Friday, April 13, 2018

The Assassination of Art Nuko by the Curator John O’Brian

Cruising down the Rideau in Ottawa by Carl Chaplin.

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Kirk Tougas, to our group.

Obviously an exaggeration, but a Vancouver artist has been "disappeared" by guest curator John O’Brian in BOMBHEAD at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Rephrased, perhaps an alternate title could be Shadowboxing with History: How Curators Can Erase Artists, but between erasure and assassination, let’s settle on the latter.

Don't get me wrong – the exhibition is excellent. A thematic and historical gem that traces an arc from pre-Hiroshima to Trump, BOMBHEAD is about an environmental crisis, radiation, an existential crisis, annihilation, and the artistic response to our collective atomic/nuclear anxiety. The exhibition draws from O'Brian's collection of military documentation and photographs, augmented by Bruce Conner's Bombhead collage and 1975 film Crossroads, and further augmented from the VAG's permanent collection with emphasis on Vancouver artists.

Here the assassin, an ex-UBC art historian, enters the scene: there is only one artist in Vancouver, probably in Canada, who has addressed nuclear obliteration front and center, over forty years and 20 or more paintings, and he is absent.

Now this isn't entirely a shock as Carl Chaplin and Art Nuko were mostly ignored by Vancouver’s art establishment of the '70s and '80s who couldn't get their heads around his medium, acrylic airbrush, nor his stylistic connection to pop art, anime, Marvel comics, Hollywood and Asian poster art, nor his political activism. (Now, 45 years later, with the arrival of playful Asian art to Vancouver, Hello-Kitty-meets-Existentialism is the flavour du jour.)

So it’s a safe guess that Art Nuko isn’t in the VAG permanent collection, yet the paintings are in British Columbia and would have taken little effort to display, or, under budgetary constraint, the presented as digital files. But no, it wasn’t lack of access, or ignorance, or poor research by O’Brian – it was deliberate.

I asked him. It was like touching a raw nerve. He said Chaplin's work “is inferior . . . doesn’t deserve to be on the same walls as the art and artists in the exhibition . . . at best good for postcards . . . nothing more."

Hitman O’Brian clearly has a pecking order and “inferior” sounds like a pretty emphatic dislike. But what's a curator for? It's essential that exhibitions are based on personal preferences, but to curate means to care not only for objects, but also for history, context, meaning. Amateurs exhibit their likes – professionals understand their responsibilities, historical ones that transcend personal taste or aesthetic style.

Vancouver’s history, from the 1960s on, is shaped by environmental concern, continued to this day with protests against tankers and pipelines bleeding toxins into ocean and river. In the early '60s scientists noted a 50x increase of radioactive strontium-90 in baby teeth, resulting in protests eventually forcing atomic testing underground. In 1971, when the U.S. military planned an atomic test on Amchitka Island, not that far from BC, a great crowd of Vancouverites launched a small boat with 12 men prepared to sail toward ground zero. That activism, documented in BOMBHEAD by Robert Keziere’s photographs, was the creation of Greenpeace, Vancouver’s gift to the world, which has since inspired hundreds of similar organizations and changed electoral politics.

Soon thereafter Carl Chaplin began painting the first in the Art Nuko series:

Getting Bombed in Vancouver – wish you were here!

While most testing went underground, China continued to shower the Pacific coast with radiation from a dozen above-ground tests until 1980. Chaplin’s Art Nuko series grew in response, with over 20 paintings including:

Containing the Reaction in China
Cruising down the Rideau in Ottawa
Winning the Arms Race in Red Square
Testing Allah’s Will in Pakistan
Spending Eternity in Cairo
Waking Up to Reality in the White House
Waiting for the Messiah in Jerusalem

Though it was appreciated by thousands, unexpected controversy came from an unexpected opponent, Walt Disney. They went head to head with Disney, whose cease-and-desist order resulted in newspapers around the world publishing Wishing on a Star in Fantasyland, for the benefit of millions of readers.


Beginning with an exhibition at Habitat 76, Chaplin has personally toured the Art Nuko series to galleries in Canada and the US, to the 1986 anniversary ceremonies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki Museums, to Cairo and Jerusalem during the second intifada, to Jordan during Gulf War I, and toward Baghdad, where he was refused entry at the border. Art Nuko and Art Eco continue to this day, as does environmental and cultural activism in British Columbia.

As an activist artist, Chaplin understood postcards. In the '70s and '80s, artists sought to democratize art, place it inexpensively into the hands of the public unmediated by the galleries, critics and academics, bypassing the O’Brians of the Art World. Their medium was Mail Art (much as websites fill that role today), which started in the '50s with Fluxus, and flourished in the '70 and '80s. (Ed Varney comes to mind as a hub of Mail Art in Vancouver, as well as behind-the-scenes organizer of non-institutional democratic art shows such as the 1983 alt-VAG October show, which morphed later into Artropolis.) Chaplin understood that while his medium was painting, both art and message could travel through the mails, and the reach was national and international.

Vancouverites by the hundreds appreciated, collected, and circulated Art Nuko throughout the world via Mail Art, enjoying Chaplin's graphic humour and activist message. His cautionary fascination with atomic annihilation resonated with thousands.

Going Down on the West Coast – Wish you were here!

Whether Chaplin is a one-star artist or a five-star artist is subjective and irrelevant. O’Brian curating likes," Facebook-style, deprives today’s Vancouverites of their cultural history, and deprives them of their agency to judge Vancouver’s nuclear activist artist on their own terms. He acts as censor, promoting an incomplete fake history.

It was in the 1960s that Susan Sontag diagnosed the pathology of the Art World, Artspeak, later satirized and mocked by Tom Wolfe in the '70s, but it takes an artist to piss on the Kultur Kommissars – one hundred years ago, a urinal titled Fountain, signed R. Mutt.

Apparently O’Brian remains slighted. In BOMBHEAD, he displays a large array of his postcard collection without any curatorial information whatsoever. Not a single artist, illustrator or photographer credited. No titles, no dates. Nothing. Could such incompetence be intentional? O’Brian’s collection in precise row upon row evokes tombstones in a military graveyard where artists, art, and historical details are buried, nameless, as not Art. Here Carl Chaplin is disappeared, three of his Mail Art cards buried in this assassin’s mass grave.



Like any pulp assassin, O’Brian can’t help but show off. What could be better? Hide the body in plain sight and if, in the very unlikely event someone might enquire after the missing Art Nuko, well, here’s his curatorial alibi – he’s in the show, after all!

Inferior. Nameless. Unidentified.

Of course, true to character, the cocky assassin can’t help but divulge where the corpse has been dumped. With inflated self-importance, O’Brian’s inadvertent confession, “inferior. . . . doesn’t deserve to be on the same walls as the art and artists in the exhibition . . . at best good for postcards 
. . . nothing more," betrays the gravesite, and his guilt.

The BOMBHEAD exhibition runs at the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 17. 

– Kirk Tougas is a photographer and experimental film artist, founder of The Cinematheque in Vancouver, co-creator of over 250 films, policy adviser to the Canada Council, cultural activist, and early artist-Trustee of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

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