By Bart Gazzola
Saskatoon based artist, critic, and curator.
To make work about male identity in the contemporary Canadian art world is to invite ridicule (at best), dismissal (the standard) or accusations of “sexism” or “misogyny” (dirty words in the current dogma). But the works presented by Clint Neufeld in “Grandpa used to washed my hands in gasoline” are both beautiful objects, and very meaningful objects, and they speak to notions of art making, beauty, and identity politics on both a national – and very regional – level: and all very much situated from a masculine place.
This is not to say that Neufeld’s work is without contradictions: in fact, its contradictions are its strengths. Being of the same generation in Canada, we know that our grandfathers had no issue or thought about what it meant to be a man, whereas our fathers had to adapt and modify, and our generation’s masculinity is best described as a fluid activity. The title is a point of beginning: Clint has said his grandfather and he had these intimate moments only when the former would wash his hands after working on engines and other “male” activities, and you can see how men are often defined by doing, and making. Its here that some of the beautiful – literal, and figurative – contradictions of Neufeld’s engines and transmissions come to the fore. All the objects presented by Neufeld are beautiful, almost Rococo in their floral patterning and colours, and presentation, and all are useless. All art is useless, we know, as it has no utilitarian function: but Neufeld starts with automotive components that are in our minds only when they don’t work, and eliminates their reason for being, and then takes the viewer to a place where our attitudes about beauty and masculinity are not just challenged, but re shaped – re cast, if you will, in a delicate manner.
There is humour here, as well: an engine regally “straddles” a white leather chair with dark wood arms and feet, like a man displaying his priapus proudly: but the title of “Trailer Queen” suggests other ideas, one that intersects with car envy, and references another kind of size envy (we all know what trucks really symbolize). The rich blues and the delicacy of this work defies this crass interpretation, though: then you remember you’re looking at what used to be an engine, that men would gather around and hit with a wrench, talking and spitting and tinkering and handling. And don’t forget to wash your hands (with gasoline) before you go home.
Another fragment of beautiful automotive detritus reclines on a white leather ottoman, like a reclining exotic, classical nude: the weight and the girth of this object are astounding, and the gentle bends and indentations on the sensual ottoman suggests hips and curves….and anyone who understands car culture knows that engines are just as much objects of desire as a woman’s body, just as projected upon, just as wanted. Transmissions sit proudly atop tables, like china bric-a-brac, like “useless” wedding gifts more pretty than functional, or as ostentatious displays of wealth: what they are is not immediately clear to the viewer, and this doesn’t matter on a superficial level, though to examine the work and see how it came to this place, from its point of origin, offers a more nourishing, if still “post modernist” take on masculinity.
Neufeld’s works are nostalgic: the “source” parts are currently useless, he says, and would pass out of parlance (save for a few) if Neufeld hadn’t “preserved” them, in this manner. And this nostalgia seeps into other aspects of “Grandpa washed my hands with gasoline”: nostalgia for masculinity, for labour, for beauty, and these works can’t be removed from their site of creation, in Saskatchewan. This is a site of contested narratives, that often privileges the “past” over “now”, or the necessity of remembering, and the artifacts that Clint Neufeld gives us here serve as catalysts for this. And after all that extrapolation, one might postulate that is in part a nod to masculinity, on a personal level in Clint’s grandfather, but also in that which may be lost, and what might be remembered.