Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Mystical Landscapes @ the AGO

Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night over the Rhone at Arles, 1888

How many of us have been so struck by the profound beauty of nature that we might describe it as a spiritual experience? Certainly, many artists have been inspired by "the sublime" and have attempted to share their sense of awe and wonder.

Eugene Jansson, Dawn Over Riddarfjarden, 1899

Until January 29, 2017, the Art Gallery of Ontario hosts Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, Van Gogh & more. The show was organized in collaboration with the musée d'Orsay in Paris, and features 90 extraordinary paintings from the period 1880 - 1930. The 37 painters from 14 countries included in this exhibition reacted to the rampant materialism and rapid urbanization of their age, and to the horrors of war, by seeking the divine in a sunrise, a birch forest, or a starry sky.

Edvard Munch, The Sun, 1910-1913

I had the good fortune to visit the show last month, and was pleased to be introduced to several painters whose work was a revelation to me, including Sweden's Eugene Jansson and France's Henri Le Sidaner. Canadians Emily CarrLawren Harris and Tom Thomson are also included.

The CBC radio program Tapestry has produced a 54-minute podcast that includes an interview with the co-curator of Mystical Landscapes, Katharine Lochnan, who explains how our view of art from this period has been secularized. Of the show, she says, "It's a wonderful way of bringing theology together with art history. And looking at art in a way that gives these artists back their spiritual voices."

Émile Bernard, Madeleine in the Bois d'Amour, 1888

To quote from the website of the musée d'Orsay:
"Connecting with an order beyond physical appearances, going deeper than material realities to come closer to the mysteries of existence, experimenting with losing oneself in perfect unity with the cosmos: these quests are all characteristic of mysticism, the spiritual phenomenon that exists alongside all religions, in all continents. Why not, then, acknowledge its presence in Western Symbolist painting, which, at the close of the 19th century, precisely sought to elevate art to the medium of the ineffable, and the artist to the rank of initiate?"
The exhibition runs at the musée d'Orsay March 14 - June 25, 2017.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Pavilion for Peace at the MMFA

Recently I toured the new, fifth pavilion of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The six levels of the Pavilion for Peace add 45,000 square feet of floor space; the MMFA now rivals Ottawa's National Gallery in size.

The theme of the new space is peace and well-being. Several impressive sculptural works were commissioned from regional artists to enhance the interior decor. In Quebec, all public buildings must set aside 1% of their construction budgets for art, and ironically this applies to art museums as well.

The new pavilion is designed to offer exciting views of the city on its outer edges, while protecting the collection in the inner core of the building. White oak, grey granite, aluminum and concrete feature prominently in the interior design, which includes impressive gathering places and facilities to extend the educational mission of the museum. Several of the gallery walls are especially finished to express the theme of the room's contents: regal, stencilled motifs to enhance the Napoleonica collection, ornate but subtle latticework to showcase the Orientalism display, and a forest-like light effect, complete with birdsong, to complement the pastoral masterpieces.

The Pavilion for Peace was supported by Michal and Renata Hornstein who, in 2012, generously donated 75 works from their collection of Old Masters, valued at over $75 million, and contributed to the building fund. The Hornsteins, both Holocaust survivors, were actively involved in the planning of the new wing but sadly did not live to see the opening.

In late January the exhibition "Chagall: Colour and Music" will open, giving us yet another reason to visit our new MMFA.

And in the coming months, as part of Montreal's 375th anniversary celebration, Bishop Street will become a pedestrian plaza, linking Concordia University to the Museum. The Museum's outdoor sculpture garden will expand from Avenue du Musée to Bishop Street, cementing the ongoing relationship between the two institutions.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Colleen Heslin @ the McMichael Collection

Trial by Fire

The highlight of my recent visit to the Toronto area was seeing Needles and Pins at the McMichael Collection. I found it very exciting to view the work of Colleen Heslin, winner of the 15th annual RBC Canadian Painting Competition, in this temple of Canadian art, now celebrating its 50th anniversary. I am always thrilled to see work in fibre exhibited in a top-ranking art museum, and intrigued by an artist who explores the boundary between painting and fibre art.


Adjacent to the two galleries filled with Heslin's large-scale works is an exhibition of Canadian painter Jack Bush. It is no coincidence that these two artists were paired, as Heslin has clearly been influenced by the abstract imagery of Bush's colour field painting.

Well of Exaggeration

Heslin hand-dyes linen with either fabric dye or ink, achieving a richly-modulated depth of colour. Her cut-out shapes are stitched together and mounted on stretcher bars.

Ice Point

In the words of curator Naomi Potter,
"Colleen Heslin’s paintings resonate with the tension of material and gestural complexity. The artist hand-dyes cotton and linen in small batches, and hangs them to dry, which develops residual surface textures. The stained fabric is then cut and pieced together – similar to quilt-making construction. Colour is in constant dialogue; the pure simplicity of isolated colour is central to every painting. Considering formal abstraction and craft-based methods of mark making, Heslin’s work thoroughly explores colour, shape, and texture, while acknowledging the histories of photography and textiles, and finding connections with the Colour Field painters of the 1960s and 1970s. Aspects of her process – specifically dyeing and sewing – are also inextricably linked to domestic labour, feminism, and craft.
"These paintings do not immediately reveal how they are made or what they are about, yet each advocates for close and sustained reading. The work seeks the space of open interpretation, positioned between the unfamiliar and the familiar. Chromatic expanses and complex shapes play off each other to create paintings that are narratively ambiguous, yet intensely evocative and poignant."
Needles and Pins continues at the McMichael Collection until January 8, 2017.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

World of Threads 2016: some observations

Let me begin with what was perhaps my favourite piece at this year's World of Threads, the biennial festival of fibre art, ending today.

Nine Tales, Joyce Watkins King
nylon hosiery, acrylic paint, wood glue;
stretched, twisted, burned, punctured, wrapped, layered and painted

I liked its bold, graphic quality, its high contrast and interesting use of line and shape. The use of material is innovative and edgy. Below are a couple of detail shots that show how the distressed hosiery makes such great shapes and textures. This piece was, incidentally, hung in one of the better spaces in the facility, a gallery setting with good lighting.

Nine Tales, Joyce Watkins King (detail)

Nine Tales, Joyce Watkins King(detail)

So many of the other great pieces on display would have benefited from the same consideration. As ambitious and impressive as the World of Threads is, it is seriously handicapped by a second-rate exhibition space. Often, works in fibre are complex and subtle, and they need good lighting so the viewer can fully appreciate them. I found that often the beautiful colours and textures only became apparent on close examination. Four years ago, the galleries at Sheridan College were put to use for the World of Threads, and I wish the organization could access that excellent exhibition space again.

Here are a few of the pieces that I particularly enjoyed, including some detail shots:

Serie Conectores, Miriam Medrez, Monterrey, Mexico,
metallic mesh, thread, cotton textile and metallic structure

 Serie Conectores, Miriam Medrez, (detail)

Serie Conectores, Miriam Medrez,  (detail)

Serie Conectores, Miriam Medrez,  (detail)

Losing Touch, Karen Rips, Thousand Oaks, California, USA
cotton, organza, wool, netting, dye, fabric paint, thread;
discharged, felted, painted, hand- and machine-stitched

Losing Touch, Karen Rips (detail)

Enzo-MM - A, Neta Ashauch, Harduf, Israel,
wool; hand felting 

Enzo-MM - A, Neta Ashauch (detail)

Rust-rose, Susan Hotchkis, Guernsey, UK
felt, voile, satin, silk;
digital print, paper lamination, digitized embroidery,
heat distressing, free-motion stitching and trapunto quilting

Rust-rose, Susan Hotchkis (detail)

Crackle, Susan Hotchkis, Guernsey, UK
felt, voile, cotton organdie;
paper lamination, digitized embroidery, heat distressing, appliqué,
free-motion stitching and screen printing

Crackle, Susan Hotchkis (detail)

Earth Repair, Lesley Turner, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
vintage afternoon tea cloth, leaves, cotton thread, wood, jute, sealer;
eco-stained, laundered, hand- and machine-stitched, sealed

Earth Repair, Lesley Turner, (detail)

Declaration of Independence, Marzena Ziejka, Chicago, Illinois, USA
Handspun hand-dyed wool (weft), linen (warp);
Hand-woven tapestry with eccentric weft

Declaration of Independence, Marzena Ziejka (detail)

Fingers crossed: perhaps next time around the organizers will be able to secure a facility that does justice to the impressive work submitted to the show.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Methods & Materials class

This fall I enrolled in a class at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, titled "Methods & Materials in Acrylic Painting", taught by Melanie Matthews. It involved six weekly classes, three hours each week.

To begin, we were given three MDF panels, each measuring 12" x 12", and we sealed them with three coats of GAC-100 to prevent the leaching of impurities into the paint. (Gesso alone will not seal darker-coloured, resinous wood, we were told.) We then applied two coats of gesso: two panels got the white gesso, the third got black.

I used a photo that I took in Manhattan,
cropped and then enlarged to 37" x 13"

Using this format was inspired, I thought. It allowed us to choose a single image that could be broken into thirds, with the panels hung side-by-side or one under the other. It allowed us to create a large piece that was nevertheless broken into three easily-handled parts. And it allowed for a different treatment of each component. The panel finished with black gesso was collaged, a white panel was given a coat of a texture paste, and the other white panel was left with just the gesso. At this point, we cut our photocopied image into thirds and transferred each third to a panel, using matte medium.

So already we had learned a lot:
  • why and how to use sealant
  • why and how to use gesso
  • how to collage with matte medium
  • about the various kinds of texture paste (eg. crackle paste) and how to create different textures (combing, pressing material into the paste and then lifting, spackling with a palette knife, etc.)
  • how to do an image transfer
Then we did an exercise in grisaille. This requires you to mix a range of greys from black to white, and to select just the right grey to correct or enhance the image transfer. Grisaille, I learned, is a favoured technique of some oil painters, who establish the tonal values of their image and then apply coloured glazes to produce the final effect.

A detail shot of the collaged panel,
complete with the image transfer and glazes

So we mixed some glazes and applied them to our panels. Glazes are paints that are thinned to transparency with glazing liquid. The instructor was careful to distinguish between opaque mineral pigments and the transparent modern pigments. The first hides whatever is underneath, while the second stains.

A detail shot of the textured panel.
The texture was created by pressing a microfibre cloth into soft texture paste.
This pebbly surface requires more care to achieve a good image transfer.

Finally, we used heavy body gel with a stencil to add a dimensional quality to our panels.

I added dimensional numbers to the surface with transparent heavy body gel tinted with paint,
then sponged on a little more glaze to "knock back" the effect.

We painted the panel edges with black acrylic and they were ready for hanging. 

The three panels

A great way to learn about "methods and materials", and I am quite pleased with the final product too. Melanie Matthews is a dynamic, knowledgeable teacher, and I have registered for Part II, which will continue up until Christmas. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Judith Scott @ World of Threads

Judith Scott show at Oakville Galleries, Centennial Square

Recently I had the good fortune to visit the World of Threads, a biennial celebration of fibre art staged in the Oakville area, just west of Toronto. Imagine: 315 artworks by 134 artists from 24 countries, all available for viewing until November 27, 2016.

One of the shows organized as part of the festival is dedicated to the work of Judith Scott, whose fibre sculptures form an interesting counterpoint to the Sheila Hicks exhibition that I posted about earlier this week.

Judith Scott (1943-2005) was deaf and born with Down syndrome. She was institutionalized for 35 years, until her twin sister became her guardian and introduced her to the Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California. There, Scott went on to produce a complex, far-reaching and masterful body of work in the 18 years that followed until her death. Four films have been produced about her life, and her sister has recently published a biography of her twin.

The curator's notes read, in part,
"Developing a broad spectrum of forms from the sparest of materials, late American artist Judith Scott ... is best known for her dynamic, strikingly original mixed media works. Enveloping found objects - from wood, jewelry and magazines to bicycle wheels and plastic tubing - in yarn, thread and knotted cloth, Scott's works take shape as dense, often cocoon-like structures notable for their canny approach to colour, texture and form."

Of the 30 or 40 pieces on display, no two are alike. The show itself is comparable to others I have seen in the medium, given the complexity, innovation and intentionality of the works.  Fascinating questions are raised by this exhibit about the creative capacity of the intellectually disabled, and about the whole concept of "outsider art".

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Sheila Hicks @ Toronto's Textile Museum

Sheila Hicks: Begin With Thread from Ford Foundation on Vimeo.

I was recently introduced to the work of Sheila Hicks when I visited her solo show at the Textile Museum of Canada. The show, titled Material Voices, continues until February 5, 2017.

Born in Nebraska in 1934, Hicks has lived in France since 1964. She has travelled widely, and finds inspiration in the landscape wherever she goes. Her work "pivots around the interconnected themes of memory, place and space." Into her 80's, she continues to make small studies of woven fibre called minimes (one is shown below), and monumental installations for public and private spaces.

Aube, 2008
bamboo, wool, cotton, linen, silk

Hicks studied at the Yale University School of Art, where she began to question the traditional boundaries between media. There she met Anni Albers, one of the best-known textile artists of the twentieth century. Also at Yale, Hicks encountered the German painter Josef Albers, the colour theorist and author of the celebrated 1963 book, The Interaction of Color.

Predestined Color Wave II and I, 2015

Soon, Hicks' language in fibre diversified from weaving to the use of three-dimensional forms, including bales, batons, cords and stacks. Some of her work, like Predestined Color Wave I and II shown above, is simply constructed by wrapping linen thread around a frame, covering front and back.

Perpetual Migration, 2014-15
bamboo, acrylic fibre, slate, coins, cotton, wool, metal wire, linen

Perpetual Migration, shown above, is only a fragment of the original work, The Treaty of Chromatic Zones, which measured 14 x 40 feet and was showcased at the 2015 Art Basel Unlimited Fair. Throughout her career, Hicks has repurposed materials and elements from existing installations to create new objects.

Writes the curator,

 "Material Voices celebrates the past and present of an artist who has created a lasting role for fiber in postwar art while also influencing a generation of artists working across many media.  ... [This] exhibition reflects Hick's understanding of her own artistic practice not as a trajectory, but rather as an ongoing exploration of material and form through innovation, appropriation and reinvention."

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Women of Abstract Expressionism

I recently treated myself to the big, beautiful book Women of Abstract Expressionism, published by Yale University Press to accompany the exhibition organized by the Denver Art Museum

Grace Hartigan, The King is Dead, 1950, oil on canvas, 65 x 96 1/2 inches

The show is currently being staged at the Mint Museum in Charlotte until January 22, 2017, when it moves on to the Palm Springs Art Museum, February 18 - May 29, 2017. The exhibition focuses on the large-scale paintings of 12 artists, including Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Lee Krasner and Joan Mitchell.

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountains and Sea, 1952, oil and charcoal on canvas, 86 5/8 in x 117 1/2 in.

The book is one of those big, juicy coffee-table style volumes. It has more than 40 one-page biographies of women painters who were active in the 40's, 50's and beyond. As well, it includes six essays about the women: their contributions to this art movement and their struggles to find their place as post-war American artists, practicing what was seen to be a very machismo style of art. A chronology illuminates the major events of their careers.

Joan Mitchell, Number 12, 1953-54, oil on canvas, 79 5/8 x 73 5/8 in.

A quote from page 17:

"By 1962, Clement Greenberg had this to say about the movement, then more than a decade old: 'If the label Abstract Expressionism means anything, it means painterliness: loose, rapid handling, or the look of it; masses that blotted and fused instead of shapes that stayed distinct; large and conspicuous rhythms; broken color, uneven saturations or densities of paint, exhibited brush, knife or finger marks.'
"Not only are canvases by Abstract Expressionist women compatible with this definition, they express compelling points of view by individuals who were individual in every sense. This exhibition celebrates their contributions to the rich fabric of the movement. At a time when opportunities for women were often limited, these artists went beyond customary gender roles. Their authentic expressions belong front and center in the annals of Abstract Expressionism." 

Alma Thomas, Red Abstraction, 1960, oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 30 in.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Museum interiors x 3

Some of the most striking architecture can be found inside art museums, whether Beaux-Arts-style traditional or more modern.

Here are some contemporary interiors, beginning with the entrance to the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montréal:

The new wing of the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec:

And finally, three images from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: