drunken paw: drawing in public

by Diana Sherlock

The Dough is the Boss

The otherworldly image of a drunken paw conjures up magical associations and tall or fantastical tales. And so it is that drunken paw Love Triangle Evil as All Bejeesus, an exhibition at Kensington's Hot Wax Records, tells a tale about the storyteller, drunken paw, who mediates the conscious and unconscious realms of experience to render fanciful imagescapes drawn from life. The stories are drawings, a selection chosen from approximately 50 works on paper and found supports produced by this Calgary-based drawing collective since 2009.

As many good things do, drunken paw emerged out of 20 years of friendship and several impromptu gatherings at the pub. During these visits at local live-music haunts such as the Ship & Anchor, Shamrock and Broken City, Mark Dicey, Leslie Sweder and Janet Turner started to craft intimate ball-point pen and ink drawings such as Make It Sparkle (2009) and Seaside Sleep (2009) by doodling together on napkins, in notebooks and on loose sheets of paper. Slowly a working method emerged; three artists rotated three separate drawings among themselves, each artist responding almost automatically, to the other's previous mark-making to develop the final drawings, which would then be edited, kept or destroyed. Periodically, drunken paw also opens up its process to other artists — Vision (with Kiarra Albina, 2009), Jesse's Broken Girl (with Doug Haslam, 2010) and DROP (with Chuck Stake, 2011) are examples in this exhibition — collaborators who share reciprocal ways of thinking, and whose participation becomes a catalyst for new ideas. Consistently, the resulting drawings read like some sort of all-over exquisite corpse, a stream of consciousness that records the rhythm of their relations, conversations and the unfolding urban social scene around them.

Turner likens drunken paw's process to a visual jam, a spontaneous, improvisational practice with creative collaborators in which each performer responds directly to what the other is doing. It is an analogy that recalls the collective community politics of radical free jazz, or the counter-culture of (early) urban hip-hop, each of which developed a new language to give voice to a community. Samples, mixes and mash-ups so common to experimental music, find their visual equivalence in the immediacy of automatic drawing and the simultaneity of collage, key processes underlying drunken paw's compositions. Dissonance is encouraged; heterogeneous elements are brought together to form a unified whole. drunken paw engages a playful sort of agonism where conflict and difference are mediated in public on the surface of the paper. Their mark-making process is additive; their materials — India inks, acrylic paints, whiteout, ballpoint and gel pens — permanent. As in life, things can be altered, but not undone. Since every negotiation, every compromise is made visible in the final drawings, so too is consensus at the heart of drunken paw's working method and critical collaboration.

In addition to these one-night collaborative drawing sessions, drunken paw has more recently performed extended residencies at Museo Poco, The Sidewalk Citizen Bakery and BJ's Gym. drunken paw prefers to work in non-traditional art contexts because of its quietly political interest in "drawing in public." This aligns, perhaps, with the current democratic rhetoric of post-studio practice, where it is understood that making in public makes things public. But more importantly, the collective's residency model has the very real effect of being able to construct a specific and reciprocal relationship to an audience over a sustained period of time to constitute a real, not imagined, audience for the work. In these instances, drunken paw takes drawing in public beyond a Surrealist parlor game, or relational free-for-all, to investigate collaborative drawing as a form of public collectivity. The artists' propose that "The drawings, while not relational in and of themselves, become a record of relations between us, our environment and an actively living audience."1 While drunken paw remains deeply committed to the art object, this model of public collectivity returns the space of art making and its reception to the commons.

In the first such residency experiment drunken paw's Interpretation of Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Trick, the trio squeezed themselves and three large white sheets of rag paper into Lisa Brawn's Sugar Cube Gallery's Museo Poco, a tiny display window for art nestled under the staircase on 17th Avenue's hipster stroll. For six weeks drunken paw performed an awkward collaborative drawing ballet in this glass bubble. The Houdini Rising Snow-Globe #37 triptych (2011) fuses imagery inspired by the street with subconscious meanderings and graphic forms. Bizarre, abstract figures morph into wondrous animals. Fantastical painted worlds envelop realistic urban landscapes. Miniature interiors and expansive exteriors collapse into each other. Love stories begin and end in a pool of pink hearts. Decorative surface patterns and whispers of text echo the language of the street. The final drawings' swirling, compressed space mirrors drunken paw's tight rotations in the window. Houdini Rising Snow-Globe #37 flows off the edges of the paper to merge into one giant claustrophobic mural. It is baroque and agitated, as if the artists were trying to project, not escape, the reality of their circumstance through their collective imagination.

What becomes clear by looking at these and other works by drunken paw is that their drawings, even though seemingly bizarre, are based on close observation of their immediate environment. Sleep Walkers, Eat Cake and The Dough is the Boss (all 2011) were drawn during their residency (The Leavening) at the Sidewalk Citizen Bakery. The drawings are clearly inspired by artisanal baker Aviv Fried, filmmaker Michal Lavi and the goings-on at their bakery. For drunken paw, Sidewalk Citizen Bakery is a perfect collaborator, because they too engage citizenry by making things (yummy food) in public. The Leavening series forms a narrative record of working amidst the clatter of bread pans, searing ovens and warm, sweet aromas of the Sidewalk Citizen Bakery. Snippets of text recall a social atmosphere; birthday celebrations and daily news are shared as well as work. The drawings are colourful, bold and self-sufficient like the characters who inspired them. Perhaps one could even describe the aesthetic as a street-pop form of magic realism; drawings in which the social reality of the everyday is filtered through the artists' imaginations and rendered in an eclectic, but popular, visual vernacular where abstract mark-making bumps up against the language of pop culture and of kitsch. Like the daily bread rising, drunken paw's aesthetic is artful, fresh and rich with the stuff of life.

It should be clear by now that drunken paw draws portraits — informed by first-hand experience, observation and the reception of other people's perceptions — that attempt to manifest the spirit of a place. In their own words, "Drunken paw feeds off the rhythm and movement of the surrounding scene, all the while drawing fervently. We are "there" but "not there," vividly moving the entire experience through us."2 This intensification of the location through the process of drawing — a process tantamount to channeling — is an expression of care for a community, an embodiment of place. Further evidence of this can be seen in a recent series of drawings produced on the eerily abandoned walls at BJ's Gym. RELEASE ME, Camptown Ladies and BORN TO BE WILD celebrate the lives and stories lost to this much-loved East Calgary landmark that now, after 40 years, is being razed for condo development. As if searching for ghosts, the artists moved throughout the building to make the drawings. In between trips to the salvage yard, the owner's daughter Angie reminisced about growing up in the neighbourhood with her Dad, the Hart family wrestlers, Hell's Angels and the buzz of Ralph Klein's campaign office. She shared real ghost stories too; bone-chillers about the previous owner, who torched himself in the basement of the old warehouse space before it was BJ's Gym. Now in the cold amidst the demolition, dozens of artists, who have been invited by Angie to give one last celebratory hurrah for BJ's, jostle for territory with Pit Bulls, flame-throwers, burlesque dancers, roving bands of graffiti artists and a community of onlookers who also have their own stories to tell. This was not a conservative scene, and its frenetic energy is fused to the fiber of these drawings.

What started out as playing in public has become a serious, one could argue political, practice for drunken paw. It is through the practice of collectively drawing in public that drunken paw writes itself into the world. Their aim, as they describe it, is to bring a "consciousness to the unconscious," to quietly confront an egocentric society by practicing individual awareness, consciousness-raising in the form of a public collective drawing practice.

1 drunken paw, Artists' Statement, December 2011.
2 drunken paw, Mark Dicey email, January 4, 2012.