Traffic: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965–1980
At the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 20
In Vancouver, N.E. Thing Co. ran a restaurant, played with a teletype machine, and sponsored a peewee hockey team. In Calgary, Eric Cameron covered a head of lettuce with 12,000 coats of acrylic gesso. In Toronto, General Idea published FILE magazine and created the Miss General Idea Pageant. In London, Ontario, Greg Curnoe stamped a verbal description of a landscape, in block letters, across a canvas. In Montreal, Rober Racine performed Eric Satie’s Vexations 840 times, recorded on 14 nonstop hours of videotape. And in Halifax, Gerald Ferguson imagined what one million pennies would look like sitting in a pile in the middle of an art gallery. Welcome to Traffic, a history of conceptual art in Canada.
Completing its Canadian tour at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Traffic is by turns amusing, provocative, camp, cunning, angry, playful, and head-bangingly boring. Curated by six individuals, including the VAG’s Grant Arnold, from five different institutions across the country, it covers the years 1965 to 1980 and consists of more than 400 objects by over 90 artists. Work ranges from Michael Snow’s Venetian Blind, in which he photographed himself boating on the canals of Venice with his eyes closed, and news footage of Vincent Trasov’s 1974 Vancouver mayoral campaign, which he undertook in the guise of Mr. Peanut, to Max Dean’s You Made It, whose title is formed in a (melting) block of ice, and Robert Walker’s Is Politics Art?, an extended performance in which Walker shook hands with a crowd of highly placed art-world types. To the expected film, video, photography, and performance works, you can add posters, prints, correspondence art, altered maps, tableware, show cards, reams of typewritten text, and documentation of earthworks and installations.
The comprehensiveness of the show is impressive. The proportion of representation, however, is not. Among those 120-plus artists listed in the back of the exhibition catalogue—including Ian Carr-Harris, Rodney Graham, Garry Neill Kennedy, Roy Kiyooka, Arnaud Maggs, Michael de Courcy, Andy Patton, Michael Snow, Bill Vazan, and Jeff Wall—fewer than 20 are women. Considering that Traffic covers much the same time span as the second wave of feminism, this absence is both conspicuous and puzzling.
How was it that men so lopsidedly dominated Canadian conceptualism? Were women as excluded from this revolutionary and supposedly democratic art movement as they had been from earlier styles, schools, and exhibition possibilities? Or were they actually creating conceptual art but attracting little notice for it? And if they were underappreciated then, why wouldn’t they be acknowledged now?
Although thin on the ground, there are some pretty remarkable and enduring female artists in this show, including Joyce Wieland, Vera Frenkel, Gathie Falk, Carole Itter, Francoise Sullivan, and Irene Whittome. Still, even if you added Colette Whiten, Barbara Astman, Mary Scott, Rita McKeough, and early Landon Mackenzie, all omitted from this show for one reason or another, the gender inequity would still be pretty appalling.
Conceptual art grew out of the same counterculture ethos that spawned the antiwar, environmental, women’s-rights, and gay-liberation movements. Conceptualism echoed the counterculture’s distaste for the excesses of capitalism: it critiqued the commodification of art by focusing on ideas rather than objects. It also attempted to circumvent existing power structures, especially those between artists and art institutions. It should have been fertile ground for women artists and, in some ways, it was. Feminist art employed many of the same media and strategies as conceptualism.
A few of the artists in Traffic bridged the two movements. Rebecca Singleton’s black-and-white photographs of herself in absurdly formal poses and various states of undress assert the reality of her plus-size, middle-aged body. In the three-channel video Internal Pornography, Lisa Steele lies in bed fabricating a fictional encounter with a stranger, runs her fingers over the spines of a cactus (ouch), and describes various birth-control methods while using lipstick to draw the female reproductive system on her naked body. These works, along with Kate Craig’s acclaimed video Delicate Issue, share a feminist-conceptualist examination of gender, sexuality, language, and the politics of representation.
Still, there’s something heartbreaking about Suzy Lake’s four black-and-white photographs, made in 1974, in which she superimposes the features of her male colleague, Gilles Gheerbrant, on the images of her own face. The exhibition label suggests that this work is about “the extent to which her peers were present” in her personal and professional lives. Given the way male artists dominate this exhibition, however, it’s possible to read Lake’s piece in a much more negative light.