Extreme Beauty is a journey into a world of consumer culture and the everyday architecture that surrounds us
Kira Dinim // Contributor
When it comes to art, people often find themselves disconnected. It seems to be a common experience in the art world, at least for some, that you go to a gallery and marvel at the artist’s technical skill, wonder about the deeper meaning of their work, feel inferior to their profound messages, and then leave. Vikky Alexander’s retrospective Extreme Beauty, at the Vancouver Art Gallery, was nothing like this. Her installations and art pieces emphasize bringing the viewer into the work. The retrospective, which is an adventure through her artistic career, is made up of mirrors, highly reflective glass, and pieces you step into become surrounded by.
Obsession (1983), a massive blown up series of photos of model Christie Brinkley, is perhaps the most well-known piece in Alexander’s collection of work. The artwork, which used photographs placed under yellow plexiglass that she pulled from fashion magazines and advertisements and blew up to the size of posters, was made when Alexander was experimenting with the process of Appropriation as an artist in the 1980s in New York. Strikingly, it does not feel like a criticism. Alexander appropriated these beautiful images and highlighted their sexual nature, seemingly not with the intent to scorn them, but merely to shine a spotlight on how highly sexual advertising has become, while allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions about it. “My work is not issue-driven,” said Alexander. “It’s more about discovering stuff rather than finger-wagging.”
Alexander tells me in earlier years she was inspired by the media, but lately, her focus has shifted towards her environmental locations and utopian architecture. This progression of inspiration is evident in her retrospective. As you move deeper into the gallery, her work becomes larger, more tangible. She moves away from the method of Appropriation and begins to incorporate imagery from the natural world into her art.
One of the most impactful pieces in the retrospective is titled Lake in the Woods (1986), which takes up an entire hallway. One wall is papered with a picturesque scene of an alpine lake in the forest, so real that you feel as though you’re standing on the edge of it. On the other wall is wood panelling with mirrors placed at eye level along the top. As you walk through it, you see yourself reflected in the landscape. It plays with the idea of placing the viewer into the work, calling attention to one’s relationship with the natural world in our city-centered society.
Alexander uses mirrors again in her piece Vaux-Le-Vicomte Panorama (1998), which is a projected image of a baroque-style garden broken up by a series of columns made of mirrors that the viewer is invited to walk through. This installation is a dizzying adventure into perspective and interaction; the experience is dreamlike and surreal.
The next room continues the dreamlike viewer interaction with a series of snapshots of shop windows, store interiors, and streets from around the world. Each photograph is behind highly reflective glass, and as you look at one after the other, you see your own face staring back. There’s very little separation between the viewer and the artist in Alexander’s work. Each piece feels like it’s intended to take you on a journey of self-discovery, where you must examine how you fit into the world Alexander is showing you.
The retrospective ends in a room where each wall is covered by a collage-like mural that goes from the floor to the ceiling. When asked about these works, which are her newest, Alexander said her goal was “putting people in a completely different environment,” comparing it to Alice in Wonderland. Watching the progression of her career and sources of inspiration as you travel through the exhibit is a rare delight, made all the better by the self-discovery it invites.
Extreme Beauty will be on display until January 26, 2020 at the Vancouver Art Gallery