JULY 12 – AUGUST 31, 1991








When asked by Latitude 53 to submit a proposal for an exhibition of art of rom British Columbia, the notion of “West Coast Stories” quickly emerged. As a mechanism, it allows the gathering together of the art of thirteen of the region’s most prominent figures working in a variety of media: painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, video and mixed media. While pointing to one common expectation, “West Coast Stories” emphasizes the individuality of vision, aspiration, and experimental possibilities of each of the works and artist’s interests. Art-making practices in British Columbia are as diverse and plural as one might expect to find in most communities. This exhibition then, is not selected with the intention of either identifying or endorsing a dominant group of artists, or a shared tendency or aesthetic position on which one might say is characteristic of art of the region. Nonetheless, if one surveys the work of many of British Columbia’s most respected and widely exhibited artists, a large number of them can be said to be engaged in a form of story-telling (when interpreted in the broadest context). In 8.C., options of formalism, art about art and most other aspects of form as meaning, are little in evidence within exhibitions, collections and artistic practice of established artists, aspirants and students whether obliquely or bluntly, and across a broad spectrum of purposes, art in British Columbia seems pre-occupied with communicating ‘meaning” to its audience. An assumption is tacit: that the experience if the work will attempt to transfer some information fictional or factual, cerebral or intuitive, contemplative or stridently ideological, personal or societal. it has been my pleasure to gather together works, which I believe, embody, evoke (and provoke) responses to some of the most persistent, troubling and perplexing issues effecting the human condition. There is little commonality of life view or pre-occupation amongst the exhibited artists, yet each is convincing and compels the audience to engage and contemplate the issues posed. Reviewing a sampling of some of the impressive and intriguing aspects of the exhibited works, serves to characterize the richness and diversity of experience addressed; by no means does it summate or necessarily reflect the primary concerns which prompted the work. Reaction to this work will be as various as the number of viewers.

Al McWilliams has created some of the most thought provoking sculpture of the past decade. “Rumination on a Set of Circumstances” entices us to consider alchemical/philosophic transcendent “circumstances” whilst providing a work of elemental, stark beauty. Recently his previous wall mounted sculptures or structures began to take on more and more pictoral character. “Biof”, like other of his current works combine photographic close-ups which bring to the fore images subsumed within church sculptural decorations which are often overlooked. The explicit sexuality generated, symbolically narrating the Adam and Eve myth is surprising. This fact and our discomfort at its discovery, is used by McWilliams to challenge our prudish ambivalence and false sophistication, clearly he reminds us despite all of our technological triumphs that the greatest barrier and rift for mankind to explore and unlock are the complex machinations of human nature.

In “Island”, Landon MacKenzie confronts the momentous threshold-passage into motherhood. It is not only a personally important event, the painting seems to suggest, but one where one is momentarily truly alone with nature, primal, intense and beyond the artifice of culture (are we seeing woman reclaiming the role of central character from anthropomorphically evocative animals of MacKenzie’s “Lost River” pictures?) Motherhood, it would seem is a river that once crossed, connects you throughout time with that illustrious select order. It is a painting, epic in scale and ambition. As befits the intention, it is a troubling, challenging painting.

Neil Wedman takes us to mythic shores and unspecifiable times in his large-scale graphite drawing, ‘untitled (profile)’. Many of his works perversely quote or invoke sentimental nineteenth century literary inspired English black and white illustrations- bizarre situations, exotic, strange (and strained) settings. “Untitled (profile)” begs for the mention of, and comparison with, the precedent of the work of late nineteenth century American visionary painter, Elihu Vedder. Somehow it doesn’t help. Does Wedman present an image of dream-like rapture? A Masthead? A defiant cultural declaration? Yet which one I wouldn’t know, none of which seem very convincing as reasonable explication ” Untitled (profile)’ invites us to revel in the excesses of imagination, projection and grand conjecture; I’m only too happy that for now, I can’t pin down why I find this puzzling work worth repeated consideration.

Dualities characterize Allyson Clay’s stories in this exhibition. Her diptychs pair and contrast seeming opposites; abstract/representation, romantic expressionism/classic minimal geometry. These works appear to function as vignettes of fragmentary episodes in an enigmatic, understated and inconclusive story. The main duality is self and other: the strained encounter, filled with uncomfortable uncertainty which leads potentially from strangers to familiarity, from absence to loves reward. In all there is a resistance, a restraint which obscures whatever we are viewing cloaked in autobiography or fiction. Are emotions revealed or systematically concealed? Clay presents purposefully mixed signals. The falseness of faux marble is juxtaposed with the personal touch of the hand painted romantic stormy sky landscape. Yet both are sleights of hand since both halves of the paintings were commissioned by the artist to be completed by other ‘artisans” as was the silk-screened wording. Each component counter-balances another and it is left to the viewer to determine the most plausible outcome. It is an approach which is rooted in the legacy of the idiosyncratic stories of Bill Beckeley, Mac Adam and the conflation of word, image and abstraction of Ed Ruscha. Its form too, recalls the strategy employed early on by prominent Vancouver artists incorporating social message, photographic image and abstract formalism such as Ian Wallace, Kim Lum and Roy Arden. Like these artists, Clay’s aloofness and disassociation from the making of the object seem designed to distance the work from the evocative, romantic readings and propel us back and forth to consider by implication that its cerebral stance is oppositional (as a redress?) to some other questioned value system. It is an emotional, formal and ideational shell-game, as compelling as it is problematic.

The use of areas or ‘blank” monochromatic panels abutted with photographic images has been a signature device in the work of Ian Wallace since the seventies. Serial presentation, grid format and classic geometric presentation confound our simple reception of this work. One might expect an area of photographic image beside an area of monochrome to mutually moderate each other as opposite polarities (modernist abstraction verses photographic realism). Instead to a surprising extent they function collaboratively, almost synonymously to establish a disquieting aura. Paradoxically, the “image’ can take on all the characteristics of the neutral blank geometric panel while the blank geometric panel can assume and bear the fullness of meaning of the piece as a whole. Together they establish-an emotional timbre which speaks of loss. Is it the realization of passing of the lofty ideals of the avant-garde? The failure of transcendent reductivist abstraction (a la Malevich) to reconcile with a progressive social political order. In works like “Poverty” and “The Imperial City” he seems to critique both, but reject neither. In “The Imperial City” (1987) Wallace recombines images he has used previously, the statues f rom “Studio/Museum/Street” (1986), bracketing two figures drawn from “Poverty” (1982). The pious, idealized pose of the statues declaring a just and noble society in stark contrast to the experience and demeanor of the non-pedestal, ground-plane real life figures. Their anonymity and alienation heightened by the row of blank niche-like windows overseeing them (their configuration punning the statuary niches and the shape of the four-panel work. The work speaks of impersonality, dispassionate, administrative neutrality; its very form re-enforcing this reading. The warm tint overlay upon the central figures (through rose coloured glasses?) seems a vain attempt to temper reality. In the end, humanity, in “The Imperial City” is as cold and remote as the ideals of classical antiquity and of the architecture of the modern industrial era.

Jeff Wall turns against two of the major properties of the camera to formulate his photographic art. One is the instantaneous nature of the photograph. The other is the promise of the highest level of reproductive reality (the camera doesn’t lie). Rejecting documentary “reality or objectivity”, Wall painstakingly stage manages, concocts and composes his photographic images in manners analogous to and mimicking the compositional formats of traditional academic painting and the advertising industry. Like those traditions, Wall’s exquisitely crafted images can appear as if a transparent window into reality, its material reality (backlit cibachromes) and its ideological underpinnings intention and bias momentarily invisible. Yet the intentionally exaggerated falseness of the contrived actions betray the ruse. One lingers to enjoy the considerable physical beauty of these unique, sumptuously created objects and sent on to puzzle out their perambulating intent. In many of Wall’s works the excessive modernist perfection of presentation heightens to breaking point the contrast with the depicted subject, most often the down-trodden, rather to be forgotten creature from the seamy fallout side of modern industrial life, a veritable who’s who of who isn’t. Through all, there is the offer of a critique of late capitalist culture. Yet Wall’s non-inflected art leaves it to the viewer to decide whether his social empathy places Wall on the side of Manet’s ‘Olympia” or of Bougereau’s “Little Shepherdess”.

In the mid eighties a group of artists began to emerge who took opposition to the cool, methodical, intellectualized approach of artists such as Wallace, Wall, Lum and Arden. Their expressionist, intuitive, unabashedly subjective and painterly work came under the rubric of an exhibition of the same name: “The Young Romantics”. Vicky Marshall was one of the key exponents. Her early eighties paintings such as “Voyer” (collection of University of Lethbridge) have been featured prominently in exhibitions in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. One of her associates, Angela Grossman, (as did many of the group) began to key upon the counter culture life so much in evidence in Vancouver and so routinely encountered by its artists and art students. Its reality is unavoidable. Its root causes endemic readings beyond serious hope of remedy. Whether or not this type of urban problem is more acute (or more visible) in Vancouver than elsewhere I wouldn’t want to speculate. Yet artists from seemingly divergent paths such as Wall, Wallace, Lum, Arden, Marshall, Grossman, and to an extent Morgan, Douglas and Lukacs are motivated to address this situation. Grossman’s “Solitary Man” presents an unsavory if graphic, sad image of cultural (and consequent?) sexual marginality. Her suitcase paintings, perhaps the ultimate in disadvantaged, itinerant artist’s forms depict too an unflattering, ungenerous travelogue-view of the human form and subsequently its condition.

Attila Richard Lukacs, has repeatedly strained to find sensational excesses of subject treatment to stir and shock an audience whether early minotaur or meat locker pictures, urinating monkeys or skinhead-flagellation, Lukacs is something of a cultural phenomenon, inspiring strong reactions, pro and con; his last series, of U.S. Military pictures presciently emerged on the scene upon the brink of the Gulf crisis. “Your Head is Beautiful” is one of those strange paintings which both suffer and benefit from youthful naivety and spunk. Perhaps it is the male counterpoint to Landon MacKenzie’s moment of women’s passage, living in a military society. Its scene depicts the realization of the societal acceptance of the institutional right to shear persons of their individuality and to claim back from them their right potentially for life or death in service of the state and ideology. In the wake of the immense tragedy of the Gulf War one cannot help but utilize Lukacs images to project some reactions and response to our complicity with this event. For this we can give Lukacs thanks and credit for his ambition and foresight. Yet, the history of his work seems to revel in aberrant, violent behavior; do Lukacs marine pictures critique and challenge this authority? Are they instead received uncritically as decidedly young condoning and celebrating militaristic pageantry and male ritual and acknowledged, channeled aggression?

Dark melodrama is at the heart of Derek Root’s ‘Asylum”. Its spotlight center stage awaits an enactment, but what, and by whom? Its impressive scale and theatricality implore us to animate the stage. Throughout his works, Root displays impressive and sensitive mastery of materials to craft surfaces and treatments which are unexpected, unique and engrossing. His recent profile heads also present us with a haunting enigma. These tenderly painted images melt and float in and out of visibility. Their format recalls faded, aged book covers. The personages in profile suggest ancient coins and stamps. It seems clear that these are portraits of specific people, their identity remains elusive to us. “West Coast Stories’ assembles a number of individually powerful works of art selected precisely because each was self-sufficient, engaging and investigates different aspects of philosophic, emotive or socio-political inquiry. Like any “anthology of essays”, West Coast Stories’ can be read singly or in associated pairings. These are some of the very fine artists from B.C. engaged in telling us about their reactions to their lived experience today on Canada’s west coast.

Jeffrey Spalding