Number 581, Feb 1, 2007

Spirit Of Resistance

Artist Collective Captured AGrowing Sense Of Gay Community

In celebration of Pink Triangle Day, Pink Triangle press and The O’Connor Gallery present The JAC Collective: Gay Activist Art of the 1980’s. This fruitful pairing is a celebration and commemoration of both the art of the JAC Collective, and what The Press considers to be “the first major legal victory for the gay movement in Canada.” Pink Triangle Day is the anniversary of the day in 1979 when members of PTP were acquitted of obscenity charges. The charges were for The Body Politic’s publication of an article none of us will ever be allowed to forget, Gerald Hannon’s “Men Loving Boys Loving Men.”

Rising from a group called GAI (Gay Art Involvement), was the artist collective, JAC; an acronym created from the first letter of each member’s name; John Grube (“rhymes with tuba,”) Alex Liros, and Clarence Barnes. GAI started in 1980, and held weekly meetings to draw the male nude. Its members felt this exploration was missing from more mainstream art practices. Everyone who attended the meetings shared the cost of the models. Seeing as the term “involvement” could mean almost anything, group members felt its looseness appropriately defined their activities. GAI described themselves as having “a lack of formal structure combined with a sense of groping, however tentatively, toward a joyously gay art.”

On one of the regular GAI drawing nights the model never showed up. Attendees improvised with what they had on hand; three men, and a handy-dandy porno magazine. The three decided to experiment with each other, and JAC was born. As Grube recalls, “Alex Liros suggested that we work simultaneously on the same sheet of paper,” an idea he got from an exercise at art school. At first the experiment was awkward and disjointed, complete with territorial grudges regarding who drew over who’s work. Grube describes their early work as “text-book illustrations of the art of the insane.” Thanks in part to their sense of humour, the trio persisted, and working together became a more unified process.

Over the years, John Grube became JAC’s unofficial spokesman. He taught creative writing at the Ontario College of Art (currently the Ontario College of Art and Design,) the University of Victoria, and the University of Windsor, and also has number of books under his belt. Alex Liros (www.alexliros.com,) initially took art classes at the Ottawa Municipal Art Centre (currently the Ottawa School of Art,) and over the years worked as a part-time librarian. Still active as an artist, Liros currently exhibits at Toronto’s Gallery 1313 in Parkdale. Clarence Barnes, who died in 1995 at the age of 61,was a full-time lecturer in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Toronto. He was involved in the Gay Academic Union in the 1970’s, the JAC Collective in the 1980’s, and Gays and Lesbians Aging, in the 1990’s.

What started as a simple experiment turned into an eight year long collaboration, complete with the joys and strife of making overtly gay political art in Toronto during the heyday of gay liberation. JAC worked together from 1980-1988. Part of what the collective wanted to do was investigate the idea of gay art, of who makes it, who consumes it, and what exactly it is. In an attempt to explore this question JAC examined some of the iconography and stereotypes common in gay male art practices; naked men, jockstraps, construction workers, and athletes.

Rather than simply creating the same work as other gay artists, JAC’s aim was to document and explore the community from which these icons arose. In order to emphasize the ability for art to act as a social endeavour, JAC took their art supplies to community events, and documented the people around them. In their own words, “JAC not only depicts the traditional cock and balls, but is also to be found sketching outdoors…trying to give visual expression to a growing sense of gay community.” The idea of visibility is a key component to JAC’s work. Depicting the people and lives of the gay community was seen as a way to counter gay stereotypes, and as a way to strengthen that community. It was a way to both create and document living history. Rather than waiting for mainstream culture to portray the lives of queers, JAC actively worked to create their own version of culture, one in which they were recognized.

John Grube remembers, “at one GCDC [Gay Community Dance Committee] fund-raising dance we brought our easel along and set it up in the middle of the dance floor. Everyone passing wanted to make his or her mark! To participate in creating the lively disco dance on paper.” Such a strategy resulted in works showing a confection of people and places, from the softball field to the courtroom, to the bedroom. The drawings, often flat and disparate, express a sense of community, hope and vibrancy. Densely-peopled and bombed with colour, they seem alive. On an aesthetic level, some of the works could be described as an eyesore. What’s equally important as the aesthetics of JAC’s work, if not more, was their intention, and their process. As Clarence Barnes once wrote, “we took our self-imposed responsibility as gay community artists seriously and the price we paid was often to be dismissed as either a freak show or just Sunday painters.” JAC never became famous, but they stuck to their ideals.

JAC exhibitions include shows at Toronto’s Idée Gallery in 1982, Gallery 44 in 1983, a handful of other solo shows, group shows, and lectures. The group was also known for its public drawing sessions at events such as Gay Pride in Grange Park, and at Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Island. Although JAC had work shown in Chicago at the third Annual Gay American Arts Festival in 1982, Ottawa’s Gallery 101 in 1983, and Halifax at the Centre for Art Tapes in 1986, their presence was most widely-felt in Toronto. They were, without a doubt, a community-based collective, documenting the city they lived in.

The upcoming exhibition, The JAC Collective: Gay Activist Art Of The 1980’s, arrives almost 20 years after the collective called it quits, and more than 25 years after Toronto’s 1981 bath house raids. An event that helped politicize not only JAC, but also the larger queer community. So why now? What’s the big deal about all this work made so long ago? Well, the folks at Pink Triangle Press who bring you this very paper, recently become the custodians of quite a significant collection of JAC’s work. The collection includes enough drawings and paintings to fill several galleries, and a few boxes of other assorted JAC artifacts and ephemera, including everything from a film they made for A Space Gallery, to personal correspondence, reviews, invitations, and financial statements. Exhibition Curator and co-host, Dennis O’Connor, of O’Connor Gallery, says “The JAC exhibition is important to me because as we further our collective history, we must continually renew our connection to the struggles and victories that brought us here today. It is an opportunity for the existing community to educate gay youth who have grown up disconnected from our culture.”

In an effort to ensure the JAC collection is preserved as a record of history, something that wasn’t going to happen being stored in a musty basement, The Press has taken on the challenge of housing the work. In what nicely sums up the importance of the JAC collection, The Press’ “Daring Together” mission statement says, “What came before is foundation, inspiration, a lesson and a warning. We seek to own our history: we learn and teach and guard it.” In looking through the collection it’s hard to not think about history and community, where queers have come from, and where we are now. The collection isn’t just dead words on paper documenting storage fees and arguments. They don’t just speak of scribbles and deadpan rebellion, but rather chronicle a spirit of resistance; one filled with joy, creation and triumph.

One of the curious things about JAC’s work is that on very nearly all of their publicity materials they prominently stated that they were “a gay art collective.” A proclamation that seems heretical by today’s standards. Describing something as being “gay art” is still an easy way to marginalize or dismiss it. After all, if it’s perceived as being for a gay audience then everyone else can keep on ignoring it. The world of post-modernism, in which we seem to be soaking, is beyond these types of descriptions and boundaries. I mean really, who’s even gay anymore? However, back in the 1980’s proclaiming gayness was a much more dangerous, political undertaking than it is now.

As someone who operates an arguably gay art gallery, Dennis O’Connor has a thing or two to say about the idea of what constitutes gay art, and what the gays are thinking about it. He says, “the central defining difference between gay people and straight people is sex. Gay sex is the basis for our history of discrimination and our struggle for rights and inclusion, and this is reflected in our art…By labelling and celebrating gay art, we protect our unique niche within the greater society.” Similarly, the collective recognized the power of claiming a label for themselves, and being proud of it. Every time JAC came out, they took a chance. Being seen as radicals, not everyone would have warm feelings about the collective. One scathing review written in 1983 by Nancy Baele in the Ottawa Citizen, describes their work as “derivative and banal, the show is a cheap travesty of the intentions of true art,” and continued on about how difficult the work was to relate to. But realistically, JAC’s work was not intended for the Nancy Baele’s of the world.

Just as not all reactions to JAC’s work were overflowing with puppies and rainbows, there were also problems inside the collective. The intention of working collaboratively in a non-hierarchical fashion is admirable. However, in reality conflict is a near inevitability. When conflict arose in the collective it appears to have taken a very organized form, complete with group meetings, detailed notes, and even the creation of operating rules. In-fighting between members of activist groups is nothing new. On one hand it’s reassuring to understand and share our pitfalls, knowing that others have had similar experiences. But on the other hand, it’s a depressing fact that these roles have been played out so many times before. Suffice to say JAC members had different ideas on how they should work together, and how power and relationships in a collective work. Both the joy and terror of living and working in the margins, as JAC did, is that there are no rules of conduct, and no answers. In any case, their persistence at working together for eight years despite their problems must be commended.

Behind the walls housing the JAC collection lie manifestations of lofty ideals; a collection of art attempting to document and agitate a community, to question and to communicate, and to create a more passionate, colourful, and just world. In a letter to both John and Alex, Clarence Barnes wrote, “if we are beginning to take ourselves too seriously, then the late Dear Queen commands that JAC expire from an attack of the vapours.” [sic] Perhaps as we stroll through the O’Connor gallery contemplating a version of history, it’s advice we can all learn from.