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May 1, 2008

Consolation Prize

Agatha Christie wrote a a funny piece of dialogue in one of her very early books, a quote I like to re-read often: "A man who has shot lions in large quantities has an unfair advantage over other men." Just so. Another favorite quote is from a play by Christopher Fry, The Lady's Not for Burning, where a character pleads "When I think of myself, I can scarcely believe my senses! But there it is - - all my friends tell me I exist." This can be a doubtful proposition, as personas shift in differing contexts, and who you are (or what your work is) to others is morphed by those very others. This kind of thinking smells metaphysical after a while, and that is not my intent; I just am engaged by the way a mind attaches itself to an idea, and like so many other creative types, I dig painting about that.

Christie wrote her characters as absolutes, which is precisely the comfort and the appeal of her mysteries. It is a relief to read about known and unchangeable qualities in (fictional) others, a true mental relief. Because engagement in our here-and-now belies that. Sound bites change perception, and character is splayed out on cable shows, one relentlessly morphing interview at a time.

The pleasure of painting, by contrast, is the pleasure of a completed internal conversation, at least for the artist. I loved seeing the RBC Canadian Painting Exhibition at the Emily Carr University in Vancouver last fall for that reason; it was a room of finished thoughts expressed by young, emerging Canadian artists. The thoughts varied, of course, and some were more challenging. Some were pristine. I found the acrylics by Elizabeth Grant particularly compelling. But funnily enough, Arabella Campbell, the winner of the competition, had a lot of nothing to say about the nothing that inhabits a lot of art. Her winning composition presented the structure beneath a painting. It was also seemingly about the inner state of nothing that often precedes the work (because honestly some of the best stuff comes from a blank mind) and the blankness you are left with after you get a composition out of you and onto canvas.

What struck me as funny is that compared to the other work in the show, Campbell's did not take me anywhere other than where I was - - namely, in a big white room at Emily Carr looking at (or in this case for) paintings. Her work was silly and pleasing, as if the painter herself was somehow like the Fry character, assured of her existence only through others telling her there is something to her, since her senses are unreliable. The idea she seemed to want the viewer to attach oneself to was not self-awareness, or the wonder of creativity, or even the basic comprehension of the structure of a painter's canvas. The idea my mind attached to, upon seeing Campbell's work, was that she is an artist who thinks very easy, knowable, concrete things.

And no, I am not going to follow that with a Seinfeld-esque "not that there's anything wrong with that" sentiment. There IS something wrong with that, especially if your compatriots in the same show are grappling with ideas like the fear of overloading oneself with sensory experiences, or the eeriness of nocturnal suburbia, while also displaying dexterity with paint and color and some intellectual discernment. I don't perceive that a work of art does anything much in and of itself, but it is good when you as the viewer can find in the work evidence of that artist's internal conversation - - or an idea or image to attach oneself to, an attachment that lingers after the viewing, and changes one's own mental lineup.

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