At the Contemporary Art Gallery until April 25
"The squeaky wheel gets the grease" goes the old saying, and nowhere is it more apt than in the heavily bureaucratized world of Canadian art, where artists who expect to accelerate their careers must devote time they'd usually spend in the studio to completing Canada Council grant applications or duplicating résumés and slides destined for curators' desks. Comparatively less public attention is paid to those artists who, either by temperament or independent financial means, work around or outside the public- and commercial-gallery systems.
Curator Roy Arden's new project at the Contemporary Art Gallery pairs two local artists, Neil Campbell and Beau Dick, in what Arden calls a "celebration" of two men who, one suspects, would continue to make work even in the absence of an established gallery system. The show's title, Supernatural, refers to the B.C. tourist industry's employment of iconic artists like Emily Carr and Bill Reid to promote a sense of place. In Arden's eyes, Campbell's and Dick's reluctance to hype themselves makes them emblematic of a West Coast counter-tradition, one that, while just as rooted in place, doesn't seek public acceptance or fame. This doesn't mean either artist is a rube, churning art out of a cloud of feelings. Campbell was shown, for a while, by a leading New York commercial gallery, but chose to leave that rarefied world to return to Vancouver; he demonstrates a sophisticated grasp of contemporary abstraction. Although Dick does occasionally sell his art, his works are not conceived with a market audience in mind. Still, he's a Kwakwaka'wakw artist equally admired for his formal innovations and his refusal to confine himself to any fixed style.
Both artists, then, are united by not only their dedication to their undeniably idiosyncratic careers but also by the similar effects their objects have on viewers. Campbell's wall paintings and relief sculptures create an almost visceral response, just as Dick's masks do in those who experience them either as static sculptures or as accessories to dance performances.
I once saw one of Campbell's huge wall paintings, composed of two floor-to-ceiling shapes that resembled the tentacles of some creature out of horror novelist H. P. Lovecraft's imagination. They induced an epileptic fit in a viewer, which still strikes me as one of the highest compliments his work could ever receive.
Campbell's pieces are large geometric shapes, flatly painted on walls or computer-cut from steel. These works are optical puzzles that play with illusion and perspective; things pop out of space or bend and warp like objects in a sideshow mirror. The wall painting Saskatchewan's fluorescent-yellow dots seem to leap off the wall and fly straight into viewers' eyes. Dog, a computer-cut piece of painted steel, either looks like four black arrows or four white circles. Both patterns are present simultaneously, yet the eye and brain seem unable to resolve things in favour of one or the other.
Drawings and notebook sketches pinned to the wall beside the larger pieces suggest ample historical precedents for Campbell's work: op art, pop art's garish colours, Elsworth Kelly's shaped canvases, the optical games of James Turrell, as well as M. C. Escher and Henri Matisse. Campbell blends his knowledge of these and countless other sources in a unique way, one that does not interpret the history of abstraction as a linear narrative but rather skips lightly over it, drawing parallels between art movements and cultures that most historians would probably not dare mention in the same breath; i.e., op art and tantric art, Yogic chakras and neo-geo. Most of Campbell's works are also very funny; their manic, slapstick energy owes something to Japanese cartooning and underground comics.
Campbell's pieces are so visually distinctive that they are impossible to misidentify. Beau Dick's masks, on the other hand, look nothing like one another. It is a tribute to Dick's skill as a sculptor that the first impression his room of masks conveys is not that of a solo exhibition, but a group show. The two versions of the Pookmis Mask on display, for example, are "roughly" carved and finished with dry, scabby applications of white and green paint. In this way, Dick indicates both the supernatural origins of the Pookmis character and the limitations of the swelling, smoothly painted style popularized by Kwakwaka'wakw artists in the 1950s and subsequently misidentified by non-Kwakwaka'wakw artists as the preferred style, instead of one of many. Similarly, Dick's Ghost Mask seems to nod in the direction of both Japanese anime and the look of the Scream trilogy's psycho killer.
Associations like these show how contemporary Dick's art really is, and how historical and modern techniques dance side by side within it, to the point where, like Campbell's work, it becomes impossible to distinguish them, so that the only thing that remains to do is to applaud Arden's thoughtful celebration of the "supernatural" parallels between Dick's and Campbell's creative independence.