A VISIT TO THE VANCOUVER ART GALLERY

January 3, 2012

 

 

A CHANGE OF PLANS

I mentioned at the end of my last post that this post might be about Douglas Coupland’s Massey Lectures book from last year, Player One: What is to Become of Us.  I read the first ‘lecture’, but I didn’t find it particularly compelling.  Also, I realized after I started reading the book that the things that most interest me about Coupland’s Massey Lectures can’t be answered by just reading the book.  These are why Coupland chose to present his lectures in the form of a novel and how the Massey Lectures selection committee, and lecture audience members and readers of the book, reacted to Coupland presenting the Massey Lectures in this form. (This was the first time the Massey Lectures consisted of fiction.)  If and when I’m able to obtain answers to such questions (there may be relevant information available somewhere on the Internet), I will share the answers in this blog.

In the meantime, among the Christmas presents I received this year was an annual membership at the Vancouver Art Gallery, that got me down to the Gallery last week.

  

 A VISIT TO THE VANCOUVER ART GALLERY

Out With the Old

The last show I saw at the Vancouver Art Gallery was Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art–a show I’d very much enjoyed–so it had been about two years since I’d been inside the Gallery. This was before I started to come across articles and commentary in the local press, about a year ago, concerning the desire of its current Director, Kathleen Bartels, to relocate the Gallery and expand it to about twice its present size.  My feeling, based mainly on the importance of the exterior structure and surrounding grounds of the VAG as a nucleus in downtown Vancouver for various community activities, was that the Gallery should stay where it is.  Although it had been about two years since I’d been inside the Gallery (and the interval between that visit and the one prior was almost as long), I quite frequently attended community events that were held on the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery, more often than not because I just happened to pass by the site and saw that something interesting was going on.  (For example, during the Winter Olympics of 2010, the grounds of the Vancouver Art Gallery was one of the focal points downtown.  Activities included the Gallery itself showing films on outdoor screens.)  A public gallery at the proposed new location, on the outskirts of downtown, was unlikely to ever come to serve the important civic function of a gathering place for the community–and whatever enterprise took over the existing site (very likely, the building itself would be torn down) was unlikely to be as accommodating to community needs. 

Although I previously felt the VAG should stay where it is based mainly on the current importance of its exterior structure and grounds, after seeing the two main exhibitions currently running at the VAG, I’m at least equally concerned about a possible overall decline in the quality of the work that would be shown at a Gallery that was twice the size of the present Vancouver Art Gallery.  Also, based on seeing these exhibitions after spending so much time on my new iPad of late, much of that time on-line with easy access to digital images of art work from around the globe (for example, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on the website of the British painter, David Hockney, to look at his iPad art, and have checked out recent paintings by the New York painter, Medrie MacPhee, with whom I went to highschool), I wonder if traditional large galleries, with room after room of pictures hanging on the walls, are already an anachronism–except, perhaps, in those cases where a gallery’s collection truly is exceptional.  The activities for which most public galleries seem to be best suited in the digital age can, I think, be conducted in relatively small spaces, no bigger than the current Vancouver Art Gallery. 

The current exhibition on the VAG’s main floor, Shore, Forest and Beyond: Art from the Audain Collection, is, as the title suggests, a collection of diverse pieces from the private collection of one of the main, if not the main, benefactor of the VAG, Michael Audain, who made his fortune building and selling homes.  The exhibition on the second floor, An Autobiography of Our Collection, consists of another diverse assortment of pieces, this one from the VAG’s own collection, including pieces that are rarely, if ever, shown publicly.  According to VAG promotional material, this is because of the lack of space in the currently facility–although I think there may be other factors involved.

So much of the work that was on display, from both collections, seemed, at least to me, to not merit being on display in a publicly-funded gallery, especially in the current day and age.  Some of the pieces were downright ugly, second-rate, pieces by artists who had done other good work, although that work wasn’t included in either exhibition. (These include a small skyscape by the Group of Seven artist, Frederick Varley, that looked like thick, gray, mud slathered on a canvas, and a large oil painted by Attila Richard Lukacs that is very unsettling, not for its homoerotic subject matter but rather for the poorly-executed proportions of the male figures central to the painting.)  Several other pieces had lost the allure that they once had, even to me, due to technological change and just the passage of time.  (A small, unremarkable, photograph mounted in a light-box, by the Vancouver-based, internationally renowned, photographer, Jeff Wall, seemed pathetic at least twenty year’s after the creation of this piece, in an age in which we commonly see backlit images on our computers and other electronic devices.  Paul Wong’s video that was shown at the VAG in 1985, in which gay couples talk about their sexuality, is anachronistic on so many levels.)  That enlarged realtor’s ad in the Audain Collection just didn’t belong in the Vancouver Art Gallery, plain and simple.

Rather than get the sense that there was so much “great work” that the VAG, and its benefactor, Audain, would be able to show if only the VAG were larger, I got the sense that the VAG, and Audain, should be doing some housecleaning now, getting rid of some of the less interesting (to put it kindly) works that they’ve been hoarding.  This is, of course, only after a digital archive has been created of all of the works that they discard, or recycle, which would take up much less space.  Also, some of the work, like that muddy skyscape by Varley, might actually benefit from being viewed on a computer screen, with some light passing through it, as opposed to on a wall.

Besides much of the work that was on display in these two exhibitions seeming, to me, to not merit being shown in a publicly-funded gallery, at least not in the present age, I also was put off by the heterogeneity of both collections, with the diverse works packed together in close quarters.  For the purposes of my viewing enjoyment, a stronger curatorial hand would have helped, especially with the exhibition of the VAG’s own holdings.  For example, I would have been interested in knowing more about the VAG’s evolving acquisition policies over the years, and more about concurrent trends in the art world in general that may have affected acquisition policies.  But the point of these exhibitions didn’t seem to be to please VAG visitors but, rather, to create in them sufficient discomfort that they would come to the conclusion that a new and a larger space was needed for the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The conclusion I reached after seeing these shows was quite different.  However, it seems that it may be too late now to do anything to help prevent Bartels’ plans from going ahead.  According to information in the popular press, Bartels’ plans have been tentatively approved by Vancouver City Council, contingent on the VAG being able to raise $300 million dollars.  With Michael Audain as the Chair of the Fundraising Committee, it appears that, even in these tough economic times, this goal will be reached before too long.  Maybe, now that I’m officially a member of the Vancouver Art Gallery, I’ll attend some of the VAG meetings, and find out more about what is going on here.  If expansion is inevitable, I’ll probably support the compromise position proposed by a local architect of building down, on the existing site, as opposed to relocating.

 In With the New

When I’d almost given up hope on the Vancouver Art Gallery ever again presenting shows that are of real interest to me, that make good use of current technology, and that acknowledge the increased desire of art patrons to participate, and not just consume art, I came across information about the “Grand Hotel” show that will be running at the VAG during the summer, an interactive show that already has an online presence, and for which I’ve registered to get email updates.  There’s also a sculpture show running at the VAG “off-site” space, that I’ve never previously visited, which seems very interesting.  I’m sure I’ll be able to make good use of my new membership, in one way or the other.  (Thank you, once again, Linda and Derek.) 

 

 

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