Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Jason Kieffer's Toronto

The Rabble of Downtown Toronto and Zanta The Living Legend are two fascinating accounts of the forgotten underculture of a major metropolitan city. In the former book, artist Jason Kieffer simply draws a series of two-page features on a number of what can be called street characters in his city. One page is a close-up of the person and the name Kieffer uses for them, as well as a map of where they can be found in downtown Toronto. The second page is a portrait of each person, complete with arrows pointing to key visual characteristics as well as notes on their behavior and activities. Some of the profiles are funny and light-hearted, but after awhile, they start to get depressing and uncomfortable. Pointing out piss and shit stains on the homeless is not exactly a charitable observation, but it also becomes clear that Kieffer is actually interacting with these people. At first, it seems like it's from a position of condescension and smug superiority, but then it becomes something else all together. The level of detail here is a little too refined, making the reader wonder just who recorded all of these tics and how long it took. Kieffer himself lets the cat out of the bag with the final member of his "rabble": "The Artist", whose hair is usually unwashed and his jacket missing buttons.  In other words, the Rabble are his people.

Deep down, there is compassion for everyone he meets, though only up to a point. It's easy to feel sorry for someone strung out on drugs or past the point of help with regard to a serious mental illness, right up until they threaten you. Kieffer gets at that feeling as he describes crack whores, criminals and those who simply slipped through the cracks of urban civilization.Kieffer favors an exaggerated style of drawing, with big swooping, thick lines for his characters. It's a snug fit with the kinds of people he draws, because there's nothing subtle about them in the least. While it can be argued that Kieffer is occasionally cruel in his depictions of these street characters, I'd say that the level of detail he provides is a way of concretizing these people. They are not simply ghosts that we can look away from, but rather real people who somewhere along the way found they simply stopped fitting in and stopped caring about it. In the case of some, they lost to ability to conform to consensus reality because of their illness. Kieffer also wants the reader to stop and think about whether these people are crazy or if the city itself is crazy.

That point is expanded upon in Zanta, which is a long profile/interview the artist conducted with the famous Toronto street character. Shirtless, and clad only in shorts, shoes and a Santa hat, the muscled man performs his own brand of street theater as he did knuckle push-ups on the street while yelling all sorts of strange things. Zanta began his career as a street performer after he recovered from a devastating injury that left him on permanent disability. The concept of being a character who never stopped being in character intrigued him even as it was obvious that he was very clearly unbalanced in a number of ways. Kieffer captures the way he fascinated many, some laughing at him but many laughing with him. He also captures the way in which Zanta is oblivious to those he scares with his in-your-face approach, as though he was entirely incapable of reading the emotional reactions of others.

That said, the oppressive reaction made by the city of Toronto's police was entirely over-the-top, as far more offensive personalities were ignored on the streets while Zanta practiced his sometimes annoying but mostly harmless antics in public. The fact that Zanta never asked for money alone makes the "nuisance" aspect of his shouts and push-ups a bit harder to swallow. In the end, Zanta wanted to bend reality to his own way of seeing the world, and reality fought back -- hard. Even in a diverse city like Toronto, there's a certain amount of order and routine that the ebb and flow of urban life requires, and Zanta was a dissonant note that was summarily and harshly rooted out. Kieffer gave a voice to Zanta, even if that voice was occasionally hyperbolic, incoherent and lacking in self awareness. As the narrative of the book moves forward in time, it grows increasingly sad, as the one thing that gave this man any real joy in life was systematically taken away from him. Zanta may not have been a hero, but he was certainly no villain. Yet this is how he was treated: as a threat to society, and Kieffer convincingly makes this case while making no claims as to Zanta's sanity nor by denying that some people found him obnoxious or frightening.

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