Art has always been a part of my life. Both my maternal grandparents and my parents collected beautiful paintings. My father coveted his Asian art but also took an interest in Toronto’s new modern art movement. I was encouraged. When I was six my parents enrolled me in a Saturday morning community centre program – my first art class. To follow have been countless lessons, clubs, workshops and retreats. Through the study of colour theory and painterly techniques I have developed a great appreciation for the value of art – achieved through the artist’s skill, talent and dedication.
The Art Galley of Ontario (AGO) feels like an old family member to me. The first two floors of this art gallery contain my closest and dearest. We usually meet up several times a year. Each painting tells a story. I breathe it all in. The gold leaf frames, the medieval Christian scenes. How many times have I stood in front of the jewel toned Dutch masters and marvel at those huge old panels? They are a feast for the senses. The fur on the hanging rabbit pelts glistens and the stiff lace collars and velvet folds beg to be touched. So much dewy pink flesh. This art has given me a visual understanding of time and place – history became alive
If you follow the halls of AGO along to the east wing, you will come to the Impressionist. Such technique. These artists are magical alchemist. Van Gogh, Monet, Degas and Renoir all knew how to transform colour into light. So beautiful. So clever. Tiny dabs of pigment sharing the same values, sparkling and radiant. It defines romance. I never tire of these old friends.
A visit to the Canadian twentieth century expressionist is always my last and favourite stop: the famous Group of Seven, and David Milne. I particularly love the snowy landscapes. My heart swells with patriotism.
My father shared my love of art. It was our “thing”. I fondly recall in the 1970s we would take trips together downtown to view the galleries. Perhaps my love of art is connected in some way with a daddy complex. I remember him explaining the significance of Mary Pratt’s painting. It was in a gallery on King Street and Toronto was all a flutter over this new feminism movement. The nerve to present pictures of domestic everyday life as worthy art. Mary Pratt’s luminous fish and tin foil were puzzling.
Dad and I struggled to understand the changes creeping into the art world. We both loved Albert Franck. He was one of the first to paint ugly downtown Toronto in the winter. His backyard scenes are quite recognizable, always containing snow, red brick homes and wooden lean-twos in back alleys. Harold Town’s quirky expressionist style was another favourite. In 1969, Dad and I attended the opening of the Toronto Dominion bank towers designed by the world-famous architect Mies van der Rohe. International attention was starting to shine on sleepy old Toronto.
The 1960 and 70s were all about Modern Art, throwing out the traditions of the past in the spirit of experimentation. It was the time of pop art classics such as Marilyn Monroe and Campbell Soup Cans. The AGO installed Claes Oldenburger’s giant hamburger installation. Art was fun. “Be there or be square”.
In the 70s, 80s, I became aware that art was all around me, influencing what I wore, where I chose to eat and the car I coveted to drive. Art was in design. Art was in advertising. The outdated AGO went through a massive Frank Gehry renovation expanding to make room for more conceptual artist. The works of Charles Pachter and Michael Snow were some which I could appreciate.
The contemporary art movement is defined as any art created in our life time. In the 1980 I worked for a corporation which owned an enormous collection of Canadian art. I my office was a Jack Bush painting. For ten years I stared at two vertical lime green swatches intersected by an orange stroke. Technically a giant H on a white background. This was my first encounter with the new colour field movement. Ridiculous. Such a rip-off but as the years slipped away I grew to love this piece very much. The purity of these intense colours. I regretted not stealing it when everyone but me was laid off and the office closed.
These days I rarely venture above the second floor at the AGO and generally do not have the patience for most contemporary art. My focus is still back on the execution of the installation not on the artist’s concept. Much “Postmodern” art often relies on videos and multimedia. We become a part of the experience and the reaction is the message. Post-Humanism art or cyborg art interprets the increased presence of technology in our daily lives. Meta-Modern art is self-reflecting and is often a protest. I “get” some of it but the message is often ugly. For example –an installation showing a real urinal atop of a marble pedestal. Is the statement that the urinal is art or is it saying art is a urinal?
I want to dismiss metamodern and post-humanism art the way I once ruled out the colour field movement of the 60s. I believe the art world wants to be seen as complicated and intellectual when in fact I see it as hollow and dried up. It all feels like the “Emperor and His New Clothes”. To speak up and say that this is not “real” art would expose you as dull and out of touch. To me, Metamodern art is much like a millennial obsessed with taking selfies in front of a mirror. The focus is on the self-looking out on the self. Totally self-absorbed in the act of self-absorbing. It feels so narcissistic and ultimately meaningless.
Has contemporary art evolved into a new medium? Do we need a new word to encapsulate this form of self-expression? Is it still art?
Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin & Hobbes, has a fitting artist statement that applies to much of art today. He writes:
“my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance”.