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Colin Browne

bill bissett at The Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, September 28 - November 18.

Vanguard, Vol. 13 #10, January 1985.
[ 1,289 words ]


Love is garish, you could say, and be right. Being a kind of station too and very French in being so, being in a being passing through and staring at you, meaning something's gaudy perhaps or what's missing from your eye's not your eye.

Feels like a station up here on Four, cool and public. Jammed on the walls in streams of paint, on columns and under plexiglas snoods bill bisset's able profligacy sprawls — fires in the tempul — twenty years' worth and more.

First of all, blewointment press, its issue burning two and three deep in all this respectability. Remember going to the mailbox for them, stuffed with catalogue sheets and newspaper ads under the plum tree, heavy in its branches. Some I don't recognize at all, and what marvels those urgent mimeographs the flower of too responsible CanLit bloomed in young and plucky, bissett culled work into these anthologies from everywhere, seemed to love you simply, as bpNichol says on the tape accompanying the show, because you were writing what you called poems.

Angels window the gallery, half in and out but not and yes. Clearly angels and often enough three, call them I think guides, bissett does, and aimed at them through these years and walls the calligraphic birds like bombs of bliss. See one of these flying tripods of the heart in a local park and you'll know angels are near. They hover throughout bissett's work, little holy ghosts, simultaneously sign and signature.

Works of witness then, a retrieval of trash to build things with, museums of trashed dreams resurrected by centripetal yearning, and a luring and crashing from the windows of each board a figure who's there all along. Then silence. Those figures flies in some way tacked. Something perhaps like a rubbing from a nickel. No. An osmosis. Guides materialize and stall, begin to dissolve back, or dissolve through, or out. Can't tell and no doubt ain't spozed to. Being in flux intentional. When flux fluxing things sing. This is meant to be healing work, bissett shaman.

Love then, to return, make it boy's love — not love of boys in this case, but being a stopped-boy as convention has it here and loving like Peter Pan.

As for convention: there is a nagging impression of male poets on this coast, that they've translated 'negative capability' — Keats was not much more than a boy when he dreamed it up — into a procrastination over growing old, call it protraction-of-innocence as strategy. No need to grow up so long as you've no wars and the Canada Council. This gesture or strategy has, I think, been a major experiment here, a taking of advantage of the few years Vancouver offered outside the mortal world. bissett may be the only one who's made of it the jouissance it promised. I don't think a guy could do this work in Nova Scotia, which is the point Scott Watson makes in his catalogue, that is, you have to have been here in Vancouver to have done what bissett has done. Yet regionalizing a mind like this seems like the wrong way in and where are you when you get there anyway?

Half in, half out.

What I'm after: the profligacy, the extravagant fecundity of the stopped-boy. And what I'm reminded of: Lucy Fischer's essay 'The Lady Vanishes: Women, Magic, and the Movies', where she discusses male magic as a transposition of the female act of procreation into the male arena of magic and narrativity. It strikes me that the stopped-boy lingers in the youthfully libidinal and becomes, when he eschews his manjob, a mothering figure. And what issue! bissett's work seems to have its roots in this highly energized male birth magic; there is a nurturing here.

fires in th tempul naturally reveals the development of bissett's work, and many of the paintings seem homages to the junk artists, visionaries, and apocalyptic painters of our century. Yet the earliest drawings and paintings in this show are as adept as the latest. Joyous surprises are the landscapes and Dufy-reminiscent portraits of Vancouver as a celestial city. Particular praise is general for the Schwitters-like assemblages, which over the years have become beautifully simplified. My own delight rises in the transformational uterine calligraphy that is celebrated in the paintings and in large photomurals.

These squirming characters ought to be letters and they ask you to see them so, but they're teases. If you spy a familiar it swyves into another. Each character's curling itself into a new character, constantly reinventing itself. To remain still would be death, or to know death as does the person imprisoned in the daily tongue that chains us. Watson too makes this point in his fine catalogue essay, provoking a reading of bissett as metamorphoser. Stopped-boy must always be becoming (a new boy). Will he ever know who he is? The answer suggests a reason for the intense feeling of narcissism the work often generates, the intimation of self-portraiture.

The portraits are attempts to represent the spiritual body as it coalesces into visible form for a moment, before its molecules dissolve back again into pure energy, saucers land in th citee seems to hold it all. One of bissett's guide-like figures stares out from the paint constructing it and surely no one knows for sure who this is. Are these the head and shoulders of one of the saucer's occupants? Or the face of an earth dweller gazing upon the first saucer as it lands? Or both, simultaneously? Or is it purely metaphor?

The issue is identity. Bissett is saying he's not after identity as ego-gratification, or as tool of correct national will, but as spiritual energy manifesting itself in the light bursting through eternity.

In the end, though, through all this radiance, all this paradoxical dissolution and reconstitution, I felt oppressed. The display area is cluttered, but it seems to have been the right thing to do, considering the effusion of work — 158 pieces over three rooms — and the celebration of West Coastiness.

In fact, I came away with an intimation of something that reminded me of bondage, although I can't really place it. Watson in his catalogue essay writes much of desire as the driving wheel of these works, and certainly the political bissett is not nearly as evident as the bissett who celebrates polymorphous nibbling, sucking, chewing and cumming into eternity. The work selected is entirely fired by the sexual, and yet I'd like to know why it loomed darkly so soon.

This work then is about transformation. That is, the transformation of various materials into forms that are singular and familiar is a metaphor for our own possible transformations. To this degree it is transformation in that it provides evidence of metamorphosis, a kind of sad snapshot, which is a memory and a thing, but not breathing.

So the work becomes instructive, even didactic after a while. All this bold extraordinary light and colour is confined to its frames, confined to the VAG, and, eventually, confined by its own act of persuasion. This limit limits me.

Still, I am grateful for any trace of a life lived with conviction. And seeing the full range of bissett's work for the first time I was flooded with a delightful sense of awe. He has been called a visionary, and he stands for the life of the spirit in the face of crushing materialism of all stripes. Bless him.


Vanguard, Vol. 13 #10, January 1985.

Text: © Colin Browne. All rights reserved.

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