I was reading a blog recently that explained how to be successful in the art world. The primary direction for the ambitiously oriented was to network, and the way to network was to attend as many shows, talks and gatherings as possible. It makes perfect sense and I’m sure it’s perfectly true. Also, I think that for a person writing about art, actually showing up at the event probably indicates a certain self-less interest in the scene. I remember that last year there was quite a kerfuffle when local art writer, Robert Amos, admitted that he prefers to avoid art openings (although I’m not sure if he gave any reasons for that preference). It gave the impression, though, of a person who chooses to be outside of and consequently out of touch with the true spirit of the artists and their work.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy jumping on the bandwagon of this is right and that is wrong just as much as anyone else, but you know, I had such a great experience yesterday looking at some paintings, and what was really great was that I was all alone. I had to be at Xchanges gallery yesterday to drop off some paperwork and while I was there I had a chance to see the newest show, small truths by Kate Scoones. I wasn’t networking (actually I did talk for a few moments with Troi Donnelly about why we make art, like, is it narcissism?), I wasn’t seeing or being seen, I wasn’t advancing my career or even being likeable. There wasn’t nobody there but me. In fact, I had to turn the gallery lights on myself.
And what a lovely little show (and I don’t mean that (little) in the pejorative sense). Turning on the lights and turning my eyes onto those paintings was like turning on some sunshine. I’m serious. I felt pretty warm and cozy in there for a lady all alone in an otherwise dark and deserted institution.
The paintings are of men (just a few men) and women, circa 1950, or thereabouts. Some are just head shots, close ups of faces and hairdos; some are beach scenes, girls and guys in bathing suits; some are of ladies in gardens. They all have the charm of nostalgia, both in content and in form.
It seems all the time that a lot of artists are driving to be the avant-garde. Paintings have always got to be extra big or else extremely unusual. Sometimes paintings leave the canvas and are instead dried glue pinned to the wall, and sometimes paintings are literally disemboweled and then strung up from the ceiling. All of this is great and fun and interesting, but it means that when you walk into a gallery and see recognizable paintings of people on relatively small canvasses, you (I) almost immediately assume that the artist is amateurish and probably not very good.
The pictures really are quite small. The largest measure about 61 x 61 cm, but the size has nothing to do with amateur or not very good; they are intimate in a way that transcends mere physicality. The smallness reminds me of the beginning, the beginning of art making when a lot of us inherited or bought something that seemed manageable to paint on, never thinking about the demands of style, just thinking about making a good painting. I love being reminded of that. It was so much fun and so juicy back in the beginning. It was simple (you had the paints and the brushes and the canvas), but it was complicated too. Remember? No matter how simple it seems now, looking back, I remember wanting to be good, and that’s tough, to want; nor is it simple.
But that’s nostalgia. We edit out the difficult bits (we think about the pretty colours and the smiling faces). Conversely it’s (meaning my thoughts about small canvasses) a way of assuming that something is true before we have a chance to know the truth. When I saw that the subject matter was women and girls in perfectly coifed hair and smiles, I immediately started looking for the dark signs of a pre-feminist oppression of house-wives. The truth is that I didn’t see any visible oppression (unless you count coiffed hair as oppression, and some people do), but I know it’s there. I know because I know about the history of women in our culture. The paintings being what they are (flawlessly coloured and delicately textured) keep the viewer (me) right there at the surface. It’s enforced detachment. I think that I know that it’s not alright, but it looks good (Kate Scoones can draw and paint in case I haven’t made that clear) and maybe that’s all I need to know, you know?
Even in the most suggestive of the works, Some things just happen that way, which is a painting of two girls standing in a wave of water, one girl smiling happily, the other looking miserable, I found myself hesitating between interpreting the image and just enjoying the implications of the picture. I think I went with the enjoying part; just letting the picture unfold for me, rather than trying to impose my will onto it. That sounds strange. Let me try to explain.
The expressions on the girls’ faces make it seem immediately that one girl must be prettier and better (more desirable) than the other. This is a satisfying image in some ways; there is angst and sadness to consider and mull over and that goes a long way sometimes. On closer study, though, it’s obvious that both girls are perfectly sweet. So, it seems that the misery comes from some other place that has nothing to do with being inferior (in actuality) to a friend or companion. Maybe that girl really believes she is the lesser of two. Of course she would be wrong, at least as far as outward appearances go. Perhaps instead she looks unhappy because it’s the first day of her period or because her mom is yelling at her from the beach, or maybe it’s just one of those quirks of fate that the shutter was pressed just as she turned her face to the camera and before she had a chance to finish her sentence and start smiling.
So really, I think, the misery comes from me. Without knowing at all what is happening in the broader context of the image, I quickly assume that the unsmiling girl is miserable and that she is so, because she is not as pretty as someone else. It’s interesting isn’t it, what art will tell us about ourselves. In this case I think that perhaps I was unnecessarily miserable as a girl, but retrospect, as they say, is 20/20, and it’s very enjoyable to be looking back on myself (and at that girl in the picture) with amusement; just as enjoyable, I’m sure, as it would have been to have been entirely self assured at the tender age of 13.
And what a lovely gift to receive on a grey day, all alone, in a quiet gallery; a gift of self knowledge. No wonder I felt so sunny and warm there; she’s a kind teacher, she is; Kate Scoones.