PHIL CRAIG by Alan King (Ottawa Magazine)
For an artist with a panic-stricken art dealer clamouring for paintings, Philip Craig looks remarkably unperturbed. A mere month from now his one-man show is scheduled to open at the Diana Paul Gallery in Calgary and in this conspicuously unfrenzied atmosphere the possibility of that happening seems laughably remote.
Splayed out along the desks and cabinets of his studio are 10 jumbo-sized, partially sketched canvases, the product of a recent trip to England. Craig, a robust fifty-year-old, clad in a golf shirt and slacks, looks more like a real estate broker than an artist. He’s shuffling through the paintings, doing little verbal riffs on each scene. “Oh, the bulk of the work is done,” he says laughing as he drags another one into view. “It’s just the painting now. That’s the easy part.”
It would be tempting to indulge his optimism and concede that these proto-masterpieces are just waiting for their finishing touches. But there’s no denying the obvious. These babies are waiting to be painted. And for anyone who has ever worked with the demanding medium of oil paint, the painting is definitely not the easy part.
What lays before Craig’s outstretched arm is a gaggle of white canvases squared off lightly with pencil and covered with scribbles of india ink. Dabs and splotches indicate fishing boats in Falmouth Harbour here, the vague outline of an English manor house there. But look for a single color-saturated lick of the lush oil paint that is his trademark and you won’t find it anywhere.
Assuming he gets it all done in four weeks, each of these landscapes will sell for anywhere between $2,000 and $22,000. Mostly they’ll be in the higher, downpayment-on-the-house range. If previous shows are any indication, every one of them will have the little red dot on its label long before the show closes and there may be, as has happened in the past, a minor ruckus or two at the opening from disgruntled potential buyers who didn’t arrive early enough to buy one.
The experience of not being able to get hold of a Craig isn’t exactly a rare one these days. Galleries across the country vie for the chance to sell his paintings and the ones that do get their hands on a few often grumble about the other galleries that got more.
A couple of months after he mounted his last Calgary show he received an unexpected cheque from Joan Martyn at the Nancy Poole Studio, his Toronto dealer. She told him sales were usually pretty slow in the summer so she thought he might find the extra money handy. As a not so subtle afterthought she said, “I’ll bet Diana Paul doesn’t do this, does she.”
In Ottawa, John Wallack of Wallack’s gallery says that he doesn’t sell that many Craigs because the market here is limited for paintings in his price range. It might also be because Craig has a core of collectors here who buy his work right off the easel.
Why his work is so popular can be explained partly by his glistening surfaces and the breathtaking assurance in his handling of color and form. It is also the result of a shrewd understanding of the marketplace. These days Craig paints mainly Tuscany and the south of France, two locales which occupy a hallowed niche in the imaginations of North Americans, particularly well-heeled ones who can afford to vacation there. The huge sales of the books ‘A Year in Provence’ and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ are testimony enough.
Twice a year Craig and his wife make the pilgrimage, staying for three weeks each time. They settle in at quaint hotels in villages like Carpentras near Avignon, visit friends and snap pictures of the history-sodden hilltowns and valleys. When they return, the deadlines loom, the phones ring non-stop. For the next 3 weeks Craig will endure a punishing schedule of sixteen-hour days laying on coat after coat of richly glazed paint in preparation for another one-man show.
Yet for all this commercial success he remains curiously unknown in Ottawa, the city of his birth and the place that keeps him from settling permanently near the European source of his inspiration. The essential downtowner and down-sizer (with three grown children), he lives with his wife in a house overlooking Brown’s Inlet. “I’ve got my sort of mini-Giverny,” he says, “It’s got the overhanging trees and lily pads. There are frogs and ducks and herons and muskrats.”
In spite of the roots and commercial success, no local paper has ever profiled him. No television station has featured him with the exception of a brief appearance on Ken Rockburn’s CBC-TV Rockburn and Company’. At home he’s the invisible man.
The reason is that Craig is so lacking in the posturing and soul-baring theatrics of the typical artist that most media have trouble finding a ‘hook’. There’s no glamorous studio location like Yousef Karsh’s old Chateau Laurier digs and no romantic back-story à la Amanda Forsythe. It’s almost as if Craig doesn’t want to be thought of as ‘artistic’. So, when he’s asked something artsy, like, “Who are your influences?” he deadpans, “Nobody really… Um, well, maybe Monet. I’m a sort of modern Impressionist.”
Ok, then. How about this, “Are there artists painting today whose work you admire and who have influenced your style?” Pausing for a very long time he replies, “There is somebody. Just let me think about it. I’ll come up with a name before the end of the day.” He never does.
Once when he was in Bel Air, the toney suburb of LA, he ran into Joanie Mitchell in a grocery store. For years he had listened to her records while he painted and finally had the chance to tell her how important her songs were to him. Joanie is, as everyone knows, a painter in her own right. Did he mention that he was an artist too? “No,” he says, “Everybody’s an artist, for goodness sake. She would’ve thought I did little woodcarvings or something.”
Why the reticence? Perhaps because Craig thinks of himself mainly as a businessman producing a commodity. That commodity just happens to be very good art. It’s a concept that doesn’t have much currency in today’s government-subsidized museum culture but it’s one with a fairly illustrious lineage: Rubens, Rembrandt and Mozart thought pretty much the same way. They didn’t consider art a sacred calling; it was a craft.
If there is anything that is sacred to Craig, it’s his belief that art should be accessible to everybody, rich or poor. It may explain his efforts to get his work into the hands of people who wouldn’t normally be able to afford his originals. Unlike a lot of artists of his calibre, Craig has held back on getting full-tilt into the signed limited edition print business because, “I like posters. They’re cheaper, more accessible. They bring great pleasure to people. And who can afford to pay hundreds of dollars for a print or $15,000 or $20,000 for a painting?”
In his case, the answer turns out to be quite a few. Nevertheless, and in spite of his misgivings, he does have four signed prints marketed by The Artists Garden, Canada’s premiere limited edition publishers and distributors for such high profile and unlikely bedfellows as Trish Romance and Alex Colville.
As for the posters, Canadian Art Prints in BC say they have sold close to 100,000 unsigned prints of his work. When told about an online dealer who sells framed and matted versions of his prints from a site in California, he says he’s never heard of him and that there are probably lots of galleries and framers out there whose livelihoods depend on their connection with Phil Craig.
They aren’t alone. Walking through the bowling-alley-sized studio near Bronson and Fifth, you quickly realize that the fine art end of Phil Craig’s business is just the top coat on a thick, multi-layered canvas. Most fine artists have to work at another job so they can afford the time to paint. For Craig it’s the reverse: a mini-conglomerate of film producers and animators depends on the cash flow generated by the sales of his paintings.
One of those businesses is Dynomight Cartoons, a company run by his wife, Diane Craig. Their current mainstay is the popular ‘Untalkative Bunny’ which plays on the Teletoon Network. During their 8 years in business they’ve been involved in a number of major animated feature films including “Joseph” for which they did the backgrounds in partnership with Dreamworks, Stephen Speilberg’s company.
Then there’s the television production design side. Craig began his career as a designer for CBC 30 years ago, working on shows like “Under The Umbrella Tree”, “CODCO” and “Joey” in Newfoundland. It was his wife who 12 years ago talked him into trying fine art full-time and leaving the comfort of steady work, benefits and pensions. But he’s still at it, producing along with a small staff, sets for the BBC’s “Noddy” and Salter Street Studio’s “Pirates”.
As he negotiates his way past the eighty or so animators’ desks crammed into the space next to his, he finally gets around to talking about what it means to be a painter. He tells a story about a painting he did of the lobby of a small French hotel. “It was nothing special,” he says. But at the opening of his show a woman who was staring at it burst into tears. She was so moved by the extraordinary beauty of the work that she couldn’t help herself.
Craig cites it as an example of how he tries to convey the emotion he feels when he sees a particularly beautiful scene and that occasionally people seem to get more emotional reward from the paintings than he actually puts into them. He also says that what he tries to do is share the intense pleasure of balancing shape and texture and color, that he loves the challenge of trying new approaches to his work, of emphasizing line rather than shape, of letting the structure of a painting reveal itself.
It’s a gratifying end to an afternoon in which the conversation has run the gamut, as Dorothy Parker once said, “From A to B”: from project financing to charity fund-raising. Here at last was the artist actually talking like an artist.
Meanwhile, you can hear the phone ringing in Craig’s office. It could be the animation partner Diane has in Lithuania, the special effects studio they use in Montreal, or a student wanting to attend one of Craig’s open painting classes. It could be one of a multitude of business and social contacts. More likely it’s the gallery owner, about to burst into tears.
The Ottawa Citizen
Paul Wong: On Becoming a Man
National Gallery of Canada
You don’t often hear of a gallery curator turfing out a show because he or she decides it isn’t art. It rarely happens. Ask any curator of contemporary work for an example of an object that doesn’t qualify as art and they’ll be hard put to find one. In this post-Duchamp world where context and theory have more importance than the object itself, the idea that an artist’s work may not in fact be art is radical indeed.
But in 1984 this was the reason Vancouver Art Gallery director Luc Rombout gave for his refusal to display Paul Wong’s installation, ‘Sexual Views’. You might think that this was a sign that an innovative gallery director was developing stricter standards for what constitutes ‘art’.
You would be wrong. As is often the case when an administrator has to make an unpleasant decision, he furnishes what he thinks is the most defensible reason. In this case, he decided the work didn’t fit into the vague category called ‘art’ that only he knew how to define.
What he should have said was, “It’s too risque for our audience.” It might have been harder to defend — caving in to puritanical zealots — but at least it would have been honest. In the long run Romboud ended up with a lot of bad publicity anyway. Wong filed (and lost) a suit against the gallery that kept it uncomfortably in the limelight for two years.
It seems though that the curators at the National Gallery knew ‘art’ when they saw it. They snapped up 27 of the offending videotapes while the proceedings were going on. You might think they were fearless defenders artistic expression protesting the meddlesome prudery of the Vancouver art establishment. You would be wrong there too.
The National Gallery’s tapes have, according to Wong’s catalogue, “remained in the vaults since their acquisition.” Until now. As part of his twenty-year retrospective they are being shown in one of the four rooms that have been devoted to this show. Seeing them now, eleven years after their creation, you have to wonder what all the fuss was about.
First, there is no visual sexual content at all. These are just video interviews of people talking about their sexual experiences. Admittedly, these are not accounts of run-of-the-mill heterosexual couplings. They are explicit first-person stories of sexual minorities — gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals and prostitutes.
Second, there is no attempt to titillate or exploit. Some of the incidents recounted are obviously painful and embarrassing to the participants. A young man and woman tell in separate interviews how they were both molested as children and how that affected their adult sexuality. There is an earnest sincerity and honesty to these revelations and in ther frank desciptions of promiscuity serve as a shocking reminder of how things have changed in the last ten years since AIDS became a factor. (Appropriately, the exhibit has been set up next to General Idea’s AIDS project).
Like the rest of the displays in the show, it isn’t so much the content that fascinates as how it is presented. In this room Wong has arranged four television sets facing out of a circle, each with its own walled viewing area. The volume on each set is set high so that you have to strain to hear one voice over another. At a distance it is just an unpleasant cacaphony.
Wong says the idea was to represent the notion of choice in sexuality. One also assumes that for many people the choice they make is not exclusive. As you sit and listen to the gay sexuality of one participant it’s hard not to be aware of the story of his neighbor’s bisexuality on the tape next door. There are people who are going to see these tapes as proselytizing for ‘alternative’ lifestyles but these unhappy faces aren’t likely to convert anyone.
The other three video installations are ‘Chinaman’s Peak: Walking the Mountain’, ‘in ten sity’ and ‘Mixed Messages’. Each of these is utterly different in format from the others though they all share a preoccupation with issues of identity.
‘Chinaman’s Peak’ features a room devoted to traditional Chinese symbols: rice bowls, chopsticks, vases, banners with Chinese idiograms and so on. In the middle, in front of a television set, sits a bright red coffin with a man’s hat and shoes on the lid.
The video shows scenes of Chinaman’s Peak, a mountain in the Rockies near Banff. A voice-over explains the origin of the name and goes on to tell stories of the Chinese laborers who worked on the railway. Wong sees the piece as an act of remembrance, a reenactment of the ancient ritual of ancestor worship.
‘in ten sity’ is the most effective piece artistically in the show. Part performance art, part video, it was originally a live act in which Wong acted out his grief over the suicide of a close friend by slamming himself against the four walls of a padded cell. The performance was recorded from five different camera angles and originally was accompanied by the music of groups like the Sex Pistols and Patti Smith.
Does this bouillebaisse of video, performance, documentary and installation look like ‘art’? If seriousness of purpose and noble intent are important criteria, then yes. But is it good art? It’s interesting, it speaks about important issues and it makes imaginative use of contemporary artistic materials. These days that’s probably enough.
The Ottawa Citizen
The Group of Seven: Art for a Nation
National Gallery of Canada
380 Sussex Dr.
Until December 31, 1995
Like ’em or not, they’re ours, and they’re here to stay. Hardly in need of the Gallery’s imprimatur on this their 75th anniversary, they’re just an indisputable fact, like the landscape that inspired them. And I, for one, am happy to see the venerable gentlemen (and they were mainly gentlemen) up and about. For at least two generations the Group of Seven has been enormously popular, critically unassailable and ubiquitous. You might say inescapable. Their paintings hang in every major and minor museum in the country. In the form of prints and silkscreens their works decorate the walls of schools, banks and living rooms. They’re the artistic equivalent of hockey and beer, with the added benefit that the Americans aren’t about to buy the franchise.
The downside of their renown is that the identity of each member has been molded into a sort of monolithic corporate logo. Hear the words ‘Group of Seven’ and you instantly conjure up gnarled pine trees, weathered outcroppings and lonely northern lakes.
If the group has been seen as a monolith, like a rugged chunk of precambrian granite that was its favourite subject, the intention of this show is to take a critical jackhammer to that idea. Instead of presenting another overview that examines its influences and impact on our sense of national identity, this exhibit breaks the group into individual units, looking at their early history from a variety of different angles and in exhaustive detail. If you want to take in all this show has to offer, set aside a long leisurely afternoon. A 375 page catalogue and profusion of wall panels and notes portray each member’s role in the group, personal philosophy and the reaction of the critics to his work.
The show also examines the role of the group in promoting the careers of other artists, particularly women, across the country. Many of the magazine and newspaper articles generated by Harris, Lismer and Jackson speak of the need to create a knowledgeable indigenous market for the work of Canadian artists, a number of whom had been forced into European exile in search of work. This spirit of inclusiveness is surveyed, looking at the group’s evolving membership over its thirteen-year lifespan. Each passing year seemed to bring a change of core membership and an expansion of the number of artists invited to show their work along with the original members. Their last exhibit, in 1931, featured an additional 19 artists in an adjoining room.
The show also follows their struggle with the art establishment and gives a clear picture of who the main members of that ruling orthodoxy were and what they found disturbing about this new, experimental work. The scathing commentaries displayed next the paintings that were their targets should put to rest any lingering notions that their savaging by the critics was a fantasy dreamt up by latter-day myth-makers.
In addition, the show traces the origins of the movement with examples of First World War paintings by Varley and Jackson that heralded the radical break with the European academic tradition that was just over the horizon. It’s huge critical agenda for a show of this size — just under 200 paintings, drawings and bookplates — and it requires a large degree of intellectual commitment on the part of the viewer. This is not a show aimed at the casual visitor. You could wander these rooms looking for favourite images, and eventually find them, but their display might be a little unsettling.
The show is organized within a historical framework rather than an esthetic one. A large, stunning Lawren Harris will be hung next to an inept, largely forgotten Lismer, not because it makes visual sense but because the straightjacket of the show’s historical theme demands it. That historical progression is examined within the context of eight rooms that replicate the original exhibits the group had between 1920 and 1931. It is, literally, a walk through history. The large first room is fascinating and something of a surprise. Here are early landscapes by Lawren Harris which are astonishing for the boldness of their design and color and the rawness of their technique. It’s certainly not the cool, ethereal Harris, painter of eerie snowcapped mountains or the accomplished portrait artist with the virtuoso technique and it’s one we wish we’d seen more of. Also here is J.E.H. MacDonald’s ‘Wild River’, a painting that when shown alongside work by academic artists months before had been viciously derided. But displayed with paintings that spoke the same visual language was suddenly met with critical approval.
Not all the paintings here were wild landscapes by any means. At this stage in their development, many were still producing urban streetscapes, rural villages and portraits. It wasn’t until later that their focus turned exclusively towards the north country. The room which many people may find most interesting is the small gallery containing pictures by the artists who represented the establishment of the time. These were the ones who actually made a decent living from painting, received favourable reviews and controlled membership in the Royal Canadian Academy. As curator Charles Hill points out, they also tended to identify strongly with their patrons who had a long tradition of buying the works of Hague-school Europeans. The works are for the most part competently painted but they are slavishly derivative. Richard Jacks, a British artist who was awarded a one-man show at the Art Gallery of Toronto shortly after his arrival in 1927, demonstrates a flashy proficiency that puts one in mind of contemporary American magazine illustrators.
The paintings of others like Carl Ahrens and Archibald Browne, two of the most outspoken critics of the new painting, are insipid dreck even by academic standards. These two landscapes make you wonder why Canadians didn’t demand something better years earlier. The last room, with its inclusion of associated artists shows how the group became a victim of its own success. Like a modern-day hi-tech firm, it had to move to a second stage — a larger market and a more diversified product. It was a transition that it accomplished with a painful metamorphosis into the Canadian Group of Painters in 1933.
One final thing. If anyone asks you who the original members of the group of Seven were, they were: J.E. H. MacDonald, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, Fred Varley, Frank Johnston and Frank Carmichael. All the others that we associate with the group — apart from Tom Thomson who died before it was founded — A.J. Casson, LeMoine FitzGerald and Edwin Holgate and so on, were later additions. 30
The Ottawa Citizen
A Culture of Collecting
Carleton University Art Gallery
St. Patrick’s Building
At least once in their lives everybody seems to start a collection. If it’s not stamps or baseball cards in youth, it’s figurines or fishing lures in old age. For a while I collected nineteenth century political cartoons by Gilray, Rowlandson and Cruickshank, but my passion dwindled along with my bank balance and wall space. It didn’t reach the level of an obsession like it does for many people — those who must have every autograph of every player in the National League or one first edition of every novel that Faulkner wrote.
A famous nineteenth century French collector, La Bruyere, put it this way: “I suffer from an affliction I cannot ignore. I now possess the whole of Jacques Callot, apart from just one piece, which is, in truth, not even one of his better productions. On the contrary, it is one of his weakest, and yet it is the one I must have to round off Callot. For twenty years I have striven to lay my hands on that engraving and now I’ve got to the point where I have given up all hope. It is so cruel!” Poor, frustrated devil; though it’s hard to feel sympathy because you know it’s an act. If he had been more honest, he might have said that the greatest pleasure in collecting is in the chase, not in the actual acquisition. To have gotten the entire set would have meant the end of this interesting diversion (unless, of course, he took up collecting someone new).
This fixation with one category of object is of fairly recent vintage according to psychoananlyst Werner Muensterberger (a great name for a shrink if there ever was one). He has written a book called “Collecting: An Unruly Passion, Psychological Perspectives” and points out that the idea of specialization in collecting only began in the 1700’s. Up until then the rich amassed items of luxury purely as a means of displaying their wealth not because they were interested in a particular variety of commodity. Lorenzo di Medici may be remembered as a great patron of the arts but he spent far more money on his collection of cameos and vases than he did on painting and sculpture.
The modern specialist collector didn’t arrive until after Linneaus infected the scientific world with his passion for taxonomy. First plants and animals. Then paintings, prints, sculptures, china. And, finally, coke bottles and tin cans. When museums and art galleries got into the act the specialties and specialists really took off. But the control of curators and administrators also fundamentally altered the way people perceived collections. Bruce Chatwin wrote in “Utz” that, “An object in a museum can suffer the de-natured existence of an animal in a zoo. In any museum the object dies of suffocation and the public gaze whereas private ownership confers on its owner the right and need to touch… The collector’s enemy is the museum curator. Ideally, the museums should be looted every 50 years and their collections returned to circulation.” It’s fun to hear rich elitists in full cry. And you know what he means by “circulation”: out of the hands of the rabble and back to their original, aristocratic owners. Yech. But he does make one good point. There is a definite distancing of the viewer from a work of art in an institutional setting.
One of the least intimidating ‘institutional’ settings around here is the gallery at Carleton University. It’s user-friendly perhaps because you know that the works on display are not just for the perusal of visitors, but for the use of students in coursework and as a teaching aid. There is also a sense of community because some of the works in the collection have been donated by local collectors who take a philanthropic interest in the gallery. The works in this show have been recently acquired, mostly in 1994. They are intended as an example of the art and ‘culture’ of collecting, a subject that has received a lot of attention in academia recently.
The 50 or 60 sixty works chosen by curator Michael Bell are mainly from the sixties, with the exception of some photographs by Steichen and Steiglitz. There are works by Towne, Breeze, Molinari, Urquhart, Lochhead, Partridge and other familiar Canadian names. If there is a focus, it is on the paintings of Claude Breeze. These recent works are collages that use printouts from a laser printer as their raw material. The original image is derived from pictures taken by a video camera and manipulated with a graphics program. The works lie in a sort of philosophic and artistic no-man’s land. They may be attempts to come to terms with the modernist notion that technology and mass production have made individual artistic craftsmanship irrelevant. Rather than reject or embrace that idea, Breeze has tried to incorporate the new order into the old.
The collection as a whole is what you might expect: thoughtful, representative of our place and time, perfectly rational. But I’ll bet if you asked Bell if there was one particular piece he really lusted after, he’d tell you that occasionally he lies awake at night thinking about just the right Riopelle or Borduas to round off the sixties. 30
The Ottawa Citizen
Richard Henriquez: Memory Theatre
Carleton University Art Gallery
When Medieval scholars needed to remember a lot of important information they used a neat mnemonic device. They would imagine walking through a cathedral. As they mentally turned under an arch or stepped into a side chapel they would place one of the things they had to remember in that spot. When they had to recall the material at a later date, they would take another imaginary stroll through the building and each item on the list would still, hopefully, be there in the location where they had left it.
Vancouver architect, Richard Henriquez, has given this idea, and a whole catalogue of other interesting notions, physical form in the central piece of this exhibit. His large wooden structure, ‘Memory Theatre’ is a series of ten linked cabinets in which are displayed artifacts from his personal history chosen for their beauty and their capacity to trigger memories and associations. When Henriquez walks around inside his circular structure he remembers not just useful facts, but turning points and epiphanies. Precisely arranged on narrow shelves are tiny balsa models from his architectural practice; playful sculptures made from bones and assorted oddments like serving forks and chopsticks; old calipers and measuring instruments; a carved wooden skull; a collection of cones and polygons used for drawing practice; and dozens of other artifacts that are the physical context of an intensely examined life.
Below each cabinet, at waist level, is a glass covered drawer filled with Henriques’ family mementoes and documents/letters written by his Jamaican grandparents; old sepia photographs and recent family albums. In the centre of the structure stands a tripod on which is mounted a globe, a mannequin’s hand, a ship’s compass and a plumb bob. They have been assembled so that a steel pointer marks a location on the earth’s surface and the hand points up to an item in the cabinet. One assumes that the hand can be moved to indicate where on the globe each piece in the cabinet originated. When it was originally shown at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the structure was mounted on a huge tripod and visitors entered via a ramp from the second floor. Here it is floorbound and that’s unfortunate because levitation seems to be an essential element of his work. (His home in Vancouver was constructed by raising an original bungalow three metres off the ground with giant screws and building a new supporting structure underneath.)
All of the sculptures in the show, save one, are either mounted high off the floor on tripods or suspended from the ceiling. Like the ‘Memory Theatre’ they are assemblages of found objects, bones and beautifully crafted wooden whimsies. Classically surrealistic, they conflate the familiar and the strange to make them new, enigmatic and beautiful. There are weird conjuctions of wooden shoe stretchers and sextants, trowels and tiny trees. The most interesting of the tripods is one that is modelled on the lectern that Einstein used in Bern. On the small platform on top, Henriquez has mounted a softball-sized model eyeball split in two. Inserted into the gap is a small magnifying glass and reaching towards it is a black hand with fingers pointing. Hinged open and surrounding these objects is a bank of what could be either seats or storage cabinets. What does it all mean? Well, like most of his work, it is an examination of the act of creation and its origins. In the catalogue notes, Alberto Perez-Gomez says, “The surveyor’s tripod… represents a trace of the first function of the architect’s story, concerning the limiting and marking of the earth…” It also attempts to make common cause with the world of science in its search for fundamental laws.
For Einstein, it was the laws of physics. For Henriquez, it’s the rules of proportion, ecological synergy and the proper place of a building within a site’s ‘historical narrative’. But most of all, his works are about the importance of memory and history. These fragments, souvenirs and odd bits of flotsam and jetsom are what define his life. Perhaps we all need a collection of touchstones like these. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, tells a story about a patient who, as a result of neurological damage, had lost all of his memory. To compensate and to define himself as a person, he chattered non-stop, inventing wildly imaginative anecdotes about himself. As soon as he finished one he would start another because he couldn’t remember what he had said the moment before. For hours on end he would improvise breathlessly. Modern art and architecture sometimes seem like that poor, tormented patient, endlessly inventing the new because it can’t remember the past.
There is one final ironic aspect to this work which may or may not be intentional. Many of the memories it conjures up are reminders of the styles and techniques of other artists. Here’s a short list of some of the more obvious borrowings: Leonardo (his wooden models), Joseph Cornell (the glass display cases), Louise Nevelson (the layered walls), Marcel Duchamp (found objects), Henry Moore (bones as sculpture) and, of course, that most insightful commentator on man’s proper place in the cosmos, Rube Goldberg.
The Ottawa Citizen
Excursions Along the Nile:
The Photographic Discovery of Ancient Egypt
Carleton University Art Gallery
St. Patrick’s Building
It’s probably no coincidence that the sponsor of this Santa Barbara-based show is Albert Broccoli, producer of the James Bond movies. Or that he would have an interest in this kind of art. Much of the appeal of his films lies in his treatment of exotic locations and high-tech gadgetry. It was a similar fascination in the middle of the nineteenth century that impelled a generation of mainly French and Englishmen to explore the mysteries of Egypt and to bring along their new plaything — the camera — invented in 1839.
The first of that generation were aristocratic participants in Mid-East versions of the Grand Tour. Floating along on a sea of bearers, cooks and servants, they followed the tracks of the scientists and artists who had produced Napoleon’s huge Description de l’Egypt, a ten volume folio of detailed illustrations, descriptions, maps and histories. Unlike their predecessors who brought back engravings and ink drawings, they commemorated their trips with photographs taken by small format cameras that employed salt prints and paper negatives.
It must have been great fun, before the massive influx of tourists that was to follow. The Prince of Wales went, so did Flaubert accompanied by his friend, photographer, Maxime Du Camp, whose work is in this show. English artist Edward Lear wrote to his sister from the island of Philae where he had been sketching. He and his party had, “swept out rooms in the great temple and have been quite comfortable in them during our stay. Three or four English boats have generally been on the island, so we have had dinner parties and music every evening.”
In the mid 1850’s, with the invention of the glass plate negative, commercial photographers started to arrive as well. The new technique allowed them to produce thousands of high-quality copies of the same image and they soon discovered that there was an eager market for their images back home.
But their technical proficiency and commercially-influenced artistic sensibility made for a huge departure from the kind of pictures that the amateurs had been taking, a fact immediately apparent from the examples in this display. The earlier pictures have a directness and charming naivete that contrasts starkly with the detailed, artful compositions of professionals like Frith and Bedford.
The earlier images also had soft edges because the chemicals were embedded deep in the fibres of the paper. In many cases they were not adequately fixed so that they have a faded, ghost-like quality. The photographs taken by some of the most important commercial photographers of the day, on the other hand, look as if they had been taken and printed yesterday.
One of these professionals was an Englishman, Francis Frith, whose work fills one large room in the gallery. At thirty-two he had cornered the market in Greek raisins, retired and devoted himself to finding a commercial application for photography. He made three trips to Egypt and with him he took a phenomenal load of photographic equipment — a stereo camera, a standard 8″ x 10″ format and a huge 16″ x 20″ plate camera.
Because developing had to be done on the spot, he also brought along a darkroom on a wheeled carriage (you can see its tracks in some of his photographs), chemicals in jars and hundreds of glass plates. How he managed to get it all home undamaged defies imagination.
His large photographs are extraordinary for their clarity and for the sheer volume of visual information they encompass. Using long exposures and small apertures he got maximum depth of field. Every camel, stone and hieroglyph is in focus though one wishes after a while that he hadn’t been quite so relentlessly precise.
The people he posed in his shots are always arranged in such a way as to enhance the composition. The effect is more of an outdoor studio shot than a reflection of physical reality. Part of the reason was that with long exposures the photographer was forced to pose his figures because real, moving figures would disappear. The world of fast film and the frozen moment was still to come.
But come it did and with it came mass tourism. Shortly after the Suez Canal opened in 1869, Thomas Cook started his first tours up the Nile and he was copied by many others. (The Egyptians called the tourists,’Cooksii’). ì
This exhibit tells not only the story of the west’s first encounter with the monuments and temples of Egyptian civilisation. It tells a much more interesting story about the origins of mass tourism and how the photography industry and its symbiotic sister, the travel business, have overwhelmed and transformed many of the world’s most beautiful and, in earlier times, most inaccessible sites.