Reframed - Curatorial Statement 2019
The Bathers, oil on canvas, 48 x 72 inches, December 2018
by Meredith Preuss
Guest Curator, Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art,
Director and Curator, Capture Photography Festival
When I first met Tiko Kerr, I was struck by a sense of the past and the present overlapping. I was meeting someone for the first time who, over his more than thirty-year career, has produced a multitude of paintings, many of which I’ve seen repeatedly throughout my entire life. Paintings that, without my realizing, have wormed their way into my unconscious understanding of Vancouver. It was a feeling not unlike that experienced by schoolchildren, having just learned about Emily Carr, venturing into British Columbia’s old-growth forests for the first time since, where the mossy cedar totems and ethereal overcast skies of Carr’s paintings come to overlay their experience of this damp and familiar space. Or like travelling to Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park to canoe across its myriad lakes, only to be silently pursued the whole time by Tom Thomson’s ghost.
Beginning in the late 1980s and continuing throughout the bulk of his career, Kerr has used a unique painterly style, most often described as “wobbly,” to explore the individualized nature of perception through his landscapes and cityscapes of Vancouver. I grew up on Vancouver’s North Shore in the 1990s, so Kerr’s early works have always evoked for me highly anticipated trips into the city’s downtown core, with childhood visits to Granville Island or Science World, and later on teenage loitering on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery. Of his extensive oeuvre, his best-known works depict colourful sunshine pouring over a resplendent and undulating Burrard Bridge (Bridge Over Untroubled Waters, 1996), a rainbow horde of frenetic joggers jockeying for position in the annual Vancouver Sun Run (Sun Run 2007 (Cambie Bridge), 2005), and Vancouver’s luminous glassy skyline vibrating as light bounces from window to window (Marine Building I, 1999).
These older works of Kerr’s could at first glance be seen as touristic postcards born of a civic love affair, but their social context hints at something deeper and more ambivalent. They depict a Vancouver of a different era—before speculation drove real estate prices skyward, when the word “renoviction” did not yet exist, and while a sense of bohemian possibility still prevailed. Yet beneath Kerr’s joyful and expressive marks lies the dark side of Vancouver’s adolescent modernity: the global HIV/AIDS crisis, an opioid epidemic, disappeared and slain sex workers, an active and unknown serial killer operating on its streets, and the list goes on.
That there are two sides to every coin is something Kerr knew well then, and it is a trope he continues to explore today. Like Vancouver, Kerr’s practice has evolved significantly since the end of the last century, and it’s continued to grow in pace and scope at a staggering rate. To an observer, realizing that all these diverse works are by the same artist is at once energizing and humbling. Kerr’s dizzying output may also leave viewers, like myself, struggling to place themselves within a given timeframe. Today, Kerr has left behind the bright rippling style he developed and honed over several years. In its place is a deft handling of a wide array of modern and abstract expressionist painterly styles popular in the 1950s and ’60s, recontextualized for today’s social and political climate. His perception-based inquiry continues, but now through images abstracted from art history and popular culture that explore the contemporary moment of global unrest and trauma.
Kerr’s painting philosophy hinges on a suspension of disbelief, one that offers the viewer a chance to travel back in time. Often beginning as paper collages cut from modernist artists’ monographs and interspersed with personal ephemera, Kerr’s recent works rely on a kind of cross between surrealist and pop art sensibilities in their automatic and irreverent mashups of high and low culture. Reworking and repeatedly recontextualizing his previous works, Kerr at times layers and collages together digital prints of his earlier paintings or applies fresh brushstrokes to hand-cut swaths of painted canvas to generate new compositions. In other instances, he situates evocative patterning and abstracted still lifes within disorienting depth-of-field and figure-ground relationships. The resulting paintings are as introspectively self-referential as they are influenced by the art historical canon.
Producing works that are at once uncannily familiar and strikingly contemporary, his mixed-media approach interpolates his diverse influences to produce paintings that echo the political urgency of his forebears in a style all his own. In this sense, Kerr’s new works dance around efforts to historicize them. This is somewhat by design. By borrowing from icons of modernism—both from Canada (Jack Shadbolt, Emily Carr) and care of Western Europe (Georges Braque, Henry Moore)—and placing their referents into fresh compositions, Kerr reminds viewers that abstraction as we know it evolved from an early- to mid-twentieth-century backdrop of chaos and fear. A mood disturbingly analogous to our contemporary moment.
Reframed’s selection of collages includes a number that are precursors of the paintings they sit alongside, such as The Bathers (Study) (2018), as well as those that stand on their own, like Summer Haiku (2018). Kerr’s surrealist leanings are most visible in the two collages that depict interior architectural spaces (An Elegant Departure, 2018, and Summer Haiku, 2018) that do not, as of yet, have later painted manifestations. At the same time, his pop art irreverence can be seen within each piece, as masterworks by modernist artists including Lawren Harris and Pablo Picasso are repeatedly chopped and screwed together into an abstract modern aesthetic. Kerr’s confidence in his latest methodologies is illustrated by the exhibition’s inclusion of seven reworked lithograph prints (collectively titled Une Semaine de Bonté, originally produced in 2014 and reworked in 2019) alongside paintings and collages from 2018 and 2019. By moving past his reliance on the work of his predecessors and sourcing instead from his own oeuvre, Kerr signals a shift in his thinking about creation. His creative production can now be understood as flowing from within himself and his process as much as arriving from outside inspiration: as with his iconic work throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Kerr is once again making his mark with ease. Like Kerr’s cut-canvas paintings, these mixed-media works also solidify collage not just as a creative strategy or a means to an end but as a complete medium. Light, gestural, and expressive, the lithograph works feel like a resolution within a framework of conflict.
Reframed aims to systematically explore the various methodologies Kerr has adopted in his new body of work while situating that work within a broader context of painting in Canada. To this end, I’ve invited written contributions from three unique and complementary perspectives. An essay from art historian Dorothy Barenscott provides in-depth art historical context and describes what it truly means to be a Vancouver artist, and a creative interview with Kerr conducted by writer, poet, and artist Tiziana La Melia examines Kerr’s place as an autodidact and supposed outsider in an “insider” city.
As an activist, a gay man (and openly so, at a time of deep stigmatization), and a survivor of HIV and cancer, Kerr understands the multifaceted power of empathy. Art, Kerr believes, has the possibility to resolve dissonance between individuals. In a time when arrogance is increasingly being viewed as confidence, selfishness as individual freedom, and hatefulness as protectionism, art’s ability to allow viewers to step into another’s shoes must be upheld and celebrated. However, in order for this equation to work, people first need to feel welcome in a space that traditionally doesn’t offer much support for those who have experienced trauma. Exhibition halls, in an effort to uphold the neutrality of the art space, typically aren’t equipped to provide the kind of support that those seeking the therapeutic benefits of art actually need, and in some cases, through the showcasing of often controversial material, these spaces may risk retraumatizing individuals. With that in mind, we’ve invited Karleen Gardner, director of Learning and Innovation at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and lead of the Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts, to contribute an essay exploring the value of programming with empathy in mind and how Kerr’s work contributes to that conversation. These ideas are further explored in the exhibition through programming that enlists the power of empathy to delve deeply into ideas within the exhibition and concentrates on reaching out to and supporting groups that may not otherwise engage with art.