Archive for the ‘New Guild’ Category

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Art in Troubled Times

May 8, 2017

What is the role of art, in particular the visual arts, in troubled times? There is no question that we live in troubled, some would say say dangerous, times. Should art and artists be politically engaged or should art provide an escape from the realities of day to day life? Art history provides many examples of both positions. I have struggled with this question for over half a century. This is a video of a talk, recorded by Stephen Scott, that I gave at the Gallery on Queen in Fredericton, New Brunswick on the 7th of April, 2017, on my current thoughts on the subject.

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The Reflective Gaze

April 19, 2015

William Forrestall / Stephen Scott
The Reflective Gaze
Saint John Arts Centre
20 Peel Plaza
Saint John, New Brunswick
7 November – 23 December 2014

Originally published in Vie des Arts, #238 Printemps 2015, pgs 90-91

There is a vast difference in the subject matter and technique of Will Forrestall and Stephen Scott, but they share a common bond in their dedication to realism. They share other things as well. Both live in Fredericton, New Brunswick; they both attended the same art school, Mount Allison University. They are both senior artists and, most important, they are friends who talk to each other about their art and have done so for years.

Will works almost exclusively in egg tempera while Stephen paints in oil and watercolour. Will’s paintings are worked up from preparatory drawings while the majority of Stephen’s paintings, in this exhibition, are plein-air (painted directly from nature). The observation of the natural world is a quality that these two artists have in common. They use the loaded word ‘gaze’ in the title of their exhibition. Gaze is often equated today in a negative sense as in the male gaze, but their meaning is more traditional, referring to a fixed or intent look. Their paintings do reflect their deeply felt philosophy on the nature and meaning of contemporary art.

I have talked to Forrestall and Scott many times about their art, but it is their paintings that speak to me most directly. James Joyce says in his, the Portrait of the Artist: “The artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” In other words, that art can be viewed apart from the artist who created it. This is not to say that the artist’s ideas and thoughts, are not important but rather, that a good art work must stand on its own merits. Forrestall’s lilies and coffee pots take on an importance that belies their mundaneness and Scott’s paintings are more than pictures of New Brunswick or Nova Scotia landscapes. Both artists’s work speaks to the world of universal values.

Image: Stephen Scott

Image: Stephen Scott

I was at this exhibition with two friends, neither one an artists, but they certainly understood the paintings and knew that they represented more than pictures of realistic things. Good art’s parlour trick is to stop viewers in their tracks and give them cause to think about what they are seeing. Realistic painting is a bit of smoke and mirrors. It is an illusion of reality. Will’s flowers and coffee pots are more than they seem and Stephen’s landscape are about more than about place. Painting is a chance for reflection.

3 Lilies 2 coffee makers -green

Image:  William Forestall

 

Will’s, Coffee and Flowers, 20”x40” (2012), offers a chance to reflect on the nature of objects; the coffee pots permanence versus the transience of the lilies. It is a 21st century take on the 16th century Dutch idea of nature morte transcending common still life with an often hidden comment on the fleeting quality of life. Stephen also owes a debt to Dutch and Flemish painters of the same period who brought bourgeois and secular values to landscape painting. Both his painting Storm Front, 14”x21” (2014), and his watercolour Study for Storm Front, 18.5”x25” (2014), are examples of landscape painting that bring universal human values to the genre. The study was done on site and the painting, from the watercolour, in the studio. The location, the Bay of Fundy, is not as important as the image of a coming storm and the change that it will bring. It is something that most viewers will understand independent of the painting’s geographic location.
Forrestall uses egg tempera in a very precise fashion building the painting surface to completion through minute cross hatching, but the detail is united as you stand back from the pictures. His paintings possess a quiet contemplative quality that draws you in and holds your attention. The works in the exhibition, with one exception, are generally larger works than those of Scott’s. While Will’s paintings are realistic they are also abstract.  The lilies in Coffee and Flowers and in Three in Blue, 33”x22” (2011) are in a very different space and scale from their backgrounds, but they are visually logical.

Many of Scott’s paintings in the exhibition are very small at some five by seven inches no more than sketches, really, but they offer an eyeful. They remind me of the best small oil sketches of the Group of Seven. He is able in a few well- delivered brush strokes to capture the essence of a situation. When viewed closely his paintings are totally abstract, but, like Forrestall’s work, when viewed from a proper distance, fall together beautifully. He uses paint as a musician uses notes to build a melody. In music, it’s what’s not there—the silence between notes—that is important. Similarly in Scott’s paintings, it’s what we think we see that’s important. He makes our eyes, and our brains, work to complete the picture.

As artists, Forrestall and Scott have worked for a very long time—between thirty and forty years—dedicated to a continued commitment to realism. Their work is different, but they share a constant belief in realism. Isolation from artistic centres like Toronto and Montreal might be a reason for their devotion to their respective visions. They are certainly aware of what is going in both Canada and the rest of world, but they choose to work near to where they were born and received their artistic training. It’s good to see art that is about quality and craftsmanship and not just about keeping up with fashion.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Sunday, February 15, 2015.

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Some Thoughts on a New Group: Part Three

April 15, 2014

I have, in the last two parts of this essay, written about the need for a new method of marketing the visual arts. Artists are not alone in facing the challenges of a new global economy in the ever changing world of technology. The old models of our economic world are falling by the wayside-sometimes this is good and sometimes this is bad, but we cannot wish what is happening aside. Friends of mine tell me that these days people change theirs careers several times during their working lives; sometimes this is by choice and other times circumstance demands it. However, those of us who are artists are often in our trade for the long haul. Traditional painters, who pretty much are the core of this group that we are forming, are not likely to drop what they are doing and embrace a totally different career. Many of us have been doing what we do for close to half a century and, in my case, more than that. Some of the artists in my group would consider changing from oil paint to acrylic, a radical change and one member thinks that oil paint is too modern and sticks steadfast to egg tempera. So what are we aging radicals to do in this world of change?

Well, for a start, realise what we do has value and that there are people out there, our market, who not only like the type of thing we do, but are willing to buy our work. The trick is getting us and them together for our mutual benefit. The commercial gallery system is clearly not working as well as it should and the auction world is an abomination. I recently read an article in the April edition of Harper’s magazine by Nikil Saval, The Office and its Ends, which speaks to the problems of the economy, but also mentions guilds and how they might work in the 21st century. More and more people are working on their own, something artists have been doing for centuries, and there is the need for these same people to work together for not only mutual benefits, but for collaboration while maintaining their individualism. Sounds like something artists should be doing and it is something the members of my group want to do. Of course, there is a rich history of artist guilds that goes back to 15th century, but their benefits and history have been lost somewhere along the way, possibly because of the myth of artist geniuses and half-baked readings of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

Our ideas of a new guild are not about a large union to protect mediocrity or a way for members to get group health insurance, but a way for like minded individuals to come together for our mutual benefit. To that end, we are starting out very small, and likely remain that way. Our members are all established professional artists and who, at the moment, limit membership to our group by consensus. Is this elitist? Yes, of course it is. There is no reason why there cannot be many guilds of like-minded artists. Rather along the lines of Chairman Mao’s let a thousand flowers bloom or something like that. The important thing is that we understand the value of our ‘work’ and move it to market to the benefit of our members. We are not setting standard prices. Our members’ work varies in price and it’s up the artists to set a value for their art, but what we want do is sell more of it and keep more money in the hands of the artist, the producer. How do we do that or propose to do that? Of course, there is the internet, the world wide web, but that is only the means, a means, to communicate. The hard part is getting the work to the buyer and the money to the artist, be that across the street or halfway around the world.

Nottingham Guild Hall in 1750

Nottingham Guild Hall in 1750

I don’t think that our guild has any secret formula to success. We need to engage people who know how to use technology for our ends. Nothing is more stupid than over-estimating your own intelligence. Knowing what you don’t know is far more important than knowing what you do know. One other important aspect of our guild is mutual trust. If we don’t trust one another we are doomed from the start and, hence, in our case, we have limited membership to people who know and trust one another. We know that we have to invest both money and time into our guild for it to work, but it is still a group of individuals. We know that we have to start out locally, but move as swiftly, as we brave, to larger national and international markets. That would mean forging alliances with other groups and individuals.

Anyone who is going to buy works from our members, at least for now, is going to want to see the art first hand and that has its set of problems. Our members would not want to send their works half-way around the world without being assured they either they are going to sold and they see the money or there is a way to get the works safely back to them. We are looking at the idea of agents in other centres who would work with us and at the possibility of pop shows. All of this requires work on our behalf. We have only just started to get our minds around the new realities of today’s world. We feel that many commercial art galleries are going the way of record stores, remember them? This doesn’t mean that there aren’t galleries out there that can reform themselves to work in this new order, but it’s a quantum change. Look, if people can sell high-end fountain pens over the internet, then I’m sure that there is way to move nice old fashioned oil paintings as well. We just need to find the sweet spot.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, E4L 1G6, Sunday, April 13, 2014.

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Some Thoughts on a New Group: Part Two

April 8, 2014

There can be no revolution without revolutionaries and there in is the problem with visual artists taking control of their own professional lives. We live within a romantic myth of our own making much of which can be traced back to our professional training in art schools and universities. At most of these institutions we are taught that our shit doesn’t smell. In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I do have a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a MFA from Indiana University; taught at three different university for a total thirty-seven years, nineteen years as a department head and was president, for several years, of the University Art Association of Canada. So, I have some insight into the myth making racket.

The whole question if there are too many art schools and university art departments turning out too many artists is a different question for a different time, but in a word the answer is, yes.

I alluded to, in part one of this essay, to the fact that it might be good thing to take a look at 15th. century Flemish art guilds as a possible model for 21st century artists. Many artists agreed that it might be worth a look, but several suggested that guilds, at least, in the form that I suggested, would be elitist and exclusionary. My answer was yes they would, and should, be both. Frankly, elite is a word that gets a bad rap when its associated with the visual arts, but does fairly well when its used to describe athletes. There are some groups, like a college of surgeons, that by their very nature are exclusionary and limited to those who have passed some hurdles. Of course, I mean entry based on merit and talent and and not limits based on race, sex or religion.
Great artists, and surgeons, come in all shapes, colour, sex and beliefs. Picking a great artist, much less a good one, might be a bit harder than picking a corresponding surgeon. I don’t know about you, but I usually look for a surgeon who has lot of practice and patients who survive. As for artists, it is Hobson’s choice and I would like to think that I am Hobson.

Governors of the Wine Merchant's Guild of Amsterdam, by Ferdinand Bol (1663)

Governors of the Wine Merchant’s Guild of Amsterdam, by Ferdinand Bol (1663)

Back to the making of artists, we, the art teachers, usually cover what, in our mind, are the basics, some studio practice, a bit of history and a fair amount of bullshit. Normally anything the student comes up with is lauded as a work of creative genius. Who in their right mind would wants to end up with a bad student evaluation? Every four years a small army of newly minted BFAs march across convocation stages and into oblivion. Of course, there are great schools and strong departments; great students who turn into great artists. They are in the minority, however, and one likes to think that these were the places we attended or taught at, hopefully both. We all live in hope and fantasy.

Assuming all the ducks, or artists with some talent, are all lined up, now what? Leaving aside the lucky few with a MFA who manage to get, and keep, a tenure track appointment at an university and that would be around six in Canada, in a good year; the rest are left to their own devices. Fame and fortune may await some who move to a major art centre. In Canada, Toronto is the centre of the art universe. But it still leaves the majority of budding artistic geniuses who haven’t the wherewithal to move an art capital or actually like it where they live. One choice for these individuals is to live in obscurity, not to mention poverty, die, hopeful young, and hope to be discovered and famous after you are dead. Notice the two hopes in the last sentence and the third hope, outside of the dying part, of this scenario working out are slim and if does other people make the money.

Ah, but there are commercial art galleries and artists-run centres across this great country of ours where things do happen. In the commercial galleries there are exhibitions where over the punch bowl, higher tone galleries offer wine, art works are sold for a couple of hundred bucks or so of which the gallery takes its cut of forty or fifty percent off the top after expenses. If artists are lucky enough to make a hundred or two such sales a year they might gross about three quarters of the salary a unionized postal worker. In artist-run centre sales are viewed as déclassé. Monies are made in artist’s fees, sometimes as much as three or four hundred dollars. In these setting, artists meet with their friends at openings, many of whom will have shows in the same space at a later date, where accolades of their artistic genius are shared and the public’s indifference to said genius is evident. Here everyone is free to buy beer at the cash bar.

Is there another way that visual artists might make living that would allow such luxuries as eating and raising a family? The answer, my friend is written on the wind. Not that this line has already been chosen, but the answer does require a tremendous of rethinking on the part of artists. First artists have to value their own work and, second, they have to value the people, the public- who consume or may consume their work. What to do? Here is where the guild concept raises its ugly head. Did I say ugly? Brilliant, might be a better term, but only if visual artists of all stripes get off their asses. Ugly would apply to the art establishment who would see their serfs, the artists, disappear along with their product, namely art, from their grasp.

I would not propose a single guild. There should be many guilds; all small and all local at the onset. They require, as I wrote in part one, made up of like-minded individuals who see the benefit of marketing their work in a co-operative way. Of course, there could be a loose union of guilds both nationally and internationally. How can these guilds be established? There are likely many ways, but I’ll leave that topic until next week. I, and the others in our small group, don’t have all the answers. We are still at the questions stage and would welcome ideas.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Sunday, April 6, 2014.

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Some Thoughts on a New Group

March 20, 2014

Recently I have been talking to a few close artists friends about an issue that has been on my mind for several years and that is, why are so many artists not in charge of their lives? Clearly the existing gallery/artist relationship is not working and, likely, never worked very well. We live in what Marshal McLuhan predicted a half century ago, a global village and, yet many artists rely on, what at best is a medieval marketing strategy. In a small market area, like the one I live in, rural Canada, the chances of people walking off the street into a commercial art gallery and buying moderately expensive art is pretty much nil to non-existent. By moderately expensive, I mean, say, a painting over $15,000 and that’s not a lot in today’s market for a work by a well known artist with over thirty years experience. The market is just not here. It’s not enough for a local gallery to have a web site and many of those that do, have half-assed sites, at best, designed on the cheap. In any case, people who are going to spend $15,000 to $30,000 dollars for a painting are not going to buy something on the web without seeing the actual work first.

A friend of mine from Nova Scotia, who is one of Canada’s best known and successful artists, just had a show in Toronto, the centre of Canada’s art universe, at least in its own mind, and sold two large paintings to a member of one our province’s, New Brunswick, most prominent families, which really says it all. However, even if you can sell art in Toronto that doesn’t mean that it is a good deal for the artists. Galleries famously take forty to fifty percent off the top, in addition to charging various expenses to the artist. Of course, some artists negotiate better deals and some galleries are better than others, but that’s not the point.

Galleries almost all work on consignment which from the producers’, the artists’, view is a dumb idea. The artists take all the risks and the galleries take their money off the top of the works that sell. That’s not the way most merchandising works. Usually the retailer buys from the wholesaler and, in turn, sells to the public at, hopefully for a profit. If it doesn’t sell, hard cheese and cheese might be a good example. Yes, I know there are lot of exceptions like books, but writers and, some publishers, are even dumber than visual artists and as a writer and artist, I speak from experience. I say that dealers should buy art works upfront from artists at an agreed discount and then it’s their problem to market them, but that seldom happens.

My friends and me are in the process of putting together an umbrella group, of what we call like minded individuals, to care for our commercial and professional needs. We are keeping this group at this time purposely small, around six proven professional artists and myself as curator. This is not some airy idea, but based on the premise of a new order for professional artists. I used the term medieval earlier, but there were some things medieval that were not all that bad and one was professional guilds. We are looking at the guild model as guide for a 21st century organization. Artists’ guilds in 15th and 16th century Flanders were organizations of master artists that protected artists rights. To become a full member of the guild required a number of steps that guaranteed a level of competence and professionalism. One moved from apprentice to journeyman to master. To become a master, a full member, one had to present to the guild, and have accepted, a master work or piece. Hence the term masterpiece. Today the meaning of the term is, at best, vague. Everyone is free to call themselves an artist and art is anything that wishes to use the term. Craftsmanship (the term includes women) is down the tubes along with any standards.

Russian_Civil_War_posterWe are not looking to a return to the 15th century, indeed, it is the 21st century and we should use contemporary technology to market our wares. It is a world market; we should be looking, in addition to North American and Europe, Russia, China and Arabia. Common sense should tell us that our art should be where the money and buyers are located. Art has always followed the money be it Brugge in the 15th century or Beijing in the 21st century. The web, and similar technologies, makes it possible for artists, and I mean artists, to deal directly in the world market in a professional manner. It’s time for artists, to use the old Marxist phase, to cast off our chains and as producers take charge of production. It would be deliciously ironic to use classical Marxism to sell visual art to the Chinese.

Our group is only at its beginnings, but we are hoping to start our own little revolution. Tally O!

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Wednesday, March 19, 2014.