Brian Jungen is a Vancouver artist who has a strong national reputation as one of Canada’s most prominent artists. He is recognized for using common everyday objects as source material for remarkably inventive works of art. Examples include disassembling Nike Air Jordan training shoes and reconfiguring them into startling simulations of Northwest Coast Indian masks, and cutting-up plastic deck chairs to construct an enormous suspended whale skeleton that rivals the real ones found in natural history museums.
At the Contemporary Art Gallery, Jungen presented two new works. One was a sculptural installation consisting of an arrangement of pallets – the kind used for moving and storing warehouse materials. Such pallets are normally made of cheap materials, designed for purely utilitarian functions, and considered disposable, often ending up as firewood. Jungen’s pallets, however, are constructed from the finest quality cedar. The surfaces are laboriously sanded to a silken finish to reveal the wood’s beautiful variations of colour, and then carefully pegged together rather than nailed. These sculptures retain the visual imprint of industrial pallets, yet are simultaneously transformed into highly aesthetic objects that recall the clean economy of Minimalist sculpture from the 1960s. While Minimalist art assumed the anonymity of industrial fabrication, Jungen brings into play the seemingly archaic individuated touch of the handcrafted.
The second work, Unlimited Growth Increases The Divide, was presented on the outside of the gallery and mimics the ubiquitous construction hoardings that populate not only the block that the gallery inhabits, but the transformation of downtown Vancouver in general. Jungen specifically recreated the hoarding on Nelson Street just west of the gallery, but he has reversed it. When walking inside the hoarding, the square holes that normally allow one to view the progress of construction, direct our view back towards the street and to the block of modest buildings that now appear poised as subjects undoubtedly destined for new development. The title of the work appropriates the text that appears above the entrance of the former Contemporary Art Gallery on Hamilton Street. This text is a collaborative statement conceived by the owner of the Del Mar Inn and artist Kathryn Walter that comments upon the survival of his Edwardian hotel within the redevelopment of the block that envelops it.
These two projects address Jungen’s interest in the ways that objects whose purpose is purely utilitarian can be transformed into objects that play with ideas about display and that engage a social critique without resorting to pedantry. The lowly pallet becomes a precious art object, and the hoarding diverts our attention from the display windows, which now have nothing to offer, to the reality of the world outside.