Meet the Vanguard

An exhibition at Vancouver Art Gallery celebrates the city's avant garde.

An exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery celebrates the city's hottest artists

1884/1951, by Sonny Assu. (Courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery)

Kristi Malakoff, Skull

"When you say it’s gonna happen now? Well, when exactly do you mean?" croons Morrissey in the classic Smiths song How Soon Is Now? In the context of the tune, "now" is a destination that remains forever fixed on the horizon. The artists selected for the Vancouver Art Gallery’s current exhibition — which takes its title from that Smiths song — might be described as the future of visual art in British Columbia. But there’s an immediacy to their work that ties them firmly to the present.

"The work is really bold and unapologetic in presentation," says VAG curator Kathleen Ritter, who visited about 120 artist studios to assemble How Soon Is Now. According to Ritter, these artists are aware of but not overly preoccupied with their predecessors — they’re more interested in creating something new.

Manga Ormolu, by Brendan Lee Satish Tsang. (Courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery)
Sonny Assu, 1884/1951

In recent years, Vancouver-based conceptual artists like Jeff Wall, Brian Jungen and Rodney Graham have helped to define the region’s art. Ritter says that rather than rejecting or copying this tradition, many of the artists in How Soon Is Now have embraced it and made it their own.

In 1884/1961, Sonny Assu, an aboriginal artist of Laich-kwil-tach descent, has constructed 67 "disposable" grande-sized coffee cups made out of copper, which was a significant material in the potlatch tradition of Pacific Northwest native people.

The 67 cups also represent the number of years that the potlatch — a ceremony that involved feasting and elaborate gift giving and was deemed "wasteful" and "heathen" by Christian missionaries — was banned in the province. Assu neatly parallels the consumer culture of the present with the tradition (and flaunting of wealth) of the native people. Ritter says Assu’s work "looks very formal, yet is quite solid in terms of its conceptual underpinnings."

Hanger and Dangler, by Luanne Martineau. (Courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery)
Brendan Lee Satish Tang, Manga Ormolu

The scrambling of cultures, and of the past with the contemporaneous, also lies at the heart of Brendan Lee Satish Tang’s series of vases, Manga Ormolu. The ceramicist has fashioned Chinese Ming Dynasty-style vases with armature from manga figurines. The ceramic vessels are inspired by the 19th-century French practice of gilding Chinese vases with gold to heighten their value.

"[Tang] is really asking questions about how we signify value in a contemporary light," says Ritter. She adds that Tang, an Irish-born, Kamloops-based ceramicist of Trinidadian heritage, comes to the whole notion of cultural intermingling "pretty honestly."

Proscenium, by Carol Sawyer. (Courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery)
Luanne Martineau, Hanger and Dangler

Other artists represented in the show work in a more material-based way, blurring the line between art and craft. Kristi Malakoff’s Skull (pictured earlier) uses 12,000 photographs of flowers to create a final image that calls to mind Day of the Dead celebrations in Latin America. Victoria-based Luanne Martineau’s wool sculptures Hanger and Dangler are both abstract and menacing — they look like the innards of an anatomically correct stuffed animal.

Ritter says that these artists are "challenging traditional notions of craft and the legacy of modernism, where we’ve inherited notions of mastery, craftsmanship, and skill." In other words, they’re defying the idea of technical virtuosity as the sole measure of an artist’s worth.

Ugly Today, Beautiful Tomorrow, by Samuel Roy-Bois. (In this picture, Roy-Bois, left, is performing with fellow artist Mark Soo.) (Courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery)
Carol Sawyer, Proscenium

Because many Vancouver-based artists live in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood, the city’s poorest and most afflicted area often appears in the exhibition’s work. Paul Wong’s video installation, East Van: John, concerns a long-time friend who has dealt with addiction and lives in the house he grew up in, even after a fire severely damaged the dwelling.

Carol Sawyer’s meditation on performance and theatricality, a video installation entitled Proscenium, is set in the Pantages Theatre, once a glamorous venue for vaudeville acts that sits abandoned and decaying on a dilapidated stretch of Hastings Street. The stage remains empty for most of the video’s running time, except when Sawyer, who is also trained as an actor and opera singer, appears onstage as various characters while noises from outside, like an ambulance, seep into the space.

The Office of Special Plans, Cedric, Nathan and Jim Bomford. (Courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery)
Samuel Roy-Bois, Ugly Today, Beautiful Tomorrow

Rock ’n’ roll paraphernalia and iconography form another motif in the show. Hadley + Maxwell’s video installation 1+1-1 mixes footage from Sympathy for the Devil, Jean-Luc Godard’s documentary on the Rolling Stones, with the artists themselves rehearsing in Berlin. Armageddon by Aaron Carpenter recreates the stark album art for a 1970s Krautrock band on a duvet cover.

Samuel Roy-Bois’s interactive installation Ugly Today, Beautiful Tomorrow is a sound-proofed, rock rehearsal space equipped with drums, bass, two guitars and amplifiers, all of which visitors are invited to play. The sound from this room is then piped into the gallery’s lobby. In this photo, Roy-Bois is shown performing with Mark Soo, another artist in the exhibition.

Island, by Holly Ward. (Courtesy Vancouver Art Gallery).
Cedric, Nathan and Jim Bomford, The Office of Special Plans

Another common thread in the show is a willingness in some pieces to challenge the institutional authority of the gallery space. Artist and architecture student Christian Kliegel has installed several sets of elevator doors that don’t actually open. Mark Soo’s audio installation — which many gallery patrons probably won’t notice — recreates the chatter and thumping bass of next-door neighbours throwing a noisy party.

The Office of Special Plans, a piece by brothers Cedric and Nathan Bomford and their father, Jim, is a very makeshift set of bleachers fabricated from recycled and salvaged material collected on Bowen Island. Visitors are invited to climb onto the two-storey structure to get another view of the gallery — literally and metaphorically.

Holly Ward, Island

Ritter says another reason the exhibition adopted the name of the Smiths song was because it evokes the improvisational, process-oriented spirit of the art. "There’s a sense of the unexpected [in How Soon Is Now]," she says. "The idea that our experience of art is not always scripted. It might be something that we happen upon."

In Island (shown here in the foreground, in front of pieces by Damien Moppett and Antonia Hirsch), Vancouver artist Holly Ward plays with the notion of utopia as a pile of soil. Volunteers will move it to different parts of the gallery throughout the course of the exhibition. "It’s a playfully irreverent work," says Ritter, "and it challenges our conventional notions of the art object being static, by making something that has an almost parasitical relationship with the other works in the exhibition."

Given the free-falling nature of the art market, Ritter sees artists "working with lower production values, in a way that’s no less rigorous, but much more improvisational — and part of that is an economic shift." In the future, we might see more pieces like Ward’s, which can be made dirt cheap.

How Soon Is Now runs at the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 3.

Kevin Chong is a writer based in Vancouver.