Gearheads: not your father’s machines

by Bart Gazzola – The A Word

Anyone who has followed my art writing for any amount of time will know there are certain tropes that factor continuously into what I write: I have joked that some writers simply write the same essay over and over again, and I am aware of that danger in my own writing. For example, a colleague was incapable of speaking of any art without raising the issue of the supposed “death of photography”, encapsulated by him in both perfect and horrible mode by the controversy of National Geographic manipulating a photo of the Pyramids to make all three fit on their cover. Another associate sees everything through the lens of the death – or he would put it as the willful, selfish abandonment – of Modernism (his capital, not mine). I am honest enough to know that I am obsessed with place and site (I blame / thank Lynn Bell for this gift to me, and for introducing me to post colonialism, with a sharp and critical – and criticizing – eye), and that I am also obsessed with history(ies) of the same: hence my contempt for the karaoke modernists of the Prairies, as this place is better, and deserves better – or more exactly, like the Communists, m(M)odernists are inherently contradictory, being all about history and progress, until it comes to themselves, as they are the “apex” and it all stops….they are as foolish as Francis Fukuyama in his “End of History and the Last Man”. Nothing ever ends, really: it is hubris to think the story won’t go on long after we succeed in killing ourselves off. Perhaps the cockroaches and mice will speak of the pre civilization of our times…..those damn dirty man apes, hah.

But I also have a recent “obsession” or “concern”: and this is the space between art and research, and not in the manner spoken of at the University or that was encapsulated in the panel discussion for The Bachelor of Fine Arts Party show, with concerns and criticisms of the Humanities getting all hot over “research” without being able to agree what it is or can be, and how in the art world, it often means playing with toys and developing hardware / software / materials without a larger, conceptually driven framework, or without any of the factors that make an education in the Humanities relevant. Adrian Stimson once paid me the wonderful compliment that he liked how I “synthesized” art into a means to speak of the world, and I realized that is something I look for in Art – does it matter? Hence, Ignazio Itturia is Art, Marie Lannoo is not: Robin Moody is an excellent new media artist, as is Martin Beauragard…. but if you read my review of Thomas Bégin, you know that even though I don’t think his work was Art, I also felt it was valid – unlike the karaoke modernists, who ape form without the thought, like singing “Voodoo Chile” and saying “excuse me while I kiss this guy” and claiming that’s still faithful to Hendrix. Bégin had no pretensions about what he was producing, has produced, and will produce with this installation: in conversation with David LaRivierre, artistic director at Pave, David commented to me that Thomas would not so much be able to sell the work, he said, as provide simply a “laundry list” of components, and allow the person to modify and interact with it on their own….no Modernist concept of “artist” – oops, sorry, “Artist” – here. This might – if I thought they had ears to hear or minds open to it – be a point to consider for the painters here who painstakingly make flat, abstracted works, aspiring to be Barnett Newman, flying in the face of his innovation…but the ignorant are not really my concern.

I also was talking to Clark Ferguson, a good artist in his own right and chair of the board of Paved, about “Larsen surf model mixing” and he said that while he doesn’t disagree with my approach of art / not art, he doesn’t care about any of that anymore: considering the playful, and often irreverent aspects of Clark’s own work this is not a surprise. However, he works in video these days, and thank god, the age of 40 minute video works that have no narrative and are all “experimental” is past: we can thank television for making viewers not only more visually literate (oh yeah, I said that) but less tolerant of self indulgence and sloppy production. Before you yell “Bullshit” or start in on a Baby Boomer –esque slagging of the younger generations, let me say I’ve taught for a decade, and I won’t stereotype the upcoming generations – they are no worse, no better than mine, which was labeled Gen X by the Boomers (who are the worst, in contrast to my comments about Gen Y or Millenials, as the Boomers still won’t get OUT OF THE WAY! Sorry…breathing, breathe, breathe…but anyone notice how our driving laws, that require mandatory testing once you reach a certain age are now being called “ageist”? I wonder if they’ll demand all the rights of citizens when they run people down when they can’t see them… the right to be judged as a negligent criminal, and not having a “medical condition” they denied before they killed someone….)

The point of that long digression is that the current exhibition at AKA, titled Gearheads, is complicating that division for me further, or problematizing, to use academic speak. Not so much the works of Ray Lodoen, a Saskatoon based sculptor and installation artist, who is paired with Steve Laurie (who does raise this issue for me), in this show. Lodoen constructs motorcycles, “homemade” ones to quote Laurie, that are both aesthetic and functional: this is a logical progression from his works in sculpture and kinetic media that have often compared and contrasted functionality and finesse, art and action. He’s also made very socially conscious work, as anyone familiar with his Defensive Accessories will know: purses and shoes and other fashionable paraphernalia that is made of metal, steel or other “defensive” materials that are still stylish and lovely…and that if a purse snatcher tries to take, can lead to a concussion and stitches if she gives him an upside to the head with it. That Ray in the past few years has chosen to focus on making choppers is a logical progression, and to quote one of my most favourite curators, Helen Marzolf, they are undoubtedly Art.

Laurie’s works are more comical and ironic, and yet also functional, but functional in a completely useless – or I could say, very demonstrative, teenage male – kind of way. His rubber burning machines are modified “artist’s machines” that are designed solely to make (for example) a whole series of rubber donuts, as he demonstrated with one of them, the night the show opened, in the back parking lot of AKA: the smell of gasoline and rubber, the undoubtedly toxic blue smoke, and then, like countless generations of artists before him and after him, Laurie – and those of us in attendance – gathered around to enjoy the marks made, indexical or narrative, like a story of masculinity marked on the ground, like the bikers and street racers and motorheads to whom the smell of rubber is an aphrodisiac. But these shiny industrial machines are also lovely to behold: and that they spoof a sense of functionality – and masculinity – is only part of Laurie’s aesthetic.

For a deeper aspect of his work, Laurie has included some other works, such as mud flaps that bear his name, that were part of a project in which he approached truckers at a variety of truck stops to see if they would “wear” these flaps on their rigs, and he commented in his talk at the show that this (of course) led to many engaging, and still ongoing conversations. I would inject my oft repeated point that many, many smart, critical engaging people won’t enter a gallery at the point of a gun, but are a worthy and worthwhile audience: but why should we in the art world be surprised that they eschew spaces that show shiny, irrelevant works that say nothing, and whom treat their questions about it as ‘disrespectful’ or ‘mean’, as though a silly orgasm about your own process, your “brushtrokes” or “coding”,  is communicable?

I mention this, as the show is successful in bringing unexpected groups into the gallery, or maybe not so unexpected: the day after the show opened, Steve was making another series of marks, or another “rubber smoke drawing” in the back lot, and a number of men who passed by came over, watching and commenting as Steve added fuel, tinkered and such, getting it ready: and it reminded me of Clint Neufeld’s comments about his ceramic engines, his “useless objects”, and how they came out of a space where guys get together around an engine and tinker and talk. Good Art resonates outside the gallery, even shedding the sometimes limiting and limited notion of ‘art object’: and the “name” doesn’t really matter when it is appreciated and enjoyed and is, again, an object that is both beautifully made, and also a meaningful object that speaks to many.


Steven Laurie, Gearheads, AKA gallery