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This is Paradise by Ursula Pflug

Tom Dean, THIS IS PARADISE, inside the Cameron House. Image Credit: Peter McCallum, 1983. Tom Dean

This essay was commissioned by and for This is Paradise, exhibition at MOCCA (Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art) from June 24 to August 21, 2011. This and other essays for this exhibition have been supported by YYZ Artists’ Outlet and YYZ Publishing.

This is Paradise by Ursula Pfug

Deep assignments run through our lives; there are no coincidences.

J.G. Ballard, The Kindness of Women

I participated with NOW Magazine co-founder Alice Klein in a sweat lodge in Eganville a couple of summers ago. It was a cozy sisterly event, facilitated by the lovely Heather Sole.

If anyone told you back then this was where we would next meet would you have believed them? I asked Alice over tea in writer and tea maven Kim Elkington’s house later.

Probably not, Alice smiled and it was then she told me something she’d never mentioned back in the day. She said that she’d met my mother, the painter Christiane Pflug, at the early second wave feminist meetings which sprang up out of the same collective energy which fuelled the Maist Leninist League, the Young Socialists, and the Vietnam Mobilization Committee. I remember the VMC in particular because it was my mother’s idea that we girls accompany her on postering expeditions preceding antiwar demonstrations, even on nights when it was so cold not only did our proverbial snot freeze but also the glue in the buckets. She would cajole us to carry on in the frozen night with promises of hot chocolate in divey diners long cold streetcar rides far from home.

I mention this not only because I miss it now that the opportunity’s gone but also because when much is made of Queen West’s early 80’s art and music explosion what is often forgotten is that Alice Klein and Michael Hollett’s brand new NOW Magazine was as seminal in fostering the burgeoning community as was Dr. Herb Tookey and Paul Sannella’s Cameron House pub.

I drank and talked at The Cameron, sure, but Alice and Michael gave me work. I was first published by Victor Coleman (an interstitial piece!) in Only Paper Today in 1979 but my first regular paid writing gig was about art for Ms. Klein who a decade earlier along with my sister Esther and Ellie Kirzner were members of the Young Socialists. The youth group met in the back room behind a downtown socialist bookstore. It was a location that would become the renowned Rivoli, a caf and performance space still operating in the same location today. Before the artists, Queen West was home to activists, some of whom became artists, writers and publishers in the street’s next incarnation.

Politics never entirely left the conversation about art as evidenced in these remarks by critic Lucy Lippard. She could just as easily have been describing Toronto’s nascent scene when she wrote about New York, In the early 80’s, collaboration itself became a political statement, an effective way of attacking the conventional notion of rugged individual genius and of breaking down barriers between downtown’ and uptown’ artists.

I dug some of those early NOWs out of the file cabinet by way of research for this piece. The reporting is heavy on the politics and of the arts music garners the most attention with many articles on local and touring bands. Writing about the visual arts fell to me for reasons I will try and explicate further on.

Interstitial is a term that has come into the writing parlance since then; it translates loosely as inhabiting the spaces between. Some of the spaces inferred are those between fiction and non fiction, but I would like to include the spaces between the past and the present, between experience and memory. Most of our lives are spent inhabiting and traversing these spaces and doing so is what makes us who we are.

Writing in Now in 1981 about the first Chroma Zone Chromatique show I described a Rae Johnson’s painting Anima Animus in the following way, wide brushstrokes and confidently vulgar colours, depicting the bare floor and equally naked mattress familiar to loft dwellers everywhere. One sees strange things on cold winter nights when the heat’s not on; the woman lying on the mattress holds her head, while in the middle of the room stands a hallucinatory Madonna-like figure.

It almost reads like fiction, almost segues into a short story entitled Sewing Forgetfulness that I published in the mid nineties in Clean Sheets, the publication Chicagoan editor Maryanne Mohanraj founded prior to the groundbreaking Strange Horizons.

I lived in an empty loft; my protagonist Veronica tells the reader, endless new space deliciously echoing both inside and outside. The lease was held by an artists’ collective, but they were renting a larger warehouse for their winter show, and needed cash towards their original space. During the day I painted and wrote, lived on my savings, threw shoes at cockroaches.

Didn’t we all?

 

And we would probably have kept doing it, because it was a pretty nice life as things went.

Stuart Reid, describing Cities of the Red Night, the W.S. Burroughs titled Tim Jocelyn banner wrote, There are also sinister silver fighter jets in the sky over the city. Could these masked rogues and portents of violence signal the arrival of the AIDS plague into the gay man’s playground in the eighties?

I was on a rooftop party at designer Annie Nikolajevich’s Yonge Street apartment when I first heard. I remember not believing the woman who told me, a dancer friend, or not believing her enough. Of course that didn’t last. But HIV was not the only scourge. Heroin, suicide and death by misadventure also took their toll.

Soon it will be the nineties, Veronica notices near the end of Sewing Forgetfulness. I look forward to them, thinking it’s then we’ll be able to change, become better people.

Did we?

How do you quantify better?

 

These are people who died, died.
-Jim Carroll
Author of The Basketball Diaries

Someone called The Cameron a cross between CBGB and The Chelsea Hotel but I spent a year in the late seventies living in New York’s east village and found it not the case. We had our own distinctive charm on Queen West and why did we need to emulate anyone? Maybe artists are more prone to certain vanities than other folks, are more likely to waste time wishing they were Someone and Somewhere, but in the end you just get to be who and where you are, and have to invest that with as much grace and passion as you can muster.

Discussions of art, books and politics kept the dinner table conversations lively at the Pflug house until my mother’s well known suicide in 1972 at which point things unsurprisingly ground more or less to a full stop. After choosing travel over education it occurred to me that what I had learned growing up in that house was an unquantifiable something that didn’t come with a BA in art history and so when Alice and Michael started NOW I told them I knew enough about art to write about it. That statement was not one hundred per cent true given that I was under twenty-five and not in possession of a complete degree but I knew something more useful than art history; I knew everyone. That isn’t saying so very much because from what I can remember, everyone knew everyone, or they were about to.

For example I wrote about not quite yet superstar designer Bruce Mau’s fine art exhibit at Idee Gallery because I had freelance illustrator friends including Jan Thornhill. Bruce was the man they assured me, or he would be, and they turned out to be right. I drank too much scotch while I scribbled in my steno pad just like a real writer; the openings at Idee were always awash in vats of scotch and good scotch too. I was an art cricket I chirped happily, just like the character in Joyce Cary’s 1944 novel The Horse’s Mouth.

Vats of free booze: is that what made it paradise?

That’s not as shallow a remark as it sounds; the mid-90’s saw Ontario premiere Mike Harris slash social assistance rates to such an extent that many analysts claim a direct line can be drawn between those cuts and the explosion of homelessness that continues unabated. It’s not that you can’t go to events awash in free booze anymore, but at Idee everyone was allowed in, whether they were invited or not.

Nowadays I write book instead of art reviews but I still write them largely to support my fellows, sometimes to discuss Canadians in American publications and because, well, nonfiction is so much easier to write than fiction. To me, and I’m not the first to say so, fiction is where the truth lies, a thorny, contradictory, embodied and emotional truth as difficult and astonishing as we ourselves, as our lives and times.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson would have us do.

What is truth? What is objectivity? Do such attributes even (objectively) exist in life or writing?

Academics including Mary Daly have written extensively on this topic, claiming for subjectivity a necessary and previously largely absent feminine POV, absent, that is, from the patriarchal mainstream. It is a good thing that she and her compatriots said so but we lived those contradictions. We didn’t know that people we loved would die. Well, except for my mom of course. She died long before Handsome Ned and Tim Jocelyn and Alex Wilson and, well, you know the rest.

I stop somewhere waiting for you, indeed.

I remember I had a beer at Sandy Stagg’s uptown Fiesta Restaurant prior to going in to look at Mark Prent’s show at the celebrated Isaacs Gallery a few doors up, an act of self medication more suitable to that time than this. Avrom took a group of us around the exhibition, going so far as to open a usually locked cabinet of Prentian horrors. Av had been my mom’s dealer and of course we recognized each other but neither one of us said much about it. I remember I felt almost unbearably self conscious in a way it took me a long time to understand. It was sometimes difficult to function in what I perceived to be my mother’s shadow; she was an exalted feminist heroine of painting, but also a Plath-like tragedienne. Would my work, whatever I chose, ever measure up? And what did that even mean?

In the decades since I have come to see that I was making my choice even as I struggled to understand what it might be; I have often worked in collective forms including film, performance/installation and theatre, and I continue to write about and edit others’ work, often on a volunteer basis. Remember what Lucy said: collaborative projects can be an effective way of attacking the conventional notion of rugged individual genius. I remember having a conversation with novelist C.J. Dorsey in a science fiction convention hotel room (what city, Ursula?). My parents wanted fame, I told her, and they wanted it really badly. Look where it got them. I don’t trust ambition, even while I want people to appreciate my work, just like they did.

Most of the artists whose work I discussed while writing my occasional column are still working thirty years later, passing on the torch through teaching at OCADU, U of T and elsewhere, showing at home and internationally. These include original members of the Chroma Zone collective, New Figurative painters such as Rae Johnson, Oliver Girling and Andy Fabo; more commercial photogrpaher/designers such as George Whiteside and Bruce Mau; the then holographers of Fringe Research, Michael Sowdon and David Hlynsky and new media installation artists including Doug Back and Norm White.

These are the people who didn’t die.

URSULA PFLUGS award winning short fiction appears regularly in Canada, the US and the UK. She is author of Green Music, (Tesseract Books, 2002) a critically acclaimed magic realist novel, and After the Fires, (Tightrope 2008) a story collection. ATF was short listed for the Prix Aurora Award. A new story collection, Harvesting the Moon, is forthcoming from Britain’s PS Publishing. She teaches short fiction at Loyalist College.