A very quick visit to the Vancouver Art Gallery this afternoon only gave us time to zip around some of the current exhibit “Shore, Forest, and Beyond”.
This is the private collection of a local property developer (turned cultural philanthropist) and his wife, and it focusses on British Columbian art from nineteenth-century indigenous masks and carved wooden chests to contemporary conceptual photography. Rather incongruously, it also includes a significant number of works on canvas by the Mexican muralists (Rivera, Siquieros, Orozco, Tamayo). The fact that these pieces sit very uneasily with the rest of the collection was highlighted by the fact that several of the labels were quite blatantly wrong: the title of Tamayo’s “Figura de pie,” for instance, was translated as “Pious Figure” rather than “Standing Figure,” which gives rather a different impression of what that picture is all about.
As for the British Columbian art, there were a large number (over twenty) of Emily Carrs, from different stages of her career. Which only served to remind me how little I like this most iconic of West Coast artists. In the catalogue Audain himself writes that originally he didn’t think much of Carr, but that he came round to her by way of a comparison with Gauguin: “what Gauguin had done for the landscape and people of Tahiti, Emily Carr had done for the Northwest Coast” (24). But this is a back-handed compliment at best. It only underlines both artists’ exoticization of difference, and the way in which they frame the cultural and racial other within a vision of a lush natural habitat. And the viewer knows (but the artists never show) that this habitat is shortly disappearing thanks to modernization and indeed the early stages of the development that will subsequently give Audain the cash to buy up the pious inscription of what that development supposedly destroys.
Of the BC modernists, I rather preferred Edward Hughes’s depictions of maritime activity–ferries, fishing vessels, and the small ports that dot the province’s coast and outlying islands. They are painted with an apparent naiveté, but it is precisely the somewhat naive attention to detail (the baby’s pram on the wharf, the boat’s name “Imperial Nanaimo”) that makes them rather more reliable records of the process by which indigenous culture was edged out in the Pacific Northwest.
And when it comes to the painting of nature, I was pleasantly surprised by Jack Shadbolt’s “Butterfly Transformation Theme 1981,” a large canvas in six panels that revisits the butterfly motif and transforms it into something between an exuberant celebration of natural vitality and an almost pop art revelry in artifice and abstraction.