On the eve of Team Macho’s first show at the AGO, I sit in the basement of the gallery watching the creation of their large-scale installation and wonder, how do four art-school kids end up here in this space that also houses Reubens’s “Massacre of the Innocents”? How did they get here? During a walking tour of the gallery one of the guys is quick to point out how “fucking good” a set of paintings by Clarence Gagnon (a relatively unknown French Canadian impressionist) are, citing details about the technical virtuosity involved in creating his landscapes. Forever concerned with the process of art, their jaunts around the gallery are not meant to be leisurely. They may move slowly through the salons but their engagement with the art on the walls is frenetic; they hone their craft by consuming things like the variations in color-use and consistency of the brushstrokes of the gallery’s artists. For Team Macho this is serious study and they deconstruct paintings in much the same way that a musician separates instruments in a radio mix: piece-by-piece and moment-by-moment.
Team Macho is rarely labeled serious. Read about them in any of their previous publications and you will hear about how witty and fun they are, how their work is an amalgam of illustration and painting; how they collectively undermine each other’s offerings in a type of ego-destroying game, and how the everyday, when seen through their eyes, somehow becomes extraordinary. We are told this is what it means to be “Macho” in their world. This is all true. But what this description lacks is a real sense of what Team Macho does. The slapstick brushstrokes in most of their work are a challenge to the idea of what constitutes art and how it is made. Their trademark spirit of competition is present in nearly all of their work: they brainstorm with friendly disagreements about most things, including who came up with the name Team Macho.
If there were a primer on Team Macho, the first thing it would tell you is that to pigeonhole them as a certain type of art collective is simply to miss the point of their work altogether. In general, the consensus from the team is that they are always amazed by interpretations of their work because they don’t know how to interpret it themselves. The second thing you should know about Team Macho is that they are working artists. Around Queen St West in Toronto, where they show their art, it may appear that everyone is making art. The streets are filled with everything from ladies on the corner hawking what seems like paint-by-number dogs to galleries selling high-priced pieces. But while most of these people call themselves artists, Team Macho make their living as artists. To understand Team Macho, you must understand that their work is their life and their living. They have dedicated themselves to performing the act of mark-making, and their collective goal is to reveal the process of this endeavour, to demystify what it means to live a life dedicated to art, and to display both their mistakes and triumphs in front of a crowd. Often charged with being funny or base, Team Macho does not present only the best of what they make, and, paradoxically, it’s by overcoming their collective ego that this approach always produces their best. In general their work is not purely an exercise in aesthetics, although walking around a Team Macho show you will overhear wild interpretations claiming that it is. The Team will say outright that their work is not meant to be decoded, not intended to flummox or bamboozle their audience; they simply paint and draw, exposing what goes on inside their heads. But the public disagrees.
Team Macho have chosen to walk a different path, to live what they call the “Macho” lifestyle, which inevitably means that they are enamoured by the way other people live: things like new frying pans and home fixtures that work are simple pleasures that they have chosen to forgo to be able to get to this point in their career. In this part of their universe the word “Macho” is used ironically, inverting the expected notions of what people think they should be and how they should live. To experience this lifestyle one need only pay a visit to their downtown headquarters. Climbing through the basement window of their studio is like falling down the rabbit hole, and after five minutes among the machismo one realizes that it is not an act, that Team Macho’s secret lies in their everyday belief that art is about process, about form and content, about the ego-less pursuit of the interesting. And, it is about sometimes staring at a painting to try to find out what’s missing and someone crying aloud: “Lets just put some dicks in it.” This is the story of being Macho.
Process as Art
In her essay Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag writes that “[n]one of us can ever retrieve that innocence before all theory when art knew no need to justify itself, when one did not ask of a work of art what it said because one knew (or thought one knew) what it did.” If, as Sontag claims, interpretation is now inescapable, then we must conclude that the philosophy of Team Macho is based on a type of anti-art. It is an attempt to return to artistic innocence before art had to be a certain way. This is a slippery slope for the gallery goer, who wants to interpret, who feels that any picture of a baby with “Dyke” written across her forehead in big block letters must be a comment on something. But for Team Macho their art is presented without an overt message and they take great pride in the myriad of explanations they have received over the years from the gallery-going public as to what their work means. In that particular piece, one member began the process by painting a charming watercolour of a smiling infant and then passed it on to another to finish. This is when “Dyke” got scrawled across her forehead. And then they laughed. In this particular work there are subtle clues that allude to the baby identifying as gay, which are often missed because of initial outrage. The process that is demonstrated in a painting like this is both an act of creation and destruction; the only intent is to ruin what was already done and in so doing to augment what has been made. In most cases the motivation for such an addition is humour.
Team Macho shies away from posturing. Their work can be both funny and dark but it is always accessible, and their willingness to fail in public helps the viewers to make sense of what they are seeing. In another of my favourite paintings they have embedded the deliberately ungrammatical text: “Dear diary Today I ask my father where babees com form This is a drawing of his explanation.” It ends up presenting an aesthetic of representation using lines and text, making the actual picture secondary to the misspelled words that do not seem to match the doodle-like sketch that stands below it. Team Macho have their own language not unlike the text in the “babees” painting. After years of working in such close proximity they have a shorthand way of talking that borders on the unintelligible. Spending time with them is like being in the presence of quadruplets who speak their own brand of Pig Latin so as not to divulge their secrets to their mother. This is how they live, work and operate — collectively — and their brand of art reverberates with this fact in every piece. Their goal has always been to reveal the process, to paint in public, and to externalize the grind of making art. Spending years learning the grammar of the brush and then producing some of the finest paintings around does not mean that they must always create art using the same methods. They are constantly trying to unlearn what they know, to push the boundaries of their work, and to reclaim their innocence and playfulness in regards to art. Ruskin writes that
“He who has learned what is commonly considered the whole art of painting, that is, the art of representing any natural object faithfully, has as yet only learned the language by which his thoughts are to be expressed. He has done just as much toward being that which we ought to respect as a great painter, as a man who has learned how to express himself grammatically and melodiously has toward being a great poet” (Ruskin, On Painting 40).
Team Macho believes that to be great painters their art must challenge the idea of how to unlearn what they have been taught, that the process of making art should not be privileged so as to remain hidden, and that the interpretation of all of this belongs in the hands of the viewer.
As an example, their current installation, Axis Mundi, has a large mural backdrop of a forest that has bright pink spots on it standing ready for analysis. These marks have a special meaning for the artists, but Team Macho simultaneously harbour excitement waiting to see what they mean to everyone else. After the process of transmission and reception concludes they always seem to find humour in how wide the spectrum of interpretation that relates to their work really is. The mythos that drives them is always private and, in an ironic twist, their art seems to charm specifically because their final products are approachable. Making the private amicable is what Team Macho does. But in this process their artistic intentions are almost always different from the meaning that the viewer extracts. This is one of the things that draw people to Team Macho; their art is so varied and seemingly disparate that publicly it is hard to dispute any interpretation. In the same essay quoted above, Sontag makes the statement that “Art is seduction, not rape.” When read this statement, half of Team Macho swore that their work was the former and the other half swore it was the latter, and then they laughed, the joke being that it is probably both.
What Team Macho understands collectively is that serious art need not be filled with serious content. They often employ traditional painterly techniques to create works of the utmost beauty and then playfully undermine the entire endeavour by including some subversive act. My favourite example is The Acrobats from a recent show. It is a painting, done in oils on board, of a pyramid of acrobats, presented in painstaking detail that looks more like a renaissance piece than a contemporary offering. But, in usual Team Macho style, upon closer inspection the viewer will notice that the leotards of the acrobats are crotchless and that their acrobatic members are all hanging out. A product of the team mantra (“lets just put some dicks in it”), this painting appears to be funny —but for them it is not a joke. They want to put you in a critical space in which you are forced to question what you are looking at, and then you laugh. Because of moves like this, Team Macho are often labeled as being jokesters, but they are so much more than that. What they do with their work is create a large metaphorical gap to allow the viewers to engage with a piece of art on their own terms. This is why the interpretations of their work are so varied. The edges of their metaphors are wide —often producing a humorous response because the content borders on the absurd — but their process allows something much more important than humour. It allows room for interpretation, not solicited, rarely agreed upon, but always possible.
Team Macho paintings mean something different to each viewer and in this way deliver a sense of personal connection to those who seek out their work, often inverting subject and object and asking their patrons to consider that the painting may in fact be looking at them. Viewers of The Acrobats engage the painting in the usual way until they realize what is happening on the canvas and their embarrassment becomes the new dialogue. In this way the painting is acting on the viewer, just as the viewer’s interpretation acts on the painting.
The Macho Instant
One final thing to consider is that time as we usually experience it in art is absent in Team Macho’s work. The collaborative nature of their art means that each piece and each contribution has a different axis of time, one in which every addition marks another instant of the narrative. Each work is about that exact thing at that exact instant; it does not allude to the moment before or the moment after, but is about right now. The right now may be about Siamese robots and twenty-three toed cats, but it is about those things in the moment they were imagined. Collectively they all seem to view this moment a little differently and their contributions explain this, meaning that each work of art is a collection of how they each individually see the moment, together. For Team Macho that moment is what they are trying to show you. It is a way to challenge your expectations of them, including what the word “macho” means in relation to their work. It is about being in their world and about the exposure of the process that makes these four guys, and everyone who engages in the experience of their art, Macho.
Adam James Bradley holds a PhD in English Language and Literature and Systems Design Engineering from the University of Waterloo. He has been known to carouse from time to time with Team Macho, engaging and usually losing at games of chance like drinking gin and political debate. He currently holds the coveted Team Macho table tennis championship belt.