Capsule: Kevin Cooley

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

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.

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Billy and Souci

January 15th, 2010

Billy and Souci (Ian G Mason)

My contribution to James Gurney’s latest “Art by Committee” challenge. The assignment was to illustrate the following extract from a science fiction novel manuscript:

Billy and Souci conversation

This one was a great learning exercise from a composition point of view, driving me to rough out several possible scenes before finally choosing a close-up of Billy’s face — and even then I experimented with just how close the close-up should be. Billy, I thought, is a man trying bravely to cope with an unanticipated glacier of indifference from a formerly close female friend. And this being the near-future, he’s staring into the unforgiving lens of a laptop camera while he wages this internal struggle.

Yet another argument against videophones, in my opinion. Dating is hard enough without that.

After Boilly

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.

Santa’s useless helpers

December 25th, 2009

Chimney reversedThe second in my apparently annual series of Yuletide mullings (last year’s “In the bleak midwinter” discussed the darker seasonal myths of medieval Germany) was triggered by a headline I spotted on my train ride home from work a week ago. “NORAD fighter pilots prepare to escort Santa”, it read; beneath it was a photo of two Canadian air force CF-18s. It’s a yearly tradition, of course — I have a vague memory of listening to “radar updates” on Santa’s progress as a kid in the 1970s — but still, something about it grated on me.

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The octopodes among us

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!

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Cinderella 2147

December 12th, 2009

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

I produced this somewhat dark-themed picture 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.

Other things you can do with paper

November 18th, 2009

Woman's head (Nov 15, 2009)

My apologies for a two-month absence from posting, but I’ve had an autumn which has been filled with distractions — some work-related, yes, but others more enjoyable than that. I had the pleasure of editing a fascinating chapter of a good friend’s upcoming book. I caught up on the first half of the first season of Mad Men. And I finally began to make steady progress on a newly-adopted hobby: drawing.

I’ll tackle the “why” in a later post. For now, glance at the scrappy little drawing above, which for all its lack of polish and professionalism nevertheless marks a breakthrough for me. Until this picture, I’d been drawing faces with pencils (good ones, mind you), and the precision of these tools had encouraged my involuntary tendency to produce fussy little pictures that lacked any shreds of the visual impact that I’d been seeking. The people I drew, however beautiful in reality, consistently ended up narrow-eyed and unattractive on paper.

Finally, I decided to experiment with the big chunks of graphite and charcoal that came with my Derwent sketching kit. I worked carefully, but with increasing pleasure. Thirty minutes later I was finished, and thrilled. This was the look I had been searching for. There’s a real joy that comes with achieving even a modest victory when you’ve had to build your skills up from nothing.

What now? Be assured that I haven’t given up one love for another — I’ll start re-engaging with this blog in upcoming weeks. But over time what I’m hoping to do is to experiment a little with working illustrations into my essays, to see where that leads, whether it improves the final product, and whether anything fun and original comes out of it. I very much look forward to hearing your feedback and suggestions as I go along.

Capsule: John Sell Cotman

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).

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It came from the desert, part deux

September 10th, 2009

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.

You say you want a revolution. Didn't you?
September 3rd, 2009

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.

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Capsule: John Wolseley

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

It came from the desert

August 7th, 2009

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.

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Life, the state, and a pack of Kents

July 5th, 2009
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.

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The most apropos news photograph never taken

June 4th, 2009

June 3/09 (Reuters): “Dead whale found on bow of Exxon tanker in Alaska”

Oh, how the entire PR unit of ExxonMobil must have gone to bed on Monday night praising God that no photographer happened to be hanging around the terminal the day that tanker came in. But while this particular image-as-metaphor will apparently have to be provided by and preserved in our own imaginations, the report itself does contain one passage of almost poetic sadness:

Neither crew members on the Kodiak nor those aboard the tugs that escorted the tanker during the final approach to Valdez noticed anything out of the ordinary during the transit, said Ray Botto, external affairs manager for SeaRiver Maritime.

“There was nothing that suggested any deviation from standard operating practice,” he said, adding the poor condition of the whale, which had a noticeable stench, suggests it had been dead for a while.

Sums up the whole progress of civilization, somehow, doesn’t it?

The pause button

May 23rd, 2009
Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty

July 2007: A former insurgent watches a row of coalition military vehicles in the Amariyah neighborhood of Baghdad (Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty)

As far as the bulk of the American — and for that matter, world — press is concerned, the Iraq War ended sometime in early 2008. Casualty rates suffered by American troops had dropped significantly, and this happy circumstance was generally credited to the “surge” of up to 40,000 additional troops deployed to Iraq starting the previous summer. Presidential candidate Barak Obama did his part to move the spotlight away from the Persian Gulf by pointing to Afghanistan as the site of the really important war (a claim underscored by increasing levels of violence in both Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan), and the rapidly developing global financial crisis did its part. By January 2009 it seemed likely that the average Beltway pundit would once again have trouble finding Iraq on a map.

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Door’s open

May 18th, 2009

Welcome, to any of you tired and huddled readers just completing the difficult journey from old Archipelagoes to new. Pull up a chair by the fire, have a mug of grog, and let me know what you think of the place.

Roomy, n’est-ce pas?

Magnetic suns and moth balls

April 27th, 2009
Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw in James Gray's <i>Two Lovers</i>

Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw in James Gray's Two Lovers

Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) does not on the face of it seem like the kind of man who would end up with two attractive lovers at the same time. He is in his mid-thirties and lives with his parents. He works as a delivery man for his father’s antiquated dry cleaning business. He takes black and white photographs as a hobby, but shoots only buildings. He takes medication for a variety of bipolar disorder. And in the opening scene of the film, he attempts to commit suicide (not for the first time, his worried parents remind themselves) by jumping off a pier.

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Crime without punishment

April 25th, 2009


A moment of great rejoicing for human rights activists and champions of the rule of law came at the beginning of this month as former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in jail for “crimes against humanity”, having authorized murders, kidnappings, and torture as part of a severe anti-terrorist campaign in the 1990s. Fujimori’s sentencing, one must hope, will send a powerful message to government leaders around the world that maintaining public security is an insufficient excuse for violating fundamental human rights, and that even presidents will be held to account for the crimes they commit in office.

But not in America.

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