Elliat Albrecht ←------@gmail.com>
Fri, Nov 8, 2013 at 10:51 PM
Seven or eight years ago you picked me up an hour late. I was waiting on a bench in the foyer watching the dark driveway when your headlights pulled up. We drove north to the artists’ family’s house in Rama. “A veritable fort in the wilderness.. .the three-storey wooden structure, built in the shape of a giant teepee.. following the natural contours and beauty of the land”, wrote the Toronto Sun about the place once. He welcomed us in; fat tubes of oil paint were half-squashed on palettes inside the studio. “I want you, you, you” yearned the radio. Snow fell outside black windows and on the sills were cans of coloured water. Everyone (there were some other artists there too) was drinking beer, but not me because I was still too young. I sat in an armchair while three or four of them painted. You didn’t talk much. I watched Travis work out of the corner of my eye.
Travis Shilling is the oldest son of renowned Canadian artist Arthur Shilling, a prolific Ojibway painter born in Ontario in 1941. As a young painter, the elder Shilling steered from the traditional path of painting imagery from First Nations legends and stories, and instead depicted Native people themselves. His was an expressionist style with bold strokes of colour and thick, lustrous surfaces. When times were lean for Shilling, he painted his portraits on window blinds, cigarette boxes, odd pieces of wood, and the walls of his government shack. He suffered the aftereffects of a childhood rheumatic heart condition and took to drinking a bottle of rye every night in order to ease the pain. Two wealthy collectors from Toronto once arranged for Shilling’s damaged heart valve to be replaced. The operation prolonged the artist’s life until he died at 45. Travis was just a boy.
Travis’s artistic style is similar to his late father’s in that his brushstrokes too are rich, luxurious and brightly coloured. He has an incredibly fine sensibility for light that delicately seeps out of certain corners of his canvases. His themes also reflect First Nations concerns; however, having drifted from portraiture, Travis' recent paintings juxtapose civilization and the animal world in a narrative dreamscape. He frequently depicts a post-apocalyptic world where animals live after the effects of human presence. I can’t really explain them that well - look here.
I follow Travis’ Instagram account and every now and again he posts a small square picture of a painting that really strikes me. But before I tell you about one that I saw last week, I want to talk about resonance. In physics, resonance is the tendency of a system to oscillate at larger amplitudes. Pretty beautiful, huh? I’ve been trying to work out a definition that applies to art, and I think that resonance is loosely the intangible quality that makes one feel. What is resonant is rich, significant, sticks with you, makes you think, wakes you up, bothers you, soothes you, wraps its arms around you, crawls across your floor. Art that resonates is art that sticks to the bone and is art that thickens the plot; it oscillates at larger amplitudes of one’s person.
How can I describe to you the resonance of an artwork? Should I even try? Writing these e-mails has made me question my purpose; I don’t know what the value is in playing armchair art critic. Art academics are always discussing a crisis in art criticism; I have four books on the subject divvied out into colour-coordinated piles across my kitchen table. Each one discusses the merits of description over analysis, interpretation over judgement and debates the value of writing about art for an audience who may never see it in person. By describing an artwork, one may negate its ability to speak for itself. Weak interpretation risks ruining otherwise interesting art. Don’t forget the possibility of writing an artwork to its loquacious death.
So the business of art criticism is in allegedly in crisis. But what would it be if it weren’t? In his 2003 book What Happened to Art Criticism, James Elkins suggests that crisis, and exaggerated, dramatic crisis at that, is the best lubricant for discussion. Who was it who said that the death of painting was just a moment of academic boredom? Perhaps art needs its own dilemma in order to legitimize itself in a world swathed with real problems. In an open letter responding to Claes Oldenberg’s 1961 manifesto “I Am For an Art”, co-editor of Freize magazine Dan Fox mused that “when half the world doesn’t have clean drinking water, a show about the crisis in painting can seem pretty decadent.” Remember when we spent all afternoon watching baseball wipeouts on TV? We only shut it off and got up to do something else at six when the news came on.
Right now I’m listening to a show on NPR about a choir that goes to sing at the bedsides of those close to death. One of the members just said that she gave the best gift she could give her dying friend by singing to him at the end of his life. The interviewer said that he couldn’t imagine a more pressured performance. The woman said; “You get used to it.”
THE HORSES is a 40 x 40 oil painting on canvas.