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"Angry Little Girl"
Leslie Supnet, "Angry Little Girl," drawing.
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"A Time is a Terrible Thing to Waste"
Leslie Supnet, "A Time is a Terrible Thing to Waste," drawing.
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Leslie Supnet, "The Idea," drawing.
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"What Death Looks Like"
Leslie Supnet, "What Death Looks Like," drawing.
In their multimedia exhibition, Storytime, Winnipeg artists Leslie Supnet and Glen Johnson create a not-so-traditional narrative.
By Cliff Eyland
Last summer the Maison Rouge museum in Paris celebrated the work of 70 Winnipeg artists, including the Royal Art Lodge, Daniel Barrow, Sarah Anne Johnson, Kent Monkman and others whose pictures tell stories. Many more artists could have been included in this exhibition, but Glen Johnson and Leslie Supnet were passed over, proof of how widespread art-making as storytelling is in this little prairie town.
Unusually, neither Supnet nor Johnson were trained as artists. She has a degree in mathematics and he has a degree in classics, and as such, both are outliers in Winnipeg, even if Johnson has shown at Canada’s National Gallery and Supnet has recently won an On The Rise Award from the Winnipeg Arts Council.
Johnson is best known as Hugh Briss, the author of the widely read satirical electronic newspaper Persiflage, a lively set of fictional articles by fictional authors — all of whom are Johnson. He is also the creator of the “Artistic License Bureau” which issues identity cards to anybody who wants to be an artist. Supnet has a growing reputation for her animated films and coloured drawings.Their show, and the wider Winnipeg narrative art scene, is a reminder that art happens in cycles, but always with new twists on old themes. In the late 1960s, for example, some conceptual artists including John Baldessari, Mac Adams and David Askevold had become bored with what they called “ABC conceptualism,” even though conceptual art had only been around for a couple of years. They came up with what they called “Story Art” in order to expand what had very quickly become, at least within their little genre, a set of boring artistic formulae.
Of course, the old conceptualists would not have shared Leslie Supnet and Glen Johnson’s love of the children’s book illustrations of Beatrix Potter, Thornton W. Burgess and Harrison Cady. What the conceptualists called “stories,” after all, were often fractured narratives with barely a storyline. But the conceptualists ignored traditional modernist objections against “illustration” in the art world that were not so long ago ubiquitous, just as Supnet and Johnson and many other artists do today. We’ve come a long way since the 1960s, when a show of any kind of illustration would have been considered to be marginal art.
But it’s one thing to suggest a narrative in a painting and another to literally create an illustrated story. Supnet and Johnson like to cite canonical children’s stories that have horrific elements, like the work of Hans Christian Andersen. This is despite the fact that their show includes performative readings of the stories, reassuringly traditional hardcover book versions of the narratives, and an installation meant to recall the comforting lounge areas of libraries and bookstores — possibly luring visitors into thinking that they really are meant for children.
Supnet acknowledges affinities with the local Royal Art Lodge, superstars whose work has been celebrated everywhere in the 2000s. Winnipeg often thinks of itself as the home of narrative contemporary art, but artists here rarely talk about their work as if it were literally “illustration,” even if it is often just that, and Beatrix Potter would also never get props from Winnipeg artists. It’s in the straightforward practice of telling stories that sets Johnson, Supnet and perhaps Daniel Barrow apart from most other so-called narrative-based Winnipeg artists. There has been much talk lately of the lengthening of childhood into the 20s and 30s, as adult children choose to live at home with their tolerant boomer parents. Perhaps the creation of hybrid child/adult stories by the likes of Supnet and Johnson is a symptom of that trend, an art that subtly gears itself to a new social life.
Johnson and Supnet’s working methods are fluid. “A story might inspire a drawing that necessitated rewriting the story, or a drawing that inspired a story might have to be changed to fit the new story.” Johnson writes the stories and Supnet illustrates them, but they also work in reverse — Supnet has made sketches that inspire Johnson’s stories. One of their collaborations led to a script for a short animated film — Supnet’s specialty — that is featured in this show.
Glen Johnson’s ongoing “Uncle Glennie” persona is important to Storytime. Begun in 2006, this work “replicates the experience of a ‘storytime’ in which children are traditionally read stories by a somewhat avuncular character.” But Johnson’s performances are not geared to little children. In a sense he infantilizes adult stories — witness the title of one of the stories: The Terrible Tale of the Super-Frightening Unbelievably Scary Dangerous Person Who Did Those Awful Awful Things.
Similarly, Leslie Supnet’s drawings look as if they may have been made for children but are aimed at adults. According to the artist, they are about “identity, isolation, longing and despair all with a touch of whimsy and the surreal…” She’s interested in using her drawing “as a mechanism to cope with the little tragedies we all face day to day.”
"Storytime," a joint exhibition project by Leslie Supnet, a visual artist and animator, and Glen Johnson, a performance artist and writer, is on at Gallery 1C03 at the University of Winnipeg September 6 to October 6.