Found Art From a Short Walk by Dr. Peter Trnka

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Found Art From a Short Walk, Part One: Town Walk

St. John's NL

by Dr. Peter Trnka

     I.     Introduction

My aim in constructing the following images and text was to document an experimental method for finding art that would create spaces for thinking about the meaning and location of art in everyday life. The working hypothesis I adopted was the converse of the common assumption that art is found primarily in special places such as art galleries: my hypothesis was (and is) that art is found extensively (all over the place) and intensively (in significant and highly charged ways).

The experimental method I chose was a methodus (the Latin root of ‘method’) in the original full sense, that is, a way of teaching where that way is a path or a road. The method was a simple one, with three plain conditions: (a) to take a short walk, leaving from and returning to my apartment in midtown St. John’s, Newfoundland; (b) to remain outside; and (c) to take quick snaps of any object or scene that I felt was ‘art’ and that somehow (in an undefined way) stood out (for me, then and there).

The set of 19 selected objects (some of which may be better described as scenes or scapes) turns out to be quite typical in terms of the types of objects chosen. This is so, in part, because of the location chosen for the walk: the mid and downtown of a small urban city, with various public and private institutions along the way. It may be said that I chose an environment highly suitable to corroborating my hypothesis. My idea was that this should be the first of a small set of walks, at least two, with the second taking place in as wild a natural place as possible, to test the opposite type of environment (a procedure which - I am sure in advance - would generate a very different set of objects and scenes, but with more formal overlap with the urban series than one might expect).

The images were photographed using my cellphone camera, a device readily accessible to many inhabiting this environment.  The images were taken quickly, to keep with the directives of the game, i.e., obeying the rule of a short, brisk walk. After the walk was completed, the images were then selected (19 from a couple of dozen or so, hence few deletions); the selections were cropped, and light and color fixed.

The entire walk took 40 minutes from start to finish, starting at 4:57pm on Sunday, September 17, 2017 and ending at 5:37 the same afternoon. The walk took 3,551 steps or approximately 1.5 kilometers. The images are shown serially in temporal order and are accompanied by textual commentary. The commentary is a free riff on the everyday experience of art in the lived context of an environment.

     II.     Leaving My Study, 4:57pm, 2 slides

As I contemplate the walk I survey the art around me from the place where I usually sit and think, namely, at my desk in my study. You should know a little bit about this walker and art object selector, to better understand the selections: he writes, he has written about art before, he has a study and the study is littered with works of art. There’s a small sculpture from a friend’s show, there’s various postcards of Bacon and Man Ray and Grosz, as well as a Tintin book waiting to be cut up and turned into a poster, as well as many pieces of children’s art, including:


'Orange Bird' by Peter Trnka :: Courtesy of the Artist

A colored drawing on paper by me from 1972, that I found in a box recently, addressed to my grandmother but somehow in my possession; as well as many works by each of my children, of which I feature one here by my son Nicolas:


'Red Dragon' by Nicolas Trnka :: Courtesy of the Artist

Art is good and bad, high and low, mature and immature, found and designed, commercial and private, artificial and natural. I do not seek to define art in what follows, as much as to raise its question, although a working or operational definition is implied throughout, one that, I hope, is open and errs on the side of including too much rather than too little. Let’s go outside.

     III.     A Residential Street, 4:58-5:00pm, 3 slides

We begin to walk on a road full of houses in midtown St. John’s, an area called Georgestown, situated between the university and the Pippy Park hills above, and downtown and the harbor below.  You are now accompanying me on the walk, I hope. I choose to head to the water and almost immediately come across commands in the form of signs:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

A City of St. John’s road sign, black on white, one of many such signs, many near duplicates and many variations. Consider all the signs, the immediately obvious explicit signs, symbols, and directive images that populate or litter the landscapes, seascapes, and skyscapes. Signs that direct, signs that channel, signs that regulate, signs that command. Order-signs, to follow the concept of language as primarily made up of order-words (see Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, ‘November 20, 1923: Postulates of Linguistics’ from A Thousand Plateaus).

The houses on the street have faces or facades and each is decorated, some more, some less.  Some of the decorative objects add features to scenes. Some change the lighting of scenes, as is the case with:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

Here we find an object and light scene in one. There is no possibility – for me or you - of detaching the two, of making the mistake of abstracting one out from the other. This is an imagistic automatic confession. Such a confession accompanies any image or object; sometimes it is concealed, quiet, whispering, and at others open, loud, screaming (in the paradigm case). The open confession makes clear that any image of an art object is doubled and redoubled, to infinity, by the conditions which make the image possible (which include the light and its reflection on the perceiver’s eye).  Change the light – the light is already changing, the sun is partially clouding over, the tree branch is swaying - or change the perceiver – my attention shifts, your attention is added – and the object-scene or object-scape changes. The duplication escalates to infinity as each art object becomes another art object with the addition of each differential. There is an infinite series like Spinoza’s infinite series of self-conscious consciousness: an idea immediately produces an idea of itself, which immediately produces an idea of the idea of itself, which immediately produces…. and so on and so on and so on.

A few doors down we run into this above a door:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka :: Artist Unknown

A painted wood sculpture set above the front door of a residential house, one type of the many modes of door decorations found hereabouts: house numbers and names, doors and doorframes, mailboxes, knockers and bells – invitations to enter or announce.

     IV.     A Public Square in a School District with Local Businesses, 5:03-5:15, 4 slides

The residential street opens out onto a public square on a block with Moomoos Ice Cream Parlour and Bishop Field Elementary School (which all my children attended), earlier named Bishop Spencer College, commemorated in part by:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka :: Bronze Sculpture by Luben Boykov

A bronze cast sculpture of a girl standing and reading, a single calm figure, reading, outside (so it seems). What educational propaganda in wonderful form, providing a moment for contemplation. The sculptor’s style seems very familiar to me but I can’t find it listed on the plaque… A figure looms in the background of the girl reading, perhaps a giant cow:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka 

The image looks abstract absent the ‘Moomoos’ sign out front; image-sign stripped of its order-sign forms a new image and a new possible experience. Detaching signs from signs helps decode commands, helps strip the advertising message from the art at one and the same time as the art object is nowhere else but in the advertising image. Past the school lies the butcher:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

Established in 1914 at the corner of Gower Street and King’s Road, Hallidays stands opposite what was my first apartment in St. John’s (above a fish and chip shop) – I have obviously walked in the ways of memory. Next door to that apartment, a taxi stand:   


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

One of several graffiti scenes seen on the walk, of which many more were ignored than were recorded (probably the most dominant form of typical art on this walk, along with the architecture that graffiti almost invariably adorns).

     V.     Monuments, Skyscapes, and Seascapes, 5:16-5:20, 3 slides

We are in the heart of downtown, an environment of intensive and extensive signage and image dissimulation, public and private-commercial; public monuments intensify the command structure of the image – here shot in their vertical aspirations to the ‘heavens’:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

I sat in the park below this memorial with my first child when she was just born, twenty-two years ago, but I’d never seen this statue in this way until 5:16pm of Sunday, September 17, 2017.

Across from the War Memorial park lies Harborside park, which, as its name suggests, leads down to the edge of the water of St. John’s harbor, with views out to the open ocean:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

This is a port city. Various industrial-technological installations litter-or-decorate the city’s landscapes, seascapes, and skyscapes. For varied durations or times. Some, like the Shrike, sweep in and out, casting their orange atmospheres in short spurts. Color as art. Technology as art. Scapes as art scenes. Possibilities begin to proliferate wildly. Perhaps we are losing our way and need an anchor in something typical. The park comes readymade with two anchors, literally, presented sculpturally or in monument style, and a pair of Newfoundland dogs:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka :: Bronze Sculpture by Luben Boykov

Cast metal sculpture by L. Boykov, a sculptor whose works have clearly been privileged by the processes that determine public purchase of art works in the city – there’s another piece of his further down the harbor and did he also do the Bishop Spencer College Girl? How do such decisions to commission works of art get formed, navigated, and - if need be - altered or displaced or supplemented?

     VI.     Graffiti Alley and Downtown Nightlife, 5:25-5:28, 3 slides

We leave the parks and monuments and proceed downtown along Water Street, where we find the bottom-end of an alley, long and fresh covered with graffiti, side to side, up and down. One new addition by Frank Barry depicts The Black Sheep, that is, the Black Sheep bar on which it is sprayed:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka :: Mural by Frank Barry

The Black Sheep stands where the Spur stood, and before that Kibbitzers, with Bar None upstairs (from which I have a photograph of a urinal that in its dirt and decay outrivals Duchamp’s urinal no question). Round one corner is the Ship (Inn) and round another Erin’s Pub. We are at a musical – and drinking - node in the city.

Further up the alley a detail from the overflowing graffiti:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka :: Mural by Unknown

We have come across a variety of fish on our walk. Fish form a content theme, now, of the art objects with which we are engaging. We have also met various animals, real and imaginary, along the way. As we cross Duckworth Street, again, beginning to return home, I spot the first of what will be a new theme or series. This new series is a coincidental, or fortunate, one, in that it resonates with my desire to feature the art of everyday objects, or found art. In the window of a restaurant I spot:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka :: Art by Andy Warhol

What is the history of ordinary objects as art? I won’t pretend to answer that question here but I think it is a good one. One that raises issues concerning familiar binaries, such as the supposed divisions between art and craft, art and advertising, and between the naïve, or self-taught, and the formally-trained.

With respect to the question of the history of ordinary objects as art, consider only one typical point of view, namely, the conservative and narrow point of view of the history of the acceptance of something like everyday objects as art by recognized art galleries. Ordinary objects, with a slight difference – namely, their selection and, typically, the provision of a signature by an approved (selected) selector, a.k.a., ‘artist’ – have been shown in galleries for a hundred years or so. Official Western art history, in other, more concrete words, marks its last century in part with urinals (Duchamp) and soup cans (Warhol). By no means is this a complete history. It is really no wonder, then, that references to such a history, through art historical samples or representations or oblique gestures to such, are scattered along an urban walk.

(Much color saturation added to an extremely faded poster – a quiet confession about a detail of my method.)

     VII.     Facades, Flowers, and Seconds of Soup, 5:29-5:37, 4 slides

In coming close again to where we started, my mood seems to shift, attention wanders to big themes like religion and nation. Perhaps this is a function of our exact location. We have already run across facades in the faces of the residential houses where we began, but the face of a public religious house is more intense:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

The Temple is one of several religious buildings of a monumental proportion along our walk. Here the Temple image has a dramatic skyscape as its background, highlighting the building’s plunge upward, the becoming-heavenly of its verticals. The absolute command, if you will, states without stating, its gesture is above and below our radar, not open to registering or questioning, in its typical presentation. Religion and nation here share a signature style, as may be seen by comparing the above with:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka :: Painting by Unknown

The flags occupy a similar contradictory location as the temple: ‘I am here but not really’. Typically, that is, for a typical inhabitant perceiving them without critical pause.

I am almost home and seize a chance to shoot some of the flowers that have been with me much of way:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

I am back in Georgestown, at the rear of another religious house, St. Bonaventure’s College, surrounded by gardens and residential houses again, with an occasional business thrown into the mix, such as Living Planet, where I spy a second image of a can of very particular soup:


Courtesy of Peter Trnka

I had not been looking for soup cans or Warhols, but ordinary objects, advertising, and readymades had been on my mind from the start, so the question came to me, as I climbed back to my study, ‘What if I reproduced the walk searching only for images of Campbell’s Condensed Tomato Soup Cans?’

My question indicates, in closing, how selective, personal, and explicitly and implicitly directed, was this walk (and any other), and hence too the scenes and objects selected, and the images taken. At one and the same time, the walk, its choices, objects, scenes, and images, disclose a public, collective world.

P. Trnka

P.S. Part Two will hopefully appear soon in CUSS and will document a short walk in a ‘natural-type’ landscape.

© CUSS Journal