Thrift Store Cowboy

curated by Cindy Baker for Red Shift Gallery, co-presented by the Saskatoon Diversity Network
Saskatoon, SK
June-August 2006

Elwood Jimmy, Thirza Cuthand, Jonathan Busch

The work in Thriftstore Cowboy has a decidedly do-it-yourself feel; this may sound on first blush an obvious description of any artwork – yes, the artists did this work themselves – but a deeper emotional reading of this show reveals a group of artists with not dissimilar backgrounds who are all making low-budget/no-budget art with secondhand materials and subject matter.

The 1989 movie Drugstore Cowboy by director Gus van Sant was a portrait of the disenfranchised youth of a certain generation; the one immediately preceding the “slacker” generation we’ve just been through and just after the “free love” generation that overshadowed it. I’m talking about the self-indulgent “me” generation characterized in the movies, at its best, by fast cars and prep school antics and at its worst, by binge drinking and tons of drugs. Okay, well, emotionally detached killing sprees at its very worst, if you want to be totally honest.

Thriftstore Cowboy is a portrait of a generation of emerging artists from the prairies who cut their teeth on popular culture images, making art and even making movies, before they had even decided to go to art school. Each an alterna-culture whiz kid in their own right, these artists re-use and re-imagine familiar images, products and themes in the service of creating a comfortable canvas for expression of their more intimate and personal ideas. Pop culture has long been the fodder of contemporary artists making work that’s larger than life, but here it comes to the service of smaller than life; hold-in-your-hand or fit-in-your-pocket-sized. Each of these artists is most comfortable in the realms of media and performance art, which are usually thought of as big, bold mediums for expression; this show sees them all stripped down as though we’re witnessing the quiet, relaxed conversation at the very tail end of the party after the big rock show. This work embodies the fundamental just-pick-up-the-camera-and-make-it-art aesthetic of Jimmy, Busch and Cuthand.

While Drugstore Cowboy is a story of a group of people robbing drugstores with the intention of making money, but really just to feed their habit, Thriftstore Cowboy is the story of a group of artists who cull from popular culture’s leftovers for the tools and subject matter that their art is built on.

The Thriftstore Cowboy artists have each made important investments in the longevity of their own personae within a popular culture; while Busch created a living, breathing character who had a life of his own within Saskatoon’s queer/art communities, Jimmy and Cuthand have created online communities for themselves that help to maintain their real-life connections to the fantasy world of popular culture.

Jimmy’s work in this exhibition is a short video of close-up footage of Saskatoon’s own American White pelicans. An unlikely symbol of Saskatoon, there has been a large colony of pelicans nesting here since the early 1970’s and they have become something of local celebrities, prompting contests and children’s books. Several local businesses are even named after the birds. This quiet video is unremarkable in its treatment and rendering of the subject; yet it is contemplative in its simplicity. It functions as an outside perspective on the city made as a gift for its’ residents; a reminder of something nice that just is.

Similarly simple, Busch’s work for this show is a set of snapshots in traditional family-arrangement frames replete with multiple oval and rectangular holes cut into the mat of each one; they’re family portraits, at once traditional and completely bizarre, much like the artist’s own family. As in Jimmy’s work, there is a noticeable absence of “craft” in the construction of the work, and the anti-aesthetic nature lends an authentic feel to the homespun portraits – but without irony or smugness. These are indeed family snapshots.

Busch also performed at the opening of Thriftstore Cowboy, a characteristic Lourdes the Merry Virgin drag piece turned not-so-typical homage to his recently deceased mother. Several numbers and costume changes were rolled into this short cabaret-style performance which effectively fooled people into thinking they were watching a lounge act but suddenly when it was over, they realized that it was a heartfelt confession. Busch’s style of drag evokes more junior-high airband than queeny cabaret, and is well-paired with his snapshot-style photography.

Cuthand’s videos and films are typically very personal in content and just as low-budget in nature as Busch and Jimmy’s work, but hers is generally much more confessional in nature and invested in the varied issues to which she is committed. The Red Planet performance she performed for the opening of the exhibition (and which her installation represents the performance residue of) is much less overtly personal. Though it is still very political in its criticism of colonialism, it achieves this through humour and subtlety. Strongly evocative of television’s space-age future of the past, Cuthand’s new colonialists are much more Red Dwarf and Doctor Who (both very do-it-yourself cardboard construction) than Star Trek. Her First Nations astronauts plan to colonise Mars, leaving earth in an incomplete second-hand space ship. Her maintenance-coverall spacesuit and all-too familiar images of the face of Mars remain in the gallery; we know she couldn’t have got there, but if not, where did she go?

Elwood Jimmy (Cree/Saulteaux) is originally from the Thunderchild First Nation in west central Saskatchewan. In 1999 Jimmy graduated from the University of Regina with a BFA in film and video production. Since then, he has been active in the arts community as a cultural worker and emerging video/performance artist. He has worked in various capacities on several community based art projects including writing, performing, leading workshops and facilitating the video production process.

Since the late Nineties, he has been active in the arts community as an artist, curator, administrator and advocate. Previous experience has included being director of the board of the Independent Media Arts Alliance, representative of the Plains Artist Run Centre Alliance, Administrator for Sakewewak Artists’ Collective in Regina, Curator in Residence at the Godfrey Dean Art Gallery in Yorkton, and member of several committees organized by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Saskatchewan Arts Board.

Thirza Cuthand, a Cree filmmaker and artist from Saskatchewan, has made over ten videos since she was sixteen years old dealing with issues as far-ranging as sexual stereotypes, ageism, queer identity, race, and mass-mediated representations of the family from what she terms a “wry young halfbreed dyke” perspective. Her films include Colonization: The Second Coming (1996), Working Baby Dyke Theory: The Diasporic Impact of Cross-Generational Barriers (1997), Bisexual Wannabe (1997), Untouchable (1998), Helpless Maiden Makes an “I” Statement (1999), Through the Looking Glass (1999), and Anhedonia (2001). Helpless Maiden Makes an “I” Statement was the co-winner of the Akau Best Lesbian Canadian Short in 2000 and was the youngest filmmaker featured in the Directors Series at the Inside-Out Festival in 2001. Her artwork has appeared in, among other venues, the 1999 Peoples Plastic Princess exhibit at the Walter Phillips Gallery in Banff.

Since 1995 she has been producing films and videos which have screened in festivals and galleries internationally, including the Mix Brasil Festival of Sexual Diversity, Mix NY, WTN, Oberhausen International Short Film Festival, the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Inside Out, Out On Screen, and Herland. She is also a performance artist and has performed at Live at the End of the Century, Grunt Gallery, La Centrale, and That 70’s Ho Cabaret at the Western Front. Her other artistic pursuits include writing and creating comics. Her work explores the personal realities of being queer, crazy, and biracial, often using comedy and outlandish combinations of fantasy and grim reality. Thirza is a founding board member of ImageNation, Vancouver’s Aboriginal Film and Video Festival. She completed her BFA with a major in Film/Video at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design.

Jonathan Busch, AKA Lourdes the Merry Virgin, is a performance and photo-based artist from Saskatoon who is currently living in Edmonton. Busch’s work is about pop culture, it emulates pop culture, and creates its own universe of pop culture. He performed as Lourdes for years in the Saskatoon drag community and has also exhibited and performed at various visual art events such as The Cyborg Café at the Mendel Art Gallery and SPASM II, a public art festival held by Paved and AKA. Having started his post-secondary education at the University of Saskatchewan, Busch is currently completing his degree at the University of Alberta.

Cindy Baker considers context her major media; despite a very formal art education, her non-formal training and research in gender culture, queer theory and art theory is as important in her development within the contemporary arts. Since some of her biggest interests are skewing context and (re)examining societal standards, especially as they relate to language and dissemination of information, Cindy has a particular professional interest in the function of artist-run centres as a breeding ground of deviation. She perceives a need for intervention and collaboration, both within the art world and in the community at large.