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.