Friday, June 26, 2015

DEVO's Freedom Of Choice by Evie Nagy

Today's post is a bit of a "gimme" -- you know by now that I'm a sucker for the 33 1/3 publications, bad or good. In my estimation Erik Davis' treatise on Led Zeppelin's fourth album rates an "11 out of 10" (it truly is "one louder"). Most of these books are fair-to-middling. Nagy's is exceptionally good, however -- well-researched, plenty of juicy quotes from the people involved, first-rate reportage. I'd give this book a "9 out of 10."

Anyway: the elder daughter graduates this week, so activities and thoughts are a tad askew.

Devo's Freedom of ChoiceDevo's Freedom of Choice by Evie Nagy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A four-and-a-half star rating, actually. Evie Nagy appears to have had unfettered access not just to the usual trove of archival goodies, but to the band members themselves, including Robert Casales ("Bob 2"), who died shortly before the publication of this book. In Nagy's hands, Freedom Of Choice is both centrepiece and launching-point for a considered exploration of Devo's musical, aesthetic and thematic modus operandi. This is a punchy and engaging survey of a band whose influence was much deeper than anyone originally suspected, and continues to spread to this day.



View all my reviews

Friday, June 19, 2015

Petroglyphs Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada

We took a day-trip out to Petroglyphs Provincial Park, an experience I'm still processing.

No pictures, however, as per the injunction. Walking toward the building that now protects these ancient carvings from the elements, it seemed the least we curious two-faced interlopers could do was turn off our cell-phones and leave the cameras pocketed.

We were fortunate to catch the coat-tails of a tour receiving a lecture from one of the park guides. The explicit significance of the petroglyphs, to the people who carved them, and the people who now return to them on various sacred quests, is a matter of considerable debate, as well as meditation and mediation.

The Ojibwe Learning Place on-site refers to the petroglyphs as "the teaching rocks." Many of them appear to refer to agricultural, medical, and life-cycle practises. Viewing these through my usual haze of poorly negotiated Anabaptist/not-so-Post-Modernist sensibilities, I was struck by just how deeply ingrained these indigenous concepts must have been. The people who gave shape to their expression worked with diligent observation of the materials at hand and the space they were in.

To give just one example, there is an indentation at the top of the slope where iron is clearly an element among the soft marble. When the snows melt, the sediment turns red, and runs in a rivulet down a narrow crevice on the face of the slope. The petroglyph carved on either side of this rivulet/crevice appears (at a superficial reading) to depict the menstrual cycle -- an apt metaphor for spring.

This "white" boy, the father of daughters, was struck by the obvious veneration these people had for what is truly elemental to human existence. I can't begin to contrast this with our culture's squeamishness toward the subject. We seem to be profoundly alienated from something (here's that word again) elemental. That can't be healthy.

More to be said, I'm sure -- or left unsaid, perhaps. It is a place well worth one's consideration.

Friday, June 12, 2015

"Would Reader's Digest Ever Condense SF Novels?" The Bitter Musings Of An Aging Reader.

Did you know Reader's Digest still publishes "condensed books"?


Man, those suckers used to be staples in weekender cottages and suburban bathrooms. I recall years when my parents returned from the annual Children's Hospital Book Sale with cartons full of these volumes. Reliable door-stoppers like Herman Wouk were rendered to more palatable page-counts. Quite the service, really.

Just a little tidbit of information I discovered this morning, since the question of their existence came to mind whenever I picked up something by Neil Gaiman.

It's not him -- it's me.
I've just pushed past the halfway-mark of American Gods, so the likelihood of completion is very high. But picking it up and opening the book is only always a conscientious decision on my part -- akin to picking up my guitar and practicing scales. Once I get rolling I usually find myself enjoying the activity. But more than 30 minutes of it is difficult to manage.

I'm not entirely sure what's going on, here.

A big part of it is readerly preference: as with Stephen King, I suspect a reader either loves Gaiman's work, or is indifferent to it. I've read (heard, rather) Gaiman's Anansi Boys, and pored through the first two volumes of The Sandman. He's clever with concepts, steers pointedly clear of prosaic pyrotechnics, yet still manages to evoke the surreal -- all very good reasons to become a Gaiman devotee.

And yet, no matter what the medium, I get impatient reading him. I don't, finally, invest myself in his characters. Once I've finished American Gods, I will almost certainly be finished with Gaiman.

Which is kind of painful to admit, because I pretty much adore the man's concepts. A war between the ancient pagan deities our ancestors imported from the homeland and the modern pagan deities we've created since is a kick-ass concept. But 500 pages is roughly 250 more than I'd care to read on the matter.

Blasphemy, I know. Gaiman's faithful don't just embrace the original content, but everything extra besides. They hardly need my aging eyes and addled brain among their august ranks. But if, say, Reader's Digest were to focus their quarterly efforts on Gaiman's catalogue, I might just join both companies.

Post-Script: Maybe Neal Stephenson is another "condensed books" candidate? And, hey: check out what this woman does with RDCBs. Pretty cool!

Friday, June 05, 2015

I Will Make You Reapers Of Men: The Gospel, According To Helfer & Baker's The Shadow

Part 1, Part 2. And now ...

12 figures in mourning; 14 including the Shadow's sons.

If the superheros of the '80s seemed to be suffering from Messiah Complexes, it was little wonder: most, if not all, endured a death-and-resurrection story-line. Spider-Man took a two-week dirt nap, in J.M. DeMatteis' psychonautic 'stravaganza, Kraven's Last Hunt:


And, of course, rumours of Batman's final demise were greatly exaggerated in the concluding chapter of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Soop might have won by a heart-attack, but Bruce Wayne's ticker returned to form once the body was committed to the earth.


But in both these cases, as in most others, the "death" in question was a ruse: Spidey got tranked by Kraven; Bats staged his own take-down, with one of those death-faking drugs common to serials of all stripes.

Was The Shadow's death a similar narrative sleight-of hand? In the final issue of The Seven Deadly Finns, Andrew Helfer gave readers of his letters column this to look forward to:


Readers searching the forthcoming pages for some glimmer of hope were treated to glorious scenes of The Master's corpse being subjected to indignity and abuse in increasing measure -- bounced down a Himalayan mountain:


Riddled with bullets, while being used as a shield:


And finally decapitated by a helicopter:


While writer and artist ramped up the irreverence toward the title character, The Shadow's grieving agents were abruptly changing their tune and pointing their attitude in the opposite direction.


In the preceding episodes, The Master may have proven himself, again and again, to be a hard man, reaping where he had not sown, and gathering where he had scattered no seed.* But now that he's removed from the narrative, his disciples discover, for the first time, how pathetic their lives were before being enlisted in The Shadow's service, and how much worse they've become since his death. The betrayer feels this absence most keenly of all:

Wait: "My Little Pony"?
The agents decide to address the Shadow-shaped void in their lives by taking up his Uzis and committing themselves to his ways. It is a less-than-seamless transition.


The work continues apace, albeit via ever-chaotic means. The agents are faced with a singular crisis of identity -- without His, they don't have one of their own. Not one that agrees with them, at any rate.


The Shadow's head is eventually re-animated, his identity and unassailable self-regard very much intact. When joined to a Robocop-like body, he finally becomes the killing-machine he's always considered himself to be.


The Master's final act on the final page of the final issue is to recruit yet another of society's rejects. His sons' reaction is altogether reasonable:


The Shadow as Christ-figure is rich with ironies. For starters, his behaviour is pretty much of the Messianic variety that Jesus' original audience was hoping for -- ruthlessly violent toward all oppressors, and even the occasional innocent bystander, in the aim of re-establishing a more agreeable order. For these messiahs, transformation, if it occurs at all, is strictly superficial -- a precondition that's perfect for comic books, and cause for lots of impious fun when staged by the likes of Helfer & Baker.

For me there is a deeper and more pleasing irony present, in the Shadow-Messiah's most defining characteristic: his meta-cluelessness. His followers ascribe staggering powers to the man, and while he does prove himself a capable tactician as well as adept improvisor when the need arises, his continuous monologue of self-narration is frequently at odds with the larger narrative on display. Consider again how he kills Artimus Finn, the last of the "Seven Deadlies," unintentionally, by merely taking an elevator to the next floor:


The Shadow narrates the story as one where he is finally in charge of all fates. The story we read suggests his fate is assisted by no small dose of . . . luck? Or perhaps by an over-arching narrative design, of which he is -- by design -- ignorant? By this point, I start to wonder if Baker & Helfer weren't gearing up for a po-mo meta-meta-reversal, a la Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck.

"Are you IN ... genius?"
Jesus in the Gospels was, of course, a master at affecting meta-cluelessness. To take just one example from his Sermon On The Mount, here is how he cautions his listeners against considering themselves more compassionate than their Heavenly Father: "Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?" One imagines jokers like Helfer and Baker giddily spinning this insight into absurdist comedy -- "Or, if he asks not to drink of the cup, is never the less..."

But then this is indeed how the gospel writers (of Matthew and Luke, at any rate) very intentionally frame the proposition of God's perceived deficit of mercy. Whether one registers this frame ironically or not depends upon the ears of the listener.

The beauty of the Helfer-Baker Shadow-Messiah story-line lies in the reflection of the fun-house mirror they hold up to the canonical gospels. It's ridiculous fun, minus the ridicule. And that is why, in my near half-century of reading comic books, this series remains my favourite to date.

Pester your local independent comic book store for copies. Or go Amazon. Or grok on the HD glory of their digital enhancement via comiXology.

Scan of the original -- not a Comixology capture.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Jacobean Slapstick: Helfer & Baker's The Shadow

(Continuing from Part 1)

A telling exchange occurs in the second chapter of Shadows & Light, Andrew Helfer's first six-issue story-run for The Shadow, rendered by Bill Sienkiewicz. It follows the conclusion of the previous issue's cliff-hanger, Cranston-Shadow commenting on the hair-raising escape with a blithe near-indifference. Mavis, a newer recruit who has just pulled his fat from the fire, snaps:


It doesn't seem like much -- it's possibly the quietest moment in a story bracketed by considerable flash and snap -- but it's remarkable for two reasons. It distinguishes Helfer's vision for the title character from his predecessor's, and it marks just how long a view Helfer had for the story-line he'd only recently set in motion.

Howard Chaykin's resurrection of the Shadow posited Cranston as an uber-Alpha Male, against whom no regular human could offer anything but superficial resistance. Helfer retains the Shadow's uncanny powers of persuasion, but makes it clear it has limits -- limits which Cranston-Shadow is aware of, thus making him reliant on agents who, of their own free will, choose to call him "Master." Their limits are the hero's limits, also. Good thing he has a "contingency plan" for when things get unruly.

By the time Kyle Baker takes the artist's chair, "unruly" is becoming the norm. Agents are getting increasingly uppity:


And circumstances seem to require "The Master" to initiate contingency plans with greater frequency. At one point, The Shadow fires his Uzis on yet another washed-up loser he's recruited, fully intending to kill the man -- The Shadow doesn't recognize him, because this is the first they've met. The master-disciple relationship is off to a rocky start -- best initiate another contingency plan.


Cranston-Shadow's chess-piece maneuvering is looking decidedly rusty. Fortunately, his chosen nemeses -- an Irish-mafia family named the Finns -- possess no chess-playing skills whatsoever. Here the six surviving Deadly Finns "mourn" the first Finn the Shadow has dispatched, a lethargic and indulgent slug -- Errol, who represents "Sloth," of course.


Perhaps this is the moment to explore how Kyle Baker enlivens Helfer's scripts and story-boards. This is the next eight(ish)-panel page:


Reading Helfer-Baker back in the day left me with a distinct sense of on-the-fly improvisation. Reading them 25 years later, it's clearly nothing of the kind. Baker's literalist approach to Helfer's story-boards provides a comic framing that is the cool precursor to Seinfeld, which was still a half-decade to come.

That sense of improvisation was probably encouraged by Baker's skills as an artist, which he freely admits were rudimentary at the time. His characterization does have a childlike simplicity, but it contributes to the cheekiness of the humor. Facially, Baker's characters either speak with closed mouths, or howl with enormous gawps. All figures have an absurd plasticity, including The Shadow. Only when he appears as Cranston does Baker bother to render him remotely realistically, penning him in rough approximation of the Chaykin style.

This is not the preferred representation, however -- for The Shadow, or (one senses) for Baker or even Helfer. Although Baker's Shadow can still muster a threatening mien, more often than not the cloak and hat take on a swaddling characteristic, suggesting their implied threat and mystery mean more to the (often shrunken) man within them than to the world at large.


In the 80s, the Brooding Hero was on the ascendant, thanks to Frank Miller's surly Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. But no-one did "brooding" quite so petulantly as Helfer-Baker's Shadow. Thus is our near-anti-hero transformed from fascist with a rocket launcher to puppet-master of dubious qualifications.

The villains are certainly "bad guys," selfishly committed to the propagation of their representative vices. But in their pitiful defensive improvisations they become as humanely sympathetic as the Shadow and his agents. It's as if we're watching a Chuck Jones cartoon show, with the roles reversed: Wile E. Coyote is catching and roasting every Road Runner in the desert.


By story's end, The Shadow's manipulations appear to be largely victorious -- the Finns are all felled, and dozens of their minions are mowed down by the Shadow himself. Throughout the bathetic romp, Cranston-Shadow recites his own chorus of triumph and self-glorification, made ironic by his evident lack of awareness. He remains a deadly presence, to be sure, but much of the triple-digit body count is unrelated to his activity. It's like Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" has gone psychotic.


The Seven Deadly Finns concludes in the manner of all great story-arcs: our hero is betrayed by a follower, killed by a villain, then . . . six issues are devoted to the physical abuse of his corpse, while his followers grow ever more erratic in their behavior.


End-note to follow. If your appetite has been whetted, you may read these adventures in print, available at Amazon, among others. Or, take the more highly recommended route, and get the digital editions, brilliantly recolored in high definition, at Comixology, here.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Promissory Notice

Not to worry: I've still got Shadowy thoughts -- life is just getting in the way of their expression. Go here for the three-page lead-in to the splash page of the first Helfer/Baker free-for-all: The Seven Deadly Finns. I'll do my best to explicate by next Friday. Cheers.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

To my surprise and delight, the movie is as unhinged and intense as advertised.


It brought back memories of 1981, when I persuaded a friend that if we acted mature, we'd be mistaken for 18-year-olds, and allowed into the Restricted Adult fare that was The Road Warrior. The matron in the ticket booth took pity on us, and let us in. And our minds were blown.

Fury Road out-furies that movie by a very wide margin, and even manages to scorch out most of the sad and curdled memories from my one and only viewing of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Most, but not all. Honestly, the scenes that brought me right to the edge of my seat were those quiet interludes between the 30-minute chase scenes -- scenes when the actors started talking. Would Miller keep the pontificatin' down to "You're out there among the garbage," or would he succumb to a lengthy "Time counts and keeps countin'... etc"?

Good news: all pontificatin' is super-brief. Also simplistic, fueling the sort of gender-politics flame-wars that get ignited over such things. And, sure, it's a little rich to suggest women would never fuck up the planet as badly as men have, but within the framework of the film, it's an argument that persuades. What we see in 110 minutes of car chases is the masculine id completely freed of feminine tethers. Who does not feel genuine horror while watching all this feral masculine energy bear down on a truck full of girls? Just a glance at today's news headlines more than confirms that this scenario plays itself out in real time, again and again.

So, yeah: it's a message movie. And if you're feeling the thrill, you're getting the message.

Locke Petersheim pens my favourite review, over here.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Shadow As Silli-Putti: The Resurrection! And Second Death! And Second Resurrection! And Final(?) Death Of A Pulp "Hero!" Brought To You By: Andy Helfer & Kyle Baker!!

Truthfully, the initial resurrection of Lamont Cranston, aka, "The Shadow" was brought to us by Howard Chaykin. Chaykin was still gathering kudos for his hyper-stylized and (to one, somewhat fixated, way of thinking) sexualized American Flagg! when he picked up The Shadow for DC's "Suggested For Mature Readers" line of comics.
 

Flagg was set in a nearly-conceivable future, 50 years from the then-present (2030); Chaykin's Shadow plucks a character from the 1930s and deposits him abruptly across 50 years of history into contempo-1980s NYC. In Chaykin's hands, the fascist tendencies of the title hero are brought to the fore. Although present-day characters act as an ineffectual chorus, complaining of the man's brute behavior, it is an incontestable fact that the man and his methods are right at home in this supposedly more enlightened age.


If Chaykin's stylistic and thematic template strains, or perhaps signifies the sort of growing rigidity that frequently consumes a successful "breakout" artist, we nevertheless owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for pulling the title character into the age of continuous Soft Cell airplay, and introducing rocket launchers and Uzi machine guns to our hero's arsenal.

Chaykin's deal with DC was for four issues; he moved on to more enticing projects, while DC passed the script and story-boarding reins to Andy Helfer, whose concepts were engagingly rendered into the brown acid stylings of Bill Sienkiewicz.

"Mature readership" still very much suggested.
Helfer had a remarkable eye for the long story-arc. Consequently there was no way he could completely buy-in to Chaykin's conceit -- the sum of which, once expressed, can only be repeated until boredom sets in (the Achilles Heel to all pulp writing).

At the outset of his six-issue run with Sienkiewicz (Shadows & Light) Cranston-Shadow is still a grim and imposing figure. His team of operatives, however, expands to include increasingly eccentric, erratic, even pathetic characters -- most notably the pharmaceutical expert (and indulger) "Twitch" Twitchkowitz, and his paramour Gwen, a fired nurse and retired wrestler.


"The Master" might retain his unassailable and perversely beguiling sense of entitlement, but to the reader his wisdom and overall game-plan look increasingly suspect.

Sienkiewicz's star was really taking off by this time -- and so did he, to other projects (including Elektra: Assassin). Helfer followed Shadows & Light with a one-off, Harold Goes To Washington, penciled by Marshal Rogers and inked by Kyle Baker.


Harold ties up some loose ends from the earlier story-arc and does a little ground-work to situate the next, but struggles to find its "tone." It is a morbidly weird and unsettling narrative failure, frankly. But something must've clicked, because Rogers disappeared, and Helfer and Baker launched the next 12 issues into the giddy ether, doing stuff that nobody has seen -- till then or since -- in comic book pages.

Still "Suggested For Mature Readers"


Next: Bathetic Romp? Jacobean Farce? Or...?

Monday, May 11, 2015

"I think we've learned a little something about human nature, haven't we?"

Back in the '80s, most of my favoritest people in the world were in the habit of watching David Letterman.

A life of late nights, free of regret.
No such habit for me. Not that I was ignorant of his shtick (how could I be?). I'd watch, alright -- sometimes several nights in a row. Then I'd flee.

His guests were frequently unknown eccentrics, with dependably strange, even alarming proclivities. But it was Letterman's behaviour that rattled me the most.

To wit: here we have 17 minutes of television history, from 1982: Put-On Artist Andy Kauffman re-connecting (and how) with wrestler Jerry Lawler, arguably another variety of Put-On Artist:


Winner-by-a-melt-down, David Letterman -- Put-On Artist, nonpareil. That was several degrees cooler than I cared to get comfortable with.

"Cooler than being cool is ice-cold," said OutKast, in 2003 -- probably the same year I discovered that yet another pair of my favoritest people in the world had established a nightly habit of watching Letterman -- my parents.

What else to add, now that he's retiring? I wish him well, I suppose -- to roughly the same degree I once wished he hadn't been quite so universal in his appeal to my late-adolescent peers.

H/t to Scott Dagostino for the found footage.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Bellowvian Vapours

Saul Bellow seems to have been blessed with more personality than he could responsibly deal with -- he, and anyone who spun into his orbit.

A week or two ago, my usual daily clicks were linking up with quite a number of "My Time With Saul Bellow" accounts. Quite a number, but so very little to differentiate one from the other. I'd say Lee Siegel embodies the extreme -- by the midway mark, my body was in a permanent muscular clench thanks to all the cringing his admissions induced, and it didn't let up until I closed my browser and refreshed my coffee -- but even the normally steely gaze of Martin Amis turns hazy with nostalgia as he meditates on the man he met, the man he knew.

"Zachary Leader met Bellow only once. That was in 1972, at a party near Harvard, where Leader was a graduate student and Bellow was being awarded an honorary degree. Leader says that Bellow seemed bored, and he remembers nothing of what Bellow said. In the genre of Bellow biography, this counts as a credential." So says Louis Menand, as he warms up to his review of Leader's new biography of Bellow, the stimulant to this public resurgence of memory. Menand's gaze does not get blurry in the least, not when staring at Bellow and his foibles, nor when appraising the man's work -- and Leader's. And for that, "Young Saul," his review at The New Yorker gets my recommendation.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Elsewhere

I've noticed my Facebook feed has become increasingly parsimonious about what it bothers to share with my friends. And vice-versa, natch -- which means I'm missing some primo links-of-note. As are you. Surely this provides the incentive we need to slip the surly blue-and-white bonds of that juggernaut corporate algorithm and get back to our humble blogs, with their charmingly retro HTML feeds?

Alright, I'll go first -- here's some of the internetty goodness you may have missed:


"Infomercials of the gods!" "As sacred texts go, the Bhagavad Gita (“song of the Lord”) is notable for both its brevity and the relatively straightforward relationship between doctrine and narrative. It has a plot" -- Scott McLemee reviews Richard H. Davis' biography of the Bhagavad Gita.
"It was all really bad and scary, and kind of broken, and everyone loved it, especially me" -- Leigh Alexander explains why the demise of Silent Hill, video gaming's most successful (in every sense of that word) horror franchise, matters.


2015 is the year I finally got on-board Quartz. If you don't know what I'm yakking about, check Quartz out. The past week alone has yielded some trenchant stuff: Forbidden from riding bikes, fearless Afghan girls are skateboarding around Kabul -- photos; Michael Smith's applied wisdom re: the artist's life is getting lots of link-love, for very good reason; and RIP Dan Fredinburg, a Google engineer killed on Everest who photographed some of the world’s highest peaks for “Street View.”


Speaking of Nepal, my wife's organization is involved. Good people, already there, already doing good things. You've done the research and have your charities, I'm sure, but I'd be thrilled if you gave CBM some thought as well.

If you are ever a Mennonite, you will never not be a Mennonite:
A shot from my childhood town. A museum piece, in fact.
"I am an atheist. I am also a Mennonite." So concludes Robin A. Fast, (despite his grandmother's fervent protests).

PopMatters has a spanky new website template -- a genuine improvement on their old one, for once. Now, thanks to them, I've discovered The Dirty Aces:

Assuming these guys can get a distribution deal worked out for our side of the pond, their album From The Basement could well become this summer's Roll Down The Windows soundtrack.

Finally, RIP, Grace Lee Whitney, Star Trek's "Yeoman Janice Rand." My inner 12-year-old will forever have a crush on your outer 35-year-old.


Friday, May 01, 2015

Bob Dylan, Pugilist At Large

My first Bob Dylan "Live" experience was in the Winnipeg Arena, 1988. Timbuk3 opened for him, followed by a merch booth break, then the headline act. It was a "band" show, with SNL then-staple G.E. Smith keeping the train on the rails.

It struck me at the time as a perfunctory bit of business. I can't recall if the set lasted an hour, but there's no way it exceeded it. While the crowd whistled and stomped for the expected encore, Dylan and band took a smoke break. The most memorable visual I have of that evening is of the sparks flying off Dylan's discarded turkey-butt, which he flicked out before him onto the stage, then crushed with his Frye boot.

Two more songs, and the show was over.

It came out later that, following the show, Dylan and Smith high-tailed it to Corner Boys, a struggling dive owned by famed "Golden Boy" Donny Lalonde, where they delivered the more memorable show, to a considerably smaller audience. Lalonde was apparently, as the parlance goes, "a close personal friend" of Dylan's.

Me and my mates had a lot of fun improvising conversations between the singer and the boxer. But nothing so strange as what probably did, in fact, take place. Anyway, this weird little echo from a distant corridor of my mind comes tumbling into the foremost chambers thanks to Sarah Kurchak's profile of Dylan's lifelong love (and practice) of The Sweet Science -- "Cassius Clay, Here I Come: Bob Dylan and Boxing" -- over here.


Friday, April 24, 2015

From The Forest To The Sea: Emily Carr In British Columbia, at The AGO

Yesterday I took the younger to check out the Emily Carr exhibit at the AGO.


Being a member of Trudeau Generation, receiving my education from the church and CBC, an awareness of Carr was deeply embedded within my consciousness. Not so my daughter, however, so this introductory exhibit came at an ideal time: at the crest of a teacher's strike. Off to the city we went.

From The Forest To The Sea is well-executed -- a brisk tour of Emily Carr highlights, peppered with well-chosen arcana to draw out a nuanced sense of the woman's character, inquisitiveness, even bitchiness.

I could have stood to see a bit more of the latter, frankly. Carr evidently had quite the life-force. In her later years her neighbors regarded her as an off-putting kook -- the old gal with a penchant for donning a hairnet and walking her assortment of pets in a pram. The curators took pains to prevent this late-in-life behavior from becoming the definitive portrait of Carr. Which led me to wonder: when did the Eccentric Artist cliche become a liability?

Another curatorial tic that induced me to eye-rolling: an apologetic stance toward her "cultural appropriation" of indigenous artifacts -- via her (voluminous) portraiture of totems, masks, and the like.

To be fair, our contempo cultural babysitters took pains to present Carr's penchant for "speaking on behalf of my Indian brothers" within the context of the times. At the turn of the 20th century, official government policy regarding the country's First Nations required absolute assimilation -- children who didn't fall to malnutrition or the plagues of the day were rounded up and deposited in residential schools, while totem poles and canoes were physically appropriated and shipped to approved cultural institutions, or simply destroyed. Carr responded with outspoken horror and defiance, devoting herself to portraiture of the disappearing totems in a personal effort to keep the artform alive -- a person, a woman, whose moral sense was out of sync with her time. That she was too obsessed/obtuse to note any misgivings the people she was keen to "save" might have had toward her enterprise is hardly surprising. One shudders to think what virtues our grandchildren will be apologizing for in three generations' time.

That being said, the display as curated was a personal revelation.

Two late-mid-career works, Indian Church and Wood Interior, are presented as keys to the larger body. It's an astute bit of positioning.

Indian Church, 1929
Wood Interior, 1929-1930











Here we have Carr's studied aesthetic and moral indignation displayed to great effect, in a manner that perfectly suits our precious contemporary palate. Instead of her usual reverential treatment of totems, Carr presents the incongruous clash of a victorious Colonial religion, with its overflowing graveyard, its absurd angles and coloration, braced against the sweeping grandeur and impenetrable mystery of the forest -- the original source of religious reverence for indigenous peoples. And who among us isn't up with that, really?

Seeing these pieces first does have an unsettling effect on the rest of the exhibition. The earlier pictures and mock-ups of "Indian" artifacts make up the bulk of the show -- and this exhibition presents just a well-culled sliver of her vast collection. Many of her most recognizable pieces are there, as well as the lesser attempts that lead up to these triumphs. After a while, it gets to be a bit much. "Really, Emily: another canoe?"

"I mean, it's beautiful and all, but..."

I imagine her friends among the Group of Seven must have felt some of that. Late in life, Lawren Harris apparently gave Carr a hard nudge to focus exclusively on landscape. And it is these final paintings of Carr's that resonated most deeply with me. She shifts into a mode strongly reminiscent of Van Gogh -- somewhat surprising, given how she was, at this late point in her life, happy to remain ignorant of artists she'd not actually met.

In a landscape like Stumps and Sky (1934), I got the sense that this clear-cut forest is releasing an anarchic apocalyptic energy to the four winds.


Similarly, my personal favourite, An Upward Trend (1937), which viscerally communicates what our very elderly often speak of: a perceived internal prompting to exceed the limits of the sky.


Sounds New Agey, I know. I expect Carr would have fostered the expectation, then crustily asserted she was no such thing, dammit.

The kid enjoyed Carr's early sketchbooks, tiny things with incredibly articulate pen-work.

Presented here in an artfully-rendered crappy phone shot.

From The Forest To The Sea is at the AGO from now until August 9, 2015. Bonus: until May 10, you can also check out this sassy Basquiat exhibit.