Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Kill Your Idols!

I’ve always believed that people can be hindered by their idols.

It’s natural to idolize and to aspire to the achievements of another but at some point, in order to have any hope of a similar or greater success, you have to believe you are at least their equal.

I’ve looked up to several artists throughout the various phases of my growth as an artist.

It strikes me that I’ve gone through several stages in my attitude towards them as one does with one’s parents throughout the phases of growth of the individual.

Stage one is undying love and admiration.

Stage two is the opposite of stage one.

Stage three is a more reasoned appraisal based on more or less rational thought.


In my early teens the two things I loved most were hockey and drawing. I was, therefore, an enormous fan of Ken Danby ('Lacing Up'-1973).

Stage one:

I am most enamoured of Danby's hockey images 'At the Crease' and 'Lacing Up'. His scenes of rural Ontario feed my imagination for the countryside, a romanticized notion borne of my lack of experience beyond our North Toronto neighbourhood.

Stage two:

The early evocative images of rural Ontario give way to artistically questionable commissions and furry kitten sentimentality. He seems not to notice the difference between brilliance and schlock.

Stage three:

His early paintings hold up as a sensitive record of nineteen-seventies rural Ontario. ‘At the Crease’ remains an icon and while I wish his later postcard style images of Lake Louise, etc. held even the slightest hint of irony, he had a particular vision for his art that held strong through several decades until his death in 2007.

Phase two of my growth as an artist is marked by my interest in Canadian east coast painters Alex Colville ('June Noon'-1963) and Christopher Pratt ('Institution'-1973).

Stage one:

The realists to whom one graduates after Danby infatuation. Both play on a darker vision of rural life: undertones of violence or other threats concealed in the depiction of the everyday. Colville presents his subjects with a palpable sense of foreboding and angst.

A sense of alienation permeates Pratt’s spare, linear compositions.

Stage two:

Neither artist excels at the human figure. Colville’s subjects are often awkwardly posed and the number of images with obscured or turned heads leads one to think he can’t paint a face.

Pratt’s figures appear as lifelike as a silicone skinned robot.

Stage three:

Both artists have, over several decades, produced an astonishing, complex chronicle of their lives and environment. Pratt’s work has become darker and more psychologically intense and both are deservedly Canada’s best known realists.

Phase three is my introduction to Edward Hopper ('Excursion into Philosophy'-1959) through the book by Lloyd Goodyear. I remember unpacking it at the book shop where I worked and being amazed that a realist had painted urban scenes in the nineteen-thirties and forties.

Stage one:

I had a great interest in depression-era America in the early eighties, the cars, the buildings, the clothing, the literature and here was Hopper providing me with the visuals.

Such was my fear of overt artistic influence that I stopped reading the book ‘Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist’ by Gail Levin because I identified too much with Hopper’s stubborn personality.

Stage two:

As bored as I am with my own work in the early nineties I am equally bored with the parade of sad-sack characters in Hopper’s gloomy canvases.

Stage three:

I’m still moved by Hopper’s quietly haunting images of post depression-era America and by his steadfast adherence to an out of favour style in a turbulent time for American contemporary art.

The timelessness of his concerns allows the work to be as effective today as ever.


Odd that none of these artists are photorealists.

They held my interest but I had no desire to produce such work nor the confidence that I could.

I was, however, mildly obsessed with John Baeder’s anecdote-filled book ‘Diners’ a couple of decades before I had any inkling that I’d end up showing at his New York gallery. I admired and envied his all-consuming interest in his subject and read through the book several times. (Diner- Camp Hill, Pa.-1973)

I had the good fortune to have my second show at O.K. Harris in 2008 alongside Baeder’s twelfth show.

I brought my old ‘Diners’ book to New York thinking I’d get him to sign it but as I made my way to the gallery for the opening, the book in my shoulder bag, I wondered why I wanted his signature.

When I arrived at the gallery I put my bag, the book inside, in the lunchroom closet where it remained for the duration of the evening.

I realised what I wanted when, later in the evening, he shook my hand and said how much he admired my work.