Monday, June 11, 2012

Fetishising the Negative























One Day at Rest, Untitled 5 (12:37 pm) 2012
8 X 5.5" acrylic on board

Montreal has finally slipped the shackles of winter. Only the scars on boulevard trees and the bent iron railings of gates too near the sidewalk to avoid the reckless destruction of countless, clattering mini plows remind us of what has passed.

Winter lingers in my mind until the long days of daylight savings time drive out the darkness. I very easily slide into a dark place in those winter months. The space I reserve in my mind for negative thoughts becomes so easily accessed.

We often carry the effects of negative comments and actions that have been directed at us through our lives. Like a favoured collection I revisit them, as though opening a jewel case, sorting through the scars, running a finger along the edges of damaged tissue.

Of all the myriad unpleasant experiences I could mull over, one seemingly insignificant episode inexplicably rises to my consciousness with some frequency: the nine year old me, making my way home from school, uses a penetrating, newly learned whistle to call to friends a block ahead of me. A class mate, a girl whom I don’t know well, scolds me from across the street: ‘You think you’re so cool!’

The sense of deflation I felt from this remark was probably more extreme than warranted but it must have pierced a particularly sensitive part of my psyche. Was it wrong to stand out? Will people hate me if I do?

I was a precocious, confident child. In the sixties, precocious, confident children were placed in accelerated programs and completed three years of schooling in two years. I was one of six kids in my grade two class who were placed in this program.

By grade five, at age nine, I was already struggling to cope with the social displacement that comes from being younger than one’s group of peers. A late summer birthday meant that some of my classmates, with later birthdays, were almost two years older.

It didn’t take long to fall out of touch with my former classmates in the lower grade. A year with the older students in grade five made them seem impossibly young.

Anxieties always find a way out. The subconscious, internal battles we wage often manifest in debilitating thoughts or actions. The feeling of displacement I had at school, combined with the stress of familial complications made manifest in me mild versions of agoraphobia and body dysmorphia. 

The agoraphobia, from which I occasionally still suffer, is classic ‘fear of the marketplace’, a kind of discomfort or even panic when faced with the chaotic crowds one finds at malls or markets or simply the chaos of the urban environment. Body dysmorphia, simply put, is a condition wherein a person has a preoccupation with perceived shortcomings in their physical being. It’s one in an arsenal of psychological maladies brought about, in part, by depression, anxiety and social withdrawal.

The anxiety of these things can be so strong that I have sometimes developed a limp while walking alone in public. In my mind there are vestigial, critical voices commenting on how I stand, how I walk. My debilitating, self critical analysis interfering with the simplest mechanical systems of my body.

As an offshoot of this, I now have what I jokingly refer to as body-of-work dysmorphia. This is an inability to see one’s work objectively. I constantly struggle to understand where I fit in the art world, to see my work as having value. A finished painting is a new opportunity to question one’s career decisions, one’s worth to society. A chance to revisit the old wounds of rejection.


















One Day at Rest, Untitled 6 (7:18 am) 2012
3 X 3" coloured pencil on board

Society reveres iconoclasts, putting their faces on T-shirts and mugs, quoting them endlessly in print or on the web while simultaneously deriding unusual behaviour in individuals, discouraging any deviation from the norm with the kind of Victorian moralising that ensures we all just become cogs in society’s machine.

I’ve always had a conflicting desire to stand out from the crowd while being wholly fearful of drawing attention to myself. The precocious, confident child still exists in my psyche in remnant form. I’m trying to let it out a little more often now while knowing that anything I do that is unusual or challenging is an invitation to the world to pick it apart.

In that place which is more than just ‘the blues’ but also just shy of despair, I compulsively turn over the accumulation of rejection in my mind. In a strange way, the delicate box that contains my collection of negative thoughts acts as a way of grounding me. Prodding the source of pain is a way of remembering who I am.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Solitude


One Day at Rest, Untitled 3 (9:17 am) 2012
5.5 X 8" acrylic on board

I spent the last month weaning myself off facebook. I went to my home page, checked for messages or notifications, looked at the first couple of posts and left. Do I really need to see what other artists are doing? Is it helpful?

Most of my art life has involved selective ignorance. Long before home computers, in the hazy days of my youth, finding out about anything was a chore that involved leaving the house and I rarely left the house for anything but school or street hockey. The few art books that made their way to my consciousness came from my sister who worked at a bookstore. I had undeveloped interests and it pleased her to feed them: Diners, by John Baeder; New Techniques in Egg Tempera, by Robert Vickrey; Ken Danby, by Paul Duval; High Realism in Canada, also by Paul Duval. I didn’t buy or look at art magazines, didn’t know any artists and got most of my visual education through popular sources like newspapers, television and high-end greeting cards.

I’ve always drawn or painted: at the kitchen table with the radio blaring while my mother cooked or baked; at the dining room table with my sister, copying the pictures she made for her homework assignments; at the coffee table in the living room with the television blaring. I drew what was at hand: a cigarette lighter; a newspaper masthead; the radio. I incessantly drew hot-rods and other vehicles. We were a car free family in North America and cars were an exotic ‘other’ for me.

One Day at Rest, Untitled 2 (8:15 am) 2011
3 X 3" Coloured pencils on board

I also spent a lot of time looking out the window, watching planes on their descent to Toronto’s Malton airport or people and traffic going by on our quiet street. The world has always seemed to be something apart from me and I’ve always taken measures, mostly unconscious ones, to protect my mental and physical space in it.

Partly in an effort to develop and protect my own system of thinking, I’ve never read artist’s biographies. In my early twenties I bought and began to read a book on Edward Hopper but I didn’t get far. Many of the things he was saying were already in my head and I didn’t want to associate those thoughts and ideas with Hopper, I wanted them to be my own.

Although my life as an adult is a little more open to the world, my exposure to art continues to be guarded. What began as a way of protecting my embryonic thoughts from a barrage of challenges has become a kind of identity. In all my trips to New York City, I’ve never been to the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney or the Frick. I’m still not exactly sure what or where the Frick is and I have no real desire to know. There have been no art school ‘crits’ and until facebook, no obsessing over other people’s work.

One Day at Rest, Untitled 4 (7:19 am) 2012
3 X 3" Coloured pencils on board

The internet should be a boon to someone who doesn’t like to leave the house but I find it a mixed blessing. My weekly coffee and conversation with artist Randall Anderson has convinced me that some art world discussion is a good thing and can fundamentally change how one perceives one’s own work but the internet’s unlimited access to thousands of other peoples’ career decisions can be confusing.

Facebook is my new ‘peering from the window’. Only now, instead of a quiet suburban street, it’s the busiest possible downtown intersection. Logging out of facebook is the equivalent of closing the blinds, leaving me to the comfort of my own thoughts. Even if those same thoughts are in the minds of my peers and have been in the minds of generations of artists before me.


A Note on the Drawings:

I’ve used a limited palette of colours in the drawings, similar to that of my paintings. Two reds, two blues, yellow and, instead of the mars black of the paintings, a very dark brown.