Given without Guide:
Landscape Exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Gallery
The imposition of a sentimental, or false, narrative on the disparate and often random experience that constitutes the life of a city or a country means, necessarily, that much of what happens in that city or country will be rendered merely illustrative, a series of set pieces or performance opportunities.
–Joan Didion, “Sentimental Journey,” 1990.1
Landscape, as such, does not exist. It is made up and never neutral. A friend who grew up in the French countryside avers that there is no landscape where he is from. The sense of wonder a Canadian child felt in viewing the Rocky Mountains in the backseat of an Oldsmobile has more to do with a national ideology that rarifies those mountains than any innate sense of awe. However, at least for this reviewer (no doubt, a good Romantic subject who crossed the Rockies countless times as a child), landscape nevertheless appears as a given. Landscape evinces itself in the cordillera of eucalyptus trees on the Berkeley Hills, in the expanses of the south arm of the Fraser River Delta, along the I-5 corridor through the Skagit Valley, and in the rolling pine forests of the Okanagan. Landscape is the visible relation between distant points. The distance between those two points is aestheticized by what we call the view and thus exhibits what Walter Benjamin calls aura.2
Recent exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver developed into a series almost accidentally, the curator Jenifer Papararo tells me. Gathered as the first three of a series of exhibitions devoted to petit genres (portraiture, landscape, and still life), the CAG published a catalogue titled Landscape, accompanying three exhibitions devoted to the subject, which will be followed by two more catalogues for exhibitions on the other petit genres. The catalogue registers a move away from standard exhibition monographs in Vancouver art institutions towards more thematically based publications (this shift can also be seen in Artspeak’s recent publications). As such, Landscape gathers a number of recent exhibitions at the CAG, providing a thematic focus for a number of related shows. In the spring of 2009, the Quebec City-based collective BGL and Toronto-based Tim Gardner had concurrent solo shows at the CAG, and the subsequent summer show, Sentimental Journey, included the six artists Michael Drebert, Owen Kydd, Gareth Moore, Mike McLean and Laura Trunkey, Kevin Schmidt, and Kara Uzelman.
The exhibitions at the Contemporary Art Gallery offered no coherent approach to or theory of landscape. All three, however, identify a tendency to treat landscape as a priori. Each contribution gives landscape to us in different ways, exploring that relation between distant points differently—even if, in the end, each retains the auratic quality landscape has been given. In his catalogue essay from Landscape, Michael Turner suggests that the work in Sentimental Journey reveals that “our desire to discover what is hidden speaks to our need to understand how the landscape can be a site of competing perspectives”.3 Turner’s remark also describes how the exhibition’s curation operates. Of the work in the various exhibitions, only a few can be addressed in the limits of this review.
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About the Author
Aaron Peck is the author of the novel The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis. His criticism has appeared in Canadian Art and Matador as well as various exhibition catalogues. He lives in Vancouver.