Chris Gergley, "Vancouver Apartment Series," Aug. 2-Sept. 5, 2003, at Monte Clark Gallery, 2339 Granville Street, Vancouver, B.C., Canada V6H 3G4
Vancouver is in its annual state of meteorological suspense. How long will the sunshine last before the next, declaratively autumnal downpour? The insufferably gorgeous weather has everyone outside, wearing as little as possible in order to soak up all the sunshine they can. We await the rain like criminals before a firing squad.
Another summer staple, for the local art scene at least, is Monte Clarke's annual parking lot party. Clarke's eponymous gallery represents many of the city's best-known contemporary artists, including painters Graham Gillmore and Derek Root and photographer Roy Arden. This year's festivities celebrated the opening an exhibition of photographs by Chris Gergley, a native of Regina, Saskatchewan. Gergley's "Vancouver Apartment Series," which he began in 1996, is composed of 48 exterior photographs of Vancouver apartment entrances and lobbies.
Mounted in a tight row, frame to frame, the series begins in the Monte Clarke window-front and proceeds along one side of the gallery space all the way to the office in the back. The ambition of the project seems right for Vancouver, which takes pride in its reputation as a cauldron of contemporary photography. Jeff Wall, Stan Douglas and Rodney Graham have supplied a sophisticated grammar for the local scene, and younger artists strive to use it for bold and intelligent ends.
Gergley's "Apartment Series" has a special resonance in Vancouver. Locals seek out the entrances to their own apartments, or those of their friends and associates. Gergley's images are peculiar to Vancouver, too, if only because the relatively temperate climate here renders unnecessary the double-glazing that otherwise marks Canada's architectural response to its inhumanly frigid weather.
A Canadian sensibility can be seen in Gergley's choice of apartments, which frequently suffer from amusingly uncoordinated color schemes, or what the artist describes as the "pathetic gestures at decoration by landlords." Similarly, the apartment buildings bear names that are grandiose, and absurd: Cedar Villa, the Haida, Flamingo and El Mirador. But the comedy is deadpan. Gergley's apartments are the interior design equivalent of Buster Keaton falling flat on his face.
Perhaps more pointedly, Gergley's photographs document a passing moment in the city fabric, as Vancouver's once-popular three- and four-story apartment buildings from the 1960s gradually give way to more profitable high-rise condos. As Gergley has noted, many of the apartments he's captured over the past seven years have already altered their faades and decorating concepts to improve their chances of cashing in on the next real estate boom. Somewhat like Stan Douglas in his recent work, "Every Building on 100 West Hastings," Gergley has combined a chary sense of Vancouver's fragile and disregarded history -- its ceaseless urge modernize every faade to disguise its own past -- with a meditation on the practice of photography as an art beyond plain documentation.
But what of the annual parking lot party? Sparked by free champagne and retro-rock on the turntables, a cross-section of Vancouver's artistic community put itself on display. There was Monte Clarke, in a black blazer and an AC/DC shirt, talking to local novelist Kevin Chong, then Vancouver artist Brian Jungen and West Coast art expert Patrik Andersson. Architect and furniture designer Omer Arbel, who is featured in this month's Wallpaper, came by, as did Goth artist Steven Shearer and Tracey Lawrence, whose gallery is a few blocks away.
Also on the scene was New York dealer Scott Zieher, who co-owns the Ziehersmith Gallery on West 25th Street, and author and art critic Michael Turner, decked out in a white linen Cuban suit and straw hat. Turner, who penned the survey of Vancouver art in this summer's Modern Painters, may be best known outside the city as co-writer of the scripts for Stan Douglas's last two video pieces, Suspiria and Journey into Fear.
Finally there was Gergley himself, who spent the majority of the evening inside a small concrete garage that had been hastily converted into a gallery for two new photos that don't belong to the series inside the gallery proper. One was Newlyweds, a double portrait of a pair of tattooed Canadians shot with a nod to Grant Wood's iconic American Gothic. The other photo, Burnside Project, Portland, Oregon, is a skate-park landscape, full of curves and twists and heavy shadows and roving figures.
The youthful subject matter of these last two photos reflects Vancouver's artistic community, which continues to draw young, talented artists at the same time it nurtures an older, experienced generation. Despite its numerous municipal flaws and retrograde political activities, Vancouver gives Canadian artists a sympathetic and promising setting in which to do serious work.
LEE HENDERSON is author of The Broken Record Technique (Penguin, Canada).