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Alex Wyse: Activism Of The Absurd

June 2011

By Mike Levin

Alex Wyse loves the absurd: how technology has changed everything in the world, except human emotions; when Spike Milligan’s Neddy whines that heavy rain will ruin the monsoon season; and how after a career as an artist, he thought he would be driving a tractor or moving rocks – that career nowhere near an end because there’s still so many absurd things happening around him.

Alex Wyse and a world gone bonkers. Photo by Mike Levin.

In Guerilla magazine I had read Ottawa Art Gallery curator Catherine Sinclair’s feelings that Wyse is “always looking to expose and deconstruct underlying structures,” and that his focus on the environment is the key to his art. Ottawa is a good place to lampoon Canada’s concern about eco-degradation: a city so smug with its stability that it has lost touch with external frailty.

Now 68, Wyse enjoys nothing more than illustrating the results.

“I look like I’m solving problems, but I’m not. I just look like I am.” With that he’s off telling another story, about the pleasure of making people laugh during his 50 years of creating and how poking fun at cultural ethics was never his intention. “It’s just what I do. It’s saved me from myself and other people. A protection barrier.

“I don’t censor myself. That is a problem sometimes. Some say it’s a weakness; some say I’m being true to myself. But you see, my whole family is like that. I remember my mother, at 80, asking ‘what is it you do again?’ and then telling my daughter ‘your father doesn’t have much of a manly career, does he?’ That’s how it is.”

That’s how it was in post-World War II British Midlands, the area around Wyse’s native Tewkesbury. People led with their chins and survived by making others laugh. By the time he left, Wyse always had another anecdote at hand, although it wasn’t always that way.

“I was a very scared little boy.” What scared him were itinerant men – discharged soldiers – who would wander into town. And the growing pollution from military detritus in the Avon and Severn rivers that meet in Tewkesbury. Wyse was an avid reader. Naturalist John Moore’s book related how British bird species were vanishing. “I thought, what’s this all about?” It was a scary time.

Wyse could read but couldn’t write until he was 18. The only way to pass an examination to get into the Royal College of Art was to practice copying the script in books his father would bring home. At the College he studied engraving. It would get him a job in Cape Dorset after he immigrated to Canada in 1961, drawn by the images of wilderness and a desire to work on a boat in the Arctic.

Fish Flying South. Courtesy of Guerilla magazine.

Cape Dorset was as far north as he got. He met a local school principal named Anne, married her and moved to Ottawa. “I’ve been a kept man ever since,” he says, explaining how he’s been able to be a working artist for all his married life. (Anne and Alex have published three children’s books together that help with literacy.)

Despite five decades in Canada, Wyse has never stopped leading with his chin. With his hands he’s made folk art and paintings that satirize pomposity, politics and our mistreatment of the environment.

“The world seems to have gone bonkers, and that ticks me off, starts me off on a crusade,” and he’ll spit out another anecdote about automobile efficiency rising from 30 miles per gallon to 60. “What happens? People buy two (cars).”

Exposing The Inevitable. Courtesy of Guerilla magazine.

He’s rarely angry for long. He feels very lucky to be creating cutting-edge art when so many of his friends are passing away. “Human beings intrigue me, everyone has their special moments, and I love to see their wonderful reactions.” He wants to go to the Indy 500 or to boxing’s championship fight, not just for the sport (which he loves) but for the spectacle, to see what cultural foibles he can suck up.

There’s been no lack of ammunition in his long career. That’s why his show at the Ottawa Art Gallery – Wyse Works: Exposing the Inevitable – from June 17 to September 11 contains pieces from the 1950s up to the present.

“As long as we envy other people and are willing to accept freedom but not accept the responsibility (of it), we will always need change, a way of relating to (frailty) as human beings,” he says. Perhaps what’s most absurd is how so few in Canadian society understand what he means.


Nadia Boucher and Samuel Bisson perform as the Passport Duo in a classical concert of cello and piano at the Church of St. Bartholomew, June 19 at 2 pm.


  • Rosalba said:

    Neet!! Very nice, unusual artwork!

  • MLevin (author) said:

    Thanks Miss R. Hope all is well down there. Mike

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