The VAG Has Got Its Swagger Back

I’m no arts writer. At the recent preview for the new Cindy Sherman show, I didn’t know one other journalist. I’m just a passionate observer of the art world and in some ways I think that makes me uniquely positioned to weigh in on the status of the VAG without any bias. I have no dog in the fight.

I wasn’t a fan of last year’s Takashi Murakami Octopus Eats its Own Leg show, a garish capitulation to the selfie crowd who packed the museum’s halls with iPhones in hand, anxious to get up close and personal with a painting that actually appeared on the cover of a Kanye West album. Having the artist wandering around in a ridiculous furry blue octopus mascot costume for some reason failed in elevating the tone.

The Guo Pei: Beyond Couture show was even more of a headscratcher. For starters, I had never heard of Guo Pei, and while I ain’t exactly Dapper Dan I do know my Halston from my Herrera. Evidently she’s huge in China and the actual show was amazingly pretty but outside of the confines of Vancouver I couldn’t detect even the tiniest ripple in the North American art scene. It was a regional show, but, weirdly from a different region (and given it was running at the same time as the Rennie Collection’s truly jaw-dropping Kerry James Marshall show that saw top curators travelling to Vancouver from all over the continent to see it made for a double depressing whammy).

But then Stella got her groove back. It started with a Dana Claxton show that was the perfect confluence of importance, timeliness and relevancy that should be the VAG’s DNA. Then there was the recently closed Giacometti show, which is the ideal sort of VAG show: compact, impressive and illuminating on a big theme. My wife came away a new devotee to the sculptor Lynn Chadwick and far from that being a slight about a show directed at another artist, it’s exactly why that show succeeded. It was an illumination on both sculpture and portraiture.

Then there was the still playing mini Robert Rauschenberg display, drawn mostly from the museum’s own collection. Again, nothing groundbreaking here—many of the pieces were high edition prints (see below)—but there’s a beautiful flow to it that gives you a compact jolt of what Rauschenberg is all about…and also makes a strong case for how much more of the collection could go on display—if the gallery had a new building.

And finally Cindy Sherman. An A-list show from an A-list artist coming to the VAG from an A-list institution (London’s National Portrait Gallery). It’s a fantastic show—covering Sherman’s career from art student to pictures that are so new that they weren’t even included in London. And there are illuminations everywhere: just how small the pictures in her groundbreaking Film Still series are; the dalliances with advertising and fine art; the monumental society portraits. At the end of it all you have the full measure of Sherman—you’re impression of her work will be based on a wonderfully complete survey. It’s a wonderful exclamation point to the VAGs comeback.

Cindy Sherman open at the Vancouver Art Gallery tomorrow, Tickets available here