Monday, January 22, 2007

Peter Wilkins at the Rooms

My introduction to the complex and varied history of portraiture occurred in my first year at NSCAD, when my Marxist art history prof contrasted the neo-Classical portraits of Napoleon by J.L. David to the emerging Impressionism of Gustave Courbet's The Stonebreakers.

The foundation laid by Courbet's depiction of anonymous labourers, as opposed to an Emperor, later made possible, amongst many other things, Manet's Olympia, and Charles Baudelaire's The Painter of Modern Life. The above examples are the starting points for my eventual engagement with the work of Peter Wilkins.

For some time I've been struggling with what to say about Wilkins' Kinetic Portraits. When I first heard about the original showing of this work at Eastern Edge in 2004 (before I'd moved back to St. John's), in which Newfoundland celebrities were featured, my gut told me it was perhaps the most cynical art practice I'd ever encountered. There's no better way to garner attention for your work than if you pile a bunch of celebrities into it, I thought. Everyone loves their celebs, and Newfoundlanders have enough home-grown pride to make a Texan blush.

So I disregarded the whole thing as rubbish even without seeing it. I'd seen photos. I'd seen the numerous press write ups. I'd heard what the "concept" was. I didn't care for it. I thought, How much excitement or attention would there be for this work if Wilkins, like Courbet, presented regular people instead of well-known and celebrated personalities?

For those of you who don't know, the kinetic portraits work as follows: Wilkins asks the celebrity questions about pivotal moments in their lives, their hopes, dreams, ideals, fears etcetera. He writes down their answers. Then, with the camera on, he reads the answers back to the interviewee. In theory, the celebrity's reactions to their own words creates a truer or more accurate portrait of who they are.

So I went to the Rooms on Friday, and then again (braving a snow-storm) on Sunday to have a look at the newest incarnation of the work featuring 12 celebrated Canadian writers. Atwood, Anne-Marie MacDonald, Yann Martel amongst others.

The installation looks great with the twelve flat-screen monitors on the walls with frames around them to reference painting. The writers all variously look amused, intent on listening, fidgety, or stone-faced. A few of them look like they might be passing gas. Martel's was the most interesting because he chose to be video-taped with his pet parakeet moving around on his shoulders and behind his head, suggesting to me, at least, that he was using the bird as a distraction to the viewer, and was uncomfortable with showing too much of himself. But then, I thought, all of the writers were probably doing the same thing in their own way. Anyone who's seen Survivor knows that the presence of a camera doesn't really capture anything "real" or "true" but, in fact, reveals only a person's willingness to perform in front of it.

What emerged for me after this initial revelation was that the sub-text had quickly become the text, as it were. The work isn't actually about knowing these people in a way more profound than watching a television interview, or for that matter, reading their books. It is about the process Wilkins had to go through to meet and interview each of the writers. It is work about the invisible strata of agents, personal assistants, schmoozing, and penetrating the world of Canada's cultural elite. It is work that makes you think: Man, I wish I got to hang out with Margaret Atwood.

So, in this way, due to who's interviewed, the Kinetic Portraits operate as a kind of critique of the art-world and the culture industry. The idea that one's finished product could only ever be secondary to whom one knows is expressed with an irony and eloquence lacking in much contemporary work which claims to critique celebrity culture and the moral bankruptcy of the art-world. I found myself lamenting the naive notion that art could really change the world, that art was anything more than an industry with products and personalities only slightly less disposable than in other industries. I thought about the foolishness of Manet and Baudelaire with their calls for "Modern Heroism", and the irony of their eventual acceptance by the Academy.

As I trudged home in the snow-storm on Sunday after seeing the show, I can safely say that my heart was broken.

The show is up until April 29th.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

CFP - as with your best critical writing, I found this piece intriguing, inflammatory and intensely personal. Obviously you had a very strong reaction to the show, and I look forward to going and checking it out myself now, to see whether or not I agree with your take on Wilkins' work r.e. cynicism.
Thanks as always for your brave writing - I know it can't be easy being the only critical voice in town.
I'm wondering why no one else has commented on this review yet...

10:58 a.m.  
Anonymous mrpig said...

, Craig, I thought this was a wonderful thoughtful review, If I was the artist being reviewed I would probably feel hurt at being taken apart but then again the strong ones see the truth and accept it. Personally I would like to see a lot more of peters work. I have hardly seen any, mainly because I don't think there has been a lot made. It stikes me as curious that someone who has very little art practice to speak of has a grand solo showing at the Rooms. I know a ton of people who have worked very hard and deserve that kind of exposure.

6:33 p.m.  
Anonymous mrpig, again said...

Having said that, it takes drive and enthusiasm to put together a show like this so power to him. Hope to see more work from him so this body of work can be put into some kind of context, and then digested and critiqued. I am a great believer in seeing the truth through extended consideration.

8:26 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey CFP...there must be a surgeon who can fix that broken heart??? What a laugh this is! How to get a show???? It's who you know on the local Art Dinner Ciruit (ADC) that gets you a show at the Rooms and remember men always wear a dandy colored striped "Hockneyesque" jacket when going to those Rooms ultra hyped shows...who knows it may get you in the line up for a show...


4:01 p.m.  
Anonymous MrPig said...

What ultra hyped shows? Rooms gets an F when it comes to hyping shows. Oh and maybe you didn't get a show Vasiline because you're part of the Limited Edition Reproduction Circuit (LERC) which is also very popular around here.

7:26 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

read about this show and will judge it before i see it. Feel there is no really good incentive to want to see this at all. In fact the thought of seeing it rots my insides. Description of it sounds like the basic formula for an interview with maybe a little more time allotted for pensive moments. Sounds alot like hero and celebrity worship. Sounds like a book launch. Sounds like a commercial. And I feel this artist should have an inferiority complex. Basically a good shoulder rubbing scam and the rooms bought into it because they do the same things anyways. Sounds like the same disappointment you should expect from the rooms at this point. And I think Andy Warhols approach to filmed portraits etc alot more challenging.less contrived. This is - lets get to know the real Margarette Atwood????? Is this for real????? Anyone else have a similar reaction?

9:05 p.m.  
Anonymous anon said...

I still think you should see it. Then write

8:44 a.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

For the record, I don't think that the Rooms or its employees operate that way. Wilkins' original showing of this work at Eastern Edge really excited a lot of people, and it's natural for Bruce Johnson or whomever to be curious about work that receives attention like that. I'm not begrudging the fact that Peter got the show, but rather judging the work on its own merits.

4:04 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess then I will have to check it out. My reaction is about the idea of it and what I've read about it and how the artist describes his motives and incentives for creating the work. I'm sure the employees don't really opperate that way but I still don't think this show sounds like any stretch of the imagination. I'm trying to assess what my reaction might have been if this wasn't portraits of authors.hmmm... I'm having a hard time seeing that it would be alot different. I've heard of this psychological type of approach to uncovering the person behind the facade in so many commercial mediums. It just makes me think a paparazzi might be a better method. This sounds pretentious.

4:32 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't believe arts perogative should be to change the world. Manet and Baudelaires calls were anything but foolish. They helped in achieving some necessary objectives. A - take the power back, a shift of control. back to the minds and hands of the artist. Who's in control? Where is the hierarchy now? What is your position on the totem? What is the academy telling you? Anywhere injustices occur, there will continue to be little Baudelaires. There is always an industry attempting to control profits, predicting trends and defending them. There are still and always will be too many comprimises. Look for formulas and manipulations and see if they don't still, and won't continue to exist. Within modernism, there continued to be schools of thought and miniture academies of control.

5:22 p.m.  
Anonymous A Fan said...

for what its worth, I really enjoyed the work in Peters show. For new media work it found it sensitive, interesting, and in some cases riveting. Yes of course the celebrity is part of the attraction, but when is it not? The fact that they are celebrities makes their reactions all the more vital. If you were to use everyday people as CFP suggests I feel the whole project would be a lost cause with no focus. Good for you Peter! I agree with an earlier comment that I am interested as well to see what your next project brings. If you are reading this, perhaps you would pipe in with your ideas behind the show. Cheers

8:13 p.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

a fan said: "Of course the celebrity is part of the attraction, but when is it not?"

Not part of the art experience? Often.

"The fact that they are celebrities makes their reactions all the more vital."


I'll bet that if the title of the show was Peter Wilkins: 12 Kinetic Portraits of Tim Horton's Employees, there would be a lot less interest. Working a shitty job just isn't glamorous enough to be the focus of one's art practice I guess. But famous writers? You have the public's interest and a veneer of intellectual rigour to boot. How could you possibly go wrong?

11:18 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can think of alot of art thats been done (past and present)with the focus being the everyman/woman. I think its unfortunate that this is the way to garner interest in ones art practice. But perhaps this province is still lagging behind a little in criticality for the arts. Of course you might find pleasing moments like you do in any thoughtful documentary. Putting it in a gallery and framing it to attach itself to the history of portraiture? Framing your work as a oneliner is very telling of the mindset of the artist and the lack of critical judgement he has for his own work.

5:18 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From Peter...

thanks Craig for the review, really enjoyed reading it and great to hear a genuinely different take on the show. Also v.pleased to read that people are discussing the show freely - I only hope it will encourage those that haven't seen it to check it out and then make up their own minds!
Thanks again and great blogging!

11:59 a.m.  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

Hey Peter, thanks for dropping by.

7:23 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

to craig, is there anything in the way of critiques that you might be working on? You are probably busy with your own art practice but perhaps if there is nothing around town to write about you could look elsewhere as well. Is this something that you would consider? enjoy the conversations that your reviews provoke.

3:20 p.m.  
Anonymous chippy said...

craig, nice review!!

9:57 p.m.  
Blogger Joann said...

Craig you asked me to comment on the show. It has taken a while but here it is.
I found that I was asked to watch the reaction of the writers as they were asked questions, but we didn't know what the questions where. I found it difficult to stare at a screen and not know why someone was laughing or winching. The show seemed to be missing a key element to tie it together. I feel that if there were audio it would have been a more cohesive show. It just seemed to be lacking.

1:11 p.m.  
Anonymous jpohl said...

Craig, i hadn't visited your blog (or any other blog) in almost a year, and I just wanted to say that your writing style is really progressing. After reading this, I will come back to read more.

4:19 a.m.  

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