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Art Perry

Gathie Falk: Night Sky Series
Harbourfront Gallery, Toronto, November 16 - 28
Richard Prince: Figure Structures
Burnaby Art Gallery, September 19 - October 21

Vanguard, Vol. 8 #9, November 1979.
[ 1,416 words ]


Two of British Columbia's most important sculptors have recently made major changes in their art: Gathie Falk has moved to large paintings of sky and earth, and Richard Prince has left his humorous interactions with the West Coast landscape for a more classic investigation of the female figure.

Gathie Falk's art has always been a simple confrontation with domestic artifacts. Her painted ceramic sculptures have contained a personal iconography of teacups, cupboards, eggs, fruit, and well-worn shoes. Falk's art is art of the home. It has always been charming and comfortable in a manner not dissimilar to Jim Dine's household items such as plumbing tools and bathrobes.

Last year Falk surprised many viewers by exhibiting a series of large garden paintings at Artcore Consultants, Vancouver. The series, based on the east and west lawn-borders of her Third Avenue home, had an unassured questioning to their process. Not having painted for over twelve years, Falk presented works that had a checked agitation in their modelling of flowers and grass. It should not be read as naïveté though, but as a deliberate lack of painterly exuberance. Impressionistic in their tonal values, these domestic landscapes exhibited a fluttering sense of light and sensitivity not unlike Vuillard's garden works.

In a recent conversation Falk recalled her earlier paintings of the mid-1960s. These playful works showed mechanical flying carpets and herringbone tweed coats in boxes. As always, her surreal juxtaposing of common objects (rugs that fly, eggs on a saddle, shoes in a pantry cupboard) are easily understood as visual games, and are not intended to take the viewer far beyond the obvious. Complexity and symbolism are not part of Falk's home-based imagery. In fact, her early paintings and sculptures are often successful because of this very directness.

At the present time Falk has moved her point of vision from her garden to the sky. Where her garden paintings had dropped the surreal additives of boxes and object juxtaposition, so her recent series of works called Night Sky, also succeeds from its direct and totally surface viewpoint.

For Falk to look at the cosmos is a major shift. For years her perspective has been on the home front: kitchens, backyard picnics, cupboards, closets and hot chocolate at bedtime — these have been the parameters of Falk's imagery. But now she is tackling the swirling city-lit clouds over nighttime Vancouver. Stars shine from a pulsing void of liquid blues and running pinks. Her once agitated and halting style of painting has now exploded into a dancing colour-field of pure expressionism.

At the moment there are six works in the Night Sky series. Numbers V and VI host banks of clouds, while numbers II, III, and IV are cloudless graduations of blue on which five-pointed stars sparkle and shine. Night Sky I is a rather troubled piece with some heavy overworking. Night Sky is a series for the stargazer, in the same way that Constable's cloud studies balloon into our visual imagination, Falk's skies are free-flying night dreams.

The isolation one experiences in Falk's skies is counterbalanced by the warm glow of her more secure homelife as seen in her quilt / painting, Beautiful British Columbia Multiple Purpose Thermal Blanket No. II, 1979 (not exhibited in the Toronto show). This soft canvas work is much more in keeping with the established ceramic situations of Falk's earlier art. The 'blanket' has nine separate panels or pillows on which Falk has painted scenes from a spring afternoon at her home. In the centre panel Falk has painted a casual image of friends having tea at her kitchen table. This square image is bounded on all four sides by garden still lifes of Falk's treasured tulips. The upper corners show the white table settings, the lower corners the stairs leading into Falk's home. It is not meant as a narrative but more as a composite image of a time and place. Where the Night Sky series looks outward, the quilted security of the blanket looks inward.

In the end, Gathie Falk's new paintings seem to push out and in at the same time. Are we to be assured by Falk's blanket that all is well on West Third Avenue, or is Falk looking for a new expansive expression in her nocturnal skyscapes?

Questions are to be raised also by the recent works of Richard Prince. For years Prince has specialized in turning the B.C. landscape into a playground of wit and mechanical devices. Like Falk, he has acquired a certain iconographical system of objects, but where Falk looked in her cupboards, Prince looked in the woods. Bones, rocks, leaves, driftwood and the forces of nature became Prince's source material. As an artist, Prince decided to organize the chaos of nature into compact boxes of rational construction. Light bulbs became stars, fans became winds, and chemicals eroded nature's pure metals through a heightened state of entropy. Prince's stance was that of a Wizard of the Woods, a man who could understand the complexities of nature's wrath and beauty.

In the last few years the mechanics and literary puns have left Prince's art. Influences such as H.C. Westermann's boxed ellipses and Joseph Cornell's nostalgic cataloguings have slowly turned into a more sculptural confrontation with the real world. In Prince's Ancient Language series of 1978-79 he attempted to formulate a natural syntax with bones and eroded copper panels. The effect was of some unearthed ritual, a strata of past natural organization that has long since been buried by time.

Yet the bone and copper works soon became process more than idea. With a simple shift — sand dollars for bones — Prince created comets in the sky rather than bones in the earth. The turquoise field of oxidized copper looked too inviting to continue pandering to taste. A new approach was required. The result was a total shift into full-scale figure works.

As with Falk's new paintings, the wit and surreal humour is no longer present in Prince's Figure Structures. These fibreglass body casts have a clear realism that is akin to Falk's garden and night paintings. The key difference though, is that where Falk has become expressionist, Prince has become classic. His figures are composed, ordered statues in the long tradition of classic control. From Greek caryatids to Canova's marble nudes; from Michelangelo's David to Rodin's Age of Bronze, the classic nude figure has had a tight singular existence that exhibits none of the baroque tensions of Bernini or the expressive mastery of Daumier's or Degas' fresh bronzes. Prince, always with control, has made his shell-like figures into architectonic devices in space. These are not dancing, bending bodies, but rather posed and positioned elements in space.

The analytic mind has always loved order. Even in his most eccentric moments Prince has been totally analytic. So the still-point aura of his new works should come as no surprise. The realism in Prince's figures is not the hyper-realism of American sculptors such as Hanson. Prince's bodies are as much form as figure. They are part of a new sculptural syntax (quite different from that of his copperworks). Now the language of parts is greater than the expression of the whole. Prince's Egyptian Arches (1979), for instance, must be read as a series of sections ordered into a complete unit. Any overall gestalt, visual or conceptual, is foregone in lieu of a sequential rhythm between the parts. Even the statuesque Standing Grecian Figure — Two Columns (1979), is a fragmented figure that does not allow for completion. Therefore the final resolution of these figure structures is up to the viewer's sense of perception, and whether or not they can fill in the phrasing missing in Prince's classic sculpture language.

In viewing the shifts of both Prince's and Falk's new work, it appears that west coast funk is slowly dying. The Pop playfulness of the sixties and early seventies is now turning towards a non-cluttered realism. Falk's Night Sky series is certainly more painterly than pop, and Prince's figures are moving far beyond the situational environments of Segal's Pop figures.


Vanguard, Vol. 8 #9, November 1979.


Text: © Art Perry. All rights reserved.

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