Don't Judge Me

While it seems everyone else is obsessing about the new and the now, I've recently been obsessing about the old and the historical. OK, maybe not just recently. My work has always centered around my interest in the history of painting and its contemporary relevance. But I finally got up the courage to go beyond just looking at images of the Old Masters, and extend my experiments in process to include some of the academic techniques of painting that have secretly held my curiosity (I can hear the contemporary painters GASP-ing in horror!). But I just wanted to know: how do they get such refined surfaces? how do they paint all that delicate lace and those reams of diaphanous ruffles? Can I legitimately call myself a painter and not know how to do these things?! (I can hear all the painters yelling at me -- "yes! of course you can!") But for me, I just couldn't. I had to know -- and actually try to do it, even if not masterfully.

Since no one actually taught me how to use oil paint, I have basically taught myself an alla prima method that has given my work a loose brushy style. I like the effects I've been able to achieve so far, but lately I've been feeling limited in my technique. In my new paintings, I want the surface to be more ethereal, more delicate, but still strong and complex. So I secretly signed up for a mini-workshop to learn the basics of traditional oil painting. In particular, I wanted to learn more about the glazing techniques that create such soft and mysterious surfaces (and that are usually skipped over at art school, dismissed as too time-consuming and old-fashioned).

Here are the results of my preliminary efforts:

My preliminary copy of Ingres' portrait. I won't refine my painting any further. I get the point. But kinda cool, isn't it? Whenever I do something I didn't think I could do, it feels like magic.
I know this is generally considered very passé in the contemporary painting world, but can I admit how fun it was? The final glazing step (which I only got to on the face) was a revelation. I have such a naturally light touch to my hand that this technique seemed made for me -- soft tiny brushes, strokes as light as air, veils of glossy color. SO FUN! Not that my paintings are suddenly going to start looking like Ingres'. For me, this meticulous old process made me not only understand so much more about the techniques of some of my favorite Old Masters like Velasquez and Goya, but opened my eyes (and abilities - and/or perhaps just confidence?) to so many more possibilities in the application of paint in my own work. My new paintings are already in the works. Nothing like a quick blast from the past to help catapult me into the future.

I painted that!! A close-up look at the glazing effects in my copy of Ingres' portrait.

Happiness: A Post-Script

With yesterday's blog post "Happiness Bores Me" fresh in my mind, I just watched Laurie Anderson's commencement address to the Class of 2012 at the School of Visual Arts in New York. As part of her advice to the graduating class, she told the students to follow one of the lessons of her Tibetan meditation teacher: "Try to practice feeling sad without actually being sad."

She went on to explain:

"This is really, really hard. I mean there are lots of sad things in the world and you don't want to miss them because you're afraid of them. Because much of art comes out of regrets and loss and sadness. But you don't want to become sad. So try it, to feel sad without being sad."

I thought this was a remarkably useful addition to yesterday's blog post. I mean, in case you were wondering, I'm really pretty ecstatic when I'm painting all those haunted faces. So I thought I should clarify: I don't actually think being happy is boring. I'm just not that interested in grappling with the feeling of it or making art about it. :-)

Here's the entire address by Laurie Anderson, in case you're interested in watching the whole thing:

Happiness Bores Me


At the artist talk that I just gave to a group of artists this past Friday night, a man asked me why I didn't paint portraits of women smiling. Why did I have to make them all look so sad? Without hesitation, I responded, "Happiness bores me." Everyone laughed (I didn't mean it to be funny), and several people looked at me with an almost pitying look. Doesn't everyone want to be happy? Why not paint happiness? But for better or worse, throughout my life I have always sought interesting over happy. And just 24 hours after my artist talk, reading the last few pages of the book The Psychopath Test, I found a kindred spirit in its author, Jon Ronson:
"There is no evidence that we've been placed on this planet to be especially happy or especially normal. And in fact, our unhappiness and our strangeness, our anxieties and compulsions, those least fashionable aspects of our personalities, are quite often what lead us to do rather interesting things." (The Psychopath Test, p. 271)
Happiness seems simple. Personally, I like complicated. One of my favorite quotes about the nature of art asks:
Amanda Clyne, "Silver Variations No 2", oil on canvas, 2010
"How is the artist's perception unique? I don't think that when you see the most extravagant, extraordinary exhibition [...], you're really seeing the art. These are maps or charts or clues to the process that makes the art. The art is [the artist]'s perception of the world. The art is happening in [the artist]'s head. These are the maps to that art." (Arnold Glimcher, speaking at an interview with artist Louise Nevelson, quoted around minute 19:00 of the video)
I like to think that people are similar to artworks in this way. In trying to understand others, we can only go on the clues that they may offer or reveal by way of their words, actions, appearance and deeds. Clues from happiness seem to offer little in the way of insight, and perhaps more often than not only serve to mask the more interesting flaws, struggles, fears and desires that remain hidden behind those smiling eyes. For me, happiness just seems too cozy with that equally deceptive and ever-suspicious "normal" and its nefarious kin "perfect".

These curiosities lie at the core of my art. How do we connect to one another and on what basis? What do we allow others to see of ourselves? What are we sensitive enough to see in others? How much do we miss? How closely do we really look?  And how do we navigate through all the fragmented and often irreconcilable clues to understand a person in all their meandering complexities? The veneer of happiness seems to offer little in the way of answers. So don't expect to see one of my paintings smiling back at you anytime soon. :-)


My Painting is an Introvert

Although I have my extroverted moments, I am by all accounts a pretty hardcore introvert. So I recently succumbed to all the publicity I was hearing about Susan Cain's new book "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking" and from the first page, I couldn't put it down. 
"We live with a value system that I call the "Extrovert Ideal" - the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha and comfortable in the spotlight. [...] Introversion -- along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness -- is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology." (Cain, p. 4)
Cain doesn't vilify the extrovert, but rather makes the case that introverts offer different strengths that are too often overlooked and undervalued. And I began to think how this introvert-extrovert paradigm may help to explain not just the struggles with how we introverted individuals may relate to the world, but also the struggles of so much introverted art that must contend with our cultural "bias against quiet".

If you put a celebratory Beatriz Milhazes next to a poetic Giorgio Morandi:
Beatriz Milhazes
Giorgio Morandi

or a visceral Gerhard Richter beside a meditative Agnes Martin,
Gerhard Richter
Agnes Martin
or an aggressive Kim Dorland across from a dreamy Kaye Donachie,
Kim Dorland
Kaye Donachie
the quiet introverts have a tough time competing for attention. Jonathan Lasker once wrote in his essay "Beauty in the Age of Road Kill":
“Contemporary culture is oriented toward sensation far more than it is toward beauty.  This is very much in keeping with the image of our world:  the texture of life is seldom beautiful, although it is usually sensational.  It is fast, loud and enervating...[...] We want a more direct and less onerous way to pleasure, which we hope to augment by increasing our sensations.”
But introversion is much more than beauty. Cain ascribes the following qualities to the introvert:
"reflective, cerebral, bookish, unassuming, sensitive, thoughtful, serious, contemplative, subtle, introspective, inner-directed, gentle, calm, modest, solitude-seeking, shy, risk-averse, thin-skinned". The extrovert is "ebullient, expansive, sociable, gregarious, excitable, dominant, assertive, active, risk-taking, thick-skinned, outer-directed, lighthearted, bold and comfortable in the spotlight." (Cain, p. 269)

Lasker may be right that our culture is becoming so numb from such persistent over-stimulation that only more sensational or shocking displays can move us. But I don't believe this is inevitably or always true. The loudest voice is not always the most interesting or the most poignant. I firmly believe there remains an important place for gentler, quieter expressions of our contemporary experience. There are many of us whose sensibilities crave a more contemplative space, not just for repose but for reflection and revelation. I see my paintings becoming more introverted now, and I'm becoming emboldened by the possibilities in quietly subverting the Extrovert Ideal.

Sheer Possibility

Here is a sneak peak of my new painting in the studio. It's a diptych. I'm still working on the second panel (cropped out of the photo). For some reason a couple of the fragments have been painfully slow to dry, so it's taking a little longer to finish than I had hoped. It will be exhibited at the big 60 Painters show that is opening in two weeks.

The painting is a subtle shift from my previous work, but I'm excited by the possibilities. In my last show, one of my favorite works was "Veiled", an image that seemed to be dissolving into white. I liked the ethereal quality of the work, and I've been wanting to paint a new series with a similar quality -- sophisticated greys (Morandi is one of my painting heroes), and an image that is more haunting than bold. The greyed palette that I've used here with subtle bleeds of color, along with the almost vibrating transparencies give this painting a whole new dimension. It was good to try this idea first with a more minimal source image, but I'm intrigued by what I might concoct with more extravagant source material. I have this idea that I want my work to express a form of Baroque Minimalism -- an oxymoron, I know, but it doesn't mean it's not possible. In fact, I'm quite certain that it is.


Type A: The Ambitious Artist

One day when I was a young university student in France, my classmate from England got into an argument with my professor about the meaning of the word "ambitieux" (easy translation = ambition). My professor insisted that in the French language, the term was unequivocally derogatory.  But my classmate refused to accept that it could be wholly negative in connotation; the professor must be wrong or biased. How could an entire culture condemn the notion of ambition altogether? 

I have never been shy about my ambitious nature. Since I was a little kid, I have embraced it wholeheartedly. I am undoubtedly a type A personality, and have always been an insatiable workaholic. For me, a "balanced" life has always seemed over-rated, an unnecessary and suffocating blend of unworthy compromise and self-imposed mediocrity. Would it not be more fulfilling and meaningful to strive to be the best at something important to you rather than to be merely content in a well-rounded life? A little hard-core, I admit. But throughout my life, I have been not-so-humbly guided by this desire to be the best or to at least be surrounded by the best with all the challenge, inspiration and motivation that comes with such company. Is there any wonder my dream was to live in New York city?

Satisfying my ambition was pretty straightforward during those years when I was in school and then climbing the corporate ladder. There was no doubt when success had been achieved. It was the straight A report card, the scholarships and awards. It was the fancy office, the hefty paycheque, the impressive job title, the prestigious employer. 

But now, as an artist only a couple of years out of school, my ambitious nature is struggling to be reconciled with my creative impulses. It's not that the art market doesn't offer it's own version of corporate success: get good gallery representation, sell work at increasingly higher prices to increasingly more important collectors, exhibit work outside your local market, and with any luck be granted awards from prestigious private and public competitions. By all these accounts, I haven't been doing too badly.

But those professional rewards really only serve to help me finance my practice and have my work seen. Not that I'm discounting the importance of this, but I am quickly realizing that in art, success is not so simple. The professional rewards that I have been working so hard to achieve have had no correlation to the confidence and satisfaction I have in the work itself. In fact sometimes, they are completely at odds with each other, when work that I am most proud of gets the least attention, while a piece that feels less me and less interesting becomes everyone's new favorite. When the art-making process is inherently full of so much self-doubt, it is too easy to welcome the reassuring validation of external rewards. Yet it is an insidious and dangerous response that can quickly lead you astray, down a path of turning your artwork into metaphorical widgets -- or on the flip side, of turning market rejection into a definitive pronouncement on the poverty of your ideas.

I can't kill that corporate type A side of my personality. I'm pretty sure I'm stuck with it. But perhaps the French are right. Perhaps ambition never leads to the most innovative, productive or meaningful outcomes, perhaps the underlying drive of ambition is just the empty pursuit of handshakes and hugs. So I am learning to hold its influence at bay and focus my drive on the pursuit of the goal that ultimately matters most to me -- to make the art that I feel speaks most powerfully to my own vision and sensibilities and to the great art that inspired me to become an artist in the first place. Money, market and resume, be damned.






Weld Art Collective

I am a new contributing member of the Weld Art Collective, a group of creative professionals interested in sharing the ins and outs of our different creative processes, and hopefully providing a little inspiration, information and support to other like-minded creative-types. Check it out -- I just posted my latest post on the blog this week: The Artist's Catch-22.

Resolution 2012

"At year’s end you should look back at your thoughts and opinions twelve months before and find them quaint. If not, you probably didn’t read or explore or work hard enough."
-- Chris Blattman


I want this year to bring a lot of change for me and my work, and this seems the perfect quote to launch this pursuit. Here are a few of the things I'm doing to get me started:
  •  Looking for ways to get out of Toronto for awhile. I'm currently in Europe withdrawal, but New York is never a bad idea, and I've even been thinking epic road trip too.
  • Working in other media. I particularly want to explore works on paper. I need to improve my drawing skills, and I'm dying to play around with inks and watercolors (could be wimpy, but I promise it won't be). Further experiments with photography are also on the horizon.
  • Finding inspiration in new sources. I've been pretty obsessed with the history of art this past year, and I'm ready to delve deeper into my interest in fashion as well as look for totally new sources of inspiration that I can't even imagine right now. Things could get crazy.
I'll return to this blog 12 months from now, and we'll see how far I've come.

De Kooning Debrief


I have no interest in writing a "review" of an exhibition I've seen. I'm not an art critic or art historian. My interest in seeing the works of other artists is as an artist myself. And as a painter, there are few artists that are more instructive or inspiring than Willem De Kooning.

Inspiration on Steroids

At the entrance to the exhibit was this portrait from 1943-44. I visited the show with my friend and fellow artist Nitasha McKnight, and as the two of us stood in front of this painting in awe unable to move, Nitasha said, "I get the feeling we are going to leave this show crying in pink." I think I already was. 


We were finally able to pry ourselves away from this portrait, but we found ourselves continually immobilized by almost every single painting. His complex, labored surfaces offer so much subtlety and depth, while the fluid drawn lines insert an intentionality and confidence that so elegantly evokes sexy, sensual forms. These forms are repeated throughout his oeuvre and begin to form a language that becomes evident as you patiently work your way through the exhibition. Of course De Kooning is known for his bold merging of figuration and abstraction, of figure and ground, but until I had the luxury of walking through the annals of his entire career in one day, I don't think I fully appreciated the continuities and linkages among his seemingly disparate bodies of work. But there they were, available for all to see if you could just spend enough time looking. And as we stalked our way through the different stages of his career, every leap seemed more understandable, more inspiring.

Half way through the show, Nitasha and I had to take a break. We had spent hours studying the first few rooms, and we hadn't even come to the Woman series yet. Our heads were ready to explode as we tried to memorize every stroke and sensation that lay before us in charcoal and paint, analyzing and grappling with each and every major and minor development we could glean. Our eyes were exhausted from having to accommodate the demands of his scrambled, anarchic but palpable spaces. And the endless array of marks and gestures, scrubbed surfaces and impastoed passages, frail glazes and fearless over-painting, we were consuming it all in a gluttonous visual feast. We needed some time to digest.

We went downstairs for a coffee and sat there for awhile in silence. Finally, we both confessed that the show was inspiring to the point of shaming. Our own practices suddenly looked timid and cautious. We had viewed barely one-half of the exhibition and yet we had seen enough breakthroughs for at least three careers. De Kooning was ambitious, brave, constantly pushing his ideas into new territory in ways that were risky and fearless, never harping on one idea for too long, incurably restless and rigorous in his pursuit. It is an incredibly inspiring - and humbling - model for an artist's career. Nitasha and I agreed, we will have to do better.

Hidden Gems

De Kooning's "Black Untitled", oil on canvas, 1948
For those of you who know me, you know that I am really interested in the genealogy of images, in the influence of past images on the making of new images. This painting ("Black Untitled") by De Kooning is not one of his more famous images, but I was completely smitten with it at the exhibition. When you first approach it, it looks like a strange process-based piece, a relatively inconsequential work that must have been a mere stepping stone toward the more iconic masterpieces like the black and white "Painting" from 1948. But this modest untitled work just wouldn't let me go, and the more I looked, the more I saw.


The photograph of the painting looks much more graphic that the real thing, of course. The painting has a ghostly quality that is eerily dramatic. The longer I looked, the more figural references I came to see, and the tension and angst it evoked brought other great black and white works to mind. Most obviously, it seemed to have a lot of similarities to Picasso's Guernica: