A Largely Insignificant Day
I completed my project ‘One Day at Rest’ on December 31st, 2015. It began on July 2nd, 2011 when four GoPro cameras recorded more than 7200 digital image files of a day in the life of my partner, Hayley Gibson and me. Twenty of those files were used to compose ten paintings and ten drawings, illustrating the events of that day.
I spent four and a half years immersed in the minutiae of a single, largely insignificant day while the tumult of the present pressed on. I wanted to confront and contain the impermanence of an average day of an average weekend at a particularly unremarkable time in our lives, to arrest the relentless trudging towards the unknowable future.
While I painted and drew, the planet we inhabit completed more than four revolutions of our sun. It rotated on its axis 1643 times. I broke my arm, I lost a tooth. My mother died, my dog died. I lost a gallery in New York and gained two in Canada. I participated in six group shows and had one solo show. I sold one painting. We moved 550 kilometres down the road from Montreal to Toronto, my sixth move in nine years. I began to make peace with the ghosts of my hometown after twenty six years away.
With the project completed, I emerge from a kind of mental exile, reengaging with my art world brain, with what happens after the work is done. What to do with this body of work? Do I want to sell it off piecemeal? Do I want to sell it at all? Would anyone buy it? Do I even want to share it with anyone?
I’m conflicted about what I want from my life as an artist. More so after thirty years than at any time before. Perhaps it’s just the confident ignorance of youth petering away, diluted by the disillusioning realities of the art world or my own warring desires of notoriety and obscurity.
Working for so long in isolation, I alter between states of grandiosity: ‘This is the best work I’ve ever done, no one is doing work like this!’ and hopelessness: ‘I’ve wasted my life, no one will care about any of this, I don’t even care about it!’. In the end comes ambivalence: neither, nor. Any remnant desire I might have had for some unspecific personal transformation slowly evaporates with the completion of the project.
In times of stress, an image often floats into my mind of myself as a child. It feels like loss. I’m in the basement of our house in Toronto. It’s summer, and in the cool relief of that crudely appointed space I quietly assemble a model car. It’s an image from the seemingly endless solitude of an afternoon in July or August. I imagine that I’m aware neither of the past, nor of the future. I’m content to hide from the sun, from my peers, from the neighbours. I will always be in this moment and I will live forever.
I’ve spent much of my life trying not to participate. Trying not to be noticed, hoping to be left alone. So much of my childhood was spent trying to cope with the insidious, if intermittent turmoil of the family around me. I coped by retreating in to myself, by assembling models, by drawing, by watching television, by removing myself as much as possible from the physical world outside our doors.
I never wanted to leave the house. I created an unchanging landscape of days that made solid a ground that always seemed to be in threat of shifting, of altering for the worse in some irreparable way.
I’ve lived most of my life not far from this self-protective shell. I seek comfort in routine and greet change with reluctance and suspicion. Despite knowing that the only constant in life is the endless, shifting cycle of decay and renewal, and despite having the dark knowledge of my own inevitable demise, I subconsciously believe that my routines will make me immortal: If you can make one day much like the next, then surely this chain of days can push endlessly ahead, slowing time to a crawl.
In my late fifties, I’m more aware than ever of the ticking of the clock, of the pages flying from the calendar as in an old movie. I continue to impose routines on my life, sometimes to the detriment of my relationships and never to any great effect.
For the last four and a half years, the child in the basement stopped time. He made a day in 2011 last until the final hours of 2015. Whatever the outcome of my reengagement with the present, I can say at least in that regard, that the project was a success.
March 11, 2016
The Big Picture
Waiting eight hours in a packed emergency room with one’s swollen arm in a sling makes one reassess how life was before one’s elbow slammed into a sidewalk. I write this as I recuperate from surgery for a broken ulna which has left my arm looking and feeling like it was beaten with a mallet until the person beating it became bored with the project.
In my seven years here, I’ve found Montreal’s winters to be a difficult, endless misery and this year’s version has been particularly challenging. As we prepare for a spring move to the slightly less ice-gripped and snow addled city of Toronto, this parting gift from Montreal’s icy sidewalks has given me pause to think over the dispiriting events of the last year and allowed me to place them into a larger life context.
Whenever I’m on the highway, and it cuts through a section of sedimentary rock, I wonder if anyone else imagines how our own bodies will one day be part of that same geological process. We seem to believe that all of the earths ancient systems, like the depositing of mineral or biological matter that comprise these sediments, have somehow paused for our benefit.
I’ve read that if the age of the planet we inhabit was expressed as a twenty four hour clock, human beings come into existence just over one minute to midnight. I remind myself of this every time I’m unnecessarily obsessing over some minute aspect or other of my life. Specifically, the kind of thoughts one has about legacy.
As a kind of balm, I used to think to myself that if no one cared about what I was making as an artist while I was alive, that perhaps when I was dead it would all make sense to someone and my work would achieve some measure of notoriety or at least become a footnote in the discussion of the art of my time.
It’s a pretty harmless way to maintain some momentum. It’s hard to convince yourself to produce work when you feel no one will ever care. Life is about fooling ourselves into believing something matters aside from our inevitable, out of control run down a hill that ends in the ultimate face-plant. Hence our devotion to religion, children, the perfect lawn, a new car, achieving representation at a blue chip gallery or having a painting find its way into a museum collection.
Which is not to say that I find no meaning in life. Through my paintings, I find it in the expression of the feelings and thoughts that are the accumulation of my life. I find it in my involvement with my partner Hayley and her own creative work in her company, Birds of North America. I find it in the daily struggle to maintain some personal dignity in the face of the void.
The exhibition of my ‘One Day at Rest’ series has been derailed by the combined ambivalence of gallery and artist, and the final two pieces that need to be completed suddenly feel like an exercise in futility. Yet another period of reassessment begins.
Perhaps reassessment is a constant state that comes in and out of my conscious brain because I know that life is fluid and ever changing, but I also know that I sometimes beat this thought down in order to maintain some illusion of order amidst the chaos of the universe.
It’s hard to maintain the screw-you-I’ll-do-what-I-want attitude when you also have to deal with the realities and appetites of commercial gallery spaces, but I feel more strongly than ever that I need to be the one in charge. I don’t want to ‘paint to a deadline’ or waste my time on a commission in order to please someone else’s ego.
The whole point of withstanding the mental anguish of a life in the arts is to have some measure of control over one’s life and art. I refuse to relinquish that control to anyone. If this means that all of my life’s efforts in art amount only to a fraction of a layer of sediment on a planet orbiting a dying star, that’s okay. That’s all it will ever amount to anyway. In the big picture, that much is clear.
January 28th, 2015
A friend in Montreal, Dahn D’Lion, produces a line of printed t-shirts as part of his inclusive initiative 'We Live Here Too', a kind of ‘best friends’ club for the disenfranchised of the world. In his own words: ‘Youth, Queers, Vegans, Punks, Artists, DJs, Ballerinas, folks with disabilities, folks with hyper-abilities, and any combination thereof’. I don’t buy many printed t-shirts but this spring, after seeing his inspiring and intelligent video about the meaning behind his shirt ‘Unemployable’, I was moved to make a purchase.
I saw images of the shirt some time before I saw the video and I had developed my own take on the ‘Unemployable’ reference. It seemed to mesh around thoughts I’d been having about the idea of ‘letting go’. Letting go of the stricture of expectations. Letting go of distant, hazy goals, of defining myself today by aiming my efforts at some imaginary, wonderful art-world future. Letting go of even wanting to understand the fickle art market, the often incomprehensible success of other contemporary artists.
It’s difficult not to be lulled into the warm bath of a ‘thing’ that works. In my case, it was centred-subject portrait paintings of forlorn, forgotten industrial buildings and storefronts. I knew that I had to create a cohesive, identifiable body of work to get where I wanted to go (a particular gallery, O.K. Harris Works of Art in New York) and my enthusiasm for that pursuit sustained me for years. I even achieved my goal.
Success is a drug. It feels good. People buying your paintings feels good. The money feels good. The prestige of being represented in New York feels good. This is the warm bath: make a painting, send a jpeg, sell a painting, ship a painting, receive a cheque. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Pretend that you fit in. Stop thinking about why you paint. Stop wondering if what you paint is saying what you want it to say. Ignore that most people don’t seem to get what you’re trying to do. Ignore the pit of your stomach feeling that these building portraits no longer mean anything to you and that finding subjects for these paintings is becoming a pain in the ass. Forget that you used to tell yourself that being an artist wasn’t about making money.
Art world goals tend to involve someone or something outside of the artist. The goal tends to be some form of acceptance by peers or collectors or galleries or media or academia or granting organisations. I’ve decided, though not for the first time, that if I have a goal, it’s to produce work that I feel needs to be done, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
To me, art is a middle finger aimed at convention, not a cry for acceptance. Too often, the most financially successful artists play the old role of the ‘licensed fool’ in a Renaissance court, having been given bemused permission to behave badly by the reigning art world royalty of blue chip galleries and big city critics.
My ‘unemployable’ is a statement. You will NOT employ me to further your needs as a curator, gallery owner or director, collector or arts organisation. You CANNOT employ me. I am unemployable.
June 17th, 2013
Fetishising the Negative
Montreal has finally slipped the shackles of winter. Only the scars on boulevard trees and the bent iron railings of gates too near the sidewalk to avoid the reckless destruction of countless, clattering mini plows remind us of what has passed.
Winter lingers in my mind until the long days of daylight savings time drive out the darkness. I very easily slide into a dark place in those winter months. The space I reserve in my mind for negative thoughts becomes so easily accessed.
We often carry the effects of negative comments and actions that have been directed at us through our lives. Like a favoured collection I revisit them, as though opening a jewel case, sorting through the scars, running a finger along the edges of damaged tissue.
Of all the myriad unpleasant experiences I could mull over, one seemingly insignificant episode inexplicably rises to my consciousness with some frequency: the nine year old me, making my way home from school, uses a penetrating, newly learned whistle to call to friends a block ahead of me. A class mate, a girl whom I don’t know well, scolds me from across the street: ‘You think you’re so cool!’
The sense of deflation I felt from this remark was probably more extreme than warranted but it must have pierced a particularly sensitive part of my psyche. Was it wrong to stand out? Will people hate me if I do?
I was a precocious, confident child. In the sixties, precocious, confident children were placed in accelerated programs and completed three years of schooling in two years. I was one of six kids in my grade two class who were placed in this program.
By grade five, at age nine, I was already struggling to cope with the social displacement that comes from being younger than one’s group of peers. A late summer birthday meant that some of my classmates, with later birthdays, were almost two years older.
It didn’t take long to fall out of touch with my former classmates in the lower grade. A year with the older students in grade five made them seem impossibly young.
Anxieties always find a way out. The subconscious, internal battles we wage often manifest in debilitating thoughts or actions. The feeling of displacement I had at school, combined with the stress of familial complications made manifest in me mild versions of agoraphobia and body dysmorphia.
The agoraphobia, from which I occasionally still suffer, is classic ‘fear of the marketplace’, a kind of discomfort or even panic when faced with the chaotic crowds one finds at malls or markets or simply the chaos of the urban environment. Body dysmorphia, simply put, is a condition wherein a person has a preoccupation with perceived shortcomings in their physical being. It’s one in an arsenal of psychological maladies brought about, in part, by depression, anxiety and social withdrawal.
The anxiety of these things can be so strong that I have sometimes developed a limp while walking alone in public. In my mind there are vestigial, critical voices commenting on how I stand, how I walk. My debilitating, self critical analysis interfering with the simplest mechanical systems of my body.
As an offshoot of this, I now have what I jokingly refer to as body-of-work dysmorphia. This is an inability to see one’s work objectively. I constantly struggle to understand where I fit in the art world, to see my work as having value. A finished painting is a new opportunity to question one’s career decisions, one’s worth to society. A chance to revisit the old wounds of rejection.
Society reveres iconoclasts, putting their faces on T-shirts and mugs, quoting them endlessly in print or on the web while simultaneously deriding unusual behaviour in individuals, discouraging any deviation from the norm with the kind of Victorian moralising that ensures we all just become cogs in society’s machine.
I’ve always had a conflicting desire to stand out from the crowd while being wholly fearful of drawing attention to myself. The precocious, confident child still exists in my psyche in remnant form. I’m trying to let it out a little more often now while knowing that anything I do that is unusual or challenging is an invitation to the world to pick it apart.
In that place which is more than just ‘the blues’ but also just shy of despair, I compulsively turn over the accumulation of rejection in my mind. In a strange way, the delicate box that contains my collection of negative thoughts acts as a way of grounding me. Prodding the source of pain is a way of remembering who I am.
June 11th, 2012
I spent the last month weaning myself off facebook. I went to my home page, checked for messages or notifications, looked at the first couple of posts and left. Do I really need to see what other artists are doing? Is it helpful?
Most of my art life has involved selective ignorance. Long before home computers, in the hazy days of my youth, finding out about anything was a chore that involved leaving the house and I rarely left the house for anything but school or street hockey. The few art books that made their way to my consciousness came from my sister who worked at a bookstore. I had undeveloped interests and it pleased her to feed them: Diners, by John Baeder; New Techniques in Egg Tempera, by Robert Vickrey; Ken Danby, by Paul Duval; High Realism in Canada, also by Paul Duval. I didn’t buy or look at art magazines, didn’t know any artists and got most of my visual education through popular sources like newspapers, television and high-end greeting cards.
I’ve always drawn or painted: at the kitchen table with the radio blaring while my mother cooked or baked; at the dining room table with my sister, copying the pictures she made for her homework assignments; at the coffee table in the living room with the television blaring. I drew what was at hand: a cigarette lighter; a newspaper masthead; the radio. I incessantly drew hot-rods and other vehicles. We were a car free family in North America and cars were an exotic ‘other’ for me.
I also spent a lot of time looking out the window, watching planes on their descent to Toronto’s Malton airport or people and traffic going by on our quiet street. The world has always seemed to be something apart from me and I’ve always taken measures, mostly unconscious ones, to protect my mental and physical space in it.
Partly in an effort to develop and protect my own system of thinking, I’ve never read artist’s biographies. In my early twenties I bought and began to read a book on Edward Hopper but I didn’t get far. Many of the things he was saying were already in my head and I didn’t want to associate those thoughts and ideas with Hopper, I wanted them to be my own.
Although my life as an adult is a little more open to the world, my exposure to art continues to be guarded. What began as a way of protecting my embryonic thoughts from a barrage of challenges has become a kind of identity. In all my trips to New York City, I’ve never been to the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, the Whitney or the Frick. I’m still not exactly sure what or where the Frick is and I have no real desire to know. There have been no art school ‘crits’ and until facebook, no obsessing over other people’s work.
The internet should be a boon to someone who doesn’t like to leave the house but I find it a mixed blessing. The internet’s unlimited access to thousands of other peoples’ career decisions can be confusing.
Facebook is my new ‘peering from the window’. Only now, instead of a quiet suburban street, it’s the busiest possible downtown intersection. Logging out of facebook is the equivalent of closing the blinds, leaving me to the comfort of my own thoughts. Even if those same thoughts are in the minds of my peers and have been in the minds of generations of artists before me.
February 11th, 2012
One Day at Rest, Painting 1
Now that the first painting for ‘One Day at Rest’ is finished, I’m pondering which images from that day will become drawings or etchings, figuring out a handmade book that I might make. I suddenly feel like an artist again instead of a machine for producing photorealist paintings.
I used all manner of materials when I was younger, the different media transforming the ideas I brought to them. What happened? Perhaps I was too eager to define myself. I’ve been so intently focused on producing a cohesive body of work in the last couple of decades, refining the definition of what I do, that I forgot to take time to experiment. The commercial gallery world, where I felt inclined to belong, likes to define things, needs to define things. The simpler the definition, the easier the sale.
Painting is exhausting. It consumes every ounce of concentration I can generate. For me, the end of the day means the end of thinking about art. I need to get away from my desk, blank out, go for a walk, watch television. Late in the evening I’ll think about the day of work I have ahead. In my mind, I go over the areas I’ll be tackling in the morning like a marathon runner crossing the country. Tomorrow, I’ll try to get to Calgary.
I’m excited enough about my new project that it’s dislodged decades of walls I’ve built around what it means for me to be an artist. During the several months that I work on a painting, I’m not sure I can do other things like drawings or prints, but the time between paintings, when I’m usually feeling unsettled, distracted, or guilty about not painting, suddenly seems like the perfect opportunity to experiment.
October 28th, 2011
A Way Forward
On July second, 2011, I took more than 7,200 photos of a typical summer Saturday in our condo studio in Montreal. Four cameras, covering virtually every square inch of living space, recorded our existence from our waking at 7 am to lights out at 10:30 pm. The digital cameras were mounted surveillance style from the ceiling and at an interval of seven or eight seconds, one of the four cameras would silently record an image. I also carried a voice activated digital sound recorder throughout the day and recorded over eight hours of audio.
‘One Day at Rest’ is an attempt to further explore my perception of honesty, its nature and role in my work, and a more direct attempt at portraying my physical and psychological existence without the distorting filter that results from turning the camera outwards.
I’ve spent decades sporadically roaming the streets with my camera, subconsciously searching for subjects that reflected my mental state, my unease with the world. Every subject I painted spoke to me in this way, whether trailers, neon signs or derelict commercial buildings.
It took several years to consciously understand that I was searching for a way to reflect my damaged self, except I’d found a way to expose myself to the world without truly giving anything away. I hadn’t intended to perform this psychological dance of the seven veils, I thought at the time I was being pretty direct. I certainly felt the anxiety of the exposed, but a growing awareness of how people perceived my paintings made me realise I was on the wrong track.
In a gallery setting, my paintings look vaguely like photographs. Admittedly, like ink-jet photographs printed on cheap paper in fast draft mode. I’ve often explained to someone hustling past the images at an opening ‘By the way, these are paintings, not photographs!’ People would often do a double take and look a little closer but I began to feel that most were saying to themselves, ‘That could be a photo or it could possibly be a painting but I’m not interested enough to care.’ The current dogma of contemporary art appreciation doesn’t seem to allow for a small photo based painting. Ironic, given the preponderance and apparent popularity of rather dull photographs of abstract collages, photographs of paintings and photographs of photographs. I’m puzzled that people don’t seem to ‘get’ the work but I think they’ve been taught that there’s nothing to get.
When what I do no longer works for me, it’s time for a change. Art is communication and I feel that my message could do with a little reworking. It’s just an old building, how can I expect anyone to get that it represents my tortured soul, that it speaks of impermanence, mortality, alienation, the nature of and value we place on the production of culture? I’ve been hiding behind a facade, sometimes a literal facade, strangely, and it’s time to change how I show myself to the world.
Seventy two hundred photographs of me doing very personal things somehow didn’t make me feel any more exposed than my paintings of buildings or signs. For me, they are the same thing. I hope for the viewer they are something quite different.
October 16th, 2011
ABC United Trading Corp. will likely be my last storefront for awhile. The changes I’ve made to get my paintings into a different realm in New York have had unexpected consequences. This ongoing process of recontextualisation has led me to a surprising revelation: It appears I’ve driven a car into the desert and run out of gas.
I’m not sure when, exactly, I ran out of gas. It may well have been long before I made it to New York for my first show at O.K.Harris in 2004. The twenty year drive to show my work at a good gallery in New York City somehow kept me from knowing that I was no longer inspired by what I painted.
The little ringing voices of truth that I imagine occupy a space just above and behind my head are most easily ignored when life is complicated. The more entanglements my life or career has, the more I ignore them. The blessed silence afforded by the odd confluence of a dying American economy, the strange weightlessness of an unsure venture with a new gallery, and my aching disinterest in my own work has finally allowed the voices to be heard above the din of self delusion.
Art is self exploration. This fact doesn’t always mesh well with a world that prefers to see culture entwined with commerce. The artist’s understandable preoccupation with the financial insanity of this kind of pursuit and the accompanying deviation from the purity of one’s truth is no longer an option for me.
The pressure we place on ourselves, or allow others to place on us, to proceed along a predetermined path to ‘success’ has the effect of eliminating from our lives the insignificant seeming non sequitur, the chance encounter which changes one’s entire direction.
I know now that there isn’t a goal. Only a direction to take and reevaluate when necessary. This is a journey whose length is indeterminate and unknowable and ends only when we ourselves end.
I can choose to find some gas and continue on or I can leave the car in the desert and find another road out. The immense relief I feel as I walk away in another direction is the answer to the question ‘Have I done the right thing?’
July 28th, 2011
Living in Exile
I’ve made two significant geographical moves in my life. The first, in 1989, from Toronto, Ontario to Victoria, B.C. (3397 kilometres). The second, in 2008, from Victoria back east to Montreal, Quebec (3733 km). Both moves gave me a sense of living in exile in one way or another. Both were largely financially driven but each also had an element of escape. The first, escape from the fold of family, old patterns of expectation, the ‘didn’t I know you in high school?’ encounter. The second, a licking of mid-life wounds, an almost random stab at the map for a new place to start again.
Perhaps the urge to move on is an inherited trait. My parents became postwar, economic exiles of Scotland when they made the difficult decision to move to Canada in 1950. Canada was a place of employment opportunities and where one could buy a dozen eggs if one wanted. The latter was no small consideration for a young family living in postwar food-rationed Glasgow.
My father never fully committed his heart to Canada despite spending a large majority of his life here. ‘Home’ for him was more than 5,000 kilometres from the house he shared with us. In a way, he never fully committed to the idea of a home with a wife and three children either. He once remarked to me as we stood looking at the backyard of the house I grew up in, ‘This would be good place to raise a family.’ I thought, ‘Actually, it was. Where the hell were you?’
Sometimes the moving on comes before one is actually ready to leave. Over the last year or two I’ve struggled to understand my place in the art world and tried to sort out why I don’t feel particularly comfortable with the ‘photorealist’ label, despite the obvious connection my work has to the genre. I know that I’ve moved on but I’ve had trouble falling into step with my new surroundings.
Exile is the removal of oneself from the realm of interest that so possesses the person in exile. The removal, which can heighten one’s desire to engage the mind with what was left behind can also, over time, allow for a dampening of the passions. So it is with my dying interest in photorealism.
Montreal isn’t home yet but it probably will be before long. ‘Moving on’ is more of a psychological transformation than a change in one’s address. It’s easy to pack a truck and move oneself physically but the ties one has to a place aren’t so easy to shake from the mind.
April 4th, 2011