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A Little Bit of Funk

By Robert Amos May 5, 2003

} A Little Bit of Funk It's easy to appreciate Mary Pratt's photo realist painting of Trifle in a Dark Room, or Gathie Falk's canvas entitled Chair With Plastic Christmas Tree. Both of these are in an exhibit of recent acquisitions at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, a show called A Little Bit of Funk (until May 25, 384-4171). Mary Pratt, Trifle in a Dark Room, oilFrom the collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria But other elements of the collection speak a less familiar language. And you might wonder how a perennially underfunded gallery can continue to build a dramatic and coherent collection of contemporary art. Recently I enjoyed a leisurely visit in the company of Curator of Contemporary Art Lisa Baldiserra. She helped me gain a better understanding of things too often misunderstood. Joan Balzar's 'Moon Beam' was donated by a private collector in Toronto. It is a painting of softly glowing horizontal stripes, bisected by a neon tube. Balzar was part of the Intermedia group which broke things wide open in Vancouver in the late 1960's. Moonbeam was part of a series made in 1967. 'This is very solidly in our area of inquiry,' Baldiserra said. She notes a theme the gallery's collection is being built around: 'the connection of industrial materials in the artist's studio - and how common materials can be used in high art.' At the time Balzar made it, Moon Beam seemed shockingly modern. Even today, for many visitors to the gallery it is still transgressional. Yet Moon Beam is already part of our history. Baldiserra reminds me that, in the definition of the Canada Council, contemporary art is a product of the last 25 years, and this piece is now 30 years old. Joan Balzar, Moon Beam, 1967From the collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria Moon Beam had been in a private collection in Toronto for all those years. The neon has scarcely ever been plugged in. 'So we brought it out to offer it to the acquisitions committee,' Baldiserra informed me. When it got here conservator Philip Mix, as a volunteer, restored it. It was then presented to the committee and accepted as a gift. Across from Moon Beam are three elements from Robert Youd¹s series entitled 'Soft Works for Complicated Needs'. These are foam sofa cushions covered with velveteen, individually bundled up, tied with nylon rope and hung on the wall as if they were paintings. Fluourescent paint highlights many points of compression. Here, 'other' materials are used in a painterly way, and the paintings function as sculptural objects. Youds 'is very much a modernist,' the curator insists, 'concerned with the formal issues of painting. There is a lot of humour in the pieces.' Robert Youds, from the series Soft Works for Complicated NeedsFrom the collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria To purchase the Youds piece, Baldiserra applied for a York Wilson Award, by which annually one piece is purchased for a Canadian museum which 'fills a gap in the collection.' The application was unsuccessful, but Youds recognized the gallery's interest in his work and offered these three as a donation. 'The generosity that is there - in the community and from the artists - inspires me every time,' Baldiserra effused. Marlene Creates was commissioned by the Gallery to create a photo-documentary work comparing issues of tourism in Victoria and her home, St. Johns Newfoundland. A grant of $22,000 was provided by the Millenium Fund of the Canada Council. This allowed the artist to make two trips to Victoria - one to concieve of the work, another to install it. On her second visit she worked with a class of high school students on a project. A brochure was published to accompany her show, and the gallery received the work - all in all, a good return for the money. The Canada Council gets a lot of credit from Baldiserra. 'They absolutely guarantee the production of contemporary art in this country by their support of galleries and individuals,' she insists. In America the funding agencies tend to deal with dealers and institutions, but in Canada the artists themselves often have to undertake the negotiations. Thus, she says, 'they have a sense of agency with their own work, putting it forward and not waiting to be chosen.' Robert Youds, from the series Soft Works for Complicated NeedsFrom the collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria Because the Canada Council provides the money, galleries are able to be courageous. 'How does a general audience evaluate this kind of creative production in a market economy?' Baldiserra wondered. 'The audience can't be the leaders. We can't necessarily depend on public taste. The galleries have to take a leadership role.' In fact, a taste for this type of progressive art - or any art - depends on repeated exposure. Baldiserra pointed out the groups of school kids, sprawling on the gallery floor with crayons in hand, comfortably and also physically becoming familiar with the creations of some of the best minds of our generation. 'Even if it's confounding to them intellectually, they are learning the rules of encounter.' By bringing the students here, Baldiserra explains, 'at the very least they form a synaptic memory of the pathway to the gallery. With repeated visits, a dialogue forms. They are building a template for pleasure.' This is the pleasure that comes from a familiarity with challenging and creative art. Between the viewer and the art, she says,'it's a conversation which is going on over time.' ___________________________________________ Copyright © 2003 Robert Amos Robert Amos is an artist and art writer who lives in Victoria, B. C.. He can be contacted by e-mail and you can view his paintings at www.robertamos.com