Attila Richard Lukacs

The Basement Reveals Artistic Genius
Five of Vancouver's best artists are featured at the peak of their powers

Michael Scott, Vancouver Sun
Wednesday October 29, 2003

Welcome to The Basement, a temporary art gallery three storeys below Nelson Street in downtown Vancouver. You would be hard pressed to find a more oppressive exhibition space anywhere this side of the Spanish Inquisition.

There may even be a stanza in Dante somewhere to describe these angled corridors, bathed in vacuous, fluorescent light, their countless steel fire doors emblazoned with vaguely menacing labels: Machine Room, B13, Matrons. What air there is chugs past in recycled breezes. There is a heavy odour of something. Ozone? Brimstone? It must be the circle of hell reserved for contemporary art snobs.

And like any hell worth its saltpeter, this one bears a prophetic message inscribed above its entrance. Stencilled there from some earlier exhibition is the perfect epigram: Andy Warhol talking nonsense about life on the West Coast. "They don't buy art in Vancouver, though," it says. "They're not interested in painting."

Congenitally ironic, Warhol would have loved the added twist of presiding over an exhibition of Vancouver artists who are indeed interested in painting. Graham Gillmore, Angela Grossmann, Attila Richard Lukacs and Derek Root grew up together as artists-in-training at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in the early-1980s. Their commitment to painting was so evident that they earned themselves places in 1985's hugely influential Young Romantics exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. They were painting then, and they are painting still, all of them with international careers and international celebrity.

And then there is school chum Douglas Coupland, the man who helped define a generation, who became famous as a writer but never forgot his training as a visual artist, and whose art work is increasingly recognized as the material of genius.

Coupland paints too, in a manner of speaking, with words and ideas and constructions that are not quite sculpture and not quite oil-on-canvas.

The event, titled The Basement Show, is one brief week of installations by these five artists -- arguably Vancouver's best, working at the very peak of their powers -- fortysomethings with a lot to say and a surfeit of talent with which to say it.

Attila Lukacs, for many years the most audacious of the friends -- he of the non-stop partying in Berlin, the subject of so many scandalous through-the-night-and-into-the-next-day kind of stories -- has spent the last couple of years shaking the demons out of his work ethic. The results have been mostly fragmentary until this week. Lukacs is unveiling an environment -- with paintings and sensuous video imagery -- that is truly magisterial. Thirteen moons, each one painted around with the inky midnight pigmentation of tar, hung in a cavernous space and illuminated with video projections. There are moons that conjure E.T., moons that replicate the ornate tracery of Moorish Spain, moons that glisten with Hindu iconography, moons that gaze back like serene aquamarine discs.

Next door, Grossmann has installed a series of heavily worked pieces that reveal a kind of frenzy: a mother scrubbing her young son with too much gusto. Collaged and repositioned and heavily marked, the images capture a kind of hysteria that Grossmann says first dawned on her while looking at images of girls from the 1960s in the throes of Beatlemania. Arrayed on cinderblock walls in the deep basement of a former government building, the hysteria takes on a sinister cast.

Down the hall is Grossmann's other installation, this one settled in a room whose door is still marked Matrons, from the years when the building above was the corporate headquarters of B.C. Hydro. Painted pink, it was the sort of room that had a cot, and where female employees would retire when they were feeling poorly. It is still pink, and horrible in a crypt-like kind way. Grossmann has festooned the walls with sombre portraits of young women. The room, she feels, is more than a little haunted.

Derek Root, whose restrained abstractions have earned him a well-deserved place in the National Gallery of Canada, as well as in many of Canada's most important private collections, is pushing the notion of the canvas for his installation. Root gives over an entire room to an artificial snowstorm, millions upon millions of ersatz snowflakes whirled about in a perpetual tempest by industrial blowers. What the visitor sees, peering through a heavy fire door, is a virtual white-out.

It is a scene inspired by the dark and knowing poetry of Philip Larkin.

Douglas Coupland has staked out a space in what might have been an old lunch room, the walls a faded coral and the floor an intense field of terra-cotta-coloured composite tiles. It is an unspeakably gloomy place to want to eat one's lunch, and Coupland has made a meal of that fact by creating in it a monument to the horrific events of the Columbine school shooting. He calls the first of his two installations Tropical Birds which refers to the dozens of warbling, cheeping cellphones that rescue workers discovered in Columbine's cafeteria. With the school's sprinkler system raining down and the phones twittering, people there said it reminded them, in an eerie way, of birds in a tropical rainforest.

Coupland builds his commentary from there, somehow capturing both the horror and the banality -- in a very Hannah Arendt sort of way. Included in the room are life-sized figures based on an international glyph for prayer that Coupland once saw on the door of a U.S. airport chapel. Weirdly, the kneeling figures that look so peacefully at prayer when viewed head on, look like crouching crime victims about to be assassinated, when turned to the wall.

A second room, which he is calling You Are Here, takes a run at what it means to live in Vancouver. A polyhedron of inverted water refill bottles dominates the middle of the room, while a ladder, painted in curious shades of pink stands nearby. Coupland, ever the 19th-century gentleman scientist, explains that these are the actual shades of astaxanthan, a proprietary dye that fish farmers use to augment the colour of their salmon's flesh.

The last artist in this meeting of friends is Graham Gillmore, whose immaculately painted word-tangles earn him ever higher prices on theinternational market. Gillmore who was expected to arrive late last night from New York, where he spends part of each year, was bringing with him large-scale collage works and a bingo-wheel supposedly filled with hair balls.

Scott Watson, the director of the University of British Columbia's Belkin Gallery and the man who, as curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery first brought these artists to public notice in 1985, says that the long-term friendship of the five is an important aspect of the exhibition, as is their continuing interest in unusual materials (such as tar and artificial snow).

The exhibition was borne of a series of friendly dinners between artists and collectors Jim Mouzarakis and Juliana Eng one year ago. The show opens Oct. 24 at 8 p.m. and runs for the next seven days from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. You enter through a door on the Nelson street faŤade of The Electra (formerly the B.C. Hydro Building on Nelson at Hornby). For more information call or visit

Michael Scott is The Sun's arts editor.

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