Someone asked me recently which of the characters in The Drawing Lesson I identified with more: Alexander Wainwright, the representational artist, or Rinaldo, the conceptual artist.
Without question, it’s Alexander.
After all, Alexander paints stunningly beautiful landscapes, which have a quality no one else can create. When you look at his paintings of the English countryside, you see the beyond. So what is that? To me and to his audience, it means he conveys a sense of what lies behind or beyond the everyday world we can see and touch. Alexander has a very strong sense that there is something else lying just out of sight which holds everything together.
Actually, I first started thinking about this quality in painting when I looked at the paintings of the great American artist Edward Hopper. All the lonely people in his cityscapes give me a sense of something lying just beyond or behind the painting. I decided to take that quality and give it to Alexander Wainwright.
Rinaldo is a conceptual artist—not confined to the canvas. He enters a construction called the Destiny of War into the Tate Modern competition for the Turner Prize. This conceptual piece consists of a long trench, with a barbwire fence down the center, and piles of old clothing and children’s toys—guns, model tanks, knives, and swords—all spattered with red paint.
Definitely, the narrator and Alexander’s art dealer, James Helmsworth, is disgusted.
“No doubt, he intended to create the effect of a bloodbath. I found one dismembered doll to be a particularly tasteless touch. In my opinion, the message of this so-called piece of conceptual art was both obvious and trite. But then I, as a dealer in representational painting, had to admit my bias.”
Many galleries show such kinds of work. The point is not to create a thing of beauty, but rather to express a concept, make a statement or create a mood with a wide variety of materials. Aesthetics is not important. Probably the artist Marcel Duchamp, at the beginning of the twentieth century, was one of the very first conceptual artists.
But right from the start, you could tell whose side I was on. But then, I realized I was being far too hard on Rinaldo. I was dismissing the validity of his art forms and holding them up to ridicule. That was the way I felt then. I decided that I needed to soften my views. Last summer, I spent a lot of time going to as many conceptual art exhibits as I could find, not only in Toronto but New York.
At the Whitney in New York, I visited the Dan Graham retrospective. And in Toronto, there was an excellent show on at the Power Plant Gallery with a great variety of work—some of them very effective. I cannot claim that I came to love any of the work, but perhaps I came away with a clearer understanding.
Then the real work began. I went through the manuscript inserting some scenes in which greater understanding of Rinaldo’s work was shown. Such appreciation was put into the voices of Alexander and James Helmsworth. So, I think I achieved a better balance between the visions of the two types of art. It’s a lesson I learned: Don’t let your personal views take over and spoil the story.
You really do have to sympathize a bit with Rinaldo! After all, the Turner prize is awarded for contemporary art, and here’s Alexander with his bucolic paintings winning the prize.
So after all of this, I still came down to identifying much more with Alexander, not only in the type of his art, but his view of the world—which is the subject of another blog.