At the Burnaby Art Gallery until September 3
The 1911 mansion that houses the Burnaby Art Gallery has seen a curious array of occupants over the decades, from wealthy families to Benedictine monks, and from a short-lived religious cult to a bunch of hard-partying frat boys. It wasn’t until 1967 that the newly founded gallery took up residence in the beautifully restored Arts and Crafts building. That event is celebrated with an expansive 50th-anniversary exhibition of 50 works from the permanent collection.
Each of the works has been chosen and annotated by a member of the art community, which here includes artists, curators, gallery directors, writers, critics, collectors, and donors. (Full disclosure: I am one of the unpaid contributors to this enterprise.) The show’s title is borrowed from a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote, carved into the mansion’s oak mantelpiece: “The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.” The clear message is that this 50th-anniversary exhibition is about honouring and celebrating the people who have contributed to the making and sustaining of the gallery. The art is, in a way, a line to hang that honour upon.
This means that the exhibition is not designed to show off the best works in the BAG’s collection, but rather the works that, often for personal or sentimental reasons, speak to the individual “curators”. The resulting impression is that the collection is, well, nice but not exactly spectacular.
With limited funds for acquisitions, the BAG has wisely focused on collecting prints and other works on paper, many of them donated. Twentieth-century Canadian works predominate, particularly those by West Coast artists. There are, however, a few historical and demographic anomalies here: a 1799 etching from Francisco Goya’s series “Los Caprichos”; a late-19th-century impression of a crucifixion scene, pulled from an early-17th-century etching plate by Rembrandt van Rijn; a 1974 portrait etching, Gregory, by David Hockney.
There is some very fine art on view, including Sybil Andrews’s 1954 linocut Ploughing Pasture, with its swirling forms and swelling concentricities; Kenojuak Ashevak’s 1963 stonecut Sun Owl, with its fierce eyes and flaring yellow-green feathers; and Betty Goodwin’s 1973 etching Nest, an eloquent tangle of textured lines. As former BAG director Karen Henry observes, Goodwin’s image “bears the physical memory of having held and nurtured life”.
There is also strong work on view by both well-known and lesser-known contemporary artists, from Rita Letendre to Walter Jule, and from Gathie Falk to Eli Bornowsky. Also a pleasure to encounter are prints and drawings by Roy Kiyooka, Deborah Koenker, Elizabeth MacKenzie, Susan Point, Bill Reid, Noboru Sawai, Arnold Shives, Joseph Therrien, Renée Van Halm, and Anna Wong. There are conceptual or performance-related works by Glenn Lewis, Kate Craig, and Micah Lexier, and highly political works by Sonny Assu and the Guerrilla Girls. And there is, of course, representation by leading West Coast modernists, such as Gordon Smith and Takao Tanabe, acclaimed for their lyrical, landscape-based abstractions. There are also some conspicuous omissions, such as Sylvia Tait and Robert Young, who are well-represented in the collection but not in the show.
Asking art-world friends to choose and write about individual works is a sweet and democratic idea, but has led, alas, to the occasional championing of mediocrity. Works may be cited because they call up a memory of a person, place, or creative undertaking. In some cases, the memory is more engaging than the work itself. An example is Jack Shadbolt’s 1997 lithograph Spirit Imploding, chosen by printmaker and photo artist Torrie Groening because, as she writes, she worked with the older artist in printing it. Groening’s focus on this work is understandable, but this print is, in my opinion, the least accomplished Shadbolt in the entire BAG collection.
But, hey, you run these kinds of risks when you invite 50 friends to curate a show. Happy birthday to the Burnaby Art Gallery, from one of its friends.