An Interview with Vincent Trasov
We recently had the great pleasure of seeing Vincent Trasov’s current show at Trench Contemporary Art. He is probably best known as his alter ego, Mr. Peanut, having first donned his homemade costume including top hat and cane in the early 70s and even running for Mayor in the guise of this corporate character, which he has called just “an empty shell…People could pore their ideas into the empty shell. I was just a vehicle for other people’s imagination.” But his exhibition incorporates work made between 1980 and 2012 revealing the breadth of his practice over more than thirty years including his spare, controlled, text-based gouaches, his exquisitely suggestive and charming ink drawings of Mr. Peanut travelling and conducting his daily affairs, his painterly and abstract drawings made using a copper sulphate process, as well as his daring early performances. We were thrilled when Vincent agreed to answer some queries about his work for us:
Here and Elsewhere: Mr. Peanut has been an enduring aspect of your practice and a popular one, even garnering 3.4% of the popular vote when you ran for mayor in his guise in 1974. What prompted you to take on the role of Mr. Peanut? How do you use this persona in your practice?
Vincent Trasov: I was doing animation drawings of Mr. Peanut tap dancing for a film at Intermedia in 1970. The process was far too tedious. I decided if I made a costume out of papier-maché I could get into the costume and tap dance. Once in the costume people started calling me Mr. Peanut. The name stuck. I assumed the identity of Mr. Peanut in exploring anthropomorphism, identity and contemporary mythology. Now the peanut costume is in the collection of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. I continue doing ink and wash drawings of Mr. Peanut as a monument, totem pole, in adventures in daily life, in romance, raising a family, etc.
HE: We’re struck by your use of the term “contemporary mythology” in explaining what Mr. Peanut is about. How did people respond to you as Mr. Peanut? Do you think they understood that this was performance art and does that even matter?
VT: When did the term performance art come into existence? No they didn’t understand Mr. Peanut as performance art. Our outings into the “enviromage” in costume as Art Rat, Candyman, Lady and Dr. Brute and Mr. Peanut plus use of props like the hand of the spirit and the colour bars were “art city” events and nature meets culture. Everybody became part of the stage, including passersby. The city was the back drop, and when we were at Babyland, the woods, stream and garden were the set. It was an opportunity for photo ops.
HE: We were struck by the diversity of media in your current show at Trench ranging from monochromatic text-based painting, naughty and funny detailed drawings of Mr. Peanut, to video of your early performances. How did you decide to bring these particular works together for your current show at Trench?
VT: My art is interdisciplinary. When I get bored with one medium I go to another. The exhibition at Trench is a survey of work, basically works on paper. The two films in the exhibition are collaborative; “Flammable”, my first fire process event, was filmed by Gary Lee Nova; Mr. Peanut in New York was filmed by David Rimmer while he lived there in 1972. A group of artists from Vancouver visiting NYC were coming from Halifax from the “Vancouver-Halifax Exchange” organized by Roy Kiyooka. They included Gathie Falk, Michael Morris, Glenn Lewis, and John Jack Baylin. The film gives a good sense of us all being together. We also met many artists in New York, whom we still correspond with.
HE: Your show at Trench contains your early video, Flammable Performance, in which you set fire to several objects outside the Student Union Building at UBC. Since then you have created burned paintings and paintings using heated chemicals. What is the attraction to flame, fire and burning? Are you interested in a process of transformation perhaps?
VT: My work is process oriented. The dozen flammable objects I ignited in the “Flammable” event were my palette. It is the play with fire, the play between construction and deconstruction, controlling the basic element into a creative force which is in the end my painting. There is also a performative and ritualistic aspect to my use of fire and heat. It is also contemplative.
HE: When you say your work is “process oriented” does that help explain the lack of obvious aesthetic style? Your work is visually very different from one project and media to the next!
VT: Process is how I experiment with the media. I take the raw material and/or elements like heat and water and apply them under controlled conditions. In the garden, working over the fire, I’ve carefully controlled the heating of paper, canvas, newspapers. The fire, ritual, performance, event and resulting works are my gesamptkunstwerk. It is a very private act. It is very different when I am collaborating with Michael Morris on videos or “performing the archive”. These are more socially-oriented works involving many people.
HE: It seems your work has long been concerned with communication, networks and
collaboration, for example, in the founding of Image Bank in 1969, the Western Front Society in 1973, and the Morris/Trasov Archive in 1991. Can you tell us a bit about why collaboration is an important artistic strategy for you?
VT: My collaboration with Michael Morris began in 1969 and continues to this day. It is probably the longest collaboration in Canadian art history. We could help each other in our realization of ideas and projects. This was true in seeking an audience of like-minded individuals when we published the artist address lists and image requests as Image Bank (work to be exhibited in exhibition Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada c. 1965-1980 at the Vancouver Art Gallery in the fall of 2012) to the utopian live/work situation at Western Front and to the responsibility of accessioning and data-basing Morris/Trasov Archive at UBC. The housing of the archive is due to the initiative of Scott Watson, Director of Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. None of this would have been possible without collaborative effort. At the same time this work has seldom restricted my practise as an individual artist.
HE: We’re all so used to having the internet and email now that I think it’s difficult for people to understand how revolutionary the Image Bank was for artists when you created it. Can you describe it for us?
VT: It was necessary for survival as an artist to circumvent the existing establishment of gallery, institution and art journalism. We had to find our own audiences of like-minded individuals. The postal system at the time was the fastest and cheapest form of communication. We were inspired by Ray Johnson’s New York Correspondence School and Robert Filliou’s idea of “the eternal network”. Image Bank’s contribution was the artists’ address lists and image requests, which were published first by ourselves in regular mailings then by File Megazine, Toronto. Now it is taken over by Art Diary. Mass communication led to new formats – jiffy printing, self-publishing, mail art, super-8 film, video and television. Through connections like the Image Bank artists were invited to the newly formed artist-run centres. Artist-run centres function today as the “Kunsthalle”.
HE: And what are you currently working on?
VT: Morris and I are currently working on our endless painting project. That involves the colour bars, currently installed in the Again and Again and Again exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. We are in the process of assembling all the colour bar material, from different projects going back to the 1960s, for eventual exhibition with Reid Shier at Presentation House Gallery. This has also become a didactic project which we hope to introduce to “Art for Kids”, the project initiated by Gordon Smith. There is also interest shown by Daros Foundation Latin America, which offers projects for children. Then there is the archive with its potential for constant reinterpretation for research and exhibition. Last but not least, my individual work in painting and drawing.
HE: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us Vincent!