Belkin Gallery presents a blast from our hippie past

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      Idyll: 3 exhibitions

      At the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery until August 10

      Idyll is a cross between the Summer of Love and students at the barricades. The Belkin Gallery’s thematically linked paintings, prints, archival material, and multimedia installations, new and old, immerse us in the social ideals, political protests, and creative experimentation of the 1960s.

      Both contemporary and historic works here grapple with a time when artists, philosophers, protesters, and the hippie counterculture proposed new ways of living, and new means of reforming an unjust, over-consuming, war-plagued world.

      The show includes a small tribute to art produced in Vancouver in the 1960s, a particular strength of the Belkin collection. Eleven paintings demonstrate what fine work was created by, among others, Joan Balzar, Claude Breeze, Brian Fisher, and Michael Morris.

      Hard-edge and geometric works prevail in this selection, with incursions of experimental media and political commentary. A full-on address of McLuhan-esque media and message is seen in Victor Doray’s 1972 Pic-A-Mix, and is charmingly revisited in Julia Csekí¶’s 2006 A Coney Island of the Mind.

      This three-screen DVD work, adapted from a sound and slide presentation, montages still images gleaned from mass media and popular culture with a pseudo-poetic narrative and a sound collage (including nostalgia-inducing excerpts from the music of Eric Satie).

      Featured in a separate gallery are early electronic sculptures and multimedia works by senior Vancouver artist Audrey Capel Doray. Born in Montreal in 1931, she is described in the exhibition brochure as “a pioneer of interactive and multimedia art that incorporated computers”.

      Like her late husband Victor and many other artists of the time, Capel Doray was influenced by McLuhan and charged up by the possibilities of new media and materials. Her 1968 installation Untitled comprises three wall-mounted panels painted with yellow phosphorescent material, illuminated by black lights, and responsive to human touch. (The warmth of hands and arms produces fleeting shadows on the otherwise monochromatic surface of the panels.)

      Wheel of Fortune, a barrel-shaped electronic sculpture, invites viewers to spin a disk screened with bits of text and jumbled images borrowed from popular culture and art history. This movement triggers light and sound-collage components. “There isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between Nixon and Humphrey,” a deep voice intones. Scary.

      A recent work by Toronto-based artist Luis Jacob and Winnipeg-born filmmaker Noam Gonick, Wildflowers of Manitoba combines elements of film, sculpture, and performance. It consists of the frame of a geodesic dome sitting in the middle of a gallery. Provisionally furnished, it is occupied during gallery hours by a young man who silently lounges about, reading, sleeping, burning incense, and listening to music.

      Parts of the dome are covered with four vinyl screens on which are projected video images of the idyll promised by the exhibition title. Shots of wildflowers and foliage alternate with scenarios from a homoerotic Eden, a retreat-to-nature fantasy in a summery, pastoral setting near Lake Winnipeg.

      Here, three men shed their clothes or cross-dress, cavort, prepare food, enact pseudo-Native rituals and a wedding ceremony, frolic with puppies and ponies, and engage in sex play, alone or with each other. The artists are imagining a kind of utopia, a place of sexual freedom, sensory pleasure, and loving communion with nature and each other. It’s a queer-politics, postmodern reworking of hippie aspirations and values.

      Holly Ward, a Vancouver-based interdisciplinary artist, is represented by her recent video-and-sound installation Radical Rupture. We stumble into a darkened gallery, fall into a black beanbag chair (one of four set on a black shag carpet), and stare at a black screen, a night sky gradually illuminated with “stars”.

      The work’s soundtrack is drawn from a recording of Herbert Marcuse’s address to the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation in London in 1967. As the German-American philosopher and cultural theorist speaks about freedom from the tyrannies of the affluent society, stars appear on the screen and constellations gradually come into view. As the talk passes its halfway mark, however, they start to flicker and turn off again, seemingly cued to aspects of Marcuse’s speech. At the end, we are left in the darkness, contemplating circular visions of history and the extinguished possibility of true liberation.

      Idyll is truly groovy, man—and deeply sad. The art here—past and present, hopeful and cynical, experimental and understated—reminds us that war, injustice, tyranny, overconsumption, and environmental destruction prevail on our planet. The times, they weren’t a-changin’ after all.