November 4, 2013
Review By Maria Tippett
During the 1960s things radically changed in the Canadian art world. Aesthetic categories expanded to include technically based video and multimedia performance art. Traditional art institutions competed with artist-run centres like The Sound Gallery and Intermedia, which included musicians, filmmakers and poets, as well as artists. Public and private galleries rightly treated First Nations’ “artifacts” as works of art. And Vancouver became the artistic centre of the country.
British Columbia’s largest city did not remain in the spotlight for long. By the early 1970s attention returned to Montreal and Toronto. Though some artists re-grouped to form non-traditional multimedia venues like the Western Front, many grassroots artists began exhibiting their work in formal commercial and public art gallery space. They began applying for government funding — and usually got it. And some of them attached themselves to universities where they became curators or visual art teachers. During the 1980s things changed again. The new generation of artists, like their predecessors in the 1960s, became concerned with consumerism, with the politics of gender and, among other things, with the impact of mass media.
Vancouver Anthology, which covers thirty years of Vancouver’s art history, was first published in 1991. The eleven essays comprising this volume have now been re-issued because, so Jonathan Middleton writes in “Notes on the New Edition,” there has been an “absence of significant critical and historical overviews” relating to recent discussions of works of art (7). This cannot be said, however, of Liz Magor et al.’s Baja to Vancouver (2004), Melanie O’Brian’s Vancouver Art & Economies (2007), or John O’Brian and Peter White’s more geographically encompassing Beyond Wilderness (2007). Middleton would have been closer to the mark if he had claimed that Vancouver Anthology helped set the agenda for how the province’s future artists, critics, and art historians would write about the visual arts.
The essays emerged from a lecture series, and some are repetitive. Also, the quality of the writing varies and some of it is weighted down with art-speak jargon. Nonetheless there is much to admire in Vancouver Anthology. Ken Wallace’s essay — some of the material is repeated by Nancy Shaw — firmly situates artist-run centres within the social, political, and cultural context of the period. Sara Diamond introduces her readers to the “Practical Aesthetics of Early Vancouver Video,” while Maria Insell explores — in rather jargon-ridden language — experimental film. Less satisfying is Robin Peck’s discussion of sculpture from Halifax to Vancouver and Robert Linsley’s essay, “Painting and the Social History of British Columbia.”
The gem in the collection is undoubtedly Marcia Crosby’s essay, “Construction of the Imaginary Indian.” It grew out of her four-year experience as a student in the province’s post-secondary educational system. “I saw, in the images, texts and authoritative academic voices of a Eurocentric institution, the ugly Indian I thought only existed in the minds of the uneducated in my small town” (297). Crosby writes convincingly about how curators and government officials, historians and anthropologists, along with artists — from Paul Kane and Emily Carr to Bill Reid and Jack Shadbolt — have all had a hand in determining how we imagine First Nation Peoples. This essay alone would have justified the welcome decision to re-issue Vancouver Anthology.
Stan Douglas, editor
Vancouver: Talonbooks and Or Gallery, 2011. Second edition; first published 1991. 320 pp. $35.00 cloth