Roy Arden

The pleasures of viewing Roy Arden’s recent photographs and videos often lies in speculating about how such simple, even banal, images manage to resonate so intensely. Take Overpass, 2005, for example, a shot of an empty makeshift home—located beneath the highway of the title—constructed from flattened cardboard boxes and a concoction of refuse that includes, one somehow can’t help noticing, a pizza box, fecal brown splatters, shredded clothes, and some decomposing bread rolls.

The temptation to itemize persists with a pair of street-scene photographs from 2005. The title of one, Versace, refers to the remnants of a magazine ad showing a feminine arm juxtaposed with a boldly stitched dress. The ad lies neglected in a gutter, accompanied by battered ketchup packets, cigarette butts, and bottle tops—accoutrements that recur in the pendant work Sock. The careful cropping, bird’s-eye perspective, meticulous attention to texture, and intimate scale of both images suggest both a public, expansive, topographical context—an impression enhanced by grooves in the dirt, made by rivulets of rain and sewage, that resemble dry riverbeds—and the preciousness and privacy of still life, in which our attention is directed toward the smallest bits of, say, decomposing fruit. However, in contrast to still life’s interior focus and clarity of purpose, Arden’s visions of degraded urban exteriors are more ambiguous in their iconography and intent. The trope of degradation continues unabated in Arden’s twenty-minute video Eureka, 2005. Here the camera wanders slowly down a back alley in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside after a typically rainy morning. The pavement is strewn with junkie debris, used condoms, and pools of sludge—all elements of an intensive study of textures and surfaces that both repulse onlookers and arouse a morbid curiosity.

In addition to urban imagery, Arden’s repertoire includes somewhat larger pictures of suburban yards and gardens, which are saved from sentimental prettiness by a restricted color scheme and an emphasis on relations between the private landscaping, the public space of the street, and the borderline between those two realms. In Hydrangea, 2005, blue flowers protrude from a bourgeois property onto the sidewalk and an empty thoroughfare that recalls the eerie streetscapes of the artist’s compatriot Jeff Wall. In The Lower Mainland, 2005, hydrangeas—which Arden claims are ubiquitous in Vancouver—appear again, this time seen at an awkward angle against wire fencing and an aging, rust-stained concrete barrier lined with garbage.

Supernatural, 2005, is a fifteen-minute video in which Arden has compiled television news footage of the riot that followed the defeat of the Vancouver Canucks by the New York Rangers in the 1994 Stanley Cup finals. Some of the imagery seems predictable enough—folks letting off steam by waving banners, flashing their breasts, committing minor acts of vandalism, and so on. But other vignettes are not recognizable as the aftermath of a hockey game loss. Young men taunt police in riot gear. A burnt-out car smolders ominously. A man’s bleeding head is wrapped hastily in a towel. These images are more suggestive of gestures of defiance against an oppressive regime. This unsettling work supports the reading of the artist’s project in general as an unflinching and unsparing reflection on Vancouver itself—a thematic interest that he shares with the first-generation Vancouver Photoconceptualists. Arden, like Wall, Stan Douglas, and Ian Wallace, resolutely includes the city’s overlooked corners, disaffected youth, and a repressed underside that constantly threatens to erupt into violent disorder.

Dan Adler