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Anatomy of a performance artist

 

To anyone who knew him or watched him, there was never any doubt that Keith Cole was born to perform. A trained dancer, Cole, like most dancers, resorted to other means to pay the rent. Whether it was going on stage in Pride Week as one the Cheap Queers or hosting events such as a burlesque night or a public debate, Cole, six-foot-four and often in highly mascara-ed drag, could be counted on to do something entertaining, outrageous or even instructive. His most remarkable performance was a run for mayor, complete with well attended rallies, in 2010: he placed eighth in a field of 80 candidates.

At a certain point, Cole, who holds a BFA from York University, decided to go back to school and in 2012 earned an MFA from OCAD University in performance art. His reasoning: “It seemed as if dance didn’t have any new ideas, theatre didn’t seem to be going anywhere and I thought, if you want to know where things are going, look at the visual arts.”

For his graduating project, Cole built a “big huge gay performance art vehicle,” from an abandoned wide-seat wheelchair he found, a platform with a sail fashioned from a shower curtain and a shopping cart. For six days, he pulled the contraption around Toronto, occasionally stopping to do a little tap dance on the platform that doubled as a bed when he pulled over to sleep at night. On the seventh day, Cole wheeled his vehicle into the Museum of Contemporary Art in Toronto and disassembled it. “I took it apart, so there was nothing left but a bit of detritus to sweep up. . . It was as if it had never existed,” he says.

In performances such as this one, Cole not only reinvented himself, but was re-fashioning performance art. In the 70s’ and 80s’ performance artists staged their work in art galleries or artist-run centres. And while the works of artists such as General Idea, Tanya Mars and Joanna Householder were often ephemeral, but documented, the context meant their work was treated as any other kind of visual art. And usually these performances were scripted.

At the juncture of old and new is FADO Performance Art Centre. Currently run by artistic and administrative director Shannon Cochrane, FADO has been the home for performance artists since 1993. Cochrane has provided support to Cole and collaborated with him on his book club project on the Jacqueline Susann novel Valley of the Dolls that concluded in January, with a mock graduation ceremony at 401 Richmond and a screening of the Valley of the Dolls movie.

Cochrane had announced she was interested in performance art projects that worked on the concept of a salon, an academic course or intellectually based club. This was made-to-measure for Cole, who as a sessional lecturer at York University and Seneca College, had been toying with the idea of teaching as performance. So he put up the idea of a book club that would run for five weeks. Participants got a free copy of the book, but were expected to read the entire novel, do homework and turn up for every session prepared to discuss topics outlined in the course syllabus. The whole thing worked even better than Cole had anticipated.

Inspired by the bedroom scenes in the Valley of the Dolls movie, Cole, who dressed the part of professor, held the book club sessions in a downtown hotel at Richmond and Spadina where people could sprawl on large king-size bed. Only one participant questioned the idea of reading “this shitty novel.” Cole was working off the legitimate notion of re-evaluating work in a new cultural context. “We just focused on the book. The book and the movie are quite different. The ending is completely different.  We would have sessions where we would talk about the nameless characters in the book,” or they would discuss the opinions of a bestselling book and popular movie as they are taken up by later generations of readers and viewers.

Cole’s master stroke was to persuade novelist and performer Kristyn Dunnion to pose as an academic giving the keynote address to the graduates. Posing the question, how many come from small towns? Dunnion delivered her lines: “We have this in common: aspiration, desperation, desire. We abandoned local expectation to enter into a magical place – urban, fictional, where we could become someone completely new. Or completely Gay. Just like us, the main characters come from shitty little towns to The Big City. So far, how is this different from our own stories?”

Following Dunnion’s speech, Cole, wearing a Harvard graduate’s majestic gown, handed out certificates to those who’d completed the course and then we watched Valley of the Dolls (1967), starring Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke, Sharon Tate and Susan Hayward. Even if you hadn’t sat in on the book club sessions there was much to appreciate in this finale.

In 2016, Art Gallery of Ontario curator Wanda Nanibush, invited Keith Cole to do a piece for her show, Toronto: Tributes + Tributaries, 1971-1989, specifically to pay tribute to the work of the late David Buchan (1950-1993) who was a multi-media performance artist whose works often commented on advertising and pop culture. This was the opportunity Cole needed to do his Tom Thomson drowning piece. He’d originally planned to put it on in the city-run Owen Sound gallery that houses some Tom Thomson works. But when the curators there discovered Cole’s take on the mystery of Thomson’s death was that the artist was gay and perhaps killed by one of the many women who lusted after him, Cole’s proposal was dropped.

Now he had the Signe Eaton gallery at the AGO in which to give three five-and-a-half-hour-long performances, that consisted of Cole, wearing a wig he’d made himself out of colourful fishing line (Thomson was found with a line wrapped around his ankle) repeatedly dunking his head into a canoe filled with water, and tossing his fishing-line tresses back until all the water was out on the gallery floor.

For those following the storyline of performance art in Canada, this was full circle. Cole had brought his brand of performance art back to back to a visual arts space to be performed for an audience of visual artists and viewers.

With typical cheekiness, Cole titled the October 2016 performance, “#Hashtag Gallery Slut, A three-way performance . . . featuring The Spirit of Tom Thomson, The Spirit of David Buchan and Keith Cole.” The book that came out of this show will be launched on July 9th at the Gladstone Hotel. Who dares predict what Cole will show up in?

Photos clockwise from top left:  Keith Cole performance at the AGO; Cole does the spirit of Tom Thomson; Valley of the Dolls book club participant Ken Moffatt with Cole and Kristyn Dunnion; photography by Henry Chan

Gallery

Hands across the water

Watching first nations’ artists carve their works is nothing new for Victoria, where Thunderbird Park, around the corner from the legislative buildings, was the site of a carving shed from its opening in 1941.

But it’s not every day that a Coast Salish artist sits down for a demonstration with carver friends from the Iatmul tribe in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea. Elaine Monds, founder and director of Alcheringa Gallery on Yates Street in Victoria, has been facilitating such cross-cultural interactions for a number of years.  And it was on her premises that three carvers were at work with their tools on Saturday, showing visitors how it’s done.

This was the fourth visit to Vancouver Island for Claytus Yambon, who is well acquainted with artist John Marston of Ladysmith. In 2009, the two of them participated in a project called Hailans to Ailans which paired Papua New Guinea aboriginal artists and their Northwest Coast counterparts. Near Marston’s home, Yambon and Marston carved a magnificent red cedar war canoe called “Bummdianmari” (one mind, one people), that features a prow with female image and a stylized alligator. The sides of the canoe display carvings integrating the motifs of both cultures.

“It was the most unexpected thing that ever happened in my life,” said Yambon of that first venture into another Pacific art tradition. He was whittling away at a swamp hen, a creature that is central to the Iatmul way of life. “They are what we survive on.” Beside him, Marston was in the early stages of carving a mask out of a large disk of alder. For him too the exchange with the Papua New Guineans, which took him to Yambon’s village in Sepik, was a life-changer.  “It expanded not only my art practice but my life’s horizons. Witnessing a culture that is relatively intact from ancient times to today was pretty moving for me.”

Both his parents were carvers, said Marston, as is his brother Luke. “We work with alder when its green, as it dries it gets harder and changes colour. This mask will be dark brown when it’s finished.” The smooth face, which will ultimately incorporate both female and male aspects, showed a remarkable serenity.

Edward Dumoi, also from Sepik, was carving a cat. It was his first time in British Columbia. “I’m self-taught,” said Dumoi, noting that his father who died when Edward was young had been an artist. Dumoi’s work bridges the traditional and the contemporary. Domestic cats are a favourite subject, carved with the same panache as his totemic finials for houseposts. He can see the effects of the cultural exchanges that have been going on across the Pacific. “After John had been to visit us, I noticed that he’d used some of our stylings in his work. Maybe I’ll do the same,” he said, with a broad grin.

 

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Hogging it: Rosenblatt and Callaghan

Stomachs UniteDrawing #11Chow DownDrawing #18

It’s anything but hogwash: an intellectual and artistic engagement between two CanLit titans entitled Hoggwash, because Joe Rosenblatt’s letters are addressed to James Hogg, Barry Callaghan’s alter ego and poetic protagonist. The release of the book, published by Exile Editions and subtitled The Callaghan and Rosenblatt Epistolary Convergence, is accompanied by an exhibition of Callaghan’s and Rosenblatt’s drawings and paintings on at the GN Studio in Oakville until May 11.

The works displayed on two walls at GN Studio are all new. (Those pieces reproduced in the book are no longer in the artists’ possession.)These pictures seem to converse across the room. Callaghan’s surrealistic, Dali-esque beings, all feet and lips and teeth, address Rosenblatt’s birds, cats, fish, dogs and other half-human creatures with much on their minds, and not all of it philosophic.

Hoggwash began with a proposal from Rosenblatt.  “Ten years ago I suggested to Barry that I would like to write to the leading protagonist in his epic poem, James Hogg and ask him a series of philosophical questions, pointed questions, as to the birth, or reincarnation of Hogg who emerges on an ice floe in Toronto Harbour and is set upon by thugs and crucified. Barry as Hogg would answer my questions, referring to our mutual friend Barry Callaghan.”

The epistles would also serve as a forum for the two authors’ thoughts on religion, philosophy, poetry and literature in general. The result (full disclosure; I acted as copy editor) is a unique Canadian literary document and a lively entertainment.

Callaghan sets the pace for Hoggwash in an opening Q&A with Rosenblatt, quoting liberally from Rosenblatt’s poetry. “You seem to me to be a blue angel, always in a delirium of poems and in this delirium you are, over and over again, born like death, with burning branches growing . . . .”

Rosenblatt describes himself as a “disillusioned romantic” and admits to a strange kind of voyeurism, the study of bees and their pollinating ways. Hogg is captured in a poem as a man living through “an endless winter of endless / nights, . . . sitting / squat hour after hour by a seal hole in the ice, / waiting for the snout of the seal . . . .” Hogg is in some ways the straight man to Rosenblatt’s remarks on Hogg’s musings about Martin Heidegger, God, the Virgin Mary and his Toronto subway Stations of the Cross. As for Callaghan, Hogg remarks, he “can be a bit of a gadabout and a rounder.”

This is not the first time either poet has emerged as a visual artist to be reckoned with. Writing about Callaghan’s Hogg works for an Ottawa exhibition, artist Vera Frenkel identified him as “a naturally skilled draughtsman.” Drawing and painting were something he did from an early age, prompting a poet visiting the Morley Callaghan household to ask what his son was to be, “poet or painter?”  But like Rosenblatt, Callaghan needs a theme and Hogg (the actual James Hogg immigrated to Upper Canada in 1824 from Glasgow) has provided him with lots of inspiration.

Among the Callaghan watercolours on display at GN, a large picture of limbs and lips locking, called “Hogg Remembers the All of their Love,” is a tender depiction of two lovers. Other paintings are more in-your-face, even sinister, such as “Hogg in Purgatory” or “Hogg Pursued by Devils in Hell.” These Hogg paintings are expressive in their jumble of body extremities and Janus-like visages of the earthly/heavenly polarities in Hogg’s thinking.

Drawing and painting is more of a constant pursuit for Rosenblatt, who has a solo show concurrently running at Yumart Gallery in Toronto. Making his artist’s statement, the poet says, “In my drawings personalities grow exactly like limbs . . . . Those creatures in my landscape carry my genetic material. . . . The drawing paper demands its form. It wants to be fed and craves for limbs. And perhaps a spiritual envelope called the soul.” At GN you can see in Rosenblatt’s black-and-white drawings accentuated with bright splotches of paint that the hand that draws the lines is the same one whence Rosenblatt’s thoughts proceed on paper. “Stomachs Unite” is a good illustration of the Stoma principle under discussion in Hoggwash. Other works, such as “Chow Down” and “Eat or Be Eaten” could be visual equivalents of his ripostes to Hogg.

There’s plenty of food for thought in Hoggwash, both the book and the art works; readers and viewers might well demand a sequel.

“Hoggwash: The Exhibition,” April 16 to May  11, gnstudio / contemporary art, 123 Lakeshore Road West, Oakville, ON

“Angels, Demons and Spirits,” works by Joe Rosenblatt, May 7 to 28 at Yumart Gallery,  401 Richmond St. West, Suite B20, Toronto, ON

Hoggwash: The Callaghan and Rosenblatt Epistolary Convergence, Exile Editions, 118 pages, $17.95 pbk.

Art work courtesy of the artists, from top: “Stomachs Unite”; “Compared to What,” Drawing #11; “Chow Down”; “Compared to What” Drawing #18