Monday, May 11, 2015
On Basquiat And Emily Carr
May, 7, 2015
I went this afternoon to the AGO to see the Emily Carr exhibit, From Forest To The Sea. I don't recall having given her two thoughts ever before and if I ever saw her paintings--I have to think I did, what with Kleinberg being a hour's drive--they never stuck. I had a couple of months ago gone to the AGO to see the Basquiat exhibit, Now's The Time and even went to a Saturday long seminar on him (that deserves its own note.) I came away from Basquiat thinking that the celebration of him has more to do with him being black, a street kid with tons of street cred, good looking, a buddy of Warhol's, and having died young and of a heroin overdose no less than his art. I don't buy the claims that his primitivism has great and deceptive skill behind it and that his explicitly cruder paintings, like Car Crash, have that behind them. I see lots of busyness and clutter in his paintings than great art. The sublime and the ridiculous are Breughel's magnificent peopled paintings and Basquiat's busyness. I got no emotional wallop from his paintings and felt no resonant depth in them.
But Emily Carr just knocked me out. Maybe wrongly the curator had 1930s and early 40s dark paintings of trees and forests to start the exhibit. They're so full of dark menace, ferocity and foreboding. They put me in mind of "lovely dark and deep" but with weighty emphasis on the "dark and deep" in their most forbidding and threatening aspect. The trees, tall, spindly, sparse, denuded of foliage, seem stuck and submerged in cannibalistically herbivorous vegetation with imagery of jaws wanting to swallow up what's around them, all painted in dark, gloomy colours. In many of these paintings the surrounding vegetation is painted in water imagery with tidal waves about to crash down on the trees or with swift River currents about to carry them away. And what light from the sun that does appear in some of the paintings often seems like a consuming fire. For all Emily Carr's talk about the animism of nature, of forests and trees, they seem played, fragile, weak and vulnerable in their thinness.
So, I found a disconnect between the curator's annotation of these paintings interlarded with snatches of Carr's own strong and expressive prose, much of it to a view of nature's refulgence, fecundity, regeneration, divine teleology and the dark. foreboding ferocity I just described. Accordingly, I saw way more ambivalence in her well known work Indian Church than the curator allowed for, the mere contrast of imposed European cum Christian while linearity and the nature as wild, flowing of many complex darker shades and shapes. The church was that but also had the quality to it of Hemingway's "A Clean Well Lighted Place," a small oasis of sanctuary. And in line with that two sidedness of it, the forest, in which the church sits quite alone, has untamed and threatening dark wildness to it of a thematic piece with her other paintings of nature's ferocity. So I saw exploration of both sides of that nature church paradox, each side with its own paradoxical ambivalence.
So, too, to move from these later dark paintings to the lighter, more benign paintings of her earlier years in the exhibit shocked me a little and took some adjusting to. There's a kind of smile that suffuses many of these earlier paintings in their benignity. And in that regard there's a computer based recreation of her travel to Alaska diary book of sketches and prose entries, which is delightful and funny, whimsical and charming, endlessly lightly self deprecating. I'd have thought a more telling curation would've proceeded chronologically from light to dark, so to speak.
I think her art is great.