Fancy Art People, Fancy Talk

How do you reconcile your need to push the reflection onto the artwork with the need to stay connected to your society?

Rêves d’été/Summer dream, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

Last night I had a strange dream. I was at a fancy art dinner, filled with fancy people wearing fancy cloths and talking fancy talk that made no sense. My sister was there with me and she was just as lost. “What is this dinner all about anyway?” she asked. The other people gathered around her and whispered nonsense answers about what they though we were all doing there. But once again, it made no sense to me and the whispering thing was just so weird.

I woke up with a smile, thinking that was a strange dream! But I know very well that dreams come from our subconscious brains trying to make sense of the things that are troubling us, the things we experience during our waking hours.

A few years ago, I read a wonderful book called Your Sleeping Genius by Dr Gale Delanay. She explains, “Many dreams come in the form of sophisticated metaphorical thinking and problem solving. The dreamer wakes to remember powerful stories filled with symbols that seem to make little sense to the conscious mind and are often soon forgotten… but you can learn how to make good use of what your dreaming brain is trying to tell you.” At the time, I had followed her dream interpretation technique for a few months and it had been a very enlightening experience. It helped me to identify things that scared me and to recognize my own metaphors, most of them fished out of childhood experiences. In light of last night’s dream, though, I think I need to read that book again!

But let’s attempt to make sense of this: the fancy art people with the fancy nonsense talk. In real life, my experience of art people is not that at all. Okay, maybe there are a few snobs here and there, but for the most part art people are wonderful. They’re generous, welcoming, interesting and humble, so it seems like the dream wasn’t so much about the people. Maybe the dream is more about me. I might be worrying about getting lost as I try to explain the work I do. And maybe it’s also about my strong desire to stay connected to people.


Repos/The rest, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

Let’s start with ‘explaining what I do’. Today, artists have to write about their work in depth, and preparing an artist statement requires deep reflection on ‘why I do the work I do’. This has never been a problem for me. In fact I quite enjoy the process when I think and write about the meaning of my work. But I often wonder how far I want to push this reflection. Too often that process becomes so abstract that it only makes sense to the artist who writes it. When does it become ‘art speak’

In the blog called What The ??? is Art Speak?, there is mention of an essay titled “International Art English” by David Levine and Alix Rule where they attempt to scientifically prove that the internationalized art world relies on a unique language which “…has everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English.” One of their conclusions is that International Art English, (which is what they call art speak), is used by proponents to both identify each other and signal their insider status in the rarefied world of the elite.”

I know I really don’t want to be a part of that rarefied art world. I’m more than happy to push the reflection on my art; I know I need it for my own professional development. But I really just want to create art and be in the moment when I do it.

Chasseur de rêve/Dream Chasser, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

And ‘my desire to stay connected to people’? Although I enjoy being alone most of the time, those who know me well realize that I’m a people person. Not in the sense that I need people around me a lot, but in the sense that I love interacting with them and that I do appreciate and respect who they are. One of my mentors, Serge Murphy, once told me that as an artist evolves in his practice he becomes more and more isolated, simply because pushing the reflection on his own work creates a greater and greater gap between what he does and what people instinctively understand about art. I don’t really know how to reconcile those two motivations. I only know that, as an artist, I need to keep reflecting on my work. But I also know that I have no desire to feel separated from the society I live in, regardless of whether people understand what I do.

I’m afraid that dream did nothing to provide me with answers. I still have to learn to reconcile those two needs. But maybe that dream was just the beginning of my subconscious reflection. I can hardly wait for my sleeping brain to figure it out!

A Toddler Could Have Painted That!

Last week I hired a woman to clean my house. Trust me, my house needed it. I freely admit that I much prefer to be in my studio. And besides, I share this house with a bunch of boys who just don’t see the dirt and mess, as a result the house gets seriously neglected. This lovely women with lots of life experience was a welcome help.

As I was showing my new cleaner around the house that first time, she commented on all my work – truly a collection that represents every step of my progress as an artist. She loved the landscapes and the ceramic flowers, and went on to tell me how she just doesn’t “get those paintings with the rectangles. A toddler could paint those,” she proclaimed. Then we walked into my studio and she saw my newer work. I could tell she was trying to find something in them to relate to, but it was difficult for her. “These are much better than all those rectangle paintings” she said diplomatically.

I like this woman. She’s hard working and honest, and I certainly wasn’t going to allow her comment to spoil my cleaning day with her. So, while I was tiding up as fast as I could to stay ahead of her energizer pace, I wondered what are we artists doing wrong? Why is it that people with lots of life experience don’t understand the first thing about abstract paintings? Why is it that they actually believe that a child could paint a Jackson Pollock?

Does the art world not communicate? Or do we communicate in an unaccessible language? Maybe it’s a little bit of both. Many people feel completely disconnected from the language used by contemporary artists when they talk about their work. I think, too, that the school system fails to provide a basic understanding of art because the curriculum sticks to a very limited list of old masters. Today’s students have very little exposure to new work and new ways to approach and talk about art. Let’s face it: football and hockey are a much bigger part of the general culture. And frankly, most homes are decorated with cheap cookie-cutter prints bought at big-box stores. Those prints by the way, do not put any interesting amount of income in the artist’s pocket.

I realize that art is important to me, and that it’s not important for a lot of people. But I strongly believe that all of us should have at least some understanding of the critical importance of abstract work throughout our history. It requires us to have an inquiring mind – to look beyond the surface and to be open to seeing the human condition in its many manifestations. It’s a skill we should all learn because in the 21st Century, we live in a complex society among myriad cultures with incredibly diverse ways of understanding. Abstract art requires us to acknowledge that truly understanding one another is enormously challenging. But once our minds are open to that challenge, we all benefit from learning to see with different eyes.

Photo credit Jessica Labrie

“A five year old could paint this!” Every professional abstract painter out there has heard that particular critique and, believe me, they cringe every time.

So? Does Marla Olmstead’s work belong in a museum or on the fridge? Slate Culture Box commented best. “The elephants, and perhaps even your own brilliant progeny may be terrific painters—but they’re not artists. This is because art is not just about making things or slapping pigment on canvas; it’s also a way of thinking and seeing.”

Ed Swarez in his blog titled “No, your five year old could not paint that” explains, “But I do believe that, when most people apply themselves and really try to see what is going on in the artwork in front of them, they have an unsuspected instinct that allows them to connect with the work and recognize its value.”

And Hawley-Dolan and Winner, in the 2011 blog titled Seeing the Mind Behind the Art, writes “People untrained in visual art see more than they realize when looking at abstract expressionist paintings. People may say that a child could have made a work by a recognized abstract expressionist, but when forced to choose between a work by a child and one by a master such as Mark Rothko, they are drawn to the Rothko even when the work is falsely attributed to a child or nonhuman. People see the mind behind the art.”

Photo credit Jessica Labrie

Last week I shared a fun little test on my Facebook page. There are 11 images of abstract work and you must decide whether each was painted by a toddler or by a professional artist. I took the test and correctly identified 9 out of 11. And, to my knowledge, the only person who beat me is my hiking partner, Josée, who got 10 out of 11. Now Josée, although she is open-minded about art, is certainly not an art connoisseur. What she knows are toddlers. She’s been running a day home for 20 years and has seen an impressive number of toddler paintings, so you can’t fool her! She knows toddler art when she sees it.  


Maybe, what is needed to better appreciate abstract artwork is simply more exposer to toddlers!