Since its invention in Western art in the early years of the 20th century, abstraction has been seen as the opposite of mimesis, that is, the task of depicting observed reality.
Representation and abstraction were opposite poles then; abstraction was an absolute, whereas representation could range from naturalistic illusionism to loosely portrayed scenes or objects.
Recently this has changed, and in the hands of some artists working in the new century and millennium, the two poles have been brought together so that the opposite energies of each arc and spark back and forth. This charged zone or place is the “point” referred to in the title of the current exhibition of paintings by five artists at the Kelowna Art Gallery—The Point Is.
The artists in this show are all Canadian, three from Vancouver: Pierre Coupey, Landon Mackenzie and Bernadette Phan; one is local: Bryan Ryley, and one from Ontario: Martin Pearce. Their work was not well known to one another before this show and they certainly do not form a school or movement. They have been brought together in this show solely due to this idea of their combining abstraction and representation in the same paintings.
The works are all large and are grouped together by artist in the installation of the exhibition. Each artist’s section is introduced with a text panel about his or her thinking and method.
As well, the show is accompanied by a visitor experience brochure, an MP3 player with 10-minute audio segments of each artist talking, and a full-length, full-colour exhibition catalogue.
The response to date has been very positive, judging by gallery visitors’ notes on our comment sign-in sheets. One does not have to be an expert on contemporary art to enjoy looking at the paintings and teasing out their references and connections to real life. In fact, the work of each of these artists is accessible to anyone willing to slow down and take a look.
The unusual element about Pierre Coupey as an artist is that he is also a poet who has enjoyed success and acclaim in both his writing and visual art. One of the original founders of The Georgia Straight in Vancouver, Coupey straddles the two worlds of art and literature with ease. In fact he feels that each of these feeds into the other. Some of the real-world references in his work are to Japanese culture and art, the world of nature and the activity of handwriting.
Landon Mackenzie is a nationally known painter who lives and works in Vancouver. Her two massive paintings in The Point Is are from a series of work that explores mapping—both in terms of cartography and neural mapping—and electronic and mass communications.
Mackenzie works over long periods of time on her canvases and the viewer is easily made aware of the accretions of labour and thought that have built up in layers within each painting.
Martin Pearce also produces paintings that exhibit the process of their own making as a front-and-centre element. He began the works in the exhibition after looking at photographs of houses under construction and thought the light-dark pattern of roof beams against the sky was a good basic starting place.
He began by drawing on his canvases with a grease pencil, then, over time, and with much thought, Pearce applied and then scraped off paint. The final works show all the evidence of these processes and are each made up of multiple vestiges from previous states.
Bernadette Phan spends years on her paintings as well, having used tiny ovals in her earlier paintings, then, more recently, little modules-cum-brushstrokes of colour. The finished works read a bit like cloudy skies and each has its own distinct mood. These paintings are calming and highly beautiful and speak to altered mind states, where we might feel we are just on the verge of some sort of enlightenment.
For several years Bryan Ryley has consistently worked existential content into his abstract paintings. His three large paintings in The Point Is have a certain gravitas that comes from his massive scale, thick and intriguing paint application, and shapes or images that overlay his basic grid structure at the basis of his work.
The paintings are fascinating for the amount of content Ryley is able to include, while still occupying the territory of abstraction—he has no interest in narrative.
The point of The Point Is is to introduce visitors to the Kelowna Art Gallery to this new area of practice in contemporary painting. It could be of great interest to anyone involved in the creative process in any sort of endeavour.
The show is on until Oct. 30.
Liz Wylie is the curator at the Kelowna Art Gallery.