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The Iconoclast

"The Iconoclast" by Chris Cran, Spring 2010, pp. 58-61

In 1993, the board of Stride Gallery, a funhouse of an artist-run centre in Calgary, decided it was time to throw another party in the guise of a fundraiser. The event was organized behind the back of one board member: that long-haired, balding, bearded, round-bellied, perpetually cigarette-smoking figure was to be kept in the dark.

The event itself was to be a look-alike contest dedicated to this board member, artist, art professor and popular barroom character. One hundred and fifty tickets were sold, with the proviso that not a word was to be breathed to him about the homage.

At eight o’clock on the night of the event, an enthusiastic crowd gathered. There were bald wigs galore with long stringy yarn attached, shoe-polished chins serving as makeshift beards, basketballs cut in half for bellies; it was a noisy and funny gathering. The wife of the board member arrived, elegantly dressed but with a beard and moustache mask on a stick. Eight thirty came and went. So did nine.

At nine thirty someone said, “I think he’s coming!” A certain individual who was packing a video camera positioned himself close to the door, watching through the viewfinder. He saw the door open and someone who appeared to be at the wrong party enter the gallery. The place went silent as John Will, clean-shaven, hair tied back in a Karl Lagerfeld ponytail, immaculate in a three-piece Armani suit, strode through the gaping crowd to the stage. He turned, faced the crowd and said into a microphone, “Hello suckers! You’ve never looked so good.” The band struck up a song. Will stepped off the bandstand, took the hand of Judy Ouellet, mother of Stride’s then-director, Shelley Ouellet, and began to dance. Shelley, who had let Will in on the secret, walked up to him with a pair of hedge clippers and, as he continued to dance, cut off his ponytail. This artifact was to be the prize for best costume of the evening.

A small framed poster from a 2001 exhibition by Will hangs high on the wall in the Alberta College of Art and Design’s employee lounge. On it is printed a list of words: Illogical, Scatological, Pathetic, Inexplicable, Rude and Mispelled. The words, stacked one on top of another like cordwood, aptly describe the nature of that show. Will mounted an astounding 14 solo exhibitions in 2001, their content all drawn from his studio inventory. A certain intrepid curator gathered what was left over (too illogical, too scatological, too pathetic) and created a fifteenth show, wittily titling it “The Leftovers of John Will.” The schoolmarm’s undies were exposed for all to see.

Now 70, John Will has jammed a lot of living into his years and a lot of community spirit into the arts scene in Calgary since arriving there in 1971 to take up a teaching position in printmaking at the University of Calgary. Primarily a painter and a printmaker, he has also wandered into the domains of video, performance and photography.

A partial list of his exploits gives a sense of how varied and exotic those wanderings have been:

During a six-month stay in New York in 1981, Will and a friend, the artist Jeff Funnell, collaborated on a performance/video project called Making The Rounds. It involved a video crew recording a character known as “the artist,” played by Will, visiting a number of galleries, uninvited and unannounced. Will presented to perplexed gallery owners and attendants a sheet of slides of images of video equipment, making like they were his artwork. The responses ranged from bewilderment to hostility. No offers of an exhibition were forthcoming. Some New York friends of Will and Funnell went so far as to suggest that the performance exploited the hospitality of the galleries and their unwitting employees. Upon their return to Calgary, the collaborators, chastened by the criticism and mortified by their own apparent insensitivity, rented a space and opened the Exploitation Gallery. They exhibited grainy photocopies of the images on the slides they had hauled around while making Making The Rounds. A sparse crowd attended. The artists had hoped for a purging of their guilt. It didn’t happen. The gallery opened and closed in the same evening.

In 2007, the videotape actually did make the rounds; it was shown at White Columns in New York and Studio Voltaire in London. More recently, it was shown at the 2009 Toronto International Art Fair in Jeffrey Spalding’s project “Heartland.” The renewed and international interest in the project has caused quite a stir in academic circles, where great minds have noticed that some artists seem to be ahead of their time. As Will responds, “You know how it is. Academics, like potheads, think every idea they have is special.”

Will’s Icon II, held at Illingworth Kerr Gallery in 1985, employed a movable airplane stairway. Will and his new performance partner, Jack Anderson (they called themselves J&J), dressed themselves in suits made from mattress ticking and emblazoned with the logo of the American Chiropractic Association; they also sported beanies topped with preposterous three-foot-high propellers. Wooden swords in hand, they guarded the stairway to heaven, refusing entry to everyone for more than an hour. Finally an accomplice dressed as Fred Astaire arrived with a Las Vegas–style showgirl on each arm. To the sound of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” by Andy Williams, they walked the red carpet that ran from the entrance to the stairway and were greeted by the two guards, who allowed them to ascend. Upon reaching the top, the trio gazed upon the object referred to in the show’s title: a small, evidently precious version of the guards’ beanies, rotating on a conveyor belt. Then, as one, they turned and announced that Icon II was officially open. The crowd rushed forward.

The last Icon performance (Icon V), in 1986, found Will and Anderson on a panel called “Angry: A Speakout” at the annual conference of the College Art Association, held at the New York Hilton. Fellow panellists included community muralists from Los Angeles, the Guerrilla Girls and others. Wearing their trademark outfits, J&J were the last to present. They read a paper stating they were angry because no one liked their work. As Will reports, “Afterwards the eminent critic and art historian Max Kozloff came up to us and said, ‘That was the best paper I have ever heard at one of these meetings.’ We retired our collaboration at that point.”

In the early 1980s, Will bought a box of stuff at a garage sale and, without inspecting it closely, stuck it in his basement. Fifteen years later he opened the box and discovered, among other things, an envelope of photo negatives taken in the 1920s. He developed the negatives and saw what appeared to be images of an ocean voyage from Vancouver to an Asian harbour. Some images, for example one that showed human legs protruding from beneath tarps, seemed inexplicable. However, all was made clear when further research revealed that the images were of a 1923 voyage from Vancouver to Yokahama taken by a young Calgarian named Lou Shulman on the steamship the Empress of Australia. On September 1 of that year, minutes before Shulman’s vessel was to begin its return journey, the Great Kanto earthquake struck, killing more than 140,000 Japanese citizens. Will transformed these lost and then found images into a poignant photo story, insinuating himself into the work as a friend and fellow passenger.

In 1991, while in India as a cameraman on a documentary about the Hindu deity Ganesh, Will attended the Kumbh Mela, a great pilgrimage held every few years according to the Indian astrological calendar. Flaunting his trademark straggly long hair and beard and wearing a saffron-coloured T-shirt, he was mistaken for a sadhu, or holy man, by some of the faithful. Shortly thereafter, a chance inspection of his uvula by a New Age quack in Albuquerque convinced him that he was in fact a holy man. Upon his return to Calgary, he made self-portraits emphasizing his exalted state for several months, until the sensation subsided.

In 2001 Will, with his old friend Jeff Funnell, started an organization called Artists Anonymous, aimed at encouraging artists to stop making art. Its manifesto, Pointlessism, was a shining example of boosterism in a time of world-weariness. An enthusiastically produced videotape of an AA meeting was, however, universally scorned, something that Will attributes to “the powerful art-supply lobby.” Shattered by this disappointment, he and his collaborator had within weeks “succumbed to the brush and the turps.”

Will’s personal affairs went into a tailspin, and so did his hygiene; his social life began to suffer. At one point, he arrived at an opening at the Art Gallery of Calgary only to be mistaken for a street person and informed that it was a private function.

Will’s paintings represent his longest ongoing project. They feature words rendered in the style of amateur sign painting, collage elements and awkwardly executed imagery. His monumental Anything and Everything (1989–91), consisting of 200 two-by-two-foot paintings mounted on a wall, is a bible of uncertainty, an interwoven quilt made over several years that taps into community in-jokes, art-world banalities and idle chatter. Here again, words are the main event, often misspelled, occasionally crossed out and corrected. Sometimes letters project out from the canvas like erect nipples. Anything and Everything is in the collection of the Art Gallery of Alberta and is said to be the work most asked after by visiting schoolchildren (those who have only recently learned to spell and to print, perhaps).

Will’s words scold, command, sneer, grunt, scowl, whisper and sometimes merely state, but always seem to draw their own conclusions with as little baggage as possible. I once heard someone say to him that one of his paintings was as terse as a stop sign. “Terse as a merge-left sign,” he retorted. But what about, for example, the thorough instructions of the 2005 work MOUNT IT AND STUFF IT STUFF IT AND THEN MOUNT IT, its command only inches away from innuendo? What are we to make of this or of any of his canvases that bleat orders or tell us what they think of us in no uncertain terms? Blithering Idiot (2001) and High 5 Me And Then You Can Kiss My Ass (2005) get right to the point. Will, however, redirects any and every attempt to analyze his work. As he puts it, “I painted Blithering Idiot in 2001 with the express purpose that it address the viewer. Eight years later, I find that it seems to be addressing me.”

In the cafés and saloons of downtown Calgary, the buzz is that Will is running out of ideas. Recent works included in a 2008 exhibition at TRUCK gallery prove otherwise, however. He presented paintings of such raw sexual power (I Draw the Line With Heifers, for example) that the naysayers were shaken to the core, and apprehension thrust into the heart of many a blustering up-and-comer. In his nearly 40 years in Calgary, John Will has consistently visited his unique alpha-male strategy upon each successive generation, reaffirming the potency of his presence and making his artistic legacy mighty and unassailable.

See other works by John Will at canadianart.ca/will

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