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Issue 137

N. Vancouver
by Lee Plested

Opening its doors this fall with enthusiastic aplomb, the new Polygon Gallery marks an important moment in the history of Presentation House, the name by which this photo-focused gallery has been known for the past 40 years. After establishing itself as an international participant in the presentation and discussion of the discipline, the gallery has grown out of its historic home up the hill and has stepped into a new spacious, purpose-built site down on the energetic Lonsdale Quay. Perched at the edge of the harbour, the building’s new metal-clad surface reflects the land, water and people around it. It’s a suitable effect for a gallery that has been committed to focusing on the mirror of mediums, photography.

N. Vancouver, the first exhibition here, has an appropriately conceptual sound to its name. It feels similar to the name of Lucy Lippard’s Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition, 955,000, which drew its title from the population of the city in 1970. The latter was the first survey of conceptualism here, and its impact was profound. As noted by local art critic Michael Turner, Lippard’s exhibition and ideas are “a big reason why Vancouver art looks and feels the way it does.”1

North Vancouver is not technically Vancouver2 but it has nonetheless been home to many Vancouver artists, including Iain and Ingrid Baxter when they worked together as N.E. Thing Co. Participants in the 955,000 exhibition, they are represented here in Polygon’s main gallery through vintage works in which they document the city’s car lot canopies, simulated tree structures, cement transfer walls and yard-front statuary shops. Their cool observation and dry articulation of the urbanized environment was an important precursor to much art that followed. This mode of historical materialism is a trenchant discourse in Vancouver art, and major works by Jeff Wall and Rodney Graham, as well as commissioned pieces by Stan Douglas, Steven Waddell and Greg Girard, are installed in the exhibition to create a literal horizon, circling the gallery. Their pictured places alternate back and forth between resource extraction and sites of leisure, a sweeping sky often framing their foregrounded locals in an expanse of natural sublime. This is the photography for which Vancouver is known, and which the gallery has helped champion. More than a literal picturing of this place, it is a background of ideas and an acknowledgment of the history of art in this area.

Since his arrival at the gallery over a decade ago, director Reid Shier has pushed the envelope of the galleries photo-based mandate, expanding ideas of lens-based practice. Shows like Male, from the collection of disco connoisseur Vince Aletti, with more drawing and painting than photography, and the resurrection of Glenn Lewis’ large ceramic wall work Artifact (1970), installed in his 2010 retrospective for the first time since its censorship,3 present physical traces of the photographed image’s aura as it manifests in a wide variety of contemporary forms. N. Vancouver pushes this expansion forward with the extensive inclusion of sculpture, with strong work by relatively emerging artists within the gallery and newly commissioned works sited throughout the building itself.

Lippard’s conceptual influence again reverberates here. Both Holly Ward’s Raw Goods, equal portions of locally sourced sulfur and coal (known to locals from waterside processing plants) are poured onto the concrete floor of a vacant ground-level window space and Tim Lee’s inverted video image of the sign over Lonsdale Quay, North Vancouver, August 25, 2017 appropriate Robert Smithson’s strategies of displacement and inversion, respectively, to realize aesthetic allegories from recognizable elements of the city’s landscapes. Also in the lobby, Myfanwy MacLeod’s newest Hogarthian caricature is a monumental scorched wooden boat, modelled after Captain George Vancouver’s ship, and draped with a Union Jack. The charcoal surface is pungent, a ship burnt with exploit. Also exploring the colonial past is a new, permanent work by Brian Jungen, another inverted readymade.

The stark white Upside down flagpole, 2017, has, at its base, a sculptural clump of dirt, uprooted, molded and hard-coated with polyurea. The work currently lives in cement supports, awaiting erection following the completion of the sidewalks outside, when this evidence of deracination will be heisted into the air, its flag end planted in the ground. Collectively, the scale and siting of these works established a phenomenological dimension to the exhibition, that made me aware of my own physicality in the space.

This feeling was enhanced by the integration of sculpture with photography upstairs. Cameron Kerr’s table of Untitled abstract interpretations of North Vancouver overpasses lent a tangible physicality to Babak Golkar’s photographs documenting his artist friends’ works, on loan, in his North Shore home (including one by Kerr). Their projects seem to emphasize the role of artist as an autonomous transgressor – of ideas working themselves out, things being made here through artistic conversations. In these galleries, discoveries were made by the inclusion of weavings by Xwemilut, Katxinamet, Melvin Williams and Sesemiya in this dialogue. These works – by artists from the Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish nations, having reserved land in the area – added another material layer, presented not so much as a parallel language to conceptual art, but a moment to sound voices as critical inclusion. One feels a distance between the work of these artists and the conceptual projects nearby; I wondered if this is because their original purpose is in their potential communal (often ceremonial) use. Here, they are presented as representational artifact.

These divergent perspectives of traditional and contemporary approaches seemed to convene in the work of Gabrielle L’Hirondelle Hill, which offers here a way of coming together. Hill is a sophisticated sculptor with a lot to say, which she manages to do with very little. In her Four Effigies For the End of Property: Preempt, Improve, The Highest and Best Use, Be Long (2017), she gathers the discards of the urban environment and harnesses them in sculpture. The nearly usable Preempt, whose hose continuously flows back into itself through a series of gradated funnels, or the latent potential of Improve, a woven fence of found fences, hold onto an aspect of their use value. Assembled as linguistic systems of failure, there is a practicality to the reuse and re-evaluation of material; it is presented as myth and still somehow feels available to use, for daily life. Hill’s Effigies succeed in realizing resonate visual models through which to consider our shared materiality.

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