To say that conceptual photography has historically been dominated by men isn’t a stretch. But when it comes to the present day’s barrier-breaking photoconceptual art that is redefining the medium, women lead the charge.
The female artists exhibiting work in the fourth Capture Photography Festival highlight the wide range of artistic responses being made both to and with photography. This year’s theme, Evolving Perspectives, speaks to both the breadth of the work displayed and the optics with which these works are created and perceived.
This idea is looked at more closely within Capture’s feature exhibition, Song of the Open Road, named after the Walt Whitman poem. The group exhibit, which examines the notion that what you see is most definitely not what you get, will take place at the Contemporary Art Gallery.
In Model Suite (Sliding Door), a large mural installed at the CAG’s Yaletown-Roundhouse Station site as part of Song of the Open Road, Vikky Alexander’s depiction of Vancouver from the confines of a real-estate-sales office will likely puzzle present-day inhabitants.
Photographed in a model suite built to two-thirds scale at a development on Alberni Street in 1998, the image’s distinct, interrupted landscapes create a strange dichotomy.
“While the suite was on the ground floor, it incorporated backlit images of Vancouver to imply a view from a higher ground,” Alexander tells the Straight by phone from Montreal.
“Each image was shot at a different time of day, and each window gave a completely different view, so you had a 360-degree view of the city and a 24-hour progression of time, just by turning around this small apartment.”
The strategic placement of the work near a busy SkyTrain station, combined with its reference to a pre-real-estate-boom Vancouver, makes for a viewing experience that will likely have some longing for a simpler time.
Of her own work, Alexander says, “I think of the photograph itself as a very slippery medium, with its high-gloss surface and implied depth. I gravitate towards subject matter where this is a feature, such as mirrors and reflections, especially in architecture—as a consequence, there are a lot of visual layers.”
Alexander, a former Vancouverite, is very familiar with the city’s status as an old boys’ club among photographers. At the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, which Alexander attended in the ’70s, the photo department was also what the artist calls “a guy zone”.
It wasn’t until she moved to New York that Alexander experienced how the influence of other successful female artists could be valuable for her own artistic development.
“It was really validating to see their work, and always helpful in terms of critical discussion and their professional and technical support,” she says, listing off names like Ellen Brooks, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, and Cindy Sherman.
“Everybody wants to feel that they have a voice, and if you don’t see someone representing your voice, then you feel like you’re not really there,” Alexander says.
Also featured in Song of the Open Road is local photo-based installation artist Kelly Lycan, with a work that continues her study of exhibition history by way of a photograph taken by Alfred Stieglitz in 1906. Lycan’s research-driven practice seeks to unpack the methodologies of exchange and transformation that take place within imagery.
The inspiration for her work—a photograph taken inside 291, the New York photography gallery opened by Stieglitz in 1905—has spurred a number of recent projects by the artist.
“Sometimes photography is the artwork, but it’s also the thing used to document an artwork, and so I wondered what the value of an installation photograph was,” Lycan says by phone.
In Nearby Nearby: 291 Burlap Walls, her fascination with the odd interior of the space led to a piece that focuses on a very specific detail contained in Stieglitz’s photograph.
Using the image, and others like it that she located through the Internet, Lycan photographed five different sections of the burlap walls of Stieglitz’s gallery depicted in the images. She then enlarged her captures and photocopied them on more than 150 machines throughout North America, and, unsurprisingly, found that no two produced the same result.
In the installation at the CAG, the photocopies are pasted side by side, in a pixelated swath of lilac, pink, and powder-blue hues that create an atmospheric, almost cloudlike viewing experience.
“I think we exist in this perpetual reproduction, and a lot of it is manifested through photographs,” Lycan says. “Photography is how we enlarge ourselves, and how we miniaturize ourselves. We carry images around with us all the time—whether it’s your identification or images in your phone—so I’m fascinated by how we encounter and participate with it.”
Using a “provisional method of image-making” like photocopying to create the installation also gives rise to questions of intention: where an archival print would likely be framed, the pieces that compose her work are simply pasted to the gallery wall.
Like Alexander, Lycan has felt the effects of participating in a largely male-dominated industry, and she’s made work that specifically responds to the skewed male-to-female ratio she’s experienced.
“I made this book where I collected lists of artists’ names from different exhibitions, and then I whited out all the men’s names,” Lycan says. “Of course, the lists at the end are just a few women.”
Lycan says the frustration that comes with seeking out space to show work is often coupled with a strange sense of doubt: “I think if you’re a woman, you’re never really sure if you aren’t chosen for something because of you, or the system, so it’s an odd position to be in.”
Where Lycan has extracted a series of images from photographs to create her installation, Kelly Jazvac, another artist in Song of the Open Road, deconstructs an image to challenge its original purpose. Working with salvaged advertisements from billboards, the Toronto-based installation artist responds to images by reframing and manipulating them to extract the revealing material within.
“When I see an advertisement, it’s evidence of a lot of different things that are happening in society,” says Jazvac in a telephone interview while visiting Portland, Oregon.
In Ambient Advertising, a man and a young boy are seen walking in a serene landscape of rolling hills and a big, open sky. Jazvac has meticulously cut the large vinyl image into strips, so that, in its previous iteration at an exhibit in Toronto, viewers were invited to walk through it. At the CAG, the black-and-white image is cut further into sections to fit into the window boxes on the exterior of the gallery.
For Jazvac, the contents of the photograph mean something entirely different when viewed in the context of an advertisement.
“I was really interested in it because it’s such a reinforcement of a sublime landscape, and the use of an image of nature to sell something else,” says Jazvac. “I frequently see this romanticized interaction between one figure in a big, remote, pristine landscape, which can be a problematic representation.”
Jazvac hopes that some of the implied romance is interrupted by her manipulations. Interruption is a strategy she employs frequently with images that, as advertisements, are quick to pull viewers in without concern. As art, however, they create space for conversation about the intention behind the imagery.
“When we walk into a public space, we’re surrounded by images, and of course they have an impact on how we see ourselves, and how we see others,” she says.
Strongly identifying as a feminist, Jazvac is constantly confronted by the way women are represented in advertisements, and she’ll address those confrontations in an upcoming Toronto exhibit that is “very much focused on the representation of gender”.
“I see these legacies and histories of violence, of colonialism, of sexism, embedded in these advertisements, so if we can look from a different angle at the images that we’re surrounded with constantly, I think that’s a productive exercise,” she says.
In the context of the contemporary art world, Jazvac doesn’t deny that sexism is real, and hopes that, with growing initiatives to show work from more people outside of the mostly white, mostly male demographic, a more equal sharing of gains, exposure, representation, ideas, and public discourse will result.
Tania Willard, whose work is featured at the South Granville entrance of the Waterfront Canada Line station as part of Capture’s public-art initiative, also plays with the combination of landscape and figure, but in a way that’s much more specific to the location and person pictured.
An indigenous interdisciplinary artist and curator hailing from the Secwepemc (Shuswap) First Nation, Willard lives on a reserve five hours outside of Vancouver, near Chase, B.C. For her work, #haunted_hunted, photographed by Aaron Leon, Willard reflects on how the persistent intrusion upon and development of unceded indigenous territory contributes to the erasure of First Nations identities.
Willard’s images speak to two distinct narratives. The first shows a figure, the artist, draped in a sheet bearing appropriated Sante Fe–inspired designs, set against the backdrop of her reserve. In the background, the twinning of Highway 1 takes place. In the second, the same figure wears the sheet again, this time against a plain white backdrop inside the reserve’s hall. Where Willard’s cloaked figure seems to haunt the land in one image, it disappears into the whiteness of the backdrop in the other.
“A number of ancestral remains had been found—and continue to be found—in the highway twinning process. There was always this backdrop to the development that unearths our ancestors,” says Willard over the phone from her home.
“But I was also thinking about my own invisibility as a mother, as someone who chose to live on the reserve, because it makes me much more isolated from, say, the art world, or any of the common resources we take for granted living in the city,” she adds. These things, however, are balanced by the fact that her children are able to live and learn on their ancestral lands.
For Willard, the exhibiting of a work that speaks to how we travel and move through spaces near Waterfront Station, arguably the city’s most hectic transit hub, makes perfect sense.
“I think it’s totally appropriate, because Highway 1 is also one of the busiest transit corridors,” she says. “I want people to think about indigenous territory, belonging, our travel through spaces, and about who we are within them.”
Since relocating to the reserve five years ago, Willard says, she’s placed herself in a traditional Secwepemc community, where the role of women is very strong. But off the reserve, as a mother, Willard’s experience as a contemporary artist is made more difficult by the fact that children have never been welcomed into the places where art is made or shown.
“Although it’s true as a woman I’ve often felt not as supported as a male in contemporary art, I certainly think it’s for a number of reasons, because we haven’t made changes to contemporary art spaces, practices, and work that supports something like having children,” she says. “That’s a barrier, so what happens is because those commitments are not in place, it’s easier for a single, unattached man to participate.”
From one artist to the next, Willard, Jazvac, Lycan, and Alexander echo each other’s thoughts: art without diversity creates a recipe for invisibility.
In the same way that Capture’s Evolving Perspectives seeks to step outside of the limits of traditional photography, it is imperative that we continue to seek out and interact with artwork the speaks to experiences unlike our own.
Willard sums it up best: “Without diversity, we’d lose the entire process of what I think art is, which is about challenging perceptions, challenging what becomes tradition, offering new ways of thinking through the world that we live in.
“I think that’s truly art. Other things? They’re just nice representations.”
The Capture Photography Festival runs from Saturday (April 1) to April 28. For more information, visit the festival website.