On a Recent Visit to Access Gallery

by Stephan Ackermann

On October 27th, Access Gallery opened its new exhibition, A Vertical City Goes Both Ways, by the Vancouver artist Sean Alward.

As I entered the small but bright exhibition space, I was overwhelmed by the work False Creek Midden, an assemblage that extends over an entire wall. This one is clearly dominant among the other exhibited works.

Then I viewed further pieces—mainly photo collages which were extended by watercolor and acrylic paint—and saw another work quite equal to the first: a collage titled Growth. It consists of uncountable, small circles of identical size. Their arrangement is asymmetrical and rampant, almost random. And even if there are trends in the colour of light and dark, each single part is individual in colour. This work shows us how the growth of a city may expand in a similarly rampant and random way, but consists of numerous individuals.

False Creek Midden 1, 2011, 96 x 78 inches, acrylic on linen mounted on wallFalse Creek Midden 1, 2011, 96 x 78 inches, acrylic on linen mounted on wall

This thought appeared stronger to me when I began to look at the first mentioned work in more detail. False Creek Midden consists of many differently-sized rectangular images. If you stand directly in front of this work, it feels almost like watching a city from a certain distance, watching the skyline of this city, too large and complex to behold all at once.

But if you deconstruct the piece and look at it image for image, it seems more like a register of an archaeological excavation.  Many of the works are reminiscent of Rorschach images, inkblots that were used by psychologists for personality testing and interpreting a patient’s state of mind. Alward’s images give the impression of bones and objects from an ancient time. There are also images where you can see plant-like structures, and others appear to be like fragments of a map. Assembled together, the images seem to be a compilation of bones, objects, fossils and maps from the distant past.

Sean Alward, Growth, 2012, 43 x 50 inches, acrylic and linenGrowth, 2012, 43 x 50 inches, acrylic and linen

How Alward brings these visual ideas together—the city as the product of many different individuals, and the archaeology of the past—is impressive. Ancient cities were as busy and multifaceted as today’s cities. But now it seems to be increasingly important to reflect and learn from the past. It’s important like never before to respect the surface we built our cities on, and to accept and respect its history. Perhaps this is also what the title of this exhibition, A Vertical City Goes Both Ways, says. As modern cities grow outwards and buildings get higher and higher, we should realize our origins: that the past resides beneath the surface of today.

A vertical city goes both ways can still be visited at Access Gallery until December 22, 2012.

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