Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Picture from Vancouver

The containers in Stan Douglas's Damaged Containers, Mitchell Island (2001) are arranged in no particular order. Whether they are awaiting repair or disassembly is uncertain. Point is they are unusable and, as shipping containers, have been taken out of circulation.

When I first saw this picture, I thought of visual art itself: from the early 20th century sculptors and their anxieties over industrialization, to Pop, Minimalism and conceptual art's interest in serial structures.

Douglas's stack of containers is and is not a serial form. It is a serial form because they are containers; it is not a serial form because each is different from the other, either by design or through wear.

The first thing I thought of when I saw Herzog & de Mueron's Vancouver Art Gallery design -- before a pagoda, an inuksuk and a stack of clothing boxes purchased during a Robson Street shopping spree -- was Douglas's picture.

Monday, September 28, 2015


Above is Used and Tired (2012) by Alijca Kwade. Below, Untitled (2001) by Brian Jungen.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Griffin Art Projects

Yesterday I attended the opening of Griffin Art Projects, a contemporary art space initiated by longtime collectors and art patrons Brigitte and Henning Freybe. Although the Griffin's primary purpose is the display of artworks drawn from private collections, the building will also accommodate visiting artists, as well as those in need of production space.

Co-ordinating the Griffin is former Apartment principal Lee Plested, with the first two exhibitions curated by Presentation House Gallery's Helga Pakasaar. The first exhibition features works from the Freybe's collection and the collection of Kathleen and Laing Brown; the second exhibition is to be announced.

My initial impressions of the Griffin (can we call it the GAP yet?) are more positive than generous. Pulling up outside the gallery, I noticed that the building has received numerous coats of high-quality white paint, and that it is the right white, given its south facing aspect. The building literally glows.

The first work one sees is Liz Magor's KD - The Original (2000), a knapsack made of silicon rubber hung from the wall, while below it, very faintly, a spill of fluorescent orange powder ("KD" might stand for Kraft Dinner). (If I were to turn around and leave at that moment, I would do so knowing that the curator is aware that the gallery is not easy to access, that getting there without a car is something of a hike.)

The rooms that follow (the second one larger, the third one largest) feature a range of elegantly spaced works that include serial pieces by Santiago Sierra and Ian Wallace, as well as a number works (and their placements) that are as reflective as the gallery's highly polished floor.

A highlight for me is another wall-and-floor work, Alicja Kwade's 17. 08. 1931 (2012), which, from the angle of the picture I took (below), captures a second KD - The Original. Not sure whose collection Kwade's work belongs to, but for most of us it will not matter.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Expressive Minimalism

A well-known compositional strategy that first appeared on the west coast of North America in the late 1960s. Known as Expressive Minimalism, its art is made using plant crystals, mirrors, razor blades and credit cards, and is experienced first by the eye but, ultimately, is absorbed through the nose.

None of its earliest examples exist today.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Line Made By Walking (1967)

Works of art that require neither a museum nor material longevity to please us.

Richard Long's A Line Made By Walking (1967) is a performance related as a story captured as a photograph when the light was right.

It is, at the very least, three things.

For further details, link to the Tate site here. For the museum's 2007 "display caption," see below:

This formative piece was made on one of Long’s journeys to St Martin’s from his home in Bristol. Between hitchhiking lifts, he stopped in a field in Wiltshire where he walked backwards and forwards until the flattened turf caught the sunlight and became visible as a line. He photographed this work, and recorded his physical interventions within the landscape. 

Although this artwork underplays the artist’s corporeal presence, it anticipates a widespread interest in performative art practice. This piece demonstrates how Long had already found a visual language for his lifelong concerns with impermanence, motion and relativity.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Base Infrastructure

That Roger Ebert should refer to non-New York City theatre spaces as existing in "the provinces" is an instance of a large, timeworn urban centre defining itself not by what it does, but by what it does not. "Off-Broadway" is yet another instance of this negative (self-)conception.

Vancouver's visual art scene does not have a Broadway. If it does, it is the Vancouver Art Gallery, which, over the past fifteen years, has proven itself to be more of an ally than an enemy of those who appreciate the rich interior life that art and its contemplation inspires.

Like many in the local arts communities, I support a new Vancouver Art Gallery, but am uneasy with the ends-over-means manner its board chairs and director have gone about it. Rather than run a campaign that balances garden suites and penthouses, the VAG has spent too much time in the latter, earning its elitist tag, rather than doing what it can to dispel it.

Next week the VAG unveils a maquette of its new building: a sequence of boxes on poles designed to excite those in search of the new and the unusual. That much of this structure will (potentially) be made of wood is also something to look forward to.

Something else to look forward to is a new City Manager, as the former Manager was arguably the biggest impediment to the new building and its siting.

The final piece in the puzzle, apart from Liberal MP Hedy Fry's re-election and her boss Justin Trudeau forming the next federal (majority) government, is some serious lobbying by someone who has appeared largely absent (when not appearing to take orders from the former City Manager) throughout the VAG's journey -- the Mayor of Vancouver.

With provincial government monies already committed, and a developer (and federal Liberal party member) willing to grout the deal with cash, the VAG will have secured the three levels of government needed to turn a paved parking lot into what some are already calling a visual art paradise.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Sociology of John Malkovich

There are aspects of Ebert’s review (see yesterday's post) that feel out-of-phase with today’s critical conversation (the viewing public has, for example, made great gains with respect to its understanding and appreciation of unsympathetic characters). But it is Ebert's anecdote about Off-Broadway theatre “thriving in the provinces” that has me thinking.

Ebert writes:

I remembered a conversation I had with the actor John Malkovich about the way that Off-Broadway theater was dying in New York while thriving in the provinces. "To have Off-Broadway," he said, "you have to have starving actors. And to have starving actors, you have to have a place for them to starve. New York is too expensive for that. You can't afford to starve there anymore."

Apart from neglecting to acknowledge the role AIDS played in the decline of NYC’s Off-Broadway theatre culture, I wonder if Malkovich 's proposition could be applied to other venues, cities and disciplines -- if Off-Broadway could be replaced with artist-run culture, New York replaced with Vancouver, and actors replaced with visual artists?

Monday, September 21, 2015

Slaves of New York

Slaves of New York (1989) is a film based on a 1986 collection of short stories by Tama Janowitz, who also wrote the screenplay. Both the film and the book are concerned with the lives of young artists trying to “make it” in New York City in the early 1980s. (The image above is from a studio visit by a private dealer.)

Like other U.S. film adaptations focused on that era’s middle-class youth culture (Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, 1984, and Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, 1985), critics made up their minds about Slaves in advance of its preview -- a case of the older end of the Baby Boom blaming the younger end for its excesses.
Below is what Roger Ebert had to say in his half-star-out-of-five March 24, 1989 Chicago Sun-Times review (I should point out that Ebert chose Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing as that year’s “best” film).
I detest "Slaves of New York" so much that I distrust my own opinion. Maybe it's not simply a bad movie. Maybe it takes some kind of special knack, some species of sly genius, to make me react so strongly. I pause. I leaf through my memories of the film. I try to analyze what I really feel.
OK. I feel calmer now. The first thing I feel is a genuine dislike for the people in this film - the ambitious climbers on the lower rungs of the ladder in the New York art world. I dislike them because they are stupid and they have occupied my time with boring conversation. It is more than that. They are not simply stupid. They value stupidity. They aim their conversations below the level of their actual intelligence because they fear to appear uncool by saying anything interesting. By always being bored, they can never be passe.
No wonder Andy Warhol wanted to film this material.
The second thing I feel is that their entire act is a hypocritical sham. They want to succeed so much they cannot only taste it, they can choke on it. And it doesn't matter what they succeed at.
They move through a world of art, fashion, photography and design, but the actual disciplines and psychic rewards of this world are not interesting to them. They want to use art as a way of obtaining success, which is more important to them than art will ever be.
The heroine of the movie is a young woman who designs hats (Bernadette Peters). They are truly hideous hats, designed to bring embarrassment and ridicule to those who wear them, but never mind what the hats look like. The important thing is, how does the designer herself feel about her hats? I have no idea. She never permits herself to react to them, to care for them, to be proud of them. She looks at them as if they were her fingernail clippings - once a part of her, but not important, and now no longer even attached.
Her boyfriend (Adam Coleman Howard) manufactures paintings he does not love. Other people in her life also play at the extrusion of art in the hopes that their work will sell, and they will find a gallery to represent them, and that eventually they will be able to afford a really nice apartment in New York City. The title, "Slaves of New York," is explained by its author, Tama Janowitz, to mean that life in New York is basically a matter of becoming successful enough to have a nice apartment, and that if you do not have one, you move in with someone who does and become that person's slave. The whole idea is to eventually get your own apartment and have slaves of your own.
I have a suspicion that, to some degree, Janowitz is right and the slave/apartment syndrome does operate in New York. That would certainly explain a great deal of the bad art that's around. Watching the film, I remembered a conversation I had with the actor John Malkovich about the way that Off-Broadway theater was dying in New York while thriving in the provinces. "To have Off-Broadway," he said, "you have to have starving actors. And to have starving actors, you have to have a place for them to starve. New York is too expensive for that. You can't afford to starve there anymore."
There was once a time, in decades not too long ago, when life for a young artist consisted of living in a threadbare apartment while trying to create great art, instead of trying to live in a great apartment while creating threadbare art.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Topics in Contemporary Art

Can a painting be adapted to (public) sculpture?

Can a picture represent the gender imbalance?

Can an artist-run centre house refugees?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

9th Column (2014)

Returning home from Chinatown I passed the Onni Group's latest building, which has within its structure nine concrete columns, the ninth of which (9th Column, 2014) belongs to the art of Liz Magor, who has used the tree form in past work to hide things, but in this instance has hidden her concrete tree amongst the Onni Group's forest.

Whether Magor's concrete tree is a support or a decoration is unclear. Whether there were ever living trees like this one (a Douglas fir?) at this site is impossible, given that False Creek, prior to the First World War, stopped not at Main Street but a mile east of it at Clark Drive. (The area between Main and Clark was filled in by the Great Northern Railway.)

As for the title of Magor's work, it brings to mind Spanish Nationalist General Emilio Mola's reference to an insurgent group -- that while his four columns of soldiers marched on Madrid, a sympathetic "fifth column" lay in wait.

So, is Magor's concrete tree subversive? I suppose it could be if you accept the ambiguity of its presence -- if it is there in support of its building's upper floors or if it is strictly decorative. Indeed, it could -- and should -- be both. But the quest to know will only have us knowing more about the construction of our city, and that, as they say, is a good thing.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Four Chinatown Galleries

With an hour to kill before my afternoon design meeting at Arsenal Pulp Press, I thought I would visit the four art galleries nearest to it.

At UNITT/PITT is an exhibition by Joël Doyle, a mysterious self-taught artist who, I have learned, builds expensive Gulf Island houses and, with the leftovers, makes artworks that relate to his experiences. Those who appreciate the work of Fanny Bay's George Sawchuk, Hornby Island's Jerry Pethick and Vancouver's Liz Magor will be at home at this exhibition.

At Center A is a three-channel video installation by the Le Brothers, who hail from Hue, Vietnam. Entitled Underlying, the exhibition features the Les engaged in an "imaginary war that takes place underwater." Though born after the American War, the Les are aware of its echo -- something we see not so much in the video (which takes place away from the shell-pocked city, on a river), but in iconic images derived from U.S. protest culture (flowers stuffed into rifle barrels) and U.S.-made war films such as Apocalypse Now (waterskiing off the back of a patrol boat).

Down the street at 221A is Mime Radio; a novel, an exhibition and a performance (2104) by Benjamin Seror. Here, the artist has laid out over a long narrow table a community of cardboard structures, forms and texts that approximate what is, for most of us, what can only be held in our hands. Although set up to be encircled, I would hesitate to call this a work of sculpture because its eastern side is, like the back end of town, just that -- a back. Which is to say closed. Not a good sign for someone eager to open up the novel.

My final stop was in fact my first stop -- Access. Unfortunately it was closed when I got there and closed when I stopped by a third time at 12:30PM. Far Away So Close: Part III indeed.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

One Hundred Years from Now (1968)

A song Gram Parsons wrote during his days with the International Submarine Band, but recorded with the Byrds when he joined them for a spell in 1968.

Parsons contributed two original songs to the Byrd's Sweethearts of the Rodeo album (the other was "Hickory Wind", co-written with Bob Buchanan). However, the review that appeared in Rolling Stone mentioned neither Parson's presence nor, by the time the album was released, his absence from the band.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

99 Luftballoons (1983)

Nena's song arrived as the threat of nuclear obliteration ticked ever closer to doomsday.   The song appeared first in its English translation; but after a time, the original, more pointed German version replaced it on the commercial North American airwaves.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

98.6 (1966)

For the longest time I thought this song referred to a radio station, not the temperature of a healthy human body.

Monday, September 14, 2015

96 Tears (1966)

They waited 32 years to make a video in support of their 1966 song.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Daphne Odjig (1919-)

Back in the mid-1970s, my mother returned from a trip to eastern Canada with two publications purchased during a visit to the McMichael Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, twenty-eight miles northwest of Toronto.

The larger publication focused on the range of the collection. This included artworks by Tom Thomson, the Group of Seven and their contemporaries, and mostly Woodlands First Nations artists such as Alex Janvier, Norval Morrisseau and Daphne Odjig. The smaller publication is a bookwork entitled Tales from the Smokehouse (1974), a collection of illustrations by Daphne Odjig based on what Wikipedia describes as "traditional First Nations erotica written by Herbert T. Schwarz."

Tales from the Smokehouse startled my early-teenaged self because of its explicit drawings, some of which included my introduction to what the Kama Sutra calls the "congress of a crow," but is more concretely known to Western audiences as "69". More startling, however, was a visit I made to the National Gallery of Canada some thirty-five years later, on the occasion of Odjig's solo exhibition, where tamer versions of these drawings were hidden behind a "privacy wall".

On September 11, Daphne Odjig achieved the post-coital roll-over number of 96.

Meegwetch, Daphne!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Art Critic Criticizes Chronicle's New Critic Pick

The time in which we are living allows for multiple planes and platforms. At the beginning of the previous century, artists invited us to consider the world through cubes, collages, montages… Today's online world is all of that (and more) at once. Generally speaking, a friend-ly, like-able, crystalline world that has critique (based on the terms a work sets out for itself) not so much an impossibility but an impracticality for a number of people who live and work online. This is one reason why criticism has fallen by the wayside.

Last spring, Kenneth Baker stepped down from his position as the San Francisco Chronicle's art critic. Here is a May 2015 piece he wrote for Art Ltd.

Here is Jillian Steinhauer's September 10th response to news of Baker's replacement.

And here, for the hell of it, is a reproduction of an untitled verifax collage by Wallace Berman (circa late-1960s):

Do you like it?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

"First Nations Art and the Matter of Its Politics" (2015)

After a brief end-of-August hiatus, Momus: a Return to Art Criticism is back with fresh links to Artnet News and a commissioned article by Clint Burnham that features the determiner "its" in its title. As in, "First Nations Art and the Matter of Its Politics."

Where to begin? Well, let's start with the hyperlinks, of which there are eight:

Equinox Gallery
Macaulay & Co. Fine Art
Museum of Anthropology
Raymond Boisjoly
Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery
Contemporary Art Gallery
"Aesthetic Apartheids"
"while viewable online"

Of these eight, the last one links to artist Marianne Nicolson's entry on the Medicine Project website. Aesthetic Apartheid links to Roy Arden's important essay on the work of artists Beau Dick and Neil Campbell. Contemporary Art Gallery is a public gallery in Vancouver, while the Belkin is a university gallery. Macaulay & Co. Fine Art and Equinox Gallery are commercial galleries. Leaving artist Raymond Boisjoly, who, when you click on his name, links to a commercial gallery.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Volumes (2015)

Received in the mail yesterday my contributor's copy of Volumes, a book publication and white vinyl record published by Blackwood Gallery in partnership with the Art Gallery of Alberta, Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, Mackenzie Art Gallery and SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art.

My contribution, entitled "Talkin' Yoko Ono, Mother and Language, Art and Music Blues" (a notated "talking blues" with a run-on fourth verse), was written over ten years ago for Barbara Fischer and Catherine Crowston's multi-venue Soundtracks: Re-Play exhibition catalogue, a publication project that has since taken on additional passengers, partners, venues, etc.

Here is a link to the publication website, which, in effect, is also an online version of the book and its audio component.

Of particular note is an essay written by the late Peter Culley, entitled "Let's Go Away for a While: The High Lonesome of Rodney Graham's Rock is Hard."

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Artist as Curator

While I agree with Claire Bishop that History is not simply an "H" in an equation that results in an "A" (a successful work of Art), there are better examples to rail against than Danh Vo. But then, would we care if it wasn't an artist whom many believe stole the show at Venice this summer? One has to hand it to Bishop for aiming high.

On the topic of artists curating the work of others amidst exhibitions of their own work (as Vo did with his Slip of the Tongue component), Vancouver Art Gallery viewers saw something similar at last year's Myfanwy MacLeod, or There and Back Again exhibition, which included Artist's Choice: Cock and Bull.

I read MacLeod's inclusion of the work of others within an exhibition of her own work not so much as an artist inserting herself in an "artistic genealogy," but sharing with viewers her influences, her changes, those she is in conversation with. Cock and Bull provides the footnotes to an essay no one thought to write on the artist and her work, leaving it to the artist to do so herself -- in the form of a remarkable exhibition.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Labour Day

Young Workers (1978/1983) by Jeff Wall consists of eight transparencies in light boxes, each box 1015 x 1015 mm.

Last week the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation unveiled a fascinating documentary that shows Wall at work on at least three pictures while he talks in basic terms about what he does and how he has come to understand it.

The documentary on Wall is one of a small batch of docs recently commissioned by the CBC. Another is focused on John Mann, who, with the band Spirit of the West, gave us songs like "Political" (1988), from albums like this one:

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Gallery Gachet

It never occurred to me that Vancouver's Gallery Gachet took its name from the doctor whom Theo Van Gogh asked to treat his ailing brother, Vincent, during his final days.

This is what happens when a person, a place or a thing enters the news cycle; in our attempt to know more, we make connections made prior to them occurring to us.

According to CKNW, the Vancouver Coastal Health is cutting their $126k per annum contribution to Gallery Gachet because the gallery does not have a "clear health mandate." This figure amounts to half of the gallery's annual budget.

For those concerned about Gachet's future (or indeed the future of any public art centre whose mandate extends beyond aesthetics), the gallery is hosting an emergency meeting on Thursday, September 10 at 6pm.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Strange Grey Day This (1965)

The Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry book contains mention of bill bissett, in addition to some reproductions of his poems.

The video above is the first part of Maurice Embra's 1965 NFB documentary on bill, entitled Strange Grey Day This.

Click here for Geoffrey Farmer's 2011 interview with bill for Millions. It opens with reference to Embra's film.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry (2015)

On Monday I visited the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, where Technical and Design Services Manager Owen Sopotiuk previewed for a group of us the twenty short films in Maria Eichhorn’s Film Lexicon of Sexual Practices (1999/2005/2008/2014/2015).

Eichhorn is strict that visitors see her films in film form only. Her piece involves viewers selecting a film (from a list of titles that include Japanese Bondage, 2015) then asking that it be projected for them.

While waiting for Owen to set up the projector, I saw the first copies of the Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry catalogue that I contributed to, and whose exhibition I co-curated (with Scott Watson) at the Belkin in 2012.

Most of the essays in the Letters book focus on Michael and his work, both as an artist and as a curator. For my part I tried to provide a context for what was going on in Vancouver prior to Michael’s arrival, and concluded with where some of today's poets are shopping.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The New Poetry (1962)

One of the first poetry anthologies I purchased was The New Poetry, a collection of British and American poems selected and introduced by A. Alvarez. First published in 1962, it was sixteen years before my sixteen-year-old self found this book at what is now one of Vancouver’s oldest bookstores to deal exclusively in new books (but, sadly, not much else).

Although I have kept The New Poetry with me throughout my many moves, and recognize within its Jackson Pollock cover some well-made poems, I cannot say I was changed much by its speed and shape, nor the sentiments its poems express. Oddly enough, the very “gentility” Alvarez despairs in his introduction infects the poems in The New Poetry -- a gentility of content, but also one of form.

That said, Alvarez’s introduction serves as survey of what was going on in modern British and American Poetry at the time -- at least what was perceived to be going if you were living in Britain (Eliot and Pound at the old end, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath at the new end). What is missing, of course, is reference to Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (1960), an anthology that was hugely influential to a generation of Vancouver poets, largely due to the scholarship and teaching of UBC English professor Warren Tallman, who introduced the increasingly proprioceptive, composition-by-field poems of Denise Levertov, Charles Olson and Jack Spicer to local student-writers like George Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, Gladys Hindmarch and Fred Wah.

What I like best about Alvarez’s introduction is his own poetic contribution: a poem he composed using lines lifted from the poems in Robert Conquest’s New Lines (1956) anthology. Yet Alvarez does not give us his “synthetic” poem to demonstrate his skills as a collagist (a compositional method used by some of Vancouver’s intermedial artists of the early-1960s, such as bill bissett, Judith Copithorne, Gerry Gilbert, RoyKiyooka, Michael Morris and Al Neil), but to make nonsense of what he sees as a sameness in the poems of Kingsley Amis, Elizabeth Jennings, Thom Gunn and Philip Larkin. Leave it to Leavis-influenced scholars like Alvarez to cheapen what was then a (re-)emergent and refreshing literary method by employing collage not as a formal methodology reflective of the times, but as an incongruous vehicle for connoisseurial critique.

Here is Alvarez’s poem (and his punctuation):

Picture of lover or friend who is not either
Like you or me who, to sustain our pose,
Need wine and conversation, colour and light;
In short, a past that no one now can share,
No matter whose your future; calm and dry,
In sex I do not dither more than either,
Nor should I swell to halloo the names
Of feelings that no one needs to remember:
The same few dismal properties, the same
Oppressive air of justified unease
Of our imaginations and our beds.
It seems the poet made a bad mistake.