At the Charles H. Scott Gallery until February 24
At the West Vancouver Museum until February 16
Mystery, spectacle, and disaster reverberate through two distinct yet parallel exhibitions of contemporary art. Neil Wedman’s monochrome paintings and drawings at the Charles H. Scott Gallery and Manabu Ikeda’s single, large, colour drawing at the West Vancouver Museum also demonstrate the enthralling and perilous directions in which extreme technical facility may take these artists—and their viewers.
A long-time presence in Vancouver’s art scene, Wedman is best known for his quirky and often retro subjects—from tangled networks of test tubes and beakers to dancing cowboys—delivered in a slick representational style inflected by comic books and other forms of popular culture. In addition to painting and drawing, Wedman has also made sorties into photography, printmaking, film, and books.
His grey monochromes on view at the Scott Gallery, executed on paper and canvas, play representation against abstraction and the familiar against the unknown. The ink-wash and pencil drawings titled Newspapers #1-12 deftly confuse us. From a distance, they look like old-fashioned newspaper pages (columns of text, no photos) whose words seem unreadable because we’re too far from them. Up close, however, we realize that what seemed to be out-of-focus lines of print are abstract bars of watery grey. No matter how closely you scan these marks, they will never resolve into legible texts—although they persist in resembling them. Exquisitely and laboriously drawn yet void of literal content, Wedman’s works float us into a curious nonplace, one that is both suggested and negated by the conventions of art-making.
Three large oil paintings, again in shades of grey, use images of underwater volcanoes to investigate the language of postwar abstraction. More engaging are Wedman’s series of conté drawings of flying saucers. Style, medium, and the paper’s texture combine to create grainy, roughly articulated scenes of alien spacecraft hovering in wide American skies, as configured by mid-20th-century popular culture. (Wedman seems drawn to this time, before modernism ceded to postmodernism.) As if referring to black-and-white amateur photographs reproduced in the tabloids, the flying saucers are sometimes explicitly rendered; at other times, they’re depicted as blurry oblongs or streaks of light. Again, they juxtapose conflicting impulses of representation and abstraction. As they examine the relationship of “high art” to the popular imagination, they also evoke the conceits we invent to both appease and terrify us.
Ikeda, a young Japanese artist who has been based in Vancouver for the past two years on a cultural-affairs grant, spent five months working on Meltdown. This ambitious and staggeringly detailed drawing, executed in countless tiny strokes using pen and coloured ink, is tucked into a small back gallery at the West Vancouver Museum and addresses the potentially disastrous impact of industry, technology, and power production on the natural world.
Reacting to the nuclear meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami that hit northern Japan in 2011, but also inspired by the natural beauty of Canada’s West Coast, Ikeda has created a dense and fantastical scene of impending disaster. A compressed megalopolis of interwoven architectural, industrial, and transportation forms—trucks, trains, office buildings, factories, bridges, cranes, smokestacks, nuclear reactors, and vast networks of enormous pipes—is perched on a rocky promontory, itself set on top of a wedge-shaped glacier. The glacier is rapidly sliding down a mountainside toward a body of water as hordes of humans attempt to save themselves by paragliding away—and a few wild creatures populate what’s left of the landscape.
In addition to the idea of looming, colossal catastrophe, the extreme detail, intricate scale, and obvious labour-intensiveness of Ikeda’s drawing compel our attention. Still, his style of working is so far outside the expected postmodern parameters that it is as unsettling as the subject. Both Ikeda and Wedman provoke questions about the nature of representation, and about how explicitly rendered a work of art needs to be to convey its difficult message.