Archive for the ‘Art & literature’ Category

Morning sketches

Friday, June 4th, 2010

A selection of sketches from my morning practice sessions. I’m trying to do a full hour of sketching every day now, trying to escape from what I felt until just recently had become an unwelcome plateau in my level of skill. I spend 15 minutes doing exercises from Andrew Loomis’s Drawing the Head and Hands, 15 minutes on his Figure Drawing for All Its Worth, and a good half-hour on a study of a drawing made by one of the masters.

My current inspiration in this regard is John Singer Sargent (check out this great database of his works at Harvard), whose drawings are full of energy and vigor yet do not lose control of themselves. They’re tremendously fun to copy, and result in satisfyingly realistic pictures. The three sketches in the top row of the gallery above are all based on Sargents.

I’m particularly keen on the two women in robes, who remind me simultaneously of medieval nuns and acolytes of the Bene Gesserit.

Motion arrested

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010
Detail from "The Rehearsal" (c. 1873-78), by Edgar Degas

Detail from "The Rehearsal" (c. 1873-78), by Edgar Degas

It is a strange yet common tendency of the beginner artist to think that the use of a reference object or image — a live model, for example, or a photograph — is somehow cheating. The beginner thinks, as I have thought at times, that a true artist is able to generate beautiful pictures directly from his or her imagination, without having to “copy” from something in front of them. Of course, this idea is both accurate and completely misleading. Many artists, through rigorous training and ongoing practice, have internalized the makeup and proportions of the human body (to take a common subject) and can render it at will — this being more than adequate a skill for artists employed in the fields of, say, fashion design or advertising. But many other artists regularly use live models or photographs as reference points, either because they are trying to capture the look of a specific person (rather than an imaginary one), or because they are trying to understand more perfectly the human form itself. Some, of course, are trying to do both.


Capsule: Kevin Cooley

Thursday, February 11th, 2010

There is something about the far north that photography finds deeply compatible — something, perhaps, in its minimalism, its starkness of contrasts between sea and ice, its naked ruggedness. Canadian photographer David Burdeny (I briefly wrote about him here) captures its spirit very effectively in majestic tones of grey and blue, but Kevin Cooley of Brooklyn, New York, has managed to uncover a surprising and beautiful vein of light and colour in the lands between ourselves and the pole. A “photo and video artist” who works with a range of major magazines and book publishers, Cooley’s fine art often focuses on lonely images of people or, more enigmatically, of arcs of light in the midst of forbiddingly indifferent landscapes (see his 2008 collection “light’s edge“). But I’m personally even more attracted to his 2006 “svalbard” series, which capture the unique and subtle interplay of colours seen in the first light of morning — after four months of darkness — in Norway’s Longyearbyen, the northernmost town in the world.

Kevin Cooley, "Longyearbyen Overview" (2006)

Solastalgia and the tree shepherds

Sunday, February 7th, 2010

There is a kind of long-term shock that comes with the realization that the landscape around one’s own home is being altered beyond recovery. Psychologically, after all, a landscape is a permanent thing — hills and forests and paths are unchanging things to a child, and even when one moves away in adulthood they are assumed to remain protected, inviolate. Increasingly, of course, this assumption is wrong: the relentless spread of housing developments, roads, and shopping centres means that many people in the industrialized world face a high probability of losing the landscapes they remember as children. To some extent the shock lies in the simple unexpectedness of the change.


After Boilly

Sunday, December 27th, 2009

Sketch by Ian Garrick Mason, after Louis-Léopold Boilly
Copying from the masters being one of the most hallowed traditions in art education, this is a sketch I made from a drawing by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845), the great genre artist and portraitist of Napoleonic France. Boilly’s full work is of his family and servants, and this is one of his two sons — although the artist would probably be amused to see that my inadvertent elongation of the boy’s face (an artistic tic I’m trying to rid myself of, not yet successfully) has transformed his cute ten-year-old into a young man of about sixteen. Go here for Boilly’s original, part of an exhibition of eighteenth-century French drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City.

The octopodes among us

Monday, December 21st, 2009

It is not normally my practice to blog from work (see “mortgage payments”), but having discovered historian Rob MacDougall’s Old is the New New via his link to Jeet Heer’s Sans Everything post on Homer Simpson and Irish stereotypes, I was immediately entranced by both his buoyant writing style and his remarkably eclectic range of historico-cultural interests — so I felt compelled to drop what I was doing and tell you about it. Go check out his site, and for your first mind-expanding sally, read his post Angels and Octopodes.

What are you still doing here? Go!

Capsule: Marguerita!

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

"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. (more…)

Capsule: John Sell Cotman

Monday, September 14th, 2009

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).


Capsule: John Wolseley

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Those of you who read Sans Everything as well as Archipelagoes will know that every couple of weeks I try to present a capsule profile of an interesting artist or photographer, showcasing his or her work in the banner image at the top of the site. Archipelagoes doesn’t have a banner image, but that seems like little reason to refrain from presenting the same works and talents here. I hope you enjoy them.

"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)

Born in England just before World War II, John 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

Banner image

Wednesday, March 11th, 2009

More fiddling about with themes, and as an unexpected result (since WordPress erases any custom banner images when changing theme), a new banner. This one is a detail from David Burdeny’s “Five Icebergs, Weddell Sea, Antarctica” (2007). The Canadian photographer’s ability to capture the sublime character of sea and ice is redolent of the great nineteenth-century landscape artists. Browse his site and you’ll see what I mean.

I’m fascinated with the quality of light and the spatial immensity the ocean possesses. I have an enormous reverence for feeling so small in the presence of something so vast, where perspective, scale, time and distance momentarily become intangible. My photographs contemplate that condition, and through their reductive nature, suggest a formalized landscape we rarely see. The glory lies not in the act of this removal or reduction, but in the experience of what is left – sublime experience located in ordinary space: a slowly moving sky, the sun moving across a boulders surface or sea foam swirling around a pylon.

- David Burdeny

In the keep of the tree

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009
The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk

The "iron-eating" sycamore of Brig o' Turk

Plants, it is well known, have a remarkable ability — born, perhaps, of their immense patience and gradualism — to physically merge themselves with elements in their environment. Ivy will bind fast to brick, beans will curl around poles, and trees… well, consider the iron-eating sycamore of Brig o’ Turk, a village in central Scotland near Loch Lomond. The tree, well over a century old, stands next to a disused smithy and over long years has subsumed numerous metal items that had been discarded against its trunk or hung on its boughs: items including a bridle, a ship’s anchor and chain, and a bicycle, the handlebars of which are the only part still visible.

Not only is this ability a tribute to the adaptability of plants, but it also provides a particularly moving example of nature’s role as a keeper of time. In the same inevitable way that grass pushes through the cracks of unmaintained asphalt, or a lover’s heart carved into an oak will deepen and slowly scar over, the sycamore in Brig o’ Turk reminds us of the transience of our material possessions, and, of course, ourselves.

All of which provides me with a credible excuse to introduce some beautiful verses on that very theme, written by 25-year-old poet-to-watch Robert Selby (who, as you’ll see from some of the poems on his site, particularly “The Leaving of the Institutions”, has a fine sense of man’s relationship to nature — or should I say, of nature’s relationship to man).

The Sycamore

Up the narrow road beside the tea-room
and you pass an iron-eating tree… (Gazetteer for Scotland)


The black-faced smithy’s boy of Brig o’ Turk
propped his bicycle against the sycamore
before his final shift at the clanging hearth,
soon to head off for war to escape the bore
of pouring coal into the firepot’s girth.
Proud of his young apprentice, the old mentor
drove the new recruit homeward on his dray,
so the bicycle remained in the keep of the tree.

As the smithy’s boy made corporal and set sail,
the sycamore began a cruelly slow advance.
As bugles called from shires their lonely scale,
the bicycle was raised on a timber lance.
When the smithy’s boy died at Passchendaele
and the village darkened in remembrance,
the sycamore drew about the bicycle,
clutching to its bark the spokes and saddle.

Long since the blacksmith sold off the yard,
since war ended, resprouted, withered again,
and the Trossachs became a National Park,
the bicycle protrudes still, a man-made limb
mimicking new growth, the ribbed handlebars
waiting for the smithy’s boy to reclasp them,
to pull free the frame and tour off, roadworthy,
the cast-iron memorial in the skyward lee.

- Robert Selby (Times Literary Supplement, April 18, 2008)

Time enough for tweets

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

One hundred and forty characters is not a lot of text. It’s maybe twenty words if you write like George Orwell, maybe fifteen if like Mervyn Peake, and a good thirty or forty if you know text message shorthand. Even if you do, it’s not exactly War and Peace.

As Jeet amusingly hinted, is Twitter yet another signpost in the ongoing decline of the modern attention span?


A garish white light

Monday, February 16th, 2009

There come moments in the lives of writers when the words that they use everyday seem suddenly and wholly inadequate to the tasks to which they have been set. Moments when every turn of phrase, every carefully-planned construction, fails to capture and convey the desired meaning, leaving the writer with a gnawing fear that perhaps his or her mother tongue was not built to communicate important things at all, but merely to serve as a low-cost mechanism for establishing and cementing interpersonal bonds. One never loses the ability to talk about the weather, somehow.


A land of bards

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

The contemporary Western image of Somalia was forged in 1993, when American special forces and U.S. Army Rangers fought an overnight battle in Mogadishu with the militia of General Mohamed Farrah Aidid, resulting in the loss of 18 American soldiers and the wounding of 73 more, and the deaths of up to 700 Somali militiamen and several hundred civilians. The battle was described in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (1999), and retold in Ridley Scott’s 2001 film of the same name. Say the word “Somalia” and you’ll summon visions: of the half-clothed bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by dancing crowds, of thin young men in dungarees manning heavy Soviet-era machine guns mounted on the back of Nissan pickup trucks, of emaciated civilians waiting in line for food. (more…)

To Lawren Harris, from Wang Hui

Thursday, December 4th, 2008
Nerke, Greenland, by Lawren Harris

Nerke, Greenland, by Lawren Harris (1930)

It sold for nearly $2.1 million dollars, that little oil painting shown above. Only 12 by 15 inches, the work came to the art world’s attention a few months ago, when a Vancouver woman decided to have her collection appraised. The painting by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris had been given to the woman’s father, commercial artist Gordon Davies, by Harris himself in the 1930s, and it had remained in the family for more than seventy years. Interestingly, the piece itself is merely a sketch for the painting “Greenland Mountains”, which was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1936, mislabeled, and subsequently turned into a 1967 stamp celebrating the Canadian landscape. The Danes must have been very proud. (more…)

Just like Ulysses, but about book illustrations

Friday, October 24th, 2008
Arabesques from a 16th-century Koran

Arabesques from a 16th-century Koran

Written by Sydney-based “PK” (the P standing for Paul, the K being of unknown origin), Bibliodyssey is a blog devoted to the collection and display of the visual culture locked away in old books and only now being made available digitally by libraries and archives around the world. PK’s range of interests is stimulating and broad, covering the decorative arts of the late medieval Islamic world on one day, and the eerie but fascinating illustrations of 20th-century Louisiana artist Caroline Durieux on another.

Visit it. Bookmark it. Enjoy it.

The world inside his head

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008
"On a midnight voyage", Chris Berens (2008)

"On a midnight voyage", Chris Berens (2008)

The people inside your head — what do they look like? I don’t mean the real ones — although I know that the real people inside your head don’t look exactly like the real people outside of it, which means they’re made up too, at least a little — I mean the ones that aren’t real, but that you’ve seen since childhood. Well, perhaps not seen, not recently anyway, so much as lived alongside; as busy adults, we no longer ponder our own minds, but this fact doesn’t drive these other residents out or make them vanish. It simply means we’re no longer looking at them. Yet stop for a moment and try to recall them to mind. (more…)

The surprise of Soviet language policy

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

"Russian Schoolroom", Norman Rockwell (1967)

It is almost always worth perusing the Times Literary Supplement’s “In Brief” section, which presents six or seven short reviews of books not quite important enough to have warranted a full-length review, if only because its very high message-to-text ratio means that interesting books are easier to spot. Case in point: the TLS’s April 11 (yes, I’m behind in my reading) “In Brief” presented a review of a book on the survival and nature of the Budukh language of Daghestan, which is spoken today by only 5,000 people in the Caucasus Mountains. If that comparatively tiny number has you scratching your head and wondering where the “interesting” part of this is, first note that Budukh is a sister-language to Kryts, which is spoken by 8,000 Daghestanis in neighbouring valleys, and second, as the reviewer puts it:

That either of these two languages has survived is the result of the former Soviet national language policy, as set down by Lenin, that nourished all the multitudinous small cultures of the former Soviet Union. This made sure that at least parts of primary education were in the language of the home, and for languages with even as few as 10,000 speakers, that local bureaucratic paperwork was often available in that language.

Frankly, this took me by complete surprise. (more…)

I loved Rome more

Friday, May 16th, 2008

Fished out of the river Rhone last fall, a bust of Julius Caesar dating from 46 BCE, two years before his death. Oh yes, his death: on that delicate yet never untimely subject let us attend to Brutus once again…

Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my
cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me
for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that
you may believe: censure me in your wisdom, and
awake your senses, that you may the better judge.
If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of
Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar
was no less than his. If then that friend demand
why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:
– Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved
Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living and
die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live
all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;
as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his
ambition. Who is here so base that would be a
bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended.
Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If
any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so
vile that will not love his country? If any, speak;
for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.

- Julius Caesar (Act III, Scene II), by William Shakespeare

What’s a nice bookstore like you doing in a place like this?

Sunday, May 11th, 2008

It took me nearly a year to notice this place, despite the fact that it’s located about half a block north of my office. Maybe it’s because I don’t frequently walk north (the GO train lies in the opposite direction); maybe it’s because there’s no glaringly bright signage announcing its presence (if you don’t look directly at the window you’ll miss the quiet little logo — subtitled, ironically enough, “read the fine print”). Maybe it’s because I’m staring at my Blackberry too much.

Whatever the reason, I was happy to find it. Ben McNally Books opened up last fall in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, in brave defiance of the laws of 21st century book retailing economics, which dictate that There Shall Be But One Retailer, Its Scope Shall Be National, and Its Tastes Middlebrow. Ben himself is the former general manager of Nicholas Hoare Books, a quality bookstore of longer standing (it’s part of a three-city chain, in fact) which, while being located in what one must call “downtown Toronto”, is not truly positioned on the spine of Canadian finance as Ben’s shop is — Hoare is several blocks to the east, a culture zone of restaurants, cafes, and galleries which attracts slow-walking browsers just ripe for book buying.

Bay Streeters, by contrast, generally have somewhere to go, fast. Languid walk-ins, therefore, will be rare. What Ben’s store must be hoping to attract instead is that (not insignificant) sub-set of business people who read more than the financial and sports pages, and who will be happy to have a quality bookstore in the heart of the district, staffed by people who can point out not only the latest John Grisham, but also the latest J.M. Coetzee.

Unfortunately, this select group of patrons may not often include me. Because of my limited free time, I have fairly precise, project-related reading needs, and these I’ve found are best served via the search-and-ship magic of and its peers. However, I shall probably buy something occassionally from Ben’s, if only because a physical bookstore offers a different kind of serendipitous discovery effect than on-line retailers can provide (although with its many suggestion-style features, Amazon can come pretty close these days). For example, while scanning Ben’s shelves I ran across an attractive collection of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, and came very very close to buying it on a whim. But I didn’t; too many other unread books in my house.

Next time, Ben.