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Features / August 25, 2015

The Apartment: Vancouver’s Changing Scene

Michael Turner recounts the history of the Apartment, an influential Vancouver gallery that helped to launch an eastward shift in the city’s art scene.

This is an article from the Summer 2015 issue of Canadian Art. Last week, the Apartment circulated an email that it will be closing later this month. Lee Plested will go on to assist the Freybe family with the establishment of Griffin Art Projects, a new initiative to display work from private collections, returning to a more institutional curatorial mode.

For years, the only constants in the ever-changing city of Vancouver were Stanley Park and Chinatown. Then, in the winter of 2006, a windstorm levelled 41 hectares of the park’s forest. Less apparent to those at the east-west nexus of Chinatown’s Pender Street was real-estate marketer Bob Rennie’s recent acquisition of the derelict Wing Sang Building. It was only after the 126-year-old building re-opened in 2009 as office space for Rennie’s business and a museum for his art collection that Vancouverites began to speak of how Chinatown, like everything else in the city, was changing.

Earlier this year, while en route to interview the Apartment’s Lee Plested and Erik von Muller at their skinny 400-square-foot East Pender Street gallery, I noted some of these changes. While it is true that private developers were suddenly erecting condo towers where butchers once chopped duck and souvenir shops sold rosewood Buddhas, Chinatown was just as suddenly home to four recently relocated artist-run centres (221A, Access Gallery, Publication Studio, UNIT/PITT Projects) and a public gallery (Centre A). All of this was unthinkable 10 years earlier, when the neighbourhood appeared closed to anyone who wanted to do anything other than what was already on tap.

“We like it here,” grinned Plested as I sat down across from him in the Apartment’s cramped back room.

“It’s vital,” said von Muller. “There’s a lot of energy out there. We like to think we’re part of it.”

The “out there” von Muller referred to is the busiest and most diagnostically “Chinese” street in the neighbourhood. But he might also refer to an equally bustling commercial-gallery scene that has, since Catriona Jeffries’s historic flight from South Granville’s over-taxed “Gallery Row” 10 years earlier, congealed a half-mile south of where Plested and von Muller have set up shop, in a former industrial district that its promoters have dubbed the “False Creek Flats.” Yet of these galleries, which include the Equinox Gallery, Macaulay and Co. Fine Art and Monte Clark Gallery, it is Catriona Jeffries Gallery with whom the Apartment has the most in common.

“Histories, spaces, the particularity of time. We’re interested in these histories, these modalities and the critical language that attends them,” says Jeffries. “Seeing Lee taking this up is great. With the Apartment, we’re not singularly localized; they are conversing at the same critical and experimental level.”

An example of the critical conversation that Jeffries and the Apartment aspire to can be found in their exhibition strategies, which occasionally juxtapose emerging and established local artists with those from the United States and Europe. Jeffries’s 2012 pairing of Christina Mackie and Jerry Pethick was a gallery highlight, as was the Apartment’s pairing of dance icon Anna Halprin with emerging local artist Derya Akay. A more recent pairing that speaks to the amity between Jeffries and the Apartment is the latter’s interspersing of work by Ian Wallace (an artist represented by Jeffries) with the work of artist-curator Matthew Higgs, with whom Plested studied while attending the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco between 2003 and 2005 for their graduate program in curatorial practice.

“San Francisco was an important time in my life,” says Plested, casting a playful eye at von Muller. “Of course it was,” responds von Muller. “That’s where you met me.” Prior to his time in San Francisco, Plested was an active presence on the Vancouver art scene. Soon after his arrival in Vancouver from his native Cranbrook (via Calgary) in 1992, he became known as an energetic organizer of events and exhibitions, and kept company with a circle of artists that included Geoffrey Farmer, Brian Jungen and Jonathan Wells. However, it was not the visual arts that led Plested back to school, but music.

Halfway into his second year of studying piano at Capilano College, Plested became disenchanted with the program’s “stern and conservative views,” and withdrew.

“My interest in music included music in its entirety, particularly its performance. That’s how I started doing shows at drag clubs like Ms. T’s, and places where performance is part of the visual-art conversation, like the Western Front.”

As with many younger artists curious about the full spectrum of art production, Plested was drawn to the flexibility and critical rigour of artist-run culture. While volunteering at the Helen Pitt Gallery (now UNIT/PITT Projects), he applied for a short-term employment grant, which he received. By the time the grant ran out, the Pitt had offered him a permanent position.

Over the next four years, Plested turned what had become a diffident clubhouse for queer youth culture into a diverse program that alternated exhibitions of emerging artists like Andrew Dadson, Luis Jacob, Corin Sworn and Althea Thauberger with senior artists like Michael Morris and Trolley Bus; provided the city with some badly needed psycho-sexual content—from the wilfully abject (Bruce LaBruce) to the good-natured (the Royal Art Lodge); and perhaps most insightfully, hosted one of Vancouver’s first panels on “socially engaged art practice.”

“Lee has always made sure he is informed about contemporary art,” says the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery’s director, Scott Watson. “This is a difficult thing to do, because there are so many streams. His focus has served him well. He has a quality that can’t be taught, only demonstrated—a curatorial prescience.”

After leaving the Pitt, Plested, who at the time was researching Expo 67 craft works for an exhibition at Confederation Centre of the Arts, approached Watson about co-curating an exhibition of pots by artist Mick Henry. Watson was intrigued.

“Lee and I had worked together on the ‘Suggestive Line’ exhibition at Satellite [Gallery], which focused on figurative drawing and included collaborative works by Geoffrey [Farmer] and Brian [Jungen]. It was a success. After that, he approached me about an exhibition of works from Mick’s Slug Pottery studio. I loved the idea, but told him ‘No, let’s go bigger.’”

The result was 2004’s “Thrown: Influences and Intentions of West Coast Ceramics,” a groundbreaking exhibition that showcased the work of local modern potters, some of whom had apprenticed at the Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall, in the 1950s and ’60s, and upon returning to BC continued to apply its fusion of Eastern and Western philosophical, aesthetic and moral concepts to the production of pots, but also to everyday life.

Not only was “Thrown” a hit among local audiences, it also coincided with a renewed interest in clay among artists known for working with more “contemporary” mediums, such as Damian Moppett, but also among scholars like Jane Bennett, who had begun to explore the material properties of inanimate objects toward a theory of “vibrant matter.”

While still at the Pitt, Plested had met the Wattis Institute’s Higgs at an art panel at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2002. Inspired by the visit, Plested applied to the school’s curatorial program and received its Vicki and Kent Logan Graduate Scholarship for Curatorial Practice. Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Plested was offered an internship at Jack Hanley Gallery, where he curated “Land of the Free” (2004), a group exhibition that “use[d] conceptual strategies to question the notion of socially engaged art practice.”

“Working with Jack and being exposed to the visiting artists coming through the CCA brought me in contact with the international art world. That’s how I began my relationships with artists Anne Collier, Mungo Thomson, B. Wurtz, Ricci Albenda, John Baldessari, Frances Stark.” Another relationship Plested began was with von Muller. “I picked him up at a Catharine Clark Gallery opening,” says Plested. “I had just come out of a Habermas seminar, and I started talking, and he was rapt!” Von Muller’s story of how he came to San Francisco started some decades earlier, when he moved to Berkeley from southern California to do graduate work in south Indian languages and literature. “I came out to the Bay Area, quite literally, in the 1970s. After University of California Berkeley, a friend recommended me for what I thought was a waiting job in the Castro. But when I showed up at the address, it was a real-estate office.”

As one would expect, von Muller’s stories of realty work in a post–Transamerica Pyramid San Francisco are fascinating and, in many ways, relate to what he sees as the “over-built” Vancouver of today. But it is art that is von Muller’s passion now, and he lights up when the topic returns.

“It was Lee who opened up my eyes to what art is and what it can be. I had collected art for most of my adult life, but not seriously, and not with an eye beyond what hung before me.” But as von Muller’s eye for art widened, Plested reawoke to his first love: music. He chose not to resume his piano studies, but to sing opera. “It was something I wanted to do. And the person I wanted to study under, David Meek, well, he lived in Vancouver.”

In 2006, Plested and von Muller rented an apartment at the south end of the Burrard Bridge, a stone’s throw east of the Vancouver Academy of Music, where Meek began work on Plested’s basso profundo. It was at their 550-square-foot pied-à-terre that Plested and von Muller began to mount art exhibitions in what they were now calling the Apartment. “We began deliberately, “ says Plested. “We wanted to open with a show that paired historical work [Trolley Bus] with contemporary work [Noam Gonick and Luis Jacob].”

The exhibition, and indeed the concept of a tiny home gallery, was well-received. Encouraged, Plested and von Muller followed up with two concurrent exhibitions, one of John Baldessari and Lawrence Weiner, and another featuring Higgs. Subsequent shows included works by Ian Wallace, Jessica Stockholder, Dorothea Rockburne, B. Wurtz, Sylvain Sailly and Janice Guy. Their last show came in 2009: a residency by Abbas Akhavan.

Four years after moving into the Burrard Street apartment, Plested and von Muller purchased a condo near Main Street and East Broadway, where they expanded their gallery program to include exhibitions with San Francisco writers like Kevin Killian, who excited in them an interest in the Poets’ Theatre. It was around this time that the two toyed with the idea of a dedicated space.

The result was a narrow Chinatown storefront they called the Commons, a short-lived joint venture with another arts group who, like Plested and von Muller, were curious about working in a commercial retail environment. Although the partnership did not last, the location did, and in 2013 Plested and von Muller renamed it the Apartment, where, as it says on the gallery website, they “continue its program of international projects as well as its work with a roster of artists who reflect our interest in the dissenting conceptualist avant-garde of the ’60s and ’70s and its impact on current practice and dialogues.”

Today, the Apartment’s roster includes artists Plested first showed at the Pitt, in addition to those shown in “Thrown” at the Belkin, at Jack Hanley Gallery and at the gallery’s Burrard Street location. Most notable is that the Apartment has also become a site of literary readings, musical performances, workshops and lectures, similar to how artist-run centres operate, and not unlike the program Plested developed at the Pitt.

As for their future plans, Plested and von Muller have focused on art fairs. The gallery’s 2013 appearance at NADA in Miami Beach created a sensation when patrons went gaga over a selection of Wayne Ngan’s Hornby Island pots, most of which were snapped up by blue-chip New York gallerists. The following year, it was the work of Hans Wendt, an artist Plested met in 2004 while curating “From Our Land: The Expo 67 Canadian Craft Collection” at the Confederation Centre of the Arts.

“We like the idea of the travelling gallery,” says Plested. “Besides its market function, the fairs are places for us to connect and make plans with other galleries, institutions and curators. For me, they’re like summer camp.” But it is Plested’s thoughts on the 2015 version of Art Los Angeles Contemporary that bring to mind what Scott Watson remarked on. “For LA,” Plested begins, “we’re including the work of Derya [Akay] and Tiziana [La Melia]. We think what these two are doing is consistent with a general shift towards a new, more expressive poetic. Things are changing. Conceptual gestures are becoming increasingly poetic, both in form and content, and experiences of the body are brought to bear on how we receive them.”

Time will tell if these observations bear out, if indeed they are prescient or, like everything else in Vancouver and its Chinatown, subject to change. 

In the print issue of this article, artist Hans Wendt’s name erroneously appeared as Pan Wendt. We regret the error.

Michael Turner

Michael Turner is a writer of fiction, criticism and song based in the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil Waututh people. His most recent book, 9x11 and other poems like Bird, Nine, x and Eleven, is published by New Star Books.