The Canadian Art Database

Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker

Vancouver: Land- and Culture- Scape
From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983

An inaugural exhibition in celebration of the opening of the new Vancouver Art Gallery
at Robson Square, October 15-December 31 1983

[ 4,285 words ]

It is difficult to describe Vancouver without reference to its extraordinary physical and cultural landscape. Lotus-Land by the sea, mountains towering over Manhattan, rain forests with totems, Chinatown and sushi. A place of masks, transformational rituals, tourist clichés and image bondage. A land- and culture-scape of mythic proportions whose myths are still to be told.

It is in the images of and by the people of such a place that we begin to know it, to fill our nostrils with its pungent odours, to recount its tales, to honour its dreamers and its dreamings. Some dreamings are ancient. Others are new-vo, nostalgic for past histories and present continuous. In new worlds such as Vancouver, confrontations between these dreamings are discontinuous, brutal, schismatic, and recent.
They are ongoing.

Chief among the concerns of historians studying the founding of new societies has been the concept of the frontier [which] has been variously defined — from the outer fringe of metropolitan influence, to the actual geographical area of control, to a zone to be occupied, to a border between states. Usually such definitions tend to be Eurocentric and agrarian, describing the process of the founding of the new society... Often such historical enquiry neglects two essential ingredients: the contact of cultures and races within the zone of influence and the geographical features of the zone itself.(1)

Vancouver is nearly one hundred years old, the province thirty years older. 'Self-government was deliberately withheld [in 1851] because the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton, thought "the grand principle of free institutions" should not be risked "among settlers so wild, so miscellaneous, perhaps so transitory, and in a form of society so crude!"(2)

The colony is established to guarantee British control over a natural resource industry (the fur-trade), to counter American domination of the region, and to encourage British settlement. Responsibility for administration and development is placed in the hands of what Professor John S. Galbraith called 'the imperial factor,' the Hudson's Bay Company.

In 1871 British Columbia enters Confederation and its Legislative Assembly becomes a provincial parliament. One of its first moves is to pass an act to amend the Qualifications of Voters Act which would disenfranchise the Chinese and Indians in provincial elections.

By 1875 there are growing separatist feelings and rumblings that British Columbia should have joined the United States. In 1866 the city of Vancouver is incorporated. The cross-Canada railway, the price of confederation, reaches the city shortly afterwards. Institutionalization, and transportation / communication (slow, yes, and with differing freight rates) are complete.

Of all men the Westerner is the man who knows that he is both on the edge of civilization and on the verge of something new. Estranged by distance from his own kind, separated by a time lag from the culture of his former society, he permits the landscape to intrude itself into the very pith of his subconscious being. The symbol of his aspiration, the badge of his despair, the landscape assumes romantic proportions to compensate him for his solitude.(3)

There are two landscapes to acquire romantic proportions — the physical and the cultural.

The physical landscape is readily adapted, modified and distorted to comply with the British landscape tradition and notions of the sublime. The cultural landscape, the aboriginal west coast Indian people and culture, are appropriated as subject matter for visual treatises on the Noble Savage.

It is often assumed that Emily Carr (1871-1945) is unique in her pursuit of Indian culture as subject matter for her paintings. She is, in fact, part of a virtual 'tradition' (amateur and professional) which begins with the paintings of John Webber on Captain Cook's expedition in the 1780s, continues through the work of Paul Kane in the 1840s, and finds its broadest expression in numerous amateur artists in the 1860s to 1880s, for example: Sarah, Susan, Josephine and Barbara Crease and Lady Dufferin. Artists travelling from Eastern Canada (Bell-Smith, Lucius O'Brien) and numerous nineteenth and early twentieth century photographers also participate in documenting the Indian people and/or their spectacular material culture (totem poles, carvings, canoes).

Perhaps the artist who provides the most memorable (if distorted) images of the west coast native peoples is Edward Curtis (1868-1952) through his widely published photographs and films. Emily Carr's commitment to document Indian life begins in 1907 after a trip to Sitka, Alaska where she meets the American artist Theodore J. Richardson. By 1912, when she is residing in Vancouver, at least two other women artists, friends of Carr's, are engaged in similar work: Statira Frame and Margaret Wake. In the mid-1920s anthropologist Marius Barbeau brings American artist Langdon Kihn and Canadian artists A. Y. Jackson, Ann Savage, and Edwin Holgate to B.C., specifically to document Indian culture. The results of these expeditions, along with paintings by Emily Carr, are exhibited in a landmark exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, under the title: Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern in November, 1927.

The exhibition is significant in that artists from both the aboriginal Indian and British-based immigrant cultures exhibit side-by-side as 'west coast' artists. Their shared subject matter is west coast Indian culture itself.

Equally significant are the changes evident in the work of Emily Carr who, in the late twenties and early thirties, transforms the landscape tradition of this place (at least in part) in response to her understanding of west coast Indian culture.

It is only in the work of Jack Shadbolt, culminating in his charcoal drawings in homage to Emily Carr and his west coast Indian series in the 1970s, that another major attempt is made to overtly acknowledge and reconcile the presence of the west coast Indian culture and the revitalization of the landscape tradition proposed by Emily Carr, whom Shadbolt knew personally. But by the seventies attention is focussed not on painting, but on the inter-media arts and their intervention into the land- and culture-scape.


In the 1970s the 'settlers' are still considered miscellaneous (particularly with the shift in immigration policies and a burgeoning Oriental community), transitory, and 'in a form of society so crude.' The economy continues to be based on natural resources, but is increasingly dependent on tourism. There is still talk of separation, western alienation, unfair freight rates, American cultural domination, and racism.

In the seventies, the settler is increasingly estranged from 'his own kind,' the culture of (many) former societies, personally and politically alienated, displaced by a startlingly short and discontinuous history. S/he remains on the edge of 'civilization' (oriental, occidental, North American) and on the verge of something new.

In the seventies, both in Canada and internationally, there is tremendous political and social upheaval. Residual faith in 'technological redemption a la Buckminster Fuller' buckles under the Vietnam war. There is no longer the unqualified conviction that avant-gardism is the most effective strategy. Even Mao Tse Tung, the greatest avant-gardist of all, expresses his disillusionment with the Cultural Revolution of the sixties.

There are calls for 'order,' structure and clear values in the face of increasing acts of political and personal terrorism (bombings, hijackings, kidnappings and assassinations). Canada reels under the actions of the FLQ, the death of Pierre Laporte and the imposition of the War Measures Act.

Nevertheless, a significant change during the seventies is the blurring of ideological boundaries, expressed most clearly in the policies of 'detente' — Canadian and American recognition of China, meetings of the leaders of East and West Germany, trade between the EEC and Yugoslavia, SALT talks between Russia and the States, Sadat's visit to Jerusalem.

It is, however, the proposals of Berlinguer, the leader of the Italian Communist Party, for an 'historic compromise' that the most significant change takes place. His proposals represent the regionalization of ideology, the transformation of ideology to suit local / regional conditions and the loosening of authority from the centre to the periphery. In political terms this means independence from Russia for Communist parties in Europe, in cultural terms, the writings of the French New Left (or New Right, depending on your perspective) exemplified by Bernard-Henri Levy.

Strong drives towards regionalism, political and cultural autonomy manifest themselves dramatically in Canada with the election in 1976 of the Parti Quebecois under René Lévesque committed to separation from, or sovereignty association with, Canada.

The shift in power inside political units, regionalization, also occurs on a global level primarily for economic reasons based on energy resources. The political and economic dominance of the United States is shattered during the October '73 Middle East war by the oil embargo imposed by OPEC. North Americans are forced to recognize their vulnerability, and their economic dependence and inter-dependence.

The increasing political and economic clout of the oil-rich Third World, the confrontation between western technological rationalism and highly charged Islamic nationalism culminates in violent battles for cultural autonomy in Iran in 1979. The decade concludes with a shattering of the (western / international) rules of diplomacy, the occupation of the American Embassy in Teheran, and the humiliation of the United States.

Certain of the strategies evident in such confrontations are worth identifying: an insistence on regional autonomy and ideology (religious and social), a rejection of technological futurism and unquestioning belief in linear, developmental history, a pursuit of past values and citation of its forms. Many of these cultural strategies are similar to those adopted by a number of artists in the latter part of the seventies, particularly in Europe, often in response to strong nationalist and regionalist drives.
The cultural strategies of the artists, however, are distinguished by their rejection of fundamentalism, by their investigations into the hybridization of contemporary culture, by their exploration into the 'contaminated'. Such strategies, rooted as they are in a strong historical awareness, take on a distinctly different meaning in the specific cultural and historical context of Vancouver.


Unlike contemporary European artists who feel the restrictions, responsibilities, and comfort of history, Vancouver artists are simultaneously liberated, and dislocated, by an apparent 'absence' of history (or at least one that is short and often discontinuous). Most artistic traditions are either non-indigenous or 'translated' by relocation. The only extended artistic tradition, that of the west coast Indian, highly stylized and constructed on unfamiliar rituals, seems inaccessible to the non-Indian artist.

The response of Vancouver artists to this situation during the seventies seems to have been threefold:

— to apply European and American painting traditions to local subject matter (the British landscape tradition, surrealism, abstract expressionism, 'naive art,' realism, superrealism, new image painting).
— to reject traditional artistic media and to utilize 'new' media such as photography, film, video, radio; to embrace a-historicism, the mass media, stereotypes, instant identities, careers and lifestyles associated with 'frontier' cultures.
— to apply a strong historical and art-historical approach (including citation) to new media with an emphasis on rationalism, conceptualism, structuralism, and ideologically strict political positions.

Most of the (sparse) documentation on art in Vancouver and institutional support (from funding agencies and museums) during the seventies applies primarily to the work utilizing new media (in both its historical and a-historical forms). This reflects an international emphasis on new media (as can be seen from the 1970s chronology), a rejection of traditional media such as painting (which was presumably 'dead'), and a shift in the system of state patronage during the late sixties and early seventies.

To an extraordinary degree, patronage of the experimental (indeed, even insurrectionist) arts in Canada becomes the domain of the State.

The federal government, preoccupied with economic and cultural colonization by the United States, the absence of a traditional 'singular' national identity, and the insistent presence of strong regionalist and separatist political movements, attempts to defuse potentially explosive (implosive) situation through a multiplicity of funding programmes — Opportunities For Youth (OFY), Local Initiatives Programme (LIP), Canada Council, National Museums, External Affairs, Department of Public Affairs, Explorations, Art Bank, among others. Funding responsibility is accepted, to varying degreees, by provincial and city governments. 'Culture' becomes one of the major industries of the country.

Under Secretary of State Gerard Pelletier (1968-1972) the Trudeau government embarks on the 'D&D Policies' (democratization and decentralization) adopted, as Luke Rombout has pointed out, from the politics of André Malraux, Minister of Culture under De Gaulle from 1959 to 1969.

The direct impact of these policies is extensive support for the experimental arts (especially those relating to new and mass media); the creation of new institutional structures (media banks, artist-run spaces); and the transformation of old institutional structures (the Vancouver Art Gallery during the first half of the decade). The natural home of these new initiatives is Vancouver.

The international reputation of Vancouver as an art centre is constructed primarily on the activity of those artists who embrace the new media and a-historicism — the members of Intermedia (described earlier), the Western Front, Video Inn, and Pumps (documented in the following pages). The relationship of these artists to history, and myth, should be considered in some depth.

In May of 1973, Toronto artists General Idea publish a special issue of FILE megazine on Vancouver artists. Under the title 'Pablum for the Pablum Eaters' and the sub-title 'A Method of Invasion, Image Bank' ('a network of people exchanging images') which emanates from the Western Front is analysed in terms of its relationship to history and myth:

It is clear that myth and art are closely related: they both miniaturize. They make reality readily available. They establish the unfathomable in fathomable terms. They classify the known, the unknown.

It is clear that a conceptual artist miniaturizes in a certain way: he begins with the parts and reveals the structure...Myth does the opposite: myth starts with the structure and names the parts, miniaturizes from the other end. Image Bank starts with the structure and names the parts. So we are calling Image Bank mythical artists... It is important to see that Image Bank knows they are mythical artists. As it puts them outside of the History / Cause & Effect continuum it allows them to play with it and they do.

The thrust of Image Bank is two-pronged: on the one hand they are concerned with establishing a culture that relates to official culture as a virus does to an organism. Working on the subliminal they are effectively lacing our worn-out operational methods (all history-oriented) with alternate methods which manage to solve the past-present-future time confusion and place us back at the centre of our universe on an equal footing with Mére Nature. On the other hand they are seeing acting promoting the rapid descension "the lowering into the bottomless cone" the movement towards the bottom of the tree the need for the base the low life for the shower of piss eliminating art to the roots. Aware of nova explosion they work like criminals on the subliminal erecting mirrors cutting wordlines shifting linguals. They are renegades of the old order updated, culture-criminals. They do not make news because they have the sense to wait for history. Meanwhile they are dissolving history in their footsteps. This is very important. This is art on a macro-scale, a global subversion of the Art Establishment, not by politics or power tactics but by anticipation of futures and a realization that only habit gains control, and the entrance to a person's mind to a network culture lies through habit.

In another interview, July 13, 1973, published in Avalanche, Marcel Idea (Michael Morris), one of the co-founders of Image Bank, is asked to describe the nature of their subversive activities.

Well, the taking on of names, changes in identification. We're all into each other's names and playing each other's parts, it's all an event, it's a false history. But the images are real and can be used in any context, it's very much a process of recycling. (5)

The traditional (western) relationship of event and documentation is also reversed. At the Western Front, the documentation precedes the event: 'Most of the work we do exists as rushes but we're slowly finding a way of tying events together.' (6)

A term often associated with the Western Front is Image Bondage:

That's when the image is so blatantly exploitative that all possibility of alteration is removed for the present. The image is a slave of the vision, the idea is bound. It's difficult to redefine the use of those images. For instance, our first image of the month was very image bondage. It was a picture of Nancy Berg, who was the highest paid model and cover girl in the mid-fifties, and we recognized her in endless advertisements in old magazines. We finally found an article on her in Cosmopolitan. She was a slave to the vision of the advertising companies, she was a manipulated image. And in dealing with that image and recycling it, we broke the bondage of its old context.(7)

The artists attached to the Western Front (Michael Morris — Marcel Idea, Vincent Trasov - Mr. Peanut, Eric Metcaife - Dr. Brute, Kate Craig - Lady Brute, Glenn Lewis - Flakey Rosehips, Hank Bull and Patrick Ready - H.P.) all embrace the mass media, inverting and exaggerating its forms. As Kate Craig points out in this catalogue, they are committed to non-ideological positions, celebrate so-called 'low' and 'mass' culture, and propose that the future and past are simultaneously 'present'.

The relationship of these artists to both ideology and history is distinctly different from those who, as described earlier, apply a strong historical and art-historical approach (including citation) to new media with an emphasis on rationalism, conceptualism, structuralism, and ideologically strict positions. For artists such as Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace, the a-historicism of the Western Front is naive.

Wall sees the reforms of the cultural institutions during the seventies, and their close identification with the avant-garde (certainly abundantly true of Tony Emery's administration of the Vancouver Art Gallery) as strategies for controlling and weakening the avant-garde:

The doctrine of the "death of the avant-garde" is thus the essential ideological project of the structurally-reformed cultural institutions. The weakened position of avant-gardism on the basis of its submission to the idea of totalization was an integral element in the institutions' strategy of identifying themselves strongly with the avant-garde. To the extent that vanguardism had submitted to the perspective of totalization, it was implicitly already unified with the structures of domination against which it nevertheless continued to struggle, often violently. This apparently vain and subjective struggle is the cultural spectacle of the recent past.(8)

The cultural institutions are, according to Wall:

restorationist instruments for commercial and cultic values. This return of the repressed is part of the general political assault on all social reforms stemming from the era of the "welfare state"...

Such a proclamation of "death" at the moment of the outbreak of [the world economic and social] crisis can be seen as a subjective demand masquerading as an objective assessment of history. The ideal of a dead vanguard is the subjective desire of the institutions which are themselves now being transformed into hierarchical instruments of social control. It is their manifesto, their inner tendency now being forced to the surface
. (9)

Neither the (art) history, nor the ideology, which informs Wall's and Wallace's work is indigenous. In this regard, citation or appropriation of their forms has a different meaning in Vancouver than it would in the cultural, social, and political context of origin. While these artists have not attempted to 'regionalize' either imported history or ideology, their methodology does represent an attempt to maintain a critical distance from the original source. Wallace, for example, attempts to structurally interpret the citations in terms of contemporary experience and shifts the medium to photography, film, and video.

During the seventies, however, most artists in Vancouver reject the new media and continue to explore local subject matter through imported European and American painting traditions, including the British landscape tradition, surrealism, abstract expressionism, expressionism, 'naive art', realism, superrealism, and new image painting.

A considerable body of the work has limited international currency in that it contributes no new theoretical and practical strategies to the history of painting. As in many smaller communities which are not major art centres, information on artistic research arrives via reproductions in art magazines. Consequently, local work which attempts to explore these issues is susceptible to a preoccupation with the form of research, rather than the content. This at times results in a visual (and intellectual) flatness which borders on caricature.

There are, however, artists whose strong sense of place combined with an astute understanding of regionalism itself and its communication systems with the 'outside' world — including the mass media — results in highly innovative works of a significance which extends outside their own community. In this regard, I would draw attention to the work of Claude Breeze from the late sixties and early seventies, and Gathie Falk. Other senior artists who continue to work through the seventies exploring an intensely personal sense of place are Maxwell Bates and E.J. Hughes.

An autobiographical element dominates much of Vancouver painting: portraits of close friends, intimate descriptions of personal environments. In the work of Bill Featherston and Richard Turner, the environment becomes the broader social space.
Perhaps the most enduring artistic tradition in Vancouver is that of landscape painting. Its best known practitioners are Toni Onley and Gordon Smith, but other artists have also attempted to expand its terms. In his work, Alan Wood combines a number of artistic traditions — landscape painting, abstract expressionism, and even sculpture. Both Robert Michener and Gathie Falk shift the convention of the artist-in-the-landscape to the artist-above-the-landscape.

There has also been emphasis on distinct personal and collective visions. The work of Lam Chien Shih reaffirms the Oriental traditions evident in Vancouver and, at the same time, explores landscape and the partial view. Leslie Poole and Myros Buriak plumb the self within strongly expressionistic modes, while David Mayrs and Roz Marshall provide highly eccentric images of (cross) cultural and physical landscapes.
It is, however, only in the paintings of Jack Shadbolt (and the performances of Evelyn Roth) that an attempt has been made, in the current European manner, to cite indigenous artistic traditions.

Shadbolt is one of the few artists in Vancouver to have been active in the city over a 50-year span. Most artists, critics, and collectors, often recent immigrants themselves, have been denied information on prior activity in the city. As a result, it has been virtually impossible to develop a coherent view of the artistic and cultural concerns of this place, in order to assess, or exploit, them. Indeed, the present exhibition and catalogue is an attempt to redress that precise situation.


One of the major cultural and social concerns of this place must be the location of west coast Indian culture and artistic traditions — 'the contact of cultures and races within the zone of influence.' Such contact results in the so-called 'arts of acculturation' or 'Fourth World Arts':

The Fourth World includes "all aboriginal or native peoples whose lands fall within the national boundaries and techno-bureaucratic administrators of the countries of the First, Second and Third Worlds." Fourth World Arts generally combine aspects of the society's own symbolic and aesthetic systems with those of the dominant society, for whom the arts are usually created. While art is never a static system, the kinds of changes referred to here are the direct result of prolonged contact between a Fourth World and a First, Second, or Third World society. (10)

While some initial steps are being taken to consider the impact of the immigrant society on the arts of west coast Indian culture, little acknowledgement has been made of the reverse process. Certainly few people are aware that in the 1940s west coast art was 'discovered' by Surrealist artists in New York (including Max Ernst, André Breton) who organized an exhibition titled Northwest Coast Indian Painting at the Betty Parsons Gallery in 1946. (11)

Such research into (mutual) acculturation is not an eccentric and site-specific preoccupation, but a strategy vital to most contemporary cultures which are facing increasing cultural hybridization. This hybridization may occur through immigration from former colonies or from large numbers of 'gastarbeiter,' unskilled 'guest workers' from fundamentally different cultural backgrounds (Asians in Britain, Algerians in France, Turkish workers in Germany, Chicanos in the U.S.). Hybridization also occurs through the impact of 'untranslated' foreign cultural programming through the mass media.

Certainly all Vancouver artists, whether active in the European-based or west coast Indian traditions, face similar and highly complex problems in relation to history, citation, political / social action, avant-gardism and hybridization.

From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983

Text: © Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker. All rights reserved.

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