Seth brings us back to the Good Old Days that never were

COVER by Paul Constant

image courtesy University of Lethbridge Art Gallery

Seth: Dominion
Dunlop Art Gallery
April 17-July 5

The Ontario town of Dominion City is reportedly home to 300,000 souls. It’s beyond picturesque; the whole city has a stately mid-20th century aesthetic that everywhere else has long since been pulverized beneath a tsunami of utilitarian condominiums and sterilized strip malls.

In Dominion, almost every wall is marked with the crisscross of brick and every sign is hand-lettered. Art deco flourishes coexist with the occasional peaked-roof colonial lodge.

Over on Frank Street, you’ll find an outpost of popular Dominion City diner chain Bluebird Cafe. Guides to Dominion inform us that local television personality George Sprott used to eat there “at least three times a week for 20 years,” before his death in 1975. We’re told that Sprott preferred the “meatloaf sandwich with a side of sour pickles.”

In Dominion, you’ll find plenty of character: the local outpost of the Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (or the G.N.B.Double C) is one of the liveliest in the whole organization. The Canadian Toboggan Works boasts about its “Master Wood-Carvers” in large cursive letters painted on the side of the building. Narwhal Books has an adorable cartoon narwhal — really more of a fish with a single unicorn horn — in its front window.

Of course, it’s impossible to not notice that front window of Narwhal Books is cardboard. Not because the glass window was broken; the window is drawn onto cardboard.

In Dominion City, the walls are cardboard. Roofs, too; corrugation is plainly visible at the edges of eaves. It’s a model city made of cardboard, with each of the over 70 buildings crafted by a single pair of hands from basic household materials.

Dominion, which will be on exhibit at Dunlop Art Gallery from April 17 to July 5, is a very real depiction of a fictional city, fastidiously representing a time and a lifestyle that never really existed.

Canada’s Quintessential Cartoonist

In the early 1990s, a trio of Canadian cartoonists upturned the North American alternative comics scene with their raw, unflinching autobiographical comic books. Reading the latest comics by Chester Brown, Joe Matt, and Gregory Gallant — who uses the pseudonym Seth — was a genuine thrill. The three friends wrote about masturbation, relationship failures, and money woes in an open, relatable way, and the cartoonists made frequent appearances in each others’ stories, creating an interior continuity between books that was followed closely by avid fans. In much the same way that Marvel Comics’ sprawling mythology found its fame by opposing the conservative, partitioned, unrealistic world of DC Comics, Matt, Seth, and Brown jolted the alternative comics world by redefining the limits of realism.

In the decades since, Seth has had the most interesting career of the three. His prolific comics work has expanded in unexpected directions, often taking the form of fictional biographies of people and organizations. Fantagraphics Books hired him to design their chronological collections of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, a job which designated Seth as a kind of spiritual heir to Schulz’s work. Like Schulz’s heroically sulking figures, Seth’s lines have a weary majesty to them, a stimulating mix of melancholy and cultivated class.

Seth, with his taste for beautiful suits, his huge collections of ephemera, and his habit of complaining in interviews about the “shoddy” nature of craftsmanship in modern times, gained a reputation as a bit of a nostalgic. His work supported this reputation, obsessed as it is with old-timey men’s clubs and collectors of rare comic books. Seth tells stories in all kinds of different ways—he’s published long, ambitious graphic novels; weekly serialized comics in the New York Times; and silly, loose-limbed sketchbook comics about a society of cartoonists in an alternate world in which comics have been embraced by the Canadian government as a serious art form — but those stories are always haunted by the past. Or at least a past.

Dominion is another story from Seth, one that has enjoyed a surprising amount of interest from galleries and media outlets around Canada. It began with a model of a dairy bar Seth fashioned together out of cardboard and glue and house paint as a way to help visualize a comic he was working on. In an email interview, Seth admits he didn’t make the building “for any important reason,” but more out of “fun,” as an opportunity to create the “kind of thing I always enjoyed as a child.” The comic that inspired Seth to create the pieces that would become Dominion didn’t make it off the drawing board but in the years since he’s set most of his stories in Dominion City, building out the fantasy with astonishing levels of complexity.

It’s a project that will never end. “Slowly, bit by bit, I am adding to the city,” Seth writes. “I could add buildings forever.” Dominion’s most recent addition, a fur storage business, was added to the project a month ago, but Seth knows that completion isn’t an option: “I couldn’t build enough of [Dominion] in my lifetime to truly flesh out the proper amount of places that could exist” in a city of that size. “If I make six [buildings] in a year, I am lucky,” Seth says. “I wish I had the time to make 60 a year.”

Seth calls himself “a collector by nature,” labeling the act of collection “my central impulse in life. Even more than being an artist.” Perhaps Dominion is so compelling for him, and for us, because it combines his two great pursuits. Dominion City, and the notebooks in which Seth chronicles its citizens and history, appeal to the storyteller in him and the buildings, with their detail and the way they accrue value in aggregate, appease the collector in him.

It would be easy to dismiss Dominion City as a beautiful relic, but to call the project an exercise in nostalgia would be a mistake. Seth admits in an e-mail interview that “there is a lot of wistful nostalgia in my work,” but he also looks “backward in a more complex way than simply dreaming of a golden age set sometime in the past.”

Seth believes the qualities that keep him coming back to Dominion are “a sense of formality and occasion to life and… a kind of cohesiveness to the design and aesthetics of those eras.” But he’s too intelligent, too perceptive an artist to not realize that he’s building a past that never really was. Under that layer of idealization, the city of Dominion is hiding some ugly truths. The cheery aura of optimism obscures an institutional sexism and racism that egregiously penalizes anyone not born white and male, for example. Seth’s books often hint at the marginalization of other experiences: a First Nations cartoon character’s ethnicity is presented as a personality quirk; a woman is treated like furniture by a man in love with his own grandiosity.

In retrospect, one of the defining aspects of postwar life was the sense of permanence that most people seemed to feel; the assumption was that there would always be a Canada, and its cities would always be full of movie theaters and bookstores and record shops. In the olden days empires rose and fell, but the inhabitants of the western civilization of the mid-20th century seemed confident that their empire would last forever. Things could only improve, until suddenly they didn’t. It’s telling that Seth documents these sentiments of cultural immortality in impermanent media — comics, which were largely considered a disposable entertainment, and “brick” buildings fashioned out of paper and glue.

On the spectrum of his work — from the ponderous subtlety of Clyde Fans all the way over to the frivolous broad comedy of Wimbledon Green — Seth aligns Dominion more with the latter, the improvisational spirit of his sketchbook comics.

When asked to assess Dominion City’s future beyond his own life, Seth admits that its longevity will likely be a problem.

“I think a curator or conservator in the future if they are interested in my work will be unhappy at the choices I’ve made. It’s all pretty shoddily made, stored and cared for,” he says.

Dominion, he says, “is as much about something ‘passing’ as it is about something ‘being’.” It’s a dilemma that’s haunted our artists since at least the days of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: without death, there’s no such thing as immortality.

Join Seth for an artist talk April 17 at 6 p.m. at the RPL Film Theatre followed by an opening reception at 7:00 p.m. in the Central gallery.