Xtra!

Number 504, Mar 4 2004

Under pressure
The terror — and joy — of knowing

If anyone can light up a room with positive energy, it is Luis Jacob. I first met Jacob on the dancefloor at Vazaleen. I knew his passion for life was infectious by the way he interacted with people around him. When I saw his work as an artist I was puzzled. He did not have a signature style or medium of choice, and the work was about the world, not the people in it. With Adamant, his new show at Robert Birch Gallery, Jacob changes direction. The work has a more personal starting point and addresses matters on a more intimate level.

Adamant consists of neon diamond shaped lights, a small oil painting, a large photograph, a collection of found images called Album II and a tattoo. It is not immediately clear how this mix of work is connected. Adamant invites viewers to bring their own interpretations. Rather than acting authoritatively, Jacob assumes that he and his audience are on equal footing. The pieces ask questions rather than offering answers.

Like Jacob himself, the work is both anarchistic and idealistic. He says art is, “an action, an activity like any other human activity,” and that anyone can do it. This is especially clear in Album II, a continuing found photograph project. You don’t need a studio or a grant to collect and combine photos from magazines the way Jacob has. Artists or not, we can all share ideas and make things.

Jacob’s art and politics are so intertwined, there is no separating the two. He sees both as ways of bringing people together, of inviting people to learn and communicate. He recently facilitated a class called Art And Collaborative Approaches at the Anarchist Free University (for more info on the school Jacob helped found, go to Anarchistu.org). Although the classroom and gallery have different languages, Jacob is passionate that both venues offer a way of being social.

In the world, says Jacob, “there is enough isolation and alienation.”

Despite devoting his life to art, Jacob has never taken an art class. At the University Of Toronto he studied semiotics and philosophy. Though leaving him technically limited, he feels his studies were the perfect art training since both are about communication and meaning. He realized that no matter what he did, he would do it as art, since that was what he understood best.

In addition to numerous Toronto exhibitions, the 33-year-old Peru-born artist has had shows in Rotterdam, Helsinki, Cape Town and Edmonton, and has shows coming up in both Calgary and Peterborough.

Jacob says that Adamant is more personal than his previous work. The title refers to both perseverance in crisis and a diamond’s impenetrability. It is about enduring pressure and becoming a better, stronger person for it. Adamant is about taking in energy, transforming it and releasing it back into the world. The three neon diamond lights in the exhibition continually send and receive energy. Although real diamonds are virtually indestructible, these diamonds are extremely fragile. The pieces cleverly bring the delicate and the immutable together as one.

In Album II, a piece consisting of 80 panels of laminated found photos, Jacob tells a story. The piece acts as an exploded counterpart to the neons. If the neon diamonds are the destination, Album II is the journey. It relates a story about a person’s inner thoughts and outer world going out of whack. It is about opening up, and the process of recovery. Jacob is not unaware of how sentimental such topics can get. He is quick to admit that in some ways he is “no different than a cheesy new-ager.”

Album II illustrates Jacob’s belief that art is more about synthesis than creation. He rearranges some of the hundreds of images we see daily, sidestepping the process of transforming materials into something altogether new. He organizes something old in a new way. There is a pleasure in looking at Album II that comes from recognizing the photographs. We realize they are as much a part of our environment as they are Jacob’s, and through recognition we connect. He describes his way of working as a common strategy amongst queers: taking something from mainstream culture, chewing it up and making it our own, taking refuse and turning it into gold, or diamond, as the case may be.

Toronto artists AA Bronson and the late Robert Flack helped inspire Adamant. These artists have dealt extensively with healing, transform- ation and energy throughout their careers. Jacob notes that musician Andrew Zealley created a soundtrack for a Flack show and for Bronson’s recent exhibition The Quick And The Dead. Jacob now lives in Zealley’s old apartment, a space once filled with Flack’s work. All of these occurrences create a chain, in some way lending their energy to Jacob’s creation.

As we talk about inspiration, Jacob enthusiastically relates his work to Destiny’s Child. In the song “Survivor,” Michelle Williams caterwauls the lines, “After all of the darkness and sadness soon comes happiness/ If I surround myself with positive things I’ll gain prosperity.” Perverse as it may sound for a visual artist to gain strength from a pop song, Jacob’s admiration has nothing to do with irony.

Jacob describes exploring perversity as being decidedly queer. “Queer is anything pushed to the side,” says Jacob. “And to identify as queer and to work in queer culture is to say that anything that’s pushed aside is precisely the first thing we have to look at.” As such, he feels disappointed by the gay community’s desire to be as normal as possible. “The queers among the gays are battling it out with the straights among the gays,” as to what our goals are. It’s clear that the gay community is too homogenous for his liking.

He talks about having a hard time relating to the cynicism of gay culture — which makes sense given that his work is about healing and exchanging energy, which even he alternates between describing as deathly serious and cheesy. He backtracks a little in the conversation suggesting (“to be fair”), his relationship to the art world is similarly tenuous. When everything is wrapped up in irony, being earnest and talking about feelings is taking a big chance.

When I ask him about the humour involved in his work he responds by saying, “I tend to think of myself as kind of… serious.” He whispers the word as though he hopes no one will find out. There is an element of humour in his work, but it occurs through perversity and surprise rather than put-downs. The humour comes from juxta-posing images.

Ever the eclectic, Jacob donned his curatorial hat with the recent production of Golden Streams: Artists’ Collaboration And Exchange In The 1970s at Mississauga’s Blackwood Gallery, a project he calls his thesis. Golden Streams features the work of four artist groups from Vancouver and Toronto created in the 1970s. He says his interest in this work is the way the artists were “experimenting and developing forms of interactions with each other and with the social world.”

Nurturing social interaction in other ways, Jacob is also known as Didi 7, one of the DJs at the monthly Rhythm Box parties at Club 56 (the next one’s Fri, Mar 5). He also plays organ with the band The Hidden Cameras.

When conversing with Jacob I get the impression that his life is filled with coincidences and magic, connecting everything to everything else. The conversation we have is a continual web; whatever we talk about, no matter how disparate, winds up snaking back. He is proof that we shape the world we live in. With Adamant, Luis Jacob demonstrates that our experiences, from the traumatic to the transcendent, can all be beautiful if we open ourselves to their possibilities.

* The opening reception is from 6pm to 8pm on Thu, Mar 11; gallery hours are 11am to 6pm, Tuesday to Saturday, and noon to 5pm on Sunday.

ADAMANT.
Thu, Mar 11-Apr 4.
Robert Birch Gallery.
The Distillery District.
55 Mill St, Bldg 3.
(416) 365-3003.