Written by Lorette C. Luzajic
Take Them Bowling (or, The Art and Times of Iaian Greenson)
Just east of Coxwell along Danforth is a sprawling behemoth of a dive. Cheers, one of my favourite haunts in all of Toronto, is incredibly spacious, dutifully equipped with dartboards and pool tables and the persistent scent of piss rising up from the cellar. Seldom will you find more than a handful of patrons around the bar, unless it’s the weekend, when the place blooms with wiggers and ginos and a general hub of merry losers. The centrepiece of this glorious establishment is not the life-sized painting of a turquoise Cadillac- it’s Joe, a dapper and proud peacock of a fellow, robust and warm and liberal in his pouring. Joe takes to the karaoke stage on Saturday nights, warbling heartfelt Italian love songs in a gorgeous voice that surprises. It’s tragic that this massive bar is empty- but trendier, fresher places have opened, as the east end becomes the new black.
I’ve been known to enjoy the odd bourbon and chocolate Guinness cake at Allen’s, but generally feel way more at home writing in my notebook without 100 cruising suits pushing the limits of banality with ye olde “do you come here often?” So this is where I like to hide out, with the warmth of Joe’s moustache quivering at my nape, writing down my plots for the next day’s stories, enjoying the Steam Whistle. Not long ago, Joe only had Canadian on tap. Now there’s Steam Whistle as well, just for me.
One night while yapping with a bunch of half-sodden ex-strippers and not-ex-writers and artists, I came up with a bright idea. Let’s transform this old dive into pop couture for a night. I want to have my art show here! The idea grows. Why not bring in the massive canvases of Iaian Greenson and Joey DAMMIT! and a burlesque show and some open-mic comedy? Let’s get the whole gay village to leave Church Street for the first time in 18 years to see how the other half lives. Drag icon Donnarama will don a dress, braving bullets for the cause.
So we turn this diamond in the rough into a sort of gala. There’s the Pillow Fight League and a DJ from the Guvernment. We feel ever-so-Warholian. Iaian Greenson initially seems too refined for Cheers, but that’s a delusion. I’ve partied with him at the Winchester before it became Tim Hortons- we almost got shot for putting Tom Jones on 43 times in a row on the juke box. Many secrets were spilled that night, enough that we could blackmail one another until the next millennium. Greenson may look too pretty for a place like this, but as one who used to dust off troll dolls and porcelain storks with me at an un-job in our youth, I can assure you there is more grit and grime and more empty glasses to this one than a Mardi Gras gutter.
While my paintings are here, too, no one’s ever heard of me, and Planet DAMMIT! is out of town, so Greenson is the shining star of Retrofit’s pop extravaganza. His massive canvases span floor to ceiling front of house to back, creepy floating barbie heads and robots that go bump in the night.
“Only you would think of this,” the artist tells me upon resurfacing from the cellar washrooms. “My favourite part? Hands down, it’s my painting hanging above the urinal.”
The phone rings and rings. Over the years, I have probably called Iaian’s number 2456 times, and he has answered it a total of four. I’m preparing to leave a rehearsed message when to my amazement, the reclusive charmer is actually live on the other end. He says he knew it was me because he just finished watching The Coal Miner’s Daughter. Loretta definitely was a pioneer on that dusty trail of shattered heart blues, over-the-top glitter and divadom, and ferocious creativity. Being her namesake has had its moments.
“Am I calling too late?” I ask awkwardly, taken aback that I’m not leaving my scripted message.
“Lorette- it’s 8.40,” he says, laughing.
That may be, but as the clock ticks past 30 I’ve found myself mumbling, “it’s getting late” when it’s 7.01. Yes, there were days when Iaian and I stayed awake all night long on LSD colouring the apartment walls with Cy Twombly-like neon brilliance and phrases like SOMEDAY THE LOSERS WILL WIN. Oh, scratch that from the record- Iaian’ s a daddy now and that’s why I thought he might be getting ready to read One Fish Two Fish and call it a night.
“Well, the only time I get in my studio is when Bex is in bed, so I’ll be awake until two or so,” he says. When I met Beckett, he was in Daddy’s studio-the gorgeous toddler picked up the brushes and started spattering away with his nontoxic Crayola options. He’s starting his work much sooner than Iaian, who was more of a writer until he was in his mid 20s. Iaian seems gregarious but is actually painfully shy- in fact his studio, which he might tell you is in Toronto, is in a small town hours away and no one knows he’s there. He did in fact run out of words and laid down the massive novel he wrote while traveling through Budapest and Madrid years and years ago. It was Europe, and Tessa, his wife, that changed him into the guy who would actually look you in the eye.
It’s close to a year after our show at Cheers but we meet there again for The Interview. It’s important not to run into anyone who may see how much we can still drink together.
There was no particular moment that Iaian decided to become an artist. “I still haven’t decided,” he says. He was intent on the writer’s life of lonely alcoholic brilliance and brooding cantankerousness of idols like Hemingway or Hunter S. (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by the late Dr Hunter S. Thompson, God bless him, is really the best book ever written. I used to read it at least once a year. If there is a better line than, 'the room looked like the site of some disastrous zoological experiment involving whiskey and gorillas, bad evidence of that afternoon when my attorney ran amok with the coconut hammer… then I still haven't read it.”)
But that was then and this is now. “My God….I can remember the first time I saw Guernica…it blew the top of my head off,” Iaian says. Thousands of canvases later, giant canvases with cartoony depictions of trivial pop culture miscellany and television heroes, Iaian gives Warhol’s legacy some substance. (The Greenson timeline goes something like this: “I was born in 1972. In 1975 my mother brought my brother and I to the theatre to watch Jaws. Christmas of 78, again in Madrid where I first discovered Speed Racer and James Bond movies. In 1979 I watched the B52s on Saturday Night Live with my dad and brother in a hotel room on vacation. In 1981 I discovered New Wave and music videos. David Bowie and Andy Warhol followed. I literally could go on and on and on. All of it, to me, is like my family tree. I am a child of the 1970s and 1980s…so I happily nursed at television's gorgeous teats.”)
It’s not about mass manufacture- it’s about madness that compels one to work overnight while your son is sleeping because you just have got to get down a new bambi/kung fu/ bowling ball piece. Your life depends on it.
That said, Iaian hopes that the writer may come back out to play one of these days. “You know that last scene in horror movies when the hand busts through the ground at the graveyard? That's what I think writing is for me. It just needs to be reawakened. The right incantation will come along eventually…but it has been a long time.”
For now, it’s most important to churn out dozens of canvases featuring disembodied barbies. Iaian doesn’t like to explain his paintings too thoroughly. Since becoming a man of few words, he expresses it all better by simply making more. I’ve always wondered what those heads mean. I find them eerily appealing, especially the smiling ones with guns. “They’re very evocative aren't they? For everyone, for so many different reasons. Without giving away too much of the recipe…I am hoping, through my work, to transport you to an exact moment; real or imagined. Visually they do that, hopefully. At least that's what I am trying to do. Yet…quite frankly the beauty of art is that it’s going to be different for you than it is for me.”
I mention the recurring flavour of 70s porn. Sometimes it’s barely noticeable among less subtle celebrity references. “For me, the use of celebrity or mass culture is more about iconic imagery. I have recurring themes in my work. Visual hiccups. Bambi, for example, represents the same thing in every painting of mine it shows up in. I won't tell you what it is, but I will say that generally, for me, my work is about perversion and alienation. But there is far less of an intellectual schematic than I would care to admit.”
“Does the world really need giant colourful paintings featuring porno and plastic toys?” I ask.
“The world absolutely needs it. All art, of all kinds, at all costs. Art really is one of the things that still separates the world down the middle. You're either someone who thinks Jackson Pollock was a genius or you think shit…I could have done that.”
Now I’m afraid Iaian won’t respect my work anymore. We shared many afternoons cutting up magazines and collating weird elements into scrapbooks together, projects that were forerunners of my current obsession with collage. Iaian and I see a lot of things with joy of the absurd and the meshing of high and low culture, and he’s one fan of my art I don’t want to disappoint. I hope I’m not on the other side of that middle just because I’ve never really liked Jackson Pollock. I always thought it would be nice to get drunk in the backyard and spill paint around and then later my relatives could sell it for a few million. I hope Iaian can still love the Millwright’s Daughter- I do, after all, fully comprehend the genius of Magritte, even if I find Pollock to be a pompous drip, and I also revel in Iaian’s love of bizarre toys. Once I brought him a toy duck that had a dead mouse inside. I found it on Broadview and Gerrard: it was the weirdest thing I ever saw, clear plastic with a giant red bill. Inside its transparent belly was a rodent corpse. It was a doubly good gift when after a few days the mouse bewilderingly came to life and started pawing to get out, but we did not know how to open the toy or how it got in.
Due to the inexplicable resurrecting carnage and its accompanying odours, Iaian got rid of that duck (I hope) but his home and studio are embellished top to bottom with endless figurines and dolls. “I do love toys. It's the primary colours maybe. First and foremost I would say robots. I love all robots. I collect robots, believing that by saving as many robots as I do, that when they take over the human race, I would be spared torture by our metal overlords. There is just something gorgeous and cool about a robot.”
Greenson’s world of giant-sized loaves of Wonder Bread and 1970s-era ladies who resemble paper dolls may leave a giant question mark, especially as the artist is reticent to tell us what it all means. It’s personal, his symbols: what’s up for public consumption is our own response to the colourful trappings of our disposable world. Though intellectually I can’t make sense of the markings of mass culture, emblazoned larger-than-life by Greenson’s brush, I don’t have to. There’s no reason why random plastic reminders of stuff we once bought can’t be as sacred and mysterious as poetry or God. Our emotional attachment to objects and themes, especially retrospectively, is meaning enough. For example, the works with various fighter action figures have no appeal for me beyond their carefully crafted and dreamy execution: I’ve never been attached to action figures or to Star Wars stuff. But obviously millions have, and they’re going to be drawn to those surreal portraits of the toys the way I was to Casper materializing in the steam of a coffee cup. I’d forgotten all about the Friendly Ghost but suddenly recalled chilly mornings snuggled under an afghan with my Oma, watching cartoons we weren’t allowed to watch at home (that would be all of them: Casper- supernatural, Flintstones- evolution, Looney Tunes- violence and female impersonation).
Aside from our private reaction to familiar celebrity and cultural props, there’s simply the fact that the canvases are just plain cool. Greenson’s style, though clearly indebted to the icons he follows- God, it’s tiring to say Warhol again but I must- and Basquiat and Magritte and dare I say even Chagall and Picasso and Arp and Klee- is so original that his name may well end up in history books discussing the lineage of pre and post millennium artists. Let me say that my admiration of Warhol is all about the pioneering blend of manufacture and mass market with snooty highbrow rigmarole, and not so much about the actual content and style of his stuff. I loved that even the Brillo pad made it into million-dollar art, something that made Warhol laugh in satisfaction at achieving the mind games he set out to play. I love his shock value- the electric chair in every colour, and how he valued celebrity, foreshadowing how important the pantheon of stars would be in the coming spiritual wasteland of America. I’m quick to use my made up word Warholian, which I am not the only one to have made up and used, because it’s the only one that can describe something reflecting the statements, styles and values of Warhol’s lifestyle and content. And now I might get shot but it’s clear that Greenson, bred in the era that Warhol was predicting, clearly outshines his master/teacher in style, content, and production. They may have the same freakish fragility and enjoy hanging out with weirdos at sex and drug parties, which yielded some arty film for Andy and endless fodder of caricature painting for Greenson. But Greenson’s depth and playfulness and coolness transcend all of that. One day I will use the word Greensonian to describe someone else’s artistic influence. Iaian makes Warhol look lazy, and unlike his idol, he’s not on speed.
I’ll tell you a story that will demonstrate just how prolific this man is. One day, in the middle of the production of my poetry collection, just about ready to go to press, I change my mind at the last minute about the cover of the book. I’m not sure I like my abstract painting Meth is Death that I chose for the cover. No one’s going to know what it is, and it’s not nearly as engaging in image form as it is in original, where the viewer can get lost in the textures and hidden messages about my thoughts on methamphetamine being a portal straight to hell. It looks like a blob of white paint stuck with some pencil scratching you can’t see, and I have a temper tantrum that stops not only the production but also everyone in a seven-mile radius.
I don’t know what to do but think quickly. The title of my book is The Astronaut’s Wife, ripped off directly from the movie in which Johnny Depp’s beloved is stuck on earth fearful of his fate, anguished over that which she cannot understand. (Like Iaian, I also randomly sample every aspect of low and high culture in my work.) I chose this because my husband lived and died the philosophy that we are astronauts, and we must expand our bodies and minds to their cosmic limits. His wife was left behind when the cord was cut and he drifted into outer space never to return. I was hoping Iaian would have a loosely related painting that would look uber-slick and supercool on the cover, with a robot in space or something that would tie sweetly to the theme.
“Say, do you have something that could loosely relate to the idea of an astronaut in space while the wife is at home all broken up about it?” I asked. “Maybe a robot that could pass for an astronaut?”
So Iaian forwards me something he just happens to have handy- a painting of an astronaut in outer space with the reflection in his mask of a woman sobbing. It is now officially the best artwork a book of poetry ever had and I am grateful. I know that if I had said, “Hey, Iaian, do you have something for my new book about windmills and Evian bottles possessed by the spirits of extinct gorillas who died drinking Pepto Bismal” he would pull something out of his bag of tricks. He’s got aliens, cars, muscles, and kung fu, deliriously large and shiny, incredibly colourful: the thing with his work, if you put it in your home, it will be the only thing in there. It doesn’t matter who designed your furniture or built your house or even that it’s Angelina Jolie who lives there. The presence of the painting is all there is. The more you rack your brain wondering why chirpy little pills are running around popping stuff into heir mouths, or why there are, well, windmills- pink ones- and a sad man with an umbrella, the closer you are to the meaning of life.
None of this could have happened if Iaian had gone to art school. What we would then have is some miserably boring composition stuck on awkwardly realistic perspective and form. We would never see a shrieking pink next to a bruised purple and the idea of poodle portraits would have been beaten out of the guy. The times they are a’ changing, but in our day art school meant a lot of shading and measuring. While these are incredibly important to the voice and talent of some artists, they may have thwarted everything this one has to say. I’m sure the Life Drawing professor would have failed Iaian for insisting on painting sea monkeys and cheerleader porn. Thank God Iaian traveled and read Hunter and Clive Barker and hung out with post-Factory supermodels and fags on blow instead of formally studying. Late night madness and epochs of self-imposed reclusivity meant endlessly devouring giant art books with all the secrets of Henry Moore and Man Ray. Blasting in the background were Stevie Wonder, Kurt Cobain, or the Bee Gees.
Of course this is the segue you’ve all been waiting for- on to the personal family affairs that have inspired the artist, the travails of spirit and childhood. For surely Greenson was nurtured by forces deeper than comic books or James Bond or The Fonz.
Yes, he was. There’s plenty of dysfunction, torture and love. There’s the childhood tragedy where Iaian’s friend was an axe-murder victim. There’s Papa and there’s the Hollywood brother and Iaian’s very own patron saint, his mama, the greatest lady in the world, who died of brain cancer when Iaian was twentysomething. There’s Spain, especially close to his heart- it is the land where his mother came from. Though his world seems to revolve around Bex, his wife Tessa, and Basquiat, that’s only because his mom taught him everything he knows about love and life and beauty. I will not say more because Iaian is a private person who prefers to tell his stories in paint, or disguised as fiction in Smith-Corona (that’s telling you how long it’s been since Iaian has written, but one day…) A heart-to-heart discussion with Oprah on the tribulations and triumphs of a deeply knit but volatile family is just not in the cards, my friends. While my own gifts are more confessional and open, airing my dirty laundry for all to see, sharing my small victories with anyone who cares, my friend has much to teach me about quiet dignity and a bit of mystery, which is good for the soul and for our future celebrity status.
Of course, Bex, the baby of this proud papa, is another story. The future is a different animal than the past, one that is being made, not one left well enough alone. So go ahead and ask this doting dad anything you want about Bex’s every move. “ I felt reborn when Beckett was born. Born into real happiness and real love. It's an incredible feeling to meet someone you know you will be in love with for the rest of your life. I can only hope this kind of love for him,” Iaian says. “I want him to travel- there are few things as rewarding as travel.” The pensive moment passes and Iaian’s requisite quirky humour takes back over. “Without sounding like a honky tonk song…I would advise Beckett to avoid slow cars and cold women.”
For those clamouring for a small revelation of the past, Iaian said only two things on the record:
On favourite songs: “Besame Mucho comes to mind because it makes me think of my Ma. So for that reason it also makes me fall into the fetal position weeping…so I never really want to hear it again.”
And on the pretty comic book heroine we don’t recognize in his works: “Tessa is in many, many paintings. She's been my partner for 10 years now. She is the mother of my son. It's the least I could do. Seriously though, those paintings are probably the most autobiographical. She is the best person I know, so it's hard not to feature her as heroine.”
“Is there anything else we need to know?” I wonder before we part ways.
Yes: Iaian’s favourite foods. “Dim Sum, sushi, pistachio, croquettes, Spanish Omelet …although I also love watermelon to an alarming degree. “ And that he must be a genius because he can finish the Rubik’s cube. Once he had a rather vicious weiner dog. Also, he prefers Willie Nelson’s poetry to iambic pentametre. Oh, and the bowling thing.
“ I also collect bowling balls. They're just so round and perfect. Usually beautiful colours. I have one that was owned by a woman named Dot. The ball is monogrammed. I often wonder about Dot.”
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