The Vancouver/Vancouver exhibition has been held over to November 4th. Below is an early draft of my curatorial essay:
VANCOUVER/VANCOUVER: TWO EXHIBITIONS FROM THE COLLECTION OF RICK ERICKSON
“Collecting is an addiction. Once acquired there is no remedy or cure – but still, I love it.”
--anonymous collector, quoted in Vancouver Collects 
The above is a complicated statement that conveys, rather naughtily, a passion for art collecting and, rather arrogantly, the privilege of those who can afford such a passion, one without criminal or mortal consequences, in a city where intravenous drug use and Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome have claimed untold lives. That a statement so insensitive to the plight of our city’s drug addicted could be included, without challenge, in a publication by our city’s leading art institution speaks less of the ostensible neutrality of language than our willingness to accept in words what we would never accept in pictures. (No wonder the collector wishes to remain anonymous.)
Most of Vancouver’s private art collections are known by the names of their collectors. J. Ron Longstaffe, who initiated the VAG’s Vancouver Collects exhibition (and has a gallery at the VAG named after him), amassed a substantial modern Canadian collection, much of it left to the VAG when he passed in 2003. Longstaffe was an older kind of Vancouver collector, one who believed that public institutions are the best place to share one’s collection, but also one’s time, sitting on her boards and taking an active role in her exhibitions, as he did when he wrote the “Introduction” to the Vancouver Collects publication. Also in that category is former VAG board chair Michael Audain, whose collection of British Columbia art will be the subject of its own VAG exhibition this November.
Vancouver has many more modern and contemporary art collectors today than it did when Longstaffe began collecting in the 1960s. Some, like Longstaffe and Audain, have forged ties with our city’s public institutions (the O’Brian Family and the University of British Columbia’s Museum of Anthropology also comes to mind), while others have created spaces of their own, from the art-first home of Laing and Kathleen Brown to the exhibition wing at the residence of Brigitte and Henning Freybe; from Ross Hill and Jane Irwin’s repurposed Fraser Street church to Bob Rennie and Carey Fouks’s multi-level Chinatown palais. And now Vancouver builder Rick Erickson, whose Gallery 1965 on Main Street will open this September.
Vancouver/Vancouver is a two-part exhibition comprised of art works from Erickson’s collection. When asked if I would be interested in curating this show (the collection’s first public outing since Erickson began collecting some thirty years ago), I had doubts as to whether I could represent the collection’s range, and whether representation (a troublesome word for artists and curators) was indeed something to aspire to. What I had seen of the collection prior to leafing through its catalogue was on display at Erickson’s former Dunbar Street home. Some of it, like A Chen’s Title Unknown (Cityscape) (1980) floated comfortably above the wainscoting, while other works, such as an untitled Charlie Robert’s “dance” sculpture, looked as though it had kicked aside the love-seat that had stood there before it. But that was the work in the context of an out-sized Edwardian house. Gallery 1965 is a modern space, designed by the collector with the public in mind.
There are over 400 works in Erickson’s art collection, much of it acquired directly by Erickson, some of it on the recommendation of friends and advisors. While these latter works include attractive pieces by Terry Frost, Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, Kenneth Noland and Andy Warhol, it was decided that an exhibition featuring the work of Vancouver artists – drawing, painting, photography, sculpture; both figurative and abstract; some of it given as gifts – would be a fitting way to celebrate Erickson’s new space. And because of its range, two shows, divided not by medium or genre but by something that might present itself after the selection process was completed, a process that began with an eye to formal recurrence, but also to serendipities that would allow for further exploration.
One pattern that occurred during my earliest viewings concerned the many works with holes. The hole is not a new subject in Vancouver art (one could, if permitted, mount an entire exhibition on the holes of Jeff Wall). However, in Erickson’s collection, the frequency of holes gives way to that which looks like holes, such as circles, loops and spirals. Thus the drawn and painted holes of Neil Campbell, Charles Rae, Derek Root and Peter Schuyff are met with the circularity of Tim Barber’s The Burner (2002), Khan Lee’s Placemats (2009) and Judy Radul’s photo-montage of her and poet Deanna Ferguson’s nipples. From there, another theme – doubling – which can be found in George Clutesi’s The Whale (1960) and in Rodney Graham’s Grimms Brothers’ studies, and is, of course, related to the exhibition’s title: an allusion to Erickson’s eastside (Vancouver) roots and his westside (Vancouver) homes, but also the ongoing dissolution of a social divide that had, until the mid-1980s, the eastside as ethnic working-class and the westside as Anglo middle-class. Which of course suggests another category, the divide, something that can be seen in the works of Dana Claxton, Terry Ewasiuk, Ken Lum, Esther Shavez-Gerz and Ian Wallace, to name a few.
Additional patterns reveal a tendency towards alphabets, taxonomies and mapping. Paul Wong, who is well-represented in this collection, gives us a serial photograph where flora from the Flower Factory below his Main Street studio is framed by its corresponding letter-shapes (A for Alstroemeria, etc); while Eric Metcalfe, a participant in a local LIP grant supported alphabet project from the early 1970s, has abstracted letter-shapes into sperm. Not unrelated are a selection of germs etched by Marc Rudis, an annotated intestinal tract by Graham Gillmore, an anonymous tattoo flash from the 1950s and a sociological fashion-and-attitude work by Charlie Roberts. Works based on mapping can be found in Antonia Hirsch’s formal re-alignment of political boundaries and Ewan McNeil’s chart boats. These tendencies, along with Erickson’s interest in portraiture, will be featured in the second exhibition, while the first exhibition will focus on holes, circles, loops, spirals, doubling and divides.
When speaking of art collections, words like taste, theme and coherence often come to mind. Unlike 17th portrait painting, where the flattened subject appears surrounded by the subject’s equally flattened holdings, an art collection, once installed, takes the form of sculpture, perhaps suggesting those words I mentioned earlier, but also a record of activity, or a map, given the collector’s passage through the places where the work was purchased.
As someone who has visited numerous exhibitions, private collections and auctions, and has written reviews and catalogue essays on the work of local artists, I see not only what is made and displayed in Vancouver but also where, and with whom, the work “ends up.” While much of what is acquired by private collectors comes from commercial galleries, auction houses and artist studios, a significant portion is from fundraising dinners held by public institutions such as the VAG, the Contemporary Art Gallery, Presentation House Gallery, the Western Front and Centre A.
What excites me about Rick Erickson’s collection, besides the work and its various interrelationships, and besides Erickson being one of few local collectors to have grown up with artists (the “Main Streeters”), is that map. Erickson’s collection, more than any Vancouver collection I know of, has achieved the distinction of having turned time into space, returning us to where its works were purchased: to private galleries, auction houses and artist studios, but especially to those fundraising dinners where, in our increasingly privatized world, “the public” is not only celebrated but defended; where anyone who has ever contributed to one of these events – be they an artist, a curator, a director, a board member, all of us patrons in one form or the other – would never be mistaken for anonymous.
1. Vancouver Collects (Vancouver Art Gallery: Vancouver, 2001), p. 116