Experiencing art: the Amy Bessone & Thomas Houseago and Man Ray shows

I saw the Amy Bessone/Thomas Houseago show at the Rennie Collection gallery and the Man Ray exhibit at Vancouver’s Museum of Anthropology (on the University of British Columbia [UBC] campus) within one week (Dec. 16, 2010 and Dec. 22, 2010 respectively) of each other and am still not sure how to describe my reaction to either of the shows.

The Bessone/Houseago show features both paintings (Bessone) and sculptures (Houseago) by a couple of artists who are linked together professionally and personally.

This is the third time I’ve seen a show at the Rennie Collection and this time I was highly conscious of the tour guide who spoke almost continuously for a little over an hour. I unintentionally interrupted the spiel at the beginning of the tour and noticed that no one else got in a word until the tour was almost over. The experience stood in contrast to my last two experiences when the guide paused a few times during the tour to allow time to absorb the impact of the work and also allow time for comments and questions. Until now I hadn’t realized how important it was for me to have moments of quiet during the presentation of the works.

Not everybody feels the way I do about these things; there are lots of folks who like to have a ton of information presented all at once. The quiet time during the tour is important to me. It allows me to have an experience independent of anyone else’s opinions, facts, and ideas being immediately laid over my first moments with the pieces. There is always quiet time after the tour is over, usually about 1/2 hour where you can wander around the pieces pretty much on your own.

I didn’t find the experience with this show quite as rich as the previous two and I’m not sure if it was due to not getting my quiet time, my ignorance about art suddenly coming into stronger play than usual, or the way the works interacted in the space.

In the last two shows (Mona Hatoum and Richard Jackson), the works seemed to reference each other in the space they occupied. Hatoum’s ‘geographies’ were placed in relationship to each other. Jackson actually nailed a piece to the wall in one room and later referenced, with various pieces, ‘high art’, the Centre Pompidou, and Seurat in another room.

Plus, I missed the basement. Both Hatoum and Jackson used the basement room for a piece but, I don’t know if there wasn’t time to show us during the tour, neither Bessone or Houseago seemed to have used the basement.

For me, the two most interesting of Bessone’s pieces were Bound and Unbound and I don’t think either would be as interesting without the other. Bound is the first piece you see and it shows a female nude and what appears to be bondage gear painted over top of the female; she’s not wearing the gear, it’s laid over top. Unbound is on the second floor and it reminded strongly of Gauguin. I’m not entire sure why as I’ve never paid much attention to his work (I’m not a fan). In any event, it intrigued me as the colour palette was different, darker and moodier than the other pieces or perhaps it was an unintentional (or intentional) literary reference (I was reminded of Prometheus Unbound).

For those who can’t recall, Prometheus, according to Greek mythology, brought fire to humanity for which he was punished. There are two plays (I looked this up on Wikipedia) Prometheus Bound (by Aeschylus) and Prometheus Unbound (by Percy Bysshe Shelley). Bessone does make another reference to Greek mythology in one of her ‘figurine’ paintings, which is called ‘No. 5 aka Atlas’. Several of the paintings she has in the show are paintings of female figurines.

The first piece you see from Houseago is a giant (8 ft high or more?) white spoon. Every other of his sculptures that you will see in this show features a human figure. I wonder if there is a kind of pun at play. Houseago with his human figures and Bessone with her figurines?

It’s a little difficult to identify Houseago’s pieces as he has a very anonymous naming convention, e.g. reclining figure. He has more than one reclining figure in the show and the only way to distinguish them (other than looking at them) is by date. The most interesting of the pieces brought in for the show is a reclining figure whose arm also could be described as a penis. The closest I can come to describing it is ‘Escher-like’. It’s an arm that extends into a penis that bends over and becomes a shoulder (I think).

I have long loved the Houseago piece that is permanently (?) on the roof. It’s a giant metal man. I’m not sure if it’s the scale, the fact that the metal is greenish, or if it’s the placement on the green grass of  the roof with a city backdrop but I find it compelling for reasons I really cannot articulate.

This show provided an interesting contrast to the Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens show at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. I should have realized but did not that the show is primarily a photography exhibit. As far as I’m aware there are no tours for this show. They seem to have decided that it would be a good idea to write as much text as possible explaining each photograph. It’s a little bit like reading a thesis and I think since I’d come in expecting a curated show I misunderstood the purpose. This is really more an examination of the documentation of various collections and shows that took place in the 1930’s. (Weirdly, one of Bessone’s figurine paintings had very much reminded me of Marlene Dietrich as she looked in the 1930s.)

There are a few objects in the display that you can contrast with the images that were taken of it. The bulk of the show is photography and unfortunately they simple hung the images in a line around the walls. There are not groupings and no changes of levels. It’s a little bit like pulling the pages out of a book and lining them up beside each other. There are some movies and videos in the show. There’s a Cocteau movie which is projected into the corner of a wall and, in part, onto a floor. It’s a little hard to see it as the contrast isn’t very strong but it is intriguing. There is also one room that where you can see a series of films and that is darkened so you can see them more clearly.

I don’t regret going and I’m not sure if my expectations led me astray but I would have like to see a little more variation in the way the images were displayed.

To close, I’m going with Bettye Lavette. It’s a complete change of pace. Lavette performed at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008 and took the place down. What shocked everyone is that no one knew who she was. The song is Love Reign O’er Me by Pete *Townshend (one of the honorees that year) of The Who.

As of 2010, she was 64. The performance is a reminder of why we go to shows (visual/performing arts/or otherwise).

* Corrected the spelling of Townshend’s name from Townsend on Oct. 25, 2013.

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