I was walking down the street behind this old lady the other day when, all of a sudden, she stopped by a newly installed minimalist sculpture and turned to a random passerby and said, “This is the dumbest piece of shit I’ve ever seen.” That she’s EVER seen. Over seven decades of viewing and this artwork stands out so much that she had to testify it!
I realized at that moment what a perfect combination I'd stumbled upon: Everyone always wants contemporary art to be critiqued, and old people have nothing better to do. Old people are funny, ruthlessly critical, and totally willing to test out their vision. All they need is the chance to do it! With that in mind, I set off to the neighbourhood retirement home, JPEG-equipped.
The artworks in my little exhibition were selected with attention to--what I thought of as--range: Variations in composition, color scheme, and technique were all things that went into my decision-making process. It was made aware to me much later, however, that everything I chose seemed to have some form of nightmarish overtone. Oops.
When I got there, Simona, the Leisure Department Supervisor, had an entire room full of elderly women, seated in front of a projector screen, waiting for me. Some were knitting and sleepy, but a few of them took up the task of judgment with great fervor. It was like they'd been yanked back from the hazy threshold of death's slumber just to tell us what fuck-ups we are. In fact, the only guy there, a war veteran/retired engineering professor, waited until the very end when everyone had left the room to unload a serious heap of shit onto me. He told me that I was condoning the demoralization of our nation, that I was on hard drugs, that I should abandon everything I’m doing, and he was able to figure all this out from a bunch of paintings?! Clearly we picked some really good artists.
Out of the ladies who did critique the work, there were three particularly vocal characters who I would like you to meet:
Betty Cunnigham is a sweet and tender 92-year-old, originally from Great Britain. She is a graduate of McGill University and she likes to paint.
Diana Jamieson is a badass 85-year-old from Montreal. She worked for 14 years as a tour guide at The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Her son Ron is a working artist, and her husband was a painter. Diana is basically immune to all art bullshit. Everyone kept telling me about her husband’s amazing paintings in the galleries, but she just said that he was an egotistical bastard and all of his paintings are of himself.
Rose Raba Reichman is from the Czech Republic and she wouldn’t tell me her age. She is a sensitive abstract artist, and went to university for fine arts. She brought a bunch of small paintings to show me. She had photos of sculptures she had done, like brightly colored masks with demented smiles, and she took me to see a stone sculpture of a bird that she made. She’s totally a young person trapped in an old person’s body, just a little less coherent. She asked me to come back to hang out, which I actually plan on doing.
STILL BY DANIEL RICHTER
Rose: It’s an imaginary painting. You see the people in the grass. Apart from the sky. And then you see people standing. On the top it’s a person lying. We don’t know whether it’s a man or woman. He or she has an open mind--sorry, open mouth. People are standing there and thinking “What is going on? What is going on in that mind? What is going on in a person’s mind?” That’s my imagination of it.
Would you hang this on your wall?
Rose: Why not. But, you know, look. It depends: Where would I put it? You know? [general laughter] This painting doesn’t belong in every room. It has to have a big room, because you have to look at it from far away. I would say it’s a very nice painting, because you have lots of imagination in it. And if some people want to have it finished--artists--they can finish it. Not everybody has to have a painting which is done completely.
Betty: The person kneeling in front of the tree is paying homage to a ghost, which is beside the tree. Is that a departed spirit declining up above? And WHY does one person have red hair? The others have COLORLESS hair. MIGRAENE BY ANDREAS GOLDER
What do you think about this?
Diana: The problem that I have with this kind of painting is that if the artist doesn’t get his idea across, he’s failed. An artist is trying to communicate his feelings when he does a painting. And I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about here. [general applause] Someone’s falling down the stairs, that’s it.
What do you think about the colors and the actual painting of the picture?
Oh, I wouldn’t hang it.
What would you have done to make it better?
I think I would have done more detail. MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE/FLEXMASTER 300 BY AUREL SCHMIDT
This was all done in colored pencil.
Diana: She’s a clever artist but she hasn’t created anything.
Rose: I think it’s just an imaginary painting. That’s what she did, just what came into her head. And then you have cans. I think they're supposed to be breasts at the top.
What’s one word to describe it?
Rose: Maybe some people would think, "funny."
Diana: She’s very much a craftsman. She knows how to use her material. But I don’t know what she’s portraying. I can’t make it out at all.
It’s called “Master of the Universe.”
Rose: Oooohhhhh I see.
Diana: Maybe she doesn’t like men.
BIRD SHIT BY DAN COLEN
This one is called Bird Shit.
Diana: That’s ridiculous. He knows how to title his stuff I tell you, that’s exactly what it is. Wonderful objective.
[Someone shouts, “I don’t paint but I think I could do that!”]
Diana: When I was guiding I had a little boy said that to me: “I could do that.” And I said: “Yes, but you didn’t.”
That’s what they say about modern art. So, what’s one word to describe this painting?
Rose: I would say "sadness."
Diana: It’s meaningless!
On a scale of 1 to 10, what would you say?
Diana: Minus ten.
Rose: Three. BAD ROUTE BY MIGUEL CALDERON
Diana: Aw, now we’re getting down to it. Real people on real bikes… with monkey faces.
This is from a photograph. The artist took the photo and then got it painted.
[Someone in the back shouts “That’s cheating!”]
Diana: No it’s not, it’s never cheating. There is never cheating in art. There’s no one to tell you how to do it.
Rose: That's very open-minded.
Do you like the way it’s painted?
Diana: Yeah, it’s well done. You have to admire the craftsmanship at least.
What would you say to the artist?
Diana: “Why? Why do you want to do that?”
Betty: The artist has given the riders um, jungle bikes, you know, not an ordinary motorcycle. Jungle bicycles with apes… I don’t know.
Rose: I would say, he painted people, he wanted to show what people have in their mind. And that’s what you see in the picture. It’s a fantasy.
What would you say if you took out the people?
Diana: It would be a nice landscape. MISAKI KAWAI
Betty: I like the colors.
What do you think about the subject matter?
Diana: She hasn’t got the shapes properly on anything. The flat bottoms and so on. She’s got the birds pretty well.
Betty: A young person has painted that. Yeah, a very young person.
Would you hang this on your wall?
Rose: This painting would bring me lots of happiness. Look at it. Because first, look at the two birds. It is a female and male, and you see that they are kissing each other, talking to each other, being very happy. It’s the first thing I would look at. And then I would maybe say "What is in their minds?" you know? What is going on in their little brains? Then I see beautiful flowers growing up.
What would you rate it, 1-10?
Rose: Myself? I would put ten.
Diana: No way, no way. It’s all wrong. It’s all wrong. The vase is even lopsided. That couldn’t stand. Nothing’s right. The flowers aren’t flowery. I don’t care if it’s deliberate or not, it just isn’t done properly.
[someone says something about heroin extracted from poppies and then the seniors all argue about what type of flower it could be]
Rose: I didn’t see it before, but there is another little bird. The little bird on left side, is very sad. It is looking down. Maybe they are talking about him. He is like the little bird left out completely. You know.
Betty: The one on the side does look sad. The two in the middle are having fun.
Diana: The two on the vase AREN’T REAL. They’re painted on a vase, so they’re not talking about anything!
Overall what did you think of them?
Diana: Depressing. Very much so. It’s too bad because they are good craftsmen, most of them. And they could be doing something nice, but they aren’t. Maybe they’re too full of vice.