In theory: a talented realist painter most often encountered winning best in show awards at venues like the Sidney Fine Art Show for what are often self-portraits.
In fact: Tara Juneau lives in Shawnigan Lake, in a little white house somewhere over there. It’s always difficult to know exactly where you are when you’re the passenger. It’s too easy just to sit back and look at the passing country side and at the interior of the car and at the hands of the person driving. She was wearing gloves, I want to say black gloves, but I think they were some kind of red leather, not bright red, more of a classy toned down red. And cowboy boots. Once at her house she told me about other mothers she knows who don’t get dressed all day, they just live out their domestic lives in pajamas, and that she does that sometimes too, but that she got dressed that day for me. And in fact, on the phone the night before I went over to see her, she asked me if I was going to take pictures of her, because if not then she could use the half an hour required to get dressed on some other necessary project. I hadn’t really thought about a studio visit as a photo shoot and didn’t really know how to answer her other than to say that I was sure she’d look alright regardless, but it worried me. For me getting dressed is pretty simple, it usually involves a hot bath, some deodorant, some eyeliner, a few bobby pins and preferably something clean to wear. I wasn’t sure what kind of woman I was going to meet.
I thought: maybe she’s vain. I was already kind of thinking that way, before she mentioned the photo shoot, getting dressed thing. There was a couple of reasons for that but mostly it was to do with this extended conversation I’ve been having with a man I know, not exactly a friend, but someone I know. This guy, he works as a gardener, and ever since I met him, about 7 years ago or something, he’s been telling me, consciously or not, I don’t know, about this dichotomous attitude he’s got towards art. He’s seems to be in a constant state of loving it, admiring it, being interested in it, and following it, while at the same time categorically rejecting and minimizing the theories, the people, the scenes, and the forward motion of art. He, himself, has won at least one award at a Sidney Fine Art show-like venue, but he’s a complicated guy, so who knows? Anyways, I told him, several weeks ago, about my upcoming visit with Tara Juneau and I sent him a link to her website. His comments were interesting because they seemed to imply that realism in painting as a modern pursuit was less about a love of painting and more to do with plain, simple (maybe simpleminded) showboating. Add to this, the implications continued, that many of her paintings are self portraits and conclude that the woman paints for vanity. It seemed moderately convincing, in spite of the fact that this is a man who claims to be enraged by the Abstract Expressionists (those stalwart victims of war) and who also pointed out that my weak (weaker) paintings were actually more interesting than Juneau’s by virtue of being painterly. Vanity and more vanity.
As we sat at her kitchen table together, with a bag of salt and vinegar chips between us (snacks she bought, in case I was hungry), Tara answered all of my questions about the validity of realism (if you can believe it) with a steadiness of purpose and eye a bit disconcerting and totally in discord with her age, her big hair and the domestic chaos of her kitchen. She has a seven year old, a husband and a nervous little dog named Princess. The pregnancy was unexpected, she was very young by today’s standards to start a family, and she experienced a profound depression over the loss of her youth, but also the loss of her self-vision; that of the vagabond artist, moving from place to place: working, living, experiencing, and that threat (perceived threat) of loss, drove her to study and to perfect her abilities as a draftsman and a painter. She said that she always knew what she wanted to do. She believes she is on this planet to paint. She feels in colour, she loves beauty, she loves to recreate the beauty she sees. In response to my suggestion that realism is considered by some to be an out dated form of expression she says that opinions are like assholes. She says she doesn’t give a fuck what other people think.
In her studio, she’s different. More like a girl, a beautiful slender girl with the most amazing and infectious laugh. The seriousness of the kitchen falls away, the stories about people at life drawing who have scorned her skill, who have dismissed her work and her dedication because it’s boring, are forgotten, and instead I see an artist in full possession of her knowledge and her talent. She explains in meticulous and serene detail the process behind her current still life, which features one of those little wooden boats that kids can make at the Cowichan Bay Marine Center, a white tack, a blue ball, a length of white string and a dried red rose. She shows me the brush she uses; a great huge brush for such delicate work! And she describes the secret ingredient in her paint additive, which she magics herself using fire, amber and a dead bee. She shows me her latest self portrait, an almost life-sized nude in an impossible pose, crouching, with her hands across her chest and her head and neck twisted away from the picture plane. It was painted using mirrors and a colour sketch and I realize that what I am seeing is not at all vanity, it is instead a blazing ambition and discipline.
I kind of want to sum this all up with some all encompassing critique of the world, especially with the way so many of us (me particularly) are so prone to a self righteous half assed approach. But probably what I find more interesting is this idea of disdain in art. The way the man I know could so easily dismiss art seen briefly on a website without any investigation. The way those people at Tara’s life drawing sessions could dismiss her drawings because they were too life like. The way so many parts of the whole of Art (yes, with a capital A) are at odds with every other part. (In Victoria, just think: Robert Amos, but then think why is Robert Amos the way that he is? In my opinion, he‘s nothing more than a reactionary) There was a time when art was all about realism and only a certain quality of realism (the colours couldn’t be too bright, the brush strokes couldn’t be too evident, the themes needed to be recognizably classical), when the fore fathers and mothers of modern art had to struggle to be recognized as valuable contributors to the ongoing, ever-evolving pluralogue that is art.
The problem with Tara’s art is that it’s actually more than art, it’s work. And not the kind of work that says, look here I’ve taken a year’s worth of beer cans and I’ve cut them up into little pieces and it’s taken a lot of work, ie. time and repetitive action. (I know someone who has been doing this). And it’s not the kind of work that says look here how I’ve collected and sometimes purchased all these Styrofoam drinking cups and then how I crushed each one just a little and then used these twist ties to hold them all together in this teetering white pile that is sort of reminiscent of the way we Westerners like to treat everything like garbage. That’s not to say that a pile of Styrofoam or a wall’s worth of aluminum pieces isn’t a beautiful thing because often it is, very much so, but it’s more a question of active disdain for learning, studying and practicing a skill. I mean this is so offhand, it’s just a matter of a thinking as I go kind of opinion, but I know the life drawing group that Tara has attended and a lot of those people are older, retired folk who think that working hard at life drawing means 2 and ½ hours of drawing a week! That’s not work. That’s self expression, but barely. This is the problem, and keep in mind that I’m writing from the perspective of a person who has lived and studied in Victoria for 20 years, so when I‘m thinking about art, I‘m thinking about art in Victoria, but anyways the problem of realism (and that’s a catch all phrase which should probably be more definitive) in painting is that the people making beer can art and Styrofoam art, people who are often very serious about art and about thinking about art, see pursuits like life drawing, which is supposed to be, at least in theory, a way of training the eye and learning to see, as sort of old fashioned and unnecessary, after all there’s digital photography and projectors, while the people who actually see value in the process of drawing and painting from life are too busy going for lunch and potlucks to really take the discipline seriously.
What I am suggesting is that people like Tara Juneau, and others, like Noah Layne, for instance, who are working in the realist style and who are committed and dedicated to their work, have something to offer to the serious discussion going on in art, on a conceptual level (if that isn’t too archaic a phrase). The kinds of work I referred to in the last paragraph, work which is using and reusing the refuse of consumerism, obviously relates to questions about us, and how we live and what it means to be a human in terms of spirituality, economics, and biology. There is a lot of this kind of work being made right now, maybe not always materially the same, but the questions are similar. The trend is to use art as a platform from which to explore the social and philosophical issues of the day. I’m saying that the discipline and the commitment required to skilfully create realist images with paint and brushes is as important a concept as any other. Discipline and commitment. Think about what that means, especially in relation to some of the other issues of the day. I mean, how do we change the world? How do we resist the powers that be when we need to resist them (and I think we need to resist)? How do we stop ourselves from buying any plastic piece of shit that we want, how do we limit our oil consumption, how do we live a life without hurting others?
Tara Juneau is a pretty straight forward person, I think. She’s passionate about technique and meticulous in her practice, and for her, intelligent conversations about art do not include a whole lot of bullshit.
So, I’m gonna stop now.