Crossing the line between past, future


From The Globe & Mail (November 26, 1999)

by Blake Gopnik

MILLENNIUM The Vancouver Art Gallery has opened its vaults and displayed their contents on seemingly the thinnest of premises: a flip in the calendar. The result, however, is nothing less than an interpretation of the century.

'My dear Whistler," said Wilde, "there's only one thing worse than a very foolish exhibition. And that's a very smart one." (Yes, I know he never said any such thing. But Oscar never minded being given credit for another's words, and he's not likely to complain about it now.) "The former may force good art to say stupid things, but the latter risks leaving it quite dumb." Which is why the current crop of millennial exhibitions springing up have mostly been a pleasure to take in.

Without any curatorial premise at all to speak of -- an arbitrary flip of the calendar hardly counts as a premise -- galleries are simply trotting out the best of their accumulated riches. Take the excellent millennial shows that opened Saturday at the Vancouver Art Gallery. An exhibition called Out of This Century gives an exuberantly eccentric, decade-by-decade survey of the last 50 years of Vancouver art-making. Its companion show, called Recollect, simply gathers together an impressive spread of recent acquisitions by the VAG.

In Out of This Century,the VAG's experts have wisely chosen to celebrate the coming Y2K by giving up on it. Instead of forcing themselves to make something of this trivial event, they've invited each of six prominent outsiders to hang a decade's worth of work from the museum's vaults, according to any scheme they thought worthwhile.

Celebrated landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander first arrived in Vancouver in the fifties, straight from studying with Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, so she's been asked to show that decade's Modernism. The selection she gives us couldn't be more gracious. Lovely abstracted landscapes by Takao Tanabe, Jack Shadbolt and Gordon Smith show how the soft Pacific air gentled the tough edges of Paris and Berlin and New York.

Writer Douglas Coupland may be patron saint of the disgruntled eighties, but at the VAG he's been asked to cast an oedipal eye at his parent's heyday in the sixties. And like a good Gen-Xer, he sees in their pictorial exuberance nothing more than the origins of our own sensory overload. To make his point, Coupland has pulled out every eye-hurting stripe picture in the VAG's collection, and hung them cheek-by-jowl on equally stripey walls. Granted, a few of these pictures were empty, even ugly, in the first place, but none are given a fair shake in this hang. Eloquent, hard-edged abstractions by Tanabe and Roy Kiyooka, for instance, become simple-minded illustrations for Coupland's ideas, instead of serious art objects that deserve some room to speak for themselves.

Somehow, the contributions of Oberlander and Coupland feel like miniature essays in art history -- no wonder, given that both have art-world backgrounds. (Coupland once did time in art school.) Their less visual colleagues, however, manage a more personal take.

CBC Radio vinyl-meister David Wisdom gives us a gentle seventies of quiet, oddball experimentation -- a Dean Ellis video of rock-throwing by the seashore; a giant photo of an upside-down tree by Rodney Graham, shot with his famous room-sized pinhole camera.

Filmmaker Mina Shum says she saw the eighties through the liberating optic of Punk Rock, and gives us works meant to conjure up that era of transgression. But after all this time, these works -- an impressive Neo-Expressionist splash by Philippe Raphanel, for instance -- look more pretty than impertinent.

It's hardly news that the closer we get to now, the harder it is to see the artistic wood for the trees. So it's just as well that avant-garde playwright Tom Cone has a view of the 1990s that's entirely personal. Cone believes technology is killing theatre, so he's keen to leave it out of art as well. In his hands, a technophilic decade of video projection and Web art gets stripped down to quiet moments of contemplation and curiosity by the likes of conceptualist Micah Lexier and whimsical Vancouver sculptor Alan Storey. Cone's nineties even find room for recent lithographs by Agnes Martin; she gives us little, barely altered fields of grey whose rock-solid presence makes the rest of the decade's art seem hopelessly jostled.

And so the nineties bring us to . . . the future. You could go there with first-nations filmmaker Loretta Todd, for an image of a world where art somehow reconciles human aspirations and the needs of our environment. Pleasant wool-gathering, but not, I think, a convincing projection from anything that's happening now. Or you could go downstairs to Recollect,and see what artists have been making, and the VAG has been collecting, over the last few years.

This is a present, and by extension a future, as weird and wonderful as anything that's come before. A gallery of works by Vancouver's newest In Crowd is dominated by a four-metre blow-up head stitched together by Myfanwy MacLeod. It looks like pleasant play -- until you notice the hole that burrows through it, and the puffy vinyl pool of "blood" collecting just below.

For all its size, however, MacLeod's inflated victim is outgunned by the nearby works of native artist Brian Jungen, who makes some of the best new art I've seen in ages. Jungen, 29, produces beautifully crafted ritual masks, in the traditional red and white and black of West Coast art, that just happen to be assembled from bits of Nike runners. Don't read this as simple-minded protest at the drowning of tradition in a sea of consumerism. Accept it as a reflection on the complexity of sorting out the old from the new, the high from the low, even the good from the bad, in a millenium as fraught with fertile dislocations as ours has been. Out of This Century is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Feb. 27, Recollect until Jan. 23. Call 604-662-4700 or go to