| Victor Coleman
R/S: The Initial as a Sign — Rick/Simon: Printed Matter
From the catalogue Rick/Simon: Printed Matter
The Glendon Gallery, York University, Toronto, Sept. 10 - Oct. 18, 1987
Curated by John Silverstein
[ 3,462 words ]
In his earliest work, which I first encountered in 1970, Rick/Simon, still attached to his Ohio roots, was just beginning to assert his visual sensibility against the prevailing provincialism of popular Midwestern representation. His portrait of his Grandma Mahaney, in an early issue of Image Nation, was both homage and debunk, an expression of exile. 'Look, you were born here, and no matter where your mind travels, your body will drag it back into the same dark earth.'
Those were the heady days of the early Rochdale College, when anarchy meant doing your own thing peacefully, and when, for some, the creative act was ordained not ordered. Those were also, still, the early days of the Coach House Press (founded in 1965) which, by 1970, was producing books of poetry, prose, photography, art, criticism, comics, and a lot of ephemera. The ephemera was being generated by Coach House workers and the artists and writers who frequented the old garage / stable behind Rochdale on Huron Street [on what is now called bpNichol Lane], where my mother would often cook lunch for guests like William S. Burroughs, Edward Dorn, Allen Ginsberg, George Bowering, Fred Wah, Gregory Corso, Ferlinghetti, and many others; where it wasn't unusual to have late afternoon visits from four or five Mothers of Invention or Andy Warhol's film crew.
When I returned in late 1969 from living on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia for a little over a year, the Coach House had moved to 401 Huron Street (rear). There was a lot of new equipment and the staff had been considerably expanded. Most of the new employees were from the U.S. midwest: David Hlynsky, Jerry [Emerich] Ofo, and a quiet young man who called himself Rick/Simon, preferring to eschew his family name. At first I thought his talent was uneven, erratic; that his energy, although precocious, was undirected; but I had missed the silent iconoclasm that quickly emerged in delicious design ideas that would help to revolutionize the way people looked at printed matter, and the way they perceived photography
One sunny Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1972, Rick/Simon and I, as part of our design for my book Parking Lots, took the printed (two-up) flats of the book's cover outside to the parking lot (now a park!) beside the O.I.S.E. Building on Bloor Street and spread them around on the asphalt so that I could run over them with my brother-in-law's Mini Minor. The book's half-titles were accomplished by inking up one of the Mini's tires, making a 'proof', and then dropping the type out of the track. The books were then bound (in Vancouver, by the publisher [Talonbooks]) and sent to stores and libraries, who often returned them marked 'damaged', because some of them had visible skid marks and tire tracks, or little pieces of gravel embedded in the paper.
Collaboration is the soul of film and design, and without it the clash of intention would be deafening. Working with Rick, on big projects or small, was a gift. He was never belligerent or pouty and he experimented tirelessly, honing his skills as the operator of the Coach House process camera. It occurs to me now that there is a relationship between the process camera in the graphic scape (largely two-dimensional) and the 8 x 10 camera in the landscape. Where an Edward Weston or a Thaddeus Holownia engages the three-dimensional landscape with large format cameras to produce pristine light records in two dimensions, a Rick/Simon, confined to the closet-like enclosure attached to the process camera, was engaged with the internal language of signs and the dialogue of image and type. R/S's translucent blinds are a good example of the effect this had on the artist's aesthetic.
He also has an uncompromising dedication to community service — he's lived on Wards Island for 15 years — and consequently also became a master in the creation of irreverent propaganda, and its illegitimate sister (of course, mock) forgery. Giant reproductions of Canadian postage stamps, a collection of stamps by artists, images from the currency deconstructed to debunk the economy, and a catalogue of Canadian art abroad in the form of a passport, were just some of the products created in this vein. Rick/Simon's masterwork in this realm is undoubtedly his poster of the then just-constructed CN Tower, which proposed, dead-pan, that certain areas of downtown Toronto were at risk should the tower ever topple. Deservedly this little piece of urban guerilla propaganda became a hot news item in the Toronto dailies and on broadcast news. Rick was interviewed with his back to the camera or with a hood on, or something like that, to maintain his anonymity [he called himself Skip Distance!] and ensure the mystification of the work itself.
Identity is a bugaboo, a nuisance to the artist whose processes involve continual work with new methods, themes, and media (technology). The risk to the artist here is that of never being taken 'seriously' by the Academies and the critical establishment. The work is nonetheless masterful in its translation of simple insights into iconography.
Rick/Simon's recent work with 'festival wear' places him oddly and finally among some of Toronto's finest 'fashion' photographers — Jeremiah Chechik, Deborah Samuel, Gerard Gentile, George Whiteside, and David Hlynsky — without forcing him into a commercial mode. Photographs of festival costumes in Trinidad, Tokyo, Toronto, and Nicaragua attest to a new sensibility, one that recognizes political action in the act of celebration. The issues challenged in these photographs include the history of revolutionary movements, the importance of a North / South dialogue, the exploitation and destruction of indigenous communities, and the slow death of our open waterways at the hands of corporate and government polluters. These are all local issues; essentially Rick/Simon has focused his attention on them — pace Grandma Mahaney — because reform and redress have their origin at this level. You'll see no grandiose statements about Global Nuclear Destruction, no heart-wrenching photos of the starving, no easy political targets. The integrity of the local image is serial. There is a simple symbiosis between the sewer and the bloodstream, the smokestack and the lungs, the chemical spill and the cancers that consume our society.
But R/S's work is not merely dour protestation, nor does it communicate with strident rhetoric. It proceeds with the inherent whimsy of celebration and contains all the hope and optimism of conviction through constant vigilance. Effortless as mere asides to the Zeitgeist, do not mistake this work as cynicism. His technique is highly programmatic and controlled, while the aesthetic is often loose and flexible in its open-mindedness.
Another important correlation is that of density and intensity. There has always seemed to be an essential aridity in the photography of, say, Minor White, or Roloff Beny; although their negatives had density and their images had intensity they could never quite make the two conditions dance. Seeing so many Rick/Simon pieces in one place can be a mind-boggling experience.
Rick would always bring something to show or give you when he came to visit, and when I went to visit him it was with the pleasurable anticipation of seeing new work in quantity and old work in situ. Whether it was the latest postcard, a new poster, or colour photographs from his last trip abroad, his eagerness to share the work was more infectious than demanding. The fact that I was a friend and collaborator simply allowed me to imagine the context — the density of the context — within which to view the new work. An exhibition such as this one provides the visitor with years of sharing consolidated into a single gallery.
Perpetual youth that he is (I'm talking spirit here), it's difficult to imagine Rick/Simon's work in retrospect. A kindred spirit, L.A. artist Ed Ruscha, called his retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York I Don't Want No Retrospective (try singing it to the tune of I Can't Get No Satisfaction).
After the fire that devastated the Banff School of Fine Arts' photo department where Rick was working, and where many of his negatives were lost forever to the inferno, the Toronto arts community mounted a benefit for him which, for all intents and purposes, is the highest honour any artist could ever aspire to: the respect and love of his community.
I've always been led around by my eyes. It is as though the attraction of attention involved a physical force like gravity. I believe that this force is the interaction of the attendee and the object of attention. Attention can be described as the application of the mind and its consciousness to the input of the senses, as it decides which data it will notice and which it will filter out (Mind as Editor).
I use the camera as a remote sensor, a tool to bring objects to my attention and expand my range of vision. I use offset and photographic printing to draw the viewer's attention to what I see. The techniques range from simple to technically complex, but the object is always the same: show and tell.
From my earliest years, I have been shown images of myself and members of my family. When I was 10 years old, at summer camp, I was initiated into the techniques of photography. It wasn't until my association with the Coach House Press that I began to learn about the alchemical interaction between idea and printed matter — the use of vision, attention, and memory; representation, perception, and image, to attempt to give an idea visible form. I was first introduced to this process by other artists and poets associated with the Press where, from 1968 to 1979, I was a [process] camera operator and designer. It was there that I. got my basic training and produced most of the offset printed material in this show. The Coach House was ideal for experimentation and collaboration; it provided an amazing cross-fertilization of the arts, aimed at making the 'printed' matter.
In 1979, I was invited by the Banff School of Fine Arts to establish a printing and publishing program. Sadly these plans were ended by a fire, which also destroyed my ten-year archive of photographic negatives. The greatest disappointment was the administration's unwillingness to restart this pioneering facility for the advancement of the photographic arts in the country. Nine years will have elapsed until the new Banff Photo Building finally opens. I was, however, buoyed by the support of the Toronto arts community, which held a benefit to help defray my losses.
Subsequently I began working with a new graphic arts firm in Edmonton, operating a laser-scanning colour-separation machine. This gave me access to other industrial graphics tools. It was there that I produced the large photo-murals and translucencies in the show. I continued my design activities as Avoid Graphics (not just a name, but a philosophy) working with Edmonton performing artists and attempting to make the photo community, augmented by other Banff burn-out victims, more active. It was also in Edmonton that I began my work in colour photography and printing.
For a few years, I split my time between winters in Edmonton and summers in Toronto. In 1984, facing the incredible lull in the West brought on by the National Energy Policy, and having been turned down yet again for a Canada Council grant, I used the commission from a national poster job to put my Edmonton studio into storage and ship myself to Japan for two months, before returning to my home on Wards Island.
This visit and others, to Nicaragua in 1983 and Trinidad-Tobago in 1986 and 1987, have pushed me to attempt photos which do more than tell a story describing culture and bringing this eye and approach home. The section of Island photos tries to reflect my good fortune in living there and in sharing its wonders.
At present, I am working on a number of design projects, attempting to integrate my graphic arts techniques with my colour photography, and pursuing access to tools in video and computer graphics.
Lake Wards Yacht Club, July 1987
from the catalogue
Text: © Victor Coleman. All rights reserved.
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