VANCOUVER -- It's not often you see couples groping in dark corners and fistfights breaking out in the middle of a Vancouver art-show opening. Then again, it's been a long time since genteel Vancouver has seen anything quite as charged and exciting as The Basement Show.
Underground, in more ways than one, this seven-day installation show reunites five of the city's best contemporary artists: Douglas Coupland, Graham Gillmore, Angela Grossmann, Attila Richard Lukacs and Derek Root.
It's being held in a time-ravaged tunnel of industrial rooms, three storeys below the former B.C. Hydro building downtown.
"I've never seen so many hipsters in my life," one society lady exclaims -- delightedly -- at Thursday's opening-night reception, where wealthy West End matrons in silk suits mingle with grungy pink-haired punks. The space -- a dark bunker of long corridors and dusty brick rooms adorned with raw cement floors and mangled steel doors, all bathed in harsh fluorescent lights -- was donated by the building's commercial owners, Juliana Eng and Jim Mouzarakis, Lukacs's loyal friends and long-time collectors.
"Have the fire marshals been called?" Coupland asks, disconcertedly juggling three glasses of wine as he is swept away by the sweaty crush.
Coupland, better known as the author who coined the term Generation X, calls himself the "fifth Beatle" in this Group of Five, as they have come to be known. Still all close friends, they studied together in the early eighties as artists-in-training at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design.
In a city long dominated by photo-conceptual art, the West Coast brat pack threw their high-voltage talent into painting -- with the exception of Coupland, who specialized in sculpture. An early exhibit, Futura Bold, at Diane Farris's then-fledgling Gastown gallery, brought the group to the attention of Scott Watson.
A curator for the Vancouver Art Gallery at the time, Watson launched them all into high-profile careers with Young Romantics, a landmark show featuring eight unknown neo-expressionist painters in 1985.
"That show . . . of blood, sweat and body fluids . . . continues to be remembered as a defining moment, arguing for the place of visceral, even anti-intellectual painting in the artistic life of the city," The Globe and Mail's visual arts critic Sarah Milroy wrote four years ago, when the eighties paintings were first reunited at Farris's uptown gallery in South Granville.
The idea for this reunion was fuelled by copious amounts of alcohol consumed during dinner at Lumi¸re restaurant last summer, after one of Gillmore's shows. Lukacs's patrons had offered the space, and he wanted to share it.
At first, the others were slightly reluctant. "We didn't want to repeat ourselves," explains Grossmann, who was relieved to discover that a young scrapper hurled to the ground by hired bouncers wasn't one of her students.
"We've all changed so much," says Grossmann, whose textural images of convicts and troubled young girls have been called "beautifully energetic and psychologically unsparing" by The Globe's Gary Michael Dault. "Then we saw the space and we were bouncing off the walls," she says.
"It reminded us of the shows we had in abandoned warehouses when we were all beginning. Since then, we're always shown in galleries with their pristine walls and perfect lights. And the art is always for sale. Even if we say that doesn't affect the work, it does. This isn't commercial at all. It's about art for art's sake."
Inspired by the rawness of the space, Grossmann created a new body of painting specifically for this show.
On old rag canvases, in grim shades of grey, she has created what she calls a "psychological landscape of tormented children."
On the dirty walls of her room, where she found a disturbing small handprint clawing a brick near the ceiling, there is a haunting image of a student kneeling down on a chair, his head bent in submission. On the next wall, another child is vigorously scrubbed in a tub. In the back room, a young boy sits at a birthday-party table, all alone except for a parent on the other side, whose face has been scrubbed out. Attached to the paintings are several shrivelled balloons she found on the floor.
Next door, in the largest room next to the entrance, Lukacs has created an equally haunting environment, with 13 moons suspended in frames of black tar, illuminated with video projections. There is a moon set with a swirling Medusa head, and others scrawled with Hindu iconography.
The most startling is a pair in the corner: One shows a tiny soldier at the bottom, bathed in a dreamy yellow hue.
Another tiny figure in a winged chariot flies across the moon next to it. The images seem as serene as a fairy tale, until the short video begins. It's a film of the artist, strapped into a leather harness and biting down violently on a rubber tether as a swastika flashes in the background.
A reference to his Berlin days, perhaps, when Canada's legendary bad boy earned as much criticism as acclaim for his homoerotic paintings of German skinheads?
Lukacs, newly returned to Vancouver, says he's been working on the moon paintings for three years, first in New York (where he suffered a breakdown and quit painting for a while), and then in Maui (where he recovered, and discovered surfboards as a new canvas).
Much brighter, but just as disturbing, is Coupland's Tropical Birds. In a back room, at the very end of a long corridor, the writer has hung a collage of signs: God Smokes, Bake Sale Today, God is Handsome, Nothing You Feel is Real and so on. Facing the wall of signs are four white sculptures that look like humans either kneeling in prayer or preparing for an execution.
The figures, based on a glyph Coupland said he once saw on the door of a U.S. airport chapel, are 3-D images from the photo of his latest novel, Hey Nostradamus!, inspired by the Columbine massacre.
Behind the four figures is a row of four melted chairs, and behind them, a third row of figures with garbage bags pulled over their heads. Three more of the body-bagged victims are scattered in a corner, where birds chirp on a CD player. When rescue workers arrived at the Columbine cafeteria, they said the cellphones chirping and sprinklers raining reminded them of an eerie tropical rain forest.
"I'm not doing this for publicity," says Coupland, who exhibited his first show of sculptures at Vancouver's Contemporary Art Gallery in 2001, after a 12-year hiatus from the visual-arts world. "I need more publicity like a hole in the head." No pun intended, we assume.
"When you're young, you think you're making art to make a buck or be well known. When you get older, you're just making it because it's something you have to do. That's the way it is for all of us. I don't think there's a cynical bone in any of our bodies."
There's nothing cynical, or remotely ironic, about Root's installation called Snow. When a viewer steps up to a small room and peers through the fire-door window, two industrial blowers begin whirling up a storm of white snowflakes. When you put on the headphones hanging next to the door, a low, lulling voice begins to recite Aubade, Philip Larkin's bleak poem about a man facing his mortality as dawn breaks. The effect is beautifully hypnotic.
Gillmore arrived from New York just last week, where his word-play paintings have been fetching high praise and even higher prices, after a hugely successful showing two years ago at the prestigious Mary Boone gallery. He brought a giant caribou head and a studded leather jacket, which he has hung from its antlers, nailed on a wall, across from a glass display of stuffed pheasants crawling with bugs.
"I love the textures," Gillmore explains, gazing into the caribou's eyes adoringly, then turning to caress the jacket. "I love the way they fit together. It says, uh, it says something very profound I'm sure," he says, laughing crazily. "I just have no idea what that is."