The Canadian Art Database

Joan Lowndes

Scan [slide exhibition by E. J. Hughes, Michael Hayden, R. M. Bozak, Barbara Hall, Tom Graff, Evelyn Roth, Gathie Falk, W. M. May, Bill Vazan, Carole Fisher [Itter], Henry Rappaport, Darcy Henderson, Ralph Stanbridge, Tom Burrows, Dean Ellis, Alastair MacLennan, Toby MacLennan, Martin Hirschberg, Marilyn Levine, Goert-Sawatski, An Whitlock, Natalie Novotny Green, Tommie Gallie, Richard Young, George Angliss, and John Boyle]
The Vancouver Art Gallery

artscanada, October/November 1972, #172/173, pp. 49-51
[ 1,485 words ]

Day 1: I go to the Vancouver Art Gallery full of enthusiasm for this pilot project, a survey of Canadian art now, by means of slides. Since the last Biennial of Canadian painting in 1968 a serious information gap has developed, not only in painting but in environmental sculpture, performance pieces, conceptualism, body art, which cannot be presented in the traditional manner. The ambitious nature of the VAG show is evident: it is to become a Biennial, the slides remaining as the basis of a Canadian art archives.

From 180 submissions associate director Doris Shadbolt and assistant curator of research Terry Guernsey have chosen 104. Many artists are represented by the maximum number of slides: to wit, 20. As it has been calculated that it takes five hours to view Scan, I arrive at noon with a sandwich and a willingness to spend the afternoon.

I find myself in a slide environment. Undulating walls of white stretched cotton hold 16 screens upon which 2,000 slides flash at the rate of one every eight seconds. Exciting super-kinetics. The screens are two, four, five and six feet square, to adjust somewhat to the images' content, the smaller ones being reserved, for example, for collages and drawings, the largest for events in nature. Eight of the 24 projectors are equipped with dissolve units.

The eye, accustomed to sweeping over newspapers and city signs, easily Scans three screens at once. But identification proves difficult. Is this a print, a painting or ceramic? The name of each artist and his location appear at the beginning of his slide sequence but nothing more. If you miss it you must wait the full cycle, another 20 minutes. Nor are the slides numbered. Quickly you flick through the catalogue but by the time you find what you want it is too late.

The competition for image attention is terrific. I key into the familiar, all the time reminding myself: 'You musn't be so pro-West Coast.' But gradually, as in a show of objects, I return to where certain images can beat against me, not worrying too much whether I catch their identity. A group of Art School students flops onto the floor. The cramped space, plus the heat generated by the projectors, becomes oppressive. I go home to drink and sustenance.

Catalogue Study: The largest groups of artists are from: B.C. (44), Ontario (28), and Quebec (11). Surprisingly few slides-as-slides. Image Bank and Gar Smith notably missing. Only two painters of really established reputation: E. J. Hughes and John Boyle, although a definite effort was made to notify this group. It must be concluded that it rejects the concept. My original vexation in this regard has changed. More than with any other medium, slides are for painting a mere token. Their levelling effect minimizes technical deficiencies and lends a spurious vitality to the mediocre. Figuratives, whether realists, neo-realists or surrealists, acquire an incomparable edge over abstractionists. I am jolted to find that, statistically, nearly one third of the presentations are paintings, although they have registered so little with me. Closeups of detail as in art books result only in patchiness. The main gallery of the VAG, hung with still solemn big impact paintings from the permanent collection, is a tacit attempt to compensate for the shortcomings of slides, although these works are not of course recent.

Day 2: It was never intended that Scan should be seen only once. The 25 cent catalogue, stamped, permits unlimited re-entry. Having pinpointed the location of specific artists through the catalogue index, I determine to concentrate on them. No way: Scan must be Scanned. However I enjoy a relaxed visit, aware now of sympathetic groupings on the same or adjacent screens. Also chat with artists involved. Some plan next time a self-explanatory flow of related slides. Others regret having entered because they feel there is no spectator involvement. Both are wrong. Slides can project a fantastic spectrum of work, as in the case of Michael Hayden, ranging from polyurethane foam and aluminum sculpture through his York University light mural to body works. On the other hand — painting apart — repeated Scanning leads beyond information into the first zone of insight.

National Moods: The Russians have discovered that we are 'colourful barbarians'. Scan tells us, thank God, that we have an edge of wackiness, wit, fantasy. It may be manifested in the Fergie jugs by R. M. Bozak of London and all the rest of his wonderful hockey artifacts. Or it may appear in the work of Toronto's Barbara Hall, creating eggs and bacon in a frying pan along with miniature piglets. It may inspire the No Bullshit Bloor Boys, using as their medium 'Activities, Flesh, Bones, Cloth lifesize,' and executing slapstick comedy routines on the street. It may be incarnated in Vancouver's diminutive Tom Graff, draped in a cloak and singing the same aria 'in different unimportant spots in Canada' in his startlingly powerful bass baritone.

It quickens Evelyn Roth, inspiring her to prance about as a video-clad monster. It makes Gathie Falk indulge in 'very mixed media', shocking purists by painting her ceramic still lifes. And there it is again in a small belted sculpture of cloud-dappled blue cloth by W. M. May of Edmonton, called Get a Chunk of Alberta's Big Blue Sky Under Your Belt. Yes sir, the madness is countrywide. Makes you proud to be a Canadian.

Allied to this are art activities of a more serious or poetic kind, carried out by groups or individuals concerned with communication. Bill Vazan makes his black tape world line, intermittently visible but unbroken in thought. Pacific Rim Consciousness drops 150 styrofoam cubes containing messages of good will into the sea, to be carried by wind and tide to the people of Japan. Carole Fisher takes a yellow cedar log, sawn into [nine three-foot long] sections and carried onto the train as hand baggage, from Roberts Creek, B.C. to a beach in Nova Scotia.

And there is the adoration of nature, expressed a generation ago in landscape painting but by younger artists more often in colour photography and environmental sculpture. The West Coast is especially responsive in this area. The Galactic Research Council shows nothing but photos of clouds in various states of dispersal. Henry Rappaport places framed poetry in the notch of a tree as though he were in the forest of Arden. Darcy Henderson arranges cast resin beads upon ribbed sand, photographing them in closeup or against the full background of the coastline, opalescent in filtered light. The subtle transformations of this lyrical 'work in progress' constitute one of the most moving experiences of the show.

Ralph Stanbridge introduces transparent Plexiglas pieces into deep woods or the seashore. A little hollow pyramid on a square base, set amidst glistening pebbles and photographed at close range, assumes the majesty of Mount Fuji. Tom Burrows's photos of his old house on the mud flats are a record of time past. And Dean Ellis's Landscape Morphology Series has the clean beauty his title implies.

Allotted to this same screen but defying categorization despite their affinity with the work of Beuys, are the Single Person pieces by Alastair MacLennan. Even deprived of their time dimension (one hour), they are unforgettable. MacLennan moved to Vancouver as a result of the Vancouver-Halifax Exchange. His extraordinary stances — taped, masked, weighted with stones — are to him exhilarating transcendence, although to an outside observer they appear sadomasochistic. Other poses are potentially sexual. Toby MacLennan has almost equal impact. In one strange performance she sits, her head covered with a black cloth to snuff out self, holding on her lap an enormous rock, her whole being absorbed into the experience of feeling it.

Conclusion: In addition to its genuine survey quality Scan has revealed a number of gifted 'unknowns', at least to Vancouver. Among them are Martin Hirschberg (Thornhill): sculpture dealing with light and the reflective quality of plastic; Marilyn Levine (Regina, obviously no stranger to collectors in the East): trompe l'oeil suitcases, handbags, boots of ceramic; Goert-Sawatski (Laval): graphite and acrylic drawings mingling the real and the fanciful; An Whitlock (Toronto): tuberous sculpture of heavy wire wound with recycled yarns; Natalie Novotny Green (Vancouver): 'carved' embroidery and stitchery; Tommie Gallie (Edmonton): tar paper pieces in the snow; Richard Young (Vancouver): camp photography based on old photos, movie stills; George Angliss (Calgary): totemic lathe sculpture, sometimes combined with brass or leather.

Certainly the VAG has redeemed its pledge not to produce 'another boring slide show'. By the next Biennial all minor irritations of presentation will be smoothed away. It might be wise, however, in order to induce broader national participation, to add an outside juror. And it is to be hoped that by 1974 galleries across Canada, having recognized the validity of the new format, will ensure Scan a coast-to-coast tour.

artscanada, October/November 1972, #172/173, pp. 49-51

Text: © Joan Lowndes. All rights reserved.

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