The Whole Enchilada: A Conversation with Adam Back

Adam Back is a student in his last semester at Regent College, going out with a bang with a solo exhibition at the Lookout Gallery March 26-April 30. I sat down and chatted with him about enchiladas, flowers, and the art of slowing down.

Generation of Ash by Adam Back.

Generation of Ash | 15 x 20 inches, 2014, Acrylic.

CK: What’s the significance of The Whole Enchilada? It seems a bit of an odd name for an art exhibit.

AB: It is a bit of an odd name, and that’s pretty intentional. It’s a phrase I grew up hearing a lot in Texas. “Give me the whole enchilada,” which means you want it all—you want as much stuff crammed into that tortilla as possible. My show is also the culmination of my time at Regent College, where I am doing a dual concentration in Biblical Studies and Christianity & the Arts, which includes an IPIAT (Integrative Project in Art & Theology). For my IPIAT, I have to write a theological reflection on art alongside a series of paintings I’m making. So calling the show and presentation “the whole enchilada” is my tongue-and-cheek way of summarizing everything that’s gone on for me at Regent in the last five years.

CK: Can we expect to see enchiladas at the show?

AB: It would be a great sell if I could have enchiladas as appies at the opening reception, eh? But that’s the one sad thing about moving to Vancouver—there’s not a whole lot of great Mexican food.

CK: How about any paintings of enchiladas?

AB: Not yet, but I may add one in. After all, I do need to pay homage to my roots.

CK: You mentioned growing up in Texas. Tell me a bit more of your background.

AB: Well, I grew up in Houston and moved to East Texas to do a BFA in Painting. After that, I did an MA in Painting at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches. Once I graduated, I moved to Colorado to work with kids coming out of youth corrections and got to live the dream every other weekend going fly fishing, backpacking, or skiing. Then I ended up back in Texas a few years later and worked in construction management.

CK: So you weren’t doing art after graduating. Why now?

AB: I think a big part of it is my church & my pastor. I go to Immanuel Vancouver, a church that meets in the Rio Theatre on Commercial and Broadway. I was doing a pastoral internship at the time and one day, while hanging out with the pastor (Simon) at Starbucks, he asked me, “So tell me about your art—why did you stop making it?” I think it had been about six years since I put brush to canvas. I was so burned out after my MA and disillusioned with the rat race of the art world. And a lot of it too was space and time. Without space, it’s really hard to make art. Simon said, “What if we make some of your internship hours studio hours?” He then said he could probably get me space at the church office where I could work. And I said, “That’s a great idea!” We also wanted to try running an arts community group at the church, so those two things coalesced and took off really well.

CK: So if it weren’t for Simon, would you be making art in Vancouver?

AB: Probably not. I think it was a wise and gracious push from Simon that opened up so much life for me. There were a lot of things going on for me at that time, and his nudging me back to the arts gave me a shock to the system that I needed to start integrating all the theology I was learning with my paintings, the arts group, and my other relationships. It was really life giving and still is.

CK: Why is it important that theology and art integrate?

AB: There’s a really long philosophical tradition as to why those things have been separated. Historically, in the West, a human being has been understood simply as a thinking thing—a receptacle for information. Scripturally, that’s not true. There’s that great quote by Saint Irenaeus that says, “The glory of god is a human being fully alive.” What does it look like to be fully alive? That means our emotions, our physicality, and yes, our intellect, but I don’t think that means our intellect at the expense of loving to play Frisbee in the park with your girlfriend, or cooking enchiladas, or making a painting.

CK: Tell me more about how your faith informs your practice as an artist.

AB: Well the other big part of why I’m making art is because of my experience at Regent College. Regent has helped me see and understand where I fit into the story of what God is doing in the world. I am challenged to ask, “What does a human life look like lived in the world before a God who’s creative, who spoke in parables, who came to us as the word made flesh? The story we get in the Bible is of a good God making a good universe—a good creation. Within that universe, he places his images to steward and care for creation. We’ve done some really dark and evil things with that, but we’ve also done some really great things. I think God likes to be surprised in the sense of, “What are my images going to come up with?”

So when it comes to my own personal studio practices, this scriptural story opens up all kinds of possibilities because the stuff I make with is stuff that’s already been made. Most of my work is in mixed media/collage. For example, I’ll take trash found in the streets, old books, record albums, matchboxes, sheet music, and then I glue it all down, paint over top of it, scrape it all off, and glue it all back down again and draw on top of it.

CK: Sounds like an arduous process!

AB: It is, but I love it—I love the material stuff. I think we often get this idea that God doesn’t care about the physical world or our bodies, which plays out in this escapism that is so much a part of Western culture. Christianity feeds off that, and I think it’s a dangerous symbiosis. Look at Rembrandt’s work or the Sistine Chapel or Japanese watercolours—there are so many beautiful things people make. It seems strange that God could call the world he made very good in Genesis 1 and then destroy it. But if the story in Scripture is that he’s redeeming the world and I’m a part of this story, then that starts playing art through how I handle the materials.

CK: How does that scriptural story come across not just in how you paint, but what you paint?

AB: Well, if this is a story about the whole world, then I think ordinary things matter.

CK: So you paint ordinary things?

AB: Yes and no. At least in Western culture, we tend to go from excitement to excitement. I like exciting stuff, but I also like shucking peas or going for walks—the small, ordinary things of life that seemingly don’t matter. One of the paintings in the show is a stack of books. A lot of the other ones are flowers and I’ll leave some surprises for what else is in there. But these “ordinary,” small things that are easy to miss are important things too. Our culture is so fast-paced that we often can’t slow down to look at things and see things well. What I really love about making art is that I get to do it in the first place, and that my artistic practices in the studio force me to slow down and pay attention to what I’m doing. I know when I start rushing and not applying paint well that I’m going to foul everything up and have to start over. If I’m just trying to rush through and crank something out, then I have to question, “Do I really love this?” That question has been important to me because I want to love the things I make and share that with others.

Knowing, You Shall Not Know by Adam Back | 11 x 14 inches, 2014, mixed media on panel.

Knowing, You Shall Not Know | 11 x 14 inches, 2014, mixed media on panel.

CK: So when people come to your exhibit, what do you want them to pay attention to or take away from it?

AB: I throw all this stuff out there about form and attention to detail, but the irony is that it can come back to bite me if I’ve sloughed off. But it’s also a check and accountability for the level that I want to work at. Hopefully when people come to the show, they see that care and attention to detail. The little collage surprises I put in my paintings—like matchbooks or traces of text—what does that communicate? With our iPads, phones, and earbuds, we’re always connected. We can’t slow down and pay attention to one thing, and I think good art slows people down. The main thing I’d want to inspire in people would be for them to have at least one thing that they take time out for in their own lives. And of course if they wanted to take away a painting with them, they’re welcome to do that too.

CK: At a cost, right?

AB: Haha, yes! Please!

CK: Looking at your website, I notice there are a lot of images with flowers. Is there a particular reason you’re drawn to flowers—pardon the pun?

AB: I’m sure there are lots of reasons. I’m always astounded with Vancouver in the spring when the tulips and peonies begin to bloom. People cultivate their gardens really well, and you have these firecrackers of colour all over the city. As I’m walking to the bus stop in the morning, I’ll miss the bus because I’m stopping to look at somebody’s flowers in their front yard, and I think, how boring life would be without flowers! And by extension, how boring life would be without colour! Just think of all the various hues and tints of colours in just one petal of a rose. So yeah, I stop and smell the roses. At the same time, flowers are fragile things and only here for a while before they’re gone. There’s this ephemeral quality to their beauty, just as there is to life.

CK: So you’re essentially capturing something that’s impossible to capture.

AB: Exactly. There’s a beautiful tension between the material and the content.

CK: You mentioned earlier about leading an arts group at your church. What does that look like?

AB: At Immanuel, the demographic is extremely varied. We have folks from the downtown eastside and those that live in West Point Grey; people who work downtown in high-rises and homeless people who wander the streets; people in recovery from addictions and stay-at-home moms. And so I look at pulling together this group of people around art as a way of mentoring and engaging our imaginations. It opens up new avenues to explore where God is in the midst of our lives and our blended community. How do we learn to see God and each other? It’s such a fascinating group because some people have art degrees and then others have never picked up a paintbrush before.

CK: What is the attraction for the person who’s never picked up a paintbrush before?

AB: We advertise the group—if that’s the word—as a group for artists, those interested in the arts, and just the generally curious. Creativity and imagination are so important for what it means to be human, and I think there’s a really strong dignity that plays out in the act of making things, particularly the act of making things together. And so I think folks are interested in exploring their faith from a different angle. It ties in with what I said earlier about the Western conception of humans as just rational beings. We are far more than that, and art is a way of helping our faith take form and not just exist as propositions we agree with.

We meet twice a month to talk about art and then we do a project together that gets displayed at the front of the church for our whole community. I have some people who come just to be part of our discussions, and others who come just to do the art, and either or both is great.

CK: What is a past project you did together?

AB: We’ve done about four or five now, but the one that sticks out most for me is the one for last advent season. I titled it, “Framing Hope.” The previous two projects were on 12”x12” canvases, but I wanted to try something new this time. So I asked everybody to get a frame instead of a canvas. They couldn’t put anything within the frame, but the frame itself would be the piece of art and they could do anything to it. One woman glued hundreds of little flowers to it. Another person put a black light in his piece. Someone else wrote a bunch of prayers and glued them to the edges. And so the frame became a metaphor of waiting to be filled—of framing hope, or hoping for the frames to be filled, which is the expectation of advent. We’re waiting for the Christ child, for Immanuel (God with us) to come.

When I decide on a new project, I try and hit as many different facets as I can. We haven’t done any dancing or music yet, but I hope that’s on the horizon. I’d also love to run a cooking class at the church, because more than anything, I think cooking unites people, especially if it’s barbecue or enchiladas.

CK: And then you could serve good Mexican food in Vancouver.

AB: Exactly.

CK: So what’s next for you after your exhibit?

AB: I’ll be graduating from Regent, sticking around Vancouver, and getting married in May—very excited about that. And I’m starting to look for jobs here in the city.

CK: So last question. You’re a Texan living in Vancouver who loves fly-fishing, camping, and hiking, and you dress rather outdoorsy. Are people ever surprised when they find out you’re an artist?

AB: My fiancé was. She was also surprised I was from Texas when we first met. But I don’t feel the need to dress like an artist or make people know I’m an artist—it just seems like shameless self-promotion to do that. I’ve got my own story and I’d rather wear my cowboy boots.

Join Adam in all his cowboy boot glory at the opening reception March 26, 4:30-7:30pm at the Lookout Gallery in Regent College. Presentation to follow in the chapel. You can also see his work at adamback.com

On Broken Bulbs & Flat Tires

This story starts with a discovery.

Last Friday, I am in my washroom. One of the light bulbs is burned out above the mirror. I go to replace it and notice there’s an outlet attached to the light fixture. I am curious, grab my hair dryer from my bedroom and plug it in above the mirror. Turn it on, and away it blasts. After almost 2 years of living in my apartment and blow drying my hair in my bedroom, I discover there is—always was—an outlet in the washroom. No one—myself, the Artist, my dad, or my landlord—noticed it.

And then the other day when the Artist was over, he discovered the inside of the pantry door had a lock on it. Why on earth is there a lock on the inside? This is what I love about old character apartments—sometimes they don’t make sense. And they surprise you. After I thought I knew everything there is to know about my apartment, I am still discovering it.

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The next day was a Saturday much like this one. Sun shining, cherry blossoms out, my amaryllis in full bloom. I needed to run an errand on Main Street and was tempted to drive for convenience sake, and then thought: Why drive when I could bike? Not only could I bike, but I could bike in a T-shirt! In February!

I had never biked east of Cambie Street before, so it was a new route for me. I took Ontario Street all the way north to 27th Avenue. And because I had never ridden that street before, I was greeted with more discoveries. Ontario Street is the street of schools. First Langara College, which I had always known about because the Canada Line SkyTrain station nearby is called Langara, but had never seen the actual building. And then I pedalled by some old brick beauties: Sir William Van Horne Elementary and General Wolfe Elementary School.

Sir William Van Horne

Sir William Van Horne

General Wolfe

General Wolfe

Since Ontario Street is a bike street, there are fun bike sculptures along the way, such as these bike seat benches in Queen Elizabeth Park.IMG_1012

On my way home, I sat and started reading a used book I picked up while I was running my errand. I got it a Y’s Books, a store I had never seen before, and you know I am a sucker for my classics, especially when they’re at a great price!

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Everything was perfect the way there & the way back from Main Street. That is, until it started feeling like I was pulling a 100-tonne truck behind me when I wasn’t even going up a hill. I get off my bike. The back tire is as flat as a pancake. I am still a 15-20 minute ride from home. But I am on Ontario Street and there are people standing on patios enjoying the sunshine, so I walk over and ask, “Would you happen to have a bike pump?”

Sure enough, the man does. He fetches it and helps me pump it up. But then we discover the outer tube/valve where the air goes in is broken and only keeps air in if held a certain way. By this time, another neighbour comes out to offer his assistance, running to get electrical tape and secure the precarious tube. He also sends me home with one of his pumps in case I need to use it along the way. I am speechless. “Really? You want to lend this to me?”

He says, “It’s no big deal. You know where I live now and so just swing by and return it when you get the chance.”

I am stunned, and grateful. I ride home and the air comes out of my tire within another five minutes. And I am hauling a truck again. I pump it up and get back on it, and it lasts another minute. I do this maybe one more time before I realize I’m better off walking it home.

And so I do. At first I’m upset that the otherwise perfect day ended with a flat tire, but then this thought came into view: This is how I slow you down, Charlene.

I don’t slow down very easily. Unless I’m forced to. And I’ve been more aware of it during this Lenten season where I’m trying to pay attention to what God is doing. Maybe there are some discoveries that await in walking my bike instead of riding it. In making some new “neighbours” who don’t live near me at all but who set aside half an hour of their afternoon to show love to a stranger and quiet those naysayers who purport that Vancouver isn’t a friendly place.

I need to slow down, to see the beauty and discovery that comes from broken things and a bunch of people trying to fix it together.

I now have the most wonderful reason to bake a batch of cookies.

The Foreigner

On Thursday night at the Surrey Arts Centre, I got to see Pacific Theatre‘s production of The Foreigner presented by the Arts Club on Tour. I had been meaning to see this at PT when it first came out in Vancouver but didn’t get around to it, so was very delighted to hear I could have another opportunity—and with all the same original cast!

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It’s been a while since I’ve taken in some live theatre and it was wonderful. I had pretty high expectations as this was the play in which John Voth, who plays Charlie, won a Jessie award for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Lead Role.

The quick synopsis of the play from PT’s website reads:

Charlie is visiting from England, painfully shy and very much in need of rest. His friend has the perfect solution – he leaves him at a rural fishing lodge, telling his hosts that Charlie is from an exotic foreign land and speaks no English. All is well until “the foreigner” overhears more than he should.

It was funny; it was serious; it was silly; it was sinister.

When Charlie gets dropped off at a rural fishing lodge in Georgia by his friend Froggy, he appears uptight and concerned with his ailing yet cheating wife. I learned a great word from this review of the play: “milquetoast.” It means “a person who is tired or submissive.” Yes, this describes Charlie perfectly. He sits at the kitchen table in the first scene, looking like Eeyore, and asks Froggy, “How does one acquire personality? What must it be like to tell a funny story? To arouse laughter? Anger? Respect? To be thought wise?”

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Erla Faye Forsyth as Betty and Ryan Scramstad as Froggy.

Very prescient question. Froggy tells Betty, the garrulous, doting woman who runs the lodge, that Charlie is a non English-speaking foreigner who wants some peace and quiet. She is fascinated by the idea of a foreigner and treats him like her pet. Catherine and her fiancé, the reverend David, are staying at the lodge too, as well as Catherine’s slow but likeable brother Ellard. The play largely develops from each character’s interaction with the foreigner.

The audience gradually sees Charlie acquire personality as he acts out the roles the various guests at the lodge attribute to him: Catherine’s confessor, Ellard’s pupil, Betty’s pet skunk. Catherine is told Charlie doesn’t speak English so she tells him all her secrets, including how she feels about becoming a preacher’s wife. Ellard gets a boost of confidence (and so does everyone else) by teaching Charlie English in a record amount of time. Betty has someone she gets to completely spoil, true to the profile of a typical southern woman.

John-Voth

On left: Ellard played by Peter Carlone. Right: Charlie played by John Voth

What impressed me so much about the play was the script, written by Larry Shue. It was such an unusual and refreshing plot, where a lot of the words are gibberish (when Charlie has to speak in his “native” tongue at the request of his new friends). I heard some other audience members saying as they walked out of the theatre, “I wonder if the actors say the same words each time, or if the gibberish is different in each performance.” I was wondering the same thing.

Regardless, it was extremely amusing and John Voth was utterly in his element, acting the meek and mild Charlie at the beginning, and then erupting into the life of the party with his unconventional ways of storytelling. The sinister parts come into play with the character of David, (Catherine’s fiancé) who has his own dirty secret and who’s in cahoots with Owen, a slimeball involved with the KKK.

Erla Faye Forsyth (Betty), Peter Carlone (Ellard) John Voth (Charlie) Kaitlin Williams (Catherine)

Erla Faye Forsyth (Betty), Peter Carlone (Ellard) John Voth (Charlie) Kaitlin Williams (Catherine)

But it all works up to a rewarding climax where the bad guys are given their comeuppance and the good guys succeed and grow closer, so much closer that the hint of a relationship between Charlie and Catherine is implied. What surprised me (and somewhat disappointed me) is that Charlie never reveals his secret in the end. He still has everyone fooled that he’s a foreigner, and I went away asking, “Is this a good thing or not?” On one hand, yes—play-acting has allowed him to become someone he couldn’t have been otherwise, perhaps even more himself. But on the other hand, the moral issue remains, “But he’s still lying to all of them!” David turns out to be a big scumbag and liar at the end, but how different is Charlie from this if he also doesn’t tell Catherine the truth?

Maybe other theatre-goers don’t analyze out the aftermath to the same extent I do, but I was curious about the note it ends on. Charlie very much embodies this quote by Oscar Wilde:

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

For those of you interested in seeing The Foreigner (which I recommend), it’s on at the Surrey Arts Centre until February 28. For those of you who have seen it, what are your thoughts?

Chasing the Clock & Stepping Back in Time

For this post, I thought it’d be interesting to contrast two places/experiences in the city I had recently. First is the artwork at the Canada Line terminus station downtown Vancouver. This is the same space I previously wrote about here where each panel had a list of first lines from songs that all begin with “Here comes…”

The art at this location tends to be time-related, which the current exhibit makes obvious.

IMG_0956IMG_0950IMG_0951IMG_0953I like the bright colours of the vortex clocks, but I don’t find this work as engaging or intriguing as “Here Comes.” Yes, we’re busy and frantic. Yes, we wish we had more time. Does this artwork invite us to stop in a busy area and breathe a little easier? Reflect on something hopeful? Or does it just reinforce the fact that we’re late, need to hurry, walk faster? The sameness of the panels, minus the colours, highlights the relentless regularity of our lives. The tone of the write-up takes a similar doom & gloom stance with descriptions that give all agency to the clock, in which humans are “trapped in its vice forever.” Is its triumph really inevitable? Are we slaves to time? What about all the times we stop people, look at the little girl eating an ice cream cone, listen to a busker belt out melodies; share a conversation with somebody in the grocery line-up?

IMG_0947From chasing the clock, we go to stepping back in time. I was on Broadway Street this morning, meeting friends for coffee & lunch and exploring some shops in that area. My friend suggested we go into a store called Stepback (neither of us had been before) and we were there for almost an hour, oohing and ahhing at its many vintage treasures.

Unfortunately their website doesn’t have any pictures, but you can get a sense of the kind of items they have from this short write-up that VanMag did with the owner two years ago, as well as this blog that has some awesome pictures.

I was especially thrilled as the wedding theme I’m going for is vintage, so I was surrounded by inspiration! The window display was decorated with dozens of old hardcover red books (homage to Valentine’s Day) and pewter dishes. The store contains a stack of suitcases from the 1940s, typewriters, Scrabble letters, eye exam & bicycle posters, plenty of hardcover classics & dictionaries, wooden block letters, old postcards, stamps, matches, wooden chairs, and more. This store may even rival my love for Urban Source!

I will be stepping back there again, taking all the time in the world.

That Time When My Fiancé Bought Me a Taylor Swift CD

He drops me off at work, mentions he’s going to hit up Target to see what they have on sale before they close.

“Ooh, maybe you could get the new Taylor Swift CD for me?” I say not too seriously. A friend had it on in the car the other day and though I was sceptical at first, I kinda liked her full-fledged immersion into pop.

“Haha, ya right,” he jokes. A fan of Johnny Cash, Patty Griffin, and Guns N’ Roses, Taylor Swift is not someone he would ever listen to on his own volition.

I forget about the conversation the rest of the day but guess what is waiting for me on the passenger seat when he picks me up?

1989

“You didn’t!”

“I did.”

“You actuallly got it for me!”

“Well, you said you wanted it.”

Not only did my fiancé buy me Taylor Swift’s 1989 album, but he bought me the deluxe version, complete with 3 bonus tracks and 3 voice memos about her songwriting process, as well as 13 polaroid photos of her with various song lyrics written in her hand at the bottom. I felt a little silly and teenager-like having all this T. Swift hoopla on me when I’m not even a huge fan, but on the other hand, I was impressed by how much she gives her fans. You can tell she really likes them. Considering a lot of musicians don’t even put their lyrics in the album booklet anymore (which is the only reason to even buy physical CDs rather than just getting them off iTunes, in my opinion), it was really refreshing to find all her lyrics in there AND a foreword to the album.

I have not followed the ins and outs of Taylor Swift’s life at all—just liked some of her hits now and then—but this foreword offered a pretty personal glimpse into her life. I think that’s what’s attractive to her fans—she talks to them like friends, like she’s learning and growing with them. I’ve always thought she was a good songwriter, but she’s also a pretty good prose writer.

For the last few years, I’ve woken up every day not wanting, but needing to write a new style of music. I needed to change the way I told my stories and the way they sounded. I listened a lot to music from the decade in which I was born and I listened to my intuition that it was a good thing to follow this gut feeling. I was also writing a different storyline than I’d ever told you before.

She goes on to discuss moving to New York City, something she said she’d never do. The big synth-pop sound of  her opening track “Welcome to New York” starts the album off with a bang that lets you know we are not in Nashville anymore.

Everybody here wanted something more

Searching for a sound we hadn’t heard before

. . .

It’s a new soundtrack

I could dance to this beat

forevermore

That’s probably my favourite song on the album and it’s fun to sing to when driving, bass up, windows down (and yes, even my fiancé sings along!). “Welcome to New York” could become the next New York anthem (after “Empire State of Mind” by Alicia Keys and Jay Z). Full of adventure and hope, it sounds like everything I remember feeling when I visited four years ago. I like songs that bring you back in an instant. “Style” is another fun one to sing to while driving. For a slower one, “You Are in Love” (one of the bonus tracks).

Anyway, I don’t often write about celebrities or albums but it’s been years since I’ve bought, let alone received a CD, and I felt this was one worth talking about.

Ivory Tower Meets the Mainstreeters

On Saturday, I had the chance to participate in a 3-for-1 in terms of the downtown Vancouver art scene. The Contemporary Art Gallery, Audain Gallery, and Satellite Gallery teamed up to provide 3 tours within 3 hours, all walking distance within one another. I love it when galleries join forces like this and you get an afternoon of taking in a wide variety of art.

The schedule was as follows:

1pm: Audain Gallery, 149 W Hastings Street. Join a tour of Geometry of Knowing Part 2 led by curators Amy Kazymerchyk and Melanie O’Brian.

2pm: Satellite Gallery, 560 Seymour Street, 2nd floor. Join a tour of Mainstreeters: Taking Advantage, 1972-1982 led by curators Allison Collins and Michael Turner.

3pm: Contemporary Art Gallery, 555 Nelson Street. Join a tour of the current exhibitions by Grace Schwindt and Krista Belle Stewart led by CAG Director Nigel Prince.

It was a fabulous turnout—I would say at least 150 people, and it just seemed to grow from one tour to the next. I did the first 2 tours as those were the ones I was particularly interested in and had never visited those galleries.

Audain Gallery

The Audain Gallery is a bright, spacious gallery in SFU Woodward’s location. Simon Fraser University follows a decentralized university model with 3 campus: the original Burnaby mountain location (the “ivory tower” setting) and then 2 more on-the-ground, in-the-city sites at Surrey City Centre and downtown Vancouver, which coincides with the university’s vision to be Canada’s leading community-engaged research university.

The Geometry of Knowing exhibition asks the question, “What does it mean for a gallery to exist within a university? What is our role in shaping how we come to know ourselves and the world we live in?” A visual theme in the exhibit was the presence of triangles that echo the shape of Burnaby Mountain and the connotation of a university as an ivory tower of learning, situated high up and far away from everybody else and the conversations happening on the ground.

SFU Burnaby Mountain

SFU Burnaby Mountain

Untitled by Brent Wadden.

Untitled by Brent Wadden

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You have that idea paired with a video like Smashing where Jimmie Durham sits at a bureaucratic desk in a suit, smashing objects with a large stone brought to him by his art students who are taking part in an artist residency. You see Durham smashing/”deconstructing” coffee beans, a bag of flour, shaving cream, & countless other objects as a statement about how art is made and the role of critique. And then Durham stamps a piece of paper and gives it to the students as their official “pass.” The tour guide also talked about the idea of a stone being this ancient and simple material that still has so much weight in our digitized 21st century world, whether to build or to destroy. Smashing is a 90-minute video but here’s a 4-minute version I found on YouTube:

Satellite Gallery

The Satellite Gallery is a little harder to spot if you don’t know where you’re going. On the second floor of a slightly run-down building on Seymour Street, it is noticeably darker and smaller-feeling with low ceilings and less light which is a little unexpected in modern art galleries these days.

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Satellite Gallery. Image from their website.

Nevertheless, I was really excited to see their Mainstreeters: Taking Advantage exhibit, partly because I love Main Street myself, but also because I like learning about the local Vancouver art scene back in the days when I wasn’t alive. The exhibit spans the decade 1972-1982 and yes, the Mainstreeters were actually a self-titled “art gang”.

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This is what the description on their website reads:

The Mainstreeters—Kenneth Fletcher, Deborah Fong, Carol Hackett, Marlene MacGregor, Annastacia McDonald, Charles Rea, Jeanette Reinhardt and Paul Wong—were an “art gang” who took advantage of the times, a new medium (video), and each other. Emerging from the end-stage hippie era, the gang drew from glam, punk and a thriving gay scene to become an important node in the local art scene. Their activities connect the influential interdisciplinary salon of Vancouver’s Roy Kiyooka in the early 1960s with the collective-oriented social practices that have emerged worldwide in the early years of the 21st century. Like the current “digital natives” generation, the Mainstreeters were the first generation to grow up with video cameras. The resulting documents focus on a decade of their lives, including forays into sex, love, drugs and art.

Check out this introductory panel to the exhibit that discusses how they’re all connected (if you can read it, that is! I apologize for the bad picture):

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Clear as mud, right? Doesn’t it have the makings of a soap opera? And I guess that’s the impression I was left with after viewing the exhibit. Mainstreeters: Taking Advantage is primarily archival photographs of the group—where they lived, hung out, and partied. I saw more about them than I did their art, which was a little disappointing. The curators were very upfront about this, stating that it was more a documentary-style exhibit on the group, but that that was also part of the point—that their art & their lives (socially, politically, etc) all bled together and informed one another.

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The art that was on view was their homemade videos, which was interesting insofar as the video camera was new technology back then and they used it like people first used facebook or twitter when it came out (& maybe some people still do!): documenting absolutely everything about their lives, even the not-so-interesting-to-everybody-else bits. The 70s-style grainy look to their videos is now back in fashion with all the old-school instagram filters available, so it’s funny how things have come around to that again with our modern technology.

My favourite part of the exhibit was reading the notes they left one another. I felt I got to know the Mainstreeters as much through their words as their images.

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All in all, what a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, and what a contrast—going from the academia-infused Geometry of Knowing to the hippie drug & love era of Mainstreeters; Taking Advantage, 1972-1982! I hope these galleries offer more joint events in the future. It’s nice to explore the smaller and lesser-known downtown galleries in addition to the behemoth of the Vancouver Art Gallery.