I was sitting with a friend at Second Cup and the conversation came around to Yoko Ono. No other public figure teeters between adoration and unfounded opprobrium. At some point in the conversation, I said that I would make Christmas Gifts for Yoko Ono: paper sculptures and odd little concept pieces. We laughed, but the idea stuck with me.
In 2012, I lost both my grandmothers and, like most times when you lose something, the thing lost becomes the most important thing to you. I have been thinking a lot about grandmotherness. And I started thinking about Yoko Ono as a cultural grandmother. Love her or hate her, every contemporary artist owes some gratitude to Yoko Ono. Painting to Be Stepped On taught us that art need not be on a wall. The concerts she hosted at 112 Chambers Street taught us that you can change music forever from a sparsely furnished apartment. Grapefruit taught us that all you have to do to make art is think. The Fluxus Film No. 4 taught us to be sexy. The performance of Cut Piece at the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo taught us to trust each other. Painting to Hammer a Nail In taught us that we don’t make art alone. The tower of light that beams into the sky two months each year from an island off of Reykjavik and the 500,000 wishes buried underneath it taught us to think monumental. Yoko Ono embodies the avant-garde, but what makes her work and her life remarkable is this: In the face of ridicule, ignorance, and sometimes outright hatred, Yoko Ono makes art that is free of cynicism, bitterness, and irony. That’s amazing.
2012 was a year of sorting things out, except I didn’t realize it until the very end. It was a good year. Things kept getting better and the better they got, the less satisfied I became. The less satisfied I got, the angrier I became. And when my grandmother died, I decided to drive from Montreal to Miami. A 2700-kilometer road trip is a great way to figure things out. One of the conclusions I came to was that I wasn’t writing and making art as much as I wanted.
“Twelve Days of Christmas Gifts for Yoko Ono” was an art making and writing project that pays homage to a cultural grandmother. Each day from December 25th, 2012 to Epiphany on January 6th, 2013, I made and shared a Christmas gift for Yoko Ono.
The Christmas Gifts were published in ARTSHOP Magazine.
Art Is Food, Feed the People. Art is Food, Eat Something. These have been the mantras of ARTSHOP since 2005. The phrase comes from a poem I wrote and read at an Art Town Meeting in Burlington, Vermont in February 2005. So many people asked me for a copy of the poem that the following summer, I illustrated it and turned it into an artist book that was screenprinted with the help of Benoit Depelteau. So many people wanted a copy of the book, that I released a mass printed version of the book.
7.5″ x 5.5″
20 full-colour pages
You cannot pry apart the two chocolate sides of a Georgia O’Keefe painting and lick the creamy vanilla center.
The rampant elements of a de Kooning do not make a nice stew.
Do not smear Pollock on your organic buckwheat toast in the morning and wash it down with a cup of steaming hot Andy Warhol.
Art is food. Our country is hungry.
Art is food and our country is hungry.
I believe that now, more than ever, we need the nourishing, nurturing, restorative power of art.
These are uncertain, confusing, and painful times. We are assaulted by war, disease, and conflict. Our country is suffering from neglect. The social bonds are unraveling. Human connection becomes harder and harder to maintain.
Our country is hungry.
Art is food.
Art is a nourishment you cannot buy at the grocery store. You cannot find at the mall. You cannot call 1-800-SEND-NOW and have delivered by FEDEX to your doorstep.
Art is scarce.
It does not grow on trees. It does not rise from the land each spring. It does not ooze from the snowcaps. A drought of sacred ails the land, fortitude is hiding too far beneath the surface, and Art cannot be found as easily as it should be.
Art is food and our country is hungry.
We have a duty to bring art into the world, to thrust it upon our neighbors, to force it upon our children, to make our community a vibrant, dynamic fortress of art.
Our country is hungry and we have the food.
We must, We must
Because our country is hungry,
and because Art is food.
I produce art products as a means of exploring further questions of object and meaning: How does an object have meaning? Why does an object have meaning? And what role do objects play in our lives? North Americans are consumers by nature. We acquire stuff. In doing so, we enter into a dialogue with the makers and sellers of the objects.
A bookstore owner in Toronto once told me, “People don’t buy books to read them. They buy books to own them.” In this sense, objects are artifacts of personal history. People collect toys, comic books, antique signs, Beanie Babies™ etc…things with a perceived function or potential value. These objects have great meaning to people. Why is art so different?
To address these question, I make nonsensical sculptures, Dadaist-inspired pieces of small art made from everyday objects that are repurposed so as to accentuate form and remove functionality. Objects are named, branded, and packaged. Sometimes, such as in the case of Magazines That Hate People, I start with an idea—a critique of magazine media culture—and then design and make an object to embody it. Other times, I start with an object and work to give it meaning through package, presentation, and narrative. An example of this is Bag To Remove Sadness where I liked the look of an inflated brown lunch bag tied with a string and paired it with Yoko Ono-inspired instructions.
Some Art Products are multiples or variables; others are simply one time endeavors. And some Art Products are part of a larger project.
30″x80″; acrylic paint, spray paint, print transfer, and collage on reclaimed door; 2007
I have long enjoyed with the patina left by aging posters and bulletins and graffiti that accumulates on walls in a city. In 2007, my partners and I bought a duplex in downtown Montreal that needed serious renovation. The contractor removed all of the doors. I thought they would make good surfaces for paintings. I coated the doors in acrylic paint and pressed old newspapers into the wet paint to transfer the image. Sometimes, I would let the paper dry in the paint and peel it off to give the appearance of aged walls. I finished the paintings by adding stencils in spray paint. The three chickens are a reference to my partners and I.
Hold Me was used in the backdrop of a photo shoot, the images from which became the series “Torso” and “Hold Me” which were part of a group exhibition at Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown, MA.
The painting was exhibited at Living/Learning Gallery at the University of Vermont, September 5th to October 4th, 2013, as part of an Alumni Exhibition. Other artists included Lindsey Epstein, Ed Grant, Jennifer Kahn, Peter Katis, James Kochalka, Heidy Kunkel, Derrick McNab, Sarah Rutherford, Sarah Ryan, Steven Shattuck, David Sullivan, and Nathaniel Udell. The exhibition was in celebration of Living & Learning Center’s 40th anniversary.
I was asked to provide a statement of my memories of living in the dorm.
On Living at the Living/Learning Center
One of my best memories from college is lying on the floor with a dozen other people in Fireplace Lounge at 3AM. Someone had gotten a copy of Madonna’s Sex book, a massive coffee-table book of erotic photographs. We flipped through the pages, silently. Everyone was afraid to say the wrong thing. I met Sean that night, a guy I crushed on for the rest of my college years. He broke the silence, “Well, this is interesting.”
I chose to live in Living/Learning because doing so meant I had access to a kitchen. I finished high school a semester early and spent the winter and summer of 1992 living in a farmhouse on a dirt road surrounded by fields in Whiting, Vermont. I learned to bake bread using a wood stove, grew asparagus in the garden, and picked strawberries that were growing wild in an abandoned patch left behind by the previous owner. I was, what we called in the early 90s, “crunchy.” I liked the life I built for myself there. Excited to start university, I didn’t like the idea of not being able to cook my own food. Living/Learning had kitchens.
I chose to live in the French dorm because my mother was born in France and we spoke a little French in the house growing up and I thought I should improve my French. We never really spoke French in the French dorm. My roommate first semester was a boy from Paris whose parents sent him to university in the States to avoid compulsory military service. He was awkward. I was weird. We really didn’t get along and by Spring semester I had moved into the single next door. I stapled Christmas tree lights to the ceiling. I burnt a lot of incense. I magically aced Bio 101 in spite of loading up my CUPPS cup with screwdrivers before the 8AM lecture.
Where the French dorm was something of a bust, Living/Learning was great. I cooked my own meals nearly every day. On Sundays, I played Dungeons & Dragons with a group of from the Theatre dorm. I joined the pottery co-op and made a bowl that I still use today to roast garlic. I painted as much as one could given the rigors of first year studies and the cramped nature of dorm rooms. Still, I made art and made a mess of my suite’s shared bathroom sink.
At Living/Learning, I tested by ability to live anywhere and be the person I wanted to be. I ate the food I wanted. I made art. I found people, a community, to connect with. That night in Fireplace Lounge sums up my Living/Learning experience: A group of strangers, thrown together, and confronting something that is as threatening as it is enticing. From that confrontation, we evolve.
In April 2013, I started listening to “Grenade” by Bruno Mars:
Easy come, easy go, that’s just how you live Oh take, take, take it all but you never give Should’ve known you were trouble from the first kiss
Had your eyes wide open, why were they open? Gave you all I had and you tossed it in the trash You tossed it in the trash, you did
I started thinking about how wrapped up the language of love is with violent imagery. I know it’s not an original topic, but I think it’s worth revisiting. You don’t enter into love. You fall into love. Cupid shoots you in the heart. I will die without you. Hearts are broken. Until death do us part. Music lyrics repeat the rhetoric of love and violence back to us.
Then the week of April 15th, 2013 happened. Let me recap: At 2:49PM in Boston, two men exploded pressure cooker bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. A few days later, the entire Boston Metropolitan area was “sheltering-in-place” while the bombers and police re-enacted Fast and Furious 3 in the city streets. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the Senate failed to pass the Manchin-Toomey Background Check Deal, a piece of legislation supported by 90% of Americans that would have closed loopholes and forced gun-dealers to check the backgrounds of their customers. Also that week, more than twenty cars in twenty cities in Iraq were packed with explosives and detonated killing seventy-five people. The violence was aimed at disrupting provincial elections on April 20th. To say nothing of the attacks that week in Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Bangalore, India or the rockets fired into Israel on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday that week.
From the comfort of my studio in Montreal, I thought about how easy it is to shake my head at violence while listening to Bruno Mars sing,
To give me all your love is all I ever asked ‘Cause what you don’t understand Is I’d catch a grenade for ya Throw my hand on the blade for ya I’d jump in front of a train for ya You know I’d do anything for ya
In my lifetime, it is unlikely I will see a grenade explode. I will most likely never hold an AK-47. I will never experience a bomb explosion. As such, I will never really be able to muster the empathy needed to fully comprehend the reality of violence. And because of that, violence is a beautiful abstraction. Violence is colorful, dramatic, theatrical. I experience it vicariously in awful movies about spies racing in Minis through the streets of Paris. I watch men punching each other in the face on the hockey rink while I eat chicken wings on the couch. I revel in Warhol’s Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times. And I listen to music without thinking too much about the reality of the lyrics.
One of my favorite paintings is William Adolphe Bouguereau‘s Dante and Virgil in Hell. The protagonists watch as the con artist Gianni Schicchi bites the alchemist Capocchio on the neck in the most homoerotic way possible. And there lies the lure of violence: it is intimate because it is physical. It is sexy because it is powerful. We are reminded of violence everywhere. Security checks are becoming commonplace. You enter a concert, your backpack is checked for weapons. You get on a plane, your shoes are checked for bombs. Signs at hospitals and schools tell you guns are prohibited, as if it is normal to carry guns and these places are the exception.
Violence is part of humanity. It has been with us since the beginning of time and will be with us until the end of time. But so has mythology and religion and unicorns and evil spirits and bad magic. What if violence wasn’t something we actually did but something we simply thought of? What if violence was simply a rhetoric? Not something we did, but something we imagined. It’s beautiful power reserved for song lyrics and pretty pictures.
So I asked myself, what if I embrace the culture of violence, its erotic quality and potency? And then I thought about the objects of violence: weapons. I’d much rather have a picture of a handgun than an actual handgun. I would rather drop an electrofunk bomb than a real one. I would rather have a grenade that exploded in color than one that sent shrapnel flying through the air or into the legs of a runner finishing a marathon. I began to think that those violent song lyrics were not talking about weapons of destruction but weapons of affection. They were recasting grenades and bombs and guns, removing them from the theatre of havoc and chaos and putting them squarely in the arsenal of love and intimacy. They are changing their moral colour.
I began to imagine what these weapons would look like: two-dimensional reductions of form, multiple colors. The result is a series of prints, “Love Guns & Other Weapons of Affection”, that present a grenade, a bomb, an assault rifle, and a handgun as colorful memories of their actual counterparts.
four 8”x10” prints; 2013 ; edition of 100; signed & numbered
pack of greeting cards with matching buttons
“Boring” represented an important stage in my evolution from painter to photographer to artist who works to put images on paper. For those interested in artistic development and technique, I offer the following four observations:
I continue to be influenced by photographers Michael Meads and Nan Goldin. Where my earlier work, such as “M Series” (2003), combined social documentary and creative portraiture to explore an individual persona, “Boring” is broader and attempts to explore interpersonal dynamics and scene.
“Boring” also represents a development of technique. The photographs in “Speed of Light” (2005) employ the visual strategies of abstract painting to manifest images of light and color where the kinetic interplay offers the viewer a sense of emotionality. “Boring” represents an application of those strategies to work with a definitive subject and narrative.
“Boring” is the most personal work I have produced to date. While it is not the first time I have turned the camera on my private life–I often take photographs of friends, lovers, and partners in various states of partying and play–it is the first time I have considered such work strong enough to have meaning to those not immediately attached to it. As such, a personal statement is included.
By nature, I am not a collaborator. While I value critical feedback of others, I prefer working alone, controlling a project, and ultimately being responsible for its successes and failures. But without intending to do so on their part, this work is significantly informed by the art and aesthetic of Danny Buchanan, whose nonlinear narrative collage paintings appear in some of the photographs, and Pet Shop Boys, whose lyrics provided me a vernacular with which to tell a story.
I hadn’t met Danny in person before, but we talked a lot over a few months and found we had art and a mutual attraction in common.
You have to meet Danny to understand him. He is full of contradictions: part art mafiosi, part redneck; a butch fashionista; and, perhaps, the most sensitive guy’s guy I’ve ever met. He has an incredible sense of aesthetic, a yearn for beautiful things, an unbending view of the world, a rich passion and spirit.
Danny had a few days off. I was looking for something. He invited me to Toronto for a few days to hang out. On my second night, we went to the Drake Hotel for a concert and art/film party. Afterwards, we made our way to Boystown and met up with Adam and Brent. The bars close early in Toronto. The four of us ended up at Danny’s where we were joined by two women who talked a lot but didn’t stay long.
I snapped pictures while we drank beer and smoked and listened to Adam’s stories of cum-stained blue cardigans and getting gay bashed with a napkin. Danny hovered around getting up every few minutes to DJ.
With the women gone, the boys got into me taking pictures. Danny pulled out a bunch of clothes. Adam took off his pants and put on this flannel grey coat. Brent found a muscle shirt he liked and put that on, then he and Danny argued who looked better in it. The rest is in the pictures.
On the drive back to Montreal, I felt like I had spent a few days in a Pet Shop Boys song: cabbing around the city making the scenes, having short sharp cell phone calls to coordinate the effort, seeing and being seen, friends arguing with friends, small talk, getting sized up, making contact, and a complicated set of love-lust emotions for Danny. It seemed right to title the photographs with quotes from their lyrics.
The thirty-four page folio contains twenty-five images plus personal and artist statements and title pages. Each image is 4″x4″ on 5″x7″ paper. The folio is presented loose in a navy-coloured box. The edition is limited to one hundred and each folio is numbered, signed, and contains a certificate. The folio was published in 2005.
November 2005, Second Floor (Toronto)
January 2006, Kasini House Gallery-at-Large (Montreal)
“I Keep Myself Together” is a series of 10 photographs that contrast urban isolation and natural beauty.
New York is advanced urban life. One of the great things about New Yorkers is that they move through the city unaware or unconcerned that other people will see them. This obliviousness or indifference marries with an air of intention. New Yorkers on the street are always going somewhere. What passes for rudeness is often an exigency to keep moving and to keep other people moving, particularly if that other person was in their way. I like to watch people and one day while waiting for someone on a street corner, I began to notice how consumed people were with themselves. Many were on their phones. Many more were in a bubble of music, driven into their heads by earbuds. I wanted to capture the people I was watching.
I have been shooting natural scenes for years. One of the things I try to do is find a focal point and to allow for as much blur as possible in the image while keeping the subject in focus. I applied this approach to photographing people. Like trees and flowers, New Yorkers are unaware of a man with a camera. I stood on street corners for hours, invisible while I took pictures.
I am interested in the isolation of contemporary life and the sometimes intense personal drama that plays out without anyone really knowing. When I watch people, I often make up stories in my head about them. The titles of the photographs are snippets of those stories; moments of dialogue in a full work of theatre. By presenting the images in a circle, I hope to convey to the viewer the sense that they are peeking into a world or looking through a spyglass.
These photographs reflect my interest in abstraction and particularly, the abstracted landscape. In these “Day” photographs, wanted to push the edge of whiteness and blur. I also wanted to capture fields of color. In the “Night” photographs, I wanted to go back to darkness and apply what I learned by taking pictures during the day.
My previous series, “Speed of Light” (2005), “Boring” (2006), and “More Speed of Light” (2008), were all largely shot at night. In May 2007, during a car trip to a wedding in Virginia, I found myself, as I usually do on long car rides, taking photographs as we sped down the road. Wanting to recreate the same blurry, abstract effect during the day time, I began exploring over exposure and unfocusing. Over the past few months, I refined this approach and the seven “Day” photographs show a range of work.
There’s a way where there’s a will You know I got no need for stairs Step out on the window sill Fall with me into the air
Daytime bores me. People are working. Because I am a night person, I tend to sleep away most of the morning. I wake up a lunch time. I work a little. I eat lunch. I wait for one of my lovers to come home or get out of class. Day is a time for waiting.
I tend to take photographs during the day when I find myself awake and out and bored: at a BBQ with friends, in the car on a road trip, and even, ironically, at a daytime rave that takes place on Sundays during the summer in Montreal. I take pictures to fill the time, to busy myself till night comes and I feel awake and alive again.
I don’t understand people who wake up early in the morning to take the day. There is no romance in the morning, no sense of urgency, no risk. There is no light when everything is light.
So, here we go, hold on tight and don’t let go I won’t ever let you fall I love the night, flying o’er these city lights But I love you most of all
I love the night. I love how darkness soothes the city to quiet. People disappear and I am alone, uninhibited, and free to roam.
I also like to shoot at night. It is easier to add light than to take it away. Light itself becomes a subject, the actor in the photographs. Colors become moody. Things look better at night. Darkness has a way of obscuring the dark and dingy. I would rather walk down an alley and see stacks of smashed cardboard and piles of black garbage bags than seen perfectly manicured sidewalks bursting with potted flowers.
The night promises sex and mystery and danger. We give ourselves permission to do things in the dark we would not during daylight hours. At night, we hold our lovers a little tighter. At night, we dream.
Sometimes these are one-offs made for INSTANT ARTSHOP. Other times they are studies for projects, particularly when I am experimenting with blur.
Others are made for a specific project, such as My Junk Taste Like Flowers, and the focus is on creating multiples. To make multiple copies of an instant colour photograph, one has to hold the camera in place and pull the photograph at exactly the same time. This works great in the studio…most of the time, but can be challenging outdoors where the most I’ve gotten is three before giving up.
When we shot 100 copies of My Junk Taste Like Flowers, two of us worked to shoot, time, and pull the photographs. But with the lights in the room and two bodies, the temperature changed which affected the pull time as we progressed through the shoot. The entire exercise was an interesting challenge, but not one I feel like I need to repeat.
My favorite subject to shoot with this method is the sky because the blues are rich and variable.
Instant Colour Photographs are available in ARTSHOP.