Dealing With Imperfection by Geoff Harrison

“Always look on the bright side of death…..just before you draw your terminal breath”.  So sang the Monty Python crew in the film Life Of Brian.

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A recurrent theme in Alain De Botton’s School of Life is the concept that life cannot be perfected, and the sooner we acclimatize to this the better off we will be.  This is not to say we should be dismissive of the pain of others.  I could get into deep depressions over the state of the arts in Australia, how governments seem to ignore the benefits the arts can bring to a nation in terms of creative thinking, mental health and economic activity.  But is this going to prevent me from painting?  Never.

I only have to visit my father at his nursing home to make me realize that I have to make the most of my remaining years in spite of everything that has happened in my life.  Perhaps there is nothing sadder than to listen to a 90 yo talk about the regrets in his life.  The question I ask is “now what?” 

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Vincent Van Gogh knew all about pain yet he was still able to engage with the beauty of nature.  The light of southern France captivated him, as became clear in his many letters to his brother Theo and to Gauguin, who he hounded to join him.  De Botton argues Van Gogh’s paintings of Arles “express a cheerfulness that has taken complete stock of all the reasons for despair”.

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Seventeenth century Dutch painter Jacob Van Ruisdael knew that the sun needn’t be shining to make fine art.  “His paintings reveal an accommodation with the flawed but endurable and occasionally beautiful nature of reality.”  He made a case for overcast skies, muddy river banks and infinite gradations of grey where he saw a special kind of beauty.

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The wise know that all human beings, themselves included, are prone to folly: they have irrational desires and incompatible aims, fantasies and delusions.   After several cost overruns and an almost complete re-engineering during development, the DeLorean DMC-12 was finally released onto the market in 1981.  The car was made famous in the feature film “Back To the Future” starring Michael J Fox.  But for all the hype, the DMC-12 was sheer folly.  Only 9000 were built and in 1983 the DeLorean Motor Company went bust.

The Bliss Of Solitude 2018 Oil On Canvas

The Bliss Of Solitude 2018 Oil On Canvas

Do we really need a 24 hour news channel?  Do we need a torrent of bad news from around the world (about which we can do little) to assail our ears?  As De Botton asks, what impact would knowledge of an earthquake in Peru have on Australia’s aboriginal people?

When I produce my images of Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens, I’m not running away from reality, I’m seeking some solace within it.  The appreciation I get is that there are places like these where we can regain some sanity in a world seemingly full of tumult.



Oasis In The City by Geoff Harrison

In my exhibition scheduled for June 2020 at Tacit Galleries in Collingwood, I will be exploring the recuperative and consoling powers nature has to offer to all of us. The exhibition will be based around Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens which I have visited many times for psychological recovery from the challenges of modern existence, such as losing one’s job, difficulties in relationships or even working one’s way through art school. It’s the responsibility of art to make us appreciate the importance of modest moments in our lives, such as the play of shadows cast by a tree on a path.

Hill Of Contentment Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 102 cm

Hill Of Contentment Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 102 cm

Modern advertising often specialises in glamourizing the unattainable; that is, places that are rare, remote, costly or famous.  Yet here we have an exotic location right under our noses that we can visit at any time.  And the sun need not be shining to appreciate the mysteries of these gardens.   A visit on a quiet and drizzly day can be an oddly therapeutic experience as you get the feeling that you have the whole gardens to yourself – tearooms and all.  Without the perpetual buzz of sight-seeing aircraft overhead, one can absorb the almost surreal beauty of the gardens, the thought that has gone into the landscaping and the far flung vistas.

Grey Day In The Gardens Oil On Canvas 71 cm x 107 cm

Grey Day In The Gardens Oil On Canvas 71 cm x 107 cm

Thanks to the barrage of advertising that constantly assails us, we lose the value of things that are close to hand, such as a quiet secluded area that allows time for contemplation. We become ungrateful for things that are free or don’t cost very much and we lose the value of ideas and feelings.

Casting A Long Shadow Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 76 cm

Casting A Long Shadow Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 76 cm

In this series I have not bothered with depicting precise species of plants as this is not meant to be an exact botanical record.  It’s a mood, a feeling that I’m intending to convey.


Sadness & Depression - The Difference by Geoff Harrison

It’s well documented that depression will afflict almost half of us at some point in our lives. And yet our understanding of the illness is often confused with sadness. The Book Of Life argues that a number of assumptions that are made about sadness have been inappropriately applied to depression, and this can lead to people with depression suffering more than they need to.

The Aftermath 2015 Oil On Canvas

The Aftermath 2015 Oil On Canvas

While on the surface, a sad person may present similar characteristics to a depressed one, there is one fundamental difference. The sad person knows what they are sad about, the depressed person doesn’t. Unlike a sad person, a depressed person usually has difficulty articulating what they are sad about. They may simply feel that life has been drained of all meaning.

This can leave them open to unwarranted charges of faking, malingering or exaggerating. Friends may end up feeling frustrated at the lack of progress in their attempts to help. A sad person usually doesn’t feel that life has lost all meaning. A depressed person may totally disintegrate as a result of a minor accident such as breaking a glass.

The Sky Is Beginning to Bruise 2014 Oil On Canvas

The Sky Is Beginning to Bruise 2014 Oil On Canvas

For decades now, the idea has been promulgated that depression is a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, a concept very attractive to pharmaceutical companies who are more than willing to flood the market with their miracle cures. But for many patients, so-called antidepressants have only resulted in weight gain.

Psychotherapy has brought some sufferers some relief because it starts from the premise that the depressed aren’t feeling that way for no reason - there is a reason. “They are very distressed about something but that something is proving extremely difficult to take on board, and has therefore been pushed into the outer zones of consciousness.“ Rather than being able to confront what really distresses them, they remain dead to everything. Often, the depressed aren’t aware that they lack insight into what’s really troubling them.

All Night Through 1984 Evelyn Williams

All Night Through 1984 Evelyn Williams

There is another key difference between been sad and being depressed. The sad my feel grief stricken by something out there in the world, but they are not usually sad about themselves - their self esteem remains unaffected. “Whereas depressed people will characteristically feel wretched about themselves and be full of self-recrimination, guilt, shame and self-loathing.” In extreme cases, this can lead to suicidal thoughts.

The Book Of Life suggests that a sufferer can become self-hating as a defense against the risks of hating someone else , a parent who humiliated them when they were a child for example. Despair can be caused by “undigested, unknown and unresolved trauma”.

Psychotherapy can open the door to greater insight, but this can take time and require courage in the sufferer and patience in the care-giver.

This brings me to the use of psychedelics in the treatment of depression. This is nothing new. In the 1950’s and 60’s much knowledge was gained and progress made in the use of psilocybin found in magic mushrooms on patients whose depression seemed treatment resistant. Unfortunately, the reputation of psychedelics was tarnished by their use (abuse) recreationally; this and the linking of the psychedelic movement with the anti-Vietnam War movement led to the banning of these substances by the end of the 60’s.

But in recent years there has been a renewal in interest in psychedelic treatments in the USA, the UK and many other countries. The benefits of these treatments is far too lengthy a topic to be covered here. It seems the use of psilocybin in conjunction with psychotherapy is bringing benefits to many sufferers. But I recommend Johann Hari’s book “Lost Connections” as a good starting point for anyone interested in the topic. It was quite an eye opener for me.

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The Importance of Home (and of not having one) by Geoff Harrison

In a recent article in The Book Of Life, author Alain De Botton discusses the psychological importance of home. “One of the most meaningful activities we are ever engaged in is the creation of a home.” We spend an inordinate amount of time deciding on furniture, crockery, pictures even door handles to create the right atmosphere that reflects “us”.

“Darkening Skies Over Talbot” 2015 Oil On Canvas

“Darkening Skies Over Talbot” 2015 Oil On Canvas

It is argued that having spent time traveling or spending too much time in other people’s bedrooms, we often feel a strong urge to return to our own furnishings, our own environment. “We need to get home to remember who we are”.

De Botton refers to our need to anchor our identity, and that is what the ancient Greeks sought to do with the Temple of Athena which was erected on the slopes of the acropolis.

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“The Greeks took such care over Athena’s temple-home because they understood the human mind. They knew that, without architecture, we struggle to remember what we care about – and more broadly who we are. To be told in words that Athena represented grace and balance wasn’t going to be enough on its own. There needed to be a house to bring the idea forcefully and continuously to consciousness.”

Finding objects to furnish our homes that correctly reflect our identity can be an arduous process. We may have to go to enormous lengths to track down the right object for a particular purpose. Although there is the temptation to go overboard.

Men’s smoking room Martindale Hall, Mintaro, South Australia

Men’s smoking room Martindale Hall, Mintaro, South Australia

“The quest to build a home is connected up with a need to stabilise and organise our complex selves. It’s not enough to know who we are in our own minds. We need something more tangible, material and sensuous to pin down the diverse and intermittent aspects of our identities.”

Which begs the question, what if a person has never experienced a stable, secure home environment during their childhood or adolescence? How are these people supposed to create a stable home environment of their own? Where are their reference points? These people often tend to move from place to place (as I have done) and thus have never felt grounded in any location. This can often lead to a sense of not belonging which can create anxiety. The sky-rocketing cost of housing has resulted in people staying in the insecure rental market for far longer than planned.

Then there is the growing tendency these days for families to be constantly on the move. There is the common practice (especially during the housing price boom) for people to buy, renovate and sell over and over again. For them, the home is simply a money making venture. If home is meant to be the place where “our soul feels it’s found its proper physical container”, does that mean these families are leading a soulless existence? I think so.

A Different Form of Advertising: Art by Geoff Harrison

Mass media advertising has a tendency to skew our priorities.  It has us yearning for the unattainable, it glamourizes exotic locations by only showing them in perfect weather conditions.  It convinces us that owning a luxury SUV will transform our driving experiences regardless of our congested roads.

But most of all, the insidious nature of advertising is that it has us valuing objects rather than feelings and ideas.  As argued by author Alain de Botton, advertising has us losing sight of the value of almost everything that is readily to hand, we’re deeply ungrateful towards anything that is free or doesn’t cost very much.  “We are prone to racing through the years forgetting the wonder, fragility and beauty of existence.”

And here, art can act as a corrective to our skewed values.  In 1503, Albrecht Durer asked us to have some appreciation for some grass.

Albrecht Durer, A Large Piece Of Turf, 1503

Albrecht Durer, A Large Piece Of Turf, 1503

Thanks to advertising, what we call glamour is so often located in unhelpful places: in what is rare, remote, costly or famous.  And yet, the artist Chardin asks us to consider the value of a modest moment in a domestic setting.

Chardin, A Lady Taking Tea, 1735

Chardin, A Lady Taking Tea, 1735

Art can teach us the value of a walk down a quiet country road during a stormy evening where we can contrast the peace of a rural setting with the drama taking place overhead.


Storms Over The Goldfields , Oil On Canvas, 2019

Storms Over The Goldfields , Oil On Canvas, 2019

It’s unlikely a travel brochure would wax lyrical about the frozen north, but I would argue that when the ice and snow has melted during the arctic (and Antarctic) summers, these regions have their own unique beauty.

Arctic Summer, Oil on Canvs, 2009

Arctic Summer, Oil on Canvs, 2009

De Botton argues that it lies in the power of art to honour the elusive but real value of ordinary life. It may teach us to be more just towards ourselves as we endeavour to make the best of our circumstances.

Public Sculpture; Inclusive & Exclusive Of The Public by Geoff Harrison

In comparing the works of Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor (now Sir Anish Kapoor CBE RA), it strikes me that in terms of motivations they could have come from different planets.  I was thinking of this the other day whilst travelling on Melbourne’s City Link towards the Bolte Bridge, with that hideous yellow chopper leaning menacingly over the road.  As far as I’m concerned, this sculpture serves the cause of art in this country no favours at all.

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There’s a long tradition in this kind of alienating sculpture.  For decades the American, Richard Serra has specialized in huge sculptures of steel which, should they collapse, would squash you like a bug.  But so what?  In her book “The Re-enchantment Of Art”, Suzi Gablik argues “we no longer need old authoritarian ideologies which demand that art be difficult, willfully inaccessible and disturbing to the audience.”  Modernism’s general themes seem to be alienation and displeasure with society, and the heroic and belligerent ego cut off from the social world.

The genesis of this displeasure may be the general horror felt by artists at the carnage of the First World War.  But that was a century ago and it’s time we moved on.  Gablik writes of modernism “loudly proclaiming the self sufficiency of art, the untrammeled self, the avant garde proceeding to scorn notions of responsibility towards the audience.”

Richard Serra                                                 TIlted Arc                                           Manhattan, 1981

Richard Serra TIlted Arc Manhattan, 1981

She cites the example of Richard Serra’s ‘Tilted Arc’ installed at the Federal Plaza in Manhattan in 1981.  The 120 ft long, 73 ton leaning curve of steel could be considered the “epitome of uncompromising, modernist art.” GABLICK.  Some critics thought its willingness to confront the audience gave the work its moral dimension.  But the public hated it.  One employee at the plaza said it dampened our spirits every day….a hulk of rusty steel…and has no appeal.  A petition signed by 1300 employees in 1985 asked for its removal.

Serra sued the government who wanted to remove the sculpture claiming the government had “deliberately induced” public hostility to it.  The notion of artistic freedom is raised here.  But freedom in this issue could be interpreted as the power of having one’s way, pushing things around and being invulnerable.  Serra lost the case and in March 1989 the sculpture was finally removed from the plaza and taken off to storage in Brooklyn.  It hasn’t been publicly displayed since, in deference to the artist’s wishes.  Gablik asks whether the aesthetic value of an artwork can be sustained without responsibility to the social feedback it receives.

Anish Kapoor has different ideals.  In 2006, Kapoor installed “Cloud Gate” at the Millennium Park in Chicago to general acclaim.  It’s approximately 20 metres long and finished in seamless polished chrome.  The city didn’t know how to budget for it.  They initially set aside $9 million, but it cost $23 million – but hey, this is Chicago we are talking about.  A budget has also been set aside for daily cleaning.  The public adore it, they have found the work engaging, beguiling and it has become a popular meeting place.

Anish Kapoor                                                    Cloud Gate                                                    Chicago, 2006

Anish Kapoor Cloud Gate Chicago, 2006

Kapoor believes the idea that one is involved is fundamental to sculpture. He likes to take the viewer on a journey into a sculpture. His work engages the eyes, the nerves, the emotions.  You seem to be on the edge of being outside and inside the work. His breakthrough was being Britain’s representative at the Venice Biennale in 1990.

Critics argue that Kapoor’s work is very accessible to the general public because it’s not based on a script that’s not evident in the work.  Kapoor says “I don’t have anything particular to say as an artist, I don’t have some grand message to give to the public.”  His exhibitions are all about experience - “It’s about not having too much to say to allow space for the viewer.”

Anish Kapoor                                  Dismemberment - Site 1                                  Gibbs Farm, New Zealand, 2009

Anish Kapoor Dismemberment - Site 1 Gibbs Farm, New Zealand, 2009





International Art Jargon by Geoff Harrison

In 2012 the art journal Triple Canopy published a treatise on IAE (International Art English) written by Alix Rule and David Levine.  We are told the international art world relies on a unique language.  And by the art world, what is meant is not just artists and curators, but gallery owners and directors, bloggers, magazine editors and writers, publicists, collectors, advisers, interns, art-history professors, and so on.  The growth in IAE in recent times seems to be inextricably linked to the Internet and the biennale as artists, gallerists and others strive to reach an international audience. 

And this brings me to e-flux, described by Rule and Levine as the art world’s flagship digital institution.  “Essentially, e-flux is a listserv that sends out three announcements per day about contemporary art events world-wide.”  Unlike similar services, e-flux is curated. And because e-flux press releases are implicitly addressed to the art world’s most important figures, they are written exclusively in IAE.  Rule and Levine collated thousands of exhibition announcements published since 1999 by e-flux and then used some language-analysing software called ‘sketch engine’ to discover what, if anything, “lay behind IAE's great clouds of verbiage.”  In 2012, e-flux had twice as many subscribers as Artforum.

Rule and Levine break down their analysis of IAE under several headings;

VOCABULARY

 Apparently, IAE is critical of English for its lack of nouns, so visual becomes visualityglobal becomes globalitypotential becomes potentiality and experience becomes experiencability.  Space is a word whose meaning has been transformed by IAE.  An announcement for the 2010 exhibition “Jimmie Durham and His Metonymic Banquet,” in Spain, (pictured) had the artist “questioning the division between inside and outside in the Western sacred space”—the venue was a former church—“to highlight what is excluded in order to invest the sanctum with its spatial purity. Pieces of cement, wire, refrigerators, barrels, bits of glass and residues of ‘the sacred,’ speak of the space of the exhibition hall … transforming it into a kind of ‘temple of confusion.’”

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Prefixes like para-, proto-, post-, and hyper- are particularly popular in IAE because they “expand the lexicon exponentially, which is to say without adding any new words.”  Words such as reality seem to be given non-specific meanings in IAE. One exhibit invites “the public to experience the perception of colour, special orientation and other forms of engagement with reality.”

SYNTAX

IAE loves adverbial phrases such as “radically questioned” and double adverbial terms such as “playfully and subversively invert.” IAE recommends using more words than are necessary.   An example is “when Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Yellew Fog’ is shown at dusk—the transition period between day and night—it represents and comments on the subtle changes in the day’s rhythm.”   IAE also groups unrelated terms “her signature combination of skill and awkwardness.”

IAE also loves lists “forms of practice, techniques, formats and aesthetics … not dissimilar to the functions of the concepts of the filmic or the literary that entail activities such as organization, compilation, display, presentation, mediation or publication ….”. I’ve also encountered the extravagant use of lists in job descriptions.

GENESIS

Rule and Devine end up asking how, when we write about art, did we end up writing in a way that sounds like inexpertly translated French?  They argue the origins can be traced back to an art journal called October founded in New York in 1976, whose editors sought a more rigorous interpretive criteria for art criticism than was common at that time .  They looked to the French post-structualist philosophers for inspiration.  They quote expressions such as “the political," “the space of absence,” “the recognizable and the repulsive”. IAE’s role in a much expanded art world was to consecrate certain artworks as significant, critical, and most importantly, contemporary.

They argue the use of IAE is all about power, and it’s about trying to gain insider status in the fiercely competitively art world.  In other words, IAE has made it harder for non-professionals. And they suggest a more cynical aspect to IAE; it’s showy vagueness can also be commercially pragmatic: "The more you can muddy the waters around the meaning of a work," says Levine, "the more you can keep the value high."

Rule and Levine are cautious about IAE's precise effect on artists; they haven't researched it. But Rule does say: "It would be naive to say artists are not influenced."

They are not so sure about the future of IAE. Given the competence in it is so universal among art professionals, it’s losing its allure as an exclusive private language. But rest assured, if IAE does wither on the vine, a new form of art gibberish will surface in the near future.

SOURCE; “International Art English” - Rule and Levine, Triple Canopy

“A Users Guide To Art Speak” - The Guardian, Jan 2013

Minor Sculpture - Major Impact by Geoff Harrison

“She looks like a monkey, an aborted foetus.  If she were smaller one would be tempted to pickle her in a jar with alcohol.”  This is a sample of the vitriol that was hurled at Edgar Degas’ sculpture called “The Little Dancer, Aged 14” that was included in the French Impressionist Exhibition of 1881.

By this time, Degas’ reputation as a fine painter was well established.  His depictions of ballet dancers were revolutionary in style and composition.  After studying the works of the old masters Degas declared he wanted to be the portrayer of modern life.  That is exactly what he had in mind with “The Little Dancer”.

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When one considers his background – wealthy, rather buttoned up, even lonely, it’s remarkable that he should produce a sculpture such as this.

So why the hostility?  Sculpture at that time was meant to be an uplifting art form, with figures cast in marble or bronze.  And yet here we have a figure cast in wax, about 2/3 life size with real hair and wearing a real tutu, and displayed in a glass cabinet which made her look like a scientific specimen.  Then there was that pouting expression on her face, it seemed to challenge every assumption the audience made about art; ie, she was not seeking to be admired.

Her facial features were thought to be based on “studies” being carried out by anthropologists into where humans stood on the evolutionary scale.  People with low, sloping foreheads and jutting jaws were regarded as being more primitive, like monkeys.  The model for The Little Dancer came from a poor family and Degas was known to be a misogynist.  He never married and had no children.

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More importantly, this sculpture reminded Parisians of something they didn’t want to know - the goings on behind the scenes at the Paris Opera which contained the ballet school.  Certain rooms were set aside at the rear of the school that were frequented by wealthy male patrons and the young ballet students for extra-curricular activities.  Some of Degas’ ballet paintings are haunted by men in top hats – the wealthy season ticket holders.  Art and prostitution side by side.

It’s curious that The Little Dancer has been immortalised by dance students around the world when one considers what happened to Marie Van Goethem, the model for Degas’ sculpture.  The Van Goethems were among the poorest families in Paris, the mother took in laundry and the father was a tailor.  She was the middle of 3 daughters, all of whom attended the ballet school. 

Her older sister Antoinette fell into prostitution (aided by her mother) and was arrested and jailed for robbery, and about a year after Degas completed The Little Dancer, Marie’s life also began to unravel.  Rumours that she was seen in a bar frequented by artists, dancers and prostitutes were circulating and she began to miss her classes.  In 1882 she was sacked. 

What became of her after then, no one knows but it’s thought she ended up on the streets.

The younger sister Charlotte was a success story and was involved in the Paris Opera for 50 years, becoming a teacher.