Michael Morris The Problem of Nothing 1966 Courtesy the Vancouver Art Gallery / photo Robert Keziere
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to show, to give, to make it be there: In the Beginning, the Word

SFU Gallery, Burnaby Jan 9 to Mar 13 2010



From the mid-1950s to the end of the 1960s, Vancouver was the site of particularly fruitful cross-disciplinary meanderings. Artists wrote, poets made art—not as explanations or illustrations of their mainstay jobs, but rather as lateral extensions of them. The title of this compact exhibition, drawn from a bill bissett editorial poem in the journal blewointment, underlines the motivations of this cross-media transcendence: to bissett, the “visual poem” was the artistic solution that allowed artists “to show, to give, to make it be there.”

In the centre of the compact gallery space stands a kind of semiotic homage to the age: a vintage fake-wood arborite table, on which stands a Gestetner carbon-copier—that clunky machine whose brazenly purple type so deftly bespeaks the age. The Gestetner is surrounded by facsimiles of the epoch’s humbly produced but vibrantly irreverent journals—TISH, blewointment et al. Around this epicentre are a selection of texts, correspondences, sketches, prints, dioramas and photo-based art. Together they project a richly variegated conversation, all the way from Malcolm Lowry to a contemporary exemplar, Stan Douglas.

Curator Michael Turner is himself an interdisciplinary traveller. As well as being an acclaimed novelist (Hard Core Logo, The Pornographer’s Poem), he is a regular commentator on visual art and also an occasional co-producer of it. (To cite one example, he has written screenplays with Stan Douglas.) He’s comfortable with placing overtly dissimilar media together and mapping out their correlations. The installations and displays have a visual appeal, although the exhibition as a whole feels more like archaeology than art. (Visitors can pull out any of the glass-topped drawers of a cabinet to view sketchbooks and scrapbooks from Judith Copithorne, Ian Wallace and others, the way a museum might display the tools and residue of a bygone age.) Yet other than a general synopsis on the wall, there are no explanatory texts. For those without a preliminary knowledge of this time and place, or without the illuminating benefit of the curator’s talks, each installation has to be accepted as a portal to a larger world.

So much is revealed in certain details, though, such as Western Front co-founder Glenn Lewis’ correspondence affixed to one wall. It includes a hand-scrawled postcard, mailed from the United States to Canada, with a small firecracker taped to one side. Clearly, this was an age when borders of all kinds were astoundingly free. (8888 University Dr, Burnaby BC)

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