Journal

Oasis In The City by Geoff Harrison

In my exhibition scheduled for June 2020 at Tacit Galleries in Collingwood, I will be exploring the recuperative and consoling powers nature has to offer to all of us. The exhibition will be based around Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens which I have visited many times for psychological recovery from the challenges of modern existence, such as losing one’s job, difficulties in relationships or even working one’s way through art school. It’s the responsibility of art to make us appreciate the importance of modest moments in our lives, such as the play of shadows cast by a tree on a path.

Hill Of Contentment Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 102 cm

Hill Of Contentment Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 102 cm

Modern advertising often specialises in glamourizing the unattainable; that is, places that are rare, remote, costly or famous.  Yet here we have an exotic location right under our noses that we can visit at any time.  And the sun need not be shining to appreciate the mysteries of these gardens.   A visit on a quiet and drizzly day can be an oddly therapeutic experience as you get the feeling that you have the whole gardens to yourself – tearooms and all.  Without the perpetual buzz of sight-seeing aircraft overhead, one can absorb the almost surreal beauty of the gardens, the thought that has gone into the landscaping and the far flung vistas.

Grey Day In The Gardens Oil On Canvas 71 cm x 107 cm

Grey Day In The Gardens Oil On Canvas 71 cm x 107 cm

Thanks to the barrage of advertising that constantly assails us, we lose the value of things that are close to hand, such as a quiet secluded area that allows time for contemplation. We become ungrateful for things that are free or don’t cost very much and we lose the value of ideas and feelings.

Casting A Long Shadow Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 76 cm

Casting A Long Shadow Oil On Canvas 102 cm x 76 cm

In this series I have not bothered with depicting precise species of plants as this is not meant to be an exact botanical record.  It’s a mood, a feeling that I’m intending to convey.


Sadness & Depression - The Difference by Geoff Harrison

It’s well documented that depression will afflict almost half of us at some point in our lives. And yet our understanding of the illness is often confused with sadness. The Book Of Life argues that a number of assumptions that are made about sadness have been inappropriately applied to depression, and this can lead to people with depression suffering more than they need to.

The Aftermath 2015 Oil On Canvas

The Aftermath 2015 Oil On Canvas

While on the surface, a sad person may present similar characteristics to a depressed one, there is one fundamental difference. The sad person knows what they are sad about, the depressed person doesn’t. Unlike a sad person, a depressed person usually has difficulty articulating what they are sad about. They may simply feel that life has been drained of all meaning.

This can leave them open to unwarranted charges of faking, malingering or exaggerating. Friends may end up feeling frustrated at the lack of progress in their attempts to help. A sad person usually doesn’t feel that life has lost all meaning. A depressed person may totally disintegrate as a result of a minor accident such as breaking a glass.

The Sky Is Beginning to Bruise 2014 Oil On Canvas

The Sky Is Beginning to Bruise 2014 Oil On Canvas

For decades now, the idea has been promulgated that depression is a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, a concept very attractive to pharmaceutical companies who are more than willing to flood the market with their miracle cures. But for many patients, so-called antidepressants have only resulted in weight gain.

Psychotherapy has brought some sufferers some relief because it starts from the premise that the depressed aren’t feeling that way for no reason - there is a reason. “They are very distressed about something but that something is proving extremely difficult to take on board, and has therefore been pushed into the outer zones of consciousness.“ Rather than being able to confront what really distresses them, they remain dead to everything. Often, the depressed aren’t aware that they lack insight into what’s really troubling them.

All Night Through 1984 Evelyn Williams

All Night Through 1984 Evelyn Williams

There is another key difference between been sad and being depressed. The sad my feel grief stricken by something out there in the world, but they are not usually sad about themselves - their self esteem remains unaffected. “Whereas depressed people will characteristically feel wretched about themselves and be full of self-recrimination, guilt, shame and self-loathing.” In extreme cases, this can lead to suicidal thoughts.

The Book Of Life suggests that a sufferer can become self-hating as a defense against the risks of hating someone else , a parent who humiliated them when they were a child for example. Despair can be caused by “undigested, unknown and unresolved trauma”.

Psychotherapy can open the door to greater insight, but this can take time and require courage in the sufferer and patience in the care-giver.

This brings me to the use of psychedelics in the treatment of depression. This is nothing new. In the 1950’s and 60’s much knowledge was gained and progress made in the use of psilocybin found in magic mushrooms on patients whose depression seemed treatment resistant. Unfortunately, the reputation of psychedelics was tarnished by their use (abuse) recreationally; this and the linking of the psychedelic movement with the anti-Vietnam War movement led to the banning of these substances by the end of the 60’s.

But in recent years there has been a renewal in interest in psychedelic treatments in the USA, the UK and many other countries. The benefits of these treatments is far too lengthy a topic to be covered here. It seems the use of psilocybin in conjunction with psychotherapy is bringing benefits to many sufferers. But I recommend Johann Hari’s book “Lost Connections” as a good starting point for anyone interested in the topic. It was quite an eye opener for me.

IMG_7993-1000x675.jpg





The Importance of Home (and of not having one) by Geoff Harrison

In a recent article in The Book Of Life, author Alain De Botton discusses the psychological importance of home. “One of the most meaningful activities we are ever engaged in is the creation of a home.” We spend an inordinate amount of time deciding on furniture, crockery, pictures even door handles to create the right atmosphere that reflects “us”.

“Darkening Skies Over Talbot” 2015 Oil On Canvas

“Darkening Skies Over Talbot” 2015 Oil On Canvas

It is argued that having spent time traveling or spending too much time in other people’s bedrooms, we often feel a strong urge to return to our own furnishings, our own environment. “We need to get home to remember who we are”.

De Botton refers to our need to anchor our identity, and that is what the ancient Greeks sought to do with the Temple of Athena which was erected on the slopes of the acropolis.

download.jpg

“The Greeks took such care over Athena’s temple-home because they understood the human mind. They knew that, without architecture, we struggle to remember what we care about – and more broadly who we are. To be told in words that Athena represented grace and balance wasn’t going to be enough on its own. There needed to be a house to bring the idea forcefully and continuously to consciousness.”

Finding objects to furnish our homes that correctly reflect our identity can be an arduous process. We may have to go to enormous lengths to track down the right object for a particular purpose. Although there is the temptation to go overboard.

Men’s smoking room Martindale Hall, Mintaro, South Australia

Men’s smoking room Martindale Hall, Mintaro, South Australia

“The quest to build a home is connected up with a need to stabilise and organise our complex selves. It’s not enough to know who we are in our own minds. We need something more tangible, material and sensuous to pin down the diverse and intermittent aspects of our identities.”

Which begs the question, what if a person has never experienced a stable, secure home environment during their childhood or adolescence? How are these people supposed to create a stable home environment of their own? Where are their reference points? These people often tend to move from place to place (as I have done) and thus have never felt grounded in any location. This can often lead to a sense of not belonging which can create anxiety. The sky-rocketing cost of housing has resulted in people staying in the insecure rental market for far longer than planned.

Then there is the growing tendency these days for families to be constantly on the move. There is the common practice (especially during the housing price boom) for people to buy, renovate and sell over and over again. For them, the home is simply a money making venture. If home is meant to be the place where “our soul feels it’s found its proper physical container”, does that mean these families are leading a soulless existence? I think so.

A Different Form of Advertising: Art by Geoff Harrison

Mass media advertising has a tendency to skew our priorities.  It has us yearning for the unattainable, it glamourizes exotic locations by only showing them in perfect weather conditions.  It convinces us that owning a luxury SUV will transform our driving experiences regardless of our congested roads.

But most of all, the insidious nature of advertising is that it has us valuing objects rather than feelings and ideas.  As argued by author Alain de Botton, advertising has us losing sight of the value of almost everything that is readily to hand, we’re deeply ungrateful towards anything that is free or doesn’t cost very much.  “We are prone to racing through the years forgetting the wonder, fragility and beauty of existence.”

And here, art can act as a corrective to our skewed values.  In 1503, Albrecht Durer asked us to have some appreciation for some grass.

Albrecht Durer, A Large Piece Of Turf, 1503

Albrecht Durer, A Large Piece Of Turf, 1503

Thanks to advertising, what we call glamour is so often located in unhelpful places: in what is rare, remote, costly or famous.  And yet, the artist Chardin asks us to consider the value of a modest moment in a domestic setting.

Chardin, A Lady Taking Tea, 1735

Chardin, A Lady Taking Tea, 1735

Art can teach us the value of a walk down a quiet country road during a stormy evening where we can contrast the peace of a rural setting with the drama taking place overhead.


Storms Over The Goldfields , Oil On Canvas, 2019

Storms Over The Goldfields , Oil On Canvas, 2019

It’s unlikely a travel brochure would wax lyrical about the frozen north, but I would argue that when the ice and snow has melted during the arctic (and Antarctic) summers, these regions have their own unique beauty.

Arctic Summer, Oil on Canvs, 2009

Arctic Summer, Oil on Canvs, 2009

De Botton argues that it lies in the power of art to honour the elusive but real value of ordinary life. It may teach us to be more just towards ourselves as we endeavour to make the best of our circumstances.

International Art Jargon by Geoff Harrison

In 2012 the art journal Triple Canopy published a treatise on IAE (International Art English) written by Alix Rule and David Levine.  We are told the international art world relies on a unique language.  And by the art world, what is meant is not just artists and curators, but gallery owners and directors, bloggers, magazine editors and writers, publicists, collectors, advisers, interns, art-history professors, and so on.  The growth in IAE in recent times seems to be inextricably linked to the Internet and the biennale as artists, gallerists and others strive to reach an international audience. 

And this brings me to e-flux, described by Rule and Levine as the art world’s flagship digital institution.  “Essentially, e-flux is a listserv that sends out three announcements per day about contemporary art events world-wide.”  Unlike similar services, e-flux is curated. And because e-flux press releases are implicitly addressed to the art world’s most important figures, they are written exclusively in IAE.  Rule and Levine collated thousands of exhibition announcements published since 1999 by e-flux and then used some language-analysing software called ‘sketch engine’ to discover what, if anything, “lay behind IAE's great clouds of verbiage.”  In 2012, e-flux had twice as many subscribers as Artforum.

Rule and Levine break down their analysis of IAE under several headings;

VOCABULARY

 Apparently, IAE is critical of English for its lack of nouns, so visual becomes visualityglobal becomes globalitypotential becomes potentiality and experience becomes experiencability.  Space is a word whose meaning has been transformed by IAE.  An announcement for the 2010 exhibition “Jimmie Durham and His Metonymic Banquet,” in Spain, (pictured) had the artist “questioning the division between inside and outside in the Western sacred space”—the venue was a former church—“to highlight what is excluded in order to invest the sanctum with its spatial purity. Pieces of cement, wire, refrigerators, barrels, bits of glass and residues of ‘the sacred,’ speak of the space of the exhibition hall … transforming it into a kind of ‘temple of confusion.’”

Jimmie Durham.jpg

Prefixes like para-, proto-, post-, and hyper- are particularly popular in IAE because they “expand the lexicon exponentially, which is to say without adding any new words.”  Words such as reality seem to be given non-specific meanings in IAE. One exhibit invites “the public to experience the perception of colour, special orientation and other forms of engagement with reality.”

SYNTAX

IAE loves adverbial phrases such as “radically questioned” and double adverbial terms such as “playfully and subversively invert.” IAE recommends using more words than are necessary.   An example is “when Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Yellew Fog’ is shown at dusk—the transition period between day and night—it represents and comments on the subtle changes in the day’s rhythm.”   IAE also groups unrelated terms “her signature combination of skill and awkwardness.”

IAE also loves lists “forms of practice, techniques, formats and aesthetics … not dissimilar to the functions of the concepts of the filmic or the literary that entail activities such as organization, compilation, display, presentation, mediation or publication ….”. I’ve also encountered the extravagant use of lists in job descriptions.

GENESIS

Rule and Devine end up asking how, when we write about art, did we end up writing in a way that sounds like inexpertly translated French?  They argue the origins can be traced back to an art journal called October founded in New York in 1976, whose editors sought a more rigorous interpretive criteria for art criticism than was common at that time .  They looked to the French post-structualist philosophers for inspiration.  They quote expressions such as “the political," “the space of absence,” “the recognizable and the repulsive”. IAE’s role in a much expanded art world was to consecrate certain artworks as significant, critical, and most importantly, contemporary.

They argue the use of IAE is all about power, and it’s about trying to gain insider status in the fiercely competitively art world.  In other words, IAE has made it harder for non-professionals. And they suggest a more cynical aspect to IAE; it’s showy vagueness can also be commercially pragmatic: "The more you can muddy the waters around the meaning of a work," says Levine, "the more you can keep the value high."

Rule and Levine are cautious about IAE's precise effect on artists; they haven't researched it. But Rule does say: "It would be naive to say artists are not influenced."

They are not so sure about the future of IAE. Given the competence in it is so universal among art professionals, it’s losing its allure as an exclusive private language. But rest assured, if IAE does wither on the vine, a new form of art gibberish will surface in the near future.

SOURCE; “International Art English” - Rule and Levine, Triple Canopy

“A Users Guide To Art Speak” - The Guardian, Jan 2013

The Consolations Of Nature by Geoff Harrison

A recent article from the School Of Life discusses the importance of nature, that we should spend more time in its presence for the sake of our mental well being and therefore our health in general. What is less well understood is that “nature is as important to us as a source of nourishment for our souls. Nature is a kind of book, and when we open our eyes to it, find its pages filled with distinctive lessons about wisdom and serenity.”

Casting A Long Shadow, Oil On Canvas, 102 cm x 76 cm

Casting A Long Shadow, Oil On Canvas, 102 cm x 76 cm


Reference is made in the article to psychologically nourishing landscapes, and that is certainly what I encounter in Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens which have been the setting for most of my recent work. I always feel refreshed and reinvigorated after a visit to them and it’s always a wrench to have to leave.

Nature give us an opportunity to appreciate the beauty of the everyday, “an evening sky can lend legitimacy and dignity to our melancholy states.”

Grey Day In The Gardens, Oil On Canvas, 71 cm x 107 cm

Grey Day In The Gardens, Oil On Canvas, 71 cm x 107 cm

If you want to experience solitude in the midst of the vast city, visit Melbourne’s Botanical Gardens when it’s raining. Some may find the experience melancholic, but it can be a refreshing change from a world obsessed by buoyancy and cheerfulness. With few people around and no annoying sight-seeing aircraft buzzing overhead, one can really discover the mystery of the place, the variety of plant life and the thought that has gone into the landscaping.

It is argued that for many people, it is not until they reach middle age that they start to appreciate what nature has to offer. “There are so many grander things to be concerned about …..such as romantic love, career fulfillment and political change.” However, by middle age some of our earlier aspirations would have taken a hit, perhaps a large one. We will have encountered some of the intractable problems of intimate relationships. We would have encountered a gap between our professional hopes and available opportunities. “One will have had a chance to observe how slowly and fitfully the world ever alters in a positive direction. One will have been fully inducted to the extent of human wickedness and folly. “

Hill Of Contentment, Oil On Canvas, 102 cm x 102 cm

Hill Of Contentment, Oil On Canvas, 102 cm x 102 cm

So, by middle age it is argued, nature can present a “genuine pleasure amidst a litany of troubles, an invitation to bracket anxieties and keep self-criticism at bay, a small resting place for hope in a sea of disappointment; a proper consolation – for which one is ready, a few weeks of the year, to be appropriately grateful.” I can only agree. There have been many times I’ve visited these gardens for palliative care.

Surrealism In 21C by Geoff Harrison

I came across an excellent article by artist Anne Wallace in the latest NGV mag (Jan-Feb 2019) on the continuing relevance of surrealism, “…surrealism is so beloved because it taps into that deep well of profound alienation from societal norms felt by sections of each new generation.” You see surrealism everywhere on album covers and in advertising generally due to the arresting power of strange juxtapositions.

It was Sigmund Freud who first made us aware of the power and uncontrollability of the unconscious mind, so it is not surprising to see Freud’s name scattered throughout the literature on Surrealism. Wallace describes Surrealism as freeing expression from the constraints of rational thought - a liberating project to uncover the workings of the unconscious mind that Freud pioneered.

Anne Wallace “Daphne”

Anne Wallace “Daphne”

“Surrealism allowed artists to be frankly weird, degenerative and perverse in their obsessions.” Reference is made to Surrealism lighting up “the dark caverns” and artists such as Cindy Sherman and film maker David Lynch are also mentioned.

Wallace makes reference to the challenges facing surrealist artists in modern times due to the representational nature of the genre which is seen as anomalous by the avant-guard with its obsession with minimalism, abstraction and a dry conceptualism. Wallace claims that by the time she went to art school in the late 1980’s, painting, and especially representational painting, was seen as passe and an art form of consumption and decor. That is certainly the impression I was under when at art school in the 1990’s.

But Wallace believes surrealism “continues to be relevant not as a kind of kitsch aesthetic to be appropriated but as a kind of philosophy, a destabilizing principle, the invisible worm that corrupts our notions of normality……artists should be allowed to be obsessive, to pursue the enigmatic, to experiment - this is the philosophy of Surrealism.” Here here to that.

Emotion In Art by Geoff Harrison

While studying art at RMIT University in the 1990’s I felt a not-so-subtle pressure to steer clear of sentimentality and emotional subject matter in my art practice.   I’m not sure why emotion was so frowned upon, a sign of the times perhaps but there was a clear preference for dry, conceptual work.

Thus I often felt alienated at university, and I do recall a presentation given by one of the lecturers who was most adverse to emotion in art.  It soon became clear to me that she was in denial – almost in denial of life, so I formed the opinion that this issue of emotion was her problem, not mine.

31863764324_e3423c4cec_b.jpg

I was reminded of all this when viewing Andrew Graham-Dixon’s 1996 series “A History Of British Art” on DVD.  He argues that because of their intense colour and blatant sensuality, Howard Hodgkin’s paintings (above) have met with an uneasy response in Britain.  He describes Hodgkin’s work as a rebuttal to puritanism, especially to that intellectual puritanism which is embarrassed by pleasure or any form of strong emotion and are only comfortable with pictures once they’ve been reduced to a set of abstract ideas.  He describes Hodgkin’s work as expressing a language of emotion, a language of the body.

65f9508ff7de31ba2ac43eb6b0daaef8.jpg

And for some reason, a drawing by Vincent Van Gogh, made early in his career, also came to mind.  The subject is Sien, one of his early mistresses who was a pregnant prostitute.  You can see the emotion pouring out of this work.  How put-upon I would have been producing a work like this at RMIT, regardless of the technical skill it may have embodied.

then and now 4 copy.jpg

I need to be moved in some way by a scene before I will paint it.  The aim always is to create a mood which allows the viewer to enter the scene and absorb the atmosphere in there.