Humble Beginnings is not a thematic show in the traditional sense. Rather it mobilizes an open curatorial approach—attempting to establish interconnections between otherwise divergent practices. Incorporating sculpture, drawing and site-specific installation, Humble Beginnings addresses contemporary work that, in its use of materials and methods of display, provides varying levels of intellectual and visceral accessibility. In forging a hypothetical/imaginary bridge between artists working within local art sub-communities, we aim to identify what we understand as a meaningful confluence developing amongst the cultural production of an emerging generation of Vancouver artists.
The exhibition space is framed by two works, Robert Niven’s Assassination Attempt (2005) and Lynette Gillis’ Housemusic (2004). Niven, a Scottish artist now based out of Vancouver, has developed a practice which emerges slightly outside of, yet in dialogue with established conceptual frameworks. His practical, almost incidental approach to materials deliberately draws together an unsuspected combination of elements whose forms produce a surprising jumble of art historical, political and cultural references. With Assassination Attempt, Niven uses a pin to physically prick the surface of a 1950s postcard depicting the Scottish resort community of Buxton. Hung in the front window of the gallery, and thus viewable from both recto and verso, the work establishes a cogent, even menacing, relationship between the space of the gallery and the public street just outside.
Equally unsettling is Gillis’ Housemusic, installed in a darkened space at the rear of the gallery. An MFA graduate from the University of British Columbia, Gillis’ body of work operates through a sustained interest in the gender dynamics of popular culture and celebrity. With Housemusic, Gillis uses balsam wood to construct a small rural home nestled amongst a black fabric landscape. Accompanied by the sounds of the home’s resident noodling on an electric guitar, and subtly lit with small LED bike lights, Housemusic transforms the materials of the amateur hobbyist into compelling illusion. The work’s rather homespun artifice, entirely believable at first, quickly dissolves after a period of concentrated viewing. It is this moment, at the shift from visual experience to material substance, that the work evokes the disorientation of the unheimlich.
Like Gillis’ Housemusic, Rahel Wachs’ work also incorporates elements of visual trickery and optical play. For Wachs, these ocular riddles allow for the calculated manipulation of seemingly empty cultural signifiers. In Minutemen (2005), Wachs taps into the pop Americana of 3D optical technology to trace a lineage between the Minutemen of the American Revolution to present day Minutemen—a group of extremists patrolling the Mexican-American boarder. The work is as much a playful optical farce as it is a bristling critique of racist American nationalism. As with Minutemen, Wachs’ also manipulates found images for Gin on the Rocks, a life-size photographic reproduction, pieced together from twenty-five separate inkjet prints. When viewed at a specific angle, a tiny point of light radiates from behind the image, as if a reverse pinhole photograph. Unlike the more conspicuous perforations in Niven’s Assassination Attempt, Wachs’ Gin on the Rocks evokes the unexpected sharpness of Barthian punctum.
Drew Shaffer’s work, like that of Wachs’, uses a convergence of cultural and material signifiers to illicit unsuspecting elements of dry humor and critique. Shaffer’s work attempts to deconstruct a contemporary consumerist ethos built around increasingly reified symbols of wealth and status. For When You’re this Beautiful You Don’t Have to be Strong (2005), Shaffer uses an absurd juxtaposition of materials to emphasizes the latent sexuality of everyday objects. In its polysexual form and totemic size, Shaffer’s sculpture confronts the notion of the fetish object in all of its anthropological, sexual, and Marxian formations. Here the veiled sexuality of Niven’s I’m in Here, assembled from a turkey baster, a synthetic rose, and a tuft of human hair, is exaggerated to the point of perversity.
Shaffer’s confrontational work is contrasted against Humanfive’s more understated aesthetic mode. Within Humble Beginnings, Humanfive are represented by Jaret Penner, Simon Redekop and Mike Swaney—who have been collaborating for the past five years. Like the other artists included within Humble Beginnings, Humanfive’s practice draws together meaning from objects, spaces and referents that are often overlooked and undervalued. Exhibited amongst a larger collection of drawings, paintings, and collages, Humanfive’s sculptural installation, Shrine to Process, constructs a mini-society out of the refuse salvaged by Redekop from his time spent working nine to five for a private Vancouver-based recycling firm. Despite the monolithic scale of the mural that grounds the sculptural elements of the work, an unstable mixture of pathos and humor establish a series of intimate tableaux. Within the brightly coloured nooks of Shrine to Process’ paper maché mountain, a collection of figures establish connections between the viewer, the land and the divine.
Although the artists presented within Humble Beginnings operate from often disparate (yet overlapping) places within Vancouver’s artistic communities, their work is allied through a shared set of artistic strategies. Through a playful assemblage of found materials and cultural referents (from the entomological to the pop cultural), the work of Gillis, Niven, Shaffer, Wachs and Humanfive suggest the vibrancy of a new generation of Vancouver-based artists. It is our hope that in assembling this work within a contained physical and temporal space, this exhibition will underscore both the parity and the heterogeneity of the vital artistic practices from which they emerge.
This exhibition has been made possible with the generous assistance of the Office of the President, University of British Columbia, and the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. The curators would like to extend their thanks first and foremost to the artists who took part in this project. This exhibition would not have been possible without the help and support of Courtenay Webber, Becky Hall, Jordan Strom, Bill Jeffries, Kirsten May and Herbert Rosengarten. A special word of thanks for the assistance of Keith Wallace, Raj Grainger and the staff of the Helen Belkin Art Gallery.
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