THE ARTIST AS A FRAUD
Flakey Rrose Hip, a.k.a. Glenn Lewis, is a performance artist whose media has
included flour, sand, kim chi, Rice Krispies and shark fin swimming caps.
THE ARTIST AS A FRAUD: GLENN LEWIS
Text by David Wisdom & Stephen Osborne
"ABsurdity heightens rigour"
At noon on a Friday in July 1968, in a corner of the Vancouver Art Gallery, the artist Glenn Lewis, described in a press release as a sculptor and environmentalist, raised an umbrella that he had filled with white flour and opened it over his head. He was wearing shorts and a cloth cap and he was barefoot: the rain of flour transformed him into a ghostly alter-persona. Then he took a bamboo garden rake and raked the flour into a pattern of flower petals. The audience of a few dozen applauded enthusiastically. He named the event Dusty Worker in Flour Piece. The gallery called it a “media environment experimentation.” Today it is remembered as “probably” the first performance art event in Canada.
A few weeks later, at Intermedia Gallery in Vancouver, Glenn Lewis employed more foodstuffs in Thinker at Piano in Rice Krispie, which opened with the artist as “thinker” sitting sideways at a piano, pensively smoking a cigarette; he allowed an elbow to clunk against the keys. An assistant—Gathie Falk, a well-known ceramics artist who describes her work as a “veneration of the ordinary”—emptied several boxes of Rice Krispies onto the floor. Finally, Glenn Lewis got up from the piano and stomped slowly in his gumboots through the cereal on the floor, emitting a satisfying crunch with each step. Snap, crackle, pop.
Glenn Lewis is a founding member of the Western Front, an artists’ gallery and workspace founded in 1973 and continuing today as a studio and exhibition venue for artists working outside gallery tradition in media-based, musical and ephemeral art forms. The Front has always been a crossroads of persona and performance. In its first decade, Vincent Trasov, in the persona of Mr. Peanut, ran for mayor; Eric Metcalfe and Kate Craig emerged as Dr. and Lady Brute, denizens of Leopard Reality and Brutopia, and Michael Morris was crowned Miss General Idea. Glenn Lewis adopted the name Flakey Rrose Hip (from a suggestion by Gary Lee Nova, with elements taken from Marcel Duchamp) and created the mail-art exchange group known as the New York Corres Sponge Dance School of Vancouver—part of a network of artists that included General Idea in Toronto, Ant Farm in San Francisco and the New York Correspondence School under Ray Johnson. The NYCSDSOV camouflaged its meetings as performances at the Vancouver Aquatic Centre, public events witnessed by bemused fellow swimmers, featuring synchronized aquatic routines and shark fin swimming caps designed by Kate Craig (a co-founder of the Western Front). Splashy visuals of the events surfaced in art magazines, and in August 1974 Esquire ran a photo essay called “Their Arts Belong to Dada,” identifying the West Coast “oddball” arts scene as an “emerging movement.” A photograph of Flakey Rrose Hip identifies him as the “Esther Williams of Art.”
Lewis has received many awards; he has performed in many cities in Canada, the US, England, Europe and Japan. He has travelled through India and the Middle East. His large ceramic mural, Artifact, an array of salt shakers in the form of penises, was commissioned for the Canada Pavilion at the Osaka world’s fair, and then judged “too profane” and locked away from the public eye for sixteen years.
THE ARTIST, THE MASK
Performance art, as these “experimentalist” events soon came to be known, derives from the anti-art, anti-theatre works of the Dadaists of the early twentieth century, and Marcel Duchamp, who strove “to deny the possibility of defining art.” Performance events are singular and indeterminate: they have no outcomes, they leave only traces in memory, film or video. The audience too is indeterminate and might consist of, for example, passersby, in Surveyor Putting Blue Tape Around City Block, noticing Glenn Lewis in the person of a surveyor encircle a city block with surveyor’s tape; or, in Hitler Speaking Against Building Road on Wreck Beach, nude sunbathers who happen to be on the beach below the disused gun turret from which Glenn Lewis in the person of Adolf Hitler delivers a speech against a proposed freeway.
Art Comes to the Everyday
Glenn Lewis has been working for close to six decades; he has appeared in some two hundred solo and group exhibitions. The first art he remembers making was an oil painting called La Laundresse, a domestic portrait in the manner of Degas. After high school (in Kelowna, BC) he went to the Vancouver School of Art on a scholarship and worked with some of Canada’s most renowned artists, among them Jack Shadbolt, Don Jarvis and Gordon Smith. He spent three years in Cornwall in the sixties, studying ceramics under Bernard Leach, the well-known studio potter whose practice combined Western and Eastern crafts and philosophies, and inspired in Glenn Lewis an abiding interest in simple forms, in botany and horticulture, in food preparation and the everyday aspects of life. Lewis’s work has extended to photography, film and video, ceramics, poetry, collage, sculpture, correspondence, horticulture and performance, and it embraces street parades, craft fairs, paper burnings, cooking demonstrations and a wide range of measurings and mappings.
In September 2012, Glenn Lewis opened three exhibitions at the same time in separate galleries in Vancouver. One of them, The Artist As a Fraud, from which the images on these pages are taken, is a retrospective of his conceptual and performance work and consists largely of images of the artist in masks, or personae, adopted over the last thirty-four years. The necktie sculptures he included as “part of, and a remnant of, traditional male disguise.” The earliest trace of persona-making is a photograph from 1953, Time Off for Salad Cook in Banff, in which Lewis at eighteen can be seen enacting the reality of a summer job.
I Won’t Take Your Hand, Monsieur Manet
In 2007, Glenn Lewis performed an elaborate homage to the painter Paul Cézanne, one of the “instigators” of modernism, by appropriating not only the person of “Cézanne” but also the twenty-seven fountains of Aix-en-Provence, in each of which he performed a hand-washing ritual (in reference to the greeting Cézanne is said to have made upon meeting Édouard Manet, another leading instigator of modernism). I Won’t Take Your Hand, Monsieur Manet, I Have Not Washed in Eight Days is recorded in a “temporal” series of video loops viewable on several monitors at once: the effect is lyrical, humorous and disorienting: by “collapsing the past and future into the present,” as he puts it in an artist’s note, Glenn Lewis nicely entangles the viewer in the postmodern experience. (We are all together at the birth of modernism.)
Glenn Lewis is seventy-eight years old, in good shape (still swimming) and a natty dresser in a rumpled, bohemian sort of way. He has a crammed closetful of tweed jackets and coats, probably more than a hundred ties, and piles of hats. Pretty well all of them come from a Value Village near his home in East Vancouver. He makes art every day.
“The Artist As a Fraud” and “I Won’t Take Your Hand, Monsieur Manet, I Have Not Washed in Eight Days” were exhibited at the Trench Gallery and the Trench Gallery Annex in Vancouver in 2012.
David Wisdom worked for thirty years as a host and producer of many programs for CBC Radio. He has also played in bands and written extensively about popular music. Wisdom has exhibited his photographic works, curated exhibitions and presented multimedia shows at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Teck Gallery, Charles Scott Gallery and other Vancouver venues. He lives on Salt Spring Island, BC.
Stephen Osborne is the publisher of Geist.
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