Saturday, September 7, 2019

Eye of the Beholder: The Extremity of Vikky Alexander

Between Dreaming and Living #8, by Vikky Alexander. (Image: VAG)

Vikky Alexander: Extreme Beauty runs July 6 – January 26, 2020 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. The catalogue/book of this show is well worth ordering from the VAG.

Coming of age in the heady photo-conceptualist decade of the 1980s, Vikky Alexander quickly ascended to the upper ranks of the most visually challenging and thought-provoking Canadian contemporary artists. Becoming well known for her insightful investigations of the found and appropriated image, the artificial representation of enclosed nature and the cultural seduction of both space and place, it was almost as if she was holding up a dark mirror to our beauty-obsessed era and showing us who we were really were beneath the surface of all that bright and shiny glitter.

Irony literally drips off the smooth textures of her multi-panel piece Obsession, from 1983, for instance, with sacred supermodel Christie Brinkley, the ultimate golden uptown girl, standing in as an airbrushed female Saint figure. Peering into a piece of deep blue void such as Between Dreaming and Living, #5, from 1986, subtly reminds us that we can never really be sure if we’re awake or asleep. Which is exactly the way that both mass media and consumer society prefers its customers to be: interstitial, liminal, hovering between hyper-desire and permanently suspended satisfaction.

This exquisitely curated and installed retrospective of more than eighty works, the first for an artist who demands and deserves our full attention, was also cleverly juxtaposed with a concurrent show of the deeply resonating Robert Rauschenberg’s works from 1965-1980. This was the ideal context for situating Alexander’s overall oeuvre, since both artists blurred the boundaries between mediums as they mixed and merged materials and ideas in a daring use of everyday images culled from a popular culture which moved too fast to fully delve into its own messaging.

Obsession, 1983, by Vikky Alexander. (Image: VAG)

Extreme Beauty, so strangely similar to the entertainment format of ultimate or extreme fighting, deftly demonstrated how Alexander has cultivated a crisp career montage of images devoted to unraveling the mechanisms of display that shape meaning and desire in our culture. By stripping consumer systems of their mystifying and signifying but largely unconscious strategies, Alexander, like Rauschenberg, encourages us to fully embrace the shimmering intersection between making art and living life. Indeed, both artists astutely interrogated mass media via their skillful use of its own techniques of seriality, repetition, recursion and glitz, all resulting in a profound deconstruction of the flimsy assumptions we choose to live by.

These days, the 1980's almost feel like another planet, not just another age. Indeed, the provocatively titled Extreme Beauty showcased her multi-faceted examinations of mediated beauty and its cultural consumption as an otherworldy commodity, throughout a surprisingly elastic artistic practice that encompasses photography, sculpture, collage and installation. Her clear-eyed gaze falls upon mall interiors, retail shop windows, model apartment suites, tightly controlled public gardens, and even large scale murals advertising nothing but themselves.

Originally from Victoria British Columbia, a graduate of the experimental hotbed of NASCAD, and a long time resident of Vancouver (she is currently studio-based in Montreal), Alexander’s take on her job description as a cultural artifact producer is as concise as the conceptual brevity contained in her stunning assemblages of media tropes, fashion and advertising enticements. “My job as an artist is to figure out how things work.” Her recapitulations of art historical references can also be succinctly neo-baroque in their surrender to those immersive sensory experiences we all seem to long for.

An artist friend of mine (a filmmaker who uses found/appropriated footage in his recreations) recently asked me a tongue in cheek rhetorical question, “When is appropriation appropriate?” So much captivating artwork demonstrates how a well-intentioned study of our image addictions can provide answers visually rather than verbally. Appropriation is thus most appropriate when it is creatively utilized by an astute artist in order to aesthetically critique the political or social implications of whatever the image or idea at hand might be: creatively deconstructed via drastic recycling and retelling.

Between Dreaming and Living #5, 1986. (Image VAG)

In closing, I’d like to briefly draw the viewers and readers attentions to the fine catalogue produced for this retrospective show at the VAG, and to extol its virtues in a market where often such publications can be pretty coffee table books that collect dust in the basement. This one however is almost a living textbook which helps readers, especially those who might be puzzled by the artistic use of appropriated or found mass media imagery reproduced in their art, come to a contextual understanding of this aesthetic tradition.

The Extreme Beauty show was curated by current Interim Director at the VAG, Daina Augaitis, which is in itself a welcome change from most Directors, who are more often found in swanky boardrooms shaking corporate fundraising hands or bowing before government officials. Her opening essay in particular is an accessible and cogent expression of what Alexander’s work, and the who conceptualist tradition of subverting media power by reusing and reinterpreting the imagery that assails us everyday in endless waves.

She starts by asking pertinent questions such as “How do aesthetic traditions get shaped?”, and then proceeds in a highly efficient manner to historically situate Alexander both biographically and artistically. “Throughout her career, has embraced situating her work in the public realm, leading her to place some of her re-photographed images back into the public sphere, including on buses, where she filled areas designated for advertisements with her own semiotic ‘signs’ of captioned TV news, emitting a different type of ‘real life information’, as she refers to it.”

We are invited to reconsider our assumptions by virtue of the eccentricity of the typefaces, the redundant repetition of the word ‘new’ and a visual art experience that cancels itself out with oblique references to an inherent ambiguity about what exactly was new and what precisely was being sold.

Troublesome Window, 2009, by Vikky Alexander. (Image: VAG)

The absence of an actual product apart from a meditation on mediation “compels our awareness of the code itself and the economic and aesthetic system in which the sign participates.” What this suggests, for Augaitis, is an endeavour to blur the terrain between art, design and the real world, a hybrid between art and business.

Of uniquely impactful power for me were Alexander’s series of large scale photographs of shiny retail store windows, filled with an array of products but also highly reflective glass which absorbed passersby on the street and turned them into a big part of the commercial display. Augaitis also helpfully positioned four distinct zones of work in Alexander’s long career: appropriation of vernacular imagery to examine how meaning is deployed; the investigation of consumer culture and it’s methods of display and enticement; the representation of architecture as a space containing utopian aspirations; and an abiding interest in nature, how it is represented, how we engage with it, and how we are estranged from it.

Other valuable essays in this book which make it well worth ordering are “Double Takes” by Leah Pires, who seductively asks the deceptively simple but complex question, “What’s behind an image?”. Nancy Tousley’s insightful essay “Allegory and Paradox in Vikky Alexander’s ‘Nature’” powerfully explores the space of the waking dream. Vincent Bonin, in “Beyond the Seduction of Enclosures,” astutely explores Alexander’s interrogation of both extreme beauty notions and the scopophilia of ‘sublime kitsch’ at the collision point between minimal art and popular culture.

In the hands of an experienced image-interrogator such as Vikky Alexander, whose retrospective exhibition took us deep into the territory of our culture’s subliminal obsessions and its fetishistic fixations on the surface of things and people, the results were both revealing, engaging and unnerving. Echoing and embodying the basic premise of Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” artists such as Alexander have mined the image-archive of popular culture in search of the lost or missing aura that evaporates upon replication and mass transmission.

For conceptual artists such as Alexander, appropriation is thus a brilliant strategy for making us reconsider what we usually take for granted. Beauty, for instance. I do believe she’s figured out “how things work” after all.

This article also appeared in the magazine Vie des Arts.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020.

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