Visual Arts Reviews

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.
At the Charles H. Scott Gallery until March 20 Ian Wallace is one of the progenitors of what has come to be known as the Vancouver School of photo-based art. Over the past three decades, in addition to establishing an internationally recognized practice, he has been an influential teacher and critic. As revealed in his current exhibition at the Charles H. Scott Gallery, Wallace's practice is sober, measured, and well reasoned-Apollonian. The subject of the show is a series of works, produced throughout his career, that focus on the topic of the artist's studio. In light of another contemporary trend, toward "post-studio" practice (in which artists might create their work conceptually or electronically, or commission others to physically manufacture it), the theme of the studio as site of creative production -of object manufacture-might be seen now as elegiac. Wallace's photographic and image-text works from the 1970s and '80s include interior shots of his workspace, carefully strewn with books, papers, magazine clippings, and found images, suggesting that the studio is as much a site of contemplation as production. That contemplative aspect was embodied in an extended performance Wallace undertook in 1983 (represented here in film, poster, and backlit transparency), in which he sat in his improvised studio (the Or Gallery in its Franklin Street incarnation) for an hour each night, five nights a week for two weeks-and read. Later photographs of still-life arrangements in the artist's studio, and in hotel rooms that serve as temporary studios while Wallace is travelling, again focus as much on books and papers as on packets of photos and empty film canisters. The poetic conjunction of art and literature recurs throughout, with repeated re?ferences to Un Coup de Dés by Stéphane Mallarmé. This work, Wallace has written in an artist's statement, functions for him "as a cipher for abstraction as a poetic concept". As the art progresses over the years, the camera pulls back to inspect the manufacturing aspect of the studio interior, including tools and stretched and unstretched canvas. Later, it shifts its focus again to musical equipment, a day bed, and a pedestal ashtray, suggesting that the studio is also a space for socializing, creative snoozing, or alternative forms of expression. Wallace reveals an enduring preoccupation with the 20th-century moment when abstractionists painted themselves into a corner and photography emerged as a powerful postmodern medium. Much of the work on view revisits this shift or schism, juxtaposing, on canvas, panels of paint with laminated photographs. Initially, the painted passages are flat monochromes, strips and rectangles of colour that evoke the crisis in art that occurred with minimalism. Later, they become two-colour monoprints, produced by applying pigment to plywood and transferring the image to canvas. The resulting woodgrain pattern functions not only as a reference to the surrealist practice of frottage, but also as a surrogate for gesture, for expressive mark-making. As with the rest of Wallace's oeuvre, his marks are studious and controlled. Apollonian.
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.