Saturday, May 28, 2005

The Big Picture 33

Over 40 years ago, French artist Yves Klein created a series of blobby abstract paintings using the human body as his paint brush. Klein’s Anthropometries were relatively simple affairs – a nude body (usually female) was slathered in cobalt blue paint and pressed against a white canvas.

At the time, the works were considered provocative, adventurous, and even slightly indecent. Today, they seem more cute than sexy (but then, I’ve been around).

For his latest exhibition, Toronto multi-media artist Johannes Zits - a devotee of Klein’s pre- sexual revolution antics - updates and re-invents the legendarily naughty Anthropometries by giving them a queer, po-mo twist.

“The first step in the process”, Zits patiently explains, “is to get the men to strip to their underwear.”

Zits makes it sound so easy. Some of us spend entire weekends on just such futile projects.

“Well, they’re all volunteers,” Zits snorts. “I’m not kidnapping them off the streetcar!”

“For the next step, I ask the men to sort through a pile of magazines, picking images that they feel represent them. The magazine collection has everything in it from interior design journals to fashion mags to gay porn. Then, they get naked and I paint their bodies from knees to shoulders with glue. They press their bodies up against prepared canvas and, once I’ve got the body print, the models head to the shower while I stick their chosen collage materials onto their glue print.”

So far, so kinky. But it gets better.

“When the models are showering, they’ll be filmed and the shower films will be broadcast on the wall of the gallery. This video is then edited and put on a monitor.”

Apart from being a load of goofy (and kinda hot) frat stunt fun, Zits’s restaging of Klein’s experiments resonates with a media-saturated awareness of the male body as both an object and the focus of objectification. The collages are gorgeous representations of conflicted appetites and conflicted self-image. The contrast between the silhouettes left behind by Zits’s models (round and lumpy, like real people) and the pictures of hyper-fit, over groomed men culled from magazines - images of masculinity chosen by men who look nothing like this exaggerated ideal - is both revealing and appalling. There is no small amount of self-hatred, or at least dismorphia, evident in this division between the actual and the desired.

“In some ways, the project is a look back and a look forward,” Zits explains.

“Is the male nude still an anomaly in public? Is showing the penis still verboten? Since Klein, our culture has drastically altered. Think about it - if I were a straight man doing Klein’s experiments today, after the feminist revolution, the work would be perceived very differently and would be questioned, rightly, with far more rigour.”

“But since I’m working with men, I want to address the fact that men today are more conscious of, and anxious about, their body image - and with that also comes a gay awareness and awareness of the gay gaze that was not available in Klein’s time. I’m part of that new awareness, so I’ve put myself into the art – my body will be glued up too. Klein never participated in his own experiments – he never even touched his models.”

Can you blame me for asking my next question?

“I, of course,” Zits guffaws, “will be very happy to touch my models.”


Call me simple minded, but I’ve never understood the point of photo-realist painting. Why not just take a picture?

Photo-realism has always struck me as the triumph of technique over imagination. Do people admire photo-realist works for the images they contain, or for the fact that some artist spent hours and hours perfectly capturing the glint of sunlight off the ketchup bottle?

Photo-realism feeds the worst sort of Protestant work ethic evaluations of art: If it takes 50 hours to paint a picture of a sink full of dishes that looks exactly like a photograph of a sink full of dishes, it must be valuable art! Never mind that looking at a painting of a sink full of dishes, no matter how Kodachrome accurate (and accurate is an adjective as slippery as “tasteful”), is not very exciting.

I am prepared, however, to have my mind changed. And painter Mike Bayne just might be the guy to do it.

Bayne’s latest works, as convincingly photo-ish as they are – and I’m not ashamed to admit I was convinced they were photographs, or at least photographs that had been augmented with paint – are actually subtle deconstructions of photo-realist practice. If you look carefully at each painting, you’ll see little interruptions in the photographic veneer, areas wherein brush strokes suddenly become glaringly evident and the painterly aspect of the work is boldly announced.

Bayne’s paintings thrive within the photo-realist tradition while treating that tradition, and the questionable value system that supports it, with suspicion. As such, they are the first photo-realist works I’ve ever spent more than ten seconds admiring.

My only critique is that Bayne, like too many artists of his generation, finds empty parking lots, strips of commercial highway and suburban front lawns to be fascinating subjects for art making (but that whole suburban Romantic/banality cult, or, as I like to call it, the Vancouver Dullard School, is another column’s worth of trouble).

Perhaps the burden of simultaneously exploring and exploding a treasured tradition leaves Bayne with little time to seek out more vital subjects? Or, perhaps his choice of dull settings is a further comment on the mundane nature of photo-realism?

Whatever the reason, Bayne’s brainy, questioning life studies could do with an injection of, well, life.


Like most of you, I heard about David Byrne’s bus shelter installations before I actually saw them - because when an American celebrity, even a semi-forgotten one, comes to town to hawk his wares he can be guaranteed wall to wall to bus stop attention from the local media. Resisting the hype, I intentionally avoided Byrne’s work, but one day it was raining and the street car was late ….

Byrne’s photo and text works are humourous, light weight musings on the notion of sin, or to be more specific, Byrne’s proposal that western culture is breeding a new set of sins. Byrne pokes fun at such commonplace bad habits as consumerism, ambition, and contentment – all easy targets – and couples his writing with complementary (but otherwise unremarkable) photographs to illustrate his points.

None of these posters are worth denouncing as bad art, but neither are they deserving of the enormous amount of coverage they’ve gotten. The works are occasionally clever and help kill time between TTC rides, but are, like most billboards, instantly forgettable.

Too bad the Toronto media doesn’t get as excited about local artists. If ours is a city, as Toronto-haters claim, that sex forgot, we sure know how to bend over for a star.
Johannes Zits
The Skin You’re In
SPIN Gallery 1100 Queen Street West Until June 12

Mike Bayne
New Works
Katherine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects 1086 Queen St. West
Until June 4

David Byrne
The New Sins
Bus shelters on Queen West