Figurative Contemplation, Spatial Understanding and Roz Marshall at the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art

I was quite excited to learn that there were three exhibitions occurring at the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art during the first couple of months of this year so I took along a friend and went to view the exhibitions.

I was especially interested in the Figurative Contemplation exhibition which was “divided into several sub-themes, exploring the politics of the figure, the performance of identity, the presence or absence of the figure, and everyday life”1. The lineup of artists included Edward Burtynsky, Rodney Graham, Angella Grossmann, Gu Xiong, Karin Bubas, Gathie Falk, Jane Ash Poitras, Irene Whittome and Attilla Richard Lukacs. Most of the work was painting, with a few sculptures and sketches. Sadly photography seems to be the orphan art in Vancouver as the Burtynsky photo (just one) and the one by Rodney Graham (also one only) were the same ones that were on display back in April 2014 which I had reviewed at that time. Gu Xiong’s work was also one of the same pieces that was on display in July 2014 at his exhibition.

I found Angela Grossman’s works to be quite interesting. She is a painter, and according to her website she also does a lot of collage work with old photographs. The piece that I was particularly drawn to (Tempo 2012) was a long vertical piece which looked like it was painted on a scroll and it reminded me of a Chinese painting. On closer inspection of the wall text, it was revealed that the painting was done on a piano roll, with the metal attachment visible at the top of the painting anchoring the paper roll in place, and allowing it to curl under at the bottom. It was a figure of a woman walking away seen from behind done in sepia tones. Grossman’s art almost seems unfinished as she allows paint to trickle down off her canvas like tears, yet at the same time begs engagement from the viewer.

In the Robert Young: Spatial Understanding exhibition all the works were paintings by Robert Young. He uses mainly muted tones in his work and his canvases are quite large. I found his Mystique rather engaging and quirky. The wall text gave the following information: Povera, Acrylic, egg tempera and oil on linen. I did not know what Povera was so I quickly did a search on Google and found the following information:

Arte Povera – “poor art” or “impoverished art” – was the most significant and influential avant-garde movement to emerge in Europe in the 1960s. It grouped the work of around a dozen Italian artists whose most distinctly recognizable trait was their use of commonplace materials that might evoke a pre-industrial age, such as earth, rocks, clothing, paper and rope.2

Some of the key ideas for Arte Povera were:

  • Believing that modernity threatened to erase our sense of memory along with all signs of the past, the Arte Povera group sought to contrast the new and the old in order to complicate our sense of the effects of passing time.
  • … they conjured a world of myth whose mysteries couldn’t be easily explained. Or they presented absurd, jarring and comical juxtapositions, often of the new and the old, or the highly processed and the pre-industrial. By doing so, the Italian artists evoked some of the effects of modernization, how it tended to destroy experiences of locality and memory as it pushed ever forwards into the future.
  • … they proposed an art that was much more interested in materiality and physicality, and borrowed forms and materials from everyday life.2

Amazing how just discovering the definition of a word can help understand the art work. The work was painted on linen (an every day material) using acrylic (regular medium) and egg tempura and oil (household items). Mystique is a painting of four women against a backdrop of abstract mosaic shapes. It is painted in muted earth, green and blue tones. The figure on the left in the background is of a modern day woman who appears to be looking through a window and she is situated against a backdrop of a modern brick wall. She has her hand clasped over her head. In front of her a naked woman is seated busy trimming her toenails with a large scissors. She is reminiscent of a Michelangelo sculpture. On the extreme right of the frame stands a Japanese woman dressed in a kimono holding her purse. Between these two figures stands another woman on a makeshift pedestal dressed in a frayed, patched tunic which is belted around the waist with a rope. Her head dress is a slight modern version of that which women wore during biblical times. She has her arms stretched out to the women on either side of her, but they ignore her. Instead a set of hands clasp each other and reach out to her and clutch her arm on the left. These hands form diagonal lines between the seated naked woman’s elbow and the biblical woman’s right hand. Their activity is suggestive of a manicure. On the central figure’s left a hand reaches out to her left hand and just below that another hand passes over an object that looks rather like a nose. In front of this central figure is some sort of shrubbery that is devoid of leaves and looks quite dead, while behind her is a tree or rose bush that bears both red and white flowers and green leaves. In the distance behind the Japanese woman is a tall tree with brown autumn leaves.

Little wonder the woman in the background has her hands clasped about her head – it must be in puzzlement. What does this painting suggest? Is it a play on the female and her obsession with her looks through all the ages? Do women go to all sorts of lengths to revive the “old” into something “new”? Well yes, in certain cultures facelifts are extremely common and expected. We know that women have always strived to make themselves more beautiful throughout the ages. Cleopatra was know to have bathed in goats’ milk because it was good for the skin. Is this painting representative of Western and Eastern women’s quests towards beauty? Are they the same or are they different?

Roz Marshall is a well know Canadian artist who now lives in Kona, Hawaii, actually she was born in Wales and has traveled extensively. I found her work quite refreshing after viewing the muted tones of Robert Young’s work. Marshall’s work is vivid with richly saturated colours comprising mainly the primary and secondary colours and obviously reflects the surroundings in which she now lives. The Gallery newsletter described her work as “quilt and tapestry-like compositions”, so I was not too sure what to expect. I certainly did not get the impression that her work resembled quilting or tapestry in any way. It looked more like silk screening painting to me.  Her work mainly consisted of portraits of women, either alone or with their children and while I loved the colours that Marshall uses, I did find that some of her body proportions seemed a little off to me. But then I am no artist and can’t draw for toffee, and I’m am always hesitant to comment on things I know nothing about.

So I came away from these exhibitions rather disappointed that photography got a bit of a raw deal in the exhibitions. I’m sure the Gallery could have loaned a few more photography works from the Vancouver Art Gallery’s permanent collection. On the plus side, I now know what Arte Povera is.

Reference List

1 Fall 2014 Newsletter. Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art, p1.

2 Arte Povera. The Art Story.org [online] Available from: http://www.theartstory.org/movement-arte-povera.htm [Accessed 10 January, 2015]

Roz Marshall [online]. Available from: http://rozmarshall.com/ [Accessed 10 January, 2015]

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