Perusing Peanut Brittle’s room
Exhibition essay by Cindy Baker
I had hardly met Lex Vaughn before she came to AKA; we had shared the three briefest of head-nods in passing three times over the past three years. While volunteering in the gallery, however, helping her source out supplies for the installation, and installing the show together, we got on as old friends. By the night of the opening, it seemed as though we had known each other for years. Why, then, was I nervous at meeting Peanut Brittle?
Only after I got to the gallery would I realize that my nervousness stemmed from not being able to decide what my relationship to the character was supposed to be from the start – I hadn’t interacted with Peanut Brittle before, so should I introduce myself as though we hadn’t yet met? Or, since I had gotten to know Lex over the previous few days, should I assume we already know each other? Arriving at the gallery, it became immediately apparent that my worries about the construct of the performance were unfounded, and that, just as any other art exists in relation to the artist, Peanut Brittle is a part of Lex Vaughn; that you can see and relate to the artist in the art, and that Peanut Brittle and I had already come to know each other quite well.
The performance consisted of Peanut Brittle hosting the opening – a party in his humble boardinghouse room – meeting the guests, charming the ladies, and regaling everyone with stories from his colourful past. I know others attending the performance that weekend had similar revelatory moments within the performative space; Saskatoon’s own stylish codger Chester Pelkey came to the event, and after interacting with Peanut Brittle for a while, he told me that at first he was sorry to have missed the performance, but then after talking with Peanut Brittle for awhile, it dawned on him that ‘we were both performing; that we were in the middle of a performance and that this is what it was about.’ Lex Vaughn is not asking the audience to perform the work with her, and she is not even asking us to suspend our disbelief. She is simply offering the opportunity to interact with Peanut Brittle, and we do.
Peanut Brittle’s interaction with the public presents a very different experience for the audience from visiting the gallery exhibition on its own. Approaching the installation that Lex leaves behind at AKA Gallery, there is a similar uneasiness to the feeling I had about meeting Peanut Brittle, as I try to determine what the installation is supposed to be. There’s a real correlation between the mental negotiation of reconciling Lex with Peanut Brittle when engaging the performance, and trying to figure out how to view the installation – on one hand as a historic museological or anthropological display, or on the other as art, or set design; a fabrication.
The drawings and paintings in the show function to offer some relief to this unease, although they are camouflaged amongst the other ephemera of Peanut Brittle’s life: his hotplate and bookshelf, his medicine cabinet and urinal. Perusing Peanut Brittle’s room is certainly much like snooping through any stranger’s house, with the thrill of discovery coming equally from finding some classic old gem of a product amongst the clutter, and from spotting one of the lovingly drawn portraits of Peanut Brittle’s friends and circle of influence.
The portraits are hard to pin down as being either Lex’s (and therefore the “art” of the exhibition) or Peanut Brittle’s (and therefore simply another layer to the deceptively complex installation). This places them within the space between art and artifact, or at the very least between art and stage prop. I shouldn’t need to know if the work was created by the artist or the character, but I feel as though knowing will help ground me within an experience that has suspended me in a liminal world of neither real nor unreal.
The works immediately remind me of the drawings of Mingering Mike, a naïve artist who spent his youth in the seventies drawing album covers (and the records inside them) for his own imagined musical career. His works existed as both the album art and the record/sleeve themselves. I am also reminded of Lynda Barry’s portraits of the early musicians that contributed to the rich shape and flavour of contemporary North American music. While recognizing other artists’ impact on her artistic development, (people like Juana Alicia, King Louie Gonzalez, Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen and all those Mission School kids, and in Canada Michael Comeau and Tara Azzopardi,) in response to a question about what influences her work, Lex said: “I grew up in the American West, and most of my styles were inspired from that location; cartoonish memories of drifters and comic book collections and diners and drunks and friends fathers’ closets and dressers and going to yard sales and junk shops with my mom and root beer and faded store signs and the barrio… and fist and knife fights on the bank of the Colorado River.”
The portraits in the installation drip with pathos, humourously but sensitively portraying their sitters with the kind of intuitive honesty that makes this style of art so attractive. Peanut Brittle’s paintings of bygone musicians and their contemporaries evoke the styles from which they have evolved. They resemble the homemade ham radio call cards on the wall of Peanut’s radio setup, recall the folk art that is connected to the first musical movements in North America, and they are even reflective of current music fan culture, with its connections to the lowbrow art movement, to comic art, graffiti, and street art. These works, then, bridge the gap between Lex and Peanut, drawing on both of their spheres of knowledge and the eras in which they matured and flourished; the work comes out of artistic movements new and old simultaneously, and are at once authentic and ironic, real and referential.
Those who had the good fortune to experience the performance first-hand were privy to the honest encounter as the artist intended it to be. For those who could not attend the live event, a similar experience can be achieved through engaging with the exhibition and discovering both the artist and the character within the installation.
Even the previous incarnations of this project have shaped Peanut Brittle and his space, helping to make them more tangible and true. Though the earliest installations of Peanut’s room incorporated many more drawings and paintings, all of the paintings in this current show are what are left over after most were sold during earlier exhibitions, which is “kind of sad, but fits in with the overall feel; what remains are remnants of more productive times, ghosts of broken hearts.” (Lex Vaughn, in conversation)
The paintings, because they are so evocative of the cultures that inspired them, and the place and time from where they came, help make the whole installation more understandable for an audience that has no memory of Peanut’s time – his trappings and language a forgotten world. The “artworks” in the show are what can make Peanut Brittle real for AKA’s audiences, as much as the presence of Peanut Brittle himself. Reflecting upon her own travels and their influence on her work, Lex stumbles upon the secret to understanding Peanut Brittle in the gallery, in his absence: “One quick night in a state hotel in Poland or Austria, with paneled mahogany armoires, or smoking rooms and chesterfields, or a leather strap hanging from the bathroom mirror to sharpen one’s straight razor. Then having to leave as quick as you came, well that’s a handsome loneliness that Peanut could appreciate.”