People Like Us The Gossip of Colin Campbell
6 December 2008 – 22 February 2009

Oakville Galleries at Centennial Square

Pioneering Canadian artist Colin Campbell (b. 1942 Reston, MB; d. 2001 Toronto, ON) used video as a flexible and accessible medium for storytelling; his oeuvre is about characters and their words. His homespun tapes are a perverse collage of tall tales, rumours, conversations and daydreams gleaned from his everyday life. Ever the great collector, Campbell would borrow a bon mot here, a dirty joke there, a dash of tabloid eccentricity and voila: an unforgettable story, an unforgettable character. Making art was no sublime act of creation but merely what friends and lovers did together in the (incestuous) young art community developing in Toronto in the seventies and eighties. Ironic, irreverent and ambiguous, always attuned to the playful shifting of genders and desires, Campbell's tapes chart how identity is performed and circulated in the social world. Boundaries of truth and falsity concerned him even less than conventional ideas of screen acting and narrative closure did; for the most vibrant personas—those we remember and celebrate like his Art Star, the Woman from Malibu and Robin—are those that liberally supplement the banal details of lived experience with the excesses of myth and fantasy.

Art historian Gavin Butt has suggested, "gossiping is a form of social activity which produces and maintains the filiations of artistic community." Campbell's life and art practice derived both inspiration and form through gossip. The characters he created and inhabited—and those he coaxed out of his collaborators—confide secrets and stories to us, crafting elaborate and compelling mythologies around themselves. As Campbell absorbed all manner of talk from his acquaintances, friends and lovers, he and his ragtag troupe of performer-pals processed these day-to-day experiences through video and spat them back out again. This feedback loop opened up his art practice to those of his closest kin—among them John Greyson, Lisa Steele, George Hawken, Johanna Householder, Tanya Mars, Rodney Werden, Margaret Moores and Almerinda Travassos—as well as to his many students and protégés, resulting in the engaged conversation between artists and artworks that goes into cohering and procreating an art scene.

Gossip is the traffic in unofficial information, a form of makeshift knowledge about people in one's social world and what they get up to. It is not ultimately about whether something is actually true, based as it is on the whims of its participants rather than hard evidence. Campbell's tapes demonstrate how reality can be manipulated and made up to reflect one's desires. Through videotape, he gossiped with and about his real social circle and created a new one, a group of fictional personas who became tangibly real once their tapes were watched, loved (or hated) and talked about. By the time Campbell passed away, his personas were left bereft of a body, but they continue to float freely in our collective consciousness to this day.

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