Visual Arts Reviews

Real Pictures Photographs From the Collection of Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft At the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 29 Real Pictures is an engrossing exhibition, one that not only dances across the history of photography but also reveals something of the passion and dedication that underlie the collecting of art. The show comprises some 370 historical, contemporary, local, and international photographic works (mostly prints, but also including folios, albums, and multicomponent conceptual pieces), gathered together over the past 30 years by Vancouverites Claudia Beck and Andrew Gruft. The Vancouver Art Gallery recently acquired, through gift and purchase, 463 pieces from Beck and Gruft's collection, and Real Pictures serves as a public introduction to their private vision. The artists represented range from the celebrated to the obscure, from pioneers of photography such as William Henry Fox Talbot, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, and Eadweard Muybridge to giants of modernism such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Kertész, Dorothea Lange, Edward Weston, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, and Robert Frank. Postmodern movements are also well represented, with a focus on local artists such as Stan Douglas, Roy Arden, Jim Breukelman, Randy Bradley, Marian Penner Bancroft, and Scott McFarland. Gruft taught architecture at the University of British Columbia for many years, and there's a strong feeling here for the built environment, with early shots of monuments, edifices, and ruins, and many cityscapes--from Moscow to Glasgow to Vancouver. Incidentally, the show also represents a historical spectrum of photographic print processes, from calotype, salted paper, cyanotype, silver albumen, and Woodburytype through silver gelatin and digital chromogenic. VAG curator Grant Arnold selected the works on view and organized them within broad thematic categories, such as Surveying the World, Cities and Streets, Work and Leisure, and Bodies, Beauty and the Self. In an interview with the Straight, Arnold said that he wasn't interested in a merely chronological installation (although the earliest works in the show are in date order). Juxtaposing images from disparate times and places while aligning similar kinds of subject matter allows us to consider the fraught nature of representation and the shifts in social, cultural, and political beliefs that photography has registered over the past 16 decades. The show's title has to do with what Arnold sees as "the different ways that the notion of realism that's attached to photography is laid out at different moments in time". With a few exceptions (such as an inadvertently hilarious series of 19th-century "moose hunt" photographs, created in the Montreal studio of William Notman), the collection is composed of unmanipulated shots of the world as found. Unmanipulated, however, doesn't mean unmediated. What this collection demonstrates is that there are many ways of choosing, framing, and inflecting a subject. An example is the landscape of the American West: Ansel Adams's 1944 Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite Valley, awe-inspiring in its image of vast, godly, uncontaminated wilderness (what Arnold calls a "redemptive" vision of the landscape), serves up a quite different reality from that of Robert Adams's 1974 work, Tract house and outdoor theatre, Colorado Springs, an unromantic image of a bald new subdivision (no spiritual redemption on offer today, thank you). One of Arnold's most fascinating categories, Representing Cultures, spans 19th-century colonial views of India by Samuel Bourne, Frederick Dally's images of Native people in and around Victoria in the 1860s, and Aaron Siskind's shots of Harlem in the 1930s and '40s. "In most cases," Arnold observed, "it's someone from outside a culture representing it back to an audience from his own position." The significant exception is Roman Vishniac's images of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe in the mid- to late 1930s, an attempt by the artist to document a traditional way of life that appeared to be in transition--not because of the then-unforeseen Holocaust, Arnold points out, but because of cultural incursions from the modern world. In hindsight, however, and especially in light of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death-camp complex, these images are painfully poignant. Around the corner from Representing Cultures are Manuel Alvarez Bravo's powerful shots of Mexican street life, including his famous and horrifying image of an assassinated young worker, lying in a pool of blood. Equally powerful are the nearby images of War and Conflict, such as Agustíƒ ­ Centelles's fearless images of Barcelona, taken immediately before the Spanish Civil War, and D. W. Hoffman's matter-of-factly gruesome photo-postcards of the Mexican Revolution. It's not all gore and grimness here--far from it. Beck and Gruft have an eye for both the remarkable and the everyday, for heroic and antiheroic vistas and subtle nuances of gesture and expression. Arnold has described their collection as eclectic rather than comprehensive, organically shaped by their curiosity and delight. Still, the show is so rich and wide-ranging that it invites--no, demands--return visits.
Germaine Koh Shell At the Catriona Jeffries Gallery until February 19 Toronto-based artist Germaine Koh works with so many different objects, in so many different combinations, that the only proper way to refer to her is as a neoconceptualist. Her practice takes its cue from the 1960s movements that sought to integrate art and life, producing works that consisted first of the thought that went into them and, second, of the fragile and often ephemeral materials--Xeroxes, soap bubbles, ice, sunlight, et cetera--they were made from. Neoconceptualism today is a booming field. Thick retrospective catalogues by the conceptual movement's leading lights--On Kawara, Bruce Nauman, Douglas Huebler, Ed Ruscha, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Kosuth--mean that 40-year-old projects are suddenly available to younger artists, like the recipes on the side of a box of Bisquick. An air of cynicism and calculation hangs over many neoconceptualist productions, based on the artists' assumption that formal originality is overrated, and the similarly faux-naíƒ ¯f hope that if an idea worked once, for an artist who is now famous, why shouldn't lightning strike twice? By and large, Koh's works escape this endgame paradigm because they pay attention to the formal qualities of the things they are made from, an issue that interested many of the original conceptualists little or not at all. Although Koh's exhibition at Catriona Jeffries contains a number of different works--photo collages, a videotape, a dust ball, an architectural installation--I will only focus on one, the installation Shell, which is emblematic of her practice as a whole. The Catriona Jeffries Gallery has two windows that project out from the front of the building. Koh has removed a pane from one of these, so that you can step over the windowsill and inside, entering a kind of in-between space that usually belongs to the gallery but has been turned over to the public for the exhibition's duration. Around the hole, Koh has built an armature out of aluminum and painted wood, creating an enclosed version of a Toronto bus stop that appears to be bolted to the front of the gallery. The missing windowpane is installed inside the gallery, leaning against the wall, like a found sculpture. A thematically related work, Wave, which consists of a line of broken auto safety glass, is scattered across the gallery's back wall, nearly invisible from the street. Shell and Wave address the way in which galleries imbue artworks with aesthetic presence by rigorously excluding everything around them. In a gallery, the world's worst painting looks much better than the same painting at a yard sale, because the gallery's white walls and neutral lighting are designed to focus all of your attention on the thing on the wall. Yet this paint-by-numbers interpretation doesn't even begin to exhaust Koh's works, which provide a steady accretion of subliminal details. The sounds of Granville Street traffic, and raindrops, and bird song, as you stand on the "public" gallery floor. The putty on the edges of the leaning windowpane, like a frame for a transparent painting. Auto glass shining on the floor like tiny stars. Koh's work is full of these modest details, which constitute its "meaning". If you really need a more complicated name or label, you could call it the endless revelation of the commonplace.
Garry Winogrand Photographs from the portfolio "Women are better than men. Not only have they survived, they do prevail" Works From 1978-80. At the Monte Clark Gallery until February 6 In Garry Winogrand's small black-and-white street photographs, every kind of public human interaction is displayed and parsed. Working with a Leica range-finder camera, and always at close quarters, Winogrand prowled the streets of New York, Los Angeles, and other large American cities, making images of people he did not know, restlessly scrutinizing them as they, in turn, scrutinized and judged each other. Winogrand's purpose was never cheery, and his work will never win him any fans among the many devotees of lyrical humanist street photography. His images are darker and more pessimistic than those of, say, Henri Cartier-Bresson, even though both artists' pictures are governed by an almost identical set of rules: exposures shot quickly with a handheld camera; small black-and-white prints; compositions centred on the decisive moment--Cartier-Bresson's term--that magic split second when disconnected compositional elements cohere in the viewfinder. Although Winogrand's work is often compared to Cartier-Bresson's or to André Kertész's, his photographs lack their easy European grace. Winogrand's blunt, apparently artless style is actually derived from his close study of two masters of American realist photography: Swiss-born Robert Frank, and Walker Evans. The 15 Winogrand photographs on display at Monte Clark Gallery are some of the last works he completed before his death from cancer in the early 1980s, and they're a good introduction to his style. The first thing you notice is how their compositions are almost all skewed to the right or left. Winogrand explained this as the result of the lenses he preferred and his desire for his subjects to fill the frame, but it is equally true that his asymmetrical framing throws his subjects off balance, like people struggling to stay afoot on the deck of a sinking ship. Their physical gestures reveal psychological tics and quirks they'd just as soon suppress or don't realize they're displaying. When you look closely at Winogrand's pictures, you also notice tiny details whose presence anchors and grounds his compositions. In the best of these images, a black couple, mother and daughter, greet a white mother and daughter on a restaurant's open-air patio. The black daughter is clearly uncomfortable with the scene; her face has frozen into a mask, and her arms are tucked in at her sides, as if she's just waded into cold water. The white daughter's back is to the camera; you can't see her face, but you do see the black button eyes of the stuffed Snoopy doll on the table beside her, which you somehow intuit as being as unwelcoming as her own. This is a terrific picture, but it wouldn't work without Snoopy. You're tempted to say Winogrand got lucky, but he got lucky way too often. All of his pictures are richly packed with this kind of incidental detail, and it's this hectic density that makes his images as memorable as they are.
Femke van Delft: Missing Johanna Mercer: The Diana Project At the Access Artist Run Centre until January 22 Among the images, text, and sculpture that constitute Missing are street photographs taken in downtown Vancouver at night. Rain has fallen and neon lights reflect lurid red off wet concrete and asphalt. The effect is horrifying, as if the streets had been washed in blood. As if the city were a deserted battleground and the opened veins and arteries of Vancouver's missing women were all that marked the slaughter. A mixed-media installation by Vancouver artist Femke van Delft, Missing both broadens and complicates our understanding of the conditions within which sexual exploitation of and violence toward women occur. Although this work deplores the vulnerability and marginalization of street-level sex-trade workers and mourns the deaths and disappearances of so many, it also suggests that their fate is an inevitable function, rather than an isolated aberration, of the larger cultural, legal, and economic conditions of contemporary life. Van Delft's "guerrilla mapping project" involved placing a sculpted pair of woman's legs upright in various locations around Vancouver at night, taking colour photographs of them, and indicating, on a composite, hand-drawn map, where they were temporarily situated. The legs, with their arched feet set on (literal) spike heels, were cast in concrete from department-store hosiery dummies. Mapping here is a political act: rather than focusing on the Downtown Eastside and the Pickton farm (as the media have done), van Delft has set her sculptures throughout Vancouver, in upscale shopping districts, near City Hall, outside posh bars, law courts, fitness centres, drugstores, toy stores, car dealerships... Each of the 50 photos on view is accompanied by text that cites the location and gathers to it some relevant fact or observation, whether historical, geographical, legal, economic, or sociological. Juxtaposed with an image of a Robson Street shoe shop, for instance, is information concerning the origin of the stiletto heel as a fetish tool in Victorian brothels. A shot of the concrete legs standing on a traffic calmer is accompanied by a description of the City's attempt to interrupt car traffic related to street-level prostitution in the West End during the early 1980s. Among the subjects that van Delft's images and text cumulatively address are our culture's systemic misogyny and its dehumanizing and fetishizing of girls and women; the conditions that have forced Vancouver's sex workers onto unsafe streets; and the hypocrisies of social and legal attitudes toward prostitution. Missing is compelling and unsettling. Accompanying it is Johanna Mercer's short digital film, "The Diana Project". Projected (in sometimes difficult viewing conditions) on a wall at the front of the gallery, the work conflates van Delft's guerrilla imagery, the myth of Artemis, and Mercer's long-simmering fury over police and city hall's protracted indifference to Vancouver's missing women. This is a rough and disturbing allegory whose symbols don't always make sense: the most brutal assault here is committed by a woman upon another woman; what men ultimately are seen doing--furtively making off with the concrete legs--seems comic by comparison. As with van Delft's installation, however, the film reminds us that we're all complicit. There's blood on our streets.
Gordon Payne Selected Works At the Evergreen Cultural Centre until Sunday, January 9. Gordon Payne is a senior West Coast painter who deplores the use of his medium as a vehicle for concrete meaning, a conveyance for cultural theory, literal representation, or narrative. And yet he infuses his art with intense philosophical inquiry. A long-time resident of Hornby Island, Payne longs for the uncomplicated modernist belief in the abstract painting as an autonomous object, representative of nothing but itself. At the same time, he is immensely knowledgeable and has arrived inevitably at the postmodern practice of making art about art. The apparent spontaneity of his gestural abstractions is contradicted by the almost geological accretion of their heavily textured surfaces over months and even years, by their direct references to art history, their indirect references to philosophy, and their subtle but pervasive evocations of the natural environment. The latter is hardly surprising: Payne, born in 1933, came of creative age at a time when lyrical, landscape-based abstraction dominated the local art scene. Yet his work is complicated by his ideas about what is "true", the impossibility of painting, and the troublesome correspondence between the means or marks by which an artist represents a subject and what those means might or might not signify. "The marks are form," he writes in his statement; "they are energy paths rather than conventional signs". Evident influences include symbolism (with direct homages to Odilon Redon), surrealism, the European school of gestural abstraction known as Art Informel, and the group of Québécois modernists called Les Automatistes. (An untitled painting here is very reminiscent of Jean-Paul Riopelle's mosaiclike abstractions.) Payne's aesthetic, semiotic, and phenomenological speculations on the nature of painting and perception are revealed in his statement, printed in the exhibition brochure along with a series of quotes and aphorisms and an illuminating essay by Annette Hurtig. The nine large abstractions on view at the Evergreen Cultural Centre are dramatically thick and textured, often with sand, beads, metallic pigment, and wax emulsion folded in to the acrylic paint. Many are deeply slashed and scored (some right through the canvas) and some are framed with unexpected materials, such as lumps of coal. The paintings are complemented by five small landscape studies (with an emphasis on dense networks of dashing lines); a videotape meditation on Payne's own sculpture garden (filled with his assemblages of found materials); an automatic ink drawing; a giclée print; and 17 "landscape fragments" or "skins". Payne creates these skins by pouring acrylic paint onto plastic sheets; he then manipulates the paint, dries it, lifts it off the plastic, and reinforces it with cheesecloth. These rumpled and organic works represent a serious attempt to achieve a painting made entirely of paint. Despite Payne's longing to believe in the painting's self-sufficiency, it's hard to ignore the correspondence between his landscapes, aspects of his natural environment revealed in his video, and the marks, textures, and scoring of his abstract paintings. Tangles of branches or thorns, lashes of sea grass, rocky shores scored with cracks and crevices--all are evoked here. Autonomy? Perhaps, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell rather than Jacques Derrida or Maurice Merleau-Ponty, that was just a dream some of us had.
Steven Shearer At the Contemporary Art Gallery until January 2 In a brief interview with the Straight two years ago, Steven Shearer described himself as an anthropologist of certain cultural forms, forms for which he felt a particular attachment. His protean art ranges across sculpture, sound installation, digital prints, serigraphs, oil and acrylic paintings, and delicately rendered realist drawings, and is derived from his own extensive archive of found imagery, much of it gathered on the Net. Shearer creates critical coherence out of a disparate sampling of youth subcultures and banal suburbanism. This 10-year survey of the Vancouver artist's work pulls together images including a child's messy string collage, death-metal song titles, low-budget fanzine-style collages, fictitious performance posters, prefab tool sheds, pop-culture promo photographs, and snapshots of long-haired white guys partying or playing thrash guitar in their parents' basements. One of the themes that compels Shearer is the youth culture of the 1970s, especially as manifested in sweet-faced, androgynous teen idols of the Leif Garrett and Shaun Cassidy variety, and in crotch-grabbing, face-painting, blood-dripping heavy-metal bands. The former, this art suggests, represent mainstream society's attempt to promote a clean, compliant, and sexless image of male adolescence, while the latter express all that conventional adults fear of the same demographic: raw aggression, social alienation, and obsessions with sex, death, and violence. His own interest, Shearer says, is in youth as a time when "ideas of identity, social engineering, and culture collide". Among his principal forms of expression is collage, an example being Boy's Life, a large digital colour print whose title explains its content. Here, hundreds of small found images--from promo shots of the Osmonds, the Partridge Family, and the movie musical Oliver!, to photos of naked hippies, glam rockers, Black Sabbath tapes, drum sets, speakers, owl tattoos, pet opossums, and a crocheted bedspread--are laid out in an approximate grid against a bright, white ground. A quite different slice of life occurs in Slumber, the most ambitious digital print in the show, in which are collaged many more hundreds of small images, these of people sleeping. Men, teens, children, babies, occasional women--all are caught slumbering in awkward postures and unlikely contexts, on floors, chairs, boats, buses, motorcycles, sidewalks, stairways, and patches of dirt. Curled up like fetuses, seated with heads thrown back, or sprawled with arms outstretched, eyes closed, mouths open, they signal the vulnerable ordinariness of exhausted humanity. Collage and appropriation enable Shearer to interweave ideas about the social construction of masculinity, the marketplace's construction of celebrity, the history of portraiture, the shifting nature of photographic representation, and--more obscurely--modernism's utopian ideals concerning the creativity of children. Despite the predominance of subjects from the 1970s, he articulates a contemporary condition in which the image bombardment of the mass media--such a rich resource for Andy Warhol four decades ago--finds its present-day electronic equivalent on the Internet, an apparently bottomless well of visual material. Other strategies that Shearer shares with Warhol include the silk-screening of much-enlarged, photo-based images onto canvas and an engagement with banality that transcends the material sourced and sparks a critical dialogue with unregarded aspects of our daily lives.
Liz Magor Handy Thing/Split At the Equinox Gallery until December 24 LightShed Permanent public-art installation at Coal Harbour Art, Liz Magor says, is the place where our perceptions are opened and examined for prolonged periods of time. Much longer, she suggests, than in our day-to-day encounters with the visual world, where we tend to interpret given signs in fixed ways, and where our first impressions are usually consolidated by our second. Magor's art refutes such consolidation: irresolution prevails and closure eludes us. Her sculptures consistently play reality against unreality, meaning against alternative meaning, initial appearance against later revelation. Magor has recently completed three important sculptural projects, one of them a public artwork installed on the sea wall at Coal Harbour, beyond the foot of Broughton Street, and two others on view at the Equinox Gallery. The Coal Harbour work, titled LightShed, was privately commissioned (by Grosvenor Canada Limited) but was subject to the full rigour of the City of Vancouver's public-art process, including a call for submissions, a juried selection, and a public hearing to address concerns of local residents. The sculpture resembles a dilapidated wooden shed on weathered log pilings, set at a slightly skewed angle, as if the whole structure had been battered by the elements and were in danger of collapse. The startling aspect is that the entire work--boards, planks, door handles, latches, hinges, ropes, corrugated roof tiles, pilings, and even barnacles on the pilings--was cast in aluminum from the components of a one-half-scale model, inspired by the freight sheds that once sat on wharves in Coal Harbour. While calling up an aspect of Vancouver's maritime history, the work also finds formal resonance in the contemporary storage sheds and boat shelters nearby, an interaction that alerts us to our built environment and the everyday life of the harbour. Still, history and environment are not Magor's chief concerns here: again, she wants to play with our perceptions, pitting what's real against what's not. In a recent interview with the Straight, Magor said she believed the best art employs two modes of perception: the "experiential", that which we encounter with our bodies and our senses; and the "referential", linking us, as a computer does, to a long chain of related concepts and ideas and transporting us elsewhere. As with some of Magor's earlier works, which riff off the image of a log cabin in the woods, sheds and pilings are familiar to us, bearing certain cultural assumptions. Yet that familiarity is disturbed by the transformation into another material and scale and by the sense of eternal precariousness or transition. (In side view, there is also an oddly zoomorphic suggestion, as if the shed on pilings were a large, lumbering beast.) We are unsettled, too, by the structure's ultimate inaccessibility: raised up and sealed off from entry, it can't really function as we suppose it should. The appearance of LightShed changes depending on the time and conditions of viewing. On a clear day, it glints and glitters, and sunlight, reflecting off the rippling water of the harbour, flickers and dances across its surface. On dark days and at night, a greasy silver light shines inside the shed and leaks out through the windows and the gaps between the tilted and skewed "boards". The light seems to shift from place to place, creating the impression of ghostly inhabitation. It animates the work, enhancing the suggestion of interiority, but it also invests the shed with an otherworldly quality. Like an apparition, it's here but not here. At the Equinox Gallery, two highly realistic sculptures, cast from moulds taken from a living tree trunk, make reference to some of Magor's earlier themes, including ideas around the hoarding, hiding, and anxieties of recluses and survivalists. In Handy Thing, cast in bronze, we first see what we assume to be a cut section of a big, old tree, with a rough, active surface of deeply undercut bark, and numerous wavy concentric rings on the severed end nearest the gallery's front door. Walk around this object, however, and the other end reveals that the log is not solid but hollow and crammed with (actual) garden implements, from rakes, hoes, shovels, and sprinkler nozzles to rubber boots, nylon ropes, and a plastic tarpaulin. The work communicates not only a surreal disjunction between appearance and actuality, but also a sense of somewhat desperate contingency and paranoia. The other monumental log sculpture, Split, cast improbably in wax, again plays initial appearance (that of an elegantly curved tree section with old, gnarled, deeply cut bark, this one split in two) against revelation. Here, the core of the logs is revealed to have been something molten, once liquid but now solid, like lava rock or petrified sap. The work is self-referential, alluding to the process of casting molten bronze and to the mutable character of the wax. Like LightShed, it suggests a transitional state forever frozen in time and matter. Forever provocative.
Jeff Ladouceur Safety Village At the Atelier Gallery until December 18 Victoria-born cartoonist Jeff Ladouceur works exclusively in one medium--black ink over graphite (with occasional corrections in White Out)--and in one key: mordant gloom. From these limited means, Ladouceur makes small, memorable drawings--about subjects like depression, self-mutilation, the injuries the unhappy inflict on themselves and everyone around them--that are all the more arresting for their modesty. Ladouceur's medium isn't really news in and of itself. Hundreds of cartoonists are now exhibiting their work in a fine-art context, everyone from seasoned pros like Robert Crumb and Lynda Barry to Winnipeg's Marcel Dzama and Vancouver's Marc Bell and Jason McLean. Ladouceur's drawings stand out from this crowded field. There are no splashy colours, no messy handwritten phrases, and no kitsch symbols like dolls, robots, ninja assassins, or bears. Instead, there are thin, cautious ink lines that resemble the tracks of a skier descending a steep and potentially deadly slope. There is also a real sense of menace to Ladouceur's drawings, one totally absent from the work of better-known contemporaries such as Dzama. A Dzama drawing of a giant robot chasing a naked girl or of bears menacing cowboys is many things, but frightening isn't one of them. Dzama's drawings hint at evil, but they never crank the menace implicit in their subjects up to full bore. We sense that once we look away, the bears and robots and cowboys and naked girls will be swapping jokes in the cafeteria lunch line. Ladouceur's drawings are far less reassuring. Here are a few of his subjects: An octopus slashing itself open with a straight razor. Endless processions of fat, little, round-headed men--Ladouceur calls them "schmoes"--with clown shoes and patched pants, whose pudgy faces, curved noses, and jowls suggest a caricature of former U.S. president Lyndon Johnson, or a cruel portrait of a hydrocephalic child. A schmo in a rowboat whose oars have carved gaping wounds in the heads of the waves he floats on. Miniature baby elephants, trickling like blood from a sleeping toddler's nose. There are many others. I take two things away from Ladouceur's drawings. First, they are parts of a larger mythology. Nothing in them exists in a vacuum; everything, including inanimate things like signs and waves, is alive and busy changing into something else. Ladouceur, in his own secular, slyly ironic way, puts me in mind of the best Northwest Coast art, such as Douglas Cranmer's more abstract paintings, or Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun's blighted biomorphic landscapes. Like Ladouceur, these artists understand landscape as nothing more than a collection of frenzied, interlocking figures. Second, Ladouceur is purposeful. He points out some pretty unpalatable truths to those of us unlucky enough to spend most of the time depressed. Relationships are awful. (One memorable drawing depicts a couple whose heads are little linked thunderclouds.) You can hurt people just by being near them (that guy in the rowboat again!). Social structures inflict their own damage but are better than the alternatives. (A cartoon cloud is held together by boards nailed onto its body.) Ladouceur's best drawings make you wince and laugh simultaneously. Though fantastic, they are a lot like life.
Illusion of Sky--Shimmering Spectacles Robbin Deyo, Shelley Ouellet. At the Richmond Art Gallery until December 9 Clouds, fog, mist, haze--atmospheric metaphors are unfurling in this damp season within a couple of exhibitions across the Lower Mainland. Notable is Illusion of Sky--Shimmering Spectacles at the Richmond Art Gallery. The show features luminous (cloudy) skyscapes in encaustic on canvas by Montreal's Robbin Deyo, and shimmering (watery) landscapes executed in the surprising medium of plastic beads by Shelley Ouellet of Calgary. Themes undertaken include the social construction of gender and the politics of production. For both Deyo and Ouellet, process is of pressing significance: the labour-intensiveness of their artworks is integral to their ideas. Deyo uses pattern and repetition to critique the idea of the feminine. Typically, her art involves cookie cutters, encaustic (wax mixed with pigment), and a daunting degree of repetition. An example is Forget-me-not, an installation of some 8,000 little floral forms in sugary, pastel colours. The candylike "paintings" are cut out of fibreboard, coated in encaustic (which here resembles icing), and mounted directly on the wall, in configurations of six, repeated through multiple horizontal rows. The obsessively repetitive nature of this work, together with its kitsch and saccharine aspects, suggests the endless, selfless repetitiveness of domestic labour and maternal nurturance. Deyo is also represented in this exhibition by a 16-panel encaustic-on-canvas painting, Nightscape, in gradations of rich cobalt blue set with cookie-cutter stars. The most unabashedly beautiful and impressive work in the show, however, is Skyscape, an installation of some 234 encaustic-coated canvases (each 30 by 25 centimetres) mounted in a grand grid near the ceiling, across three walls of the RAG's octagonal gallery. Worked in translucent washes of cerulean, through which the white ground appears from place to place, the work simulates the experience of looking at a bright summer sky streaked with thin white clouds through high, multi-paned windows. While each panel could stand alone as a monochromatic abstraction, together they create a representational work, an amazing technical feat. High modernism and the romantic sublime meet the conceptualist grid in a way that, again, critiques conditions of production, but that also takes Deyo in a new thematic direction. Her statement attests to her interest in the window as a "portal" between interior and exterior, whether physical location or psychological state. Ouellet's two large beaded hangings, Wish you were here...Saugenay River and Wish you were here...Niagara Falls, are based on historic Canadian landscape paintings. Each work is composed of thousands of black, white, and clear plastic beads strung on hundreds of vertical strands, and each cleverly simulates a digitalized version of the painted image, the beads functioning as pixels. On the surface, Ouellet appears to be exploring the intersection of national identity and romantic landscape imagery. Yet a subversive subtext emerges, again concerning gender roles and processes of production. High art butts up against low craft, computer technology against handmade-ness, the heroic against the kitsch. Ouellet, who teaches at the Alberta College of Art and Design, is well placed to rattle her plastic beads in the face of art-world convention.
Lotus Blossom Special: Metamorphosis and Misidentification in Madama Butterfly Written and performed by David Bateman. Directed by Emily Glasspool. Presented by Western Front Performance Art, Centre A, and Vancouver Opera. At the Western Front on November 18. No remaining performances Spectacle, melodrama, torch songs--no wonder Madama Butterfly's colonialist candle attracts gay moths like David Bateman. The Toronto-based performance artist and Emily Carr Institute instructor presented his own queerly comedic revision of the Giacomo Puccini work as part of Views of Japan, a community series built around Vancouver Opera's current production. From beneath the Stars and Stripes, the irreverent, amusing, and hysterical Bateman emerges in drag onto a stage swathed in Canadian flags and Molson Canadian patio umbrellas (which he dons as a dress, to hilarious effect). In three acts and a finale based on the Madama Butterfly story line, Lotus Blossom Special follows a phone conversation with his "straight" production manager, a closet case for whom he, Butterfly-like, holds a hopeless flame. Although his humour is classic camp--from sardonic one-liners to rehashed gay party jokes--unlike most drag performers, Bateman eschews lip-synching for actually singing songs from Tammy Wynette and Cats. The show is also part self-referential lecture. Bateman's explanations of identity theory, however, veer toward preemptive strikes against criticism and recitals of academic orthodoxy rather than original thought. His autobiographical examinations are more engaging. During his childhood in Peterborough, Ontario, Bateman relates, distinctions between Japan and China weren't made because he was "raised to consider cuisine, not continents". With expansive scope, he touches on everything from the Mona Lisa, Disneyland, and his first homosexual experience to Chinese-Canadian railroad workers and the Japanese-Canadian internment. Bateman makes concerted efforts to explore racial issues, but it's disappointing that as the sole Views of Japan offering to directly addresses race, gender, and sexuality, Lotus Blossom Special sidesteps a core problem with the Madama Butterfly cliché: how its legacy affects interracial sexual politics involving Asian females (and even Asian gay males). Similarly, his character's preference for closet cases over openly gay men remains lamented but unchallenged. A comparison of the two fetishes--for the stereotypical Asian female restrained by social codes, and his own taste for closet cases straitjacketed by internalized homophobia--could liberate both Butterfly and Bateman from a pessimistic metamorphosis. In the light of recent developments, the material's social currency may be nearing its best-before date. Gay acceptance and rights gains are reversing the roles that Bateman draws upon. Now, it's those clinging to their closeted cocoons who are abandoned, while openly gay Canadians can fly after male marriage prospects. Furthermore, the Sandra Ohs and Ming-Na Wens of today are banishing the stereotype of the demure blossom; they're more than capable of kicking the asses of potential Pinkertons. On November 20 at Western Front, a free public seminar hosted by Emily Carr instructor Ashok Mathur elaborated on the issues raised by Lotus Blossom Special. It's unfortunate there are no similar forums to deal with questions that may arise after viewing the opera itself.