Entangled shows contemporary Canadian painting is alive and well

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      At the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 1, 2018

      Entangled is a big, energetic, and engaging exhibition. It trots us past an abundance of contemporary works, from John Heward’s hanging pieces of paint-stained fabric to Jessica Groome’s tabletop paper “flags”, and from Neil Campbell’s eye-popping black-on-white mural to Jeanie Riddle’s installation of neatly folded canvases set against a brilliant yellow ground. Composed of some 70 works by 31 artists, Entangled examines (mostly) abstract painting created in Canada since the 1970s, a time when the medium was declared dead, defunct, or worse, irrelevant. Some painters, however, were not entirely convinced of its demise. Human beings, after all, had been applying pigment to receptive surfaces for tens of thousands of years. Painting was too old to die.

      Still, the conceptualism of the 1960s and ’70s had a significant impact on all visual-art practices. Conceptualists believed that with high modernism, painting had pretty much, well, painted itself into a corner. They also condemned the commercialization and fetishization of the art of the time, instead choosing to value the idea over the object. The evidence in this Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition, however, is that painters have found ingenious and sometimes revisionist ways of revitalizing the object and justifying their medium. Often, this has involved adopting conceptualism’s own strategies. Entanglement, indeed.

      Jeremy Hof's Fluorescent Ring on Purple.
      Toni Hafkensheid

      The VAG’s Bruce Grenville and guest curator David MacWilliam propose that “two distinctly different modes” of painting have developed in Canada in response to the debate over its relevance. One mode, seen in the half of the show curated by MacWilliam, is predicated on ideas and concepts. Examples include Gerald Ferguson’s large spray paintings on unprimed canvas, their vertical lines of thin black dots determined by using plasterers’ corner beading as a stencil. Ferguson’s works of the late 1960s, along with red-oxide monochromes produced by Garry Neill Kennedy in the 1970s, invoke the leading role that the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design played in promulgating conceptualism in the cultural backwater that was Canada at the time.

      Monochromes abound here, persisting through decades and generations, from Guido Molinari’s straightforward Untitled No. 8, created in 1979, to Jeffrey Spalding’s systematically layered black-and-bluish paintings, also from the 1970s, to Arabella Campbell’s all-white Wall paintings, made in 2007 and cued to the colour of the walls in three local art galleries. “Art as idea as painting” also includes Jeremy Hof’s extraordinary and highly sculptural works created out of hundreds and hundreds of layers of acrylic paint built up over a number of years, their centres then carved out and varnished to reveal deep circles and ovals of glowing colour. Julie Trudel’s black, white, and grey paintings are also dazzling, their optically complex constellations of dots and dashes created by carefully rolling and bending their thin Plexiglas grounds while the paint is wet.

      Stephanie Aitken's Calypso.

      The other “mode” of contemporary abstraction, revealed in the half of the show curated by Grenville, is “performative”, its outcomes determined by a combination of “materials and actions”. In this section, we find Marvin Luvualu Antonio’s big, gestural canvases, referencing, Grenville writes in his curatorial essay, displacement and dispossession. Also on view here are Stephanie Aitken’s small but strangely violent paintings, their organic forms executed in a kind of muddied cubist palette, their canvas surfaces layered and torn, with occasional dangling pieces of fabric that suggest flayed skin.

      On the whole, and not surprisingly, the conceptual paintings are pristine in their execution. The performative pieces are more obviously physical, relating to the body rather than the mind, with rips, smudges, muddy marks, cruddy textures, and unexpected colour combinations. Abstract expressionism, especially action painting, is an obvious predecessor in this section—although theoretically cleansed of its machismo sins.

      The best work in the show is hardly in the show at all. It is The Kiss, a small 1960 oil by Joyce Wieland, hung out of general view in a closet-sized corner gallery and opposite the entrance to a women’s washroom. Seemingly intended as a historical footnote to Entangled, Wieland’s abstraction consists of a mossy green ground, with a small smudge of lipstick-red paint on its right margin and a gob of streaky blue-white paint at its centre. A lightly sketched yellow arrow below the gob wordlessly points to it in a succinct reference to the male-dominated realm of abstract expressionism.

      Despite its location, The Kiss is eloquently described in Grenville’s curatorial essay and in the exhibition label: “It is an exceptional painting for its simplicity and humour, its subversive disruption of the patriarchal discourse around the painterly gesture, its making and its meaning, and its profound statement on love.” Wow—long before conceptualism transformed our understanding of painting, Joyce Weiland nailed it.