Roadsworth by Roadsworth and Bethany Gibson with a foreword by Scott Burnham


A book review. Click here for details on the book.

I’ve read the Roadsworth book twice now. This is also the second time I’m writing a review. My first one was crap – take my word for it. I’m kind of torn about the book, which is quite possibly the reason why my first try at a review wasn’t good. On one hand I want to like it very much, on the other it could have been so much better. Neither animal, vegetable or mineral, it falls somewhere in between a catalogue of Peter Gibson’s work, a biography about Peter Gibson, and a pretty book of pictures taken by Peter Gibson. But let me back up a little bit.

A bunch of years ago (late 2004 to be exact) I met Peter Gibson. He (like me) has a second name, his is Roadsworth. When I was running Zeke’s Gallery I came across some of his work, took pictures of it and published them on the Zeke’s Gallery blog. Each time I came across another one, it was kind of a big deal. At the time there were some folk working with me, and when they would find another one of his pieces we’d all kind of jump up and down with glee and then I’d ask them to take a picture of it so as to try and compile some sort of online portfolio or something.

Anyhows, after publishing a bunch of pictures, Peter introduced himself to me, and me being the inquisitive person that I am, I asked him if I could interview him; for the record, on the blog. Much to my pleasure, he said “yes.” If you’d like to read it (all 17,000+ words…) it’s still kicking around (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four). I’ve tried on a number of occasions to re-read it, but something always ends up dragging me into the present. I figure at some point I might get my act in gear and try to use them for something off-line, at which point I will probably be forced to re-read them (along with other things from my past) but until then, I think it far better to concentrate on the here and now.

All of which is a long-winded way of getting to the fact that after he got busted I decided that I wasn’t too fond of the idea of the city of Montreal attempting to put Peter in jail. So I did what I could to help to prevent it. About halfway through the book (unfortunately it does not have page numbers) he explains my involvement. Also, I should probably mention that this is about as far from an “objective” review as you can get as I am also thanked on the penultimate page of the book.

I’m not certain what it was exactly that first attracted me to his work. Knowing that my memory is crap, I can try to use hindsight to make some connections, but your guess is as good as mine if it is in fact “The Truth,” or just something that happens to make sense to me at this moment… I do know that I have always had an interest in what was on, and how the actual street/sidewalk was made. From playing skully and hopscotch as a young child, to carving my name in freshly poured concrete as a teenager and young adult, to duct taping “Zeke’s Gallery” on the sidewalk as an ersatz sign as a full-fledged adult, to critiquing sidewalk aesthetics as a middle aged man (soon come, promise) I’ve always paid attention to what was below my feet – heck, I don’t think I have stepped in dogshit in over 30 years. I also have a sneaking suspicion that my bicycle riding might have some bearing on it (after all, when riding a road bike an awful lot of your time is spent looking at the road.

While I’m fairly certain that Peter was not the first artist in the world to use the street/sidewalk/road as his canvas, he quite likely was the first one in Montreal. As such he definitely stood out from the crowd. Off the top of my head, other than the straight green line painted down Sainte-Catherine street to mark the route of the Saint Patrick’s day parade, I can’t think of any other official or unofficial redesign of Montreal streets prior to Peter’s interventions. The very nature of being “first,” enables an awful lot. Whether it is winning a race or garnering outsized attention, being first always helps.

The book itself reads kind of like an oversized business card or perhaps an embellished CV. Which in itself is made even more obvious by the inclusion of an artsy embellished CV at the end of the book, conveniently labeled “chronology.” While the book doesn’t quite go from birth to the present, it also reads somewhat like a biography. Peter was born in Toronto, moved to Montreal to go to school, starts stenciling illegally, gets busted, becomes famous, ends up stenciling legally, rides off into the sunset with his girlfriend, roll credits (ok, I made those last two bits up, but you get the picture).

As I was reading it, I wrote down some of the more interesting passages, such as: “There is an experiential harmony in the process of understanding Roadsworth’s work – a harmony between learning his language and reconsidering our own understanding and behavior within the city.” Perfect grant application vocabulary that doesn’t really say or add anything about the work.

For the most part, the most effective pieces done by Peter are those that are 2D visual puns. They are short, sweet and to the point. Adding to existing signage or features of the urban landscape he tweaks things. Similar to Henny Youngman or Don Rickles in that his best work is effectively a one-liner that makes you laugh. Trying to imbue it with a deeper meaning or more significance just really doesn’t work.

Another interesting passage; he “creates brief moments where the imbalance of presence among the elements sharing the streets is redressed.” Or “a rare element of poetic discovery of the potential stored within the normally anonymous pavements.” Or “Roadsworth awakens and reveals a dormant energy contained within the street and the urban ephemera.” I could go on, but you get the point. Thankfully there are pictures, lots and lots of pictures. And to be fair, the whole book isn’t written in grant-speak.

One surprising thing for me to discover was that when he ‘really’ got busted by the cops, it wasn’t completely out of the blue. They had picked him up once and given him a warning, caught him a second time and given him a ticket before The Bust in November 2004. That was one of the things that had always bugged me about Peter’s getting busted. It seemed to me to be way too hard and heavy for a first time.

In 2001 I was exhibiting art by Maclean, which included, ostensibly the ‘first’ Art/Arrret sign he did. Before you get completely lost and your eyes glaze over, let me back up slightly. In Montreal, for those who don’t know, Stop signs say “Arret.” Maclean had decided that he was going to use red duct tape to cover up the first R and the E of the word “Arret.” In effect telling cars to stop for art. It was extremely simple, very catchy, effective and garnered a fair bit of attention.

As a consequence of him putting duct tape on stop signs, Maclean was invited to “chat” with the cops. After his “chat” he decided to stop putting duct tape on stop signs. I had previously thought for some reason or another that wasn’t the case with Peter. Call me naïve, simpleminded or just plain silly. I’ll definitely cop a guilty plea to that.

The middle of the book goes into some detail about some of his larger pieces locally (at the Darling Foundry, Place D’Armes metro and the Canadian Centre for Architecture). Mostly about the process and circumstances. It does veer off into some territory that could be called theoretical and preachy. Then towards the end it loses all sense of narrative and becomes more of a picture book.

Which brings me to my main point, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone write of or about, nor heard anyone speak of or about specific works by Peter. It always seems to be gross generalizations. With writers, some books are better than others. With actors some performances are better than others. With artists some paintings are better than others. With Peter I haven’t heard a peep about his zippers versus his owl versus his bike paths versus his flocks of birds, etc.

It’s all the more surprising since Scott Burnham, the guy who was supposed to co-curate the 2009 Montreal Biennale but bailed at the last minute, writes the foreward to the book. It would have been a perfect place to do a serious critique of Peter’s work. But instead he decided to use an awful lot of extra syllables to say not a whole heck of a lot. (Most of the quotes I took were from the foreward). I’m already on record as to what I think of Peter’s most recent work, someone else should go back over his earlier work and try to explain how it all fits together.

It would have been nice to know when and where all the pictures were taken, instead of just presenting them as stand-alone objects. Which makes me think, that despite all the preaching about integrating Peter’s work with the environment and how context is king, that in fact instead of being a “street” artist, he really would like to have the photographs of the work he has done considered as art.

Given Peter’s inherent ambivalence, I shouldn’t be surprised that the book is like New Shimmer (It’s a floor wax! No, it’s a desert topping!) but because it tries so hard to be so many things, it ends up leaving me kind of empty.