Review: Grace Satellite Gallery, Artwalk Vancouver

Event: Artwalk Vancouver 2010

Location: Grace Gallery Satellite, Gaoler’s Mews, Water St/Blood Alley

Artists: Ronan Boyle featuring Andrew Tong, The Dark, Black Peter, Jeremy Riley, Sean Maxey, Office Supplies Inc., Weakhand and Andy Dixon.

Medium: Mixed

credit: thecheapershow

This exhibit was one of many “pop-up” galleries that occupied temporary spaces in the Downtown East Side during Artwalk Vancouver, February 25th, 2010. The informal nature of this gallery space and the happen-stance way we discovered it lent the exhibition a spontaneous and “accidental” feel, almost like we had stumbled down a back alley and discovered something beautiful, where most people only see trash. We did quite literally “stumble” upon this space, occupying a mostly deserted inner courtyard of a busy Gastown heritage block. The room was completely open to the public and totally deserted. There was no special lighting, no signage and almost no attempt to draw anyone in (in fact this pop-up space was completely missing from the original Artwalk map we had been following.) The only clue that we found something worth inspecting was the amazing art hanging on the walls.

The exhibit was the brainchild of Vancouver artist Ronan Boyle, who collaborated with a number of other artists in various media: digital photography, screen printing, stencils, spray paint, and urine (among other things,) all centering on a visual theme: the iconic Smithrite garbage disposals, infamous for their omnipresence in the back alleys of Vancouver. The exhibit contained a total of nine complete works, of which I will review my top two.

credit: bienvenido

The Dark

Vancouver urban street artist The Dark traditionally works in the stencil/graffiti medium using a combination of spray paint, grease pen, oil pastel, posted bills and digital images. In this collaboration we see an active commentary on Vancouver street culture emerge through the interlacing of all these media.

Those who have spent any time on the streets of the Downtown East Side will no doubt be familiar with the “Riot 2010” catchphrase, as well as the assorted posters, handbills and “tags” that adorn vacant buildings, telephone poles, construction fences and yes—even garbage disposal units. One has to wonder whether reproducing an image that could very well exist in modern Vancouver life is just an ironic nod to subversive culture or an invitation to take a closer look at our everyday surroundings.

Looking closer at this piece, you find an underlying theme of resistance, struggle and political insight flowing through the images and text. A dictionary except showing the literal definition of the word “vagrant” forms a central visual anchor. A chemistry diagram shows the molecular make-up of heroin, with “IN MY FUCKIN VEIN” scrawled below. An excerpt from a news article about the Olympic bombing in Atlanta, Georgia overlaps a painting of a street gutter filled with blood, juxtaposed by a photo cutout of a group of starved concentration camp prisoners.

What The Dark achieves by juxtaposition and overlapping layers of text and image, as well as splashes of color, is not just visual symbols loosely strung together or thrown haphazardly onto a surface; they constitute a narrative present on the streets of urban cities which is not always immediately apparent, and when noticed, is something most people either ignore, wash away or paint over. This aggressive, discordant and sometimes disturbing piece is a shock to the system, but in the best way possible; it forces us to see the truth behind events like the Olympics, which are often concealed by optimism, glamour, patriotism and blind obedience.

andy dixon

credit: mrazekan

Andy Dixon

While Andy Dixon’s collaboration might be slightly lighter, more tongue-in-cheek social commentary than compared to the previous work, it still strikes a note with those of us who are all too aware of the presence of conspicuous consumption and the disparate gap between income levels in the city of Vancouver.

This dumpster might be something that belongs in one of the upscale kitschy neighborhoods like the West End or Kits, and not in the Downtown East Side, where the juxtaposition with poverty, crime, drug abuse and mental illness form a disharmonious and discordant union. The theme of disparity and marginalization run through both of these pieces, but both have approached it from different angles.

Dixon presents a seemingly innocuous image, but one laden with cultural associations and hidden meaning, while The Dark was quite literal with his use of symbols. Dixon’s work can be taken at face value as an attempt at kitsch or pop art, but I think it can also be interpreted at a much deeper level when you consider the context in which it is displayed. I tend to view it not only as a sarcastic jab at the frivolity of the wealthy, but a thoughtful commentary on the precarious juxtapositions witnessed in everyday city life.

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