Group of Seven, meet Team Macho. The collaborative illustration posse, who work together out of a studio at Dupont and Ossington, formed in 2005 after first meeting at Oakville’s Sheridan College. Their work – irreverent, surprising and often absurd –has been exhibited in Montreal, New York, San Francisco, as well as at Toronto's Narwhal gallery on Queen Street West. Members Nicholas Aoki, Stephen Appleby-Barr, Christopher Buchan and Lauchie Reid have now partnered with the Art Gallery of Ontario to create an interactive installation in the Weston Family Learning Centre community gallery. Opening Monday and running until April, Axis Mundi – which is free to access during regular AGO hours – explores the irritating and inspirational elements of shared creative space and invites visitors to work alongside the artists.
How do you guys know each other?
Christopher Buchan: We met at Sheridan College in 2002, in our second year of illustration. They thought I was copying Nick’s homework because we came up with the same solution to a visual problem. And it was a very strange solution.
Lauchie Reid: We came together out of mutual interest in each other’s strategies and ways of thinking, as opposed to any commonality of style. The common factor was the desire to critique one another. To push one another to get better.
How does your process work? One of you will start a piece and then another will take over?
Nicholas Aoki: It’s very chaotic. You have to be disassociated from your work.
L.R.: Sometimes Stephen will have started something and then he’ll come back and Chris will have turned it 180 degrees and started something completely new. It’s a weird, uncomfortable thing, but it’s a lot of fun.
So you could get up to go to the bathroom and come back to find your work totally changed?
L.R.: It seems like it would be extremely challenging and aggressive, but at the same time it can be really helpful because you can get to a certain point where there’s no easy solution as it occurs to you. And what someone else comes up with is almost never what you expect.
One of your more infamous pieces is pretty unexpected. Who wants to tell me about it?
Stephen Appleby-Barr: We had all just graduated school and were desperately hungry and needed money. I was working in a children’s bookstore and I put myself out there as doing children’s portraits. And one of those commissions came back to me because they thought the baby looked like an old man. They weren’t happy in the result but I had really invested my time in the sweater, and I didn’t want it to go for naught. So it sat on my desk and then one morning I came in and there it was.
L.R.: Okay, when he said he “really invested a lot of time in the sweater,” that’s how pretentious he was being about the whole thing. It was this incredibly laboured, really beautiful drawing. But Stephen was really stressed about it and when the commission was cancelled he discarded it in kind of...
L.R.: Very huffy. So when he gets huffy, it’s fun to poke and prod a little. People find that drawing very offensive and it’s been turned down from several major exhibitions. One of the biggest collectors in the city [David Angelo]tries to have it in contemporary shows and everyone says no.
So who wrote ‘dyke’ on the baby’s forehead?
L.R.: I did. The thing people don’t get is that she’s holding a little washable Crayola marker, so she’s clearly self-identifying. I think it’s a completely fine word that has evolved away from the pejorative. She was born that way.
Have the parents seen it?
S. A-B.: Let’s hope not.
N.A.: Technically, it doesn’t look enough like their baby for them to mind.
Tell me about the AGO collaboration.
S. A-B.: It started from a discussion about studios and space and how people work together within them.
L.R.: Basically, it’s four idealized aspects of our studio, loosely using Northrop Frye’s concept of Axis Mundi, the pillar that holds up the world, which is what our studio is to us. So we used his four metaphors – the cave, the mountain, the furnace and the garden – to represent aspects of our studio and studio life in general that we think are important.
And the hope is that people will actually climb inside these structures and do some art?
S. A-B.: This is the community gallery, a public space where people can come in and just use the space. We’re next to OCAD, where students are suffering from a severe lack of space, and they’re going to be shocked, as everyone is, by the lack of access to studio space throughout the city. So not 200 feet from the school, they now have a space where they can work.
What’s behind Toronto’s lack of studio space?
N.A.: Over the last couple of years, a lot of the more well-known artist studios, the places where you would go and get a space, have been converted into condos. Forty-eight Abell, across from the Drake, was a big loss.
Can’t you just get a place in the Bohemian Embassy [condo]
L.R.: Yeah, they’re starting in the low 340s.
So where do most artists you know work?
C.B.: They work out of their closets. On their bedroom floors. We’re really lucky that our space has been consistent. We got lucky with a landlord who is really supportive and has kept the rent reasonable.
How does having studio space help the process?
N.A.: If you don’t have a space to work, you end up collapsing in on your own life. There’s no way to separate what you do from who you are. It’s going to drive you nuts after a while. If you’re sleeping next to your turpentine, it’s not going to do you any favours. Some of our friends who are working in not-so-nice environments end up looking kind of… sallow.
What do you think should happen to create more space for artists within the city?
N.A.: It’s tough, because I think artists will react badly to any solution that’s institutionalized. I don’t know what they could do. Perhaps… no, that’s ridiculous. A zoning law for cultural spaces?
L.R.: I guess what we’re trying to do here is let people explore what might work for them, to see if they enjoy having a space where they work around other people. There are a lot of community spaces that have been created by people who work outside the boundaries of institutions. So hopefully this will give people an idea of how they can create their own space.
This interview has been condensed and edited.