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Brian Jungen’s 2002 work, Cetology, is a replica of an Bowhead whale skeleton, constructed entirely of plastic chairs.

Vancouver Art Gallery: safe shows, PR pitches

It’s been a banner month for the Vancouver Art Gallery. Media outlets reported this week that the combination of crowd-pleasing…

By Cecilia Greyson , in Vancouver Art Seen , on March 13, 2010 Tags: , , , ,

Brian Jungen's 2002 work, Cetology, is a replica of an Bowhead whale skeleton, constructed entirely of plastic chairs.

It’s been a banner month for the Vancouver Art Gallery. Media outlets reported this week that the combination of crowd-pleasing exhibitions with free admission during the Olympics was a success, pulling in an estimated 100,000 visitors and setting a new attendance record.

Gallery-goers hoping to see radically different works won’t necessarily be satisfied here, but there’s still enough solid stuff on display to please a broad audience. Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings are the featured attraction, paired with a show of contemporary work examining mortality and the body.

Something new, something old…and something regional. Visions of British Columbia is an attempt to offer a show appropriate for the adjacent BC Pavilion. Linking a large selection of modernist and contemporary works together under a generalized banner feels a bit simplistic, but it’s an easy way to fill rooms with some iconic works from the gallery’s permanent collection.

Designed to showcase local talent, the show features Emily Carr’s dark forests on canvas, Bill Reid’s iconic Haida carvings and Group of Seven member Fred Varley’s oil sketches of BC canyons. But don’t dismiss the show as traditionalist. The contemporary pieces taken from the gallery’s collection are impressive. Jeff Wall, Jim Me Yoon, Stan Douglas, Brian Jungen…it’s like a “greatest hits” retrospective for art history students.

East Vancouver, anyone? Jeff Wall's famous 1990 photograph The Pine on the Corner.

But my favourite piece on display this month isn’t even art – it’s a public relations pitch. In the gallery entrance, a flat-panel television plays a video describing plans for building a new, stand-alone “iconic” gallery facility on a downtown vacant lot. Designed to drum up support, the video is set to an embarrassing muzak soundtrack.

The gallery’s $400 million development plans were recently reported by local media, and concerns were cited that city plans for office tower development on the chosen site would be at odds with the VAG’s desire for a stand-alone building.

Ken Lum's scale models are set over a reflecting pond, evoking the Maplewood Mudflats of North Vancouver where the original cabins once stood.

Ironically, one of the best comments on Vancouver’s rapid urban development is visible at the gallery’s Offsite venue at Georgia and Thurlow. Ken Lum’s site-specific work, from shangri-la to shangri-la, features scale replicas of three squatter cabins from North Vancouver’s early history. Mythic in local lore, the cabins famously housed Malcolm Lowry, artist Tom Burrows, and Greenpeace activist Paul Spong.

The tiny replicas are evocative and perfectly detailed. Dwarfed by Vancouver’s tallest towers, the vulnerable scrap wood structures challenged viewers to think about how art production actually fits into a rapidly changing, gentrified city.

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