Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Colour/Form of Bad Art

I know, I know. It may really seem mean of me to be picking on the ol' RCA gallery all the time, particularly in this season of love, hope and shopping, but upon witnessing RCA's latest Member's exhibition, I can't really help myself.

How a place like Newfoundland, a place whose history has been fraught with poverty, alcoholism, Catholicism, violence and tragedy, a place usually viewed by the mainland with derision, if not contempt, can continually produce visual art that addresses none of these things, that seems, for the most part, to consciously turn a blind eye to the beautiful heartbreak of what it means to be an artist in Newfoundland, is beyond me.

Colour/Form consists of a slew of 2D work with a couple of sculptures, and what struck me most about the selection of work was just how un-imaginatively the artists tackled the theme of the show. Flowers, flowers, and more flowers. A few landscapes. A portrait of local starlet Adrianna Maggs. A truly bizarre sculpture which included brightly coloured geometric shapes hanging in netting above other brightly coloured geometric shapes. One really nice abstract oil painting by Danny Woodrow, conspicuously tucked near the back of the gallery where the door to the office is.

It did look, however, like quite a few pieces were sold, judging from the number of red dots by the title cards, which means, I suppose, the crew at RCA Visual (not to mention those artists who sold work) will consider this latest offering by the membership a grand success. Right on, b'ys.

Maude Barlow
Last month, my partner and I went to hear Maude Barlow give a talk related to her new book. And while I realize her visit is perhaps old news by now, there was one thing that I noticed at the talk that has sort of been playing on my mind since. That is, how there was no presence (none that I saw, anyway) from the local arts community. As far as we could tell, we were the only artists in attendance. I wonder to what, if any degree, artists in St. John's are politically aware? Do they even consider it when they're in their studios? It might explain quite a few things about the work that's being made.


Anonymous jpohl said...

Political art is easy and obvious art... it is a statement that doesn't have to be art, and is probably often times more effectively made in any number of other ways.

I will be doing one of my few flower paintings next. Great big obnoxious giant pink flowers because it is how pregnancy feels to me, and something I suddenly have an urge to do. so i must do it.

There is something to be said for art that deals with internal landscapes, and for helping people to see beauty in the mundane... in the things they take for granted. in helping people to find joy, and in celebrating light and life.

I try to keep my political life and my painting separate at least in this decade... there was a brief feminist stint a la art school. Then again they do say that the personal is political so it's hard to avoid.

I'm saving my paintings of the bombing in bagdad for another year.

It's whatever moves you...

The trick is in being sincere.
Don't be so hard on people who love materials and are honing their craft.
I've always loved the quote from Mother Teresa "We cannot do great things on this earth. We can only do small things with great love."

God love those people that have the energy to save the world and topple governments in a single brushstroke,
but not everything has to hit viewers over the head to have meaning.

8:01 p.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

jpohl: I don't think you should confuse didactic art with political art. they aren't necessarily (sp?) the same thing.

10:20 p.m.  
Anonymous jpohl said...

But far too often they are.

I'm not saying political art can't be brilliant.. when it works I'm all for it, but far too often it's just bad artists exploiting the news for their own purposes because they have little else to say or express. "It doesn't matter if this painting sucks, because I'm making a statement damn it!"

It seems to work more often in photography... and so it should. Photographers have a very important political role to play in this day and age.

I know i'm playing devils avocate here. Newfoundland is the home of brilliant political satire (theatre, writing). But when it come to painting I believe it when I say there are more effective ways to achieve political ends. If someone honed their skills enough (perhaps painted enough flowers or some such thing) the time might come when the world would listen if they had a political statement to make. until then it's just another soon to be forgotten piece hanging on a wall in a member's show.

Thank goodness for those people who are driven to make the world a better place. I applaud anyone who can do political art and do it well.they will be a exceptional indeed. I've heard it said if you paint well enough you can paint anything.

btw. there are a great many people who have seen abstraction, landscape and flower paintings as being political. And even if it wasn't there can be great meaning and significance in all these things...

At this point keeping my political life and painting separate (if it's possible) is about keeping it pure. I may be in another place in a few years.

It's not surprising or unnatural that so much agsnt ridden political work comes from of artists when they first start out. it's good cheap theraphy and is perfectly valid. As time goes on you start knowing your own mind and stop blaming the world. There are other things to explore...

(Having said that I think most good painters are slightly tortured.)

10:27 a.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

thanks jpohl.

12:08 p.m.  
Anonymous Greg Locke said...


Why should everyone be interested in the same misery as you? We all have our own.

Like jpohl said "political art" has better mediums than oil. Documentary photography/film and theatre being the first two that come to mind where there tends to be a more "objective" production of the work than the very personal statement of other art forms.

Many of the young artists today did not live through much of the subjects you suggest and us "older" ones have done it already.... time to grow. What I do see in many many artists today, young and more experienced, is an expression of identity of both self and as a "nation." "Newfoundland Identity" is coming through more than the individual aspects of our society you list. ...all of which are certainly fodder for art and art therapy.


11:22 a.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

i don't know if i agree with you about photography and film and theatre being better mediums for political discourse than oil, Greg. After all, Courbet and Manet and Baudelaire, considered the starters of Modernism, were quintessential political artists.

the question of "Newfoundland Identity" is something i as well have noticed in alot of the art and writing being produced here. it's pretty interesting and exciting to see.


12:31 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you say about courbet and manet is true. But they also were brilliant painters first and foremost. They had their technique down first. They loved materials... and painted flowers very, very well.

It is for that reason the world bother to pay attention to their more political work, and why it is still on view today.

1:25 p.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

did i say they didn't have their technique down?

2:17 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

no. the reference was to the previous comments:

"Don't be so hard on people who love materials and are honing their craft. ... I'm not saying political art can't be brilliant. When it works I'm all for it, but far too often it's just bad artists exploiting the news for their own purposes because they have little else to say or express.If someone honed their skills enough (perhaps painted enough flowers or some such thing) the time might come when the world would listen if they had a political statement to make. until then it's just another soon to be forgotten piece hanging on a wall in a member's show."

Just to confirm there is true value in something as simple as flower painting. Becoming a truly great painter unlike conceptual art (anybody can call themselves an artist?)takes many years, solitude and much patience. Which is perhaps why a place like Newfoundland can be such a nurturing environment for traditional media.

3:41 p.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

your comments about conceptual art (that anybody can do it) reminds me alot of what was once said of courbet and manet and monet and the impressionists and duchamp and pollock and de kooning and warhol and barnett newman and god knows who else.

even you, anonymous, cannot truly expect me to apologize for complaining about art i find boring, particularly given my desire to have art change and challenge the way i look at and think or feel about the world. most of the paintings at this particular show didn't do it for me. that's all.

4:28 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

fair enough... I didn't see the show so I can't talk about the potential of the artists or the quality of the work. only the genre in question.

i didn't say anyone could do it "well". what i said is there are a lot of people out there doing it badly and calling themselves artists. but the same goes for every genre i guess... and aren't a lot of bloggers modern day conceptual artists of sorts? perhaps anyone should be able to do it.

what i said is it doesn't require time, patience and dedication that it takes to become a "great" (whatever that means) painter so you should give fledgling painters a little more slack. Members shows tend to be a place for starting out, and everyone has to start somewhere. Don't let bad art get to you.. just be and do better yourself. Why should it bother you? There is more crap to weed through in major cities believe me.

want to know a secret? Even in our dramatically surreal times, most political art bores me. for all the reasons discussed above. drop us a line when you discover Goya in our midst. Until then I'll just enjoy John Stewart and but I will always love and be uplifted by Van Gogh's sunflowers.

6:28 p.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

well said. and thanks.

6:50 p.m.  
Blogger Jennifer B. said...

"Becoming a truly great painter unlike conceptual art (anybody can call themselves an artist?)takes many years, solitude and much patience."
I just had to comment on this -- the thing is, that was a bit of a slap in the face to anyone who considers him or herself a conceptual artist. I certainly don't "get" or enjoy a lot of conceptual art, but I don't automatically label conceptual artists as "bad" or "unskilled". What, aside from painting, do you consider to be "good" art? Some would argue that painting is dead (not myself). I think it's fair to say that there are a few good painters around who haven't toiled for decades in torment and solitude. I'm sure you didn't exactly mean this, but I wanted to respond.

11:10 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oh come on J.B..... are you serious?

i love all kinds of art including much conceptual art.. but painting is what i do so i understand what goes in to it, and i see what doesn't go into so much of conceptual art. painting is a craft that takes years ... decades to perfect. sure there are a few prodigies... a few find it easy. most just make it look easy. but they can only get better with time if they don't burn out from the hours of endless toil, or get sick from the paint fumes hour after hour, day after day.

maybe you have to go through this to understand it.

anyone can have an idea or a concept... and call themselves an artist for a day or a summer. a blogger can be a conceptual artist for crying out loud. a one off project.

some paintings will happen quickly yes.. but what how many years did it take to get there? of course there are more bad paintings out there than good. there is more bad artists out there than good, painters, conceptual, political or otherwise...

i'll give you this much... little children are some of the very greatest painters on earth... but most of us take a long, long time to get back there.

there are exceptions to the rule it is true... there always are. but i still say in general that kind of craft takes years of dedication. people do devote their lives and souls to it. a great conceptual piece can happen in a moment and be carried out by other people on the behalf of the artist.

yes anybody can have a concept. a lot of people have the talent to be a painter. They may have the touch, but not everyone has to drive, energy or dedication to see it through year after year. Myself i think many good painters have to be slightly obsessive compulsive or a little manic depressive to be able to keep going... you give a lot for little back more often than not. which is why so many burn out. if you had walked in those shoes you'd respect it.

the journey is worth respecting.. that is all i am saying.

conceptual artists tend to have shorter careers than the average painter. ever wondered why?

i did not say the greatest conceptual piece is better than the greatest painting. but painting is my first love.

and yes more conceptual art sucks.. because it's more accessible to talentless fools who want to hang out out at coffee shops and play at artist for a day.

out of curiousity what would you consider to be the greatest conceptual piece of all time?

6:19 p.m.  
Blogger Jennifer B. said...

I personally don't think that painting as a genre is better than conceptual art, or vice versa. I just think you're too hung up on the romantic idea of the painter in solitude. I do think that context and intention are two things that must be considered when deciding whether a piece of art is good or not.
I don't know why I feel compelled to defend the conceptual artists here, haha. Maybe I'm coming off too much as someone who thinks everything is great. That's not the case. Hopefully some more people will get in on this discussion.
And honestly, I can't tell you what I think the greatest conceptual piece of all time is; I don't know a lot about it myself. I will certainly get back to you on that one though :) Cheers.

7:08 p.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

"and yes more conceptual art sucks.. because it's more accessible to talentless fools who want to hang out at coffee shops and play at artist for a day."

with all due respect, i think that the opposite is true. being a painter, particularly one for whom the time spent in devotion to one's craft is more valuable than the conceptual element is much more accesible to the vast majority of "talentless fools".

van gogh, (as just one example from a list as long as my arm) and what he represented is much more imitated and worshipped than any conceptual artist ever has been. when was the last time you heard someone write a song about John Baldessari or Bas Jan Ader? or gone to some hobbyists studio to hear them talk about how they're really into Lawrence Weiner and the idea that the art object is something inextricably tied to linguistics and the inherent structure of power within language? not often, i'm guessing.

7:34 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

j.b. will be interested to see who you come up with.

it's not a romantic notion. it's an all too lonely reality born of neccessity, which drives a lot of would be painters into more social fields like theatre...

it is an increasingly visual world Craig... I'm not sure as many truly get Van Gogh as much as admire him or are impressed the market value of his work, but it is more accessible to the viewer. that is not the same thing as saying a genre is more or less accessible to the artist who makes/does the art. two different concepts. in general terms. not everyone has a multi million dollar budget for conceptual work for example, but anyone can set up a blog that is a concept piece. to overuse the same example. or print random images collected from the internet and show them as part of their concept.

maybe i need to see more good conceptual art. i've just seen so much bad, from dabblers.

i have a obvious bias.

who are your heros/heroines Craig?

11:20 p.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

first off, i know exactly what you mean when you say there are too many dabblers. as much as i may criticize fairly traditional painting on this blog, i have just as strong of a negative reaction to so-called conceptual work that reeks of irony and revels in a kind of slacker aesthetic... and that's all it has. i don't know how many kids i knew at NSCAD who were in love with how cool it seemed to call themselves a conceptual artist. about the same amount were in love with being reclusive oil painters.

i have a list of art heroes a mile long but my favourite artists are probably, at this time, David Akevold and Shary Boyle.

who do you like?

1:15 a.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

that's Askevold. sorry.

1:18 a.m.  
Blogger Jennifer B. said...

I certainly do respect painting and good painters - I would like to be a better painter myself. I did not mean to give the impression that I did not.

You say anyone can make a conceptual piece, have an idea, and call themselves an artist. The thing is, anyone CAN call themselves an artist. That's just the way it is, and I accept that.

Another point - anyone can pick up a Bob Ross book or DVD and, with enough patience, become a very competent landscape painter. But what's the point? Don't get me wrong, I don't put Bob Ross up there with the Van Goghs and Michelangelos. I do love the show, though.

But, seriously, are there actually many painters today who could even hold a candle to Caravaggio, Raphael, Da Vinci, Titian, et al? These guys made their livings by doing religious commissions -not always for the love of their craft. And they had assistants. Purely business. I still admire their work.

I read a good quote today by Sol LeWitt - "Conceptual art is made to engage the mind of the viewer rather than his eyes or emotions." I think that this type of art deserves respect of its own. What's so bad about wanting to make people think?

10:54 a.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

I would just like to take a moment to thank everyone for being such respectful, eloquent, intelligent commenters.

11:34 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"When conceptual art is bad it is probably worse than bad painting." - David Askevold

"Happy Clouds! Happy Clouds!" - Bob Ross (^;

I prefer my art to be a little more accessible than most conceptual art. ie. to speak to a wider audience than art school grads and philosphy majors... but not "quite" as accessible as Bob Ross. (although I'm quite sure he filled a lot of hobbyists lives with joy. may he rest in peace.) If Christo could be considered a conceptual artist I quite liked his recent piece in central park paid for out of his own money.) Another example of a conceptual artist I have great respect for is Jana Sterbak. So much conceptual art made sense for its time. So much falls flat now. I think with the internet and the evolution of film and visual culture it is time for conceptual artists to open up dialog with a wider audience and step out of the confines of the gallery. (Tom Green is not a good example. nor are the kids who froze cats in a freezer as part of an art project in vancouver.)

Most of long list of heroes are from another age but I'm always on the look out for the genuine article... someone doing something turly original and authentic. I wish I could telaport myself to more major museums and galleries more often.there is so much I want to see in the flesh, and so much more I have yet to see I'm sure. The bar is high and modern masters in the same boat with Rembrant, Kahlo, Redon and a thousand others might include Lucian Freud, Gerhard Richter, Gary Humes, and Odd Nerdrum (just because I love his name)to name a few.

4:50 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just took a look at Bill Rose and Grant Boland's recent shows. It is the political edge in Bill work that doesn't appeal to me. Boland may just be painting still life, and however you feel about photorealism or Mary Pratt's legacy there is still a spirit in his work. He is getting better all the time. This may be better than Blur which was some of his strongest work to date. The New York series was a little gray and disconnected as if his heart wasn't in it. I'm glad he's taken it back to basics. Like Thiebaud just a little too edible. I enjoy Bill Rose's work better without the text. There is more room for the imagination to breathe. The one liners are a nod to conceptual art that feel forced to me. Perhaps if it was more poetic? I like work that makes me feel.. and the use of irony in his paintings barely make me think. Having said that his patience and skill is obvious and not to be taken lightly. This man works hard and that deserves respect. I would like to see him open up, drop the text, take a step closer to David Bierk and it might work for me. I think he has it in him. But this is just one opinion. The people that collect his work must disagree. No one artist can appeal to all tastes, and some people like a cooler touch. I like to be moved and and for a work to stick with me after I view it.

2:54 p.m.  
Anonymous chubby said...

Bill Rose's work sticks with me much more than Grant Boland's. I find Boland's work fucking dull beyond words.

6:03 p.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

geez, chubby, but how do you honestly feel?

8:42 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i think somebody has a bee in his bonnet. (-:

some people get a bigger kick out of content, but don't quite get painterly substance...

Get as popular as Boland is and you have to expect a backlash.

2:43 p.m.  
Blogger Dave Sheppard said...

Try to keep in mind that regardless if Grant is painting a person, scene, or fruit, the real subject of the painting is light, not the object itself.

3:25 p.m.  
Blogger JustinBathurst said...

I've just got to say that there's likely an equal share of 'dabblers' working in painting, sculpture, installation, video, performance, 'conceptual' (for one, I've got to say I don't really think you can make art without it being conceptual, but I digress, after all, it's also a genre), etc.

Saying more conceptual art is of the bad variety is purely personal opinion.

4:45 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

because of it's elistist nature and language I tend to believe it is easier for dabblers to get away with passing themselves off as serious artists in the conceptual genre. Art may be subjective (many people think dream whip and cheeze whiz and Thomas Kinkade are as good as it gets), but in general a bad painter is exposed far more quickly. In conceptual art the act is fair more insidious. It can cloak itself in art speak and ambiguity, and be thrown together in a moment.

but you are right this is a personal opinion. take it for what it is worth.

there is some truth to what you say.. that everything is conceptual. but my favourite work comes from the gut. from emotion and spirit not cold intellect three times removed. Van Gogh was pure spirit.

5:15 p.m.  
Blogger Jennifer B. said...

I just have to say, nobody really knows how much of Van Gogh's work came from his "gut". Again, that idea is too romantic and unrealistic. I don't buy it.

9:12 p.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

anonymous: if you want elitist in nature, how's clement greenberg.

painting is THE most elitist genre in visual art, which is one of the reasons the de-materialized art object in Conceptual art became such a powerful movement.

and as for Van Gogh, i agree with Jennifer.

9:26 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't be sorry for Van Gogh. He still lives in his work, which is just the way he wanted it. Fame and over exposure may well have ruined the purity and completely independent vision of his work.

Not that I believe artists should have to suffer... but who is to say how his work would have been influenced? If he suffered his faith and passionate vision carried him above it. (His vision and faith were one.) I would feel conceited say I felt sorry for him. Who am I to feel sorry for this great soul and artist? If there is one artist whose work and spirit is transcendent and will be for centuries to come it is his.

As for your second comment regarding elistism. that was then. this is now. Is it the same way to today? No, really think about it.

Is conceptual art making the same political/cultural statement now as it did when it was hard to find a decent art school that would teach classical drawing or painting? Is conceptual art still so very avant gard, or has it become part of the tired establishment?

Who is the audience? (The Canada Council? Canadian Art Magazine? Art School grads?)

In terms of elistism I would say conceptual art took it place some time ago, and needs just as much a wake up call as painting ever did. if not more.

But again... just one person's opinion.

Whatever the answers to these questions, I believe that if an artist has it in them to do great conceptual work then they should and must do it. The same way those that were born to be painters kept painting whenever it fell out of vogue or became "questionable".

4:00 p.m.  
Blogger CobaltBlue said...

Ah...but did you look closely at all those flowers? There was one there that did address political
issues. However, the artist neglected to add further information. A mistake on their part, unfortunately.

Do we really HAVE to be political with everything that we do regarding art? Is that what art is
supposed to do?

10:28 a.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

Cobalt Blue:

I don't think it's a question of HAVING to make political art. I think that all art is political. When an artist claims to make non-political art, it is safe to say that politically speaking, they are supporters of the status quo. If one is not making critical work (critical of the world, critical of other art, critical of society etc., etc., etc.,) they aren't making art, they are making home decor.

As for my review: Surely, in a show packed with an endless variety of vapid renderings of various flora, I can be forgiven for not picking up on some artist's deeply buried political statement. A political statement that you yourself admit needed more explanation.

Thanks for commenting.

10:44 a.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"because of it's elistist nature and language I tend to believe it is easier for dabblers to get away with passing themselves off as serious artists in the conceptual genre. Art may be subjective (many people think dream whip and cheeze whiz and Thomas Kinkade are as good as it gets), but in general a bad painter is exposed far more quickly. In conceptual art the act is fair more insidious. It can cloak itself in art speak and ambiguity, and be thrown together in a moment."

MIKIKI responds:

as an artist who'd been labelled "conceptual" (and granted I have made some work that I consider coming from the conceptual tradition) I'd like to bring up the issue I feel is behind alot of what's being discussed here, yet in my mind not fully addressed.
I don't consider myself a conceptual artist, as not all of my work is conceptual (even if my production is usually performance and video with occasional forays back into drawing) I DO consider myself a CONTEMPORARY artist. I feel like there is a distinction between artists who engage in regional/national/global discourses of art making. Call me an elitist if you feel like it, but am interested in making work that engages with something personal and related to my community and experience AND is able to speak to larger running themes or modes of expression. And to boot, I have been able to spend YEARS honing the craftspersonship of my ideas and virtuosity of concept. I've spent many many hours wondering about my complicity in reinforcing the three "contemporary" disciplines [performance, video and installation] but realize that there can be quite rigorous work of the Beaux Arts tradition.
That said, I am entirely disinterested in arguements about the validity of non-contemporary painting OR conceptual art.
Making something meaningful whether or not it's meaningful to one or to the masses can happen whether it's contemporary or not.
Considering yourself an artist is maybe the more contentious point.
But by the same token, I'm of the school of thought that if one names something as art, either as artist or viewer, it's art.
Whether or not it's bad art, that's the question.
And NO, it's not entirely subjective.
Criticism is a tool that we use to improve our commitment to rigour in our practice.
let's have more.
lots more.

any thoughts?
I'm certainly not going to claim to be an authority.

But I got some cred, and I'm playin it.
Oh and about the elitism and my own work being read by the community- it's a stat that we're fed in art school- that only 3% of the population go to galleries.
so by making work that actively engages my community I'm able to affect the way that they look at art and artists and their opinions of art and of their world.
or at least that's what one dude told me after the performance was over.

btw, SO glad that we're engaging in a dialogue about this!

1:48 a.m.  

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