There’s a weird thing about being a parent where everything your kids do hits you like it’s some kind of life altering parable. The minuscule details of how they pick their noses and forget to tie their shoes can make your eyes well up with meaningfulness. It’s the kind of myopia that feels simultaneously a blessing and a mental health disorder.
That being said, here is a parable about my kids.
My two sons, one aged seven, the other eleven, are in the dining room drawing. The elder one is crunched over an 11 x 14 piece of fresh Bristol drawing paper, erasing virtually every line that he draws, cussing under his breath. He is drawing a monster, trying to improve upon an original design, and is whipping himself up into a froth because he is not ‘getting it right’.
The younger is on the floor drawing on a torn piece of a flattened discarded box. He has a packet of scented markers that smell like artificial fruits. He is drawing minions and stormtroopers, singing to himself in that slow whispery way that kids sometimes do in horror films. The figures he is drawing are standing face forward, shoulder to shoulder as if standing in a police line-up.
The eleven year old already self-identifies as an artist. ‘Art’ is something he does, and is good at. The eight year old rejects the term ‘artist’ wholeheartedly. If you ask him if he is making a work of art, he very assuredly replies: “Dad, it’s not art. It’s just a picture”.
At this point in the parable, it might be tempting to think that the younger son has a much better approach than the older. Because he is not self-conscious of his work, he is a more perfect vessel for his muse. Indeed, his lines are sloppy, energized, confident, and authentic. His inspiration is pop-culture, but he has juxtaposed his elements in a way that is eccentric and compelling. The older son has more facility, but is succumbing to his own internalized pressure. His picture screams of personal hesitation and doubt.
Days later I’m cleaning house and there are drawings everywhere, mostly on the floor or in our recycle bin. As is my practice, I try to pick up these drawings and sift through them, ruthlessly ignoring most of it, saving maybe one piece for a file upstairs. I keep my youngest son’s police line-up sketch. But I also notice a small square of paper on which is a worm-like creature with sharpened teeth drawn by my older boy. It is an exquisite thing, innocent and threatening and vulnerable all at once. In the end, both of my kids have a method that yields occasional success.
Okay. Now I will stop talking about my kids.
So for the last two months I’ve been working a new job at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. It’s pretty great because it gives me an opportunity to build a relationship with the art that channels through its spaces, a relationship that is much deeper than I could have as a visitor.
This season there are two major exhibitions opening on the first floor: Fearful Symmetry: The Art of John Scott, and 1920 Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group. The John Scott exhibition, although anchored by an ominously hand etched black Trans-Am, is really an exhibition of mixed media drawings on paper. Scott is the epitome of the loose angry hand; the works in this show are presented on large, torn, dirty scraps of paper,and some of them appear to have been painted in minutes. Others were never meant as artworks at all. Real Life Size (c.1984) for example is a massive paper banner that Scott produced for a nuclear arms protest decades ago; it was literally rescued from the trash. Indeed the work is powerful precisely because it is not trying to function in the precious and commodified ways that ‘art’ often does. It is scrappy and immediate; it is unconcerned about its longevity. Somehow that makes it even more worth saving.
The paintings of the Beaver Hall Group will articulate a vastly different approach. This exhibition will feature infinitely more exquisite and laboured works produced by artists who were consciously pushing the aesthetics of urban portraiture. The work is equally provocative, but in an infinitely quieter, more meticulous way than Scott’s.
I savour the occasion to appreciate both methodologies side by side.