Skip to content

May we suggest

Interviews / January 14, 2010

Lex Vaughn: A Chat on Second City and Saskatchewan

Lex Vaughn The Ham Shack 2006

As frigid winter weather descends on most of the country this month, many Canadians are stocking up on food and finding innovative ways to stay entertained at home. This week in Saskatoon, a different type of creative, durational hibernation begins in the city’s AKA Gallery when Toronto-based artist and performer Lex Vaughn’s “geriatric dandy” alter ego, Peanut Brittle, takes up residence, transforming the space into a bachelor’s apartment–cum–radio station for a series of performances exploring bygone masculinities. In this email interview, Vaughn reflects on the origins of her character, the challenges of long-form performance and the enduring appeal of nostalgia in the frenetic pace of modern life.

Gabrielle Moser: What can you tell me about how the character Peanut Brittle first developed? What were your main inspirations for the performance?

Lex Vaughn: The Peanut Brittle character got dragged out of bed by my pal Jeremy Charles Singer, who heads the band Hank in Toronto. He was doing a daytime show and wanted me to do a monologue in character as a drifter. I went through my closet and found my best dandy-on-the-skids wears, which included a pair of those oversized sunglasses old people wear when they get their eyes dilated, a leather patched sweater, flooded polyester pants, white buckled shoes, bad posture and an ascot. When I walked into the room, a friend said, “Hey, everybody, it’s Uncle Peanut Brittle!”

At that same time, I was in pre-production for a solo show at Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art Projects, which was based on my preoccupation with stylish old men. I had proposed to create the living quarters of such a man, filled with paintings of other similar gents who were inspired by the amblers that troll the streets, killing time before they go back to their weekly hotels. As the work was being produced, it started coming through the newly formed Peanut Brittle. During the installation of the apartment, it became apparent that Peanut would exist in the exhibition as an active representative of the lives that inspired it.

GM: In the past, you have worked as a performer in film and theatre and as a comedian with Toronto’s Second City improv company. How do ideas of humour or slapstick fit into your work as a visual artist?

LV: All of the work that I do as a performer or a visual artist is derived from getting a laugh and evoking pathos, which is basically what successful slapstick does, for me at least. I love the sap, the underdog, the rube. While making work with Allyson Mitchell in our former collective, Bucky and Fluff’s Craft Factory, we based our crafts on novelty gags and flea-market finds and told stories through them. All the work was super-cheap and sold in carnival-like environments. Within my solo work, those same things are always in play. Slapstick is immediate and reactive and ridiculous, and those are the qualities of how I like to exist in my personal life as well.

GM: Your WEZY installation and performance incorporates several anachronistic cultural forms (such as copies of LIFE magazine, or your dandy-inspired wardrobe) and technologies (like vinyl LPs, ham radios or a hot plate) and you mention in your artist statement that nostalgia plays a key role in the viewer’s experience of the project. Why do you think we respond so strongly to these older forms?

LV: While installing today, I was tacking up about 400 of these QSL cards (handmade postcards that confirm contact between radio operators) that make up Peanut’s station, and every single one of them is so beautiful! These cards are such a lost art form. I cannot think of anything like this that is made today, by hand, that gives out such personalized information. The operators sent these things by mail, religiously! And why? To make contact with people in other places that they had no idea even existed and could only dream about, or had to go to the library to look up in books. These cards symbolized the freedom of a world outside of their own. How liberating! I miss the mail system because of that sense of freedom. I don’t think it is necessarily “progress” to stop making things with your hands, or to forget how it feels to run to the mailbox. I think I was born an old man.

I think a lot of people feel this way: that things have moved too fast, especially in the last 10 to 15 years. People don’t care about aesthetics as much as they used to. And if they do, it’s often packaged as a “vintage item” and sold at ridiculous prices. I think that Peanut’s lair offers up a brief reprieve from the outside world that yammers on about consumption and speed.

GM: What are some of the challenges in working in long-form performance as an artist?

LV: I usually sit the gallery as Peanut for the entire length of the show and by the end of it, my back really hurts because Peanut is such a sloucher. It can also be exhausting to field other people’s energies. There are those who are really enthusiastic about the interactions, and then there’s the handful of jerks who are non-believers, and then my friends who want me “to talk normal for a second.” I think the biggest challenge at the AKA Gallery is going to be creating Peanut’s presence after I am gone, as I am only performing the character for two days before going home. I’ve made some audio and video elements that have never been tried before, so I’ll have to keep my fingers crossed that he can still inhabit the space and that it doesn’t turn into someHenry Darger exhibition.

Gabrielle Moser

Gabrielle Moser is an independent curator and writer based in Toronto. A founding member of EMILIA-AMALIA, she is assistant professor of aesthetics and art education in the Faculty of Education at York University.