Gary Michael Dault - John Abrams, Reading Toronto 2006
John Abrams Bridget Bardot 25 x 25 feet 2006
The Cameron Public House, at 400 Queen Street West (at Queen and Cameron), “Toronto’s original artmusictheatrebar”, as its own website (http://www.thecameron.com <> ) rather hectically describes it, celebrated its 25th anniversary back in October. That is to say, it celebrated its 25th anniversary as an artmusictheatrebar. The place has been a pub and…well, let’s not be over-delicate about this…a flophouse for about 80 years before that.
Actually one point on the trajectory of the Cameron’s life as a residential hotel generated the large ants that appear to crawl about on the building’s upper floors.
Everybody must know this story, right?
Anyhow here it is again: It seems that the hotel’s owners, who bought the place in 1981, got wind of the fact that, in the course of the Pope’s visit to the city in 1984, his motorcade would take the Popemobile right past the Cameron. It was then decided to paint the building purple and gold—the “papal” colours.
Somehow—and the exact progression of these events has grown muzzy and confused during the last 22 years—the hotel’s waggish decision to ask the Toronto Archdiocese that the Pope “bless” the hotel in passing, and being not only rebuffed but chastised in the process, seems to have become inextricably bound up (the whole progress is bureaucratically byzantine in its machinations) with the city’s loosing City Inspectors upon the Cameron House, in search of the ten presumed “illegal dwellings” housed in the upper floors of a building that was, after all, legally designated as a residential hotel.
Anyhow, it became a matter of no little interest to artist Napoleon Brousseau, one of the founders of the famous Fast Wurms art group and now a prodigiously accomplished artist in his own right, that the hotel’s elusive tenants—who often had to be hurridly packed away and hidden from the City Inspectors (and who were often the elite of Toronto’s avant-garde; you can read about them on the website)—might be handily symbolized by the construction of ten giant ants that could be affixed to the building. “Tenants” equals “ten ants”, see? And so the stupendous insects came to pass—or rather, to remain.
This is all preamble, however to my desire to talk for a few minutes about the murals that have always graced the building’s south façade—the Queen Street side.
The latest one, commissioned by the Cameron’s owners to mark last October’s anniversary, is a big softly painted portrait of Brigitte Bardot—as she appears in one frame of Jean-Luc Godard’s magnificent film Contempt (Le Mepris) from 1964.
The mural–sized portrait is by John Abrams—who has painted all of the murals on the hotel’s south façade. I phoned John last night and we talked about it:
GMD: How many murals have you painted on the Cameron?
JA: This is the fifth.
GMD: Can you remember the others—in order?
JA: Sure. First there was the Goddess with the nose ring, then Barbra Streisand and Pierre Trudeau, then the blue-gold Goddess lying sideways with her cheek gently resting on the sidewalk, then the blue girl [vertical this time]—whose expression I changed from time to time…
JA: Well, one time I came back to her after a while and closed her eyes. I was going to make all kinds of changes gradually over time.
GMD: Like a kind of very slow animation.
GMD: And the current Brigitte Bardot is the fifth?
JA: Right. Actually, it’s kind if a hybrid image—it’s partly Bardot and partly my daughter Taylor.
GMD: How old is Taylor?
JA: She’s twenty. And she gives me that same look sometimes.
GMD: What did you use to paint her?
JA: Outdoor acrylic latex. An exterior water-based house paint. The Cameron House has an account next door—at Jacob’s Hardware.
GMD: How long did she take to paint?
JA: Oh, it’s pretty fast! I worked on her during two weekends—painting about five or six hours each day. Actually. it was during the Nuit Blanche weekend that I finished her.
GMD: You painted all night?
JA: Nah, I walked around all night.
GMD: You must have drawn a crowd, painting in such a public place?
JA: Well, I started pretty early, before anybody was around. At 6am. Nobody bothered me. Then I’d split around ten. After that the sun would come up over the building across the way, and it wasn’t so pleasant to paint in the sun.
Why Bardot? It’s part of what Abrams does. For years now, he’s been painting scenes from the movies he loves—and he really loves movies a lot. One recent exhibition was made up entirely of small paintings of individual frames of Godard’s film Breathless. Which was followed by the Contempt exhibition.
GMD: This particular Bardot [the one on the Cameron House]
looks softer to me than before. Are you painting differently in some way?
JA: I’m using rollers. I really like it. And I might use rollers now, even in my smaller paintings.