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Seeing Red: a play about American painter Mark Rothko at the Vancouver Playhouse

In Art, Art and politics, Realtionship on April 5, 2013 at 5:33 am
Jim Mezon as painter Mark Rothko in the Vancouver Playhouse production of Red

Jim Mezon as painter Mark Rothko in the Vancouver Playhouse production of Red

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | January 21, 2012

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

“What do you see?” demands Rothko. “And how does it make you feel?”

These are the two questions that keep pulsing through John Logan’s play about Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko and his assistant. They are the questions that Rothko’s paintings themselves seem to ask, not only about paintings, but also about the world.

What do you see? And how does it make you feel?

I have to admit I went to see Red last night out of a kind of nostalgia for a time when America’s painters were most vital and important (as well as neurotic and self-absorbed and all the rest). And yet that was my fear—that I’d be seeing a period piece.

Me of little faith.

This is Rothko, after all, who stands before us and rails against everything we still cling to—real estate, money, appearance above all—everything bright and shiny—leisure and anything else that indicates status.

And then there’s the problem of a play about a painter in his studio—not exactly action-packed. Pollack, maybe, but these Color Field painters? Rothko himself says, “most of painting is thinking. 10% is putting paint on canvas; the rest is waiting.”

Thanks to Jim Mezon as Rothko and David Coomber as Ken, his assistant, and Kim Collier’s direction, the waiting is charged with tension. And words can’t describe the exuberance with which painter and assistant prime a canvas. Seriously. The play itself is every bit as vital and unsettling to us today as Rothko and his crowd were to New York in the 1950s.

More than once, Rothko decries the “nice-ness” and glib complacency of American life at mid-century, when everything was “fine, just fine.”

“We are not fine,” he shouts. “We are anything but fine.”

When the play opens, we find Rothko caught in a number of absurd contradictions. He is a rebel and an outsider who all of a sudden has a commission to paint murals for New York’s newest and trendiest restaurant. He tells his new assistant that he is not his rabbi or teacher or therapist, and then proceeds to act like all three. At the top of his game, he is most vulnerable.

He is getting old, by art world standards, and young Turks like Frank Stellaand Andy Warhol are on the ascendancy. But there is something about the sparring between master and assistant, the attack and counter attack, the philosophical questions raised, that suggest our own most troubling dilemmas and remind us of the courage it takes to remain honestly engaged with them.

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Art = Libération: Automatist Revolution comes to Vancouver’s Baron Gallery

In Art, Art and politics, Canadian painters on April 5, 2013 at 5:23 am
Pierre Gauvreau and Janine Carreau: “La jeunesse est en nous et nous sommes la jeunesse”

Pierre Gauvreau and Janine Carreau: “La jeunesse est en nous et nous sommes la jeunesse”

Published in the Vancouver Observer news site | November 15, 2011

Circulation: 100,000 monthly readers

There are openings where the work seems almost incidental. People have come to schmooze. But last month’s opening of Art = Libération at theBaron Gallery was different. At least for me, if only because I have been obsessed with les automatists ever since I first saw Jean-Paul Riopelle’s massive triptych, Hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, in Quebec City in the fall of 2001. Les automatists and their manifesto, Le Refus global, are generally thought to have been the real beginning of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution.

My dilemma has always been this: I want to like the work of these painters more than I do—at least at first glance. What has me under their spell is their process, not what’s left behind on the canvas. Their real accomplishment was in how they painted, not what. And in the end, an originality and essential energy that has a great deal to say to us today. Especially as we watch what’s happening across North America and Europe in the Occupy Movement.

My other problem is finding a way to talk about this work. My response to these painters has always been intuitive. Somehow I can only get at them obliquely, and often only by using their own methods: automatic writing, free association, spontaneous combustion, deep sea diving … the kind of wakeful dreaming out of which these paintings, poems, dances were made—and out of which many of these artists lived.

On the night of the opening, I noticed I needed a way back into this work, in a sense a way back to Quebec. Four years in Vancouver, and I’ve grown used to the milky quality of light, the soft blue-grey cast, out of which more primary colours pop. My own palette has darkened considerably since I moved here. So when I came into the gallery and saw the work, it all seemed too bright, somehow. And too flat. Like extraordinary (and very expensive) wrapping paper, which begs the question: what, then, lies underneath this bright surface? At first, there seems no way in. I kept being bounced off, and so I snuck upstairs to be quietly with the smaller work. And for me it opened the door.

For if the work of Pierre Gauvreau and Janine Carreau can be said to be “about” anything, it is about the mind that makes it. No, it’s a level deeper—what lies beneath the mind, the psyche, in which we find the glorious chaos of images, words, tribal memories, sexual initiation and heroism. It is, as C. G. Jung kept reminding us, the source of our creativity in art and in all other areas, and it is collective—a shared resource.

It is never—no matter how much money the last Riopelle sold for—about the product. Therein lies the integrity of les automatises. And for me their relevance today.

“Le règne de la peur multiforme est terminé. (The reign of multi-faceted fear is over.)” Paul-Émile Borduas writes in Le Refus global, the automatist manifesto in 1948.

fear of facing prejudice—fear of public opinion—of persecutions—of general disapproval;

fear of being alone, without the God and the society which isolate you anyway;

fear of oneself—of one’s brother—of  poverty;

fear of the established order—or ridiculous justice;

fear of new relationships;

fear of the superrational;

fear of necessities;

fear of floodgates opening on one’s faith in man—on the society of the future;

fear of forces able to release transforming love;

 

I don’t know about you, but these words never fail to give me goose bumps. When I first encountered them ten years ago, I felt I’d found a whole new branch of my family tree. Allies. Kindred spirits. Where had they been all my life?

And yet, the problem I had with Gauvreau’s work the other night is the problem I’ve always had with the surrealists. I was captivated by their method, but the work itself left me cold. The artists were too self-conscious, as I was reminded during the VAG’s latest show, “The Colour of My Dreams: The Surrealist Revolution in Art.” Instead of being invited into the dream, I was made aware of the cleverness of the artist dreaming.

Once I had spent some time with Gauvreau’s work, as I say, I could enter it more fully. The longer I looked, the deeper it carried me. And where it seemed to lead me was, once again, to the present moment.

From my first encounter with them in 2001, there’s been something about the automatists that felt eerily resonant with the present—as if they had expressed in 1948 something that was wanting to be said today but which couldn’t quite find its voice.

True, there were people who were skeptical about the US election results in 2000, and those who raised troubling questions about the terrorist attacks on the twin towns in 2001. True, there were the usual candle-lit marches against the US invasion of Iraq. But more and more one felt a growing silence and complicity among journalists, Senators, novelists, and poets—with all too few, however notable, exceptions.

What exactly did I see in the work of the automatists that captured my imagination in 2001? Again, it was what lay behind the work itself, the process of making, a shameless and apologetic reliance on dream, spontaneity, random association—a belief in the value of the inner life, the seeming chaos of the psyche—perhaps most important of all: the willingness to be in the process, to surrender to it, to follow it  and to keep following it in the spirit of discovery, always careful not to fall into the reductive habit of interpretation. Instead, these poets and painters devoted their lives to listening and unfolding

If I were to fault them in any way, it would be because in a sense they were too deeply located in themselves, too subjective, and yet, I’m not even sure that’s true. To get at that, I’d need more time and space than I have here. The truth is right from the start, The Global Refusal addressed, history, oppression, the Church and proclaimed an entirely new mode of expression and way of life—from the inside, yes, but always moving out toward others.

“Make way for magic!” writes Borduas. “Make way for objective mysteries! Make way for love! Make way for necessities!”

The self-seeking act is fettered to its author; it is stillborn.

The passionate act breaks free, through its very dynamism.

We gladly take on full responsibility for tomorrow. Rational effort, once in its proper place, will be available again to disengage the present from the limbo of the past.

Passions shape the future spontaneously, unpredictably, necessarily.

Spontaneous, unpredictable, and in some sense necessary—all seem to describe the Occupy Movement, especially in its earliest days. In New York, San Francisco, Chicago, people began to gather without really knowing why. Social media aside, there seemed a deeper dreaming impulse here. In many cases, it was only after they’d gathered that protesters began to discuss why they were there. And in the discussion, they discovered more about what they wanted to see happen. On some level, the convergence of people in  a public place was the whole point. Strategic planning, letters to legislators, withdrawing money from big banks are almost beside the point. What mattered most was the face-to-face meeting of people who were from surprisingly divergent points in the political spectrum.

The issues weren’t at all clear. Even who was to blame was almost beside the point. The “enemy” was an address, a street in Manhattan—also something nebulous—the banks—capitalism—a timespirit of theft and betrayal. Very different from the mass protests of the 60s and 70s, which had clearer objectives: ending the War in Vietnam, for instance.

Here there is an indistinct sense that something (hard to say what) is wrong and has been for some time. And as much as it is outside us, it is also within us—our own blind craving and greed.

Finally, it’s the automatists’ courage to stand in unknowable mystery that I most admire. It seems a skill that is particularly useful to us in 2011.

And whatever else the work of Pierre Gauvreau and Janine Carreau is about, it is most certainly about that.