Burnaby Art Gallery's The Gaze of History considers point of view

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The Gaze of History
At the Burnaby Art Gallery until August 26

Legend has it that a ghost haunts the century-old mansion that sits on a hill above Burnaby’s Deer Lake. She’s not an entirely benevolent spirit: former workers there claim that she sometimes tossed their offices, strewing papers around and shifting furniture. Perhaps she was upset by the changes that have occurred in the beautiful arts and crafts–style building over the decades. After its construction as a private home in 1911, wealthy families lived in the place, followed by a monastic order, a religious cult led by a con man, and a group of frat boys reputed to have set fire to the turret. Before 1967, when Ceperley House became the Burnaby Art Gallery, it had declined into an unloved state.

The new life that the BAG has brought to the place is regularly revealed in its exhibitions, such as the current show of framed portraits, chosen from its collection. And aspects of its former lives are conjured up by Elizabeth MacKenzie’s subtle yet compelling drawing installation. The two different bodies of work complement each other—and the building—beautifully.

The framed portraits, mostly works on paper, include prints, drawings, collages, and photographs by local, national, and international artists, from the late 19th-century to the present day. It’s a lively and unexpected selection, from a doodle-ish lithograph of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler by Pablo Picasso and a stonecut of an Inuit hunter by Isah Ajagutaina Tukala to a soft-focus photo of a stern looking “Miss Ross” by John Vanderpant and a mixed-media tribute to surrealist poet René Daumal by Al Neil. Among the show’s highlights are Ann Kipling’s 1964 Self-Portrait, a remarkable ink drawing composed of multiple, expressionistic lines, jots, dots, and cross-hatching; B.C. Binning’s Girl, a delicate yet incisive line drawing of a long-faced child with bangs, bows, and thick braids; and Steve Mennie’s Baby Grand, a photo-realist graphite rendering of a guy in a cowboy hat, sitting at a piano and looking fearfully over his shoulder.

In the show’s introductory panel, the BAG’s director-curator Darrin Martens asks us to consider the various portraits on display from the point of view of “the gaze”, an idea that poses numerous social and psychological questions about who is looking at whom, and why. Each representation has its own politics, whether it’s to do with gender, class, age, or cultural background. Is the portrait subject’s gaze averted or is it forthrightly returned to us? Where are conditions of power and control located in each depiction? Are they with the sitter? The artist? The audience? Some unseen social force?

Unseen social forces also find expression in MacKenzie’s drawing installation. For the past decade, the Vancouver artist writes in her statement, she has focused on faces—on “an ambiguous, shifting field of interpretation that explores the relationship between self and other, as well as the selves within the self.” At the BAG, MacKenzie has used powdered graphite to draw portraits of the building’s former occupants directly on the gallery’s white walls. The effect she achieves is pale, insubstantial, ephemeral—ghostly, really. Basing her images on historic photographs, where she could find them, and on her imagination, where she could not, MacKenzie causes us to think not only about the flesh-and-blood people who inhabited this space but also about the power dynamics that existed between them—husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, religious leaders and their followers.

The drawing installation speaks not only to the history of the building, but also to its structure—its passageways, fireplaces, and staircases—and to the framed portraits in the current show. A wonderful example occurs in the upstairs gallery, near Mennie’s Baby Grand (which is also executed in light-toned graphite). The fearful pianist looks as if he’s just seen a ghost; the weird, pale shadow he casts on the wall behind him adds to the spectral effect. MacKenzie’s response is to draw the face of a similar-looking man on the wall below and to the right of Mennie’s work. This second portrait looks somberly forward and down, as if lost in thought. As if contemplating our connections to place and power and the people who now drift as spirits among us.

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