Art, head on

I had an interesting conversation the other day. Two young women came into the office to ask some questions and make a donation. One of them looked at me closely and said, “Are you the guy who wrote that piece about art in Tofino Time a while ago?”

I knew what she was referring to — a locally infamous rant about the Tofino art scene that sparked discussion, and dissention, among local artists and art lovers. (See some reaction in the blog post below.) I said yes, sheepishly, stunned that anyone after five months would remember it and bring it up again. I wondered why she asked.

“I’m an art student and i’m staging a show in a month,” she said. “I want to invite you to come and see it … and slam it.”

This startled me on a couple of fronts. First (because, after all, it’s all about me) that i seemed to now have an enduring rep as (a) an art critic and (b) some kind of art-eating carnivore.

Second, it was the audacity of the gal to spontaneously invite such a “slamming.”

“Now wait a minute–,” her companion said, protectively, probably thinking she was doing something impulsive and crazy.

“No,” the artist interrupted, “the critical process is an important part of the art scene.”

“Wow,” i said, “that’s pretty … not ballsy, let’s say gonad-y.” She laughed.

I explained that i would not automatically slam anything, that my art rant in Tofino Time was as much fiction as critique. But i couldn’t help being impressed that she was actually hungry for a reaction — even a lambasting — from what she seemed to think was the fiercest (or maybe just the most outspoken) critic in town.

On reflection, that nervy request seems to me one of the most genuine expression of artistic integrity i’ve come across. The sentiment that I’ve done my best, now do your worst speaks strongly of the her view of art and its place in her world.

She said her work was “just student quality” — she’s a first-year student at a cross-island art college. The phrase “student work” fell harshly on my ears, but i wasn’t quite sure why. Afterwards, it occurred to me there are two aspects to visual art: the skill with which it is executed, and the (harder to articulate) content of the art — what it says, or means, or invokes. And i thought, to label something “student quality” is to do it an injustice from the outset. Skill of execution is a continuous spectrum, that starts with a child’s first crude scrawl with a crayon and evolves from there; there’s no “arrival” at professional quality, there’s just a gradual and ideally continuous increase in competence.

So “student quality” doesn’t bother me, because i think most of us can look beyond the quality of execution of a work to get at least an inkling of its content — whether it’s merely trying to be an attractive picture, or there’s something more underlying the effort. Which is, in a nutshell, what my Toff Time article was about.

Without cue from me, she pointed out that one of her techniques is to re-use her old paint chips in new works, because she didn’t like the thought of just sending them to the landfill. This interested me immediately, because one of my concerns about art is its environmental impact — all the plastic and chemicals it uses, the consequences of which most artists, in their ecstasy of creation, seem oblivious to.

I look forward to seeing this woman’s painting and drawing, and trying to give her an honest reaction. This will be near impossible, i fear. She is well liked in the community and, i think, senses she will get little but unqualified support from the public. I doubt i’m going to find much to “slam,” if only because she already has the confidence to stand up and invite it.

Art is hard, even in its simplest incarnation. As anybody who’s sat down with a pencil and a piece of paper knows, it’s damn difficult to produce something that’s even just passably pleasing to the eye, never mind embodying something deeper. I don’t want to set up impossible expectations here, but that’s what i’ll be looking for come July 24th (an approximate date, i think).

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