A short story inspired by viewing ‘Loose and Limbic’ by Claire Lefebvre.
The sun was blasting down on my walk to the Gertrude Glasshouse, and I was red faced and sweaty when I arrived, but inside was cool and fresh. Slightly nervous, and probably even redder than before, I brought a book and asked for a signature, silently appreciating our taste in hats.
Ahh the smell of a new book. It’s beautifully produced. A lovely way to enjoy work such as these.
It’s hard not to compare John Olsen’s paintings to poetry. His lines lyrically travel over the canvas, the varied colours bringing either subtle beauty or dramatic power. In The You Beaut Country at the NGV, you can see Olsen’s work and T.S Eliot’s words come together with a natural affinity.
Not only had I come to see Olsen’s works, but also to hear Ben Quilty’s talk. A great artist in his own right whose painting of Margaret Olley is one of my favourite Archibald winners.
Ben Quilty started the talk by mentioning the negative review by Robert Nelson. Quilty asks why anyone would write a bad review about art in Australia. As he says, ‘Why would anyone want to stop people going to a gallery?’
It’s true that art needs all the support it can get but we also need truthful critics.
During the Q&A, one person mentions that we should all write a review. This seems a lot closer to a solution. We are all so different, why give only certain people the power over the critique. Let’s share our thoughts. Let’s have a conversation.
I would like to share one sentence from the aforementioned review, John Olsen retrospective: mildly entertaining at best by Robert Nelson.
“His tumultuous panoramas spread out in convulsive swings and encounters, making us think of streets, places and ratbags, the nooks and monstrosities that surge and eddy with random impulse; but at the same time, this hubbub of a life teeming in its crannies is also pure painting, nothing but marks of painterly spontaneity that read as an abstract gestural language on a flat surface.”
A lovely description that loses me at the end. I don’t see anything wrong with art that is gestural mark making. Art is a way we can work through thoughts bigger than words, how we can communicate emotion, how we can try to make sense of the world or ourselves. Quilty tells us that a couple of weeks ago Olsen’s wife, Katherine, passed away. In this terrible time, Olsen has made more work in the last couple of weeks than he has for a while. Art is there to express the best and help us through the worst of moments. Does it need to be anything else?
A look into Neuroaesthetics
I was looking up at the clouds the other day, finding pictures where I could. It’s something I haven’t done for a while. Flooding me with memories of childhood, summer days, itchy grass and laughter. I noticed that in trying to interpret obscure images within the clouds I found myself remembering moments and images I had thought long forgotten. This is one of the reasons art holds such an appeal to me – it’s ability to trigger memories and emotions.
Our whole lives are filtered and interpreted by our brains. Just looking at one picture is a complicated journey, containing twists and turns all completed in half a second. From photoreceptors absorbing light, electrical signals traveling along neuronal pathways, through the thalamus and relayed to different processing areas of the brain. One of the pathways visual information can take is known as the ‘What?’ pathway. It is here that long-term memories can be activated by visual input. The potential memories are only brought to mind if the neurons are activated. So if an image is unknown, but has certain visual tags, it can spark up the correlating memories.
I’m getting a little into Neuroaesthetics here, the study of the brain in relation to aesthetics. Can we look into the brain to explore and understand our relationship with art? It’s a question that has gained popularity but not without some criticism. Including from neuroscientist Bevil Conway and musicologist Alexander Rehding. They have said “it is an open question whether an analysis of artworks, no matter how celebrated, will yield universal principles of beauty” and that “rational reductionist approaches to the neural basis for beauty … may well distill out the very thing one wants to understand.” (Neuroaesthetics and the Trouble with Beauty) Both of these criticisms seem to have assumed that the aim is beauty. When I tend to agree with Brown and Dissanayake:
“Aesthetic emotions are unquestionably an integral part of the arts, but they are neither necessary nor sufficient to characterize them. Thus, a narrow focus on aesthetic responses is ultimately a distraction from the larger picture of what the arts are about.”
I’m not interested in hearing a right/wrong manual for art and beauty – not that it would even be possible. I am interested in furthering a discourse on art. Perhaps as Brown and Dissanayake suggest the term should be Neuroartsology.
Another criticism findings as Matthew Rampley writes in ‘The Seduction of Darwin’. “…at best it merely adds an additional discursive layer; familiar aesthetic concepts are redescribed using the vocabulary of neurology.”
The idea that impressionism triggers a more emotional response is a familiar concept, however it is further explained with neuroscience. Patrick Cavanagh discusses it in “The artist as neuroscientist”:
“Brain imaging of subjects presented with faces expressing fear show that the amygdala (a centre of emotion) responds strongly to a blurry version of the faces. In contrast, areas responsible for conscious face recognition respond weakly to blurry faces and best to faces presented in sharp detail. Impressionist works may connect more directly to emotional centres than to conscious image-recognition areas because the unrealistic patchwork of brush strokes and mottled colouring distract conscious vision.”
That could be seen as a new description of an old concept, but knowing the why is a necessary step in understanding human behaviors and exploring art’s potential. With technology improving and more study there’s a lot of potential to find.
I’m just beginning my journey into Neuroaesthetics. I have a lot more reading ahead.
The art: The State of Being Three
By Eugene Choi
The purpose of art, particularly contemporary art, is something I’ve been contemplating. A wrestling match of contradictions. Does it even need a purpose? Probably not. But as a creator I find I do and as a viewer I often impart my own purpose into the reading of a piece.
As I look at ‘The State of Being Three’ my mind goes through it’s own journey. First second, I don’t like it. What is this? Flowers suspended within a metal structure. Next second, I see the layered plaster on the floor. I feel the apprehension of the flowers
dropping. Can see it all smashing. Suddenly the fragility of the flowers becomes apparent. The metal structure, so strong, and yet it surrounds the flowers without supporting. Next the type of flowers adds it’s own story. King Proteas have a large flower head, a sharp bowl with a velvet softness. They are not a fragile flower. Perhaps the artist chose them for their long vase-life, but I like to think it’s because they have adapted to survive fire. They have a thick underground stem containing dormant buds that produce new growth after a fire. I had only just received a couple of these flowers for my birthday, so I felt a connection.
After making my own reading, the next stage is to read the statement by the artist. It’s
such a genuine voice that comes through. I feel her vulnerability, just as I did in the work, as she tries to ‘find comfort on this metaphorical structure’.
I realise as I go through this process that it is this evolving narrative that draws me to art. Everyone will bring their own perspective to the reading, perhaps sculpting a slightly clearer understanding of the world or the humans within it, just as the artist is sculpting to try to understand or articulate what they feel.
So while what I see may not be the purpose of the work, it still tells me a story. In ‘The State of Being Three’ I read: “although I may seem fragile and about to fall and break – I don’t need to look strong to survive – I will bloom after the fire”.
David Hockney Current
NGV, 11 nov – 13 Mar
My first reaction was anger. The first room of the David Hockney exhibition at the NGV is filled with iphone and ipad drawings. Each wall covered. A hit of colour. As I looked closer I couldn’t help thinking that if I had done any of these, they would have been considered novice attempts. Although I probably would have placed them in a folder within a folder on my hard drive, never to be opened again, assuming they’re not good enough.
This question on ‘what is good’ is a constant battle I have with myself and with
contemporary art. But as I continued through the exhibition I realised that this is not a question that should enter this space. It’s not about finding perfection, but the act of creation. And there was so much joy to be had in the creation of all of these works.
There were still things I didn’t like. That’s okay. There were others that re-imagined our world into one of colour and joy.
There was playfulness in ‘The Chairs’ room.
Character in all the portraits.
Hockey describes his ‘82 portraits & 1 still life’ as a complete work and went further to say that he see’s his whole career as one work. I can see that. Each piece is focused on the present, but with it comes a lifetime of experience.
The aspect of creation is further developed with screen recordings of Hockney’s ipad drawing. We can see each stroke, each decision. As I sat watching the complete creation of a work, with juggling music echoing from further along the exhibition, I felt the absorption and joy of the artist.
I left with one impression deeply implanted: Shut up and paint.
The art: Dear Masato, all at once (get a life, the only thing that cuts across the species is death) By Lisa Radford, Westspace, 19th of November
Walking up the stairs to Westspace I began to hear a clamour of voices. This was not going to be an average gallery visit. Lisa Radford has put together a piece of writing that bridges performance and exhibition. Before I stepped inside I took a moment to take a deep breath.
Reminiscent of drama games on awareness and reactions; there were voices, sometimes clashing, with conversations appearing out of the chorus; there were people, walking, laying, mostly reacting. Where do I stand in this space that is not quite gallery, not quite performance? I was immediately pushed from being the unseen observer of art. My presence was influencing the actors reactions, changing the performance. I became so conscious of this I could hardly concentrate on the words spoken.
The exchanges between the performers brought to mind ‘Love and Information’ by Caryl Churchill, which I saw performed at the Malthouse. An unforgettable experience. Both employ snippets of conversations that allow the viewer to create links and parallels within their own head. Breaking the story and allowing thought. Yet in ‘Love and Information’, rather than also breaking the emotional link it strengthened it – I cried, I laughed. ‘Dear Masato’ didn’t achieve this connection with the viewer, but I don’t believe that was the purpose, at least it wasn’t necessary. And as a 6 hour ‘performance’ not reasonable.
Since it does go for so long I didn’t expect the level of action and symphony involved. I was only there for a short time in comparison, my anxieties couldn’t last too long. What I truly wasn’t expecting was the influence it had on me after I had left the space. On the busy streets of Melbourne everyone became the performers. Reacting to each other. I was more aware of my place amidst them. How my presence influenced their reactions. So different to before I walked into Westspace, when I was within my own head. Everyone that see’s this exhibition/performance will come out with a different impression, a different reading. I’m very curious to hear them.
See the next event on the 10th December 2016, 12-6pm.
The book: M Train by Patti Smith
If you feel drawn to cafes, Polaroid photos and off-track travel, then prepare to delve into the measured pace of Patti Smith – there will be moments of understated humour, unexpected adventures and meditative thought.
The drink: Del Maguey Vida
The first sip instantly warms, sending you straight into the heat of Mexico, but it does not burn. A surprisingly smooth sip with a complex earthy palate that hints of a fruity sweetness. It’s a pure mescal, hand-crafted in San Luis del Río, twice distilled in small wood-fired copper stills.
The setting: Find yourself an old armchair, ideally one with a past that lingers in its worn thread, and tells a story in a creak as you curl into its arms. Or wander the streets until you find yourself in a dim cafe with faded photos and quiet charm.
I felt a connection to this book, or at least a striving to connect, just as Patti Smith seems to strive to connect to the past. To me, it comes down to a longing to have the freedom, and the nerve, to spend days within one’s own head – to fade into obscure thought and come out clearer. The idea that these words brought – ‘No one knew where I was. No one was expecting me.’ – was intoxicating.
I had moments of looking out a window, contemplating words and life. Patti Smith seems to have lived a life of many dreams, some she
acts upon with passion, other’s she’s happy from them in exist in thoughts and words only. It reminded me that sometimes I can allow dreams to be dreams, without the pressure to start pulling them down into reality. As Smith reminisces on her husband’s words ‘Not all dreams need to be realised’. With these words I needed a sip of something strong. It was a difficult choice between these two: vodka, as Smith has in Berlin, with black coffee and caviar; or mescal, represented by empty bottles left behind by the cowpoke, and scattered with ‘neglect and love’ in her room.
I decided on mescal (also spelt mezcal) as I can see Smith appreciating the ‘artisan’ quality of the spirit. Made from agave, succulents native to Mexico and the southern United States, mescal is mainly distilled in family-owned back rooms, with traditional copper or earthen pots. Some more good news, agave is not a depressant.
I was a little nervous to try a mescal, I still get shivers thinking of past tequila shots. I passed that rite of passage in my teenage years and wasn’t tempted to re-live that burning experience. But, unlike the most-likely bulk exported cheap-arse tequila that made those memories, the mescals I tried are meant to be appreciated and sipped. If you like good tequila or whisky, you will enjoy mescal. If you’re not sure, I would recommend having a beer on hand that compliments the tastes, like Pacifico.
Del Maguey was started by artist, Ron Cooper, who has said “Many of us in the outer, modern world have lost our history and sense of tradition… it is a big hole in many people’s psyche…”. A sentiment that seems to be shared in ‘M Train’. Reading it brought about a nostalgia for history I haven’t felt before. As well as a longing for travel and culture, that doesn’t ever seem to go away. But reading ‘M Train’ and sipping some Del Maguey Vida helps.
Now all I need is some brown bread and olive oil.