David Ostrem

At Red Ruby Hair Studio until August 31

David Ostrem has been described as a visionary, a lowbrow artist, a cultural anthropologist, a master of zaniness, an outsider, an insider, a populist, and a "comic book Michelangelo". In a 1995 Prior Editions brochure, he characterized himself as a "symbolist and folk artist". Oddly enough, given the extraordinary consistency of Ostrem's vision and strategies over the past couple of decades, it's still a challenge to articulate exactly what he does. It is so different from what everybody else does.

A dedicated painter (who had previous incarnations as a photographer and printmaker), the Vancouver-based Ostrem is neither a modernist nor a postmodernist, but seems to occupy a fruitful gap in between. He produces representational works in a pop/funk/surrealist blend of styles, with found and fictional text, including sometimes-oblique titles integrated into the paintings. He juxtaposes carefully rendered photo-realist elements with simplified, cartoonlike imagery, flat passages of vivid colour, areas of gestural abstraction, and representational imagery delivered from a distorted perspective.

A kind of mini-survey of paintings produced between 1993 and 2004, this show further illuminates Ostrem's deft use of the still-life genres to comment on his life and times, the making of art, and the collision of high-culture aspiration with low-culture actuality. Some of the objects depicted are set out on tabletops and windowsills; others are staged on flat grounds of vivid and unmodulated colour.

In a recent interview with the Straight, Ostrem said he was interested in communicating-to a wide audience and without pedantry-his belief that art is about everything. His viewer-friendly paintings juxtapose images of newspapers, newsmagazines, art magazines, pinups, comic books, art-history texts, drafting tools, framing hardware, jazz records, old photos, and painting guides for amateurs. In one series, an articulated wooden figurine recurs, alluding directly to modern dance but also functioning as a symbol of Everyman and evoking Giorgio de Chirico's mannequins. An artist's preoccupation with col?our persists throughout, although it's about much more than form and technique. Below the allusions to primary and blended colours lies a lifelong unease about racial discord and inequality based on skin colour.

Juxtapositions here are often mys?terious and dreamlike. In Focus, there's a representation of a representation of an old black-and-white snapshot of an unidentified woman in 1940s clothing, standing in a sunny doorway, together with a depiction of a 45-rpm record, whose Etiquette label reads "Maryann" by "Rockin Robin Roberts". Also incorporated into the work are depictions of an Edward Hopper painting and a colour guide for artists. The whole is a beautifully articulated jumble of the wry and the nostalgic, the unprepossessing and the mysterious.

Ostrem's 10 paintings are on view at Red Ruby, a newly opened hair salon, upstairs at 2239 Granville Street. Mounting pictures above, beside, and between mirrors, sinks, cabinets, and swivel chairs is not the most advantageous way to display them. Still, this is exactly the kind of venue that complements Ostrem's particular take on non-elitist art-making.