| Ross Skoggard
Canadian Artists in the Big Apple
[David Craven, Shelagh Keeley, Peter Schuyff, Andy Fabo, Tim Jocelyn, Dorothea Rockburne, Marcus Leatherdale, Marvin Gasoi, Stephen Lack,
Canadian Art, Summer 1986.
[ 3,168 words ]
Toronto painter David Craven was lucky. He moved to Manhattan seven years ago and signed a long lease on a big loft in a decent neighbourhood. It's at the corner of Franklin Street and West Broadway in TriBeCa, after SoHo the most expensive loft district in the city. Just downstairs and next door is a once-trendy place to eat. El Internaçional café serves tapas, last season's chic hors d'œuvres, to young stockbrokers, tourists and a few jet-set stragglers who have developed a taste for the house specialty, fried baby eel. Craven hates the Internaçional. In summer, with the windows open, his loft is saturated with the smell of frying garlic.
The day I was there Craven was responding to an even more unwelcome visitation. He was installing a burglar alarm. Did someone break in?
'Someone tried,' Craven explains. 'Early one morning I was awakened by a banging on my door. I thought it was the mailman. I was about to get out of bed, get my mail and tell him to pipe down when the banging stopped. It was some kids trying to break through my door with a crowbar. They went to another loft with a weaker door and robbed the place.'
Everyone in New York has a violent crime story. There's nothing unusual about it. What's unusual is the calm, matter-of-fact way they tell them. As if it were an ordinary part of everyday life. Whatever it is. New York has more of it — violence, money opportunity, taxi-cabs. You can't take Vancouver or Halifax and multiply everything by 10 and get New York. The change in scale changes people and their relations to each other. So much power and money rubbing up against so much poverty and anger. The winners and losers of this macro-Snakes and Ladders game have become familiar sights. The ubiquitous Cadillac stretch limousines are almost as common as the de-institutionalized mental patients haranguing some imaginary parent or boss on the street corner. Young Canadian artists arriving for the first time can be overawed by the spectacle.
'New York did have an immediate and devastating effect on my work.' concedes David Craven. 'Before we came down everyone was saying they worried about how my wife would take to New York. I was the one who was hot to come here. So we get here and within five days my wife is feeling perfectly at home with her job as a genetic technologist at New York University Medical Center, and I'm going to my studio and sulking. I didn't do any new work for months. I cleaned everything out of the studio. I didn't want to look at old work. The studio was bare. I would go in every day and get real depressed. Then after eight months I started drawing, I started drawing figures.'
Craven paints in vinyl spackle and acrylic on interlocking plywood panels. His heavily impastoed black-and-white images of heads, hands, glasses (as well as spectacles) and oil derricks crowding and overlapping one another challenge the viewer to decipher an associational text. They are the paintings of someone who has observed the New York scene carefully and synthesized a concise statement of its recent concerns,
When the work finally does begin to click and the newcomer starts to have dealers, critics and curators in to see it, he is guaranteed of one reaction. No matter how big a fish he is back home, in New York no one will have heard of him. The director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston was at Craven's recently 'He asked me where I was from,' says Craven. 'I told him Toronto. I told him a little about the painting scene up there and he was amazed. He said, "I didn't know there was any painting going on in Canada."' Craven credits the government's tendency to fund and circulate installation and performance art rather than painting with Canada's reputation abroad as a country that just doesn't produce painters. It is probably no coincidence that most of the Canadian artists living in New York are painters or sculptors or photographers. Shelagh Keeley is the only installation artist I spoke to.
'Installation art exists in Canada because of the funding,' she told me in the upper west side apartment she shares with two other people. 'That funding doesn't exist here. Installation work does happen here, but it's much more problematic for people. I've had that response. Dealers are real impressed with my rooms or my walls [Keeley draws, stains and mounts photographs on the walls and ceilings of her work sites], but the first thing they say is, 'How do I sell this?' There's a real up-frontness about the commercial aspect of the art world here.' Nevertheless, Keeley is continuing to do installation work as well as the drawings she sells through her Toronto dealer. A bar in the East Village has offered her its walls for a summer project.
The remunerative potential of art is something artists in New York are becoming increasingly conscious of. One painter in his 30s was reportedly lured from one gallery to another with a guarantee of $1 million in sales per year. It takes a lot of poise and judgment for a young artist to successfully negotiate the art world there. Critical and commercial attention in New York is like a flashlight in the hands of a drunk on the street. It waves about, illuminating now this artist's studio, now that one, now this gallery, now that bit of graffiti. Artists would be naive to ignore fashion trends completely, but they have to resist the temptation to dash for the light whenever it hesitates for a second on a movement or style. No sooner do you get there than the beam has moved on and the art world starts muttering about your shameless careerism.
Last year gestural figuration was hot. This year it's optical abstraction. Getting it right can sometimes go to one's head. One of the leaders of the new op-abstraction is former Toronto painter Peter Schuyff. His second one-man show last winter at a newly renovated and extremely posh-looking gallery in the East Village was the talk of the town. When I asked about getting in contact with Schuyff for this article the reply came back via the gallery secretary: 'Peter Schuyff doesn't want to be included in an article about Canadian artists. He doesn't consider himself Canadian now.' That's the big time.
Some artists wonder what happens to art in this feverish atmosphere. Andy Fabo, one of the co-founders of Toronto's ChromaZone, came originally from Calgary. In 1985, he and artist Tim Jocelyn moved from Toronto to New York. They shared a loft so far west on 26th Street that there were no cars on his block: just 18-wheel transports loading and unloading at bays of block-long warehouses. You rode the freight elevator up five storeys to their compact living quarters. Fabo said they had 900 square feet but it didn't look it. 'We have a very big bathroom,' he joked.
Just after our interview, Jocelyn and Fabo put their things into storage and moved back to Canada, where Jocelyn was to complete a work commissioned for the Canada Pavilion at Expo 86. While Jocelyn says he'll return to New York, the plight he and Fabo found themselves in is typical of the situation of many artists in New York. A landlord letting marginal quarters in a fringe neighbourhood realizes that in 1986, even in his section of Manhattan, housing is a seller's market, so he doubles or triples the rent. Artists caught this way between relatively fixed incomes and dramatically rising costs are leaving New York by the score every month. They go to 'undiscovered' areas of Brooklyn, New Jersey Queens, even to the South Bronx, one of the nation's worst slums. Anywhere, in short, where they can afford the all-important work-space and remain within striking distance of Manhattan.
Fabo had been reluctant to come to New York in the first place. He was all set to withdraw from a Canada Council-funded year in residence at the Institute for Art and Urban Resource's PS1 studio because 'reading the East Village Eye made me decide New York is just not the place to come'. Why not? 'I didn't like the way art was being sold here basically. People magazine does a groovy article on the hip artist Greer Lankton, who turns transsexual making dolls. It's all such trivializing fodder.'
A Canadian artist currently on display in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art also feels that New York is changing, and not for the better. Dorothea Rockburne confided over a breakfast of muffins and coffee in a crowded, skylit cafe in SoHo that 'suddenly it seems like a big competitive race. There's a lot of activity but not a lot of art of interest.' Rockburne arrived in New York from Montreal by way of Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where she studied with Philip Guston, Esteban Vicente and Franz Kline in the early 50s. 'When I'm talking about Manhattan as a great place to come to, I'm talking about the Manhattan of the 40s and 50s. The attitude towards art was small. The ambition for art itself was small.'
Rockburne started to refine her geometric abstract painting style when she arrived in New York in 1951 and kept at it while first Abstract Expressionism, then Op, then Pop and all the other movements waxed and waned at the galleries and museums. She has always been widely respected in New York for the integrity and seriousness of her vision, but this year, with work on display at the MOMA, a mini-retrospective at the Xavier Fourcade gallery and critical articles about her in Art in America and ARTnews, she seems to be coming more than ever into her own. Yet like the other artists I talked to, she still feels herself, after 35 years, to be an alien. 'It's sort of funny to have lived here so long and retained my Canadian citizenship.' But when I asked her if she thought she could have made the work at the Modern without having come to New York she answered simply 'No'.
Her paintings until three years ago were made of painted and folded pieces of unstretched linen. The act of folding the material generated both the outline and the forms within the piece. Her new pictures are constructions of shaped, stretched canvases, mounted one atop the other. The increasingly bold colour and romantic titles of some of the more recent works, the Angel Series for example, mark a gradual progression away from the more austere geometry of her earlier work. This emergence of a more overtly romantic content in her paintings is, in a sense, an acknowledgement of her very first artistic inklings.
'Always my eye had been towards Paris,' she says, speaking of her youth in Montreal. 'When I was 12, I was reading Verlaine and Rimbaud and trying to look very death-like and unwholesome. I thought as soon as I could I would go to Paris to waste away in a garret. But as the refugees began to come in around 1948-49 I became much more aware of the Bauhaus and I felt a leaning towards work that was at once structured and passionate.
'Wherever you grew up you have to get out,' she says. 'That has more to do with growing up than the place. An artist should certainly go some place where he or she has the opportunity to get the work out. But I don't know if you have that opportunity in New York any more. It might be better to go someplace else. I don't know.'
Paradoxically, at a time when most artists feel little really good art is being made, a great deal of money is flooding the scene. In the gritty East Village, galleries are springing up like mushrooms after a rain. And after the galleries come the nightclubs, restaurants and boutiques — all reflecting the irreverent, handmade aesthetic of East Village-style painting.
Nearby, on East 14th Street, the hottest disco in the city opened last summer. The interior of the Palladium is a showcase for murals, frescoes and wall paintings made by the new art stars: Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Françesco Clemente and Kenny Scharf. Increasingly the business of the art world gets done at night in the Palladium and other up-to-the-minute clubs and restaurants where artists meet dealers and dealers meet curators and everyone meets patrons in a social setting.
In New York it's not what you do, it's who you know. And the Canadian artist who seems to know the most people is former Montrealer Marcus Leatherdale, whose current photo-works appropriate scenes from historical paintings. He lunches with Andy (Warhol), dines with Dianne ('Queen of the Night') Brill and had a 30th birthday party that was one of the parties of the year according to the downtown society pages. He is one artist who parlayed club-hopping into that all-important first solo show. 'No galleries were interested in my work, I went everywhere,' he says. 'I did the whole route. I dragged my book around. I knocked on every door. No one was interested. So then I decided; if I can't have exhibits I will create exhibits and I started curating my own shows. Now it's very common to do this, to have shows in nightclubs, but at that time, I think, it hadn't been done.
'Everyone thought I was making a mistake. High art cannot be mixed with music and this and that, but ironically now it's happening everywhere. The Palladium is basing its whole aesthetic on artists. The whole thing of fashion, art and music is the typical '80s sensibility.'
Is it possible to be an artist in New York anymore and not like discos? It's hard. Another Montreal artist whose medium is photography, Marvin Gasoi, reports, 'my dealer here said, 'You know you really should hang out at all the clubs and the restaurants.' But it's hard to do what's not you. I like my place,' he says, referring to a cozy loft in the 30s. 'I spend a lot of time here. I go out in the warm part of the year and look around and then in winter I go back to my cave, which is what I call this place, and I work for the winter. Then in spring I try to come out again. This is a Canadian cycle. Winter-indoors-work.' Though his work was reproduced in a Time-Life photography annual a few years back, Gasoi maintains a much lower profile in the art scene than most of his colleagues. He came to New York not so much for a career boost, although he has had that, as for an education. 'I think of coming to New York as going to graduate school.'
Gasoi makes large 'constructed' Cibachrome prints of vaguely surrealist still lifes and interiors. He manipulates the image by 'drawing' with a light source in the air in front of the camera during a seconds-long exposure. His work literalizes the Greek roots of the word 'photography' — light drawing —and at the same time presents images that look almost futuristic.
'Coming here really drove me. The standards are very high, the criticism is severe, the competition is very severe. New York drove me to work and study and set goals much higher than I would ever have set in Canada. It hasn't been easy, but it's definitely been an interesting experience.'
Moving to New York as a young single man or woman prepared to live in a garret and survive on rice and beans for the privilege of painting in the 'world's greatest city' is one thing. Being in New York with a wife and two kids, one school age, is something else again. Stephen Lack lives with his video-artist and actress wife, Lilly, and their two sons on the top floor of a loft building in a section of the Lower East Side known as the bridal district. The shop windows on his block are filled with mannequins dressed in white satin gowns and veils.
Lack is known for his jarringly coloured, loosely rendered paintings that comment on media culture. And for being one of the first artists signed by the very successful East Village dealer Gracie Mansion. So, I asked him, what's New York really like? 'New York's great. Sometimes I think it's ugly as sin and the people are just that — ugly I go up to Canada and it's wonderful. It's comfortable and there isn't the paranoia. For three days it's fabulous and the fourth day you're sitting drumming your fingers on the table and you realize there's something in you, some little insect larva that demands the pressure of New York and you just can't wait to get back. And as soon as you're back you can't wait to go to the other place.'
Canadian artists have been going regularly to New York at least since World War II. William Ronald and Michael Snow are just two of the better-known ones who have gone there and returned. The reason, however it is phrased, is usually ambition, a feeling that in Canada 'the shoe pinches'. Even though I heard again and again from residents that New York is not what it was, few have definite plans to return to Canada soon.
In the meantime, at least once a month, most Canadian artists living in New York can be counted on to show up at openings at the 49th Parallel Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art in SoHo. There, dressed in their New York clothes, they sip wine from plastic glasses, light up Export A's or Matinées and dish the latest. Sometimes there's a visiting art mandarin from Ottawa to lobby or a new boyfriend or girlfriend to show off. But mostly they talk to each other, comparing experiences. At a special December reception for the Minister of Communications, Marcel Masse, expatriates hovered over the long hors d'œuvres table as if it were some giant map of Manhattan made out of plates of sashimi and dim sum, the whole island available to a practised pair of chopsticks. Marcus Leatherdale took a piece of tekka maki from the table and said of the city 'New York attracts some of the most extraordinary people of our time. They all come to New York at some point. Many of them live here. Think of all the genius and creative talent running around the streets of New York. That's what attracted me — moth to a flame.'
Canadian Art, Summer 1986.
Text: © Ross Skoggard. All rights reserved.
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