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Reviews / November 11, 2013

Roy Arden: Modern Times

Monte Clark Gallery, Vancouver May 9 to June 8, 2013
Roy Arden <em>American Primitive</em> (detail)  2013 Mixed-media assemblage  2.23 m x 76.2 cm x 7.36 m / photo Byron Dauncey Roy Arden American Primitive (detail) 2013 Mixed-media assemblage 2.23 m x 76.2 cm x 7.36 m / photo Byron Dauncey

Roy Arden’s last straight photographs date from 2005. Since then, he has worked in collage, video, sculpture and painting, and with online digital images. The difference between the earlier photographic mode and the more recent eclectic one, however, may not be as stark as it first appears. “Modern Times,” Arden’s spring exhibition at Monte Clark Gallery, which was comprised of a few sculptures, a video and a series of paintings based on cartoon film stills, provided viewers with more varied evidence of his recent “turn.” They develop, in fact, from a career-long critique of modern progress that highlights what official histories neglect, or include only under duress.

In “An Artist and His Models,” an essay about Arden, Jeff Wall writes, “When a thing is broken and thrown on the refuse-heap, it falls off the highroads of history.” The central piece in “Modern Times” could be seen as a materialization of that statement: a long processional assemblage of wooden toys. The toys, soiled with a patina of neglect, are arranged on a line of long wooden planks, an ad hoc path that seems to suggest a back road of history. The piece, American Primitive (2013), takes its name from the term used by collectors to designate handmade American antiques, often from rural communities. These toys represent a historical remainder: even if meant for play, they were intended to familiarize young children with the instruments they would operate as adults. Although the majority of the toys—airplanes, tractors and boats—date from the 20th century, some from possibly as late as the 1970s, the practice of hand-making toys predates mass production, hence the irony of wooden toys depicting modern machines.

Most of the works in “Modern Times,” in some way or other, represent the internal combustion engine as either sinister or humorous—sometimes both. This subject has been a recurring motif in Arden’s oeuvre, in works such as Volvo Engine and Juggernaut (both 2000). A distinct element of parody is at play here, and like all good parody, it avoids taking a strong moral position even when it exposes the sinister side of its subject. Jalopy (2011), the video in “Modern Times,” depicts a wind-up toy that mimics the motions of a car breaking down. As Arden says, the parody reveals “It’s just a bag of bolts and nuts. It’s not a noble thing you could love, like a horse. It’s just a bunch of junk.”

This is an article from the Fall 2013 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, please visit its table of contents.