‘Pictures from Here’ Uses and Confuses Photo-Conceptualism, Depicting Vancouver Through Various Lenses in Time
VANCOUVER — In Pictures from Here, an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery curated by Grant Arnold, Audain Curator of British Columbia Art, the viewer is invited to see Vancouver through the lenses of more than 20 artists. With works dating from the 1950s to present day, the city and its inhabitants are depicted in a range of photography-based mediums like prints, light-boxes, videos, and installations. Rather than illustrating the photo-conceptualism movement, Arnold had as the primary goal for this show to “acknowledge the importance that photography has had in its various ways here over the last 30 years, but also to disrupt expectations on some levels.”
Disrupting — and troubling — can be seen at the exhibition’s opening work: Sandra Semchuk and James Nicholas’ piece, “Taking Off Skins (1994).” The work comprises a grid of 35 black-and-white photographs taken by Semchuk of Nicholas in performance. In it, he violently removes his business suit to disclose a bear-claw necklace, before walking, in tears, into the water. An emotionally-charged text by Nicholas, presented in a canvas scroll, accompanies the images and details how he was sent to a residential school as a child. Its placement right in front of the staircase was thought through by the curator. “It’s a really powerful work that hasn’t been exhibited here before,” Arnold says. “It addresses a particularly painful, difficult part of our history. So I wanted that difficulty to be one of the things you encounter first when you enter the exhibition.”
Wandering by the VAG’s second floor, you can see works by more recognizable names like Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Christos Dikeakos, Roy Arden, and Stan Douglas. With bright colors and in large-scales, they are exactly what you expect to see in a show of the Vancouver School and about photography and the city. But, even so, Arnold makes sure that the viewer is still surprised: Wall’s works are presented in prints, rather than in his signature light-boxes, giving space for Rodney Graham’s massive “Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour (2012–2013)” to shine across the rotunda.
In the realm of unexpected names, Marian Penner Bancroft, Evan Lee, and Henri Robideau are pleasant surprises. “I’m hoping that the viewers will be aware that there is a multiplicity of approaches here that aren’t easily contained within a term like photo-conceptualism,” Arnold says. This notion is apparent with the colour snapshots by Fred Herzog, from the late 1950s. Rather than stretching the use of photography through conceptual art, they are documentary-like depictions of a long-gone Vancouver.
Throughout the show, one can be easily overwhelmed by the array of perspectives on the city’s identity, and by issues around gentrification, Indigenous peoples, politics, and even natural disasters. In the last room, Barrie Jones lightens the mood with his “Pacific Salmon Series: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter (1981–1983)” where each seasonal scene, in his four-panel light boxes, is intruded by a flying salmon.
After a time-travelling, emotional rollercoaster ride, those who came eager to learn more about photo-conceptualism leave the show feeling more confused than ever — which was Arnold’s precise intentions. “I use the term [photo-conceptualism] as a point of reference,” he says. “It is a term that is inescapable; that is so deeply embedded in different institutions, that you can’t erase it. I guess I’m using it but also confusing it at the same time.”
For the persistent and sociable minds, on August 22, former CBC Radio host and celebrated local photographer David Wisdom will host Summer Slideshows at the VAG, a communal slideshow where artists Mike Grill, Herzog, Jones, Bancroft, and Robideau will share a prepared selection of still images accompanied by music. Along with meeting some of the artists featured in Pictures From Here, attendees will have to chance to gain new insight into the exhibition.
Summer Slideshows will take place on August 22 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Pictures from Here runs at the VAG until September 4.
Originally published at beatroute.ca on July 20, 2017.