Saturday, October 20, 2007
My first post for Toronto's Akimblog. The "portrait-of-the-writer" is Akimbo's crop of a photograph of me ghost-hunting in Victoria, made by Mr. Tolagson, who coincidentally has a fancy new artist site up here.

In other news, I have the flu. Full-body chills, uncontrollable shivering, sweats, no appetite to speak of: the works.

Letter From Vancouver
by Christopher Brayshaw

Anyone tempted to claim that photography in Vancouver is a homogeneous, monolithic, or theory-driven practice will find their prejudice confounded in recent exhibitions by Roy Arden, Chris Gergley, and Evan Lee. All three photographers share a radical openness to their subjects, seemingly motivated by the belief that no subject, regardless of how abject or banal it might first seem, is beneath representation. The Vancouver Art Gallery’s Arden retrospective is a knockout, gathering photographs, videos, collages and sculpture from all phases of this local artist’s long career. Early works like Rupture, which joins black and white archival photographs of the violent suppression of a group of unemployed men with brilliant sky-blue monochromes, are juxtaposed with large format color photographs of the scruffy remains of nature - wild alders, blackberry bushes, urban thickets strewn with garbage and other evidence of transient human habitation - that frame what Arden calls “the landscape of the economy.” Images of plywood stacks, pulp mill dumps, and uprooted trees testify to the West Coast economy’s rapacious conversion of nature into capital, and the scars and traumas the process leaves behind.

Roy Arden, Development, 1993, chromogenic print

A more recent series of photographs depicts hydrangea blooms whose brilliant colors punctuate the city’s scruffy avenues, poking through chain link fences and up from the margins of unkempt yards. A picture like The Lower Mainland, with its seemingly off-kilter composition of decrepit planter boxes, cracked asphalt, and bagged-up yard debris, reveals a compositional subtlety reminiscent of Lee Friedlander, or, more accurately, Cezanne. Like Arden, both artists found beauty and significance in subjects other, less thoughtful viewers might have simply dismissed as beneath art.

Downstairs at the VAG, Arden has curated a group show that contextualizes his own practice. Largely drawn from the Gallery’s permanent collection, it includes strong work from locals Liz Magor, Jerry Pethick, Scott McFarland and Mike Grill, as well as pieces by Ed Ruscha, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Andy Warhol, Robert Smithson, Dan Graham, Stephen Shore, Cy Twombly, and others. A mini retrospective of video projections by Arden’s Monte Clark Gallery stablemate Mark Lewis rounds out the rest of the second floor.

Chris Gergley, Copy Work, 2006

On display downtown at the Contemporary Art Gallery is Copy Work, a three-part exhibition by photographer Chris Gergley. In the largest, most successful part of this show, Gergley reproduces images he originally created for other contexts. These include a documentary photograph of a Christopher Williams piece at the CAG, the front cover of Ron Terada’s recent CAG catalog, a double-page spread which reproduces a Gergley picture from Douglas Coupland’s book Souvenir of Canada, a spread from a Vancouver Art Gallery annual report touting the Gallery’s recent acquisition of a Gergley photograph, magazine and private portrait commissions, and so on.

Through his re-presentations, Gergley calls attention to the often contradictory ways that visually identical images assume different meanings in different presentation contexts. It’s a thoughtful, funny idea that Gergley pulls off well. Less successful are a series of documentary slides of other artists’ work (Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman) projected in a darkened gallery or a series of photographic color calibration chips installed like “abstract art” in the CAG’s big window vitrines. The cumulative impression created by these mild interventions is of an ambitious artist spinning his wheels; they lack the swaggering aplomb of his faux-ironic transformations of commercial and commissioned “copy work” into art.

Only one non-Copy Work piece really stands out: a slide projection of a single white fluorescent Flavin tube, which, like the piece it reproduces, is displayed in the vertical join between two gallery walls. The tiny, thirty-centimeter high projection is a clever evocation of the work it references, much like Richard Pettibone’s tiny handmade reproductions of Frank Stella paintings and Warhol’s Brillo boxes. The tiny projection possesses a delicacy and aesthetic concision that towers over everything else in this ambitious but maddeningly inconsistent show.

Evan Lee, Portrait of the Artist’s Grandmother, 2007, giclee print on archival paper

At Monte Clark Gallery, Evan Lee’s Drawing Photography juxtaposes small graphite drawings of elderly Chinese women with two large scale black and white photographs, one of a woman working in a backyard garden, the other a portrait of the artist’s frail grandmother shortly before her death, reclining on a bed surrounded by framed family photographs of her children and grandchildren. Much of Lee’s work plays, like Gergley’s, with double meanings. Lee has previously photographed cardboard boxes that look like smiling cartoon faces, ginseng roots resembling exotic birds, and transparent plastic drafting tools that imply flamingos or cartoon snakes. In this new exhibition, the “doubleness” of Lee’s work is put aside in favor of the direct representation of his subjects. His pictures’ apparent lack of a straightforward message, moral, or theme is actually the result of Lee’s deliberate decision to represent his subjects as they are, paying careful attention to each woman’s gestures, clothing, and physiognomy, thereby representing their individual specificity and avoiding the temptation to convert them into symbols or representatives of a “class.” Lee’s show is not flashy, and lacks the dry wit characterizing much of his recent photographs, but the work is solid, brave and nakedly biographical.

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