Emily Carr and the Theatre of Transcendence

by Rhys Edwards

Emily Carr and the Theatre of Transcendence is refreshingly daring. It’s located on the fourth floor of the Vancouver Art Gallery, where few are likely to venture after trawling though an abundance of other spectacles. And, while the Gallery’s endorsement of Carr is ever-omnipresent, the variety of artworks on display exhibit a clear and consistent engagement with transcendentalism, while some works overtly aspire towards or even exude sublimity.

Emily Carr, Tree Trunk [detail], 1931, oil on canvas, courtesy of Vancouver Art Gallery

The exhibition’s title caught my attention, because it is relatively unusual for contemporary art institutions in Vancouver to engage directly with the idea of transcendence as an exhibition theme. Transcendentalism in the conventional sense, such as spiritual emancipation from material reality, is not an especially popular idea in the postmodern era. It implies that there is some sort of a higher ontological framework that we all may aspire, an idea that is distasteful to our multi-pluralistic imperatives. Still, references to the transcendent do appear occasionally on artist’s statements. catalogues and reviews in Vancouver, though, these references often freely allow one to cite off any number of other quasi-religious sentiments—the ‘sublime,’ the ‘ecstatic,’ and the ‘numinous’—without actually committing to them. Such references annotate an artist’s work with a suggestion of larger importance, while simultaneously avoiding the risk of incurring postmodernist wrath.

Emily Carr’s works serve only as a frame for the exhibition’s larger themes; and, her works are largely superseded by several other pieces in the exhibition. Vancouver artist Jack Marlowe Wise, for example, elicits a nuanced divinity with his unassuming ink drawing, Mid-Moon Mandala. Although the piece alludes directly to the precepts of Tibetan Buddhism, it is intriguing in its avoidance of figurative form, explicit symbolism, or consistent patterning  Wise conveys a distilled transcendence purely through the use of visual harmony; impeccably realized details and sensual colours coalesce with one another in a non-linear rhythm. The image is reminiscent of Gordon Payne’s new work exhibited at the Satellite Gallery.

Kevin Schmidt, FogKevin Schmidt, Fog, 2004, courtesy of Catriona Jeffries

Kevin Schmidt’s Fog (2004)  is a striking contrast, yet impassive reverberation of our culturally mediated inclinations towards capital ‘N’ Nature. A simple double-sided projection, consisting of two photographic slides, illuminates a darkened room. The work depicts a seemingly innocuous forest scene, in which pines, cedars, and ferns are shrouded by an evanescent fog; they seem to invoke the wilds of British Columbia’s esteemed provincial parks. At first, the effect is profound—these forests, one feels, are mythic, timeless even. On inspection, the images reveal themselves for what they are: an artificial simulacrum. Indeed, they are literally the projection of a preconception, a vague sense of an ‘authentic’ other that has been fetishized by our apparent distance from it.

In a perverse twist, the ‘otherwordly’ qualities of Fog’s images stem from the intentional manipulations of the artist, who has evidently staged the ambient lighting that so perfectly captures the ethereal depths of these forests. Despite being aware of this artifice, I remain enraptured by the images simply because they remain compelling within their deliberately, manipulative frameworks. Perhaps it’s our visions of the transcendent realm, as contrived as they may be, that becomes truth in virtue of our own construction of them.


Emily Carr and the Theatre of Transcendence runs until September 3, 2012 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Visit www.vanartgallery.bc.ca for details.

A CD of an artist’s talk for Kevin Schmidt’s installation of Fog at Presentation House Gallery is available at Satellite Gallery bookstore.


One response to “Emily Carr and the Theatre of Transcendence

  1. lovely exhibit, really opened up my mind. Nothing like it, everyone should got see it and it will change their perspective on nature and the spiritual world.

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