Fall arts preview 2017: Charlene Vickers finds power in performance and paint

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      Charlene Vickers is reflecting on the practical reason she enrolled in an MFA program at Simon Fraser University at the age of 41. Describing herself as “a mixed-media painter and installation artist on the outskirts of video and performance”, she says she had been supporting her practice for years by working in the food-services industry. She reached a point, however, where she thought perhaps she could take up teaching as a day job. “I wanted to have the possibility of being an instructor,” she tells the Georgia Straight over an iced Americano in a Main Street coffee shop. “My body was wearing out.” Much as she enjoyed other aspects of the MFA program, however, she found her teaching assistantship at SFU more frustrating than gratifying. “I don’t think my personality is suited to teaching,” she says. “I’m very shy.”

      Paradoxically, Vickers has emerged in recent years as an original and confident performance artist. She credits her friend and colleague, Brooklyn-based artist Maria Hupfield, with helping her overcome her hesitancy to perform in public. Since 2007, Vickers and multimedia artist Neil Eustache had been developing their “benching” project, creating a social gathering spot on a bench at the corner of Main Street and 13th Avenue. Hupfield suggested collaborating with Vickers on the production of some altered found objects, which Vickers could then display and “demonstrate” while benching.

      At Hupfield’s urging, the display and demonstration evolved into a performance that the two took to Santa Fe, New Mexico—and many places beyond. Willard reiterated the piece solo at 2015’s LIVE performance festival in Vancouver. “I had a bench and a sales table and I sold collaborative work that I’d made with Maria and other friends…I did that for five days.” The objects were intentionally priced low and sold rapidly. “I was really excited by that, trying to create a sense of exchange between people,” she says. The performance accords with her interest in relational aesthetics, which sparks art off human and social relations.

      Born in Kenora, Ontario, and raised in Toronto, Vickers arrived in Vancouver in 1990 to study painting at Emily Carr Institute (now University) of Art and Design. After completing the four-year program, she went on to earn a B.A. in art and culture studies at SFU, and she has been making and exhibiting art, locally and nationally, ever since. Recently, she has also been playing a synthesizer pad with the band Assertion, creating texture and, to her surprise, singing. “I’m slowly learning how to become melodic,” she says with a laugh. And she has continued to paint, creating abstractions that riff on Anishinaabe quillwork.

      Among other projects, she has been producing a series of felt ovoids, based on the graphic design form found in Northwest Coast First Nations art. “They aren’t necessarily political,” she says of her ovoids. “They’re more about me—about being Ojibwa and living on the West Coast for 25 years and creating this recognizable, hegemonic shape of cultural capitalism.” More concertedly critical are a series of fringed and beaded moccasins Vickers made out of denim, cardboard beer cases, and other found materials. Recently exhibited at Gallery 1515, they comment on the manufacture and marketing of “Indian” souvenirs for tourists. They also relate to encounters with “ignorance, stereotypes, and racism” Vickers had while working in a Native art store in Gastown.

      Currently, she and Vancouver artist Cathy Busby are collaborating on a large mixed-media installation for Ground Signals, a group show at the Surrey Art Gallery that reinterprets ideas of land and landscape. For the opening on September 23, Vickers and Busby are creating a performance, a video of which will be incorporated into their installation. As for her shyness, she says, “When you’re the performer, you have the power and the presence to negotiate things—negotiate relationships in the moment rather than be watched.”