Monday, February 28, 2011

Black as Night 

Fire Down on the Labrador - D. Blackwood, 1980 image via Mayberry Fine Art

It's a funny old thing. I went to the AGO recently not to see their "blockbuster" Maharaja show but to see a comprehensive selection of David Blackwood prints. I don't think I've seen so many Blackwood prints in one place at one time. The effect was decidedly devastating. Blackwood's Newfoundland is a place of near permanent tragedy, frozen in winter and darkness. I get it. Those are the stories he's drawn to and wishes to tell and thus preserve. But shit, it's depressing. In fact, at one point I had to sit down and was overwhelmed with sadness, a very pointed and jarring sadness. Not remembering Blackwood was from Wesleyville, I didn't realize how much of his subject matter was set there. We have plenty of family from that Northern point of Bonavista Bay — though I'd be hard pressed to name any of them. I think just knowing that these depictions were so close to where my father grew up affected me in an unanticipated way. I had to fight back tears and I don't know why. The power of art or something.

Man Warning Two Boys, D. Blackwood, 1982

Maybe to deflect any ominous thoughts I was reminded how much Blackwood’s figures remind me of Edward Gorey’s Edwardian looking men in large overcoats. Blackwood works in etching. Gorey inked drawings that look like etchings. For some reason I doubt Gorey knew of Blackwood and while Blackwood may have known of Gorey I doubt he was an influence. One of revealing things of the AGO show are the sketches by David Blackwood where he shows that Picasso was a primary influence where you see not just powerful images of ghostly bulls but in the strength and sculptural figure drawings. Perhaps Picasso was Gorey’s inspiration as well?

From the Edward Gorey story, The Doubtful Guest

Picasso sketch of Le Dejeuner via Every Painter Paints Himself

Another revelation were the number of artifacts (musket, ship name plates, maps, wooden doors) that Blackwood had contributed from his own collection. This is something else that these artists share. Collecting. Cartoonists Seth and Chris Ware both share a nostalgia for another time and are well known for collecting or recreating pieces that evoke that era. I think Blackwood’s collection is probably something more organic, particularly that many of the artifacts are from his home town that seem as personal as they are professionally referential. Edward Gorey too, was a collector. Collector is too kind. He was without a doubt a hoarder.

Gorey, the man, the hoarder.

It occurred to me then at the AGO, I was in a building housing not just work from Ken Thomson's art collection but also Thomson's surprising collection of model ships. So there I was. Looking at an artist’s work, which included his own collection, reminded me of artists who were also collectors, in a building full of a collector’s collections. It made me wonder what was the difference between hoarding and collecting? I suppose hoarders can’t distinguish between trash and art, between value and detritus, meaning and insignificance. I wonder if in the end anyone will be able to tell the difference between our piles of garbage and our piles of art. I think people give art its meaning, its intent. Without people looking at art, the work itself is no different than dust. Dust to dust.

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