Emily Carr, sure,
but something new, too
The Vancouver Art Gallery goes beyond expectations by exposing visitors to a more contemporary picture of life in B.C.
Tourists visiting the Vancouver Art Gallery frequently ask for British Columbia's most famous artist by name. "Where might I find the Emily Carrs?" is a common inquiry at the admissions desk. In addition to seeing Carr's artistic talents up close and in person, one imagines these visitors are also seeking out an artistic representation of this part of the world.
While it's wonderful to see Monet – as visitors to the VAG will at this summer's blockbuster show – seeing a master artist's work in the province where she lived and worked feels particularly meaningful.
This spring, the exhibition Emily Carr: Into the Forest delivers, with lush landscapes that plunge the visitor into Carr's Vancouver Island world. The fourth floor of the gallery, installed mostly with Carr works from the VAG's permanent collection, is bathed in shades of green so vivid you can almost feel that forest cool. The works range from as early as 1913 right up to 1942, three years before her death.
But downstairs, visitors are exposed to a more contemporary picture of life in B.C. – and the artists who have made Vancouver an important and influential centre for photoconceptualism. Works by more than 20 artists make up the exhibition Pictures From Here, which includes contemporary photography from the late 1950s to the present. During that time, Vancouver established itself as an international force in the art form, with Jeff Wall as both a pioneer and photoconceptualism's superstar poster boy (even if it's a term he finds misleading).
Other renowned Vancouver artists in the exhibition include Stan Douglas, Christos Dikeakos, Ian Wallace, Roy Arden and Rodney Graham.
Graham's magnificent lightbox triptych Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour, 2012-13 – on display for the first time in Vancouver – serves as a sort of centrepiece for this exhibition and is visible from the VAG's rotunda. As he often does in his work, Graham plays the character – in this case, a recreational kayaker. The setting on the left panel is natural, but it's industrial on the right, and the two views of Vancouver are connected by a rusted bridge in the middle.
The exhibition provides not just an overview of Vancouver's lens-based art practices, but also a lens through which to view the city and its growth over almost six decades, going back to 1958.
For instance, Greg Girard's wonderful Under Vancouver project, which consists of photographs taken between 1972 – when he was a teenager – and 1982, when he moved to Asia. "There was never any intention during this time to make pictures about Vancouver per se. It was where I lived, and so that's where I made pictures," Girard said in an interview in the recently published Greg Girard: Under Vancouver 1972-1982. "I was probably trying to avoid anything that looked too obviously 'Vancouver' in later pictures – hence the anonymous alleys and streets and could-be-anywhere buildings and cars. Which is odd now, because when viewed from the distance of today, they all look quite specifically 'Vancouver' to me."
Wallace is one of Vancouver's most influential contemporary artists, and his At the Crosswalk series is represented by At the Crosswalk VII, 2011 – in which a man and woman face each other from different sides of an intersection, separated by two broad panels of acrylic paint – grey and white. (Fans of Wallace should note that a solo show of his work opens May 27 at Vancouver collector Bob Rennie's gallery, the Rennie Collection at Wing Sang.)
Pictures From Here also includes a powerful video work by Paul Wong, who documents Anishinaabe-Canadian artist Rebecca Belmore's searing 2002 performance Vigil, commemorating missing and murdered Indigenous women. Belmore scrubs the street, lights candles, nails her red dress to a telephone pole and tears it off – then shouts out the names of women who have disappeared from the streets of Vancouver.
Karin Bubas's Studies in Landscapes and Wardrobe series is a stunner – featuring a carefully styled, solitary female set in an idyllic landscape, gazing into the distance. These works are cultivated and wild all at once – like B.C. itself. And what fun to peruse Henri Robideau's work. The self-proclaimed "gianthropologist" documents scenes from across the province, including roadside attractions such as a giant peach and golf ball.
For anyone even vaguely familiar with Vancouver's real estate woes, Roy Arden's House in Strathcona Alley, Vancouver, BC, 1995 could easily elicit a sad joke about how many millions the falling-down shack could fetch in today's hot market.
The work installed next to it called to mind Carr's work upstairs. Arden's Landfill, Richmond, B.C., 1991 depicts bare tree trunks reaching up to a blue sky from a sandy pile of waste. Perhaps because I had just seen them, I was struck by the parallels with Carr's Loggers' Culls, 1935 and Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky, 1935. These works – with their lonely last trees standing after the clear-cut – both critique human intervention on the land – the ugliness, the unnaturalness – and applaud nature's unstoppable power to remain and even grow in the face of this destruction.
In the same gallery as Arden's Landfill is Wall's Monologue, 2013 – also shown publicly in Vancouver for the first time. This cinematic photograph depicts three men and three chairs on a well-lit, manicured lawn – separated by a fence from tall trees in a dark, forest-like setting (with a house amid the trees). One imagines this as a subdivision bordering what remains of a forest. Before the subdivision moved in, with its residents and furniture, perhaps that forest could have found itself the subject of Carr's attention – the pines reaching far out of the frame, dark, lush and eerie, with bits of blue sky shining through.
It's as if the fertile, natural world of Carr is there as a foundation, while the artificially lit, man-made world of Wall – with its characters and narrative – is boldly out in front, telling a story. They are separated only by a chain-link fence (or, at the VAG, a couple of floors). You can see one from the other.
Pictures from Here is at the VAG until Sept 4. Emily Carr: Into the Forest is at the VAG until Dec. 3 (vanartgallery.bc.ca).