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Exhibition Review: On Your Mark II and Visualizing a Culture for Strangers at the Varley Art Gallery

I was pleased to catch the Artist Talk with Ed Pien on May 29, prior to the opening of the Varley Art Gallery’s summer exhibitions, which run from May 29 to September 6. Pien spoke for an hour about his processes, themes, and the evolution of his work from ink drawings to paper cut-outs and rope-based installations. He explained his process of self-generated mark making, deliberate play with colour tones, his predilection for drawing on 8” by 11.5” paper, and how he grows his collage-style murals from smaller drawings. He also delved into the history of images and ideas referenced in his work, from European chinoiserie to hanging trees and from ghost stories to illegal immigration.

Artist Ed Pien discussing his work, Spectral Drawings, at the Varley Art Gallery.

Works by Pien, along with three, black vinyl pieces by Toronto artist Kate Wilson and a handful of drawings by Group of Seven member F.H. Varley, are currently exhibited at the Varley as On Your Mark II. The show acts as a sample of the history and variances of mark making by Canadian artists.

An example of Chinese export painting. This one displays women and children at leisure.

The larger show at the Varley is Visualizing a Culture for Strangers: Chinese Export Paintings from the Nineteenth Century, first curated and shown at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria in British Columbia. A large selection of (mainly) watercolours by anonymous Chinese artists display a version of China intended for consumption by European merchants at the start of Western imperialism. These colourful and highly detailed paintings depict a variety of culturally specific things, from clothing styles and various forms of entertainment to different artefacts of trade and industry. Even the justice system, with its many forms of corporeal punishment, is on display. However, as evidenced by some of the fanciful botanical images (some of which depict non-existent species of butterflies), these images are part of a history of exoticising and idealising the East, by itself and by the West.

Delicate paintings of Chinese botanicals and butterflies (some of which were fantastical).

Interestingly, for me (a Chinese-Canadian) at least, the internalizing of the Western gaze by the Chinese artists becomes messily self-reflexive when viewed by a person of Chinese-heritage in the context of a Canadian gallery looking back at the history of Western imperialism on Chinese-created images and culture. The interplay of gazes could bounce back and forth endlessly between artists/images and audiences/consumers. But also fascinating for me (an art history buff) is the aesthetic choice of these artists to create images in a European style with European media. These paintings are not made with traditional Chinese ink and paint on rice paper; some are lithographs, some are oils, and some are watercolours on imported paper. More evidence of some sort of arts or cultural exchange is present in the compositions, some of which look remarkably like Renaissance paintings with their tiled floors (all the better to demonstrate classic one-point perspective), European portraits and landscapes, or botanical drawings straight out of a science textbook. Obviously, the Chinese artists had some exposure to European art and chose to incorporate them into their own works for their Western consumers. Yet how did the Europeans react to seeing their styles parroted back to them? Visualizing a Culture for Strangers is a small show but the history it presents is an intriguing one.

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