I recently caught up with Anthony Easton fresh from his sojourn to Toronto, a city that has been very kind to the Edmonton/Fort Saskatchewan-based visual artist. Exhibiting in Fly Gallery as well as Art Metropole, Easton’s kitschy conceptual pieces have been highly praised for their bratty aesthetics and processed public appeal. RM Vaughn, respectable Canadian Art magazine critic, adores Easton’s work—and this is a fact Easton proudly boasts in pride as much as in defense.
Photo credit: Ashley Andel, 2007
Sitting in the back of Jasper Avenue’s Commodore Restaurant between bites of crumbling hamburger and sips of Fanta, Easton openly talks about his situation as an Alberta-based conceptual artist. If Joseph Kosuth was right in asserting that all art (after Duchamp) is explicitly conceptual (and I do believe he is) Easton is then fighting a moot issue (at least within Edmonton). Facing consistent contention from high brow and formal peers over the legitimacy of his artistic practice—to which Easton responds, “this high brow versus low brow shit is why Edmonton doesn’t grow”—his study and expression of Alberta is gratuitous to say the least. Easton’s penchant for explicitly pushing the boundaries of sexual politics dominates a majority of his work (a more theoretical exhibition is currently up for the month of March at Mandolin Books)*, but what lies deep within Easton’s inspiration is his unabashed curiosity in the identity and construct of Alberta.
A genuine country music fan and keen enthusiast for pickup trucks, Easton’s interest in an Alberta aesthetic carries no irony. Sitting here at the Commodore, a perfect aesthetic in Easton’s mind, he does not bat an eye at the mention of the nearby cowboy bar. “People don’t listen to country music at those bars,” Easton states flatly. “We’re weirdly unconnected to our culture here. A place like [that] is an erotic spectacle, something people here create so we don’t have to analyze ourselves.”
And analyze is what Easton does best, often with a humble grandeur. Displaying a very transparent bibliography for his work that includes idols like Hans Haacke, the sensational and sociopolitical German pop artist, Easton remains an anomaly in his home town. Investigating the “psychogeography” of Edmonton through non-romantic disseminations of Albertan culture, he favours showing his work in populous everyday spaces rather than galleries. Creating fleeting moments of sublimity in LRT stations and in random public spaces, it is easy and disappointing to see how Easton has been ignored by the majority of the art community. His recent guest curation at the Art Gallery of Alberta (The 1950s Ford Show) put him on the radar for a much larger audience, but he continues to prefer showing in spaces uncensored by gallery pretensions.
“My works are not ahistorical, and that is my problem here,” Easton says, before stating his exhaustion with engaging in an argument nobody seems to be aware of. And of course it is also his exhaustion that rubs people the wrong way. Frustrated, his respect in the east over his Alberta-inspired works have become a Catch-22: standing for a fight he can’t seem to sway so he can continue to work and be inspired or leave and be successful in a place for a body of work removed from its own context. It’s not that Easton creates only strong works one after another; he has created a modest body of work that is at once complete unto itself. The problem is the very place he creates his work in finds him a strange bird within the flock, and the smallness of the community is quickly revealed for better or for worse.
I can’t help but feel that Easton needs to change his world by tapping into one open mind at a time, and here’s hoping enough open minds find him here ... or elsewhere.
*Change from Vue Weekly publication that read the Mandolin show as a curation.