Pictures From Here opened 19 May 2017 at the Vancouver Art Gallery with a top-billed cast of local heavyweights—no, legends, of photoconceptualism. From “historical painter” Ian Wallace, to everyone’s first introduction to west coast photoconceptualism, Jeff Wall, to everyone’s all-time-favourite cafe owner, Rodney Graham, the breathtaking presentations of large scale works in the white cube of the gallery makes it easy to imagine the ripples these works created in the 80s. While photography was obsessed with the landscape, and the “truth” translated by the camera and the photograph, the featured artists adulterated and re-conceptualized what lens-based art was capable of. The show features photographic and video works from the 60s to present day, and while beautiful, leaves curatorial innovation to be desired.
Favourites of the exhibition are Evan Lee’s Forest Fire, Brookmere, BC, after found BCFS Aerial Photograph, 2010, (2010), Greg Girard’s Under Vancouver series (1972 - 1982), which also recently showed at Monte Clarke Gallery, and Karin Bubaš’s ethereal staged portraits, including Pink Dress and Cherry Blossoms (2006). Bubaš’s portraits are standouts: hung almost entirely in a room to themselves, the large-scale works appear at first rather bucolic, but harbour a darker edge that punctuates each frame with a sense of unease. Girard’s filmic and moody images capturing competing light temperatures cast by neons and interior lights in Vancouver evenings in the 70s are brilliantly tempered. Evan Lee's depictions of forest fires involve printing images on the backside of photo paper with inkjet printers and manipulating the wet ink with a paintbrush to create an alien texture overlaid upon a very familiar scene. Similarly, Marian Penner Bancroft uses sculptural framing in spiritland/Octopus Books, Fourth Avenue (1978) to interrogate the nature of the 35mm frame, and all that it leaves out.
The show prizes Rodney Graham's Paddler at the Mouth of the Seymour (2012-2013). Graham’s playful and humourous body of work is complemented by hyper-saturated light boxes—bolstered, of course, by scale. Light boxes are everywhere in Pictures From Here, and Christos Dikeakos, also featured in the exhibition, speaks to their relevance following light box 'pioneer' Jeff Wall: “the light box was just another way to break the mold,” he said, but Wall’s popularization of the medium saw the light box "cast a long shadow”.
This restraining tether to an origin is a common theme in the art world’s discussion of photoconceptualism broadly, especially in Vancouver: today, 40 years after Girard began capturing incredible colour photography of the city’s neon lights at night, we are still invited to major gallery openings to look at art that perpetuates the same narrative, and celebrates the same people. Jeff Wall owns the lightbox, and the “pioneers” of photoconceptualism own Vancouver photography and in some ways, Vancouver art.
At the preview, curator Grant Arnold issued the disclaimer that Pictures From Here only sought to show certain currents of photoconceptualism, and didn’t try to represent the whole movement—which to the viewer, to the critic, means only that the show presents the same perpetual incompleteness we see in every group show curated in the name of photoconceptualism. Rather than try to present a more comprehensive cross-section of more or different currents, the gallery opted to reiterate the heavily white and male narrative that has dominated Vancouver’s development as an art city for decades.
It wouldn’t simply be a disservice but an objective falsehood to suggest that these heavy-hitters, so to speak—Graham, Wallace, Wall—featured in Pictures From Here are not integral to the development of photoconceptualism and art in Vancouver, but in the same year that we welcome the eighth Fast and Furious movie, it’s time to start innovating again, and curators are not immune to the need to press onward. Pictures From Here is beautiful. The works are beautiful. It is also totally derivative, and I would have loved to see the VAG engage with alternative histories and perspectives of the city.