Grey Skies Over Melancholy Bay: Creative Antagonism and Cultural Preservation on the West Coast

A call for action rang out in Vancouver this spring when members of the art community rallied together and voiced opposition to the sited demolition of artists Carole Itter and Al Neil’s cabin, where they have communed since 1966. A loose collective of activists sprang to the defense of this ramshackle retreat, one of the last of the North Vancouver rural squats, identifying it as an important cultural site. The press dutifully reported this effort to save the cabin, and some of the sculptural assemblage situated in, on, and around the beached float-home. Inherently the protest is about more than stating the injustice of the eviction (Itter and Neil are, in fact, longstanding interlopers), or any claim about the monetary value of the couple’s sculptural production. What thoroughly incited this artist group to action had everything to do with the symbolic value of their life project, collaborating to manifest Dadaist cut-up as received through the Beats coming up the West Coast, squatting on the Man’s land, reflecting on the encroaching, built environment.

Creative antagonism and the need for its cultural preservation are prevailing sentiments in the exhibition Melancholy Bay: Images of English Bay, Burrard Inlet, and Howe Sound at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. While Itter and Neil’s artwork, which was borrowed for inclusion in this collection-based show, resonates an urgent environmentalist perspective, it’s the Belkin’s intention to place their works and other local artist projects in a larger political thematic, to “return focus to the landscape in the wake of split oil,” which articulates an institutional position of activism.

The Belkin, in framing this issue through its collection, utilized a highly effective armature for this survey of coastal material, which brings contemporary contingencies to historic drawing and painting and allows these works to speak with and inform our experience of recent art.

Irene Hoffer Reid’s impressions of 1930s Burrard Inlet were a discovery for me. Born in Vancouver and introduced to painting by Frederick Varley, Hoffer Reid is a fine Canadian female Modernist. Elegant proportions define her plein air studies of beachcombers populating the cold, stony shores. Here we see the work of an artist striving to create evocative images of her world through flattened perspectives, boldly colored in molded light that she washes across figurative elements. While her being a woman and a fauve distinguish her for the time, Hoffer Reid’s sketches are essentially the conventional project of a bourgeois, educated woman with time spent on the beach, free to draw. However a few of the works directly embrace the emerging proletariat perspective of the early-twentieth century. Untitled (1933), a rough oil-on-canvas work, brings social realism’s monumentality to the limbs, nets, and labor of local fisherman. The voluptuous and organic rendering of this landscape are buoyant with the ocean’s bounty and the workers’ communal purpose.

This historical perspective is continued through the modernism of a neighboring painting by Gordon Smith. Made in the mid-seventies, Smith’s near-landscape in cool hues is built up in horizontal, rectangular planes of thinly applied oil that are made dimensional by the occasional slopping, diagonal polygon and thin drafting lines of graphite, all contained in a classic pine-strip frame. The sequence of understated blocks of color captures the essence of a calm sea. Smith’s geometric abstraction was possibly inspired by, and is analogist to, the American painter Richard Diebenkorn’s well-known Ocean Park series (not featured in this exhibition), a painting that bears the time spent in concentrated looking. His medium is laid carefully in luminosities of pastel tranquility with a simmering potential under the surface.

A chill blows over these modern pictures from the melancholy distilled in a photo-based work by Roy Arden. People of BC (2009) is a mural developed out of three dated but contemporaneous found photographs of our seaside. Judging by the bathing costumes, these sources were shot in the early-twentieth century, and picture people enjoying themselves at Second Beach and English Bay. The image is repeated and staggered, often reprinted directly on top of itself. Each image is elaborated in a separate panel, the three of them spanning over thirty feet. Arden alters the size of the original to place the playing children close to shore, further out, and climbing on top of themselves, while retaining a sense of linear perspective. This stutter is subtle and effective in creating a romantically naturalistic and yet disorienting image. The layered ink breaks the image in a clotted, Warholian reproduction, shifting the emotional density of the figures, ones you start to recognize as you travel along the length of panels. The deep blue colorization of the black-and-white original and awkward stammer of the children at play objectifies and mechanizes the pastoral with a sense of loss. The waters are no longer a point for free time and ideal contemplation, the beach a controlled site for sanctified leisure, contingent to the forces of labor and capital.

In this shade, the liberty of Hoffer Reid’s early Vancouver appears as a fleeting moment of nature as spectacle, filled with the possibility of a retreat from the effects of industrialization. The figures seem to me now shrouded in contemporary angst, every head downcast. What is that man doing on the far wall, over there, in Stephen Waddell’s Wader, who’s pushed out, waste deep, into the bay? Is he trying to escape contemporary alienation only to be deterred by incoming freighters? This narrative horizon of sea and sky are continued in the neighboring gallery where photo-based views by Marian Penner Bancroft, Christos Dikeakos, and Ann Ramsden offer a post-structural frame to our shoreline. Portfolios from the 1980s and ‘90s incorporate textual analysis (poetic, Indigenous, and socio-political fiction, respectively) to these artists’ documentation of the transformed land and sea. The formal fragmentation of the picture in the early Modern work is echoed, here, these conceptual landscapes utilizing expanded visual systems to allow the contingencies of our natural environment to speak.

The exhibition is bookended by two large, contemporary works, both homages to the classic bay-horizon shot, and both structurally paradoxical and politicized. In the video projection From Third Beach 1 (2011), Mark Lewis gives us the classic nighttime vista, the fullest of moons traveling across the sky. However, as the image is extended, you quickly realize the illumination is too bright to be night, the moon too diffused. Other truths, a flock of energetic birds and a speedboat zipping past the anchored freighters, give away the fiction.

In his scenic shot of Third Beach, Lewis has employed the Hollywood artifice of using day for night, casting the sun as the moon in a darkened la nuit American. The viewer is at first duped, then led to reflect on the pop-cultural construction and inherent commercialization of our scenic environment. Though globalization isn’t directly mentioned, the noir shadow and colonizing influence of American culture looms on the horizon.

Mark Soo’s Monochrome Sunset (English Bay – Oppenheimer Park), 2006, is a monumental, free-standing photograph of the bay dramatically backlit by two dense, yellow, high-wattage lights which lie on the floor behind it. The title’s listed sites conflate Vancouver’s West End tourist beach and East End heroin park. The inclusion of Soo’s work in this exhibition effectively furthers its confrontation of nature as a commoditized spectacle. By using the amped-up sodium streetlights installed in Oppenheimer Park “for their unique characteristic of disrupting color perception (to) discourage intravenous drug use” as a means to illuminate this postcard shot, Soo formally merges these polarized public sites of leisure, realizing important questions about the evaluation of space, its legislated preservation and use, and the technocratic means of this control. The feeling of the light in the gallery is lured, an acid bath of anxious orange. Piercing through the transparent photo, the light illuminates the pictured sun, burning caustic yellow as it sets in the distance. Within the larger environmental tone of the exhibition, it absorbed additional gravitas radiating ‘Stay away from the Sun’.

The show also includes work by our evacuees, Itter and Neil. Collaged meditations on the bay and its geese (Itter) meet a clipboard collection of oil-spill press clippings (Neil). Presenting some of the most deskilled work in this ‘narrative’ exhibition, their formal antagonism reads as a resonate sign – no, a “freak flag” – of their era.

Perhaps Itter’s most accomplished contribution here is InLet (2009), a video work that employs a simple structural device, doubling and then mirroring a shot of the bay with a slight overlap that causes the featured boats, birds, and recreationists to collide into, or emerge out from one another. The real drama arrives with the large tankers that lumber in from the cinematic void and overtake the horizon. Itter’s text, spoken and then reinforced as a subtitle running along the bottom of the screen, is poetic and self-reflective, accompanied by the whistful musical improvisations of Neil. It muses on our inherent connectivity, engaging a myriad of texts from linguistic analysis to Buddhist kōans, to contemplate this landscape’s sustainability in direct relationship to our own.

It was announced recently that Polygon Homes, the developer of the site of Itter and Neil’s cabin, and its CEO arts patron Michael Audain, have arranged to support the relocation costs of this veritable assemblage work. I spoke with Glenn Alteen (director of Grunt Gallery) who, along with Barbara Cole and Esther Rauschenberg, has been leading the charge. Through their efforts and the subsequent press coverage, Canexus, a North Vancouver chemical plant, has come forward to extend storage for a year, potentially affording the artists the time to harness a new site. Whether it’s possible to preserve this squat and its inhabitants’ actions as a cultural example is yet to be seen. However the political import given to Itter and Neil’s project sheds an important light on the struggle to define and negotiate the expanding forces of capital along our coast. Faced with the possible extinction of an endangered architectural form (float squat) and its inherent politic, the public’s activism allowed the artists’ values and cultural perspective to be articulated in a public forum. In continuing this conversation, the Belkin provides a valuable example of utilizing a collected history of art to speak to the moment’s most prescient issues.

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