Vancouver Art Gallery challenges tradition with Pictures From Here

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      Pictures From Here
      At the Vancouver Art Gallery until September 4

      The Vancouver Art Gallery’s survey show Pictures From Here is poised to serve as a thoughtful counterbalance to the gallery’s big summer draw, Claude Monet’s Secret Garden, opening on the main floor on June 24. It also functions as a contemporary rejoinder to Emily Carr: Into the Forest, on display on the fourth floor until December 3. In contrast to garden ponds and lily pads executed in painterly smears of turquoise and violet, we have Marian Penner Bancroft’s unframed black-and-white photos of a desolate, empty lot where an alternative bookstore once stood. And in opposition to passionate depictions of old-growth rainforest, we have Roy Arden’s large chromogenic print Landfill, Richmond, B.C., a “defeatured landscape” of dirt piles, flat fields, and thin, stranded, leafless trees.

      Pictures From Here examines concept-driven photographic and video works produced by some two dozen leading Vancouver artists across four decades and two generations. Contributors range from Jeff Wall to Evan Lee, and from Cornelia Wyngaarden to Althea Thauberger. The show also includes street photography by Fred Herzog and Greg Girard. As the intro panel tells us, artists such as Wall, Ian Wallace, and Stan Douglas have drawn international attention to this place by championing lens-based art. At the same time, they have challenged lyrical landscape traditions and questioned established modes of representation and history-telling.

      Marian Penner Bancroft's spiritland/Octopus Books, Fourth Avenue (1987).

      Almost 40 years ago, Wall’s socially and politically inflected photo tableaux, in the form of large-scale, backlit Cibachrome transparencies (a form he borrowed from advertising), initiated what has come to be called the Vancouver School of photo-conceptualism. (Although photo-conceptualism is a term used throughout the exhibition, Wall repudiates it in relation to his work.) The scale of Wall’s photos enables him to reference cultural forms such as cinema and history painting while also claiming equal status with them. He is represented in the exhibition by two very large photographic prints indeed. One of them, Monologue, is a nighttime scene in which three middle-aged men in dark clothing stand and sit on a stage of sorts, beneath a streetlight and in front of a wire fence, a dark stand of trees, a couple of houses, and a distant patch of still-bright sky. There are formal intimations here of René Magritte and Samuel Beckett, but what is this picture all about? The accompanying text panel tells us that it “hints at complex narrative possibilities….while resisting any conclusive analysis”. A little online research reveals that the men in Wall’s photograph are his brother and a couple of close friends, and that Wall was “intrigued by their conversations and interactions”. We are supposed to wonder what they’re discussing or if they’re waiting for something to happen, although I can’t say Wall’s tightly composed mise en scène encourages me to care.

      Monologue by Jeff Wall (2013).

      Far more moving is the collaborative work that opens the exhibition, Taking Off Skins, by photographer Sandra Semchuk and her late partner, the Cree artist, performer, and activist James Nicholas. Here, a grid of Semchuk’s black-and-white photos records a performance by Nicholas in which he removes his dark suit, white shirt, and tie, dons a bear-claw necklace and a wool blanket, and walks into the sea. These acts seem to represent spiritual cleansing, the urgency of which is amplified by Nicholas’s text, which alludes to his childhood residential-school experience.

      Adjacent to this work are hung early, blurry, intentionally banal photographs by N.E. Thing Co., a mock-corporate entity formed by artists Iain Baxter and Ingrid Baxter in 1966. One of NETCO’s photo-conceptual works is Edge, a backlit colour transparency—originally created in 1967 and remade in 1995—of an industrial scene in which sulphur piles and the frames of industrial buildings on Burrard Inlet reiterate the shapes of the Coast Mountains behind them. Around the corner, Barrie Jones’s “Pacific Salmon Series: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer” records the symbolically charged fish being tossed across clichéd landscape scenes of Vancouver, registering the changing seasons while also playing with the nature-culture interface where “iconic” images of our city reside.

      Rodney Graham's Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour (2012-13).

      Karin Bubăs also walks the risky line between cliché and social commentary. Her ongoing series of large colour photographs, “Studies in Landscapes and Wardrobe”, places solitary female figures in different landscape settings—misty fields, dark woods, blossom-pretty parks—and styles their wardrobes in accordance with their settings. The women, whose faces are always hidden from us, seem to be lost in their own thoughts and closed off from us. Their depictions, the exhibition text tells us, reference both Hollywood films and 19th-century Romantic landscape painting.

      It comes as no surprise that, despite what must have been curator Grant Arnold’s best efforts, male artists outnumber female artists in this show by more than two to one. We’ve been writing about art in Vancouver for long enough to know what to expect in this kind of a survey, so, no, not a surprise, but a disappointment. Still, and always, a disappointment.