SPOTS BEFORE YOUR EYES
The Leopard Skin Art of Kate Craig and Eric Metcalfe—a.k.a. Lady Brute and Dr. Brute
In the early 1970s in Vancouver, the artists Kate Craig and Eric Metcalfe, having adopted the
personas of Lady Brute and Dr. Brute, embarked on a project of colonizing a world with leopard
spots. The story of their project is told by Michal Kozlowski in Geist 89 and can be read online below.
ERIC METCALFE AND KATE CRAIG:
Spots Before Your Eyes
Text by Michal Kozlowski
In the early 1970s in Vancouver, the artists Kate Craig and Eric Metcalfe, having adopted the personas of Lady Brute and Dr. Brute, embarked on a project of colonizing a world with leopard spots. They collected examples of leopard print imagery from the worlds of art, advertising, fashion, magazines and everyday life, and distributed them through a mail-art network of artists across North America. They went to parties and art openings in leopard print costumes, hung around street corners in leopard print, played leopard print instruments, photographed each other in leopard print. They painted, glued, stitched, embroidered and projected leopard spots onto canvas, clothing, photographs, found objects, sculptures, buildings. They called this leopard spot world Brutopia,which has been described by Metcalfe and by critics as: “always encroaching,” “kinky,” “ruthless,” “violent,” “the underbelly of North American society.”
Kate Craig and Eric Metcalfe were founding members of the Western Front artist-run centre. They participated in the Fluxus network of artists, composers and designers—a movement born of Dada art and art happenings, and the work of Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and others—and adopted Fluxus values of anti-art, anti-commercialism, anti-gallery, artistic collaboration and art as lifestyle.
Eric Metcalfe began drawing comic strips as a child, with a friend who would write the story and dialogue. He was born in 1940 and raised in Victoria. In his teenage years he started drawing comics of a world of repression, violence and sexual fantasy, set in ancient Rome, medieval Europe, the American West, the crime-ridden streets of the 1920s and the battlefields of World War II. At age fifteen he created a character he named Dr. Brute, who occupied these worlds and was based partly on an uncle of Metcalfe’s, an army doctor, gourmet cook and opera aficionado. At the same time he discovered his mother’s collection of jazz records and the music of Dave Brubeck and Charlie Parker. That was his cultural awakening, he says, the moment he knew he wanted to make jazz in visual art—unprocessed, improvised, intuitive art.
He studied fine arts in high school and took drawing classes at the Art Gallery of Victoria and at a private art school. His teachers included the Czechoslovakian artist Jan Zach, displaced by World War II, and Herbert Siebner of Germany and Richard Ciccimarra of Austria, who had been prisoners of the Russian army during the war.
In 1963, while taking evening classes at the Victoria Art Gallery, Metcalfe met Michael Morris, who later became a central figure of Canadian conceptual and multimedia art, a collaborator of Metcalfe’s and one of the founding members of the Western Front. Through Morris, Metcalfe met Maxwell Bates, then in his late fifties, who was a well-established artist in Canada, recognized for his simple, intense paintings in the style of the Fauvists, with bright, opaque colours and figurative compositions. Bates became a major influence and long-time mentor to Metcalfe.
In his mid-twenties, Metcalfe exhibited his jazz drawings at Pandora’s Box Gallery in Victoria and was invited to enrol in the University of Victoria fine arts program. There he fell under the mentorship of Peter Daglish, the renowned British painter and linocut and lithograph artist. Daglish, who is now ninety-three years old, remains a mentor and close friend.
Kate Craig began her training as a costume designer at age fourteen, in 1961, when she took a summer job as a seamstress at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax. She worked at the theatre with Robert Doyle, the leading Canadian costume designer.
Craig was born in Victoria in 1947. Her parents separated and her mother married Doug Shadbolt, a well-known architect and brother of the artist Jack Shadbolt. The family moved to Halifax in the early 1960s; she studied at Dalhousie University, quit after three years, moved to Montreal and took a job in the costume department at le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. At a Mothers of Invention concert, she saw Frank Zappa—a Dr. Brute-like figure of 1960s counterculture music—for the first time, an event that “blew her mind,” according to her biography, Skin, and “changed her life path.”
In 1967 she moved to Victoria and studied general arts at the university there. She met Eric Metcalfe in an art history course, and within a few months they were living together. She quit her studies after a year and took a job as a legal secretary to support herself and Metcalfe while he finished his studies. They were married in 1969, with Peter Daglish as best man.
In 1969, Eric Metcalfe began drawing Banal Brutality Inc. comics, set in Brutopia—whose whereabouts, according to the text of one of the comics, “could be said to be somewhere in the North American continent”—and featuring Dr. Brute, guns, fighter jets, crime, men being masturbated into buckets, buckets of semen on conveyor belts and a woman whose breasts were ice cream scoops nestled in a brassiere made of ice cream cones. All in an atmosphere of totalitarianism, machinery, oppression and a sense of struggle for release.
Metcalfe took a course with Dana Atchley, a young professor at the University of Victoria and a successful artist and participant in the Fluxus art movement and mail-art movement. Kate Craig showed Atchley the Dr. Brute comics that Metcalfe had been drawing since he was a teenager. Atchley was impressed and suggested to Metcalfe that the comics were his real art, as Metcalfe tells the story today, “because they were personal, crude, not at all ‘real art’.” Eric Metcalfe adopted the leopard spot as his totem. He procured a tuxedo and top hat, a jab at his conservative father, who was known to wear tails and tailored suits. Kate Craig stitched leopard spots onto the costume. And that’s when Eric Metcalfe adopted the persona of Dr. Brute. Shortly after, Kate Craig took on the persona of Lady Brute.
SPOTS BEFORE YOUR EYES
In nature, leopard spots act as camouflage; the eye passes over the leopard surface. In culture, they are fetish and kitsch, sexuality; they draw the eye. According to Metcalfe, they are a “universal image symbolizing both power and banality.” The leopard spots were a means for “The Brutes” to examine high art and low art, nature and culture, themes of anthropology that many artists were then exploring. “The leopardskin in each image is a reference point from which to read all the visual information that is not leopardskin,” writes Hank Bull, a collaborator of Craig and Metcalfe’s, in Art & Correspondence from the Western Front (1979).
In the early 1970s, Dr. and Lady Brute put out a call for leopard print imagery through Image Bank, the system of postal correspondence among artists administered by Michael Morris and Vincent Trasov, who maintained image request lists and directories of participants. Artists from all over North America sent in their leopard spot images; the archive of Brutopian images grew. The mail-art network effectively took art out of the gallery and into homes, hallways and letterboxes.
Kate Craig’s performances tended to be informal “guerrilla” events—they happened in the world more often than onstage, and often with an unknowing audience. She would dress in a leopard print skirt, shirt and jacket and attend an art opening, or a dinner, or just go about her everyday business—and that would be the performance. Lady Brute mocked the projection of beauty and promiscuity in the figure of the woman in leopard print often seen in advertising and Hollywood films.
In Toronto, Dr. Brute performed Pillar of Wisdom at A Space Gallery, for which he was chained naked to a pillar covered with leopard spots and then whipped, lightly, in front of an audience. At times he employed a cedar saxophone painted in leopard spots, with a kazoo for a mouthpiece. Sometimes he would sing scat. Dr. Brute performances were planned and often required a venue, props and an audience.
GALLERY OF GRASS
For Leopard Realty Triangles, Dr. and Lady Brute painted dozens of triangles in yellow, orange, red, green. Blue and purple, covered them in leopard spots and set them out in public parks, where they drew crowds of bemused passersby. These outdoor pop-up installations became a means of taking art out of the gallery and into more public spaces.
In March 1973, Kate Craig, Eric Metcalfe and seven other artists purchased a building in East Vancouver and established the Western Front artist-run centre, where some of the artists took up residence. They opened studio and exhibition space and called it a laboratory for art. The Western Front became a hub of artistic activity on the West Coast: artists from all over the world visited, exhibited work, drank, made art, talked about art, did drugs, hung around and frequently collaborated with each other and the Western Front artists. Years later, Eric Metcalfe said that collaboration led the Western Front artists away from tropes of highbrow art, medium-high seriousness and the ideology of the artist as genius.
AFTER THE BRUTES
Kate Craig and Eric Metcalfe separated in the fall of 1973. They organized Spots Before Your Eyes, a retrospective of their leopard material, exhibited in Vancouver and Toronto in 1975. Metcalfe made a Thompson gun of cedar, with a carrying case made of pine, the stuff of coffins. The gun and the pine box were left unleopardized, to signify the assassination of Dr. Brute. Metcalfe continued to work with Brutopian themes and settings in the 1970s and 1980s, in videos. His new Brutopian characters included Howard Huge and Ruby the Fop.
Metcalfe began collaborating with Hank Bull, an artist who had joined the Western Front society early on. Kate Craig also collaborated with Bull, and after she and Metcalfe separated she and Bull moved in together at the Western Front.
In 1975, Craig made The Pink Poem, a costume comprising many articles of pink clothing, which she wore for performances and video recordings. She became one of the first practitioners of video art in Canada. In 1976 she founded a video-artist-in-residence program at the Western Front, and she was instrumental in developing the media arts program. She became a major figure in video art in Canada, and exhibited work in cities in North America, Asia and Europe. She spent the late 1990s preparing for a major retrospective of her work at the Vancouver Art Gallery, entitled Skin. Kate Craig died in 2003 of pancreatic cancer.
Eric Metcalfe lives at the Western Front, in the apartment that he moved into forty years ago. He socializes a lot, wears an ascot sometimes, barbecues, vacations in Mexico, dances to jazz in his kitchen. He is seventy-three years old and he still listens to Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck. In 2012 he painted more than one hundred paintings. For a recent project he reproduced a set of ancient Athenian pots, decorated in bright patterns resembling zebra print, or the Dazzle Art patterns painted onto warships and warplanes by camofleurs during World War II, much as he had done with model planes and ships as a child. A few years ago he produced Laura, a murder mystery art installation based on the 1944 film of the same name. He dedicated the piece to his mother and an aunt (wife of the uncle who inspired Dr. Brute), both of whom opened up to him the world of culture, jazz and art.
"Spots Before Your Eyes" is the second instalment in a series on West Coast postmodern art in the 1970s. The first in the series, "The Artist As a Fraud," on the work of Glenn Lewis (a.k.a. Flakey Rrose Hip), appeared in Geist 88. Geist 90 features "Alphabet Art" —Peter Daglish's series of ten lithograph print coloured by the founding members of the Western Front. The Daglish prints will also be exhibited at the Vancouver Memory Festival in November 2013. The series is produced with assistance from the City of Vancouver.
Michal Kozlowski is the Assistant Publisher of Geist. He is the author of the children’s book Louis the Tiger Who Came from the Sea (Annick Press) and several fiction and non-fiction stories in Geist. Read his work at geist.com.
go to geist.com