VANCOUVER SPECIAL: Ambivalent Pleasures
WOW – talk about a full house! There are presently five exhibitions at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) that I highly recommend. All of the exhibitions are unique in their own right but taken as a whole demonstrate why the VAG has one of the most imaginative and original exhibition programs in Canada. The feature attraction, VANCOUVER SPECIAL: Ambivalent Pleasures (open until April 17, 2017), is a perfect example of the leadership role the VAG plays in showcasing Vancouver artists. Ambivalent Pleasures, which includes the work of 40 artists, represents the first of many more triennials committed to sampling contemporary art produced in Vancouver.
Co-curators, Daina Augaitis (VAG’s chief curator/associate director) and Jesse McKee (head of strategy at 221A artist run centre) have created an opportunity for the merely curious to the academically inclined to reflect on recent creative directions under three broad filters: surrealism, abstraction and conceptualism. In the catalogue’s opening article, Augaitis notes that “Many of the artists have an interest in exploring the aesthetics of the 1980s and reconsidering materials and processes that were once deemed craft” (Full disclosure: Daina Augaitis is my sister-in-law).
Augaitis in her introduction explains what she and McKee sought to achieve: not a top-ten list but a representative overview of emerging trends and talents since Vancouver 2010 – the last time a major survey of Vancouver contemporary art was mounted at the gallery. To set the scene, she explains some of the challenges Vancouver artists are facing, the most daunting of which is the prohibitive cost of studio space and the resulting pressures to relocate out of the city core and in some cases to leave the city entirely. She further notes that artists are using an array of evocative materials in innovative ways and any material is fair game for creative expression. Many of the new crop of artists are actively engaged in interpreting historical knowledge as well as diving into current social and political issues. The co-curators also noted that a sense of humour and giving in to a desire to entertain haven’t been lost and that the spirit of collaboration and collegiality is alive and well.
There are several pieces in the show where the materials and formal compositions are very strikingly and imaginatively presented in a manner that surprises and holds your attention. Examples include creations by Rebecca Brewer (wool, felt, metal) and Mark Delong (cotton thread on cardboard).
Charlene Vickers is an Anishinaabe interdisciplinary artist who explores her Ojibway ancestry through her art. She has been quoted as saying that her work “…concerns memory and expression of Aboriginal identity where materials carry social and cultural significance”. There is a series of her watercolours in the exhibition that takes as its reference the porcupine quill motifs used in the historical ceremonies of the Anishinaabe – refer to images below.
What I appreciate about Vickers’s work and other Aboriginal artists in the exhibition is how they address, through their art practice, the unique challenges of working through the disconnect between their history and how that history has been traditionally portrayed and their desire to adapt historical knowledge to today’s context.
With the intergenerational mix of artists presenting truly engaging artworks in VANCOUVER SPECIAL: Ambivalent Pleasures, I am convinced that Vancouver artists will not be giving up their mantle as world leaders in the contemporary art scene anytime soon.
Other current exhibitions at the VAG that I urge you to see:
WE COME TO WITNESS: Sonny Assu in Dialogue With Emily Carr – Assu, who is of Ligwilda’xw Kwakwaka’wakw descent, stated in an interview: “I wanted to reassert an Indigenous presence on these iconoc Canadian landscapes as a way of saying: ‘We are still here’.” – ends April 23, 2017.
SUSAN POINT: Spindle Whorl – first comprehensive exhibition by a Coast Salish artist to be presented at the VAG – ends May 28, 2017.
PACIFIC CROSSING: Hong Kong Artists in Vancouver reviews the work of four artists (David Lam, Koo Mei, Paul Chui and Josh Hon) who immigrated to Vancouver just prior to the Hong Kong handover in 1997 – ends May 28, 2017.
Howie Tsui: Retainers of Anarchy – a hand-drawn multi-media presentation exploring Asian history and pop culture using fantasy adventures of supernatural martial artists – ends May 28, 2017. The exhibition will travel to the Ottawa Art Gallery, May to September 2018.