Visual Arts


Canadian artist ManWoman is accustomed to giddy questions about his peculiar name. He responds politely when asked how he's listed in the telephone book ("ManWoman"); whether his friends call him Man ("No, because then strangers would have to call me Mr. Woman"); and what his mother calls him (Nothing: "She died last month").

Despite his androgynous moniker, the 54-year-old ManWoman is neither drag queen nor cross-dresser. "People tell me I look like a biker," he says, indicating his longish hair and beard and innumerable tattoos (including an intimidating third eye branded on his forehead). His appearance suggests ferocity, but ManWoman turns out to be gentle; likewise, while his paintings appear to be fanciful cartoons, they are in fact indictments-of consumerism and Christianity, specifically.

The declining popularity of Western religion and the renaissance of tattooing have led to a renewed interest in ManWoman's work. A new generation of recovering Catholics have also discovered it, and he's showing his wares more and more these days. His die-hard fans speak of him reverently; they consider his work "healing," he says.

ManWoman takes himself just as seriously. Like his biggest fans, he's sold on his own messages and forgoes stylistic discussion for lofty, Haight-Ashbury blather. He's locked into the importance of his dreams, and he tells you repeatedly-both on canvas and in person-that his mission matters. But aside from a successful series of consumer send-ups, neither his words nor his artwork convince us of that.

"My paintings," ManWoman says importantly, "answer universal questions." But conversations with ManWoman inevitably return to a less significant question: Where did he get that name?

"`ManWoman' stands for universal balance," the artist explains, "the integration of the male and female in all of us." Pat Kemball, his given name, apparently didn't stand for anything. In his dreams, he says, people called him ManWoman, so in 1968 he took on that name legally.

The symbol most closely identified with ManWoman came to him the same way. "Several years ago, I dreamed of a holy man who showed me a glowing swastika and told me to redeem the symbol so that it would strike love in the hearts of those who beheld it."

Despite his initial revulsion-he had relatives who'd been in Auschwitz-ManWoman took on the task of investigating the swastika and reclaiming its original message of good fortune. (Although the symbol has become identified with Adolf Hitler, the swastika was originally a benign emblem of peace, used by, among other groups, American Indians.)

"If I can take this symbol from Hitler's memory and return it to its sacred place," ManWoman says, "then I can destroy the negative power it has come to have."
His devotion to reestablishing the positive power of the swastika led the artist to open "ManWoman's Swastika Museum," an enterprise in his hometown of Cranbrook, British Columbia, which collects artifacts documenting the origins and intentions of the symbol. He's written a book, The Gentle Swastika, which he hopes will be published this year. But most of ManWoman's ability to educate about the swastika lies in his extensive body markings.

"I have been called `ambulatory art,'" he says of the hundreds of swastikas tattooed onto his body. "My tattoos invite conversation about the swastika, which gives me the opportunity to discuss it with people, to clarify its meaning for them."
His body markings have also meant missed opportunities. "A lot of art galleries are owned by Jewish people, who have justifiable reasons for being offended by the swastika. My art has worked against me for a long time," the artist sighs. "It's a tough task, demystifying the swastika."

Yet ManWoman continues to depict swastikas in his paintings, alongside images of grinning skulls and impious angels. His stylings are mired in post-Sixties pop art, the kind of stuff considered naughty and innovative 20 years ago. Today, there's nothing very shocking about Nazi-identified symbols surrounded by bunny rabbits and doves; we've survived Johnny Rotten's Hitler ditties, and ManWoman's palette is clean in comparison. Rotten cashed in on our fear of the swastika, where ManWoman presents it as a warm fuzzy.

This cozy ideal recalls a late-Sixties give-peace-a-chance naivete, and without either shocking imagery or artistic sophistication, we're hard-pressed to care about the subject. Why, we are left to wonder, should the swastika be rehabilitated?

There's nothing revolutionary in the 54-year-old artist's acrylic and airbrush paintings; in fact, they look a little dated. But ManWoman's messages are contemporary, and it's these messages that catch and hold our attention: He depicts God as a Saturday-morning cartoon and human emotions as disposable products, hawked by ad campaigns aimed at our basest desires.

"Paradise Jam," "Spray-On Joy," and "Truth Paste" ("It fights decay!") blast consumerism where pop art pandered to it. Warhol's Brillo boxes aped commercial art; ManWoman's "Happiness Brush" ("Makes happiness brush off on you! Not available in stores!") gently condemns it. ManWoman's commercials are for products that don't really exist, and they work because we're drawn to them as we are to the slick magazine ads they mimic; only then do we recognize their message: This stuff is not for sale.

"These products come from the store of your inner self," ManWoman says with a straight face. You forgive him his pomposity and his Sixties spiritual views because on canvas ManWoman manages to point out our greed without making us feel guilty. On the other hand, his allusions to Christianity are uncompromisingly judgmental. The "Sister Serena" series depicts a cherubic nun posing with various celebrities, among them the Maharishi, Frosty the Snowman and the Jolly Green Giant. His "Virgina" is a disturbing depiction of a woman's genitals ascending to Heaven; "God Is My Foundation" portrays mirthful women in bustiers emblazoned with the word "GOD." "Moodonna and Child" depicts a pair of cows.

ManWoman's repackaging of Christian ideals is overt and comical. According to his canvases, the philosophies of the church are outdated; his zany marketing makeovers depict God and company with a shiny irreverence. With campaigns for Holy Underwear and Popcorn Communion, ManWoman affords us sacrilege at a safe distance: We're only looking, not necessarily participating.

"I'm a refugee from Catholicism," ManWoman explains. "It's a decaying religion."

The crumbling church may have something to do with a renewed interest in ManWoman's work. But despite his current popularity, ManWoman's mostly meek canvases may well be overshadowed by his three-eyed countenance, his mission to rehabilitate the swastika, or just his peculiar name.

ManWoman disagrees. "Trends in art come and go," he says, "but there's always room for a little ManWoman."


KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela