Douglas Coupland, Gorgon High-Tech Japanese Trendy Emo Tomorrow Boy, 2014, acrylic on ink-jet print, 49 × 37". From the series “Deep Face,” 2014.

Douglas Coupland, Gorgon High-Tech Japanese Trendy Emo Tomorrow Boy, 2014, acrylic on ink-jet print, 49 × 37". From the series “Deep Face,” 2014.

Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland, Gorgon High-Tech Japanese Trendy Emo Tomorrow Boy, 2014, acrylic on ink-jet print, 49 × 37". From the series “Deep Face,” 2014.

You have to hand it to Douglas Coupland. The Vancouver-based novelist, screenwriter, and lecturer has for decades now been the go-to source for pop-culture prognostication—his 1991 bildungsroman, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, would serve to define the era. Coupland’s widely varying interests are driven by the parallel forces of rampant consumerism and collective dislocation in a digitally oversaturated world. Whether he’s writing about Marshall McLuhan, collaborating with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, or moonlighting as a designer for a clothing line marketed to millennials, Coupland has a knack for taking the contemporary pulse and recording its fluctuations with a healthy measure of wit and skepticism.

But what is one to make of Coupland as an artist? Before he stumbled upon writing, Coupland studied at the Emily Carr College of Art and Design, and was part of the so-called Young Romantics generation that emerged as a punk counter to the Vancouver School of Photoconceptualism in the mid-1980s. He’s revisited the artist persona many times over the past decade and has exhibited a sprawling array of works reappropriating the bric-a-brac of consumerism—bar codes, Benday dots, plastic bottles, Legos, toy soldiers, and so on—in a steady stream of shows and public-sculpture commissions. A comprehensive survey organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2014 filled two major cultural institutions in Toronto this winter (as well as virtual space on Google Art Project), and this September, Coupland will open his first solo exhibition in Europe, at Rotterdam’s Witte de With.

Considering his abiding fascination in, as he puts it, the “extreme present tense,” Coupland’s latest gallery exhibition, “Our Modern World” (which opened concurrently with his retrospective at the Royal Ontario Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, both in Toronto), served as an of-the-moment update to an art practice in perpetual flux. “His survey covers fifteen years,” I was told at a walk-through of the exhibition. “This show covers the past fifteen minutes.”

A series of obscured portraits titled “Deep Face” (all works 2014) lined one wall of Daniel Faria’s front gallery. Coupland took the nine large-scale passport-style portraits during an impromptu photo shoot at the Vancouver Art Gallery and painted over the photographs in riffs on modernist abstraction. The individual identities of some sitters are covered by Mondrianesque geometries, while others hide behind the angular lines of Vorticist camouflage. While Coupland’s stated concerns about the pending threat of mass public surveillance via facial-recognition algorithms on social-media platforms such as Facebook are understandable, the way in which his aesthetically sleek but conceptually flat rogues’ gallery might provide insight into this sinister development is less apparent.

A collection of vintage globes stood nearby in the gallery, each sporting a kaleidoscopic sheath of poured paint. Here Coupland’s overt theme is the Great Pacific Trash Gyre, a massive accumulation of plastics and other debris discovered in the late 1990s floating in the North Pacific Ocean—the locus for the overlain multicolored pours. Coupland is an admitted hoarder and beachcomber who has, on occasion, collected the almost certainly radioactive wreckage from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami that periodically washes up along the West Coast. Through Coupland’s simple gesture of dripping paints, these Trash Vortex sculptures hint at the critical weight of fragile and failed ecologies. The vintage globes (four of which were designed for military-training purposes during World War I) also are fascinating, tactile objects, their demarcated borders—long since shifted—a register of the ceaseless and often violent pace of social and political change.

In the exhibition’s back gallery, Coupland presented, salon style, seventy-some collages. These were fastidiously composed from old envelopes, cigar boxes, circle rulers, images of the lunar surface, and, in one case, a found invitation that read LIVE SEX SHOW!! Studies in information overload culled from Coupland’s own life, the layered, resin-fixed works, infused with Surrealist sensibility (and the movement’s proclivity for non sequitur), prompted comparisons to the overlapping multiwindow array of twenty-first-century computer screens. Perhaps they are self-portraits or momentary distractions, or both. Whatever the case, these relics of an age drowning in data and trash prove (in a way) that everything has value at some point, and that meaning might just drift to the surface in an instant—but probably won’t.

Bryne McLaughlin