States of Unrest: Emerging Artist Group Show
November 26 – December 18, 2010
Curated by Anita Levesque
Brian Cullen – CAMOUFLAGE: Artist Statement and Project Description
[…] architecture, fashion — yes, even the weather — are, in the interior of the collective, what the sensoria of the organs, the feeling of sickness and health, are inside the individual.
— Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Materials and Form: 4 series of pattern representations — paintings — using wooden strips painted with industrial house pigments, and stacked in frames leaned back slightly on shelves on the wall; also, a stacked series of charcoal drawings on rice paper (see image 6; these are escalator step rubbings from Waterfront Station, Vancouver, BC); and, possibly, one accompanying three-dimensional tower using the same coloured wooden strips (as of yet incomplete).
The word ‘camouflage’ became a working title for these series. As a description it is appropriate and, also remains somewhat misleading. Certain aspects of fashion as a form of concealment were a primary focus here, to be sure. But I’m doubtful that we can really say that fashion camouflages — conceals — more than it actually reveals cultural imperatives.
Rather, it would seem that fashion both enfolds and unfolds the relationship between the body and the inorganic world — or, the relationship of the living body to the corpse and to death, as Benjamin summarizes more bluntly in The Arcades Project. Put another way, there is the body, and there is also the ambiguous value of exchange that exists between the body and, for the most part, what are now the industrially transformed materials we wear. In a sense I did not want to disguise anything, especially relations such as these. Because they are immanent. And to deny that immanence seems to be to accept the pathologies that largely define ‘health’ in our culture today.
And yet the word ‘camouflage’ served as adequate shorthand for describing another aspect of the work that became apparent during the process, too — that is, the adaptive and protective aspect of fashion as it relates to shelter, landscape and the defining conditions of weather; in other words, the cover of human habitation. A more sinister aspect of this came to me as a line of a poem near the time I was completing the painted works, almost as an afterword: “armies engineer quiet pants.” Well, they must do, don’t they? The swish of gore-tex could get you killed in certain parts of the world. I’m tired of paranoia. And I am striving to return to manual processes as much as possible in my work — to re-establish experience as a value inherent to the practice of making art.
For a long time I have been interested in the concept of shelter, including clothing as a form of shelter, and how the decorative function that is present in each serves to modify, for better or for worse throughout history, the sense of the body; in other words, how ‘decoration’ is not a superficial concern, but instead functions to convey an important cultural imperative: that of maintaining tradition while at the same time responding to the need to innovate according to changing conditions. In a time when cultural transgressions are occurring very rapidly, in very subtle ways, often employing one of our most powerful and now habitual technologies — language — it has become clear that we are sometimes not only subject to the violent transgressions of war, for example, but in a related way, and much more subtly, we are transgressed on a daily basis by the language of advertisement pretending to be useful information.
I was interested mainly in the art forms of weaving and poetry here, and in whether or not respecting ‘tradition’ or ‘innovation’ exclusively within either of these fields actually affords cultural continuity; or whether these practices of weaving and poetry might instead be more useful to each other by not trying to be either ‘classical’ or ‘avant-garde’ — I mean by allowing one practice to both inform and disrupt the other, and vica versa. And this without being concerned with either a ‘traditional’ result or an ‘innovative’ result. In other words, I wanted to try to develop an art form that gained strength by its manual practice, its trans-disciplinary nature, and also through its conscious ‘advertisement’ of the generic nature of contemporary experience. The initial inspiration for this work was a trip to Chiapas, Mexico with my friends Karin Cope and Marike Finlay in 2005. The weaving cooperative Sna Jolobil in San Cristobal revealed to me a beauty and complexity of weaving that I had never had the chance to observe firsthand. I also found a book there by anthropologist Patricia Marks Greenfield, Weaving Generations Together: Evolving Creativity in the Maya of Chiapas (2004). Some of the above issues of maintaining ‘tradition’ vs ‘innovation’ as co-adaptive strategies are well-described there, especially in Greenfields’ analysis of pattern representation by local subjects who were asked to use coloured wooden strips to represent threads, or sections, of both a traditional and, what they considered to be an innovative, weaving pattern. This structure, of using painted wooden strips stacked in frames, became the basic form of my present work. That, and Baudelaire’s insistence on the “colour of words” — words as carrying hidden valences that reflect, or are inflected by, the values of a culture.
There are several indirect sources for “Camouflage”: Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project for one; also Lisa Robertson’s books of poetry, The Weather, and her Rousseau’s Boat. The most direct sources for the work are cited in the titles for each series. These are: Gertrude Stein; Dan Farrell; Ovid; and, John Constable, the 19th century English painter. My ‘paintings’ are transliterations of some of their work then. Initially, I started from a very purist standpoint, which was surprising to me since I’ve always been more interested in collecting discarded things, rather than focusing on technique and formalism. Practically speaking, at first I wanted to mix my own pigments and try to match them to the colour samples of industrial house paints (the essential colours for the work would be provided by a relatively generic source; but I would have to copy them). However, the whole production of the wooden pieces themselves, and the need to prime and paint each strip individually, forced me early on to confront the assembly-line nature of the work. Instead of exhausting myself, I chose BehrTM housepaints to provide my colours, with welcome relief. All the colours were already there to choose from, and purchase! And this thanks to the work of many anonymous chemists, designers and other workers employed in paint factories. In the end, this gesture of laziness was in keeping with what was probably an intention inherent to the work from the beginning: to make something, some things, which my signature would not interfere with; or at least only minimally.
Related to this, there was an aspect of number, as it involved dimension and space, that began to insist itself despite any intentions which I might have had as regards interpreting literary material through colour (using specific numbers of colour per pieces of wood stacked in series). At first the uncanny nature of certain ‘decisions’ regarding metrics or non-metrics gave me pleasure — as they were determined mostly despite my own efforts. But I also began to feel anxious as regards the production that certain congruities entailed. There was a developing sense that I would rather contemplate the work, have it ready-made, rather than confront the manual labour, the tedium and boredom, necessitated by the production-line nature of the work. This of course relates to actually taking responsibility for how this work implicates, and is implicated in, a global system of labour. Was the final ‘product’ something that I simply wanted to retain in the idleness of my own gaze? Or was the embedded, political nature of labour itself something that I needed to be confronted by through its making?
I have often wondered how it is possible to say that making art is still a kind of work, in the same way that participating in the manufacture of paint in a housepaint factory is a kind of work? I am beginning to feel that even if what I’ve done here is, or appears to be, outmoded, it has the potential to disrupt the so-called contemporary instance, by being part of the re-definition of what making art might actually become now. For even as an apparently finished work, I feel that it relates to “the beauty of the unused,” as Margaret Avison wrote — meaning the discarded or, perhaps the shelved, the generic: part of a common beauty then, but before it is recognized as such. And of course that is all just ugliness before it becomes classical (or called ‘beautiful,’ as Stein elucidated the historical process of the reception of Art). Perhaps we are caught with it — Art — in a time of waiting. But then, for what so-called ‘future-use’? There would seem to be little more time, and chance, for deferral.
Brian Cullen – Biography
Born in 1973 in North Vancouver, BC. Both writing, and making visual art (lately mostly sculptural, installation work), have combined to inform Brian’s practice. He studied English Literature and Communications in Montreal, at McGill, in the 1990s, and since then has been making art and writing. Both disciplines tend to inform one another in his work, which is often committed to examining this relationship between the visual and language arts (particularly through visual and sound poetry, and the construction of book objects).
Brian has had writing published in magazines across Canada including West Coast Line, Rampike and The Capilano Review. With work forthcoming in Lake magazine (UBC Okanagan). He currently resides in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, near the city of Nelson.