Terminal City: Place, Culture, and the Regional Inflection
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
[ 6,793 words ]
Art is in a state of transition which may mark the end of the modern period. (1) In art criticism this crisis is seen as a 'breakdown of unifying styles' leading to 'a perfect equivalence and interchangeability of choices.' It has been suggested that, 'What we are experiencing is not a time without art or an art without time, but rather a time that contains all art and an art that lays claims to all times . . . ' (2) This 'breakdown' has lead to an art based on the fragmentary, the provisional, and a subjective metaphysics which the Italian critic Achille Bonito Oliva terms the 'Trans-avantgarde.' (3) Oliva feels that regional and local expressions will come to the fore as the hegemony of an international culture or style weakens, '. . . today's artist does not intend to disappear behind some agreeably uniform language, but assumes an identity corresponding to the genius loci of his or her particular culture.' (4)
In Vancouver, which is barely one hundred years old, and mainly populated by people who have come from other places, no one can assume an identity which corresponds to the genius loci his or her particular culture because that culture does not exist. Here the task has been to make a place from disparate and transplanted cultures. A regional tradition, in the sense of a body of authoritative ideas which are handed down from one generation to the next, has never been fully developed. Since the Second World War, each new generation of Vancouver artists has all but ignored the achievements of the previous generation. Since the War, Vancouver artists have responded to international trends in art, sometimes a decade or more after the fact. These international movements, from Abstract Expressionism to Minimal and Conceptual Art were never practised in their 'pure' prototypical form. Distortions caused either by the presence of a regional inflection or by the pressure to create one always occurred. This used to be what we called 'provincialism' in art. But the climate has changed, and the value of these distortions is being widely recognized. 'During the era of colonialism the exportation of culture magnified the prestige and solemnity of the mother countries; now it breeds spurious versions that arouse greater interest than the originals and that evidence a vitality at this point lacking in their prototypes.' (5)
The constant internal pressure to realize a regional style, or at least regional inflections in local art, itself constitutes 'regional' art, which is an attempt to define and assert place. A place is what its artists and writers make of it. They are its imagination and its archaeologists. Several regional outlooks have been proposed or imposed. The city is still trying to define itself, as Canadian, as North American, as Pacific Rim, as a romantic and seamy port, as 'cosmopolitan', as history or as real estate. According to cliché, Vancouver is often seen as a place of isolated, romantic temperaments. A place where everyone is drugged with natural beauty and splendour, living in 'the setting without a jewel.' Vancouver art has been called 'funky' or eccentric. But funky is just a pejorative term for the unorthodox. It implies an obsession with novelty, rather than a concern for place, culture and art. It is true that an artist in Vancouver has to deal with isolation. There is no art scene here. Nor can there be one without European- or American-style bars, which are illegal. In many cases, isolation leads to despair, failure, or a necessary move to a larger centre. For others, however, it means the freedom and impetus to invent place and culture. For in Vancouver an artist makes these things for himself or he lives without them. That is, 'he either gets his time and place out of himself or via that trope of himself he calls God . . . ' (6) The genius loci (the deity of the place, its innate spiritual characteristic) is also a trope of ourselves. It may have been known by the Salish spirit dancers, but the city which has replaced their culture is only beginning to come to terms with it.
Since Emily Carr's singular struggle there have been artists on the West Coast devoted to the creation of place and knowledge of the genius loci. Carr was our first modern topographer. She wanted to know this place as an artist and, although she was forced to go to San Francisco, London, and France in order to receive the training that would equip her, she insisted on learning most of her lessons here. Through her studies of the vestiges of the traditions of the Northwest Coast Indians, she discovered a formal language which would enable her to portray the forests, which — as a reader of Whitman — she perceived as an erotic and sentient presence. She was encouraged by Lawren Harris to adopt a manner that emphasized the inner geometry of nature. But in her mature work she became a painterly painter more interested in fields of pulsating energy than in clarity of form (as did Harris himself when he worked here from 1940 until his death in 1970). Her effort to define place was directed entirely at revealing a 'theological aesthetic of nature.' The culture she was born in and had to move her life through was an unwelcome hindrance.
In the fifties the scene was dominated by Lawren Harris, B.C. Binning, and Jack Shadbolt. Shadbolt had known Carr and, perhaps inspired by her, took the eros of nature as the basis of his subject matter. Harris was painting fluid abstract canvasses based on his interpretation of the psychic universe. Binning, who with Fred Amess brought the ideas of international modern architecture to Vancouver, practised a form of Ozenfant's classical purism, although he, too, used local subject matter, boats and seaside constructions, as the basis of his abstract experiments. Binning was a proponent of the idea that our cultural axis ought to turn westward, to the Pacific; the West Coast should not be merely the receiver culture of the Eastern Seaboard and Europe.
The fifties' painters, using the idiom of painterly abstraction which was centred in New York, often tried to articulate the mood and feeling of nature and the environment in their work. This was the generation that built the institutions. It was a generation which believed in modernism and had faith in progress. When it is closely examined, however, in the writing of the fifties' critics and artists, one can see they sensed themselves to be straddling a fissure that had opened up between the modern and the postmodern and which continued to widen. And it was the period when painters abandoned the topographical landscape, 'The era of Canadian landscape painting is quietly fading.' (7)
Of the painters who matured in the fifties, only E.J. Hughes took up the task of landscape as such. His efforts to make a topography, to reveal the inner workings of nature, is the result of an extreme devotion to place. A recipient of an Emily Carr Scholarship in 1947, Hughes chose not to study abroad as had other recipients, but to find his motif in British Columbia. Unlike Carr, whose universe is fluid, Hughes's West Coast is a proliferation of clear detail. Carr presented a world that was symphonic and ecstatic. Hughes's vision is crystalline and hard. Carr rarely depicts people or contemporary structures, Hughes's world is full of people, boats, docks, and houses.
There was a shift at the end of the fifties when Roy Klyooka brought post-painterly hard-edge painting to Vancouver. The [New American Poets] arrived with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Spicer, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, and Robert Duncan, who all came here in the early sixties at the invitation of Warren and Ellen Tallman. The poets helped clarify stances and sensibilities in Vancouver that affected the artistic scene as a whole. (8)
The poets emphasized the primacy of place, one's own place. They encouraged private vision, the taking on of cosmological thought, the unorthodox. This sensibility was ferociously anti-academic; it abjured the well-crafted object in poetry and this aesthetic spilled over into attitudes towards art objects that factions of the city's avant-garde still hold. The stance coincided with a stage in international modernism that took up the 'dematerialized object'. Olson, for example, believed that a poem should reenact its process, and 'not be led to partition reality at any point, in any way.' (9)
The magazine TISH was started in 1961 as a result of the excitement in poetry the Americans had created. TISH was mimeographed and stapled together; it avoided polish. Because the aim of its editors was to record 'on-going literary activity,' the magazine's appearance 'preserved every roughness, insight, and stupidity that this activity enclosed.' (10) Roy Kiyooka, bill bissett, Al Neil, and Gerry Gilbert, all writers as well as artists, helped establish a space locally for this aesthetic in the early 1960s. Three of those artist-poets — bissett with his angelology, Neil with his shamanism, Gilbert with his moral resolve that the artist rescue his own city before he conquer the world — have consistently paid attention to the problem of the genius loci in their work.
The ground was prepared, then, for the convulsive changes of the late sixties and early seventies, a change which Frank Davey described in 1971: 'The intellectual temper of our culture appears to be shifting away from the humanist tradition of a man-dominated universe — as the recent importance of ecology, mysticism, dropping-out, anarchism, phenomenology, and hallucinogenics attests; even now this shift promises to bring man to a new and realistic view of his role in the immense plurality of cosmic phenomena.' (11)
Rising interest in the new technology being developed by the media and 'communications' industries led to the formation of Intermedia. Intermedia, envisioned by a group that included Arthur Erickson, Jack Shadbolt, and Iain Baxter, was to be a college where artists and other creative individuals could receive training in the new image-making technologies which the guru of the hour, Marshall McLuhan, had claimed would replace print. As Wilfred Watson observed, the sixties were' . . . the first decade of the post-modern era . . . All that could be clearly recognized was a multiplicity of movements and the word that best described this first post-modern decade was multi-consciousness. Its nervous system consisted of the multi-media and the neurologist who best confronted its hysteria was, it seemed to most of us, Marshall McLuhan.' (12) Intermedia, however, never became a college, partly as a result of the aesthetic of process and provisionality it was built on.
Intermedia engendered the notion of collaboration — the belief that art activity should displace the central role of the artist in making art — and collaborative work began to appear in the mid-sixties. No one called himself an artist in the 1960s; the word seemed to have lost some of its authenticity.
Commitment to collaborative work led to the establishment of the Western Front in 1973. The Western Front, and later Video Inn and other groups, became involved in an art which appropriated the forms and images of media culture in order to subvert that culture. As Ian Wallace wrote in a recent issue of Flash Art, 'These artists mocked the avant-garde of the New York school by parodying the depleted conventions of conceptual art and television through an attitude of deconstructive irony and emblematic foolishness.' (13) The medium chosen for this activity was performance, the adoption of personas, the creation of artefacts rather than works of 'art' — another word whose authenticity seemed to evaporate in a Duchampian puff of smoke — and, from mid-decade on, video. During this same period, the Vancouver Art Gallery became the national model for innovative work under the directorship of Tony Emery. As Jeff Wall has noted, it was a period when 'the benevolent, structurally-modernized, almost self-transcending bureaucracies' enfolded the avant-garde in a warm embrace. (14)
While the seventies saw an increasingly international outlook on the part of many Vancouver artists, the interest in place remained important. In a way, Dean Ellis's projects of the seventies, his frail interventions in the environment (mainly Hornby Island) were about knowledge of place. Like E. J. Hughes before him, all his ambition was centred here. He wanted to de-classify, de-Europeanize, our approach to landscape. Instead of a set view with fore-, middle- and backgrounds through which one might stroll or journey, he posited random series of actions in the landscape itself. Tom Burrows's and Al Neil's assemblages on the mudflats at Dollarton were evidence of a concern to get art out of a gallery setting that had become a clean white shrine to modernism, and into the real environment. Carole Itter's Personal Baggage of 1972 seems a key work in defining what has been particular about Vancouver art. This piece involved the transportation of a cedar log from Roberts Creek, B.C., to Lockport, N.S. Many artists were involved in the project as were townships, trains and post offices. The image was innocent, but the piece was not. The work's importance lies in the working people who were modified by having to deal with a benevolent irrationality and a non-confrontational subversion. Whatever these works owe to international strategies, such as minimalism and conceptual art, they remain passionately contextual.
As the media culture made deeper inroads into all aspects of human behaviour, which it set out to mirror, define, and standardize, artists began to position their work on the same horizon as that of the media culture. John Berger's simplifications of Walter Benjamin's ideas, Ways of Seeing, appeared in 1972. In the book he claimed that there was a continuity between oil painting and advertising: 'Publicity relies to a very large extent on the language of oil painting. It speaks in the same voice about the same things,' and, even more boldly, 'It is a mistake to think of publicity supplanting the visual art of post-Renaissance Europe; it is the last moribund form of that art.' (15) In the sixties, the response to this situation had been to use the subject-matter of advertising and popular culture as the subject-matter of high modernist art. High art, weakened by popular art, became Pop Art. In the seventies this situation was reversed and artists began to use the techniques of advertising and popular culture to reintroduce intellectual and subversive aspects of the avant-garde project. In 1973 Tom Burrows used a video monitor to illuminate Sand Pile, a work in which the viewer entered the activity of the piece, as part of a completely realized and difficult conceptual work about representation, illumination, technology, literalness, imitation, actuality, perception, and touch.
The artist who attempts this strategy most ambitiously is Jeff Wall. His medium is the back-lit photographic transparency widely used by advertising display. He brings to this medium a hyper-conscious activity engaging the material, its social uses and effects, and the pictorial tradition of Western art in order to propose 'that the historical content of modernism can be dialectically transformed from an ideology of formal strategies to one of renewed pictorial presentation of subject-matter.' (16) Wall uses fluorescent lighting to illuminate his pictures. About that lighting he has written: 'In our architecture the even diffusion of overhead lighting eliminates shadows and their dramatic, baroque imbalances and axialities, traditionally so rich in implications and meanings drawn from a theological aesthetic of nature and a "metaphysics of light".' (17) In a recent work. Mimic (1982), he introduces into the composition many baroque terms, a strong diagonal, rapidly receding perspective, dramatic shadows, and figures who seem about to trip out of the picture plane. If all this is meant to imply a 'theological aesthetic of nature' and a 'metaphysics of light,' it does so in terms of absence. The woman is almost knocked down by blinding light. The two men are more solidly footed, but their activity is not heroic (as one might expect, once the theme — the strength of men opposed to the weakness of women — has been introduced) but banal: the subject is racial antipathy. The action is small, mean, and dirty, but made utterly naked by the full resources of baroque metaphysical light. What is revealed is not the heroic, the wilful or the contemplative, but the nervous tic of a socially conditioned reflex. Perhaps Wilde was right when he wrote, 'It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.' (18)
Gary Lee-Nova also uses fluorescent light in his recently completed memorial to Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis. In Lee-Nova's work fluorescent light has become a still, eternal sky illuminating an endless suburb. Wall's work comes from a passion to save the modern project, Lee-Nova's is firmly grounded in the postmodern. His work is barbaric and erudite. The density of reference, image, and homage (Duchamp and Lacan) creates a ghost which informs the piece. A skein of connections and references, like a nervous system, like a suburb, like a game — chess. A rook, a castle, a home, a fence made of bullets, a telephone, a gaze, words, light, sound — a polished collage. A collage which incorporates the gaze of the spectator and is his undoing. It is a true stade du mirroir and reflects the way we grasp at the real. Its glittery surfaces are offered to the beings we are when we are fascinated.
The question of the spectator, who he is, emerges in the work of Wall and Lee-Nova — perhaps the spectator, not the artist, has become the voyeur.
APPROPRIATION AND RE-INVENTION
In 1983, Vancouver is uncomfortably poised at the brink of another radical transformation. The dominant culture is still devoted to an idea of progress, building, and spectacle. New mega-developments promise to alter the aspect of the city. And with a change of aspect one can expect the city's demography to be modified not only by new networks of transportation but by changes in the city's 'psychogeography' — the effect the physical structure has on human feelings and reflexes. Already studio space has become extremely expensive. The city has no plans to subsidize studio space for artists.
In the last decade the institutions whose function is to legitimize art have expanded their administrative structures. The Vancouver Art Gallery has moved to new and larger quarters in a building which, intended or not, is a symbol of stability and order, from a decrepit building which, intended or not, became a symbol of provisionality. The Vancouver School of Art has become the Emily Carr College of Art and Design in a new, larger, and more deeply administered building. The image is 'high tech'. The studio program at the University of British Columbia has become accredited, offering bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts. Simon Fraser University's Centre for the Arts is seeking similar powers of accreditation. While institutions offer more in the way of credentials with one hand, with the other they isolate art from mainstream culture. Since 1977, for example, UBC has not allowed high school art courses as part of its admission requirements.
Twenty-seven years after the opening of the New Design Gallery, there are only a handful of commercial galleries which exhibit contemporary art. Artist-run spaces, such as the Unit / Pitt, Reflections, Metro Media, Main Exit, the Western Front, and Women in Focus are all underfunded, if they are funded at all. None runs a dynamic gallery program. In the seventies both the City of Vancouver and the Province of British Columbia collected art. They no longer do. Neither daily newspaper has much in the way of visual arts coverage. The mass media understands art only as an irrational sub-category of leisure / entertainment. Culture, at the provincial level, is the responsibility of the Minister of Tourism.
Vancouver still lacks a serious base of patronage upon which a healthy art scene could be built. Nonetheless, and despite the fact that artists continue to leave the city, there are a great number of artists in Vancouver. The work of these artists is the true history of the city, its real culture. The pressure to make a regional inflection is still with us. Although many artists ignore this pressure they are still bound by it. That pressure is especially acute at a time like the present, when art criticism in the international art journals has proclaimed a new significance for regional variations of international trends. Just what, exactly, the regional inflection is, is an open question. The city itself is a confluence of political, social, cultural, and economic contradictions. If it ever was romantically and lyrically involved with landscape, it certainly no longer is.
Of the artists who make images, more have turned to the figure and the city for subject-matter. Many others have forged individual paths in an already-established modern idiom, while others are concerned with extending the vocabulary of new media. The selection of current art is intended to show a broad range of activity among Vancouver artists. The issues raised by this art are diverse, but united by the pressing question of regional culture in the postmodern world. The darkness of contemporary times — reflected in an item on the agenda of a recent artists' meeting which asked the question, 'Is any discussion of art issues in Vancouver relevant in the face of world militarist reaction?' — permeates much of this work. The world of daylight seems to be disappearing.
Fred FitzPatrick's elegant xerox studies, for example, are as remarkable in their remoteness from the world of daylight, the waking world, as are the paintings and videotapes of Jim Cummins (I, Braineater). (19)
FitzPatrick works with a xerox copier from transparent painted and etched plates. The images are meant as texts and refer to the issue of reproduction. His source materials are books on architecture and art history, but the xerox turns his sources into ghosts. The ordered arrangement of information disappears into desire. The images he creates are haunting and complex and reveal the full potential of the xerox medium. FitzPatrick investigates the relationship between desire and knowledge; he works like an alchemist, carefully setting the stage for the chance revelation. Cummins is propelled by energy. His black and white paintings are for a world that does not deserve colour. The paintings are part of a larger project which includes the production of film, videotape, music, clothing design, and portable living and production spaces for the new nomadic culture. The world of the paintings engages us in a poisonous myth of the city, at once violent and sexually ludicrous. The paintings and the films are also densely referenced to the history of sexual episodes in art history and film. Cummins's view of the artist as a nomad is similar to trans-avantgardism, a sensibility that drifts, making only provisional anchorages. (20)
Both Cummins and FitzPatrick make art which comes from their experience of a city. So does the painter Vicky Marshall. Her canvasses portray a subjective vision of the world of human relationships around her, involving ritual, force, and authority. Like much new European painting, hers uses the sensuousness of paint as a vehicle for the transmission of feeling. She is more oblique — her eye is more innocent — than most new German or Italian painters. The psychological scenarios she sets up are often read at the periphery of the canvas, as if the narrative elements were deferring to the 'act of painting' whose authority still dominates her pictorial field, pushing her subjects to the surface, and to the edges of the picture plane.
Allyson Clay's recent work concentrates on the nude. She wishes to probe western art history and examine the role of the nude as a carrier of cultural values concerning gender. Her formal vocabulary is modernist and rather cool; Cézanne and Manet are her models. This results in the interesting tension in her work between its subject, which is erotic and personal, and the restrained, calculated manner in which she presents it. This tension speaks to our lives, which we still live within the determining boundaries of gender; they are boundaries that have lost their social meaning or usefulness. The television which is the light source of The Blue Wall might have a symbolic meaning, since the media sets the standards for genderization. And, as in Marshall's work, the authority of painting as painting still dominates Clay's pictorial field.
The recent watercolours of Michael Morris, now resident in Berlin, also take on the tradition of the nude. His theme, as it has been since the late sixties, is narcissism. The eros of these figures is directed inwards, but does not produce confidence in his subjects. Instead they seem to be fields of implosions which give them a lost, melancholy countenance. Their manner is a result of Morris's interest in early German Expressionism, especially the watercolours of Emile Nolde. His work demonstrates the freedom artists feel they have to return to styles of avant-garde predecessors. While this may be seen as a merciless 'plundering of the stylistic vocabulary of modernism in all its declensions,' (21) it can also be seen as an attempt to redress imbalances in the course that the history of the avant-garde has taken, interrupted as it has been by wars and direct suppression by totalitarian regimes.
Robert Young, for example, feels that his new work is being guided by a necessity to return to and reevaluate Cubism. The conflict in the manner in which the cubist enterprise is presented — as a key event in the history of the development of the formal vocabulary of modernism — and the way it was actually disseminated at the time — as an expressive vocabulary — has never been resolved. Our modern ideas about relativity and the synchronicity of time ought to have led us to a vantage point where such returns and reappearances do not alarm us. Young's work takes up a reinvestigation of the process of abstraction: how an object is transformed into a painterly element that attaches itself to reverberations in the history of art and, by doing so, recalls other images. The process of association in his work suggests the shadowy presence of an invisible order behind the world of appearances; art history as a 'ghost story for adults.' The source of a recent series of paintings was the shape of torn wallpaper in a room being renovated.
Images of interiors are also the subjects of recent work by David Ostrem and Keith Donovan. Ostrem creates urban interiors full of the flotsam and jetsam of a culture we recognize as similar to ours, yet foreign. The artefacts that fill these rooms — rock and roll records, abstract expressionist wallpaper, pieces of the early space age — are all recognizable as belonging to the 1950s. But in Ostrem's world it is as though the fads of the fifties had managed to actually become a universal style. This is what is so warm, reassuring, and funny about these images. For modernism has never succeeded in creating a universal style. Donovan makes collages from material used in interior decorating, veneers of wood and other textures, to rework the possibilities of the cubist idiom, particularly that of its most intellectual practitioner, Juan Gris. This kind of activity, in the work of Young and Donovan and many others, should not be seen as a 'plundering of the stylistic vocabulary of modernism,' but rather a rereading of modernism's central 'texts,' an activity that finds parallels in every field of knowledge today.
Share Corsaut's photograms take up the experimentations of Moholy-Nagy in the new, refined, and much richer medium of polaroid photography. Corsaut, like Young, has faith in the abstract image, in its possibilities for a kind of 'expression' which isn'tquite personal. That is, she sees these works as full of feeling but not as a simple declaration of her state of mind — rather, an extension of it. They are images of new feeling opened up by new technology. The innocence of her work, as contrasted to the palpable threat contained in FitzPatrick's, has something to do with the medium itself. In this case it is photography, not painting, that is 'liberated' from the function of representation.
Paul Alexander's Eakins study was painted after a photograph Eakins took as one of many studies for his great painting, The Swimming Hole. Alexander's return to those photographs, on a quest for more paintings, is an example of how artists have returned, not to plunder, but to complete. His aesthetic, developed with the San Francisco painter, Jess, and the poet, Robert Duncan, in the late 1950s, preceded by decades the current questioning of modernism's emphasis on originality — a value all three found to be false. And, since the late fifties, both Jess and Alexander have built bodies of work which are transformed 'copies' from art history.
Much recent work is figurative. Some of it, such as Chris Reed's raw portrait of a gunman in Belfast or Leonard Brett's painting of the massacre at Bishop Romero's funeral in El Salvador, is about contemporary events. Brett's image comes from television, not direct observation. The stillness, even serenity, of Brett's figures, who are being mown down by machine-gun fire they cannot take cover from, reminds one of another painting taken from a media news image, Manet's Execution of Maximillian. Brett's painting is not just about the horror it depicts but the distance the presentation of that horror in the news creates. Reed's portrait, employing a mannered expressionist line which is not direct, but a blow-up of a small sketch, and symbolic elements, like a halo, also functions to distance us from the subject-matter. Reed mocks our martyrology of the heroes and victims of our modern wars. But both Reed and Brett ritualize their imagery, and avoid 'realism'.
John Watt's Cloud is also a powerful political statement. It is a simple and direct image of a shower of bombs. Yet the highly-crafted way the piece has been fabricated invites us to delight in skill, technology, and craftsmanship: those very things in us which the nuclear age has caused us to question and regret. Walking underneath this sculpture is a visceral experience.
The way we experience crisis, especially the violent deaths of others, is also the subject of Richard Hambleton's street work, Image Mass Murder. This piece consists of outlines of prostrate corpses on sidewalks. They are offensive images. Yet one must ask how it is that plainly artificial paintings can offend. On television, homicide is glamorous and exciting, but an image on the street is a threat. The world of images is, therefore, not a seamless one. Hambleton's work in the streets is proof, if any were needed, that works of art are read in context and that they often interrogate that context.
Paul Wong and Ken Fletcher's Murder Research (1976/1977), has a similar subject-matter, but poses questions about art and society which are much more serious than an intention to epater le bourgeois. The series of photographs of a dead man on a snowy February morning, the ensuing foray by police, and finally the empty street with the vestiges of an event, is very beautiful. A horror is documented, but at an aesthetic distance which seems to be the particular property of colour photography. The blood-stained snow is evocative and poetic. Seen as art, the realm where tales have meanings requiring interpretation, we are in a world where the calm of death is compared, even favourably, to the restlessness of life. However, as the research part of this piece attests, reality is more statistical, cold, rational, and unfeeling than that. Documenting this event as a work of art has permitted greater insight and response than a documentation of the same event using the discourse of the information industry possibly could.
Oraf's photographs of Berlin also make use of the documentary tradition. Each photograph depicts the Berlin wall; even though the presence of the wall is often discreet, it permeates all the images. Oraf draws out the contrast between the delicacy and frailty of life and the hardness and intractability of ideology. He is drawn to ruins, giving us an image of modernity as a pile of debris.
Stan Douglas also gives us an image of the city in his slide work, Residence, which is a cinematic meditation on the iconology of the urban fabric. Douglas's medium, the slide 'presentation', like Jeff Wall's work is situated on the same horizon as advertising technology — in this case the elaborate slide presentations used to transcendentalize commodi- ties at sales conventions. Douglas' work is not merely criticism, but full of its own melancholy passion and yearning for an articulate world. His eye is amoral, drawn to a range of poetic feeling that hovers between the exquisite and an obsessive investigation of the palpable strangeness of his subjects. He brings out the nonhuman aspects of human constructions with an exacting and remote elegance. Roy Arden's photographic projects, depictions of the urban fabric as well as portraits, reveal a similar commitment to the Beautiful. Arden often places two images of the same subject side by side. In the portraits, a face confronts us directly; next to it, a seated figure seems caught unaware, engaged with himself / herself. Arden is moved by the erotic and sensuous presence he finds in European photography of the thirties. The pictures of buildings and vitrines are a metaphysic of light, a search for a convulsive moment when a rupture opens in the ordinary. (22) The city they depict is uninhabited, except by the intelligence of its structures.
Although Arden and Douglas use urban data to make art, their work is not about Vancouver — one could say this of much recent art — yet recognizable images of Vancouver often appear in their work, as in Arden's photograph of the entrance to the Burrard Street Bridge, that 'pensive synthesis of monument and dungeon.' (23) This image is not about its subject; it is about a kind of vision. And therefore it is not Vancouver which determines the character of the work, but the work which will give Vancouver its character.
Power would seem to be the subject of Al McWilliams's new work, On a Set of Circumstances. The throne is an icon of power, not only temporal, but metaphysical as well. The image is irrational, almost demonic; deliberately 'readable', but situated outside the zone of ordinary syntax. There is much sculpture in this region which uses images to disrupt syntax. It is one of the particular strengths of this area. Jerry Pethick and Geoffrey Smedley use art-historical references to question how culture is transmitted through space and time. Pethick's Boccioni's Nightmare / Material Fugitive is part of a much larger work, Strategems of Distortion / Sensations of Illusion(24).
Smedley's A Sketch vis á vis TheAmbassadors is also part of a larger, ongoing project as is Liz Magor's Dorothy, A Resemblance. (25) Richard Prince also works in series. Prince, Magor, McWilliams, Smedley, and Pethick are all sculptors who work with a dense set of references and images that ultimately question the way we perceive history and the world around us. Their works are like texts that defy readership. The contemporary notion that meaning is in the structure of language, not in our intention to speak, has made deep inroads into artistic practice and criticism. This work is, however, anti-structuralist, as it relies so heavily on the artist's privilege to make an arbitrary decision, which cannot be analysed by structuralist or semiotic theory. As Christopher
Norris put it: 'Structuralism always asserts itself where thinking yields to attractions of order and stability. Its achievements, however impressive, are intrinsically limited to "a reflection of the accomplished, the constituted, the constructed." What is suppressed by this static conceptualization is the 'force' or animating pressure of intent which exceeds all the bounds of structure.' (26)
These sculptors do not, however, complete the picture. Artists such as Barry Cogswell, Catherine McLean, and Bill Burns work on site or install to specific space in an attempt to expand and fully implicate the vocabulary of modernist painting. (27)
David MacWilliam's recent work explores the tension of an image on a painted surface, specifically an ambiguously organic vortex whose dimensionality is both revealed and hidden from the viewer at the same time. MacWilliam's language may appear formal, a discourse about the nature of painting. However, the images he chooses enter a dialogue of their own. They have an organic primacy as if, in nature, there were basic elements (albeit irrational) which functioned in a manner analogous to language.
A concern for the elemental is also found in the very different work of Joey Morgan and Vincent Trasov. Morgan's Tide Catchers, significant in its appropriation of a public space for her site, includes the tide in its process. Tide Catchers is a complex discourse about place, the ephemeral, transformation, and ruin — but at its very centre is the action of the tide, which she uses as a medium. Trasov paints modernist paintings. They are concerned with flatness and surface. But he treats them with fire. The performance involved in burning the surfaces is the work. The painting itself, as is the case with the remains of Morgan's work, is an artefact not an autonomous object.
One could almost say the same thing of Catharine MacTavish's paintings. Her Night Vision series owes something to Georges Seurat and Jack Wise. She builds obsessional detail over highly organized grids. Their subject is science, how we see, and cosmology, but she also means them as documents of obsession, situated in a performative context.
Al Neil's recent collages fall into the tradition of Tzara, Schwitters, and Rauschenberg, as well as the imagery of Tantric Buddhism. They gather history, images of power, our wars, our churches, our philosophers, our rationalism, in order to unmask. His approach to his work is shamanistic and the work is automatic and dictated, but within the context of an intention. Each collage is a mask and a mirror.
Neil's work as a composer, performance artist, writer, theoretician, and artist is inseparable from the moment of his actuality. He has pushed his stance entirely into the present tense, at some cost. The Dionysian energy that animates all his work may be that of the genius loci, for his work is informed by the ghosts, spirits, demons, and angels of the place. If 'history is the practice of space in time,' then Neil is one of our truest historians. (28)
In the past few decades there has been much discussion about the fate of the avant-garde. Modernism, that complex network of ideas propelled by the need to enter modernity — to actually inhabit the world that men have made — is said to have collapsed. Modernism has achieved a mythic stature it never had in history. Its 'uniform language,' as Oliva puts it, never existed outside criticism. The pure design ideals, tied to a lingering faith in progress which produced the ethic of truth-to-materials, gave literalness to the painted surface, and informed modern architecture, may have disappeared. But these masksof modernism were never its true face.
The art of recent years, especially the painting, seems to many to lack conviction. New art is characterized by its recourse to the forms, styles, and discoveries of earlier periods of modern art history. Much new art locates itself on the same horizon of imagery and techniques that the mass media dominates. These aspects have led to the hasty conclusion that art in our time is mannered and exhausted.
However, the appropriation of the technology and style of the mass media gives to the popular culture a truth it would otherwise not have and without which it would be impossible to think.
Furthermore, the return to previous periods is a return to events that were never realized. Twice in our century the course of modern art has been brutally interrupted by world war. Two of its most heroic periods — Russia before and after the Revolution, and Germany in the thirties — were suppressed by totalitarian regimes. Those times when the course of modern art seemed most clear are the very moments when it was destroyed. The reinvention of those moments is an affirmation of the modern project. The manner in which this affirmation is being carried out today assures us of the vitality of the avant-garde.
From Vancouver Art and Artists: 1931-1983
Text: © Scott Watson. All rights reserved.
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