After listening to the more-than-usually-dispiriting news of late—severed limbs in Ottawa and Vancouver, dead whales in White Rock, disappearing bird species in the Amazon—the reports of Emily Carr’s posthumous presence at dOCUMENTA (13) sound a consoling note. So does a recent recontextualizing of that most iconic of West Coast artists in a modest but engaging show at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Titled “Emily Carr and the Theatre of Transcendence,” the exhibition is one of a number of shows the gallery has done that reassert Carr’s ongoing relevance by presenting her work “in dialogue” with that of other modern, and newer postmodern, artists. The conversation undertaken here examines how Carr, her contemporaries and present-day practitioners have all expressed an aspiration towards transcendence, towards a state or experience beyond the ordinary.
Students of Carr quickly become aware that she was a deeply yet idiosyncratically spiritual person, steeped in a very personal Christianity and opposed to what she saw as the false pieties and oppressive constraints of organized religion. For her, God resided not in “stuffy” churches but in the soaring cathedral of the British Columbia rainforest, in the sepulchral shade of its densest recesses and in the spectral light of its clearings. She found God, too, on the porticos of log-strewn beaches and beneath the radiant canopy of the sky, and her art became a form of communion. It symbolized and in a sense consolidated the state of mystical connection she experienced while immersed in the natural world.
The 12 Carr oil paintings and sketches on view are unexpected and, initially, perhaps disappointing. Her best known and most bravura canvases, such as Totem and Forest, Vanquished, Tree Trunk and Big Raven, are on loan, in Kassel and elsewhere. And the paintings most often associated with Carr’s experience of transcendence and with her later, ecstatic expression, such as Above the Gravel Pit and Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky, are not here, either. Perhaps, however, this is a good thing, as we are directed to consider less familiar works that nonetheless dwell in a similar realm or describe a similar belief. We can also appreciate, once again, how Carr achieves her expressive ends.
In some of the forest paintings on view, foliage is depicted as a surging, swelling, oceanic flow of mass, line and colour. These works express Carr’s unabashed embrace of animism, her attempts to visually capture what she described as the “great breathing among the trees.” (Another nice quote in one of the show’s didactic panels has Carr writing about God “comprehending all substance, filling all space.”) Even images of ragged tree stumps and logged-over mountainsides declare Carr’s deep faith in nature’s bounty and its capacity to recover from mankind’s industrial-scale destruction. They also assert a persistent anthropomorphism. In Old and New Forest, short, young evergreens are characterized as lively and exuberant, filled with a childlike, dancing energy, while old-growth trees stand protectively behind them, tall, sombre and reserved.
Natural forms in the oil painting Mountain Forest, begun in 1935, and in an untitled oil sketch on paper, begun in 1938, are not merely humanized—they are exalted. Here, Carr repeats the formal composition and crucifixion symbolism evident in Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky: three tall, skinny trees, one prominent and two receding into the distance, stand in a clearing among stumps that in one instance resemble gravestones, in another, mourners. The spare foliage at the tops of these forsaken trees—forsaken by loggers, Carr instructs us, but not by God—is outlined against the swirling blues or stormy greys of the sky. Again, Carr is expressing her sorrow at humankind’s desecration of the forest while affirming her belief in its ability to regenerate. This drama is clearly couched in Christian terms of sacrifice and rebirth, and in the mystic’s use of radiating lines and concentric curls and circles of energy.
Several works, past and present, share the “theatre” of Carr’s transcendence. Works by living artists include two large colour photographs by Karin Bubaš, five text drawings in charcoal by Steven Shearer, a double-sided projection by Kevin Schmidt, two masks by Beau Dick, a small multiple by Rodney Graham, a mixed-media diptych by Mina Totino, a video by Euan Macdonald and a mechanical sculpture by Richard E. Prince. Other works include a single-channel video work by Kate Craig, documentation of a performance by Theodore Wan, a suite of charcoal drawings by Jack Shadbolt, a mandala by Jack Wise and two abstract paintings by Lawren Harris.
Harris, Carr’s friend and mentor, who used his later art to articulate his beliefs in theosophy, greatly stimulated her thinking about art and the divine. In my opinion, Harris’ aspirations are most successfully realized in his highly stylized late landscapes of the Rocky Mountains and the Arctic, and are least persuasive in the pure abstractions that followed, such as the two shown here, dated around 1939 and 1954. Their inclusion in this show, however, is interesting because of Harris’ important encouragement of Carr, especially in his advice to her to relinquish the subject of Northwest Coast aboriginal art and to find her own expression, her own voice, in the natural world. And the natural world is, ultimately, where she found her sense of spiritual connection, even if she ultimately rejected theosophy—and abstraction—as a means of getting there.
Wise’s intricate and beautiful Mid-Moon Mandala, executed in 1972 in gouache, ink and metallic paint, reflects his travels in northern India, his studies with Tibetan Buddhist monks in exile, and his understanding of the meditative and transcendental possibilities inherent in the creation of mandalas. Craig’s 1986 single-channel video Ma, shot in India and Nepal as well as in Vancouver, also bridges East and West in search of the transcendent moment. Repetitive images of tattered prayer flags in Sikkim, spinning prayer wheels near Kathmandu, and a quarry in Tamil Nadu are juxtaposed with shots of migratory birds on the Fraser River delta near Vancouver and visual and sound clips of a Scream Machine roller coaster, again in Vancouver. Whether capturing a practice of chanting, prayer and meditation or a fear-inducing state of shrieking physical extremity, Craig leads us to consider the universal human impulse to transcend everyday experience, to achieve, however briefly, some condition of altered awareness.
Both Prince and Macdonald pose the small moments and quotidian mechanics of our little lives against the vast celestial operations of the universe. Macdonald’s unprepossessing video Eclipse employs a soccer ball slowly traversing the surface of a puddle, casting a shadow, and eventually covering—eclipsing—a reflection of the sun, our life-giving star. This slow, pseudo-celestial unfolding is backed by ambient sound that includes the muffled roar of a distant plane, not incidentally flying across the unseen “arch of heaven.”
It is a purposefully banal re-enactment of a cosmic event, but it speaks to our need for metaphor, for human-scale symbols that help us if not fully understand, then at least describe the vast and incomprehensible. Similarly, although much more elegantly, Prince’s mechanical, wall-mounted sculpture, The Transit of Venus (whose public exhibition nicely coincided with that rare and actual celestial event on June 5), moves a small circle slowly and silently back and forth along a metal track within a huge orb symbolized by a thin, refined curve of metal. That these three minimal forms are immaculately executed in silvery aluminum enhances the work’s presence. It also helps to articulate humankind’s attempts to translate cosmic vastness and omneity into poem-sized representation.
Not so very different, really, from what Carr was trying to accomplish with her paints and brushes, within the pulsing drama of tree and sky.