Codes for North (2017) - excerpt, Joyce Wieland: Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

Codes for North: Foundations of the Canadian Avant-Garde Film is the result of a decade of engagement with the work of Jack Chambers, Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland. The bulk of this work was the basis of my doctoral dissertation in 2015. The book was published by the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in December 2017 to mark their 50th anniversary. It is now available for order from the CFMDC. Copies are available to reviewers upon request. Below is an excerpt that introduces Joyce Wieland, from her emergence as a painter to her first three films, Larry's Recent Behavior, Patriotism and Barbara's Blindness.

Joyce Wieland in  Water Sark  (1965).

Joyce Wieland in Water Sark (1965).



Canada’s sovereignty arrived slowly, from initial European explorations and settlements in the sixteenth-century through to its confederation in 1867. Its evolution was a struggle between language, customs and staked territories. Settlers faced inhospitable seasons and dangerous terrain as they assembled their new culture. Susanna Moodie became an icon of both British colonial settlement and of Canadian settler womanhood for her book Roughing it in the Bush, published fifteen years before the country’s confederation, and the regard for Moodie’s account as something exotic betrayed an inscribed puritanism in British and Canadian culture. Canadian women would gain some advocacy through the National Council of Women of Canada, formed in 1857, only a decade before confederation, and by the end of the nineteenth century it pursued a campaign to upgrade the status of women, albeit without pursuing the vote.(1)  Eventually, in 1918, in tandem with movements elsewhere in the west, Canadian women gained the right to vote in federal elections. A female nationalist would see two things arising in the era of confederation: a slowly forming critique of hegemony and gender inequity, and a growing pride in Canada as an autonomous presence, a nation that formed slowly but was now assured in its cultivation of citizenship and patriotism. Against this history of slowly evolving gender equity, Canadian women painters began to emerge. The first to achieve recognition engaged with romantic styles, but by the twentieth century, when modern movements arrived in Canada, female painters would form a minority among those who would pursue and expand the new vision.(2)  As modern art struggled into Canada, any acclaim for it was directed primarily to the post-Impressionist paintings of the Group of Seven, but it was also present in the work of other artists, such as the post-Impressionist Emily Carr and the geometric abstractionist Kathleen Munn.(3)  In these modern movements, there was a pronounced lack of female painters, who for the most part were ignored or at the fringes of discussion in Canadian art criticism, much of which was hostile toward modern art. In order to pursue the most difficult ends of art in Canada, a woman would endure twofold discrimination and exclusion, both for her gender and for the direction of her calling. Modern art represented the newfound and elaborate pleasures of the perceptual challenge that came with freer forms. The expressive potential of gesture, unhindered by the straits of realism, was not isolated from the senses but of the senses. This art stemmed from a critique of the faculties, a position that first formed around the effect of the art itself and which also, most evident in the transit into the postmodern, could turn to critique history and society.

    Joyce Wieland was born in 1931, the daughter of working class English-Scottish immigrants living in the Trinity-Bellwoods neighborhood, a low-income immigrant community in Toronto’s west end. By age 11, both of Wieland’s parents had died. She lived through a series of upheavals, moving with her elder sister and brother into precarious arrangements, struggling through debt to achieve financial security.(4)  As a teenager, Wieland studied art at Toronto’s Central Technical School, gaining a high school education that emphasized commercial-industrial skills. There, she encountered women artists for the first time: among the faculty were sculptor Elizabeth Wyn Wood and painters Virginia Luz and Doris McCarthy.(5)  Wieland took classes in dress design, through which she learned figurative drawing from McCarthy, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art known for her abstract landscape paintings. At McCarthy’s urging, Wieland enrolled in the school’s Fine Arts stream, where she would first develop a technical knowledge of drawing and painting.(6)  Wieland came to understand the purpose of art as a force for both creative and social expression, influenced by an atmosphere of class unrest. She devoted her creative energies to building a skillset that would help her find employment, but her early experiences of art making and the experiences particular to her class and gender would later inform the directions of her painting and filmmaking.

    In her final year of high school, Wieland attended a labour strike at Eaton’s. The event would prove a formative introduction to the grim realities of labour politics. Her experience on the line would further strengthen her identification with the experiences and trials common to workers, suffering at the hands of an elite business class and struggling, much as Wieland and her siblings had struggled, for stable work and a living wage. She would recall in later years the frightened faces of the marching workers, but ultimately, it was the collective, collaborative action of the strikers that would leave the deepest imprint on her.(7)  Wieland’s mature work would come to echo that action of collective resistance and outrage, a great unity in the service of justice. Her childhood anxieties about work and domestic life, coming of age as she did in unstable circumstances, found consonance in the politics of labour. This vision, of the personal in the political, would later emerge as an insistent theme in her art. To make art was to engage in another form of labour, likewise worthy of collectivity and protest. A cartoon found in one of Wieland’s journals shows a male and female, drawn as a highly stylized cartoon, as dwarfed rotund forms. They hold signs that read “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis,” the Latin translated to English on accompanying signs, “Art is Long, Life is Short.”(8)  Her protestors declare art eternal, a classical idea but one best explained, in the context of modern art, as finding the universal in the particular.

    Wieland’s engagement with fine art also developed outside her formal education. Growing up in Toronto, she had seen the collection of the Art Gallery of Toronto (renamed the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1966), and a trip to New York City to visit galleries in the late 1940s found her in Rockefeller Centre, in awe of its murals. She attended screenings of the Toronto Film Society, a community group interested in advancing the cause of artistic filmmaking.(9)  In 1949, they invited the Dada artist Hans Richter to screen Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947), a Surrealist feature film in which a man becomes a dream merchant upon realizing that he can sell psychic projections, or ‘dreams’, summoned by a mirror in his apartment. Richter made the film in collaboration with artists such as Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Alexander Calder, his collaborators crafting the ‘dreams’ for the film. To Wieland, it was an early introduction to the possibilities of film as art, and to Dada and Surreal aesthetics as a living force as powerful as they had been in the 1920s. At the time, there was no Canadian cinema to speak of, save for the educational and animated films issuing from the National Film Board as an alternative to the Hollywood film. The Film Society screenings of European narrative art cinema and films by Richter and Maya Deren introduced the city to the artistic potential of filmmaking. For young artists like Wieland, the experience connected this medium with the aspirations and forms of the other arts struggling into modernity.

    Wieland’s training at Central Tech had prepared her to assume a position in the design workforce. In 1948, she was able to secure a job designing packaging with ES&A Robinson, and she remained there for five years.(10)  When she left, she took freelance jobs in the design industry and also began to design greeting cards. In 1954, she took up regular work at the animation firm Graphic Associates. Her time there would be short, with the firm closing little more than two years later, but in that time she met her future husband, Michael Snow, and began to make films communally with the rest of the staff. By the time that she and Snow married in the fall of 1956, they were both committed unequivocally to their art practices, working at the heart of a loose Neo-Dada community to build something new, in a city with a history of closed, exclusive art scenes, from the Group of Seven to the Painters Eleven.(11)  The narrow channel of Toronto art in which Wieland, Snow, and their friends and contemporaries found themselves would in coming years be challenged, bent into a form more accommodating for confrontational and dense modern and postmodern art. The work of Jack Bush and his peers, with their debts to Hans Hoffman and painterly abstraction, had tamed Toronto audiences to celebrate them, if more as a movement than as individuals. That same audience would now face work that was lacking in common values of beauty and that followed in the psychic collage of Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages and the precise mess of Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, toward raw expressions of a different order.

    Wieland had spent much of her time in high school drawing comic strips and writing journals. They survive today to reveal common experiences of youth, for instance, a longing for romantic love, but they also demonstrate an instinctual critique of such longing.(12)  Ideals of love would take on a greater thematic design in Wieland’s character, in her abstract paintings that were messy and dramatic in their sexuality, in paintings and installations that spoke explicitly of brotherhood and love, and in the repetitions of valentine card hearts and lipstick traces that would, in her mature work, become synonymous with her ironic expression of nationalism. Her work was not naïve, but indirect; even as she mastered the symbols and gestures of sentimentality, she cultivated a rich sense of irony. Her art could not be taken by its surface, whether of sentimentality or mere whimsy and joy, because that surface masked the work’s greater investment in which whimsy and joy were a subversive force. Just as Michael Snow would construct an open, adaptable, neutral form with the Walking Woman, Wieland would adopt stylized hearts and lips, cutting and pressing them in series, made ironic by their malformation, by their presence in fine art, by their allegorical indirection. As her work matured and she experienced personal crises, these ironies would likewise mature, becoming more pronounced and grim, even as these symbols became increasingly earnest in their sentimental declaration.

    When Graphic Associates shut down some months after their wedding, both Wieland and Snow took on odd jobs in the design industry while devoting their free time to their painting activities. Early drawings of Wieland’s that survive show a combination of enigmatic perspective and cylindrical figuration. Her work through the 1950s used a variety of materials, for instance, untitled (heartgame) (1956) combines red ink and charcoal on a torn piece of notepaper; elsewhere she was using crayon and paper collage. Her work of the mid-to-late 1950s, and in particular the evolution of her figuration, included a series of oil on canvas paintings. In Green Lady (1956), Wieland paints an amorphous form that takes on the position of a seated figure. The figure is reduced to a series of abstract shapes, creased by faint black lines down its centre, all forms serving the purpose of flattening the image and annihilating conventional figuration, a resistance to realism. In two canvases, Morning (1956) and Myself (1958), the subjects are recognizable as abstractions of the figure, the former with debts to Malevich, two figures realized by an assembly of circles and rectangles; the latter a self-portrait less concerned with geometry than her contemporaneous paintings, more a work of expressive brushwork and strategic coloration. Her interest in the figure turned to programme-informed abstraction such as The King & Queen (1960), an enigmatic assembly of forms against a pale blue background, roughly forming three abstract figures. Her new embrace of abstraction placed large, amorphous forms, often partly obscured by the boundaries of the canvas, in fields of gradated colour. This was true of Time Machine (1959) and Time Machine Series (1961). Redgasm (1960) continued these forms, distortions in a red-pink colour, and was followed by the violence of War Memories (1960), a scattering of circles in red. The programme of these works group the experience of orgasm and menstruation with that of wartime, signaling a cornerstone of Wieland’s art, the simultaneity and co-penetration of intimate and universal experience.

    In 1961, Wieland would begin to pursue mixed media collages such as her Summer Blues series. Like Snow, her work shifted from the influence of abstract expressionism to Neo-Dada. With these assemblages, Wieland departed from oil-on-canvas work, returning to the fluid material repurposing of her earlier work in paper collage. Her integration of objects and her use of paper collage extended the forms of her abstract paintings, but now her work would integrate refuse and markers of common experience and mass culture. In Summer Blues – The Island (1961), spent cardboard tubes, some creased and bent, combine with electrical tape, a piece of paper cut into the shape of a crescent moon and a crude encaustic to form an image that is at once topography and horizon. The materials used in the work are the refuse of mass culture, but they do not turn critically on mass culture; rather, they bear enigmatic perspective, primitive and chaotic representation or evocation, and an intimate and memorial presence beyond material introspection. Her Neo-Dada influence was most pronounced in The Clothes of Love (1961), with roughly cut rectangular fabrics—marked by ink and paint in a manner resembling Colour Field painting—strewn on a clothesline within a tall wooden frame. Of Wieland’s work in this period, this piece has the strongest ties to Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, an ordinary sight recast as something alien.(13)  It is not only a collage of materials but of styles, with the textiles, crudely stained and painted, suspended across a rectangular frame, the upper region of which is a dense and subtle abstract painting of dark blues concealing black charcoal lines, the lower region empty, showing through to the gallery wall. Like the Rauschenberg combines, The Clothes of Love employed real things, arranged and altered, to combat realism. Its difficulty was particular to its time, the markers of process placing the work far from the illusion of figurative realism, as strange in 1961 as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain had been in 1917; its difficulty, like that of Fountain, was an enduring one that posed open-ended relations of cultural valuation, objecthood, purpose and meaning. When Robert Fulford wrote on it in the Toronto Star in 1962, he described The Clothes of Love as “a flung-together collection of cloths […] open to the widest possible variety of interpretations,” and nothing more.(14)  Wieland’s work passed from abstraction, and its young material traditions, through to a confrontation with real things, drawing forms and shapes out of reality and, in a primal act, blending them into unresolvable mysteries. In a statement on the collage Heart-On (1961), speaking on her obscurity, Wieland said “it’s good because no one has to know it. It just might come up some day that these things exist. It is good to have mystery because people want to explain everything.”(15)

The Clothes of Love  (1961)

The Clothes of Love (1961)

    In short order, Wieland had developed a number of complementary aesthetics. Her oil paintings dealt with abstract forms and, increasingly, with erotic evocation. Her mixed media collages were not merely wild for their multi-dimensionality and bare confrontation with the surface and presence of the art object, but for their integration of objects that were memorial to both the individual and the crowd, that turned them into scrapbooks of experience. By the time Wieland and Snow began their move to New York City, Wieland was fluidly combining these aspects of her work, as in Time Machine #2 (1961), a Union Jack emblazoned in the centre of a black canvas, offset by a pale tan pool, a clockwise form etched around it, with numbers assembling at the bottom. As Snow was beginning his Walking Woman variations, Wieland was pursuing an almost opposite path to the same end of material consciousness, her gestures less structured in their repetition, her work more autobiographical and personal, and at the same time, largely unconcerned with graphic form, invested instead in texture, perspective and presence as vehicles for obscure, ambiguous meaning (as in The Clothes of Love and the Summer Blues series). In Wieland’s poetics, conventional representation would act against the expressive possibilities of art, as her own representational interests had moved so far from the erotic drawings of Matisse-like figures that had occupied her in the 1950s, going toward an obscure programme that assembled a familiar unfamiliar out of painted abstract shapes and paper cut-outs, some likewise abstract, others crude series of symbols (the valentine heart, the lipstick trace). Soon she would shift to the stylization of the cartoon, figures drawn from comic strips and greeting cards. Such cartoon forms, bulbous and rounded with loose, curved lines for details, would appear frequently in the figurative painting that she would pursue through the remainder of the 1960s.

    When Wieland moved to New York City in 1962, Wieland’s painting had only recently taken on mixed media forms. While she would continue to be represented in Canada by Av Isaacs, and through the Isaacs Gallery would participate in regular shows of new work, Wieland would begin to work in film. Wieland’s immersion in the New York art community further introduced her to the rough and spontaneous fringes of cinema. In her first year in New York, screenings of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures—and the consequent arrest of Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs for exhibiting it—affirmed the wild and difficult pleasures of avant-garde cinema, a sometimes camp cultural critique joined to an exposé of inner life. George and Mike Kuchar, who had become collaborators of Wieland’s friend and former Graphic Associates coworker Bob Cowan, also served as a prime example of artists for whom cinema represented freedom of form rather than commercial enterprise. The grammar of film was expanding, and forms as disparate as those of the Kuchar Brothers and Jonas Mekas were not merely coexisting but implicated in a brotherhood of aesthetic freedom. Freedom of form rested on the surface of these practices, their difficult pleasures to be wrestled by the delights of perceptual enigmas and allegorical indirection, by the freedom of wit and satire or love and joy which in itself was a shelter from the despair and hopelessness of critical neglect, poverty and persecution. Cinema could also hold pure motives concerning expression, relative to the competition for wealth in the city’s gallery scene. Like Jack Chambers, who achieved a purity of expression in his films, making art without a saleable result in a medium at the margins of critical assent, Wieland would find freedom from the pressures of New York gallery representation, balancing her filmmaking with new painting activity that was still gaining recognition in her native Toronto.

    Wieland had placed love and its symbols at the centre of her work, in her use of valentine hearts and lipstick, but also in her erotic programme and with her long-standing series of drawings of Lovers. That love was not a naïve declaration, but an increasingly ambiguous comment, manifested in misdirection between sentimentality and irony. In 1963, when Wieland discovered that she was infertile, this misdirection would become more pronounced. Love, brotherhood and the body would become enduring symbols in her work, signaling fracture, disappointment and absence; though these ideas had been present in her earlier work, they would expand in the wake of this experience, her ironies revealing deep torment and gallows humour, her sentimentality increasingly earnest, her art falling between these traditionally incompatible positions. Adopting a posture of naïve, uncritical joy and love, Wieland could conceal a more personal and profound confrontation with the menace of nature and the earth’s critters, both animal and human. The gratuitous platitudes that formed across her work were simply a veneer masking insights formed by grief and pain. It was in this misdirection that her mature work achieved profound difficulty: it could simultaneously offer earnest sentimentality and winking irony, in a devastating combination and to the ambiguous end of coexistent, incompatible meanings.

Boat Tragedy  (1964)

Boat Tragedy (1964)

    Elizabeth Kilbourn, reviewing Joyce Wieland’s 1963 solo exhibition at the Isaacs Gallery, acknowledged references to both the comic strip and the film strip in the sequential action of Wieland’s paintings, the latter made explicit in a series titled Homage to DW Griffiths.(16)  In Wieland’s paintings, sequential action is governed by horizontal grid forms (Car Crash, 1963; Sinking Liner, 1963; Sailboat Sinking, 1965; and many others) and vertically stacked panels (Sailing on the Bay, 1963). All of these paintings involve events made mysterious by fluctuations of perspective and by ambiguous interim movement between panels, concealing action.(17)  The film strip was most explicitly referenced in two paintings from 1963. The First Integrated Film with a Short on Sailing runs two sequential strips, one horizontal (of a sailboat) and one vertical (of a white woman and a black man kissing). Four Films has a series of four vertical strips: one of alternating red and pink solids; one of an ocean liner sinking into a white sea; a narrow strip unmediated by frame lines featuring a series of cartoon phalluses; and finally, one of a sailboat, each frame changing the dimension and presence of the subject. Although the sequential aspect of Wieland’s work would naturally lead to the expectation that her films would be grounded in sequential relations, as she began to make films, her work would be less concerned with conscious editorial construction. Her first films would more closely resemble her assemblages, raw, crudely fit, drawing from the Neo-Dada strain of her work, which suited her assimilation into the New York Underground.

    Out of her exposure to the New American Cinema, Joyce Wieland would make her first film, Larry’s Recent Behavior (1963). The film, influenced by Jacobs and the Kuchars, would introduce certain concerns that would mark Wieland’s later films, chiefly her interest in political iconography and obscurantist form. The body of the film is a series of vignettes, most marked by intertitles introducing the sequences in one or two words (for example, dance, drums, feet, and most obscurely, ‘manus felicitus’). The titular Larry’s aberrant behaviours (picking his nose and tasting his fingers, licking jam from women’s fingers, smelling feet) were inspired by the nervous illness of a friend. The film therefore bears an obscure personal programme, shifting from the particulars of Larry’s behaviour and into Wieland’s vision of American culture and her interest in John F. Kennedy, in the wake of his assassination.

Larry's Recent Behavior  (1963)

Larry's Recent Behavior (1963)

    The actor contorts his face, exaggerating joy and disgust, as he performs Larry’s behaviors. He plays with soft fabric hearts, making them beat, chewing on and spinning them. His activities (picking his nose, smelling feet) are held against scenes of other figures: Sylvia (Sylvia Margret Rose) pops her pimples in a mirror until blood streams from the lesions; Michael Snow dances with a cat; Wieland herself sits with her dress open, a construction paper heart across her chest; Snow eats and drinks sloppily, food spilling from his mouth. Sylvia kisses Larry’s nose; he licks jam from her fingers, to her protests, her expression struck between horror and pleasure. In the film’s final sequence, Larry gives mugging, ambiguous expressions, intercut with images of a flaccid penis. Wieland lies in bed, reading Vogue, in a raccoon-skin cap. A close-up on her eyes cuts to a brief image of Napoleon Bonaparte, and from there, to images of John F. Kennedy. Scenes of Kennedy and his family, rephotographed from magazines, show the president as an ideal of American manhood and the first family an ideal of the American family. On the soundtrack, a distorted recording of the Chiffons’ “I Have a Boyfriend” (1963) is sped unnaturally so that the words are barely comprehensible. A cat wrestles with the American flag, and a model boat appears in soft focus and compositionally fragmented, the hull a looming soft form. Finally, paintings of sailboats are rapidly intercut with the flaccid penis. A concluding title is superimposed over Larry, as he chews on a soft sculpture of a heart.

    Although the film deals, on its surface, in the comic miming of a nervous condition, ultimately, it is about love, among men and women, and between the individual and the state; of the former, the unconventional passions of Larry and Sylvia, and the family of Wieland, Snow and their cat, form one vision of love, as something spontaneous and even disgusting, in step with the wild loves of Ken Jacobs and Jack Smith’s street theatre performances. The second and more complex matter of love, idealization and nationhood, comes with the arrival of Kennedy, accompanied by the song that Dallas radio had been playing at the time of his death, a song made painfully ironic by the presence of Kennedy in American culture as an icon of manhood, idealized boyfriend to the nation’s women. Canada plays no explicit role in the work, but Kennedy is Canada with different vowels. Wieland’s regard for Kennedy suggests admiration and longing, compromised in the fleeting glimpse of Napoleon as the Kennedy sequence starts, casting the fallen hero of American statesmanship as master strategist and conqueror.(18) 

    Larry’s Recent Behavior announced certain formal difficulties particular to film. It begins with a prologue in which a rapidly sped-up and incomprehensible recording of voices plays under a projected image of Larry, mugging and contorting his face, sped up by way of stop motion photography (pixilation). The projection is rephotographed in straying composition, in and out of focus, and objects pass in front of the beam: a valentine heart cut from construction paper, a cat, and Wieland’s hands performing shadow puppets. This opening sequence foreshadows several aspects of formal difficulty that will enter the film later, in fragmentation and obscurity of sound and vision. As she began to work in film, Wieland discovered these ways to assemble film form in a perceptually distressing way, grotesque and comic vignettes punctuated by images and sounds that were disconnected from the staged sequences. Wieland referred back to ideas that had dominated her paintings and assemblages, such as the distorted figure and the raw marks of construction, and these gestures further situated the film in the discourse of Neo-Dada.(19)  For example, the valentine heart soft sculptures have a strong relation to other works of New York Neo-Dada such as the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg; however, while Oldenburg was creating representations of real things, realized in crude paint and at comic scale, Wieland was drawing the commercial symbol of romantic love, a graphic icon that conveyed an idea, and not a form drawn from reality. The sailboat and tall ship, persistent subjects in Wieland’s sequential paintings, are likewise integrated into the film, either as non sequitur or, as a tall ship may be, a symbol of colonialism.(20) 

Patriotism  (1964)

Patriotism (1964)

    Wieland followed Larry’s Recent Behavior with another film in the same comic vein. With Patriotism (1964), she would stage a short scene, in a style recalling Norman McLaren’s Neighbours (1952), combining stop-motion and live-action photography in the service of metaphor. It features a simple series of actions: a man (David Shackman) sleeps in a bed, his figure partly covered by a white sheet. Hot dog buns assemble out of thin air on his bed, advancing like an arrow in a march across his stomach, circling around to occupy the space next to his pillow. Shackman yawns, turns and sees them, with a look of disbelief. They overtake his face, march out of his armpits and perform strategic formations around a miniature American flag napkin. The napkin strokes each hot dog, in a sexual motion, destroying and sweeping away the buns. In an act of war, the napkin consumes all of the hot dogs, and then retreats under the covers. Shackman wakes up with a look of discomfort, reaches underneath the covers and pulls out three hotdogs and an American flag napkin. He gathers them up, smells them, and the film ends with him holding them in the napkin, grouped as a bouquet. The film’s simplicity, relative to the unwieldy structure of Larry’s Recent Behavior, could disguise its ambiguity. Its performance of American patriotism, and patriarchy, as a destructive, consuming, assimilating force is unambiguous, but Shackman, as happy, sleeping witness, is an ambiguous, unallied subject at the centre of the film, both victim and victor.

    Having completed two films in the comic vein of the New York underground, Wieland turned, with her friend Betty Ferguson, to making a film using 16mm found footage.(21)  Much as Jack Chambers had used found footage in Hybrid to advance a vision of the barbarous exchange between humanity and nature, Wieland and Ferguson used materials, culled from the refuse of commercial and educational-industrial films, to form a darkly funny parable, Barbara’s Blindness (1965). A blind child wears surgical bandages over her eyes. Her bandages are shorn away and she regains her sight. This process is interrupted by images of atomic explosions, Buster Keaton, flowers blooming and tribal dances. These visions appear in reverse, turned upside down and in photographic negative as malformed visual pleasure, or, in the case of the most menacing images, as ironic contradictions of the glory of the child's newfound vision. The child, wandering through a meadow to smell and pick flowers, has her actions intercut with elephants charging through and decimating a forest, her bounding joy akin to the blind force of a stampede. In a long sequence that serves as a further analogy for recovered sight, a woman emerges from padded dirt, her stone-like features making her a Golem, her eyes sealed by dirt. She staggers in the sunlight, her expressionless face frozen between ecstasy and suffering. She finds her way to a river where, stumbling through reeds, she submerges her body in water. A series of further images, taken from other contexts, extends this setting: a woman looks out on a lake; a man saves a drowning woman from rushing water; a fight between a man and a child occurs on a boat; an alligator sinks into water, intercut with an infant wading. Crowds of chickens are intercut with crowds of men. The film takes as its central device a series of cuts, establishing early on that the cuts are going to have logical cohesion. It then resists those instructions, with non sequitur digressions, logical pairings that are divorced from surrounding material or images that serve as comical exclamation. The film ends with a prolonged exchange between a man and a young woman, her weeping into his chest, on board a ship. Their eyes search the viewer, the gaze of the camera, as if waiting for direction.

Barbara's Blindness  (1965)

Barbara's Blindness (1965)

    Barbara’s Blindness has many aspects to its authorship that, by evidence of their later work, could be readily assigned to Ferguson, who would go on to work exclusively in found footage filmmaking. However, the elusive and decentered meanings and false instructions demonstrate Joyce Wieland’s ideas as to the innate mystery of vision and the importance of obscurity. Further to Wieland’s contribution, the editing advances almost exclusively disjunctive pairings, extending Wieland’s distinct sense of irony. The title of the film is spelled out in braille, hands passing over it, an image of tactility, yet also a declaration of obscurity, the embossed letters encoding a different or absent meaning for the fingers rather than the eyes, the irony of a repurposed linguistic system made meaningless to its own blind audience. Wieland and Ferguson appear in four frames between the titles and the film body, their eyes blocked out with black construction paper. The difficulties of Larry’s Recent Behavior and Patriotism in their political ambiguity, programme obscurity and, in the case of Larry’s Recent Behavior, the aggression of its disorientation as well. With Barbara’s Blindness, difficulty shifted into another mode, of literacy, the anticipation of coherent structure, here undermined by an unhinging of film’s grammar, pairing a sentimental parable of eyesight returned to the ironic grief of eyesight ‘redeemed’. Logical inference, between two or more alternating passages, creates a comedy of recognition, but it can suddenly be turned by the illogical comedy of the non sequitur. This essential oddness is perhaps best felt in the intrusion of African tribesmen and Lon Chaney’s gruesome Phantom of the Opera, intercut with paradisiacal scenes of a child frolicking along a garden wall. The compositional fragmentation of Wieland’s sequential paintings is not present in Barbara’s Blindness, its parts assumed from the conventional compositions of commercial or industrial cinema; instead, the film subverts the logic of film editing itself, giving way to fragmentation of theme and of meaning. The ready meaning of Barbara’s Blindness finds a blind child, the viewer’s alter ego, discovering vision as darkest comedy. A more complex meaning comes from the destabilization of the film’s subject, the miraculous experience of vision, eventually settling instead on the image itself, as a kind of blindness; its grammar, a kind of braille; and the ironic, obscure comedy of its sightlines.


  1. The National Council of Women of Canada, an organization still in place today, held a contentious position in the transit from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, arguing for recognition of the communal role of women rather than lobbying for withheld rights, like the vote, to be bestowed. Their causes aimed to upgrade the status of women through ‘transcendent citizenship’, a citizenship that posed women as a moral influence over men, and by that, rationalized that the vote was unnecessary. Their platform has, in the interim century, become more progressive, but its resistance to the suffragette movement reveals a conservative, puritanical bent present throughout the evolution of Canadian society.

  2. The earliest among Canada’s female painters to achieve some recognition were Mary Ella Dignam and Laura Muntz Lyall, contemporaries born in the mid-nineteenth century, both working with sentimental subjects in styles that mirror nineteenth-century Dutch painting. This work of sentimental realism had no visible influence over the work of Canadian moderns, who, like Dignam, Lyall and their contemporaries, had developed styles and technical vocabulary out of the influence of European and American movements.

  3. Despite the present regard for them as pioneering figures in Canadian modern painting, Emily Carr did not receive significant recognition for her art until very late in her life, and Kathleen Munn’s debts to Cubism made her a target for Canadian art critics resistant to modernism.

  4. The pains of the Wieland children are described extensively in Jane Lind, Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire (Toronto: Lorimer, 2001). Lind’s precise accounting of the family’s hardship, down to the minutiae of bills and earnings, characterizes the situation of the Wieland family as dire.

  5. Jane Lind, Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire (Toronto: Lorimer, 2001), 56.

  6. An early portrait, Untitled (portrait of Chris Karch), c. 1948-49, of housemate Chris Karch, betrays an interest in, or at least, knowledge of, the technical execution of realism, the figure seated at a slight angle, offsetting the shadow on his turtleneck sweater. The portrait demonstrates an engagement with the technical precision of realist painting, knowledge of light and shadow, and, by the flush of Karch’s face, a superior skill at rendering skintone. This painting, made toward the end of Wieland’s high school education, shows a technical knowledge of traditional painter’s craft that could be overlooked in critical considerations of her abstract or stylized works, but which also broadcasts her prodigious knowledge of traditional composition.

  7. Wieland would later describe the experience: “Everything looked grim, and it was the middle of winter and those people were walking up and down and looking scared and there were a bunch of students watching.” Qtd. in Jane Lind, Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire (Toronto: Lorimer, 2001), 55.

  8. This image is reprinted in Jane Lind, Joyce Wieland, Writings and Drawings 1952– 1971 (Erin, Ont.: Porcupine’s Quill, 2009), 129.

  9. The Toronto Film Society’s most significant achievement in relation to avant-garde film came in the early 1950s, when it brought Maya Deren to Toronto to show a retrospective of her work. During the course of her visit, she collaborated with members of the organization on a film she would later disown as unfinished, Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951). The history of the Toronto Film Society has been recounted in detail by John Porter, “Maya Deren and Hans Richter in Toronto,” The Funnel Newsletter, Nov-Dec 1983.

  10. Jane Lind, Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire (Toronto: Lorimer, 2001), 64.

  11. This idea has its roots in an interview given by Snow to Jane Lind, in which Snow remarks that the Painters Eleven, despite its ushering in of abstraction, was just “another scene,” in the tradition of landscape painters and other groups that had restricted the possibilities of Toronto art by defining it in a narrow way.

  12. Jane Lind has published a collection of Wieland’s journals, Joyce Wieland: Writings and Drawings 1952–1971 (Erin, Ont.: Porcupine’s Quill, 2009). Lind has elsewhere, in Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire, written that these records demonstrate longing for romantic love as learned through popular culture and commercial images.

  13. Wieland’s relation to Neo-Dada might be best demonstrated through a parallel: The Clothes of Love, which manipulates real things in such a way as to confront the nature of art in itself, has much the same technique and effect as Rauschenberg’s Monogram (1955-59), a mixed media work in which a taxidermy goat is placed on top of a canvas, a rubber tire around its waist, a tennis ball on the canvas by its rear. Both Monogram and The Clothes of Love are assembled from multi-dimensional mixed media components that challenge conventions and uniformities.

  14. Robert Fulford, “Wieland,” Toronto Star, 2 February 1962, 30.

  15. Iris Nowell, Joyce Wieland: A Life in Art (Toronto: ECW Press, 2001), 224.

  16. Elizabeth Kilbourn, “Art and Artists.” Toronto Star, 23 November 1963, 36.

  17. In the twelve-compartment oil on canvas grid Nature Mixes (1963), a hand gradually turns into a flower, and then to a penis, like a furious act of masturbation, the hand and penis divided by what, in George O’Keeffe’s kitsch aesthetic, became a surrogate for the vagina.

  18. Napoleon is a minor figure among the icons that Wieland would use in her art, adopted in the late 1950s after she read Emil Ludwig’s Napoleon (Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing Co., 1926) and became taken with him for his consolidation of power, coming as it did by the force of his class mobility as he rose up from the Corsican underclass to become the Emperor of the French. Jane Lind has speculated that Wieland’s interest in Napoleon was due to this, her desire to simultaneously transcend and embody her impoverished origins. In Wieland’s Josephine’s Last Letter to Napoleon, she writes, “Many people chastise Napolean for killing people needlessly but, how hard it is to do good without being bad” (in evidence, n.d., unpaginated). This statement, not so much an act of apology or justification as an admission of the ironic compromises that come with power, suggests how Wieland came to view contemporary figures in North American politics, in particular John F. Kennedy and Pierre Trudeau, idealized and powerful figures who, like Napoleon, were formed of contradictions.

  19. Wieland’s collages and drawings had often used the form of the valentine heart. This icon entered her work of the early 1960s, with works such as Hart News (1961), in which a series of blocks and semi-circular forms make red and pale blue impressions around serial repetitions of red valentine hearts, some stenciled, others more inexact, given fluctuating dimensions against white paper. With Heart-On (1962), the heart form was painted in oil on linen. By the time that Wieland made Larry’s Recent Behavior, the heart form had departed from two-dimensional illustration and had become a multi-dimensional trademark, in the form of the cardboard cutout as well as the soft sculptures seen in the film. The heart form would be integrated into Wieland’s painted constructs Cooling Room II and Young Woman’s Blues (both 1964), and Larry’s Recent Behavior demonstrates the ways in which this form was coming off the canvas.

  20. Wieland’s use of nautical and aeronautic imagery is tied to her sequential canvases, often as a representation of catastrophe, even as they also reflected her newly stylized figuration. The tragic cartoon faces of Ill Fated Crew of July 6 1937 (1963), bound in portholes that become cameo mementos, extend the sequential nature of Wieland’s nautical paintings, but are also a rare early example, alongside an earlier collage work, Laura Secord Saves Upper Canada (1961), of allusive programme, an idea that would come to be of increasing importance to Wieland as her work became strongly identified with Canadian history. The figures are grotesquely exaggerated, like figures that populated her journals, illustrations and contemporaneous paintings such as Clues and Fine Foods (both 1963).

  21. Betty Ferguson was at the time married to Graeme Ferguson, one of the founders of IMAX, who had also been a member of the Toronto Film Society. The Fergusons had met Snow and Wieland in Toronto, but had moved to New York shortly before them. This would serve as Wieland’s first substantive work in found footage filmmaking, and it was the birth of Ferguson’s practice, which would continue through the 1970s with Telephone Film, Airplane Film and Kisses, all films which delivered what their titles suggested, serving as catalogues of images assembled in witty formation. Much like Wieland, Ferguson’s experience of the Depression had influenced her desire to rescue film materials that were being thrown out by television stations, and so, for Ferguson, the repurposing of film materials was about finding a second life for refuse.