Conversation Pieces Apartment Pop-UpJuly 19, 2021 – August 7, 2021
Keira McArthur's Apartment in Hamilton, Ontario
Keira McArthur's Apartment in Hamilton, Ontario
NOTE: An Audio version of this talk is forthcoming. This and the Artist statement will also appear in the Conversation Pieces catalogue booklet which accompanies each purchased piece or print from the show.
Hello and welcome, I’m Keira McArthur.
Between the first covid summer of 2020 through to June 2021 I made a series of twenty works on paper, called Conversation Pieces. These are a response to the lockdown experience we all had, which brought many things to light for each of us. I’d like to offer some thoughts here, around isolation, the pandemic and its effects, and what art is for.
To begin, I’d like to offer a little metaphorical story, a kind of ‘zoom out’ that might describe the initial stages of my artistic process through these months.
At my cabin in the summer of 2020 I imagine that this global pandemic is personified as Pluto, the God of the Underworld. I’m frustrated that my plans for residency year two have been scuppered and so I take the perilous journey down to Hades, to seek an answer to my question: “Now, what?. On the journey I am frightened and traumatized, I get utterly and despairingly lost several times, I get sick with parasites and develop serious allergic reactions to the environment but I trudge on. When I arrive at the River Styx I realize I’ve forgotten my coin. All I have left by then is my name, so I give it to the ferryman, who gives me safe passage.
When I meet Pluto he is standing above a map of the planet. He nods to me, then points to the map, which looks more like a living planet body with tattoo-like lines inside and over it. As I approach I can see dark places where the lines cluster and I watch as Pluto leans in to these and presses them, hard. When he does this the map-body shifts under his finger. As I watch the body changes – into a black woman standing up, into the uncovered bones of a young Ojibway boy, into an exhausted nurse who shows her temper and feels shame – Pluto keeps leaning in and applying pressure at the darkest points, showing me that he does this, in particular. The map shifts again – it’s now my daughter’s body, and he leans in. Then it’s Hamilton, then Georgian Bay, then it’s my own body… and he leans in, pressing, hard. It’s difficult but I watch, and I feel my body and my awareness… shift.
He applies pressure to systems and programs that are unsustainable. What he’s doing, he shows me, is his job: to insist upon permanent change, to insist upon the fires, the floods, the earthquakes, the tsunamis. The bad pay and the no sick leave, the abuse and the exploitation, the judgement and the denial are the unsustainables that must go, now. He looks me full in the face to make sure I understand – that all of these things are within all of us. It only feels like death if you resist it, he says, in my mind. Pluto, Lord of the shadows, master of deconstruction, the ruler of this Pandemic gives me my difficult answer: it’s we, not ‘me’. Then he gives me leave to return to my tiny cabin on the stormy shores of the smallest of the Great Lakes, to make what I can of it. I am shaken, exhausted, and grateful to be released. (This is the end of my metaphorical tale).
The first year of my Hamilton residency is all about this. I leave a familiar community of 22,000 souls and moved my life and work to a city where I know no one. My dad dies, and I finish my masters in the same 24 hour period at the end of April, 2019. I travel solo for a month through Dublin Lyon, Florence and Edinburgh that May, and in October I fly to Winnipeg, the heart of Turtle Island. In my studio I make terrible art (though not deliberately!) in every medium I’ve not yet tried – including, embarrassingly, public sculpture. Despite my well laid plans the second year of my residency is entirely defined by the Pandemic and the resulting detour I took, downward and in. In this third year, the pieces have come together, re-shaped, cleaned of old assumptions and programs and so lighter, for all that.
Art is an expression of lived experience. The Art Gallery of Ontario’s Senior Curator of International Exhibitions Katherine Lochnan broke this ground for us in 2016, with her powerful AGO/ Musee d’Orsay exhibition, Mystical Landscapes. The National Gallery of Canada donated a large number of works to this blockbuster show, and writes about the Toronto/Paris exhibition in the gallery magazine, “Since time immemorial, humans have sought the mystical in the everyday. In this exhibition, artists from Edvard Munch to Emily Carr become skilled intermediaries between the world we see around us and something more transcendent. For Katharine Lochnan, the show was designed precisely to stimulate contemplation. “We are inviting the public to enter into these mystical landscapes,” she says, “and to ultimately share in the artist’s experience.” (https://www.gallery.ca/magazine/your-collection/mystical-landscapes-let-the-spiritual-journey-begin)
When I saw the show my internal nineteen-year-old Fine Art Studio Major self let out an internal whoop of joy. Truth! I felt even then that art has always been rooted in the lived experience of the artist. The heart of the work, the piece, the song, the symphony is not served by burying its human resonance in reams of art speak, eras and isms, nor is it honoured by clinical walls, static lighting and plexiglass shields. The work is human, told by and shared with, humans, in the context of lived experience.
In a 2018 article Tim Adams reports for The Guardian that “After spending the past four decades in a psychiatric hospital, her name written out of art history, Yayoi Kusama became an art-world phenomenon in the age of the selfie”. I saw her work at the AGO – an outward manifestation of Kusama’s particular awareness in and of the world. I was transported into her space of mad delight, reflections and repeated patterns, and emerged into a final installation – a suite of rooms with apartment furnishings, all painted stark white. As I approached I saw a swarm of multicoloured dots of various sizes all over it – clusters and lines and curving DNA ladders over the walls, the chairs, the TV. Someone gave me a sheet of round stickers, and said, go ahead, add something. Kusama had provided the space, but the dots were a collective work of art by her viewers, in response to the installations. Beautiful, whimsical fun – we were all engaged and giggling like children. (Here’s a link to the Guardian Article: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/sep/23/yayoi-kusama-infinity-film-victoria-miro-exhibition).
A 2020 “Immersive Van Gogh” show opened in Toronto and has now expanded into nineteen other cities through Canada and the USA. The exhibition invites you to walk through and into animated projections of his paintings while listening to his story and music such as Barber’s ‘Adagio for strings’. A spectacle and a marvel of technology, the show is designed to evoke a visceral response to van Gogh’s story and pull us in to his expressive brushstrokes, his rich colour palette. For the Toronto Star, Debra Yeo interviews one of the ‘masterminds of the exhibit’ Massimiliano Siccardi, who says, “ Through his art, van Gogh “led us to discover a world of brightness and darkness at the same time. I would say he let us discover the power of life.”” (https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/visualarts/review/2020/06/19/at-immersive-van-gogh-art-plus-light-plus-animation-plus-sound-ups-the-emotional-ante-of-the-viewing-experience.html)
It’s fair to assume that Van Gogh made many trips both to, and from Hades. We continue to learn about our own inner journeys, through his. Art has the capacity to shift understandings, to mirror us back to ourselves in unexpected ways, represent the impossible in ways that spark new awarenesses. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit explores a difference between scientific and artistic practice and intention. Scientists will go into the wilderness and bring back raw, measurable data that can be presented as a peer-reviewed, proven discovery – scaffolding up on which new explorations and knowledge production’ can be built. An Artist will get herself lost in the wilderness then do the alchemical work that offers us passage there ourselves, to experience the wonder of a place, a response, an event, and be changed, each according to our readiness.
It is a deconstruction / reconstruction in both cases, but science presents its findings to our minds and eschews magic, preferring rational explanations. Art tells a story more holistically, to our hearts and bellies and bones, as well as our brains. Why else is the work of artists co-opted by governments and insurgents in times of revolution? Why else is it exploited by Marketers who seek an edge? In these times of compounded, interconnected crises we need science and technology, yes. We need art, even more – to respond, to ask questions, to offer navigations through the inevitable, shocking changes.
Art has the ability to lift us out of survival mode and into an empowering vision of renewal, and does this on a regular basis, for anyone listening to music, watching a film, reading a book, appreciating a public mural, a poster – which is all of us. Strangely enough this is misunderstood and undervalued in a world of commerce. I experienced this directly when I approached a marketing agency to build a website for me this spring. The best they could come up with after six weeks looked like a cross between a Starbucks cafe and a t-shirt company. Thankfully I was rescued by a master analogue printer who also owns a gallery. He works with code as a way of regulating stress – ‘like reading’, he said to me yesterday – and so I’m now grateful have an online gallery that lives and breathes with my work.
As a little summary about what art isn’t I’ll offer some firm statements:
1. Art is not ‘content’ for your propaganda strategy or your marketing campaign. To co-opt art this way is a disservece to the artist’s story and also your own. We’re savvy about this, we know a sell-out when we see it and misappropriation has been a household word for some time now.
2. Art his not an ‘ism’. No artist, ever, picks up her brush and says, I’m going to make a post-modern, abstract expressionist painting with a dash of dada in the lower left corner. ‘Ism’s are tools used in academic discussions – which can be fascinating, though the opinions and insights explored in knowledge production are also directed almost exclusively at the mind, and can easily be distorted by projection and personality.
3. No one’s work is ‘priceless’, or better, more valuable, more essentially ART, than another’s, however much the museum investors, high-end collectors and insurance companies want us to believe it so. Bless you Leonardo, and Van Gogh, I love your work. I love it and you still more when I better understand what you had to work through in order to make it, and to keep making it.
My 2020 question, “Now, What?” took me through underwaves at the shore through stress-regulation drawings and finally alchemized into this show I present here.
I’ve written this story fifty ways, now – in two journals of notes and drawings which are now full, and on my blog, which I use like a sketch pad. I post stories and pics on social media, because that’s fun and write about process on the ‘Collections’ page on my website, for context. I write an Artist Statement about media experiments, discoveries and technical/conceptual focus, discuss the work and show in an interview video, practice with friends and colleagues and finally I write this Artist’s Talk and Response. The stories are not just about me and my process, but also about porcelain factory workers in a little Czechoslovakian village in World War II, and the effects of Third Reich antisemitism. They’re about China, and porcelain and fragility and the strength of beauty in the face of trauma and abuse. Woven through is the story of our strange and unsustainable global food systems, pears from South Africa in the middle of winter, bananas from Guatemala that crossed the equator to get to the store, but only cost me $1.39CDN for three – someone isn’t getting paid enough. The stories are also about the underwave – our rising cultural awareness of collective and intergenerational trauma, and the effects of white supremacy on black bodies, on indigenous bodies and on white bodies. I saw this in Pluto’s map: there are perpetuations of these traumas in every one of us; we need to name, heal and release this, now.
I am an artist; my job is honest expression of my experience, through practice; I respond by making, then presenting what I make. As a human among humans experiencing the tectonic shift of pandemic lockdown I make chaotic, reflective drawings on large sheets of paper and then tear them into pieces. T calm the chaos, to regulate the stress, I add images of an old porcelain coffee set which has seen eighty years of conversational gatherings, then capture each painting in digital form. To express my yearning for a more equitable, compassionate, connected world, I reconstruct the torn, painted pieces then combine them with Pluto’s Underwaves from the Georgian Bay shore.
I frame each of the pieces in natural walnut and put them behind glass like keepsakes of a time – living pieces of memory that change with the natural changing light. They are hung on the walls of my apartment, where they were made – I do this specifically and deliberately at a time when gatherings are prohibited, knowing that when they sell they will hang in separate places, isolated though still connected through the story. While I build the apartment show I also build an online like a house full of light and air, where I can invite anyone, from anywhere on the planet to experience the work, and respond. The work is for sale, and a percentage of the profits from each sale is donated back into the human community, because that is part of reconstruction. We navigate this together.
In this way, I take what I learned from Pluto last summer and make it useful – a spark for conversations, more questions about how we reconstruct ourselves, how we honour our connections and differences, heal our traumas. This work asks where and how we might go from here, in these times of great change. Each and every one of us is a valuable piece of the evolving conversation.
Thank You: My immense gratitude to Smokestack both digital and analogue, for your insight, guidance and the highest level of professionalism. Thank you to the the marketing company that delayed me for two months and your strange business practices, it pushed me to articulate precisely what I wanted, and didn’t want, in an online gallery. Thanks to Les Suites in Ottawa for the meeting place where Reconstruction in Conversation I happened, and where I worked for four days in March. Thank You to Woodlands Centre for responding to my inquiry about the possibility of a quiet collaboration – letter coming soon. Thank you to my beloved forest and the shore at my cabin, the water and the sunlight and the wind, for restoring my soul again and again, and for constantly teaching me new languages.
Thank you to my subscribers and friends for your attention and support, even and especially when you didn’t know what I was talking about. (nodding and smiling…) You know who you are, and I love you dearly. Love to all – we get through this together!! Keira
Artist Statement: Conversation Pieces technique, media and conceptual practice
I wanted new work on paper in an approach I’d never tried. I wanted smaller pieces that were affordable and could fit onto regular-sized walls, in magic corners, over special tables and places where complex things are remembered with love. I wanted the pieces to shift as the light changes, to spark a room even in the long dark evenings of winter.
On the underdrawings I used everything that was to hand, combining dry media with wet, water-based media with oil pastel resist. I had brought old media I’d been hauling around for years back from the studio – Schminke chalk pastel, flourescent chalk that I’d found at Gwartzman’s years ago, Sentellier oil pastel, acrylic ink, Windsor and Newton silver ink, white conte, titanium white acrylic, and with it made a rhythmic, improvisational mess. On the first sheet the silver ink dominated – I’d used it to calm down the strong azo yellow acrylic ink. I wiped up most of the silver and what was underneath was magical – just what I wanted.
I tore that piece up into nine, and did five more drawings of the Czechoslovakian porcelain through March. Because of the silver and the layered pastel resists these grounds were really interesting to work with. The watercolour sat on the surface, instead of absorbing in as it did in the first ground from 2019, and the energy of the lines felt like a language I could work with and add too, pushing back and pulling forward with interference and flat paint. The painted image of the porcelain pieces come forward and recede as you look at the piece from different angles – this is the effect I wanted. These pieces are not reproducible. I have four of the nine left that I will work with for the next Conversation Pieces show, and I’m very excited to see how they evolve, technically.
In April I went back to the original 2019 sheet of torn pieces to regulate myself by drawing a whole whack of ellipses: the tray with four cups and their saucers flashing and transparent in the morning sunlight. I had thought I could include actual conversations in the project at that point, since the February lockdown had lifted, but it was not to be – we entered a third lockdown, which scuppered that potential. I tried laying out the 2019 pieces on my dining room table, and realized I could build a reconstruction with them. Three pieces of nine were missing so made new pieces to fill those spaces – out of the same paper and without a ground painting. I played with the torn edges a little more for these ‘implants’ so that the contour of the piece was part of the painting. Psychologically this felt wonderful, as though I was talking myself out of isolation and back into the world. I imagined each piece like a person who’d been torn from connection, brought back into a connected space, but still separated by the tear. Pieces of us, connected by our yearning for conversation.
This was the birth of Conversation Pieces – I was no longer regulating with each piece, but fully in my practice, building on the ones that had already happened and making sense of the as a ‘series’ project. The drawings I made then became a conversation with the people who had made the porcelain in Nazi-ruled Poschetzau between 1938 and 1945. A flash of light on the edge of a saucer, the transparency of fine china backlit by the sun. I’m no Ken Danby, but I wanted very much to make the last piece – an angled coffee pot – FEEL just like porcelain. In honour of those people, 80 years ago, who were also traumatized by the effects of permanent global change.
There are elements in these pieces that anchor them in our moment in time, in contrast to eighty years ago. This was very much on my mind throughout lockdown, and I wanted to speak to the increasing discomfort of global trade systems that make little sense. Grocery food stickers from all over the world but rarely from Canada. The back of a cookie fortune from take out meals long ago: Chinese for soap. I wanted to explore my deep sense of isolation from human touch and contact, and the distortions I was experiencing in unmeasured, unscheduled time. The game of xes and ohs is unfinished – it can only be played by two. The surreal idea that solid objects can disappear and reappear in a ground of chaos, that in many pieces where I omitted a shadow the ‘table’ surface is missing, and the fragile pieces float in air. There’s too much empty space in most of these paintings, too much silence. They make more sense when they are together, like individuals gathered into a grouping.
The third ground I made was in response to the sunlight that beams through every window in this apartment, through the leaves in my backyard trees, and the ancient trees of every species that populate Gage Park, which is a one-minute walk from my front door. For this ground I used fluorescent chalk, white conte, Senellier oil pastel, chalk pastel, acrylic ink, titanium white acrylic mixed with opalescent interference paint. I wanted peaceful and active, a moving texture like sunlight through leaves. I also wanted them to be reproducible, so used less reflective media. I tore this ground into nine pieces, and painted a cup and saucer on one small section, and will complete the remainder for Part II of Conversation Pieces. Very eager to see how they evolve and reconstruct!