Ah, the little cabin in the woods. So close to nature, so far from the madding crowd. Place of solitary reflection, philosophical inquiry, and quiet communing with the wild. Site, too, of rugged individualism—or something resembling it.
This summer, two separate exhibitions take on the cabin as subject. Occupying the entire second floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Cabin Fever is a sweeping survey of an evolving architectural form. From its early association with westward expansion by European settlers, as the show demonstrates, the cabin has come to function as a powerful symbol within North American culture. Across town, at grunt gallery, The Blue Cabin is an examination of a very specific small structure, one that connects us to a particular time, place, and creative life.
Curated by California-based Jennifer M. Volland and the VAG’s Bruce Grenville and Stephanie Rebick, Cabin Fever features both exquisite architectural models and full-size sculptures of famous (or infamous) one-room structures. The show also includes historic and contemporary photographs, architectural renderings, films, videos, paintings, and an array of objects, old and new, that relate to the cabin way of life.
On a humid weekday morning, Rebick speaks to the Straight about why Cabin Fever resonates so strongly with contemporary audiences. “There’s such an interest in the cabin as a site of escape,” she says, seated on a bench in the gallery. “Especially today, when we’re constantly connected to our phones and inundated with images and information.” In some cases, she points out, access to cabin life is more virtual than actual. “With the website Cabin Porn and all the coffee-table books that show beautiful images of cabins in the landscape, there’s this huge cabin culture,” she says. “You don’t even have to own a cabin or build a cabin to participate in it.”
Rebick points to Porn, a section of the exhibition that alludes to that phenomenon of fantasy and desire. Some displays examine the ways “aspects of cabin culture have been appropriated to sell different items of clothing and other things,” she says. Plaid shirts, sturdy boots, and leather backpacks, by the likes of Roots, Sitka, and Herschel Supply, communicate an “aesthetic of ruggedness”. Never mind that this apparel is more likely to be worn while shopping at Whole Foods on 4th Avenue than while skinning a moose in the wilderness.
Before gallery visitors arrive at Porn, they make their way through two other expansive and intriguing sections of the show. The first is Shelter, which, the intro panel tells us, “introduces the cabin as practical and provisional solution for the requirements of westward expansion and emergency relief”. The second is Utopia, which examines the cabin “as the ideal locale to practise introspection or to escape the conventions of society”.
Within the Utopia section are references to the cabin as the locus of individual inspiration and creativity, and it is here that the VAG show may happily segue to The Blue Cabin at grunt. This multicomponent installation documents the painstaking restoration, by Jeremy and Sus Borsos, of a legendary structure that was located from 1932 to 2015 on an intertidal flat at the edge of North Vancouver’s Cates Park. Known as the Blue Cabin, it was occupied for much of the past four decades by the late interdisciplinary artist and musician Al Neil and his partner, the visual artist and writer Carole Itter.
During a recent public talk at grunt, Itter spoke about the 10 years, during the 1960s and ’70s, when the impoverished Neil lived alone in the rudimentary cabin, and then the period she and Neil spent together, from the late 1970s forward, using the place as a studio and retreat. “We were real recluses,” she said, adding that the location, on the north shore of Burrard Inlet, powerfully influenced their practices. She and Neil worked individually and collaboratively on a series of projects there, including assemblages of found materials they installed in, on, and around the cabin.
The Blue Cabin, now temporarily located at Maplewood Farm, was saved from demolition by a dedicated group of artists and activists, including Esther Rausenberg, Barbara Cole, and grunt’s program director, Glenn Alteen.
Speaking to the Straight on the lawn outside the gallery, Alteen says, “It was such a magical place…and such an anomaly.” He describes walking through the woods to get to it—and then wonders how Neil managed to move a piano there. What the Borsoses’ restoration revealed, he adds, was how well-constructed the cabin is. “When Al was in there, it was so full of stuff you never realized what a little architectural gem it is,” Alteen says, “how much work was put into making it.”
Then he continues: “The thing about this little cabin is that it contains so many histories.” Among them are the stories of the builder and subsequent occupants of the place, along with the associated stories of all the artists, writers, and impoverished folk who squatted on the foreshore of Burrard Inlet through the first half of the 20th century. “The idea of saving this, just as a conduit to talk about history, that’s why I think it’s important.”
The Blue Cabin is at grunt gallery until July 28; Cabin Fever is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 30.