Visual Arts Reviews

Christine Davis: "Drink Me" Althea Thauberger: A Memory Lasts Forever At Presentation House Gallery until June 5 The pairing of Althea Thauberger's single-screen DVD installation, A Memory Lasts Forever, with Christine Davis's slide-dissolve installation, "Drink Me", is deft and apt. Directly or subtextually, both works address narrative conventions, transformative states, feminine subjectivity, the politics of representation, and the construction of meaning-whether earthly or spiritual. Still, these are distinct, complex, and multilayered creations from two strongly individual artists. Torontonian Davis challenges her viewers to commit time and patience to hard looking, to staring at a piece that is, initially, very difficult to decipher. Partly inspired by an hallucinogenic passage in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and projected onto a screen composed of outsize paper flowers, 21 separate images of a young woman dissolve into each other in a cycle of falling, shrinking, enlarging, and shrinking again. Lewis Carroll's text is not simply referenced here, it is bodily consumed. Aspects of "Drink Me" are suggestive of a Victorian lantern show. The gallery is disorientingly dark, and there's no sound apart from the rhythmic clicking, humming, and shuttling noises of two slide projectors, whose physical presence is an insistent element of the installation. From amorphous patches of light and colour cast upon the disruptive screen, recognizable shapes, features, and details eventually emerge, a perceptual shift that enables the viewer to read the images, follow their progression, and consider their play with time and space, through variables of form and scale and dynamics of extension and contraction. In a recent interview with the Straight, Davis discussed her interest in time-based installations and the inseparable relationship, in her work, between concept, image, and material. "Drink Me" examines the ways in which we make sense out of disjunct sensations and experiences. It also feeds our longing for "wonder"-for making no sense at all. Vancouverite Thauberger has collaborated with four local young women to produce a DVD musical that tells four different versions of the same distressing story, each version starring one of the aspiring performers (who are on the road somewhere between student and professional). During extensive improv sessions before the shoot, the actors developed their characters and actions around the skeletal plot, outlined by Thauberger, and each wrote the prayerlike song she would sing in response to a situation that pitches her into a confrontation with mortality and adulthood. Taped at night, in real time, in and around a private swimming pool, A Memory Lasts Forever conveys the adolescents' attempts to find some form of spiritual resolution or redemption following an event that stimulates their feelings of grief, guilt, shame, regret, and fear of retribution. To droning organ chords, the teenagers direct spiritual songs of supplication, atonement, or longing upward into the firmament, some toward a Christian God, others to an unnamed power. Folded into these deeply uncomfortable sequences are concerns about class and privilege, popular-culture representations of young women, and the politicization of religion. The work is both alluring and squirm-inducing. Curiouser, as Alice would say, and curiouser.
Barrie Jones: New Work Adrienne Lai: All the Arms Around You At the Helen Pitt Gallery until May 14 Recent photo-based projects by Vancouver artists Adrienne Lai and Barrie Jones neatly complement each other while independently engaging a range of ideas and concerns. These include the conditions that shape the taking and exhibiting of photographs, and the nature of creative collaboration. Jones, a long-established photographic artist and university teacher, has made a number of portraits of people in uniform, examining the sociopolitical and psychological implications of the garments associated with certain occupations. Authority and servility, individuality and conformity, and the human figure as a stage for the construction of identity-these themes continue to preoccupy the artist in the four large, lush, colour photos on view at the Helen Pitt Gallery. Two-person tableaux in which one being provides a personal service for another, these works are a curious combination of the theatrical and the banal. Each of the scenes-a manicure, a mud wrap, and two individual workouts with personal trainers-is represented in a style that bounces between the suggestion that the image is a straightforward record of commercial exchange and the possibility that it's entirely staged. Actually, in what Jones calls "negotiated exchanges", real-life service providers and clients do what they might daily do in salon, spa, and home gym. Still, they exhibit a postmodern self-consciousness in their roles as creative collaborators. In his statement, Jones writes that he's interested in "the personal almost intimate nature of the issues involving trust, power, vulnerability, and the status of the work being performed". Subtle details of clothing, footwear, jewellery, posture, and gesture communicate class difference, yes, but they also signal a society obsessed with youth and physical beauty and willing to expend immense amounts of money and time in their pursuit. Lai, an emerging artist, curator, and teacher, is showing the evidence of a smart conceptual undertaking. Following a somewhat complicated selection process (thoroughly documented here), three of the artist's colleagues were chosen to undertake collaborations with her, in which each would advise her in the public presentation of an older, incomplete series of photographs. Her original works, A Selection of Meals Consumed, are images, shot from above and tightly cropped, of tables littered with dirty plates, glasses, cutlery, wine bottles, coffee cups, chicken bones, shrimp tails, banana peels, and half-full serving dishes. These photos of the remnants of meals both large and small, shared and solitary, suggest an attentiveness to the everyday and also an analogy between the physical evidence of an event and the documentary role of the photograph. Through the three different presentations of her work, as directed by her collaborators, Lai queries conventions of art production, curation, and exhibition, the nature of creativity, and the route artists must take to achieve professional standing. Not incidentally, her photos are juicy and beautiful, their rich colour, vivid detail, and tightly focused aerial viewpoint creating an enticing field for brainiac inquiry.
Charlie Don't Surf: 4 Vietnamese American Artists At Centre A until May 21 The title of this small survey of contemporary Vietnamese- American art adds a note of scathing satire to a chord of racism, colonialism, and casual atrocity. "Charlie don't surf" is a quote from Lt. Col. Kilgore, a character in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, as he presides over a scene in which American soldiers surf while their comrades obliterate a Vietnamese village. Title and exhibition speak not only to remembered terrors of the Vietnam War but also to its resulting diaspora and prolonged aftermath, on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. In conjunction with Centre A's previous show, by Calgary artist Kim Huynh, Charlie Don't Surf marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, and takes on a range of themes, including displacement, alienation, cultural difference, gender, fear, and desire. Most movingly, I think, many of the works here allude to the complexities of memory and trauma, to scenes, sensations, and experiences lost or obscured, then partially recovered and reexamined. Images of water and of small boats recur in the work of all four artists represented in the show, and speak both to a form rich with traditional cultural meaning and to the history of "the boat people", the refugees who fled communist-controlled Vietnam by sea in the late 1970s. In the thickly layered, semi-abstract paintings of Ann Phong, the open vessels are also employed as symbols of the female body and its vulnerabilities. Tossed by turbulent waves of deep, oceanic blue and explosions of searing white and yellow, the little boats and sketchily realized female figures-some with hands raised to fend off unseen acts of violence-articulate past terrors and present traumas. Phong's opaque and translucent layers of paint mimic the workings of memory, as do the interwoven strips of black-and-white and coloured photographs in Dinh Q. Líƒ ª's Untitled (Persistence of Memory #17). Here, the artist juxtaposes a news image of a fleeing Vietnamese family with a movie scene of war and conflagration, examining, among other issues, the ways in which popular culture shapes our understanding of history and world events. The experience of the boat people is also alluded to in Nguyen Tan Hoang's video projection, PIRATED!, which rapidly montages original and appropriated film and TV clips in a jumbled memoir of queer-Asian identity, geographic displacement, sexual fantasy, and cultural longing. Tran T. Kim-Trang's video documentary, amaurosis: a portrait of Dat Nguyen, is one of a series of that artist's works exploring ideas of vision and perception through the metaphor of blindness. Dat Nguyen is an Amerasian guitarist, blind and orphaned as a child in Saigon and now living and working in California. Concert shots and interviews with him are intercut with brain scans, medical diagrams, flashing lights, palm beaches, fishing boats, hummingbirds, and meditations on aloneness and otherness. As with other works here, the references seem to be as much to the identity of the video maker as to her ostensible subject, as much to the Vietnamese past as the American present.
Andre Petterson: Voice At the Bau-Xi Gallery until April 30 Robyn Moody: Harp: Phase 1 At Access Artist Run Centre until April 23 About 1664, Jan Vermeer of Delft painted The Music Lesson. In a beautiful domestic interior, sunlight streaming through leaded window panes, a woman stands at a clavecin, her back to the viewer, her instructor standing attentively beside her. The Latin words inscribed on the raised cover of her instrument translate roughly as "Music is the companion of joy, the balm of sorrow". Some art historians believe that Vermeer may have intended this inscription for painting as well. The impulse to make music is such a fundamental aspect of our shared humanity, it's hardly surprising that visual artists, over vast stretches of time and place, have incorporated images of musicians and musical instruments into their work. Harps and panpipes played by mythological beings in ancient Greek and Roman art; David composing the Psalms in Byzantine art; court musicians playing wind and string instruments in a 10th-century Chinese scroll; angels singing and strumming lutes in Italian Renaissance paintings; a courtesan with a samisen in a Japanese woodblock print of the mid-18th century; Pablo Picasso's recurring motif of guitars and guitar players, Roy Lichtenstein's pop-art Girl at Piano-a neat homage to Vermeer. In the early 20th century, artists sought to free themselves of the need to merely depict the making of music (or anything else, for that matter) and analogized their practice to it. In the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st, visual artists have employed sound itself, either to shape or amplify an installation or performance, or create a sound environment, sound sculpture, or work of interactive art. And, yes, a strong tradition of visual artists making music and sound prevails in Vancouver, one of them being Andre Petterson, whose exhibition, Voice, is on view now at the Bau-Xi Gallery. Petterson, who plays both piano and drums and has performed for years in rock and jazz groups, has created a series of works that express his connection to that aspect of his history. Two visual motifs dominate his show (mostly mixed-media on panel, but also including two sculptures): the piano and sheet music. The former is realized in photographs of old, upright pianos, usually with the keyboards isolated by expressively applied, monochrome passages of white, black, or brown (which may mimic, obliterate, or extend the piano shape). The latter is realized in textured, monochrome panels scribbled over with abstracted and nonsensical musical notations. Squiggles, jots, dashes, and scrawled lines approximate notes, staffs, clefs, and bars. These are determinedly modernist works, gestural, calligraphic, with their roots firmly planted in abstract expressionism. The most appealing works in the show, Eclipse Variation 1, 2, and 3, combine both the piano motif and the musical notations. The formal structure and visual play of this series depend on the contrast between the black and white piano keys and their interactions and illusions with the geometric pieces of white paper placed on and around the keyboard before it is photographed (or perhaps while it is being fiddled with in the computer), and the white, grey, and black passages of paint overlaid on and around the photo image after it is applied to the panel. Bars, dots, and scrolls are scribbled over the white, as are hand-drawn lines extending vertically from the keys. In a related series, Eclipse 3 uses rectangles of paper and paint to evoke a theatrical setting, of which the keyboard is the stage. This work is indeed companionable to joy. It's contemplative, too, as the best jazz is. At Access, artist Robyn Moody (a graduate student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax) has converted the gallery into a high-tech harp, whose "strings" are laser beams which appear as 24 lines of red light running from one end of the long, narrow space to the other. Mounted on the south wall of the gallery, parallel to the laser beams, are rows of small speakers, each emitting a sound when the corresponding laser beam is "plucked" or "strummed". The sounds produced are not musical notes, however, but phonemes ("the building blocks of language", the artist tells us in his statement), revealing Moody's fascination with linguistic forms and structures and their relationship to music-the intersection of the concrete and the abstract, the incomprehensible and the universal. As with Petterson's nonsensical musical notations, Moody's harp produces a nonsensical language of stuttering oo, ah, er, sh, je, ow, ow, ow, neh neh neh, wh, wh, wh sounds, 48 in total. The fine red lines beamed across the darkened gallery, occasional puffs of manufactured smoke, the slight physical sensation of the laser beams on hand or finger, the rather sorrowful and repetitive phonemes (sometimes triggered by the smoke, after you've walked away from the work)-all contribute to the sense that a ghostly being is trying to communicate with you from another dimension, trying to organize abstract sounds into a meaningful language. The thrill is that you are the intermediary here, the collaborator in this spectral scat singing. Dup dup dup weh weh.
At State Gallery until April 23 Kim Kennedy Austin seems to thrive on paradox. She is not particularly interested in tools or machinery, but is compelled by mechanical and engineering drawings and their accompanying descriptions and instructions. She is an ardent reader, but often derives the words in her image-text art from the unreadable-from dry, arcane, technical handbooks and manuals. And although she doesn't consider herself a conceptualist, she likes the look of the original conceptual art of the 1960s and '70s. That look compasses cheap paper, snapshotlike photographs, grainy photocopies, lists, and instructions, the text often produced on manual typewriters. Over the years, conceptualism's intentional anti-aesthetic-part of that movement's attempt to assert the primacy of the idea and subvert the fetishistic power of the art object-has acquired its own particular aesthetic. Its modesty, functionality, and mug-shot matter-of-factness have strongly influenced younger generations of visual artists. Austin controverts the matter-of-factness of her found images and words, however, as she painstakingly copies by hand schematic drawings, diagrams, and passages of mechanically printed text. The remarkable works in her current show, K Structure, have their source in an engineering book published in Montreal in 1919, which documents the construction of a bridge over the St. Lawrence River in the early years of the 20th century. Designed to replace a 1907 structure that had catastrophically collapsed while being built, the Quebec Bridge commanded a huge team of men in its design and execution. Austin has exhaustively listed them in her copy of an organizational chart that sets out the pyramidal (and all-male) power structure, from Phelps Johnson, president and general manager of the St. Lawrence Bridge Co. Ltd., to his underlings and their underlings, including W.B. Fortune, "Superintendent of Erection", his 13 (named) foremen, and 500 (unnamed) construction workers. As with the other diagrams and text reproduced here, the artist's line appears precise but actually possesses a slight skew, wobble, and tilt-a subtle declaration of handmadeness. Other critics and Austin herself have remarked on the way her teeny-tiny hand-lettering animates the surface of the paper, conveying a human presence, giving the work what art historian Patrik Andersson once described as a "pulse". Austin's drawings combine the mechanical exactitude of architectural drafting, the wonky obsessiveness of alternative comix, and the sprightliness of Paul Klee. They are entirely her own. In addition to line drawings in ink of the replacement bridge structure and the parts necessary to its creation (compressometer brackets, counterbalance levers, caissons…) and of text (including the book's cover and bibliography), the show includes watercolours in which the component parts of the older, collapsed bridge have been rendered in the negative, using scrubby washes of candy pink to create a reverse-stencil effect of spans, grids, and girders. These works are much more abstract than the ink drawings, again calling up Klee in their combination of the geometric and the organic. Austin has purposefully subverted the engineering function of the original schematic drawings and diagrams, introducing, instead, a note of perverse prettiness. The pink watercolours are an ironic form of girl talk in the midst of an all-male enterprise, a declaration of obstinacy from a postfeminist generation.
At Presentation House Gallery until April 17 The overwhelming sense one gets from Akbar Nazemi's photographs of the Iranian revolution is one of intense physicality-the physicality of a street rebellion, to be sure, but also the visceral effort it required to take, process, and print these pictures in the first place. The notes for the Presentation House show emphasize that Nazemi's photos operate at the intersection of art and politics. Aesthetics are important, yes, but here they definitely exist at the service of life in these gritty pictures, which encapsulate a stunning cross-section of people-denim-clad coeds, middle-class businessmen, tweedy intellectuals, and the ubiquitous bearded seminarists-in waves of energy flying at the corrupt regime. The majority of the images, out of a reported 3,600 that have survived the postrevolutionary exodus (Nazemi has lived in North Vancouver for more than 15 years), appear to be taken from bridges, trees, and tall buildings. They suggest a sense of hovering above events but not being quite safe from them. Some contain concentrated fury, such as the iconic Woman With Bloody Hands, but they only occasionally flare into palpable violence, as found in a virtual wall of fire near the end of the exhibition, with a sequence of street-level photos depicting burning cars, barricades, and papers (secret-police files, we're told). Of historical importance are photographs of the Ayatollah Khomeini's first public addresses. Implicit in these are the myriad hopes-for democracy, free expression, rejection of western values, a greater role for women-held by those listening in the early days. Most of these dreams would be dashed in the cannibalistic period following the upheaval. And the exhibit takes on added poignancy when the viewer stops to contemplate that none of the information here is known, much less understood, by fundamentalists on this side of the world-"visionaries" unsatisfied with creating a catastrophe next door to Iran. In any case, the guest book, full of notations in numerous languages, is full of gratitude for depicting a now-mythical event in recognizably human terms. The drama and its attendant aesthetics are unnerving, and the bravery is inspiring. But what stays with you are the smiles. Even if they were later turned upside down, they're a reminder that joy-the ecstasy of possibilities-is the basis of every good revolution. And it always will be.
At the Art + Soul Gallery until April 9 Modernist architecture has attracted an abundance of creative and curatorial attention in this postmodern age. In Vancouver over the past two decades, photographers, painters, collagists, and sculptors have employed images of 20th-century buildings to illuminate modernism's ideals and critique its failures. Monique Genton's show, Tidy, focuses on the low-rise and mid-rise apartment buildings constructed in the Lower Mainland between the 1950s and the 1970s. Operating on a small scale and with a gentle and sometimes paradoxical intimacy, her work is part homage and part lament. The show comprises 13 mixed-media paintings and two photo-based, multi-component wall works. Genton, a baby boomer who has studied at the Emily Carr Institute, the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the University of British Columbia, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, brings a hybrid visual sensibility to her projects. Her photographic works are painterly in their references, and her paintings are photographic in theirs. The melding of media and the delicacy and precision of execution suggest an attachment to both concept and object. Series 6 and Series 10 are developed from a body of work originally exhibited at the Richmond Art Gallery and addressing the collision of postwar optimism, suburban sprawl, and the politics of lawn. Each consists of a grid of small, photo-based images-close-up shots of patches of grass-executed in acrylic and ink in a spectrum of bleached-out colours, from very pale creams, greys, greens, and yellows to lime, lilac, and turquoise. The grid formation and subtle monochromes speak to historical minimalist-conceptualist practice; the subject matter includes the human impulse to control and contain nature, to plant it, trim it, weed it, and organize it into large and small squares of short grass. The most recent work here is a series of paintings in watercolour on acrylic. In most instances, the watercolour is the hue of architectural blueprints, and the acrylic ground is a creamy monochrome marked with hard-edge bands and boxes of pale greens and earth tones. The images, picked out in blue, are of the local, midcentury apartment buildings that compel Genton's interest, viewed from the street or the back lane. Apparently based on photographs, they are reduced to a kind of telegraphic essence: stencil-like treatments of a few salient features, including windows, balconies, foliage, traffic signs, and automobiles. Again, the historic allusions appear to be to the mechanistic aspects of high-modernist painting, against which these handmade images of International Style buildings project a kind of wobbly vulnerability. The omnipresent cars, half-ton trucks, and SUVs, parked on the street in front of the buildings or in paved lots or carports behind, speak to a condition unanticipated by postwar architects and developers. A few decades ago, the number of designated parking spaces did not begin to approximate the number of suites in each building. Genton's paintings encapsulate the betrayal of modernism's belief in the utopian possibilities inherent in new design, materials, and technologies. The SUV is the perfect metaphor for contemporary technology's anti-utopian proclivities, for its profit-driven snub of even the slightest notion of social good.
Established categories defied by exhibition's pairing of fine art with craft, high culture with pop, the humourous with the serious DamiAn Moppett: The Visible Work At the Contemporary Art Gallery until April 24 Damian Moppett's new exhibition at the Contemporary Art Gallery consists of graphite drawings, watercolours, a three-screen video installation, clumsily made clay pots and only slightly more accomplished faux-modernist steel sculptures, and (in collaboration with Toronto resident Zin Taylor) promotional buttons, posters, and fliers for a fake band, the Spiders. Moppett's purpose in creating this varied and somewhat motley group of objects is to X-ray contemporary visual art, exposing those distinctions-high-/pop-culture, art/craft, modern/postmodern, et cetera-that operate like hooks, enabling critics and historians to attach artists and their works to predefined critical categories. Moppett declares his impatience with this state of affairs by refusing to declare his allegiance to any particular medium, or to develop a "signature style". Instead, he presents a whole gallery full of stylistically varied objects, some highly finished and refined, others amateurish in execution. In this way, he deflects attention from the "visible works" in the gallery to the conceptual decision-making that led him to create them in the first place. Moppett has transformed the CAG's larger gallery into a museum display. Discreet spotlights in the darkened room illuminate large steel sculptures, perhaps modelled on the work of modernist sculptor Alexander Calder. The sculptures are ragged and roughly formed, and bear fabricators' measurements in coloured chalk or grease pencil on their sides. Hanging from the sculptures are little trays of clay pots and bowls whose blobby forms and cracked edges signify the work of a beginning potter. The steel sculptures are like designer pedestals; they demonstrate, in a dryly funny way, how the "look" of modern art has, since the late 1940s, been absorbed into craft and design, and, similarly, how formal qualities like "fidelity to materials" have not received the same level of critical respect or recognition in the craft genres as they have in critical discussions about painting and sculpture. Writing about these works, Moppett has likened them to a car crash between art and craft, an event rendering one form indistinguishable from the other. As he says in an exhibition-catalogue interview with historian John Welchman, he sees "the pairing as humorous, but not disrespectful towards the capacity or history of either form." In the CAG's smaller gallery, Moppett is exhibiting dozens of watercolour and graphite drawings. Some are homages to his favourite artists: filmmaker Hollis Frampton; painters Ed Ruscha and Philip Guston; the cheeky Swiss sculptors Peter Fischli and David Weiss. Others are more idiosyncratic: a flock of Salt Spring Island sheep; potters' kilns and Denman Island houses; a grinning psychedelic nightmare full of huge eyeballs, sharp teeth, and torch flames. By refusing to differentiate among his images or to organize them into any kind of hierarchy, Moppett compels viewers to consider the cumulative effect that these seemingly incompatible and unlikely sources-Sepultura? H.P. Lovecraft? Fifties sculptural-kitsch master Isamu Noguchi?-have had on his alternately comic and profound art practice.
Lesley Dill At the Equinox Gallery until March 31 Language, fibre, body, and spirit-all weave together in this exhibition of new and recent work by New York artist Lesley Dill. Deeply poetic in both impulse and content, Dill's interdisciplinary art-which includes photography, sculpture, printmaking, and performance-also manages to invoke a number of theoretical concerns. These include the ways in which gender is socially constructed and the body is inscribed with language. Not that we're overwhelmed by post-semiotic ideas as soon as we walk into the gallery; the first impression here is one of sensuous beauty. Among the most compelling works on view is Yet, a barely-there construction of fine wire threaded with horsehair that hovers like a ghost in the gallery's front window. A kind of relief sculpture (it's a wall-mounted conversation between the second and third dimensions), it deploys one of Dill's recurring motifs: a 19th-century dress, with long narrow sleeves, high neck, slender bodice, and full skirt. (In Dill's early work, this form was allusive of the poet Emily Dickinson, whose words the artist frequently quotes.) Unusually, the sketchy suggestion of a head has been added; without hands or feet, however, the form conveys a state of disembodiment. Although Dill may sculpt or photograph people, as often she conjures up human presence through hair, gesture, clothing. In Yet, the words "STRUCK WAS I NOT YET BY LIGHTNING" are delicately wrought in fine black wire and mounted on top of the figure's head and shoulders. Dill's use of poetry is one of the most persistent aspects of her art. Language for her is far more than a system of signs for conveying meaning; it's medium and material, form and feeling, concreteness and evanescence. It's shout and whisper, music and prayer, blood, guts, sweat, and fibre. It's a stream not only of consciousness but also of energy, called up out of us and collected back into us. Dill may deliver words and letters in an indecipherable tumble of cut paper or fabric, or stamped and strewn unreadably across an unfurling network of leaves and fern fronds. Literal meaning eludes us-as it's meant to. The off-register layering of image and text on semi-transparent fabric, as in Blue Voice, Listen, and I See Visions, further deflects any fixed or absolute reading of her work. Just as long strands of hair assume the role of thread in Yet, thread represents hair in the astonishing installation Language Extends Even to the Hair. Mounted across the gallery's long north wall, and tumbling like a waterfall from the wrapped wire words of the title, are some 500,000 strands of white, cream, and pale- yellow thread. Powerfully evocative of blond human hair, they call up the erotically and culturally charged nature of those live-dead strands of protein. Hair has been, through centuries and millennia, a marker of both social and sexual identity. Potent as is the Pablo Neruda quote that Dill deploys here, her work draws other important analogies. Hair is a kind of language, a way of expressing both our individuality and our conformity. We extrude hair and words-and are extruded by them, too.
At the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery until March 20 Electrifying Art is just that-electrifying. Coloured lights blink on and off, alarm bells ring, a circular abstract painting rotates at the flick of a switch. On a small, flickering screen, a slender young woman peels off layer upon layer of satiny clothing, revealing ever-more-wondrous garments beneath. An ingenious mind is at work here. This retrospective of Japanese avant- gardist Atsuko Tanaka between 1954 and 1968 includes an early, interactive sound installation (probably the first sound work created for exhibition in Japan), three dresses used during pioneering performances, short films of those performances, and a selection of drawings, paintings, and notebooks filled with organic networks of circles and lines. Despite the sophistication of its concept-driven art and its academic pedigree (jointly organized by the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery at the University of British Columbia and the Grey Art Gallery of New York University, and guest-curated by Ming Tiampo of Carleton University and Mizuho Kat? of the Ashiya City Museum of Art and History), the show successfully conveys a sense of wonder and discovery. Born in Osaka in 1932, Tanaka created art attuned to the neo-Dadaist and Fluxus movements that occurred in the West in the 1950s and '60s (a period of cultural activity in which the Belkin Gallery has come to specialize). As with the Gutai group of radical artists to which she belonged from 1955 to 1965, however, Tanaka reacted specifically to the conditions of social, economic, and political change in Japan following the Second World War. This show reveals that she challenged herself to find new art forms that would speak to postwar industrialization and modernization, but that might also reflect some of the horror of the conflict itself. Her spectacular Electric Dress (first worn in a performance in 1956, and reconstructed in 1986) consists of a tent of hundreds of incandescent light bulbs coated in brightly coloured enamel paints, strung together into a tentlike costume, and trailing the mass of electric cords that connect the work to a control console. Tanaka was well aware, when she wore this dress of blinking lights, that she might be electrocuted by it; her work is seen, then, as both an affirmation of postwar technologies and the new, neon-lit urban scene, and an allusion to the perils of the atomic age. Work, seen in a performance titled Stage Clothes, is an ingenious little green dress, created out of panels of rayon that, when stripped off, release layer upon layer of additional garments in different colours, patterns, forms, and fabrics. These are further stripped off to reveal new configurations of form and colour. The curators point out that both Work and Electric Dress challenge the then-dominant practice of abstract painting, shifting the site of art-making from the canvas to the body, and from the male realm to the female. The electric circuitry that Tanaka sketched while developing her sound installation and light dress inspired a long-lived series of drawings and paintings, entirely composed of circles and lines. Charming in their execution and monkish in their dedication to a visual mantra, they are also oddly restrictive. It's the earlier installation and performance works that dazzle.