Renée Van Halm’s Cross-Cutting/Inside Out is charged with wonderful contradictions
Renée Van Halm: Cross-Cutting/Inside Out
At the Burnaby Art Gallery until April 8
Walk into the main floor exhibition space of the Burnaby Art Gallery and you are confronted with an image of a starkly modernist interior. A gridded wall of glass casts light and shadow across the bare floor and onto a Marcel Breuer chair, all stiff black leather and shiny chrome. A telescope sits in one corner, and a sleek floor lamp, pared down to a few militarily efficient lines, occupies the other. Based on a still from the 1986 film 9½ Weeks, this image has been purged of its human occupants, stripped to its modernist bones. It makes an aggressive and indeed erotic statement about style while, at the same time, eliminating the individual who put that statement together. Something of his story, however, is telegraphed to us by the space he might have called home. Something of the film’s intention is conveyed, too, along with the design tropes of a Hollywood idea of America.
Renée Van Halm’s survey exhibition, Cross-Cutting/Inside Out, is charged with wonderful contradictions. A big show of mostly small works, it addresses the ways we construct architecture and architecture constructs us. The built environment and its furnishings, Van Halm’s art reveals, express cultural values and at the same time impose them, defining the ways we occupy, and interact within, a given space. To a lesser extent, Van Halm also deals with the relationship between buildings and the landscape beyond.
Her art takes on presence and absence, private and public, intimacy and grandeur, modernism, pre-modernism, and postmodernism, all in a manner that is gorgeously painterly and rigorously critical. The sources of Van Halm’s imagery range from early Renaissance paintings (as in Study for Annunciation) to contemporary real-estate ads (9,760 SF., 3590 Osler), and from interior design publications (Bedroom Scene/Marcel) to her own photographs and collages (Pearls).
Smartly curated by Sophie Brodovitch, the exhibition is a mid-career retrospective of Van Halm’s architecturally focused works on paper, created between 1979 and 2011. Significantly, it also includes an architectural sculpture produced in 1993. Titled Quotation (1924-25), the sculpture reproduces an interior corner of the Schroeder House, an early modernist residence in Utrecht, designed by Gerritt Rietveld. Its presence here evokes the modernist principles which are the foundation of its design (including elements of transparency—inviting the outside in), but also provokes a dialogue with the space in which it is now exhibited.
As Brodovitch writes in the exhibition catalogue, the work “exposes the extent to which the experience of architecture is mediated and framed by historical and social references”. Visitors to the gallery may peer through the windows of the sculpture as a way of apprehending the two-dimensional art around it and the three-dimensional world beyond.
Best known for her oil paintings on canvas and her stage-set-like sculptures of painted wood (of which Quotation is one), Van Halm reveals equal technical and analytical facility through her gouache and mixed-media drawings on paper and her digital and handmade collages. As with her larger-scale art, her works on paper speak to the time she has spent living, working, teaching, and intently looking in both Vancouver and Toronto, and also to her wide travels, including an extended period spent in Berlin. Among her architectural subjects are museums, galleries, apartment buildings, office buildings, retail outlets, and even bus exchanges, from Tokyo to Madrid. “I’m an archi-tourist,” Van Halm said at a recent media preview at the BAG. “I’m a looker at trends.”
The major trend she explores here is mid-century modernist architecture, along with the furnishings and fixtures associated with it. As with much contemporary art, her work critiques modernist ideals, such as the belief that good design betters the everyday lives of people. A series of gouache drawings of classic modernist interiors causes us to think about the homes and furniture designed by the likes of Mies Van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, Marcel Breuer, and Buckminster Fuller—and whether they actually enhanced the lives of the many or the prestige of a few.
In her Living Room Scenes and Design Interiors, Van Halm presents us not only with domestic rooms distant in time and place but also with those close at hand. Among these works are allusions to her husband and daughter, as well as to her friend and colleague, the distinguished Vancouver painter Gordon Smith. As depicted by Van Halm, Smith’s house, designed by the late Arthur Erickson and bedecked with classic modernist chairs and sofa (the real things, not the knock-offs), brings the modernist dream forward to this time and place. Whether that dream will continue to endure, well, perhaps we should ask Smith.