Becoming Animal/Becoming Landscape is an engaging exploration of human tendencies

The Belkin Art Gallery’s current exhibition, Becoming Animal/Becoming Landscape, is a walk through some of the most animalistic of human tendencies and how they define our relationship with each other and the environment. It is a study of the messy entanglement of pleasure and pain, the inanimate and animate, transcendence and immanence, across human and ecological dimensions. Zooming out however, it is clear to see that it’s also an exploration of humanism’s inevitable transition into the posthuman.

Many of the featured works adopt an indigenous lens, where all things, regardless of their ability to exhibit the characteristics of life, are viewed and respected as living spiritual beings. This outlook can clearly be seen in the works of Emily Carr that are currently featured in the exhibit. Her distinctive painting style, which creates a sense of fluidity and dynamic energy, is not uncommon in Becoming Animal/Becoming Landscape's other works such as Untitled (Lake Superior) by Lawren Harris, a founding member of the Group of Seven, and Jack Shadbolt’s Swamp Forms, which explores the decay and rejuvenation of landscape and culture.

Jerry Pethick’s ink on paper pieces: Vortex, Face and Dipper, capitalize on our ability (or perhaps inability) to see both the trees and the whole forest, so to speak. It was originally inspired by the compound eye of flies, who can see through multiple lenses. This work allows the viewer to see the world through another’s lens. Some call this empathy, others call it foolishness — regardless, this capacity to put yourself in another’s shoes is fundamental to our human identity. The chaotic world of artists Kenneth Callahan and Ann Kipling highlight this notion of human solidarity with the non-human, be it with animals or the physical land. With figures languidly morphing in and out of a tumultuous landscape, these pieces serve as reconnection with the natural world that we are inextricably bound to, and yet at the same time separated from by the very nature of consciousness. Callahan and Kipling have gifted us with postcards of nostalgia, a reminder of a time before our desertion of the natural world.

In addition to the paintings and sketches found in the exhibit, The Belkin Art Gallery has created an installation featuring a CD-ROM by Elizabeth Vander Zaag. Zaag embraced and utilized the power of computers and digital manipulation quite early in her artistic career. Born from her experiments are works such as Whispering Pines, an exploration of metamorphosis in relation to the various transformations that occur in a person’s life. Whispering Pines is an interactive piece which explores life “via metaphors in technology” specifically to make “post-maternal women visible in interaction with a BC coastal landscape”.

Very prominent in Becoming Animal/Becoming Landscape is sexual imagery. Just over 55 years ago, psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner found that rats who could activate the pleasure centre in the brain by pressing a lever would do so continuously, refusing food even to the point of starvation. Featured artists such as Marina Roy, Claude Breeze, Geneviève Cadieux and Attila Richard Lucas make use of sexually explicit imagery. Their work is a completely uncensored examination of the pursuit of happiness and pleasure, as well as the self-destructive tendencies that are created as a result. The often violent sexual imagery is portrayed with overwhelmingly bright colours and organic forms. Many of their pieces illuminate the chaos and instability found in nature, an observation that is subsequently reflected onto human relationships and social dynamics.

Happening concurrent to Becoming Animal/Becoming Landscape is the Joan Balzar exhibit, created in honour of a renowned Canadian artist who was at the forefront of Hard-edged Op Art. Known for the use of avant-garde mediums such as neon tubing, Balzar’s bold, luminous paintings were somewhat of a time machine into the future. The zeitgeist of the period was characterized by major scientific and technological advancements such as the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. As a woman with a keen interest in science, structures and technology, her work was a projection of what technological advancement may hold for the future of mankind.

While at first glance Joan Blazer seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum from Becoming Animal/Becoming Landscape, both exhibitions explore our place in the world. Living in the very future that Balzar was projecting into, the two exhibits create context for our current situation and provide insight into the cause of our tenuous relationship with the living and non-living world.

The exhibit runs from June 24 to August 14 at the Morris and Helen Blekin Art Gallery. Weekend tours run Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 p.m.