Daryl Vocat – The Old Guard is Dead
by David Folk for Artist Proof Gallery, May 2010
Calgary, AB.,

We tend to take our stories for granted.  After all, they’re not meant to do anything other than entertain us in our spare time!  But, this is a superficial understanding of the power that narrative has – particularly during the formative years of our childhood and our growth into adults.  Early on, the tellers of tales understood that stories had power.  Not only did they entertain, but they were didactic tools meant to instill social and moral codes of behaviour and induct youth into their proper social order.  Even a quick perusal of the children’s section in a bookstore will show that this is still the primary purpose of children’s stories.  Entertainment is secondary to the application of a moral or social code of conduct.  It’s not surprising, then, that the work in Daryl Vocat’s The Old Guard is Dead is transgressive.  It takes the often-associated simplified form of children’s illustrations, but situates the narrative within a complex network of relationships that subtly subverts the propagation of traditional gender and sexual norms.
The illustrative style of Vocat’s work makes reference to children’s stories and the nostalgic style of the Little Golden Books or the Dick and Jane series.  However, it goes further in that the naïve style of the drawings has particularly strong associations with youth-orientated propaganda.  Vocat’s style is taken from early to mid-20th century posters and instructional manuals of such organizations as the Boy Scouts of America and the YMCA.  Early on, these organizations clearly understood the power of narrative as an instructional tool.  Not only did they promote the importance of individual health and physical fitness, but they promoted social and moral health according to a predominant ideology that linked physical well-being with the social health of the community.
But, the children in Vocat’s narratives are hardy enacting their proper social roles.  Whether it’s the all-boy game of Spin the Bottle or the act of cross-dressing, these youth reject typical classification within traditional gender or sexual roles.  And, most importantly, they do so without the all-too-often prerequisite angst or anger we often associate with the actions of alternative identities.  Rather, they are happily complicit in their interactions.  While even the simple act of sharing a lollipop conveys an overt sexuality, it remains based in the freedom and wonder of play.  Much like the game of Hoist the Flag, where the stripped underpants suggest something ‘strange’ going on behind the scenes (where, exactly, did all the boys go and what are they up to anyways!?!) – that threat is mitigated by the obvious delight taken in the construction of an excessively elaborate mechanism of play.

Even the staging of Vocat’s narratives is provocative.  There is a formal tension in the combination of photo-based, landscape imagery with the flattened line-work and reductive staging of the figures.  Yet, this contrast reinforces the permissive actions of the boys through its juxtaposition of a simultaneously private/public, real/unreal space.  The natural surroundings are inhabited areas and not the un-trafficked zones of the greater countryside or wild forestry.  Instead, the hiking trails and controlled vegetation are markers that these are public parks.  These characters inhabit the contemporary cruising grounds of gay subculture, with all of the potential fears and thrills of discovery that go along with it.  But, they do so with a willing state of play that rejects the inherent social or legal threat of reprisal for their actions.  The environment provides Vocat’s characters with a guilt-free locale to engage in play – however transgressive that play may be.  There is no threat in discovery, no shame in action.  Instead, it’s suggested that Vocat’s characters are almost hoping to get caught.  The boys in The Old Guard is Dead wholeheartedly embrace their identities.  There’s a celebratory act in the hoisting of a flag or the proud display of markers of sexual desire.
It’s easy to ignore how narrative – particularly in children’s stories – can reinforce gender and sexual norms.  We’re constantly trying to remind ourselves that childhood is supposed to be a time of innocence.  Who wants to be burdened by the turmoil associated with coming into our sexual, social, and cultural identities?  Why be reminded that our own childhoods were fraught with these very struggles?  It’s better, after all, to remember through the lens of nostalgia.  Vocat’s work calls into question these preconceived notions of innocence. There is a lack of ‘moral’ restraint in the act of play and a lack of fear of reprisal by way of participating in a social space.  Instead of enforcing accepted, normative codes of conduct, Vocat takes his source material and uses it to ask us to reconsider the power of narrative to inscribe social morays and ‘proper’ behaviour.   And, one of the most compelling aspects of The Old Guard is Dead is that it does so with a sense of delight.

David Folk Bio

David Folk is a visual artist whose work focuses on the construction of identity and gender, primarily through narrative painting strategies.  Currently, he resides in Calgary, AB where, in addition to his artistic practice, he teaches Studio Art at the University of Calgary.  Prior to this, he completed his MFA in Visual Studies at the University of Saskatchewan in 2007 and both a BFA in Visual Studies and a BA in Art History at the University of Calgary in 2002. He has also worked as a practicing artist and arts administrator at both public galleries and artist-run centres in Calgary, AB and Ottawa, ON respectively.