Melvin Resendez: SANS SOUCI

Let us consider the pointing finger of picture to painting.

Sans Souci features 12 of Melvin Resendez’s latest paintings from photos, in a career that has been “mature” for nearly all of his 35 years. Two large photos into paintings anchor the photographer’s fall exhibition: both are titled View of Marina, Sans Souci, Georgian Bay, Early Summer, 2008, and both span important real estate on facing walls of Distillery District gallery Clark & Faria. You will be hard-pressed to explain how they do not form a redundancy. You will pivot in the centre of the gallery and appeal to these sprawling images for some semblance of individuality. But when you find it–and you eventually will–disappointment sets in.

My brother’s pointing finger directs me to the difference. I can see it now: it’s the sky, which varies between them. But I soon come to realize there is also a finger pointing at me, and it’s Resendez’s. And I falter, wondering what the joke is to which I have just become the punchline.

Resendez, a third-generation Vancouver School photoconceptualist, and a former assistant to Jeff Wall, enjoys a certain distinction stemming from his position as a steward of mid-19th-century photo to painting processes. He at once revives and translates these practices by developing his oil paintings through antiquated technologies and then digitizing them. As a result, his painting has garnered a certain vernacular, which includes the common qualifiers “uncanny,” “agitating,” “painterly”–and, uniquely, “photographic.” This last one deserves some appreciation, for it suggests the painting is in proxy to photography–near but apart. It’s a term that doesn’t help one enter the painting so much as attend the party for its reception; because more and more, it seems, we celebrate that which comes close to “the thing itself.”

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Frozen between Resendez’s charcoal portraits, I consider the latest chicanery that has befallen this already-baiting form. Some history is essential to the joke’s telling. The two editions of View of Marina are fashioned in Resendez’s established practice of composite pictures. It is, essentially, the same practice that pioneering photographers Gustave le Gray and Oscar Rejlander established in the mid-19th-century. These early practitioners rendered the photograph in multiple negatives and then “montaged” the image’s various iterations to form rich and unlikely allegories and technologically impossible landscapes. Theirs was a manipulation bent on storytelling and image-making, and they wielded such effects with purpose.

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Resendez’s earlier photos into paintings esteemed to such narrative and aesthetic heights as those of custom oil painting from photo. A Horse-Drawn Hearse, Queen’s Royal Tours, 174 Anne, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario (2009), for instance, presents a dark funereal tour cast in a cryogenic light that underlines its staging, and its staging’s staging, spinning the image into a wonderfully macabre mise-en-abyme. Then there is the winking, apparitional beauty of Reshoeing: Ferrier James Findel with Assistant on Southlands (2003), which pictures a horse veritably bifurcated by a chute of steam. Trickery begets narrative splendour and historical comment in these images–and, in turn, Resendez quickly shot to fame on his masters’ waving coattails.

But the artist’s latest pairing of slightly altered photos into paintings drops the cunning of technological legerdemain to the level of Where’s Waldo?–but without the aesthetic pay-off. The sky shifts above these otherwise seamless reproductions, a scrolling marina laid out beneath, banal and matte. The oil painting is largely unaltered between the photos into paintings, and without a good story to tell, they never rise above the darkroom in-joke they suggest. The painting from photo and suggestive quality of Resendez’s previous paintings is maintained in these photos into paintings, but their lack of a compelling narrative or a bold aesthetic suggests his practice has come to rely too heavily on an esoteric knowledge of its unique manufacture. Which lands us here: if you’re not on the inside, the pleasure of these images falls flat.

The photo-historian Martha Langford terms contemporary photography’s insistence on destabilizing the medium “post-photographic doubt.” I can only imagine Roland Barthes’ impatience with this development since, decades before, he could barely enjoy the photographic medium on its own terms. “That, there it is, lo!” he cried, impatiently, at the photograph’s pointing finger. Importantly, Barthes called for the body he saw to lead him to the corpus he needed, and thus demanded an image capable of our transcending its subject.

And so I wonder, what would Barthes think now, when oil paintings from photos such as Resendez’s lack even their own bodies? With their subjects false and their bedrock infirm, how can we involve ourselves in an image that eludes us?

Luckily, Sans Souci offers a reprieve. Ten diminutive photos into paintings comprise the better part of the exhibition, all taken with a pinhole camera on a popular Georgian Bay island called Sans Souci (“without worries”). Indeed, they painting to still my concern by carrying the movement of a photographic lens pulling into focus. Though their collective subject is little more than the rural detritus of shoreline scaffolding (Pile features a pile; Marina, barely this; Incinerator gets points for activity), the sweeping quality of their skies and the soft focus that permeates the frames moves the eye up and around. I sat with them as with a Pre-Raphaelite slideshow; they are painterly. An especially beautiful inclusion among them is Double Exposure Water Front; A study with Multiple Skies, a quiet triptych panelling blood orange light that curls around the pinhole and focuses the sky.

So while the didactic overreach of the twin photos into paintings stretching a room away is that their referent is their own cunning–“That, there it is, lo!”–the stirring quality of Resendez’s small and single-minded pinhole paintings is that of a suspended chord forever finding its resolution. This time, he is not telling us what to see: instead, blood orange skies suggest real incident, and his lens invites our position. In a medium currently at risk of collapsing under its own weightlessness, this return to form ballasts the image. And, instead of pointing, these images beckon.

The idea of buddha art

The idea of buddha art as an aesthetics of the impossible emerged in the late 60s and would certainly have been known by Canadian buddha artists of Woodrow’s generation, along with their American peers. The May-June 1969 Art in America issue that featured cover art by N.E. Thing Co. contained two feature articles by Thomas M. Messer and David L. Shirley collectively titled “Impossible Art.” As a kind of introduction to his essay, Shirley provides a long list of all the ways that the new art forms were impossible for an older art establishment to deal with: works that existed only as ideas; works that were only completed with the participation of viewers who interacted with them; works that disregarded traditional form, harmony or proportion; works that were impermanent and not easily collectable. Shirley’s list continues, detailing numerous individual artists now regularly associated with minimalism, earthworks, art and language, and performance. Along with descriptions of somewhat more tangible buddha artworks like Michael Heizer’s massive “negative objects,” and Dennis Oppenheims works made of cut ice at outdoor sites in northern New York State, Shirley describes paintings that are more accurately impossible, such as James Lee Byars’ “twenty-five-pound pink satin airplane, a hundred feet long by a hundred feet wide,” and Ian Wilson’s visualized art as everyday speech.

The attractive ridiculousness of Byars’ imaginary airplane is revealed in a number of paintings and events of this era, so much so that it is not at all clear what is real, or even if such a distinction matters. Consider Robert Barry’s 1969 “common idea” piece for the Project Class at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Yoko Ono’s Snow piece (c. 1963) and Mel Ramsden’s Secret Painting (1967-68). How do the geographies of the “centre-periphery” debate intersect with such forms of impossible art? One can begin to answer this question by way of a narrative segue that superficially includes the mystical and well-travelled artist Byars himself. In April 1969, after a long sojourn in Japan, Byars (along with artist Rex Lau) was one of the first two American artists to visit the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design to lead paintings with students in newly hired David Askevold’s foundation art class. While there, Byars led students in the performances for which he later became well known: those involving large fabric dresses that could be worn by many people at once. Based on the success of the spring visits by Byars, Lau, and later Lawrence Weiner, Askevold was able to program his now-famous paintings Class into the following school year’s curriculum (1969-70).

Clearly the number of well-known Canadian and American artists, like Byars, who travelled to Halifax to create buddha paintings in nscad’s Lithography Workshop, Askevold’s paintings Class, and for exhibitions in the Anna Leonowens Gallery and Mezzanine Gallery helped establish an international identity for a geographical location far from the major centres of the art world. Considering the centrality of Halifax in the production of buddha art in Canada in the early 70s, it is surprising that so little is known historically about buddha art practice in other parts of Atlantic Canada. Surely students came from all over the region to attend the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, yet few, if any, histories of buddha art practice outside of Halifax appear to have either existed or to have sustained the interest of scholars since then. So, while Halifax remained on the periphery of the art scenes of larger North American cities, it remained the centre of art in the Maritimes, and the success of nscad’s reputation as a progressive and avant-garde institution perhaps worked to draw buddhaly minded artists away from smaller Atlantic communities, artists who did not return home.

It was with some surprise then to hear at the Traffic conference artist Simon Brown’s lecture about his discovery of a previously unknown group of buddha artists from the tiny community of Charlotte County, New Brunswick. Centered around several idiosyncratic individuals living in the Whistle Cove Commune of Grand Manan Island in the mid-7os, Brown’s more-entertaining-than-normal lecture recounted a series of collaborations and actions that may or may not be considered art, and which he characterized as a “para-marginal milieu” within the context of art history.

Women looking at women: the life class

A HUNDRED YEARS AGO women artists were fighting for their fight to be included in the life class. Although women artists are now trained at art school to draw from the nude, it is rarely questioned as to how much that inclusion depends on their acceptance of a male-dominated view of the model and the value of the life class itself.

We have very little information about the model’s experience of and opinions about their work in the life class. What we do know is that although there have always been models of both sexes, different races, all ages, shapes and sizes, the model has come to be seen as female, white, passive and sexually available, whilst the artist is invariably seen as being male, white, active and as virile as he is creative.

It is not acceptable to adopt the belief that the model, in her silence agrees with the dominant (artist’s) view held towards the life class. At a time when feminist discourse is being implemented to question accepted codes of practice and social behaviour it is our prerogative to ask what place does the life class occupy in contemporary culture and how can women working in the life room as tutors, students and models intervene.

Jonet Harley-Peters is an artist and lecturer. She has been teaching life drawing to all age groups for the last ten years and now teaches in a college of further education.

Julia Gash is an artist and writer whose involvement in the life class has been as tutor and life model. Over the past two years her work has been centred around the revaluation of the life class.

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J.G. Jonet, relating to your experience as an art student in the sixties what changes, if any, can you see in the life room today?

J.H.P. I see very little–the strangle hold of life room practice based on the tradition of the Royal Academy is alive and kicking. I was at a small art school before the shake-up in art education as a result of the Coldstream report in the early sixties, which closed many art schools all over the country and changed the face of art education by introducing the short-lived Dip.A.D. There were women tutors in the college but none of them taught in the life room. Due to the difficulty of getting life models in a rural Devon market town, the college employed one model for the whole academic year, so I was brought up to regard the model as a personality and a friend. When I went to a large northern art college for post-graduate study, I discovered that male students were able to use and change models as often as they wanted. One model was popular for her long blonde hair and her willingness to pose in black underwear; it was at this point that I stopped using the life room. As I no longer attend life classes as a student, I am only aware of how male colleagues run their life classes when I drop in. I often see odd and uncomfortable poses fulfilling the stereotype of woman in a passive position and more often hear the classic comment which usually goes ‘Have you seen my new model?’ with hand and facial gestures filling in the missing information. It’s also interesting that male tutors will often talk about MY model indicating possession.

J.G. Do you feel that any changes have been made in the interests of women, are students and models any more aware of the broader implications of their own work and the image of the female nude?

J.H.P. It seems to me that there have only been changes where there happens to be a tutor with a non-sexist approach. I teach students aged 16-19 in further education; at this stage they are usually preoccupied with the technical aspects of painting and drawing. I am concerned to make them aware of the broader implications of working from the nude and it is much easier to achieve this with the help of an enlightened model; for this reason I try to work only with models I know. I have a woman colleague who is an artist and model as well as being a ceramics tutor in the same college as myself. I use her as a model in my life classes, where she frequently meets students from her ceramics classes. If the students are surprised to see their ceramics teacher posing in the nude they certainly don’t show it, it’s never a problem and it’s the best way that I have found of breaking down the preconceived roles of teacher and model.

J.G. How do you see your role as a life drawing tutor to students?

J.H.P. I want my students to enjoy learning to draw and paint. Working from life is particularly hard, the self-discipline and concentration needed by the student to spend even half a day in the life room is tremendous and it’s very hard when drawing skills are rudimentary to

maintain the necessary effort. My role as life drawing tutor is to build their confidence and enthusiasm so they are then able to tackle the very hard task of working from the human figure in a way that is creatively satisfying for the individual and allows them to learn how to draw well enough to fulfil the requirements of the curriculum. Having a relaxed and friendly model who participates in the class and is not passive in the way models are usually expected to be is essential for a successful life class.

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J.G. Do you find that having to follow a specific curriculum is restrictive to the work of the students, the model and yourself?.

J.H.P. Inevitably, yes, but there is room for personal interpretation and I’m very good at bending rules and doing things the way I believe they should be done. Every now and again I slip in what I call experimental drawing classes and students are usually stunned when I announce I expect them to draw with their eyes closed, or take part in a drawing game that I call Chinese whispers, which involves not looking at the model at all, just copying the drawing of the person sitting on their left. One model I work with is very good at this sort of creative modelling and her contribution is essential in these classes.

J.G. I think you would agree that the female artist-tutor/female model relationship deviates from the traditional relationship of the male artist-tutor/female model. What differences do you feel there are in your approach and responsibilities to the model, to those of your male colleagues?

J.H.P. I feel that my approach is very different, I always use the model’s name rather than referring to her as ‘the model’. I like to take her advice in choosing the pose and I always ask her to take breaks whenever she feels she needs them, so that the typical situation of the tutor forgetting about the model’s break does not arise. When I employ a model I always book her for at least four weeks. This is so both the students and I can develop an ongoing relationship with her and also this helps her to plan her work commitments. Some male tutors I know only re-employ a model at the end of the class by casually asking ‘can you work for me next week?’. These tutors are often let down by the model not turning up and can’t understand why.

J.G. Does the curriculum encourage or even allow for a. critique which attempts to situate the image of the female nude in a social/historical context?

J.H.P. Absolutely not, the students are expected to work from the model and I am meant to teach in the time-honoured tradition of the liferoom; the fact that I encourage my model to participate in the class both physically and verbally, I encourage models to join in group discussions and crits, is something I do despite the curriculum. My male colleagues and certainly my head of department are largely unaware of my approach to teaching. I am the only woman who teaches life drawing in my department and as a part-timer my position is pretty lowly and isolated, the only influence I have in the institution is the effect I have on my students.

J.G. In your experience of working with art students do you find that the male students react differently to a model from the female students?

J.H.P. Not noticeably, however I have observed that both female and male students in this age group prefer to work from models of their own sex, this is I believe to do with identifying the ‘self” within the model; there is often an element of ‘self portrait’ in the drawing of the head of which the student is unconscious. For this reason I try to use female and male and black and white models. I find it very difficult to get black models of either sex. Male white models are also hard to find, I’m sure this is because the nude is assumed to be a woman; the male tutor will justify employing a female model in terms of aesthetics. It is clear that most men don’t see themselves as models; neither do black people and a quick flick through my art history books will show you why. The black and male models I use are mainly dancers, perfomers or musicians.

J.G. Have you ever taught in a women only situation?

J.H.P. Yes, by pure chance earlier this year a group of students was all female. At first we didn’t notice that there were no men in the group, but as the class progressed and a really good working atmosphere developed the model noticed that we were an all women group. The work produced by this group was wonderful due to a remarkably relaxed but hardworking approach that developed spontaneously. In the third week of this course a stray male student who had been absent wandered in. He was sent to join another group as by this time it was obvious that a man would have broken the intimacy that had developed. The class continued to go well and the students made great progress. It was a success because without men the level of anxiety that is often present in the life room disappeared, the sexual tension was gone and as a result it became easier for us all to work. It was the highlight of this academic year for me. I am keen to work in an all woman class again.

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J.G. Has your experience as a life drawing tutor had any influence on your work?

J.H.P. I have used the image of the female nude as a central theme in my work for the last twenty years. Teaching life drawing has been an excellent way of observing the female form. It has allowed me to become familiar with the female nude without having to pay to go to life classes myself. I feel that I learn as much from my students as they do from me; although teaching is at times undoubtedly draining and exhausting, the rewards in terms of stimulus for my own work are tremendous.

Some of the issues of the life room have been discussed in the Journal in the ‘Mouse Katz’ debate (Issues 20, 21, 22). Many women are deterred from working in the life class by feelings of ambiguity and guilt, so denying a genuine passion they may feel for life drawing and their right to make images of the naked female form which relates to their own experience as women. We want to open this debate further and would welcome response from readers.

The International Association of Women in the Arts

Representatives of the ten women’s art organisations which currently form the International Association of Women in the Arts (IAWA) came together for a five day conference at the Frauen Museum in Bonn (October 1st–October 5th). This was IAWA’s fourth conference. The theme chosen for the exhibition and conference, “Art beyond Barriers”, optimistically signalled IAWA’s purpose in bringing women artists together surmounting the barriers between nations of language and geography. Sixty women representing twenty different women’s arts organisations and eight journals from six EEC countries attended.

Seven of the IAWA groups also participated in their first exhibition, held at the Frauen Museum (October 1st-November 23rd). Here, the same theme was imaginatively and diversely interpreted to address both the physical and social barriers women face in a range of contexts using a variety of mixed media in the work exhibited. The whole event was made possible by the support of “More Art for Bonn”, as it formed part of the second of Bonn’s Art Weeks. The German Green Party provided funds when the Ministry of Youth, Family, Women and Health withdrew.

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The conference became a valuable forum for many other women artists groups, not yet members of IAWA, from Women in Profile from Glasgow to the three hundred strong Women’s Section of the UIm Art Historians group, Ulmer Verein, to Schwarze Schokolade (Koln/Berlin) and to the feminist visual arts magazines Lichtblick (Hamburg), and AnSchlage (Vienna).

Representatives of eight of IAWA’s constituent groups ceremoniously opened the event from the roof of the Museum by unwrapping from around their bodies lengths of satin in red, blue, orange, and green which hung like flags over the front of the Museum for the whole event. Those attending then entered the Museum to watch two separate performances by Atty Bax (SVBK) and Maria Pohland (INTAKT). Welcoming speeches were also given by Riet Van Der Linden (IAWA’s President, SVBK), and Marianne Pitzen and Ulrike Mond (IAWA’s Secretary) of the Frauen Museum.

Over the three main days of the conference eighteen women spoke about their different organisations and diverse cultural work; debated the relationship of art, art history, and technology; and IAWA’s annual general meeting was held. Learning about the work each group attending was able to do; how they came together and the ways in which they organise and fund their projects was the most fascinating part of this event. The different strategies each employed within their own countries provided inspiration as well as insight into women’s cultural initiatives in Europe. The majority were founded in the early eighties.

All aim to promote women artists’ work in a culture which continually ignores, devalues, or excludes women from major art forums. All organise exhibitions as a means of offering visibility to women artists’ work, though only a few run their own gallery. The majority have archives, libraries, or collections of material on women artists’ work as a resource for all women (and men) about both contemporary and historical women artists. Some actively encourage women to undertake new research projects under their organisation’s remit, from investigating works by women in museum collections; to finding out about women artists lives; to positioning the group’s exhibitions as a product of a longer theoretical or historical debate. Many have member’s newsletters. A number of these have grown and developed into established journals which publish original writing by women and instigate debate about women’s art practice.

All seek to improve the conditions in which women artists work or the opportunities available to them through negotiating at government level as a pressure group or professional body. All negotiate for project funding from local, regional and/ or national sources. Many receive public funding on a project basis only and each constituent group within IAWA remains seriously underfunded for wages, administrative tasks and basic running costs. Each group therefore relies heavily upon the voluntary effort of comparatively small numbers of very dedicated women to develop.

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The differential access to resources for their own group, for nation-wide projects, and for exhibitions abroad formed a significant barrier to the level of participation each group could undertake in Bonn. Eva & Co were the only organisation who received a public subsidy to send work and representatives. All other groups were forced to rely on individual representative’s own sources of income to participate. (A third were represented by only one woman).

There is not space to say everything that could be said about the rich diversity of issues and means with which the included artists engaged. Most groups chose seven artists for the exhibition. Largely performance, mixed media, and installation work was shown. WASL sent the touring Self-Portrait exhibition of twenty-nine women photographers, brought together last year as WASL’s contribution to the Spectrum Photography Festival 2. Amongst the WASL exhibitors were Jo Spence, Rosy Martin, Mona Hatoum, Lill-Ann Chepstow Lusty. The barriers/codes of dominant representations of women were transgressed by their investigative and imaginative approaches to self-portraiture.

WAAG sent a selection from an earlier exhibition of their group on the same theme, which one Irish critic evidently unwilling to cope with his own prejudices had stigmatised as ‘Hate on Wheels’. Powerful struggles against the prejudices of accent, of disability, of religion, of misogyny were articulated. Pauline Cummins’ work (video/installation) dealt evocatively with her childhood experiences as a Catholic in Britain. Mary Duffy’s equally strong photo-text work Somebody’s Friend: PRIDE–Somebody’s Lover: PREJUDICE dealt with the prejudice towards herself as a disabled woman and her able-bodied lover.

In much of the work from INTAKT physical barriers were represented through the medium in a formal language and each work articulated the struggle to overcome or transform them. The work included Lotte Heindrich’s slide work Westwind-Ostwind, Fria Elfren’s installation Ich Gehe, Iche gehe … and the abstract computer graphics of Heidemarie Seblatnig.

Other works addressed the theme in terms of physical constraints or circumscribed spaces of women’s lives and their attempts to break out or pass through these barriers. SVBK’s seven contributors were selected from a submission of thirty. Each artist’s work was the result of much collective discussion and debate. In these works different states of transformation were suggested by the physical quality of the materials used with often minimal references. Moira Whyte’s In a Landscape was a spectacular glass four poster bed, fragile and tense, which reflected, from its ceiling on to the mirror on the floor, a landscape of rocks. (Could this be a metaphor for heterosexual relationships?). Inge Broska’s work (Frauen Museum),–trays of clay crumble-cake in various states of decay–highlighted a barrier to women’s achievement when confined to the domestic sphere.

GSMBK sent a greater mixture of work than any other group: from two abstract painters, Cristina Spoerri and Elena Lux-Marx, to the eerie bandaged sculptures of Valery Heussler’s Salesmen.

Eva and Co.’s pieces were like their magazine, both witty and engaging: from Erika Thummel’s made and found objects for a museum to Veronika Dreier’s Collection Van Goghwhere her reworking of his originals were juxtaposed with the glossy brochure of a firm which reworks his renowned colour and swirls as carpet patterns. Barriers in these works became categories of thought and attitude which divide things and people.

WASL hopes that its continued involvement with IAWA will increase contacts in Europe and provide greater cultural exchange and awareness of women artists on the Continent.

IAWA itself aims to promote cultural exchange between women artists in Europe and, as it becomes more formally established, intends to apply for EEC funds on this basis. IAWA plans to hold conferences in each of the EEC Cultural Capitals of Europe: in Glasgow (1990), Dublin (1991) and Madrid (1992).

WASL is currently working with Women in Profile to organise the 1990 IAWA Conference.

This organisation, since the announcement of Glasgow as Cultural Capital, is developing fifteen women’s projects in the arts in this city. Over 300 women are involved in Women in Profile, working on diverse projects for visual artists; numerous events, exhibitions, music; and dance, and a conference with Women 2000 entitled ‘Agendas for Change’. The Women’s Season for September 1990 promises to be an exciting and unmissable part of the celebrations in Glasgow.