Vancouver Art Gallery's Lights Out! paints 1960s Canada


Lights Out! Canadian Painting from the 1960s
At the Vancouver Art Gallery until April 29

In Greg Curnoe’s 1963 painting Myself Walking North in the Tweed Coat, a stylized male figure strides purposefully through a field of words, pattern, and flat colour. One of the phrases stencilled onto this canvas, on view in Lights Out!, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s survey of Canadian painting in the 1960s, reads, “Love doesn’t last very long but thinking about it does.” Hmm, the same might be said for that decade. It was over so quickly, yet it remains imprinted on our cultural consciousness half a century later.

It’s not really surprising that the 1960s have become one of the most mythologized eras in modern human history. Western society was in an ideological uproar. As the Cold War heated up, the economy surged, and the undeclared war in Vietnam escalated, a huge counterculture movement erupted in both defiance and idealism. The grey-suited Establishment was under siege from all sides—students, hippies, civil-rights advocates, feminists, labour unions, and national independence movements. And although many died or were bloodied in the conflicts, protests, and struggles of the age, for artists and middle-class youth, especially, it was a great time to be alive.

The air was vibrating with change, and with the hope that the world could be made into a better place for all. Psychedelic drugs and eastern religions promised new ways of attaining enlightenment. The pill made the Sexual Revolution possible. And, oh yeah, I’ll tell you something, I think you’ll understand: the music was fab.

The art scene was pretty fab, too, as is evident on the VAG’s main floor. The 88 works on view in Lights Out!—all but one drawn from the gallery’s permanent collection—demonstrate the vitality of the painting medium, even as it was being challenged by new forms such as conceptualism, video, installation, performance, and interdisciplinary art.

Standouts include John Meredith’s Ulysses, a big, hyperenergetic composition of agitated organic forms, executed in brilliant hues and outlined in thick, black, bristly lines; Les Levine’s Portrait of Atsuko #2, a black monochrome painting melding minimalist abstraction with airbrushed photo-realism; Christiane Pflug’s ominous, almost surreal Cottingham School With Parked Cars and Playground; and Gershon Iskowitz’s Sunset, its cloudy smears of colour—orange, yellow, and aqua—stacked up on a dark-brown ground.

The show’s introductory panel lays out, year by year, some of the momentous events and movements of the 1960s, in Canada and beyond. These include everything from the space race and the Cuban Missile Crisis to Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and the FLQ bombings. Part of what this timeline and the Canadian paintings demonstrate is that occurrences elsewhere made as much of an impact as those at home.

Especially influential were innovations in art in the United States—even though Canadian painters such as Curnoe and Joyce Wieland, who is represented here by two of her cheery disaster paintings (a plane crashing, two sailboats sinking), strove to separate themselves from U.S. influence. Curnoe’s Myself Striding North makes a decided anti-American declaration, but at the same time, you can see the formal influences of American pop artists Larry Rivers and Jim Dine in his work. And yes, the dramatically gestural, thickly impastoed paintings of Québécois artists such as Paul-Émile Borduas, Jean-Paul Riopelle, and Suzanne Bergeron emerged in a real sense from the social, political, and cultural declarations of the 1948 manifesto, Le Refus global. Yet despite their anticolonial intentions, these works owe their formal existence to New York School abstract expressionism. Just as, in the 1920s, the Group of Seven employed European post-Impressionist means to serve their Canadian nationalist ends, Quebecois painters used an American style to assert their cultural and political identity.

Pop art, op art, hard-edge abstraction, colour-field painting, minimalism, and photo-realism all originated elsewhere but found expression in Canada in the 1960s. Which is not to say this isn’t a wonderful show: it is. The art in Lights Out! is of an extremely high calibre, shimmering with technical and intellectual accomplishment, and beautifully curated by the VAG’s Ian Thom.

And despite our small population and perilous geographical location, there are some very distinctive and original talents here. Pflug, E.J. Hughes, and Christopher Pratt, for instance, have all delivered their very particular visions to the field of realist painting. And Jean Paul Lemieux originated a semi-naive style of figurative painting inflected with a haunting sense of sorrow and tentativeness. It’s as if the people in his paintings were uncertain of their claims upon the space around them. Perhaps we all are. As the Mexican expression goes, “Poor us—so far from God, so close to the United States.”

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Van Art Gallery should stop spending money on collecting art to hide in their basement. Sell most of it and use the money to bring in blockbuster shows and exhibit local artists far more often.
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