Concept and Culture
- Ian G. Lumsden (Author), Curtis Joseph Collins (Author), and Laurie Glenn (Author)
The Beaverbrook Art Gallery Collection: Selected Works. Beaverbrook Art Gallery (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Tom Henighan (Author)
The Maclean's Companion to Canadian Arts and Culture. Raincoast Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Charles Green (Author)
The Third Hand: Collaboratioin in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism. University of Minnesota Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Jack F. Stewart
Lord Beaverbrook collected paintings as investments and endowments; his taste did not run to abstract art. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery provides a cross-section of Canadian as well as British and international art. From Confederation until well into the twentieth century, Canadian painters preferred to train in Europe, deriving their styles from Paris or London. The Group of Seven based theirs on Post-Impressionism, but created a Canadian art through passionate expression of landscape. In J.E.H. MacDonald’s Evening, Thornhill (c. 1914), outlines of a tree and houses flame with orange paint that flickers against complementary purple and blue. Tom Thomson and Emily Carr painted Native people, as well as their surroundings. Bright patches of colour enliven Carr’s Indian Village: Alert Bay, with its totem poles and squatting figures. Thomson’s Spring (c. 1915) shows a highly developed sense of design; Lawren Harris’s geometric form and colour make Morning (c. 1921), with its red houses and gap-toothed fence, starkly dramatic; A. Y. Jackson’s Grey Day, Les Eboulements (1935) depicts landscape in voluptuously wavelike forms.
In the 1940s, the New York art scene influenced Les Automatistes in Montreal and Painters Eleven in Toronto. Jean-Paul Riopelle applied heavy impasto with a palette knife, his canvases recording rhythmic impulses. The Saskatchewan School of Art’s Emma Lake Workshops hosted artists such as Barnett Newman, giving birth to the Regina Five. Contemporary works include John Greer’s Nine Grains of Rice (1991), large pieces of polished marble, and Paul E. Bourque’s multimedia installation, Plexus (2000), while the spokes and rims of Greg Curnoe’s Doc Morton Front Wheel (1980) make it a "colour wheel" of a different kind. Salvador Dali’s Santiago El Grande, a monumental pastiche of horse and rider ascending against a background of metallic-blue cantilevers, introduces the "International Collection," spanning the years 1340-1957 and containing a few mas-terworks, such as Botticelli’s simplified, almost poster-like Resurrection (c. 1490) and Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Lucretia (c. 1530), cut down to emphasize breasts and de-emphasize dagger.
Charles Green’s The Third Hand, a penetrating survey of collaboration in conceptual, performative, ecological, and environmental art, explores the "cusp of modernism and postmodernism," from the late 1960s to the early 1980s. Rather than offering the artwork as a thing to be apprehended by senses and imagination, postmodern artists prioritized their intentions and tried to control the play of meaning; much of their work consequently ranges from banal to hermetic.
After Marcel Duchamp, art is no longer medium-specific, but belongs primarily in the mind, taking form as concept or intention. In a "post-identity" culture, object-shy artists shifted emphasis to communication, actions, and ideas, blurring boundaries between image and thought, and sometimes dissolving the single artist/author into a "composite subjectivity." Joseph Kosuth, showing the influence of information systems, displaced visual images with words and texts. His "archival" art, subordinated to textual theory, took the "surrogate" form of paid notices in newspapers. For Kosuth, art is "a game of signification," that seeks to illuminate language—literally, in his neon-lit installations. Like Borges’s librarian, the "artist as archivist" deploys a grammatical and textual system. Rejecting a first-person singular signature, Kosuth and his collaborators put the spotlight on interrelation of print and visual media. With Ian Burn and Mel Ramsden, the discourse of art becomes its subject. Burn focused on the technological production of "value," his textual Soft-Tape (1966) and Xerox Books (1968) calling on P.D. Ouspensky’s correlation of space and consciousness. Materials such as glass and mirrors were favoured for their self-effacing transparency and reflection. Burn distinguished between "looking" (passive observation), "seeing" (finding), and "reading" (interpreting). His textual designs occupy a twilight "zone between art and philosophy." Word and image, criticism and art converge in Burn’s "Value Added" Landscapes (1992-93), in which he superimposed his own text, printed on Perspex, over an amateur painting bought in a second-hand shop and framed. This form of collaboration after the fact betrays a "nostalgia for the autonomous art object itself," even if relegated to the status of found art and subjected to reinscription.
(The) Boyle Family practised a kind of "fragmented and hermetic" postmodern primitivism; their exact reconstructions of segments of earth from remote campsites around the globe testified to a forgotten reality. Their work had ecological and political overtones, and their emphasis on discursive knowledge pre-empted aesthetic critiques. Boyle Family’s "earthprobes" combined geological fact with fictional illusion: the "fiberglass resin casts" were dra matically lit to expose textures. Through reproduction of randomly selected motifs, they tried to concretize a moment of perception in its most concentrated form. The heightened sense of reality in seeing a segment of the earth’s surface constituted the art experience, compounded with a sense of the "uncanny" that stemmed from the retrieval and communication of memory. The Boyles put the emphasis on seeing as finding and their key trope was metonymy— the relation of surface detail to memory and sensation. Anne and Patrick Poirier’s city models signify memory "as a symbolic landscape of icons arranged for mnemonic effect," without the limits of historical fact. The archaeology of memory and research on lost time coincide with fictional invention in Ostia Antica (1972), an "enormous scale model of an ancient ruined city." Such installations concretize the act of memory in assembling images of the past. One is reminded of fictional texts like Borges’s "Funes the Memorious" and Ondaatje’s The English Patient, as well as of Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge.
Helen Meyer Harrison and Newton Harrison present environmental studies as art. Their Lagoon Cycle (1974-84) was intended to raise consciousness about fish conservation. Seeing the planet and its ecosystems more clearly became the ethics of their art, so that a museum could double as an aquarium. The Harrisons opposed Earth art such as "[Robert] Smithson’s aborted 1970 project to cover an island near Vancouver ... with broken glass." Such ecological issues subsume the signatures of individual artists. Christo’s landscape art, notably Wrapped Coast, Little Bay, One Million Square Feet, Sydney, Australia (1969), altered perception, dramatically reducing the gap between "nature" and "culture," but was destined to end up in photographic archives. In some cases, the act of collaboration became art, as in the theatrical mime of Gilbert & George that reduced the participants, with their stilted manners and gilded faces, to "sculptural objects," eliding the barrier between art and artist. The body of the artist again became the medium in Marina Abramovic’s daring self-presentation as a passive object to an audience. Such experiments, along with more meditative interactions, have an ontological basis that goes beyond traditional concepts of art (if not of ritual).
Tom Henighan’s Companion to Canadian Arts and Culture is a useful and readable guidebook, alternating introductory essays with specific sections: "Theatre," "Music," "Visual Arts," "Dance," "Film," "Literature & Book Publishing," "Television & Radio," "Cultural Spaces & Showplaces," and "Festivals," ending with "Conclusion: The Arts in the 21st Century." It includes lists of award winners, cultural magazines, literary texts, and short biographies of artists and writers, and is fun to browse through, being well enhanced with photographs. Henighan gives special attention to cultural production and consumption in Canada and to cultural festivals as a way of popularizing the arts.
- Conceptualism by Clint Burnham
Books reviewed: Island Thought: An Archipelagic Journey Published at Irregular Intervals. #1 by Robert Graham
- Transforming Literature by Norman Cheadle
Books reviewed: Canadian Cultural Exchange / Échanges culturels au Canada: Translation and Transculturation / traduction et transculturation by Norman Cheadle and Lucien Pelletier
- Finding St. Demetrius by Lindy Ledohowski
Books reviewed: Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium by Myrna Kostash
- The Dragon and the Emporium by Maria Noëlle Ng
Books reviewed: Kowloon Tong by Paul Theroux, Transporting the Emporium: Hong Kong Art & Writing Through the Ends of Time by Scott McFarlane, and Images of Asian American Women by Asian American Women Writers by Esther Mikyung Ghymn
- The Legacy of Oka by Tasha Hubbard
Books reviewed: This is an Honour Song: Twenty Years Since the Blockades by Kiera L. Ladner and Leanne Simpson
MLA: Stewart, Jack F. Concept and Culture. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #179 (Winter 2003), Literature & War. (pg. 163 - 165)
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