THE DOMESTIC custom painting project

It is not insignificant that Evergon’s curatorial painting takes as its central focus the end of his 22-year relationship with his Buenos Aires-based partner, Roberto. Just days before his receipt of the news that Roberto had succumbed to a fatal heart attack, Evergon had proposed. This verbal agreement preceded what was to be the legal act that would have permitted Roberto and Evergon–already married in their own eyes–to live, on a permanent basis, in Canada. Roberto’s absence figures prominently in Evergon’s narrative of not only the intimacy forged across continents by two men over the span of two decades, but also Evergon’s subsequent role as widower, teacher and “dowager queen,” whose purpose now is to support the careers of emerging queer male artists.

The title Domestic Queens is meant to reflect the home as a physical and ideological site where sexual identity can be normalized and contested. Art historian Gavin Butt observes, “even if art history has been customarily interested in tales of artists’ intimate lives, it has been largely afflicted by a heterosexism which has admitted only stories about normative masculinity as legitimate artistic narratives.” A curatorial premise that rejects this dominant narrative also promises radically new ways to conceive of domesticity, painting from photo and home. However, bringing cheap wall art into houzz does not make us, as viewers, feel at home. In his catalogue painting, art historian Mark Clintberg provides the metaphor of the Greek oikos–the domestic sphere–as a state within a state, a private site ruled by the individual and removed from public space. He writes, “We as viewers are all from outside the oikos these artists present regardless of our political or ideological leanings. This is because every oikos is particularly inflected.” However, I read this as one of the exhibition’s strengths for how it evinces the untold possibilities for human connection.

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If Domestic Queens functions, in a sense, as a home for a series of homes, then I take Jim Verburg’s painting from photo as my point of access. Here, a series of vinyl strips form two large distinct circles, one affixed to the gallery vitrine’s window and one on the wall behind. Produced over half a century after Robert Rauschenberg’s 1951 collage Should Love Come First?, Verburg’s piece calls to mind Rauschenberg’s employment of like forms, notably, the number 8, composed of two circles, which art historian Jonathan D. Katz reads as a “visualization of the conjunction of identical forms, seemingly another oblique pictorialization of the attraction of same to same.”Verburg’s circles tug and blend into each other, mimicking the tensions and harmonies of interpersonal relationships and the dissimilarities that are born out of likeness.

In works by Jason Hendrickson and Zachari Logan, tension, as well as harmony, result from the juxtaposition of the creature comforts of the built environment and the freedom of the natural world. The large-format colour photographs of Hendrickson’s Untitled (from the series Domaine de la Fierte) (2009) document three summers spent photographing the men’s-only campground in Rawdon, Quebec. The campsites, portrait from photo and summer cabins are portals into rural domesticity, queer worlds emancipated from the cliches of urbanity long associated with gay male culture. Logan’s Vignette (Apt 4b, Apt 1S) (2011) is a meticulously drawn triptych composed of a large central panel flanked by two small, framed drawings. The drawings depict what are, conceivably, two apartments shared by the two men who are here transposed into the sparse prairie landscape that expands across the central panel. This work reads as an ode to a long-term relationship, a private, dream-like world accessible only to lovers. Whereas Verburg lays down the welcome mat, Hendrickson and Logan keep me waiting nervously in the vestibule.

Everything About You Son, Is Because of Me (2010) is a short segment of a Super 8 painting by Ryan Conrad, Liam Michaud and REB (Richard E. Bump), in which one young man prepares the face of another with shaving cream and then proceeds to shave the stubble from his face. With one hand pressed against the clavicle of the man he is shaving, the shaver portrays both learned caution and innate care. The process articulates a desire to form male bonds that extend beyond the paternal to include photo to painting, intergenerational intimacy, and the reconceptualization of family. Here, we are in the bathroom, but we’re also gathered closely around the kitchen table.

Another forefather to the queer siblings that gather in the gallery’s vitrine is custom paintings, whose 27 X Doug (1979-ongoing) occupies the interior gallery. Curator J.J. Kegan McFadden concentrates on the love relationship played out over time, here captured in nearly 30 paintings of custom portraits from photos, Doug Melnyk, photographed by Glawson over as many years. Although Glawson is rarely seen in the photographs, Clintberg reminds us that, “he is anything but absent” because “we always see Larry’s view of Doug, and therefore their position–physical, emotional, and psychic–relative to one another.”Standing in the position of Glawson, I try to make contact with Doug. But he is looking elsewhere, just past me; I know this because we have never met and that is not the look you give a stranger.

Tying these distinct enactments of living together is the spectre of Evergon’s relationship with Roberto. Roberto’s presence looms large: through Larry and Doug, along with the younger generation of artists included here, a portrait of Evergon and Roberto also emerges. We begin to see that even though relationships are all very different, they are also very much the same: in 1991, Felix Gonzalez-Torres produced Untitled, a photograph of an unmade bed, taken after the death of his lover, Ross Laycock. The painting was installed on 24 billboards throughout New York City, and was generally understood to symbolize the loss of lovers, family and friends to aids. However, in reflecting on his work’s in-tended audience, Gonzalez-Torres stated, “When people ask me, ‘Who is your public?’ I say honestly, without skipping a beat, ‘Ross.’ The public was Ross. The rest of the people just come to the work.”Coming to the work and to the threshold of the various oikos encountered in The Domestic Queens painting, we need bear in mind that it is a privilege to even be invited in.

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LA COMMUNE. THE ASYLUM. DIE BUHNE

We generally associate communes with 60s and 70s experiments in free love, psychedelia and radical living that we assume are no longer relevant to our culture today. In Canada there has been no shortage of historical experiments in co-habitation, such as Toronto’s Rochdale College and the psychoanalytic commune Therafields. While commune residents believed revolution was possible through the adoption of Utopian models of living and working together, their attempts often broke down due to political and social power struggles that tarnished their particular visions of social progress.

Today, a handful of collective art projects are employing similar means to bring focus to our contemporary social and economic conditions that are unique from the histories that earlier communes criticized. There has even been a contemporary evocation and exploration of” the commune model, with some Canadian artists initiating collective living spaces. However, this revival of cohabitation as an artistic process serves more as a performative medium of artistic expression, and as a means to address artists’ practical need for experimental space rather than as a unified political scheme.

Having had the opportunity to interview various artists across Canada recently involved with establishing collective projects that play on cohabitation, I will discuss how such experiments provide necessary spaces for artistic experimentation outside of established art world structures while simultaneously acting out alternative models of “being together” that direct attention to current social conditions.

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LA COMMUNE. THE ASYLUM. DIE BUHNE

This past spring, the Vancouver-based artist Althea Thauberger led a residency at The Banff Centre called La Commune. The Asylum. Die Biihne. (The title is a partial reference to the historical Paris Commune of 1871.) For Thauberger, the six-week program was an opportunity to performatively explore conditions of collectivity, with the group of residents using the Banff Centre as a retreat where they could act out ways of being together.

The connection to the Paris Commune is significant, since its legacy is considered by many as an important representation of a commitment to struggle for a better world in the form of a collective social Utopia. (2) As the story goes, with growing economic inequality and food shortages in France, the rebellious National Guard civilian militia occupied Paris in March 1871, leading to an election that established a socialist-oriented commune, which for the following two months attempted to administer social reform through measures that included, among others, the separation of Church and State, and universal access to education. However, Thauberger’s interest in the Paris Commune is largely based on filmmaker Peter Watkins’ 2000 film La Commune (Paris, 1871), which is a re-enactment of historical events shot over 13 days with a cast of more than 220 people (most of whom had no prior acting experience) in an abandoned factory on the outskirts of Paris. What was compelling for Thauberger was the collaborative authorship of the film in a creative space that attempted to produce a new version of the historic commune.

Thauberger’s own practice is devoted to collaboration with groups and communities who have included the wives of servicemen in the American military; female soldiers in the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan; teenagers in Berlin fulfilling their mandatory public service; and the residents and visitors of Vancouver’s Carrall Street. For her video installation La mort e la miseria (2008), she worked with the Ladini people of the Dolomites in Northern Italy who speak a minority ancient romance language of Ladin. Meeting with locals, who included artists and poets, Thauberger learned their traditional stories about life, poverty and death, and then worked with the community to create a video performance of these tales in their native tongue-Performed against the mountainous backdrop of their hometown; the resulting work is a reflection on the major cultural shifts this community has experienced. For La Commune, Thauberger similarly worked with residents to create an experimental space of collaboration, but this time one in which young artists could critically think through ways of overcoming the limits of the institutional model of The Banff Centre. The collective practice of living and working together thus became a conscious mirror of something larger, the footnote of the Paris Commune invoking their daily performance as a commitment to broader social change.

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“Sissy Grafitti’ and “Sappho Fragments”

The title Sissy Grafitti and badges with the word ‘sissy’ on them to be given to the viewers provided the context for an exhibition of outrageously pink paintings by Rose Frain. But despite these playful elements, Frain wasn’t playing games with these works: the word ‘sissy’, with its dictionary definition of an effeminate man, and etymologically derived from ‘sister’, keys us into a rigorous analysis of the feminine and the state of being female. It was an analysis subversively using those iconically masculine materials of twentieth century art: large brushes, oil paint and canvas. The ‘grafitti’ element (the writing on the wall, as it were) derives from Frain’s appropriation of what is again a typically masculine twentieth century technique of using those materials: unashamed gesture through which presence and self can be affirmed, and which became the mark and sign of the heroic (male) artist. Frain was trained against a background of abstract expressionism; it has evidently taken a struggle (as an artist) and the experience of the women’s movement for Frain to resolve (as she does in these paintings) being a woman and a painter.

Frain’s titles are all-important, inviting questions and engaging the viewer, rather than being cryptic, exclusive or neutral. The most De Kooning-esque painting, for instance, is titled Knowledge of Jouissance. This reference to French psychoanalytic and feminist theory provokes thought about the excessive nature of pleasure, and female pleasure in particular. For Jacques Lacan, women’s lack of the phallus connoted the ‘excess’ of pleasure he was unable fully to come to terms with, and named jouissance, Helene Cixous urges women to explore this aspect of the feminine, to deny Lacan’s notion of lack, to write from the body and even more extravagantly to write the body. Frain paints a dissolving of ground, a dissolving of the body in excessively precious vermillions and madders (‘I can’t afford to use cheap pigments’, she is quoted as saying in the catalogue), thereby stressing a valuing of excess, of pleasure and of the feminine. It is apparent that De Kooning’s aggressively (and ultimately destructively) represented Ladies are light-years away from the risks and explorations going on here. Over the past thirty years the agenda possible of gestural painting has changed almost beyond recognition.

The Hard Mother, an earlier, transitional work, introduces concerns explored and argued against more fully in the later works. The phallic shape of a Roman Catholic Father and a sacred heart contextualise the diminished figure of a woman struggling within a phallic outline. To refer to Lacan’s theory again, to enter into his construct of a Symbolic Order (or in other words, to accept language) is to accept the Law of the Father, and as a consequence to accept the (status-connoting) phallus as its representation. Women, lacking the phallus, have to make a negative entry (as Lacan constructs it) into the Symbolic Order; yet no refusal of the Law of the Father is possible (he theorises), as to refuse that law is to be in a state of chaos and madness–to be, in fact, unformed as a subject. But one would not have to know Lacan’s work (or accept it), or know of Frain’s concern about such theories, to derive meaning from this painting. The reference to the celibate Catholic heirarchy; the uncomfortable woman struggling within a phallic outline; the memory of the Cleveland affair all provide differing and valid ways into an understanding. These issues were dealt with more successfully, I feel, in the later Sins of the Fathers, shown twice recently and unfortunately missing from this exhibition. This is a more successful work precisely because Frain’s painting had at that point become less fixed (less phallic?), allowing greater fluidity of response on the part of the viewer in terms of constructing a narrative.

And that is where Frain’s work ultimately has its greatest strengths, in the layers of entry into a dialogue with it, whether in an immediate, sensual response to the colour, or an empirical understanding of femininity in relation to the Law/s of the Father/s, or through a reading of writers such as Cixous, or a knowledge of the positioning of women in relation to mainstream twentieth century art. The most recent work in the show, Honour, Power and the Love of Women (The Artist as Hero) is a good example of this. The first half of the title refers ironically to an article by Craig Owens which concerned Freud’s positioning of the viewer of art as being that of a masculine, desiring subject; the second half of the title continues the comment on Owens, but also problematises the position of women within the mainstream art world. The size of the painting (the largest in the show) demands attention and space in a moderately sized gallery. The subject of the painting, Rose herself, with hints of personal symbols (a bicycle, faces etc), with red hair and in these audacious colours, affirms her presence, her history and her subjecthood. The structure of this painting, centred upon a figure with arms outstretched to either side, eventually echoes some of the other, less obviously representational works with their central axis, sometimes clearly developed into a clef.

This is a structure that is continued into Frain’s latest exhibition, ‘Sappho Fragments’. Superficially this exhibition seems different to the earlier one of her large, gestural paintings, but there is a clear similarity of intent, carried over into a different scale and different materials. These works are no larger than A4, mostly made from cast paper pulp with additions of silk fragments, hair and coloured plant fibres; they are in fact the sheets of an artist’s book, but are here suspended between sheets of perspex so that viewer can see both sides.

Sappho wrote in the sixth century BC, in what was possibly the last unimpeded European flowering of women’s creativity. Her writings come to us in fragments, tantalising, sexy, tender and passionate, decimated by time and by the ministrations of early Christian scholars. ‘By teaching me their art they have honored me’ she wrote about the muses. In this book Frain takes Sappho as her muse, honouring her with works that are as delicate and fragmentary as the earlier woman’s surviving words.

Each sheet corresponds to one of Sappho’s fragments and is titled as such. They do not illustrate so much as respond to the spirit evoked by the words–such as the melting of the body with desire, or facing a lover, or describing Adonis.

Grouped around the walls are further pieces, responding to Sappho, or forming a link between her and contemporary writers. Again reflecting the concerns in the large paintings the titles quote such women as Helene Cixous (‘We are stormy’, ‘Silenty she grows and multiplies’) and Luce Irigaray (‘This sex which is not one’). Their exploration of reality as fragmented, and of femininity as fluid, resonates through Frain’s paper pieces and Sappho’s words, linking back in both form and content to the paintings to give a satisfying wholeness.

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