Performing the Archive: the Metcalfe Fonds 1970-73
By Dan Starling
The Eric Metcalfe archive, located at the UBC Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, is synonymous with the life of the artist. The archive contains the artist’s self-referentially catalogued drawings, graphics, photographs, and correspondences that are contained in a series of file folders, photo albums, framed pictures and binders. These fonds encompass the build-up and height of Metcalfe's alter-ego Dr. Brute and his world, Brutopia. Included in his practice are a network of ideas and influences from the art community of Vancouver, across Canada, and through North America and Europe. Eric Metcalfe the artist is constituted through the activity of collecting and is contained in the documents of that process.
As a result, Metcalfe branded his mark on collective consciousness. The archive chronologically begins with an early sketchbook of Metcalfe’s from 1957, titled Look At This Series. The cartoon drawings depict violent sexual encounters and establish the methodology that Metcalfe would expand later in Brutopia (Return to Brutopia, 7). A personal release for Metcalfe, these comics were related to the time in which he grew up. The abundance of brutality in these comics was influenced by the Cold War rhetoric circulated in mainstream comic books at the time; comic books had increased the content of sexual imagery when servicemen read them during the Second World War. Tarzan, one of the first comic book characters, appeared in 1927, donning the leopard print loincloth (Savage, 4). In true colonialist fashion, Tarzan ruled over the black jungle serving as a metaphor for white dominance in America. Africa was viewed as a place of marginal importance by the superpowers. Metcalfe’s character of Dr. Brute grew out of this milieu.
It took the political and social upheaval in the 1960s for Dr. Brute to appear, changing the landscape with his signature leopard print. The civil rights movement violently displayed the real fight against the racist environment perpetuated on the pages of comic books. As a result of these events, another cat with less recognizable spots was the chosen symbol of the Black Panther Party. This attack on white middle class values did not stop at the issue of race. Traditional attitudes towards gender, sex and social structure were also called into question. The ubiquity of the leopard spots and their ability to literally cover all parts of society made them a poignant tool for a charged social comment. By choosing the leopard print as his trademark, Dr. Brute could not help but reference its conflicting tradition as symbol of domination and resistance.
The brutality Metcalfe sensed by the intellectual straightjacket of 1950s culture was transformed by the freedom he felt in this new revolutionary climate. Metcalfe’s Dr. Jekyl/Mr. Hyde routine, with the alter ego Dr. Brute, morphologically displayed the intellectual backlash against conservative society. One can pick out of the archival images his evolution, a man changed by environment [Figure 1]. Early incarnations of Dr. Brute succumbed to a standard set of attributes adopted by Metcalfe in the late 1960s [Figure 2]. The character was a compilation of contradictions. By wearing a tuxedo and using the title of “Doctor”, Brute claimed a refined superiority, while at the same time the leopard spots called up an exotic notion of the primitive shaman or witch doctor. He carried a kazoo saxophone, aligning the artist with the marginalized origins of African American jazz. Dr. Brute blurred the lines between Brutopia and utopia, banality and brilliance, civility and brutality, fantasy and reality.
Most of the artists with whom Metcalfe was associated also adopted altar egos. Michael Morris became Marcel Dot, Vincent Trasov - Mr. Peanut, Kate Craig – Lady Brute, Glenn Lewis – Flakey Rosehips, Hank Bull and Patrick Reandy – H.P., Robert Fones – Candy Man, Gary Lee Nova – Art Rat (Hand of the Spirit, 1). This group of artists shared the desire to melt life and art together as one. Their attitude toward their roles was at times absurd. However, the characters were also used to make serious political and social comments. Vincent Trasov took his character of Mr. Peanut into the 1974 Vancouver mayoral campaign (O'Brian). Dr. Brute regularly appeared with Mr. Peanut as well as the Peanettes dancers, commenting on the fakery of politics. The construction of alternative realities was one component of a vast array of practices in which these artists engaged.
In the late 1960s artists Michael Morris, Vincent Trasov and Gary Lee-Nova contacted Ray Johnson in New York, which lead to Vancouver becoming a major centre for mail art (Wallace, 172). Morris and Trasov obtained a mailing list and created the Image Bank network by sending out Image Request lists. Metcalfe joined this project and was a major recipient of leopard imagery, postcards and correspondence (Wallace, 172). The archive contains the leopard postcards that were mailed to Metcalfe from artists working in the United States and around the world.
Championing the kitsch fascination with leopard print, Metcalfe renounced the Greenbergian notion of the supremacy of the artistic avant-garde that had dominated the art world for decades. This followed the general trend in art, away from high-minded aesthetic concerns to an art where the idea is paramount and politically engaging. Lucy Lippard describes this as the “dematerialization” of the art object (Lippard, 5). This philosophy quickly became the dominant yet disparate force behind contemporary artists in the late 1960s. How to adequately represent the political atmosphere of the time was a challenge. Internationally, society’s faith in the institutions of art and education was at a critical breaking point.
In May 1968, Paris students demonstrated against the disillusionment they felt because of growing unemployment and inadequate university facilities (Sava, 26). A year later in New York the Guerrilla Art Action Group (GAAG) demanded the resignation of the Rockefellers from the board of trustees at the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Workers Coalition (AWC) demanded equal representation for women and minorities (Lippard, 11-12). In North America and Europe there was growing resentment for the war in Vietnam. In 1970, after four students were shot by the National Guard students boycotted, closing 400 campuses in America .
Locally, in the late 1960s the Vancouver Art Gallery, under the direction of Tony Emery, was sympathetic to experimental art and held shows by the Intermedia art group of which many of the future Western Front artists were part. Ian Baxter and The N.E. Thing Co. had been instrumental in registering Vancouver’s position as a cutting-edge climate for contemporary conceptual artists (Wollen, 74), embracing the use of electronic telex technology . Because of Vancouver’s geographical isolation and the idea-based nature of this new artwork, it was more important for artists to keep in contact with other artists who could understand and react to these changing issues . By the early seventies these artists were looking for a way out of their dependence on the gallery system and a means to expand their influence.
Benefiting from the prosperous economic period of the early seventies, the government of Canada gave large sums of money to artists through the Canada Council . “Culture” officially became one of the most heavily funded areas of governmental expense . Eric Metcalfe personally received grants from the Local Initiative Program (LIP) and was able to maintain his art based on continued funding . As a result of this funding, the artist run institution became a phenomenon across Canada . In 1971 and 1972 respectively, A Space in Toronto and Véhicle in Montréal were opened. In 1973, Eric Metcalfe, Michael Morris, Glenn Lewis, Kate Craig, Maurice van Nostrand, Martin Bartlett, Henry Greenhow and Vincent Trasov became the founding members of The Western Front in Vancouver . These were serious artists who believed that making their art in an artist run centre was not only different but also it would be superior to the gallery system. The artist run centres made it possible for young artists to exhibit without precedent at the beginning of their careers . This became the institutionalization of the idea of the alternative society.
By the time French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou visited the Front in August of 1973 the Fronters were entrenched in a system of collaboration. Filliou’s “Eternal Network” and Art as Life philosophies were easily embraced because they were already part of their conscious practice . Filliou gave an international banner to the alternative society making it possible for ideas to be assimilated. The Decca Dance in 1974 brought together approximately one thousand like minded people form all over North America to Los Angeles and was for Filliou a celebration of Art’s 1,000,011th birthday [Figure 3]. Sharla Sava stated that because the Western Front artists shared Filliou’s art as life philosophy they also shared his rejection of electronic technology . On the contrary, electronic technology was already an integral part of their lives and their use of this medium only increased as video equipment became available through funding. Video art also found a home in Video Inn artist run centre that had a strong connection to the Front .
According to Alvin Balkind, Vancouver has always been physically disengaged from heated politics . Because of its position artists have used Vancouver as an “everyplace” to make universal comments about the world . Contemporary Vancouver artists such as Roy Arden, Stan Douglas, and Jeff Wall have dealt with a vision of place , a theatrical society where problems are confronted. The alternative society, such as Brutopia, was one starting point for the creation of place as a region of public awareness where images substitute for the real world of experience.
The idea of life and art appealed to Metcalfe and influenced his decision to create an archive of his alternative society. In addition to the social contexts of the fifties and sixties it was theorists like Marshall McLuhan who influenced how Metcalfe and many artists thought about how the media worked as an environment. McLuhan stated that “environments are invisible. Their ground rules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns elude easy perception” . He concluded that the “counter” or “anti” environments of artists helped regular people see and interpret the world clearly. With this knowledge, Metcalfe built up his anti-environment, Brutopia through the manipulation of media images, forcing leopard print into all areas of society.
In the act of claiming leopard print, Metcalfe stamped Dr. Brute’s name on everybody’s commodities and consciousness. One could not help but think of Dr. Brute if they were to see leopard print. This projected on society the contradictory qualities of Dr. Brute. The most significant project in the Eric Metcalfe archive is the Leopard Realty series. Its main component is the media image files; collected from magazines such as Playboy, Esquire, LIFE, and National Geographic. The folders are divided into ten subcategories: Application, Women in Leopard Skin, The Leopard, Pornographic, Anthropological, Couples or Groups, Children in Leopard Skin, Women and Leopards, The Hunt, and Other Cats than Leopards. These images show the scope of how leopard print existed within media culture. Serendipitously, the leopard print conspicuously makes its appearance in an IBM advertisement [Figure 4]. The leopard spots were a symbol of shared consciousness just as technology was a symbol of shared information.
The traditional symbolic meaning of leopard print is of the exotic, of nature and of femininity. This collection documents the vast amount of these images in circulation: “The Leopard” contains many images of leopards in and out of their natural habitat, the “Anthropological” section contains images of African tribesmen wearing leopard pelts. The ability of Western audiences to consume and own these images perpetuates the exploitation of the animals as commodities and the white male dominance of women and minorities. The media offers the viewer the ability to consume images as commodities, while simultaneously presenting a certain packaged world-view.
Archives have been used as tools to confine freedom and reassert dominant political viewpoints. As Jacques Derrida stated: “There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory. Effective democratization can always be measured by this essential criterion: the participation in and the access to the archive, its constitution, and its interpretation” . Allan Sekula has also shown how photographic archives have proved extremely effective at maintaining a hidden connection between knowledge and power. This can occur because as Martha Langford has stated, photographs are at the same time too retentive and too selective in their view of history . The very process of archival research, going back over a set of historical “facts”, is what enjoins the past to the next generation. The transfer of these ideas is supposedly seamless because the archive is believed to stand for or contain the ideas of its time. However, every time an archive is viewed, there is the opportunity for it to be reinterpreted. Even though the archival materials themselves may not change, our idea of the archive and of the world is constantly changing; the archive always exists in its present interpretation.
Matthias Winsen has noted that the archive is the attempt to build a certain past for an uncertain future, a way to cope with the passage of time . The artist’s archive is different because it is more open ended and less interested with the idea of truth ; instead, it is a way for artists to confirm their power to create. Warhol’s Time Capsules were the epitome of the idea that an artist’s life is one grand archive . The artist’s archive only gains the authority of a historical document in its transfer from the unassuming private space to the privileged space of the archive. This is what Derrida describes as the “domiciliation” of the archive . It perhaps does not matter then, that the Metcalfe archive is not a conventional archive according to the archival profession. It does not conform to the definitions of uniqueness, authenticity, impartiality, naturalness and inter-relatedness . The boundary between art and archive is difficult to define when it comes to archives composed by artists . The archive is a documentary project by Metcalfe that achieves archival status when it is stored as an archive in an art gallery. This archive can be considered a work of art in and of itself because its contents were part of ongoing artistic projects of Metcalfe and his collaborators. Like the character of Dr. Brute, the archive contains many contradictions between creation and document, complete and open ended, original and copy. This art archive deals with the archival issues of memory and changing issues of interpretation.
Metcalfe critiqued these archival theories through the manipulation of images and his life as Dr. Brute. To document this process, Metcalfe photographed the daily activities of Dr. and Lady Brute and their acquaintances. Photos from the media files were then re-photographed and juxtaposed with Metcalfe’s own in family photo album style. Metcalfe moved from in front of the camera to behind the camera, confusing the difference between spectator and performer. The media images remained in a state of flux with Metcalfe’s own life. Combining these images, Metcalfe deflated their power by bringing them down to the satire of his own activities. The “Dr.” mocked hierarchical society in which these stereotypes perpetuated.
The culmination of the media images resulted in the work Beyond Words (1975) [Figure 5]. Built up on the shape of the triangle , the viewer is immediately struck by the intense yellow leopard print against the black and white of the photographs. The spots are found in every aspect of life: motor sports, fashion, sex, celebrity, nature, and anthropology. The spots literally move throughout the image, creeping off of clothing and onto the walls and commodities. Beyond Words is a visual representation of Metcalfe’s goal to disrupt the structures of life; this work mirrors Metcalfe’s attempt in his performance.
Another manifestation of Dr. Brute’s performance was his role as an alternative symbol of sex [Figure 6]. The media has depicted women wearing leopard skin as a sign of their uninhibited sexuality. Marilyn Monroe wearing leopard print is the iconic sex symbol, codified by glamour, fashion, and fame [Figure 7]. Metcalfe played with gender distinctions by picturing himself naked on a leopard print bedspread. In a homoerotically charged image Dr. Brute lays chest down displaying the defeat of heterosexual male power. The chauvinistic heterosexual in Dr. Brute shows the fear of feminism and homosexuality. The gun is the symbol of the insecurity of Western white power. Metcalfe’s wooden replica of an automatic weapon commented on the absurd practice of allowing little boys to play with toy guns [Figure 8].
Metcalfe reassessed the traditional dominance of men as Kate Craig’s Lady Brute actively critiqued stereotypical views of women [Figure 9]. The two worked as a team, playing off of each other’s creativity. In Flying Leopard (1974) and Skins (1975), Craig mocked the animalizing effect of leopard print clothing on women. Feminism became a major political movement in the 1970s and it forced a renegotiation of gender roles. In conceptual art women found an opportunity to make artwork that did not have a male dominated history . For this reason, Craig gravitated towards the experimental use of video, becoming curator of the Western Front video program in 1976.
The spotted world did not stop there. The archive catalogues in slides Metcalfe’s finished art pieces. Metcalfe introduced the leopard spots into postcards of downtown Vancouver progressively displaying their takeover and final engulf of the city [Figure 10]. The intervention of life continued into the Leopard Realty Δ’s (1971-73) [Figure 11]. Conceptually painted, adhering to minimalist aesthetics these leopard spots on painted triangles jumped off the media pages and into nature . This leopard world would not be complete without the printed word. Fittingly, Metcalfe painted his own brutalphabet in 1971 [Figure 12]. Metcalfe took his spots to the public sphere when in 1973 he painted the front of the Vancouver Art Gallery for the Pacific Vibrations show [Figure 13]. Metcalfe also preformed in 1973 with the Brute Saxes at A Space in Toronto. As artists used more ephemeral media for their work they came to rely heavily on the video camera to document their production . Dana Atchley produced Metcalfe’s performance of Dr. Brute and his saxophone in The Boys in the Band (1974) and a history of Dr. and Lady Brute in Spots Before Your Eyes (1977).
Now, twenty years after most of the archive was compiled it is open to the public in the Morris and Helen Belkin art gallery. All one needs to access its contents is an appointment and a pair of white gloves (not unlike those worn by Dr. Brute). The Morris/Trasov Archive found a home at the Belkin gallery when it was forced out of its home at the Western Front in 1992. Consciously, Scott Watson built around this landmark to solidify its importance in the collection . With this in mind, Eric Metcalfe donated his archive to the gallery for the specific purpose of scholarly research [Figure 14]. Students and scholars, to further the dominance of Western thought and art, will mainly use the archive. The fact that this archive is located in the same city in which it was created makes it accessible to the community that sponsored its development. For the interested scholar, Eric Metcalfe, an active participant in that community, can shed light on the archive’s contents. As Martha Langford pointed out, in the transition from the private realm to the institutional space of the gallery, the photographic archive has been stripped of its social function . The archive can now be viewed without the aid of an interpreter.
The showing and recounting of the archive was in itself another performance by Metcalfe. In the process of study the scholar now re-enacts Metcalfe’s archival performance: effectively inhabiting the world of Dr. Brute and Brutopia. The life of the artist’s alter ego is documented and catalogued so that an archive of his fictitious world is preserved. In this case, history is art.
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List of Figures
Figure 1. Leopard Realty Photo Albums File. Eric Metcalfe Archive, UBC Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.
Figure 2. Hlynski, David. Postcard designed by Metcalfe to promote Dr. Brute. 1974. Return to Brutopia: Eric Metcalfe Works and Collaborations. Vancouver: UBC Fine Arts Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1992.
Figure 3. Robert Filliou at the Decca Dance. 1974. Wallace, Keith. Whispered Art History: Twenty Years at the Western Front. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1993.
Figure 4. Leopard Realty Media Images File. Eric Metcalfe Archive, UBC Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.
Figure 5. Beyond Words. 1975. Return to Brutopia: Eric Metcalfe Works and Collaborations. Vancouver: UBC Fine Arts Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1992.
Figure 6. Banal Beauty Inc./Banal Brutality Inc. series. Eric Metcalfe Archive, UBC Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.
Figure 7. Leopard Realty Photo Albums File. Eric Metcalfe Archive, UBC Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.
Figure 8. Werden, Rodney. Impressions. March 1975. Return to Brutopia: Eric Metcalfe Works and Collaborations. Vancouver: UBC Fine Arts Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1992.
Figure 9. Kate Craig as Lady Brute. Eric Metcalfe Archive, UBC Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.
Figure 10. Leopard Realty Postcards. 1971-1972. Return to Brutopia: Eric Metcalfe Works and Collaborations. Vancouver: UBC Fine Arts Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1992.
Figure 11. Leopard Realty Δ’s. 1972-1973. Return to Brutopia: Eric Metcalfe Works and Collaborations. Vancouver: UBC Fine Arts Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1992.
Figure 12. Leopard Alphabet. 1971. Return to Brutopia: Eric Metcalfe Works and Collaborations. Vancouver: UBC Fine Arts Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1992.
Figure 13. Craig, Kate. Pacific Vibrations. Vancouver Art Gallery. 1973. Return to Brutopia: Eric Metcalfe Works and Collaborations. Vancouver: UBC Fine Arts Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1992.
Figure 14. Table of Contents. Eric Metcalfe Archive, UBC Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.
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