Because life is absurd, this artist decided to become a clown
Cotey Pope seeks the truth through the outright cartoonish
Some auteurs are born in high school. In fact, says artist Cotey Pope, her whole practice can be viewed as a continuation of what started then: she writes, she makes her own sets and then she stages plays in them.
"Do you remember the Sears Drama Festival?" she asks. In grade 12, Pope had a drama teacher — "a good teacher," she says, "but a real hands-off approach." The coursework was to produce a play for the Sears Drama Festival. On the first day of class, the teacher asked who wanted to be the director. Pope was the only person to raise their hand, so she just kind of took over. "Essentially," she says, "everyone was doing my project and they didn't have any other choice." She'd make the class rehearse late into the night because she felt the performance had to be the best it could possibly be; they had to win the Sears Drama Festival.
The whole story reads a bit like a lost Cotey Pope sketch, but it's her real life (that's also sort of a Cotey thing). It was the first time, she says, that she'd participated in that collaborative process in order to bring her vision to life. It was foundational.
Installed now at Toronto's Xpace Cultural Centre, Pope and frequent collaborator — and roommate — Maddy Mathews have built a kitchen set (akin to their living room set before it), presented there as sculpture. Flat and cartoonish and Crayola-coloured, it's an amalgam of all the domestic TV kitchen settings bouncing around in your memory. Like some average scullery calculated from Roseanne plus The Simpsons plus Family Matters, it's warmly familiar but also unplaceable. The sculpture doubles, however, as a hot set. After gallery hours, the camera rolls in and Pope readies her next project: a sitcom of her own. The Cotey Show will be a comedy-length half hour work of video performance art, satirizing her own life as a young artist. Of course, she will star.
Though she doesn't always don the grease paint, her characters — physical and hyperbolic — are all clowns. She feels empowered by the unapologetic character of the clown. "It's the ability," she says, "to goof around in ways in which you're not afraid to be embarrassed or vulnerable." Clowning is especially good at revealing truth, she finds. "Sometimes, you have to put on a persona to get through something difficult. I probably wouldn't make work about being depressed, for example, but I'd do a performance as a clown who's depressed."
Her visual world, resembling The Simpsons and Pee-wee's Playhouse, stokes a cozy nostalgia for viewers of a certain age. (Here, she mentions Marshall McLuhan and Barbara Kruger and our mutual desire to live in "the world of the represented" because, well, "reality sucks.") And like those shows, Pope's performances spotlight and celebrate an existential brand of absurdity: "the meaninglessness of our lives," she says, "how little all the stuff and events and experiences mean or how often they result in anything." Into the void, she chooses to crack jokes and laugh, sometimes nervously.
Pushing the absurd into the outright cartoonish, Pope makes props by replicating household articles and doodads in crude depiction from lesser materials. It's a technique she's adopted and exaggerated from her production work in film art departments. A clown head-shaped garbage pail remembered from what she describes as an off-brand carnival in Welland, where she grew up, became a series of ceramic mugs, for example. Or a box of Life cereal — a recurring joke — approximated in wood and paint appears ready for breakfast on the kitchen table.
Expanding on the This Is Our House! performances by herself and Mathews, The Cotey Show details the based-on-true-events travails and frequent absurdities experienced by an emerging artist, compounded by what you might imagine happens when two live together. It also parodies the typical "sad person who paints," as Pope puts it — pop culture representations of the artist. In one bit, they clock in for their nine-to-five at the art factory. In another, the artist-friend who employs Pope as a studio assistant gets the old Charlie Brown trombone-voice skewer. She's considering a scene where she calls ACTRA, the labour union representing performers in recorded media, and tries to explain to them what a performance artist is.
If she could live inside any TV show, which would it be? Pope chews on the hypothetical and gamely answers: her own. It would be a sitcom, she says, because there every problem gets solved in 22 minutes. "And you know it's going to be funny."
Find out more about Cotey Pope here.