View of “Roy Arden,” 2013. Foreground: Procession, 2013. Wall: Teenager, 2013.

View of “Roy Arden,” 2013. Foreground: Procession, 2013. Wall: Teenager, 2013.

Roy Arden

CSA Space

View of “Roy Arden,” 2013. Foreground: Procession, 2013. Wall: Teenager, 2013.

Black light was one of five different light sources used in Roy Arden’s recent exhibition at CSA Space—an arrangement of miniature sculptures, readymades, and collages, the central component of which was a long table cluttered with items and titled Procession, 2013. Many of the objects in the room, from toy figurines to bracket fungi, were colored with phosphorescent paint. Aside from the various sources of low light, the gallery was kept dark throughout the run of the show, giving the installation a chemical glow.

Arden’s emphasis on light is telling, as he first came to be known as a photographer; his color prints of the 1980s and ’90s have long been associated with the work of other Vancouver-based artists such as Jeff Wall and Stan Douglas. But in recent years, Arden has expanded his practice, exhibiting sculpture, video, assemblage, installation, painting, and collage, in fact not producing photographs as art since 2005. But as the exhibition at CSA Space demonstrated, Arden has not strayed as far from his earlier concerns as it may seem.

One recurring topic in his work is the socioeconomic and environmental effects of modern industrialization. Arden’s subject matter is often deceptively simple, and his photographs of the ’90s and early 2000s document what he termed “the landscape of the economy.” Condominium Construction, 1996, for example, depicts an oversize condo being erected on an otherwise quiet Vancouver street corner, and in D’Elegance, 2000, we see the body of a stripped Cadillac lying in an abandoned lot. In the case of Procession, Arden laid out a parade of broken, rusted, or modified vintage toys, cast-iron souvenirs, mirrors, optical devices, and so on (much of which he found on eBay), thus recalling his 1996 “Basement” series, which also explored junk, or the rust, decay, and detritus of modern life.

Illuminated by a variety of light sources and emphasizing the underlying humor in Arden’s work, Procession resembles a wacky diorama that one could imagine in the garage of a tripped-out historical materialist. In the corner of the room, bracket fungi, painted with phosphorescent colors, radiated under the black light. A collage titled Girl Amazed, 2013—which juxtaposes an image of Paloma Picasso with a picture of Spanish monks, fluorescent paint, and bits of broken crystal—hung on the wall. The objects on the table were arranged roughly from oldest (handmade playthings, of a genre known to collectors as “American primitive”) to most recent (a toy flip-phone, a plastic lighter), as if staging a history of the modern consumer economy. The grinding sounds of early-twentieth-century mechanical toys, which were still functioning and connected to a power source, clattered throughout the room; the base of a postwar, Soviet-era photo enlarger served as the stage for a mirror, a piece of half-used soap, and a toy solider; and cigarette ash and bottles of gin littered the scene.

All the objects in the central assemblage, however, were essentially foils for the main event: light itself. The table was spotlit by many small light sources—including a candle, an incandescent bulb, and LEDs—and besides the black light, an aperture drilled into a gallery wall provided some natural rays. The room was thus a kind of fun house, with light playing off a wild array of surfaces. If Arden first employed the camera, essentially an apparatus that utilizes or manipulates exposure to create images, here he investigated an integral element of his initial medium, staging a tableau of illuminating techniques used or invented during the past two centuries. The installation may have initially seemed mundane, but only if the viewer focused on the obvious. Balancing penetrating historical inquiry with playfulness, Procession, like black light itself, revealed a number of things that are often otherwise invisible.

Aaron Peck