Above image: Ashley Brayne Lennartsson, “Embryo,” 1986
From the Archives
“The older we get, the more we realize that nothing is new.” I think that line is quoted in Robert Hughes TV series, The Shock of the New. Of course he was placing it in the context of the visual arts and for the most part he was right. Ideas get rehashed, or reworked by the young, who never heard of Robert Hughes. Seemingly, bold new ideas are eventually discovered to have deep roots in the past. The only thing that really changes is the way we make art. New tools are continually being developed, digital at the forefront, but the product is the same, and the end game is to create. So do our ideas emerge from fresh thinking, or are they latent and sleeping, waiting to surface for future use?
In a UMVA newsletter dated December 1992–January 1993, there is an article by Ashley Brayne Lennartsson. Lennartsson discusses a random drawing she produced in 1986, created after a meeting she attended at the Portland School of Art, where she was a student. The group she was meeting with was talking about South Africa and Apartheid and the racial issues affecting that part of the world. Lennartsson states she became frustrated and began to “doodle” (her word) and what developed not only intrigued her, but frightened her, because as she goes on to say, “something like this came out of my consciousness.” She claims it represented her current state of growth which she was grappling with at the time. She titled the piece Embryo. Where exactly her idea for the drawing came from is up for debate. But I suspect it lay somewhere in the past, something seen and filed away, waiting for a trigger to bring it out.
The idea that certain groups of people belong to like-minded societies, and that no matter how geographically distant we are from one another, we find someone, somewhere, who thinks just like us. Artists worldwide have similar goals and express them in like fashion. We are a society that shares its ideas with each other by default, we tap into the collective consciousness and stamp it with our own viewpoint. We inadvertently appropriate.
The way I look and think about art is made up of opinions that have been formed from a smorgasbord of ideas. These ideas have been selected unknowingly over the years from various imagery and events, and they have stamped me somehow. What we take on over the years as students, or from family, or the media, becomes baggage we drag around for a lifetime. We make these opinions our own, and the result is the way we look and judge. This is inescapable, and lots of folks spend lots of money trying to put the more disturbing of these thoughts to bed. No one seems to have the answer, including the psychiatrist on the receiving end. And at the end of the day, that baggage floats to the surface.
When Pat and I were looking through old UMVA newsletters searching for something to include in this issue, we came across an art review and a critical response. Here’s the baggage that floated to the surface.
In 1994 a review appeared in The Maine Sunday Telegram by Ken Greenleaf, who wrote about an exhibition of paintings at the June Fitzpatrick Gallery, by Carlo Pittore (UMVA’s founder). In it, Greenleaf makes reference to “the special nature of the artist . . . whose job it is to disturb the bourgeoisie,” and went on to say that Pittore’s paintings were a “by-product” of his own sense, “a sense of the artist as hero.” Pittore strongly believed this was a personal attack on his character, and felt that the review was a “diatribe utilizing pop psychology” to analyze his mind! He vented his thoughts about the review in an open letter to the critic, claiming that this was not about his paintings, but a way to “marginalize him as a human being and artist.” In the end, he says to the critic, “[n]ot only was your review not about my paintings, it was not about me; but may have been about yourself, Ken.”
It’s hard to know why Carlo Pittore reacted the way he did, after all, in some ways he should have known better. A bad review is a bad review. He could have let it go and chalked it up in the downside column. But it appears he felt that Ken Greenleaf was drawing on ideas that were too personally formed, ideas not about Pittore, but about himself, ideas appropriated from his own past experiences, opinions that bubbled up from some past, shadowy place, and then projected on to the artist. Then again… Carlo Pittore, was a force unto himself! (Ken Greenleaf’s review appears in the archive section of the Maine Sunday Telegram of June 5, 1994; Carlo Pittore’s response in the Maine Sunday Telegram of June 26, 1994).
Of course it is possible that a critic could project too much of himself into a review. This is not necessarily bad, or inappropriate, it depends on how the critic sees what he/she is reviewing and comments with a level head.
We all appropriate, it is inescapable. By and large, it is not something we do knowingly, it just bubbles up and finds its way into what we happen to be creating. It becomes unique and original when we somehow fuse it all together, drawing on multiple sources all at once. It then becomes original, the happy accident!
I don’t know who Ashley Brayne Lennartsson is, but I wonder, has she continued to draw? Has she kept up with those conscious/unconscious moments in her life? I hope so. And I hope that she will continue to grow and make something good happen in this world. Because, even if it has been done many times before, by artists looking for what is new, I hope that whatever path she takes, she will make it as honest and truthful as possible.
Art is not necessarily about searching for the groundbreaking. Art has been with us for centuries and will continue to develop and expand. But we as artists must keep a close and affectionate eye on what came before. After all, it is those very roots that keep us grounded and growing. From the unconscious self we create, and with time, grows the embryo.
“Embryo” by Ashley Brayne Lennartsson 1986.
“Being the artist that I am and knowing what I know, I realize that the drawing came from a source and place, where I don’t know, but I know that this drawing expressed the way I feel about somebody who has seen too much and feels like they are ready to explode at any moment. So I followed the source and within 2–5 minutes, it all happened rather quickly and concisely, I let my hand draw what appears to be a brain,eyes,a mouth,a nose, eyebrows,etc.
I am still surprised to this day that something like this actually came out of my consciousness.”
The above excerpted from UMVA newsletter, December 1992–January 1993, by Ashley Brayne Lennartsson.
(Tony and Pat Owen live and create in the West of Ireland)