Two Seriously Funny FellowsSunday, March 28, 2010
My first impression of art as a serious medium began sometime in 1955 when I visited for the first time the Castillo de Chapultepec, a museum/castle on a lofty perch of Chapultepec Park in Mexico City. It was there that I first saw the works of Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco (seen below, is his Resurrection of Lazarus, 1942). My mother told me how she tried not to look at them as they unsettled her. Of course this made me look at them all the more. It was through Orozco that I found out that art did not necessarily have to be pleasant and beautiful and that it could contain a message for change especially within corrupt systems.
This idea had not clicked with finality in my head until 1999 when I went to see Carlos Saura’s film Goya In Bordeaux with my Argentine painter friends Nora Patrich and Juan Manuel Sanchez. The film was so good we saw it twice before the folks of our city found the movie much too complicated and it vanished in a week from showings at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas.
In my classes at Focal Point and at Van Arts when I teach editorial photography I point out that the Goya was one of the first artists to use his art to protest the tyranny of the conservative and corrupt Spanish monarchy, not to mention his fight against the total war that Napoleon Bonaparte had unleashed upon Europe.
It is only now that I can understand within me that without Goya, the careers of Mexican muralists Orozco, David Álvaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera would have never happened. It is difficult not to see Goya’s influence in Edouard Manet’s painting the Execution of Maximilian where one of the soldiers is a facsimile of France’s Napoleon III. Manet put the blame for the execution of Maximilian, and the abandonment of the attempt of a French empire in Mexico, squarely on the shoulders of Napoleon III himself.
Just as I now know about the seriousness of purpose of many artists I have also come to understand that art can also entertain, delight and even make us laugh. I am not an art historian so I cannot here reveal artists who are the equivalent to the unabashedly irreverent poems of Ogden Nash. It would seem to me that anybody would “get” that Salvador Dalí was not all that serious. In short I have come to understand that many artists have a tongue in check humor that they keep almost hidden and usually it is not to be discovered by the art critic. Art, in the minds of these art critics has to be serious. So they interview artists with reverence and write about their works without the slightest hint of fun or humor.
It was sometime in the middle 90s that artist Rodney Graham (he had a studio on the same floor as I did on Robson and Granville along with fellow artist Neil Wedman) knocked on my door. “Alex, I have a problem. I have been taking photographs of trees with a 4x5 inch camera and the images in the back of the camera are all upside down. What can I do about it?” I told him that he would have to spend lots of money to get a device that would right side up the image. I told them that most photographers had come to learn to take their pictures with the images pointing down.
It was in May 1997 that I was assigned by the Globe & Mail to photograph Graham. I was told that the writer would be Sarah Milroy. I contacted her and we met. She told me she was going to pursue the subject of “Postmodern Art as Seen through Rodney Graham’s Upside Down Trees”. I almost choked! Subsequent to my conversation with Graham at my studio Graham had shown high quality and large photographs of trees that were matted and framed upside down. You can purchase these at the Vancouver Art Gallery shop.
I decided to photograph Graham as an angry artist of the European 30s. I was going to make him look scary. This I did. Fortunately Milroy had caught on and had seen through Graham’s serious front and discovered his subtle and gentle humor. The Globe article, Saturday, June 7, 1997, ran my picture with the following and “all revealing” cutline: Vancouver’s Rodney Graham, a very serious goofball.
Since 1997 I have been on the lookout for the seriousness that our local artists seem to project and how critics read it and write about it.
Last week I had the pleasant opportunity to photograph Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun at the scene of his present show at the Contemporary Art Gallery. He showed up wearing a black hat, a brown leather jacket and dark wrap-around sunglasses. I didn’t have to ask him to know he would have refused to take the glasses and the hat off or even smile at my camera.
I broke the ice by telling him that I was intrigued by his little drawing under a centrally located glass cabinet of a wood screw and the word USUFRUCT. I told him that in Spanish this was a word that dry cleaners used when you did not pick up your item to be cleaned until months later. Through usufracción the cleaners could sell off or throw away your possession as they had the rights. Yuxweluptun smiled and told me that the word as he saw it was a legal term used in land claims and it plainly showed how people who owned lands, many times, had others who did not own the land profit from it. I did not have to pursue the image of the screw to know what Yuxweluptun had in mind and why he seriously told me, “This is the most serious item in this show.”
We ended talking about trees for a long time and we compared notes on how photographers photograph trees and how curiously I have discovered that trees have to be photographed in their entirety. They cannot be cropped. The same applies to the human face were you can rarely get away with topping a person’s head. Yuxweluptun showed me a drawing that was a close cropped view of the lower trunks of a group of trees. We saw this as an allowable exception.
During our portrait session my 10 pictures all looked the same as his expression was the same. In one I made a joke and he began to laugh. I took the picture. “You know, if I send this one to the Georgia Straight they will use it.” He looked at me and gently told me, “Don’t send it.” I didn’t but you can see it here.
Going back to Goya I have discerned lots of humor in his etchings Los Caprichos, particularly one sporting a fully dressed donkey and called “And So Was His Grandfather”
Now if we could only make our critics smile, just a bit.
Another artist with a sense humor Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas
And yet another Neil Wedman