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Sex, Drugs & Rock n’ Roll: Myfanwy MacLeod in Vancouver

Vancouver Art Gallery March 8 to June 8, 2014

Myfanwy MacLeod’s current exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery is remarkable for its blend of the artist’s work with work that she and curator Grant Arnold selected from the gallery’s collection. Given that MacLeod’s contribution is concerned largely with that 1970s unholy trinity of sex (see her sculptures relating to Playboy playmate Dorothy Stratten), drugs (the show offers a work referencing “Albert Walker” marijuana), and rock ‘n’ roll (many exhibition elements point to Led Zeppelin), it is tempting to measure this method against that decade’s own alcoholic blends: Is it a Harvey Wallbanger cocktail, a bootlegged mickey of lemon gin, or swamp water extracted from Dad’s liquor cabinet?

Of course, there are other elements to consider in the layout of an exhibition where if sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are not intended curatorial sections, they are recognizable as categories wherein each contains a grain of that to which it is aligned. The same might be said of the exhibition’s ideal viewer, haunted as those of us are who grew up at a time when Pop, Minimal and Conceptual strategies shared the mainstream stage with this trilogy.

The exhibition begins on the stairs to the VAG’s second floor, where the rotunda’s four equidistant recesses are haunted by mannequins of children draped in second-hand bed sheets (Ghosts, 2005–14). Although these materials signify “ghost,” their contents equate less to horror than to child’s play. However, when plugged into these gothic sockets (their intermediate colours blending with the surrounding walls) a little of both leaks through, and this, more than fear or fun, is our first indication that MacLeod’s blend is closer in sophistication to the Wallbanger than a distiller’s attempt to disguise bad gin with lemons.

The same could be said of the landing at the top of the stairs. Here, a B.C. Binning mobile (Untitled, c. 1966) hangs above MacLeod’s platformed drum kit (Basic Rock Beats, 2014), a pairing that has the viewer looking at the kit not as a music-making machine but as its own form of sculptural composition. On the wall opposite, a horizontal row of Bruce Nauman self-portraits (Studies for Holograms, 1970) that, in their sequence of grotesque facial manipulations, has the gallery viewer once again in an uneasy position—this time in the literal and figurative space between the stage and the audience.

Rather than continue to comp on propositions, Macleod switches gears and pitches the viewer into darkness—in this instance, a black room that has at its centre the tarnished gold chassis of a 1977 Camaro welded to what looks like a rotary spit (Ramble On, 2013). At opposite corners, two large metallic vinyl wall texts rendered in Gothic script, the second of which (The Emptiness, 2013) appears above Dallas Selman and Glenn Toppings’s gridded, black fibreglass wave forms (Black Night Rip, 1969). While the muscle car lacks energy (it might not if it were “turning over”), the room itself resonates at the phenomenological level and, as a result, upends the alcoholic typology by turning what could easily be a cup of swamp water into a fortuitous mix — a punch that tastes better with each sip.

Thus primed for what one may consider the exhibition’s “rock ‘n’ roll” section, the viewer moves easily into one of the VAG’s small corner rooms for a contextual presentation of Led Zeppelin that includes a wall-text lyric of their 1969 song “Ramble On” and two listening areas: one that plays the band’s 1976 album Presence, the other its 1976 ficto-documentary concert film The Song Remains the Same, which opens with the bandmates leaving their castles for a concert tour. Outside the larger room across the hall, MacLeod has remade the small black abstract sculpture pictured on the Presence album and placed it on a stage dolly, where it waits like the miniature Stonehenge that descends from the ceiling in the heavy metal satire This is Spinal Tap, a film many rock scholars see as a tonic to the pretension of the Led Zeppelin film.

But it is inside this larger space (one of the two largest on the second floor) that MacLeod cranks up the volume for a four-part display that features her screen printed approximation of Marshall guitar amplifiers (Stack, 2013), a Peter Doig hippie-in-a-canoe print (100 Years Ago, 2000-1), a late-18th-century William Marlow oil painting (Stonehenge) and, at the centre of the room, Anthony Caro’s Bow (1974), an expressive mass of un-enfolded steel that, in the face of Stack’s minimalism, lies before it like a shouted-down wreck.

In addition to this narrative recontextualization of Caro’s sculpture, Bow also functions as a preface to the following “sex” section, much of which is taken up with abstract and figurative origami sculptures MacLeod has fashioned from Dorothy Stratten posters, as well as unfolded hangings of these posters alongside a tousled, wall-mounted Erwin Wurm wool coat (Ohne Titel, 1990), MacLeod’s large circular mirror (Princess X, 2006), a Steven Shearer painting of a 1970s teen idol rendered in the Symbolist palette (Window, 2005) and MacLeod’s chilling Torso of a Young Girl (2006), where a long-haired wig is positioned at child height in a corner.

Like the Led Zeppelin contextual presentation, the “sex” section (such as one may interpret it) also features a screening and a sizeable didactic: this time of Star 80 (1983), a narrative film about Stratten’s passage to Southern California, and a wall text that tells the story of Stratten’s “discovery” by her murderer/ex-boyfriend while working at an East Hastings Dairy Queen.

It is worth noting that MacLeod is careful in this section to avoid treating Stratten as a victim of masculine power as ritualized by “cock-rock” bands like Led Zeppelin and their legion of young male fans or, a la Lynn Crosbie’s first-person “novelization” of Stratten’s life (Dorothy L’Amour, 1999), as a willing agent whose feminism is such that if women are equal to men, they are equal in their transgressions as well as their virtues. Instead, MacLeod’s exploitation of Stratten takes the form of the Deleuzian fold, where the subject is a footnote to her image and its many-vectored journey on the road to becoming.

Following the “sex” section (and the end of the 1970s), something of an intermezzo: MacLeod’s Don’t Stop Dreaming (2004), with its recording of a female aerobics instructor calling out encouragements over a late-20th-century dance track emitted from a pair of geodesic speakers placed before a forest photomural. After this, a larger, brighter room, what is in some respects a show within a show, and the only space wholly given to works from the collection (all works exhibited from the collection appear under the title “Cock & Bull”).

At first glance this room, with its witty placement of an Egon Schiele drawing (Female Nude, 1917), a gelatin print by photographer Raoul Hausmann (Derriere Forms, 1931) and another by August Sander alongside three 1930s Pablo Picasso etchings of a minotaur at a bacchanal, suggests a reprise of the “sex” section. However, it is the presence and relative proximity of Rodney Graham‘s Juddian Jokes and Their Effects on the Unconscious (1992) that draws the viewer inwards to confront more profound questions of sex—not as male pleasure but of male privilege. Indeed, if any pleasure should remain for this gender, it is more than diminished by what is—and what is not—going on at the centre of Hans Bellmer‘s etching The Undressing (1975).

The interior state of mind is further enhanced upon entering the “drugs” section. Here, MacLeod has placed Ken Lum‘s Untitled (Red Circle) (1986) before one of her more recent works, Albert Walker (2014), a fibreboard domestic display case that contains within its glassed-in cupboards 3-D prints of outsized marijuana buds whose variant is named after the notorious criminal (also the subject of a corner contextual presentation). As with her re-contextualization of Caro’s Bow, Untitled (Red Circle) is available in its more expanded form—this time to those who see it not as a local response to Michael Fried’s prescriptive reading of minimal sculpture (more absorbent, less theatrical), but as a pair of toking lips. Further works in this section include MacLeod’s photograph of a pensive (stoned?) young woman sitting on her haunches in a forest (Living in the Past, 1981–2009) and a thoroughly non-modern, diagonal, red-neon tube by Keith Sonnier (Untitled, 1969).

As for what lies beyond these intelligent and playful sections, it is, like the neon line in Sonnier’s Untitled, all downhill from here. This is not to say that what remains of the exhibition is poorly made, selected or installed so much as these spaces suffer from an extraneous sameness that, perhaps because the institution needs to fill an unusable three-eighths of its second floor, detracts from the tighter, more thoughtful movements that precede them. In that sense, and to return to the earlier alcoholic typology, these swamp water spaces, which include old saws like Claes Oldenburg‘s Saw (Hard Version) (1969) and bonus tracks like MacLeod’s suddenly unfunny My Idea of Fun (1997), taste worse with each intoxicated sip.

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