Sunday, 15 September 2002

Let's Get Lost: The Summer Vacation Show

Featuring work by John Armstrong, Karma Clarke-Davis, Jason Dunda, Dave Dyment, Katharine Harvey, Alexander Irving, Mara Korkola, Stacey Lancaster, Dionne McAffee, Wendy Morgan, Jan Noestheden, Daniel Olson and Kate Wilson, Curated by Gordon Hatt
“Let's Get Lost” is about escapism (It's summer!), but more specifically, it's about the compulsive desire to take flight from reality, to seek temporary oases in artificial worlds, fantasy, hallucination, heightened experience, travel, exoticism, romance, sensory deprivation and intoxication. The theme of this exhibition has been influenced in part by Chet Baker's music – his bittersweet song and the movie of the same name.
But the exhibition has also been influenced by many artists, both contemporary and historical, for whom the experience of art may be founded in a desire to describe ecstatic moments – moments of heightened experience and awareness – moments that hint at the existence of absolute transcendent freedom. This freedom may be charted either as an inwardly directed journey – a construction entirely of the mind, or of outward journey – into the world as an explorer, adventurer or tourist.
So the 18th century English artist William Blake, in defense of his unique cosmology, remarked that he had to "create a System, or be enslav'd by another Man's," and defined the image of the isolated genius, at war with the banality and mediocrity of the world around him. Another English artist, J.M.W. Turner, in his quest to describe the sublimity of God in nature, created immersive turbulent seascape paintings that appear today as a type of proto-abstraction. Turner’s paintings engaged the spirit and fantasy of being on top of the world, of being in the centre of an earth-shaking drama, as much as any contemporary Hollywood action-adventure.
Hollywood is, of course, the contemporary paradigm for escape. Popular art in North America is considered to be a deliverance from life, from hard work, from stress, and from obligation. Hollywood culture doesn't like to dwell on unhappy endings and complicated narratives without clearly defined good guys and bad guys. When we escape in North America, (and increasingly in the rest of the world) we like to see that in the end, true love conquers all obstacles, that virtuous people eventually succeed, and that the greedy, the overweight, the unattractive, and the addicted (see Jurassic Park) are eaten by large prehistoric creatures. The wish fulfillment agenda of Hollywood production has created the problem of television addiction – people who are enervated by the fast food aesthetics of television and are unable to stop surfing with the remote control or turn the television off. For those so afflicted, Dave Dyment has created an image which is the equivalent of a modern "Home Sweet Home" homily: "I like to watch things on television." 
Artists in “Let's Get Lost” engage the idea of escape as both a native desire and as a representative social value. John Armstrong’s “Smoking” paintings, for example, quote 1960's vintage cigarette advertisements and their stylized images of the “good life:” glamour, sex and luxury. Viewed through Armstrong’s painterly eyes, we are reminded of how advertising has used iconic themes of art – Watteau’s idyllic fĂȘtes champetres , or Manet’s DĂ©jeuner sur l’herbe for example – to lend an aura of Edenic pleasure to addictive products.
Pleasure seeking and intoxication have a long and intimate history and contemporary advertising continues to promote that connection. Advertisements representing amiable house parties or camping trips with attractive people, once almost the exclusive province of beer and wine commercials, have in Canada metamorphosed into the representation of high energy bacchanals in commercials for spirits and “coolers.” Interestingly, while the advertising of spirits is still prohibited on television in the United States, advertisements of mood enhancing prescription drugs, featuring apparently happy, drugged families, now fill the airwaves in that country: Ask your doctor today.
Artists Alexander Irving and Daniel Olson engage the reality and the myth of intoxication. Irving contrasts the light-hearted conviviality of a drinking society with alcohol’s parallel reality of alienation, isolation and loss. In his piece, The Lost Weekend , named after the Billy Wilder movie starring Ray Milland and Jayne Wyman, Irving presents us with a faux artifact of the closet alcoholic’s deception – the mickey hidden in a cut-out book. Daniel Olson, on the other hand has decided to document the process of intoxication, video taping himself smoking marijuana, describing an activity that while mundane, is illegal in this country and normally discreetly hidden. Olson’s video neither glamorizes the act, like a music video or album cover art, nor does it moralize and warn us away. Intoxication, this video suggests, is a fact of the human condition and a characteristic unique to our species.
But escapism is far more than self-medication. As children we are enchanted by the surreal and mechanical world of the annual fall fairs and the CNE midway. Everything about it – from the colours to the noise, to the toxic candy floss grates on the sensibilities of the adult, but promises only relief from obligation, boredom and predictability in the world of children, who have not yet accepted life as a sober pastime. Wendy Morgan's distorted fairground photographs verge on the shapeless, yet they communicate a visual equivalency to this youthful intoxication and the elevated sense of being in the world that the fairground can give. Similarly, Kate Wilson draws inspiration from country fairs, car culture, and small town speedways. Her fairground escapism is a little bit more adult than Morgan's. Her paintings and drawings communicate dilapidation, and a kind of desperate thrill seeking that recalls a James Dean aesthetic of "live fast and die young." The intoxication that fast cars and familiar midway haunts provide is very often a temporary escape from narrowly defined opportunities and small town horizons. 
Mara Korkola's No Place paintings also have their sources in the desperation of the highway. Her twilight images of automobile headlights on two-lane highways are an earthly limbo, neither here nor there, neither day or night. Raised on the mobility provided by the automobile, North Americans are a restless people for whom the keys to the car and a tank full of gas are often sufficient promise of escape.
Karma Clarke-Davis's personally expressive work operates ironically and in reference to the popular genre of music videos. We are simultaneously entertained by her inventions and transfixed by her personal narrative. The enacted passion in this case, however, is not the typical glamour posturing of popular youth culture, rather, it is a complex acknowledgment of simultaneously seeing and being seen, of being in the middle of your life's own music video. Similarly, Dionne McAffee's video work, Trance , acknowledges this escapist project as a conflict between desire and self consciousness. One has the potential to escape from everywhere and everything, except the self.
Katharine Harvey's paintings have consisted of parallel interests in sailing and the store windows of urban life. In the past she has painted sailboats on thick accumulations of acrylic gel medium that takes the water from the marine genre and gives it a wholly new and unexpected dimension. In her store window paintings she has focused on the interplay between inexpensive knick-knacks and reflections in the plate glass windows – creating a dialogue between the minor moments of exotic transport (symbolized by the knick-knacks) and the illusions and distortions of the reflections in the plate glass. Her current paintings in "Let's Get Lost" combine the elements of her marine paintings and her store window work. Working from photographs taken under water, Harvey paints the image of toy boats floating on the surface. The resulting images are both disorienting and comforting, a small reminder perhaps of an infantile desire to return to our original amniotic fluid.
Water, of course, has deep associations with the origins of life, and Stacey Lancaster's video, The Bay Model , continues in this symbolic tradition. The dream-like sequences of a woman diving for her submerged clothes lost in the bay are evocative of separation and the desire for reconnection. Escape in this video is an escape from alienation, from adult knowledge and from the physical and psychological dissociation that separates us from our past and our present.
Jan Noestheden is inspired by clip art, those hieroglyphs of efficiency, service, quality and optimism that in less sophisticated times illustrated the yellow pages, stationary and business cards of commerce. Taken out of context his vinyl images seem giddy and ridiculous – over-the-top behaviour typical of the manic-depressive on a roll. Noestheden’s art is an escape from sober-minded adult behaviour, and an ironic embrace of sophomoric and lowbrow taste. Jason Dunda is similarly inspired by the graphic art of adolescence, in his case that of comic books, and the ease with which magic is created with an economy of line and colour. Having been at one time addicted to comic books myself, I can attest to their intoxicating effect, and Dunda's paintings bring me back to that magic.
We crave escapes, in all forms, and the art of escape is an aesthetic we may crave for its own sake. We may read escapist literature or enjoy fantasy movies and art for the simple pleasures of the textures, colours and forms. Art is intoxicating. It get's us through the day. 
Just take it easy though. Not too much. 

Gordon Hatt 2002

No comments:

Post a Comment