Lens-based artistry and consumer culture collide in Pictures and Promises

It's the Capture Photography Festival's first cocurated venture, done in partnership with the Vancouver Art Gallery

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      Forty years ago, visual artist Barbara Kruger curated a memorable art show in New York called Pictures and Promises. Held at the Kitchen, one of the city’s oldest nonprofit arts spaces, it featured works by the so-called Pictures Generation—a loose affiliation of like-minded artists influenced by images in print media and video.

      According to Emmy Lee Wall, executive director of Vancouver’s Capture Photography Festival, this exhibition strove to demonstrate that contemporary art and advertising were using similar languages. To demonstrate this, Kruger placed works of contemporary art on the wall next to advertising images.

      “When critics saw the show, they were actually kind of confused,” Wall told the Straight over the phone. “They found it really disorienting, intermingling those two media.”

      Artists featured in the show included Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Jenny Holzer, Matt Mullican, and Hannah Wilke.

      “They sort of felt there were enough images circulating in the world that they didn’t need to create new images from scratch,” Wall explained. “They were really examining what those images meant, what they symbolized, what their resonance of those images that were circulating in society meant.”

      Canadian artist Lorraine Gilbert created untitled chromogenic print as part of her Montreal to Vancouver Works.

      For this year’s Capture Photography Festival, Wall has cocurated a show with Grant Arnold, the Audain curator of British Columbia art at the Vancouver Art Gallery, offering a modern take on this idea. Also called Pictures and Promises, it features images from the Vancouver Art Gallery’s collection, including by Warhol, Sherman, Prince, and Kruger.

      They’re augmented by other memorable lens-based works by a diverse range of local and international artists, including Vikky Alexander, Walker Evans, Lorraine Gilbert, Ken Lum, Eric Metcalfe, O Zhang, and others.

      “It’s like a redux,” Wall said. “It thinks about those same ideas and incorporates both historical and contemporary work to look at the way images circulate in society.”

      People who take in the show at the VAG can ponder whether these images are a mirror of society or if they actually shape society.

      “We have to be cognizant of what we’re looking at and taking in and how those images are affecting all of us,” she said. “So I think it’s a relevant conversation to be happening with the rise of visual artistry.

      “I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m constantly bombarded with photographic imagery these days, especially on social media,” Wall continued. “I think it’s important that everyone be able to think about what those images stand for and why they’re being put in front of us.”

      Vikky Alexander's Obsession, created in 1983, is a silver gelatin print, vinyl type, coloured Plexiglas.

      Wall pointed out that this is the Capture Photography Festival’s first cocreated venture. She worked off and on for the VAG for 14 years and knows Arnold well.

      In fact, she described him as the VAG’s “resident photographic expert”, with deep insights into the almost 3,600 lens-based images in its permanent collection.

      “It’s such a joy to be able to realize an exhibition that speaks to this idea of looking at images critically and the idea of the way that contemporary and consumer culture collide,” Wall said. “It’s an issue that affects all of us.”

      In addition to Pictures and Promises, Wall and Arnold are also going to appear together at a virtual programmed event on April 20 as part of the Capture Photography Festival. Entitled Art Connects: Pictures of Past and Present With Emmy Lee Wall and Grant Arnold, they’ll speak about the VAG’s photographic works by Evans, Sherman, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Dana Claxton, Song Dong, Ian Wallace, Jin-me Yoon and others.

      “Grant knows the collection extremely well because he’s worked there for more than 20 years,” Wall said.