At the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 8
On the second-floor landing of the Vancouver Art Gallery, the media preview is winding down. Journalists have put away their audio recorders and notepads, and are looking moodily at a junior drum kit and, hanging above it, a B.C. Binning mobile. The drum kit is shiny black and emphatic with rude stickers on it; by contrast, the mobile is as matte and delicate as a bird skeleton and casts a faint, fluttery shadow on the wall. Vancouver artist Myfanwy MacLeod, the subject of a 15-year survey of her sculptures, paintings, mixed-media installations, photography, origami, photography, text pieces, appropriated imagery, and altered found objects, and the curator of an accompanying exhibition of works from the VAG collection, is reminiscing about her teen years. Her tone is humorous and self-deprecating. One of the things she jokes about is how she was perceived by her family as a feminist, but then she hastily assures us that, as an artist, she is not really a feminist but rather a satirist, in the manner of Jonathan Swift. Still, the two positions are closely intertwined: MacLeod’s recent target is the way popular culture has constructed masculinity—and vice versa.
MacLeod’s critique is especially focused on the 1970s, when she was coming of age in London, Ontario. (She moved to Vancouver in the mid 1990s.) With both humour and seriousness, she examines a range of masculine tropes: muscle-car macho, mythic-heroic questing, centrefold lustful, and cock-rock loud, lewd, and debauched. Myfanwy MacLeod, or There and Back Again riffs on—and mashes together—the legacy of Led Zeppelin, the fantasy literature of J.R.R. Tolkien, the cult of the Chevy Camaro, and the tragic story of used, abused, and murdered Playboy model Dorothy Stratten.
Like many postmodern artists, MacLeod also frames her subjects in the context of modernist art history, especially the male-dominated realm of high abstraction. In an act of both paradox and provocation, she has chosen art by men only for her VAG collection show, Cock and Bull, spotlighting institutional gender bias. Equally provocatively, she has integrated the VAG works into the installation of her own art so that a lively dialogue exists between them.
An example of this strategy is the gallery in which she has installed Stack, her take on the iconic stack of Marshall amplifiers that rock bands such as Led Zeppelin deployed during the 1960s and ’70s, together with a large Anthony Caro sculpture (a heroic abstraction of bent metal), a Peter Doig print (of a Gregg Allman–like figure in a canoe), and an 18th-century oil painting of Stonehenge by William Marlow (one of those British mediocrities the VAG’s founding fathers were so determined to collect). MacLeod’s Stack is made up 18 framed black paintings screened with the white Marshall logo, in brilliant mimicry of what began as a biggest-is-best exercise in loudness and eventually became a status-driven array of dummies as sound technology advanced. More subtly, she is alluding to minimalist artist Donald Judd’s equally iconic (but in another masculine realm entirely) stacks, his series of shelflike metal boxes hung vertically on the wall and developed around the same time as the Marshall stack. The Stonehenge painting (which deploys both aristos and humble country folk around the prehistoric monument) could be read as social commentary but is included here, it seems, in a spirit of fun. It reminds MacLeod of the hilarious staging of miniature Stonehenge props in the rock-tour satire film This Is Spinal Tap.
Other second-floor galleries reveal equally stimulating juxtapositions and allude to everything from pawnshops and motivational spin classes to con men and cloned marijuana, and from orality and impotence to an artist digging his own grave. A couple of themes—one banal, the other heroic—overarch the show. The first is the undeveloped residential basements where 1970s teens spent so much time, and the second is life’s journey. The journey that is MacLeod’s show takes us through light and darkness, silliness and seriousness, theatricality and introspection, to arrive where we started, at the shiny drum kit of deluded youth and the fluttery mobile of deluded old age.