At UNIT/PITT Projects until October 26
Check out the 1977 studio video of the Sex Pistols performing their anti–royal-jubilee anthem, “God Save the Queen”. Apart from what was then a new punk aesthetic—torn jeans, spiky hair, thrashing chords, and defaced images of Queen Elizabeth II collaged onto British flags—what is most striking about this video, now, is how young band looks. Young and raw and pissed off about a government with a monarch, then the wealthiest woman in England, as its symbolic head. A union-busting government, at war with the working class.
The spirit of that song and video is behind the exhibition God Save the Queen, on at the newly relocated UNIT/PITT Projects space. Here, however, guest curator Chris Bose has shaped the question he posed the contributing artists—“How do you feel about living under the yoke of the British Crown to this day?”—to fit Canada’s postcolonial condition. The art made in response is, Sex Pistols–style, raw and pissed off, in many ways awkward and not fully formed, but charged with feeling. The artists, both Native and non-Native, are young and mostly unknown to us, not surprising given that as one of Vancouver’s original artist-run centres, UNIT/PITT is a forum for new and emerging talent.
Over the decades, UNIT/PITT Projects has morphed through a number of locations and name changes. It now occupies a high, bright gallery at 236 East Pender Street.
Renovated from what was a defunct grocery store, it’s part of the lively new art precinct that has emerged in Chinatown, east of Main Street. Centre A, 221A, and the Access Gallery have all recently moved into spaces in the 200 block of East Georgia. Unlike other forms of gentrification taking place in the Downtown Eastside, these nonprofit cultural institutions appear to be thoughtfully integrated into a bustling neighbourhood of shops and small businesses.
Identifying which artists have made which work in God Save the Queen is a bit of a challenge, since there is nary a label or exhibition guide in sight. Adding to the viewer’s befuddlement is the fact that the three individuals represented here have postpunkish pseudonyms. Painter Bracken Hanuse Corlett is also known as Amphibian14, a video and performance artist and DJ. Sculptor Byron Steele makes work through his creative alter ego, MaRvIN StRAnGE, while painter Nigel Z is also the graffiti artist known as KAST. Kamloops-based curator Bose doesn’t appear to have an aka, but he does wear many creative hats, including multidisciplinary artist, writer, musician, event coordinator, and filmmaker. (His video SavageHeathen is on view in the group show Witnesses at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery.)
KAST, working with the other artists, has covered the east wall of the gallery with a graffiti-style mural that also serves as the introduction to the exhibition. “God Save the Queen” is scrawled in bright red letters among crowds of symbolically smeared handprints in burnt black and blood red, and beside a ragged version of the British flag. More interesting, however, are the four small paintings on canvas he has created as Nigel Z, each work a variation, again, on the British flag. Drips, splatters, splotches and a range of colours, from black and grey to pink and mauve, bring a pop-art sensibility to the work (think of Jasper Johns’s variations on the American flag), while also defying this symbol of British imperialism.
Steele’s sculptural installation, much of it made from salvaged bits of metal and plastic and painted black with red or gold highlights, is oddly reminiscent of pre-Columbian art. Masklike faces, one regal-seeming, the other a skull or death’s head, are spiked with bolts, screws, and metal switches and set within multirayed disks. Coloured photos of these faces are pinned to the wall behind the sculptures, and multiple dabs of red, blue, and black paint suggest hordes of sacrificial victims.
Corlett’s paintings and collages juxtapose images of the Queen with generalized characters and form lines from the First Nations art of the Northwest Coast. In one work, he has altered a formal photograph of the monarch with the sharp-toothed jaw of an unidentified crest animal—a Sea Wolf, perhaps. Significantly, the original photo was taken during the Queen’s silver-jubilee visit to Canada in 1977. In collaboration with Csetkwe Fortier, Corlett has also cleverly localized the Sex Pistols’ Queen-on-British-flag collage by painting her portrait, in whites and pale blues, on the chest of what appears to be a Raven figure. This Raven is bright red and powerful, the Queen ghostly and fading. An exorcism, it seems, is taking place. God save us all.