Visual Arts Reviews

Stills: Michele Provost, Miranda J. Mallinson, Sandra Sugimoto At the Richmond Art Gallery until Wednesday, March 9 As I was flipping through the 2005 exhibition guide for the Rich?mond Art Gallery (which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary), I came across their call for submissions. That open call for exhibition proposals from artists and independent curators reminded me of the liveliness and inclusiveness that characterize the RAG's programs. This is not to say that what's on view at the gallery is a formless free-for-all: a discerning curatorial vision prevails, selecting, juxtaposing, and shaping the kinds of shows that are on right now. Lip Service, a film and a series of stills by Ann Marie Fleming with commissioned pieces of textile art, smartly abuts Stills, a three-person show featuring watercolours by Miranda J. Mallinson, embroidered images and text by Michíƒ ¨le Provost, and mixed-media collages by Sandra Sugimoto. A class of elementary-school students came and went on the Tuesday morning I watched Fleming's film, which is a beguiling mixture of live-action and animation techniques. (The work looks like a moving series of luminous watercolour drawings.) And as I examined Stills, whose title alludes to film stills-single images plucked out of the flowing stream of everyday life, suspended in time and space-a class of college students was deep in discussion with their instructor. Other visitors poured through the exhibition space, and I was struck again by the impression that this well-located, well-run municipal gallery really works for its community. A keen feeling for both fibre and collage, an embrace of the work of the hand, an investigation of the nature of craft, and a fondness for the sparkling surface of the visible world-these elements and impulses are common to all the art here. Not only has Fleming created a charming little mystery film, whose narrator is a female private detective with a maimed upper lip (lips are variable metaphors throughout the work), but she has also commissioned eight women, based in southern Ontario, to create hooked-rug versions of still images from the film. Together, these seemingly incompatible works create a dialogue about identity, gender roles, sexual exploitation, and the perilousness of making assumptions based on appearances. Fleming analogizes her animation techniques (painstakingly altered frame by frame) to the act of weaving. This analogy ties the forms and themes of her film to the hooked rugs and invests all the work with ideas about femininity, domesticity, craftsmanship, and private versus public space. The entirety is both visually arresting and socially provocative. The rich hues, delightful tactility, and gender references of the rugs are echoed in Provost's embroidered, bilingual, illustrated alphabet titled The Sampler: une histoire urbaine. Provost draws upon the worlds of Victorian samplers and contemporary popular culture for her technical, verbal, and visual allusions. The embroidery is immensely accomplished, its labour-intensive techniques including stem stitch and satin stitch, and the images are appropriated from comics, magazines, the Internet, films, and TV. The text alludes to an array of social and political issues, from "A is for Anarchy", "B is for Blasé", and "C comme dans clonage" through "P is for Pre-nup", "V comme dans Violence", and "Z comme dans Zombie". As with Fleming's film, Provost's alphabet is both charming and unsettling. It's funny, too. Sugimoto's collages also deploy a wry humour as they bring together images from historic Japanese woodblock prints with quotes from Roy Lichtenstein's pop-art paintings (themselves appropriated from romance comics) to examine entrenched ethnic stereotypes. The artist is a third- generation Japanese-Canadian whose 12 paper scrolls comprise East-meets-West images with text based on comments made to her through what appears to be a series of unfortunate events: dating, mating, and other social encounters. These include love scenes in which the comic-book guy tells the woodblock-print gal, "I feel like Richard Chamberlain in Shogun," and "Do you think you could walk on my back?", and social scenes in which bimbo blonds blurt comments such as "Your friend is cute for an Oriental," and "I don't think of you as being Japanese at all. Why, you're just like one of us…" Again, the visual charm belies the angst of the subject matter-in this case, cultural identity, racism, and the condition of otherness. The subjects of Mallinson's still-life watercolours include juxtaposed fragments of broken china, pages of old children's books and comics, pieces of coloured glass and patterned linoleum, and artists' supplies. Less politically inflected than the other art on view here, her work speaks instead to the kaleidoscopic nature of everyday existence, in which colours, forms, shapes, and patterns tumble by, each with its own formal presence and emotional content. The images also speak, in a diaristic fashion, to personal history, to mementos, nostalgia, love, loss, and the passage of time. And to the way we invest objects with affectionate and enduring associations.
A Little Thought At the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 8 If you harbour any doubts that Rodney Graham is hot right now, consider the lineup around the block at his recent exhibition opening at the Vancouver Art Gallery (an opening shared with the big photographic exhibition, Real Pictures). Inside the building, the crowds of black-clad scenesters were so dense and clamorous that you couldn't get near the visual part of Graham's art, nor hear its insistent sound component. Oh yeah, he's hot. And hip. And cool. That hot-cool oxymoron serves as a neat metaphor for his work, too, much of which riffs on oppositions, paradoxes, dualities. In his films and videos, these oppositions may be endlessly looped, constructed as circular visual arguments so that the beginning is also the end--and in between, there's a Sisyphean repetition of the sorry condition known as life. Promoted as a midcareer retrospective with a major focus on his film and video work, Rodney Graham: A Little Thought was organized by the VAG, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. The show also includes still photographs, slide projections, sculpture, CDs, LPs and altered album covers, text interventions and works of musical notation, costumes, posters and other paraphernalia associated with his various films and videos, and--most surprising--mixed-media paintings and drawings. Graham fully indulges his own shape-shifting inclinations: he participates in his work as singer, actor, guitarist, pianist, composer, lyricist, writer, designer, producer, and director of photography. Most significantly, he is conceptualizer--the thinker behind the works he often hires others to execute for him. (The show's subtitle, A Little Thought, is also the title of one of his videos.) The show spans the years 1979 to 2005, running from Graham's career-launching camera obscura works through a trio of recent backlit transparencies (an apparent homage to Jeff Wall) to those perplexing, untitled, abstract works on paper, made last month. Awkward and aggressive, with seeming allusions to cubism and Philip Guston, some of the abstractions are drawn and painted over pages of old art-history books. Their tone flickers between sincere and parodic. Much of Graham's work investigates or deconstructs an eclectic range of cultural forms. His sources and inspirations include arcanities of historical art, literature, music, and philosophy, and also elements of contemporary popular culture. Graham leaps all over the referential map, from an insight that the 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal had when he suffered a blow to the head in a carriage accident and an adjustment that was made to the score of Richard Wagner's 1882 opera Parsifal, to a stoned bicycle ride that Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD, took in 1943. He explores, too, the sadomasochism inherent in James Bond novels, a peculiar thematic conceit in Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 film To Catch a Thief, and Kurt Cobain's relationship to his hometown of Aberdeen, Washington. Although the recent film and video work has its requisite foundation of cultural theory, most of it manages to engage both the initiated and the uninformed. And while all of Graham's art is concept-driven, what becomes apparent in the show is that it has shifted in tone and content over the past 25 years, from cool and cerebral to warm, humorous, even visceral--and then, quite dramatically, back again. The visual elements in his trilogy of looped costume dramas, Vexation Island, How I Became a Ramblin' Man, and City Self/Country Self, made between 1997 and the early 2000s, are lush clichés, and the action is broadly comic, even slapstick. (In the first of these works, Graham is a Robinson Crusoe ­like castaway on a desert island, repeatedly being knocked unconscious by a falling coconut; in the second, he endlessly rides into and out of the sunset, a buckskin-clad, guitar-strumming cowboy trapped inside his own paean to the ramblin' life; in the third, he plays both 19th-century dandy and country bumpkin, eternally kicking himself in the ass.) Yet in Rheinmetall/Victoria 8, his 2003 sculptural and film installation with its allusions to obsolete technologies and Second World War German arms manufacturers, the pacing is glacial and the visual and intellectual tone is cool and austere. This retrospective of Graham's eclectic work evokes the legendary (and probably apocryphal) assessment of Fred Astaire's first screen test: "Can't sing, can't act, can dance a little." It's possible to imagine a similar note about Graham: can't sing, can't act (the painting is pretty mediocre, too)--but he can think a little. His intellect, erudition, and sense of humour are sweeping, and the construction of the film, video, and photographic works is, on every level, impeccable. What's more important is that he's game to take anything on. Graham risks bonking himself on the head to achieve a moment of revelation--even if that revelation is routinely lost within an endlessly looped film starring an amnesiac named Sisyphus.
Threatened by television and AIDS, the forms and rituals of Malawi's Chewa find legacy in detailed portraiture Douglas Curran The Elephant Has Four Hearts: Photographs of Nyau Rituals At Presentation House Gallery until February 27 In the 19th and 20th centuries, photography proved to be a very useful tool for colonialism. So much so that it's hard, now, to separate the camera's colonizing function from its contemporary address of people whose culture or ethnicity differs from those of the person on the other side of the lens. In representations of dark-skinned tribal peoples by white-skinned city dwellers, especially, there remains the possibility of taint--either the paternalistic-anthropological-we-know-what's-best-for-you taint or the voyeuristic-National-Geographic-show-us-those-naked-dancing-bodies taint. Such historical associations, along with postmodern concerns about appropriation of voice or culture and the condition of identity known as "otherness", are difficult to disregard. Still, that's what Douglas Curran's highly detailed, colour-saturated photographs ask us to do. The Vancouver-based Curran spent 10 years documenting the Nyau, a male semi-secret society of the Chewa people of Malawi. Through a chance meeting with Chewa migrant workers in Zimbabwe, Curran made numerous visits to Malawi and was invited by tribal elders to be initiated into the Nyau brotherhood and to record its masks, public dances, and belief system.(As an inductee, Curran pledged to safeguard Nyau secrets; apparently, the taking of photographs does not represent a betrayal of them.) In addition to a short video and 62 colour photographs of masked and costumed dancers, nine actual masks are on view here. Using a medium-format camera and often setting up his shots in the sacred groves in which masks are made and initiates are trained, Curran has produced a series of portraits of Nyau dancers who, by donning the masks, become the spirits or creatures depicted. He has also documented, much more extensively than any previous observer of Chewa culture, the names, roles, and stories of the masks. Worn in rituals that mediate between the living and the dead, Nyau masks include portrayals of contemporary and historical figures, real and supernatural animals, and subjects of moral instruction such as philanderer, drug addict, and selfish big spender. Subject matter, context, and documentary impulse predominate over high-art considerations. The photos convey an extraordinary amount of visual information: explicitly detailed shapes, textures, patterns, colours, and materials.Occasionally, as in the photo of a Woiepa Sakwea mask, a curious disjunction occurs between the vividly articulated, three-dimensional figure in the foreground and the flattened, out-of-focus background--as if the masked dancer were standing in front of a photo-mural. (This is an effect, it seems, of the photographer's bouncing a strobe light off the figure.) In recent years, Curran recounts in his catalogue essay, Nyau forms and rituals (which survived slaving, missionizing, and British rule) have been under dire threat from two global scourges: television (only recently introduced into Chewa areas) and AIDS. Such conditions make Curran's documentary mission all the more urgent and heartfelt. Yet, despite the photographer's initiation into Nyau society, there prevails in the gallery the sense of one culture peering intently at another. It's hard to tell whether, behind the masks, that other culture is peering as intently back.
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.