Apollo Ghosts + Amanda Curti = Landmark’s dark and stormy urgency
Apollo Ghosts: Landmark (May/2012) — THERE ARE DENSE subtleties tucked into the name of this west coast band’s third full-length record. There’s a cryptic link to their first two LPs and some of their EPs, which are named for specific places — Mount Benson, Hastings Sunrise, Forgotten Triangle, Cedar Street. The reference in this case is to the building where most of the songs where written, also called Landmark. Apollo Ghosts’ songwriter, singer and guitarist Adrian Treacher describes it as a “no-nonsense brick shithouse” that managed to stay dry during Vancouver’s leaky condo crisis in the 80s and 90s.
Treacher also likes the tongue-and-cheekiness of the album title. “A landmark record sounds like a pretty bold or presumptuous or pretentious idea, but we made this ourselves for, like, five dollars.” More directly, the name taps into Treacher’s life trajectory. “I’m in my 30s now, and just getting to that point where people around me are getting married or having kids or breaking up or making big life decisions, and that definitely has a connection to the title and to the cover. People are coming in to make a nest or make a choice to stay somewhere permanently, whereas the last record was a lot more about childhood and looking back at younger years.”
While Treacher says that “about 90 per cent” of the record was written in Vancouver, the rest of it materialized on the other side of country, notably the cover image. Treacher had landed a writer-in-residence grant in Sackville, New Brunswick, in 2011, “so I got to basically go there and just hang out and write songs for the summer — it was awesome.” Not so awesomely, his band’s gear was stolen during Sappyfest (thievery aside, arguably the country’s most compelling homespun music festival), so he ended up staying at a local hosting house for a few days. It turned out to be a very special place, complete with a jam space and other transient musicians willing to share their equipment (the diabolically wonderful Chad VanGaalen among them).
“Almost anytime there’s a band coming into town, we always invite them in ‘cause we have a huge house, and I love hosting bands and cooking for them,” says Amanda Curti, the artist and Mount Allison University undergrad who lives in and looks after the place. A series of large, unconventional family portraits by Curti are spread around the walls (more on those later), and “weird cartoons drawn all over the walls” according to Treacher.
There are also a half-dozen collages hanging in the bathroom, all of them a few years old, also done by Curti. Mostly they depict ducks with smokestacks coming out of their heads and octopuses attached to garbage — “I was living in Windsor at the time,” says Curti,” so pollution and dirtiness had a major effect on everything I was doing.” They’re all untitled, made on discarded pine cabinets with images liberated from old Sally Anne books, and coated in dark lacquer. The oddball of the bunch — landscape orientated, with no polluted wildlife — became both the cover image and finishing touch on Landmark. In a pinch, evidently.
“Like most of our ideas, which truly spawn from being in the bathroom, I was just awestruck by this really cool collage that she had made,” says Treacher. “Sometimes it’s a small thing like a record cover that will be that last piece of the puzzle. You’re looking, you have a general sense of a batch of songs or a theme or a feeling or something, and then you walk into a bathroom and there’s the final piece. It just seemed instant. I looked up and I saw it, and I was like: there’s the album cover, right there, that’s how this record feels to me. After that it was really easy to finish the record.”
For Curti, creating those pieces was also cathartic, albeit tied to a different lever in her creative process. “They were just fun pieces that I did when I was bored, and I kept them,” says Curti. “If I feel stuck when I’m painting or printmaking, I usually go back to collage to get everything flowing again, because I can’t draw. I’m a horrible drawer. I don’t know how I’ve made it through art school being such a shitty drawer.”
Self-deprecation aside, Curti didn’t really pour any conceptual ideas into the piece when she made it, “but then once I looked at it I felt like it was kind of charged.” She recalls that the ships were British, and the floating monks and the crowd of people were from a Chinese history book (the mob was focussed on some sort of explosion before being cut out). Along with the floating monks, these ingredients resulted in a “weird religious political thing all smushed into one piece.”
The smush obviously appealed to Treacher, as did the conflicted mood. “I love the people’s backs at the forefront, the crowds of Asian immigrants,” says Treacher. “I like the very earthy colour tones, I like the wood texture. I also like the sea and ship imagery — I’ve written a lot about the ocean and homecoming. It just had this real Vancouver Island kind of vibe to it too, which is where I’m from. It just seemed perfect.”
The piece also fit well with the songs he’d written. “I think it’s the darkest cover we’ve had so far, and that connects well with the lyrics, which are also darker and spookier, and a bit more depressing.” (Asked about the darkness in his songwriting, Treacher says: “I don’t have much control over what comes out, it just kind of comes out and you look at it after and go, ‘Oh man, what was wrong with me during those last two years? Why did I write those songs? Why did they come out that way?’ I don’t know.”)
Instinct obviously had a big stake in the way Landmark’s packaging art was chosen. Its other aesthetic lynchpins are tied to a couple of Apollo Ghosts’ landmark bands. “Our band are big fans of Guided by Voices, and Amanda’s piece had that sort of Bob Pollard collage vibe to it,” says Treacher. For the record’s interior packaging art, they paid a more overt homage to another lean, mean American punk band that they love. “It might not sound like it when you hear our music, but live we’re a lot more raunchy and brash, and we’re really tight with the punk scene in Vancouver,” explains Treacher. “We wanted to acknowledge our punk rock roots, so we wanted an insert that was kind of like the photo collage from Double Nickels on the Dime by the Minutemen.”
Treacher enlisted his friend Melanie Coles, an Emily Carr undergrad, to produce the packaging layouts (she came up with the handwritten typeface) and the interior designs. “I have no aesthetic sense at all,” says Treacher, “so I trusted her to pick the best photos and arrange them in this kind of weird, punk rock Xeroxed way, and use a typewriter for the liner notes and stuff, and so that’s what she did.”
Oddly enough, this kind of collaborative commissioning process is maybe the only similarity that Landmark bears to the bright, fantastical imagery on Apollo Ghosts’ previous record, Mount Benson. “Benson was more of a commissioning,” says Treacher. “My friend Michelle Vulama is a painter, she paints rock, and the album was about the biggest rock that I know in my hometown, so that was an easy sell. I told her roughly the kind of scene that I wanted, and she provided us with the front and back cover. That was a bit more direct, whereas this one just kind of came to us.”
Salted Meat (2010) | oil and acrylic on board, 58” x 54”
If a reliance on impulse and an appreciation for murkiness are the threads that knit Landmark’s words and pictures together, Treacher inadvertently found a near-perfect co-conspirator in Amanda Curti.
Curti mostly does painting (especially large-scale oil pieces), printmaking and animation. She’s certainly found a sweet niche back east: “Sackville kind of caters to musicians and artists. I have a studio that costs me $100 a month, which is amazing. I’ve lived in Windsor and London, Ontario, and you couldn’t even find a studio. Plus, I can use the printmaking studio at school because the teachers are very nice. And Struts is a great place that puts up a lot of student art.”
While this nourishing atmosphere has allowed Curti’s art practice to thrive, her creative roots are still prominently displayed (to bands coming through town, anyway) at her house in Sackville. “For a long time I was working on art about my family, because I’m Italian, and they’re crazy, and they were just the most interesting people around me,” explains Curti. “So I have a lot of family portraits.”
The smallest one is about 4 feet by 3 ½ feet and the largest 12 feet by 8 feet — a bathtub scene that Curti describes below, along with a couple of others: “I painted a picture of my Nona in a cantina with a bunch of salamis hanging from the ceiling around her and a big fur hat on. I have another one of my brother and my cousin scrubbing each other’s feet in a bathtub – which isn’t made from my head, I actually walked into the bathroom one night and they were having a competition to see whose feet they could get the cleanest, so I went and got my camera and took a picture of that and painted it. And I have two portraits that go together of my cousin Theo and her brother Xavier, and they’re screaming at each other — they were having a fight. So I took a picture and painted it. The two paintings face each other, and it just looks like they’re screaming back and forth.” (Unfortunately — or, fortunately, depending on your disposition — you’d have to visit Sackville to catch a glimpse of Curti’s family portraits.)
Untitled (2010) | mixed media on board, 36” x 54”
Curti generally works from her photographs, and her desire to crack the limitations of that method led her into some truly wacky territory during the last few years. “When I go to take pictures of people they always pose, even if they’re not trying to,” says Curti. “I wanted to get a true picture of someone’s face without them being able to pose, and the only two situations I could think of to capture this were either a sneeze or an orgasm, because with those two things, you can’t control what’s going on with your face. I thought I’d take the more challenging road and do the orgasm.”
Okay, so the wackiness (goofy pun intended) was essentially self-inflicted. Curti’s goal was to make large-scale portraits of people with raw facial expressions, in this case 5-foot-by-4-foot canvases of her subject’s faces, maybe with a couple of inches of shoulder. The tricky part would be coercing and convincing a bunch of friends and acquaintances to masturbate in close enough proximity so that Curti could capture their face at the money shot moment. (Actually, the trickiest part was adapting to what happened after everyone was dressed again.)
So that nothing is misconstrued, Curti should explain her process: “Most of them were taken in a bed. My bed. I would bring people back to my house and give them anything that they needed — because I facilitate the masturbation, right? So I would give them a computer if they needed porn or anything like that, and I supplied fresh towels, lubrication and vibrators. Most of the people I took pictures of, I knew, so I was alright with them doing that. And either I would stay in the room with them while they did it or lay next to them, or I’d stand outside the room, and when they were about to cum they’d call me. And I was like, ‘At least give me five seconds,’ so they’re like, ‘Okay,’ and then I’d hear them scream at me and I’d run into the bedroom and jump on top of them with my camera, taking pictures on rapid fire until they were finished cumming.”
Yes, sometimes there was a little awkwardness. But it also spawned great anecdotes like this one: “There was one person — he’s in a band, but I’m not gonna say names — and there were 13 people in the house, and he was like ‘I’m totally into it, but there’s too many people here.’ So I set up a tent in the backyard. I called it the masturbatorium. He went into the tent and I kinda walked around my backyard smoking a cigarette until I heard him go, ‘Curti, come here!” And then I crawled into the tent and straddled him and took my picture. And that’s how most of ‘em went — I’d just wait for them to call me and then I’d come in like a ninja and take their picture.”
Untitled (2006) | oil, acrylic, acetate and ink on board, 14” x 11”
As you might expect, things got complicated. Curti spent a couple of years before she came to Mount Allison sussing out candidates, and ended up with nine photographs of people to paint. Apparently the paintings didn’t get a good response when people began learning what the project was, and some dismissed it as shock art. To which Curti says: “There’s no nudity, I don’t put a title on them, and nobody would know who they actually are.”
Curti wasn’t really phased by this reaction, but she does say she’s had to take a step back from the project to reevaluate it. “I kinda went crazy ‘cause once people knew what I was doing, I was getting bombarded with people who wanted to get their pictures taken. In my studio I’ve turned all the paintings around so that people can’t see them when they look in the window.”
Likewise, the interactions with her portrait subjects become a bit of a handful. “That wall of awkwardness when you first meet a person, it goes right out the window when your first conversation is about this project,” says Curti. “Anything goes after that. It was like being best friends on high speed. You kind of just bypass all the bullshit and then all of a sudden they wanna tell you their deepest, darkest secrets. And then after I got the photos of some people, it was almost like I was dating them. I had this somewhat sexual relationship with them because I saw them at one of their most vulnerable moments. All of a sudden I’ve got like six, seven, eight people calling me and wanting to tell me all these things. I was like, ‘Holy fuck, I have seven girlfriends and five boyfriends, plus the person that I’ve actually been with for the last six years, and it’s fucking crazy and I need to relax for a minute. It was too much.”
More importantly, Curti began feeling like the work she was producing wasn’t quite right. “These paintings weren’t really translating the whole process of getting these photos, which was more interesting. You know, just going around telling people about this project, and then you mention masturbation and that you’re okay with it, and people are suddenly talking to you about the craziest shit you could possibly think of, because they feel comfortable. That idea was more interesting than the paintings.”
Augment (2010) | oil on canvas, 48” x 36”
Curti decided to experiment with creating a visual experience of an orgasm, or at least the fantasy reel that goes into one. “I went back to someone I’d done a painting of and took a video of her getting into her bed, and shots of her toes and her hands crinkling, and then it zooms into her mouth,” says Curti. She then collaborated with her subject to develop the rest of the piece’s content: “She told me what she sees and feels when she has an orgasm, and that’s what I tried to capture.” So Curti took the footage she had shot and rotoscoped it by hand, and then built the cerebral sequence with a peg board and animation paper, drawing and tracing over and over again to flesh out the fantasy.
Encouraged by her professors at Mount Allison, Curti has plans to evolve the unnamed masturbation project by collecting more camera footage and creating more animation. (She’s still looking for a good name, so fire away with suggestions.) In the nearer term, she’s working on another project that you can see if you happen to be making your way to Sappyfest this year (August 3rd to 5th, 2012). Hatched “just for fun because school is done for summer,” and in homage to one of her icons, Curti and two other local artists are putting together a tribute exhibit to commemorate their love of filmmaker John Waters.
The two other artists are Nick Wilson — a fellow Mount Allison student who works in sculpture — and Joe Chamandy — who does “amazing drawings” and is also plays in a band called Astral Gunk. They’ve agreed that they’re all going to create some sort of flamingos to put up, and they’re also each creating something else, which they’ve been keeping a secret from one another until Sappyfest, when the show will be up at Little Armadillo on Lorne St. in Sackville. Curti will admit that she’s doing “large-scale paintings of Divine and John Waters as religious figures,” but not much else.
Whatever Curti puts on those walls, bet on it being laced with strange, playful and unbridled impulses.
Untitled (2012) | silkscreen on paper, 9” x 28”
PS: Sorry about the five-month gap between posts, folks. I landed a new full-time gig in January, and the adjustment period has been a bitch. Things are starting to even out now, and I’ll be producing three more record art pieces ASAP this summer:
3] Origin stories for some of the strange creatures that adorn Clinton St. John’s Storied Hearts and the Three Assimilations.