Monday, January 23, 2012

Last Friday was the launch of Brian Jungen: Carapace, Art Gallery of Alberta/ Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian/Frac des Pas de la Loire, Edmonton/DC/Nantes, 2012 at the Charles H. Scott Gallery, where Brian opened his Prototypes for a New Understanding exhibition in 1999. The catalogue, designed by Barr Gilmore, features essays by Candice Hopkins and myself (see below).


“Transformation is a strange word to use. It implies that art transforms. It doesn’t, it just plain forms.” – Roy Lichtenstein [1]

Reading through the many reviews, articles, features and essays on Brian Jungen, a pattern emerges. [2] The pattern foregrounds the artist’s Dunne-za roots, his transformation of consumer products into masks and animals, and the politics his heritage and practice imply. Another pattern is the relatively limited discussion of his non-representational works (works that, to some, resemble little more than the materials they consist of). This is often the case when an artist’s work is championed in the popular press, where narrative and story rule, and figures are not sold separately.

As a child in the 1960s I did not play with Transformers like Jungen might have in the 1970s, but with G.I. Joe. When not with Joe, I was in front of the television watching strange men behaving strangely, in ways they never stepped clear of, as if caught between caterpillar and butterfly. Even as a child I knew these men were more complex than their television personae; that the caricatures they made of themselves were both who they were and who they were not -- which they did impeccably, with an elegance rarely seen these days. Even as a child I knew. Even as a child I knew these men were special.

Every day after school I raced home to watch Charles Nelson Reilly on “The Match Game,” yet it was only after his death that I learned he was a respected teacher and director of opera, theatre and television. Truman Capote was a talk show regular, and I knew that he wrote books, yet it was only after his death that I read In Cold Blood (1966) and wondered how such a fist of a book could emerge from such a pinky of a man. Andy Warhol, who appeared on an episode of “The Love Boat,” was a Pop artist, yet I knew that because I had seen his stacked Brillo Soap Pad Boxes (1964) in my parents’ Time magazine. What I did not know was that the serial patterning of Warhol’s own Factory-reproduced boxes is as important to the work as the boxes themselves, like Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII (1966) or the metal forms of Donald Judd’s untitled wall reliefs.

The activation and serial arrangement of consumer-product imagery and objects is a recurrent theme in Vancouver art, of which Jungen’s work is a more recent example. In 1978, Ken Lum produced his first furniture sculptures, which, according to Jeff Wall, “were [among] the first indications of the opening of a new stage in the local reception and interpretation of minimalism, body art, earth art and related phenomenon.”[3] Lum’s sculptures, with their physically inaccessible yet visually open centres, provide a “space in which a distressingly evocative absence – something from [Lum’s] own social experience – was made visible”[4] This in contrast to Michael Fried’s insistence that the “hollowness” of minimal art was an example of its anthropomorphism, as if every Andre or Judd called forth a statue instead of a phenomenological presence.” [5]

Absent in Wall’s “Four Essays on Ken Lum” is mention of Pop art’s reproduction and deployment of once effeminate domestic products, such as soup, soap and scouring agents, versus minimalism’s tendency towards more masculine surfaces, in the middle of which fall Lum’s indoor sofas, and later Jungen’s outdoor plastic chairs used to make his “whale-skeleton” sculptures. This increasingly gender-neutral inventory has been taken up by Jungen‘s local contemporaries Geoffrey Farmer, Damian Moppett, Myfawny MacLeod, Steven Shearer, Ron Terada and Kelly Wood, who have, in their own ways, explored pop as a cultural form [6], but only Jungen has pushed his explorations to the realm that is in fact closer to the montage strategies of Wall and Stan Douglas.[7] And now he is drawing on that most slippery of elements: time.

I have been asked to write on the “Alberta Version” of Jungen’s Carapace (2009-2011)[8], a monumental sculpture comprised of blue and green plastic industrial waste bins reconfigured into what many believe to be a turtle shell. That this work is most often recognized as a turtle shell and not, say, an aspect of the male and female sexual anatomy, or perhaps more to the point, a formline pattern of curvilinear abstraction, speaks to what I mentioned earlier about narrative and story and how they reduce our aesthetic experience to a bottom-line reading. Aha! It’s a turtle shell. I get it. Now let’s check out the whales.

So let’s start again -- with the turtle shell.

In the summer of 2010, while a guest of the Queen Charlotte Islands Arts Council, I had occasion to meet a young Haida artist named Geda Ku Juus, or Walker Brown.[9] When asked if he was open to a studio visit, Brown said he was not yet ready to show his work, but would I like to see his research, a display at Kaay Llnagaay [10] where he works as a preparator? In what turned out to be an illuminating afternoon, Brown presented evidence of the formline associated with Northwest Coast art on both the anterior and posterior sections of Pacific Ocean sea turtles known to have washed up on Haida Gwaii’s shores. Indeed, it was from considering these turtles that I recalled similar patterning in Meso and South American painting. However, it was only later in my trip that I came upon that other motif most associated with British Columbia art, and that is the geodesic], evidence of which can be found in the dome structures built by counter-culturalists who came to Haida Gwaii in the 1960s and 70s. [11] Both the formline and the geodesic are central to Jungen’s Carapace.

For me, the success of Carapace is not restricted to Jungen’s ability to turn a mass-produced consumer product into something mythopoeic. Nor is it his ability to create a structure whose metaphoric resonance allows for a commentary on how those commodities were sourced (for example, the transformation of dinosaurs into oil, oil into plastic, plastic into “dinosaurs”). What fascinates me is the fusion of the two motifs into a hybrid work, one that does not end at the level of metaphor but continues on, enhanced, capable of overtone, allowing for the kind of art experience that is bigger than the literal proposition that supports it.

Certainly the union of the indigenous formline and the Western geodesic can be seen as parallels to Jungen’s mixed Dunne-za (mother) and Swiss (father) parentage, but when applied to the turtle shell we are presented not with a subject whose place is assured but, like the turtle itself, at home with that which it carries on its back, and that is place. That Jungen gives us the turtle shell and not the turtle speaks more to the evacuation of the nomadic than it does to its residual monument. That the turtle is comfortable on both land and water is yet another dimension. Another is the turtle’s slowness. Another is what turtle shells were once used for -- bowls, combs, guitar picks…

The reconfiguration of Carapace, based on an earlier reconfiguration of plastic industrial disposal bins (themselves emblems of a linear system that still has some categories of garbage shipped directly to landfills), will be read in relation to the place where that reconfiguration occurs. Unlike what Jungen solicited for his first solo show at Calgary’s Truck Gallery in 1997 (representations of “Indianness” by non-Indians, which he converted into contemporary cave paintings [12), this time the artist has replaced the representations of other in favour of his own, and in doing so reminds us that what he has brought for reassembly is, like the reproduced packaging Warhol silkscreened in serial form, perceived by certain members of the public to be perceived as its own product: the commodified art form. But rather than turn the many into one, Jungen provides the inverse: an environmental critique, but also a recognition of the cyclical, or dialectical, nature of our ever-turning world, burdened by linear impulses manifest in the unsustainable extraction and vertically-integrated delivery of “dirty” oil.

But the conceit does not end there. For example, is it a coincidence that the reconfiguration of Carapace is taking place on the one-year anniversary of the new Art Gallery of Alberta, architect Randall Stout’s zinc-clad nugget atop the site of the gallery it has now replaced, a gallery now amenable to the kinds of exhibitions it has grown to accommodate? Once again the artist reminds us of where we are, for in abstracting Carapace from a recognizable figure to a system of pattern and recurrence, we look harder for evidence of life as we know it, whose parallel is found in the overlapping metalwork that snakes inside and outside the building. (Jungen did something similar with Variant [2002], where instead of his usual practice of turning Nike trainers into masks, he gave us a wall work that, although symmetrical, has more in common with a Jackson Pollock “action painting” than something hanging in a Kwakwaka’wakw band office.)

Another reorientation of Carapace concerns its new entrance. Whereas the earlier version had the viewer entering absently, marveling at the ingeniously articulated interior grotto, this new version, in keeping with Wall’s critique of minimalism’s promotion of phenomenology, implicates the viewer, forcing us to consider ourselves in relation to the work and the space that contains it. In the “Alberta Version”, the entrance, like the ceiling, is lowered and we must rearrange our bodies as we would our minds, bowing down in order to open ourselves up to where we are and what we have entered into: a theatrical experience as opposed to a (purely) formal one.

The Alberta version of Carapace is part of a continuum that began in Europe, travelled to the United States, and eventually settled in Canada. As a work of sculpture it is based as much on time as materials. The introduction of time in Jungen’s work was highlighted some months before, at an exhibition at Catriona Jeffries Gallery in Vancouver, where the artist presented sculptural works and a production room that, over the course of the exhibition, produced prints screened from the hides of elk (their skins being part of the sculptural installation). On the surface, the subject of these prints appeared to be little more than circles and had nothing in common with the animals whose own surfaces provided the screens. But stare at them long enough and you might see those elk, just as you would the turtle shell whose reconfiguration evokes the interior and exterior pattern of the new Art Gallery of Alberta. This is the spirit of Carapace, the one that has come from Europe to swallow Stout’s design.

Michael Turner


1. G. R. Swenson, “What Is Pop Art? Interviews by G. R. Swenson with Roy Litchtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns,” in Avant-Garde Art, Thomas B. Hesse and John Ashbery, eds. (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 198.

2. Jungen’s first solo exhibition (entitled Half Nelson) was at Calgary’s Truck Gallery in 1997. His second, at Vancouver’s Charles H. Scott Gallery in 1999, marked the debut of his Nike trainer masks, paired with wall drawings solicited for the Truck show. Both exhibitions were curated by Cate Rimmer.

3. Jeff Wall, “Four Essays on Ken Lum,” Ken Lum (Winnipeg/Rotterdam: Winnipeg Art Gallery/Witte de With, 1990), 37.

4.Wall. 40.

5. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” Artforum V:10 (Summer 1967), 12-23.

6. These artists, between a year and nine years older than Jungen, comprised the roster 6: New Vancouver Modern, Scott Watson’s exhibition at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery in Vancouver. Although debated in relation to other local survey exhibitions (notably the Vancouver Art Gallery’s 1996 Topographies: Aspects of Recent B.C. Art), “6” was especially recognized as a generational show, and as such generated anxiety over where the city’s art (and artists) might be headed. In “Placed Upon the Horizon, Casting Shadows”, a Vancouver art survey essay delivered at apexart in the spring of 2000 ( , Jungen contemporary Trevor Mahovsky revisits Ken Lum’s “6” review (Canadian Art 15:2 [Summer 1998] 46-51), where he describes Lum’s assessment as “both scathing and supportive,” and that, in Lum’s mind, the work can be “characterized as appearing conceptual, but behaving like Pop; this formulation the result of a submission of the social aspirations of conceptual art to pop-art irony and interiority,” a description that speaks more to one too many mediated notions of Pop than, say, Thomas Crow’s analysis of Warhol’s electric chair (capital punishment) and race-riot (civil rights) series as political “truth-telling” (see Crow’s The Rise of the Sixties: American and European Art in the Era of Dissent [New York: Abrams, 1996], 87).

7. On Douglas and Lum’s relationship to production, see: Tim Lee, “Specific Objects and Social Subjects: Industrial Facture and the Production of Polemics in Vancouver,” Vancouver Art & Economies, Melanie O’Brian, ed. (Vancouver: Artspeak and Arsenal Pulp Press), 97-125

8. Carapace was first constructed and installed while Jungen was a resident at Pay de la Loire, France, in 2009. A second configuration was displayed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C., in 2010.

9. While the former Queen Charlotte Islands are now officially recognized by their Haida name (Haida Gwaii), the local arts council has yet to change their letterhead.

10. Kaay Llnagaay is located in Skidegate. Its English name is the Haida Heritage Centre.

11. Geodesic patterns first appeared in art from Vancouver as early as the 1940s, in the paintings and design work of B.C. Binning. For Expo ’86, the provincial government unveiled Expo Centre (later Science World), a Buckminster Fuller inspired pseudo-geodesic structure at the eastern end of False Creek. More recently, geodesic patterns have been explored by Vancouver painters Holger Kalberg and Elizabeth MacIntosh.

12. The original drawings for these “cave paintings” writ large were solicited from consumers at Calgary malls by the curator, Cate Rimmer, and a group of local volunteers.

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