Wylie: From novelty to wonder

Stephen Foster, detail from Portrait of a Sioux Scout, 2013, inkjet print for back-lit lightbox, 22 x 18 in. - Contributed
Stephen Foster, detail from Portrait of a Sioux Scout, 2013, inkjet print for back-lit lightbox, 22 x 18 in.
— image credit: Contributed

What could be more fun on a hot summer day than coming to visit a cool and darkened art gallery, putting on a pair of 3-D glasses, and then gasping as the images in the art suddenly pop into three dimensions, looming outward from the walls.

Once a visitor to Stephen Foster’s current solo show at the Kelowna Art Gallery has finished with this novelty aspect, however, the thinking and questioning will likely begin.

To backtrack, Kelowna-based artist Stephen Foster found some small plastic figures for sale online that made him think of 19th-century photographer Edward Curtis and his work documenting North American First Nations. Moving on from earlier work in which Foster used himself as a model, he began to work in the studio setting up shots of the small figurines.

Intriguingly, because the toys have been photographed with such detail, and then the images enlarged, some of them approach being life-sized, and we tend to read these as human figures, wearing lots of weird make-up, rather than tiny hand-painted plastic figurines.

Foster used a specialized stereoscopic technique to digitally photograph the toys and spent many hours with Photoshop to achieve his desired effects. The metaphor of the 3-D is for a more fully constituted way of seeing, especially when viewing members of a culture other than our own.

Plus, 3-D makes reference to popular culture, grabbing from that context, and bringing those references into the gallery setting.

The works are housed in commercially produced, framed back-lit lightboxes, as you see in hallways at airports, hotels, etc., generally containing advertising. This is another co-option from popular culture on Foster’s part, aping the look of commercial advertising hardware, but removing it from its normal place.

Visitors are provided with 3-D glasses in the exhibition, and will be amazed at how the foregrounds of the works seem to move out into their own physical space. Foster’s digital sleight of hand is admirable, for example in one piece, seamlessly merging single shots of the same toy to create a party on horseback, heading out over some real sand in his studio, into the Okanagan hills, that he has digitally put in place in the background.

As a person of combined European and First Nations descent, Foster is seeking a multiplicity of views in his work, reflecting the complications implicit in his own situation, and for that of many other people.

Although he grew up in British Columbia, Foster received his BFA and MFA from York University in Toronto. He has lived in Kelowna since the year 2000, and teaches digital media at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. He has exhibited widely, both still images and videos, across Canada and internationally.

Stephen Foster: Re-Mediating Curtis: Toy Portraits is at the Kelowna Art Gallery until Sept. 29.

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