Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Art of Interviewing Artists: John Grande’s Art, Space, Ecology

Published by Black Rose Books, 2019.

“There is no such thing as seeing any object or event without the act of seeing being affected both by cultural context and by the personal life experiences of the individual viewer. Every formulation of what an image means or contains is going to be culturally inflected, not just once but twice. First at its source. Then at the point where it is received.” – Edward Lucie-Smith
I first personally encountered the astutely incisive work of John Grande, apart from knowing of his extensive and impressive history as a critic and curator, when I interviewed him at CJRT-FM Radio in Toronto when I was the resident art critic there. It was about 1994, and we engaged in an informative and illuminating discussion about his then-new book Balance: Art and Nature. On the surface, it was about what had commonly come to be called ecological art, often either in large scale sculptural installations in a natural setting or else visually referring to nature and its collision with our cultures. Beyond eco-crisis however, it was also a celebration of art as embodied meaning: a haptic experience involving both human touch and intellect in harmony with each other.

I call it a discussion because though ostensibly in the traditional radio format of questions and answers designed to elicit background on the author and art which could both challenge and entertain the listener with only our words to guide them forward, towards the writing and images it celebrated, it was more. True, it was an interview, but it was also a dialogue, a conversation, an exchange of both energy and ideas, and even a linguistic map capable of achieving what the classical Greeks called ekphrasis: the evocation of the visual experience using language as a device to elucidate understanding of how a certain art work feels. Art is designed to alter our perception of the reality in which we find it, and some critics can clarify that alteration.

Therefore it was with a combination of professional and personal pleasure (twenty five years after I first interviewed him) that I came upon Grande’s newest book and found in it a range of his own insightful interviews with twenty important contemporary artists about the origins and intentions of their work. The title of Art Space Ecology: Two Views/Twenty Interviews, tends to capture some of its context and content in an ideal manner. The two views are, first and foremost, the perceptual and conceptual frameworks brought to bear by an encounter between a great artist and a great critic, and secondly, the new territory opened up between their relative positions and perspectives. This is top-shelf ekphrasis in action, folks.

By sharing his own personal emotional responses to any given art object, in language poetic enough to cause the reader’s emotions to be engaged in the process, Grande creates an intimate theatre of reciprocal insights. An ascent of sorts occurs, climbing up the visual appearance of a work, with him guiding us as what I’d call a reality sherpa, until a certain peak of meaning is reached and the reader listener or viewer begins to experience something of what he has been experiencing. It’s almost an exotic form of aesthetic channeling by the critic of the artists and their works.

Dennis Oppenheim’s Spiral Scarecrow, Royal Botanical Gardens, Burlington, Ontario, 2009. (Photo: John Grande)

At some point the guide decides that the ropes can come off and the climber can make a free solo ascent on his or her own, much to their own amazement, largely because they have been acclimatized to the altitude through the mentorship of the master of ekphrasis. What was formerly foreign to them suddenly begins to make sense, no matter how challenging or demanding the style of art might be, until much to their surprise they themselves are planting a flag up there, on a plateau not only of understanding but also of enjoyment, pleasure, rapture. The art is suddenly talking to them, in a language at once clear and concise.

Over the years, Grande has established himself as a leading figure in the overlapping worlds of art and ecology, with a diverse range of published explorations (a staggering nearly 40 books!) of the interstitial zones between the two disciplines. He has curated multiple public exhibitions in the open natural environment that invite us (as Cezanne once put it) to recognize that “the landscape thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.” He has also contributed cogent catalogue essays to countless gallery catalogues in addition to writing extensively in art and design journals from Artforum, Art Papers, and Public Art Review to Border Crossings, British Journal of Photography and Landscape Architecture, to name but a few.

The conceptual continuity and aesthetic momentum of his written work is always encouraging for those of us who shared his commitment to a culture of aware engagement. One of the key pivots operating in his ongoing project of sharing a sensitive appreciation for both the human made and the natural domain is the highly interdisciplinary format for examining important social, political and cultural issues in the context of broadening our aesthetic experience. And in Art Space Ecology, he offers a master class in discovering new connections between the ancient and the modern, between the natural and the human made: between the built, the unbuilt and perhaps even the unbuildable.

As the great English critic, curator and art historian Edward Lucie-Smith put it so well (in his gracious Foreword to Grande’s latest book): “The contents of this book are fragments of a huge process of finding out. Finding out what the world is made of, how these components work, how they rhyme together. Essentially, the contemporary works examined in this book oscillate between the two worlds that Leonardo’s genius inhabited (art and science). Without the force of imagination between them, they would lose their power.”

That amazingly rich pendulum, freely swinging between the zones of spirit and technics, is perhaps the secret motif being explored through each of Grande’s elucidating exchanges between himself as a receiver and a contemporary artist as a transmitter. And we, the readers, find ourselves in the fortunate position of being able to eavesdrop, to quietly listen in as it were, on a series of remarkably revealing conversations.

Raft of Lampedusa, Spain, 2016, by Jason deCaires Taylor. (Photo: Artist’s Website)

And as Grande himself puts it, only partially tongue in cheek, “Art Space Ecology presents two views in each of its interviews – so its actually forty views!” And as he proceeds to demonstrate: “Today’s art practice can involve connective aesthetics, a relational involvement between the artist, a variety of cultures, the environment, and the public. Art and ecology are a source of renewal for art, for design, for science and for the so many areas in which humans participate on planet earth.”

Throughout the course of his new book, Grande also offers readers an easily accessible crash course in the realms of land art, earth art, environmental art, eco-art, and of course, Art proper. In a useful Introduction for instance, he stipulates for what he calls regenerative art forms which interact with adaptive technologies and work with rather than against nature. He also clarifies how major contemporary artists, such as Dennis Oppenheim for example, engage both the society at large and crucial social issues of our time in much the same way a classical storyteller would.

Ironically, Oppenheim and his peers, many in this book, perform the same role today that mythmakers such as Ovid, Homer or Virgil did in the ancient world. The artists Grande interviews, such as Alan Sonfist, Nils-Udo, Robert Polidori, Jason deCaries Taylor, Chris Booth, Milos Sejn, and others, all succeed in something at once remarkable and remarkably self-effacing. As Nils-Udo put it touchingly, his approach is that of making art only as a pretext to enhancing our awareness of nature itself.

For Grande, his book “establishes through its cross-cultural informality natural ways for students, artists, designers, landscape architects, planners and general readers of perceiving the creative forum anew. The intention is close to anthropology, a way of presenting examples and viewpoints so as to open up a multi-cultural discourse, with an interwoven worldview where nature counts. These artists’ processes, as much as the objects produced, guide us, with their prototypes for ways of seeing, to new expressions and edifications of place, identity and community.” Well said.

Chris Booth’s installation at Van Dusen Gardens, Vancouver. (Photo: Chris Booth)

As a prime example of this new kind of active engagement between culture and nature, art and science, society and artist, Grande offers Santa Cruz eco-art pioneers, Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison, who kick-started a whole new attitude toward “greening civilization.” Their lengthy senior interdisciplinary approach involves biologists, ecologists, architects, urban planners, the public, and course, the artists themselves acting as trigger mechanisms. Likewise, Buster Simpson, Haesim Kim, David Maisel, Paul Wilde, David Mach and others, all present us with “an art that involves an exchange with nature’s living systems.”

Their work is, as a result, a more direct and active experience than the usual passive one most customarily offered in the cultural arena. Jason deCaires Taylor’s sculptural installations even dramatically take place underwater inviting a drastic dislocation of our aesthetic assumptions while also forcing us to confront the obvious implications of climate change in a direct and powerful way we simply cannot avoid or shrug off. For him, the ocean itself is a theatre set in which all living things must perforce play a crucial role. It’s a lesson we would all do well to ponder and remember.

John Grande’s international renown as a critic, curator and cultural commentator is hard earned and well deserved. His own observations, as well as the important artists he shares with us in this collection of twenty inter-views, is all about our active engagement in the natural environment. The delicate balance and proportional harmony so clearly in evidence in his questions and the artist’s answers often feels like a carefully crafted dance between the heart and the head.

Bird’s Nest, Evanston, Illinois by Jan-Erik Andersson and Shawn Decker, 2007.(Photo: Jan-Erik Andersson.)

Whatever the medium under consideration, whether sculpture, organic interventions, performance art, body art, or technically complex installations, the discussions he choreographs in his new books explore and reveal the often mysterious motivations behind the maker’s making and unearths their intentions in a gentle yet dramatic manner. This book demonstrates clearly that in the end, or even more so, in the beginning, the natural world is our original and implicit canvas.

By examining the powerful intersections between art, technology and biology itself, he manages to reveal the deep questions that drive each artist forward. Perhaps the biggest question, and the most commonly recurring one: what is the most appropriate relationship we have or should have to the landscape? Not as something we live on, but as a place we should live with.

In seeking answers with a global perspective, Grande’s new book Art Space Ecology shares a dynamic interactivity, between himself and the artists, between the artists and their work, between the aesthetic objects we revere and the society they occupy.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book was Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. He is currently trying to complete a book on the life and work of Yoko Ono.

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