KRAZY! at Vancouver Art Gallery stretches visual vocabulary

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      Are you wondering about where to place KRAZY!, the Vancouver Art Gallery’s big summer show? Curious about how to situate an exhibition of popular culture within the context of a “high art” institution? For starters, chuck out notions of high and low and kill the terms popular culture and mass media. Think, instead, of visual culture, the swirling mass of images that bombards us daily. Bruce Grenville, the VAG senior curator responsible for organizing KRAZY!, explains that a critical examination of visual culture is what unifies this expansive and ambitious show.

      KRAZY! brings contemporary art together with comics, graphic novels, computer and video games, anime, and manga. The intent is to make sense of the ways in which each medium or discipline speaks to the others. “We all agree that images are everywhere around us,” Grenville says, adding that what’s been lacking is a means of framing and discussing that vast array. “It’s part of the VAG’s strategic plan to look at visual culture, to identify the shape and the parameters of it, the history, the present day, and to build a language and a visual literacy to deal with it.”

      Grenville and VAG director Kathleen Bartels are sitting in her sunny office, talking with the Straight. Some 600 objects, assembled by Grenville and the show’s six guest curators, are being installed over two floors of the gallery. The exhibition design is by Atelier Bow-Wow, a Japanese architectural firm acclaimed for working in informal, temporary, and community-based contexts.

      “It was really important for all of us”¦that the design reflected the dynamic nature of the show,” Bartels says. As you make your way through the seven sections of KRAZY!, expect to encounter undulating walls, immersive video environments, and “manga pods” for reading, yes, manga, as well as comics and graphic novels. The designers’ challenge, Grenville observes, was to “build a different experience” into each section while presenting the exhibition as a cohesive whole.

      The VAG’s larger challenge is to persuade critics that KRAZY! meets the institution’s mandate. Its mission statement reads: “The Vancouver Art Gallery seeks to spark curiosity through the visual arts, instilling a greater cultural understanding by presenting the work of outstanding artists, using the power of art to engage, motivate and inspire.”

      “The gallery feels a tremendous responsibility to visual culture,” Bartels says, echoing Grenville. She cites Massive Change, the huge, costly show of contemporary design that debuted at the gallery in the fall of 2004. In looking at design from the point of view of problem-solving rather than aesthetics, Massive Change proposed that the gallery could be a forum for ideas as well as a showplace for fine art. It also indicated Bartels’s interest in taking the exhibition program beyond traditional expectations.

      Although Massive Change anticipated current discussions about green design, and although it was a popular success, critical reception was mixed. It was described as brilliant and stimulating by some, text-heavy and finger-wagging by others.

      More recently, others in the art world have complained that Massive Change and KRAZY! are shows that belong in a museum rather than in an art gallery. Christina Ritchie, director of the Contemporary Art Gallery, disagrees. To contend that Massive Change is not part of the VAG’s programming mandate, she says in a telephone interview, is a backwards way of condemning the quality of the show itself. As for KRAZY!, she observes, “The job of the VAG, in a way, is to respond to matters of popular taste.”¦It is to look at those aspects of popular culture that prevail in whatever social moment, and at how they are affirmed through artistic expression.”

      It’s notable that, in a city lacking museums dedicated to design or popular culture or architecture, the VAG must satisfy a host of demands. “There are many competing sets of interests in the community,” Ritchie observes, “and not enough distinct institutions to address all of those various sets of desires and expectations.”

      Kathleen Bartels, however, doesn’t feel that the VAG’s organization of exhibitions such as Massive Change and KRAZY! is about compensating for the dearth of more specialized museums in Vancouver. “We’ve embraced these [subjects] because we feel they’re an important part of visual culture,” she says. “I think Massive Change was a breakthrough for us, and I think KRAZY! is the next stage.”