Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Visiting the Art Gallery of Ontario - AGO

© Leslie Carmichael

Abstract Expressionists
At the Art Gallery of Ontario until September 4, 2011

What you see is what you get… get it?

I have to admit that I'm a bit lukewarm on abstract expressionists. I like the idea that the painting is not representational --it is the experience-- but sometimes I feel left out of their experience. I saw this exhibit twice: once with Lori in June and again with my boys in August.

"Drawn entirely from the Museum of Modern Art’s definitive collection, Abstract Expressionist New York features more than 100 key works from Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell, Robert Motherwell, Lee Krasner and others. The exhibition celebrates the monumental achievements of a generation of artists who catapulted New York to the centre of the international art world in the 1950s and left as their legacy some of the 20th century’s greatest masterpieces

Following the pioneering “drip” paintings of Jackson Pollock, artists like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman developed their own distinct visual vocabularies. Where Pollock and de Kooning used agitated gestures in paint to convey the urgency of their vision, Rothko and Newman relied upon fields of colour to envelop sight and transport the viewer to new realms of emotion and perception." [Taken from the AGO guide to the exhibit.]

I find that when looking at work by artists like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner and Mark Rothko, sometimes I get a sense of the emotional feel from the work. But not always.

For Rothko, “a painting is not a picture of an experience, it is an experience.” One viewer’s personal experience of a Rothko painting cannot duplicate that of another. Rothko did not want his pictures appreciated solely for their visual qualities. He said, "If you are only moved by colour relationships, then you miss the point. I'm interested in expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom."

This exhibit was the first time I felt that I actually "got" Rothko. Several of his works are featured. One of the descriptions explains that his intention was not to present, represent or interpret anything; it just is and you experience it. The works are displayed in chronological order and there was a mention of how at a certain point in his life, he suddenly stopped painting in vibrant colors and embraced darker, muted tones. Maybe it is because I am entering the autumn of my life, but suddenly I found that Rothko's work was speaking to me in a way that it never had before. It was a "click" moment.

On the other hand, Barnett Newman and his vertical zips leave me cold. The zips are lines of paint down the center of monochromatic backgrounds that "simultaneously divide and unit the canvas." In other words, a single strip of paint on a solid color background. His painting "The Wild" is a framed, single strip of red measuring 243 cm tall and 4.1 cm wide. The guy must be having a laugh at our expense. I mean really. Seriously? Rather than "The Wild," I would title that piece "Self-Portrait by Red Snake." Call me a barbarian, but I fail to see the subtle artistry.

Currently the other headline exhibit at the AGO is "Haute Culture" by General Idea, running until January 1, 2012

"General Idea was founded in Toronto in 1969 by Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson. The collective interrogated media image culture through now legendary projects like File magazine, as well as paintings, installations, sculptures, mail art, photographs, videos, ephemera, TV programs and even a beauty pageant. The group’s transgressive concepts and provocative imagery challenged social power structures and traditional modes of artistic creation in ever-shifting ways, until Partz and Zontal’s untimely deaths from AIDS-related causes in 1994."

This is subversive art at its best. These three took media marketing techniques and used them as vehicles for social commentary: as a wry commentary on how social values are manipulated and driven by commercial interests. The exhibit features their magazines, their appropriation of advertising campaigns and logos, footage from events like the Miss General Idea Pageant, storyboards for televised events, interviews with the artists. And if you don't like it, you can "Shut the fuck up," to quote GI.

Best Quote: "You don't have to be a great artist to make art, you just need to have a great idea."

Other sections of the AGO

I visited the AGO three times on this trip, and only saw a fraction of the collections. I wasn't familiar with the museum, so everything that we encountered came as a surprise. We visited the Henry Moore sculpture gallery. In the Canadian section we saw some early Inuit art, many Group of Seven pieces, and works by other painters such as Emily Carr, Maurice Cullen, James Wilson Morrice, and David Milne.

Cornelius Krieghoff (1815–1872)
Breaking up of a Country Ball in Canada, Early Morning (The Morning after a Merrymaking in Lower Canada) 1857
Oil on canvas
60.9 x 91.3 cm
The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario
[Photo from the AGO website]

I was entranced by the extensive collection of Cornelius Kreighoff paintings. I grew up with a Kreighoff print in the living room. Our neighbors had one too. He is part of the iconography of Canadian settler history (and 1960s suburban upbringing). Kreighoff painted scenes of everyday settler life. I was struck by the similarities to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the Flemish renaissance painter and printmaker known for his landscapes and peasant scenes. Like Bruegel, Kreighoff celebrates a certain appreciation for disorder and disrespect for authority, such as the drunken revels of a party, or the nose-thumbing defiance of the sleigh drivers who crash through the toll barrier without paying.

I love the way that the AGO displays Kreighoff's paintings. They are arranged in groupings that are clearly present the same location, painted from different angles, or at slightly different times of year. Or else they show scenes of an activity, for example: a series a tableaux shows the men deer hunting: lying in wait for their prey, shooting the animal, and dragging the corpse back on a sledge. Viewing each scene in order, one has the impression of looking at a series of snapshots… which oil paintings obviously are not, plus there are variations in the clothing and identities of the figures in the paintings.

Krieghoff painted a lot of small canvases, test paintings, as it were, as well as larger, more polished paintings. What these paintings underline is the hardy resolution with which the early settlers went about the business of surviving and thriving in this harsh land. I was struck by the fact that most of the paintings depict winter scenes. It occurs to me that he probably only had time to paint in the winter, being too busy with farming in the summer to produce the crops that would allow him and his family to survive the winter.

British Three-decker 100 Gun Warship, Victory, Prisoner of War Model
made in Great Britain, probably by French sailors 1795-1815
wood, paint, copper alloy, linen line, metal foil, mica
45.0 x 18.0 x 55.0 cm
The Thomson Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario
[Photo from the AGO website]

Ships, builders' models and prisoner of war models.

The basement level of the AGO houses Ken Thomson's donation of model ships. Thomson was a serious collector and the collection is outstanding for the variety of ships, their age, rarity, and state of conservation. Mainly of the ships are builders' models, meant to be presented at trade shows. He has steamboats, ocean liners, cruise ships, warships, dredgers, tug boats, sail boats, tall ship… everything! The ships that impressed me the most were those know as "prisoner of war" models: models of ships made in prison by French or British soldiers who were captured during the Napoleonic wars. As experienced sailors with a lot of time on their hands (as prisoners), these models were recreated from memory, and as such they tend to incorporate elements from both British and French ships. They include intricate detail and full rigging, made out of bits of wood, bone from their meals (full ivory hulls) and scraps of cloth or paper. Absolutely amazing.

My experiment in abstract expressionist photography:

"Barbecue fish by moonlight," taken on Jenny and Marshall's deck, London, Ontario, July 2011.
© Leslie Carmichael