Edmonton Journal

April 4, 2013

Visual arts preview: Exploring queer culture of the ’80s

Edmonton exhibit Sissies and Psychopaths opens Friday, April 5

 by Fish Griwkowsky

EDMONTON - It is the early 1980s. On a small screen, Magnum P.I. — Tom Selleck — is bounding hairy-chested and shirtless toward us. Meanwhile, at lunch hour almost daily in syndication, a dress-wearing animated Hercules lays calming hands on his shrill-voiced companions. And, for reasons unexplained, the overwhelmingly male He-Man universe of battle toys is shiny-legged, impossibly toned and garbed flamboyantly, yet barely clothed during their full-contact, groaning struggles.

“Every boy was supposed to get into it,” Toronto artist Daryl Vocat explains at SNAP Gallery, hanging his colourful pop-culture collage prints. “But it wasn’t such a big stretch to imagine them as lovers. What they’re wearing is so overt that someone had to be thinking about it. Prince Adam is all dressed in pink and purple, then strips down to become He-Man. This is the pillar of masculinity, intended for kids— but it’s sexualized, and not that veiled.”

For Vocat, the spicy window dresser Montrose Hollywood in the 1987 film Mannequin had a strong impact, and he remembers thinking, “I know this guy is gay, but I don’t really even know what that means. I don’t know if I’m like that, if that’s how I’m supposed to be. But something in that set something off.”

On their journeys out of closet doors, queer youth in the ’80s were surrounded by cultural signposts, many friendly, others condemning. Intended or not, from pro wrestling to the hairsprayed glam of golden age MTV, Western pop had tsunamis of gay overtones at a level last seen in the age of aristocratic glove-slaps and powdered wigs.

Using familiar images of Prince, Selleck and the aforementioned cartoons, Vocat and Peter Kingstone’s exhibition Sissies and Psychopaths explores a personal history of media perceptions and depictions of homosexual icons during their childhoods. Their combined-effort prints form a sort of dream museum — sometimes funny, sometimes damning and uncomfortable — running at SNAP Gallery through May 11.

The show emerged from a Hamilton, Ont. group exhibition exploring queer identity a few years back. Unbeknownst to its curator at the time, Kingstone and Vocat had hooked up at a party, already familiar friends when she suggested they collaborate. “He’s mostly a video artist and I mostly work in print,” 36-year-old Vocat notes, “so we sat down and thought about common ties in our work. A couple of things that kept coming up were ideas of collage. We both use a lot of found stuff. We also had this thread running through our work of youth.”

The artists have shown in galleries from New York to South Korea.

Examples of Vocat’s earlier work — inspired by Goya’s Disasters of War series we saw at the Art Gallery of Alberta in 2010 — are arranged in a grid at the SNAP show. Marvellous etchings made in limited-series prints depict a wolf in a medical collar, an alluring couch buddy and an army of Boy Scouts, including two bargaining with the devil, called This Is How It Happened (not the only time the Prince of Darkness shows up in the show, part of Vocat’s horror streak).

SNAP’s director April Dean gushes about the emotional severity of the etchings, explaining their origin in St. Michael’s Print Shop in St. John’s, N.L. during Vocat’s residency there a few years back. “It’s only because you’re my favourite artist,” she laughs in the Jasper Avenue space.

Working with Kingstone, Vocat moved away from drawing as the pair manipulated a library of clippings into impressionistic collages. One of the rules: once an image was inserted it could only be moved, not removed. A skirt thrown on He-Man’s rump evolved into a clothesline, for example, a portrait of gender crossroads.

Even in cases when the 11 colour prints don’t muster the narrative impact of Vocat’s solo work, they’re successfully decorative. “There wasn’t a lot of dialogue going back and forth. We let the images be the dialogue,” Vocat explains, noting the images’ survey of queer cultural stereotypes includes straight depictions. “At one point it was either, you’re totally, flamey, prancey guy, or you’re a horrible killer,” he laughs.

Besides the devil, horror icon Freddy Kruger shows up in an image taken from a Nightmare on Elm Street dream sequence where a potential victim becomes the monster, knife glove on hand. Vocat notes the image symbolizes the terror some people feel before coming out. He notes with a smile, “I’m not a serial killer.”

One of Kingstone’s videos in the show is a thoughtful portrait of Jeffrey Dahmer’s murder victims. Another clip is a pair of James Bond villains, pillow-talking about their exploits. A third, shot low from a child’s point of view, is the video artist discussing with his parents the British comedy Are You Being Served?, which featured the most widely known flamboyantly gay character in England since Oscar Wilde: Mr. Humphries.

“It certainly didn’t occur to me he was a negative stereotype,” his mother says onscreen.

“What did you think of your young son watching it?” Kingstone asks. “Not a thing,” his parents laugh.

Vocat sums it up. “We’re subverting media icons, having a more complicated look at things. It’s collage in a very literal sense of the word.

“My work, you could definitely say it’s queer, but more in a sense of pre-consciousness. Queer in the sense of ‘weird,’ not talking about sexuality, but in a worldly sensibility of something not adding up to what it should. There’s a conversation between the images, maybe not directly, but in that they’re coming from the same place.”