Right now I’m in a “swarm.” It’s an arty crowd moving among “alternate” galleries in a once-a-year event. Some of these artist-run spaces hide in back-alleys and the basements of condemned buildings. Here and about are the haunting faces of the needle exchange. It’s the bad end of town. Among my fellow swarmers are green-hairs, nose-rings, hipsters, recent art-school grads, the bourgeoisie and other subscribers.
There are big black gestural paintings, small homo-porno doodling and dumpster imaging, blow-up photos of crack baggies, bicycle-tread paintings, suspended pantyhose sculpture, a gigantic Styrofoam crow, a loop movie of coloured snow with a white-noise soundtrack. We take a burgundy art-deco elevator with accordion doors through five floors of studios and galleries. In one place artists focus on a generously tattooed but otherwise naked man. He strikes five-second poses accompanied by moaning. Every time he changes positions he changes the tone of his wordless, primal song.
In another gallery there’s a drawing table with a roll of brown paper. An artist draws while someone else turns a crank that moves the paper along the table. We all have a go — plastic cup of mini-cask wine in one hand, charcoal tidbit in the other. It takes getting used to. At first you have an idea of what your drawing should look like — then the paper moves and you have to immediately throw out this notion and go with nothing but your line. The cranker cranks faster. Three artists draw on the paper at one time. The artist closest to the cranker gets the final say.
In another place you can do a felt-tip drawing on Mylar looking at your model through a window of Plexiglas. In another there’s a mobile easel — you do your drawing by moving the easel, not the pencil. High on all the fun we merge into the Chinatown Night Market. Egg-funnelcakes, bubble-tea, taro snacks, Pocky, durian, gambling. There’s a children’s train, devoid of children, chugging alone from somewhere to somewhere.
PS: “You should often amuse yourself when you take a walk for recreation, in watching and taking note of the attitudes and actions of others, or when they laugh or come to blows. Note these down with rapid strokes, in a little pocket-book which you ought always to carry with you.” (Leonardo da Vinci)
Esoterica: It is our gift to be tourists of the imagination. We are time-travelers in a world of shock and schlock. We may for a time suspend our morality or our sense of propriety. We marvel at human invention. We flirt with sights and ideas. We cross these visions with our own. “In an atmosphere of liberty, artists and patrons are free to think the unthinkable and create the audacious; they are free to make both horrendous mistakes and glorious celebrations.” (Ronald Reagan)
The following are selected responses to the above and other letters. Thanks for writing.
Art swarm makes viewer part of art experience
by Tricia Syz, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Your letter brought back memories for me of last year about this time. I was invited by my nephew, Jake Hill, to his first big opening during Swarm. Jake graduated last year from a sculpture program and has now gone into architecture. Jake’s show blew me away. He likes to work with wood and everything he makes is large and functional, with some kind of humorous twist. The first piece in the show was my favorite. It was a structure that resembled exercise equipment. You stepped up to it and put your shoulders into two shoulder-pieces that were at chest level. Then you stood up to your full height lifting the shoulder pieces with you. At eye-level was a mirror and as soon as your face appeared there, loud, raucous music by AC/DC came blasting out of several speakers. People reacted by dancing, sometimes singing and making face-gestures. The trick was that behind the mirror was a video camera, and in a separate gallery room was a large screen projecting the image of the person in the mirror who continued to carry on with the music while unknown to him, a roomful of people watched and howled at his antics! The individual was subsequently directed into the room containing the screen and the cheering viewers. He/she was then privy to a show of some other person entertaining the crowd. It was so much fun. When Jake’s old Toyota died this summer, he cut out the engine and a lot of other heavy parts and turned it into an underground cave, for Swarm. I missed it this year. And I mean I really missed it. It’s fun to enjoy the imagination and energy of the young artists. I wonder what they’ll all be doing in 20 years. Great things, I have no doubt.
Art swarm latest in long established tradition
by Allison Compton, Richmond, VA, USA
We have a few such art happenings in Richmond, VA, hosted by day by day productions. It’s really exciting and the energy is high. Galleries host art openings, or simply open their galleries, on the first Friday of every month. It is a tame version of your art swarm, but the public is coming out. Art happenings have been going on for hundreds of years, but have been more publicized in the past 125 years from Paris, New York and London.
Voyeuristic art daunting and depressing
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Ontario, Canada
When I was an art student in Nice in 1981-82, the main issue discussed by most students, who were approximately 12-14 years younger than I, was that painting was a dead art. Every conceivable form of painting, drawing and plastic art was finished, there was nothing left to create. These kids were suffering from a terrible despondency and passivity. In the end, one young man photographed himself with an erection and considered it his finest contribution to the viewing public. Thankfully, there were others among us who wanted to paint, draw and do ceramics. It was somewhat daunting to pursue my muse, and often lonely; but lonely is a lot better than despondent. Imagine if Rodin had thought that Michaelangelo had done all that could be done with sculpture.
Art schools have power to affect world events
We all know that Hitler wanted to be an artist. The art school of his choice had rejected him at least twice. Is it possible that all the horrors of the Second World War could have been avoided if only some stodgy art professor had just accepted this non-descript artist into his school? Imagine perhaps how one seemingly benign action can have such a devastating effect, and then imagine how a willful act of anger, criticism or even neglect can have an even more devastating effect on another human being. As artists we need to treat other artists with kindness and respect because only we know the sacrifice that is required to be an artist. We are not as benign and powerless as we think. Our positive actions may be the beginning ripple of change for the world just as our negative actions may have powerful repercussions as well.
Realist paintings depict orphaned life in care system
by David Louis, Coventry, UK
I am predominantly a realist painter, and I use symbolism in my work. I feel no need to explain my work, though I understand and have a reason for most of what I do in a painting. “Lone Child” is a recent autobiographical painting, which I have completed as part of a projected exhibit, Exhibition – “Projections of a Secret Past.” This painting is based on the earliest photograph I have, aged 4, and depicts a true time frame of my orphaned life in the care system. To emphasize a feeling of threat and depression, most of my current work is monochromatic. For this exhibition I am only using colour when I feel it is really needed. This self-portrait is painted in oils mostly wet into wet. I usually work on 3 to 4 paintings at a time rotating one for another depending on my mood or for technical reasons.