Howard Ursuliak

Howard Ursuliak is an impeccable technician, having worked for a number of years as a printer for Jeff Wall, and his images are visibly connected to that of Canadian West Coast Conceptual photographers of an earlier generation, like Wall, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, and Roy Arden. The two series on view in his recent show, “Property Relations/Market,” were characterized by a gaze that is as sympathetic as it is critically rigorous. With these works, Ursuliak resists simply adopting a disinterested critical stance in relation to capitalist consumption but chooses instead to examine his uneasy place within it. He photographs the unassuming institutions of home and market elegantly and dynamically, but with an after-hours perspective that emphasizes them as an expression of our desires and aspirations, rather than their fulfillment. His camera does not sit at a safe remove from the object of its gaze; it rests within the environment, as if allowing itself to be embraced and implicated. In this way, the photographer positions himself as a “ghost in the machine” of postcapitalism, a humble agent of conscience lurking with an amoral entity.

The “Property Relations” series comprises black-and-white photographs of several suburban backyards in the Vancouver area. Rather than showing us the front lawn—the façade intended for public presentation—Ursuliak focuses on the behind-the-scenes space of activity. Though unpeopled, the yards bear traces of their individual owners (a swing set here, a bird feeder there). The homes, ranging from lower to middle class, represent attempts at rather than symbols of stability, safety, and contentment. One gets the feeling that Ursuliak is understanding of the desire and ambition that house-buying represents but wishes to point up its futility: desire, by definition, is directed at that which lies beyond the chain-link fence. The range of midcontrast grays imbues the images with a slight air of melancholy (sure, you can’t buy happiness but these people haven’t even bought a good mood), and the dramatic depth-of-field and masterful printing exceed its modest subject. Moreover, the series, with its dusky tones surrounded by black mattes, seemed to mimic rapacious consumerism by swallowing up all the available light in the gallery.

If “Property Relations” shows us the consequences of consumption, the “Market” series offers a kind of low-grade retail therapy. These color photographs depict the tables and stalls of local flea markets, in which the wares, instead of being on display, are wrapped in cotton or plastic and bound with string, awaiting another day’s haggling (or in respite after one). Even though we can’t see them as anything but lumps under swathes of fabric, it is clear these tchotchkes are not going to transform anyone into Cindy Crawford. Ursuliak belies a glimmer of nostalgia in these works, a longing for simpler times and lower expectations, while the sumptuous colors and sweeping lines lend a refinement and dignity to their quotidian subject.

Although it is often the desire of younger artists to subvert established ones, Ursuliak is no iconoclast. And though he has allied himself with a legitimized Conceptual art practice, his work does not come across as derivative. The exhibition revealed an artist of deftness, subtlety, and social conscience—hinting that perhaps the best is yet to come.

Lisa Gabrielle Mark