Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Chris Millar: Maximalist

"Although the works look psychedelic and look totally wacky, I don't use any sort of drugs at all" ~ Chris Millar
The Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton is hosting an exhibition entitled, The Untimely Transmogrification of the Problem by local wunderkind Chris Millar. As curator Nancy Tousley writes:
"A natural born storyteller, Millar sprinkles his sculptures, which are made almost entirely of paint, with visual clues to the questions of who and what, and even what might happen next, if their frozen moment in time were to melt. His paintings, on the other hand, are dense mixtures of images and words in which everything happens at once."
Everything happens at once. It's what Iranian-born German-based artist Daryush Shokof and music critic Simon Reynolds have identified as a defining aesthetic of "Maximalism." According to Shokof's "Maximalist Manifesto" (1991), maximalist art works are:
1. Figurative.
2. Politically aware, with socially critical points of view.
3. Erotic.
4. Mostly include ironic and humorous perspectives in concept or in form.
5. Not made to simply oppose minimalist works of art.
6. Open to wide views and visionary dimensions that can be fantastic, but not deformed.
Millar's works are crammed with minutiae and exacting details. It's as if Hieronymus Bosch was raised on Fruit Loops, Zap Comix and G.B.H. tunes. The day we visited, there was a 20-minute line up to get into the exhibit's boutique-sized room and people were using complimentary magnifying glasses to peruse the pieces as though they were rare, exotic gems. Some have called it hyper or hysterical realism, but as Reynolds writes:
"'Maximalism' is vague and capacious enough to contain a whole bunch of ideas and associations, but the general slant of these verdicts is that there are a hell of a lot of inputs here, in terms of influences and sources, and a hell of a lot of outputs, in terms of density, scale, structural convolution, and sheer majesty."
This seems like an appropriate response to the inflated times in which we live. In Millar's pieces everything is simultaneous and immediate - he wants it all.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Broken Virtues: University of Alberta

My letter on this topic has been published in the Edmonton Journal. It prompted and email to me from Dr. Frank Robinson, Vice-Provost and Dean of Students at the U of A explaining, in short, that the students and police were to blame for the events of February 1. The students for not asking for permission beforehand and the police for the overkill of force. I've since responded advising the administration to quit with the finger-pointing, take responsibility and issue an apology. He wrote nothing about my concern regarding Brabeck-Letmathe’s honorary degree.

Strange things have been happening at the University of Alberta. It began February 1st when a police helicopter suddenly appeared at the window of my graduate seminar. My first thought was of terrorism. I soon discovered that the only threat was coming from my fellow students and other concerned citizens who (god forbid!) were engaging in a peaceful protest against education cut backs on a designated National Student Day of Action.

It turned out that the administration, led by U of A president Indira Samarasekera, thought it appropriate to disrupt classes and inflame resentment by ordering over 20 officers in seven squad cars and an Air-1 police helicopter to subdue the demonstration. I was certain this overreaction would be regretted and that a full explanation and public apology would be forthcoming. No such luck.

Now Samarasekera is defending the university’s decision to confer an honorary doctorate on Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman and former CEO of Nestlé, because, as she said, "This guy is an intellectual. We give honorary degrees to intellectuals of distinction, controversial or not." Controversy? Gandhi was “controversial.” The decision is a disgrace and a betrayal of the U of A’s motto, Quaecumque vera, ("Whatsoever things are true") from the Epistle of St. Paul:
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and there be any praise, think on these things.“
Brabeck-Letmathe has long been a vocal advocate for privatizing fresh water, while dismissing free public access as “an extreme” human right. During Brabeck-Letmathe’s tenure as Nestlé's CEO from 1997-2008 the company was accused of engaging in child slavery in the Ivory Coast. More recently Nestlé has again become the target of a boycott over its reckless marketing of baby formula in Armenia and Laos, where, according to Mike Brady of the non-profit organization Baby Milk Action, it has put “company profits before the health of infants and rights of mothers.”

Indira Samarasekera needs to reflect on whether there be any virtue in such positions. A world-class university does not turn police on peaceful protesters nor honor someone who advocates privatizing fresh water supplies while subjecting people to destructive economic practices. We can and should do better. Much better.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Oil Spilt: Canucks Win In Edmonton

It was a game made for a first time visit to Edmonton's Rexall Place and the Vancouver Canucks didn't disappoint - they crushed the Oilers 5-2 last night. The Canucks scored within the first minute and they didn't let up. The Oilers looked lazy and sloppy and a majority of the sold-out crowd soon came out as Canucks fans. I've never seen (or heard) so many of the opposing team's fans at any game. The ratio sounded 50-50 and at one point the "Go, Canucks Go!" chant drowned out the "Let's Go, Oilers, Let's Go!"

Built in 1974, the Rexall is an old concrete monstrosity and our seats were cramped. We had a great view of the action, especially during the second period when the Oilers were in our end and the Canucks scored 2.

It was a special night for Yuko and I, too. It was her very first time to attend a live NHL game and we're still working on "O Canada." She was a great sport and now a bona fide Canucks' fan.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sheila Watson: Figures In A Ground

"The word is a flame burning in a dark glass"
In October 1973, Sheila Watson gave a reading at the then Grant MacEwan Community College here in Edmonton and made what has since become a defining statement on her aesthetic:
“I would say that what I was concerned with was figures in a ground, from which they could not be separated. I don't think of them as people in a place, in a stage set, in a place which had to be described for itself, as it existed outside the interaction of the people with the objects, with the things, with the other existences with which they came in contact. So that the people are entwined in, they're interacting with the landscape, and the landscape is interacting with them.”

Watson’s emphasis on this interaction between “figures” and “ground” represents an attempt to get beyond the autonomous view of the individual that her friend Marshall McLuhan identified as characterizing the post-Gutenberg era. With her first novel, Deep Hollow Creek, written in the 1930s but not published until 1992, Watson confronts the old hubris that posited humankind apart and above nature or suggested individuals could control their own destiny without attempting to understand the environmental pressures influencing acts of agency.

In DHC Watson begins the journey that eventually culminated with her classic, The Double Hook (1959). She embeds the content into the landscape to reveal the symbiotic relationship binding together all elements in an environment. The form of DHC demonstrates that everything is interconnected simultaneously: trees, water, animals, humans. Context mingles with content, mediums become messages and vice-versa.

Watson maps out the contours of the environment by privileging its setting - the Cariboo country of British Columbia - as a force in itself. By raising the background to the level of foreground, she compels us to view this architecture hidden in plain sight to be as important as any human influence. Now more than ever, it behooves us to listen.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Whitney Houston: When The Night Falls

"When the night falls, the loneliness calls"
Poor Whitney Houston. Unlike her song, she actually did have it all before she threw it away. Regardless of her buffoonery in recent years, or the fact that she paved the way for banshees like Celine Dion and Michael Bolton, Whitney had talent. And exuberance, which is what I responded to when I was too drunk to fuck or care about what the deejay was playing. Yeah, I wanted to dance with somebody...feel that heat...in 1987.

When the world today turned from Syrian massacres and yahoo Republicans to all things Whitney, I was reminded of WB Yeats' poem, "The Stolen Child":
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand
Not his best by a long shot, but one of his most popular. Such is the way of the world. Popularity, as Boy George knew, not only breeds contempt; it also accelerates the dissemination of schmaltz. The world may not be any "more full of weeping" than it is full of joy, but a maudlin tear sure makes the news cycle spin. We in that amorphous bubble called "the public," or more aptly, "the audience," lap it up. Of course, it's always better when some genuine despair is thrown in like a crack habit or a televised meltdown.

(Whitney Houston in 2001 @ Michael Jackson's 30th Anniversary Concert)
Those who've had loved ones tangled up in addiction's amphetamine embrace know the futility of convincing them of their disease. It's like watching a train wreck in slow motion - the death drive is overwhelming. If that's what happened to Whitney Houston, it's sad, but not surprising. At least the Grammy Awards are tomorrow - the full parade of celebrity grief will be on display and the audience will be faithfully tuned in, anticipating a glitzy, Cirque du Soleil-style catharsis.

We live in an age of cheap sentiment and Whitney Houston occupied that sweet spot where art collides with decor and becomes schmaltz. Her aesthetic was the embodiment of sentimentality and melodrama, as deep as a Hallmark-card kiss, as sweet as a saccharine-coated melody. She's forever linked in my mind with trips to the mall or the muzak that accompanies elevators to vague, pastel-stained offices containing nothing more than isolated cubicles of despair. There lingers her song. May she rest in peace.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Lana Del Rey: World Askew

"Heaven is place on earth with you"
You know the world is askew when it's dumping scorn on a popstar rather than more deserving folks like, oh, maybe Bashar al-Assad or the New England Patriots. It begs the question, "No one could that bad, could they?" No, they couldn't, not even Lana Del Rey. By now the overkill of hate has reached the ridiculous - here's SNL's parody from last weekend:

When I first heard the "Video Games" single I thought of David Lynch's protégé from the late 80s, the hauntingly vacuous Julee Cruise:

"Video Games" is stuffed with familiar Lynchian tropes like depraved celebrities acting out beneath wilted palms and sun-smeared horizons all caught on authentically retro Super 8 film stock:

It's effective and affective, conjuring something both glacially distant and seductively intimate. Apparently, it was too much "affect" for many, including the dopes at Rolling Stone and Pitchfork who lined up like lemmings to skewer Del Rey's new album, Born To Die.

According to producer David Kahne, there's more to her than swollen lips and a Lolita fixation:
"What she is doing goes against the grain of chart pop, which is about getting to the club on Friday night. The country is fraying at the edges; she wanted to look at that edge, at destruction and loss, and talk about it."
Too bad the rest of the album isn't as good as "Video Games." Spin's Rob Harvilla gets it right: "This record is not godawful. Nor is it great. But it's better than we deserve. We broke her; we bought her."

Friday, February 03, 2012

"¡No pasarán!": Student Action Stifled

I'm beginning to adjust to this frigid, northern outpost of Edmonton. I plug in my car; I shower in my long johns. My senses too are adapting. They're thawing and slowing down the whirlwind of incoming data to a more comfortable, legible pace. I'm now able to identify certain rhythms and patterns with more ease and almost daily I receive a message drifting through the ether: "Welcome to Harperland!"

Just this week at my own University of Alberta a peaceful protest was shut down by over 25 police officers equipped with a helicopter. This battalion had been mobilized to protect the private property of the university from nefarious cretins called...students! Yes, students protesting tuition hikes and cutbacks on a "National Student Day of Action," obviously just a cover for something far more sinister and dangerous.

(Police battalion saves University of Alberta from itself, @ Occupy Edmonton)
It has since backfired into a monumental embarrassment for the administration, but how could they have ever thought otherwise? Did they think they could get away with stifling student activism at a university? Apparently so - in Harperland such idiocy has become a daily occurrence.