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One youthful summer, I worked for two florists

By PETER O'BRIEN

If Coach House Press did not exist, it would be necessary for Canadians to invent it. And then the hard part would follow: nurturing it through the years and the many vagaries of publishing, funding, rampant technological change and what can best be described as the constant process of redefining beauty.

Since its founding by Stan Bevington in 1965, the press has been a small company that thinks like a big company. It keeps itself financially viable, it adapts quickly to changing technology, it updates its aesthetic mandate as required and it doggedly goes about doing what it is there to do: publish Canadian books.

As Canadian publishers go, it is also, paradoxically, a relatively big company that thinks like a micro-company. It produces what it wants (approximately 500 books since its founding) and lets the critics and the judgments fall where they may, it is nimble and adaptable (it sees electronic publishing “not as a marketing gimmick but as a reality and as a necessity”) and it keeps its cutting edge truly sharp.

Because of its category-defying nature, this book may very well not have found any other publisher in Canada, and yet it is not only worthy of being published, but worthy of an attentive and inquisitive audience willing to be challenged.

 “Jim, that way. Par la” is the collective work of long-time friends and collaborators John Armstrong, a Toronto artist, teacher, curator and writer; and Paul Collins, a Canadian artist and teacher now living in Paris. While lunching one day in Paris, the two came up with a list of 49 words that they then each photographed and provided text for. The first word chosen was “Jim →” which refers to the graffiti tags scratched into the gravestones at Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery that lead the way to Jim Morrison’s tomb. Other words chosen include “mustard pot /pot de moutarde” “tree / arbre” “Jean-Paul Riopelle,” “phrase,” and “sujet libre.” The images are paired at the beginning of the book and the text paired at the end. The audience does not know who took which photograph, nor who wrote which text.

All the images are resolutely quotidian, and yet they take on, at times, a profound resonance. “Tree / arbre,” for example pairs a photograph of a city tree on the boundary between a garden and a series of intersecting walkways, and a photograph of a framed etching of a tree on ornate filigreed wallpaper. “Sujet libre” pairs a photograph of goose bumps on an arm and a photograph of a Victor Vasarely poster hovering over the traffic of a downtown street.

The writings likewise have a delightfully random, anonymous nature, by turns banal, provocative or prescient:

One youthful summer, I worked for two florists with the real and unlikely names of Groom and Philpot. One day, en route to ‘deliver a wedding,’ Groom told me that he and Philpot had just bought some lovely striped sheets for their bed. For lack of anything better to say, I enquired, ‘Only stripes? Where are the stars?’ ‘The stars?’ he responded. ‘Between the sheets, darling! Between the sheets.’

The book also serves as a catalogue to a show of this work that has traveled from the Robert Birch Gallery in Toronto to the Art Gallery of Sudbury and then to galleries in France and Germany. It is a beguiling juxtaposition of cultures and texts and photographs and sensibilities. The interwoven gestures articulate the banal that is hidden within the imaginative, and the arcane that lurks within the everyday.

Peter O’Brien has reviewed visual art and writing for various publications, including Canadian Literature and Canadian Art.

O’Brien, Peter, “Jim →.” Books in Canada: The Canadian Review of Books (March 2004).

John Armstrong
&
Paul Collins

Jim →, open to tree/arbre page, by John Armstrong and Paul Collins
Published in 2002 by Coach House Books, Toronto, $24.95