Entries in art (4)


Art is what you can get away with*

An example of Michel Luc Bellemare's "supra impasto" technique. Photo courtesy Ottawa Citizen.


My colleague Zev Singer has a feature in this week's Observer about an Ottawa artist named Michel Luc Bellemare who has spent the past few years pulling off a fascinating artistic grift: He's fudged his resume, claiming have "his work in the National Gallery; acquisitions by the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Museum of Civilization; a PhD from Carleton University; stories written about his groundbreaking work in the Globe and Mail, the New York Times and USA Today."

None of it is true, but that hasn't stopped Bellemare from using these purported credentials to get media attention and space in local galleries.

As Zev points out, this is an old trick, and Bellemare is hardly the first artist to use calculated misrepresentation as a way of not only advancing his career, but also making a meta-statement about the nature of art. But unlike, say, Warhol, whose deceptions were designed as comments on the superficiality of art and the shallowness of fame, Bellemare can't seem to decide whether he's making an artistic statement, or just trying to get people to pay attention to his paintings.

In the end, the question is whether Bellemare's work is any good. He uses what he calls a “supra impasto” technique to create a “highly textured surface, globs upon globs of colour.” And while Bellemare "considers it work of the highest level," curator Diana Nemiroff is not so sure:

“Yes, there is a slight possibility that we’re unable to see the genius in his work,” Nemiroff said. “Historically, there have been artists who’ve been overlooked. Today, when the art world is global and constantly searching for the next new thing, it seems less likely that a new van Gogh, for instance, would see his paintings go unsold.”

Here's a link to Zev's story, and a gallery of Bellemare's work.

* Thanks to Andrew Coyne for the title.



Where Shock Art is Still Dangerous

One of the defining characteristics of Western culture is our inability to be shocked by art...

That's the opening to my column in last week's Maclean's magazine, which is largely about the clampdown on artists in China. One thing I wanted to work in was an anecdote about Wham!'s famous tour of China in 1985, when they became the first Western pop act to tour the Middle Kingdom. I'll never forget reading in the papers stories about security guards beating kids who were trying to dance at the concerts. At the time, it seemed to fit in with my teenaged Footloose worldview -- that The Man was the same everywhere.

But the crucial lesson is that, while the countercultural rebellion pretty much is Western culture, there are parts of the world where anti-conformist iconoclasm is seen as a genuine threat. China is one such society, and it is disheartening to see that the Canadian government has no apparent views on the kidnapping of Ai Weiwei by Chinese authorities. 



RIP Denis Dutton, philosopher, aesthete, aggregator

Denis Dutton has died. An American philosopher working in New Zealand, Dutton is probably best known as the found of the Arts and Letters Daily, one of the best of the early Web 1.0 aggregators. The ALDaily has always been a great read, but my feelings about Dutton himself are somewhat ambivalent.

When I was teaching philosophy at Trent University in Peterborough, we invited Dutton to give the annual Ryle Lectures, a series that brings a distinguished philosopher to the university for lectures and informal meetings with students, staff and the public. Dutton's lectures were not very good. They consisted mostly of slide shows and amounted to little more than a version of "what I did on my summer vacation" wrapped in a weakly-argued anti-Gombrichian thesis about evolution and objective aesthetic value. Nor did Dutton do much to ingratiate himself to his hosts: his preference for lunchtime conversation appeared to be based in either red-baiting or feminist-baiting. All told, his visit was a disappointment.

But he did do some valuable work in philosophy and art. His essay "Authenticity in Art", written for the Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, is excellent. This piece was a big influence on the arguments in chapters 3 and 7 of AH, especially his riff on the importance of a critical audience in maintaining a living artistic tradition. Indeed, every fan of contemporary jazz should pay attention to his argument about the death of opera. I also helped myself to a great anecdote from this essay:

A Pacific Island dancer was once asked about his native culture. “Culture?” he responded. “That’s what we do for the tourists.”

He will be missed.



Art so extreme it can never be seen

Even as Banksy is busy working for The Simpsons, the authentic street-art scene has gone, literally, underground. Today's NYT has a piece by Jasper Rees about a new exhibition of street art that is so hip that the gallery's existence is a secret, almost no one has seen the art, and the whole show actually closed the very night it opened.

It sounds like a parody -- something that Mr. Brainwash might get up to -- but it seems to be the genuine article. The gist of it is that some street artists found their way into one of Manhattan's handful of abandoned subway platforms, and decided to decorate the place with street art executed by some of the hottest upandcomers in the business.

Called "The Underbelly Project", the exhibition hits all the usual authenticity-hoax plot points: Popularity is for sell-outs, capitalism is bad, art that no one sees is sacred, and the extreme authenticity of the exercise is underwritten by the fact that it is illegal:

Known to its creators and participating artists as the Underbelly Project, the space, where all the show’s artworks remain, defies every norm of the gallery scene. Collectors can’t buy the art. The public can’t see it. And the only people with a chance of stumbling across it are the urban explorers who prowl the city’s hidden infrastructure or employees of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. That’s because the exhibition has been mounted, illegally, in a long-abandoned subway station.

The whole thing strikes me as a more extreme version of the ephemeral Sufjan Stevens song, that you can only hear by trecking to the owner's apartment in Brooklyn. What becomes of art in the age of digital reproduction? It becomes a commodity—cheap, ubiquitous, and disrespected. One surefire way of restoring the lost, sacred halo of meaning around the unique work is to make it inaccessible and transitory -- accessible only to the lucky few, for a limited time.

That's precisely the agenda of the Underbelly project.  The Times has a slideshow of the artworks online, many of of which match the dark, underground, and illegal nature of the show. There are some giant rats, some images of women in veils, some strange cartoonish totem poles, and a weirdly zigzaggy interpretation of the American flag. In short, the show sounds totally, undeniably, awesome. The fact that I'll never see it makes me jealous of those who have -- which, unfortunately, is kinda the point.