The Pictures From Here exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery looks at Vancouver as a place from which numerous lens-based artist burst onto the art scene in the last forty or so years. All the usual suspects are represented: Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas, Rodney Graham and Christos Dikeakos. Many other photographers are there as well, which is both a good thing and a problem. While there is a lot to see and choose from, ultimately there is little coherence in terms of why Vancouver and what made it so synonymous with Photo-Conceptualism. There is little satisfactory exploration of these questions and the result is a collection of different photographers with a variety of approaches to diverse issues. The point for this diverse collection was seemingly to show that there was more to the Vancouver photographic scene than just the usual suspects and to give recognition to those who have not had as much exposure. However, perhaps against the intentions of the exhibition, it is the usual suspects that stand out, in particular, their large-scale photographs that became synonymous with Vancouver Photo-Conceptualism. The monumentalism of these works, often eight by ten feet or larger, magnify their rich detail and colours. Roy Arden’s Landfill, Richmond BC, 1991, a photograph of an ordinary landfill, really of nothing interesting, becomes riveting because of the huge clear graduated blue sky. The socially engaged conscience in the back of my mind kept saying “you cannot stand here enjoying these works when there are so many injustices happening in the world,” but I think that it is ok to occasionally indulge in the simple joy of looking. One can argue that the melancholic pleasure of these works undermines their ability to function critically, but a counter argument can be made that the activation of the senses and non-cognitive forms of thought also have a role in promoting resistance to the craziness of our world. The fact that Arden’s photograph is of nothing in particular is perhaps what makes it so interesting, one can’t stop looking and thinking about why it is so captivating. Rodney Graham’s Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour,* 2012-13, is similarly of nothing special, but is equally spectacular. The photograph’s nod to Thomas Eakins 1871 painting The Champion Single Skulls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull) appears to be more of a conceptual excuse to make a photograph rather than any attempt to recreate or advance meaning. Graham’s ridiculous portrayal of himself as the paddler is what makes the work so absorbing. The sheer absurdity of his white beard and garnet toque inadvertently forces one into a prolonged stare of disbelief. Of course, the illumination of the light box enhances the detail and clarity of the river bank scene to add to the viewing pleasure, much like a giant projection of a Fuji Velvia slide with its saturated colours. The reference to painting is a good reminder that it was how Jeff Wall’s original practice of large light box photographs in the style of nineteenth-century history painting emerged in the late 1970s. However, whereas Wall tried to infuse his works with meaning, Graham’s absurd lack of meaning is in many ways more suitable to our contemporary moment. Among the many other photographers on display, Greg Girard’s photographs of a dingy dockside Vancouver in the 1970s is another pleasant surprise. Pictures From Here continues to September 4, 2017 at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
* Featured image above is Rodney Graham’s Paddler, Mouth of the Seymour, 2012-13, from the Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery.