New work, and a bit more narrative navel gazing

Here's a few shots of recent work.

There's a sense of self-doubt that germinates in the blood memory of most every painter educated in the post-secondary system. I've bludgeoned this concern over indoctrination several times previous, but it manifests itself quite nicely in my self-doubt around "Force Pro", a painting done simply because I think the photo will translate nicely though pigment. That's why I'm painting it though, to see if I feel okay about executing and exhibiting a painting that is mostly devoid of "contemporary" concerns.

"Cautionary Tale" is a painting that seems to be unnecessary, in that the things that drew me to these images was the story that links the two moments in this diptych. Okay, unnecessary is the wrong concern. The diptych works, but it stands separate from the source, and lacks the mortal resonance of the Tale itself. Perhaps in the end (of course, there is no such thing), the painting will work more successfully than the text because it's devoid of a story... and that's sort of sad.

The two headshots, (Logie and Greenhall) also come from my new-found pontificating over narrative. Stripped of most context, my hope is that, accompanied by a written component, they will bounce off the constructed words, paragraph, plot and metaphor in an undefined but resonant way.

In short, the trouble here is not whether I can paint, but when I should paint. Fucking art school and its suspicion of craft and storytelling.

Force Pro (cropped, partially complete)

Cautionary Tale [diptych], 30"x40" ea.

Greenhall, 12"x12"

Logie, 12"x12"


Nobody Says it Better

I was gonna put up some new paintings, but I left the SD card in the studio, so it'll have to wait a day or so.

However, this is better: Let's me talk about the military memoir canon. Like any good canon, there are holes, and one of mine was (but not no more) Michael Herr's Dispatches. It really does sit at, or very fucking near, the top of the genre, so why I waited all this time to read it is a mystery. Herr spent a year or so as a correspondent for Esquire. Not just any year either, but the pivotal and ultra-violent period that included the "siege" of Khe Sanh and the Battle for Hue.

As my own work has progressed, I've become less and less interested in reading military history. Sometimes this is because of the awful writing [allow me to digress and mention The Lions of Kandahar, as a book I was really looking forward to read, but after a few pages of pot boiler phrasing, had to put down.

What I really care about is the memoir, because what I really care about is how war infuses, destroys, liberates and crystallizes the human experience. Herr: "remembering compulsively, telling war stories. But then, there's nothing wrong with that. War stories aren't really anything more than stories about people anyway." And if I might also paraphrase Tim O'Brien, "And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war.... It's about love and memory." (The Things They Carried)

Another fun thing to do when reading Dispatches, is pick out lines that you've heard in various Vietnam war movies. Herr was hired to do much of the narration dialogue for Apocalypse Now, and there are a number of lines in the book that are inserted directly into Full Metal jacket.

I'm almost finished now and will be sad to leave behind Herr, Sean Flynn (son of Errol) and Tim Page. I didn't realize the attachment was strong until I came to the sections where Herr starts to discuss his and other war correspondents attempts to claim lives for themselves after Vietnam.

Scanned and placed below is one of those "when we got home" sections, where Tim Page has had a piece of Shrapnel removed from his brain and, subsequently, a British publishers asks his to do a book that will take the glamour off war. Start from the cerulean arrow if you like.


The N Word

Yep, Narrative.

Last week I was immensely lucky to spend a week in a writing workshop run by my literary hero, Tim O'Brien. It stands to reason that any chance to work with someone who means so much to ones (my) professional practice can be a real disaster. What are the chances that the week can actually live up to the hopes of a swooning literary heart?

As it turns out: 100%. A totally stellar week that fortunately was populated by 6 other great folk. No megalomaniacal navel-gazers, no weepy rhyming poets and no goths. Just a good, broad group of folks who wanted to talk about and focus on story-telling.

Such a funny thing, to spend time in an environment where people don't feel the need to balance (or subjugate) narrative concerns to material and formal issues. 

And so I come out of the workshop (with a sign that reads "Reserved for Tim O'Brien) and realize the thing that I've known all along: Writing matters more for what I'm trying to do than painting.

Painting:  first and foremost, it's about the inherent qualities of the medium, so any response via painting is based on how the artist responds to paint, not the world and not their own lives. Sure you can start with those latter concerns, but rest assured you're painting in the ghetto.

Writing: First and foremost, it comes from language and, more specifically, the alphabet. The alphabet is structured to tell stories (True). If you assemble those letters into some combinations, you get stories; other combinations will thwart or – if we're being generous – challenge our assumptions about language.

Somehow, somewhere, literature emerged from its modernist rapture (that's a pretty big assertion to put into one sentence, but so be it). Arguably, painting never did. Sure, there are many great examples of successful narrative artists, but often enough, within the dialogue of those artist's practice, narrative is contextualized with concerns for the medium. Do we do this because we really care about the material more than the constructed content, or do we accept that speaking about materiality will put in greater favour with the curatorial powers that be? Take a look at this year's RBC shortlist with that question in mind. Take a look at every year of the RBC comp. with that question in mind.

I guess then what I came out of the writing workshop with is this: Why would I spend so much of my energy and enthusiasm for telling stories in a culture which doesn't trust story telling, or sees it as secondary to materiality? Answer: I wouldn't.


It Ain't Always a Wallow

I should preface this post by saying that I think I'm not supposed to do this. Or more correctly, the shy part of me says "don't do it."

However, what I wanted to poke around is the confluence of War Art and Canada. Like nuts and gum perhaps. While this country has one of the longest and most distinguished histories of the genre, if you operate (or try to operate) in the realm of contemporary art, there is an unspoken... and sometimes spoken sentiment that the only good war art is no war art. Or war art that's overtly critical of war.

So while I'm committed to doing what I do, there is an understanding that while public and commercial galleries are more than happy to offer their viewing audience repeated interpretations of contemporary Cdn. landscape or the intersections of digital and traditional media, very little slack is offered to war art.

I'm well aware that making such statements will incur the wrath of some readers (this, of course, assumes there are readers), but the truth is that being a "war artist" in Canada means you are operating in the ghetto.

Odds are I've typed that before. But on this occasion I wanted to offer that, as per the title, It's not always anonymous wallowing. When I wrote that I'm not supposed to "do this" I don't mean slagging painterly landscape practices, I mean, acting proud of being recognized.

Proud, because yesterday I was awarded a medal for my contributions in documenting and contextualizing Cdn. history. "The Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal" was awarded to me by the Governor General's office via nomination by The Historica-Dominion Institute. I'm certainly not the only person awarded this. Many Canadians across the country have also been awarded the medal and in some ways what makes it important is that a war art practice is sitting side by side with community activists and medical volunteers.

Odds are I wouldn't have received a medal if The Canadian Forces Artist Program hadn't seen fit to have me as a two-time participant, or if the battalions (3PPCLI, 2RCR) I was embedded with hadn't been so generous with me.

And as to galleries that do give war art a repeated chance, Wil Kucey at LE Gallery has certainly had faith in my practice over the last five years, and both Laura Brandon at The Canadian War Museum and Rory Cory at The Military Museums (in Calgary) continue to show support for my practice. Rail's End Gallery (Haliburton) and YYZ Artists Outlet (Toronto) are next on the exhibition schedule.
When I type it, it doesn't really seem like wallowing... and it ain't.

Nonetheless, it's really great to have my efforts rewarded in ways other than sales, shows and grants.

Thanks to The Queen also!