Compulsion & the Contemporary Art Gallery

I have the pleasure of volunteering every weekend at the Contemporary Art Gallery. I stumbled upon the gallery quite recently when I was encouraged by an Emily Carr instructor to check out some of the local galleries in Vancouver (in an attempt to expand our horizons beyond the VAG).

At the time, they were doing a solo exhibition of Shary Boyle. If you’re interested, I did an oral report for class about it, which you can read here. I really enjoyed the Shary Boyle exhibition, but I was also taken in by the space and told myself that I would become a regular at the gallery.

Since then, I have offered my Sundays to the CAG and have been able to spend hours surrounded by some exceptionally interesting and inspiring work. So far, I have manned the front desk during the Corita Kent, Thomas Bewick and Federico Herrero exhibit, the Corin Sworn and Robert Orchardson exhibit and, most recently, the Guo Fengyi, Frances Stark & Scott Massey (a local Vancouver artist!) show. Besides being surrounded by gorgeous works of art, I’ve also had the chance to talk with gallery goers and local artists. Often, when I head home at the end of a shift, I am bursting with ideas and am super motivated to create. If you’re an emerging artist or student, I would strongly encourage volunteering at a local gallery.

While wonderful, I haven’t really been impelled to blog about the exhibits. The write-ups available online at the CAG website or via other established art/culture blog sites are much better (and more informed) than any review I could write and I didn’t really think I could bring much to the web that wasn’t already available. However, I’m particularly inspired by the currently featured large scale works of Guo Fengyi. I really want people to visit this show. Hopefully my amateur invitation is just what you needed to schedule a visit.

Guo Fengyi is a self-trained, female Chinese artist. This is one of the reasons that I’m particularly taken with her work. I often question my place in the creative landscape since I don’t have a diploma that carries any weight in the world of Art. Even my Fine Arts certificate is looked down upon by the institution at which & the instructors under which I studied. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to create and when someone feels equally compelled to take in, talk about, comment or even buy my work, the connection I feel fills me up.

Guo Fengyi Ear (1989) Mixed media on paper, 99.5 x 75 cm Courtesy Long March Space, Beijin (photo from the CAG Website)

Guo Fengyi was also compelled. When she became ill, she began to study a traditional Chinese health practice called “Qigong“. During these studies, she had visions, and was driven to draw them and give them physical form. Oddly, the question I have been asked the most during my volunteer shifts is “what was her illness”? While I felt super morbid doing it, I headed online to see if I could sleuth out what she was suffering from. I turned up no clues and wondered why so many people cared about what killed her versus what she had accomplished while she was sick. But upon further reflection, I think the question is a valid one. It is mentioned at the start of her bio that her being sick was the reason she began her metaphysical studies and suggests that she wouldn’t have been driven to create these works without first having fallen ill. I would like to think that this is the reason that people are asking versus the idea that the average gallery guest has a macabre fascination with misfortune. Her incredibly controlled brush work suggests that she maintained a command over her hands, so this questioning could be due to an interest regarding her mental state as she scribed her obsessive and meditative mark-making. This subject was also brought up during a guided gallery visit I attended, but even though the word obsessive was mentioned a few times, the gallery director disregarded the idea that she was insane. I also get the sense that there is something very ritualistic in some of her work that would require discipline, and at least some awareness of what has come before and what is currently happening.

Before the work arrived, I wondered why she was selected to appear in the contemporary gallery. Some of the pieces I previewed portrayed traditional Chinese subject matter. However, it’s her blending of the traditional with contemporary issues such as her SARS pieces that makes her work so important. While some of her work is on rice paper scrolls (HUGE scrolls – some of the pieces are more than 4 metres high), there are also pieces that are done on the back of coated printed calendars and other 1-sided printed paper collaged together. During the gallery tour mentioned earlier, the director surmised that this also spoke to her compulsion to simply get the work down on on paper and that the drawing itself was more important than formal choices that would ensure the ability to archive her work. Since I think her drawing was a way to make her visions more tangible, the surface upon which she worked wouldn’t be important at all. What’s more tangible than trash? Especially in our modern society. I also like the ephemeral nature of the entire process. She took something from her head, which for me usually doesn’t last very long before I replace it with a new thought, and put in on a piece of recycled paper that is already well along it’s lifecycle. It will not last long unless preserved. Even so, the ink she used, travel, and human interaction are all likely to speed along its decay and so I feel like I am extremely privileged to be present while this work is being shown. Like a glimpse into her head before she fades away into the cold stream of time. The show has encouraged me to continue putting down the thoughts and ideas I have before I destroy them by over-thinking. Each time I put pen to paper, I am capturing a moment in time and that exercise seems more important to me than whether or not it is something of monetary worth or archival value.

When I look at Guo Fengyi’s works displayed in the gallery, I am hypnotized by the repetitive marks, colours and patterns, and sheer size of the pieces. It’s the first North American show featuring her work and I’m delighted that it is in Vancouver. It really should be experienced in person and I hope you take the time to come down to the gallery. It’s the only free public art gallery in Vancouver (although donations are, of course, welcome) and it’s open Wed-Sun, Noon – 6PM. I volunteer on Sundays from Noon to 3PM and would welcome your company.

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