McLuhan Studies : Issue 5

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A couple of basic axioms of contemporary art (on its environment, on its creators) will introduce to our interview/conversation with David Rifat, the artist featured in this summer 1999 edition of McLuhan-Studies.


Marshall McLuhan, who always had a large supply of curious anecdotes, jokes and puns ready, both for the classroom and for conversation, liked to tell the story of Art and the People of Bali.


When the explorer from the "civilized world" asked the Balinese to show him their art, they were puzzled. The explorer tried to explain what art is to the very capable but rather uncomfortable interpreter who insisted, however, that in Bali they had no word for "art." Finally, the explorer clarified, "Art is what you do best." To which the Balinese answered, "Then everything we do is art, since we always do our best". And this is Marshall’s comment:


"The primitive lived in a world in which all knowledge and skill were simultaneously accessible to all members of the group; contemporary man has created an information environment that embraces all technologies and all cultures in an inclusive experience.

The Balinese, who have no word for art, say, ‘We do everything as possible.’ This … observation draws attention to the fact that primitive art serves quite a different end from Western art. Like the Balinese, however, Electronic Man approaches the condition in which it is possible to deal with the entire environment as a work of art" (Through the Vanishing Point 6-7)




Authorship. A difficult issue, a painfully thorny one, especially for people who believe that art is primarily a vehicle for self-expression. Really: why should one care about the expression of a private self? About the expression of a self, when everybody has a private self to take care of? True: solipsistic exercises may be highly creative… so long as one does his/her best, like the Balinese… but the products of this creativity become interesting only as individual examples of a collective condition (blissful or neurotic, it doesn’t matter). And therefore what makes this art (all is art, remember?) interesting and worthy of our attention is the charge of collective consciousness it contains. How to measure the level, the type, the expressions of this charge? I really don’t have an answer for that, but I believe I know — that at least — where to look for being in the electric age one must look for electric charges.


I recall a little conversation in one quasi-prophetic story by Donald Barthelme, an American master of postmodern prose. With ingenious irony he defined electricity "divine grace." Here is the setting of his At the end of the Mechanical Age (a short story first appeared in the collection Amateurs, in 1976, and then in Sixty Stories, NY, Dutton, 1982), followed by an interesting dialogue:


"God was standing in the basement reading the meters to see how much grace had been used up in the month of June. Grace is electricity, science has found, it is not like electricity, it is electricity and God was down in the basement reading the meters in His blue jump suit with the flashlight stuck in the back pocket" (p. 272).

"The Mechanical age is drawing to a close," I said to her.

"Or has already done so," she replied.

"It was a good age," I said. "I was comfortable in it, relatively. Probably I will not enjoy the age to come quite so much. I don’t like its look."

"One must be fair. We don’t know yet what kind of age the next one will be. Although I feel in my bones that it will be an age inimical to personal well being and comfort" (273).


This passage, a vintage (1976!) Donald Barthelme passage, tells us a lot of the artist’s perception of radical changes taking place in our culture, as well as of the artist’s concern about his/her threatened authorship in the electric age.


And here is, again, McLuhan, to clarify the point. In order to anchor the discourse on the subject of visual arts, however, please substitute "book" with "painting," and "printing" with "Renaissance perspective" in the following passage, from The Medium is the Massage:



"Authorship – in the sense we know it today, individual intellectual effort related to the book as an economic commodity — was practically unknown before the advent of print technology. Medieval scholars were indifferent to the precise identity of the ‘books’ they studied. In turn, they rarely signed even what was clearly their own. They were a humble service organization. […] The invention of printing did away with anonimity, fostering ideas of literary fame and the habit of considering intellectual effort as private property. Mechanical multiples of the same text created a public — a reading public. The rising consumer–oriented culture became concerned with labels of authenticity and protection against theft and piracy. The idea of copywright — ‘the exclusive right to reproduce, publish, and sell the matter and form of a literary or artistic work’ — was born" (122).


The two axioms are so obvious, and encompassing such a wide spatial and temporal dimension, that no single artist or specific work of art could be easily chosen as the most explanatory or even representative of the "new" electric environment.


We could pick, however, any of Marcel Duchamp "machines," or perhaps his simple "Bicycle wheel" of 1913 to see an expression of "electric art" already well established at the beginning of the century.


For the end of the century, we could choose a young artist representing Canada at the next biennial shindig in Venice, Max Dean, with his "robotic device" that "picks a snapshot from a box and drops it into a shredder. Unless, that is, the viewer pushes the proper handshaped button. When that happens, the photo is rescued… What to do? To save or not to save?" (Hume, J10).



Perhaps at this point it is really the case to ask ourselves whether or not we are getting a little too comfortable with the once revolutionary creations of the then new electric culture. This is not a question for art critics but for observers of cultural changes. Perhaps, again, rather than speak "simply" of postmodernity (a useful term, no doubt, to indicate what is going on now, but awfully confusing when it is employed in analytical criticism), we could begin to speak of electric art, and make a series of clearcut distinctions according to the "charge" of the new artifacts (remember Barthelme). A distinction should be made, first of all, between the prophetic appearance of electric art at the beginning of the century (Renato Barilli makes it start, ideally, with William Blake and going full swing by the end of the 19th century after the powerful impulse of Cézanne), and the unbearable rehashing of early intuitions taking place now, at the end of the century.


In other words, it is legitimate to expect radical changes at this point in time in the yes-also-chronological history of electric culture. Real, new, electric art might look very different from what we have being calling avant-garde for over a century.



The new artist knows what to do, what to look for, what to see, how to draw and how to paint. The new artist is, first of all, an artisan, someone who knows how to work an artist before being a thinker. The new artist deals with the new non-mecanichal reality, which has often the identity of "a fake," a fictional or a virtual reality, the something of the "let’s pretend there is something" proposition.


David Rifat deals specifically with this reality, with its shape and its shadows. In an environment in which a constant retrieval of ‘past impressions’ it is not just a possibility, but a vital necessity, it helps to know how the original retrieved images were originally created. David Rifat teaches historical techniques (among other things) and can switch effortlessly from one medium to another with total technical control. This "manual" ability made me think of one of the greatest Italian living artists, Gino De Dominicis, who can switch easily from the most rarefied and mental drawing to heavier materials and forms.


Of course retrievals can be of many different kinds; some may be more conscious than others may; some can be overtly parodic, some quite puzzling even for the artist himself. But what is common in all of them is the all-encompassing creativity of the artist, always retraceable in the same, original fulcrum of human energy: in that ESP dance of the imagination that even preceeds the uttering of words as the artist attempts to make sense of reality.


David Rifat makes a conscious effort to identify, circumscribe and define reality. But often, of course he has to invent it first.






  1. Le Monde, Paris, 1984 (aquarel/paper, 8 x 11)


Francesco Guardiani:

This seems to be a good starting point, David. The person is immersed in the reading of an imaginary newspaper. There are several layers of what we could call reality here: the assumed facts reported by the absent newspaper; the presence of the reader and that of the assumed viewers, public or audience "reading" his expression.



David Rifat:

In fact, doing this piece I had a sort of Pirandellian effect in mind: showing the ambiguity of reality by presenting things that are not present. The fulcrum of this piece is, of course, the missing newspaper. By focusing on something that isn’t there we are forced to give reality a new dimension, an assumed, imaginary, soft or, as you like, a non-mechanical dimension.



How do you see that related to contemporary art/society/culture?



The very fact that today one is so often sucked into an environment and spewed out is significant, I think. Think of the audience in a movie theatre; they are sucked in the movie… and then they are out. Like Jonah, swallowed by the whale, absorbed and then spewed out. In and out without knowing which "setting" is the real one, or more real than the other.



2. Assunta in studio. 1984 (aquarel and paper, 11 x 8)



The sheer dimension of the faces here indicates a certain ambiguity of representation.



I used an impression from an actual event here. A woman, an artist, was hanging a self-portrait on the wall. The portrait is bigger than herself; the original face is almost invisible. The "fake," in other words, is the real thing here. But, of course, both shapes here are represented by the painter:, and in a sense both of them are equally unreal.


3. Butts. 1984 (aquarel on paper, 11 x 8)



In Butts we have a bum picking up cigarette butts in Paris. A curve, a design, an appearance

Becomes an epiphany, a revelation of form and forms. A watercolor such as this, that seems to be pure form, unburdened by theoretical statements, gives us the possibility to say a few words on the specific issue of you heavy, energetic brushwork.



Well, it is my signature. Just as handwriting is for writing, brushwork is for painter. It has an immediacy, which is something I favour because I record impressions that don’t last: A lot of my "models" are occasional and they don’t know that they are modeling for me. Another aspect of my brushwork is that not only it reveals the models / subjects in their environment but it also comes in layers which reveal the truth as I see it through a certain depth.



Could you explain in simpler terms?



I simply mean "penetrating perception," a perception of the object that doesn’t stop at the surface, but penetrates… This is what I always look for. And in fact is very visible in "Voglio una donna" [See below]


This kind of stroke has also the advantage of creating an aerated effect: it is created by the gaps, as if we were seeing through a screen or a set of screens taking all the way to the most intimate part of the subject. Of course when we are dealing with human portraits, I am looking for the soul…


4. He ended up drawing a female on the wall: "Voglio una donna." Tribute to Fellini’s Amarcord. (Aquarel on paper, 8 x 11).


[FG:] The picture above is a preparatory drawing of the picture below. When they were first published, Claudette Mainzer described them: "An earlier figural sketch… portrays a man reaching across a bed, behind which a reclining nude appears to float. Above this composition is inscribed his desire for a woman: «He ended up drawing a female on the wall: Voglio una donna. Tribute to Fellini’s Amarcord.» This sketch, which was inspired by imagery from a scene in Fellini’s film, undoubtedly played a significant role in the evolution of the painting’s composition by contributing the elements of the bed and the recumbent nude.


In the final canvas, Rifat’s artist paints the nude figure on the wall, while the nude model becomes part of the artist’s own shadow, which is cast across the bed. The geometry of the painting has been interrupted, thereby giving an architectonic structure to the composition" (p. 25)




5. Voglio una donna. 1990. (Oil on canvas, 6’ x 6’)




6. Brecht. 1984 (aquarel on paper, 8 x 11)



I don’t think I understand much here, other than a Kafkian environment.



Brecht, actually. This is a visualization of characters in a Brechtian play. You know, when you come home from a theatre and have "vivid images" in mind? Well, when it happens to me I draw or paint.


7. Boy and girl. Leos Carax, 1983 (aquarel on paper, 11 x 8)


The male character is spitting something. The female character is showing or teaching him something…



That’s right, and they are not looking at each other. There is no communication between the two and no coherence in their actions either. I was prompted to do this by a fact that happened to me in France. I was very sick with the flu, vomiting even. And the lady that was with me — we were just coming out of a movie theatre—insisted in teaching me something, in telling me what I should have looked for etc. I saw no less than an existential problem right there.



8. Poster Les HallesHow Typical, 1983 (aquarel on paper, 8 x 5 ½)



What about this, what is "the event" behind this picture, David, and the one that follows, which appears to be a studio rework of the same subject?



Not what you’re thinking. This is a girl from Les Halles, in Paris, a place where only painters go unaccompanied by their parents. The event: I was strolling near the Bobourg, and she was sitting in a square. I started to sketch a portrait of her when she suddenly decided to reveal her red satin underwear. Only in France. So the image turned to be something very different from what it was intended initially. A best example, I think, of art that is created as it is created.


9. Les Halles. 1990 (oil on canvas, 6’ x 6’)







10. Passion Cycle II, L’Ombre éthérée, 1990 (oil on canvas, 6’ x 6’)




This seems to be a rather complex work (like the others, not shown here, of the same Passion Cycle series). In the figures, created by shadows, I see again a probe into the reality of the appearance…



Beyond that there are two references, or retrievals if you want, one "erudite" so to speak, and one personal. The "erudite": Carpaccio’s dog from his Portrait of the Two Courtesans (1490-93) that I copied several times. The personal: I am originally from Scotland, and in this painting I am recalling the famous statue of a dog at Grey Friar’s Church. The statue, in turn, recalls the story of a dog that after the master’s death remained at the gravesite until he died. The spitting of the dog is in fact "a fluid of communication" between the shadow of the dog and that of his dead master. I have always been fascinated by shadows, by shadows cast by figures, by the early Italian anamorphosis created by shadows on the wall.



11. Bubbles. 1986 (graphite on paper, 11 x 8)


This is an unusual theme for you. There is also a problem, it seems, with the perspective


I am reworking the romanticism of Bonard’s Woman in the Bath into a contemporary bathroom scene. I also flipped the perspective. The vanishing point being the eye of the artist/vewer. I still have to develop a painting out of this.

7 top:



11. Surgum in lucem, 1986 (graphite on paper 11 x 8)



The aeration. The smoke. The vanishing reality. The joy of drawing.




12. Reflections, 1986 (graphite on paper)



No faces, no eyes here. The subject/s is/are open to interpretation.



Think of Velasquez painting the royal family. I just need to add a couple of mirrors to complete the scene.




13. The Cup Bearer, 1990 (Oil on canvas, 6’ x 6’)



This one, instead, is a very complete work indeed: rich with shadows, depth, mouvement, balance and strenght. The cup bearer, the "protagonist" of the painting, is a shadow, crossed with another shadow, on the striking yellow surface of the table.



The cup bearer is Ganimede; the tavern here is the celestial dwelling of the gods, mount Olympus… in real terms, as I see it.






14. Three Jazzmen in Paris, 1984 (aquarel on paper, 8 x 11)



It seems most appropriate to close with The Three Jazzmen in Paris, a combination that shows a certain perfection, a triad, a trinity of sort, perhaps an instinctive (totally unconscious and nontheless powerful) parody of the three graces.

Works Cited

Barilli, Renato. L’arte contemporanea. Da Cézanne alle ultime tendenze. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1984. [See also his essay, "Re-thinking modernity" in the paper issue of McLuhan-Studies (1991)].


Barthelme, Donald. "At the end of the Mechanical Age." In Sixty Stories. NY: Dutton, 1982.


Hume, Christopher. "Will photo live or die? It’s up to the viewer." The Toronto Star, Sat. May 22, 1999. J-10.


Mainzer, Claudette. Condition Humaine. Recent Paintings and Drawings by David Rifat. Catalogue of an Exhibition. Toronto: Thebes Gallery, April 24 – May 18, 1991.


McLuhan, Marshall and Harley Parker. Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting. New York: Harper, 1968


McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. New York: Bantam, 1967.

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