date: July 3, 2015
place: Vancouver Art Gallery
As a curatorial assistant in contemporary art at an encyclopedic art museum, I often feel as though I walk the line between historic/contemporary art “insiders” and a general public (granted a public whose knowledge of visual art can be wide-ranging). Typically, when I ask a member of this second group what kind of art they enjoy, I receive one of two answers—either French Impressionism or Italian Renaissance painting. (A note: both of these periods/styles are undoubtedly time-honored bastions of art history, they are, for-good-reason, significant. I am not attempting to deny them this role. Rather, my desire is to propose the question that contemporary work can also be enlightening, intriguing, and aesthetically powerful.)
Recently, while traveling, I persuaded a few of my companions to join me in visiting the Vancouver Art Gallery (family members, who are well-educated, well-traveled, art-appreciating people, and whose customary art genre of choice would be the previously stated French Impressionism or Italian Renaissance painting). The current exhibitions on view at the Gallery offered something for everyone including the main, ground-level, feature Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums and the small, third-floor, contemporary show Beyond the Trees: WALLPAPERS in Dialogue with Emily Carr. While I was most interested in the latter, I agreed to also attend the Italian exhibition since 1) most often there is something to be gained from viewing any artwork and 2) my compadres were paying good money whilst I was getting in for free (definitely a perk of working at an art museum).
Of Heaven and Earth met the expectations, hitting all the correct periods and masters of Italian painting—Medieval, Renaissance, Neoclassical, and Nineteenth-century Genre Painting with works by Giovanni Bellini, Michelangelo, and Francesco Guardi. The exhibition design even included a wall-sized timeline, fitting works on view into a framework of Italian masterpieces such as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Botticelli’s Primavera, and Titian’s Assumption. It was a clinically accurate account of painting’s trajectory in Italy spanning the 1300s to the 1800s. And, I must divulge, with all this “correctness,” it felt a bit sterile—precise, but devoid of experiential quality—boxes to be checked off a list.
In vivid contrast, Beyond the Trees offered a glimpse into another realm: west coast modernist painter Emily Carr’s colorful and rhythmic patterns in her landscape imagery, worked in tandem with the Vancouver-based collective WALLPAPERS’ installation of large-scale, computer-generated, animations (WALLPAPERS artists: Nicolas Sassoon, Sara Lundy, and Sylvain Sailly). As we ascended to the third floor on the narrow escalator, we immediately entered this wholly digital world brimming with movement, color, and atmosphere.
According to curators Caitlin Jones and Diana Freundl, “Beyond the Trees considers representations of nature and the ways our perspectives shift between physical and virtual experiences…In WALLPAPERS’ exploration, technology produces an immersive environment that both mimics and experiments with the scale and primary forms of nature. The treatment speaks to the ubiquity of digital forms in contemporary life, while the content of the animations reflects the power of the natural world.”
In a loop of alternating projections, simultaneously on three walls and on ten screens, each of the three artists in the collective creates a set of unique animations. Nicolas Sassoon’s projections reveal ghostly, gray-toned landscapes evocative of ethereal Chinese scrolls. With the addition of digitization, his small moving dots form the sense of rain or mist slowly falling between the viewer and the life-sized, mountainous scenery.
The clouds, by Sara Ludy, explore shifting color in differing environments—acid, fire, and water. The sharp green in Acid Cloud casts an eerie, semi-fluorescent glow throughout the room while the ominous black blooms of Fire Cloud create the sensation that oxygen is being sucked out of the space.
Sylvain Sailly’s animations move away from these nebulous and hazy forms; instead she uses hard lines, pop-like color, and mesmerizing movement to surround the view in a fully digital environment reminiscent of an assembly line factory. Rotating fans, slicing cylinders, and rolling balls through tubes lull the mind into a semi-hypnotic state.
While the mediums and images of the artists in Beyond the Trees are dissimilar, each uses pattern, color, and movement to articulate different aspects of the natural world in a way that establishes pictorial landscapes and considers to how the viewer can experience nature in a thoughtfully constructed environment.
Could it have been the lack of a crowd, the intimacy of the small space, or simply the chance to sit down that led Beyond the Trees to be our collectively preferred exhibition? Perhaps. But instead, I like to think that the potent experiential quality and fully immersive environment gave power to the show, and on this day, site-specific new media trumped Italian painting for my weary band of travelers.
http://www.w-a-l-l-p-a-p-e-r-s.net/Series_3.html (click link to see a short loop of the moving animations)