“I can draw Snoopy better than most of the artists!”
So says Damien Minton, the self-declared “presenter” of Good Grief – A Group Exhibition Celebrating Snoopy and Peanuts on now at the Sheffer Gallery in Darlington until Saturday.
It’s not what you might expect a curator to say. “Don’t call me a curator, I hate that word.”
Okay and alright. Normally a picture of casual control, Minton appears to be on a wicked rampage today, walking a wavering, even cartoonish line between happiness and pain.
He admits that second time round the lockdown in Sydney did him some hurt. “The first one last year was fine. It felt like a holiday to me. But this last one was really bad. I flat-lined. I was under the doona.”
Social distancing may make for a sparse opening night inside the Sheffer Gallery, but this event is no fizzer. Red dots beside the artworks indicate a sell-out show. A crowd of about a hundred people spills out across Lander Street, parting when necessary for passing traffic.
Minton jumps on a milk crate outside the gallery to address everyone. He makes his declaration again about his superior Snoopy drawing skills to much amusement. “I bloody well can. I’ve been drawing him since I was six years old,” he insists.
By the time Minton is thanking all the artists, the Good Grief exhibition opening has assumed the mood of a happening street party. And Minton’s feisty throwdown about his Snoopy drawing skills reveals itself as pure pugnacious affection on a late afternoon that has become genuinely inspiring.
“This exhibition was planned for before the latest lockdown,” Minton tells everyone. “But like a lot of people we got COVID fucked. Yet here we are today, all together like this. I promise not to swear any more now.”
He then jokes that “If Umberto Eco can write philosophical essays about this shit, then we can put on a show!”
Later Minton will confess “I got a bit teary” when he tried articulate the appeal of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts characters to the different generations that were so visibly present at the opening. “Especially the appeal of Snoopy to rise above all woes and challenges. If I am honest, he has been a character in my life, especially when I was young, holding my hand along the way.”
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence I am seeing all these Snoopy t-shirts appearing all over the place again either,” Minton says. “He’s been a court jester or chameleon through different epochs. People just like the idea of being associated with the better side of human nature, and that’s the appeal of those characters right now.”
As for Minton’s issue with being described as a ‘curator’, he says, “Over the last decade the managerial level has been built up in the visual arts industry and this has given management as much gravitas as the artists themselves. It means there is this unnecessary weight and expenditure on those who have who are curating, and I think it is undermining the primacy of the artist.”
At the Sheffer Gallery, this moneyed gate-keeper barrier is knocked over in the name of something energetic and fun at a time when it is most needed. “Even though that was never the original plan,” Minton says, somewhat happily.
In a group show that features artists like Toby Zoates, Blak Douglas, Ben King and Luciana Smith, the Snoopy and other Peanuts characters are reframed everywhere from suburbia to psychedelia, along with a Picasso joke, some LGBTQI activism and a commentary on colonialism. “I’m glad it’s not all warm and fuzzy,” Minton says. Most of all throughout the show, there remains that feeling of raw works playfully connecting to the present moment.
“I was interested to read in his biography that [cartoonist] Charles Schultz’s mother was always really sick when he was growing up,” Minton says. “And she told him he should get a dog and a call it Snupi before she died. It’s a Norwegian term of endearment. And there’s something about Snoopy that carries that endearing quality. It’s become archetypal.”
“I was going to challenge the artists to a Snoopy ‘draw off’ on Saturday. Then I thought maybe I was putting myself under too much pressure,” he laughs.
“You know, when I was a kid I used to make Christmas cards by drawing Snoopy and other Peanuts characters,” Minton says. “I actually got into trouble one year at school because they were not reverent enough. They were irreverent, I was told. But I kept doing those cards for my mother. And then I did it them for my kids when they were growing up. Now they do them for me.”