Tag Archives: Vancouver Art Gallery

Art Review: Ken Lum Ho Hum

On the weekend I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery and looked at different shows, including Ken Lum’s art. Even back when I attended art college I had a hard time believing that anything tossed anywhere (such as the cow patties in the foyer) were actually art. Maybe they were political or social commentaries but were they art? It’s one of the great debates and I know there is such over Lum’s work. Perhaps by that fact alone he’s a great artist. But, I don’t get it.

Ken Lum's sign art

Lum is known, I guess, for his sign art. My friend said she could have easily been driving down Kingsway looking at the car shops and fast food joints and little shops that festoon that strip. Except these have a “but…” afterward with a political statement or a social one. When I drive down to Oregon on the east side of the I5 highway there is a giant billboard owned by some Republican who usually leaves a right-wing (half nonsensical) message. I guess that’s art  too. The example to the left made up about a third of Lum’s show. Sleak…signs…with not what I’d call a super witty revelation on any of them. I will give that one or two of them I thought were funny.

This might have been the most interesting of the ones I saw...

Another of his series were large boards again with a person pictured on one side and a phrase often repeated on the other. Such as the one of a woman with a French phrase book that went something like this: Je/Je suis/Je suis Canadienne/Je suis Americaine/Je suis Francais/Je/Je suis…etc. The pictures aren’t beautiful and they’re not even really ugly. They’re not stunningly executed in the way photography can be showing the real ugliness or beauty of the world. They’re of the street and could have been snapped by anyone. If Lum wants to show the banality of life, he’s succeeded. I was left with this expression: meh. It made me want to take two weeks off, get some paint and posters and pictures and slap stuff together and see if I can have a show in the VAG as well. I mean, sometimes the difference between successful art and that which isn’t has nothing to do with quality. It depends on whether someone in “the know”–a curator, a rich collector, an art faddist decides something is good.

There were a few couches and sofa beds pushed together and piled high, or enclosed so that they were inaccessible to be sat upon. This is part of Lum’s statement and while I could understand it I’m not sure three made more of a point. From a strictly sculptural point of view I didn’t mind them. Oh and we touched the red circular couch. Gasp! Right away a guard was telling us not to touch because gosh, couches shouldn’t be touched. And after the couch has made its round, well it’ll probably be in someone’s private collection or a secondhand store.

Lum might be known best in Vancouver for the giant neon white cross that looms over East Van like a doomsday device. Horizontally, the letters spell Van, vertically, East. It is either East Van or Van East and supposedly hearkens back to that East Van pride days of your when gangs of young Italian Catholic men roamed the streets. This romanticism and fake geographic pride drives me nuts. I live in East Van and today, not 50 years ago is where we are where there is a multi ethnic, multi religious (or none) community. I don’t feel I should be dominated by a huge Christian symbol and if Lum really wanted to make a statement about East Van he should have put a yellow neon sickle moon, next to a green pentacle, next to some agnostic sign. Regaling in some symbol supposedly used by gangs before all the other ethnic gangs moved in (not that there are that many) seems absurd at best. It certainly seems like an ignorant erection in a time of many other religious beliefs being practiced. But if Lum wanted to evoke conversation and feelings, he succeeded. However, to do so in such an obtrusively permanent way is galling.

The one other piece in the gallery was a large glass maze, done in triangles. As you walked through it etched statements would show in the glass. These had to do with self-worth and image. As a fractured personality and the way we view ourselves this was well-executed and brilliantly done.

But overall I have to say Lum’s pieces leave me cold, except for the East Van cross, which raises my ire.

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Vermeer and Rembrandt at the Vancouver Art Gallery

Last night I attended the show at the Vancouver Art Gallery; “Vermeer, Rembrandt and the Golden Age of Dutch Art Masterpieces from The Rijksmuseum.” I went with a friend who is also interested in art history so we tended to discuss details and  techniques a lot. Though you could zip through the show in about 20 minutes, we took two hours. The show was bigger than I was expecting. In the past, some of the VAG shows were really lacking so it was a pleasant surprise.

The works included mostly paintings, some etchings, charcoal and brush sketches, drypoint work, watercolors of plants, blown glass goblets and containers, Delft ceramic tiles and vessels and silver items (and a few miniature chairs, 6 inches high). Although Vermeer and Rembrandt were featured as the main (or most famous) attractions, there was a myriad of works by other Dutch masters, many who had been trained by Rembrandt. A few of the names I remember from the show are: Gerard Ter Borch (quite a few pieces), Frans Hals, Karel du Jardin, Adriaen van Ostade, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Aelbert Cuyp,  Salomon van Ruysdael, Hobbema, Visscher, etc.

The pictures ranged in size from small etchings and sketches (4-5 inches) up to five foot paintings. Many were either in original or very old wooden frames. I wished there had been more detail on the frames but we realised that the makers were probably lost in antiquity as just nameless craftsmen. One frame was carved with leaves and berries, a blank shield at the top and an odd woodsy, gnome face at the bottom. It was a true work of art in itself and about three inches in depth.

The images themselves ranged from watercolors of plants and portraits. to pastoral images, cityscapes, mythical and iconic images, still lifes of fruit, flowers, vessels, dead animals, portraits of course and daily life scenes. Overall it was a very good cross section of the Golden Age of Dutch art. Not many of the paintings were ones that I am familiar with, and I have looked at a good many books of medieval and renaissance art, but many were recognizable as being by one person or the next.

Four glass vessels were in the show; three drinking glasses and a flask in blue with engraved swirls and words on it. The other three were blown glasses and the plainest was also very interesting. It was a small cylindrical beaker of about 4 inches in height, of very clear glass (harder to attain in those eras) and with a few decorations that looked like wriggly worms with hands at the end, in clear and teal blue glass. I found the decoration, which covered the lower quarter of the glass, almost modern in its design. The glass vessels were also included to compliment the paintings which had similar or exact goblets in the images.

The silver items were amazingly shiny and looked brand new. I believe that the museums must have cleaned and polished them at the point of acquiring them. There were platters, ewers, spice sets, candlesticks, containers and a Jewish menorah. Many were covered with flowers and chasework, and sometimes whimsical creatures or raised motifs and arms. It would have been nice to have had more of a write-up beside these pieces. I wanted to know if they were molded, hammered, chased, or other techniques but they were probably like the glass vessels, meant to compliment images in the paintings.

The paintings were all behind glass, put into the frames. All of the three-dimensional artifacts were in Plexiglas cases on graphite metal stands, very sturdy and no way they could be knocked over. VAG is notorious for being somewhat lower grade when it comes to museum security, a reason that the truly great pieces of art don’t always make it to Vancouver. There were the requisite guards/watchers in every room. Several guys had that CIA look with a cord wriggling into their ears and walkies in their hands, but were professional and inobtrusive. The rest were probably volunteers and not “real” security.

This caused its own problem near the end, after we had been walking around the exhibition for nearly two hours. My friend and I discussed pieces, looking closely at brushstrokes and details, or how a hand, a vessel or a building had been rendered. We talked about qualities of light, colors used, whether a piece was faded, the faces realistic, the towns real or fantasy, the landscapes, etc. as well as the difference from one master or one painting to another. I need reading glasses for up close and used them to see the fine detail of the paint, which brought me within a few inches of the painting.

I’m very well aware of museum protocols and would never touch a painting or drawing (though almost all were under glass anyways) because I know the damage these would cause. So as my friend and I talked about the works she or I would point out something in a painting, using a finger to point. At one point I leaned in to look at a small painting and put my hand on the edge of the metal stand of the display right next to the painting. In swooped a watcher and told me not to touch the stand. I was hardly jeopardizing the piece or the stand.

The next and last room had paintings ranging in size down to a smaller piece about eight-twelve inches long. As we discussed the image of the woman taking off her stockings (a painting I have seen before) in her bedroom, I pointed out the lines that her garters had left on her legs. In swooped the socially inept watcher to say, don’t touch the paintings. I pointed out that I wasn’t and she replied, your fingers don’t have eyes so they don’t need to be so close. ??? WTF? This did irritate me in the rudeness and inanity of it all. And we had done this throughout the full exhibition only to have this creature at the end get proprietary with her little ounce of power. I wrote a letter to the VAG, not that it will do much good (years ago I used to volunteer there until they started charging their volunteers–yep, pay to volunteer).

All in all, I thought it was a good show and a great chance to see the actual works of the Dutch masters that I had not seen before in person. The admission isn’t cheap at $20.50. (I believe Tuesday nights might be free but you’d have to check that.) If you’re used to museums in England and Scotland where they are now mostly free, it’s a lot. Luckily I had a pass, but it was worth it, except for the few troglodyte guard dogs.

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