A Visit to the Audain Art Museum

I’m rarely ever one of those people who see things as soon as they’re open (whether it’s movies, plays, exhibits, etc.), but it just so happened that I was in Whistler the 2nd weekend since the Audain Art Museum opened, and so I visited it, and I’m glad I did.

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I was a little put off by the steep admission price ($18) but was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was a lot more art inside than I was expecting, even though the 2nd floor wasn’t open to the public yet. The permanent collection comprises 14 000 square feet and the temporary exhibition space (currently showcasing Mexican Modernists) has a generous 6000 square feet.


I spent about two hours in these two sections, with the majority of that time in the permanent collection. One of my first thoughts: “Wow, this is a lot of art for one individual to own!” The artworks are curated from the private collection of Vancouver homebuilder and philanthropist Michael Audain and his wife Yoshiko Karasawa.

I’m thankful they’re sharing their collection with the public. It’s quite diverse, in media and time periods.

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When you first walk in to the permanent collection, you enter The Art of Coastal First Nations, a gallery full of masks and an impressive floor-to-ceiling wood sculpture called The Dance Screen (The Scream Too) by James Hart that expresses traditional Haida beliefs.


Passing through this room, you then find yourself in the Emily Carr and Art of the Coastal First Nations gallery, where dozens of paintings by the famous BC artist are displayed, along with objects from the Gitxsan and Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations that she may have encountered on her trip up the coast. On the didactic panel, it says, “Emily Carr paved a different way for many Modernists to experience and depict the British Columbia landscape.”


On display are Carr’s quintessential dark, brooding forest scenes and her more colourful trees and seaside images, which are actually my preferred ones.


From here, the next gallery is E.J. Hughes and Depictions of Place. I had never heard of Edward John Hughes (1913-2007) before, but this is the only single artist room in the Audain Art Museum. Hughes is known for his distinctive, colourful depictions of maritime life on BC’s coast, blending the natural with the industrial.


What came next was my favourite gallery: Exploring Land, People and Ideas. Even though the permanent collection is divided into galleries so you can do bits here and there, there was a strong chronological and historical flow to it if you go from beginning to end. The works in this section reflect the Modernist movement sweeping through the Western world leading up to WWII. Artists explored new modes of expression in the 1920s and 30s, such as “the spiritual aspects of nature and how to represent, in art, a personal response to the vastness of British Columbia” (didactic panel).


Winter Landscape by Gordon Smith was one of my favourites . . .

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. . . as well as this mesmerizing Jack Shadbolt painting called Butterfly Transformation Theme (1981, 1982) which very much reminded me of his similarly vibrant wall-length work at VGH.

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I also like the Mondrian-esque qualities to this oil on board, Comment on Horseshoe Bay by Charles Bertrum (B.C.) Binning from 1949.


Step into the next gallery, Photography and Vancouver, and you have firmly landed in modern/postmodern BC. It is the 1980s and Vancouver is at the forefront of Photo-conceptualism, a blend of photography and idea-based art. Artists shown here include Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham, Ken Lum, Ian Wallace, and Jeff Wall who turned to the city as their subject and sought to communicate larger ideas of its changing political, social, economic status through the camera lens.


I like the ephemeral, poetic quality of Schoolyard Tree by Rodney Graham, which kind of looks like a heart (and no, I didn’t take this picture upside down).


Last, but certainly not least, comes Art of Our Time, celebrating BC’s thought-provoking artists and the different forms they use to express their ideas, whether it be through newer forms (like photography) or classic forms like painting, sculpture, installation, or what I like to call “classic with a twist.” Among the artists featured here are Dana Claxton, Brian Jungen, Tim Lee, Landon Mackenzie, Sonny Assu, Arabella Campbell, Attila Richard Lukacs, and Marianne Nicolson.

Grande-sized coffee cups take on new meaning in this copper installation 1884-1951 by Sonny Assu:



Marianne Nicolson combines glass and wood in this sculpture Max’inus – Killer Whale (Fin #2):


Pictured in the foreground is a pyramid of snowballs (bronze with white patina) stacked up like munition. It’s called Arsenal by Gathie Falk.


Brian Jungen’s towers of golf bags are one of the more obvious examples of “classic with a twist”—a contemporary take on the totem pole:


And that’s a quick tour of the permanent collection in the Audain Art Museum.

Would I go back again? Absolutely. My days of snowboarding are over so it’s nice that Whistler has an art destination of this calibre to give me another reason to visit.

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:



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.

IMG_8778IMG_8769Cleaning Products

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?




Frozen Music, Frozen Space

Since the overwhelming search engine term that leads readers to my blog is Piet Mondrian, I feel somewhat obligated to feature more posts about this painter and his influence. I’ve previously discussed Mondrian’s inspiration in the architectural world here as well as in the interior design and fashion world here.

Did you know he’s also had an influence in the musical world? Since I play piano and enjoy music, I was happy to come across this unique piano designed by Alexander Gorlin when leafing through an old Architectural Digest magazine from 2003.

Doesn’t it resemble this Mondrian painting with its primary colours and rectangular shapes?

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow

I particularly like the quotation that inspired Alexander Gorlin’s piano he created for an international design competition: “Architecture is frozen music.” Gorlin plays with this idea by designing a piece of musical furniture with sharp lines and bold colours. The piano’s geometrical, rectangular shapes arrest the eye with its deconstructed simplicity. It’s as if this piano is a musical piece in itself that has been temporarily stopped – or frozen – in time and space, like musical notes that are stagnant on paper but come alive when played in the context of a larger song.

Musical notes on a wall in Liverpool, England

Good architecture, like music, is dynamic, pulsating, and moving. You leave a space changed from how you entered it, whether slightly or significantly. You leave a piece of music altered from who you were before you entered its melody. Gorlin’s piano arranges different elements of a song such as rhythm, notes, melody and measures —  represented by the various colours, shapes, and sizes of the piano’s architecture — into one piece. Breaking a musical and architectural piece into its constituent parts, Gorlin paradoxically constructs a deconstructed piano. You can see all the parts that make up the whole; you can see the harmony of form and function.

Speaking of deconstruction of form in architecture, I recall one of my favourite poems about a piano that instigates deconstruction of a different kind. The speaker’s emotional deconstruction or breakdown demonstrates how the effect of a musical text and piece of furniture is anything but frozen.

The Piano

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

By D.H. Lawrence

Following Mondrian

My first post featured Dutch artist Piet Mondrian whose oeuvre of grid-like paintings with squares and rectangles of primary colours has inspired a plethora of Mondrian objects from architecture to clothing.

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930)

It seems like the world just can’t get enough Mondrian.

Without intentionally seeking him out (okay maybe a little bit), I came across Mondrian in my recent travels to Ottawa and New York and figured I would write a follow-up post in lieu of these discoveries.

I’m not sure if the idea of coloured window blocks in architecture derives from Mondrian, but seeing multiple buildings in both cities with this feature certainly made me think of him.

Coloured Windows in New York

Coloured Windows in Ottawa

During my travels, I paid a visit to my Alma Mater. A lot of construction was started there as I was finishing my degree, and I wanted to see the completion of these new buildings. Not only did I see finished projects, I also saw buildings erected that I didn’t even know were part of the plan. The building above is a new residence standing in what was one of the precious few green spaces left on a campus that everyone used to adore for its green spaces. Can you tell I’m a bit nostalgic about “the good old days” when I attended Carleton?

These other Ottawa buildings also have Mondrianesque qualities to them:

In New York, I went to the Museum of Modern Art on their free “Target Fridays” – a time frame that I would recommend avoiding because of the massive crowds. It actually felt more rushed and crammed than the streets, partly because I only had an hour before closing and so was racing from painting to painting to absorb as much as I could – not the ideal pace to appreciate art.

But it was still worth it, particularly to awe at Monet’s water lilies and to contemplate this painting by Piet Mondrian that he made as an ode to the Big Apple.

Click on the right picture for an enlarged version of the painting’s fascinating description.

Looking back at the painting on the left, can you picture the city grid with the yellow lines as streets, the blue and red squares as nodes of people and activities, and the occasional grey thrown in as moments of pause or respite from the daily grind? Other New York images this painting evokes for me are traffic lights, the omnipresent yellow of taxis, the neon lights of Times Square, and the colourful lines on the subway map.

Even though the painting doesn’t literally speak, I look at it and hear the noise of the city. It’s loud. Cars are honking. People are getting in and out of taxicabs. Vendors are trying to make a sale. Strangers are getting impatient while waiting in line for their morning Starbucks. Considering that jazz music inspired this painting called “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” Mondrian’s title invites us to “hear” his painting – to mix one sense impression with another sense in what’s called synesthesia.

Composition in White, Black, and Red (1936)

Whereas the dynamic spaces in his previous compositions (such as the one that was on display beside it, which is pictured above) appear at the edges, the dynamic spaces in “Broadway Boogie Woogie” emerge at the intersections – where people, buildings, streets and conversations collide in a syncopation of lights as colourful as the city itself.

“Art is in the air, and on the ground”

I frequently walk by a giant placard with the above message advertising the newest development to be built on the corner of Cook and Johnson streets in Victoria.

Having just defended my master’s essay on the relationship between architecture and literature, this advertising slogan resonates with me, as it essentially makes the same statement — that art and architecture are inextricably linked, having both material and immaterial, or physical and imaginative dimensions.

Do you know the painter who inspired this development?

Soon-to-come residential building in Victoria

Think clearly-defined straight lines. Think bold, primary colours. Think squares and rectangles. Think modern. If you came up with Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, you’re right. Here are some samples of his work:

Composition with Yellow, Blue, and Red

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow

de Hoog & Kierulf architects in Victoria describe the above building as “a playful composition of rectangular forms, coloured glass, and metal railing.”

I like seeing architects play with art and translate a vision of what was formerly two-dimensional into something new, three-dimensional, and inhabitable. Rather than replace or outdo its inspiration, the architect’s translation of Mondrian’s art provides another way to access the original.

In the past, when I’ve looked at Piet Mondrian’s paintings, I stare at them thinking I’m missing something (which, I should note, is often my reaction towards modern art). What is he trying to get at with this painting? It’s so simple, so geometric, so basic. Sometimes modern art seems like a trick question whose answer, if there is one, constantly eludes me.

But seeing Mondrian’s art literally constructed in the present context in the city I live, I appreciate its strong, simple lines, its clear shapes, and its bold colours. I appreciate its definition. I appreciate its order. Order is a difficult word in architecture as it can swing both ways, creating either tedium or pleasure (to borrow Alain de Botton’s phrasing). In this residential building soon to come in Victoria, we see the pleasure of order in its conciseness, recognizability, and readability.

The Pleasure of Order

This building also brings clarity to a section of a literary text I recently read –urban critic Jane Jacobs’ influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities, where she talks about the necessity of dynamic borders for a city’s public life. Railway tracks and streets adjoining two neighbourhoods shouldn’t be dead zones that act like barriers to divide the city and the people in it. Instead, they should be seams where one segment of life spills into the other, creating a vital and very much alive space.

Mondrian’s paintings portray this urban idea in art. The most exciting spaces of the canvas are at the edges, where our eyes are drawn and where we’re left hanging, wondering, and waiting for something to happen, something unexpected, something significant because we know the colours and the lines don’t stop just because our eyes can’t see any further. These edge spaces animate the canvas, and have the potential to do so on the urban one as well.

Composition 10

Apparently de Hoog & Kierulf architects haven’t been the only ones inspired by Piet Mondrian.

Mondrian dress

“Mondrian” day dress by Yves Saint Laurent

All things Mondrian