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Les Newman

(North Wall Gallery One One One) 15 January to 2 April 2009.
Curated by Cliff Eyland.

The following interview took place in January 2009.

Cliff Eyland: What made you want to become an artist?

Les Newman: When I was younger and basically lived for punk-rock I noticed that whenever I read in a fanzine about a band breaking up, it was because one or more members were taking a break to go to art school. I figured that was where p-rockers went when the young offenders act stopped covering you but you didn't want to grow up yet. So I signed up. Of course by the time I got to go the art schools were almost completely overrun by vegan-yogi-straight edge-kill-joy-types, but I've always thrown good money after bad, so I stuck it out and graduated. The rest of the story is just more good money thrown after bad.

Cliff Eyland: Who were your first teachers?

Les Newman: I first attended Lambton College in Sarnia, Ontario. There I studied with Ray Robinson. I thought that would be the end of my art school career. Having sleepwalked through high school I didn't have the grades to get into university but in a dedicated college art curriculum I wound up with a 3.9 GPA and a small scholarship. So I just thought I'd continue on and see where this thing was taking me. Where it wound up taking me was NSCAD [the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design] where I primarily studied painting and drawing with Gerald Ferguson, Gary Kennedy, Alex Livingstone and Leah Evelyn. Although I did have an offer from a professor to fast track me into an MFA, I think by that time I'd had enough.

Cliff Eyland: How did you end up taking your degree at NSCAD?

Les Newman: I have no real recollection of how I wound up at NSCAD. I do know I didn't give it a lot of thought. I probably would have went anywhere away from where I was at that time -- but given the community I discovered while there I don't think things could have worked out better.

Cliff Eyland: When did you first start to make digital works?

Les Newman: I first started making digitally-assisted work in the year 2000. Everyone was still getting over their Y2K panic, which was hilarious to watch. So naturally I wanted in on that. The godlike status people had raised computers to, and the vengeance this god was going to rain down on us was hilarious. But I guess it was just another case of "apocalypse when?". The initial problem I had faced when starting the project was no computer, camera or money. But then I was offered a job at the Dunlop Art Gallery in Regina where I had 24/7 access to every tool imaginable plus a few thousand square feet of free studio space. I was initially afraid of getting caught downloading things like Photoshop or Illustrator onto a company computer that I was supposed to be using for work, so I made the first 20 or 30 pieces only using the "simple shapes" function in Microsoft Word. Another problem was how to get the information off the computer and to a print shop. My work computer didn't have a CD burner and jump drives weren't really affordable in 2000. The solution I came up with was to use a macro lenses, a very long exposure and a 35 mm camera so in the end the first 'digital' works wound up being outputted in 'analogue'

Cliff Eyland: An odd thing about certain of your digital media works is that they can't really be reproduced. Care to comment?

Les Newman: When I first started printing works from The Death of the Party series my printer told me that some of the colours I was choosing were out of the 'printable range'. I didn't want to use a system of pre-existing colours such as Pantone. So I frequently had to make some compromises between what I wanted and what the technology was able to reproduce. It wasn't an ideal situation. Every time I had to change the value of one colour it would alter it's relationship to all the other colours, which then needed adjusting. But in the end I realised I needed to lighten up about it a bit and put my control freak tendencies on the back burner.

Cliff Eyland: You are a bit a of a bohemian legend both in Halifax and in Winnipeg. I have my own Les Newman stories. Have you settled down?

Les Newman: I don't know if I'd use the term 'bohemian'. There is something lacking in the amount of idealism and charm involved in my personal history to use that term. I was just generally a bitter empty jerk. Some people like myself will always spend time doing drugs and drinking in excess. Besides if it weren't for all the drink and drugs I would have (and did) find other things to make myself miserable from time to time. Comfort, security and other material things have just never had much sway over me. You can't miss what you never had before. You'd have to ask someone else if I've settled down or not. But for now I can tell you that even though I'm still occasionally seen zombieing around like a moron I am currently a member in good standing of two trade union houses and actually enjoy my work. I have managed to honour my last three leases and I've been in the same relationship for 6 years now. Which might not sound like much to most people but I was getting stupidly close to 30 to not have a bank account or credit card or any I.D. (not even a health card). I mean you really have to re-evaluate your life when you want to but can't get a subscription to a magazine, because you don't know if you're going to be homeless again before the next issue comes out.

Cliff Eyland: What got you interested in charts and graphs?

Les Newman: I left Halifax and moved to Winnipeg (a city I'd never been too and knew no one in) to get away from all the drugs and my drug buddy. Being a recent art school grad without any connections in town I had a hard time finding a job. So obviously, since injections didn't bother me much, I responded to an ad to test a live virus vaccine as a part of a study through the U of M [University of Manitoba] at the HSC [Health Sciences Centre]. During this time I also happened across a newspaper article about NASA giving spiders various drugs. The NASA brain trust were interested in the amount of web cells a stoned spider would create in its web. So I started a series of drawings where I would consume the same drugs that were administered to the spiders and try to accurately reproduce their corrupted webs. Soon I found this NASA study to be pretty ridiculous, I started thinking about some of the vague and useless questions I was asked while I was being the U of M's guinea-spider. So I started making charts and graphs that would quantify the answers I wanted science to provide, because if NASA has the time to figure out what a spider on an espresso binge is up to, then I don't know why they can't find the time to figure out why people like myself wind up doing all the shit we do.

Cliff Eyland: When I think of other artists who make charts, I think of people like the New York-based artist Luke Murphy (someone that you may have encountered during your student days at NSCAD) but historical precedents don't immediately come to mind....

Les Newman: Luke Murphy had already moved to New York by the time I landed in Halifax. But I did attend an artist talk he gave there. I was very impressed by his work. But maybe his real impact on me was the way that he spoke about his practice. He presented an art world where you didn't have to be a pretentious hipster asshole. This small epiphany was then re-enforced about a month later at an artist talk by art superstar Allan McCollum. Here were two guys who were making really great work and finding a lot of success who could also relate their intentions in a really down to earth way. Having installed art as a job on and off over the last decade I've worked with the whole spectrum of art world types; artists just emerging and some others who had entries about themselves in text books I studied as a student; some who were a pleasure to work with, and some made me feel ashamed to be a part of the art community. However, it seems like every time I'm at wits end with all the crap that goes along with trying to stay in the art world I'll meet a Luke or Allan and I'll get dragged back in.

Cliff Eyland: Could you tell me a little about your early involvement in the activities of the Khyber Centre in Halifax?

Les Newman: The Khyber was a booze can / ARC [Artist's Run Centre]. We ran two main galleries and a performance/theatre space. After I graduated I didn't have anywhere to go. Returning to Sarnia was definitely not an option. So I took a job as an all-round handy man at the Khyber. I also moved into a little room behind the theatre space where I had to keep moving the couch so I wouldn't wake up covered in snow. So basically the Khyber became my world for a while and there were times when I wouldn't have tasted fresh air for a couple of weeks at a time. Initially the Khyber was all about self reliance. We didn't receive any public money or pay taxes. We also didn't have a liquor license and even though our fire department occupancy limit was somewhere around 30 persons, when we held special event raves we could easily pack several hundred people into a three story tinder box with no fire escape. Basically if anything would have went wrong there would have been a lot of jail time for all involved. It was pretty wild times and almost all the proceeds went into paying some of the best artist fees on the east coast. During my time there I was gallery assistant, door guy, bartender, booking agent and janitor. Also, during the un-funded heyday when we could really do anything we wanted, some friends of mine started a series of anti-rave / ska-punk parties called LES/S and I initiated the first of what was supposed to be a annual event the "Les Newman Memorial Semi-Nude Drinking Contest," First prize was more booze and I actually lost to a west-coast-hippy-white-boy-haida-wearing-tattoo-flake. There was no second prize -- it was a shameful day.

Cliff Eyland: You have been a champion and a sometime collaborator with the now Toronto-based artist Kelly Mark -- not least at the Khyber when she lived in Halifax. Could you talk about your shared perspectives, if you think there are any, on art?

Les Newman: I don't know how I'd call myself a champion of Kelly, because she doesn't need one. Technically I did curate a Kelly show at Plug In, and if I would have been paid it would have been the easiest money I ever made. Kelly is a self curating, self installing, art making machine. Although every student at NSCAD had a free 24/7 studio, I guess that wasn't up to snuff for Kelly, so she rented an outside studio in the building that would later become the Khyber. Shaun Gough introduced us at her studio and when I went in for the handshake I kicked an early version of what would later become the White Jars piece (a gridded floor piece of empty mason jars) all around the room. Since she didn't write me off at that moment I suspected we'd probably become friends. Later I did work for her at the Khyber, but more importantly she would employ me as her studio assistant. Kelly's earlier work was sometimes quite labour intensive or heavy and she had ruined her back working in a newspaper factory as a teenager, so whenever she needed help I would get an amount of breakfast specials at the diner where she waited tables. They were great times and I learned a lot from Kelly. It's unfortunate that more young artists don't get a chance to mentor with an artist like Kelly outside of an institutional setting where everyone can really be themselves and you can get a more realistic view of the life.

Cliff Eyland: Could you talk about the Plug In installation you did that involved a working telephone and call-centre-derived telephone numbers?

Les Newman: All The Phone Numbers Of Assholes Who Tried To Make Me Feel Like Shit..... was a piece made for the Laughing exhibition [at Plug In]. Right up until the day the show opened I was making a living doing phone surveys. I'd like to take this opportunity to clear up the difference between "Telephone Marketers" and "Telephone Researchers": researchers never sell anything. I was a researcher. Some people had a hard time making the distinction. So I started sneaking out the phone numbers of people who went out of their way to humiliate me because of my job. I had several months of numbers to choose from, but I chose October because it was the month I was born, and on my birthday one jerk told me he was going to find me and slice my balls off. I wanted him on the list. So I exhibited a painting of all the numbers of assholes and Plug In put a phone next to the piece that had free unlimited long distance. Although the intention was for people to call and harass the assholes, I encouraged people to use it to call their loved ones on Plug In's dime (especially my co-workers). When I informed my employers of my actions I was fired, but everyone of them thanked me and several of them went to a contemporary art gallery for the first time. A week after the opening I got a call from the head office informing me that I would be sued for breach of contract if I didn't take the piece down. I told them the truth that I hadn't told any of the media which company I worked for and that I never would (which was actually a bonus for them because most people would probably assume I worked for their direct competition). The real trouble was that I actually did respect my direct supervisors because they treated me with respect. I didn't want to get any of them in trouble. I negotiated with the head office to take the actual piece down and replace it with newspaper articles about the whole episode. The funny thing was that since it was such a media story, people could still read the numbers off of the newspaper stories. Unfortunately by that time someone had snuck into the gallery and sliced the cord to the phone's handset and half rewired it so that no one noticed until the show was coming down.

Cliff Eyland: Winnipeg is not generally associated with the kind of work that you do, that is with text art and heavily ironical works. What do you think it means for your art to be called "Winnipeg art."?

Les Newman: Firstly, I will never tell anyone which works are sincere and which are ironic. That's none of your business. Also I don't think text-based art is all that foreign to Winnipeg. Just before this show I'll be participated in an all text-based exhibition at the cre8ery gallery and not to long ago I was denied inclusion in a text based segment of Paperwait published through aceartinc. The other problem I have when trying to consider myself "from Winnipeg" is that I don't consider myself a "Winnipeg Artist" (besides I doubt I'll live here for the rest of my life). I only live here now (not that there aren't great things about that fact). Also I've never really thought of myself as being from anywhere other than Newfoundland. When I moved to Ontario everyone said I was from Newfoundland. When I moved to Nova Scotia everyone said I was from Ontario. When I moved to Manitoba everyone said I was from Nova Scotia. When I moved to Saskatchewan. everyone said I was from Manitoba. (ironically after my tenure in Regina - and I moved back to Manitoba no one said I was from Saskatchewan). When I was in the States everyone said I was from Canada, but when I moved back to Canada no one said I was from the US.

Download exhibition mailer (104K PDF).
Download exhibition poster (172K PDF).

Many thanks to the Manitoba Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, School of Art staff and volunteers.

Gallery One One One hours are: Noon to 4:00 PM closed weekends. Admission is free. Gallery One One One is located at the School of Art, Main Floor, FitzGerald Building, University of Manitoba Fort Garry campus, Winnipeg, MB, CANADA R3T 2N2 TEL: 204 474-9322 FAX: 474-7605. The FitzGerald Building is located at the University of Manitoba's Fort Garry Campus next to the University Centre. Parking is available in the Parkade behind FitzGerald Building, and at meter and ticket dispenser lots. Parking is free after 4:30 p.m. and on weekends. Campus map link.

For information please contact Robert Epp