The new director of Vancouver’s Contemporary Art Gallery, Nigel Prince, makes an unusual, ambitious debut this week with a trio of exhibitions that challenge and expand his institution’s seemingly straightforward moniker, just as it celebrates its 40th birthday. Latin American artist Federico Herrero furnishes a piece for the CAG’s windows and engages with web-development company Autobox Media to make virtual murals on buildings throughout Vancouver. More obscure are Prince’s choices inside the gallery: Corita Kent, a California nun who adopted screen-printing in the 1960s to create blindingly bright, socially conscious pop art, and Thomas Bewick, an 18th-century engraver and naturalist whose work brims with wit and social critique. (Prince curated a Bewick show in 2009 at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, where he also developed exhibitions on Canadians Marcel Dzama, Roy Arden and Steven Shearer.) In this interview with assistant editor David Balzer, Prince discusses the unlikely trio, and their relevance to the city he now calls home.
DB: It’s an eclectic assemblage of shows. I’m curious as to how they all came together for you.
NP: On a formal level, there is a very strong graphic connection. You’ve got Bewick, with wood engraving, a very old process, done in the 18th century; you’ve got Kent with screen-printing, which was new technology in the 1950s and 60s, when she was working; and you’ve got Herrero on the outside of the building, using bright vinyl as a kind of cut-out, or collage. The strong, primary-coloured, graphic quality provides a formal link.
Conceptually, what I was interested in with Kent was that a lot of the work grew out a series of participatory, community-based screen-printing sessions that she developed at the Immaculate Heart Center in LA when she was a nun. Typical of the 1960s, Kent and those involved with her were interested in how art-making, although perhaps with a small rather than a capital a, could be used to reflect the world around them. In Kent’s work, there are quotations from street signage, advertising and other coloured shapes that surrounded her in LA, and also very carefully constructed imagery dealing with the burning social issues of the day: the civil rights movement, the Kennedy assassinations, Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War. As the 60s progressed, she was very much involved with that activism. In part, it stems from her spiritual belief that our everyday physical environment isn’t an empty experience. As with many artists, including many working today, there’s an engagement with and reflection on the real world, as it were, outside of the art gallery—and on how the two things intermesh, and how an art-making process can be developed alongside a daily routine.
Bewick, in the 18th century, presents moral tales: tiny images that depict all sorts of different scenes to do with our relationship to each other, but also our relationship to the animal kingdom and to the natural world. The mistreatment, mistrust and insensitivity within those relationships haven’t gone away; they still seem very fresh. There is that wit and satire—and, again, a very personal reflection on and critique of what he felt were some of the issues that were important in the 18th century.
Herrero comes in part from that social-muralist tradition within Latin America, which frames his work in that broader social context: the idea of art-making in the street as opposed to in the rarefied air of the art gallery.
DB: Would you view these three artists as, in their own ways, outsiders? Kent and Bewick in particular aren’t part of an art establishment, historical or otherwise.
NP: Certainly Federico has got galleries that represent him internationally, so he’s part of the art scene. What I find interesting with Bewick and Kent is that, of late, they’ve been gathering more attention. I’m not sure I would classify them as outsiders, but there was a different kind of tension at the time they were making art; it was a different world and things were looked on in a different way, with a different context. This is not to say that what we’re doing here is revisionist. Often I find, for a whole variety of reasons, certain artists that are making work at a particular time can be overlooked, or, arguably, don’t receive the attention that, from a contemporary standpoint, we feel their work deserves. I’ve made exhibitions in the past where there’s been a sense of discovery, if one might say that; there is a resonance, and for whatever reason the timing becomes right.
DB: I was watching a panel discussion on YouTube held by the Hammer Museum, which, in 2000, hosted an exhibition juxtaposing the work of Kent with that of contemporary artist Donald Moffett. Moffett talked about how he found Kent “one of the most irritating artists around” for the supposed naïveté with which she approached her practice. Are you concerned people will see the work as quaint?
NP: As mere nostalgia? Again, I think there are different ways to approach it on a formal level. One has to try to move back in time and understand why that collaged, cut-and-paste technique was considered fresh and radical. Certainly it’s still being dealt with by current artists: that idea of lighting on an image in some sort of way and selecting a portion of it which immediately recontextualizes it, and therefore changes meaning, and then superimposing that portion onto, or juxtapositioning it with, something else. There are things that root the work in the time, of course: the use of fluourescent inks recalls that late-60s psychedelic aesthetic, like Grateful Dead posters. It connects her with things that were very fashionable at the time.
DB: Didn’t she drop acid with Timothy Leary?
NP: Who knows! With hope, through the series of talks and screenings the CAG is having, and also with the attention in the show to the way the work was made, through these participatory workshops, people will be able to see it as more than a trip down memory lane. Some of the imagery is actually quite tough. That goes for Bewick, too: his hanged figures, or people beating or maltreating animals. With Kent, especially in 1968 and 1969 when she started to use imagery from the covers of LIFE and Newsweek, she showed famine in Africa, protests, civil-rights marches, priests burning draft papers. It was Vietnam then, but Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya are very present in news now, as well as continuing famine in various parts of Africa.
DB: Kent’s studio practice is, as you mention, so important to everything she did, and this is also quite contemporary…
NP: The show is a relatively busy hang, with things being double- and triple-hung on top of each other; it’s not just single image, single image, single image. Some items are hung quite high. We wanted to capture that energy so the works could transmit.
DB: I’m interested in how these shows, particularly the Bewick and the Kent, fit within a Vancouver context. On the CAG site there’s specific mention of how the Bewick might relate to what various artists are doing in Vancouver right now. And it’s the first large Canadian showing of Kent’s work.
NP: My connection to Vancouver as a curator goes back to when I first visited here in 2000. A subsequent number of artists have become friends, with whom I’ve made exhibitions when I was still in the UK. I very much see these exhibitions nudging up against a number of these artists. Roy Arden, for example: his work’s major proposition concerns how the natural environment is despoiled by various socio-economic forces. Steven Shearer, with whom I worked for his first museum show at Ikon in 2007, uses archival imagery, creating new meaning by juxtaposition, with historical quotations in his painting; Jeff Wall, obviously, has very specific connections in his work to history painting.
We’re called a contemporary art gallery—and I am, in a light or subtle way, provoking what one’s expectations are of contemporary work. I don’t necessarily believe “contemporary” means something that was made yesterday or today; it can mean something that was made a long time ago, if the issues and propositions within that work still carry meaning to society and to visitors, but also to the art scene that’s here in Vancouver. Theatre groups perform Shakespeare because the themes and issues still carry resonance: the context of presenting that work is obviously different now, but we’re able to enlarge it and keep the work alive in that way.
DB: Corita Kent has such a history in the LA area, where she has been shown frequently and is well loved, but here she is not as recognized. How does that affect the CAG exhibition?
NP: As a curator, it’s interesting, because when her family first moved west when she was a young child they actually lived in Vancouver briefly. Then, in the 1940s, she came back to BC and did teacher training. She would have been in her 20s, when the ideas and concerns that make you who you are in your adult life emerge. Undoubtedly that had something to do with her experience of the inherent creativity within all of us. It’s a rather subtle connection to this part of the world, but it’s a rather nice one.