The Vancouver Art Gallery’s current exhibition Entangled: Two Views on Contemporary Canadian Painting explores two concurrent approaches to understanding the concept-heavy painting practices that emerged in the 1970s. Gaining traction in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Conceptual Art was one of the most transformative art movements of the twentieth-century, influencing art making across mediums and nations.
Effectively declaring painting as dead, the post-conceptual moment triggered different reactions by artists across the country looking to revitalize the medium. Through this exhibition of over 31 contemporary Canadian artists with varying regional and generational perspectives, visitors will witness the legacy of debates surrounding the relevance and discourse of painting from the 1970s to the present day.
The two curators of the show, VAG’s Senior Curator Bruce Grenville and David MacWilliam, recently retired professor at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, witnessed this radical rejection of traditional painting during the 70s first-hand. However, they both also hold virtually opposing views when approaching the subject. MacWilliam’s view is that of “art as idea as painting,” wherein the idea or conceptual framework behind the piece takes precedence over the material it is created from. Grenville, by contrast, favours performative painting, which values material, creation, and process over the finality of the idea.
The exhibition presents these two approaches to painting not as conflicting ideologies but rather as entangled worldviews that enhance and draw from each other. Together, they challenge and question conventional tropes of painting and demonstrate how there is more to painting than meets the eye.
The distinctly different modes of painting are split physiologically on the second floor of the VAG. The first work we encounter is the perfect starting point for the exhibition. As we climb the grand marble staircases in the gallery rotunda, we are confronted with the back of Jeanie Riddle’s yellow installation 1995 1997 1999 2015 2016, 2017. Using planks of wood whose sole function is seemingly to support the structure, Riddle’s work reminds the viewer that all artworks have a process integral to the final product; a concept that will confront the viewer repeatedly as they make their way through Entangled.
Moving through Riddle’s architecture, the exhibition begins by exploring MacWilliam’s conceptual view on the relevance and role of painting’s psychological and theoretical potential. As a student during the post-conceptual moment when painting was being re-imagined, MacWilliam felt that painting had become too decorative and too predicated on the artist’s individual gesture.
Artist Jeffrey Spalding’s hand is noticeably absent in his series, The Black Paintings produced in the mid-1970s to prioritize the idea of painting as labour. In ironic fashion, the opacity of the black canvases is made from systematically layering 150 coats of high intensity transparent colours. The end result, however, ultimately buries this laborious effort, thus calling attention to the economically produced and commercialized artworks of the previous decades. In other words, the artist’s individual gesture is nowhere to be found.
Likewise, Arabella Campbell’s installation of three white canvases from entitled Wall (Catriona Jeffries Gallery), Wall (Contemporary Art Gallery), and Wall (Vancouver Art Gallery) also uses colour to explore painting as painting. Produced in 2005, the three monochrome paintings are based on her memory of the white walls of three galleries where she had previously exhibited her work. By presenting three white paintings with varying tones of warmth, we recognize that the seemingly neutral colour of white is not objective. Rather, it is the lighting and architecture of the building in which it is exhibited that actually helps to produce the pristine white of the gallery wall. In short, there are many subtle intricacies that give her work meaning past the straightforward materiality of the painted canvas.
In a similar vein, Grenville is interested not in authorship, but in the performative process of creativity and art making; that is, how the combination of materials and the artist’s actions guide the outcome of the work. In contrast to the artists of MacWilliam’s curation however, the artists who explore performance in Entangled push aside the presence of idea and focus instead on the activity of doing and making.
The massive burning of the houses of cool man, yeah No. 6 (cool man, yeah) by John Kissick in 2016 dramatically illustrates the artists of Entangled’s deliberate attempt to obscure any effort at representational expression and meaning. The unplanned, twisting brushstrokes, volatile splashes of colour and meticulously plotted dots have a clear performative purpose. They are signs of matter in motion that seek to unsettle representation by allowing the application of colour, texture and pattern to determine the painting’s end result.
Rather than sublime visions of Canada’s natural landscape that are easily understood, the 31 artists in this exhibition present us with (mostly) abstract and non-figurative painting. With an abundance of monochrome paintings, the question “how can a painting composed of a single colour be considered art?” may naturally arise. However, this type of dismissive response to abstract, non-representational art merely demonstrates our society’s dominant and embedded values regarding what can and what cannot be considered art.
Traditionally, it is the transcendental paintings from the Renaissance period, with their magical ability to transport us into another world, that is generally regarded the ultimate form of “high” or “fine art.” Yet, this notion that painting must demonstrate the artist’s painterly skill and technique has been vehemently rejected in most contemporary approaches to painting. Having stripped the canvas from any representation or reference to the figure, all that is left for the viewer to contemplate is the painting as an object itself. Literally, they are flat surfaces, infused with the potential of meaning, with paint on them.
Two sides of the same coin, art as idea as painting and performative painting explore the possibility for painting to have meaning beyond what meets the eye. Though Entangled presents only two views of the modes of painting today, they demonstrate the great complexity and rich diversity that these two ideas on painting produce – and perhaps more importantly – that painting is certainly not dead.
For more information on the exhibition, click here.
Featured image by John Kissick, burning the houses of cool man, yeah No.5 (hang the DJ), 2016
oil and acrylic on canvas
Courtesy of Katzman Contemporary