JOHN WILL: Into the Void
With new work this summer in Calgary and Massachusetts, John Will is making very much ado about Nothing.
By Mary-Beth Laviolette
At age 72, is there nothing left for John Will to do? His practice dates back to the early 1960s. His oeuvre encompasses printmaking and painting, performance, video, and photography. Lately though, the retired University of Calgary art professor has been working on a body of new text-based work defined by one word: “nothing”. Or, in other terminology used on occasion by the artist, “nada”,” zero”, “zilch”.
In his attempt to, as Will says “make art about nothing”, he’s taken a minimal route. At his disposal, sheets of 22” x 30” paper and some acrylic — all of which look like something in the face of nothing. “It’s a difficult assignment but I still try,” Will says, deadpan. No kidding, as I was to discover on a recent visit to his garage studio in Calgary.
The artist was in the midst of preparing for a solo exhibition in Calgary this spring, and conferring with the curators about new work for Oh, Canada. Will is one of 62 Canadians included in the much-anticipated exhibition at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) near Boston, with a spot for his text-based piece right at the entrance to the show.
He’s also awaiting the debut of a documentary on CBC Radio’s, Ideas. Produced by Jim Brown, the doc will include what the popular radio host is calling the “first visual art work made exclusively for radio”. At the heart of this new broadcast project will be Will’s current topic: nothing.
Back in Will’s studio, though, a stack of his latest works awaited me. There were 125 of them on Arches paper with the word “Nothing” taking a starring role as theme, subject matter and image. Hand-lettered or stamped with an old printers’ font, brightly coloured, often scrawled and sometimes enhanced with spray-paint, it’s a dizzying parade of textuality made visual. The artist, I think, just can’t seem to help himself. Because there’s even more to come — pieces that mine a multitude of banal phrases like “Next to Nothing”, “Mad at Nothing”, “Think Nothing of It” and so on.
On the surface, Will seems to have set himself a peculiar assignment, but one suited to his iconoclastic temperament. It has all the makings of a quest; an attempt, perhaps, to make some sense of the human condition as he’s experienced it — some 40 years of contrarian, but at times poignantly humourous art about the absurdities of contemporary society and the art world. His work on celebrity and fame has received special attention, but so has other lesser-known material, like the 50th anniversaries of the atomic bomb (his brilliant photo and text work, Atomic Haiku, 1995) and the Roswell UFO “incident” (The Eighth King of Roswell, a video work from 1997).
I’ve discovered that the origin of this most recent series dates back to an acrylic displayed in the 2010 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art. Painted on canvas, Nothing (2009), hung as a kind of large-scale exclamation mark next to what Will considers to be his most ambitious work: Anything and Everything (1989-91). Consisting of 200 small paintings covered with a profusion of misspelled names of friends and acquaintances, cartoon figures and graffiti as well as small gems of contrarian advice —“don’t ever have an original idea” — Nothing was conceived to correct what the artist considered to be an error. When the new piece was added to Anything and Everything, it negated Will’s original intent for the 60’ by 8’ work.
Rendered like a sign, in loud red and yellow lettering, as a parent to the many offspring the artist intends to show in Calgary in May, Will points out how he “has become a sort of sign painter” albeit “a bad sign painter”. He’s right. These pieces have little in common with the slickness of commercial sign-painting, but their graphic delivery and textual ravings do have something else going for them — wit, engagement, mind-games and, lurking underneath, a counter-culture sensibility.
In one work, Will has included a small photo of poet, musician and activist Ed Sanders, co-founder of the underground rock group, The Fugs. Their first album in 1964 had a song called Nothing, and Will took the photograph of Sanders in New York many years ago. I suspect that the song, with its skepticism and willingness to send up the feel-good anything-goes rhetoric of the times, was the spark that lit the work I see before me.
A few of these works proclaim existentially-flavoured phrases like “Nothing is Coming” and “Nothing Beyond the Great Beyond.” Will, it seems, in his own inimitable way, has been dealing with the void, both literally and figuratively. His sources are both serendipitous and deliberate, both high- and low brow. They range from popular moments like “I Got Plenty ‘o Nuttin” from the musical, Porgy and Bess, to more intellectual ones in which greater minds have tackled the idea of nothingness.
The artist, in particular, is drawn to the controversial 20th century German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who wrote about the nature of Being. The way Will sees it, Heidegger correctly pointed out that we avoid the significance of nothingness because of the groundlessness of human existence. He adds that much of the new work revolves around the ultimate state of nothingness — death. “When I made my earlier work I had hope,” he wrote in a later email to me. “Now I don’t. In reworking some of my earlier work I tried to face this fact and purge them of any intended meaning. With the new works on paper I think I have not only faced it, but have accepted it.” Will’s comments reveal a stoic but certainly not a despairing frame of mind. He knows what awaits him, as we all ultimately do, and in part his new series tackles it with his characteristic wit and love of a well-turned phrase.
On another level, then, this undercurrent of mortality suggests these works really are about something. Rather than dwelling on the process of making art with an attitude of art for art’s sake as many artists of his generation were apt to do, John Will engages with the larger social, cultural and political landscape. But in this scenario, as it has been many times in the past, art springs from his very particular ramblings and serendipitous encounters with life, now as an aging man. This aspect of the personal and the socially connective was one of the reasons why MASS MoCA curator Denise Markonish wanted to include his work in Oh, Canada.
Her impression of Will is that of a senior artist whose sensibilities, both in content and aesthetics, align with contemporary concerns, despite his being of “another era”. He’ll be in good company in this respect, with work alongside that of artists including Eric Cameron, Michael Snow and Garry Neill Kennedy. “Will reinvents himself but sticks to his guns,” Markonish notes. “That makes him an example to younger artists.”
On her cross-country investigations, which took three years and studio visits with 400 artists, the curator was intrigued too by the cross-generational connections she saw. Will, for instance, is well-known locally for the influence he’s exerted on younger artists like Mary Scott and Rita McKeough (the latter will also have work in Oh, Canada). Markonish was amazed by these close connections, given how strongly “generations can be odds with each other” in her own country.
She considers Will to be an “artist’s artist” in that he has a following but has never really cracked through the consciousness of leading Canadian art institutions such as the National Gallery of Canada. His work, though popular, existing outside the establishment. Markonish’s own introduction to Will’s practice came via the grapevine. “A number of people told me I had to meet John Will,” she says. That advice, along with his contribution to the 2010 Alberta Biennial of Contemporary Art and an article about the artist by friend and painter Chris Cran in Canadian Art put Will on her list of artists to meet.
If anything, Will’s inclusion in the show counts as one of those “eccentric” choices referred to in a recent Canadian Art interview with Markonish. Her choices have raised eyebrows because they overlook many of the art stars of Canadian contemporary art, and she acknowledges obvious omissions like Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham, Janet Cardiff, Liz Magor and the like. She adds that the very fact that her choices have aroused both surprise and excitement is a telling statement in itself. I agree that Oh, Canada seems less interested in bolstering the current canon than in reflecting some of the lesser-known but diverse creative energies the curator personally encountered.
The largest survey of Canadian contemporary art ever undertaken by an American institution, of the 105 works on display, 10 are commission pieces, and one of the commissions is John Will’s. It’s a large text-based work, an offshoot of his on-going Nothing series. All Markonish will say at this point is that the commission is not a painting, but does involve the names of all the artists in the exhibition. Displayed as the first work in the Oh, Canada gallery, after more than 40 years of creative commentary and intervention, Will’s work is on track to raise a few more eyebrows yet.
Nothing for Something, works on paper by John Will, debuts at Jarvis Hall Fine Art (Calgary) May 17 to June 16, 2012. Oh, Canada is on view at MASS MoCA, (North Adams, Massachusetts), May 27, 2012 to April 1, 2013.