can judge for yourself if it is offensive or was justifiably cut from a “pre-Christmas” show.

Clearly the editors of Mr Ross’s show feel we are not capable of determining our own position on the satirical elements of comedy. I am a grown up – it is my duty to engage with and challenge the wrongs in this world and also to reveal and illustrate the incongruities and hypocrisies of the social construct.

As an artist I want to entertain, amuse or enlighten in an imaginative manner. So while Jonathan wants to hide his personal party habits behind a screen of denial or bemused superiority, those who seek to construct a world of truth open their lives to scrutiny so as to inform others that they are not alone. It is a function of art to transmit a message of contemporary humanity through creative means. And, I’ve read and studied the Gospels, and in my opinion Jesus quite liked a party and therefore one would think, He enjoyed a bit of a giggle – so, I think He would’ve found this song amusing, and the debate over it’s offensiveness a storm in a teacup – which He would’ve easily quelled.

Where are today's artists on the issues that affect all of us? Do they have anything to say on the issues of world importance or are they too busy congratulating each other on yet another pointless postcard exhibition where the only people attending are those showing work?

Over the past few years funding for the arts and the buildings and services offered by various local councils has been dramatically reduced. In Derby, the city I resided in for the past six years in the UK, the funding has been slashed so severely that the arts council will soon be a ‘team’ of one and the new centres for the arts, the Quad and DeDa  (both spaces I have performed and exhibited in and attended many events at) will have their funding entirely cut within the year – this after spending 20 million pounds ($30m) on building and funding these centres a few years ago.

Self-concerned individuals worried about the crumbling of the Arts Council in the UK or pleased with Mr President's declaration of funding for artists who create works that support the "cultural self-image of the United States" are typical in this community of late (While overall funding for the National Endowment for the Arts is being reduced, contrary claims are published on his website). Is government funded art propagandist - or so pathetically weak in its vision that the result is not challenging to intellectual thought, or so highbrow that the general audience is left cold by it's self-indulgence? Perhaps a serious discussion on the artist’s role in this maelstrom of ideas and ideologies is necessary: the technocracy of a saturated media? A wikimedia?

I certainly hope those rights that my father, my sons and I and all the people of every nation and generation previous and since rallied for, protested for and spoke out for are never stifled, silenced or softened. When we begin to respond through fear – fear of what others will think, fear of our own flaws, fear of the power of confrontation, the fear of what lays within, then we slide into a shallow and quivering state of ignorance.

A world of art that does not engage with the issues of our time and contributes nothing to future social understanding of what it means to be human in our age – that, my friend, is what we really should fear!

“Think more openly. That’s the point.” 
– Gilbert and George

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.. and no, I didn't resubmit the comment!