A few weeks ago, I interviewed Sunshine Coast artist Maurice Spira about two upcoming shows, one at the Grunt Gallery and one at Paneficio, both starting this weekend. The Paneficio Studios show, which are in fact in the working space of Spira's friend, Richard Tetrault, will only take place from the 17th to 19th and will nicely compliment the Grunt show, so I'd advise going to both if possible -- click on the banner, above, for times, including those of the openings and Spira's artist's talks (the banner was prepared by Thomas Ziorjen, another Sunshine Coast artist and friend to both Spira and myself; he also took all photographs that you see here, and several of Spira's home and studio that didn't make the article). The interview ran in the Nerve Magazine, though this month's issue is not yet online. Spira is small, articulate, and intense, and rather ran with the ball, talking freely and and cogently about many topics; while it is easier to get a sense of what Spira doesn't believe in (and what he isn't) when talking with him than to arrive at any positive definition of the man or his work, it is difficult to resist his charm or his intelligence. An interview with Spira will also be featured -- not by me, alas -- in SubTerrain magazine. Copies of the Nerve Magazine, with the finished article, are available around town and will also be available at Spira's two shows. Rather than rewrite it, I've decided to just stick the whole damned transcript up here, lengthy as it may be (we talked for almost two hours).
(When I arrive at the Whip coffee shop, there is a discussion ongoing between Maurice and Karen, another artist showing at the Grunt, of a place where two mountains meet – she can’t think of the word, he’s trying to think of it)
You know, she’s going back to a show I had at Burnaby Art Gallery probably in the early 80s, and Todd was the curator there at that time and I had to cancel the show in a gallery on Beatty St, because the person running the gallery refused to accept a painting into the show… The painting was called, um… I’ve forgotten what it was called now but it was sort of a sex act, a dreamscape sex act and anyway, they said no no, you can’t have that painting in the show, and so on and so on and anyway, I had a big battle and eventually I withdrew from the show, and Todd, just by a fluke, just happened to be there that day, an hour later of something, and he said I think there’s a gap on the calendar out at Burnaby Art Centre. We’ll put the whole show on, including this painting, and we’ll sort of save the day. Anyhow, Karen attended that show, and she claims – of course I have no memory of this – that in my artist’s talk, I talked about landscape, somehow, and I talked about the - about something that’s not a valley – the space between two mountains. I have no idea what she’s referring to.
There’s no sexual connotation to this?
I don’t think so, I don’t think so, I mean it’s curious, it sounds like I would be, you know, speaking symbolically and metaphorically…
You don’t do landscapes?
As I matter of fact, I worked with landscape for years in the early 70s – uh – in the mid and late 70s. I lived in Vancouver and I went out regularly with my easel and I worked outside en plein air for at least, I would say, three, close to four years, up and down the waterfront, where BC Place is now, it used to be the old CP pier, and, uh, and I worked up and down… I’ve still got a few of those paintings. I did quite a bit of landscape work and occasionally I’d get out and go to White Rock and Steveston, places like that. I’d go with a friend, Richard Tetrault, who was very keen on, y’know, painting out of doors… and now, lo and behold, all these years later, 2005, last summer, with two other artist friends, I spent, uh, July August September working out of doors on the Sunshine Coast and I produced 13 canvases. It’s a return to direct painting out of doors. You go to your site, you have no idea what you’ll find… you make very rapid decisions because light is changing, wind direction is changing, everything’s in flux, and you set your easel up and you start to work…
(The waitress comes, I attempt to order a coffee and Maurice orders another beer. Maurice jokes with the waitress about her saying she’s “signing off” instead of “signing out,” and Maurice orders a Stella Artois. I ask if there are muffins, but the waitress doesn’t know her menu. She suggests a bagel and lox, if there’s no muffin available).
So… at what point… I don’t know how to describe your work. It seems like it owes to surrealism, but it also seems to owe something to underground comics…
(Maurice interrupts to pass me his invitation, as designed by Thomas)
Do you consider yourself a surrealist?
No. I realize the term surrealism is exceptionally malleable and elastic, but you know, it’s a catch all phrase, and I’m willing to point to certain surrealistic conventions, odd, even bizarre juxtapositions, depictions of what might be termed absurdist situations, or, for instance, I have no problem in revealing that I do feel that I’m working with my subconscious, when I develop imaginative ideas. I work in a series of books often through the winter months in which I employ a kind of stream of consciousness approach – I scribble every little thing down and see what it looks like, then I might choose bits and pieces and random, which is a classical surrealist approach… You’re familiar with … um, what the hell’s that term? Corpse… exquisite corpse, corpse exquisite, anyway, what’s the French term for it, where, you know, you get two or three people working on a single sheet of paper and one does the head and one does the middle and one does the lower third and that – and it frees up, the, uh, the imagination. It’s randomized, you don’t know what’s going to come out. They do it with texts, as well. Like Burroughs did it with cut ups. So in a way I’m doing that but I’m not doing it as consciously. I just fill these pages with, um, scribbles. Some of them are somewhat abstract, they’re often figurative, and they really do reveal what’s buried in me. They might reflect my concerns that I’ve picked up off the radio. I’ve said this elsewhere recently, but I don’t have television or a computer, so it’s just audio, I listen in to the radio, and I pick something up, something’s happening, 6 o’clock news, some… and I go whoa, y’know, and I scribble in my book, and it’s not a direct correlation but there’s no question that some of what flows out is influenced by what I’ve heard earlier in the day or perhaps the day previous, and very much like the way dreams work – I mean, dreams really do reflect what’s going on currently in your waking life, so that, you know, if I’m anxious about a certain thing, that might show up in a wildly amplified and peculiar manner in your dream… so to that extent I don’t mind opening up to admitting that surrealistic devices may be discernable in my work, but I’m not…
(The waitress arrives, fails to give a beer to Maurice, gives a coffee to me, and reports that there are no muffins. She uses the phrase “I just thought it was a random thing,” but the referent is not discernible. I look at the menu. Maurice reports that they have good hash browns. I order the lox and bagel and a mojito, to go with my coffee. Joking with the waitress ensues, and Maurice sips his beer).
So, y’know, of course what, what concerns me is when people in a rather loose and ineffectual manner refer to me as surrealist. I do object to it, and what they’re thinking of is, of course, is the cliché of Salvador Dali. I’ve had people with no background whatsoever or grasp of art history say oh, your work is just like Salvador Dali, well of course it’s absolutely not like Dali whatsoever. What they mean is, oh, it’s not, y’know, flowers in a vase… Since we don’t recognize it as sort of normalized bourgeouis material, therefore you’re a surrealist. It’s weird, therefore… I remember a comment in the guest book at a show I had up on the coast years ago, and this comment was, “M. Spira is sick,” and I thought, okay, this is good, not “M. Spira is a surrealist,” and I thought, okay, I can accept this!
(Mojito and beer arrive. Maurice asks for a glass).
Talking about channelling things that you hear on the radio into your notebooks – it seems that there’s a fair bit of anger in some of your works…
Oh, absolutely, I find myself – well – it’s Allan, isn’t it? Allan, here’s the thing… It’s very important to point out, Allan, that I also … not ameliorate, but, uh, perhaps, it’s, um, balance out my irritability and anger, my sometimes ferocious critique of what I consider to be really abhorrent and ugly traits in, in, y’know, contemporary life, I balance that out with humour, which is often absurdist… So… I wouldn’t want anything to think – I hate to feel – I sort of see myself, some of the time, anyway as somewhat of a satirist, it really bothers me to think that I’m a dry polemicist. You know, I mean, I’m sort of throwing that out almost as a joke, because, I mean, it’s obvious I’m not a polemicist, however, earlier on, I was a young Marxist and then after that an anarchist in a somewhat doctrinaire style in Montreal of the late ‘60s and early 70’s, and I found out – I found out about being doctrinaire and inflexible with this group of very intellectually elevated socialists and Marxists, and I kind of moved through that, and so now I’m, my irritability or anger takes the form of an anti-authoritarianism… So you know, yes, I’ll own up to that, I’m not concerned by that, but I’m not, personally, a person with a big chip on their soldier, uh, shoulder who is continually angry. In fact, I’m a very keen gardener, and I actually have a very extensive vegetable garden. It’s bigger this year than it’s ever been and I’m completely absorbed in the world of, y’know, micro-organisms, worms, and tiny plants that I nurture along, and it really is – it’s a relief from the contemporary world, which is so often, frankly, infuriating. And uh… So I mean, sure, when I listen in to the brief sound bites, which is what I get mostly what I get from, mostly the CBC – though I do tune in to CHLY, the Malaspina College station, which has remarkably radical, very interesting political and social programming – I do tune into them; you get more of a broad analysis, a deeper critique of contemporary matters – but even then – I am hoping that I’ve attained some kind of equilibrium, some kind of balance, because I have been, y’know, all twisted out of shape as a younger person and I simply haven’t the stamina to be that way today, and it’s counterproductive as an artist. I would rather generate a kind of absurdist critique, rather than uh – for instance, I don’t offer solutions, and this is something that fellow anarchists and anti-authoritarians and most especially people who ally themselves somewhere on the, kind of, amorphous left will often look at someone like me and only see someone who generates negative value, negative ideas, without any positive solutions, and it’s true that I no longer have the blueprint that I carried with me when I was in my 20’s. When I was in my 20’s I had a blueprint, and it was simply a case of encouraging people to follow my blueprint. Well, I abandoned that a long time ago.
(I comment on dogmatism as the vice of the young)
Precisely. It’s pretty much like straight medicine’s idea of “If you do this, you’ll be fine, if you don’t do this you’ll regret it.” It’s much more complex than that, y’know? There are many, many influential factors around – and not to mention age. I mean, I’ll be 62 in July, so I imagine my life experience, stuff I found out. I found out it’s not a good idea to be bummed out all the time! It’s like, uh… It’s just stupid. It seems to be a good idea at the time, earlier on, y’know, to be pretty defeated and miserable – I presented this to the world, and as you know, if you present a kind of a, a kind of a negativized field, people will rebound from you like crazy… So I haven’t been that way for a long time. I’m very disciplined however… People often ask me how I can be so productive. Even Thomas marvels at my productivity, but the answer is, that’s it, that’s what I want to do, it’s the way I define who I am and it’s how I use my creative powers and insights in this visual and graphic form. Also in gardening. I love to build garden structures and it gives me a bit of an outlet – y’know, for three dimensional labours. I also heat exclusively with wood, so I split my own firewood – I don’t actually use a chainsaw anymore, but… All these things give me an opportunity to feel a little more grounded a person.
How did you get out to the Sunshine Coast?
Well, what happened was, that, um – I’ll sort of give you the extremely brief trajectory. I left England in 1966. I was there for more than, for my first 20 years or so. I came to Montreal, I, um, had a ex-brother in law – now ex-brother in law, at that time -- who sort of took me under his wing and suggested that, you know, he would turn me into a decent citizen and an all-around successful person. I very quickly horrified and disappointed him by starting to do LSD, and getting involved –
(Food arrives. Maurice comments that he loves how the lox looks on my blue plate, but declines my offer to share. The lox really does look beautiful)
…and so I very quickly moved on, different jobs, got involved with a silkscreen company, was in Montreal from 66 to 74, got caught up in revolutionary and radical activities, primarily against the Viet Nam war, with the American deserters committee and draft resistance, but also the Quebecquois aspirations at that time. By ’74 that chapter was coming to a close – it was an extremely exciting and rewarding period. I worked on an underground paper called The Local Rag and did illustrations for it…
(I ask about the FLQ.)
FLQ involvement? No, no, I wasn’t, of course not, you pretty much have to be Quebecquois, but I was there, absolutely. I was there in 71 when they had the war measures act. I was there, yeah. I was frisked on the street, there was curfew, and so on and so on.
Were you known as a socialist at that time?
By 71, I had quit belonging to the socialist party – this was not, this was the socialist party that’s affiliated with the socialist party in Great Britain and the United States, they were a very, I would say, intellectually elevated Marxist organization, not to be confused with NDP or anything like that. For instance, their reading list, which they introduced me to as soon as I joined up, was, uh, y’know, Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid, the autobiography Emma Goldman, Karl Marx’ Das Kapital, of course, volumes 1 and 2 – it was in English, fortunately, although it might as well have been in German as far as I was concerned – it was just a fabulous reading list, y’know, Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, all these things – and I very quickly found out – I began to get a bigger grasp of labour history, the wobblies, Sacco and Vanzetti… All these exciting historical trends. Also, I was introduced – I was not aware, I was unaware of any of this while I lived in England – although I was off on a bit of a different tangent in England as a reader… Anyway, in Montreal, I really got an education, a historical education. I found out about Utopian experiments of the 19th century, whether religious or secular… All very very interesting. So anyways, in 74, someone said, haven’t you ever been to the west coast, and I said no, and they said that’s ridiculous, you’d better go, and I said okay, I’ll go, and the Montreal chapter was closing down, it was coming to a close, it seemed like a natural ending of various things going on there for me and I hitchhiked out west, took 9 days, had an absolutely tremendously interesting 9 days, met genuine hobos on the road – not young people, but older, y’know, old time hobos, very interesting that way… Came out west, lived in many different locations. My longest stint was in the west end in a communal house in the mid and late 70s. I… What I haven’t mentioned is, that, uh, that I became after, after a truly depressing stint of wage labour at an electro-plating factory in old Montreal, I, um, became an artist’s model at the encouragement of this guy that I was hiring for this small life drawing group I was running, and lo and behold he said, you know, this is bullshit, you don’t want to go to this job every day and torture yourself, y’know, earn a living as a model and I said “Well, is that really possible?” and he said “Yes, absolutely possible” and I became a model in Montreal, even before leaving and then I continued that here on the west coast. I modeled actually, for ten years, a full ten years. And, um, then I met my friend Richard, Richard Tetrault, we started going out doors to paint, and I started printmaking quite seriously…
Were you making a living?
I was making a living as a model.
Were you also selling paintings?
Occasionally. Yeah. Occasionally supplementing my income with paintings. So I really got going with working out of doors, en plein air in the mid and late 70s…
En plein air? My French is atrocious and my art history is not so good, either --
Painting out of doors. That’s what the impressionists did, it was called en plein air, Monet and all those guys, they all went out of doors and stood there whether it was raining, windy, they had to tie their easels down, which is something you find out about very quickly, a wind will whip your canvas off your easel into the gravel or wherever. These contingents – you have to be aware of this, and it really is a challenge, and the light is changing… Everything’s in a state of… You know, your painting becomes a composite over about three hours, approximately three hours… three or four hours. You’ve got to realize that what you observe when you first get going is going to be completely gone and changed 15 times by the time you’re ending you’re painting, and then, and now, last summer when I rediscovered this, when I re-established this, uh, habit of going out of doors with these 13 canvas, 6 of which I’ll be showing at Paneficio, they’re all industrial sites, but in the landscape, right, so there’s mountains and oceans but they’re industrial. They’re quite realistic, they’re not very stylized at all. They’re… I think most people would say that they’re pretty realistic, though not very polished, we’re not talking about an 18th century concepts of realism, I would say anyone looking at them would say that’s a 20th century painting, they wouldn’t confuse it with the polish of an earlier era.
If not surrealist, then what? You call your more "surreal" works your "poltical/personal works on your website...
I don’t think I can give it a satisfactory label. I don’t think, that would… Over time… Have you seen my book? It’s too bad I didn’t bring one along… I have a book which I self-published, it’s quite a beautiful book… in 1990… Over the years, people have suggested that I’m an expressionist, that I’m a social realist, that I’m a surrealist, and a number of other things. I have not wanted to agree to any of these titles. They seem insufficient. As we’ve already said, there are surreal elements, and what might be termed classically surreal approaches –
And also your anti authoritarianism allies you with the surrealists –
So for instance… Someone has writing something for me which is going into SubTerrain, with some images, and they’ve pointed up that some of my influences, which I don’t object to, such as Robert Crumb – although that’s not very direct, though I’m a great admirer of Crumb, and I did read Zap comics in the late 60s… They’ve also pointed up people like Otto Dix and those people who use strong figurative elements in their work -- Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, those people… I certainly love… The print makers I’m really very excited by are Mexican woodcut artists, so of course Rivera, Arusco, Tischiros... all were hugely influential on me in the 70s, I thought WOW, this colour, this way of stylizing form were really amazing.
(I don't recognize some of these names, and can't find them all on the Artchive, so please feel free to correct my spelling in the comments section, folks... I attempt to order more coffee. Thinking of Spira's earlier piece, In the Chamber, and knowing he'd spent some time in Mexico, I ask him if he's been influenced by Mexican religious iconography)
Well, again, some people have suggested that the use of the skeleton in Spanish calaveras which is very prominent in Mexican work, particularly Posada… Posada is the man, he was a popular graphic artist at the turn of the 20th century before 1910, when the revolution broke out, he ridiculed the church and politicians and the dictatorial Diaz regime at the time by making them do crazy foolish stuff, but it was skeletons that were doing it, you had the skeleton priest, skeleton politicians, the skeleton bullshitter, the skeleton musicians, the skeleton everything, and that’s what that is, the Day of the Dead, that’s the tradition, that’s that Aztec/Catholic fusion. So I do have skeletons, even the work at the Grunt has skeletons in it and there’s definitely some at the Paneficio show, so yeah, there’s a connection to the Mexican vitality and robustness in the presentation of the work…
...but here’s a clue, Allan, if I’m not being too verbose about it: my work, my painting and my printmaking is very strongly informed by drawing. I am someone who draws. I have never, ever stopped working directly from the human figure. I’m very concerned with anatomy, structure, volume, mass, all the fundamentals. I do not produce a kind of polished, realist work, although I can – I’ve done, almost, in the past, I’ve done almost what could be called Victorian study sheets of botanical subjects, like, like horse chestnuts, of ferns, I’ve done a series of study sheets of insects, of dead creatures and the like. I’ve included dead creatures in still lifes, small still lifes, so that really harkens back to a kind of quasi-scientific interest that I have in closely observing things, but what you can see in these large triptychs and in virtually all the work here, including these outdoor industrial scapes, is my ability to draw. I really like to draw and I’m very, very… It’s the utmost priority to me. I also do portraiture, which you’ve seen on the website… so… observation, analysis and interpretation.
The industrial sites were drawn from actual sites?
Direct. Set the easel up, put the blank canvas on your easel, make choices, and paint.
Why industrial sites? Is this a critique?
Not at all, not at all.
I ask him about the Bechers and their photographs of industrial sites, which are quite beautiful, but he doesn’t know the work.
These are categorically – someone has suggested this, but they are absolutely not critical of the industrial model, that is not my intention, in fact it’s quite the opposite. I was very excited by what was going on, by the shapes, the forms, the lighting, and such, and that was what excited me. They’re quite representational.
I can’t imagine you painting an industrial site, because your work is so non-mechanical, quite organic.
But then when you look at the still lifes on my website you’ll see cabbages, vegetables that I’ve grown, they’re from my garden and they’re quite realistic, I’ve got some dope images, some marijuana, they’re quite realistic… Well I mean… So I can be quite realistic. Matter of fact, not to seem too outlandish, but some of my portrait drawings really do harken back to someone like Hans Holbien. They are very realistic indeed; my aim is to get everything right.
But the still lifes are still very ORGANIC, not mechanical...
For the most part, of the 13 canvases, probably only two or three are machines, uh, front and center. What you’ll see, these industrial scapes are generally large activities, such as a mill, a pulp mill, seen from a distance. One or two are closer, log booms, log booms as log booms, and shipping grounds and tugs, as they appear set in the beautiful landscape of the west coast, with mountains beyond. There are certainly a few that focus on machines; there are these rusting old boom boats, these boats they push the log booms around with, I do have one of that sort of set up on the dry dock, it’s kind of rusting out and decaying… But… Your difficulty in imagining the leap from here (indicates invitation) to that is that you might not realize the range of what I’ve done. For instance if I tell you that I’ve made close studies of ferns unfolding, you might say wow, that’s pretty far from this, but the fact is I’ve done all these things and actually I’m still doing them, in fact I recently did two dead birds that people gave me. One was a little owl. Somebody gave me some mummified mice. I’ve done a study sheet – 7 or 8 studies in ink and wash, quite classical. And there my intentions are quite the opposite. Here, I absolutely am never heading in the direction of, uh, classical formalism, I’m moving completely away into an amplified and imaginative series of juxtapositions which should have symbolic and metaphorical connections… And that’s another thing. I have to mention this briefly and then I’m going to take a pause… There’s a studied – I’ve used this word before but I can use it again because I think it makes sense. There’s a studied ambiguity in all these types of things which predominates in both shows. People say what the hell’s going on, what the hell does it all mean, and I say well, you know what, uh, several different people will draw several different, uh, narratives or implications from this work depending on what you bring to it, and that’s fine with me. You will see a couple of things in SubTerrain, reproduced in SubTerrain, not at either of these shows, where I actually have a story, I have a story, and so when someone… For instance, I did this very big, elaborate print called Procrustes on the Job, and people say, well, who’s Procrustes, and I have a whole story, so it’s not that I don’t, it’s not that I cannot always offer a coherent narrative. Sometimes I can and I want to, but most of the time there’s a range of possible interpretations.
(So sometimes you don’t know what your work is about?).
Well, it depends. I know exactly what was happening here and how it got that way (points to Fountain) but not here (indicates the other piece on the invite). This is a tryptich, actually…
Let me ask you about Fountain – it seems to be an image of Christian authority committing suicide in a corporate boardroom; is it connected to the war in Iraq?
I’d have to say all of the above, and you’ve got pretty close straight away, but you’ve stopped short of the three monotheisms. They’re all clamouring for some kind of re-emergence in what they perceive of as a sinful and disorderly world, and, y’know… The fiasco of orthodox Islam these days, with its denials about women’s roles, the fiasco of the Danish cartoons, etc., etc, etc., this got me going, and I simply combined this sort of statue, this sort of warrior statue with of course a corporate boardroom, it makes perfect sense, actually, oil if you will, the war machine, the military industrial complex, it really doesn’t matter, and when you see the painting proper you’ll sort of see – you kind of recognize or think you can almost recognize certain character types in these men, y’know, the suits…What you may not realize that around here, this is a ring of decapitated bowing figures with their bums in the air, and then here – you wouldn’t see it on this little scale, you have the execution of Louis the XVI on June 3rd, 1793, I believe it was, or was it June the 23rd 1793… the thing about beheadings – beheadings are very popular these days. It’s everywhere these days, it’s in movies, it’s everywhere, it’s on Al Jazeera, it’s on the internet. It’s also historically very popular. You had the guillotine in the 1790s in Paris. The Nazis also used it. And then of course you have your classical beheadings of Charles II and various people right down through the ages. Very popular. The Japanese in the second world war, the Bushido – cut off heads. Very popular, and I… As far as I’m concerned – I’m sort of trying to draw this all together. The three systems are delusional systems, they’re absolutely delusional systems, where the disciple literally becomes headless, you know, in other words, you give up all possibility of the ability to critically evaluate who you are or where you’re headed, because by this time you’ve subscribed to this delusional and doctrinaire system. As a matter of fact, in this show, I have an elongated scroll like painting called The Triumph of Theology which is truly absurdist and scatological, and it’s quite a good one, I’m quite pleased with it.
Did you have a religious upbringing?
Yes, I mean, no. I didn’t have a really religious upbringing, but I did have one, which was Judaism, which most people found astounding, that I would turn out to be an atheist. Well, I… The thing I offer up are the three A’s, Artist, Anarchist, and Atheist. No, it was a very wishy-washy, nothing-happening form of Judaism. My parents were much more involved, being the older generation, and I resented it, I had my teenage arguments and upsets, and pretty early on I concluded this was hogwash and was something I didn’t want to be a part of. And by the time I got to Montreal in my early 20’s, I of course ran into Marxists who were invariably atheists, and they’d come from all sorts of backgrounds, they could be from any one of the three monotheisms, though I don’t recollect a Muslim at that time, but you know, as I’m sure everyone realises now, people who, like that woman Karen, she’s coming from a Catholic background and she’s got the most severe criticism of the church, needless to say, and so… It kind of got going with me during the 1960s, because I realized that priests and rabbis and Mullahs are blessing bombs before they were loaded into airplanes… this kind of stuff, you know, and then I did all my reading, y’know, the anti-war novels and accounts of all of this, The Good Soldier Svejk, and things like that, so that now today I’ve come to this point where I’m very intolerant… I don’t want to get too carried away with this, but I’m very intolerant of religion of any description, and I certainly find a lot of fault with what most people call spirituality.
You have no spirituality?
Absolutely not. My compost. My compost, because I’m a very keen organic gardener. And, uh, you know… People say that as an atheist you’re missing out on some of the deeper material in life, and I say it’s a bunch of crap, y’know? I open up my compost and here is a cosmology, and a deeper meaning about transitional form in life that is so much more profound than your ridiculous, imaginary supposed deities and their dreadfully psychotic trips that they pull… and people go oh really…
But there are earth-based religions. They have no appeal, you’re totally a materialist?
No, no… Because I like anyone… I mean, I… You might not want to necessarily put this in your piece, but another thing that’s happened to me in the last 6 or 7 years is that I’ve rediscovered psychedelics, mostly in the form of psilocybin mushrooms which grow, y’know, readily available where I live, you pick them in the fall, and I’ve actually rediscovered these, these more profound connections with the landscape, the crystalline structures of rocks and the cellular and atomic of even air, and so on and so, and these are all familiar things that happen to most people when they do psychedelics.
But you have no desire to see these things as sacred?
Not at all, not at all. Here’s the thing, Allan, with me, I’ve abandoned that vocabulary, never use the word sacred, don’t like it, not interested in it; never use the word spiritual, not interested in it. They all harken back to older systems still evolving and still in place that have to do with an embrace of a systemized value system. I do not want to be obedient to or submissive to any of these systems, no matter how benign they seem to appear, so nothing’s sacred to me, but if you can come up with a different term that points in that direction, I don’t mind it… What happens with people who are spiritual and see things as sacred is that they imagine that someone who eschews that vocabulary is somehow an ignorant redneck or is a plank of wood, but I couldn’t be more opposite.
But this comes back to a problem of words, as with surrealism: if you don’t describe the psychedelic experiences as sacred, what vocabulary do you use?
Well, they’re marvellously sensual, they’re hedonistic, and they put me in touch with the organic and transformative nature of the world that I’m part of. I mean, I’m the opposite of the sort of the, y’know, the sort of one-dimensional narrow range of the sort of real estate developer or business head who is only interested in getting from A to B right now, regardless of what any repercussions might be. Of course I feel part of a bigger order of things, but there is nothing directing it. There’s no architect.
There are non-theistic religions… no pantheism, no animism?
Yeah, I don’t like’m. Everyone for decades now’s been saying, oh, you sound like a Buddhist. No. I’m not a Buddhist. Buddhism is pay attention, be present, now – I do it all the time, and I don’t have to be quiet, I can have a very animated mind…
(I ask the waitress for another coffee)
I’m very productive, I’m a gardener, I’m active, I split wood, I paint, I produce prints, I draw, I run a life drawing group, I have a girlfriend, I have a relationship, so no, I’m not, I don’t sit in silence. Nope. I listen to the radio, I like to drink beer. I can hang out with people.
So do you see yourself as more sensualistic and hedonistic, than spiritual?
Yeah, I would say so. But you see, experiencing these marv – experiencing what’s marvellous, what’s profound – I’m choosing my words carefully -- doesn’t therefore make me want to say they’re sacred, because sacredness implies a system that is somehow ordered…
You tell me, how do you use the word?
Profoundly important, beautiful, moving, something that touches the core of being and connects you to the world.
Here’s my problem with that. I accept your definition, and I like it, you’re very eloquent, and very coherent, I accept what you just said, but it is the case is that the word sacred almost universally to the three monotheisms. That is my problem with it. Therefore, I don’t use it. I don’t have a problem with deeply felt, profound experiences. For me, they’re not sacred. For me, they’re simply a marvellous evidence of my biological existence in this extraordinary web or relationships.
(I ask the waitress if she has no dessert-like things at all. Nope. Maurice and I joke about how I’m going to chop this down to 500 words)
Would it be fair to say, then that you have a profound mistrust of organized religion and authoritarian power structures such that anything that reminds you of these things stimulates a rebellion –
…but perhaps there is some value to the concept of the sacred, and other people may use productively, and you don’t necessarily have an objection to that…
What a lot of people have said to me, more than one person, actually, has said to me, ah Maurice, you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater, what about those Catholic priests down in South America, what about the Berrigan brothers of the late 60s throwing buckets of blood on the steps of the draft office, and I say, okay, I’m not really throwing the baby out with the bathwater, of course there are people who are ordained who… Let’s face it, there are Jungian priests, there are Jungian Rabbis and Jungian Mullahs for all I know. My point is, it’s important to me to extricate myself from this frame of reference in order to tread my own path. Now, I have to have a piss…
(As Maurice visits the men's room, I talk into the microphone about how I’m dreading having to edit this, and make notes about things I want to ask him about, including reclusiveness, the anus, and “just how little I can talk about drugs in my article.” Coffee arrives. I sip. Music plays in the background. Why is he so angry at authority? Is he also an authority, is his rebellion at attempt to place himself into a position of authority…? I tell him when he returns from the washroom that I also have to go to the washroom, but I’ll leave the recorder running on the table, if anything occurs to him. While I'm away, though, he says nothing, organizing his thoughts instead).
You put it very well before I left. I’m picking up clues through vocabulary, through terms, behaviour, attitudes, ideas expressed, and I determine whether this seems like something that… Y’know, I would never put up an exhibit in a church basement, I would never be involved in any way or with anyone or any organization that characterized themselves as being… Even the whole concept of self-improvement, you know, the self-improvement industry, and all these things; they’re not right for me. Anyway, I don’t know why I’m… Like I said Allan, you summed it up. I’m very loath to associate with myself, least of all involve myself with, anything that seems to require my obedience, or my – like the census, the current census is a good example. All such things leave me feeling like I need to just leave right now. And, um, I’ve had these arguments with people over all the years, and of course I know many people who do not have my radical views of many different matters, and so they say, well, you know, your revolutionary ideas are bullshit, because there’s no such thing, and what you have to do is, it’s evolution, and it’s incremental change, and vote for your, vote for your local slightly left-leaning candidate and hope for the best, and all of this, and I say no, I don’t do this.
You don’t vote?
Nope. Absolutely not. I voted once, when I was still in England. I voted for Harold Wilson, the working man’s representative for a so-called labour government. This would be another… You’d have to get another one of those. We’d have to get on to the absolute bankruptcy of the idea of universal suffrage, but anyway, we won’t go into it, and actually all sorts of people have written about it extensively and have very coherently demonstrated why it’s a complete bust. In the allegedly social-democratic west, the civilized west, you have people marking their ballots for the next bunch of exploiters and y’know, criminals to rule over their lives, and then they complain…!
(I comment on voting. I used to agree with him, but what about Bush vs. Gore? Gore would have been much, much better…).
Well, I’m going to give you my cynical retort. It’s choose your poison. I don’t want to choose either one, you know? I don’t want… Of course Bush will be replaced by somebody who is not quite so psychotically, stupidly distorted, but you know what, nothing is solved, nothing is solved, and I’ve said this to people – we really shouldn’t get off on this tangent, because it’s going to go on and on, but, y’know, people have said homeland security and the generalized hysteria that has built under the Bush administration since 9/11, this will somehow ameliorated or perhaps even largely, uh, dissolved away when a more humane person, a more humane regime comes into office. I don’t… There’s simply no evidence to support such an idea. On the contrary. Everything that’s gone backwards now with regards to the generalized hysteria about terror, and, um, y’know, the way it impinges on civil rights, all this stuff, free speech, it’s going to continue, because structurally, this civilization needs that, they need those controls, it’s absolutely foolish to imagine that we can return to a situation that has never really existed.
I cut in. It seems to me we’re fundamentally hierarchically organized, as apes, and apes need leaders. We can’t throw off that baggage. I ask Maurice if he’s allied with Sade in Marat/Sade.
Absolutely. Oh yeah, definitely.You’d be very clever to bring this up, because there it is there (indicates the guillotine in Fountain).
I quote: “now I know what it’s like when the head is cut off from the body…”
There it is, that’s Louis the XVI, and you know, Allan, I accept everything you’ve just said and whatever you were about to say, I accept it completely. I’ve long ago thrown out the blueprint. I have the socialist blueprint, I still have my critique of why the Bolshevik coup d’etat was doomed to failure, I know my sort of elementary Marxist, the means of production has to be such that… etc etc. You know, the Bolsheviks took over the Tzarist secret police apparatus immediately in 1917 and ran it. Oh, of course. I have have no argument with what you’re saying, but that doesn’t lead me to be a reformist. I don’t feel like a reformist. I feel like I… I certainly want to aspire to radical solutions. I don’t mind the suggestion that I’m a hypocrite. I don’t mind partial failures or downright failures. I don’t mind my comforts and, y’know, routines that I have, I’m not like a friend of mine who’s still in Montreal, who steals food, who combats police in the streets – he’s practically my age.
You participate in capitalism.
Well, of course. I mean, this is not going to make me a card carrying member of some purist sect – as it happens I don’t have a car, but that’s just because I never learned to drive, but --
Oh really, that’s far out… (We laugh)
So, no, I make no great claims to being a just, y’know, a marvellously clear person on every level, not a bit of it. And, um, y’know, I do know anti-authoritarians and anarchists and all kinds of people who find all of this a little bit cynical and self-serving, and so on, and that doesn’t bother me. If someone wants me to join them in some Utopian commune on an island to make anarchism work, I’m not gonna join them. It doesn’t interest me. I’m quite a bit of an individual, very important for me, not to work on projects that allegedly demonstrate our ability to practice Mutual Aid. You’re right, I read Robert Ardrey in the late 60’s… Have you read The Territorial Imperative…? Sure, Desmond Morris, Robert Ardrey, I don’t mind that, I also recommend Mutual Aid, which is Kropotkin’s much earlier idea that people practice altruism, they also practice altruism, they don’t only chop each other up. So… The point here is to resist these recipes, these kinds of recipes for success, just as all the religions – you know, they do say that some political movements are like secularized religions, I mean, that’s obviously true. They’ve got leadership, they’ve got, they’ve got the, uh, the sacred texts, and so on… I don’t… I remove myself from all of this, which is why this is happening. Certainly on my website you don’t see my uplifting suggestions for, y’know, justice, uh, y’know… No!
Do you feel, as an artist, that you have any responsibility to the community?
No. I don’t. My friend Richard is the antithesis. He works with school children, there’s a mural project, he’s involved with all… He works with community organizations, he’s extremely different from me. I left for the Sunshine Coast almost 24 years ago, and I… I’ve not sat on any committees, I don’t even teach – people always say Maurice, why don’t you teach, why don’t you pass it on? I’m not really interested in teaching…
So you don’t see your work as being a way of fulfilling your responsibility to the community?
No. My responsibility is to myself. Now, I have to clarify this by saying that I’m not an isolated misanthrope. I’m not, not at all. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m a gardener, I share the garden with two others, I’m involved with, I guess, you know, it’s like a community, life drawing, I’ve been involved with that for 20 years. So no, I’m the very opposite, in some ways, to, uh, the sullen misanthrope. I’m a member of the CARFAC – the artist right’s organization in Canada? They’re the people that fought to be paid a fee paid for artists at galleries like the Grunt. But other than that, unlike my friend Richard, who works very hard for Libby Davies, works… sits on boards, really offers himself to assist all kinds of people – well, he’s even assisting me. He’s letting me take over his studio for three days. Mind you, I’ve known him – since 74 or something. 75. I think that’s the jist of it, Allan. No, I’m not responsible, but I’m not irresponsible. I’m actually law-abiding for the most part… You know, I mean, I’m not, uh, I’m not a nihilist, right? I’m not actually a nihilist.
Is there art you think that is socially irresponsible?
No. None. This is the censorship issue. We’d need another couple of hours over censorship over my time as an artist. I’ve had quite a bit of it, quite a bit. Prohibition doesn’t work, let’s put it that way, prohibition doesn’t work, for words, for images, for beverages, for mind altering substances, and for a variety of reasons, it’s, it’s untenable, and from a libertarian POV, when people have free access to, more or less to anything, uh, the the criminalization, the distortion and the obsession and the anxiety goes away. There’s a reason why the human body is considered so… makes everybody so anxious, even in 2006, right? They’re still covering up the genitals of the reproductions of David in 2006! Why is this? Well, it’s because we deny our animal natures, so no, you can’t ban, you can’t burn, you can’t suppress…
This is another one of those baby and bathwater situations.
Yes it is, I know it is.
In the same way that I don’t equate the sacred with organized religion, I don’t equate social responsibility with censorship. I’m mostly anti-censorship (save in regard child pornography)… I think it is possible to say that a given artist is socially irresponsible. (I mention gangsta rap) – it does seem socially irresponsible to sing about guns and drugs and…
Well, you don’t then take the next step which is to arrest them throw them in jail and destroy their music. That’s the point. I might dislike, I actually do dislike Mein Kampf, but I defended it many many years ago when I was first on the Sunshine Coast, because someone on a committee said it must be removed from the shelves of this little bookstore, I said that, wait a minute, the Nazis burn books, don’t you see a connection here, isn’t it obvious that this book should be available, and that if you make it unavailable, then people will seek it out elsewhere, and the whole thing becomes repressed and goes underground.
Do you think it’s a bad thing that Ernst Zundel is in prison right now?
I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing. But you can’t shut people up, no more than if you… if you’re… uh, what’s the analogy, you know, no more than you can… You know, if you’ve got something, something’s wrong here in your arm, if you can just slap a band aid on in it every time it reminds you of its existence, that it will go away. No. Prosecution doesn’t go away, people’s desire to be sexually aroused by certain images, words or actions doesn’t, can never go away. You mentioned apes and leadership and hierarchy. Can’t go away. In a liberated zone, in a liberated zone, behaviours change. I would be a fool to say that someone might not be influenced by heavy metal music or rap and go out and cause mayhem. It may be the case, but then I would not therefore conclude that repression needed to be exerted immediately to prevent a couple of people from experiencing some dreadful experience. Likewise, it has actually been stated, not as a joke, but for real, that hardware stores shouldn’t sell kitchen knives or ropes, right? It’s unworkable, it’s unworkable. Of course, I don’t personally set out to be socially irresponsible. I mean, if I engage in some mild criminal activity, the likes of which pretty much everyone does from time to time, there’s nothing socially irresponsible about it at all. And, um… It’s like, it’s like the ongoing debate amongst anti authoritarians about the use of violence, well, I mean, this is an old argument, it goes back and back and back, I mean, the state of course uses violence as its main tool. Well, what are you going to do? I mean, uh. Pacifism is a completely different thing. When someone says to you, oh, so you’re a pacifist, so when the stormtroopers are raping your grandmother on your back steps you just sit down and say nothing. Well no, I’m not that, I’m not that at all. One can act dynamically on one’s own behalf. People always want to think you’re, you know, you’re absolutely this or absolutely that. What happens in a dynamically transformed setting where a revolutionary occurrence has taken place, is that automatically, almost automatically some kind of policing takes place in the liberated zone. This happened in Ireland, this happened in Spain in 1936. It’s happened in all sorts of different places. It isn’t necessarily nice, it can be very ugly and retributive (we stumble over the word), but these things happen, it’s not like everyone sits around, and goes, okay, now we’re happy, everything’s nice, no, you know what I mean? Somebody’s busting into your place, ripping you up, you act decisively on your own behalf, that kind of thing, which of course which comes back to this whole idea of autonomy, independent-minded values and action, which are not synonymous with separating yourself from society. I’m not separate from society, very far from it.
But you do what to extract yourself from dominant power structures as much as possible?
That’s right, that’s exactly right, but every day is a compromise. Every day of life is a compromise where you find yourself a part of this vast web of controls.
Do you ever censor yourself? For instance, in regard to your controversial mural for a Sunshine Coast skateboard shop – do you think of your responsibility to young people --
It was banned. It was up for five days and then it was banned by the, not, uh, by the Indian band counsel, by the chief, because, uh, I had a skeleton skateboarding on a crucifix on wheels, like a skateboard, with its foot on Christ’s face, and plus I had a joint, a joint on a skateboard going along being chased by a sort of Keystone Cops figure, so the chief said that this is intolerable. We can’t subject our your to these kinds of images. It was disassembled. It was on big plywood panels, 21 feet long. It was disassembled.
It was on a skateboard shop and he was renting it from the Indians and they said take it down or you’re out of here.
I tell him I was involved with a Native teacher and coming out of a long period of drug use and I also thought at that time that Maurice’s work was socially irresponsible…
Well, I loved every moment of it. The guy that I did it for, he just loved it.
The painting or the controversy or both?
Both. All of the above. I also design tattoos for him, several of which he has done. No no no… I had the local rector of St. Hilda’s church phone me up and tell me what a horror I was.
The kids must have loved it.
Yes, oh, definitely…
How do you feel about punk rock?
I think it’s just fine. The musical form is too raucous for my elderly ear, mostly, but sure, it’s kind of an age thing, Allan… I see the punk affectation and mannerisms, I know they’re anti-authoritarian, I know that some of them are quite knowledgeable about history and what’s going on, and I appreciate all of that. I have no actual involvement which anyone like that myself...
What do you listen to?
I do listen to CHLY, which is 101.7 FM, and they do have a wide range of music. I generally cannot listen to rap, for the most part. I love jazz. This is the older… I love jazz. I do listen to contemporary rock, I love the blues, I still like classic blues, and there’s a little bit of the old hippie in me, I listen to Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix, and I still like these people, not that I listen to them a lot.
Do you have a CD player, or…?
I don’t have a computer, but I do have a sound system, a CD player.
Do you watch movies?
My girlfriend has a monitor, so we can rent DVDs. I also belong to a local film society, so I see pretty interesting films quite regularly. One of my very favourite films is The Conformist, Bertolucci, I really like that film. And Marat/Sade is one of the great films. I did see that again recently, it’s just a fabulous film, astoundingly radical.
Do you know Peter Watkins…?
Yes, I do, and I saw Punishment Park. You know when I saw that, in 1970 –
…which is when I think it first came out. He also did The War Game, which I think is just amazing.
(I mention my interview with Oliver Groom and the screening of Punishment Park that I was, at that point, planning at Blim -- it happened last month, as I type this)
And I’ve seen a certain number of contemporary films. One of my problems with having access to movies these days through the video stores is that people tend to see too much, they see too much, and they’re bludgeoned, they’re bombarded. I can’t handle it. I used to belong to the Cinematheque when it was on Georgia Street, and that was enough. It was exciting to go once a month. Well, as you know, people will now go to the video stores and they’ll come out with three or six films. This is all wrong to me, I can’t handle it. I don’t want to see that much, and I certainly don’t want to see the dreck that they’re watching. I’ll tell you hands down my favourite film, I should have told you right off. I’ve seen it 8 or 9 times by now, Orson Welles’ The Trial.
Really? That’s considered a lesser Welles…
Brilliant film. You haven’t seen it?
I have seen it, a long time ago.
What Welles did with that film is absolutely a masterpiece, it’s a hugely creative and deeply emotional and expressionist film, it’s really an expressionist film, in the way that, what’s his name, Murnau was expressionist, the German Murnau was. I highly recommend that you see it – try to see it on a bigger screen if possible.
(I ask him about his website, but I don't get the name of the person who helped him design it. Patrick something... I then ask him about current artists associated with underground comics, like Robert Williams or Joe Coleman, but he doesn't know their work either. Some of Williams work reminds me of Spira''s, if somewhat superficially).
I'm completely unfamiliar with graphic novels and contemporary cartoon scene. I’d love to meet what’s his face who did Maus, I think that’s pretty astonishing.
I ask him about whether he can support himself with his work. Thomas has marvelled to me about how efficiently Spira has carved out a niche for himself, keeping himself alive as an artist without selling himself to the straight world...
It’s a question of low overhead – I don’t have a car.
One last thing – sex –
"How often?" (Spira laughs)
No… there seems to be an ambivalence about sexuality in your work. It's often rendered darkly – there are images of copulating skeletons, for example, and a larger than normal emphasis on the anus...
That’s true and defecation is featured quite prominently in a few pieces in this show. I was going to actually call it M. Spira’s Decapitation-Defecation Weekend. A darker view… Perhaps. Again, it’s our animal natures. I wouldn’t say that the romantic in me is entirely absent, far from it, but you know… Gender enters into it here… Y’know, men seem to be very phallically oriented and it’s more of a dynamic and physical search for, uh, you know, pleasure, the more immediate the better, and of course… you know, I have been with a few different partners over time, I’ve been with a woman now for almost eight years who’s quite a feminist, so naturally these sorts of conversations come up… Is it darker? I suppose it is. It’s certainly not the sort of frivolous Hollywood version…
Why the anus…?
Okay, well… I suppose that my response to that should be to say that I don’t have any indoor toilet, I have an outhouse. And also I think that, you know, putting food in, and shit coming out, is something that infants are very interested in, and I think that adults are too, except that it’s taboo. When people go to cultures where squatting in public and shitting (is common), they’re horrified. I’m not saying I would go out there and have a shit in the middle of the road, I’m too well conditioned to do that, but I think it is fascinating. I think all of the orifices of the body are very compelling and I think that perhaps one can say that bathroom humour, which is traditionally considered, y’know, adolescent boys’, I would say that it’s not just adolescent boys, I would say that men more than women find amusement in farting and shitting and it can continue into your adult years. If your question is, do I engage in any shit-related sexual activities, no I don’t, and I’m not really interested in that respect. I like it, I like the act of shitting… It seems to me, it’s very metaphorical for one thing… Yeah…
Artaud says something that if there is a God, he is shit…
Okay, and the other thing, Allan, is… Shit is what I use in abundance – it’s not human, it’s rabbit, and I use it a lot in the garden, and animal manures are really an integral component in the organic system.
I mention Bersani’s "Is the Rectum a Grave?", probably the most important piece of theory ever written about anal sex, power, death, shit, and homophobia.
Ooh, I like that title.
Have homosexual activists given you trouble for presenting the anus negatively?
Not at all. It may happen, I don’t know… Well. I don’t think… It’s curious… I’m trying to think… of presenting the anus in a negative way. I don’t think I have.
You’re on the anus’ side.
I think so.
Maurice tells me to come to both shows:
If you can manage it, Allan… What’s on at the three days show is not to be missed, in my opinion, and it really links through to the Grunt. The Paneficio show is a real, is a very important complement to the Grunt. It’s completely different. There’s large triptychs at the Grunt, one of which, and the main missing one will be at panef. Plus smaller triptychs, plus canvas paintings plus paintings of panels and so on…. Thank you very much. I did enjoy it. All your responses and comments were very lucid.
One other question – what was the name of the skate shop?
Unity. Unity Skateboards.
I thank Maurice and pay for his beer. Thanks are also due to Thomas Ziorjen, without whose help and inspiration this interview would not have taken place; all photographs, including the one below, were taken by Thomas, and more photos of the Spira studio can be seen here. Thanks also to Maurice Spira! See y'all at Grunt and Paneficio.