Magor's Timeless Transitions

Liz Magor

Handy Thing/Split

At the Equinox Gallery until December 24


Permanent public-art installation at Coal Harbour

Art, Liz Magor says, is the place where our perceptions are opened and examined for prolonged periods of time. Much longer, she suggests, than in our day-to-day encounters with the visual world, where we tend to interpret given signs in fixed ways, and where our first impressions are usually consolidated by our second. Magor's art refutes such consolidation: irresolution prevails and closure eludes us. Her sculptures consistently play reality against unreality, meaning against alternative meaning, initial appearance against later revelation.

Magor has recently completed three important sculptural projects, one of them a public artwork installed on the sea wall at Coal Harbour, beyond the foot of Broughton Street, and two others on view at the Equinox Gallery. The Coal Harbour work, titled LightShed, was privately commissioned (by Grosvenor Canada Limited) but was subject to the full rigour of the City of Vancouver's public-art process, including a call for submissions, a juried selection, and a public hearing to address concerns of local residents.

The sculpture resembles a dilapidated wooden shed on weathered log pilings, set at a slightly skewed angle, as if the whole structure had been battered by the elements and were in danger of collapse. The startling aspect is that the entire work--boards, planks, door handles, latches, hinges, ropes, corrugated roof tiles, pilings, and even barnacles on the pilings--was cast in aluminum from the components of a one-half-scale model, inspired by the freight sheds that once sat on wharves in Coal Harbour. While calling up an aspect of Vancouver's maritime history, the work also finds formal resonance in the contemporary storage sheds and boat shelters nearby, an interaction that alerts us to our built environment and the everyday life of the harbour.

Still, history and environment are not Magor's chief concerns here: again, she wants to play with our perceptions, pitting what's real against what's not. In a recent interview with the Straight, Magor said she believed the best art employs two modes of perception: the "experiential", that which we encounter with our bodies and our senses; and the "referential", linking us, as a computer does, to a long chain of related concepts and ideas and transporting us elsewhere. As with some of Magor's earlier works, which riff off the image of a log cabin in the woods, sheds and pilings are familiar to us, bearing certain cultural assumptions. Yet that familiarity is disturbed by the transformation into another material and scale and by the sense of eternal precariousness or transition. (In side view, there is also an oddly zoomorphic suggestion, as if the shed on pilings were a large, lumbering beast.) We are unsettled, too, by the structure's ultimate inaccessibility: raised up and sealed off from entry, it can't really function as we suppose it should.

The appearance of LightShed changes depending on the time and conditions of viewing. On a clear day, it glints and glitters, and sunlight, reflecting off the rippling water of the harbour, flickers and dances across its surface. On dark days and at night, a greasy silver light shines inside the shed and leaks out through the windows and the gaps between the tilted and skewed "boards". The light seems to shift from place to place, creating the impression of ghostly inhabitation. It animates the work, enhancing the suggestion of interiority, but it also invests the shed with an otherworldly quality. Like an apparition, it's here but not here.

At the Equinox Gallery, two highly realistic sculptures, cast from moulds taken from a living tree trunk, make reference to some of Magor's earlier themes, including ideas around the hoarding, hiding, and anxieties of recluses and survivalists. In Handy Thing, cast in bronze, we first see what we assume to be a cut section of a big, old tree, with a rough, active surface of deeply undercut bark, and numerous wavy concentric rings on the severed end nearest the gallery's front door. Walk around this object, however, and the other end reveals that the log is not solid but hollow and crammed with (actual) garden implements, from rakes, hoes, shovels, and sprinkler nozzles to rubber boots, nylon ropes, and a plastic tarpaulin. The work communicates not only a surreal disjunction between appearance and actuality, but also a sense of somewhat desperate contingency and paranoia.

The other monumental log sculpture, Split, cast improbably in wax, again plays initial appearance (that of an elegantly curved tree section with old, gnarled, deeply cut bark, this one split in two) against revelation. Here, the core of the logs is revealed to have been something molten, once liquid but now solid, like lava rock or petrified sap. The work is self-referential, alluding to the process of casting molten bronze and to the mutable character of the wax. Like LightShed, it suggests a transitional state forever frozen in time and matter. Forever provocative.