Article from the Toronto Star. See this Vivian Reiss article online

Reiss up to some monkey business - living - Reiss up to some monkey business

December 15, 2007

Rita Zekas


Monkey see, monkey paint.

Artist Vivian Reiss' latest show Satoyama Story, at the Reiss Gallery, 500 College St., until Dec. 31, incorporates some of the snow simians she encountered during her three-month stay last year in Hachi, a Japanese village of 150 people. The creatures are appropriately called snow monkeys, given that the area gets some four metres of snow a year.

Because of her affinity for things Japanese – and because of her diminutive size – Reiss likes to shop at the Pacific Mall in Markham at Steeles and Kennedy.

It's pouring rain but she dispels the gloom in a red, polka-dot raincoat, accessorized by gold chains around her neck, her preternaturally infectious grin and her tiny lime green purse, which is Japanese and looks like a flying saucer.

Reiss won a prestigious competition to paint in Japan, she tells us over the click of windshield wipers as we drive to Pacific Mall. The story is so engrossing, we miss the cut-off and have to double back.

"The village of Hachi is in a very rural part of the country, 3 1/2 hours from Tokyo," she explains. "Hachi is an economically depressed part of Japan because farming lost its cachet. Japan has an aging population with few young people in the village. There is an effort to rejuvenate the economy and I did a project specifically for it. I understood it as being spiritually as well as economically depressed: There is something about man's relationship with Earth."

Reiss and her family lived in what had been the schoolteacher's house.

"There are only four students in the village, so the school was closed two years ago, but it had two grand pianos and it was fantastically equipped."

She painted portraits of the locals. The youngest model was 17; the oldest was 90.

She found the generous spirit of her subjects amazing, considering the perception that the Japanese are a people who hide their emotions, "During the process of painting them, they opened up. Every day, there were offerings of food and flowers. I felt humbled; the people were so warm and generous.

"People would be hesitant, saying, `Pick someone younger.' People would say, `I'm shy.' So I said, `I'm shy, too, so it's hard for me to ask you to pose.' I drank tons of tea, I ate pickles. I went to their houses; I went to fields and factories. I painted housewives and people who farmed. Only one model was a full-time farmer; most were retired. I painted the town's hairdresser and two men who worked in a kimono factory. I painted a student whose interest was mainly baseball; I painted nursery school cooks."

Reiss would require the sitter to bring an object important to them. Not only was it a touchstone to reveal something about the person, it was a conversation piece.

"We'd talk (through and interpreter)," she says. "I have a wide range of interests and I can ask questions about farming and textiles because my father was in the textile business. My parents are from Hungary.

"These people can trace their ancestry for 350 years. I felt like an anthropologist/artist. These women had such a joy of life, even though, in World War II, people were starving and many women were sent to factories and then recalled for arranged marriages to take care of their sick mothers-in-law. All that they had lived through was really inspiring."

Reiss shopped in Japan, but not in her village. "The next little town had 35,000 people and a huge supermarket," she recalls. "You absorb the culture by things they sell – like beautiful housewares and pets like giant crickets and interesting fish."

She came home from Japan with 40 boxes packed with goodies, including 50 kimonos. The next village was a fashion-school town where she bought tons of the deconstructed clothing she favours.

"I bought a skirt made out of two shirts," Reiss says. "In Kyoto, there is a high-scale department store, so I asked, `Where is your Issey Miyake?' and she said, `Is that something to eat?'

"I like vivid colours and unusual clothing. I like Pacific Mall because I'm small and they have very unusual clothing – a lot of it is from Japan, where the styling is not run-of-the-mill. I love Asian culture. The last time I was in Pacific Mall, I bought a dress you could wear upside down or right side up.

"That said, some of the stuff at Pacific Mall is so God awful, so vehemently ugly and horrifying, it's entertaining."

Otherwise, Reiss doesn't shop that much in Toronto. "In March, they have a great vintage show at Enoch Turner School House. Susan Dicks makes clothing for me for special occasions and I have an apartment in New York where I shop in boutiques in NoHo and SoHo and of course, Century 21."

Finally, we arrive at Pacific Mall, where Reiss looks at bags for the photo op – which she finds strange, since she never shops for purses – including a knockoff of the fabled Anya Hindmarch "I Am Not A Plastic Bag" for $35.

"I need one of these to go to Whole Foods," she mugs. "I have my Hello Kitty knapsack I've travelled the world over and it's falling apart."

She hits the motherlode at Three Degrees, where 80 per cent of the goods are from Japan and the rest from China, Hong Kong and Korea.

There are masses of garments in this tiny kiosk, some layered three deep on hangers. Reiss keeps trying things on and they keep fitting.

As she is cashing out, she unearths a Victorian shrug/corset and adds it to her pile of clothes.

"I don't really shop, so this is good for me," she demurs, staggering to the parking lot with three bags full.

Yeah, right. What about those 40 boxes from Japan?