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Renewed interest in materially-centered painting

Gillian Haigh

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Vancouver: A Concept of the Image

While painting makes up a fairly small component of the CAG’s program over the past 50 years, I find at its heart one of the most influential conflicts in Vancouver’s art history. I profess that I am no art historian, but as a Vancouver-based painter and archivist, the city’s peculiar discourse around painting has fascinated me for close to a decade. This essay represents a fragment of an incredibly complex discussion in Vancouver art and perhaps is guilty of simplifying work of a particular period, but I hope it sheds light on some of the forces driving contemporary painting in the city.

My introduction to Vancouver was through my BFA: four years split between UBC and then Emily Carr University, graduating in 2019. The stark contrast between the two institutions, and even between faculty, was at times jarring—more than a conflict of taste, it was imbricated in the very way each school approached painting as a material and historical discourse. Division between materially-centered and conceptually-driven approaches to painting; the general distrust of representational, particularly figurative painting; and contradicting pronouncements of what was “right,” “wrong” or (most devastatingly) “decorative” left painting in precarity.

As I began to familiarize myself with the Vancouver art scene, these tendencies were apparent in many galleries and institutions featuring contemporary art. At the Contemporary Art Gallery, abstraction has dominated the critical space of painting for decades. Of the more than 250 exhibitions presented at CAG in the past thirty years, fewer than ten percent of them have included at least one representational painting; figuration is even rarer.

The question of what forms of artistic practices should be considered relevant in contemporary art has informed the status of painting since the early 20th century. The popularization of photography challenged painting’s primary role as a mode of representation. Abstraction presented a renewed critical relevance to painting, and has continued to be a significant pictorial and conceptual strategy in early, late and post-modernist movements. While this larger international history informs Vancouver’s propensity toward abstraction, how artists navigate painting in a contemporary world differs wildly, and is regionally-specific. I would argue that this general rejection of representational painting points to a conceptual and linguistic conception of the image, hearkening back to photographic traditions emerging in the ’80s.

In the 1970s, a new wave of art magazines, critical theory and documentation of a new NYC avant-garde made its way to Vancouver, precipitating a rise of artists working within the traditions of conceptual art.1 Vancouver was a relatively young city, largely isolated geographically and known for its strong ties to pastoral landscapes and the group of seven.2 A desire to “re-brand” Vancouver as a city distinct and at the forefront of international art discourse and markets brought together a group of artists with a similar interest in conceptual art in the ’80s, often referred to as the Vancouver School or the photoconceptualists.3

The Vancouver School’s practices are diverse and are characterized by a relationship to avant-garde and critical late-modernist traditions. The recapitulation of a Western art history—from the flâneur to institutional critique—stages the picture as an intellectual document, relaying a visual language rooted in modernist histories.4

Although referring to a history of the early 20th-century avant-garde, both in its pictorial language and rejection of the city’s art traditions, Vancouver School practices are based on formal devices employed in conceptual art. Revolutionary material-centered practices defined early 20th-century avant-garde traditions, yet for the photoconceptualists the medium is chiefly relevant to the conceptual and strategic gains of the work—there is a clear path of forethought, intent, execution, and presentation. The utopian potential of art as social action and restructuring underpinned early 20th-century avant-garde movements. Surrealism, Suprematism, Dadaism—these movements were each driven by a radical impulse to pursue new ways of seeing in a rapidly changing world. However, in photoconceptual practices, instead of speculating forward in time, the artist is posed as an intellectual, historian and author—all-knowing, rational and with the great gift of hindsight.

The overwhelming success of photoconceptualism marked a changing tide in the city. The role of the artist expanded to include academic, writer and historian, ready to defend and bolster the conceptual framework of their practice. The academic rationalization of the picture was not isolated to photography, and the Vancouver School acutely observed and foretold the fallout in the discourse of contemporary painting in the city. The dramatic re-enactment or mises-en-scène often indicative of photoconceptualism refer to narrative history paintings, a format largely abandoned for the immediacy of the photograph—perhaps a reenactment, hammering representational painting deeper into conceptual irrelevance. While Ken Lum and Ian Wallace both took up painting in the ’80s, the medium is highly controlled and pared down. Paint acts more as a conceptual tool; its specific material qualities are secondary. For both artists, paint acts as a historical ground, and the monochrome a surface with which to stage the early-modernist confrontation between painting and photography.5

In Vancouver, painting since the ’80s has continued to be closely tied to conceptual traditions. Within CAG’s archive we can see the rise of conceptual painting in the ’90s to early 2000s: Warren Murffit, Derek Root and Steven Shearer (1994); Mina Totino (1994); Daniel Congdon (1999); Angela Leach (2000); Ken Lum (2001); Ron Terada (2003); Nestor Krüger (2004); Renée Van Halm (2004); and Ian Wallace (2006). Commonly in these works, the painted surface is largely flat and the material is used in a clean, structural fashion. Similar to Wallace’s and Lum’s work, the monochrome is an important touchstone in these works for the way that conceptual approaches play out in the painted field: it indicates both the turn to a self-referential discourse, and the artist writing themselves into modernist histories.

Like the Vancouver School, this work often stages itself as a “counter-tradition,” developing “not out of the major trends and traditions . . . but out of a continuous rejection of them.”7 Examples of this include Terada’s critique of capitalist iconography, or the feminist approach to abstract and minimalist art by Van Halm, Totino and Leach. While framed as a critique of contemporary art and society, the picture is an index of visual linguistic conventions established within a linear progression of Western art history. This “conceptual” approach to image-making is inherently tied to the institutional language with which it was written.

I continue to see painters struggle to acknowledge, counter or respond to the linguistic history of the Vancouver photograph and painted picture. How does painting function in a city where for many years conceptual art was believed to be an inevitable and irreversible step forward, where the cleanly planned and executed conceptual gesture is the only way to work in the full awareness of the current historical condition of art?

The 2017 Vancouver Art Gallery exhibition Entangled: Two Views on Contemporary Canadian Painting, curated by Bruce Grenville and David McWilliam, identified abstract, spontaneous and materially-centered “performative” painting as a possible disruption to the “epistemological enterprise” of contemporary painting.[7] Further, this materially-driven approach stems from a desire to separate painting from representation and linguistic structures.

At CAG, we see Vancouver artists confront the implied concept of “progress” within a Western art epistemology and present an earnest but critical engagement with materials. Elizabeth McIntosh’s 2010 exhibition Violet Hair marks a decidedly unique move from the monochromatic conceptual works that had represented painting at CAG over the past decade, to playful modernist abstraction. The painterly pictures lay no claim to any predetermined visual grammar. Rather than working towards a conceptual finality, the work is open-ended, questioning and marvelously off-kilter. In her 2021 exhibition Ancestor Gesture, Charlene Vickers interrogates the originality of modernist gestures. Geometric patterns painted in soft watercolor reminiscent of traditional patterns in Anishinaabe weavings blanket the gallery’s exterior. They remind us of the deep history of abstract pictorial language, far preceding the “discovery” of abstraction in the modern era. Most recently, Allison Yip’s 2022 exhibition Soma Topika is a rare example of figurative painting at CAG over the past decade. The dream-like pictures depict prophesied futures, told to the artist by a neo-shaman and a psychic. The works are hung on bare studs and plastic draped walls, an installation of a gallery undergoing renovation. Like the walls they hang on, the works are provisional, representing an “undefined and yet to be realized future.”8 Yip’s methodology does not work towards a specific end, rather pursuing that which opens the work to uncertainty, mysticism and the unknown.

Perhaps even more interesting is Vancouver artists’ continued interest in the linguistic qualities of painting. Rebecca Brewer’s 2023 exhibition Eidetic Cloud at Catriona Jeffries Gallery uses associated language to prompt AI-generated images, mapping the ephemeral visual language of the mind. Tiziana La Melia and Christian Vistan both bridge poetic and painting practices. Jonathan Alfaro’s cursive paintings underscore the associative qualities of text and our compulsion to “read” and decipher the picture within rational linguistic structures. We traditionally associate the relationship between painting and text to be a decidedly conceptual one, where language is a method of demarcation. Yet in these works, paint and text mirror and play off each other; each is malleable, shifting, fickle—not a structuralist system but a mass of vaporous signs.Essential to understanding this shift in Vancouver painting is the context of its origin. It is a move away from the conceptual gesture, where the artistic act is a legible and unique entry into the book of art history. It is an acknowledgement that artistic “progress” is a construction we use to reinstate our relevance and perhaps questions we thought to be answered—or unanswerable—are worth returning to. Connecting these works is a refusal to rationalize the picture with structuralist conventions, a breaking down of linear understandings of artistic determination, and an opening of the working process to the unknown. They assert that medium-specific approaches to painting are a relevant and potentially revolutionary way to deal with the institutionally dependent language of conceptual art. These painters allow the material friction of paint to disrupt and fracture the journey from idea to visual language, rejecting the necessity of ideas to be the precedent and catalyst. Rather than recounting a modern visual struction as a mode of conceptual self-justification, this work dives into the complex mire of contemporary painting, building a new, indeterminate visual language.

Gillian Haigh

Born in Calgary, Alberta, Gillian Haigh is a visual artist based in Vancouver and Los Angeles. Gillian holds a BFA from Emily Carr University and is an MFA candidate at UCLA. Her work has been featured in exhibitions across Canada including Canton-Sardine (2023), Monica Reyes Gallery (2023), the Banff Centre (2022), the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery (2019), and Headline Gallery (2021). In 2022, Gillian was selected for a residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity via the Jim Dinning and Evelyn Main Endowed Scholarship for Visual Artists.


1 Ian Wallace, “The Frontier of the Avant-garde,” “Intertidal: Vancouver Art & Artists” (cat.), Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen/Vancouver Art Gallery, Antwerp and Vancouver, 2005, pp. 52–55.

2 Wallace, “The Frontier of the Avant-Garde.”

3 William Wood, “The Insufficiency of the World,” “Intertidal,” pp. 65–69.

4 Wood, pp. 66–68.

5 Ian Wallace, “Photoconceptual Art in Vancouver,” 13 Essays on Photography, Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, Ottawa, 1990, pp. 94–112.

6 Jeff Wall, “Traditions and Counter Traditions in Vancouver Art: A Deeper Background for Ken Lum’s Work,” Witte de With: The Lectures 1990, Witte de With, Rotterdam, 1991, p. 80.

7 Bruce Grenville, “Performative Painting,” “Entangled: Two Views on Contemporary Canadian Painting” (cat.), Vancouver Art Gallery and Black Dog Publishing, Vancouver, 2017, p. 59.

8 Allison Yip, “Video Visit,” Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, March 29, 2022.