I can’t remember who said it, but somewhere out there is a quote about creativity having nothing to do with possessing a gift or talent but being the result of a deficit, a hole in your being that you desperately need to fill. I love this quote, and derive a lot of comfort from it. That being said, I would make a slight adjustment and say that creativity often arises from a deficit, so much as from a state of being haunted. Haunted by an image, an idea, a need, an objective.
I don’t know why but I have been thinking much about the state of being haunted, and trying to see just how big a factor it has been in my formation as an artist.
I can fairly easily construe a list of the things that have weirded me out in my life. It begins with the black and white Betty Boop and Disney cartoons that routinely terrified me when I was tiny. From there it goes to a specific edition of Time Life Nature books in our family home entitled ‘Evolution’, inside of which was an array of irreconcilable pictures -- albino raccoons, humourless scientists measuring oversized vegetables, a lot of very angry monkeys, etc. I can still close my eyes and precisely recall one page in particular featuring four Chilean aboriginals, their bodies painted, and faces obscured with triangular hoods. I never bothered to read a single word in that book, and it was years later before I understood what the word ‘evolution’ meant; nevertheless I repeatedly went back to the pictures, as if they were things cut from my own dreams.
Years later when I began nursing a teenage interest in cinema, I encountered David Lynch’s Eraserhead, the black and white bit of oddness that the Broadway, our city’s once legendary rep cinema, screened virtually every month. I hated Eraserhead; it was boring, pretentious, and deliberately obscure. It filled me with such frustration, such a need to know what exactly was going on, that it prompted me to re-watch it over and over again. A film like Star Wars I could watch multiple times and know that it would never have as much impact as the first. Eraserhead however just got more complicated and powerful with each successive viewing. I never liked it, I still don’t, but boy did it ever activate a part of me.
As I matured I started getting more comfortable with the fact that being unnerved is a necessary kind of inspiration; it’s a kind of intellectual engagement energized by one’s irrational fears and desires. Soon I began to curate and savour those moments as much as possible. I started to distinguish and look past images that shocked or scared me in favour of the ones that smoldered. I started to avoid haunting things that were iconic or ubiquitous – the paintings of Edvard Munch or Francis Bacon for example—to search for moments that were rarer, more specifically tailored to my psychology.
There is a small portrait entitled Madame Eugène Carrière or Head of a Woman, by French painter Eugène Carrière that came into the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s collection in 2002. It’s dark, virtually without colour, hard to focus on, strangely photographic and somehow unrooted from the time in which it was made (it was painted in 1895). I discovered it when the gallery hosted an exhibition on Carrière in 2011; there were multiple times where I would slip in on a weekday and spend a quiet moment with it. Every few months or so I go online to the AGH’s virtual vaults to keep it in my head. It’s important to me, but I can’t tell you why.
Last week, my son and I went to the University of Waterloo Art Gallery for the opening of Jillian McDonald’s Valley of the Deer, a three screen video installation which combines the staggering settings of rural Scotland with actors, all wearing animal masks of some kind, all standing still or moving in inscrutably repetitive gestures. There is no real plot or narrative movement in the works; instead the whole point of the piece seemed to be an exercise in being able to stare into the face of the wild unknown, only to have that presence stare right back at you. My son was quite unsettled by the exhibition, but boy did he ever want to talk to me about it.
If I break down my artistic practice into components - irrational animals, shadows, concealed figures, hoods - I very quickly come to the conclusion that my work borrows very little from artwork I revere, and owes significantly more to the images and experiences that have pestered and bedeviled me.
Funny how that works.