MashUp reveals pivotal role of women in pioneering of modern art methods

    1 of 4 2 of 4

      MashUp: The Birth of Modern Culture
      At the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 12

      As MashUp’s three coordinating curators heroically attempted to guide a mob of journalists through the biggest and most ambitious show the Vancouver Art Gallery has ever produced, a few of us puzzled over how to wrap a review around the enormous scale of it all.

      Because, yeah, there are 371 works by 156 artists to be contemplated here—although contemplation was not exactly the priority of the media preview.

      We trotted and sometimes cantered through the VAG’s four, art-stuffed floors, with brief, feverishly narrated stops at few select artworks—a Kurt Schwitters collage here, a John Heartfield photomontage there, a Marcel Duchamp readymade around the corner.

      Sherrie Levine's Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp).

      Happily, the Straight was able to stay on after the preview and spend some quality time with the marvellous array, including Andy Warhol silkscreens, Robert Rauschenberg lithographs, a Doris Salcedo sculpture, a Stanley Wong installation, a Joyce Wieland film, two Tom Dixon chairs, a grouping of Sherrie Levine photographs and watercolours, and a series of Brian Jungen masks. The show is hugely engaging, in both concept and execution.

      MashUp’s curatorial theme is that the 1912-1914 Cubist collages of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque broke the ground for the modern age’s bringing together of found and original images, objects, materials, texts, sounds, media, and modes of production. It proposes, too, that digital culture has so thoroughly absorbed and disseminated once radical mash-up methods that we’re now scarcely aware of them. Organized into four sections, the show includes cross-pollinating examples of literature, design, architecture, film, dance, fashion, music, and street culture. Audio elements are a forceful presence here: as you enter the VAG rotunda, through Barbara Kruger’s striking text and emoji installation, you hear a kind of composite soundscape – a low, oceanic roar.

      Dara Birnbaum's Technology Transformation/Wonder Woman (video still).

      A major contributor to that roar is Jack Goldstein’s endlessly repeating film of the MGM lion, vocally declaring and redeclaring his dominion over the second-floor landing. As with many surveys of historic and contemporary art, the question of dominion—whether sexual, cultural, or socioeconomic—is loaded.

      Despite the large number of women among the show’s 28 collaborating curators, female artists are dramatically underrepresented in MashUp. By my count, they number 36 out of the 156 listed in the show’s media kit. Nonetheless, an interesting subtheme emerges here: the important, if not always acknowledged, role women played in pioneering collage and photomontage techniques.

      On the VAG’s fourth floor, where the early-modernist works are installed, a couple of didactic panels alert us to the photo-collages that were produced by aristocratic English women during the Victorian era. “Decades before the collage experiments of…the 20th century European avant-garde,” the text tells us, “the manipulation of photographs had already become a popular technique.”

      The greatly enlarged example of a genteel-pastime precursor to photomontage is a late-1870s work by Kate Edith Gough. Her homely watercolour scene of a pond is given a surreal twist by cut-out photos of women’s heads mounted onto the necks of painted ducks. The effect is unsettling--a precursor to surrealism.

      Hannah Höch's Untitled (Large Hand Over Woman's Head).

      The show doesn’t allude at all to Mary Delany, the 18th-century “gentlewoman” credited with inventing mixed-media collage, an art form she described as “paper-mosaicks”. An accomplished amateur artist, Delany created, in her 70s and 80s, an extraordinary series of botanical drawings using cut paper and watercolour mounted on a black ground. (Not only are they extremely beautiful and dazzlingly detailed, they are also scientifically accurate.) But perhaps she was too botanically inclined and too far in advance of the modern era to be considered here—more’s the pity.

      The exhibition text does credit Hannah Höch, the sole female member of the Berlin Dada group, with being a pioneer of photomontage. This may or may not explain why she is the only female artist represented on the fourth floor. Among her four works on view is a masklike woman’s face placed over another and radiating flowers and dancing feet.

      An ardent feminist, Hoch’s early graphic design work alerted her to the unrealistic ways women were represented in the print media. In her politically charged borrowings from newspapers and magazines, she anticipated the appropriation and deconstruction strategies of the 1980s, as seen in Vikky Alexander’s 12-panel work, Christie Brinkley, from the “Obsession” series. The objectification of women in advertising and fashion and the vexed disconnect between representation and reality persist -- and Hoch’s mash-up techniques become our own.