Last year, science fiction entered a new dimension of hyper-reality with the James Cameron blockbuster Avatar, a film whose immersive CGI animation and perspective-bending 3-D technology—not to mention gargantuan production budget and marketing spinoffs—seemed to redefine the outer limits of fantasy. But for many, this spectacle was merely the evolution of a filmmaking strategy pioneered in the late 1970s by George Lucas, a strategy where the otherworldly reach of big budgets and groundbreaking special effects are driven by the earthbound realities of merchandising potential—and vice versa.
The exhibition “Tales to Astonish” harkens back to an earlier, more “innocent” age of science-fiction storytelling with sculptures and paintings by Brandon Vickerd, Kevin Yates and Donovan Barrow. As suggested by curator Ivan Jurakic’s title nod to an influential 1960s Marvel Comics series, the works play on subversive subtexts and kitsch conventions of sci-fi’s comic-book and B-movie beginnings.
Works in the show range across vintage pop-cultural reference points and echo the unbridled optimism and great anxieties of an era when space-age technology, the Cold War and mass communications fed a general culture of fear—be it of flying-saucer invasion, communist infiltration or doomsday self-destruction.
Take Vickerd’s sculptural quartet: a giant, gunmetal-cast version of Iron Man looms as a misunderstood menace; a life-scale chrome ghost represents the spectre of sleek modernist design; an aluminum surfboard stands as a forgotten relic of the comic book world’s quintessential outsider hero, the Silver Surfer; and a life-sized, wood-carved skeletal cosmonaut gives presence to secret failures of the space race.
This suspended reality continues in Yates and Barrow’s collaboration, Dispatch Ajax, a reprisal of a battle scene in the 1980 cult film Flash Gordon. Playing off the film’s exaggerated storyline and decidedly low-budget effects, the artists reproduce model spaceships and psychedelic interstellar backdrops in a sequence of six sculpture-painting dioramas (or “stills”) that pay wry homage to the low-tech constructions of B-movie filmmaking. Here, amidst the flawed illusions of another fictional universe, the extremes of Avatar come full circle with a reminder that, whether through fear or fantasy, it’s the power of a viewer’s imagination that truly brings the art of sci-fi to life. (1 North Sq, Cambridge ON)