| Andy Fabo
Tony Wilson: Three Fables and a Shadow Biography
THIS INFINITE IMPROBABILITY FROM WHICH I COME IS BENEATH ME LIKE A VOID: MY PRESENCE ABOVE HIS VOID IS LIKE THE EXERCISE OF A FRAGILE POWER. AS IF THIS VOID DEMANDED THE CHALLENGE THAT I MYSELF BRING IT, I THAT IS TO SAY THE INFINITE, PAINFUL IMPROBABILITY OF AN IRREPLACEABLE BEING WHICH I AM. (1)
An artist died. An artist dies shortly before he mounts his first solo show in more than a decade. Many, many people knew this artist but when they reminisce with family and friends they begin to realize that the biographical details don't quite merge; everybody has a slightly different idea of who the artist was and what his life's work was, partly because he consciously chose to allow different folks to see different aspects of him. Every description of the artist by one of his survivors is called into question by another, therefore casting doubt on his particular identity.
An artist dies and at his funeral the eloquent minister hands out mirrored shards, fragments of the artist. The mourners take the shattered parts home where they study them for hours struggling to remember wholly the deceased. However, the survivors see only their own image reflected in each shard, so they decide to bring together all the mirrored pieces and assemble them in an exhibition of the artist's work. A crisis arises: the components don't fully meld, there are conspicuously missing pieces, the seams are overly pronounced. Examining this incomplete reconstruction, they now see a more fractured, kaleidoscopic reflection of themselves, as the artist has spent the last dozen years creating portraits of them.
Tony Wilson grew up in Alberta, attending the Alberta College of Art in the late 1960s. He moved to Ontario in the early 1970s, living and working in Rochdale College for a period. During mid-decade he spent a brief sojourn in London, Ontario where he taught at Fanshawe College. By the end of the 1970's he had returned to Toronto and began teaching printmaking to photography students at Ryerson. Also during this time he exhibited at Nancy Poole's Studio in Yorkville. In late 1981, Tony Wilson became part of the ChromaZone collective, a group that spearheaded the revival of figurative painting in Canada. His contribution was essential to the success of the group.
An artist tried. An artist tries, with repercussions, to keep producing without playing the game. Both by temperament and ideology he disdains the usual course of a career. While the discourses of the art world make a lot of noise about commodity culture, the aura of the art object and the romanticizing of the artist's role that take place in the marketplace, most artists eventually succumb to commercial expectations to some degree. This artist, however, is seen only in group shows in community-oriented galleries and avoids the self aggrandizement of the one-person exhibition. His refusal finally transforms him into a moving shadow; evocative, elusive and unknowable.
I ESCAPE CONFUSION BY TURNING AWAY FROM THE PROBLEM. I HAVE DEFINED THE SELF AS A VALLUE, BUT REFUSED TO TAKE IT FOR PROFOUND EXISTENCE. (2)
Tony Wilson was equally gifted as a photographer, printmaker and painter. He made silkscreens of astonishing complexity. His deceptively casual photographs incisively chronicled an exciting time in Toronto's recent history: the birth and growth of the Queen Street art scene. From these photos he culled images, portraits and incidents to inject into his vibrant, innovative paintings. His mural , Work to Rule, was considered by many to be the outstanding work of the giant Chromaliving exhibition of 1983. Tony Wilson's paintings were singled out for critical attention by the local press in both Berlin (O Kromazone, 1982) and Zurich (Fire & Ice, 1985). After ChromaZone dissolved in 1985, he spent a large part of his time working on privately commissioned portraits. Also during this time he participated in many group shows, most memorably contributing excellent work to such gay and lesbian group shows as the annual Queerculture exhibition.
Tony Wilson's engagement with the larger art world was renews when he co-founded the artist collective The Red Head in 1990. In the immediate months before his death he was working on a portrait series of "strangers" in the downtown core (businessmen at lunch hour, people at bus stops, etc.) for a solo exhibition.
An artist portrayed. An artist is commissioned to portray a group of people in a painting. He works slowly and carefully and keeps having his subjects return repeatedly for modeling sessions. His powers of observation and painterly skills are at a pinnacle, therefore he fusses over the recording of every last detail: every slight change of hairstyle, gaining of weight, every new wrinkle, modulation in shade of lipstick, or minute receding of a hairline. Even shifting moods and fleeting changes of expression do not escape his attention. The completion of the portrait, which was to be delivered as a birthday gift, is delayed and the artist continues working for months, then years, while the gradually aging, nearly portrayed, despair that the painting may never be finished.
THERE IS A SECRET IN DECISION THE MOST INTIMATE WHICH IN THE END, IS FOUND IN THE NIGHT. IN ANGUISH (TO WHICH DECISION PUTS AN END). BUT NEITHER NIGHT NOR DECISION ARE MEANS: IN NO WAY IS NIGHT A MEANS FOR DECISION: NIGHT EXISTS FOR ITSELF, OR DOES NOT EXIST. (3)
ANDY FABO, MAY 1992
1. George Bataille, Inner Experience (L'experience intérieure).
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), p.69
2. ibid. p. 70.
3. ibid. p. 26.
Originally published in Tony Wilson A Retrospective, The Red Head Gallery, Toronto 1992.
Text: © Andy Fabo. All rights reserved.
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