The Aim of Artists

“KOOP: The Art of Wanda Koop,” directed by Katherine Knight and “Bull’s Eye: A Painter on the Watch,” directed by Bruno Boulianne

KOOP: The Art of Wanda Koop, directed by Katherine Knight and Bull’s Eye: A Painter on the Watch, directed by Bruno Boulianne

In an early scene in Bruno Boulianne’s documentary about Marc Seguin, the Quebec-born painter who now works in Brooklyn, the artist is ruminating on the nature of artistic production. “A work isn’t just about what you show, it’s also about what you don’t show.” Seguin’s view of art applies to films about artists as well. They are also about what doesn’t get seen. Or put another way: deciding to show an artist in one context necessarily means not showing them in others. Unless a film is a biopic, in which the intention is to cover a whole life, documentaries about artists end up aiming at a much smaller target. If they were exhibitions, they would fit better into the category of a thematic show than a retrospective.

Bull’s Eye: A Painter on the Watch zeros in on hunting, an activity that plays a significant role in Seguin’s life, and throughout the film he draws detailed parallels between the art of making marks and the act of marking prey. He says the moment when a painting comes into being produces the same intense sensation he gets when an animal appears. “With painting, I can’t come home empty-handed. I have to aim to complete a work, to say: bull’s eye.”

There is much evidence in the film of his success in bagging successful paintings, but it is the actual hunting scenes that will rattle a number of viewers. With a bow, a shotgun and a rifle, he hunts various animals –crows, geese and moose. He is endlessly patient, a good shot, and mostly he eats what he kills. The sequences of him waiting for the sound (a crackling branch almost makes you jump out of your viewing seat) and sighting of a moose are undeniably tension-filled. We see him perched on a ladder in a thin clump of trees, dressed in camouflage and wearing a mask, his rifle resting across his knees. The only thing moving are his eyelashes when he blinks. What makes this scene so powerful is that we are waiting for something to die.

Seguin’s patience and his accuracy make that happen. The following scene, where his uncle butchers the moose in the woods, is not for the faint-hearted. At this moment, Boulianne makes a startling directorial move; he focuses on the blade of the knife as it scrapes the cavernous rib cage of the butchered animal and, suddenly, a Soutine painting comes to life, and we’re inside it. The gesture of the blade on bone recalls an earlier scene where Seguin is applying black paint to a taxidermied bald eagle. (Where and how he got it are never disclosed.) The shot is a close-up of the brush and watching the thick paint cover the feathers is mesmerizing. Seguin smiles when he sees the results of his enterprise and the filmmaker asks him why. His response embodies an unapologetic visceral aestheticism. “It’s an impressive bird but the black makes it beautiful,” the marksman says, “and it smells good.”

Bull’s Eye progresses by presenting alternating views. The scenes of Seguin with his two young daughters on the family’s farm in Quebec are engaging and gentle; together they make maple syrup, tend to the horses and plant and harvest a garden. In the city we move from shots of an unremarkable guy, wearing ragged jeans and a nondescript hoodie, walking along the streets of New York, to the same guy inside his studio, applying gold leaf to a gun held to the head of Mata Hari, or drawing a white halo around the head of Abe Lincoln. These characters are among the portraits of traitors and victims who populate his studio, a gang that includes everyone from Mussolini to Jackson Pollock. Seguin is filmed working on a number of different paintings, and he shows absolutely no awareness of the camera that stalks him everywhere he goes. His concentration is formidable, even intimidating.

So is his attitude towards painting. “I want there always to be elements of risk, moments of doubt,” he says. “I’ve constantly had to create that danger, the doubting and self-questioning.” Where he runs the most risk is in the kind of material he uses, and how he hopes to transform its meaning. In his most recent body of work, monumental paintings of bombed out churches and buildings, Seguin has been using human ash as a pigment. (He is a bit tricky with his mixing of media; other paintings include crow’s feet, butterflies and tar.) But with the human ash he is pushing as hard as he can with a medium that comes with a troubling array of associations. “Fuck it, this is all I have to give right now,” he says near the end of the film. “I’m on the edge of a ravine, time will show me the bridge to take me further.”

He is helped in his journey by the observation a woman makes during a studio visit. He has told her that he is recycling the human body into art as a way of making it eternal, and she responds by saying, “You put the soul on canvas.” In that economical comment she opens up the emotional and ethical Pandora’s box with which Seguin’s work and this film are dealing. Then Boulianne finds the shot that is the visual representation of this idea. In the film’s final sequence, Seguin is again on a ladder, this time making a painting. When we first see his hand and brush they are shadows, ghosts of a sort. Then as the camera shifts to the left, we see the actual hand and brush. The shadow is made flesh and the last shot in the film shows Seguin reaching to the very top of the canvas, bringing another ashen mark to life.

In Katherine Knight’s film about Wanda Koop, leaving things out is entirely understandable. Koop’s career is now in its fourth decade (she had her first studio as a professional artist when she was 18), and her life has been prodigiously productive. So there is much the film doesn’t look at: Art City, the storefront centre Koop founded in 1998 to find a creative outlet for inner city kids, her legendary generosity to social causes, her close connection to her artistic family. Instead, Knight chooses an extremely focused event, a weeklong trip on a freighter called the Birchglen along the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City to Port Cartier, during which she documents Koop’s reaction to what she is seeing and experiencing. Because Koop never lets anyone film her painting, the trip becomes a substitute visit to a perceptual studio where we see how the artist sees. The film is remarkably successful in this regard; throughout its 52 minutes we see the landscape through the camera’s eye and then what Koop’s eye, and hand, have made of that seeing. In many cases, the two are identical. Koop’s subtlety and ability to re-create the feel of the world she looks at is extraordinary. There are occasions when you are legitimately confused about what you’re seeing; is it the landscape or a painting, is it atmosphere or pigment? The shooting and editing are seamless. I know of no other film about a Canadian artist that does a better, or more exacting, job of showing how perception and close looking get transformed into art. No less important is the way the film indicates the reverse process: how a lifetime of thinking visually is generative and produces art through its own devices. “I’m painting something I see in my head, not something that exists in the world,” Koop says in the direction of Knight’s unobtrusive camera. “I paint it and then I look at it.”

The individual who emerges in this film is direct and honest. Koop talks about the occasions when she can’t paint at all and she addresses her fears and vulnerabilities. But the counterbalance is her indefatigable need to make art. “My theory is,” she says matter-of-factly, “if you can think creatively, you can pretty much survive anything.” As evidence of that philosophy, Koop recounts her stay at Deep Bay, Manitoba, in a wilderness cabin where her intention was to relax and work quietly. She gets more than she bargained for and the combination of a deep, fearful silence and a tornado ends up being catalytic. “I really did a lot of work there,” she says.

Koop’s anecdotes function like miniature narratives, and in visualizing them Knight does some of her best work. Koop remembers getting unmarked sheets in grade school and “shivering at the potential of the white paper”; Knight’s accompanying shots are of the artist in a large, empty art gallery, where the white walls are the grown-up representation of those childhood sheets of paper. It is a simple way of making space metaphoric. The film’s visual interest is also enhanced by a series of black-and-white photographs of the artist taken by William Eakin during their travels together over an extensive period of time. Eakin is one of Canada’s finest photographic artists and his images, works of art on their own, are compelling records of what someone looks like when they are inside a world of pure creativity. They look possessed. Koop describes herself as “raw and reckless” at the time, and encountering these still photographs inside the moving film makes you relieved not to have turned up and interrupted Koop’s intense and artful engagement. On the boat she jokes about being a gunslinger, with her video camera in one hand and her still camera in the other. It’s an amusing observation, but those technologies, while important, are merely ways for her to take notes. It’s in the act of making art that she becomes a phenomenological gunslinger.

These documentaries are different because artists are never the same as one another. But what they have in common is the way they reveal the complex combination of instinct and thought and luck and ruthlessness necessary to make art. When they come together, and there are moments in both films when you see on the artists’ faces the pure pleasure brought by that recognition, your initial reaction is something akin to embarrassment. But that feeling quickly passes and what replaces it is gratitude, both because of what they have made and because we have been given the uncommon privilege of witnessing its making.