Vikky Alexander queries Extreme Beauty at the Vancouver Art Gallery

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      In 1983, the acclaimed Canadian artist Vikky Alexander was living in New York, working with images appropriated from popular culture—especially from high-end fashion magazines. Her conceptual practice, which posed questions about advertising tropes and the nature of desire, was generating buzz from East Coast critics, curators, and gallerists. It also attracted the attention of Vancouver’s Bill Jeffries, who invited Alexander to show at his Coburg Gallery, which specialized in photographic art.

      “At the time Bill asked me, it was spring and all the magazines that I was using were featuring Christie Brinkley,” Alexander tells the Straight, standing in front of her multipanel work Obsession. It consists of 10 large, grainy, numbered images of the famous model. Framed and mounted in a tight grid, it serves as an introduction to the exhibition Vikky Alexander: Extreme Beauty. Installed on the second floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery and curated by the VAG’s Daina Augaitis, this big, shiny, and seductive survey of Alexander’s stellar career spans the years 1981 to the present day.

      Alexander, who was based in New York City from 1979 to 1992 and in Vancouver from 1992 to 2016, and who now lives and works in Montreal, was struck by the ubiquity of Brinkley’s image all those years ago. It was reproduced “everywhere” at the time she conceived Obsession, she recalls—from Time magazine to British Vogue—provoking her curiosity about Brinkley’s appeal to advertisers and art directors.

      “I started collecting images of her and then I rephotographed them on a copy stand and enlarged them to poster size,” Alexander says. To distinguish her work from mainstream black-and-white photography, she mounted the grainy prints under yellow Plexiglas. “And I added these numbers, one through 10, because I thought this is the opposite of what ‘straight’ photography does. I’m not trying to capture a personality in one image—that’s impossible—so I thought, ‘Well, this is a series that could keep going ad infinitum. This is another Christie Brinkley and this is another one.’ ”

      Coloured Plexiglas gives a new sheen to this detail from Vikky Alexander's Obsession, created in 1983.
      Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Gift of the Artist

      While previewing her exhibition with the Straight, Alexander talks about some of her subjects and strategies. Like many concept-driven artists, she employs whatever form, medium, and materials are needed to convey her ideas. Her exhibition includes installations of commercial photomurals, digital prints in light boxes, mirrored glass “furniture”, and collages printed on canvas. It also features her most recent works: four spectacular site-specific inkjet prints on self-adhesive vinyl, installed floor to ceiling—the ceiling in this instance being more than 7.5 metres high. Alexander’s photo-based practice employs not only appropriated images but also original prints. She has shot theme parks and shopping malls, classical gardens and conservatories, and clothing-store windows and furniture showrooms, her locations ranging from Las Vegas and Disneyland to Paris, Tokyo, and Istanbul.

      In the mid-1980s, Alexander shifted her focus from the human figure to forms and images that speak to landscape conventions, modernist architecture, utopian ideals, the romantic notion of the sublime, consumer culture and retail display, and the places where nature and culture intersect. Mirrors, windows, and other reflecting surfaces recur throughout the show. These surfaces function as both the subject of Alexander’s photographs and her actual materials, which beam viewers back at themselves.

      “That’s something that is a thread that goes through a lot of my work, the moment of self-reflection,” she says. “This is a literal moment, when you’re going, ‘Oh, I’m a viewer looking at this thing.’ ”

      Alexander walks around her installation Vaux-le-Vicomte Panorama, which is composed of eight mirrored columns set in V-formation in front of a large screen on which wide, low-res images of that famous 17th-century French garden are projected. She recounts something of the garden’s history and describes taking photos of the place with a disposable camera. She also speaks of the inspiration for the mirrored columns: a gay disco she visited in Vancouver. “There were mirrored surfaces all around kicking light around the place and I thought, ‘This is so good. How can I use it?’ ” Her mirrored columns serve to fracture, pull apart, and break up the panorama, she says.

      Vikky Alexander's 1986 inkjet print Between Dreaming and Living Series #5.
      International Center of Photography, Gift of Vikky Alexander, 2000

      In an earlier work, Lake in the Woods, Alexander used mirrored tiles, faux-wood panelling, and a large photomural of a northern lake to conjure up a classic rec-room aesthetic, the kitschiest of decorative materials grappling with the modernist ideal of bringing the outside in. At the same time, this installation presents a second- or even third-hand version of the natural world, musing on the ways society has long attempted to frame and control nature. Alexander mentions the Claude glass, a small convex mirror that 18th-century travellers in Europe were advised to use, back turned, to view what might otherwise be overwhelming vistas. “You could compose the landscape perfectly in this mirror instead of falling into the sublime yourself,” she explains. Lake in the Woods, she adds, “is kind of a funny pop version of that”.

      When Alexander was young, before committing herself to visual art, she contemplated becoming an architect—and allusions to the built environment play a large role throughout her work. “I glean ideas from architecture,” she says, “but I’m not a builder because I like to use things that already exist in the world somehow.” Early on, she realized she was too dedicated to her own creative vision to meet the demands of architectural clients. “I could never have put the client first,” she says with a laugh. “I know I shouldn’t say this, but I’m just the wrong personality.”

      Extreme Beauty opens at the Vancouver Art Gallery on Saturday (July 6) and runs through October 27.