Ideas

But is it art?

John Bentley Mays November 5 1979
Ideas

But is it art?

John Bentley Mays November 5 1979

But is it art?

John Bentley Mays

In the past few weeks it has been easy to make contact, as boldly or as surreptitiously as you wish. In Vancouver in late September, a passer-by could have turned his raincoat collar up and skirted 20 or so mock-leopard-skin-clad women on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, members of the Girls’ Club. Or stayed to visit with a humansized touch telephone decked out to represent the complexities of modern telecommunications in much the same way kids represent trees in public-school pageants. Last weekend in Toronto a daring soul could have discreetly infiltrated the Cabana Room in the old Spadina Hotel, listened to a few numbers by a New Wave band called The Everglades, downed a few beers and waited until midnight when monitors were rolled out to present the final episode of

Colin Campbell’s video saga, Bad Girls (played by boys). If someone hungered for a more academic setting he could buy season tickets for a fall and winter lecture series at Calgary’s Glenbow Museum where, in December, for instance, Toronto artist David Buchan will present The Lamonte Del Monte Story, Chapters One and Two, the adventures of an invented TV variety-show entertainer. You could get as far away from galleries as Ottawa’s National Science Library and still stumble upon 365 Plexiglas boxes filled with little bits of feathers, old photographs, seeds—all sorts of mementoes donated by friends to Glenn Lewis, the builder of the Great Wall of 1984. And if only the traditional would do (as setting, that is), an art lover could visit the Charlottetown Confederation Centre this week and walk through the touring show Art and Correspondence From the Western Front, a

feature of which is a selection of sharkfinned bathing caps.

The first question, of course, is what is it that more and more unsuspecting Canadians have been making contact with? In the not-so-distant past, you could tell at a glance if it was art: it hung on the wall or stood nobly on lawn or plaza. It didn’t always resemble something you knew but most of the time it was obvious what it wasn’t (garbage, furniture, etc.). And if you couldn’t make up your mind, there were always people to depend on for guidance: art critics, dealers, curators of the nation’s public galleries and museums. But this art—or at least this stuff— that the new Canadian artists of the ’70s are making may look gooey or crumbly, may whisper gossip or talk dirty, or remind you of furniture or garbage. Sometimes it will be so ephemeral it can’t be bought, and sometimes so suspect no one would want to buy it. As 1979 edges toward 1980, all the old certainties about art are about as contemporary as Hula-Hoops and bobby socks.

What the odd doings of these ’70s(and probably ’80s-) style artists add up to, however, is not just a lot of graffiti

by brattish kids rebelling one more time against convention, but the most audacious attempt ever made by Canadian artists to cut art loose from the hot-air balloon of abstract “high culture” and bring it down to earth again.

The product itself— what Vancouver artist Michael Morris has called “non-art art”—affirms the value of telling about the world as it is, of using ugly, ordinary materials without camouflaging them, trying to express the real histories, fantasies, myths and memories that make us

The wilderness is, of course, no longer the great piney woods. Most often the artists are exploring the new urban landscape, searching for materials in back alleys, in garbage cans, in factories. Toronto artist An Whitlock, for example, has used plastic garbage bags, upholstery pins, mangled bits of cloth and gobs of colored cotton waste in the manufacture of her large, slightly sinister sculptures. Joey Morgan’s recent Vancouver show featured pieces made of stuff such as Varathane, Rhoplex, glue and house paint—slippery things shamelessly flaunting their low-class origins—which look like they are about to fall apart or smear down the gallery wall. Mike Banwell, another Vancouver artist, laid down bright green polyethylene patio grass in a recent installation. But for sheer eccentricity, Banwell’s fake lawn must take second place to London artist Murray Favro’s fake

human. “Canadian artists today are looking at art instead of art history,” says Ottawa art critic Philip Fry. “They are seeing their work as a phenomenon within culture and talking as never before about what is relevant to where they are, when they are there.” Today, as at no time since the heyday of the Group of Seven, the nation’s artists are engaged in the exploration of the Canadian wilderness—getting back to the basics not of art but of themselves. lake: a clattering machine that pushes a strip of canvas up and down while a 16mm movie of real surf flickers over it. All these artists, however, share one thing: they are reclaiming for art the wrong-side-of-the-tracks materials and ordinary machinery of our industrial

culture.

For all its strangeness, however, the art produced by the “ugly stuff” people is still recognizable as art, and it fits into a traditional gallery with ease (Favro’s lake, for instance, is owned by the National Gallery in Ottawa). In other words, it is still art in which the object has the last word. But what do you get when, in Toronto artist Ian Carr-Harris’ words, “the visual elements are completely subordinated to the experience remembered and told?” You get a kind of art in which

Some of the most intensely personal works in this autobiographical genre have been done by young Ontario artists Reinhard Reitzenstein and Mary Janitch. Janitch’s delicately humorous tableaux of such materials as tar paper, watermelons, photos, gauze, deer horns and drawings of animals could be just a bundle of clues to a dream or could allude to a friend, perhaps a lover, who might have been a hunter. More identifiable are the sources of Reitzenstein’s sentimental, room-sized assemblages of photographs, small sculptures and (in one piece) a stuffed owl, with sound tracks of recorded music by composer Gayle Young: you can almost recognize the moment of personal history the artist has chosen to capture.

Other artists are using the things of this world to express their concerns with larger intellectual and spiritual systems. Though Tim Whiten, a 38year-old Toronto sculptor, uses frankly primitive, fetish-like objects in the making of his small sarcophagi and reliquaries—human skulls, dried snakes, bones and mud—his ideas are those of the urban occultism that has flourished in the past 10 years. Similar modern preoccupations with cosmic forces are at the bottom of Montreal artist Bill Vazan’s outdoor mazes of undressed stones and vast chalk drawings, no matter how much they resemble Stonehenge or the mysterious medicine wheels of Alberta. Less deliberately linked to ancient sources is Montreal sculptor Irene Whittome’s work. Her White Museum series (the title alone makes it modern), with its almost eightfoot-long pieces of wood swathed mummy-like in canvas and string and laid

the visual components of the work—the all-important parts, as far as modern art has been concerned—are demoted to mere costumes and props for the story the artist is trying to tell.

carefully in white painted boxes, draws the near and the far away together in an ambiguous rendezvous. But most characteristic of the genre is the flamboyant, secretive work of Ian Carr-Harris, who combines words (occasionally printed right on the tacky furniture he favors for his sets), Venetian blinds, theatrical lighting and campy memorabilia to celebrate or, as he says, “reconstruct” some moment of reverie or experience.

This urge to turn art into souvenir

has found no more complete expression than in the ’70s answer to the Brownie Hawkeye cameras of yesteryear: video. This rough-and-ready medium—TV as easy to make as an audio tape recording-arrived from Japan in the ’60s. Soon cheap, portable video systems (such as Sony’s Portapak) were turning up in studios across North America and Europe, enjoying an instant vogue as a way to make visual notebooks of the ephemeral things in which artists were then becoming interested: chiefly themselves and the ordinary world of street, workplace and pop entertainment. The next step, from notebook to serious documentation, was a natural one and, in an amazingly short time, video has emerged as a key field of artistic experiment.

Despite its popularity (there are more than 100 video artists in Canada alone), the critical attention it has received (artscanada devoted a whole issue to it in 1973) and exposure in some museums and galleries, home-made TV remains the most unseen art in the country. Access is no problem: in most cities, there is a library of artists’ videotapes and a pleasant place to watch them (for instance, Halifax’s Centre for Art Tapes, Art Metropole in Toronto, Vancouver’s Video Inn). And in Vancouver you can even watch artists’ video on TW—The Gina Show on Cable 10. A more important problem may be what you see when the images start flickering across that familiar rectangular screen. Work from the early days of video art is intensely introspective—a long, rambling monologue by Toronto artist Lisa Steele, for example, telling all about her mother’s death, or an equally long, narcissistic love-making episode between Colin Campbell and his own image in a mirror. In the past three years, however, video has largely outgrown its addiction to navel-gazing, becoming far more flexible and varied: Rodney Werden, a Toronto artist, has used his camera to capture the unrehearsed story of an avowed masochist; Al Razutis, of Vancouver, has stirred old movie-clips and occult imagery into a gorgeous witches’ brew; and David Buchan has deployed video to document his brilliant, funny parodies of TV variety shows starring himself as Lamonte Del Monte.

But as the decade ends, the central style of this art has become what video expert and director of Toronto’s A Space gallery Peggy Gale calls “its narrative bent.” Says Gale: “Canadian video is much more literary and interested in commentary than the work being done elsewhere.” The evidence is in some of the most engaging tapes of the decade: Steele’s recent brief dramas based on her real-life work with battered women; Susan Britton’s superb burlesque of capitalist intentions in Me$$age to China; and Toronto-born artist Vera Frenkel’s saga-in-progress on the search for the elusive Canadian novelist of the ’30s, Cornelia Lumsden. Talkative, fictional, gut-level, this art definitely can’t be hung on a wall.

To understand how Canadian art got from Tom Thomson’s pine trees to the hectic here and now, one must look back (briefly) at the era of the rise of European totalitarianism and the Second World War. These catastrophes forced some of Europe’s most outstanding artists, including Josef Albers and Piet Mondrian, into exile in New York, where they and their American disciples withdrew into a strict esthetic monasticism. They emptied their work of recognizable subjects—from flowerpots to the scowls of left-wing propaganda—and turned instead to a deep meditation on the basics: color, line, mass. Abstract art, the great legacy of

those troubled years, made New York the art capital of the world and continued to dominate the work of North American artists right through the ’60s. More important still, abstractionism provided the popular working definition of “modern art”: something sacred and timeless, speaking only the universal language of color and form, never dropping into the visual slang of everyday life.

By the end of the ’60s, however, the New York art scene had definitely begun to lose its grip on its far-flung satrapies: in Europe,California and British Columbia—even in Montreal and Toronto—artists were beginning to stop caring what was happening in Manhattan galleries. During the past decade, the process of shrugging off abstractionism has speeded up—which makes it all the more interesting that so many young Canadian painters have continued to paint.

In Toronto—the current hot spot of Canadian painting—David Craven goes on incising and scraping his sombre surfaces with all the seriousness of the Cold War painters, and David Bolduc, in all his beautiful and moody work, continues discussions of color and figure and ground. Nostalgia for the good old days of the ’50s abounds in Paul Hunter’s busy, bright canvases, so reminiscent of New York “action painting,” and Paul Sloggett’s wide, brassy pictures display the big-city panache of American painter Frank Stella. Says Michael Greenwood, York University curator: “There’s a lot of inspirational pastiching going on. These artists take the pioneers, play with them, make them elegant.” The fact that young people go on working in such ways is evidence for the durability of the old problems, but even more so for the undiminished attractiveness of “modern art” you can still buy—and invest in.

If the halo of New York glamor still surrounds the studios of the young Toronto abstractionists, it long ago vanished from the scene where the Canadian revolt against otherworldly art was born—Vancouver. “It’s not happening in Toronto and it’s not happening in Montreal,” wrote critic Arnold Rockman in Vancouver Life in 1967. “It is happening in Vancouver.... Vancouver artists are provincial, in the best sense of the word. They don’t feel the usual constraints of those who live in really big, metropolitan centres. Mix fewer constraints and a large dose of feeling isolated and what do you get? A group of people who work together to make things happen for each other.”

In the same article, Rockman foretold the central role that was to be played by a young painter who had recently returned home to Vancouver from art studies abroad and life studies in London and New York—Michael Morris. By 1969, Morris had left painting behind and, with fellow-artist Vincent Trasov, was busily investigating artistic resources which he found not in the standard art-supply stores but in the rich urban environment of advertising, Hollywood movies, television and magazines new and old. The most enduring result of all this research into the popular materials and formats modern artists had tossed out 40 years before was an archive called The Image Bank: “mythic materials generated from the media,” Morris called it. Soon, these images began to circulate throughout Canada and internationally in postcards and magazines.

But the more far-reaching outcome of the research project was the beginning of something too loose to be called a movement—an epidemic of fascination with media and traditional genre as material to be excerpted, filed away or twisted to suit new artistic intentions. One early victim of this plague of media-fixation was Morris’ old friend Glenn Lewis (the Great Wall of 198V) who, in the late ’60s, gave up ceramics for the investigations of nostalgia that characterize his videotapes and performances. Two more were Eric and Kate Metcalfe who, as Dr. and Lady Brute, began assembling images and accoutrements from the sleazier side streets of popular culture (kitsch, pornography, the ugly and banal)—while Vincent Trasov expanded his studies of the ways mass media create human identities in their own images. (Trasov was the artist in a nutshell who, in 1974, ran for mayor of Vancouver as Mr. Peanut.)

Finally, in 1973, these concerns were brought under one roof: an old Knights of Pythias hall rechristened the Western Front. Fuelled by Canada Council grants and the enthusiasm of its members and many other artists and fans, the Front rapidly emerged as something more like a research institute than an art gallery. Its excellent videotaping facilities made it a major early centre for the development of this new medium and its spacious auditorium enabled it to stage ambitious concerts, performances, lectures, screenings and video showings, featuring the work of both local and international artists. It began (and continues) to function, in Morris’ words, as a place “for production and presentation, interactions and collaboration—a place for artists to come and work, and not just to show what they’ve done.” And in being just that sort of place, it pioneered a new social, public way of making art—and a new interest in the social contexts in which artists work.

Even before the Front found its home, Morris, the Brutes and others had been visited by three young men from the East who were to catch there a particularly active strain of image virus. This trio—Michael Tims, Jorge Saia and Ron Gabe—joined forces in 1968 under the banner of General Idea; by 1972, they had begun to publish in Toronto the decade’s most outlandish and fascinating art magazine, File, a takeoff on Life. A collage of gossip, photo-essays on popular cultural fashions, notes on the doings of General Idea and the Western Front and many other artists in the by-now cross-country network, File has been the decade’s best guide to the Canadian artistic sensibility developing outside the museum-gallery garrisons covered by artscanada. But File is still no more than a mirror, reflecting the activities of the artists who have made the most daring assault of the ’70s on the cherished dogmas and styles of modern art.

In their performances—such as Dr. Brute’s brilliant send-ups of lowbrow nightclub acts, General Idea’s “beauty pageants” and professionally made TV advertisements for themselves, and Trasov’s satire on the media shells of politicians—they have exchanged the gilded fine-arts frame for the great variety of formats they have found in the massmedia outlets at hand: TV, radio, magazines, popular entertainments and popular obsessions (such as political campaigns). These shows and the videotapes of them, which have been travelling through the Canadian underground for years (especially through the “parallel gallery” network—see box), more recently have moved into higher visibility in public museums and galleries. And wherever they have gone, they have charmed artists with their intelligence and irony, their affection for the fads and fashions of mass culture and the welcome they give to forbidden subjects and materials.

What we are witnessing in the new art of the ’70s is the resurrection of popular imagery as legitimate content for art. In turning their back on modern art’s snobbishness about mass media these new artists have encouraged many others to take a fresh look at the rich, complex inventory of resources in Canada’s culture. What they are trying to do, with all those who share their interest in urban methods and myths, is restore to art the importance it has had for most of its long history. To make it once again a mirror of real life, even kinds we don’t like to look at. To revive its old role as a rod for divining the hidden sources and meanings of contemporary culture. To make art once again a celebration—as interesting and complex as life itself. f¡?