Gerard Pas’ artistic work over four decades has seen some unpredictable evolutions. Beginning with acclaimed photo documentation and performance art after his BealArt, punk aesthetic days, his early work was a cathartic exploration of his pain from childhood. Afflicted with polio that left him with an atrophied leg, Pas was a poster child “Timmy” at age ten in 1965. The London artist went on to a stint in New York hanging with the likes of Basquiat and W.S. Burroughs. Returning to London in the early ’80s saw a turn in his vision towards a Vermeer and Jack Chambers-inspired high-realist pursuit of the transcendent landscape. Later came a De Stijl-influenced group of paintings and sculptures, and then a major commission in the Canadian War Memorial at Victoria Park. And yet, despite such metamorphosis over the years, his latest creative focus is a bit of a head scratcher: High-res ornithological photography?
To conclude that this is one artist that has gone to the birds — be they highly-technical 2’ x 3’ prints of some hard to find subjects — is not lost on the artist. But as Pas says, this work has been a personal “pathway to joy.” An exhibition of his photography will be at Cube Gallery in Ottawa later this year, and on April 7 work of his graduating students from Fanshawe’s Fine Art Program opens at The ARTS Project. Pas gives us a brief lesson on how the revolution in digital photography is not only transforming a century-old art form but also informing his own creative evolution.
You were in the news recently. Someone in Saskatchewan discovered an early self-portrait of yours in a thrift store for sale for $3.99. They looked you up and returned it to you?
I got an email from someone I didn’t know, saying, ‘Is this your art?’ It was a painting I remembered and I remembered who I sold it to. So I wrote him back, saying ‘Yeah’, but I was expecting some kind of scam. He wrote me back, saying ‘Would you like it?’ And then I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, and I said, ‘Well, how much?’ I thought he was trying to sell it back to me, I was very skeptical. It thought it might have been stolen. But he said, ‘I just want what I paid for it and the shipping.’ I was touched. Turns out, this fellow’s mother was an artist, and he had made it into a kind of objective that if he found art like this, he was going to try to get it back to the artist.
The Canadian War Memorial in Victoria Park was a once-in-a-lifetime commission. What was your design inspiration for that?
The Dutch community here in London and area had wanted to do something to thank the vets for some time. One of the prominent members started a design, and he showed it to Andrew Macpherson, who was the guy in charge of parks and recreation. He said, ‘Maybe you should have an artist look at that.’ They had Wyn Geleynse and I come in, and I told them the brutal truth. I said, ‘It looks like a gravestone. You want to put a gravestone in the middle of the most important park in London? We need to put something in there that’s celebratory. I mean, we’re Dutch. We have hundreds of years of good art, why should we suddenly change?’ That was on a Friday. Saturday morning I got a call, and he said, ‘You’re right . . . we need a new design. Unfortunately our meeting with city planning is on Monday. Think you could have it done?’ So, I wanted to have a spiral. I wanted it to be a kind of silent prayer, gratitude. I was thinking of the inertia and the spiral reaching upward, exponentials or Fibonnaci equations, whatever. Most of our modernist architecture is all horizontal, person-to-person, but I wanted to go back to the idea of the church spire pointing to the heavens where the angels dwell, so that was the motivation with the bell tower. Then, I took the letter N for the Netherlands and I looked at it and realized that if I emphasized the ‘V’ section of the N – because many of these are older people – and so that whole idea of Churchill and the ‘V’ for victory was really important to them. So I emphasized the ‘V’, and it’s not quite broken but when you look at it, it’s not quite a big ‘N’ – it’s a ‘V’ that could be an ‘N’. I wanted to say that from brokenness can come healing, can come victory.
I was in New York around 2001 for a residency. Back then I was suffering from various bouts of depression on and off, so when I got back here I started doing things to get me out of the studio. I bought a digital camera and really enjoyed it, but it was a toy. I always had a really good camera anyway, but I started mucking around with that digital, and the result was that over the course of that year, I took 10,000 photographs of flowers. One thing led to another — I won some awards for those flower shots, but I saw the flowers, then I saw the insects, and I started macro shooting them, then I saw the birds eating the insects, and I started shooting the birds. I guess I’ve spent the lion’s share of the time shooting birds since. It’s not so much about the birds, it’s about the challenge for me — birds are very, very difficult and I like the challenge.
Just finding a rare bird — for birdwatchers, it’s kind of like hunting without the guns?
It’s even bigger than hunting because of course, with hunting you hunt a bear, a moose, whatever, but some of those birds like the Kirtland’s warbler — there are only a thousand of them on earth. So to get one you really have to . . . and the reason that’s so great in south western Ontario is that birds fly from South America to wherever they are going here in the north and they fly over our heads. It makes the idea of ‘shooting wildlife’ accessible without going on a safari to Africa, which is out of my price range.
The Kirtland’s warbler, how did you find it?
They are a quirky bird, there are a lot of particulars they need for them to lay eggs. Their largest nesting ground is in Michigan. For me it was a five-hour drive to Michigan, and that’s doable. I went with a friend and it took several days. The first day was a wash and on the second day I got lucky. So I started getting some shots, I found them. We had a guide from the US Wildlife Service as well — but we kind of made our own luck on that one.
Let’s talk about the quality of digital vs. film. I recall when you got your first digital camera, debating with you whether digital would ever be better than film. But of course we’ve seen cinema recently convert over to digital. Tell us about the aesthetic qualities — around 2008 it became better would you say?
Film still provides various degrees of resolution we fight with in the digital camera. I’m currently using a 36 megapixel camera which permits me to make 4’ x 6’ images with incredible resolution. A lot of the issues surrounding film have been resolved by digital. Film requires a higher degree of technical knowledge due to the fact that you either get the shot right or you don’t. Digital provides you with an axiom for experimentation that film doesn’t.
It’s “free” to shoot 10,000 pictures if you want…
That’s debatable. You are forced to buy apparatus more frequently. When you buy a camera and it has a higher resolution you may need to buy a new computer to process those files, then you need larger storage. So the costs are deferred. In fact I think that digital is actually much more expensive than film, but experimentation isn’t. So if you’ve got a 64 gig card in your camera, you could theoretically spin your camera around in auto exposure by the strap, and just take pictures all day and pick out the ones you like, which you couldn’t do with film as it would be prohibitively expensive. And the drawback in 2015 . . . I do teach film, we have a wet lab, so for the students learning it, there’s no room for error because its really hard to get film, its really hard to get enlarger lights, its really hard to get safety lamps. Everything is becoming very expensive on the film side. Digital on the other hand allows you to see right away if you fucked it up or not. Then you can make adjustments to make it better if that’s what you’re going for.
Back to shooting wildlife — how do you bring your studio aesthetic skill sets to work?
You have to remember when I was a young artist I actually did very well with photography. The first international shows I did were using a Polaroid, things like that. I was 21 and I was showing with Francis Bacon and Warhol and Richard Hamilton, that was photography. Nowadays, as that relates to composition, I’ve always said – and say to my peers who work in the commercial photography division – that artists have a bit of an advantage coming in. That is, we already have an eye that’s trained for composition. When you look at the aspect ratio of a contemporary photograph, which is 3:2 — that aspect ratio, if you think about it for a minute, did not happen by accident. That little German guy with the glasses, when he was planning out the first 35mm camera used an aspect 3:2 for a reason: it was the Golden Mean. That was what we had done for 500 years from the Dutch Golden period to the Renaissance. That was the Western way of reading into a rectangle. You got your best composition using the law of thirds or the Golden Mean. So as an artist I already know these rules, I already know these equations — if not by a mathematical formula but as a sense. The way I don’t have to think about breathing, I don’t have to think about composition because it’s all in my head.
Where that differs when you’re photographing wildlife, sometimes the movement of the object causes you to get a shot that you have to edit in the digital dark room and compose there. Composition is king in my world, that means that what I look for first is that the image meets the criteria I want, that it’s in focus, it’s got good resolution and that there’s no noise or grain. Then I compose, if it isn’t already composed in the viewfinder. That’s one of the things that I have to tell art students over and over again: when you look through the viewfinder it’s not a frickin’ gun, you’re not going to kill anybody with that thing unless you turn it around and bash them over the head with it. When you look through the viewfinder, you need to do so as an artist. It’s a tool to create art; you compose, you don’t shoot.
In the teaching milieu, do students play in to your own sense of discovery and creativity?
I care about teaching and students and love my job; that’s got to have some kind of feedback loop and kickback. There’s something there that if it wasn’t, I don’t think I’d be a good teacher. One of the thrills of teaching is that everything you’ve held ‘true’ gets questioned by all those pissants and upstart young people, who question ‘Why do you hold to that tenet?’ and you quickly discover that what you may hold to as dogma is really just a tissue of shite, and thirty people are pointing at you telling you so. Which is really good because iron sharpens iron. The foundation of truth in all of this is that, those ‘truths’ remain ‘true’ if they are. And the rest is all just modicums of social phenomena based on some kind of demographic of morality or ethics or culture. Beauty is either beauty or it’s not. Now, beauty changes: in the days of Rubens, if you had food and you could eat, you could get fat. So a desirable woman might have been a fat woman. In today’s culture where we can all eat, looking like a junkie might be considered fashionably beautiful.
Since your practice has become more photo-based, is there a more commercial aspect to it as well?
No. I’m an artist still, I haven’t given up on the others, I intend to go back to them at some point but right now I’m just really enjoying myself. One of the things that happened after my last big show in New York is I no longer needed to look for permission to do things, I could now do what I wanted. One of the things I wanted to do was try to find joy. Looking through that viewfinder, I started seeing the world that was in front of me all the time but that I had never seen before. Those little colorful birds, they’ve always been here, for millennia, and yet as a man then in his late 40s, early 50s, I had never seen them before. So the viewfinder was opening a world of discovery to me and that gave me a great amount of joy. That’s where I am. Maybe some of that original joy and passion has fallen off so now I also do it because I’m good at it. What you have to do even as a successful artist is pinch yourself, and remind yourself why you’re doing it in the first place. The reason you’re doing it in the first place was that creativity gave you a thrill – whether it was communicating your despair or your utmost joy. Much of my early work was about despair, and so now I was trying to find in my sojourn a pathway to joy. If I were to describe that in art terms, I believe that art is catharsis and, if it is, what are you going to do when you get healed, when all you’ve talked about is the pain and suffering for years and years and years? So, suddenly you come to an impasse; let’s just say it’s that eureka moment, ‘I have been healed. Now what?’ So, at the risk of making saccharine images of sweetness or artificially inducing aspects of angst and alienation which aren’t intrinsically my own, and therefore become more theatrical, I just gave myself permission to go out and try to discover joy.
I have a show coming up in November in Ottawa. I’m very worried about it because I want to march out these big pictures that I’ve been taking recently. I’m worried the art world is going to look at it and go, ‘Well, you can put him out to pasture, he’s fucking taking pictures of birds.’ Why do I have that feeling? Well, because they’re ‘beautiful.’ And if they’re beautiful, how do I justify that relative to many years of production of art about other issues, primarily handicap or social alienation? Now I have to justify these images because they’re beautiful, and that causes me a great deal of anxiety. I’ve spoken with an art historian, Hans Rookmaaker, and I’ve come to the conclusion that beauty needs no justification. So I’m going to show these pictures of big beautiful birds and hopefully people realize that I’m still Gerard Pas . . . it’s just that I’ve moved through the production of my work over the years to a point where I’m looking at things that make me happy.
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