As you look closer, you notice something is darkly off
WHAT IT IS: A poster from Storytime, a collaborative text and image installation by Winnipeg-based writer and performance artist Glen Johnson and visual artist and filmmaker Leslie Supnet.
WHAT IT MEANS: Now on view at Gallery 1C03 at the University of Winnipeg, the installation replicates a reading area in an elementary school library, circa 1972. (There is also a suburban living room, complete with brown plaid couch, to frame “story time” performances by Johnson and videos animated by Supnet and written by Johnson.)
The library is reconstructed with methodical detail, right down to the kid-sized institutional chairs and low tables. The storybooks all have hard library bindings, call numbers and old-fashioned due-date cards. Inside, one page of text by Johnson is paired with one drawing by Supnet. At first, the gentle cadences of the words and the soft, wistful sweetness of the illustrations seem to reproduce kids’ books. But look more closely and you realize that something is darkly, hilariously off.
“Read Lots” resembles the motivational posters often seen in schools, with a slightly caustic edge. The picture, of a rather cross-looking bear in an armchair reading Winnie-the-Pooh, is taken from Supnet and Johnson’s odd little comic story, “The Bear Who Despised A.A. Milne.”
“The Milne person she felt had slandered bears and given humans a very false idea who they were,” the bear complains in Johnson’s text. “That fellow she had mauled last week, for instance. Standing in the woods with his camera and his jar of honey. What
Art historian Alison Gillmor looks beneath the surface of newsworthy art was he thinking?”
“She understood the concept of fiction and even the specific concern’s of children’s lit... but thought these stories were so farfetched that they were actually damaging. But really the bear just hated anthropomorphising. So she hired a lawyer and sued.”
Johnson’s ending is ironic, of course, since a hypercritical, litigious bear is arguably even more anthropomorphised than a honey-loving “bear of very little brain.” Johnson’s funny, paradoxical prose is matched by Supnet’s genius for conveying melancholy introspection and transferring these qualities to animals in subtle and deliberately understated images. (In the artists’ collaborative creative process, sometimes Johnson’s story comes first and is illustrated by Supnet’s image, and sometimes Supnet’s picture inspires Johnson’s words.)
WHY IT MATTERS: Supnet and Johnson’s work seems to reference the multiple levels of our city’s very own icon, Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh Bear started life as a wild creature, became an army mascot (and really, that can’t be a good idea), then a zoo animal, then a charming fictional character, and finally a trademarked, red-sweatered Disney cartoon bear.
With their discontented bear in an upholstered armchair, Johnson and Supnet take a sly comic look at the universal human urge to anthropomorphise, whether that is manifested in complex world mythologies, cheerful children’s stories, or just Internet sidelines in piano-playing cats and dogs with hats.
But they also call up serious situations that come out of the collision of the human and natural worlds. (Take the distressing news story of Makoon, the orphaned bear cub released back into the wild, or incidents of bears being shot when decreasing habitats and increasing habituation to humans bring them close to cottages and towns.)
The poster from
Storytime, a collaborative text and image installation by Winnipeg-based
writer Glen Johnson and visual artist Leslie Supnet.