The meaning of art, according to artist Michael Downs

Whether it’s a controversial $470,000 “blue hole” sculpture, or portrait of ex-prime minister Paul Martin with a Brian Mulroney-like chin, no one can agree on what is good public art. Central Alberta artist Michael Downs hopes to shed some light on the topic at a free noon-hour How to Judge Art discussion on Tuesday, July 5, in Room 2919 at Red Deer College during its Series summer art program.

Whether it’s a controversial $470,000 “blue hole” sculpture, or portrait of ex-prime minister Paul Martin with a Brian Mulroney-like chin, no one can agree on what is good public art.

Central Alberta artist Michael Downs hopes to shed some light on the topic at a free noon-hour How to Judge Art discussion on Tuesday, July 5, in Room 2919 at Red Deer College during its Series summer art program.

“People are trying to understand (art installations), and they get upset” because they don’t understand them, said Downs.

The impressionistic realist painter from Innisfail, has sold works across North America and was also a runner-up in the competition to paint Martin.

He believes there’s a disconnect between what the public values as art and how art academics define art. “Here you get into the real divide,” said Downs.

Let’s start with the so-called blue hole.

The City of Calgary got into hot water with some taxpayers after paying big bucks for a public artwork called Travelling Light. The metal sculpture resembling a vertical, 17-metre, blue hula hoop was installed at an inauspicious stretch of 98 Ave. N.E. (Motorists can just glimpse it off Deerfoot Trail, amid traffic and a row of streetlights.)

The sculpture, created by the Swedish art co-operative Inges Idee in 2013, has been derided as “The Big Owe,” referring to taxpayers’ wallets. But it’s actually supposed to serve both as a portal into the landscape and as a frame. “It forms a huge window… (giving) the 96th Ave. interchange a clear and unmistakable identity,” reads a city summary of the artists’ statement.

Downs said he has no theoretical problem with this kind of art installation — except for two things.

Firstly, he believes conceptual art is impossible for the public to understand without first reading a narrative about the artist’s thought process. And this generally isn’t provided.

Secondly, as a former art student at both Langara and Capilano Colleges in Vancouver, he knows conceptual art is often exclusively promoted by art faculties to students who were hoping to get a more basic, some would say classical, arts education.

On his first day at Langara, Downs said “My painting instructor said, ‘I’m not going to show you anything,’ in the belief it would obstruct our creative process. And I hardly saw him again for the rest of the semester …”

What painting skills Downs developed, he feels he owes to his personal study of the way Masters like John Singer Sargent, German-American colourist Henry Hensche, and American portraitist Nelson Shanks portrayed their subjects.

Painting representationally requires a whole “visual language,” based on value, colour theory and learning how to see differently, he said. While some modernist-leaning art instructors feel representational art is passé and no longer needs to be taught, Downs doesn’t agree.

“It’s a different way of thinking,” he added. “Just like music, or literature there are still compositions to hear, I am sure the last novel has not been written.”

Representational art is also still most valued by members of the public. “It’s what sells,” maintains the artist and instructor, whose landscape, sky and people paintings hang in the Fairmont Hotels in Banff and Jasper and The Front Gallery in Edmonton.

This brings us to the strong-chinned Paul Martin portrait, unveiled this month in Ottawa.

Although some critics say the Parliament Hill painting by Ontario artist Paul Wyse looks more Mulroneyesque than like Martin, there’s none of the same balking over money ill spent. Downs believes this is because people clearly understand the painting — even if they don’t necessarily like it.

He believes objective observation and the goal of conveying “truthfulness” is required to pull off a good likeness. “What I call visual art requires (artists) to see relationships. It teaches you to see and to think and to process information differently …

“It is very much like a scientific method,” said Downs. “The greater your skill in seeing and rendering objectively the more truth comes out of the nature of the subject you are portraying.

“That’s a definite skill that should be taught in school …”

If there’s a bright side to the debate over conceptual and realist art, it’s that both can still stir passionate public debate.

“What is art today? Unfortunately, it’s two different worlds,” said Downs.

He will teach The Painter’s Language at Series July 4-8, and also runs private art classes in Red Deer and Calgary.

For more information, please visit www.michaeldowns.com.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com

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