The four of us went o’er the sea on Monday (i.e., took a ride on BC Ferries) to take in a few shows at the Vancouver Art Gallery. This summer’s blockbuster is “Claude Monet’s Secret Garden” and right next to it hangs Stephen Shore’s “The Giverny Portfolio.” Up a floor is the large “Pictures from Here” exhibition with photography, video, and a bit of assemblage from Vancouver-based artists. We started with the Monet rooms, and then spent a lot of time in the single room with Shore’s 25 photographs. That “a lot of time” was talking with each other, which itself meant sharing our tentative responses, moving towards and away from photographs, pointing this way and that —a melange of the aesthetic, emotional, and technical that helped me appreciate even more Monet’s achievements in the previous rooms.
The second-floor show was wonderful—I wish I had time and opportunity to see it once more before it closes in a few days. A revelation for me was the “Women in Fog” series by Karin Bubaš. I also loved seeing some giant prints by Jeff Wall and Roy Arden, to experience the way they seem to morph the air around them.
And the second-floor show was overwhelming.
About 35 years ago the Irish literary critic Denis Donoghue delivered the BBC Reith Lecture, giving it the title “The Arts Without Mystery.” “If we want to take the mystery out of life,” he said, “it’s because mystery is thought of as an insult to our intelligence; that the part we play in it is merely one of bewilderment…” (page 12 from the book version of the lectures). Walking through that second floor I saw some familiar sights and some strange sights, felt comforted and later felt the rising of my intellectual gorge. What helped, I think, was speaking afterwards with Paul, Kim and Francis to find they felt somewhat overwhelmed, too, that perhaps I was experiencing something other than bewilderment.
Some years later in his book “The Practice of Reading” (Yale, 1999) Donohue wrote: “But some critics remain invincibly hostile to aesthetics. I can note only that aesthetics means perception, the practice of paying attention to objects that ask only to be perceived.” (p. 79) Which leads to my defence of overwhelm—that we must give time and space for the objects we create (photographic or otherwise) to appear strange and cryptic and mysterious to ourselves, let alone being overwhelmed or mystified by the works of others. That doesn’t mean suspending artistic judgment on our own work and that of it others, but it does mean practicing it in a way that serves the object, and not some potted idea of it. It is no insult to our intelligence (singular and plural) if an object does reveals itself slowly—or, perhaps, not at all.
And if that means a little less work is produced, then so be it.