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On the Nature of Things: So Much to See

“On the Nature of Things” is a complex and captivating exhibition. Given its title and billing, this group show could have been about the way culture constructs an idea of nature, a common enough theme in contemporary art. As becomes evident about three steps into the gallery, however, that suggestion is only part of the proposition. Elements of the nature-culture interface are explored here, yes, but what predominates is a series of metaphysical reinventions of the tropes of modernism. Allusions are made to advertising, film, music, literature, architecture, art history and design—all thematically organized by way of Titus Lucretius Carus.

Guest curator Patrik Andersson, a Vancouver-based art historian, university lecturer, project organizer and fine-art publisher, alludes to the ancient Roman poet and philosopher in the show’s superb catalogue. (Published by the Kamloops Art Gallery and Andersson’s Trapp Editions, it is elegantly designed by Judith Steedman.) Citing Lucretius’ epic poem De rerum natura (with a passing and somewhat oblique reference to the long-running CBC television program The Nature of Things), Andersson references the poet’s belief in “generative acts such as collision, stress and rupture” as being essential to the way the natural world manifests itself. Collision, stress and rupture are strategies employed by the 16 artists represented in the show.

Andersson’s choices here are quirky, various and unfailingly resonant: the artists are young and old, emerging and established, North American and European, modernist and, yes, postmodernist. Their means and media are equally wide-ranging, including sculpture and photography, videotaped performance and symphonic sound recording, sidewalk rubbings, altered found objects, and posters both exclamatory and obscure. Also eclectic—and wonderfully confounding—is the way the soundtracks of video and audio installations bounce off and interweave with each other within the gallery. Sarah Dobai’s carefully staged windstorm, Rodney Graham’s seemingly endless “orchestral highlights” from Parsifal, and Sofia Hultén’s repeatedly smashed guitar create a serendipitous sound sculpture in the gallery. Just as the artworks in the show play off each other visually, they also communicate with each other aurally.

The wind in Dobai’s DVD projection Nettlecombe is machine-made and intermittent, and creates disjunctions—ruptures—in what otherwise resembles a still photograph of a leafy park and glassy pond. It’s an 18th-century Arcadia minus the shepherds and shepherdesses, although there is the fleeting, semi-pastoral appearance of a man walking a dog. Within the Lucretian terms of the exhibition, the agitation of the leaves, branches and water imbues the scene with life. In Dobai’s terms, the wind works “as an image of time itself playing across the photographic stillness of the garden.”

Gordon Smith, one of Canada’s most esteemed senior artists, is represented here by a big, sombre abstract painting and a series of small, surrealistic sculptures. The painting, Pachino #1, calls up histories both personal and global. Its title alludes to the World War II Sicilian campaign in which Smith was badly wounded, and harkens back to a series of war-themed black paintings on old tarpaulins that he made in the mid-1990s. In this contemporary work, the heavily brushed and scarred surface, with its suggestions of pentimento and its occasional glimmers of blue-white and pale pink, appears to negate the post-impressionist West Coast landscapes for which Smith is best known. At the same time, with its deep, dark browns and greens, the painting evokes the shadowy heart of the rainforest—and of humankind.

The show’s other senior artist, Jacques de la Villeglé, is present here in two small 1961 décollages – fragments of heavily layered and scored posters torn from their Parisian hoardings and subtly altered. Fifty years later, Villeglé has created a conceptual series of text works on hotel stationery, quoting various writers, including Oscar Wilde, and employing his hand-lettered, highly symbolic “socio-political alphabet.” Andersson sees Villeglé’s approach as “both appropriating and attacking language”—again, those Lucretian elements of collision and rupture. There is great charm here, and also considerable dissonance.

But there’s so much to see in this show, including Neil Wedman’s terrific Sidewalk Frottage, nine moody, mortuarial photographs of rubbings the artist made of dates stamped into Vancouver sidewalks; Evan Lee’s colour photographs of opalescent oil slicks on rain-wet asphalt, strangely evocative of swirling galaxies in a star-filled universe; Kim Kennedy Austin’s lively and curious watercolour renderings of an assortment of books from the 1970s; Kristi Malakoff’s exquisite, intricate and politically charged miniature sculptures, produced by folding and cutting paper money gathered from different parts of the world; and Alexander Gutke’s multilingual reconsideration of end titles of old black and white films. These and all the other works in the show speak to the way the artists bridge the metaphysical gap between the modern and the postmodern. Between nature and civilization, too.

In the hallway that seems to discharge you back into the world, T&T uses assemblage-style sculpture and colour-saturated digital prints to imagine a post-petroleum future. Here, cars are used not as vehicles, but as shelters dug into hillsides, or as makeshift, wind-driven vessels for sailing down rivers. The vision of this creative duo, Tyler Brett and Tony Romano, is surprisingly idyllic: their oil-deprived society has not broken down into violence and chaos, but has gracefully rearranged itself around a new reality. Human beings live in counter-cultural harmony with each other and their natural environment.

And yes, it is a tad disconcerting to preview the demise of the internal combustion engine when you have just driven four-and-a-half hours in a rental car to view the show. Still, “On the Nature of Things” is so richly rewarding—so delightful, surprising and stimulating—that it is worth every kleptocratic, climate-altering litre of gas it takes to get there.

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