Not since the hip and heady 1970s has Vancouver seen so much independent- and alternative-gallery activity. Some of the new exhibition and project spaces, sprouting like mushrooms out of the rich manure of the city's visual-art scene, are artist-run. Others are shaped and driven by writers, critics, curators, art historians, architects, preparators, graduate students, and purveyors of clothing, books, food, and drink.
Many contend that art is not an object or activity separate from all others. Making art, showing art, drinking coffee, renting videos, skateboarding, buying magazines, eating Cheetos-all are intertwined. What's happening locally is a renewed impetus to think outside the big, white, institutional box and smudge the boundaries between art and everyday life. It's a movement evocative of Iain and Ingrid Baxter's legendary NE Thing Company and the Eye Scream Restaurant that NETCO ran here in the late 1970s.
Hours are often limited (best to phone ahead), since many of the new gallerists subsidize rent and labour with their 9-to-5 jobs. Most hope that modest commissions on sales will at least cover their costs. A few aspire to turning a profit somewhere down the line. In the meantime, their energy and idealism sustain them. Here, then, is not a survey but three lively examples-out of many-of the best new trend in the visual arts in Vancouver.
St. George Marsh
4393 St. George Street
On their business card, artists Gareth Moore and Jacob Gleeson describe this place as a general store/museum/gallery, which sums it up but doesn't do justice to its beautifully choreographed quirkiness, or to the economy and subversiveness of its vision. Named for its location (at the corner of East 28th Avenue and St. George Street, between Main and Fraser, where marshlands once existed), the space and its contents seem to speak of another age. Penny candy and jawbreakers in jars on the counter; root beer and Chinese sarsaparilla in the little white cooler in the corner; canned peaches, hot sauce, chocolate biscuits, and stewed tomatoes all set out in an immaculate and spacious fashion, as if the groceries were themselves works of art.
Naive paintings hang throughout the shop. Museum specimens, arranged on shelves and in glass-topped cases, range from antique toys to a braid of human hair to a yak's tooth. The art-exhibition space is small (the southwest corner of the store, between the Frosted Malts and the Orange Crush) and is currently occupied by Murkins' Witness, a wildly unclassifiable video installation by Jeff Halladay (until September 30). The next show, to open on a still unspecified date in October, will feature the masks and paintings of Rex Roney, a 93-year-old self-taught artist living in a veterans' hospital.
Moore avoids words like naive and outsider when describing the art he and Gleeson show. Instead, he talks about bringing work created outside the critical stream into a relationship with both exhibitry and everydayness. His interest, he says, is in bridging communities and concepts, "conflating a soda pop with a painting or drawing". Then he adds: "I like the idea of having a very fragmented art practice…of art that exists in a more dissipated or invisible manner." Art that lurks in the aisle between the recycled toilet paper and the yak tooth.
Gallery Yo Yo
312 East Esplanade, North Vancouver
In 2001, after the events of 9/11, Grace Gordon-Collins made a life-changing decision: to return to school to study photography after more than 20 years as a practising architect. It was the immediate realization of an old longing. (Decades earlier, she had studied photography with Minor White while she was earning her master's degree in architecture at MIT.) She enrolled at Emily Carr Institute (admitted into third year), acquired digital and colour printing skills, and graduated in 2004 with a conceptual photographic project that fuses her life, her work, and her interest in design and spatial relations.
Graduation, however, shook her into an awareness of the vulnerabilities of newly fledged artists and the difficulties they face getting their work before the public eye. Thus the decision to open Gallery Yo Yo. "This place is a launch pad," Gordon-Collins says. High-ceilinged, white-walled, it was created out of a main-floor storage room in the small building where she and her husband have their architectural offices. The gallery's first exhibition, photographs by Olga Chagaoutdinova, took place in June. Its second show, on until Sunday (September 24), is Intimacy, a mixed-media show by the Reframe artists collective.
Gordon-Collins is careful to stress that Yo Yo is not a commercial gallery, although she charges a small commission on sales (and asks that artists donate a work to Yo Yo toward the eventual creation of a foundation). Rather, it's an intermediate place where emerging artists might come to the attention of curators, collectors, and art dealers. Exhibitions are very short and widely spaced, hours are restricted, and the entire enterprise is underwritten by Gordon-Collins, who continues to practise architecture and design while working as an artist and gallerist. She hasn't changed her occupation so much as added to it. Integrated it into everything else.
5-2414 Main Street
(Call Pulpfiction Books at 604-876-4311)
No, CSA is not the title of a new TV show about cops in latex gloves. It draws its component letters from the first names of its proprietors, Christopher Brayshaw, Steven Tong, and Adam Harrison, all of whom declare a strong aversion to working within bureaucracies and institutions. They also reject the notion that artists and gallerists must follow only one route, do one thing rather than many. All have multiple forward slashes in their job descriptions. Brayshaw, for instance, is a writer/critic/curator/bookseller (he's reviewed visual-arts shows for the Straight) and potential publisher.
The gallery's first exhibition, colour photographs by Mike Grill (to October 10), is highly polished and tightly curated, but the lineup includes installation art and other experimental forms. "At the opening, people came in here and said, 'Oh, it's going to be a photo gallery,'?" Brayshaw recounts. "No, not necessarily."
CSA Space embodies the triumph of passion for art over the dismal experience of how exhausting and unremunerative the art world largely is. Both Tong and Brayshaw have previously operated alternative galleries. The ambitious trio plans to host talks and lectures and to publish exhibition catalogues, monographs, and artists' editions.
Located in a small, second-floor office space in the South Main area (above Brayshaw's bookstore, Pulpfiction, and next door to Blanket, another dazzling little alternative gallery), CSA will be curated both jointly and individually by its founders. "Submissions are not accepted," Brayshaw says. "Exhibitions are by invitation only and solely based on our own aesthetic judgments." Perhaps, however, more than aesthetic considerations will come into play. Character and chemistry may also determine the curatorial program. "You could make really awesome art," Tong says, "but if you're a jackass, why would I want to work with you?" Tough love.