Beauty #2 (1995)
Beauty #2, Toronto: The Power Plant, 1995.
This was my first exhibition at the Power Plant. After being associated while at the Art Gallery of Ontario with artists of my own generation, I decided to look at a younger generation of Toronto artists. The catalogue text was posited on the generational gap of an older curator looking at a younger generation of artists. The exhibition was the first of a series of oblique portrayals of the history of Toronto art.
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The artists in this exhibition belong to a generation that has been analyzed to death, and it is not my intention to speculate further on Generation X. I presume they share the sensibility of the moment, whether for or against, and are plugged in to what is happening around them. This includes a familiarity with the concerns of their peers elsewhere, a fluency begotten of art magazines but also, for some, of education abroad. Whether this is good or bad seems beyond the point, but a problem of Toronto's has always been to be both too aware of and not hip enough to what is happening elsewhere. I leave it to the viewer to judge whether this is the case for these artists, measured against those in last year's exhibition of young Toronto artists, Naked State.
Collectives are the prominent tendency within the young Toronto art community, and although I began my research from their networks of friends, I was interested in going beyond their inherent peer consensus. In addition, I was curious to discover work that operated outside the hierarchies of contemporary art, work that might not consider itself art—but here I was less successful, perhaps from my own lack of diligence. Admittedly, I set about looking for a certain type of work, not knowing if I would actually find it in Toronto, an art differing from that shown in the first exhibition, without necessarily being a critique of it. What I wanted to find was a rejoinder, perhaps, to art that takes itself, its politics, and identity too seriously—in short, an art that was fun, funky, and shit-kicking. I know—it’s Toronto, but one can always hope. Although not pretending to be representative of Toronto art in general, this exhibition considers some directions within it.
Perhaps this attitude of mine and the work itself is in part a reaction to the crises of the body and body politic, the “let’s party” as opposed to the “party positions” of our period. Maybe some of this art is just too smart-ass—maybe at times it is more derivative than derisive. But I knew I did not want to apply the judgements of a generation past (my own) to the energy I wanted to recognize and think I found, or demand coherency in a body of work, or even question their longevity as artists.
Four themes are prevalent in the exhibition. I set out hoping to find the first two; the third shouldn't have surprised me; and the fourth was a surprise. First is work that reflects the encompassing commercial world that surrounds us all, an art that mimics the market and its products. In other words, an art of publicity. Second—and related in a society where all aspects of youth culture are quickly turned into commodities—an art that plays with the images and emblems of subcultures. (Through the first two, I wanted to appeal to the pop sensibility that the revivals of the mid-1990s—neo-Beat and hippie, retro-funk, the designs of rave culture—ground themselves in.) Third, an art that makes fun of art. Fourth, an art faking death. Naturally, there is an overlap between these categories.
In an age of diminishing expectations, in a time of little professional reward and minimal public and private support in Canada, artists in Toronto have had to find new ways of proceeding, both in the making and presenting of their work. This situation has led to what could be called a “de-professionalization” of art that their immediate predecessors were not exposed to (and that is shared by young artists in other communities internationally). This means no studio, or a small combined studio and living space, usually shared with others, in a “loft,” house, or apartment. Work is made on demand, usually for group exhibitions because there is little in the way of commercial gallery representation forthcoming (only three of the artists here now have a commercial dealer). By economic necessity, the activity is more part-time than we have recently seen. This move from the studio to the conditions of an office, so to speak, has consequences for the nature and quality of the work made. It is an art of ideas more than of materials. It is an art more dependent on the world around it for its images and materials than engaged in continuing a separate tradition of artmaking, a tradition relying upon the luxury of independent and ongoing visual research manifested in production—a working with materials carried on daily in the studio. (These days it seems that there is a more casual interchange between art and life, where work is more makeshift and less dependent on the studio than on the social site of the kitchen, living room, bar, etc.)
If these artists are necessarily more engaged with the world, perhaps this is because the world, which is increasingly becoming an integrated image-world, is also more engaged with them in the demands that capital puts on them to be consumers--not only of products, but of images and styles. The artists represented in this exhibition could be called post-traditional in that they have broken (unintentionally rather than necessarily consciously) with the modernist and humanist traditions of artmaking. They are not postmodernist, however, as this was defined in the eighties, owing to the seeming absence of critique in their work. But they have extended the range of materials and situations that the eighties opened up for use, even though their understanding of that earlier art may be less a fact of its original context than of its use as a design element in a new configuration whose primary resource of reference is irony. Some of the artists’ work would fit happily in music or fashion magazines, or on CD or cassette packages, where capital has already integrated the look of culture. (We could call it design or package art.) In fact, their art participates in a convergence between magazines and television that has already taken place. It is here that design, typography, and photography combine to produce the same look in images, no matter how casual, or hand-made in appearance, and no matter what the context. (Unpredictably, design, not technology, is the guiding force.) So there is very little in this exhibition that is not image oriented (even if text based) or, rather, iconic, in that the icon is what image and product share in the commercial world.
If these works thus illustrate the continuing integration of culture and publicity, they seem to facilitate the commercial convergence under the lie of “communication” that much of the advertising addressed to this generation promotes. These artists have no intention of continuing appropriation art’s critique of the commodity, even as they take advantage of those advertising images brought into the gallery for the use of art. (Who needs critique when we have Beavis and Butt-head?) They disdain such moral seriousness altogether, and their irony lacks a political edge, perhaps in the realization of the posturing and ineffectiveness of most so-called political art. (We must acknowledge, however, through a less earnest reading of eighties art, that some of that decade's artists cued this generation to degraded images of popular culture and sensibilities of “white trash” subcultures.) If these artists are thus more engaged with the world around them, it is, nonetheless, an alienated embrace.
Now, for a curator who sought out the energy of the moment in work that aspired to be fun and funky, this description, surprisingly, sounds overly judgemental. It is not. I would maintain that it merely attempts to articulate a moment that coincides with a new generation working in the altered cultural conditions of the nineties with the materials and images this culture disposes. This society is both rapidly advancing technologically and becoming rapidly historical technologically at the same time; the options of the present and the images and materials of the recent past are both available for use by these artists. Much of the art in this exhibition is prefabricated in appearance, either through the use of particular materials with their references or through the use of particular images and their contexts. It is objective rather than subjective in appearance, and cynical rather than romantic in attitude. With its origins in the images of popular culture and mass media, this art acknowledges it cannot compete, because advertising or entertainment are now the world. Yet much of this art is more playful than this scenario of constricted possibilities would suggest.
The work of Shannon Wadsworth is motivated by the same sense of celebration of the commercial vernacular as was Pop art during the sixties. Her works reveal a regression to adolescent and childhood imagery that is allied to wish-fulfillment. Rather than duplicate the commercial images of popular culture in painting (pace Warhol), she effects transformations that heighten the utopian characteristics of such attractions. In her fabricated plastic lollipops, for example, we are overwhelmed by excess: instead of one piece of candy, we are given a luscious four hundred in Suck It & See, where the numbers of poly-resin lollipops are arranged here across a wall seven by thirteen metres. The lollipops are signs and sensuous matter that both offer some delight. In some cases they are vehicles for product logos, those that promise the explosion of immediacy through their names, such as Fab or Twister, and in other cases they are repositories of actual candies embodied in their plastic substance. Some of these names ensconced in their shiny materials suggest absurd desires--the same absurd desires we find named in those product images transformed into carpets and hung as signage, such as Rocket Charms (fifties candies packaging) and pervert (clothing label).
Marc Streifling, similarly, takes boys’ toys, blowing them out of proportion through photographic enlargement, in the process transforming not just their scale but their meaning as well. Enlarging toy trucks that can be held in a hand to the near scale of a real truck—or at least a billboard image of one—mimics that path from child to adult whereby one graduates from childhood toy to adult product. (Then again, what difference is there when recreational vehicles today are basically sold as toys?) Enlargement transposes an object from one realm to another. So tiny toy plastic figurines of World Wrestling Federation wrestlers, now more than life-size in their photo blow-ups, have the mythic presence of gods, a process paralleling the media transformation of personalities into celebrities. (As entertainers, these wrestlers are already cartoons.) Perhaps this refers to the mythologizing capacity of North American culture in general. When society no longer has a shared belief system, and no means to sustain a reflection on its own history, it creates sustaining myths from familiar cultural referents. (One only need listen to the repertoire of any stand-up comedian to be informed of the limits of that reference.) The grounds for belief today turn out to be composed of cartoon characters, the lexicon of TV shows, and the lyrics of popular music, the world that coalesces in youth, forcefully extended into a perpetual adolescence that seems to typify American mass culture. (Here are the shared referents of much of this art as well, rather than, as I indicated above, a received tradition of art.)
G. B. Jones shares in this view of an extended adolescence embodying its own world from which one does not have to depart, a subculture complete with its own codes. These codes proliferate in what has been for years the most fertile ground for the “new” to appear and for “deviancies” to culture (as they should). The punk d.i.y. attitude—Jones is a member of the “grrrl” group Fifth Column and co-founder of the gay punk ’zine J.D.s—extends to the visual arts. Drawing is a quick and simple device to picture one’s own desires and interests to oneself and others, especially if it can be based on the ready-made and available style of someone else, as Jones does in turning the gay machismo of the drawings of the legendary Tom of Finland to her own ends. Her various series of drawings, such as Prison Breakout, Cruising Series, and Tattoo Girls, all play out the various scenarios familiar from B films and pulp fiction that immortalized juvenile delinquency and “bad girls.” But now the girls have the upper hand in scenarios that do not respect moral, punishing conclusions. If drawing can be turned to one’s own devices, why not film as well? Thus inevitably arose The Yo-Yo Gang, Jones’s 1992 film depicting rival girl gangs of yo-yoers and skateboarders, reminiscent of the transgressive early films of Baltimore’s John Waters.
Steve Reinke’s perhaps ironic aim is to produce, before the year 2001, The Hundred Videos, which would constitute his oeuvre as a young artist by the age of thirty-six. Well ahead of schedule, he has made seventy-two as of this writing. These videotapes are short, witty subversions of lore passed on to us—the “knowledge” available as social history in the memory bank of our culture, preserved in the found footage of old films and television. As such, these resources are available genres that still hold popular appeal despite our awareness of their outdatedness. They also serve as the documentary proof of the fictional discourses Reinke juxtaposes in his own ad-libbed voice-overs, micro-narratives pertaining to the truth value of (auto)biography or science. The ensuing deadpan reversal of forms inverts the naturalness of any of these discourses, whether they touch on scientific laws, social interaction, gender function, or sexual identity. His discreet send-ups have the effect of creating new objects of knowledge, given our conditioning by these genres to accept their narratives as true. These tapes remind me of short versions of Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds, minus the dramatics or hysterics but still infused with an edge of uncertainty as to intent or veracity.
Such is Reinke’s wry humour that we can expect to find a few art jokes among the many videotapes he has produced. In fact, aside from the general playfulness of much of the work in this exhibition, little of which is really rude or subversive, there is as much joke art as there are art jokes. John Veenema has even changed his name on the occasion of this exhibition, taking to heart in his sobriquet, Slim Pickings, the difficult working conditions for artists I mentioned above, and in so doing making himself into a joke. Some of his works here, I must not be an artist, for one, are commands to himself: “I must not give candy to children”; “I must not hit myself”; “I must not follow stray dogs”; “I must not try to be funny”—as if his recalcitrant intelligence must always doggedly be monitored and reminded not to follow his natural inclination to get into trouble. Pickings flirts with the idea of the bad joke in joke art, for instance, when he titles his other contribution to the exhibition Bad Idea, Bad Joke, Bad Man (since retitled Lovers, Buggers, and Thieves). Are these three vinyl crosses, made like inflatable beach toys, a bad idea? A bad joke? Do they indicate that the artist is a bad man for thinking up such a work? Since my text is written before the work has been made and installed, we have to wait to see whether it will be as self-prophesying as the original title makes it out to be. But I can’t help feeling that there is something in the self-aggrandizement of this artist that reveals his desire to be up there, Krazy Glued to his own crosses.
Sometimes John Marriott’s works are jokes that cut both ways, and sometimes they are jokes out of control, like the movie ventriloquist’s dummy that has an evil life of its own. His work seems to be a critique aimed at his own generation, “gen x-cuse” as one of his banners puts it, plundering the retro designs so prevalent in magazines, on T-shirts, and on the posters and handouts for raves. If it is a cynical critique, it is leavened by his equal-opportunity, multidirectional humour. His work criticizes the art system for one and pokes fun at this place, Toronto, in its belief to be, as Marriott’s title partly has it, the “New York of the North.” He gently proceeds to ridicule artists, moreover, when one of the computer-printed vinyl banners of that work, with its nasty-face (rather than happy-face) artists in berets, spells out “Nice art, too bad about the artist.” Marriott’s works are computer-generated appropriation in that he uses a Mac to subtly alter designs, as when he modifies the label of mineral water “evian” to “deviant” or charge card “VISA” to “VICE,” keeping the alteration within the impact of their recognizable images. As we should expect, other artworks are not exempt from this deviant hacking, such as when then prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s sixties phrase “reason over passion,” memorialized on Joyce Wieland’s quilt of that name, receives its nineties rebuttal in “treason over compassion” on Marriott’s battered and dirty sleeping bag.
Many of these artists appropriate strategies from past art and current advertising, or infiltrate other forms in the desire to reverse or supplant meanings with a new content. An analogous interest in systems, their infiltration, and modification could be seen to be a fifth theme of this exhibition. So Jill Henderson’s List Paintings may be seen within the context of a type of popular art that raises a degraded vernacular into high art through the practice of painting and placement in an art gallery. The “images” of these paintings are adapted from lists found in the street or elsewhere where they have been discarded, absent-mindedly left behind, or lost. These jottings that people make for themselves, whether a grocery shopping list or a restaurant order, are not intended as public communication and thus reveal a vernacular unconscious. The colours of the paintings redirect their content in a more personalized relation to packaging. Henderson’s combined work Useless Money and IOUs takes a found standard symbol, the dollar sign, and shows people’s hasty variations or personalizations. Interspersed among these signs are IOUs, private transactions again made public, the scripted image a reminder both of debt and of the “performance” residue that produces the final work, a performance strategy similar to that of other artists in Glasgow, from where Henderson originally hails.
Michael Buckland’s Random Numbers, composed of a series of plastic signs engraved with telephone numbers, is a work spread throughout The Power Plant in spaces not traditionally used for hanging, spaces that people are meant to accidentally stumble upon. The different numbers actually correspond to FBI regional offices. To enter into the work without this knowledge by dialling one of these numbers would involve the caller in a performance in which the unknown is accompanied by a potential threat realized only by the artist. Spank Me, Hurt Me, Like Me, a petulant command under which at least half the artists in the exhibition solicit the viewer, is a collection of spanking paddles (made, not bought), printed with the names of people Buckland has not met. (What destiny awaits those named in the work that Buckland might meet in the future—as the paddle is taken down from the wall...? Some of the meetings are impossible, given that certain persons are dead or fictional.) Whereas the first work combines an open system (telephone network) and a closed organization (FBI) with a performance threat, this work unites the system of proper names (disseminated through various channels whereby the people they name are now available to us as celebrities) with the imagined performance situation of sadomasochism, all contained within the low-brow lure of these kitsch paddles.
The artists in this exhibition show two modes of working: one where ideas take precedence over unified production; the other, more traditional, where a thematically related body of work is allowed organic development. Each mode of work and its products will manifest a different attitude towards content, materials, and situation. And one is not necessarily superior to the other.
Janieta Eyre and Toni Hafkenscheid appear to represent this second direction. Their subject would seem to demand a more serious approach, given that both are involved in the representation of death. Theirs, however, is an art that stages death. This is more apparent in Eyre, who uses herself as a model, than in Hafkenscheid, who nonetheless still orchestrates the event. Not only are Eyre’s stagings seemingly more artificial (perhaps a result of technique: she does not have access to the professional apparatus of lighting and props, the panoply necessary for sustaining the realism of commercial photography and advertising; her pieces also result from her training: her background is writing and journalism, not art), but they are also “rehearsals” of her own death. These rehearsals, which she allows others access to, are ways of psychologically short-circuiting the violence of men towards women by getting there first and controlling the fear. But they also appeal to the self-destructive instinct in everyone: the images are deaths by both unknown means and suicides. (Letting people in happens as well within the frame, as in Rehearsals #7 and #18, which include people oblivious or indifferent to the death, symbolic perhaps of the waning phase of our fascination with such images that saturate our environment.)
That Janieta Eyre is on one side of the lens and Toni Hafkenscheid is on the other, one in front and the other behind, probably says volumes about representation and, particularly here, about the spectacle of death, the purported pornography of the nineties. (Admittedly, Eyre is behind as well as in front of the camera, both subject and object.) Toni Hafkenschied depicts the “suicides” of others, and his images differ from Eyre’s in showing two moments—that wavering moment of decision in “before” and irrevocable “after” shots. (We come across each of the two images separately in the exhibition, and are maintained in suspense about the answer and outcome of the first images we see.) The two moments he represents, one intensely private and the other unfortunately public, seem real—at least all the codes of realism are in place—but they are highly dramatized in a way that fictionalizes the mundanity of suicide. That theatricalization evident in the technique of the two images--one spatially large, amply detailed and in colour, the other close-cropped and in black-and-white--and the dramatization of our involvement point to the meshing of fact and fiction in our attraction. This says as much about our fascination as does the construction of these images themselves. Our fascination with images of acts hidden away from public scrutiny makes them the unconscious “other” of the spectacle of death in our culture.
I don’t want to isolate Hafkenscheid’s and Eyre’s images of death from the rest of the exhibition by maintaining a comparison to each other alone. They have been chosen because of their integral communication with the work of the other artists. The exhibition, in which all the artists are mixed and matched, will tell whether they hang together in attitude.
Although it was not my intention that the title Beauty #2 be descriptive of a content, perhaps it is expressive of what comes under the purview of that name for young artists today. Beauty #2, however, is a lifting from Warhol, being the title of one of his Edie Sedgwick films from 1965. An homage, it is also a label for the show, much as Joy or Fab name a product.