by Jason Smythe
This article is written from a place of pure joy. Ever since my triumphant return to Vancouver (and by triumphant I mean I survived a year of grad school in Alberta) I have been radiating pure bliss at levels that far exceed the recommended daily dosage. This “toxicity” that I am oozing so willingly can be attributed to the fact that I am no longer reading academic tomes that seem to strive for Saharan levels of dryness, which I suspect is part of a long-standing and incredibly sadistic plot by ivory tower types to make all grad students more boring at parties. Our pain truly is their pleasure.
However, since my Kurt Russell-esque escape from the desert of grad school to the lush rainforest of Vancouver I have been busy devouring all things containing culture or moisture, and in my search for both I stumbled upon the CAG, which is currently showing the artwork of one Julia Dault. Initially, I was drawn in by the title of Dault’s exhibit, ‘Blame it on the Rain’, since I figured it would also double as a source of moisture, but such hopes were soon dashed as I realized upon entering that this ‘Rain’ was figurative, and that none of the paintings were watercolours. Thankfully the gallery was selling wine, so I got over my disappointment rather quickly.
With a head full of figurative steam, and a mouth and belly full of literal Syrah, I began my counter-clockwise journey through the gallery. And as I was breaking all the important life-lessons passed down to me by my Swiss-watch making ancestors I had two epiphanies. First, that because I think therefore I am, but then I remembered that Descartes beat me to this by a few centuries. But the second, and most important, of my revelations is that art has become much more lively over the past few centuries, and that as humanity has progressed in terms of science and technology etc. so too has the power of art. To explain what I mean, I will compare what I saw at the CAG to the current Cézanne exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Truth be told, Cézanne and the other artists on display at the “Cézanne and the Modern” exhibit, like van Gogh, Degas and Modigliani, are not that old, but for the sake of my argument let’s just agree that this is a good starting point for analyzing the evolution of art over the “past few centuries”. Admittedly, I appreciated Cézanne’s watercolours and the poignancy of van Gogh’s brushstrokes (I always have), but these works didn’t dazzle me like Dault’s did. I think my feelings for the Cézanne exhibit are best summed up by my reaction to one of the Modigliani paintings on display, the title of which completely escapes me. As I analyzed the painting I simultaneously marveled at the epoch changing nature of his art and grumbled that it was oil-based (and thus lacking in moisture). Bad jokes aside, the painting was a portrait of a relatively slender man wearing a turtle neck, with a mostly bald head, oblong nose and asymmetrical eyes. For me, the eyes were the highlight of the painting, and as a whole the man looks like a character from a movie that Tim Burton desperately needs to make. The painting itself is housed in an old looking frame, and overall the work gives off an air of stuffiness, in the sense that it looks and feels like an antique. Perhaps if it was placed in a more modern frame it would appear more vibrant, but that isn’t what the curators were aiming for. They want to us to remember that we are looking at the paintings of dead men, or to phrase it in a slightly less morbid fashion: that what we are looking at is historical, not new. And as I was wandering around the Dault exhibit the lifelessness of the Cézanne exhibit became all that more apparent.
The thing that struck me the most about Dault is that her artwork seemed to explode off the canvas. The Wilds, Shear Magic and Twizzler spoke to me on an almost religious level. I am unsure whether it was the painted frames, the subject matter or simply the abstractness (or perhaps a bit of all three) that did it for me, but what I do know is that I absolutely loved them, and any epiphanies I may derive from them cannot be attributed to Descartes. Playmate and Drama Queen were also highlights, and I basked in the pinkish glow of the former for some time before I remembered that I also had a friend with me and that I should probably stop ignoring her. Thankfully I haven’t forgotten that the key to maintaining healthy and long-lasting relationships of any kind is communication, despite what all my dull realist-leaning political science readings may say
So ultimately, what am I arguing? Am I saying that Dault is better than the modern masters currently on display at the VAG? Am I arguing that modernism is boring and we should only be looking at contemporary art? The answer to both of these questions is a resounding no. Firstly, it would be ridiculous to say that Dault is better than Cézanne or Manet. Her body of work is tiny in comparison and it usually takes decades to fully appreciate the importance of an artist and their work. But I certainly found Dault’s work to be livelier than any Cézanne or Manet painting I’ve ever stumbled across, so perhaps from a more immediate and emotional stand-point I can start to make some judgments. Secondly, modernism is amazing and contemporary art wouldn’t be where it is without the pain, sweat and tears of people like the aforementioned Cézanne and Manet. To paraphrase the words of someone who is neither Descartes nor French: those who see further stand on the shoulder of giants, and the artistic vanguard of today is forever indebted to the artists who came before them. Finally, it must be remembered that new things tend to be “livelier” than past products. Overall, contemporary art is more vibrant than modern art, but then modern art is more vibrant than art produced during the neoclassical or romantic periods, and so on. Whether or not you agree with my argument is one thing, but what cannot be denied is that the future of art is bright, and this is something we should all be excited about.
Julia Dault “Blame it on the Rain” is showing at the Contemporary Art Gallery until June 28th.
“Cézanne and the Modern” is showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 18th.