Saturday, January 15, 2005

The Big Picture 14

A confession: I don’t understand the appeal of the so-called “Vancouver School” of photography.

In the last year alone, I’ve seen photographs out of Vancouver depicting the insides of a rotting wood shed, piles of trash in back alleys, stacks of empty, beat-up suitcases, greasy abandoned mattresses, amateurish (and achingly dull) images of rainy airport tarmacs taken from airplane passenger windows, cardboard boxes, and strip mall parking lots. Not exactly the stuff dreams are made of.

Life is banal enough without photographic evidence. Don’t these photographers have any friends they can photograph, or at least cute pets?

My theory about this baffling rush to record nothing has, in the past, been less than kind. Having been to Vancouver several times, my dominant impression is that the city has no middle class – that one is either well off or desperate, a massage school millionaire or a crack addict. And, without a middle class to buy art, cultures stagnate. Subsequently, my former theory goes, photo-artists in Vancouver resorted to romanticizing both poverty and consumerism.
Looking at the notorious East End’s heaps of refuse and urine-stained couch fortresses, these photographers discovered a world of accidental, found art, a new subculture to chronicle (while often treating the actual people who live in such degradation as a fascinating new form of wildlife).

Conversely, the banal images of mall parking lots, airports and vacant condos are the flip side of this equation - an overstated, and rather obvious, critique of the numbing effects of wealth and excess.

Both sets of ideas – the poor are clever survivors (kind of like racoons), the rich are soulless hoarders – are tired, intellectually lazy, and grossly inaccurate, and make for art that resonates only with the artist’s smug sense of superiority.

Looking at two new shows at Monte Clark Gallery (a venue that specializes in the Vancouver School), I’ve realized that the above theory is not only ungenerous, it’s also incomplete. Chris Gergley’s lifeless series of portraits of Vancouver apartment building front doors (what next, the ditches of Kitsalano?) and Howard Ursuliak’s photos of – I warned you – dirty bus shelters, public toilet hand dryers, and rain soaked phone books, have convinced me that photographers in Vancouver have become afraid of beauty.

Think of it this way: you’re a photographer living in a relatively new, fair weather city packed with lush parks and gardens and bordered by the Pacific ocean on one side and the Rockies on the other. How do you compete with that? Every day, you’re saturated with pristine images of natural splendour. No wonder so many photogs in Vancouver head for the slums and the back end of dumpsters for gritty inspiration, or try to replicate the majesty of the ocean in a parking lot puddle. I guess it never occurs to these people to move out of town.

While Gergley’s pictures do attempt to convey a kind of run-down glamour (the apartment buildings are all of the same mid-20th-century vintage, and look like sets from Butterfield 8), the display format – identically sized photos, all apparently taken from the same distance – undercuts the uniqueness of the individual lobbies and defeats any attempt to highlight eccentricities of decorative style or architectural flair. Gergley has taken a potentially intriguing subject and made it about as interesting as a row of geological samples in a museum case.
Ursuliak’s photography, on the other hand, is apparently devoid of visual interest on purpose. As an artist friend of mine who saw the works remarked, “Muddy bus stops? I see that every damned day.”

Arguably, that’s Ursuliak’s point - to make us aware of the visual information in even the most mundane settings. But I don’t buy it. Mere observation is not enough. I need to be convinced that there is something new to see in a phone booth, that a hand dryer has some innate character I have missed, before I’m willing to consider this work anything more than lazy wanking. Ursuliak’s work expects us to admire nothingness for it’s own sake – a decadent prospect, to be magnanimous. Or, the Emperor’s photographers just have no ideas.
Somewhere in Vancouver someone is taking great photos packed with content and vitality. Please call Monte Clark.


As Meatloaf sang, two out of three ain’t bad, and after the monotony of the latest Vancouver offerings, I was in sore need of some lively art. So, off to YYZ and Susan Hobbs.
At YYZ Artists’ Outlet, a trio of great small shows await any viewer who needs an early winter lift. In the front project window, Seth Scriver – an inventive and offbeat illustrator fond of monsters and fuzzy beasts – has decorated the vitrine with a series of narrative drawings about, appropriately enough, breaking windows. Although Scriver’s detailed images of fantastic creatures are a bit difficult to observe from outside a large glass box, the overall effect is pleasingly goofy.

Inside the main gallery, Karim Zouak’s film installation and Elisabeth Belliveau’s sculptures enlarge on the vitrine’s themes of monsters and destruction. Zouak samples brief film reels from Airport, the archetypal “disaster flick”, and places each looped clip of panic and terror behind an ornate gilded frame. The effect, bizarrely enough, is to create a kind of nostalgia for more innocent notions of terrorism, for a time when the story of an airplane being blown up by a madman was considered far-fetched enough (and thus harmless) to be offered as entertainment.
In comparison, Belliveau’s collection of animals made from worn leather gloves, crushed purses, and shredded baseballs are a comforting pit stop in the nursery, even if many of the mangled animals look like they’d be more at home in an abbatoir than a kindergarten. Some may find Belliveau’s work too cutesy-clever, but joyful creativity is so often misunderstood – and I would argue that there is more being said here about the complex inter-relationship between the manufactured and the natural worlds than any boring photographs of weeds in the gutter.
At Susan Hobbs Gallery, a suite of intimate, delicately crafted sculptures by Kevin Yates asks us to reconsider the ordinary by playing games with scale. A pile of garbage bags and a stack of picnic tables - both banal enough subjects to cause a flurry of flashbulb pops in Vancouver - are shrunk down to Atom Man size, which allows us to look at them as purely visual objects unburdened by familiar connotations.

The tiny garbage bags, convincingly replicated in bronze, look like shrunken balloons, folds of green moss, or gangrenous organs. Or, little piles of dog crap. The tower of tiny picnic tables, many carved with miniature messages of love, is a kind of totem pole commemorating the end of summer and carefree times, and is as brown and forlorn as a faded locket portrait.
The lesson here for our shutterbug friends out west? If you’re going to make art out of nothing, think about the art part first.

Chris Gergley Vancouver Apartments & Howard Ursuliak
Recent Photo Works
Monte Clark Gallery, 55 Mill Street, Building 2, Distillery District
Until February 6

Elisabeth Belliveau/Karim Zouak/Seth Scriver
YYZ Artists’ Outlet Suite 140, 401 Richmond Street West
Until February 12

Kevin Yates
Susan Hobbs Gallery 137 Tecumseth Street
Until February 19