“Vancouver: Art And Artists 1931–1983”

The Vancouver Art Gallery

Last fall, after a three-year, $20.5-million overhaul by Arthur Erikson Architects, an eccentric neoclassical courthouse—strikingly out of place in the breathtaking Rocky Mountain landscape and banal Modernist cityscape here—officially became the new home of the Vancouver Art Gallery. The huge show entitled “Vancouver: Art and Artists 1931–1983” was the curtain raiser for Canada’s newest art museum.

The placement of the colon in the title is significant. This array of paintings, sculptures, films and videotapes, installations, photographs, and other items organized by gallery curators Scott Watson, Lorna Farrell-Ward, and Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker was meant to be an exposition, not so much of Vancouver fine art, but of Vancouver as cultural fabric, to which artists, architects, designers, and craftsmen have contributed many a stitch and patch.

In the earlier paintings and architecture, certain remarkable creators—Jack Shadbolt, F.H. Varley, Emily Carr, Lawren Harris—stand out. But we find much local miniaturizing and smoothing out of fashionable advanced visual ideas from beyond the mountains; streamlined Deco modernity, American Scene realism, bourgeois Parisian abstraction, and, of course, Abstract Expressionism have all had their day in Vancouver. More interesting, however, are those forces which seem to pull hard, continually, below the surface of fashion.

The city’s cultural dynamic seems to oscillate between an obsessive worry about disorder—North America’s first study on the relationship between immorality and the visual environment was undertaken in Vancouver, in 1945—and an equally obsessive indulgence in that feared disorder. One notes an absence of ordinary human warmth in even the most bourgeois still lifes. Both painting and the work in performance, photography, video, and installation from the early ’50s to the present seem to return again and again to such cool passions as narcissism and languorous sexual curiosity—mirrors and fixed-stare surveillance are typical—and hot ones like sexual aggression. These days a young artists’ group called “the Braineaters” paints scenes of rape filched from the masterpieces of history, thus bringing up-to-date old Vancouver penchants for appropriation and violence.

The conceptual photo-documentary projects of lain Baxter from the ’60s provided a link to a larger Canadian preoccupation with communications. One finds a similar avoidance of strict high-art orthodoxies or canons in the quite different, extravagant, masquelike musical performances and videotapes created by the artists of the Western Front Society (among others) during the ’70s. In their parodies of radio plays, fashion shows, the Academy Awards, and other popular formats, Vancouver artists performed complex maneuvers through the thicket of media history, while expressing persistent interest in the old tug between the generalizing force of mass communications and the particularizing fact of personal sexuality, sensuality, and sensibility. The traditions of art-making outside Vancouver seem at times to have far less to do with Vancouver art than this intense, private play of force.

John Bentley Mays