Elevation of BC art

“Topographies: Aspects of Recent B.C. Art,” curated by Grant Arnold, Monika Kin Gagnon and Doreen Jensen, proudly announces itself as an exhibition of ninety works by forty-one artists. It is pertinent but imperfect, containing a stimulating range of oil paintings online, the excitement of new faces and the typical difficulties of large, showcase exhibitions. The show graphically illustrates where regionalism has brought us: to a vexed public institution successfully carrying out a political exercise; to a welcome revisionism, which restores the work of First Nations’ artists to its rightful place as the foundation of West Coast art history; and to a celebration of the daunting individualism of both established and emerging artists. What does it all add up to? A long sigh of relief and a metaphorical rolling-up of sleeves. “That job’s done, what’s next?”

The satisfaction that many British Columbia artists feel with this show derives from their sense that “Topographies” marks the return of the community to the Vancouver Art Gallery, after years of community-based projects that proposed to redress the VAG’s exclusions: the “October Show,” staged to coincide with the opening of the Gallery’s current location in 1983; the “Warehouse Show” and three mega “Artropolis” exhibitions. But more than this, “Topographies” reaches out to the whole province, beyond Vancouver, the lower mainland and Victoria, in a significant and welcome gesture of inclusion. The community/institutional story behind these perceptions and responses reaches back to the late 60s and early 70s, when Tony Emery was Director and a community of young local artists was invited to use the Gallery more or less as their community centre. Curators Alvin Balkind and Doris Shadbolt, inspired by the times and by the mandate of a relatively new Canada Council to develop strong regional and national cultural identities, had opened the doors to experimentation. Interdisciplinary practice was especially nurtured. The Shadbolts – Doris, as well as Jack and Doug (then associated with the School of Architecture at the University of British Columbia) – along with Victor Doray (another UBC faculty member, who was particularly interested in the ideas of Marshall McLuhan) were instrumental in setting up Intermedia, a multi-disciplinary centre for experimentation and performance. And, in addition to a wide range of contemporary exhibitions, Outpost Art Gallery also hosted a big collection of oil paintings for sale.

By the time these VAG programmes were shut down in the mid-seventies, Vancouver was home to many new organizations and institutions formed by this generation, including the Western Front, Video In and Pacific Cinematheque. So when, in 1974, Tony Emery left and Luke Rombout was hired to clear the Intermedia-ites out of the VAG and to effect a return to art for sale, many felt the institution was removing itself from a community that it had, in part, developed. And over the past

thirteen years neither the VAG nor the community has remained what it was.

“Topographies” is not so much the project of a curatorial team as overlapping projects by three curators – one on staff, two from outside. While one might have wished for a comprehensive summing up of fin-de-siecle B.C. art, staff curator Grant Arnold opts instead, in his catalogue essay, to painstakingly explain that displaying difference is a curatorial tradition in British Columbia. Doreen Jensen’s essay, “Metamorphosis” (related to her portion of the exhibition), provides a more securely grounded, historical context for the entire project. She writes that “just 112 years ago, a powerful rainforest covered the place where the Vancouver Art Gallery now stands” and “in 1912 the courthouse opened for business and became the seat of justice in the province, a place where First Nations people were prosecuted for breaking the increasingly restrictive laws prohibiting the practice of their artwrok and culture.”

Jensen is a First Nations artist with a host of works, books and exhibitions to her credit, such as the extraordinary project “Robes of Power,” hosted by the Museum of Anthropology, which opened dialogue between the aboriginal peoples of British Columbia and Australia. Long-relegated to the frame of an anthropological gaze, contemporary works by First Nations’ artists (such as the exquisite Gunar and His Wife by Fred Davis), rooted in traditional practices, really shine beside the theoretical postmodernism of much of the other work in the exhibition. Even a quick stroll through the two floors of work by artists from around the province leaves one with the impression that, as a body, the work of the First Nations’ artists is individually strong, historically coherent, technically competent, aesthetically beautiful and not without humour, as evidenced in the contributions of Teresa Marshall.

By contrast, while there is much to praise and discuss in the rest of the exhibition; overall it is like beholding capitalism’s legacy – the triumph of individualism to the point where one really wonders what many of these works have to do with each other. To appreciate the richness of the exhibition, it helps to be familiar with each artist’s ongoing concerns in their practice; but unfortunately in many cases, the installation does little to help viewers who are new to the work (though the catalogue is very good). Many of the works deserve more space around them, especially Daniel Congdon’s Form of an Optical Axis for Twisted Cinema (1996). With what at first glance appears to be one of the few pieces of good, old fashioned, modernist sculpture in the exhibition, Congdon continues his ten year investigation of optics, visual perception and illusion. But, we ought to be able to stand back and walk around this fascinating work, now crammed in a corner. Instances where good installation successfully supports good work include Jin-me Yoon’s massive, ironic, photographic project, A Group of Sixty-Seven (1996), Myfanwy MacLeod’s hilarious and poignant sculpture, The Fountain Heads (1995), Yoko Takashima’s intimate video installation, As if (1996) and Judy Radul’s evocative and parodic Active/Passive (1996).


One of the frayed edges of “Topographies” is the quirky subtext around modernist oil painting. Arnold is the only one of the curators to acknowledge an interest in the discourses of formalism, although paintings appear in the choices of all three curators. In constructing the exhibition to maintain their own distinct territories, the curators may have done a disservice to the painters in “Topographies.” For instance, a room containing the work of J.J. Lee, Landon Mackenzie, Mina Totino and Teresa Marshall’s Land Escapes would have provoked some thoughts about surface, palimpsest and whether it is possible to reinvest painting with narrative at the end of the twentieth century. One inevitable conclusion is that, having made their individual choices, the curators just didn’t go far enough in analyzing their collection before designing the installation. And except for Robert Youd’s humourous pastiches, very little of what’s on offer seems to do more than replay old movies when it comes to handmade painting.

Of the three curators, Monica Kin Gagnon’s selection was by far the quirkiest. Using the image of traveller’s tales, Gagnon brought together a broad spectrum of work by artists playing across cultural paradigms. In an attempt to evoke a poetics of difference, in a show already far too complex with multiple narrative, Gagnon’s portion of the exhibition expects far too much from the spectators. When all is said and done, we would all have had a much easier time if the curators had mounted three separate shows, instead of trying to weave them into one.

There was more – much more: I was glad to see Rodney Graham’s hypnotic Halcion Sleep (1994) again. Also, Dana Claxton’s 16 mm film The Red Paper (1995), an invented piece of Gothic Canadiana that parodies Euro-Canadian versions of history, deserves attention for the emotionally powerful effect it produces – definitely one of the most successful pieces in the exhibition.

While there were stabbing attempts to synthesize the broad spectrum of works under thematic areas, one was particularly struck by the presence of an underlying contrast between indigenous and immigrant histories and by a whiff of attempts to right historical wrongs. “Topographies: Aspects of Recent B.C. Art” was a rich and thought-provoking selection of work from many locations throughout the province. And if it was a diffuse and not wholly satisfying experience, it was perhaps because there is so much to say and because the exhibition spoke more to a preoccupation with subjectivity than to a coming of age.

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