Banner image: Marguerita!

"Blue Experiment", by Marguerita Bornstein (2008)
"Blue Experiment", by Marguerita Bornstein (2008)

Marguerita Bornstein – an artist who has in the past been so well known that her first name sufficed to identify her to millions – is the kind of person whose need to create, and whose talent for it, causes her to work across a range of forms. Illustrator, animator, painter, sculptor, and mixed media artist, she has been lauded for drawings that have graced the covers of major magazines and for her contributions to post-modern art exhibitions. “One of the strongest and most sexual works in the show,” wrote a reviewer of 1997’s Sex/Industry (Stefan Stux Gallery, New York), “the mixed media work by Marguerita uses a metal box, an old gourd, and a coconut to create a piece more honestly sexual and arousing than most of the anatomically correct phalluses and cartoon animal jokes in the main gallery.” Alas, I can offer no pictures to match this intriguing description. Continue reading

Cinderella 2147

Cinderella's Maid Service (Ian G Mason 500px)

Readers of my personal blog (Archipelagoes) will already know that a few months ago I decided to try to teach myself how to draw. It took me several weeks before I started to make satisfying progress, but since then I’ve learned just how pleasurable a hobby it can be. It turns out there’s an effort-to-reward cycle with drawing that is five to ten times faster than writing — in this way it’s like crack cocaine for creative people. I promise to seek help if the monkey gets too heavy.

An example of what I’m doing. I produced the somewhat dark-themed picture above as a submission to Dinotopia illustrator James Gurney’s “Art by Committee” challenge (which he hosts on his fascinating blog, Gurney Journey). This month, Gurney invited his readers to submit works depicting the hypothetical owner of this (actually quite real) business card:

Cinderella business card

As you’ll probably deduce from the drawing, my mind went in directions both sci-fi and seedy — triggered mainly by contemplating the male reaction to the implausibly optimistic marketing promise “A Wish Come True”. In terms of materials, I took a step back from charcoal on this one, using it mainly for the rain-esque backdrop and for a bit of skin tone and shadowing. Most of the drawing is rendered in graphite.

Banner image: John Sell Cotman

Though few members of the public give much thought to ranking the prestige of different art forms, if forced to do so it is likely that watercolour painting would be granted an affectionate but decidedly second-tier status. We think of pretty landscapes formed with washed-out pigments: light browns, greens, yellows, pinks and reds that tend to pink, of Englishmen in sunhats sitting patiently in a field, enjoying a hobby for idle gentlemen. Meanwhile, in a stratum below all of this lies our childhood memories of dipping thin brushes in water, rubbing them against coins of hard paint, and applying the resultant mixture to soggy paper.

There is some truth to all of this, but it is at best a half-truth. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the emergence of painters who used watercolours to sublime effect: Thomas Girtin, John Constable, and J.M.W. Turner – who produced three times as many paintings based on watercolours as on oils — elevated landscape art to a position of dominance, at least for a time. Lesser known today but judged by earlier critics to have been one of the most innovative and artistic of the watercolourists was John Sell Cotman (1782-1842).

Continue reading

It came from the desert, part deux

Readers of the Globe and Mail will already have seen today’s front-page-above-the-fold article on diplomat Robert Fowler’s return to Canada and his interview on national TV about his abduction last year by a splinter group of AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — itself a splinter group of the Algerian insurgency of the 1990s), which adds some interesting first-person colour to this otherwise murky story. If you missed it the first time around, you may wish to read my August 7 post on the recent history and wider context of politics and insurgency in northwest Africa, and on the contested identity of AQIM itself.

The plausible deniability of M.I.A.

Daughter of a Tamil revolutionary, witness to civil war, refugee, pioneer of “global ghetto funk”, outspoken creator of a politically-charged debut album and of an even more creative follow-up album that she recorded in locations around the world after being denied a visa to work in the U.S. — a rebel’s badge of honour if there ever was one — to many, M.I.A. is nothing less than the street-slanged spokesperson of the twenty-first century Global South.

Yet Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam is also the woman who flew to Los Angeles in February to perform at the Grammy Awards (heavily pregnant, she gave birth to a son a couple of days later) and who is engaged to Benjamin Bronfman, son of Warner Music CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. (previously the man responsible for — to be diplomatic — misplacing his family’s Seagram liquor empire) — and who will soon become, in tying this particular knot, a part of the establishment. She’s no Che Guevara.

Continue reading

Banner image: John Wolseley

A detail from “A History of Parrots, Drifting Maps and Warming Seas”, by John Wolseley (2005). Born in England just before World War II, Wolseley didn’t move to Australia until he was 38. But over the subsequent three decades, the immigrant has made the continent his own, travelling extensively through its length and breadth, and making art that captures its essence as a natural system playing out over the ages of deep history. Incorporating (at different times and in different proportions) painting, drawing, and natural processes and media — including buried paper and charcoaled trees — his work has depicted such phenomena as continental drift, the stages of a brush fire, and the denizens of the Wallace Line, which demarcates the flora and fauna of Asia from that of Australia.

The surface water has invented its own complex geographies alternating times of flow, times of rest – as it dances with the aquifers and deeper water tables. There is an ancient relationship between the waterways , creeks, billabongs and their flood plains. I have been marvelling at the lines of energy radiating from swamps and water holes, and seasonal creeks full of bird, animal and plant life.

More than ever before I found that this process of making a watercolour seemed to be analagous to the action and process by which water moves and forms the landscape itself. I’ve been laying these huge sheets of paper on to softly descending banks of sand hills, and start in a rather wild and physical way by pouring, brushing, sploshing quantities of watercolour which I have previously mixed up in large bowls. All these watery landscape elements around me are then recreated on the paper.

— John Wolseley, “Journal Notes

"A History of Parrots, Drifting Maps and Warming Seas", by John Wolseley (2005)
"A History of Parrots, Drifting Maps and Warming Seas", by John Wolseley (2005)

It came from the desert

According to American and European intelligence and military sources, there is a growing menace to Western security in (to use the intervention-justifying cliché of recent times) “the vast ungoverned spaces” of northwest Africa. A New York Times story published earlier this month itemized a string of violent events in the region that officials blame on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group that apparently formed in the final years of the Algerian civil war of the 1990s and that was until recently known as the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC).

“Is there a threat? There sure is a threat,” Gen. William E. “Kip” Ward, commander of the two-year old United States Africa Command, told journalists in June, and the NYT piece echoes his tone of certainty. By only its third paragraph, the idea that the incidents “reflect Al Qaeda’s growing tentacles” in the region has already appeared as a foundational assumption.

Continue reading

Banner image: Henrik Håkansson

A detail from Henrik Håkansson‘s Broken Forest (2006). Håkansson is a Swedish artist (he’s based in both Berlin and London) who has a rather interesting relationship with nature: he’s mounted a concert for an English songbird, has caused stick insects to cross a tightrope, has allowed frogs to relax to ambient techno music, and has sought to express the psychic state of plants. Håkansson’s 35mm film, Monarch – The Eternal (a title referring to butterflies, not kings), can be seen at Toronto’s Power Plant gallery from June 12 to August 30, 2009, as part of its Universal Code exhibition.

"Broken Forest", by Henrik Håkansson (2006)
"Broken Forest", by Henrik Håkansson (2006)

Life, the state, and a pack of Kents

Anamaria Marinca in Cristian Mungiu's "4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days" (2007)
Anamaria Marinca in Cristian Mungiu's "4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days" (2007)

At the beginning of Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning film 4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days, the camera lingers on a goldfish in a square bowl. The fish seems to be trying to escape, not by jumping out, but by pushing directly against the glass, its tail thrusting spiritedly but without result.

It is an effective if too obvious metaphor for Romanian society under the latter days of communist strongman Nicolae Ceauşescu; the action here takes place in 1987, two years before the dictator’s fall. As the camera pulls back, we see that the bowl rests on a fold-out table in the dorm room of two female students at a regional technical college. The women are preparing for a trip of some kind. Gabita is packing a bag nervously, while Otilia ventures up and down the halls of the dorm, attempting to buy a pack of Kent cigarettes from a student-run black market dispensary two doors down, and purchasing soap for her friend to add to her baggage.

Continue reading

Banner image: Bruce Haley

A detail from a picture in Bruce Haley‘s “Timber Industry” project, shot in Oregon in 1999. Haley is a former Army paratrooper and S.W.A.T. team member who became a dedicated and extremely successful war photographer, capturing images of conflict in places like Afghanistan, Somalia, Northern Ireland, and Croatia, and winning the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal for his coverage of the ethnic civil war in Burma. Yet despite his success in photographing human beings in the most extreme of situations, in 1999 his subject matter began to shift. As he told Jörg Colberg (writer of the fine art photography blog Conscientious):

By the years in question here, ’99 and ’00, my wife and I had come to the realization that our son (born in ’95) was not just a late talker, but was autistic. Much of my time became devoted to helping him learn to use words, then to use rudimentary sentences, then to answer questions, then to begin grasping the notion of a back-and-forth conversation… So over this period of several years, as I spent countless hours working with my son, trying to teach him how to interact with other people, the humanistic aspect of my photography lessened and lessened until people vanished from my work entirely.

Looking back on this stage of my career, I believe that I was concentrating so much on human interaction in my personal life, that the frustration and burn-out factor of that chased all vestiges of the human form out of my photography completely. I was using my work to get as far away from people as I possibly could, seeking escape and solitude by going into the depths of some of the most damaged places on the planet, where I could be alone. And perhaps there is another aspect to this as well: currently there is no known cause for the autistic spectrum disorders, but many researchers believe that there is a genetic predisposition which is brought on by environmental triggers. My work from 1999 to today has been primarily of an environmental nature; from 2002 onward, exclusively so. I suspect that this is at least partially driven by my involvement with autism, and a deep concern over what the world’s pollutants and toxins are doing to our kids.

– Bruce Haley (August 6, 2007)

"Timber industry" (series), by Bruce Haley (1999)
"Timber industry" (series), by Bruce Haley (1999)