A palpable sense of loss pervades VAG's Marian Penner Bancroft exhibit

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SPIRITLANDS: t/HERE: Marian Penner Bancroft, Selected Photo Works 1975-2000
At the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 30

As we walk through the Marian Penner Bancroft exhibition SPIRITLANDS: t/HERE, we repeatedly encounter photographs of people and landscape. The people are the artist’s family—her sisters, her parents, her daughter, her ancestors—and the landscape is profoundly linked with who they are and where they have been. Rolling hillsides and abandoned farmhouses, a river lock and an ancient oak tree, an isolated boulder in the middle of a field, a seaside landing strip, a bench on an island—all speak to the ways we construct our connection with place and our understanding of the land we claim—or don’t claim—as our own.

Speaking at the May 9 ceremony at which Penner Bancroft was awarded the Audain Prize for lifetime achievement in the visual arts, Grant Arnold lauded her extensive body of work. Penner Bancroft, he said, uses the photographic medium—often amplified by sculptural and textual elements—to address “questions of body and place, individual and collective memory.…visible and invisible forces”. As a feminist, she also employs the photograph “as a point of entry for considering the structures that shape us all as social subjects”.

Following closely on the heels of the Audain award is this Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition, which surveys Penner Bancroft’s art between the years 1975 and 2000. Not incidentally, the show was organized by Arnold, who is the Audain curator of British Columbia art at the VAG. Arnold and Penner Bancroft recently toured journalists through the show, pausing at some of the more exemplary works and discussing the ideas behind their creation. They also explained some of the artist’s formal and material strategies.

For instance, many of Penner Bancroft’s black-and-white images from the 1980s are printed on large, unframed, curling sheets of photographic paper. Unevenly cut and tacked to the wall, they assume a “provisional” aesthetic to challenge the preciousness of the fastidiously printed and framed photographic print. In works such as Transfigured Wood (Part I): From the Porch, the scroll-like curl of the paper asserts a three-dimensional presence for the two-dimensional medium. The photo-sculptural interface is further explored in SHIFT, which displays greatly enlarged images from an old family snapshot on custom-built lecterns, and BLIND/MAT(T)ER, whose photos and graphite rubbings are mounted on freestanding, wood-framed “blackboards”. In both instances, the sculptural forms symbolize and deconstruct ideas of authority and learning.

What is probably Penner Bancroft’s magnum opus, By Land and Sea (Prospect and Refuge), builds a family history and a relationship to landscape out of a narrative of forced migration and relocation. Using text, maps, colour photographs, evocative words, and portraits of ancestors, the artist charts the journeys of her father’s Mennonite family from what is now Ukraine and her mother’s Presbyterian family from northern Scotland. Both sides were driven from their farms and relocated in Canada, where the land, Penner Bancroft observed, “was not unoccupied, just relatively untilled”. The displaced families, Arnold noted, “in turn became implicated in further episodes of dislocation”—this time, of the aboriginal peoples of North America.

A palpable sense of loss pervades Penner Bancroft’s show. The poetic text and small, framed photographs that make up For Dennis and Susan: Running Arms to a Civil War, attempt to understand a beloved brother-in-law’s ultimately doomed struggle with leukemia. A related series of photos inflected with dashes of handwriting, Susan Seasons After, examines grief. In Transfigured Wood (Part I), dark and sometimes blurry photos record the destruction of three large trees and an old wooden duplex to make room for a condominium. The urban panorama spiritland/Octopus Books, Fourth Avenue focuses on a desolate vacant lot on an otherwise busy shopping street, where a much-loved community bookstore once stood. Although it’s possible to see this work as anticipating the disappearance of all independent bookstores everywhere, its production at the time, 1987, was specific to the loss of a community meeting place, a centre of social and cultural exchange in Penner Bancroft’s neighbourhood.

There are images here, too, of a clear-cut in the middle of a densely forested mountainside, a road-killed deer at the side of a highway, and a thorny, leafless blackberry bush, signifying the mysterious disappearance of a visiting scientist in Vancouver in the 1990s. A mixed-media work, Lost Streams of Kitsilano, deploys urban markers, copper-framed photographs, graphite rubbings, and text to make us aware of the now paved-over places where richly life-bearing streams once ran. Loss, loss, and more loss.

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