From the category archives:

Obituary

Goodbye 2020, Goodbye R.M. Vaughan

by Paddy Johnson on December 31, 2020

Documentation of R.M. Vaughan’s “Super-Diviner” (2014) at Videofag, Toronto

Some experiences I wish I could recall with clarity vanish almost as soon as they occur. Artist and writer RM Vaughan’s “Super-Diviner” (2014) performance marks one such instance: an unusually perceptive tarot reading I still regret not committing to memory. Held at the now defunct Toronto artspace Videofag, visitors were instructed to enter the storefront alone, take three cards from a pile of assorted divinatory decks, and silently slide them under the screen for a blind reading. After he was done, we were asked to rate the accuracy of what we were told. Vaughan had no idea who I was or what I looked like, but still made profound observations. I gave him a perfect score.

As soon as he’d given it, I forgot my reading, assuming I’d have another at some point. We were already friends, and later Richard became a regular contributor to Art F City, covering the Berlin arts scene with a discerning eye and acerbic wit.

I never got to pull another tarot card from his deck, though. On October 23rd 2020, two weeks after he went missing in Fredericton, New Brunswick, police found his body. The police assumed no foul play. Friends and family deduced the cause was suicide.

Two months have since passed, and Richard has been justifiably memorialized in obituaries, tributes, and even a video art program. Friends and colleagues brilliantly captured his humor and uncanny ability to perfectly capture the absurdity of our shared cultural experiences. As a queer artist and writer living in Toronto up until the last five years of his life, he worked as a tireless connector, advocating and supporting other queer creatives from the 80s through to his death. I don’t think he ever got the recognition he deserved, as many others not only observed in their obituaries, but made visible with the craft of their prose. We all want to write something Richard would like, which requires a dash of poetic levity mixed with unsparing prose.

I’m unsure Richard would enjoy this observation even if he begrudgingly respected it: he could be a real jerk, prone to the jealousy and insecurities we probably all have, but tortured by it in ways that sometimes destroyed friendship and trust.

I always forgave Richard for those qualities, though, because he was also amongst the most generous, affable people I have ever met. He often shared pitch ideas and contacts with other writers, a diminishing professional courtesy in the field. When my sister-in-law needed to raise money for an operation the Canadian healthcare system wouldn’t pay for, he offered to help connect her story to others in the Canadian media to raise awareness. In comment threads and editorials he always returned scorn with respect—even when unearned. I watched this first hand as he fielded ad hominem attacks in response to his contentious Art F City review of Amy Feldman’s show at Berlin’s Blain|Southern

Richard knew how to generate conversation and debate, and did so fearlessly. His hilarious 2006 Canadian Art Magazine pan of the exhibition, Intertidal: Vancouver Art & Artists, at MuHKA Museum for Contemporary Art Antwerp used descriptives like “garbage” and “ugly” to rightly mock Vancouver photo-based art as some sort of vaunted cultural export. Canadian arts media, which thirsts for global recognition, perceived the review as sacrilegious in its dismissal as did many professionals. The diaries prompted an outraged letter from superstar photographer Jeff Wall, and so upset the art scene that one reader went so far as to compare him to Hitler. (Richard appropriately parlayed the response into a book deal of collected essays entitled Compared to Hitler.)

Richard’s craftiness helped him survive through leaner years. As I watch freelance writers on Twitter list out what they got paid for assignments this year, I think back to our industry conversations. Sure, we lamented the dwindling freelancer rates, but more often, we bemoaned the organizations who still owed us money. Like everyone who does this kind of work, he often had to wait six months or more before getting paid some meager amount. No one takes into account the amount of time a freelancer has to spend hounding people just to get paid.

I watched the resentment accumulate and weigh on Richard over the years, and when he disappeared, I learned his moods worsened during the COVID-10 lockdown. He needed more access to support than he received. As a culture that still debates the value of universal healthcare and basic income, we don’t doll out help in equal measure. We talk about those suffering from the virus, yet neglect the mental health issues arising from the lockdown. (In the U.S., morality has sunk to debating who should be willing to die. Illnesses like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder barely register.)

Richard tried to put a good face on this. In June, he wrote a humor piece for The Globe and Mail about the humbling experience of moving in with a friend during lockdown and helping to manage the COVID anxiety of their 12 year old daughter. Not two sentences in, he told readers he considered himself “one of the lucky ones.” In the context of his mentorship, the sentiment made his death seem all the more cruel.

“Childhood anxiety is anxiety on amphetamines.” he wrote in his Globe piece. “Yesterday, I talked the kid down from a psychological ledge by explaining how it would be against the laws of physics for the COVID-19 virus to spread through electrical outlets. I know nothing about physics. Which brings us to my second tip. Just lie.”

It’s a funny line, but in retrospect I began to wonder if “lucky” was his lie. Then again, maybe we need to tell ourselves happier narratives, especially when we’re feeling down about ourselves or the world. At the very least, we start taking seriously the sometimes all-too-easily dismissed experiences of our children.

I can only speculate on what Richard felt, but I know for certain that death didn’t scare him. “I grew up in Atlantic Canada,” he told me in a 2018 piece I wrote for Garage about artists’ paranormal faith. “All the conversations I heard from adults included ghosts at some point. People talked about them in a very natural way—the way you might talk about the weather.”

I don’t believe ghosts spend their time in metropolises like Berlin or Toronto—giant cities exude too much energy for an afterlife to survive—so I’m glad he died in Fredericton, just over an hour from his birthplace, St John. The smaller Maritime center seems more friendly to spirits. Wherever he is now, I’m sure he’s found family and friends, along with the solace he couldn’t get here. 

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Remembering John Berger, The Old Master of Seeing

by Paddy Johnson on January 4, 2017
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“The silence after a felled tree has fallen is like the silence immediately after a death,” wrote John Berger in his 1984 book And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos. “The same sense of culmination.” Of course, today, two days after the great art critic’s death that’s not exactly what he got. So far, it’s been a cacophony of Twitter alerts, Facebook notifications and hastily written obituaries. In the world of social media, the same tree can fall continually for months even years. Like most celebrities largely out of public view, we can expect Berger’s death to be rediscovered several times over the coming decade—his death tweeted a new, a tree felled once more.

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Fear and Loathing in Trump’s America

by Michael Anthony Farley on November 10, 2016
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I’ve been drinking pretty much non-stop from around 7 p.m. on election night to about 12 hours ago. That’s when the realization sunk in that the world hasn’t ended—yet—and I had to work today, sober.

I guess cultural commentators are supposed to provide some sort of eloquent, thoughtful observations in times like these. But there’s just not a lot I can muster beyond repeatedly screaming “FUUUUUUCK!”

All I can add to the echo chamber of despair is an honest account of how one white queer person on Medicaid and food stamps —who is scared shitless for my nieces, and my nephew with disabilities, and my chosen family that’s disproportionately comprised of trans*, immigrant, outspoken, poor, black, brown, and female bodies—has been trying to cope.

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The Tears That Donald Trump Brought

by Paddy Johnson on November 9, 2016
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When I did sleep last night, I dreamed I was stuck in a small hovel trying to hide from an evil demon. I told my friend there was a demon outside, but he let him in anyway and then left me to defend myself. Somehow, I knew I’d be doing it for a long time—this wasn’t the first time I had the nightmare.

The symbolism in my dreams—when it exists at all—has never been anything but obvious. I woke up to the light of my phone. It was 3 am, but there was so much activity in response to the election, that the battery was drained and the screen was on.  Donald Trump’s win of the election was already taking a toll. No one I knew slept for more than three hours.

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One Day Into the World Without Gawker

by Paddy Johnson on August 23, 2016
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For those of us who started and maintained blogs in the mid aughts, yesterday’s closure of Gawker wasn’t easy to watch. A year ago, I published a list of art blogs and magazines with Corinna Kirsch, full of headings modified with words like “active”, “not-active”, “defunct”, and “deleted”. It was already the end of an era then. Now, with the demise of the largest and arguably the most pioneering of blogs, I find myself wondering who amongst us will be left standing.

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One Year After Chris Burden’s Death, You Can Still See “Ghost Ship” Docked at the New Museum

by Michael Anthony Farley on May 10, 2016
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Today is the one year anniversary of Chris Burden’s death from melanoma at the age of 69. I’ve been thinking a lot about Burden lately; there have been few artists capable of producing work that retains such a visceral punch no matter how often it’s been seen. Watching decades-old documentation of, or even reading about, Burden’s limit-testing performances still elicits a sense of suspense. Burden desperately wanted to shock his audience into feeling something. He was a polarising figure, but there’s no doubt that he succeeded.
So today, head to the New Museum and look up at “Ghost Ship”. Chris Burden might have disembarked on his final journey, but a piece of his frontier-pushing spirits still floats over the Bowery, for the time being.

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Ellsworth Kelly Made Minimalism Move

by Paddy Johnson on December 28, 2015
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I always thought I would outgrow my affection for Ellsworth Kelly as I have with most twentieth century masters. I was wrong.

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RIP, American Royalties Too Act

by Whitney Kimball on January 13, 2015

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Another proposal for artist resale royalties died this week when the American Royalties Too (ART) Act was quietly omitted in Congress, reports the Art Law Report.

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Tributes to Harun Farocki

by Whitney Kimball on August 1, 2014
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“We can never tell where his influence stops.” Artists and curators offer their thoughts about Harun Farocki, a forebearer of the essay film, after he passed away on Wednesday.

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