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This is the first museum exhibition by the young Winnipeg collective 26. The show runs from 9 February to 10 March 2006, and is curated by Cliff Eyland.
Reception: Thursday, 9 February, 4-6 PM. Afterparty: Wise Guys on campus, 6 PM until bar closing.
"26" or "Two Sicks" or "Twenty-Six" or "Too-six" -- there are endless variations -- is Cyrus Smith, David Wityk, Shaun Morin, Mélanie Rocan, Ian August, Fred Thomas, DJ Brace (Mike Topf) and guests. Except for Fred Thomas and DJ Brace, 26ers are all recent graduates from the University of Manitoba's School of Art in Winnipeg.
The 26 show will also include projected photographs of the group by William Eakin.
Special thanks: the artists, The Manitoba Arts Council, School of Art faculty, staff and volunteers, Susan Chafe, Collin Zipp, Meeka Walsh, Robert Enright and Border Crossings magazine.
26/Two-Sicks/Too-Six... by Cliff Eyland
[Note: the following essay was first published in Winnipeg's Border Crossings magazine, November 2004, 16-27.]
In 1975, before any of the members of the art collective 26 except Fred Thomas were born, Lawrence Alloway was already wondering how it was that graffiti art, street stuff done mostly by lower-class "Latin" kids in New York City, was gaining acceptance in high-end galleries. Alloway addresses graffiti art in terms of prestigious artists like Paul Klee, who was influenced by so-called "primitive" art; Brassai, who photographed Parisian graffiti early in the twentieth century; Cy Twombly, who (still) makes free-association squiggles; and, most importantly, to Jean Dubuffet, who appropriated and promoted outsider or, as he called it, "art brut" to the high art world.
By the 1980s, of course, graffiti artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, not to mention the dealer/artist/vandal Tony Schafrazi, who once spray painted a slogan across Picasso's Guernica, were matter-of-factly celebrated in posh galleries. Distinctions between vandalism and gallery art were becoming irrevocably blurred.
Graffiti art can be as beautiful as it is transgressive, and that can be disturbing. Alloway asserts that some graffiti art rivals ancient Islamic design in calligraphic beauty, for example "a class of Islamic calligraphy known as 'pseudo-inscriptions' or 'pseudo-calligraphy,' in which the appearance but not the substance of writing is presented."
[Note: References to Alloway are to his article "Graffiti." September 27, 1975; republished in Brushes with History Writing on Art from The Nation 1865-2001. ed. Peter G. Meyer New York: Nation Books, 392]
"Buffing" is the iconoclastic opposite of graffiti, and it can also be beautiful. Buffing means covering over graffiti with a block of colour as close to the colour of the wall behind it as possible. Buffing can be magical, as sweet and elusive as a good minimalist painting, and some "buffers," even if they are employees of local governments hired to cover over graffiti, seem to unconsciously aspire to the heights of formalist painting. To confuse matters, some buffing is done by graffiti artists themselves.
Street artists agree with the police that "tagging," the indiscriminate signing of your mark on a public wall, is the lowest form of graffiti. The tagger is usually an inconsiderate vandal, and his wall pissing is, as one might expect, mostly a young male practice. Defacing public buildings and monuments with initials has always been an expression of powerlessness and rarely the work of a serious artist. The Egyptian Temple of Dendur at the Met, the Colosseum in Rome, and the standing stones of the Orkney islands have all been defaced by the ancestors of today's taggers, and we do our best to ignore the scrawls.
The boring uniformity of tagging is elided by its advocates. However illiterate, taggers dare to call themselves graffiti "writers," a term that should be reserved for only the best graffiti artists. Few folk art forms -- tole painting, perhaps? -- can compete with tagging's irritating predictability. Graffiti artists in general, and taggers in particular, often pretend that their work is radical and not a conventional art form. The title of Jonathan Jones's recent Guardian piece says it all, even if I disagree with his wholesale dismissal of graffiti art: "Dim, cloned conservatives: Modern graffiti is not subversive - it is a formulaic, bankrupt cliche."
[Jonathan Jones, Saturday August 7, 2004,The Guardian. Available online in October 2004 at http://www.guardian.co.uk/arts/critic/feature/0,1169,1279502,00.html. ]
Like any other art tradition, unsolicited, illegal public art deserves careful parsing and close evaluation. Graffiti art, like jazz and hip-hop and classical music, is not all the same. In formal terms, public paintings can range between the most elaborate graffiti writing to hyper-realism to the blankly buffed wall and back, with taggers providing the lowest of the low expressions of a kind of visual punctuation.
Today's art collectives, Two-Six for example, tacitly acknowledge that hierarchies along the continuum of street to salon art are unlikely ever to disappear. They have a nuanced appreciation of both the street and the salon, because they are part of both worlds.
26 and artists like Toronto's Germaine Koh inhabit public art's radical intellectual fringe because, unlike most artists, they exhibit their work without public permission. Koh, for example, once inserted a pole in the middle of a public path as an anonymous (at least to most people - there was no signage) work of art. Path walkers unconsciously ambled around the pole, rerouted by an artist about whom they knew nothing.
"26" or "Two Sicks" or "Twenty-Six" or "Too-six" -- there are endless variations -- is Cyrus Smith, David Wityk, Shaun Morin, Mélanie Rocan, Ian August, Fred Thomas, DJ Brace (Mike Topf) and guests (for example Roger Crait, whose own collective is called the "Orange Lab"). Except for Fred Thomas and DJ Brace, 26ers are all recent graduates from the University of Manitoba's School of Art in Winnipeg.
Although barely out of art school, Two-Six are already successful artists with street cred and art world sanction. In addition to their street art and their shows at the community-oriented Graffiti Gallery (situated in the rough neighborhood of Higgins Avenue in Winnipeg) they have been included in group shows at venues as prestigious as the Plug In Institute of Contemporary art. Members have also been taken to international art fairs by the artist/entrepreneur Paul Butler and his travelling "Other Gallery." (In fact, Butler has recently become a 26 collaborator who shares a studio with them in downtown Winnipeg they call "Chinatown.") Two-Six makes paintings and drawings and art videos and music CDs. In galleries they install, along with large stretched paintings, collections of small wall works they call "Shame Walls," a punning reference on Halls of Fame.
Like Winnipeg's Royal Art Lodge, New York's Derraindrop and countless other young and old collectives going back to Fluxus and Dada, 26 makes "all-media-any-venue" art, initiating their own shows not only because that is how most young artists introduce themselves to the art world, but also because it gives them total control over their work. Artists like 26 regard any exhibition space as more-or-less equivalent to any other, and they put as much loving attention into a telephone pole installation as a group show at the local kunsthalle.
26's attitude differs sharply from that of many of yesteryear's multimedia artists -- I'm thinking of artists like Joseph Kosuth or Victor Burgin here -- who believed that so-called advanced media logically means rejection of so-called traditional media. Such artists often couched their theories in terms of a technical hierarchy and an inferred and vague Marxism. By contrast, all-media-any-venue artists like 26 do not regard digital video, web art, mixed-media publications or music CDs as being "better" or more worth making than painting and drawing.
26 opens itself out to many influences and working methods. If art school accounts for 26's refinement, art historical references, and for its formalist techniques in painting, collage, montage and assemblage, 26 artists never forget the street. In addition to high art reading, the Two-Sicksers read Juxtapoz and Adbusters magazine, and regularly check web sites like Samplesize.ca, Art Crimes, Found Magazine and Stencil Revolution. Like all good artists, 26 are autodidacts who pick their way through the culture to make personal genealogies for themselves. Their street-wise zines and CDs, which come out every month or two, are produced at the same time as paintings on canvas that allude to lofty high art stars like Philip Guston, Pat Steir, and Lucien Freud. Two-Sicks rejects prejudices that wed some older artists to beliefs about the purity of a medium or practice. 26 does make art using pure paint and pure sound, but none of them are purely painters or purely musicians.
With the exception of Mélanie Rocan, 26ers began as teenaged graffiti writers steeped in skateboard culture. According to Ian August, graffiti culture arrived late in Winnipeg. Anecdotal reports from other sources, for example Bruce Montcombroux, an artist and writer who has followed the graffiti scene since the early 1990s, agree. Others, like the Royal Art Lodge's Michael Dumontier, think that graffiti in Winnipeg has a much longer underground history.
August thinks that his teenaged graffiti days, that is the mid-1990s, introduced a second generation of graf artists to Winnipeg who followed Fred Thomas, the oldest 26er and among the first if not the first serious graffiti artist in Winnipeg. ("My first interest in graffiti was around 1984 at the age of 12," says Thomas in conversation.) In terms of their own version of local art history, then, 26's work could have always been more influenced by Winnipeg's high art milieu than graffiti art. After all, Manitoban kids have benefited from artist-in-the-schools and other generous government art initiatives for over a generation, and that influence likely always undermines the influence of the street, at least amongst middle-class kids.
26 paints quietly in the studio and bicycles wildly in the streets, decorating the city with original works of art that they call "prefabs." Many prefabs are painted with commercial colours called "mistints," that is, house paint that has been rejected by a buyer after already having been mixed. Mistinted paint on rejected pieces of wood found in dumpsters makes of prefabs a fabulous return of the repressed.
The prefab is an important innovation invented shortly after 26 began to be formally introduced to art history in art school -- just a few years ago. Prefabs are small original paintings that are "nail bombed" to city fences and walls during the ritual bicycle expedition 26 calls a "party bike." Prefabs, like tagging, are both anonymous and impolite, but 26 avoids the graphic conventions of the typical graffiti artist's "writing" or "tagging" techniques (however well-versed 26ers like Ian August are in those conventions).
Just like their gallery art, Two-Sicks's prefabs are temporarily installed and avidly collected by art lovers, but some elude detection for months, even years. As a supreme irony of high art meeting street culture, an occasional prefab will remain exposed to the elements for months, developing a remarkable patina of wear that can lend it an uncanny resemblance to unconserved centuries-old paintings. Prefabs are smaller than most 26 gallery works, but ironically, prefabs can be MORE formalist and decorative than the collective's gallery art. Many prefabs bring to mind historical movements in painting like Intimism and the Nabis, not to mention the Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s.
The prefab is a refreshingly anarchistic alternative to run-of-the-mill graffiti art, plexi-protected or roped-off high art wall works, and abstract sculpture, forms that tend to frame the weary discourse of public art. Prefabs do not permanently deface public property like most graffiti art, but are instead a contribution to civic life that is freely-given. The original prefab oil or acrylic painting is placed wherever a poster or handbill might be put in a city.
Prefab artists are willing to risk their art in exchange for public exposure, hence the prefab reestablishes a place for painting in public venues that has all but disappeared because of our unwillingness to expose to vandalism (by graffiti artists!) supposedly fragile and irreplaceable original paintings.
I have often let 26 know about my personal disapproval of tagging and most graffiti art, but my critical and aesthetic support for the prefab is unwavering. Prefabs should not only be tolerated, they should be commissioned by city governments to replace the mostly badly-painted didactic murals that blight the poorer neighborhoods of our mid-sized cities.
I believe that Two-Six's claim to fame has already been established by the invention of the prefab, which has endless possibilities as public art. The test for 26 will be whether or not the work they make as individuals will eclipse their collective invention. Here's hoping that the 26ers who develop the prefab, as opposed to those who stick strictly to their own personal gallery art, will win at least the theoretical day.
Cyrus Smith is 26's animating force and the artist who defines the group's dumpster aesthetic. Not long ago he became the last of the Two-Six artists to graduate from the University of Manitoba School of Art, where he filled up every space he could, including the video lab's hard drives and three of its thesis studios, with stuff, much of it art.
Smith's mini-landfill was finally dismantled as required by the beginning of this year's new school term just months ago. The effort involved no fewer than 25 art school staff, students and volunteers, who helped Smith sort through innumerable paintings and drawings, boxes of academic books, crates of laboratory glass, piles of wood, stacks of aged magazines and containers of powdery stuff that the university's hazardous materials unit deemed dangerous "unknown substances," but which Smith insisted were exotic foodstuffs.
Smith does everything, and fast. In addition to freely distributed prefabs, Smith often leaves art for people outside their doors. I often think of him as channeling the spirits of Robert Rauschenberg and Kurt Schwitters.
Shaun Morin is a gifted and prolific painter, a bilingual Franco Manitoban whose formative influence was not graffiti art but Philip Guston, the Montreal-born expressionist. Like Ian August and Fred Thomas, he is also Metis, although his native heritage has so far not been much referred to in his art. Morin, like August, makes zines. He also makes small drawings on rag paper for international sale through Paul Butler's Other Gallery. His personal street work is made under the pseudonym "Slomo." Some of his street drawings look like Barry McGee, others like Robert Crumb, but most inhabit a sketchpad world created with what one can only call a Slomo signature style.
Mélanie Rocan is from La Brocquerie, a tiny Manitoban town. She is also a Franco Manitoba artist who was talented and prolific enough to have had a solo show at the local Franco-Manitoban Centre while she was still an undergraduate art student. Rocan's "prefabs" often consist of a ribbon tied in a bow around a telephone pole or fencepost. She has a large collection of secondhand fabrics. Other 26s -- all male -- regard her as something of a quiet French muse who tempers their testosterone-drive attitudes. Rocan is currently in Montreal pursuing graduate studies at Concordia.
David Wityk is 26's lone photographer, the only one who makes studio works in photography that require professional lighting and traditional quality photographic printing. Wityk is the only 26er to have majored in photography at art school. He makes prefabs with the rest of the group, and, oddly, his 26 activity is not strictly about documenting the group (the semiofficial 26 documentarian is instead William Eakin, who regularly "party-bikes" with them).
Wityk is an underwear fetishist who trades garments for permission to photograph his subjects in them. Many of his pictures document volunteers in a series of shots that trace the almost imperceptible differences in the look of his underwear-ers before and after sex, or exercise, or some other physical activity.
Wityk was once commissioned by Plug In ICA to construct a giant wooden set of briefs for as a billboard project.
Fred Thomas is older than the other 26ers, having graduated from an animation program in British Columbia a few years ago. Along with DJ Brace (Mike Topf) he is a 26 wild card who has always operated on the fringes of the art world, and even at the fringes of 26. He is a former programmer at Winnipeg's Graffiti Gallery.
DJ Brace has had no art school training at all, but comes from a background in computer science. In collaboration with the group, Topf makes all the music CDs that Two-Sicks put out from his own home studio. He has also won DJ competitions.
Ian August is a painter, lately of portraits from life, who participates in all 26 activities. He and Wityk made a video work recently called "Smut Peddler." He has also been painting CN trains "for eight or nine years," making him perhaps the 26er who, besides Fred Thomas, has had the longest involvement with graffiti art.
CD-ROM includes the essay and images on this web site along with information about other Gallery One One One projects.
Gallery One One One, School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2
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For information please contact Robert Epp