Monday, 26 February 2018

Selecting Artists



The Gallery
Clay, stains
15” x 9” x 9”
C. Ascher

I am in the final stages of the process, a yearly event, of visiting artists’ studios following their submitting dossiers and exhibition proposals. I am looking for artists to feature in next years’ schedules of solo exhibitions at the gallery for which I am the Director/Curator. It is one of my most pleasant tasks as curator because I get to meet and have meaningful discussions with artists about their work in the spaces where they create it, in their natural habitat as it were.

While the artists are nervous to receive me for studio visits, even the most experienced, they are also energized and encouraged. They tell me that no other curators these days bother to conduct studio visits, something which I know because I am an artist too and which always shocks and amazes me. They receive me at first hesitantly, cautiously, but we are soon deep in conversation about their imagery and style, their history and inspiration, their medium and processes, their techniques and their concepts, and about how they situate themselves in the broader artistic community.

The layout of the studios tells me volumes about the artists’ engagement in and preparedness for planning a solo exhibition. I manage a big space. The exhibitions I mount are not commercial, my aim is education, not sales, giving artists the opportunity to focus on presenting or creating a unified body of work to a theme or concept.  I also schedule exhibitions a year or more ahead, which means the existing work will not necessarily be the work that will be exhibited. For each artist of six or seven that I contract for a solo in any given year, I don’t contract numerous others. Given all this, it’s my responsibility to make sure the artists I invite for solos are able to meet their targets in terms of professionalism, production and costs (I have misjudged only four or five times in the last 30 years).

Some things about the artists’ processes or intents, themes or concepts are clear and obvious in the individual works themselves. However, the full impact of the artists’ aesthetic and philosophy is only revealed when many works can be seen together, at the same time, as they will be in a solo exhibition. Gazing at one piece then another and another and then at them all together surrounded by the tools and materials of their making is what helps me describe for a public the artists’ processes and the evolution of their creative thinking. For me, it’s the only way to really know what deep questions to ask and, as the artists answer them, how to understand those answers around, through and in addition to my own reactions and assumptions.

What interesting, and sometimes challenging, conversations we have during the few hours the artists and I spend together in their studios!  Sometimes it happens in one studio visit, sometimes it takes two or several visits, but when our discussions achieve a real artist/curator harmony, we are on for the exhibition!



Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The Picture is a Process




As I approach the end of another year, I consider the issues and solutions that have been the focus of my work as an artist who is also a gallery curator and an educator. In those roles, my greatest pleasures are either:
-  to invite seasoned artists working in a variety of mediums or styles to join me in gallery to create works to a theme or concept which are then exhibited, or
- to bring artists together who would normally rarely interact and have them share in an exhibition experience that also introduces them and their work to a new, general public. 


As an example of the creation projects I have done, in October/November 2017, for the exhibition Lattices and Interstices at Galerie de la Ville in DDO, Quebec, I invited 73 artists to joined me. Each artist was given 24”x24”x1.5” wood panels and I challenged them to create works using them in their chosen medium/s. Artists were to express their own personal  aesthetic. Our 117 panels were then displayed in a ‘lattice’ pattern to represent the support structure that artists of all societies create on which cultures can grow and thrive. During the exhibition phase of the project, the public saw the huge variety and scope of creativity, imagination, approach and technique despite the ‘sameness’ imposed by the fixed size of the panels.



Conversely, in April 2017, for the Art at Home exhibition I held for a month in an otherwise empty store I rented at Fairview, a popular mall in Pointe Claire, Quebec, I invited 16 artists to exhibit eight works each and created a non-commercial exhibition environment. The mall audience was invited in to look closely and at their leisure at the work; they could  meet the artists, discuss the imagery and ask questions about the processes without fear of judgement or pressure to buy. Many returned again and again with their family and friends. Over 7,000 people who would never have thought to walk into a gallery enjoyed taking mental time out of being hurried consumers of disposables. Some even chose to buy or commission works from the artists directly.



So much of art today is misrepresented that these are ways I have found to return the attention to the fact that an art work isn’t just a product, it is the result of an artist’s process. There would never be the former without the latter, and where there is ‘expression’, there is always experience and intent motivating it, even if these are hidden or coded. It takes actual, real-time engagement and attention to see it.

It is a loss that our modern eye is conditioned by mechanical image capture methods. For many of us, it is rare that the experience of seeing images began with actual paintings or sculptures; if we pre-date 2000 we likely saw a photograph first, if not, we looked first at digital images. These methods eliminate the very sensation of process. 

When mediated by technology, the seeing in art is reduced in time and space to a glance or a look and we are fooled into thinking we have absorbed the full experience of the work. The result is that when people subsequently look at a work of art in a gallery, they’ve learned to see a ‘picture’, not really a painting or a sculpture or a print or watercolour, or whatever the process the artist underwent to create it. To their eye, the differences between these creation methods are lost. To me, the tragedy is that they are not even aware of what they have missed.

I hope by these types of exhibits to keep artists sharing experiences and to keep audiences attuned to the creation processes.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

For the Love of It



Look
photo collage
C. Ascher


The white or silver haired, some limping or with uneven tread, some pushing walkers, wander in, focused at first on the ground. When they look up, they are surprised. They see art on the walls, and not the art they might expect to see in a galley. They pause, examine, comment to each other and to their host as they gaze at works that are not pretty landscapes or romanticized people or decorative objects. Intrigued, they ask questions, some unsure, some deeply curious, some responding with suspicion, others with enthusiasm. These works use media like paint, clay or textiles in challenging ways, they are infused with meaning, they evoke deep emotions unapologetically. The discussion that follows is lively and engaged.

Some young people wander into the gallery. Their cell-phones are at the ready, quick-draw appropriators, knee-jerk reactors to visual stimuli. They don’t look, they scan, until the host stops them an points out what they see aren’t ‘pictures’ but processes. What an alien idea! But they stop, intrigued, pay attention as they’re told about the actual technologies used to create these images, technologies far older and far more timeless than the digital gadgets they hold.
Encouraged to look closely, they begin to see subtle textures, tonalities, surprising details in the imagery. Hands, minds and hearts have been busy conducting materials into experiences these young ones would have missed entirely by letting their cell phones ‘see’ the art for them.

Other youth stand before the work because they are themselves makers. They are excited to see the engagement in technique, imagery, imagination and invention, but they are even more interested in getting their own images on the walls of the gallery. Their looking is responsive but also competitive, they can copy this, they can reproduce that, how did that get made? They are impressed but also jealous, and they are greedy for the acclaim and gain they think their own work would get if only it hung on these walls. To them the host points out that while they are richer for the experience of seeing others’ images, while they’ve been stimulated and encouraged, they who love the work aren’t buying it. She points out the crowd of other appreciative viewers in the gallery but the very few red dots on the walls and asks, “How will you gain if the very people who love the work and appreciate it don’t buy it?”


It is ironic to me that young artists still cling to the idea of ‘fame and fortune’. Older people are downsizing from detached homes with divided rooms to open-concept condos, divesting themselves of the accumulations of their lives to fit into smaller spaces. The young have little money, what they earn goes to pay for electronics and entertainment and smaller and smaller living spaces. Those in the middle live on debt. While they should, by all rights it is disgusting that they don’t, most artists can’t make art expecting ‘to sell’ or to “make a living”. Given that reality, why shouldn’t they then make imagery that doesn’t conform to expectations or worry about pleasing others? Why shouldn’t they make imagery that challenges them personally and pushes them into more and more meaningful relationships with their media, techniques and subject matters?

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Defiance

Defiant
coloured pencil
44”x30”
Claudine Ascher


I have learned over many years of teaching art that it’s a fine line we walk as educators, whether we teach in ‘the system’ or in so-called ‘alternative’ venues. Too many times, when we think we’re imparting knowledge and nurturing self-confidence in aspiring artists we are only helping to create ego.

An art classroom is maybe 95% of the time NOT conceived as a studio but a borrowed or modified space defined by place, resources and time. As teachers, when people feel constrained by any of them, or more usually by all, they feel forced to cut corners. They reduce the learning to projects and hurry it along towards products rather than creating learning experiences. Three essential elements to art making, technique with media, process and concept are sacrificed, set aside as if they are expendable, especially when children and teens are taught.

What we actually impart when we rush a class along from product to product is pseudo-knowledge, the feeling in the students that they’ve learned a subject or acquired a skill. Unless the student  already identifies as an artist, is especially dedicated to acquiring skills, is unusually attentive, has exceptional memory and immediately applies the knowledge to personal practice outside of class, little of what is learned will be retained even short-term except the illusion of knowledge.

Self-confidence is encouraged when there is entrenched skill developed by surmounting obstacles and overcoming difficulties both physical and otherwise; students learn to develop strategies by which to create despite their own fears and hesitations. These incremental victories happen as tactile skill development is paired with ideas and understood with more and more emotional  complexity. When difficult tasks are accomplished with less and less guidance, the learning experience moves from dependence to collaboration to independence, detail and mechanics are supported by concept. The knowledge structure is created by exposure, application, analysis and aware repetition, attentive repetition, conscious repetition, and fuelled by a mix of so-called instinct and personal, as opposed to imposed, intent.

It’s a tall order. To teach art in this way persons trained  to function within the system of imposed constraints would have to become a resister, even a revolutionary. First and foremost they’d have to change their concepts of their roles as educators. Whom do they serve? And what exactly are they teaching? If they claim to teach art, they must make sure they are actually not teaching through art, though if they are themselves products of the imposed system, they might not see the difference. 


Once teachers decide that they teach Art, they will then have to change their students’ concepts of themselves as art learners, beginning by never calling them ‘artist ‘until they’ve learned what that actually means. If the teachers themselves are - or even if they were -  artists, in all that the profession entails, that task will not be as daunting.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Molly's Message



I am Molly. I was a rescue. I came to my new home at 5 years of age with a serious case of periodontal disease caused by the neglect of my former family. It has resulted in my developing chronic rhinitis, a condition that leaves me struggling constantly to breathe. I’m ten this month. For the past two years I’ve  had repeated dental procedures, tests and all manner of vet visits. I have been on countless courses of antibiotics, anti-histamines, and anti-inflammatories,, all of which are taking a toll on my liver without doing much to alleviate my condition. 

I am a Schnauzer, bred and genetically predisposed to dental and liver problems. It’s too bad my original family didn’t do the research about my breed when they decided to get a dog. With a bit of conscience, they might have acted to preempt as much of the long-term damage as possible. But, to them, a dog is a dog, able to live for eight hours a day in a cage, go without regular walks or contacts with others of its species, be happy with minimal attention from its humans, and cope perfectly well with abandonment when its presence in ‘the family’ becomes inconvenient.

All I can say to you if you are considering getting any animal is examine your motives carefully and then:do the research. This is a life you’re taking on, not a being you can use and discard  at your convenience. A vet  I was once taken to tried to justify charging exorbitant prices for countless 
‘exploratory’ tests by claiming that ‘owning a pet is a luxury”, but in fact, that’s a self-serving attitude. The ‘owning’ of a living being is not the point, and anyway, it’s a two-way deal. 


You expect unconditional affection, fun, company, loyalty, obedience, perhaps even protection; we animals have expectations as well. Too bad for us that we can provide what is expected even when you don’t, and that you can be too dumb to understand, too focused on your authority to pay attention or too exploitative to care about our needs. If you don’t, don’t kid yourself, YOU are the lesser form of life, not us.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Art at Home


L’Art Chez Soi - Art at Home
Exhibition 
Fairview Pointe Claire

April 8 to 28, 2017


Life as an artist has never been easy. It is particularly difficult at a time when the culture moves towards a purely profit-based retail mentality. This perforce promotes all that is competitive, mass-produced, obsessively innovative, ‘cheap’ and disposable. Not art, in other words.

I thought about these things as I walked trough my local shopping centre and saw the number of stores boarded up. They wore signs saying things like “soon to be the site off a great store! ’. Obviously, the ideas and strategies ‘the mall’ has represented since the 50’s are no longer sustainable. Wy? Is it just because of the Internet or could people be ready for something else?

I saw one store that was empty but not boarded up. I peered into the space through the see-through accordion doors. Ah, not empty. A vast, open space with clean, white walls lined almost floor to ceiling with a white metal lattice. and lighting tracks and fixtures that would illuminate the space beautifully once lit. For me, it was perfection! What an ideal place in which to create something completely unexpected and surprising. Not a sale, no. An exhibition of art that would re-direct shoppers’ thinking, their very mental state, by NOT being about sales.

I got the space for one month with one week of it to create the exhibition. Titled  L”Art Chez Soi, (This is Quebec. In English: Art at Home). my ‘store’ exhibition opened on April 8, 2017 and ran until the 28th and featured sixteen artists, each exhibiting eight works.  In that time, over 7 thousand mall shoppers stumbled upon it and were blown away. They were amazed that a mall would showcase art by professional and relatively well-known local artists, that there were no sales people but only the artists themselves with whom people could choose (or not) to chat about the work; that they could take their time to examine the work at their leisure, that they didn’t need to read didactic panels, listen to audio guides, or refer to catalogues to do so; that they could have no intention  other than to enjoy the experience.

Sure, the artists were interested in sales. However, there were no prices on the wall. There was nothing on the walls other than panels with  each artist’s name under her/his work. If visitor were interested in knowing the prices of works, or obtaining factual information about the artists, they were directed to a cabinet. There, they would find binders where they might see each individual’s’ CV, artist statement and the descriptions of the works and where they might pick up the artists’ business cards. 

There was only one sale. However, every artist felt the experience was rewarding and  successful. They paid a minimal registration fee but for it, they got attention, contact and exposure such as they would never have had even in a museum. By sharing the gallery sitting during blocks of three regular store hours, every one got to spend quality time with each other and with viewers, talking about their art,  imagery, techniques, intents and themes, something that would never happen in a commercial gallery. No one was under pressure to do anything but enjoy the experience, and seven thousand plus visitors and sixteen artists did. 









Monday, 27 February 2017

Art Education for Artists



The Art Lesson
Cay, high relief
C. Ascher


University art education programs, at least the programs about which I am aware, seem to limit their training of teachers for elementary and secondary levels without requiring them to have proven artistic practices. This means that teachers can qualify as art educators without being artists. They are trained to teach THROUGH art and to think they are teaching art.
“What’s the problem?” you ask. Well.
For the teachers, if they get jobs actually teaching in elementary or high schools, they will happily use art to teach all manner of socializing attributes. After all, in a school curriculum, the point isn’t to teach students to BECOME artists but to expose them to methods by which they can express and communicate more effectively in whatever more desirable profession they are directed into.
That’s assuming that schools have an art program, that the art teacher isn’t re-purposed to teach say math or sex education, that actual art materials are available, or that there is an art room that hasn’t been converted to a computer lab.  Because teachers who actually get jobs in ‘the system’ have accepted that hey are Teachers, that they can end up teaching whatever subject they are assigned.
The big losers here are the poor, unsuspecting students who take art classes thinking they will be taught to make art and become artists. If they’re in a school with an art program, the most they’ll get are ‘projects’, usually with some kind of hidden socializing agenda (recycling, for instance, because it’s good for the environment but better for the school budget). 
Like taste testers, ‘art’ students will be rushed from exercise to exercise, rarely repeating any because society and most parents want engineers or scientists in the family, not artists. They’re cured of their art disease with the “you’ll starve’ pill, or become scared they’ll end up having to teach like their teachers, usually their only contact with ‘artists’.
These art students are especially losers when they go take art classes in ‘alternative’ educational contexts like an art centre, because too often they encounter elementary or high-school-trained teachers who couldn’t get jobs in the system. Even worse then, because these teachers aren’t trained to think of students in alternative contexts as clients who  pay expecting to learn what they couldn’t in schools.
Yes, I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated because I am dealing with people who have come from university art education programs to teach in alternative contexts for which I am now responsible, and they are not delivering. They see ‘alternative art education’ only as leisure or recreation. I am frustrated because despite their self-satisfaction as teachers and their degree-backed belief that they are artists enough to teach, I have to try to de-program and make them effective art centre teachers., even as I encourage them to practice art. 

I have a suggestion to make to university since I’d rather hire artists to teach art, but they need to learn teaching techniques. Have two branches of the Art Education Bachelor and especially Masters levels degrees. Keep one for the generalists, the ones interested in getting into the school systems. Have another for artists with professional practices who want to learn teaching techniques appropriate for art centres and other art-dedicated venues. Let there be places where students go to learn to become artists from people who actually believe it’s possible and prove it by  example.