Seattle art has a Vancouver problem. The two cities are close: Vancouver is only 136 miles away, just across the Canadian border. They're comparable in size. But Vancouver art is better. "Better" in this case means (a) Vancouver art is connected to the larger world, and therefore to universes of issues, peculiarities, styles, and ideas that serve the artists as well as the audiences, and (b) Vancouver art is connected to its own art history.
Vancouver: If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. That's the kind of city it is, according to Seattle curator Eric Fredericksen. He's right: While Seattle artists often find themselves trapped inside the city—or move away, to Chicago or New York or L.A., in order to expand—Vancouver artists have both local and international careers. Paradoxically, this expansiveness is fueled by self-reflection: Vancouver art is known to itself. In Seattle, nothing seems to stick, but over the last half-century, Vancouver art has consciously developed and stretched its own art history—in landmark exhibitions and great public debates, in writing and teaching by artists. During that same time, Seattle art has been marked by fascinating experiments followed by wholesale forgettings, ultimately forming a sequence of events with as many losses as gains.
For instance, how has Seattle art built on the legacy of 1969, when Lucy Lippard filled the whole city—starting with Seattle Art Museum and moving outward—with the unbelievably experimental conceptual-art exhibition 557,087 (titled after the population of the city at the time and including artists whose names in the intervening years have become hallowed internationally: John Baldessari, Eva Hesse, Vito Acconci, Dan Graham, Sol LeWitt, Daniel Buren, Walter De Maria, and Adrian Piper, just to name a few)? How has Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park, on a formerly oil-soaked site, followed up on the way King County led the national discussion about earthworks and abused environments in a 1979 symposium with eight artists, which culminated in major commissions out in Kent and SeaTac (by Herbert Bayer and Robert Morris, respectively) now barely acknowledged? There's also an entire buried history of experimental performance art that raged through 1970s Seattle—a history that seems unknown to contemporary Seattle performance-based artists such as SuttonBeresCuller, Greg Lundgren, PDL, Wynne Greenwood, and Anne Mathern, probably because it was barely documented, let alone passed down in art schools, museums, and artist-run galleries.
Seattle has been a great art town at various points in its history. But today, the city's art scene has no such signature. No signature at all, even—except "pluralism," that horribly genericizing umbrella that encouraged the complacency of every so-so art scene in the country through the late '90s and early '00s. (Aside! Believing that humans should have equal rights does not equate to believing that works of art are created equal: In art and culture, unlike in class matters, elitism is merit based.)
Today, Seattle artists seldom show abroad, and when they do, they are noted only for their anonymity. Reviewing a Philadelphia group show in the New York Times last month, Roberta Smith named local star Jeffry Mitchell one of a handful of "artists with little art-world profile" (why don't you lend him some, Roberta?).
"So, have you guys heard of Jeffry Mitchell?" I asked Kathleen Ritter and Daina Augaitis last week in Vancouver. The three of us were sitting high on a set of salvaged-wood bleachers built by the father-sons artist collective Cedric, Nathan, and Jim Bomford. The Bomfords are included in the exhibition How Soon Is Now, a group show of new art from British Columbia at Vancouver's art museum, Vancouver Art Gallery, curated by Ritter. Augaitis is the chief curator at the museum.
No, they hadn't heard of Jeffry Mitchell.
Meanwhile, the leading lights of Seattle curating (and attentive Seattle audiences) all know these names: Tim Lee, Mark Soo, Kevin Schmidt, Hadley + Maxwell, Isabelle Pauwels, and Gareth Moore. These are some of Vancouver's young(ish) artists, two of whom—Pauwels and Moore—are on the six-person short list of the Henry Art Gallery's new $12,500 Brink award, along with two Seattle artists and two from Portland. The winner of the award will be announced April 17. Whoever wins, by crossing the border the Henry is implicitly encouraging Seattle to compete on a higher level, to step up its game.
The Henry should step up its game by exhibiting all six short listers rather than just the winner, while the Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland art museums should all start reconceptualizing the meaning of "regional," like the Henry is doing, and quick. (The "inclusion" of such places as Idaho and Montana in Tacoma Art Museum's biennial, for instance, reflects a fake constituency and has fake results. Art is now and has always been a city game. The art "region" is along or connected to the I-5 corridor, and in most ways, Seattle has more in common with Los Angeles than Spokane. Also, while 30 Montana and Idaho artists applied to this year's TAM biennial, zero made it in. This makes no sense. And it helps to explain why TAM's biennial this year, as in the past, also makes no sense and provides few advantages for the artists or the audience.)
It's not that Vancouver is a romantic place full of geniuses, although it does have a crush of world-famous artists led by early photo-conceptualists Ian Wallace, Ken Lum, Jeff Wall, and Rodney Graham. But the success of today's developing Vancouver artists is not their links to those guys. It's that they are connected in all directions—to other times as well as other places (especially European centers; Vancouver, the only major West Coast city, is Canada's Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, and L.A. all in one)—while Seattle artists float. The fact that Vancouver does not have a strong commercial art market has endowed the city with more experimental art (as has a vigorously federally funded artist-run-center program that puts artists in the roles of presenters as well as creators). It's rare for a Vancouver up-and-comer not to be represented by a gallery in, say, Berlin, or Rotterdam, or London, or Munich, which means the artists spend time in cultures not their own.
"Being an artist in Vancouver kind of pushes you into realizing that there's a larger world," Vancouver curator Augaitis said. "When we were doing studio visits for the Baja to Vancouver show"—it surveyed art up and down the West Coast of North America, showing at Seattle Art Museum in 2003—"the artists here were just so much more articulate. They had not only a knowledge of their history here, but also of international practices."
The observation she's making about Seattle artists might be made of Americans in general.
So what is contemporary art in Vancouver really like? One of its marked features is a relationship with popular culture, especially music and film. A highlight of How Soon Is Now at the VAG is a Hadley + Maxwell installation that combines historical footage of the Rolling Stones, figurative sculpture made by arranging recording-studio equipment, and a geometric painting with a lightbulb that depicts the rest of the installation in miniaturized abstract. The installation, which changes its format every time it's exhibited, is tight, funny, clever, and improvisational. It quite rocks.
You might say Vancouver art is more fashionable than Seattle's, and this happens to be true right now because of the way the city's photo-conceptual tradition lines up with what Times critic Smith calls art's current "religion of Minimal-Conceptual-Relational art." The weakest works in How Soon Is Now do feel like trendy, compulsory replays of classic moves from the conceptual-relational line.
But plenty of other works are art- historically informed and also brilliantly topical, ranging in subject matter from poverty in East Vancouver (Paul Wong) to a First Peoples heritage (Raymond Boisjoly; other Vancouver artists not in this show, such as Brian Jungen and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, also tackle tribal traditions using very contemporary means), the invisibility of economics (Antonia Hirsch), the death of a tame jaguar named Richard (Allison Hrabluik), trusting your senses even inside a museum (Mark Soo), and the difference between the Democratic National Convention and Burning Man/the problem of white men wearing Tupac shirts/whether art historians are god (Dan Starling). Even when Seattle is the subject, Vancouver artists are sometimes more on top of it than we are: In last year's survey of young Vancouver artists at the University of British Columbia's Belkin Gallery, one of the subjects, explored in photographs by Alex Morrison, was the scene in the Vancouver streets as the Hollywood film Battle in Seattle was being filmed. No Seattle artists were on the scene—another case of its own history passing Seattle by.
It's true that Vancouver has a cooler relationship to materials than Seattle (given Seattle's craft history in ceramics), but there are established exceptions, such as Liz Magor (who showed painted gypsum sculptures recently at the Henry, and whose tutelage has influenced generations of Vancouver artists). How Soon Is Now is not all videos, photos, and clever conceptual setups. There are figurative expressionists, too: The standout is Luanne Martineau, whose dangling, twisted, and severed body parts of yarn and wool are part Francis Bacon, part Philip Guston, and part '60s handbag.
Another Vancouverism evident in How Soon Is Now is the warm relationship between museum and artists. Artists known for, say, abstraction or photography experiment with text or sound in the museum show, obviously feeling free. The museum is unfazed by permeatingly loud sounds, piles of dirt that have to be moved every few weeks, and elaborate constructions that break through walls—and a giant flag by an artist (a late-night-TV test pattern by Aaron Carpenter titled Good Night) flies on the flagpole out front. The art generally behaves as if it's at home.
In Seattle, museums seem to grant legitimacy to local artists grudgingly. At the VAG, Vancouver artists have a vital place: Upstairs from How Soon Is Now, contemporary local artists are mixed naturally into a show of canonic abstract art. One great moment has two gargantuan painted black circles, a 2009 work by Neil Campbell, staring down a violet disc by Robert Irwin, one of the holiest relics in postwar American art. And conversely, when the museum presents a touring exhibition—like WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution last year—the city's artists, art lovers, and other art institutions rally together to create a sustained focus on a series of issues. (The VAG also added '60s, '70s, and '80s Vancouver feminists to its installation of WACK!)
We—I include myself—have work to do. I am not quite sure what it is, but I think it starts here.