Uncle’s Garden: an Interview with Qian ChengApril 28, 2021, by Ashley Culver
In the summer of 2020 Qian Cheng began gnome with her Uncle. gnome is an ongoing project space in Uncle’s backyard garden located in Surrey, British Columbia – just southeast of Vancouver, on the unceded Territories of the Semiahmoo, Katzie, Kwikwetlem, Kwantlen, Qayqayt, and Tsawwassen First Nations.
This was well into the pandemic and feelings of isolation and worry were strong. In organizing gnome, Cheng addressed these feelings by emphasizing collaboration, exchange, and slowness. In tune with this prioritization on working together, gnome was conceived through conversations between Qian Cheng, Mitchell Kenworthy, Kiyoshi Whitely, Liam Johnstone, Marika Vandekraats, and Uncle, an avid gardener who plays an active role in hosting gnome.
Lucas Regazzi, Untitled, 2020, chalk pastel on manila paper
Through gnome the family’s backyard garden becomes an experimental site and a catalyst for interactions between nature, artists, visitors, resident family members, and artwork. One of the early artworks to arrive in the backyard was a concrete fountain by Marika Vandekraats which sits on the green lawn next to the hosta plants. The fountain spout is a cast of a human nose. If one peers through the foliage and past the wrought iron lantern, a chalk pastel drawing by Lucas Regazzi appears on the wooden fence. Snacks are arranged on the patio table as part of Patrick Cruz’s recipe exchange.
In our conversation, Cheng discussed what it meant for her to work closely with her Uncle in the suburbs. She described cultural exchanges, negotiations between the garden and artwork, and hopes for new forms of art centres.
Ashley Culver: What desire or longing did you hope gnome would fulfill? What triggered the inception of gnome?
Qian Cheng: I felt quite isolated and I'm sure this was the case for everyone at the beginning of the pandemic. It was an empty kind of moment being in the suburbs while everyone else is in the Vancouver area. I wanted to feel more connected somehow, while also thinking about this question that everyone was asking at the time, and still is: how can we be together when we're apart? Is there a safer way to approach galleries, is there a safer way to interact with art during this time? This was when I realized I had access to this backyard that my Uncle tends to every day. If there's something interesting happening in the suburbs, people might be more willing to visit! This was also a pre-pandemic discussion/joke amongst friends, they would comment on how lovely the garden space is, maybe we could do something with it.
I spoke to my Uncle about this idea, as I can't just bring in random objects and interrupt his gardening process. He was fine with it, as long as he could have an idea as to what was coming in, then maybe finding a space in the garden for it together. And it just kind of started from there, getting consent from my Uncle and my family, and speaking to close friends and studio mates if they would be interested and trying to create a space that was safe, that didn't pressure anyone to fit into any type of rigorous programming, just something that would feel comfortable and open. And let people make something. In the midst of a pandemic, when everything is already so confusing and hard and weird.
Li Johnstone, Untitled, 2020, oil on wood, audio
Marika Vandekraats, Untitled, 2020, metal tags
Diana Hanitzsch, “Circular Reference”, 2020, paint on wood
AC: What was your inspiration for this project?
QC: I read this article on E-flux about slow institutions, which struck a chord in me. There are other ways of working, other ways of being together, other ways of learning - it doesn't have to follow some kind of linear progression. I thought what better place to explore that idea than in the garden where things have to happen slowly? Recently I’m looking more into readings about the futures of artists-run centers and a lot of the same themes are popping up: artist-run centers of the future are a space for people, for loving, for learning, for communities. Essentially, a space that doesn't have to be just for “art”. It could be for dogs, cats, seniors, the community. I thought that was so cool. Especially during a pandemic, during a time of crisis. I really am thinking about what kind of tangible positive effect or what kind of support art can give to a community.
AC: What was the larger context for gnome? What was happening when gnome began?
QC: It didn't necessarily start from this point, but in the end, I realized that it became a good platform for my Uncle and me to talk. I am a first-generation immigrant and my Uncle had recently immigrated five years ago. And so there was a bit of disconnect in communication in terms of understanding each other and where we come from and our ideas. And it's funny that there is a disconnect because he's also interested in the arts, as a hobbyist photographer. He's always kind of like “How is this art?”, “How are you going to make money from this?”, questions like that, and we would try to have a conversation about it, and it always went nowhere. But having gnome and working closely with him, having him meet my studio mates, see their work and decide where it goes, having him as a central part of the decision-making process really opened up conversations in a way that made more sense, or was more accessible. Though I consider my role as more of an organizer, we co-curated together and talked about the form of the sculptures or where the paintings could fit and how the paintings might interact with the environment, the garden, how the paintings or the objects might change over time. Those conversations were really productive and great. It really formed this bridge of understanding each other.
An example would be my proposal to hang portraits of my family in the garden thinking it would be really cute. He told me that that is the biggest no-no in Chinese culture because the only reason you would put someone's portrait outside is if they had passed. That completely flew over my head because I grew up here and so I had no idea that was even a concern. gnome has these weird moments of cultural discovery. Those are really nice tensions to brought about conversations that would not have happened otherwise.
Nick Morrison, Untitled, 2020, watercolor on paper
AC: What in particular in the Surrey art scene is gnome addressing?
QC: It seems there isn't a lot happening in Surrey. It's, again, an hour away from Vancouver. There is the Surrey Art Gallery, and they do really awesome programming. And recently, they also did an outdoor screen. Maybe not recent, maybe two or three years ago since it started; it's an outdoor projection on a huge building. And they've been doing a lot of cool programming on there. But besides that, there isn't much else for people to go to Surrey. And so, I thought it would be nice to have added another reason in there for people to come.
AC: What is the manifesto expressed by gnome?
QC: There wasn’t really a solid manifesto in place. But I think that the main idea I was working with is to create a space for both emerging and established artists, whoever's interested. They don't even have to be artists, as long as they express interest in putting something in the garden. And providing a suburban space for that to exist. And I guess this is more of a rule than a manifesto - as long as my Uncle has also consented to the object or idea, then it will go in and it could stay in as long as it wants. Or it could stay for a day. The main thing is no pressure, and just letting the idea live. Seeing where the idea goes. No harsh structure; instead just letting the idea grow, or not grow.
Marika Vandekraats, Untitled, 2020, fountain pump, concrete
Patrick Cruz, “Kitchen Codex Surrey”, 2020, various snacks, recipes
AC: How does it feel to share a private space with the public?
QC: The pandemic complicates the whole experience, I think I would have been a lot more comfortable if there was no health worry involved, I put in a lot of time and care to ensure that it was as clean and as safe as possible. When we did have our soft opening -this was back in August when we were still allowed to have small gatherings outdoors - I made sure that everyone had their masks on, that there were sanitation stations everywhere. I even booked toilet stations. I tried to make sure that it was as safe as possible.
My family and my grandparents also live there. So it was an especially worrisome thing for them, which is totally understandable. But they were very supportive too. I remember that day my Grandma was looking through the window and saying hello, hello to everyone. It was pretty cute.
As long as my family is okay with it, then I'm fine sharing private space with the public. And also, another thing to keep in mind is that this public is not exactly like a bunch of strangers coming in. Guests had to make an appointment. I only allowed seven people in the backyard at a time.
AC: How has gnome changed your relationship to your home?
QC: I guess it helped me communicate better with my family. They aren’t the most talkative, so it really pushed for communication to happen. And also there's a language barrier. I can speak decent Chinese, but there are definitely some phrases and ideas that I can't communicate. And I found that having art as kind of a tool to talk about complicated feelings was very useful and productive. It was nice to have these objects come into the space and bring new energy to it. My Uncle likes to have a lot of control over his garden, so it was actually really, really nice of him to be open to this idea.
AC: What has encouraged you to continue organizing gnome?
QC: I think the main idea for gnome too is also that it is a continuous thing as long as my Uncle allows it. I like the idea of not having a series of shows but just one show that could be continually built upon or taken down or changed. It’s definitely on pause for now because I've recently moved out and I haven't been home in a while due to the lockdown and the pandemic. I do plan on once things open up again, going back and reactivating it in some way. So yeah, we'll just continue until my Uncle says no more.
Randi Wever, Untitled, 2020, various fabrics
AC: How does gnome contribute to your career or art practice?
QC: I feel I'm only starting to understand what it is that I want to do. I recently became a researcher at Mountain Standard Time Performative Art (M:ST). We're focusing on efforts towards empowering Black youth in Mohkinstsis through mutual aid or through resource redistribution. Right now, some of the things we’re looking into are farming, ways to address food waste, and learning more about local initiatives that address food scarcity.
Things like regenerative economics, things that aren't extractive, things go back into the community and build and support. I can see how some of these topics might influence gnome in the future. It's good to be able to have a space to use as a testing ground for new ways of being together. And I feel like a garden is a good place to start.
AC: Beyond your career and art practice, what benefits have you seen from gnome?
QC: I'm just happy to have that space to explore ideas. I guess, personally, the benefit is the re-energized connection with my family. I think it was a really good experience altogether. And if it does become something else in the future, that'd be great. If it doesn't, that’s okay too!
 In relation to gnome, Uncle prefers to be anonymous and go by his chosen pseudonym.
 Petrešin-Bachelez, Nataša. “For Slow Institutions.” e-Flux, Oct. 2017, www.e-flux.com/journal/85/155520/for-slow-institutions/
Ashley Culver is an artist and writer based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The thread of attention with care runs through her practice. Her work is in conversation with domestic space – particularly the kitchen – and desire for connection. https://www.instagram.com/ashley.diana.culver/
Qian Cheng is a Chinese-Canadian emerging artist and organizer. Cheng is interested in weaving different frameworks of interconnectivity and dreaming of community practices that reflect a better sense of wellness; using art as a tool to create platforms for different publics and communities. Most recently, she co-founded a space in collaboration with her uncle called gnome, a garden space with a singular, changing, and ongoing exhibition, and is working with M:ST Performative Arts in collaboration with the Black Empowerment Fund in developing long term initiatives with and for the Black community in Mohkinstsis along with co-researcher Bianca Guimarães de Manuel. She is also co-developing a Time Traveling manual with a group of Time Travelers.
LES ENJEUX D’(IN)VISIBILITÉ: MAXIMILIAN SUILLEROT’S L’EFFORT OLYMPIQUE DES SEX MAGICK WARRIORS À LA GALERIE DU NOUVEL ONTARIO
February 23, 2021, by Alexander Rondeau
I’m not sure why I came back to this text, but I think it was in a list to remember what it’s like to visit galleries, attend exhibitions, and look at art in its actual material form. Unearthing this text from the Fall of 2019, tucked away in a laptop folder, patiently waiting for a resolution, felt like opening a time capsule. My thoughts, some from then, and some from now, are left suspended in the present tense, if only to feel like perhaps it could be plausible to attend an exhibition, to see art in person, and chat with gallery staff. This tucked-away review from a different world reads as follows:
Maximillian Suillerot, Reaching for the Glory Within, 2019, plastered fingers, ribbon, and silver medal, dimensions variable (source)
Immediately upon entering la Galerie du Nouvel Ontario (la GNO), a Francophone artist-run centre in Sudbury, I am welcomed with laughter and warmth akin to my childhood in a Francophone, Northern Ontario community. This gallery is one of just four artist-run centres mandated to present exhibitions across Northern Ontario — a region the size of Texas. Such few artist-run centres means exhibitions and presentations of works by queer, trans, and/or 2 Spirit (QT2S) artists, like Maximillian Suillerot’s L’Effort olympique des Sex Magick Warriors, are regrettably few and far between.
Suillerot (they/them), is a queer multimedia artist based in Toronto, Ontario. Born in Mexico City, this Mexican-French artist has long engaged very specifically with the colours pink and teal (as highlighted by their dichromatic Instagram feed) which were pragmatically removed from the original 1978 Pride flag design due to higher costs associated with the dyes of these respective colours. Originally, the teal was meant to signify magic and art, and pink was meant to signify sexuality. For this exhibition, Suillerot thus conceptualized ‘sex magick warriors’ as individuals dissenting against the heteronorm with bold and unapologetic sexuality to champion their community/ies through performance and ritual. The works are informed by peripheral protests marginal to the Olympics — many groups, QT2S included, find opportunity to protest a myriad of important global or local causes under the international spotlight shown during the Olympics — and tactfully appropriate from the aesthetic fold of Olympic discourse. Much like Suillerot’s sustained engagement with the colours teal and pink, the exhibition — produced while the artist was in residence at la GNO — highlights that which is made invisible, is not inherently erased; it lies in plain sight, queer and enchanting.
Maximillian Suillerot, Untitled, 2019, plastic trumpets, dimensions variable (source)
Laid out in the long and skinny rectangular gallery are: an untitled pile of teal and pink plastic trumpets in the northwest corner, and on the east wall, two fingers cast in plaster holding — or rather, fingering — the ribbon collar of a second place silver medal called Reaching for the Glory Within, an untitled teal and pink barbecue lighter on a small shelf, and a doorway with a shredded teal and pink plastic curtain ushering towards the adjacent media room.
Maximillian Suillerot, Fruity Armour, 2019, pink fruit wrapping foam, teal laces, acrylic on cloth, dimensions variable (source)
Along the narrow south wall, three plinths of varying heights are stacked in a traditional podium formation, covered in a crumpled dirty white cloth with pink and teal 1st, 2nd, and 3rd inscriptions. Atop lies Suillerot’s piece, Fruity Armour. Made from pink foam wrapper to protect fruit on route to merchants, this material is paradoxically frail and largely unable to protect anything. The cheeky title also points to a similar paradox of queer and flamboyant dispositions that can be used as armour, though not physically protective either.
The lifeless, anthropomorphic figure of Fruity Armour lies depleted across all three podiums foregoing an awarded position. This quasi-corporeal schema lies not in celebration, nor is it in triumph; it is exhausted and freed of the presumed human form that is meant to fill it. Shed, and left behind like a shell of a person. Suillerot’s inattention to detail in the presentation of some works — particularly with Fruity Armour — unfortunately render a disservice to the art. The piece itself is meticulous and intricately woven, yet the podium alter cloth is wrinkled and too short to reach the floor.
Maximillian Suillerot, still from L’Effort olympique des Sex Magick Warriors, 2019, video, 8:53 (source)
In the media room, the exhibition’s namesake piece, L’Effort olympique des Sex Magick Warriors, is projected on loop. Filmed on location in Sudbury, this piece documents performers running dressed in teal and pink reenacting the ceremonial passing of the Olympic torch, punctuated with scenes from a local roller derby club while narration speaks to the importance of intergenerational transference and epistemological safekeepings. The video is full of chromatic aberrations throughout: magenta and cyan (passable as pink and teal) halos which collect around forms in lens based works as the technical result of varying light wavelengths causing the lens to fail in focusing on all colours within a given frame. Although pesky, chromatic aberrations are easily removed in post-production. Presumably, Suillerot chose to keep the chromatic aberrations in the video rather than, just like the Pride flag, pragmatically remove the pink and teal colours. Much like the rest of the exhibition, the inclusion of chromatic aberrations are ostensibly quirky and thoughtful, but point to continued inattention to detail. The performers presented as the ‘sex magic warriors’ in the video are, surprisingly, staff members at la GNO, and not actually the centrally cited queer persons of the local Sudbury community. In the North, such brief surface level ‘parachute model’ engagement is all too common; urban organizations, groups, individuals, etc. briefly work with Northern and/or rural communities to fulfil a mandate without leaving a long lasting impact.
Maximillian Suillerot, Untitled, 2019, shredded pink and teal plastic, dimensions variable (source)
Lastly, the artist’s postmodern critique of the colours pink and teal falls short in that it is applied to neoliberal consumption; they purchase pink and teal commodities and present them as readymades with inherent queer value. Such consumption and presentation of “queer” commodities is not dissimilar to corporate rainbow washing during Pride months when major large-scale businesses, banks, and outlets plaster rainbows on any and everything to market their products, services, and goods with LGBTQ2S+ sensibilities. The question becomes: are these products, commodities, and readymades inherently queer and dissenting, or is this plainly queer neoliberalism?
For the opening of L’Effort olympique des Sex Magick Warriors, la GNO partnered with the serendipitously concurring Sudbury’s Take Back the Night march — a longstanding international protest movement which manifests as a nighttime public march against sexual and domestic violence. The march concluded at la GNO which sits atop Zigs, Northern Ontario’s only gay bar (again, in an area the size of Texas). I’m told that Suillerot’s video piece was projected at Zigs with acclaim from viewers. A lovely and kind GNO staff member recounts this night as being one that was heartfelt, warm, and special. Of course, I wish I was there. But that is the quintessential Northern Ontario queer invariable: longing, and wishing to be with community.
Alexander Rondeau is a queer, Francophone, interdisciplinary curator, writer, and artist from a rural Northeastern so-called “Ontario” farming community called Kerns Township — past, present, and future home to Ojibway, Cree, and Algonquin peoples within Robinson-Huron treaty land. He holds a BFA in Image Arts from Ryerson University (2017), and is currently an Ontario Graduate Scholarship funded MFA candidate in his final semester of the Criticism and Curatorial Practice program at OCAD University. Rondeau’s research driven curatorial practice is dedicated to championing and developing exhibitions by queer, trans, and two spirit artists in and from the North. He has curated exhibitions for artist-run centres in Northern Ontario such as the Near North Mobile Media Lab (North Bay, 2020) and the White Water Gallery (North Bay, 2019). Additionally, he has curated several site-specific exhibitions with the support of project grant funding in such places as a construction site, public hiking trails, a beach, downtown streets, and even atop a frozen lake. In 2021, Rondeau launched Between Pheasants Contemporary, an experimental gallery and presentation space in a pheasant coop in rural Northeastern Ontario. BPC looks forward to programming starting spring 2021. Alex is a founding member of Minor Hockey Curatorial (alongside Robin Alex McDonald), and découpé__projects (alongside Marilyn Adlington and Alex Gregory).
The problem and possibility of language in Rachel Gray’s Interchange
January 28, 2021, by Adrienne Scott
This essay was written in response to Rachel Gray’s video work, Interchange. Interchange was commissioned as a part of the event PostScript, an online series on accessibility, disability, and digital publishing, presented by Public Access between October 2 - 30th, 2020. Gray presented Interchange as part of an online artist presentation on October 23rd, moderated by Max Ferguson.
Rachel Gray is an artist based in Ottawa, Canada. She holds a BA in English Literature from King’s College and a BFA from the University of Ottawa.
Interchange is available on Gray’s channel on Vimeo:
Rachel Gray, Interchange (video still), 2020. Courtesy of the artist
Rachel Gray’s video work, Interchange, is occupied with language, and the problems that are created by privileging the written word. Interchange revolves around Gray’s childhood experience with dyslexia, and the work is a collage of animation, text, and video. In Interchange Gray recalls what it was like to learn to read through narration that acts as the video’s spine, and delivers images that breathe, flex, and break with the expanding universe of language and thought. Within the framework of dyslexia where written language is both an adversary and goal to be reached, Gray’s work shows how written language can be both a vehicle for understanding, as well as an obstacle.
Interchange opens with the image of a message in a bottle, containing “...words travelling across time and space to reach exactly the right hand”. In the castaway stories that Gray describes being told as a child, the writers of these messages are survivors of shipwrecks, forced to send out messages in corked bottles as a plea for rescue. In Interchange, the message in a bottle acts as a metaphor for communication. In this metaphor, the serendipity of finding such a message counterbalances the vulnerability of sending messages out into the world: where there is risk in calling out to the world, there is also the hope of someday being understood.
Rachel Gray, Interchange (video still), 2020. Courtesy of the artist
Like the ocean that a message in a bottle is set afloat in, Gray returns to the image of water to describe possible worlds when she narrates:
“in books, the confusing boundary between me and other people vanished. I was not just myself but many selves...with many possibilities. This was a stream that I gorged on to carry me through the time that ran dry.”
There is an urgency to imagination when the physical world has imposed limits, as with disability where the physical universe might be temporarily or permanently compressed to the space between an apartment, doctor’s office, or hospital. Similarly, in childhood, the perimeters of the physical world might extend only from the family home to school. Gray’s early belief of “[reading] as a kind of Nirvana, a paradise where you forever had a hand in its current” connects to the intoxication of this escape. But in the same way that paradise dissolves into a list of desires rather than a concrete place, in Interchange the written word quickly transforms into an impermeable set of sonic and visual puzzles. In Gray’s telling of her early life, “reading would not come,” revealing frustration and disconnection on the flipside of the written word’s idyllic possibility.
Rachel Gray, Interchange (video stills), 2020. Courtesy of the artist
This feeling of disconnection reappears in quoted diagnostic assessments from Gray’s own personal documents. The secondhand words of teachers and occupational therapists play through the second half of Interchange in Gray’s reading, and in the implied correction of school assignments and written report notes. This overlapping narration can come across as two voices, fighting across two sides of the same story. Gray opens this sequence with the text “I am interested in the question of right and wrong, and good and bad, and apparently have been for some time” and as this observation is made, images of corrected school assignments, and definitions of learning disabilities from school paperwork begin to fill the frame. The language of diagnosis and correction are stitched into a single interfering hum, casting the definitions of ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘normal’ as distractions instead of useful measures. While Gray asks “is this a good letter?” , scanned images of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ writing posture flash between animated letters that dance in place and shift position, as if to undermine the ‘correct’ letter in stasis.
The feeling of being called correct or incorrect, or good and bad as a child is powerful, and in this sequence Interchange evokes the disempowerment of being too young to argue for your own mind. Children are asked to trust the determinations of adults on all things, including the recorded judgments adults make of them through comments, report cards, and assessments. This power imbalance is palpable, and easily weaponized if mis-used. While a message in a bottle can be cast into the ocean or into a conversation, it can also sink if rejected by superficial definitions of a ‘right’ word, a ‘wrong’ word, or the underestimation of a mind.
Rachel Gray, Interchange (video still), 2020. Courtesy of the artist
Interchange ends with the image of Gray climbing from the window of her childhood bedroom, as an observer and participant in “a world of frequencies and chemical signatures”. Gray likens these forces to languages, and in this broad definition gestures at a more inclusive way of communicating - where text falters, there are as many modes of expression to answer and fill the gap as can be perceived.
Adrienne Scott (she/her) is an artist and writer in Toronto, Ontario. She is a graduate of the BFA program at the University of Ottawa (2016) and a recipient of the Edmund and Isobel Ryan Scholarship in photography. She has been included in exhibitions throughout Ontario, including at the Gladstone Hotel (Toronto, Ontario), Idea Exchange (Cambridge, Ontario), and Karsh-Masson Gallery (Ottawa, Ontario). She has also been a collaborator on interdisciplinary projects through programs such as the 2017 Montreal Contemporary Music Lab (LMCML). She recently participated in the 2020 Roundtable Residency as a member of Emergensies collective, a 3-person collective founded to explore the connections between music and animation.
April 21, 2020, by Steacy Easton
Photo courtesy of Brandon Canning
1. This year, the Bronx Museum showed dozens of photos by Alvin Baltrop, shot in the late 1970s. Baltrop was hard of hearing, black, and a Jehovah’s Witness. The photos were of the piers--industrial, and underdeveloped, and mostly used for queer recreation.
2. The piers, both the specific ones that Baltrop shot, and others--as far away as Brooklyn, were written about often--in the memoirs of Samuel Delaney (the SF writer), and David Wojnarowicz (artist and novelist), Arthur Hollander, and Tim Dlugos (Poet). They were photographed--again by Wojnarowicz, by Peter Hujar and Larry Fink (who was a mostly closeted lawyer for the New York Department of Transportation). They were intervened with, by performance and installation artists.
3. In her book, Cruising the Dead River: David Wojnarowicz and New York's Ruined Waterfront Fiona Anderson, thinks about life on the piers as “cruising ghosts” ---as the industrial refuge of the buildings, holding bodies in the dark, the work in the shadows. But there is another kind of ghost--I doubt much of the writing happened at the piers, this was not ethnographic research, someone taking notes with pencil in a reporter's notebook.
4. A photograph was taken, as an aide de memoire, and then that photograph, the physical incorporation of the memory, would be developed elsewhere. The history of public and urban sex is the history of actions that occur in the dark, and deveolp a kind of history, told quietly from hand to hand, the ephemerality of the space and the empherality of communication building up into the concreteness of bodies. As George Chauncey notes in Gay New York, the cruising grounds around the water were the result of the police closing more central cruising grounds in the 1960s, because of the presence of the World’s Fair. The sexual utopia that was so well-documented, then, occured in New York, for a little over two decades, from the 1964 World Fair, to the sex panics because of AIDS in the 1980s, and the tearing down of the piers in the mid-80s. Cruising always occurs, the methods and places change.
5. The photos are small enough, and awkward enough, plus knowing Baltrop’s biography, and the recalcitrance of commercial printers to handle these materials, and the popularity of printing work in bathrooms, it would make sense that these prints were domestic, most likely in the bathroom. In the case of Baltrop, the methods and places were set by photographs processed in a tiny bathroom . I wonder what else happened in that bathroom, the room in the house that is the most obsessed with all kinds of bodily containment, a semi-public room, that must be difficult to hide.
6. Baltrop, like Vivian Maier (who also developed in the bathroom), has been returned to us as a kind of folk hero--big museum shows, big coffee table books, careful essays indicating how his photos were about deliberate aesthetic choices as much as anything else. Looking at Baltrop photos--they are often out of focus, they spend as much time on the architecture of the piers as the bodies of sunbathers, they are the backs of people more often than they are the fronts of people--they seem private archives, tender, and maybe a little bit timid.
7. There is this conversation, sometimes about Hujar especially, but about other queer photographers from the 1970s, about being lost, or not being well known. When it comes to Hujar, lost means less famous than Mapplethorpe, but Hujar had the means and the ability to print beautiful shots (see for example the catalog from 1976: Portraits in Life and Death. New York City: Da Capo).
8. Those shots were of people who were semi-famous, or at least famous enough in his scene--a scene that could pretend a kind of demimonde glamour, but had enough money coming in, or at least enough social capital, that no one had to print in bathrooms. There are erotic photos by Hujar, straight ahead, high toned studio work, that are ravishing. His work on the piers is ravishing. The collapse of a sex act on the piers, and the sex act in a studio, the abiliy to aestheticize both, becomes a kind of Ghent Altarpeice of desire. Nominally able to be folded in on itself, nominally able to be carried, but really intended for those whose resources make the carrying a hint of form, more than anything else. This can be carried, but we all know that it doesn’t need to be.
9. Thinking about that social capital--there is this famous photo series of Wojnarowicz (Arthur Rimbaud in New York), taken in and around the piers, of a figure in a Rimbaud mask---Rimbaud on the subway, Rimbaud in Times Square, Rimbaud on Coney Island, Rimbaud pissing (again the bathroom), Rimbaud masturbating, Rimbaud shooting up, Rimbaud on the piers. No matter how broke Wojnarowicz was, and no matter how restless he was, there is this sense of having done the work, the lurid quality of this work amerolited by an obsession with this fin de siecle figure--Rimbaud as hipster, which makes the pleasure seeking another kind of distance--one shared with punks like Richard Hell or Patti Smith.
10. Baltrop’s photos are tiny, less than four by six sometimes. They do not have the arch distance of the studio, they never quote 19th century french poets. They are vest size things, marking a smaller and perhaps more personal ambition.
11. This is why, half way through this essay, I want to talk about my favourite Baltrop--one less about desire, and more about danger, but whose danger seems less performative or hip. Baltrop sometimes shot the graffiti found in these fallen down spaces, but the graffiti was not Haring, or other such luminous figures, and it was rarely skilled. In one photo it is a shot of a room, collapsing, on the left side of the comopositon, a lop-sided, lumpy, drawing of concentric circles, like a target, like a labyrinth, cryptic and unknowing, it seemed ever so slightly ominous.
12. The ominous quality seems real here. Getting to the piers took some amount of work--Delaney, in his “Motion of Light on Water”, talks about mazes of trucks, and stacks of tires, bigger than human scale. Douglas Crimp, the queer theorist, art historian and early proponent of Baltrop’s work, reminds us that there was an elevated highway, waiting to be reconstructed for most of that period, providing a physical impediment---literally marking the territory between the city of New York and the Hudson. This borderland, depending on oral communication, a tiny outland, carved by neglect, assignations noted after the fact, allowed anything to occur.
13. Anything included the conceptual artist Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End where he cut a large circular hole, in the center of a concrete piling, letting light in, making monumental that which was tiny, making public that which was liminally private, marking space in the language of loose affiliations, in ways that seemed monstrously led by ego.
14. I find the tiny photo of the drawing of the concentric circles, even in their awkwardness, lack of scale, their failure as drawings, more poignant than Orzoco’s large, immaculate hole. I find the mostly badly printed photos by Baltrop more poignant than the large scale shots of Hujar. I am worried I am buying into the myth of authenticity.
15. Authentic desire is always suspect. Unmediated desire is always nerve wracking. The men would go to bars near the piers--places like Kellers or the Ramrod, they would get drunk, and they would wander over to the piers. They played working class in the bars they came from, and in the places they ended up--sometimes literally, wearing workwear, the rough trade bars replacing in their own, gentrifying ways, the longshoremen bars that were there before. The mirror of a mirror, the prole fetish replacing actual proles, as much of a queer tradition as fucking in places where people haven’t fucked.
16. But Baltrop mostly took photos during the day, his photos are blazed by direct sunlight. The conversations by theorists and writers of this period were mostly the dark--what dangers held in the day for Baltrop.
17. Then, there was a photo he took of the entrance to an abandoned industrial warehouse, a sheet metal building, semi or truly industrial, maybe twenty feet high. Emblazoned on this entrance, in an almost elegant cursive, was the phrase, “Pick Pocket watch for your wallet – Paradise,”
Steacy Easton, Documentation of Action, Hamilton Tennants League, King Street East 2020
Steacy Easton, Bedbugs (Cladding on James and Hunter), 2019
18. I don’t know if the title is Crimp’s, another curator--it’s not Baltrop, I don’t think that he titled his work. I would have also titled it, Pick Pocket Paradise, watch for your wallet, but that’s beside the point. I have so many questions--how many pickpockets make a paradise, how do you secure a wallet in the dark, in the midst of sex, how many wallets do you think were lost, is there anything prophylactic that could be done to prevent theives, was this considered just a cost of doing business--this oral tradition of rough trade stealing, or being careful around rough trade, or what my friend, after her stereo was stolen for the third time, in a rapidly devolping neighbourhood in Montreal, a kind of gentrfier’s tax. Who wrote the message--did they bring paint with them, did the message prevent any pickpocketing? Did Baltrop take it as an example of landscape--like he took photos of decrepit piers and the light through holes in roofs or windows? Did he take it after his own wallet was stolen?
19. There is the message of formal graffitti, high art murals, camp reminders of neo-classicism, again the arch irony, the wink and the nod. There is informal graffiti, the scrawl of desire--the important measurements, what one wants, the phone number. There is little documentation of the informal graffiti at the piers--little notation of the ballpoint pen messages, and there is much documentation of large scale graffiti, of those infamous murals. Baltrop’s photos move somewhere between the two, the concentric circles, deliberate and accidental, the message was not quite clear, sort of intimate and imprecise as Baltrop’s printing. But the pickpocket warning--the script has a kind of slumming elegance, the site is well composed, the composition well considered--the warning made aesthetic. This is the space between formal and informal.
20. Though it was an unofficial warning, the pickpocket graffiti had some notion of formal writing--the alliteration between pickpocket and paradise, of course, the aphoristic quality of a paradise for pickpockets--but also how it was written---there was some attempt at a kind of calligraphic loveliness. The question returns to me, how do we aestheticise a warning?
21. This is a question that seems relevant to not only where I am living now, but how I am living now. The ruins that Baltrop, et al photographed, the ruins were accidental--it was people carving lives in the midst of an economic failure, an attempt to create a new social life in the 1970s, economic downtown and sexual liberation working as a singular force. In my hometown, at the grinding crush of an uneven economic recovery, the warning has yet to be aestheticised.
22. There was a baptist church in Hamilton that had existed since the 1890s. A few years ago, everything but the facade was torn down. They were going to build a thirty one story condo tower behind it. This is a very popular movement in Toronto, something called facadism. I don’t know if this is better than the giant modernist elementary school that has been bought by a Condo developer, and has been left to rot. Or the two early 20th century high schools that were left without students, and have not been restored in any real sense. There are also dozens of commercial and apartment spaces that have been bought by the city for an LRT that will never be built. (Each of the buildings bought up has had brightly coloured canning painted over them, marking them as city space, no longer available for people. Brandon Canning’s photographs of King Street and these claddings are instructive here.)
Photo courtesy of Brandon Canning
23. I have not been at the high schools that have yet to be torn down, I don’t know what decadence occurs in them. They are working class spaces, and we don’t imagine that they are working class spaces--they are outside of a middle class imaginary. I don’t think that work will be made from the ruins, in the same way that Hujar or Wojnarowicz made work from the ruins. There is not even a Baltrop of Delta High School, no well composed photographs of either the informal or formal graffiti that Hamilton is constructed by.
24. I keep thinking of the facade on the baptist church. This failed condo tower, this kind of tottering example of our own collapse. There have been formal interventions and informal interventions. A Vietnamese student group hung lanterns on the cladding for New Year's, and for most of two months, you walked through this tunnel of red and gold. There was a wheat paste mural of waterfalls and tigers, for a while, that peeled and rotted. There were endless tags, and then when the developer got sick of the tags, there was an actual official graffiti wall--which is its own parody.
25. There is one piece of graffiti, poignant and artless, that keeps being written on the cladding outside of the facade. It’s the same handwriting, and it has an address--often public housing, a complaint about that housing, often bed bugs, and an exhortation not to move there. It is done in black sharpie, a small notice against an expanse of white wall. The tigers are gone and the lanterns are gone, and the official developers graffiti wall is gone, and they pay enough attention to whitewash the wall, and so every two weeks or so you see a little notice, about bed bugs and city housing and not moving there.
26. One of the things that is lost with cruising, is that it can be classless--one of the things that Delaney notices in his memoirs of sex, maybe a little bit optimistcally, is that with the piers, there was a certain amount of class mingling. There were people who were playing at working class professions, but also people didn’t ask for credentials when hitting on each other. The language of desire was so narrow, and so explicit, that other efforts--at least in that moment were lessened. The sexual networks and the social networks of the poor, overlapped--the whisper networks, informal oral gossip, the note of where to find a place, what is safe and what is dangerous--warnings unaestheticised had a similar space. The sexual networks now require a cell phone, and a data plan, and real estate--the constant question, is can you host, and those who cannot host, are sloughed off.
27. I think about the ruinous church, and the buildings bought and left to rot, and I think of the little hand writing about bed bugs. I think of how we communicated, and what is left when that communication disappears. Walking from the center east of Hamilton, downtown, I walk by the shell of a house that has been burnt down. The house held one of the last remaining Single Residency Occupancy houses, now its own ruin, left undocumented. I think of the houses with strangers gathered in run down houses, that I saw when I was looking for housing in September, and how little of those networks were documented, how little of it was shot, and how little of it was written about--but maybe I was outside of the networks of communication--I wonder if there is a Baltrop of Hamilton rooming houses.
28. Will we know, before they are torn down. The notice mentions city housing, mostly, so there are public private partnerships that seem to be less vermin heavy. City Housing though takes more than ten years to get into. One of the local facilities, beloved by the media, to be the solution--has a director who tells horror stories about these SROs in churches and at religious conferences. These horror stories about rooms above bars, strip clubs, and those run down rooming houses, raise money for new buildings for people to live. The discourse of the street, has been replaced with the language of the bureaucrat--this is it’s own kind of aestheticization, it’s own kind of warning, made even quieter, by the decade long waiting list, by the narrative of saving the poor, by the problem of taking people’s voices away--of mandatory room checks, and necessary paperwork.
29. There has to be careful not to romanticise, to not remake those Rimbaud photographs, to not put a mask of degeneracy ... not to curate other people’s desires. The literal writing on the wall tells us that the oral networks of working class poverty have a written component, but to preserve those networks, to treat them as a kind of medium, with its own communication, is present and real.
30. The problem with it being present and real, is that it is not for those who are not poor--it is not for those who have the social capital or economic capital to attempt to save. It is making a life, a network of survival, and perhaps thriving, in a world that is hostile, that makes ruins, lets buildings to rot, refuses to house, or build, make silly and temporary decisions--thinking about the formal network, and the informal networks of resistance, thinking about the anonymous person who wrote that gorgeous warning that Baltrop decided to preserve, and the artless notice on the walls of where to avoid vermin, let this be present, refuse to have it collapse into metaphor.
Steacy Easton is a writer and artist, currently living in Hamilton. They are interested in the intersection between class and sex, and visual cultures outside of traditional designations of “fine art”.
Creamcheese, Chimeras and Cheetah Print
IBS The Musical by Jonah Strub at The Front Room Gallery in Waterloo, ON
October 19, 2019
January 16, 2020 by Rebecca Casalino
Jonah Strub’s IBS The Musical, the artist’s first solo exhibition, was installed at The Front Room Gallery run by performance artist and painter Tess Martens, in her home in Waterloo on the evening of October 19th. The Front Room Gallery is nestled in Martens’ uptown Waterloo neighbourhood, its entrance marked by the bright glow coming from the gallery crowded with people and a sandwich board announcing IBS The Musical: Jonah Strub ft. Athena McQueen.
Melonia Katz, 2019, porcelain. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Casalino
Upon entering the exhibition you are greeted with a towering orange paper maché beehive of hair that extends from floor to ceiling. The exaggerated doo is supported by a heavily contoured face surrounded by a pool of cheetah print fabric and a blue fur collar that appear as if they are melting into the floor under the weight of their hair. The beehive is d
etailed in spirals to match the curls dangling by her ears. This character is Strub’s alter ego and drag persona Loxanne Creamcheese whose features are used in Strub’s paintings and ceramics. Strub spoke about his relationship to his drag persona saying, “Me and Loxanne are one and the same. She is the embodiment of my fruitiness, the quintessence of my flamboyance. As much as it pains my digestive system to say this, Mz. Creamcheese is, and will eternally be, inside me.”
Women Who Made Me Gay, 2019, oil on paper with Emily Reimer and Jonah Strub singing karaoke in front. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Casalino
Moving past the pillar of Loxanne’s hair into the main space, visitors are greeted by nine portraits hung in a tight grid with the title “Women Who Made Me Gay” installed in a bold pink glitter font above. Painted in a gestural, highly textured style, Strub uses contrasting colours to make each portrait pop with a glamorous gritty finish. Strub says he uses, “bright oil colours, fast brush strokes, and high contrast shading” on heavily gessoed canvas so the work feels wet like it’s shaped by choppy waters. He takes inspiration from make-up contour videos, adding titanium white as a highlight, and explores how shadows carve a face. I recognized a few of the “Women Who Made Me Gay” straight away spotting Lea Michelle being ‘slushied’ in Glee, Tracy Turnblad with her huge highlighted hair and double chin singing in Hairspray, Lady Gaga wearing her Kermit the frog dress, and Jonah’s mom lounging on a bench. These autobiographical references give a deeply personal tone to Strub’s exhibition. The choice to include the portrait of his mom became obvious when I recognize her walking around the gallery laughing with visitors and taking pictures of her son with relatives in front of the art. Her supportive presence makes her inclusion in the installation even more personal and lovely.
The Katz Family, 2019, porcelain. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Casalino
The main space features a set of shelves where the artist has installed five ceramic cats with Strub’s face, complete with his distinct nose and trademark moustache, coated in differing outlandish patterns. More like house cats than sphinxes, Strub’s humour is evident as he glazed a watermelon pattern on the body of one cat with a red face spotted with black seeds, while another cat is covered in small cheetah print interrupted only by an orange caterpillar moustache.
Gay Bugs, 2018, acrylic and glitter on canvas; Straight girls tell me I’m fierce, 2019, ceramics and eyelashes; Mz. Kasha LaPesach. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Casalino
As viewers round the corner through the kitchen they enter a small backspace where snacks, alcohol and the PWYC (pay what you can) donation bowl are set up. Across from the cheese and crackers is a table with more ceramics featuring a sphinx with a cheetah’s body and the artist’s head dressed up with a little pink scarf, blush and painted red nails. A ceramic reclining man is splayed out on the table, Garfield mug in hand, wearing a shirt and tie which contrast his skimpy black underwear and thigh-high shiny pink zebra print boots. These chimeras spark a dialogue between the masculine and feminine aspects the artist combines within his campy works. Strub states this explicitly in his artist statement writing that he “hopes to create conversations around the true meanings of masculinity, femininity, and outrageous up-dos in a society that has too many gender restrictions and not enough cheetah print.”
Before the karaoke commences Martens reminds visitors to donate to the artists. The Front Room Gallery is an alternative space that compensates artists through PWYC contributions from event attendees. Athena McQueen then warms the crowd rocking a backless metallic top, and a purple and teal sequin skirt with matching iridescent shoes. She kicks off her set by singing “Sweet Transvestite” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a cult classic in the queer community. McQueen also pokes fun at Strub’s passion for musical theatre mentioning his weekly karaoke outings during his time at the University of Guelph. Strub then takes the stage wearing tailored cheetah print pants, zebra print socks, an amber turtleneck and glamourous dangling gold earrings. He performs “Somewhere That’s Green” from Little Shop of Horrors in a ridiculous falsetto that has the gallery giggling. The inclusion of karaoke in the exhibition activates Strub’s work as visitors embrace the spirit of camp singing songs such as “Since U Been Gone” or “Fergalicious”.
Girl Toys, 2019, oil on canvas. Photo courtesy of Jonah Strub.
IBS The Musical was a casual gathering of people with connections to the gallery or Strub. It was a BYOB event, which made it more accessible financially and created a more comfortable house party environment. The creation of alternative spaces, like Front Room Gallery, allows artists to explore avenues of funding outside of the traditional method of government grants. These kinds of art spaces that occupy unorthodox environments; like warehouses, beaches, or artists’ homes are geared towards practices that thrive in less formal surroundings. The PWYC method supports this underground aesthetic of crowdfunded projects that are created as a direct reflection of the needs of the surrounding community. Alternative forms of financial support risk being frowned upon as ‘low-brow’ by some sects of the art world; however, the realities of the scarcity of space and increasing rent prices have made these alternative venues even more valuable in allowing emerging practices to gain momentum.
Sunny Katz, 2019, porcelai. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Casalino
The installation in Martens’ home presented challenges unique to these types of venues and Strub tackled them expertly as the exhibition moved through a domestic space. The choice to stage the karaoke in front of a wall filled with paintings activated the main space and incorporated the painted works as an element of the performance. I would like to end with Strub’s promotional description of IBS The Musical, “If you like cheetah print, mediocre Cher impressions, and genetic predispositions to digestive issues, this is an event you don’t want to miss!”
Rebecca Casalino is a Toronto artist and curator maintaining her practice through deeply personal collaborations in her community and sheer will power. Currently focusing on drawing and multiples, Casalino has also previously worked in video, performance, sculpture, and installation. Casalino completed her BA in Studio Art, with a minor in English, at the University of Guelph in 2017. She co-managed VS Studios from 2017-2018 running numerous social practice projects. Casalino is currently an MFA candidate at the OCAD University.