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May we suggest

Reviews / February 25, 2010

Monster: The Fear Inside

Howie Tsui Tengu’s World 2009 Detail Courtesy the artist / photo

“Monster” abounds with man-eating demons, hair-pulling ghosts, wart-covered witches and black-tongued sea creatures. Human beings engage with these monsters in ominous or enigmatic rituals or, conversely, are tormented by them—haunted, beheaded or drowned in a river of blood.

A group show of contemporary art, “Monster” resonates with the myths and legends of disparate cultures—Inuit, Kwakwaka’wakw, European, Chinese. Both myth and image express the ways in which our collective mind grapples with the most frightening aspects of the unknown. The show also demonstrates how art may deploy monster metaphors as a way of confronting social, sexual and political issues. Artists represented are Shuvinai Ashoona, Shary Boyle, Lutz Braun, Beau Dick, Marcel Dzama, Alexandra Flood, Sandra Meigs, Nick Sikkuark, Corin Sworn, Joseph Tisiga, Howie Tsui and Nicola Tyson.

This exhibition of grotesque, gruesome, comic and frightening forms and images unfolds at an unlikely venue: a small museum of local history, located in one of the most privileged municipalities in the country. Under the curatorship of Darrin Morrison, however, the West Vancouver Museum has increasingly assumed the role of a gallery of visual art. It has also responded to the possibilities of Vancouver’s Cultural Olympiad.

Part of what “Monster” seeks to articulate is that our fear of the unknown, of alien realms beyond our comprehension, applies to the interior as well as exterior world. Our sense of horror at the darkness within our own psyches—the human potential to commit atrocities of murder, rape, war, torture, genocide, plunder, environmental destruction—finds apt expression in the hollow-eyed, sharp-toothed ghouls and beasts depicted. Still, there’s humour in evidence, too, and deft manipulation of our expectations.

Sandra Meigs, for instance, is represented in “Monster” by four paintings executed in 2006. They’re comically elemental in image, palette and execution: a child staring in open-mouthed horror at a “witch” and then a “ghost”; an artist engulfed and slimed by the goofy spectres of a “patron” and a “donor.” Imagination is alternately stimulated and oppressed.

At the other end of the technique spectrum is Alexandra Flood, whose luminously layered, varnished and detailed acrylic paintings resemble 17th-century Dutch oils. Her unsettling and surreal images, however, are distinctly postmodern: a horned being whose face is entirely obscured by a swirling mass of hair, and an enspirited figurehead on the prow of a sunken ship. Both works add an element of female sexual power to their eerie encounters with the unknown.

Kwakwaka’wakw artist Beau Dick has contributed two handsome cedar masks to the show, one representing the sea creature Pugwis and the other the wild man of the woods Bukwus. Dick’s Untitled (Pugwis the sea creature) is a large and dramatic work, its features strikingly assertive and its stippled surface extremely subtle, like the sun-dappled surface of a calm sea. The calm is superficial, however: both Dick and Flood play on our fears of the forms and forces that might lurk in deep, dark, unknowable bodies of water. (You don’t need to be a Jungian to see that a dark body of water is also the unconscious mind, another scary place.)

Marcel Dzama‘s three new drawings, created for the exhibition, depict a range of vicious and enigmatic scenarios. Masked and costumed human figures appear to conduct ritual acts of murder, torture and bestiality, yet these drawings are so quaintly executed in Dzama’s storybook style that horror is deflected—knocked sideways under the bed or beneath the basement stairs, where the next monster lies in wait.