At the Audain (Again)

The best art exhibit I’ve seen this summer is the current one at the Audain Art Museum in Whistler—Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. The Beaverbrook Art Gallery is located in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and I remember feeling a little disappointed when I realized it wasn’t going to work out make it there on my Maritimes trip in 2014. So when I heard that 75 paintings were travelling to Whistler for this temporary exhibit (I believe it was the only stop in BC), there was no way I was going to miss it. And it did not disappoint.

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The description of the exhibit reads:

Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery was initiated to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in 2009. The focus of the exhibition is the Gallery’s founder William Maxwell Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) and the artists he collected and cultivated, who in turn influenced the passion he had for collecting. 75 paintings are presented by world-renowned artists, such as Cranach, Copley, Delacroix, Gainsborough, Constable, Reynolds, Romney, Sargent, Sisley, Turner and Freud; and by prominent historical Canadian artists, such as Krieghoff, Morrice, Carr, Milne, Gagnon, and members of the Group of Seven. A highlight of the exhibition is Salvador Dali’s monumental painting Santiago El Grande.

I spent a lot of time in this exhibit. There were so many paintings in so many styles  (e.g. Realism, Impressionism, Romanticism, Surrealism) and from different time periods. There were also quite a lot of “stars” whose work I had never seen in person until now: Dalí, Gainsborough, Sargent, Delacroix—the list goes on.

Here are some highlights (and I apologize for my crappy camera phone):

This is one of the first works you see when you walk in. Lots of symbolism going on in this surrealist painting (the description is helpful at pointing out things I would have otherwise missed). The Catholic Church and nuclear physics were big influences on Dalí.

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Salvadaor Felipe Jacinto Dali, Santiago El Grande, 1957.

This is considered one of Gainsborough‘s most brilliant full-length portraits:

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Thomas Gainsborough, Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Nugent, 1764.

When I first saw this painting below, I thought, “Now there’s a woman you don’t want to mess with.” Helena Rubinstein apparently created one of the first worldwide beauty brands and was the world’s first female self-made millionaire. She looks the part. The description reads, Although she was only five feet tall, the cosmetic magnate is shown from a low viewpoint and with her left arm held to her hip, which serves to enhance her strong and dominant personality.

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Graham Vivian Sutherland, Helena Rubinstein, 1957.

I remember learning about Eugène Boudin in a French Impressionism art course in university. He was a precursor to the Impressionists and one was one of the first French landscape painters to paint en plein air (outside). He taught Monet.

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Eugène Boudin, Personnages sur la plage, before 1898.

The Impressionism works were my favourite. Alfred Sisley was a founding member of the Impressionist movement and, something new I learned from the description, he was the only Englishman among the French Impressionists. His seascape shows the rugged beauty of Wales:

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Alfred Sisley, La falaise de Penarth, le soir-temps orageux, 1897.

A painter of dramatic scenes, I learned Eugène Delacroix, a leader of French Romanticism, was often inspired by the writings of Dante, Goethe, and Shakespeare as subjects for his art.

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Eugène Delacrois, Lady Macbeth Sleep-Walking, 1850.

This next one stood out to me because the style was so different than anything else in the exhibit—almost cartoon-like characters, or as the description calls it, “matchstick figures go[ing] about their everyday life.” This is a scene in Northern England that highlights the sense of alienation that often accompanies urban life.

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Laurence Stephen Lowry, Industrial View, Lancashire, 1956

This large and dreamlike painting was done by William Turner, English Romantic landscape painter and forerunner to the Impressionists.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fountain of Indolence, 1834.

Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund Freud, worked in a hyper-realist style. I spent a while trying to figure out what was going on in this painting, the man in shadow, the woman somewhere else. Even though the title is “Hotel Bedroom,” I keep wanting to call it “Hospital Bedroom.”

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Lucian Freud, Hotel Bedroom, 1954.

The exhibit had several Group of Seven paintings depicting their signature Canadian landscapes, but I was more drawn to this inner city portrait that you don’t often see from them. Indeed, the description states: When [Harris] settled in Toronto in 1910, he turned his attention to making drawings and paintings of dilapidated old houses and working-class shacks in the city’s fringe area, a theme which is unique within the work of the Group of Seven.

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Lawren Stewart Harris, Morning, c. 1921.

And my favourite one in the whole show, hands down, is this one below. Those blues! Those golds! Those reflections of rocks in the water! The picture doesn’t do it nowhere near justice nor gives you a sense of the large panoramic size it actually is, but believe me, it is incredible. I always associate Sargent‘s name with portraiture (and apparently he was the highest paid portrait painter in the world for some time), but by 1907 he announced his intention to retire from portraiture as a business, which he referred to as a pimp’s profession, and devoted more of his time to landscape painting. I’m glad he did so the world has this:

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John Singer Sargent, San Vigilio, Lake Garda, 1913.

Masterworks from the Beaverbrook Art Gallery is on until September 11. I highly recommend going to see it!

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The lovely “treehouse”space on the 2nd floor

Everywhere is Anywhere is Anything is Everything

Douglas Coupland atrium

I look back at myself two decades ago, and I think of how different me and my brain were back then–and how differently I looked at the world and communicated with others. The essential “me” is still here…it just relates to the universe much differently. What will the world look like when anywhere becomes everywhere becomes everything becomes anything?

Based on this introduction to the current exhibit by Douglas Coupland at the Vancouver Art Gallery, you can imagine that technology plays a major role, as this has been one of the big influencers in what Coupland calls “the 21st century condition.”IMG_8786

The Twin Towers with images of falling humans in the works behind.

The Twin Towers with images of falling humans in the works behind.

Other themes in the exhibit, according to the program guide, are “the singularity of Canadian culture” and “the power of language.”

Having devoted half my Master’s thesis to Coupland’s dystopian novel, Girlfriend in a Coma, I was particularly keen on seeing the first ever museum survey of his career which had a strong emphasis on images as well as words (fitting since he’s an artist and a writer).

I found this exhibit fascinating and thought-provoking. There are so many different types of art to grab your attention, from the unfinished plywood basement filled with Canadiana to a Lego tower installation; abstract art renderings of the Group of Seven and Emily Carr paintings; sticky-note style memes representing the 21st century condition; pop art referencing Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Piet Mondrian; and a peek into Coupland’s brain, to name a few.

All you Piet Mondrian fans, do you get the reference?

All you Piet Mondrian fans, do you get the reference?

Lego installation. Suburbia vs. urban jungle. Utopia vs. dystopia?

Lego installation. Suburbia vs. urban jungle. Utopia vs. dystopia?

As a Canadian, it was fun to recognize the “Secret Handshake” in the Canadiana-themed rooms:

Canadiana

Canadiana

Secret HandshakeHub cap blanketCanadianaI also enjoyed identifying some familiar objects I played with as a kid in “The Brain” installation (Mousetrap, toboggans, old cash registers, etc.)

"The Brain"

“The Brain”

Details from “The Brain”:

Detail from "The Brain"Detail from "The Brain"

Based on Coupland’s inclusion of any and every sort of material (hub caps, cheerios, cleaning products, license plates, road signs, pencil crayons, lego, wooden blocks, plastic fruit, toy piano, etc), you get the sense that he is blurring the lines between high art and mass culture. Anything and everything is art, and it’s anywhere and everywhere, just like the title says.

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The exhibit is engaging, accurate, and timely. Afterwards, I was talking with an artist-friend about the purpose of art and whether all art strives for beauty. We concluded that not all art does or necessarily should, and that Coupland’s work would not fit into the “beautiful” category. Yet to my surprise, Coupland talks about his surprise at finding “Gumhead” and “The Brain” beautiful, albeit “weirdly beautiful.” (see video below) I think I know what he’s getting at because ordinary objects definitely can be beautiful, but overall, I would characterize Coupland’s work as “critique” more than anything else. Take a look at these “Slogans for the 21st Century” that exemplify this:

"Slogans for the 21st Century"

“Slogans for the 21st Century”

The artist-critic has an important role in society. As Coupland says in the video, “Sometimes you have to look at these things” (i.e. things that are uncomfortable or unsettling) and I’m thankful he draws our eyes to them. He makes us question and rethink how our society got here and where we’re going. But I also find that Coupland doesn’t go further than this. It’s the same with his novels. He’s great at doing the dystopia thing where the world has gone wrong, how technology is making us less human and more lonely, how we need to do something to wake up and make changes before it’s too late. But just what these ideas for change are, he doesn’t give. My friend had suggested offsetting the 21st century slogans with a different room full of slogans we haven’t heard yet—ones that speak to a different story of how we could live. Coupland affirms the power of language and creativity (as evidenced by these dark reconstructions of children’s toy blocks below), so why not create new, hope-filled language? Can the future not hold hands with hope?

"Talking Sticks" series

“Talking Sticks” series

I found the works that most embodied his critique and methodology were a series of hornets’ nests. The ones hanging from the ceiling were real, but the ones enclosed in glass were Coupland’s own nests made from the chewed up pages of his novel, Girlfriend in a Coma. I don’t think it’s an accident that the shape resembles a brain, which, in his novel, was a metaphor for a biologically and culturally comatose condition. Similarly, in this series, Coupland questions the relationship between cultural and evolutionary time, between cultural artifacts and natural objects and how long either of them last. He’s deconstructed his own language as far as it can go. It’s not words and pages anymore. It’s pulp in the mouth. It’s chewing gum. It’s biodegradable. It’s unrecognizable. Now what?

Hornet's Nest Girlfriend in a Coma

On the subject of chewing gum and unrecognizability, you can’t help but notice this 7-foot tall sculpture of the artist outside the Gallery. It’s called “Gumhead” and it’s meant to be transformed over time to the point of unrecognizability by the application of gum. Seattle’s Gum Wall, anyone? Again, Coupland’s blurring the lines between high art (bust of a head typically found in museums) and low art (chewing gum straight from the mouths of passersby). Given Coupland’s fascination with time, I wonder if he’s keeping track of how long it takes for his face to be deconstructed/defaced?

Gumhead. Can you tell I visited it on Canada Day?

Gumhead. Can you tell I visited it on Canada Day?

Back to the question of beauty, the closest works I found that edged towards this category were the abstracted depictions of the Group of Seven’s and Emily Carr’s paintings. It’s interesting that they were inspired by iconographic Canadian art which, in turn, was inspired by the Canadian landscape or, in other words, natural beauty—not pop art or technology.

Inspired paintings

This was my favourite

This was my favourite

While I am aware that I, too, have offered a critique of Coupland, I do admire him for the amount of thoughtfulness that goes into his work. For example, it’s fairly easy to have a surface-level reading of what’s happening, but then you read the description and realize, “Oh, there’s a lot more to this piece than meets the eye.” I felt that way a few times while walking around the exhibit, especially with the hornets’ nests and with the series below. My initial reaction was, “This is something about how our brains are all the same now because of technology and we’re going to explode soon,” but if you read the description, it’s actually about a lot more than that: it speaks to the formative teenage years, emotions, anonymity, influence, information, pressure, etc.

Pop headsPop explosion descriptionTurns out I had a lot more to say than I anticipated on this exhibit. I do find it exciting that the Vancouver Art Gallery took a chance in having something completely different fill its walls from now until September 1. So if you live in the Vancouver area and haven’t gone, you have 2 more months to pop in! And for those of you who have visited it, what are your thoughts on everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything? Would you call it beautiful?