Thursday, August 6, 2015
“...young women assume dolls’ attributes in social media selfies and vie for celebrity status.”
Sarah Thornton, “Canada’s hippest academic” (1) stated in her talk at the ROM last fall that artists’ freedoms intensified with Duchamp’s urinal sculpture, Fountain (1917). In its wake, “contemporary art made belief a central concern”—belief that an object is art because the artist says so, and that the artist has the authority to say so. Thornton elaborated that maintaining that authority is not easy, and branding is key.
Laurie Simmons, about whom Thornton writes in the book, 33 Artists in 3 Acts (Norton & Company, 2014), has always addressed belief in one way or another. She has been photographing constructed realities, such as dollhouse interiors, throughout her career. Recently, her attention has turned to life-size Japanese sex dolls, cosplay, and Doll Girls. In the latter subculture, which is the focus of How We See, her current exhibition at the Jewish Museum, young women assume dolls’ attributes in social media selfies and vie for celebrity status.
The way I see it is that belief in the artist’s skill is paramount. The viewer must believe that what is presented in the gallery has greater cultural worth than image search results on the Internet for ‘Doll Girls.’ Otherwise, why pay admission? Pristinely printed 70 x 48” images that tower over the viewer and command attention in an ornate room certainly fit the bill.
Simmons’ head and shoulder portraits feature models with eyes drawn on their lids. Eyelashes are drawn above, and in one work, they are even affixed. With the lids closed, the upper lashes thicken and accentuate the lower lashes. As a security guard mentioned when I struck up a brief conversation, many people do not immediately notice this trickery. In fact, when I was there, one visitor was most concerned with comparing a model to Miley Cyrus. Only in person is it evident that the texture of the eyelids mimics canvas as much as it looks like skin. On occasion, there is evidence of the artist’s hand (2) on the lid, such as a slight angle interrupting the smooth curve of the iris, acting as a clue to this intervention. I like that she has also lined the models’ lips, which I have always found to be a bizarre strategy. Arguably, it calls the larger world of cosmetics into question, rather than just the Doll Girls subculture.
Simmons’ interest in beautification is longstanding. Thornton writes that as a child, she had memorized the names of lipstick and nail polish colours. Perhaps it’s because I have Thornton on my mind, but Simmons’ work strikes me as something of a sociological survey, in that judgment seems to be withheld in the depiction of the Doll Girls. This may be because Simmons doesn’t consider herself to be an ardent feminist (for more on this, see my post on this blog from October 2010 about her artist talk at the International Center of Photography). I’m aware that I’m projecting my own feminist values when I see elements of the women’s white clothing (3), such as the word ‘no’ on the collar, as signs of protest.
In the arc of art history, rationally, the portraits shouldn’t feel disturbing. A connection could be made to ancient white marble statues that appeared to have blank eyes, but which we now know were painted in polychrome. In Western painting, there is a long tradition of women not meeting the viewer’s objectifying gaze. Early daguerreotypes featured subjects with their eyes closed because of the dreadfully long exposure time needed. And then came the surrealists, who were fascinated by the act of sleeping and capturing it in images. All the same, Simmons six portraits read as disturbing. Maybe it’s that their vacant stares make they feel like robots. Maybe it’s that they have warm backgrounds in colours reminiscent of lava lamps, underscoring a sense of artificiality. Maybe it’s that Simmons, who I think of as giving life to the inanimate, has stolen some of the figures’ humanity and their dignity seems not to have suffered.
How We See made headlines when fellow Pictures Generation colleague Richard Prince nabbed one of Simmons’ images from her popular Instagram account, printed it and exhibited it as his own (as is his way). This brings us back to Duchamp’s urinal. Given that the original was lost, is Alfred Stieglitz’s documentation or the replica any less believable as Fountain than the original?
The exhibition end date has been extended to August 16.
(1) Webb, Ann. Introduction to presentation by Sarah Thornton, “33 Artists in 3 Acts.” Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, ON. 20 Oct. 2014.
(2) The makeup artists are Landy Dean and James Kaliardos. Simmons, Laurie. “Laurie Simmons,” Artforum. 11 Mar. 2015 http://artforum.com/words/id=50603
(3) The designer is Rachel Antonoff. Hering, Deirdre. “The Lifeless Eyes of Laurie Simmons’s Human Dolls,” Hyperallergic. 22 July 2015 http://hyperallergic.com/224074/the-lifeless-eyes-of-laurie-simmonss-human-dolls/
Friday, July 24, 2015
“Being queer...is like a tornado...” ~ Alize Zorlutuna
The week that the Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal nationwide, I visited Sage Sohier’s At Home With Themselves in Foley Gallery in the Lower East Side of New York, which features same-sex couples in 1980s America. I cannot imagine a more fitting week to have seen this exhibition of photographs. These domestic scenes that were once verboten and that once read as symbols of hope now strike me as symbols of victory—in particular, Sohier’s portrait of newlyweds Cindy and Barb cutting a wedding carrot cake in a kitchen. Most are more mundane, showing daily activities like cooking and bathing. Today, domestic scenes of gay life are increasingly part of public consciousness, evident in advertising and television. However, as the gallery’s press release notes, when the American artist began the series, she was unable to find a publisher to print a catalogue. The catalogue was published just last year, by Spotted Books. I’m pleased to say that an autographed copy is now part of the collection at the library where I work.
A week and a half before I was in New York, I attended a panel discussion at Hamilton Artists Inc. back in Canada called Queering the Gaze: Subverting the Heteronorm. Part of Pride Hamilton, it was moderated by Ian Jarvis and the speakers were Sophie Hackett, JJ Levine, and Alize Zorlutuna. Myriad connections between Sohier’s show and Queering the Gaze became apparent.
Hackett is the Associate Curator of Photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. She observed that before the Stonewall riots, photographs with queer subject matter are scarce. Afterwards, though, there was an explosion, a proliferation—as seen with artists like Sohier and Jake Peters, who was HIV positive when he traveled around the world taking photos of subjects like ACTUP protests. Hackett commented that queer images have been under-addressed in curating. “There is a lot to wrangle,” she says. For instance, not all queer visual culture is progressive. She showed a Weegee photo taken in 1939 called Transvestite/ The Gay Deceiver, next to which the artist had written (seemingly with judgment), ‘Boy’ on a print. A strong visual record of queer life is important, she explained, because exposure and acceptance are interconnected. She noted that photography has been used historically to “shake up categories of gender identification.” It continues to do so through contemporary artists like Levine and Zorlutuna, she said, whose work cleaves and exposes “the range of other possibilities” to the gender binary.
Sohier’s subjects are queer couples who were her friends, or friends of friends, or willing participants contacted through newspaper ads. She was motivated subconsciously to photograph them because her father was closeted, in spite of having had male partners. Montreal-based Levine, like Sohier, photographs queer friends in domestic settings and has been working on the series for the past 10 years. “Making images has been a huge part of my identity,” the trans queer artist stated. Both artists have on occasion photographed the same subjects a second time, which raises the issue of time passing. Sohier has identified a sense of tentativeness in some of her images because of the widely perceived need for discretion in the 80s, between risking losing one’s job and being discriminated against in the height of the AIDS epidemic. If Sohier’s subjects are arguably tense, Levine’s are relaxed, and not the least bit closeted. If truth is masked in his portraits of individuals and couples, it’s only in the domestic settings themselves; they are “completely transformed” by Levine, who has gone as far as rearranging an entire home while the couple—who gave carte blanche—stepped out. The effect is portraits rich with atmosphere.
Zorlutuna, a Toronto artist, has also worked with domesticity in a sense. Intrigued by the sexual connotations of Turkish carpets, she described them as evocative of “giant vagina[s] on the dining room floor.” Using touch as “a strategy,” she interacts with the carpet as if masturbating in the film, Stroke (which can be viewed here.). Equally memorable is her use of beaver pelts in the same fashion, in Luminous Bodies (2014). “I don’t deny that it’s funny,” she said, but these works are more about “making strange” the object. She clarified that she makes allusions to sex but her work isn’t “actually about sex.” Similarly, Levine stated that when nudity is included in his work, it’s usually at the request of the subject and is used to talk about queer identity, not sex.
Zorlutuna explained that her focus is on the queer “experiences of silence.” “We are constantly negotiating how to speak about ourselves,” she said. An example of speaking out is Zorlutuna’s ongoing durational performance, Crawl. Reminiscent of Sohier’s struggle to find a publisher, Zorlutuna crawls backwards up the stairs of cultural institutions internationally, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario. It’s a response to the barriers she feels. She pondered aloud when she would get her own blockbuster exhibition at the AGO, acknowledging that at least there is a woman represented there right now (Emily Carr, about whom I blogged in my most recent post). With her work, Zorlutuna explained that she is interested in what queerness feels like, not what it looks like. It feels like “being just slightly off-kilter.” She elaborated that in some ways queer people fit in the world and in others, they don’t, as if they are at an oblique angle. Her geometric tattoo on her upper arm is a constant reminder of this state. Being queer, she said, is like a tornado in terms of the unsteadiness and disorientation.
Clearly, the public consciousness hasn’t fully embraced queer sexuality and gender bending, though, as evidenced by the egging of Levine’s work outside of Hamilton Artists Inc. He characterized it as an inevitable act of public expression rather than an inexcusable act of vandalism. He stated that this behaviour likely stems from “gender discomfort.” He often witnesses speculation by cisgender audiences about the gender of his subjects, which is practically an “auto-impulse.” The assessment is often incorrect, putting the viewer at an oblique angle.
Sage Sohier’s At Home With Themselves closes on Sunday at Foley Gallery and JJ Levine’s Queering the Gaze runs until September 27 at Hamilton Artists Inc.
l. to r.: Zorlutuna, Levine and Hackett, courtesy of Hamilton Artists Inc.
Sage Sohier, Shadow, San Francisco, 2002, archival pigment print, courtesy of Foley Gallery.
Saturday, July 11, 2015
“…a timely discussion…”
It’s summer and I have accrued a blogging backlog. I like to think that Emily Carr (1871-1945), about whom I’m writing today, would appreciate why this post is delayed. I’ve been camping (read: communing with nature), walking the grounds of the Woodstock music festival (read: embracing bohemia), exploring the Pollock-Krasner studio, and dropping off art in Brooklyn.
On June 6, the Art Gallery of Ontario hosted a panel discussion, Emily Carr: A Gathering. Sarah Milroy, curator of the associated exhibition, From the Forest to the Sea: Emily Carr in British Columbia, was the moderator, and the speakers were filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal; writers Susan Crean and Susan Musgrave; and visual artists Silke Otto-Knapp, Jessica Stockholder, and Corrine Hunt.
Milroy began with what she called a “confessional exposé,” sharing how growing up in British Columbia informed her appreciation of the iconic artist. For instance, there were highly anticipated annual visits to a huge Arbutus tree on Savoy Island, which was consistently as big as she remembered. That a tree could captivate children is unsurprising, given Stockholder’s description of trees as metaphors, with their stillness, interconnectedness, and long life spans.
There’s something tantalizing about BC. Crean suggested that Ontarians have to learn the colour green in their first encounter with the province. Baichwal, meanwhile, recalled taking Edward Burtynsky—the subject of her documentary with Nick de Pencier, Watermark (2013)—to BC to see “a real watershed.” He was inspired to make his first purely landscape photograph during that visit. Like Milroy, Baichwal commented on the scale of nature in BC. Being raised in Victoria made her feel “totally insignificant and irrelevant,” a sensation that she relished. Tourist areas were flooded with trite landscape watercolours, which Carr might have dismissed as ‘curios’ (1). Even as a moody teen, Baichwal knew that Carr’s work was different. She “nailed it” in an “entirely unique” manner, translating the landscape without being decorative—without being clichéd, as Stockholder articulated it. Otto-Knapp assessed Carr’s work with fresh eyes, having grown up landlocked in Germany and being somewhat new to spending time in Canada from her base in Los Angeles. She described Carr’s work as more revealing of the artist’s hand than the nature she depicted. Perhaps this explains the visceral reaction to her work, which was expressed by Musgrave. She wasn’t simply documenting the landscape; she was emoting through powerfully gestural works. Her oeuvre reflects Baichwal’s take on documentaries: it’s possible to convey not objective truth but truth in the sense of “a real engagement with context.”
A personal connection with Carr was a common thread in the discussion. Milroy, for example, said, “Every time you tangle with Carr…you end up a slightly changed person.” Some of the speakers have historical connections with Carr and others feel an affinity with her to the extent that she has inspired new work. Carr reportedly painted at Musgrave’s first home near Sidney, which contains a 190-foot Douglas-fir tree cutting through the house. She admitted that she feels haunted by Carr in Haida Gwaii, where she lives now. In 1972, she wrote a poem about Carr, A House of One’s Own, which begins with, “I guess it’s in my blood/ to want to be like Emily Carr.” Hunt, who is of First Nations Komoyue and Tlingit heritage, has always had Carr in the background because her grandfather met and corresponded with the artist. Crean, like Carr, spent extended periods of time visiting First Nations people to inform The Laughing One (HarperFlamingoCanada, 2001), which was an attempt “to understand what she [Carr] actually knew.” Using Carr’s exchange of letters with a Salish basket maker and close friend named Sophie Frank, Crean and Shirley Bear did a performance at the Vancouver Art Gallery entitled Dear Sophie, Dear Emily (1996), a contemporary dialogue about art, appropriation and friendship in which they assumed their identities. Life came to imitate art: Crean began receiving letters addressed to Emily Carr, and she decided it was time for a break. Stockholder can be linked to Carr through a shared appreciation for First Nations art; in her installations, she has ruminated on the use of the oval in totem iconography. She was raised in Vancouver, where Carr’s work “was always around me…It was really everywhere.” Otto-Knapp made a watercolour portrait of Carr in Otto-Knapp’s current exhibition at the AGO, Land Lies in Water. As a watercolour painter, she said she relates to Carr’s assertive and economical choices about colour.
It was a timely discussion, with A Gathering occurring less than a week after the release of the report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which exposed the horrors of the Canadian residential school system following six years of interviews with First Nations people. Milroy reflected on the “fraught endeavour” of including native aritsts’ work with a single artist from settler society who depicted native culture with fervour. Milroy didn’t want Carr’s work to overshadow the First Nations art, but she wanted to create a “colonial sensibility” and to encourage people to contemplate ancestry. Clearly it is important to avoid the trappings of shows like the 1927 exhibition that brought Carr overdue recognition, Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern, at the National Gallery of Canada. It combined confiscated First Nations works with modernist works, at a time when the government was trying to strategically obliterate their communities while also celebrating them. Hunt addressed this tension reminiscent of the Orientalist impulse in art. She said that when she was young there were always outsiders visiting Alert Bay, where she was raised, ranging from anthropologists to artists like Carr. As the residential school system mentality took hold, “Indian agents” appeared on the lookout for cultural expression and they were forced to be discreet. Potlatches were made illegal. She noted that a scene like in the painting shown here would have gone away for a period of time, but it is coming back. A case in point is the film Hunt made for an exhibition about living culture featuring school children in Alert Bay.
Culture can be suppressed, but it can also be taken away literally, like having totem poles relocated. This is the problem, Musgrave says, of something being recognized as art. Hunt said, “You can take away a piece of wood but you can’t take away what it represents.” Carr was determined to document a culture she thought was disappearing, but as Crean stressed, that hardly makes her an unproblematic heroine; for more on this discussion, click here. In the context of discussing repatriation, Hunt emphasized that it’s important to have soft hearts and recognize that people don’t set out to hurt one another. Milroy’s anecdote was complementary; she recalled a group of young Canadian First Nations people encountering a totem pole in Cambridge from their immediate culture that they had never seen before, and instead of being furious, they described it as a “miraculous encounter.”
The situation for First Nations people in Carr’s lifetime seems all too familiar today. One area where change is more obvious is the status of women. In Carr’s day, women were seen as having a delicate constitution unsuited to landscape painting. Milroy explained that Carr was both praised and abused for being “willing to go outside by herself.” This was a time when unhappiness in female patients was written off as hysteria, as was the case with Carr on a trip to Europe. Otto-Knapp described her travelling without support or connections as incredible and uncommon at that time. Milroy lamented that people have been stumped by Carr’s independence and how to categorize her in terms of relationship status. “She’s loved for her defiance of gender norms,” she said. Milroy confessed that she fought the impulse to ask how Carr’s work could become more relatable or more easily understood through “air traffic control of her vagina.” Touché!
(1) Nesbit, James K. “Old Homes and Families.” Victoria Daily Colonist, 29 Nov. 1953, qtd. in Stewart, Jay and Macnair, Peter, “Reconstructing Emily Carr in Alaska.” 2006. Hill, Charles C., Johanne Lamoureux, and Ian M. Thom. Emily Carr: New Perspectives on a Canadian Icon. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 2006. 12-41. Print.
Saturday, June 27, 2015
“…a power couple in which they both wore the pants, so to speak.”
Visiting the Detroit Institute of Arts last week-end for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit was enjoyable, save for witnessing a backwater reaction to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940). In this painting, Kahlo, then recently divorced from Rivera (whom she later remarried), wears a men’s suit and sports cropped hair, with strands of her long locks hacked off by the scissors she wields. With derision, a woman said, “Transgender” and her male companion scoffed loudly. I made eye contact with the man, who was closer to me, and exaggerated a look of disdain. Kahlo never felt entirely comfortable when she was based in Detroit during the period that Rivera toiled away on a modernist mural in the DIA for 11 months; posthumously, it would seem that she is denied full acceptance as well.
The accompanying catalogue is an asset, but it’s still worthwhile to see the show. Otherwise, the viewer would be bereft of many details. For example, the texture would be missed in Kahlo’s scarf in her wedding portrait, Frida and Diego Rivera (1931), as would the clotting effect of red paint that mimics blood in A Few Small Nips (1935), a work about domestic homicide.
Preparatory drawings are another highlight. Seeing one for Henry Ford Hospital (1932) beside the final work memorializing Kahlo’s abortion/miscarriage (1), one senses how isolated she felt in the city; the sketch has no background but the painting has the River Rouge Plant—Rivera’s focus for the mural—in the background. Given the difference in scale of Kahlo and Rivera's work (the smallest work by Kahlo is a self-portrait that resembles a cameo, measuring 1 9/16 by 1 3/16 inches), the show really gains momentum when Rivera’s mural cartoons are encountered. Their overwhelming scale can’t be captured in reproductions; you simply have to be in the room with them to feel the pulse of the life-size factory workers and scientists. Amazingly, they were forgotten in storage for decades. The show also contains film clips, such as Diego working on the mural; at the end of that particular clip, a black and white shot of a completed portion morphs into its colour version, reminiscent of the 'freeze frame' technique used by Julie Taymor in the film, Frida (2002), to effectively bring Kahlo’s paintings to life.
My only criticism is that the lighting was dim in some places. As a result, it was difficult to see Kahlo’s collaborative ‘exquisite corpse’ drawings. Kahlo may have insisted she wasn’t a surrealist, but she engaged in their practice of having one person draw part of a picture and fold it almost at the edge so the next person who draws continues without knowing most of the visual information. (Personal aside: It’s also a favourite game of mine to play with my nieces and nephews).
(1) Grimberg argues that Kahlo's loss of the baby, previously considered a miscarriage, was induced by Kahlo. Grimberg, Salomon, "The Lost Desire: Frida Kahlo in Detroit", 148. In Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo in Detroit. Detroit: Detroit Institute of Arts, 2015, 144-163.
Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Dream Big conference (May 27-30)
Since the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, I have been finding it difficult to feel optimistic about social justice, in both a general sense and in terms of racism in particular. It is perhaps fortuitous that I am behind schedule in writing about the keynote speakers for the Dream Big conference (May 27-30) in North Bay, because much of the discussion focused on advocacy for marginalized groups.
Yesterday in Detroit, I spotted the following mural with a helpful message by Father Greg Boyle: “At some point, we forgot that we all belong to each other.”
The location of the conference in a city of 53,651 that I’m proud to call home, gave a geographic focus to the theme of dreaming big. Walty addressed this most directly, stressing that artists should not see cities as the only sites for creativity; he sees cities as lodestones and is nourished by the hinterlands, he said. Maracle emphasized that the arts are a source of economic vitality for cultural centres, with an excellent return on investments. Value can’t be assessed in economic terms alone, though, evident in her example of the healing value of art for social change, with singing in canoes reducing alcoholism. She explained that in “difficult circumstances…you come to love it [art] more than the world the way it is.” She added that the job market is in flux, making creativity vital. Monkman spoke similarly about the need for adaptability. He said that First Nations culture was “never static” and dreaming big was how it survived. smith spoke of the importance of redressing “historically entrenched inequities,” broadening the “narrow Eurocentric view,” and seeking reparations for injustice.
The need to dream big is easy to see, but it’s less easy to implement.
smith shared that jazz and science fiction opened doorways into a “very hostile white world,” but helped him understand himself. In black aesthetics, he explained, a “radically different view of ourselves” is postulated. The disparity between the view from within and without is underscored in an example he gave of a recent study by Wolf Brown, which revealed that the funding black people receive is out of proportion with their active involvement in the arts.
Walty realized that he wasn’t suited to his vocation of archaeology, so he turned to drawing, finding a way to retain elements of his background such as the grid. He was told by gallerists that drawings lack presence, so he made his black and white figurative drawings large enough to fill galleries floor to ceiling so their presence could not be denied. He didn’t depend solely on galleries; he had shows in people’s apartments and houses and hired buses to transport guests there.
Monkman wanted to make “the language of painting something that belongs to a Cree person.” Ultimately, he phased out the Cree text from his work and expanded his goal to empower two-spirited people. He created large paintings of romantic landscapes, subverting tradition by including Miss Chief throughout. They function as an alternative to Eurocentric art with its “very one-sided point of view of the history of North America.” His work became censored at the Royal Ontario in the First People’s Gallery of all places, where it was intended to be in dialogue with Paul Kane’s work. It was “too hot a topic, too hot a button,” he said.
Maracle wrote her autobiography and was told by a publisher, “Indians can’t read.” She took to the streets to ask Aboriginal people if they would read the book if she taught them to read. After gathering signatures from 3,500 people—which would constitute a best-seller—she approached Frontier College to provide literacy tutoring and got a book deal for Bobbie Lee, Indian Rebel from Women’s Press in Toronto.
So, how should we dream? Maracle said that when people ask her, she says, “Just dream!” She notes that dreaming big costs money but many artists are impoverished. It doesn’t take a lot to encourage creativity and care for burgeoning artists. She recalled visiting a bindery in Vancouver regularly with her children to gather discarded paper for projects; a Portuguese baker on the same block would offer them doughnuts. There’s a misconception, she says, that starving artists spurs their creativity, so we need to urge “Canada to dream big with us and put some money where our mouths are.”
smith called for a more united front, with more gatherings like Dream Big. That requires access to resources, he pointed out, which is something to be conscious of as the Canada Council restructures its funding model. We need to support artist-run centres, like White Water Gallery, which organized Dream Big. Monkman stated that artist-run centres were where his work gained traction, and this support was “very important” to him. Walty spoke of the creative spark he has experienced in group residencies organized by Galerie du Nouvel Ontario, an artist-run centre in Sudbury, including Art en movement, which I blogged about in 2012. He considers ARCs to be “the research and development arm of art.” If these types of institutions lose funding, he commented, “we are [effectively] saying the past isn’t worth anything.” Defunding them would be unwise and destroy the community, he said.
As I was wrapping up this post, CBC Radio was on, with Carol Off quoting Senator John Matthew's tweet, “Removing #ConfederateFlag w/out changing hearts and minds will not get rid of racism” (1). It made me think back to something Maracle said: “We make very quiet revolutions, artists, revolutions of the heart.” She elaborated that she has seen revolutions turn violent, and what we need is to change hearts. The Dream Big conference reminded me that art has the power to do just that.
(1) June 19, 2015. @caroloffcbc
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
“…a labour of love…”
At the end of Winnie Truong’s artist talk at Line Gallery (North Bay, ON) on May 16, I asked how far back her interest in hair—her dominant subject—went. She shared that as a child, she drew princesses and girls playing tennis, and they invariably had long, flowing hair. Somehow, she got sidetracked from drawing, even though she filled many a sketchbook and “grew up on Edward Gorey.” At OCADU, where she earned her BFA in 2010, she majored in drawing and painting, with her thesis in painting. She felt “forced into…the tradition of oil painting,” which may account for her assessment of her thesis as being “really contrived.” When professor Luke Painter challenged her to transform a black and white sketchbook drawing into colour and on a grand scale, she bristled. Ultimately, though, she felt liberated and “completely abandoned painting.” Today, she works in pencil crayon, “a juvenile tool we’ve all used. It’s not [used to create] painting or sculpture, which were historically revered.” She gets a kick out of contributing to drawing’s status as an “elevated medium,” whether through the international exhibition of her drawings, or through high-profile commissions for publications like The New York Times, both of which have allowed her to work full-time in her Toronto studio.
When her work is installed, she imagines the figures as representing a “tête à tête à tête” through imagined dialogue with one other. “The figure is almost secondary,” she says. Hair has been a constant focus, as her traditional portraits with a twist (like bearded ladies) morphed into dual-face portraits and recently, skulls. She sees hair as personal expression and also as a universal concern. She favours a palette of cotton-candy-like pinks and blues, and notes that these colours used to seem fantastical but are now commonplace; in fact, after the talk, I walked along the boardwalk and spotted a young woman whose hair transitioned from purple to pink. The unnatural quality of these colours prevents her from referencing a particular race or culture, Truong explains. Consequently, they have an “alien” quality and present “as their own species or genus.” Generally speaking, she likes her drawings to reveal “biological possibilities.” Their ambiguity stems from her self-conscience as much as it does from hair and fashion magazines, giving her work a purposefully surreal quality. Situated in a “vacuum of white space,” the figures appear “excised from reality.”
She describes her “crazy line work” as “really obsessive.” She says, “It’s such a labour of love…I still find it very exciting.” The process of making pastel colour studies; determining optical mixing with her old iPhone; applying hair after hair as marks on the page; and using an electric eraser to create highlights has become more repetitive over time and also more meditative. Drawing is “an exercise in relaxation.” At the same time, Truong revels in its tension, recalling her embrace of ambivalent subject matter. For instance, she notes that drawing is vulnerable to damage with something as simple as a kink, reminding me of artist Dana Schutz describing drawing in Roger White’s The Contemporaries (Bloomsbury, 2015) as, “You’re going along, and then you make a move and the whole thing is destroyed” (p. 122).
Truong’s exhibition, Comfort Objects and Other Attractions, was on show at Line Gallery from April 11 to May 15.
Images courtesy of Line Gallery. 2nd image: Winnie Truong, Counter Countance, 2013, pencil crayon on paper, 19 x 15"
Thursday, May 14, 2015
“…let’s make it happen again!”
H-In this exhibition about artist-produced magazines in Canada during the 1990s, you’ve examined Texts (Calgary, 1989-93); Flower (Toronto, 1992-96); Boo (Vancouver, 1994-98), The Harold (Winnipeg, 1995-97), and Cube (Montreal, 1996-98). You mentioned that The Harold was your personal gateway to contemporary art. Given that and the fact that the show is at Plug In, its publisher, was The Harold your starting point for research?
K-Yes. In many ways The Harold started it all. I was 15 when I first went to Plug In and The Harold was something I picked up on the way out. This was a time when alternative papers would litter the doorways of public buildings–or at least buildings of a certain kind: cafés, galleries, theatres, you know. I was transfixed by it. Even though I’d been regularly picking up alternative weeklies who mainly focused on music, The Harold was the first art zine I got my hands on…I didn’t really know anything about contemporary art; I certainly didn’t think I’d ever be a curator at that point, or really even know the word. Upon subsequent visits to Plug In, I’d always pick up the latest Harold. It was their in-house magazine, but it started as an artist-project by the late Jean LeMaitre.
I think that everything is research. So, holding on to my cache of Harold magazines, and the others that came after, was in a way a long-term commitment to curatorial research, I just didn’t know it at the time.
H-That’s a lovely perspective; it’s such a great contrast to the tendency to conduct last-minute research that is seen all too often in the present day.
Was the content primarily regional, Canadian, or international, or is it not possible to generalize?
K-We have to remember, these magazines represent a pre-Internet moment. So there was a network in place, but it was analogue. It amounted to which editors knew which contributors, and where everyone was based/how far their experiences went. So, for instance, CUBE magazine published “reports” from various cities: Toronto, Chicago, and Seoul. In a way it was the most international of the five I’ve chosen to focus on. But then there’s Texts, which found a lot of its material from the proximity to Banff and all the artists in residence there. Boo out of Vancouver had contributions by writers from San Francisco, etc. More precise than ‘regional,’ I believe these publishing projects represent communities. Flower, for instance, is a calling card for a certain generation of artists in the Queen West scene of Toronto.
H-Speaking of pre-Internet, you noted that hesitation about digital media was expressed in the pages of these publications. It strikes me that 1990s art represented a point of transition, being pre-digital but also being made after the freshness of postmodernism had diminished, arguably. How would you characterize 1990s art?
K-It seems there is something in the air. There is a huge show touring the States right now–Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s, curated by Alexandra Schwartz. It’s getting rave reviews as being the first museum show to historicize the decade. Many of the critics are discussing the representation of identity politics at play in so much of the work in the show. The ‘90s really ushered in a postmodern approach to discussing, and addressing, the marginalization attached to class, gender, sexuality, and race.
If I take Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow as a springboard for that idea, we see work by queer artists in the exhibition. There are also moments regarding the representation of Indigenous peoples, of women, and even of class struggle. In an editorial for Cube, Pierre Beaudoin writes about how, at the time, he was the Director of an artist-run centre in Montreal, and on the way home he buys a quart of milk and thinks to himself whether or not the clerk is making a better living than he. So, I’d characterize the art of the ‘90s, as seen in my show, as intersectional.
H-That makes me think of when I was an ARC director (post-‘90s) and I’d pick up groceries for receptions in a suitcase and a backpack, with a baguette poking out of the backpack! No glamour there.
In your opinion, is there a quality to printed matter that can’t translate into digital? I don’t think it’s just the vitrine displays that make the publications feel precious.
K-Yes, for sure! That’s why we’re still printing things everyday. That’s why the biggest thing to come about in the art world lately is Art Book Fairs. People love to hold things, to flip trough things, to touch and smell things. The fact that I enclosed the 60 issues of magazines within vitrines was purely pragmatic; we couldn’t have folks handling the material, the chance of damage was too great, and some of the magazines are on loan from institutions/collections. I also didn’t want the show to feel like a reading room. So I worked with this amazing designer, Susan Chafe, and we figured out a way of turning the content of all the magazines into wallpaper (shown below), effectively making it so the visitor to the gallery could feel like they’re inside the pages.
K-I think that’s because I’ve met too many people lately who are afraid to try things. They’re afraid to fail, or to look like an idiot, or maybe they’re lazy. I wanted to show that here are five magazines that had various outputs throughout a decade. Some were made in people’s kitchens while others were printed more professionally. They’re all equal; they’re all contributing something…so let’s make it happen again!
H-Is there a disarming quality about the looseness—to borrow the term you used to describe the networks—of these publications? I was struck by the fact that a 90-year old was touring the show as you were sharing an anecdote about François Morelli, a Cube contributor collaborating with his 11-year old son, Didier. And when I reflect on the tone, it often veered towards the casual with writing often in the first person, reminiscent of Sassy, a personal favourite from my own youth that was a gateway to so much in terms of culture.
K-As part of that intersectional descriptor I threw out earlier, I think intergenerational approaches also play a role. It dovetails with the reality that we are now in a moment of the hyper-professionalized artist, but the ‘90s weren’t like that. You could have a collaboration with your 11-year-old son be published, or a book review by the teenage babysitter might take up as much space as a prose poem by A.S.A. Harrison. I like that thinking a lot; it is disarming in the best sense.
H-You observed that Texts was the most invested in art criticism, and that throughout all the magazines, many well-known artists are represented who were then emerging artists. Were up-and-coming curators and critics also cutting their teeth on printed matter?
K-Well, I can say that there were contributors to these publications 25 years ago that are still very much in the mix now, if not in more institutional roles. For example, Barbara Fischer and Kitty Scott both contributed to Texts, as did Bruce Grenville. Jeanne Randolph was interviewed for Cube, and so was Scott Watson for Boo. These are all names of a certain generation, but all playing major roles across the country and internationally to this day.
H-You mentioned that Flower ceased publication because of funding. Was that the reason for the other four magazines folding as well?
K-The reality is that no one is getting rich or even making a living doing these sorts of projects. They were labours of love. So I believe that was the reason each of them ceased.
H-Is there a reason you looked at publications that both began and ended in the 1990s rather than looking at publications that had a life into the next century?
K-The end of the ‘90s is really the cutting off point for so much. There were amazing magazines that crept over that millennium line, like Lola (Toronto), or Tart (Winnipeg). For me access to the technology in 1989 versus 1998 is one thing, but extending beyond 2000, it was so radically different and practically unrecognizable. Also, distribution of these periodicals differs vastly into the Millennium. One editor I spoke with remembered a concern over making their magazine digital had they continued beyond the ‘90s. That seemed like something less interesting to them at the time.
H-Editors for four of the publications provided brief descriptions that are included as didactics in your show, but François Dion and Pierre Beaudoin chose instead to stage a photo called “Draft for Cube 6” with them in front of wallpaper comprised of past issues. You seemed quite taken by this photo. Can you comment on what it means for you?
K-It was a Call and Response situation. I wanted to offer room for the voices of those editors who produced the material. I didn’t want to exclude them by only allowing for my voice. And when I approached each of the editors of the five magazines I did so in the same spirit they would’ve 20 plus years ago. I asked for a recollection, and was clear I wouldn’t limit them in any way. I said it could be as long or as short as they wanted; it could be a text, or a visual. The team from Montreal were the only ones who took me to task, and so I was very pleased to show their performance photo as didactic material.
H-There have been a number of special events planned in association with Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, a Brick is a Tool). How has this programming shed light on the show?
K-I really have to acknowledge Jenifer Papararo, the Director of Artistic Programs at Plug In ICA for all the work she did in organizing what’s been referred to as a “raft of programming.” Jenifer was recently appointed to the position with Plug In, and this was the first show she inherited. I had the idea of inviting a few artists and writers for presentations, but she spun it and pulled more out of me, and together we were able to offer nearly a dozen related events. When a show is on for four months, the gallery really needs to be activated in various ways. I’ve been so thrilled at the huge amount of interest for these events. Each one seems busier than the last. We’re hosting Angie Keefer this coming week, and she’ll be speaking about her project The Serving Library. We’ve also had writers who were contributors to these magazines come and offer lectures or readings. That’s been amazing to invigorate the space with the voice of these thinkers. They’ve all been really fun and inspiring, too.
H-As we wrapped up the tour, you referred to the pairing of original artworks with related content from the magazines as creating sightlines. Do you have a favourite sightline in the show?
H-Do you have any advice for aspiring arts critics or publishers?
K-Stop waiting and get started. While researching this material I had many conversations with Ann Dean about how she started Flower in ‘93 with David Buchan and her husband, the artist, Tom Dean. She said time and again that I really needed to make a zine as part of this show. And so I’m working with a team here in Winnipeg and together we’re launching a new magazine to close the show next week. It’s called Group Text, and it will be printed and circulated in unconventional ways as tribute to those who have inspired us. So, if someone is reading this and thinking they want to write criticism…then start writing! What’s holding you back?!
H-Best of luck with Group Text and thank-you, Kegan!
Yesterday Was Once Tomorrow (or, a Brick is a Tool) closes May 24, 2015 and will tour to Artexte (Montreal) this fall.
Images, top to bottom:
Gallery 1 installation view
Denis Lessard, Banff**, 1991, black and white photographs, with lecture artifacts (slides and note cards). Collection of the artist.
All images courtesy Plug In ICA.