Once when looking for the poetry section in a Vancouver bookstore, I was told by the owner 'poetry is being phased out'. Every now and then I get the feeling that contemporary art is being phased out in Victoria. Most cities of comparable size to Victoria have a downtown municipal art gallery; instead our gallery (the AGGV) is a fair distance from the city core. The AGGV also seems to be allocating much less space and time for contemporary art shows compared to ten years ago. Most of our local publications such as the Times Colonist, Victoria News and Monday Magazine rarely, if at all, cover contemporary visual art. And now with the Robert Bateman Centre being established downtown, my suspicions seemed to be confirmed.
While I very much appreciate and admire Bateman for his dedication to the environment, I have issues with the negative way he speaks about contemporary art. At a recent talk at UVic he showed images of work from the Museum of Modern Art in New York as examples of art showing 'lack of talent'. In full disclosure, I did not hear the talk myself; my knowledge of what was said comes from talking to others who were there and from reading a synopsis: The Ring, We have hosted dozens of artist talks at VISA and never once have I ever experienced an artist disparaging another artist or artwork during their presentation. I imagine if Bateman lived in the 19th century he would have criticized van Gogh and Matisse for their lack of representational skills.
People who criticize Bateman in any way get called 'art snobs' and Bateman himself refers to the contemporary art world as 'the priesthood'. It is possible that the reason his work is not in the collection of any major Canadian galleries such as the National Gallery, the AGO or the VAG, doesn't actually have to do with art snobbery. I might suggest that it has to do with his very literal and straightforward representation of the subject matter. I imagine he would share some sympathies with the bookstore owner who was aiming to phase out poetry. If being an 'art snob' means the preference for poetic interpretation over literal representation, then I suppose I must be guilty.
Thinking of Bateman and contemporary art made me start thinking about artists who use animals as subjects or content in their work. My favourite example of contemporary animal drawings is the work of Kiki Smith. Other examples that span through the last century include Giocoma Balla with his 1912 Futurist painting called 'Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash'; Morris Graves and Leonard Baskin have done drawing and paintings of birds. Leonard Baskin has illustrated a book of Ted Hughes' poetry called 'The Crows'. Franz Marc was a German Expressionist painter who used horses as a subject for many of his paintings. Susan Rothenberg, a New York-based artist became renown in the late 1970's for her paintings of horses. Los Angeles artist Laura Owens makes quirky fantastical fairy tale animals. Elizabeth Blackadder is a Scottish artist who often includes cats in her slightly idiosyncratic still life watercolours. A local Victoria artist who creates interesting compositions with animals is Tamara Bond.
Bateman talks about his work as his way of acknowledging the natural world; I certainly understand and respect this desire. Biology classes were always my favourite because I got to sit down and do close observation drawings, and still today I love to draw a plant as a way of stopping time and paying attention to details that normally go unnoticed. It is exciting to use drawing and painting to see the complexities of our natural world. However I do think compelling art has nothing to do with realism or abstraction, and nothing to do with whether or not the image is accurately or awkwardly rendered. I would say that art of significance makes us ask questions. In Vernon Fisher's bird painting below we find ourselves wondering if the bird is still or moving, is it taking off or landing? Was the artist inspired by an illustration from a zoology book or was this a bird he saw in his own backyard? What effect does the empty space have? What about the black background filled with erasure marks? How does this add to the content of the work? Or take Durer's iconic Hare drawing: while this work appears to be a very realistic rendering of an animal, the artist has taken liberties and exaggerated the texture of the hare in terms of how we would normally see it with our own eyes. Durer shows us more than we can see. The image asks questions of the viewer. Why has the artist put the hare on this angle? Where is the viewer? Are we on top of the hare looking down on him? The hare seems in repose yet we know he is keenly aware because of the slight shift in his ears. There's much going on in this simple work.
To encourage a balance of looking at diverse kinds of art, I suggest that on your way to the Robert Bateman Centre, you stop into Deluge Contemporary Art and check out Todd Lambeth's painting of cats and you can make your own judgements and observations with regards to these two divergent ways of portraying animals. Lambeth's exhibition is up until June 15.