The Writing of Good Art

Max Wyman, Editor, Review of Books, The Vancouver Sun

What makes artists do what they do? Two new books by Vancouver artists offer remarkable insights into the motivations that animate their work.

John Koerner was born in Prague in 1913 and grew up in Europe. Gu Xiong was born in China in 1953, and grew up there.

Both artists have since chosen Vancouver as their home.

John Koerner, escaping from the conflagration that was about to consume Europe, settled here in 1939. He was 26.

Gu Xiong came here in search of freedom following the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. He was 36.

Traditionally, visual artists communicate with their audiences through the artwork they make. But sometimes they have things to tell us that can only be expressed with the help of words.

Recently, both artists published books of words and drawings that lift the curtain on their creative mysteries:

Unseen Dimensions: Musings on Art and Life, by John Koerner (Sono Nis Press, 120 pp., $24.95 paper, cloth-bound limited edition with original etching by Koerner, $175); and The Yellow Pear, by Gu Xiong.

Their sources are fundamentally dissimilar. Koerner's writings, heavily European in flavour, are philosophical, multi-layered, filled with reflections on the nature of creative expression and its relation to the human individual. Gu Xiong's notes reflect, far more directly, the personal and social detail of the culture shock he and his family experienced in the past decade.

But both books are rich in those jolts of insight that do what all good art does, which is to allow us to see the world in a fresh light, to perceive reality through another individual's eyes. Here are some samples:

On creativity:
Creative efforts are not isolated occurrences but are parts of an ongoing creative flow, which is a pale reflection of nature's blind creative force and its imperturbable pursuit of creation and destruction.

It is not uncommon that a strong visual experience - or the stirring sounds of a brilliant musical composition - can evoke a sensation of inexplicable strangeness. It feels like the fine thread that connects with the spiritual sphere, our long-forgotten "country of origin," that place known to us before our birth into the physical world.

Any work of art will inevitably disclose the artist's whole personality whether he wishes to openly share his own self or not. Whether concert artist, writer, dancer or architect, it is always the artist's mission to offer the whole self, without any reservations. This kind of action will never be accessible to optical technology or computerized chemistry. It is only the artist who can produce a chord that reverberates and touches other souls.

On music: I consider atonal music a philosophical aberration. Other dislikes include pop, country, elevator music and Hawaiian sentimental kitsch. I like good old jazz, especially Ella Fitzgerald, but above all I love chamber music: the most intimate kind of music - music which corresponds to the intimacy of graphics, especially drawing.

On art's mission: Art cannot ignore crime, vulgarity and other disruptive events; art can, however, make a valuable contribution by showing how the world could be in the eye of its best exponents ... Art develops and promotes empathy, a state of being that allows us to understand different viewpoints and promotes increase tolerance.

On art's message: Even in the most abstracted work of art we will find symbolic forms and meanings, for the human mind always tries to approach new experiences by comparing them with known memories, by discovering resemblances and analogies.

When looking at a painting we have to open ourselves to its influence and absorb it internally, not through intellectual dissection but through intuitive absorption. The real "message" of the work should be felt in the heart region.

On art and spirituality: The creative urge that motivates and drives so powerfully, and the unity between initial experience and the resulting expression, lead me to think there are basic residues in the human psyche that reach into unknown layers of consciousness and spirituality. Lawren Harris came very close to the truth when he said "perhaps the arts may help us realize the creative life in us and the informing spirit, which sustains the universe, are one and the same."

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