Friday, 10 November 2017

Art is Not Therapy

     Therapy is good. Art is good. Both are good together, and being creative has therapeutic value, but art is not therapy. Imagine a carpenter on a rooftop in the summer, hammering away and someone yells, “Hey, you have a great job! That's great therapy you're getting!” Yes, he is getting exercise and he’s out in the sun, but likely he never thought his job was therapeutic. He’s focused on the task at hand and bringing home the bacon. 
    If therapy is to be described as anything that improves your mental health then anyone who has a job that keeps them out of poverty is doing something that will bring some form of mental health. Poverty and underemployment suck and one’s mental health can spiral downward as a result. Seems obvious, that is if you take the meaning of the word at its weakest. Therapy is a form of medical treatment, usually performed after a diagnosis by a health professional. The word's meaning may have been distorted humorously to take away the stigma associated with the word. Now we all get therapy by laying in the hot sun on Baia do Sancho beach in Brazil.  
Apprentice, assistant and an artist in her own right, Claire Douglas-Lee
learns what it takes to be a full time artist. 
     The drawbacks of a creative job are offset by the benefits of doing a job one at least enjoys and at most loves with the dangling hope that one might become successful at it and earn a professional living. Since creative people generally enjoy the act of using their brains and hands to make something they are generally happier in their jobs, which is why many people dream of the day they can give up their day job to follow their passion. The trouble with following your passion and making your hobby your full time job is that you have to sacrifice what other people need from you with what you love to do. And in order to make a living you have to compete with other creative people doing the same kind of thing, some professional and others pretending to be. 
    Living as an artist is complicated, requiring about five jobs just to earn a living, along with the hope and expectations beyond what is possible. It’s hard work being an artist, mitigated by its enjoyment and made opaque by the product. If the product is beautiful and everyone loves it they will most likely still have no idea what kind of anxiety and frustrations and effort went into its creation. Nor how long it took to learn, perfect and practice the tools and methods required to get to the point of creating a good work. 
    Many artists in our egalitarian society like to give the impression that they are cosmically linked to the source of their inspiration and that ideas and creativity just flow through them. And the results often go without criticism because in our society anyone can call themselves an artist. Art is no longer offered as part of the curriculum in many schools. The result is that artists have to battle many stereotypes. We can sadly be misunderstood. Although it does create a mystique about being an artist that can be beneficial, but there is little value otherwise.
    The current growing stereotype is that the arts are therapy, one in the same. It’s an argument used by artists themselves to defend the arts, used because it’s assumed that it is easier for the public to relate to, but likely it’s causing more harm than good. It’s certainly not a convincing argument to use when imploring politicians to improve funding for the arts. 
     I prefer the older stereotype where artists lose their minds battling with their souls and spending decades trying to create the one masterpiece, constantly struggling, fighting it out with other artists and their patrons, demanding exposure in the galleries and then dying in poverty, but leaving the world with a bounty of great work that is one day enjoyed by the public worldwide. It’s still a terrible stereotype, but the current feel-good friendly new age version of what it is to be an artist lacks the weight and seriousness that really is part of our lives. 

Sam Shahsahabi and Christian Chapman at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery

     Sam Shahsahabi has created a series of works for his show, Beneath the Reflection, at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery where copper acts as a canvas on which enamel paint and acids are applied to create patinas of varying colours. Inspired by Persian poetry and postcolonial philosophy, Sam states, “I wanted to explore how in my personal life I came to learn about East and West and if there are any windows of opportunities to bridge the two.”
     Sam got his BFA in painting from Azad University in Tehran, his MFA at York University in Toronto and then after several years of working and exhibiting he began teaching in the Visual Arts department of Lakehead University.
     “Most of my work in the past ten years concentrated on the division of mankind and its environment and the fact that these days we mostly learn about distant cultures through media and brief news feeds in social media.” Concerned that meaningful understanding of different cultures is disconnected by cultural stereotypes he also looks for healing. “I try to create positive works, which have literal and conceptual healing powers by employing the power of copper and sacred geometry.”
    Whether mystical powers actually come into play and influence the viewer of Sam’s work or not, the inspiration has resulted in unusually interesting wall hangings and sculptural pieces with detailed traditional patterning and colouring. What little imagery there is, flowers and oil rigs, contrast some of the beauty and the ugliness, the growth and entropy of our world. This makes for a worthwhile show that has the physical weight of sculpture with details that add to the suggestion of meaning.

     In gallery three are two works by Christian Chapman, a small print that is humorous, yet a bit hard to decipher, and a very large acrylic painting that makes a big statement. Called, The Time is Now, and Yesterday, and Tomorrow…, Christian continues to explore themes mixing the worlds of the indigenous with the colonialist in this show called, Fight For Your Life. Christian employs the Woodland style, often inverting and subverting subjects and styles using humour combined with a critical voice, often allowing for multiple interpretations. 
     This new large work is less open to your interpretation. It is whimsical in its use of sea creatures and cartoon-like approach, but like an oversized political cartoon the painting is clearly making a comment on the fate of indigenous people in Thunder Bay; the location given away by our Sleeping Giant resting in the background. 
    The painting incorporates one of the world’s most famous paintings, The Raft of the Medusa, by ThĂ©odore GĂ©ricault. In that work an incompetent captain, given the position of captain as a result of nepotism rather than experience, runs his ship on rocks at sea forcing surviving crew members to build a raft from parts of the ship. It was nearly two weeks before they were rescued, but not before some starved to death, some were murdered and others resorted to cannibalism. 
    Homaged and allegorized for political and social statements by many artists this version by Christian faults the captains of our community for their failures, either through inattention or incompetence that has resulted in increased racism, the four year torture of indigenous man in prison, and an inordinate number of suicides and murders. 
    The painting isn’t a master work, but it gets close. It’s missing the specifics to truly hit home with a hard message or multiple messages, but one can’t fault Christian for not getting into the details. For him it must hit home too much. It must hurt. When speaking of the painting during the opening night for his and Sam’s show, in front of a large audience, or when responding to questions for this article, Christian is reluctant to get into details. And he doesn’t need to. The painting speaks for him.
     Both shows are on display at the Definitely Superior Art Gallery at 250 Park Ave. till November 11.

Quinten Maki and Denise Smith at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery

With the task to fill Gallery One of the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, Quinten Maki produced a stunning show called Kohesion. Filled with bold expressionistic works, both intense yet playful, Maki used various mediums, often paper on canvas in order to mimic the worn and weathered age of dilapidated walls, abandoned construction sites and sheets of metal (as if dragged from a site and hung on a gallery wall) and the colourful treading of the wheels of Caterpillar vehicles.
     The occasional drip or splatter is reminiscent of Jackson Pollack and other expressionist artists of the 1950s and 60s, yet with the combination of stencil, paper, some figurative drawings, various gels and paint mediums, the works are updated and more dynamic. 
   The constructivist elements are contradicted by a sense of hope, a celebration of returning beauty amongst the decay where glazing gives the stencil and painted layers an extra depth and the gloss varnish coats the reflective and iridescent paint splatters to make sections shine and allow for the impression that sections of the painting are tissue paper thin and could be blown away at any moment by a gust of wind. This creates an unusually delicate and temporal feel. So while the works are simultaneously mimicking the heavy weight of sheets of steel or aluminum they also mimic the beauty and translucence of butterfly wings. This is most obvious in the work “Tango with White.” This combination is a very difficult effect to pull off. 
     It’s companion piece on the opposite wall seems to be dominated by electrical tape and has a heavier feel. Similar experiments or playing with mediums are made in works where the additions of charcoal drawings of humans are glued to a variety of pieces. Although these aren’t the most dynamic works in the show they have their own humanist weight and offer the viewer another avenue to ponder.

     The world of ceramic cartoon delight in Denise Smith’s works in her show, On The Trail, have just enough hint of the austere and arcane nature of the world to save the art from being legitimate ceramic kitsch, the kind where a porcelain dolphin leaps from the waves, the thing your grandmother might have collected. That isn’t to say the show wouldn’t be fun or worthwhile for adults without a good social statement, but the artist is using a theme to create something deeper and a little disturbing, yet not intrusive enough to alter our impulse to want her little worlds to be wonderful play parks in their own right. The incredible amount of time, skill, talent and patience found in this show are phenomenal and Smith's dedication to the underlying effort to educate her audience about our complicated relationship with nature is commendable. The show's message is better understood this way than presented in an essay or a hundred other ways by artists who could take the same subject and make their work shocking, overly abstruse or coldly analytical and dull. Smith has made this show one worth returning to and talking about because it inhabits a number or worlds, both contemporary and popular, a perfect blend. 
     On the popular art side, this show is a kind of advanced story book for children where some of the arcane reality of nature is exposed, and some of the fakery involved in maintaining a peaceful stereotype of nature is typically hidden in our manicured parks. Our national parks might be free of the indigenous people who once populated the land and the parks may hide the circle of life where death results from animals feeding upon one another, but Denise’s little windows with her hints into reality will only add to your enjoyment. Whether her intended message is truly inculcated in the works is debatable, but there is no reason to 
     Children will love and appreciate her honesty while adults will read the statement and agree that what is made safe for us, sanitized, is something to worry about. There is, after all, a great loss in not truly understanding nature and appreciating its beauty and potential danger merely as it exists for and with its own right to exist as such. Nature is nothing to be afraid of if you learn from it.  Both shows are at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery until November 19.