Georgia Straight – Contrasts mesh in the work of Laura Wee Lay Laq and Marcus Bowcott

Robin Laurence, March 29th, 2017

Marcus Bowcott and Laura Wee Lay Laq: fire/water at the Amelia Douglas Gallery until April 21

The title of this small exhibition, fire/water, refers to one artist’s subject and another artist’s process. Laura Wee Lay Laq’s hand-built ceramic vessels achieve their distinctive surface markings through the raku-like way in which they are fired. Fire essentially brings them into being. Many of Marcus Bowcott’s paintings depict seascapes and immense, oceangoing vessels. Water is a subject that enables this artist to speak not only to his past employment as a deckhand and longshoreman, but also to his political, economic, and environmental concerns.

The pairing of the two artists celebrates the fact that they were enrolled in the same fine-arts program at Douglas College (where the Amelia Douglas Gallery is located) and that they were in the first graduating class from that institution, in 1972. The location of the show provides an opportunity for Bowcott to mourn the loss of the studio-arts program at the college. In his statement, he laments the fact that fine-arts education, here and elsewhere, has been displaced by a focus on business and on generating enrollment from international students, who pay substantially higher tuition fees than locals.
Wee Lay Laq’s statement is much more poetic—as is her work. She describes the process by which she realizes her wondrous vessels and the sense of peace and harmony—and something like the Buddhist state of “no mind”—she experiences working with clay. Instead of applying glaze, Wee Lay Laq burnishes each vessel before it is fired, when the clay is at the “leather-hard” stage, achieving a smooth and softly glowing surface. Smoky colours and often evocative effects are, again, the result of what she identifies as “primitive” firing, using sawdust—packed in and around her vessels—as fuel rather than gas or electricity.

Early in her career, finding no ceramic tradition to draw from among the indigenous peoples of the Northwest Coast, Wee Lay Laq looked to ancient pottery techniques of the American Southwest. Many of her vessels assume the basic form of the olla; others are inspired by natural forms, such as spiky seedpods and flowers unfurling from buds. Squash Blossom takes the squat, segmented form of not a blossom but the squash itself; The Geometry of Space suggests the complex form of a protea, much enlarged and with the apparent weight and patina of bronze. All of Wee Lay Laq’s vessels are works of consummate beauty, inspiring in the viewer the same sense of oneness with the natural world that she describes experiencing while she is making them.
Oil-and-canvas painting Haida Proctor by Marcus Bowcott.

Bowcott’s oil paintings take on global warming, the military-industrial complex, and celebrity politicians preaching laissez-faire capitalism and the godliness of wealth. Also on view are a couple of maquettes for public sculptures, the best-known being his Trans Am Totem, with its pointedly critical stack of used cars on top of the severed trunk of an old-growth cedar tree.

More subtle in the context of this exhibition—that is, in dialogue with Wee Lay Laq’s ceramics—are his seascapes and paintings of ocean freighters. Grey Green Wake shows us an expanse of ocean devoid of any marker other than the ephemeral one—the churned-up water a large vessel trails behind it. His freighters are great, hulking paradoxes—floating monoliths, each an immense, implacable presence, occasionally muted by mist. Slightly abstracted, they suggest the relationship between our rampant overconsumption and the sea-borne freight that is such an inextricable part of our globalized economy. (This latter theme was addressed by last year’s Access Gallery show 23 Days at Sea.) With its dark hull casting a long, menacing reflection, R, B & G Anchorage conveys both power and menace. It reminds us that we should look a little more thoughtfully at all those freighters so familiarly moored in English Bay.

Sculpture Magazine – Vancouver Biennale

Roberta Staley – 2017

A stack of five cars, precisely balanced on a twisted old-growth cedar trunk, erupts from a patch of green grass—an incongruity amid the spider web of roadways and elevated rapid-transit lines edging the downtown core of Vancouver. The 33-foot-high, 25,000-pound Trans Am Totem—its massive tree stump sup- porting the vehicles like an arboreal Atlas—is a tribute to, as well as a critique of the car, North America’s enduring symbol of personal freedom and technological innovation.

Vancouver-based Marcus Bowcott, creator of Trans Am Totem, has loved cars since he was a teen—especially the Trans Am, which, gleaming and polished, crowns a heap consisting of a BMW, a Honda, a VW Cabriolet, and a Mercedes. “The cars on a pedestal refer, at once, to advertising, longing, and absurdity,” Bowcott says. The vulgarity of the crushed vehicles sitting on the still-dignified cedar testifies to the environmental impact of driving. Trans Am Totem is also art historical, with the stump representing a marble column, the car tires the volute of a capital. Its placement, however, was most important. Against a backdrop of glass high rises and the blue, snow- capped North Shore Mountains, it spoke to lost landscapes and vanquished cultures. The cedar symbolizes the region’s once-lush coniferous forests. A bear paw at the foot of the stump, carved by First-Nation artist Rick Harry (who also goes by his Aboriginal name, Xwalacktun) is a reminder that Vancouver occupies the unceded traditional territories of Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam First Nations, who inhabited this coastal area for 15,000 years before European ingress.

Bowcott was one of 26 artists whose works were showcased at the 2014–16 Vancouver Biennale. Founded more than a decade ago by former gallery owner Barrie Mowatt, who wanted to bring museum-quality art into public spaces, the biennial attracts major international artists and curators. “We are distinct from other biennials because we have a strong curatorial focus on space and location being critical factors in having art transform and engage neighborhoods and cities,” Mowatt says.

Since the inaugural exhibition in 2005, artists have created controversial, subversive, iconic, and even revolutionary pieces for the largely self-funded biennial, which exhibits new works every two years for a two- year period. It also includes international residencies for younger artists (age 36 and under), as well as an educational program for students from 125 area schools. Another component is the legacy aspect: biennial organizers find philanthropists who will pay the artists for their work, then “gift” that work to the municipality where it has been on display.

“Open Borders/Vancouver Cross- roads,” the 2014–16 edition, included (in addition to Trans Am Totem) show- stoppers like Ai Weiwei’s F Grass, installed at Harbour Green Park. The gothic “F” was made from 1,328 tufts of cast-iron spikes, whose subtle message delivered a subversive punch. By itself, a blade of grass is delicate and fragile, yet a field of grass can be resilient in the most inhospitable environments—a metaphor for the small yet powerful acts of defiance that courageous, but otherwise ordinary, citizens undertake daily in China. For Mowatt, F Grass, which will find a permanent home at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, spoke not only to China’s state- sanctioned human-rights abuses, but also to the elitism of its site in upscale Coal Harbour, which boasts multi- million dollar condos and tony restaurants. F Grass also gives a wink to Vancouver’s famed tolerance for marijuana, which rivals Amsterdam’s celebration of cannabis culture.

In addition to famous artists, the biennial supports emerging artists, many known only inside their home countries. In this installment, senior curator Marcello Dantas of São Paulo introduced a number of dynamic young Latin American artists, bringing them to Vancouver to establish a synergy with the environment before beginning their projects. “I looked for artists who could express this condition of uneasiness, of discomfort
and fragility,” Dantas says, citing the street artist pair OSGEMEOS (Portuguese for “The Twins”) — Gustavo and Otávio Pandolfo, identical twins who paint graffiti murals on buildings. Giants, the São Paulo duo’s contribu- tion, consisted of 69-foot-high, stylized human figures rendered on six huge silos at the Ocean Concrete plant on Granville Island. Such projects, says Dantas, “are social engagement strategies to make the general public aware of the role that art can play in their daily lives.”

Jonathan Borofsky’s Human Structures Vancouver also sparked reflection. The pyramid of steel figures was shown at Vancouver’s Olympic Village, built for the 2010 Winter Games. Big enough and accessible enough for small children to run through, the 24-foot-high Human Structures Vancouver is part of Borofsky’s 10-year odyssey of melding figures, which “emphasizes the idea of humanity connecting together to build our world.” The pixelated forms demonstrate how connectivity is “becoming digitally driven.”

Vancouver has always been known for its rainy, blue-green landscapes of ocean, mountains, and forests. The Vancouver Biennale’s quest to merge art with the outdoor environment makes it, in comparison to many biennials, extraordinarily ambitious in size and scope. As Dantas says, “Vancouver is a great place to explore diversity, creativity, and nature—public art is a great player in this context.”

Canadian Art – Marcus Bowcott: Our Floating Forests

Bettina Matzkuhn – Jan 8 2011

North Vancouver artist Marcus Bowcott still has a pair of old hobnailed boots that he laces up to keep his footing while working on log booms. But he carries a camera and sketchbook now instead of a pike pole. In the 1970s and 1980s, Bowcott was studying the formal aspects of painting while also manning tugboats that navigate the shore of BC’s Fraser River. Trees felled up the coast, boomed and towed here, await their fate as pulp, milled lumber or direct loading into ships bound overseas. It is this landscape that is rendered with both fascination and ambivalence in Bowcott’s exhibition “Cut Blocks, Stacks and Bundles.”

A life on boats necessarily entails scanning the horizon and the horizontal is prominent in Bowcott’s paintings. West of the Musqueam Reserve and South of the University is a panoramic work that spans over 27 feet. The log booms float in great rafts and piles in the shallow water. A more modestly sized painting, Dissolve shows a few vertical pilings, gentle currents in the water and a sweep of stacked logs. They are no longer vertical trees, but horizontal raw materials awaiting transformation. One hears neither clanking sawmills nor snorting dozer boats. Bowcott confronts us with the stillness of fog. He implies this landscape may no longer be habitable.

If this tidal zone of the river is an interstitial area geographically, it also speaks of work undertaken between wilderness and finished products. These paintings describe a dilemma: the great rafts of logs kept Bowcott and many others in difficult and dangerous yet productive work. At the same time, the presence of these logs and their sharp perfume means that somewhere the misty hillsides in an inlet have been decimated. The monotony and anonymity of logs in West of the Musqueam is so broad, the consideration must extend beyond livelihood to how we might imagine renewal—or to whether renewal is even possible.

Bowcott’s time on the river surfaces in other images. Mitchell Island, between Vancouver and Richmond, is stacked with the carcasses of derelict cars, their snouts pointing outward. If the horizontal represents the demise of trees, it seems verticality indicates dead automobiles. The sculpture Book Ended features a bookshelf, its ends drooping down, while holding well-thumbed books stayed by a pair of stacked-car bookends. Model, make and associated prestige (or lack thereof) are mashed into two metallic pyramids. Consumption, destruction, knowledge and art all seem in danger of sliding overboard.

Vancouver Sun – Going for a ride in the age of auto

Kevin Griffin, Nov 25, 2010

It’s still early days but the start of the 21st century is looking more and more like the beginning of the age of auto anxiety.

With the international price of a barrel about $81, the going price around Metro Vancouver is about $1.17 a litre. Every time we fill up the gas tank, we feel the pinch in our wallets and wonder how much more it will cost next time.

And these days, we also know that putting fuel in our car means more than it once did. Every time we hold a gas nozzle in our hands we become part of a global supply and production chain. On one level, we know that the fossil fuel that fills our gas tanks is somehow linked to global warming and maybe even the people killed in the two Gulf oil wars. On the other, we have to fill our gas tanks to deal with practical matters such as getting to work, buying groceries, or taking the kids to hockey. It’s enough to make anyone want to tune out and switch on Glee at the first opportunity.

Not surprisingly, artists are among the canaries in the mine noticing what’s going on around us. In three exhibitions in Metro Vancouver, three very different artists have put either the idea of cars or their physical presence in the foreground of their work. So far as I know, none of the artists was aware of what the others were doing. The connections came about only because of something I noticed in the three exhibitions I attended.

On South Granville at Bau-Xi Gallery, Val Nelson has a show of paintings and drawings. The paintings continue her exploration of nature parks, decorated rooms, and ornate spaces in historic European museums. Inspired by intuition and the kind of unusual links that come from dreams, several of the paintings combine cars and trucks with furniture in a way that mixes the outdoors and indoors in surprising ways.

In Fringed, for example, Nelson has painted a living room in the process of transformation that improbably includes a boat that appears to be floating. Pushme-Pullyou has a pickup truck pulling a trailer in a campground decorated with an armchair and a table. In Applying Sunscreen in the War Gallery of 1812, Nelson has created perhaps the most ornate garage I’ve ever seen.

What initially drew me into the painting was the way the vibrant red on the walls on the sides angle toward the back to create a feeling of depth. The painted walls are themselves covered with depictions of paintings
with at least three showing military figures on horseback, including the biggest one at the back of the room.

Below, on the floor of the vast and opulent room is a man putting on suntan lotion. Painted loosely but with enough detail to identify what he’s doing, the man is in khaki-coloured shorts and an orange shirt. Beside him are two cars: One is facing front, the other has its rear end toward the viewer with its trunk open. The scene is bizarre: The man is acting like he’s outdoors in a campsite and utterly unaware of his palatial surroundings.

The room is based on an exhibition in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, which was built to celebrate the Russian victory over Napoleon Bonaparte’s French army in 1812. At the time, men riding on horses was one of the era’s most potent and virile symbols; until recently, the car and its multiple horsepowers was one of the unquestioned symbols of power and influence.

Nelson’s juxtaposition of cars and horses made me think how the car’s days as a pre-eminent symbol of western affluence might be numbered.

Applying Sunscreen puts cars in a space they’re usually not welcome in.

What the painting suggests is that cars as cultural objects have worked their ways into our interior physical and psychological spaces like never before. It’s a powerful contemporary image about the car and what it means in our culture.

Its beauty as a painting heightens rather than detracts from its subtle content.

In an entirely different way, cars are an integral part of the work of artist Marcus Bowcott. In an exhibition at the Evergreen Cultural Centre, he’s created both paintings and sculptures that more explicitly draw connections between cars and their effects on the environment.
It’s not often that a work of art makes me laugh but that’s what Bush Dynasty Vase/Celadon Humvee did when I saw it Sunday evening.

A ceramic sculpture, it depicts several squashed Humvees in a shade of green I associate more with Martha Stewart than with a tough-looking civilian SUV modelled after a military vehicle. Bowcott challenges Humvee marketing by taking on the symbols of the excesses of the George W. Bush era in the U.S. As ceramic objects, they look solid but are really quite delicate — just like the vehicles themselves which rely on wars to keep their fuel flowing.

It was one of several of his ceramic sculptural works that included Le Triomphe de l’Ecole de Chicago, a biting reference to the market fundamentalism espoused by Milton Friedman and other economists at the University of Chicago, and The Three Graces (Jaggy in the Middle), a bronze of stacked and crushed vehicles: a Volkswagen Beetle on top of a Jaguar on top of what looked like a Pontiac Firebird or a similar kind of muscle car.

Working along the North Arm of Fraser River years ago, Bowcott was haunted by images of abandoned and forgotten cars half-buried in the mud. In the exhibition, he draws on comparisons between the logs stacked in booms in the Fraser and stacks and bundles of cars.

The painting On the Beach balances two cruise ships on the open ocean with an island of vehicles. The mound of metal in the ocean made me think of its resemblance to the bizarre Pacific trash vortex — the swirling mass of plastic, sludge and garbage swirling around the central North Pacific Ocean.

At Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Brian Jungen has finished the first phase of his new exhibition. He will be adding to the work in the coming months until its completion in January. While Jungen’s work is completely different from either Nelson’s or Bowcott’s, it does use both the idea of cars and their parts in his work. As in his previous works — which have included making Northwest coast masks out of Nike running shoes and whale skeletons out of white plastic chairs — Jungen is combining handmade materials with ready-made objects.

Among the finished portions are strange banner or sail-like creations of dried animal skins wrapped around car fenders sitting on white freezers that serve as plinths. On one side of one of the works are round skins that have been connected with numerous thick, threadlike animal sinews. Looking at the skins wrapped around the car parts and listening to them tightening, I couldn’t help but think they were trying to embrace the metal underneath. They looked like they wanted to incorporate the fenders and take them over, but they can’t because they’re not strong enough.

Canadian Art – Seeing at Sea Review

Bob Sherrin, 2008

Marcus Bowcott’s latest exhibition, “Thaw,” draws us into environments he knows well: the inner coast of British Columbia and the Beaufort Sea, seascapes of political and economic forces that have been steadily at work on Canada’s shores—now just another node in a global network. Bowcott’s work reveals his dexterity with abstraction, both as a form of painting and as a way of focusing the mind.

“Thaw” can be divided by surface subjects: seascapes with industrial elements, icebergs and contemporary forms of transportation. All but one of the 14 images is absent of people. So the word empty is an easy but inaccurate response. These landscapes may be without people, but the detritus of our existence is immediately evident.

Bloated, pale-white and anonymous, commercial aircraft are about to depart into an all-encompassing haze while another has just arrived out of dense cloud, wing light slurring through thick atmosphere. The seascapes are not just seascapes but booming grounds, with colours as mobile as light on slack tide, offering minimalist renderings of the shifting hues and lateral movement of water. Bowcott’s years spent on the deck of a workboat places his painter’s eye at an angle to the world that is unlike most others. These booms are actually the inventory of processing plants linked to clear-cutting, raw log exports and monoculture reforestation. It’s a form of extinction we humans practice on things around us as we perfect our many forms of suicide.

Bowcott’s compositions also draw the eye beyond the booms, through bands of water and light to a distant shoreline. Barely visible are nearly erased shapes: sawmills, factories, smokestacks. But there is no smoke. The mills are idle, factories down. Even the paintings of icebergs stress the space between ice islands, steadily widening as the islands melt away. Here, it’s not human presence that matters; it’s the evolution of a planet with no implied preference for our well-being, no interest in our definition of wilderness as regions untouched by humans. That classification places us outside nature; with hubris we “manage” the planet’s processes if only to reduce smog during Olympic Games periods.

Marcus Bowcott’s work, beautiful and unnerving, is that of an artist who understands painting as a form comparable to language in its power to focus the eye and the mind simultaneously. The seeing experience is the thinking experience. That’s why the eye lingers and roams; that’s why the mind poses answerless questions.

The Essential Vancouver – Art Beat

Bettina Matzkuhn, 2008 / 09

Most of us see the ships calmly anchored in English Bay from a distance. Working for a time on Vancouver’s waterfront gave Marcus Bowcott a more immediate sense of the sheer mass of the vessels. In his paintings they loom, monolithic and mysterious. Bowcott has studied painting both in Canada and England, but his works speak most distinctly of the West Coast. The panoramic sweep of ships traversing the horizon, navigational markers on shoals or tethered log booms redolent with the scent of newly cut wood; all tell of our specific geog- raphy, economy and time in history. While these elements describe human activ- ity, Bowcott always reminds us of the context of the landscape: delicately nuanced skies, the grassy flatness of a marsh, or the silken gray of the ocean’s surface.