Saturday, 25 February 2012

Totto And Strand

In Memory of Georgia O'Keeffe

By Rory A.A. Hinton

Georgia O'Keeffe
Jack-In-The-Pulpit No. IV

Ghost Ranch revisited under ancient constellations:
Old New Mexican lovers extend their feminine invitations
To signal out, in Totto, the smoking visceral Strand.
Inhaling the immanent cuts, and the slowly vanishing butts,
Within the fingers of their clean and curious hands.

Oblivious to the subject of their conversation:
Early departure and late debilitation
Prevent their old men from entering their cryptic "Amen".
The girls stop crying, as the women start trying,
To pull their way into this Parfum de femme.

The end of their beginning starts with a kiss:
Sitting in naked nobility, bowing in deviant bliss
As both lips sing inhuman effectual verse.
For those who wait, and who despise being late,
Belong the write to mythologize this compact universe.

Metaphor is the dreamwork of their language:
Working out her nightmare, yet lying back so languid
She briefly opens her eyes and assures her with a smile.
With her black eyes closed, and her tenderness exposed,
She watches over her eye-lined Nefertiti of the Nile.

Their sweet anatomy gone, but their ghostly scent remains:
Totto and Strand must bury this dead man's remains
As he enters their memories while paying his forfeit.
Haunted by a vision, never subject to revision,
For one brief definitive moment: pulpit.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Two Black Figures

Drabinsky Gallery
114 Yorkville Avenue
Toronto, Ontario
M5R 1B9
February 2011

Review by Julie Hinton Walker

Sarah Elise Hall
Untitled Figure
Resin and glitter
H 30 inches

In 2011 the Drabinsky Gallery in Yorkville held a two person exhibition featuring works on paper by Leonard Cohen and sculpture by Sarah Elise Hall. Sadly, the gallery closed its doors shortly thereafter, yet discoveries made are still worth remembering.
     The gallery accepts visitors with no special fanfare. One is almost expected and certainly welcomed. It is situated on a busy corner and happily allows itself to be stumbled upon in the course of a day. Enter and quiet transcends the bustle of the world without. The art displayed speaks no singular language and patiently awaits discovery. On this day the gallery's offering includes, among others, works by Leonard Cohen. Beautiful remnants from a past Cohen show of 2007. Behind him, Cohen left a delicate trail of delicious thoughts and images to be swept up in.
     Brushing away the soft residue of Cohen's poetry, you are struck by a stark white room. You stop and feel how it is meant to titillate by mere virtue of its emptiness. Without thinking, your eye travels bang, bang, bang, to a large room, bright light, white walls, two black figures floating and two piles of black sand on the floor beneath the figures. The installation is arresting.
     The paint finish on the figures is black and glittering capturing light and imagination. My mind races to a midnight summer sky of Temagami. Prone on a dock, hovering above the lake, I am enveloped by a canopy of endless light puncturing endless darkness with a suspended history; as though time had freed itself from any confines and exposed what seems like every star that has ever existed.
     I step closer towards the two black figures. I hear the lapping water at my back splashing rhythmically in time to the twinkling stars above. These walls are white; the white of the Temagami stars are so close, one could take a spoon and scoop them up. The two black figures seemingly float before the wall. For me, their story begins to unfold. It is a history created as the shadow behind each figure forms and moves in tandem with my movement. Tick tick tick. In this moment, we are brought together. The dark grey shadow layers and fades as it dissolves into the white light of the wall. I see the passage of time. I feel the inevitable.
     The figures are the deepest of black betrayed only by the light reflected off each grain of glitter. This blackness creates a visual void. I dare to stick my head in past the outline of the forms to see what is behind the wall! Look long enough and time halts. A shift occurs. The white wall appears closer; the figures form a portal leading my eye out past the room inviting me in; offering a place among the stars where time matters not.
     I step back. The figures have surrendered themselves to this contemporary crucifixion scene. External pressures have left their mark on the postures with heads down and arms hanging; defeated. Defeated by time. "Fallen angels, shadows up against the sun", as Robbie Robertson versed. I stand in a place where nothing is as it was and nothing will ever be the same from here. There is no alternative but to look within. And, looking in, one can see a universe of limitless stars and endless possibility. And, is it not the universe we look out to for our future?
     As you ponder the mortality of it all, your attention falls to the floor. Collected beneath each figure is a pile of the black glitter that adorns the figures and has seemingly fallen away. Is the artist suggesting an hour glass without a glass? Time slips easily and away into history. We sense it is running out and we see we can never get it back. Have we now used up all of our chances to once again, turn the hour glass over and merely carry on?
     Perhaps, if we peer into our own depths, we may discover something new or, seek out something known, yet long neglected. Sarah Elise Hall may be inviting us to go inward to a place beyond ourselves leading us to a place where a new understanding soon approaches.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Dance Me To The End Of Love

Drabinsky Gallery
114 Yorkville Avenue
Toronto, Ontario
M5R 1B9
February 2011

Review by Rory A.A. Hinton

The Living Poet

The Drabinsky Gallery in Toronto hosted an art exhibit entitled "Drawn to Words: Visual Works from 40 Years" in the spring of 2007. It was the first public exhibition of the art of Leonard Cohen. 40 private drawings (from doodles on napkins to digital images initially drawn on a wooden Wacom tablet), made over the past 40 years for the soul amusement of Cohen and his friends, finally saw the public light of day five ago this coming May 2012.
     Friends and fans alike showed up at the gallery for the opening of the exhibit that spring, then located at 122 Scollard Street. As they emerged from their black stretch limos parked in front of the gallery the artist of the moment was conspicuous by his absence. Seemingly out of nowhere a lone figure was eventually spotted walking down Scollard Street toward Drabinsky Gallery. It was Cohen. Like the "kind and powerful" Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Cohen is a man who obviously likes to walk to his work. The New York Times said of him in 1973 that "you are sometimes rewarded with a poet's profound thoughts, sometimes with a pop star's put-on." Was Cohen playing the ironic trickster here, brashly courting public success by pretending to privately ignore it? Then again, maybe this very living poet was just being fashionably late.
     Four years later the gallery hosted another exhibit of Cohen's work in February 2011 called "Dance me to the end of love." It consisted of eight prints drawn from the original "Drawn to Words" exhibit. Cohen described these prints in the Upper Gallery as an instance of "transcendent decoration." This remark hints at his artistic hermeneutic, and indicates the reason why his work can, and should, be read as a concrete response to the abstract expressionist work of someone like Harold Town (whose work was retrospectively shown for the opening gala of Drabinsky Gallery in 1990).
     Pop art does not invite abstract analysis, nor does it necessarily require it. Cohen's own brand of decorative pop invites us to surface our attention upon objects that are ready-to-hand so we can confront the thingness of ready-made-things. "I have always loved things," Cohen once said, "just things in the world. I love trying to find the shape of things." If 'love' is another word for paying attention, then Cohen's exhibit clears the floor to dance us to the end of his own attentiveness: self-portraits, lost spectacles, a red guitar, and the seductive surface of the female form. His end becomes our beginning by reminding us that Richler was right: an artist is simply an attentive witness to her own time, his own place, and their own things.

Lost Spectables

Red Guitar

      When asked what Coca-Cola meant to him, Warhol answered: "pop". This "deeply superficial" remark (as funny as it is factual) unites both the form and the content of his art in one word. It serves as a concise example of how and why Warhol directed attention to the surface of things. To know all about Warhol requires a focused intimacy with the surface of his paintings, his sculptures, and his films. Beyond this surface there is nothing to know because there is no thing to know. The shape of things like pictures (moving or otherwise) show their surface depth.
     Cohen's door, guitar, dustpan, and wainscot flooring, brought together on a flat surface, are as transcendentally decorative as his less-than-still life. As one woman said of him, he is "complicated in a very grown-up way, [a way that] makes even Dylan seem childish." Cohen congratulated this woman for a book she had recently published while they enjoyed dinner together one evening. She was flattered, of course, until Cohen remarked: "Your book is more interesting than you are." Cohen is a deeply superficial tease. His brand of grown-up complexity manifests itself clearly in his fond fetish for the female form (a recurring theme in this exhibit).

Her Hand In Sand #2

     The print "Her Hand In Sand #2" succeeds in showing how the simple shape of seemingly handless arms can serve as a complex metaphor about whether this woman's left hand knows what her right hand is doing. And yet it simultaneously fails to combine colours in a way that might serve the metaphor better by reminding us of, say, "Nu aux jambas croisees" by Matisse.
     Despite Cohen's credulous colouring, he is nonetheless able to unite luscious form and linguistic content by literally drawing us to his words (shapes in their own right). Nowhere is this more evident than in Cohen's print "Dear Roshi". It is at once a birthday greeting, an ironic apology, a homage to feminine seduction, and a poetic descendant of the enlightened eroticism of "Red Thread" Zen:

sin like a madman
until you can't do anything else
no room for any more
(Ikkyu Sojun, 1394 - 1481)

     By 1994 Cohen seemingly had no more room for wine, women, and song. Drinking at least three bottles of wine before he went on stage during his concert tour that year took its toll. He heard the bell and knew it was for him. When the wine stopped flowing, and the women stopped coming, and the song stopped singing, he entered the Mt. Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles to live the life of a monk and study with his long time teacher and friend Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi. His seclusion lasted for five years.

Shambhala Sun


     In 1996 Cohen was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk and served as personal assistant to Sasaki Roshi (secretary, driver, and occasional drinking buddy). Like all good Zen men before him Cohen is absolutely devoted to his teacher. In speaking of his rigorous training while at Mt. Baldy (he once referred to Zen monks as "the Marines of the spiritual world"), he told a reporter at the time that you can only engage in training like this out of love. Picking up on the indirect reference to his teacher the reporter asked: "So, if it weren't for the Roshi you wouldn't be here?" Without missing a poetic beat Cohen said: "If it weren't for the Roshi, I wouldn't be." He then went on to say that one of the reasons he became a monk was because "Roshi wanted me to do so for tax purposes." Death and taxes. Love indeed.
     Is it any wonder that the centerpiece of this exhibit is Cohen's love letter to his Roshi? Written in letters that are as shapely as its subject matter, Cohen mischievously informs his teacher that his love for the female form has indeed got the very best of this very useless monk (plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose):

Dear Roshi


     He obviously had some room left for the women. Zen has its merits, and also its limits. It all depends upon the practitioner. Monks are the shit eaters of the world ("shit happens"), and by 1999 Cohen evidently lost his appetite. In a poem called "The Collapse Of Zen", this husky poet of the mourning after asks a series of rhetorical questions about sex and enlightenment that is clearly reminiscent of Sojun's brand of collapsible verse. Cohen's koan poses the following question in the opening stanza:

When I can wedge my face
into the place
and struggle with my breathing
as she brings her eager fingers down
     to separate herself,
to help me use my whole mouth
against her hungriness,
     her most private of hungers -
why should I want to be enlightened?

Then again, why not? If enlightenment is a woman named Rebecca De Mornay ...
     What does it mean to brashly court public success by pretending to privately ignore it? Ironically enough to succeed for Cohen is to fail. In the end nothing works. The wanderlust that has characterized his life taught him as much. In commenting on his many travels, and his inability to stick to something for the long haul, Cohen said: "I didn't see it or think about it at the time, but I'd get tired of something and then move on to something else, never terribly happy doing it, leaving one thing for the next because the thing I had didn't work, whether it was the woman or the poem or the city of whatever it was - it wasn't working, nothing worked. Until I understood that nothing works. But you know, that took me a lifetime to understand that nothing works and to accept that." Nothing works. It is and remains hopeless. This hopeless roamantic knows that gaining inner peace and harmony is not a victimless crime. It kills you. It makes you useless.

Still Looking

     There was a haunting sense of loss in this exhibit: lost pussy, lost spectacles, lost selflessness, even lost life (the name of this exhibit is the title of a song Cohen wrote in response to the Jewish Holocaust). To experience Cohen's work is to experience the loss that life brings, even lost royalties. And yet the experience of the exhibit, like the experience of his life up to this point, is a clear instance of the truth that art is indeed (and in word) what you can get away with. To be danced to the end of love by a dancer who has got away with much in his life, to be shown through his art that life is loss because it is suffering, does not bring a sense of hope, but rather hopeless resignation. Even hopeless resignation is hopeless. In the midst of the useless loss of this useless monk, there is an empty affirmation of inner peace and harmony here (even if there are no girls anymore). Within the beautiful harness of "Dance me to the end of love", it is difficult not to experience the meaning of his Zen Dharma name 'Jikan': it is difficult not to bow one's own head and be reduced to "ordinary silence."

Drabinsky Gallery: 1990 - 2011
Leonard Cohen: 1934 - 2016

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Good Art Is Good Business

Seven Days In The Art World
Sarah Thornton
W.W. Norton & Company

Review by Rory A.A. Hinton

Seven Days In The Art World

In a review for the April 2011 issue of Art + Auction, Andrew Russeth describes Noah Horowitz's book Art Of The Deal: Contemporary Art In A Global Financial Market as an "advanced addendum" to Sarah Thornton's book Seven Days in the Art World. The description is apt. Thornton's book presents a journalistic case for understanding the art world as a "cluster of overlapping subcultures" all united by a common assumption: good art is good business. The moral of this tale is clear enough: you cannot answer the question "What is art?" in the post-Warhol era without facing the financial facts. A definition of art that is not financially informed, especially in light of the deflation of the art market in 2008, is as useless as it is uninformed.
     Each chapter of her book presents a variation on this common assumption. "The Auction" describes art as an economic investment and luxury good. "The Crit" describes art as a lifelong occupation constrained by the need for artists to promote their careers by selling their work. "The Prize" describes art as part of a museum attraction and media story about the worth of artists who are lucky enough to win the coveted Turner Prize. "The Magazine" presents art as an excuse for words that promote the sale of trade magazines with crossover cachet like ARTFORUM (Thornton rightly remarks that "ARTFORUM is to art what Vogue is to fashion and what Rolling Stone is to rock and roll"). "The Studio Visit" describes art as naturally embodied in the work of entrepreneurial artist Takashi Murakami. And "The Biennale" describes art as simply an alibi for economic networking and tourist activity.
     This indicates that Thornton's book provides a broad basis for Horowitz's advanced examination of the financial factors that influence artists to create art "for the upwardly mobile elite with money to burn." It is not without significance, therefore, that in a 2009 interview with Canadian Art magazine Thornton described herself as an "ethnographer of the elite."
     One useful way of reading Seven Days In The Art World is as an artistic variant on Marshall McLuhan's notion that "culture is our business, and business is our culture." In this instance, our culture is art and it is all business. One of the largest unregulated markets in the world, the art market is as concerned with supply and demand as any Factory in operation today. Those who make the art, those who sell the art, those who buy the art, and those who consult on behalf of the makers, the sellers, and the buyers are all getting away with something. So they should.
     However, the Pop art ideal of dismantling the distinction between fine and commercial art (thereby making art democratically accessible to the market), does nothing to change the present economic reality. Art is as it exists within a market that makes it possible for the upwardly mobile elite to pay top dollar for it. Here is an ethnographic case in point: Andy Warhol's 1967 Self-Portrait sold for $17.4 million at Christie's contemporary art sale in London in February 2011. It seems only the elite can own an original Warhol.
     Then again, almost anyone can own a replicated Warhol at a fraction of the cost. This fact raises a crucial point about the politics of the art world that critics of Thornton's book either miss or misunderstand. The democratic accessibility of art does not require a simultaneous equal distribution of wealth so that everyone has equal access and equal means to purchase it. Critics of our present art world, and those who disapprove of what they take to be Thornton's less than critical examination of it, tend to make a faulty inference. They infer the necessary value of the equal distribution of wealth from the contingent fact of the democratic accessibility of art. This inference does not follow.
     Governmental policies committed to the equal distribution of wealth in a democratic society violate a fundamental right of democratic citizens. Forcing the moneyed elite to indirectly give their money away to others who have less infringes upon the right of the elite to individual freedom of choice. It prevents them from doing what they want with their medium of exchange. This right is the sine qua non of democratic freedom. Ironically enough, the "worst off representative person" in this situation is the person forced to give up this fundamental democratic right. There is more than one Theory Of Justice.
     This fundamental right applies to the art world as it does to any other subculture. Freely exercising this right requires a relatively unregulated market. People can use their money to purchase art, or they can freely give it away to others so that they can purchase art (or anything else they might want to buy). Either way, everyone in the art world can and should burn their money the way they want. In turn, if the assumption that good art is good business is warranted, then those of us in the art world can turn this burn into an art form itself. The upshot of this argument is that there will always be economic inequality within a democracy, but at least most consumers of art can own a Warhol (whether original or replicated). 
     When asked in a recent interview whether she was concerned that her book might seem anachronistic now that the market is "tanking" (as the interview put it to her at the time), Thornton makes an important observation. It is an observation that only confirms Russeth's description of Horowitz's book. She mentions that what gets described in "The Biennale" took place at the very height of the art market in June 2007, just prior to the sub-prime crisis. Thornton thinks that the end of the economic boom is a stroke of luck for Seven Days In The Art World. She thinks it turns her book into a definitive social history of the very recent past. She is right. Lucky for Thornton this also makes her book an artistic commodity well worth owning. 

Andrew Russeth. Art + Auction. April, 2011.
Charlene K. Lau. Canadian Art. April, 2009.
John Rawls. Theory Of Justice. Harvard University Press, 1971.
Noah Horowitz. Art Of The Deal: Contemporary Art In A Global Financial Market. Princeton University Press, 2011.
Robert Nozick. Anarchy, State, And Utopia. Basic Books, 1977.
Sarah Thornton. Seven Days In The Art World. W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.