The Vancouver Problem: A Response to Keep the Conversation Going

The winner of the prestigious new Brink art award—and the $12,500 and solo show at the Henry that goes with it—has been announced.  The first Brink award will go to Vancouver artist Isabelle Pauwels, a conceptual artist who once staged a manual labor performance where she reproduced a tripartite artist book on three progressively arcane typing machines on demand.

Isabelle Pauwels. Book production line for "Galley Slave Edition" of artist's book "More or Less Square." Manual labor performance, 2006.

Isabelle Pauwels. Book production line for "Galley Slave Edition" of artist's book "More or Less Square." Manual labor performance, 2006.

Pauwels was one of two Canadian artists shortlisted for the award, and beat out several qualified local contenders. This week in The Stranger, Jen Graves discusses the current Vancouver art scene as it is presented  in How Soon is Now, an exhibition of work by contemporary BC artists currently installed at the VAG.  I haven’t seen the show, but it sounds incredible.  In fact, for Jen the exhibition is so good it begs the question “Why is Vancouver art so much better than art in Seattle?”

The two cities are close… They’re comparable in size. But Vancouver art is better. “Better” in this case means (a) Vancouver art is connected to the larger world, and therefore to universes of issues, peculiarities, styles, and ideas that serve the artists as well as the audiences, and (b) Vancouver art is connected to its own art history.

This is a big statement, with many built in assumptions and implications. Graves does her best to unpack her bold words, and points to some compelling reasons why this is the case.  The most successful Vancouver artists have international careers and reputations. Vancouver museums are generally more supportive of their local artists. Like the rest of Canada, Vancouver has better funding for visual arts than we do.  As the only major city on Canada’s West Coast, Vancouver “is Canada’s Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, and L.A. all in one.” (An innkeeper at a Vancouver B&B once told me that exact thing.)  Finally, while Seattle may have had a more or less vibrant art scene at various points in its history, this history is not integrated in arts curriculum here in such a way that fosters a meaningful dialogue between the past and present.

So far, most of the article’s commenters make one of two points: (1) I live in Vancouver and the art isn’t as good as you think it is, or (2) I live in Seattle, you’re right, and here’s why it’s Seattle’s fault.  As of yet, not a single commenter has made an eloquent case against Jen’s claim.  I don’t intend to either.  What I will say is that I find significant reason in the aforementioned differences between Vancouver and Seattle to identify them as apples and oranges, and this precludes me from attempting a direct comparison.

Granted, there are concrete, real-world reasons why the deck would be stacked in Vancouver’s favor if we were to attempt a comparison. The arts funding and museum discrepancies are lamentable.  As others have discussed, many of the artists that would be Seattle’s international art stars are driven out of town for lack of options and support.  We deserve better, and we should demand more.

But I don’t know that comparing Seattle to Vancouver is ever going to give us the answer we want.  Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re my boyfriend.  What if I asked you, “Why do you think Barbara is prettier than me?”  If you weren’t particularly worried about getting laid tonight, you might respond with something like, “Because Barbara didn’t just ask me that question about you.”

I don’t know of any person, any place, or any thing that ever got any better by coveting its neighbor’s whathaveyou. Jen cites the example of Seattle’s historically strong music scene; I would contend that one of the main reasons Seattle music got as good as it did was its relative isolation from mainstream trends.  Like the artistic flowering of Edo period Japan or the dense and powerful mythology of Himalayan Tibet, it would seem that the world’s most idiosyncratic and profound cultures are the ones that have spent adequate time simmering in their own juices.  On a smaller scale, the same observation may be made of cities. How interesting would New Orleans be, for instance, if it were on the I-95 corridor?

So yes, let’s see what else is out there, but let us spend at least as much time learning what is under our own noses.  And forgetting both!  Perhaps this suggestion is anathema to the notion of an internationally cosmopolitan art world.  I’m the first to admit I’m biased: I’d rather look at really ecstatic outsider art than the coolest conceptual work any day.  What’s amazing to me, though, is when the visceral and intellectual fuse.  Solve et coagula.

Jen Graves parenthetically titled her article “a rant to get the conversation started.”  I don’t necessarily take issue with her assertion, but now that it’s been said I’d rather talk about how we can make Seattle the best possible version of itself than how to make it something it probably won’t ever be.  This might very well mean taking some cues from what Vancouver is doing right.  But mostly I think it means learning to identify and foster what is good that is already inside us.

~ by emilypothast on April 9, 2009.

15 Responses to “The Vancouver Problem: A Response to Keep the Conversation Going”

  1. A big problem, it seems to me, is a disconnect in Seattle between well-funded arts institutions – the SAM, blue-chip collectors – and the grassroots art scene. It seems that a lot of our high-profile institutions are looking for a reflection of New York in our local art, when they would do much better to simply look and listen to what local artists have to say rather than shoehorning them into whatever they think “art on the World Stage” must be. There is definitely a distinctive local voice, and I think it has a lot to do with a European pioneer culture reaching its limits in the natural world steeped in moss and mystery at the edge of the continent. That’s something that’s easily overlooked by our hi-tech local wealth generators at Boeing, Microsoft, and Amazon, who are perhaps too focused on the purities of soaring jet planes and glass skyscrapers and overnight wealth to look down at the ground and see the eternal process of death and decay and regeneration going on quietly beneath our feet this whole time.

  2. Agreed. I didn’t want to name names because I wanted to keep my post open ended, but as I have previously mentioned on this blog, I think John Grade, Mandy Greer, and Anne Mathern (just to name a few) all take the realities you mention into account and produce excellent work that fits within the trajectory of Northwest art history without being stifled by it.

  3. I think that you are on to some issues that have been festering here for years! In the mid-1980s Charlie Krafft and I published The Resurgent Regionalist Manifesto, decrying dominant market colonization of regional art markets and scenes. I would beg to disagree with Jen, Vancouver art sucks. It’s the most mindless mimicry of dominant market themes and motifs; huge cibachrome domestic photos with enigmatic words stuck on them, piles of rubbish or rocks in the corner of the museum, boring handheld videos projected on the wall, etc. Rule of thumb: Being encased in plexi does not necessarily make it art! As per the above, I can think of things that would be a lot more interesting than watching somebody type. Watching the hair grow on the back of my hand is more interesting, and instructive.

  4. Wow, speaking of Seattle art history, that sounds great. Is the Resurgent Regionalist Manifesto available online? If not, is it something that could be emailed to me for posting?

    I hope that by not disagreeing with Jen I wasn’t tacitly agreeing. The truth is, I have neither the expertise nor the history here to comment on which city’s art is “better.” I haven’t seen the exhibition she’s referring to, and I’m not entirely convinced the discrepancy isn’t a function of better funding and more devoted institutions up north.

    In fairness to Isabelle Pauwels, (1) I haven’t seen much of her work so this may not be the most representative image to have picked and (2) there’s a little more to the piece mentioned above than just watching the artist type. This article describes the piece in detail, saying that it’s basically cultural commentary on the slave wages that artists work for, with a nod to the evolution of technology quickly rendering itself obsolete. So yeah, I definitely get why some people would love it, but as a matter of personal taste, I think I’m probably more or less with you when it comes to this kind of thing.

    In general, art about the art biz makes me want to simultaneously implode and explode. But…if there’s one thing you can count on our culture for, it’s getting bored with fashionable ideas quickly (even if the PNW is slow to get the memos!)

  5. great f’ing post, miss emily! as usual.

  6. Jen also writes “(a) Vancouver art is connected to the larger world, and therefore to universes of issues, peculiarities, styles, and ideas that serve the artists as well as the audiences, and (b) Vancouver art is connected to its own art history.” In actuality, Vancouver is a provincial backwater, just like Seattle is. That’s why it is considered important to be “connected to the larger world”, i.e. to the dominant market, its motifs and motives. Few on the contemporary art scene invoke a “larger world” that includes Latin America or Croatia, or anywhere else that doesn’t fit the prevailing criteria of current fashion, but where some interesting art is being created. In the late 1980s Robert Hughes, then chief art critic for Time magazine complained about the increasing homogeneity of museum collections as one moved west. Things have not changed since, in fact they have gotten worse. Good art has always been fiercely regional and specific, where artists understand their connection to the community and the land that supports them. As illustration one can contrast the rank commercialism of LA with the idealism of San Francisco during the 1960s, or Chicago’s quirky eccentricities in the 70s and 80s.

    As for connecting to one’s history, I’m all for that, as long as it’s a full and well-rounded one that didn’t just appear suddenly in Post WWII New York. Both Seattle and Vancouver have fetishized rather narrow periods in the history of their respective regions; the Northwest School here, and the Group of Seven there. This fetishization has been detrimental to cultural growth and the articulation of a cohesive and mature patronage. It also marginalizes equally great artists from earlier periods whose contributions don’t fit the dominant narrative, e.g. Dorothy Dolph Jensen, Yvonne Twining Humber, Fokko Tadema, Abe Blasko, Yasushi Tanaka, etc. etc.

  7. BTW The Resurgent Regionalist Manifesto was published by Reflex magazine. I probably have a copy buried in some filing cabinet somewhere. I’ll look for it. Also, I agree re. art about the art biz. It’s as interesting as rock bands singing about touring. There is a great chapter in Ben Shahn’s “Shape of Content” in which he extols the virtues of experience, and tells how to go out and get it. More artists should read that, before they bemoan and disparage their day jobs.

  8. Indeed. This is a sweeping generalization, but in many ways the “Contemporary Art World” refers to a stifling and narrow band of practice that largely excludes anyone who is in the position to make art borne out of connection to one’s traditional culture or even the hardship of human experience. The US art world centers are largely comprised of upwardly mobile transplants from the Midwestern and rural “baby basket” to cities whose character is defined by that self-same flux of newcomers. No wonder meta art seems like the way to go!

    I’m also involved in a couple of narrow subsets of the music scene here to varying degrees and it’s interesting to note the difference between the music and art “industries.” Whereas savvy art audiences nearly uniformly respect and admire those who have broken through to the top echelons of the system, musicians and music fans with discriminating taste rarely pick their favorites from among those who have “made it big.” Part of this certainly reflects a snobbery among music aficionados (specifically those that consume music but don’t make it), but mostly it’s because the music that’s created with marketability and mainstream success in mind tends not to be very interesting.

    Visual art is a very different game. It has a much smaller audience than music, and as a result there are not as many niches and sub-genres, nor the same stigma on that which is considered overly mainstream. That “regionalism” can be considered a single genre demonstrates this narrow spectrum.

    I should read the Ben Shahn chapter. What you say reminds me of a section from Rainer Marie Rilke’s Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, which was made into a portfolio illustrated by Ben Shahn in the ’60s:

    For the sake of a single verse, one must see many cities, men, and things. One must know the animals, one must feel how the birds fly and know the gesture with which the little flowers open in the morning. One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings one had long seen coming; to days of childhood that are still unexplained, to parents whom one had to hurt when they brought one some joy and did not grasp it (it was a joy for someone else); to childhood illnesses that so strangely begin with such a number of profound and grave transformations, to days in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along on high and flew with all the stars—and it is not yet enough if one may think of all this. One must have memories of many nights of love, none of which was like the others, of the screams of women in labor, and of light, white, sleeping women in childbed, closing again. But one must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful noises. And still it is not enough to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the great patience to wait until they come again.

    For it is not yet the memories themselves. Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance, and gesture, nameless, and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

  9. Shahn published “The Shape of Content” in 1957, but he must have been familiar with Rilke’s “Notebooks of…”. His writing is a restatement of this in less poetic and more practical terms. Two things: Regionalism by definition is heterogeneous. There is a reason that art has a smaller audience, and it’s not one that reflects well on the community of artists, dealers and patrons.

  10. I think the Vancouver B&B guy was onto something. Except, I would extend the reach of his analogy and add New York (perhaps the rest of Canada would be analogous to Chicago?). Vancouver is Canada’s art city; it is a great art city. But to compare it to – not only Seattle – ANY U.S. art city is certainly a case of apples and oranges, as you’ve said. The issue of funding is significant.

    As for where this all leads us– I’m with you. That is, I would rather be inspired than forlorn.

  11. Lively conversation. Great things do happen in places that have names, but more importantly, I think, great things happen when interesting people meet. I understand this was likely the case when Jeff Wall met Ian Wallace. The personalities of that meeting were likely far more significant than the geography. Listening to Jen Graves going off as though art communities are soccer teams is seriously disconcerting. I’d hope that regardless of borders we could engage with one another in the important cultural conversations of our time. This would certainly prove to be more valuable than discussing whose team is going to win and why.

  12. Great point. Often the difference between a scene that’s perceived as “happening” and one that isn’t boils down to a handful of individuals who are making things happen. Geography can be a factor, but it’s far from the only thing.

  13. True, but in today’s world those individuals who meet and make things happen often meet in places outside of standard geographies (like here), or as they pass through various places. While I tend to see a debate about which city is cooler as a useless distraction, Jen Graves’ article certainly caught the attention of people in both cities and it likely heightens the chance for happening encounters outside of the walls of either. Encounter, transit, passing are probably far more important today than any jurisdiction with a mandate to give itself definition, meaning or shine. That said, communities that can, while avoiding insular or exclusionary tendencies, effectively facilitate making themselves into spaces of meaningful encounter and meaningful conversations are to be applauded.

  14. […] April 22, 2009 · No Comments I’ve been thinking a lot about Jen Graves’ essay The Vancouver Problem, in which she explains why she thinks Vancouver is a better art city than Seattle. As a relative newcomer (3 years) who has lived in several international art cities, I’ll add my voice to this conversation. […]

  15. Great point. Often the difference between a scene that’s perceived as “happening” and one that isn’t boils down to a handful of individuals who are making things happen. Geography can be a factor, but it’s far from the only thing.

    I’ve always felt the solution to a stagnant problem is a DIY kick in the ass. Artists really should band together, think outside the gallery-box, and start their own ventures. While they may not always make the press, they make artists connect and produce. Inevitably, that’s success for an art scene, in my opinion.

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