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Superconversations Day 36: Adam Lauder responds to Tavi Meraud, "Field Guide to Skirmology: Handbook for the Skirmonaut"



The Canadian Ahab

Fig. 1. Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, “Blue, Orange and Calico Lobsters,” 2010.

Meraud advances a persuasive cartography of the contemporary generic. But for all the polymorphous animism of its rhetoric, the screen remains stubbornly tethered to the device. Yet the Skirmonaut never was beholden to the Californian ideology. The most skillful of their number have always concealed their compulsive piracy under cover of dead media. Painting remains the ultimate scrim, as every good investor knows; neo-formalism the definitive study in purloined iridescence.

There is nothing undead about the zombie formalist. There is only the superabundant vitality of a death drive that never succeeds in painting its own end. The neo-formalist relentlessly generates new limbs, acquires new gadgets, new screens. Their pullulating doodles endlessly looping eerie scenes of crustacean regeneration. Oceanic feelings. Who’s afraid of red, yellow and blue? I’ve sourced more than one lobster triptych limning Rodchenko’s apocalyptic trio (Fig. 1).

Fig. 2. Bertram Brooker, Umbrella Tree, 1950. Oil on board. Courtesy Bertram Brooker Estate.

The Canadian-born polymath and proto-punk Wyndham Lewis proposed that, “The artist goes back to the fish.”[1] A fish tale of disavowed Bergsonian pedigree:[2] the artist as self-impregnating polyp, or auto-telic tortoise shell.[3] But I have heard of Krakens. Lewis’s anti-Vorticist compatriot, the artist and advertising executive Bertram Brooker, screened anachronic commodities in cubo-futurist flux. Brooker’s florid atavism (Fig. 2) cleared a path for the archaic futurism of McLuhan. Later, Post Painterly Abstraction trafficked in the evolutionary dividends of Bergson’s larval subjects: a “society of creators”[4] for the post-industrial market. Telepresence has a long history in Canada—that original and ultimate “margin.”[5] Canadian branch managers have always harvested corporate sigils more efficiently than any bot.[6] Clement Greenberg wrote of the color field painter Jack Bush that, “he put into his pictures such things as travel souvenirs, flags, road signs, emblems, knowing well enough that they weren’t supposed to belong in canonically abstract art.”[7] The so-called zombie formalist operationalizes this repetition automatism, adding more novelty with each relapse. Enlarging details of screenshots more impressive in playback on small screens. Repeat typing. Copy. Paste. If there be anything vampiric about the neo-formalist, it is the monstrous vitality of the living fossil: the webbing of the vampire squid as the primeval and terminal color field (Fig. 3). The cetological temporality of the prehistoric cesspool as accelerationist kunstwollen.

Fig. 3. Louis Joubin, “Vampyroteuthis infernalis,” 1898-1910.

What of Moby Dick and the ontological turn? “Ye be, be ye?”[8] A thought-form engraved by Rockwell Kent. The Beothuk was a more sinister behemoth painted by A.Y. Jackson. Anthropo-obscene. “There’s something of Ahab in him,” Lewis once observed of the arctic-trekking Jackson.[9] Savage Messiah or savage anomaly? Neo-expressionism, or expressionism in philosophy? Moons over my Hamlet—a bad painting manqué. Paint it today.

ADAM LAUDER is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. Formerly he was W.P. Scott Chair for Research in e-Librarianship at York University.


[1] Wyndham Lewis, “The Artist Older than the Fish,” in The Caliph’s Design, ed. Paul Edwards, 65-71 (1919; repr., Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1986), 65.
[2] See Kenneth R. Allan, “Marshall McLuhan and the Counterenvironment: ‘The Medium is the Massage” Art Journal 73, no. 4 (2014): 23-24n3.
[3] “Deadness is the first condition of art. The armoured hide of the hippopotamus, the shell of the tortoise, feathers and machinery … .” Wyndham Lewis, Tarr (1918; repr., London: Penguin, 1982), 312; see also Hal Foster, Prosthetic Gods (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 109-49.
[4] Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism (New York: Zone Books, 1988), 111.
[5] Innis, Harold Adams. The fur trade in Canada: An introduction to Canadian economic history. University of Toronto Press, 1999.
[6] See Elizabeth Kilbourn, “The Greenberg Gospel,” Toronto Star (February 1, 1964): p. unavailable.
[7] Clement Greenberg, “Jack Bush,” in Jack Bush, ed. Karen Wilkin, 6-7 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1984), 6.
[8] Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851; repr., Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1972), 195.
[9] Wyndham Lewis, “Leviathan and the Canadian Ahab,” in Canada: A Guide to the Peaceable Kingdom, ed. William Kilbourn, 295-98 (1946; repr., Toronto: Macmillan, 1970), 298.