Friday, March 16, 2007

Michelle Stamp's Portraits at RCA

Newfoundland celebrities are like herpes. Always there. No cure. I’ve always thought the incredible number of them was due to a kind of nationalism that exists here; that we feel the need to produce stars in this province to rival what goes on in Canada and America. Call it a cultural inferiority complex.

Once upon a time, I’d never heard of Joel Hynes. I’d never heard of the Novaks. Who the hell was Ed Kavanaugh? The name Paddy Daly had absolutely no meaning for me. I had a fuzzy recollection of Gerald Squires, who, for some reason, lived in a lighthouse for a while.

Even the CODCO crowd were a dimly lit pantheon who I vaguely remembered my parents finding outrageously entertaining.

Halifax has its own constellation of locals who, for various reasons, garner a kind of celebrity of their own: Joel Plaskett, Buck 65, the Trailer Park Boys, and others. In the six years I spent there in art school and bartending, I cannot think of a single time when any of the numerous local luminaries were featured in any way in a visual art exhibition.

Six years, people.

Six years and not once in all that time did any of the local galleries have a show entitled anything close to Portraits of a Bunch of People I Know Whom You Also Know Because, Hey, They’re Celebs, At Least Around Here, That Is.

But it’s a curious thing that in the last year in St. John’s there have been no fewer than four exhibitions based solely on the allure of the ­local celebrity. Kent Barrett, Cathia Finkel, Eastern Edge gallery’s Click! fundraiser, and now Michele Stamp’s graphite drawings at the Resource Centre for the Arts gallery.

I sometimes wonder if—like in a conceptual piece—local artists and audiences wouldn’t be better served by simply having celebrities’ names printed out and framed instead of having the artist go through the trouble of composing the image. That way, you could just read Paddy Daly’s name and then picture him with your mind’s eye, hosting his television show or whatever, chatting away in that most charming, downhome, Newfoundland accent of his.

Anyway.

Stamp’s show features 32 portraits of different people, some well-known, others less so. They are all delicately rendered, verging on preciousness sometimes. They are of similar size and all in staid black rectangular frames. The line quality is the type that my drawing instructors would have had serious problems with. That is, they would have had her work on a much larger scale, with charcoal or pen and ink, and ordered her to really attack the page. This generally imbues a given work with a lot more life and vibrancy.

As it is, some of the works feel cramped, others lifeless. You get the impression that Stamp was holding back, or that she was afraid to make a mistake. Dynamic drawings are those that have a full range of tonal values, with areas of intense darkness and light playing off the medium tones to produce an engaging interpretation of how light reflects off a given surface. A lot of this work is too preoccupied with the medium tones for my liking.

That being said, Stamp definitely has a gift for rendering, as the subjects do indeed look like themselves. My favourite was of Glen Tilley, noted CBC Radio producer, who gets more handsome with each passing day and possesses the most charmingly cowboy moustache I’ve ever seen. Meow! You’re a lucky woman, Mrs. Tilley.

This show ranks near the top of exhibitions in the relatively tiny canon of art about Newfoundland celebrities, if you go in for such things. However, when you’re there, you may begin to ask yourself, as I did, why the dominant areas of focus for Newfoundland visual artists tend to be limited to landscape painting and local celebrity portraiture.

As a visiting friend from Winnipeg recently demonstrated with her question, Who the hell are these people?—shows such as these have an extremely limited appeal. You’ve gotta be from here to get it. And considering that the province’s acclaimed writers and theatre artists rarely make their work explicitly about real live local celebrities, you’ve got to wonder what is wrong with visual artists for them to be so caught up with the local celebs they know.

I mean, who cares already?

37 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

well what can you say when an artist values celebrity more than their own art? You get the precious look of art without substance. I would take the advice of CFP, to learn and explore some of the qualities that make a drawing stand out.
This type of thing seems really self centered and just for your circle of friends. Perhaps these people just want to be included in the little group. Have some pride and faith in yourself and your art.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Jennifer B. said...

I had some laugh reading this column. Thanks again CFP.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Pamela said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hmmmmmmmm, pamela, struck a nerve?
so you want to present the public with a specific subject matter and then you don't want anyone to comment on it? This makes no sense. Look at the lines but not the content the lines form? I think this is asking a bit much. What if some of these portraits had strange appendages protruding from their faces and others did not? Should we ignore this content and what the artist might be saying about certain sitters? So we can say that these portraits are saying something about not only the subject but about the artist and their intentions. This is what is being critiqued - Local hero worship and the neverending inferiority complex that seems to permeate so much art being made in what i will say is quite a lovely province.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Pamela said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i don't know what way to describe the feeling I get when I read your comments about craigs review and partly in response to my own comment. Its kind of like trying to explain what your doing with your art to your aunt or your nan. Unfortunately your request is a bit silly since art can be judged on more than just surface alone. You say who cares what anyone does?... Well sure,..but don't put it in a public gallery and expect everyone to like it either. That would be more silly. And with the identity of the sitters unknown what are you left with? Just a bunch of portraits that seem afraid to let down the subject. Kind of timid.

5:54 PM  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

Hi Pamela, thanks for your comments.

First off, I've found that an inferiority complex manifests itself in inordinate amounts of pride or nationalism in a given place.

Secondly, I found your comments about landscape to be particularly ironic, given that the Newfoundland landscape is one of the most commodified items we have. It certainly doesn't seem to exist outside "the philosophy of capitalism" to me.

Thirdly, I would never dream of telling an artist that they shouldn't do something. Whether that's celebrity portraiture or landscape painting or glass blowing or performance art or anything else. I believe artists should be free to make as much bad art as they need to.

I do, however, reserve the right to comment on what I see. And to respond to what is happening out there.

Thanks again.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Pamela said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Pamela said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:13 PM  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

Pamela

Thanks again for taking the time to write. It's great to read such well considered comments, even if we may dis-agree on some things.

I happen to love landscape painting and the landscape of NL. And while there is certainly no formula for what constitutes "good" from "bad", I find I'm drawn to landscape work which challenges the various conventions of the genre. For the most part, what I see being produced by landscape artists here, despite what good intentions they may have, doesn't tend to do that.

As for the celebrity debate, I'd be more comfortable speaking specifically about this particular show as opposed to generalizing about the entire history of portraiture. In this case, we must consider the intended audience for the art. As my friend from Winnipeg demonstrated, appreciation of this show is based not on how the form informs the content and vice versa, but on who these people are. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this idea, it generally won't make people not in the know particularly excited about what they're seeing. At least it didn't for her, anyway.

4:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great debate going on here. It's too bad for Pamela and other blog-readers who aren't in the city that you can't post images on here corresponding to your critiques, as I think this would totally change the tone and content of this conversation. The comment by anonymous "Just a bunch of portraits that seem afraid to let down the subject. Kind of timid.", accurately describes the show in question in terms of the artist's approach to the work, regardless of whether she was drawing the known or the unknown (some of the drawings were, at least to these eyes, of everyday, non-celeb citizens). The drawings all seemed hesitant, I agree with Craig that the artist seemed afraid to make a mistake. To my mind the appeal of the show is in having those who are subjects come to the opening and purchase renderings of themselves. As a body of art it is indeed 'timid', and I think that that is regardless of the celebrity question...
Also, as Craig mentions, there have been an influx of shows about or featuring celebrity in the past few months in St. John's, and in a city of this size that's a large percentage of the total number of exhibitions being shown (many of the rest of which were landscape work!). Given the context of 3 previous celeb exhibits over the past few months, the questioning of this subject matter is, I think, quite timely, and I wonder, Pamela, what difference it would make to your commentary if you had been exposed to the art scene of the city for a few months and had seen the proliferation of this theme in the work being shown.
One can only speculate...!

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

5:55,
You are right because I don't feel we are making huge generalizations here against portrait or landscape painters. I'm with craig on what he appreciates in landscape but I'm also down with the traditional stuff when its well done. My critique is less with the work and more about the content or subjects. I say go for it if its what you want to do, just don't be afraid of making mistakes and shoot for the strength of the work. This should be priority. All in all I dont think these criticisms are meant to be taken so negatively. There is good advice here from what I've read so far.

7:35 PM  
Blogger Pamela said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

2:20 AM  
Anonymous Sarah Hansen said...

As one of the subjects in this show of portraits, I think it's interesting that you continue to refer to it as a show of "celebrities". I am certainly not a celebrity, and neither is my husband, who was also in the show. Michele Stamp is friends with each and every one of the people in this show. She drew her friends, colleagues, mentors and family, and coincidentally many of them are well-known in this province. (Good lord, can anyone exist in the Newfoundland arts scene without knowing everyone else?) Michele is showing her abilities as a portrait artist. She chose people that she felt would be interesting to draw. As for the comment that Michele's work is "timid", I have also heard many people comment that the drawings are "delicate", in a positive way. (Must art always be bold?) I have sent dozens of people to see the show, and the majority of them were very impressed with Michele's skills at portrait drawing.

4:21 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

i think you're missing the point sarah. it's how many shows like this do we need? whether there drawn well is beside the point.

4:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you say the majority were impressed. That is interesting cause anyone of my reletives would be extremely impressed to see any likeness in a portrait. This wouldn't mean my drawing was of great skill. Don't forget you can get a likeness at the mall for 10 dollars as well. This skill will impress alot of people that don't possess this skill. It takes more than just achieving a likeness to impress people familiar with art and traditional portrait sensibilities or just a good sense of aesthetics.

10:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Purely text-based criticism is such a yawner. This isn't the 19th Century and Pamela, nor I, can go see the show on our time off work. Granted, the critique is more-or-less based on the choice of subject matter, rather than the work itself, which I imagine is competent and unintriguing.

However, why can't we see the pictures in question? Where are the digital photos? Or at least a link to the gallery in question?

2:10 PM  
Blogger Jennifer B. said...

RCA has a terrible website with no photos from any exhibitions.
http://www.rca.nf.ca/gallery.html

3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the last anonymous. It would be great to have images on here, especially for your out-of-town readers!

8:55 AM  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

I'd like to apologize to everyone for the lack of photos on a lot of these critiques. But Jennifer B., is right, my linking to the RCA website would be a useless enterprise as they don't post images from their shows.

I hope it isn't too frustrating for you out of towners.

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

uploading digital images is almost as simple as writing text, even if the lighting or coloring sucks it gives us some idea of what we're talking about. Is this a possibility in the future? That said, I'm looking forward to seeing the show that is being debated, so all of this back and forth criticism is worth something.

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

anon 2:10,
It seems evident to me that this work has been critiqued on subject matter and 'the work itself'. Why you feel the subject matter is removed from the work I'm not sure. Curious what you consider to be text - based criticism? The only intersting conversation about this work has come about because of the subject matter.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see you've decided to screen the comments. Very brave "CPF".

12:37 AM  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

Anonymous 12.37: What the hell are you blathering about?

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm kindof curious why you would say the comments are being screened. what does this mean or where do you think this is happening? Also, why does there always seem to be personal attacks here or this slighting of each others comments?

8:55 PM  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

I can only assume that Anonymous 12.37 was referring to the two letters (by Michelle Stamp and Frank Holden) published in the Scope in response to this review. I didn't even know that letters regarding this piece were being published until I picked the paper up on Thursday. In the past, I've allowed anonymous people to call me everything from an asshole to bitter to an idiot on this site, so it doesn't quite follow that I'd start screening comments now.

9:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

to anonymous 8:55 -
I think the personal attacks must come from the community's relative inexperience with critical discussion of the work being made here. Because Craig is looking critically at NL's contemporary art scene doesn't mean he is personally slighting anyone, but I think it is easy for others to go on the offensive and write him off as an asshole when they don't agree with what he has to say. Perhaps if we had more of a precedent for critiques of visual art in the province, it would be easier for those commenting here to separate their views on the work and the discussion around the work from their views on the people making it and talking about it.
To the other anonymous, I find it hard to believe CFP would be screening comments as the whole point of this blog is to create debate, and you can't have debate without disagreement!

3:32 PM  
Anonymous where'scoolio said...

above,
thanks for saying what I was thinking and didn't actually want to say or ramble on about again. besides you said it much nicer. I would love to see the letters that were written in response to this review. I'm damn happy it's getting people talking. can we get em here? someone?

8:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Craig, can't it be said that celebrities exist because they work hard at whatever it is they do and that the rest is generally up to the public? It just seems to me that you cant quite get your own shit together and tend to resent anyone else who's out there doing the work and getting ahead. And dont try and tell me that hiding behind an art critism blog, a fucking web-journal, is what allows you to call yourself a writer. Why dont you do something, put yourself out there on the line and see if you can hold up along side some of those you insist on discrediting with your little petty little complaints. Take a real risk with your guts and your heart. I mean of course there was a time when you didnt hear of the Novaks, because they've only been around for a couple of years you idiot. And how old are you? 35? And what have you done thus far? If it all ended tomorrow what exactly is it that you'll have achieved? More to the point, why should artists and writers and actors and musicians just be content to live and work in obscurity in their own hometowns because a select few embittered wannabes are threatened by their perceived successes. What would you have to even talk about half the time if no one out there received due recognition for their work. And also I guess you should think outside the box more often because I doubt very much someone like Joel Hynes is much of a celeb outside of Newfoundland. And in regards to Michelle's portraits, wouldn't you say the general public would rather the advantage of an association, however vague and unwarranted, with the image of an individual they are viewing, as opposed to looking at a bunch of strangers? Perhaps you would not have been so critical and dismissive if your own portrait had been there? After all, they weren't all celebrities.

8:46 PM  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

Speaking of personal attacks...

This is a great example of what not to do when leaving a comment here.

While it may be news to our friendly visitor above, blogs in fact are taken quite seriously as a vehicle for the exchange of ideas, and for serious writing about innumerable topics.

All the other bullshit written by Anonymous 8.46 regarding my age and career, are, obviously, beneath a response.

Thanks. It's been proven yet again that I'm doing something right here.

9:27 PM  
Anonymous Big Mama Sin said...

Well, let's try this again. I guess you pick and choose which comments to post Mr. Power? Hi, I just wanted to write in to say that I really enjoy your webpage, it fills a hole, to say the least. This is my first time writing in, but my girlfriend does. I just wanted to comment on that rude person who wrote in about how you, Power, tend to view those around you who have achieved success. Although I don't condone personal attacks against you on your internet page, and I think that person had a bit of a potty mouth, I do happen to agree with most of the points she, or he raised. I've been around the arts in this town for a long long time and have experienced little brushes with fame at times myself. And let me tell you, the back biting and jealous ranting and dismissive "reviewing" have been going on long before your internet page young man. And since it is obvious that whomever wrote that last comment must have did so in anger or at the very least a certain degree of frustration, why not attempt to sift through the personal attacks and try to address the points she had to make before you so readily pat yourself on the back for a job supposedly well done? I for one would like to hear what you have to say. In the meantime, keep up the good work. xxoo Mama Sin

12:07 AM  
Anonymous richie said...

You know what, I agree with Craig about the Herpes thing. This town would be so much better off if the majority of these so called celebs would just carry on to the mainland, see where they'll be in six months time. It's easy to be a big fish in this shallow little pond and hey, the more that flap off to the big smoke, the more work around town for me. Celebrity and fame only dilutes the quality of the work, and come on, haven't we seen enough crap come off this rock in recent years to hammer that point home? Cheers to the man who pulled the plug on that hideous cbc show with what's her face in it, trying to get everyone to screw in coffins. And cheers to you Craig, for calling the town on such crap. I think you are a real risk taker, one of the last ones standing. I mean, who else is there? What else is going on in this town? Nothing. I think you're doing the arts community a great service with this blog and I do hope it carries on. Keep the faith Craig.

12:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mama Sin,
If he picked and chose which comments to post, why would he be posting these ones?
While Craig writes bitingly about the work going on around here, never have I read his writing and thought - 'wow, he is viciously attacking that artist on a personal level'. While he may hate the work he is critiquing, I have never found his reviews to sink to this kind of mean, vicious back-biting, as you so admirably described. In fact, I thought this blog was supposed to be a kind of forum for critical discussion WITHOUT the nasty personal attacks. Funny that now we are seeing a deluge of these comments here.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Jennifer B. said...

I wasn't going to satisfy anonymous 8:46 with a response, but I changed my mind. You kids have got to relax. This blog (and I'm a big fan of the blogs) is here for us to critique local artwork. Which means positive AND negative criticism. Which makes you think about what you've done and what you want to do next. Everything out there is not good, and folks will always disagree. But it's just good to talk about it, or else what's the point?

All of these personal attacks are just dragging everything down and it feels like reading a script from a bad reality show. Or being back in junior highschool. It's good to read that others are annoyed by these types of comments also. Lets just move on and talk about some more artwork.

I'm still enjoying your writing CFP, keep 'er going.

5:57 PM  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

Thanks Anonymous 9.18, and thanks Big Mama and Richie for your comments.

The point of the piece was certainly not to attack NL celebrities or Michelle Stamp (who I believe, if you read closely, I actually say renders her subjects quite well), but rather to question (could it not be more clear?) why so many artists have felt the compulsion to make portraits of their locally famous friends.

Failure to see this in what I actually WROTE can only be attributed to willed blindness on one hand or an extreme intelligence deficiency on the other.

Furthermore, you wouldn't have to go very far into the archives of this blog to see that most of the reviews I've written have been even-handed. If artists in this city insist on calling themselves professional, and insist on showing in a professional context, then they can also expect to have their work questioned and considered. Is that not why they are making it in the first place? Anything less short-changes what the artists themselves are attempting to achieve.

The idea for this blog was to create a forum in which the visual art community (and anyone else with an interest) could come together and talk candidly about the work being produced. You'll note that after my conflicted review of Peter
Wilkins' show at the Rooms, that the artist himself stopped by here to thank everyone (both lovers and haters of his work) for their comments. Why can't everyone have this kind of respect for the very people they purport to be trying to communicate with. Talking about art is one of its many secondary pleasures. Insults such as the ones above do nothing but shut down genuine discussion about art and artists and I will not tolerate it here for the sake of appearing to be open-minded. That kind of shit does not deserve to see the light of day, and trust me, it won't again.

Finally, Big Mama, the Blogger site is sometimes a little glitch-y, so written comments (for whatever reason) don't always get posted. I've experienced the same thing myself when trying to post. I've only ever deleted one comment from this blog, and I certainly don't think it was yours. I hope it hasn't been too frustrating for you.

6:23 PM  
Blogger craigfrancis said...

oh and thank you too of course JB.

6:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some above comments are insightful, so when I have a little time I'm going to take the time to read a few of them more closely, but for now here's my penny's worth:

Canada doesn't celebrate it's celebraties, or it's heros enough. I think Newfoundland should be given credit for having a culture, and for celebrating local talent. I see this as a strength and not a weakness...

Perhaps if people don't recoqnize the faces in the images it's a good reason to be introduced to them as any.

I'm not saying this is univeral work, but it is about a history and a place, and that doesn't have to be a bad thing. I'm all for stepping outside of a myopic view of the universe, but there is something to be said for celebrating a time and a place through it's local people. Perhaps more Canadian cities should make more fan far over their celebrate...

Canadians don't have to be overly American about it, but neither do have to keep cutting the heads off the tallest flowers.

Speaking as an insider/outsider I think part of Newfoundlands charm and sense of community lies in the visible pride as a people, and and it the way they celebrate and support their local culture.

If it is the only thing we ever see there may be room for growth to be sure, but there should also be room for many views of things... including this one.

3:40 PM  

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